Guest Speaker Manuel A. Meléndez, author of When Angels Fall, presents “SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER”
Over the next three months, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. The first entry in this series comes to us from author Manuel A. Meléndez, a poet and novelist, whose new book Battle for A Soul is coming soon from Aignos Publishing.
“Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path.” [From a letter to F.W. Thomas, 1849.] Edgar Allan Poe
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I don’t have a certain memory of when I decided to write. Perhaps it was the time at the age of twelve when I discovered that I liked this cute girl, but I was too shy to tell her. In that situation, I decided to write her a note. Hmmm, an interesting concept…let your written words do the talking. Or maybe, I caught the writing bug when as a boy in Puerto Rico, a teacher placed a picture in front of the room, and our assignment was to write what we saw from that picture; creativity in its earlier form. Then again, probably, it was when God decided to put that seed in me and then sat back to see what I would be able to cultivate. To me, writing is life; it’s the essence that makes me tick, makes me encounter different worlds and allow me to be the person who I cannot be in real life.
Now, there’s that old paradox, what came first the chicken or the egg? Well, here’s my modified version, who came first the writer or the reader? I’m always asking myself that question. Who was I first, the reader or the writer? I fell in love with the written word when I discovered this sad-looking fella named Edgar. I came across his work when as a boy who just recently arrived from Puerto Rico went on a school trip to the Public Library with my fourth-grade class. There I was introduced to a Library Card, and the beauty that I could borrow books and take them home. Not knowing English, I strolled through the aisles, amazed at the many books that overwhelm me, and somehow I knew this was a place where I belonged. To this day, I remembered some of the books I took out; Alfred Hitchcock, a Science Fiction book, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe.
The first three books, I glanced through them, but something about Edgar Allan Poe’s book; it pulled me, spoke to me, and befriended me. Every night after dinner and homework was completed; I sat down on the kitchen table and opened first the Spanish-English Dictionary and then Mr. Poe’s book. Diligently, I would go back and forth from the dictionary to the book, translating each word in order to comprehend what I was reading. Soon, to my joy, I started to know the meaning of more words, and the dictionary was used less. At that time, I didn’t really care about the pronunciation, but only the meaning of each word in order to understand and read Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpieces. That’s what I wanted. I felt in love with words and of course with his work. It probably awakened something in me…the need to write! And now here I am, creating tales, writing poems, digesting the human drama, not only to amuse myself, but hoping to entertain those who come upon my writings.
So you want to be a writer? Before you sharpen all those pencils, get that coffee brewing, and open that brand new notebook (that’s if you’re like me, the rest, I guess turn the computer on) first considered a few aspects of this profession. When was the last time you visited your local library? Went to a bookstore? Rummaged through the many tables at Strand Bookstore, where the bookcases reached to the ceiling and bins outside offer you books and books, many of them for a dollar. Have you? If your answer is yes, guess what…say hello to your competition!
Okay, it’s now established you want to be a writer. What tools are you bringing with you? Like any weekend warrior ready to embark in a battle with remodeling the bathroom, you need tools and supplies. You can’t fix a leaking faucet with just your manicured nails. Get my point? Anything in life, if you don’t have the tools, guess what? You’re going to stand there scratching your head or perhaps another part of the body, wondering how to begin this mountainous task.
So what are the tools you need to be a writer? First is the obvious, the desire to tell someone a story, and not just any story, but your story; and of course, the best story ever written! Second the cojones to believe that nobody out there could touch you. Yeah, you need to have that bad-ass attitude, if not, you won’t be able to survive two pages of absolute crap, which usually is exactly what you’re going to write at first. Of course it’s crap until you shape it into something nice and beautiful…like that lump of clay in grade school, and you came up with some lopsided hideous ashtray that your mom proudly displayed on top of one of the side tables next to the gaudy lamps. And last of those tools you need strapped in your tool belt or tool box, is the willingness to be true to yourself. Be disciplined enough that just because the day is a beautiful beach day, and your neighbors are gallivanting to the nearest ocean to strip half-naked; you are more than willing to stay home listening and talking to the voices inside your head. If you’re able to do that, then you have some serious power tools ready to kick some ass!
Now, what’s next? Hmmmm…maybe the story? Of course, the story! Quite simple…beginning, middle, and end. It’s just like a baseball game—and just like a baseball game—you need to bring excitement or soon your readers will be dozing off or even worse shutting close that book never to be opened again. So how do you established that heart pounding, page turning book? It’s not that easy…otherwise everyone would be a writer. You have to stay away from the notion that you need to keep up with the Joneses, and that you must write whatever is the flavor of the book of the month. If everyone is writing about teen vampires and wolf men; yeah let’s do that. The next month is about Harry Potter’s clones, yeah why not! You see; this is where you need to stay close to your heart and listen to the voices within, and forget what the bestseller’s list is telling you to write about. You need to find your voice…hear those voices in your head that are fighting amongst themselves to be the first one to seduce you with their stories…your stories.
And your stories are your friends, sometimes your enemies. They would seduce you, lie to you…but you see; they are doing that for a good reason. To make you understand the privilege, the gift you have. And that gift is to create the most endearing tales your soul needs to reveal. It’s the most incredible high, the most unbelievable feeling when you could finally write that corny phrase…THE END.
Now besides those tools, you need to know your characters as well as you know yourself, because guess what, your characters are your children, and they possess your DNA. So how do you become acquainted with them? Ask them questions, listen to them, learn their likes and dislikes. Know their family history, their education, how they walk, how they speak. Do they express themselves with their hands? Do their eye brows arch like Mr. Spock? Become a nosy body about them and the result is that you’re going to create flesh and bones individuals whom your readers will either fall in love with or hate. Readers want to be emotionally stimulated and as writers that’s our job. Learn the speech pattern of your characters, which in turn will result in great dialogues. My biggest pet peeves is reading a dialogue, and I have no idea who’s speaking. One thing that I like to do is first write the dialogue straight through, and then I select where to place bits of information to create the scene more realistically.
When you have a conversation with someone, do you stand there like a robot? Of course not! As you speak your body is interacting with what’s coming out of your mouth, and the same thing should be applied to your characters when they are involved in an important exchange. Take an example of a dialogue between a detective and a person of interest from my novel When Angels Fall published by Aignos Publishing:
“Goddamnit! Wait!” Ferdy shouted as he slapped the coffee table with his opened hand, knocking the rum bottle on the floor. He stomped toward the door and swung it open with force. Standing in the hallway was Detective Meyer, and Ferdy felt as if he had just been sucker-punched right in his balls.
“Mr. Ferdy Muñoz, sorry for the disturbance, but I need to ask you a few questions,” the detective said as he placed one hand on the door.
Ferdy stood still for a moment, studying the man’s posture, and it did not escape him the way the detective had positioned his hand on the door. A sure sign that the answer ‘no’ was definitely not an option
“May I come in?” the detective said, already lurching toward the apartment. Ferdy moved to the side and closed the door as the cop walked in.
“What seems to be the problem?” Ferdy asked as he came inside the living room and joined his uninvited guest.
Detective Meyer scanned the room. Not only was the place a pig sty, it smelled like one too. He turned and looked at Ferdy. There was something about Ferdy that rubbed him the wrong way. He could not put the pieces together right at this moment, but soon enough he would and he was dead sure that he was not going to be disappointed. “Must have been a real wild party last night?” Detective Meyer said as he stepped to the center of the living room and stared at the Bacardi bottle on the floor and the smashed plants. “Must have been quite a celebration according to your neighbor from downstairs.”
“Let me guess. Our friend, Mr. Drucker?”
Detective Meyer nodded, licked his lips, then pushed them out and sighed. “Yes, our mutual good ol’ Mr. Drucker. He said that you must have been either celebrating something great by all the loud noises and shouts or you were pretty drunk and angry—something he said happens quite frequently.”
“Did he also tell you about his little visit to my neighbor next door? Some people usually bring a cake or a casserole to a neighbor’s house. Mr. Drucker brought a butcher knife.”
“Mr. Muñoz,” the detective shook his head and let out another sigh, this time heavy with aggravation. “I’m not here to discuss petty quarrels between neighbors.”
“So what are you doing here then? Still looking for undesirables and suspicious characters?”
“Maybe,” Detective Meyer said. “Where were you last night, Mr. Muñoz?”
“According to your buddy downstairs, I was here having a great ol’ time, as you can see, what better proof than an empty bottle on the floor.”
“Does your celebration also include the smashing of plants?”
“Yeah, I got upset when I discovered that I don’t have a green thumb.”
“I could see that very well,” the detective said, looking intently at Ferdy’s hands. “They are actually a shade of purple and you are also bleeding, Mr. Muñoz.”
When I wrote this dialogue, it was just me talking out loud and taking notes, switching from the gruffness of the detective to the wise ass Ferdy. (Imagine the strange looks I received from my neighbors, because they know I live alone, yet I’m always having these crazy conversations.) Anyway, after, I add the actions and mannerism as the characters speak, giving what I call a 3D movie-like feeling to the story. Your reader will learn more, and the story will move smoother. Another tidbit to consider, do not worry so much about spelling, grammar, sentence structure when you start your story. That’s why is called the first draft! Write without stopping and looking back, let the emotions come out raw and with no reservations to see what’s proper and what’s not. Let the story find its flow and let it flow, think as if you’re on top of a wild horse, you have to let that sucker buck and twist and roar until it runs its course. Then guess what? The stallion is a nice domestic tame beast, which now you have to go back and start shaping it to what you desire that horse to be. Your story is just that, an uncontrollable beast on the first draft, so let it buck and snarl its teeth, afterwards you’ll have time to correct and reshape it. And as we are talking about first draft and then second draft and so on and on, do not fall in love with a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a scene or even a character. Because you will come across one of those items that you will need to delete from the story. It is like a director shooting a movie, not everything that was captured on film makes the final cut, so see yourself as a movie director, and in actuality that’s what we writers are, we are directors. And instead of cameras, we use words and instead of movie projectors, we use the readers’ mind, so we have to make sure that the reader sees our created vision just the way it was written.
Another thing I would like to mention, write for yourself first and find your own true voice. Do not try to write like your favorite writer because you’re going to end up with a big mess. Don’t worry, as you write, and you let the story have its freedom; your voice will find you, and when the two of you connect, the rewards will be plenty. Furthermore, remember the only writer you need to compete with is your own self. If you sit there competing in your mind with a fellow writer, you’re doomed, so get rid of that mindset at once. The only competition is the last thing that you wrote. Make sure that your second offering is better than the first, and so on and so on. With every story, every poem, every essay you will learn your craft a bit better, and of course your voice will get stronger.
Writing is a powerful gift to have, and just like a beautiful gift given to you, treat it with care and be thankful for the many great things this gift will give to you. To me, writing has been my savior, my closest friend, my biggest enemy, but after all is said and done, writing is the voice of your soul, your spirit. Therefore, let it soar with no obstructions, and I promise you’ll be rewarded with incredible and fascinating adventures. Writing makes you a god…so go on and create worlds, galaxies, heroes and villains. Go on, and regardless of the many writers and books that already exist, there’s always room for one more. Let that be your book!
Manuel A. Meléndez