Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Having a Day Job Is Good for the Creativity

Ruth Brown Snyder
Ruth Brown Snyder. In the electric chair.
If this doesn't creep you out,
I don't know what will.
Have you ever seen a photo of a woman being executed in the electric chair? You have now. But what do this woman, a day job, and the life of a working writer have in common?

I'll tell you.

I work full time, with an hour commute each way. All told, my time is not my own from 6:40 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. 

That's a lot of time that I can't control or do anything with. 

So when I start complaining, it's almost always about not having enough time to write new books and market existing books. I'm deeply, deeply jealous of writer friends who don't work and can spend all day toiling over marketing plans and promoting their books. I can't. And while this feels like a huge disadvantage most days, I'm trying to look on the bright side. 

So I found three ways my day job makes me a better writer.

1. Money. As Dean Koontz wrote in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, "Money is freedom; money is time; money is fame; money is respect; money is a yardstick of many things, but most of all, money is money." I have bills. Lots of them. So devoting 11+ hours a day to being able to pay them is not only necessary, but it helps my mental state remain unstressed and clear for writing. 

If all I'm doing is worrying about the electricity getting shut off or the car repossessed, I'm not going to give a crap about made-up people or worlds. In that respect, having a day job makes my non-office time all about what I want to do. I'm not looking for a job, stressing out, or drifting between friends, hoping someone will feed me for free. Every minute off the clock is spent planning, dreaming, or doing. Yes, you could argue that a true writer writes no matter what. But even true writers really need to eat. Plus, getting foreclosed would make it really hard to charge my laptop. 

Most Interesting man in the World
2. SEO and social media knowledge. I'm a writer. But I also know a bit about SEO. And a bit about social media. I read most of the big SEO blogs and have two monitors at work, where the good folks of Google+ scroll by all day long, presenting helpful insider tips for me on marketing, social media, writing, self-publishing, and of course, life insurance. I file all that knowledge away in my brain (and, if my brain fails, Evernote) for the day when I have the time to unleash it. 

I wouldn't have been forced to learn as much about social media as I have without this job. I resisted it pretty heavily until my paycheck became partly dependent on it. I still resist it in part...I refuse to get a smartphone (no Instagram for me, folks). At the same time, I have license to check every network there is, absorb as much knowledge as I can, and learn as much as I can to deploy on command and for my own benefit (after hours, of course). I have more weapons at my disposal than I did before I had this job. In this world, marketing is everything. And I'm so much better at it now than I was before, when I thought marketing was posting a new book on this blog.

3. The occasional stranger-than-fiction story that falls in my lap. I write about life insurance, all day every day. To make sure I have something new to say, I have to dig into some pretty weird stories. One weird story involves the woman in the picture, Ruth Brown Snyder. I was writing a blog post about the movie Double Indemnity, where life insurance fraud is a plot point. Come to find out, the movie is based on a novella by James M. Cain, who based the story on a real-life insurance fraud case.

Check this shit out. 

Ruth Brown Snyder was married to Albert Snyder, but having an affair with Henry Judd Gray. She told Gray that she wanted to convince her husband to get a life insurance policy and then kill him. Getting the husband to get a policy worked just fine. But she made seven (count 'em!) unsuccessful attempts to kill Albert before she and Gray decided to try something different. They garrotted Albert and made it look like a home invasion robbery. 

But there's some backstory you also need to know before we proceed. Why did Ruth want to kill Albert? It might have been because he made no secret of his real love, a woman named Jessie Guishard who died before she and Albert could be married. He loved her for years, which, you know, probably made Ruth feel awesome about herself. This guy talked about Jessie, kept her portrait on the wall, named his boat after her, and referred to her as "the finest woman I have ever met." I kinda feel for Ruth on this one. 

Anyway, so the cops are investigating this supposed home invasion gone wrong. They think it's kind of weird that nothing actually went missing. When they found a paper with "J.G." on it, they asked Ruth who "J.G." was. Ruth asks them what Judd Gray (her lover) has to do with anything. But the cops weren't referring to Gray. They were referring to one of Albert's papers with "J.G." on it--Jesse Guishard. So Ruth just handed them her lover's name. (Way to go, Ruth.) Once the cops started looking at the name Ruth dropped, they put two and two together.

Ruth and Gray were arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder. Both were sentenced to death via the electric chair. Of course, all photography of the execution was forbidden. But reporter Tom Howard was from Chicago (not New York) and knew he wouldn't be recognized as a reporter on the scene. He rigged up a weird leg camera that would take pictures without anyone knowing. He snapped his shot, and it was plastered all over the front page of newspapers the next day. The photo was described as one of the most famous images of the 1920s. The camera Howard used to take the shot is now in the Smithsonian.

James M. Cain was a reporter at the time of this trial. He wasn't covering it, but it was big news at the time. (Who did cover it? Mary Roberts Rinehart, D.W. Griffith, and Damon Runyan). When he wrote his novella, Double Indemnity, he interviewed some insurance agents in L.A. One told him,  "All the big crime mysteries in this country are locked up in insurance company files, and the writer that gets wise to going to make himself rich."

Money: Y U No Grow on Trees
Guess I'll keep the day job.
Until the whole money tree thing happens.
So, not only did I find this incredible quote and this wacked-out story, I now have an idea for a short story of my own. And I got it because of my day job. 

Serendipitous, yes? 

The lesson here is that no matter how unrelated your day job seems, if you're a writer, it's feeding your brain. It's feeding your bank account. It's putting ideas and experiences in front of you that you might not have otherwise. Process them, and then use them in the work you want to do.

Monday, September 2, 2013

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty
I grew up on country music. This was the late '70s and early '80s, so we're talking real country. Outlaw country.

Country that would duct-tape Taylor Swift's mouth shut, take away all Brantley Gilbert's jewelry, and tell Keith Urban that rehab is for quitters.

One of my all-time favorite songs is "Pancho and Lefty," made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. It's a story song, written by Townes Van Zandt. I still hang on every word like there's a secret nugget of truth waiting to be discovered.

How is there so much embedded in one sub-five-minute song? Have a listen and we'll find out.

Now, how can writers learn to tell a story so simply, with so much depth? Let's take a look.

1. A first-person narrator telling a story about someone else can be really effective.

No less a writer than Jonathan Franzen tells us that we should write in third person. This is one of those "establishment" rules for serious literary works. The reasoning? Third person is more remote (read: mysterious), which makes the reader work harder. It's also less limiting if you want to explore multiple characters. Plus, you get to create both the narrator's persona and your main character's (note: these are NOT the same thing).

"Pancho and Lefty" doesn't follow the third-person rule. It has a first-person narrator; however, the narrator isn't the subject of the song. This accomplishes two things:
Merle Haggard Has More Country in One Butt Cheek than Brantley, Luke, Tim, and Jason Put Together
True story.
(1) it creates immediacy with the use of the "I" voice, which is why many writers use first-person voice
(2) it generates mystery since the "I" voice isn't the subject of the song.

Our narrator probably knows Pancho and Lefty, and might have witnessed the events in the song. But we don't know. (Mystery? Check.) Our narrator says, "Livin' on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean." Who is the "friend"? Is it the generic use of "friend" that he's using to tell a campfire story? Or is he singing to an actual friend, maybe Lefty himself, after the events of the song? The narrator holds himself back from us, not making this clear. (Remote? Check.)

2. The right similes can set a tone without a single adjective.

In the first verse, we get two similes in a one-two punch: "Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath as hard as kerosene."

Think about that. What does it mean to wear skin like iron? It means you think you're invincible. You think you can take a licking and keep on ticking. Or it means you've hardened yourself to the outside world so it can't reach you, no matter how hard it tries. (Unless you rust...that would suck.)  Each of these meanings make the simile richer. And here's the kicker: who is the singer talking to? Who wears his skin like iron? A man listening to the story? Lefty? Is he talking about himself in some weird reflective way? We don't know. But we do know this song is going to be about a mysterious bad-ass. This simile sets a mood, which is what all good storytellers must do.

And what the hell does it mean to have breath as hard as kerosene? Kerosene's a liquid. Liquid, by definition, isn't hard. Or is he referring to its scent, its noxious fumes? Those things are gases, which also by definition, are not hard. We're taking a trip through the three stages of matter here, just working on an interpretation of a single simile. Using "hard" to describe something that isn't hard works well here, especially following on the heels of the "skin like iron" simile. Skin is not like iron, and breath is not hard. But isn't that so much more effective than saying, "This is a song about some hardened criminals?"

3. Using action as a form of characterization works really well.

Also a true story.
It's pretty boring when someone says, "John was a good man" or "John was a bad man." What does "good" or "bad" mean? These aren't absolutes, especially in fiction. It's far more effective to say, "John rescued the cat in the tree because it belonged to the little girl down the block" or "John skinned the neighbor's cat in retribution for the loud party three nights back." This lets the reader place John appropriately on the scale of goodness and badness.

That's what our narrator is doing in this song. Pancho "wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel."  I think "feel" should be "fear" here, but that's just me. In any case, the narrator isn't saying, "Pancho was really good at shooting people" or "Pancho had a death wish." No. He's telling us something about Pancho that's revealed through his action. What does it mean to wear a gun outside one's pants? Several things: Pancho means business. Pancho isn't afraid of conflict. Pancho is confident in his abilities. Pancho wants you to stay the fuck out of his way. So simple, yet so effective.

Lefty gets the same kind of characterization in the beginning of the next verse. "Lefty he can't sing the blues / all night long like he used to / The dust that Pancho bit down south / ended up in Lefty's mouth."

That's a powerful way of saying, "Lefty feels like shit for the role he played in Pancho's death." Instead of using the most obvious word on the planet ("guilt"), the narrator ties Lefty to Pancho's death using setting and figurative language. Lefty doesn't have a literal mouthful of dirt. But he's carrying a crap-ton of baggage that has to do with Pancho's death, so much baggage that he can't even sing anymore. We're left to that how Lefty earns a living? Is he so broken up over his buddy's death that can't earn a living? This image conveys emotion and suggests conflict in a few simple words. Damn.

4. Be specific with names and places.

There's a beautiful juxtaposition in this song between the vagueness of the story itself and the concrete setting. We don't know who the narrator is. We don't know if he's talking to Lefty or about him. We don't know for sure what went down between Pancho and Lefty (although we can guess). But we do know Pancho died in Mexico. And we know Lefty "split for Ohio." Later, we get more detail: Cleveland's cold. Even here, we have layers. No shit, Cleveland is cold. The average temperature in January is about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. But is it also cold because Lefty lacks Pancho's companionship?

What I love here is the specificity of "Cleveland." Lefty didn't go "out west" or "down south." There's something so much more pathetic about him shacking up in Cleveland, a non-glamorous city that's stuck between the midwest and the east. With all apologies to Cleveland, perhaps the idea here is Lefty's in nowheresville. But rather than say it, the narrator uses a specific place that plants that idea in our heads.

5. Leave a little (or a lot) to the reader's imagination.

Ryan Gosling meme: Hey Girl, I'm Starting to Like Country Music
Probably not a true story.
One of the best parts of this song is its mystery. The narrator doesn't tell us exactly what happened. How did the Federales finally get Pancho? Why did Lefty split on the day he died, with a mysterious sum of money? Did Lefty sell Pancho out? Probably. Why did Lefty do it? We have no idea. A secret dream of making it big as a singer someday? The need to get out of a life of crime? Why didn't he have the balls to say, "Hey, Pancho, I'm gonna hang up the old gun belt now and start singing showtunes for tips. You're cool with that, right?" Is it really a commentary on friendship, on weakness of character, or misguided loyalty? Or all these things? Or none of them?

We don't know, and that's the way it should be. That's why this song needs a narrator who isn't Pancho or Lefty. That's why it's so much more powerful when we hear about Lefty's inability to sing anymore. That's why it's still moving at the end of the song, when not only Lefty but the Federales are old and gray. Everyone involved still remembers, still feels bad, still has some regrets. It's that important to them. And now it's that important to me, because I've just written 1,500 damn words about an old-ass country song.