We went to Illinois! Land of Lincoln, corn, wheat, soybeans, cows, people with Scandinavian names, and the finest breakfast pizza in this wing of the galaxy. But I digress. First, some background.
This is Uncle Leon (of Leon and Cindy Oleson Farms), along with my enormous son, who is also an Oleson.
We spent glorious days on the farm. There’s no other word for it. I’ve never farmed a day in my life, unless you count raising chickens and gardening. Uncle Leon and the family are farmers; it’s what they do. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that range from the hydraulic pressure in a tractor line to the tendencies of obscure beetle species. Riding around on the farm is like the best possible college lecture ever– you’re learning but you don’t realize it until after the lesson ends.
Iowa is, in some sense, my ancestral homeland, and there are a lot of similarities between Elkader, Iowa and Shabbona, Illinois. We start with the scenery.
That’s a lot of corn, and it requires large places to put it.
We visited Cousins Amber and Brent and their dairy farm. To sum up: loud, fun, smells like the essence of life, busy, beautiful, real. The Mueller farm is everything a farm should be, but with excellent Wi-Fi and lots of cats. It’s a lot like heaven.
It’s impossible not to feel connected to this place. There’s a visceral reaction to things of great purity, and being on the farm around great people is one such event. And now, the requisite picture of corn, if you will.
That’s the kind of scene that makes everyone think they can farm.
(full disclosure: not everyone can. it’s demanding work with a high degree of uncertainty. in short, farmers are cool under fire)
But the fact that simply being close to a farm engenders such feelings tells you that anyone who wants to refill their proverbial tank should consider a visit to the farm. I left with a head full of words, and it was more than the excellent company, food, and rest. It’s a mythological connection to something from the time before, when concerns, like life, tended to be more centered on community.
Speaking of community. Let’s see main street,, a couple towns over. They got the sign right the first time, so there’s no need to change. This is a testament to the power of Midwestern Culture, and yes, that’s a thing, because it’s so easily identifiable. If you step into a town and start looking for Frank Capra’s ghost– you’re in the Midwest.
My writing batteries were also recharged by something that is so rare as to be mythical. It’s the distinction between nice and good.
When you visit the Midwest and your family is filled with people who are nice and good, take a moment to consider the distinction. People can be nice– nice is polite, pleasant, mannerly. Nice can be your friend. Nice bakes for neighbors and picks up your mail when you visit relative on the other coast.
But nice is not necessarily good. Good is a kind of innate construction that makes some people break to the side of goodness out of instinct. Good is doing the right things without effort or thought, it’s the communal willingness to donate the two most precious things– time and work– to something other than oneself, in order to better the life of someone else. When you visit your family and realize that they are truly good, there’s a validation and hope that your child– my enormous, goofy, replete nine year old– will be emblematic of that tradition. Good is, in some sense, a choice, and it’s cultivated, not unlike the corn that soars across hundreds of acres on the family farm.
Good is not a goal. Good is a permanent structure, built by learning from others who share the ability to see beyond themselves out of a quality that cannot be measured or weighed.
Four days in July, and my tanks are full. Here’s to a wonderful fall.
Now for the longer version, and a few specific examples of who and what tribulations await you, the writer.
The Hater. They’re out there, and in another life, you’ve personally kicked their puppy. They’re going to get every ounce they can out of a punitive review, and by all that’s holy, no one will wonder where they stand by the end of it. Example– from one of my actual reviews– I have to say this was singlehandedly the worst story I’ve EVER read (and I read quite extensively). Ouch. How, you might ask, do I deal with this? Simple– you don’t. Ever. It’s a no win situation to engage someone who has an extensive desire to write bad things about what you do. It might irk you, but it’s not personal. It’s the Internet.
The Frustrated Writer. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy depending on how they view your work. Simply stated, they take time to write a review that is clever, sometimes mean, thorough, and often scattered with personal attacks. These are, for me, the most troubling, because so much of me goes into my stories. In effect, they attack your history, which can evoke a powerful reaction. Example– I haven’t seen such blatant yet backhanded anti-Semitism in a very long time. In this case, the reviewer refers to a character changing their name to be a YouTube star, which is common in the entertainment industry and– here’s the kicker– what my Grandfather did for his music career. He was a big band leader in the 1930s, prior to going off to fight Nazis. With a last name like Grabowski, he chose Gray for his performer name and we’ve used it as a family tradition for restaurant reservations ever since. In essence, the reviewer made an incorrect assumption and branded a fun tradition in my family as something sinister. What did I do? Nothing. And that is, once again, the right move.
The Crusader. Oy vey. These are among the most difficult to deal with because they have an agenda prior to even reading the sentence of your book. They’re taking a square peg and hammering it into a round hole and damn the consequences. Using magic? You hate Pagans. A man makes a decision? Misogyny. Not enough Lithuanian characters? You must hate Lithuania. You get the picture. Example–Terry Maggert manages to subtly insult every single practicing Pagan in the world and maybe some atheists and other religions as well. This is radioactive. Back away, forget it ever happened, and keep writing your novels. I’ve written stories about the Pope being a vampire and zombie sex, but reactions like that one are best ignored. This also speaks to the issue of censorship. I’m against it. Period. I can’t allow exterior forces to shape a narrative in a fictional place. This is my policy, and as I tell people at conferences, “Your world, your rules.”
The Scholar. *Heavy Sigh* Some people could take the fun out of a naked demolition derby, and they will invariably show up in your reviews. They’re experts on virtually any topic you choose to write about, and they’re going to let you know. They will chide you for perceived errors, and in some cases even reach out to you personally to do so (I’ve had it happen at signings). I write fantasy and science fiction. Therefore, I operate on the principle espoused by Mark Twain, “Get your facts straight, then you can distort them as you please.” This ties in to #3, but also stand on its own as a cautionary tale about the immediacy of “expert opinion”. Example–The Adirondacks were named by the Mohawk, not the Huron, so Maggert doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Setting aside the concept that original cultures moved around, this is a shining example of The Scholar. They’re angry, they don’t like your book, and they’re going to make it a personal attack based on their perception and bias about your intellect. If they paid for the book, sally forth, I say. If they got it for free, well, you should be warned that NetGalley is where dreams go to die (more on that at a later date).
The Soul of Brevity. Often cross-pollinates with the Compulsive Cusser,, these reviews can be as short as two words, leaving no doubt as to the position they’re taking about your book. I actually like these, because more often than not, they strike me as honest. Example- Totally sucked. Attaboy. That’s at least honest, and it leavens the other windy reviews. There are varieties in which the reviewer channels a soldier or stable hand’s language, but that’s okay too. If nothing else, it pumps up your total and gives you data about who is– and isn’t– reading your books.
The common theme here is this: there is no scenario in which engaging a bad review can end well. In point of fact, I’ve personally watched two NYT best-selling authors nuke their career by clapping back at bad reviews. If they can’t withstand that kind of pushback, then I know I can’t. *
At least, not until I have my island filled with giraffes and rocket launchers.
See you in Frankenmuth, Michigan this weekend. I’ll be the guy eating. All the time.
*I can, however, have someone I dislike die a horrible death in my next novel. I’ve done this four times. True story. Be careful, change their name. 🙂
I’ve always said that making people laugh is one of the hardest things to do. Writing books with humor is a challenge to even the most nimble authors, and making a character who is genuinely funny even more difficult. I reference the people in my books, who, be they witch, vampire, asshole at the bank, or good hearted truck driver, are all real people to me when I write them.
Now, let’s break that down– genuinely funny— as it contains two of the most important parts of your main character.
Genuine. I have a single goal when I create a character, and that is for the reader to think, “I know this person.” I want my readers convinced that the character is someone they might meet the next time they leave the house. That’s critical.
Three Dimensional People. I use this term to describe the characters because they should exist in every plane; you should feel their personalities, their voices, and the background of their lives. All of these make them have a weight on the pages. Don’t skimp on background. Don’t use background instead of dialogue. Here’s why.
Dialogue Is Good Voyeurism. I’m not talking about watching your neighbor through their window, you dirty little critter, although if they’re leaving the curtains open while they dance naked to Bon Jovi and you have a box of wine and nothing to do on a Friday night hey who’s fault is it anyway I mean– sorry. I meant to say, dialogue– good dialogue– is the single best method to get inside the head of your characters. For readers, one page of dialogue is equivalent to an entire chapter of exposition, because it tells you why they act as well as how they will act in the future. This is how we bring readers with us to the last page. They must burn for the Great Reveal in which all becomes clear.
Real People Are Hilarious. Don’t think this is true? Go to the returns desk at any major retail store on the planet. Then wait. Within fifteen minutes you will see: Thieves. Liars. People with sweaty ‘bra money’. Flimsy excuses. Glorious expressions from the employees. Anger. Resolution. You might even see an adult in a onesie, given the state of our planet. It’s all there, and it’s free. My point is: real life is a fountain of hilarity, if you observe the right places. If you want unlimited rage, go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you want funny, go everywhere else. Then– write it down.
Read Aloud. Let me repeat this: read. your dialogue. out loud. You should laugh, or cringe, or feel. . . something. What you should not feel is nothing. If that’s the case, the dialogue is flat and it needs to die. Start over, keeping the best sentence you have, then ask yourself. What would your character do if they were at the returns desk at Walmart? It’s a great start, and you might surprise yourself by learning more about your own characters.
I know Carlie, Ring, Saavin, French and Wulfric inside and out because to me, they are real. I can hear their voices, see their walk, and imagine how they might deal with an overcooked steak (steak cannot be undercooked, fight me!) or flat tire. You know, life. This is why I’m able to make Carlie more than a Quirky Girl Doing Cute Things.
You know what to do. Keep your eyes and ears open, take a few notes, and write people who you every day. But, you know, with dragons and swords and stuff. That’s what I do.
I’ll be in Frankenmuth, Michigan for Once Upon a Book (Aug 11-12). They claim to have the World’s Best Chicken Dinner. My body is ready.
Your tribe is the people outside your family who become family. That’s it. It can be simple to find them, or it can take years. For me, it took until I started writing as a serious pursuit, unlocking the years of memories about books, movies, comics, and art. All of these things fire my imagination like the inside of a star. It’s relentless and compelling and there is unalloyed joy in sharing it with people who not only like the things you like, but they get you.
So, back to back I’ve had two weekends with My Tribe. The first was Utopiacon, where fiction writers I know– and did not know– mingled with fans over three days of celebrating books. It’s a powerful sensation to realize that there are other humans who feel the same giddiness over books. Their imaginations share DNA with mine, and the overlapping areas of our fandoms are where we find common ground and bond (likely for life).
Then came LibertyCon. And this. . .headgear.
Your tribe foments creativity and laughter and thought. Your tribe makes you want to be better at what you do, and causes unabashed admiration for others who share your pursuit. It’s loud and grand and caring, and every minute of it flies by in a whirl of color and fun.
Something else happens, too. I’ve written five thousand words since coming home from the event, no small feat given my lack of sleep. Why is this? Simple. Your tribe stokes the boilers and makes creativity readily on tap. It’s a side effect of magical purpose, leaving you exhilarated and wide-eyed with the prospects of the coming days, eager to create and share.
I waited a long time to find my tribe, only to find that they were here all along. It’s up to you to find yours, but that’s the simplest part: find out where you can be weird, and revel in it.
Cheers for now. Gotta write. Maybe sleep. Mostly, write.
I love writing and I love pie. Given a choice between the two, I’m going for a third option:
My book friends.
Today, at the Louisville Author Event, my friend Cindy Calloway’s husband was kind enough to bake a pie, which Cindy brought me. Pecan. Home made. (delicious, by the way)
Background: Three years ago at my first signing, in Knoxville, TN, Cindy was a volunteer. She was fun, professional, passionate about books, and has turned into a wonderful friend.
Cindy and my other book friends are the reason I write. They’re readers, fans, friends, and allies. They show up. They support writers. They READ, a lot. They’re the best thing to ever happen to someone who decided to write a book at the age of 43, fell in love with writing, and sees no end in sight.
Without further ado, a few names of friends who were here today, and other days. I’ll update again and again as I naturally remember more people, but this is just a start.
That’s a representation of this week. I have an embarrassment of riches in friends, and I am incredibly thankful.