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My Blog Is Relocated!

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 08 April 2017 · 485 views

Followers of my blog can find it at this new address: https://www.joestephenswrites.com/blog.



Helping Each Other Out

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 02 April 2017 · 197 views

dark man alone thinking light lonely rest shadow people guy
This is how I often felt at author
events and how my new friend
must have felt.
If you stopped by this blog yesterday to read my weekly post, you no doubt saw the short note telling you I was off selling books. In terms of sales, it was a positive day. Have I mentioned teachers love books? Did I further mention this was an event about teaching writing? That means that most of these teachers were English teachers. They love books the most! But the most positive part of that trip, for me at least, was getting to make contact with other writers. I got to spend part of the day with a wonderful lady named Cheryl Stahle, with whom I teach at, but hardly ever get to actually talk to because our school is just so darn big.

But there was another author there. To be honest, I've lost her name. I gave her one of my cards, though, and asked her to get in touch with me. She asked a hundred questions because she seemed to really be struggling with getting herself out there. I think she only sold one book and when people asked for a card, she didn't have any. She was just there with a box of books. No way for people to sign up for a mailing list, no display of any kind--just her and books. And that wasn't the crux of the problem, in my opinion. It was the way she came across. Her lack of preparedness made her exude a dearth of confidence. People didn't stop and talk to her nearly as much as they did the rest of us. She was distressed by it, but didn't seem to be able to do anything about it.

As we talked, she told us that she was just an introvert and didn't enjoy talking with people that much. So the rest of us, who had been to several of these kinds of things, talked with her about how she could get past that and things that would help draw people in. Little things, like having a dish of candy at your table, or having something free to offer (I give away bookmarks with my contact info and website address). As soon as they stop, they're basically asking you to engage them. And if they ask a question, that's even better. By the end of the day, she seemed to have some ideas for how she was going to handle future sales events. She and I are even hoping to share a booth at the WV Book Festival in the fall.

Image may contain: 1 person, on stage and indoor
The incomparable Corey Shields at his
album debut concert. To his left is a
lovely young lady named Kaitlyn
Bowles, a former student of mine and
someone you'll be hearing big things
from musically. 
My encounter with this woman reminded me of when I was first starting out. I'm by no means an expert. I'm just a tiny little author who hasn't sold hundreds of thousands of books (or even thousands of books), but I've come so far since that first event where I was basically in her shoes. Completely unprepared, completely lacking confidence, and yet disappointed that people didn't flock to buy my books. It felt even better to be in the shoes of all of those other authors that have helped me over the last few years. So many people gave me advice, tips, and opportunities. It's important to find ways to pay that forward.

And then last night, I got to help out an indie artist of a different kind, and enjoy some great music in the process. Corey Shields, a guy who is way too young and way too cool to be my friend, is kind enough to be my friend nonetheless. And last night he had a concert to celebrate the debut of his latest album, Antioch Road. It was just so exciting. The energy and love and fun just oozed out of every corner of The Daily Grind on Market Street, where the concert took place. I, of course, bought one of his CDs. I encourage you to do the same. Just go to coreyshieldsmusic.com and tell them I sent you. You won't get anything special from it. I've just always wanted to say that.

PS--This is the last week my blog will be on this website. Starting next week, it will be housed on my website, joestephenswrites.com. I hope you'll continue reading my weekly posts, and while you're there, you'll look around at the other fun things on my site.



At An Author Event

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 01 April 2017 · 230 views

I'm in South Charleston at a teacher training event, but as an author. I'm one of six authors selling their books during breaks. So, I'll do a full post tomorrow, but I wanted you to know that I didn't just fall of the face of the earth!



How Do I Write Effective Dialogue?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 25 March 2017 · 276 views

I got this question at my most recent reading and my short answer was that I'm not sure I do, at least in terms of writing that is ever going to be commercially viable. And that's because my dialogue apparently doesn't follow the rules. I tried following the rules for exactly one book. I didn't like it and it's strongly my sense that the people who read the book didn't like it. I got that sense when they said, "I didn't like it."

Let me back up a little. As you may or may not know, before I went independent I had dreams of going old school, legit, agented publishing with a publishing company. When I finished what I thought was the final draft of Harsh Prey, I started querying agents. I did that for two years, sending out multiple queries every month. Not a sniff. In fact, I literally got one actual human response. Every single other one was the dreaded auto reject that any aspiring author can practically recite from memory: "Thank you for your excellent submission. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time, but please don't give up. It may be just the vehicle someone else is looking for."

But like I said, I did get one human response and it was a highly encouraging one. It was actual
extemporaneously composed words from a human being who clearly had read the excerpt that I had sent. She spoke specifically of characters and scenes. A New York literary agent actually read something I wrote. She said she liked Harry and his voice but I needed to work on pacing and dialogue issues. That was great! I mean, it was terrible because I had no idea what she meant by that, but it was great because it was actual direction from someone who worked in the business. By the way, she also said I should feel free to re-query when I fixed the problems. I did. No reply at all. Not even an auto-reject.

So I found someone who knew what the agent meant: an editor. She explained that I was using too much detail in my descriptions, that people didn't want to know every single object in a room. And she said that my dialogue was too long too. She said that in commercial fiction, dialogue is chopped down and doesn't sound like people really talk at all. She said the idea isn't to re-create the way people actually speak, but instead is just to convey information and allow the narration do the heavy lifting. For instance, in some scene, I may have two people eating dinner and my version may look like this:

"Could you please pass the salt?"
"Here you go. You want the pepper too?"
"Sure, thanks. So, did you have a nice day?"
"Well, it started out rough, but yeah, it ended up great. That client I've been working with finally green lighted my proposal."
"Wow, that's fantastic! I'm excited for you."
"Thanks. I'm excited too."

The more commercially viable version makes the characters sound like Tonto to me:

"Pass the salt?"
"Pepper too?"
"Sure. Nice day?"
"Started rough. Got better. Won an account."

That is what a lot of commercial fiction dialogue actually sounds like, but I wasn't comfortable with it. I wanted to be commercially viable, though, so I gave in to the man, so to speak. Lots of short, terse, clipped dialogue that made the characters sound like they were only budgeted so many words a day and they didn't want to pay for overages. I chopped a full 12,000 words from my original manuscript. I had to admit that the pacing was a lot better. The story clipped along now, whereas it kind of sauntered before. But I still didn't like the dialogue. It just didn't fit my style. I'm a dialogue guy. I will often take a scene that was mostly narrative and convert it to almost all dialogue. But that's how it finally went out when I finally decided that two years of querying was enough and went independent.

People seemed to like it okay. In fact, some people really loved it. But the main negative comment (other than embarrassing proofreading errors that they pointed out and have since been fixed) was that the dialogue just didn't ring real. It was too short and clipped and terse. It didn't sound how people talk. So I went back and re-wrote all the dialogue in Kisses and Lies that I'd already written and made it the way I was comfortable with. I used full sentences and, in many cases, let the dialogue tell the story, while giving the reader a real sense of who the characters are by the way they talk. And the dialogue, especially between Harry and Dee, is my favorite part of all of the books. I hear the conversations in my head and record them verbatim.

Does that mean I'll never be commercially viable? Maybe. Maybe even probably. Will I change it? Probably not. If I got an offer from a publishing house that said they will definitely publish me if I alter it, I guess I would have to consider it. But I wouldn't definitely say yes unless their offer had a lot of zeroes attached to it. Like I said, Harry and Dee are two of my favorite people, real or fictional. And one of the things I love about them is how they speak with each other. It would be awfully hard to give that up.

So what do you think. If you've read my books, which version do you like best? I'd love to hear from you.



Where Do My Characters Come From, The Final Chapter

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 18 March 2017 · 309 views

As I hope you know, I've spent the last three weeks answering the number one question I get asked at author and book events, which is, "Where do your characters come from?" I talked about Harry, Dee, and Jenn, and I want to wrap up this week talking about a few characters who are inspired directly by folks I know. 
The real-life Keith, Jennifer, Jonathan
and Maria, aka Pepper.

The first pair I want to talk about is the pastor of Harry and Dee's church and his wife. Their names are Jonathan and Pepper and they are based on two of my best friends, Jonathan and Maria Delgado. Jonathan is the Family Life Minister at my church and Maria, his wife, is known, mostly by me, as Pepper. I've talked about her before. She has become my unpaid personal assistant and designated beta reader just because she wants to be. And they are both my great friends. In the storyline, Jonathan performs the memorial service for Emma Grace and Pepper becomes Jenn's confidante after she is rescued from the clutches of her crazy father. They are pretty much exact replicas of my Jonathan and Pepper in that they are some of the kindest, most loving people I know. And, in a fun twist, the fictional Pepper knows an author named Joe Stephens. 

With my Dr. Mathur at a
Baltimore Orioles game.
The next character that is based on a real life person is Dr. Jennifer Schoenhut, who was Dee's therapist as she learned to cope with the loss of Emma Grace and then Harry's as he tries to overcome the guilt of maiming Jenn's biological father. Dr. Schoenhut, known affectionately to Harry as Doc, is based on the female half of my other best couple friends, Keith and Jennifer Schoenhut. Keith hasn't appeared directly in any of the books (yet), and the real-life Jennifer is not a therapist, but the fictional one is just like her in pretty much every other way. She's beautiful just like the real one. They have a baby named Samuel (my godson) and she is such a good listener who loves people enough to tell them the truth that they need to hear even when it is not necessarily what they want to hear. She helps Harry to become accountable for what he has done and to find his way to grace and forgiveness. It's that kind of compassion and love that I see from my Jennifer all the time. 

Finally, a character who is definitely based on a real-life person is Dr. Priya Mathur. Her from-the-real-world counterpart is Dr. Poonam Mathur. While my Dr. Mathur is not an OB/GYN (she studies infectious diseases), her caring manner and brilliance are definitely just like the fictional one. And she's so humble that she will disagree with everything I just said. But don't believe her. I may be prejudiced because I love her like a daughter, but I'm also right. 

So that winds up this portion of my series on reader questions. Next week: Where do I get my story ideas? 



Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 3

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 11 March 2017 · 248 views

The cover of the book where we meet
Jenn Bezaleel, who becomes Jenn
Shalan. The young lady on the cover
is Courtney Stackpole, a former
It's the third week of my series-within-a-series in which I'm answering questions I get at author events, specifically what inspires the different characters in my books. I've already talked about Harry and Dee Shalan, the titular characters in my Shalan Adventures series. This week, it's their adopted daughter's turn.

For those of you who haven't read the books, Jenn Bezaleel is a runaway that Harry is employed to find. I say Harry instead of Harry and Dee because Dee is dealing with an advanced and complicated pregnancy. But when Harry locates Jenn, who he's discovered has been sexually abused by her father, he calls in Dee to talk with Jenn, figuring correctly that she'll respond more positively to a woman than a man. Long story short, Dee and Jenn fall in love instantly, in the mother-daughter sense. It takes a bit longer for Jenn to warm up to Harry, but eventually, their bond is unbreakable as well. Along the way, we find that Jenn's stepdad, an old friend of her father, has been trying to molest her as well, with the knowledge of her father. So the Shalans take in Jenn, eventually adopting her. So Jenn Bezaleel becomes Jenn Shalan.

So where did I get Jenn's character? The short answer is she is every female student I've ever known and loved like a daughter, which, to some extent, is every one of them. But in reality, and some teachers won't admit this, we bond more closely with some students than others. Over the years, I've had students, male and female, who have gone beyond being students and become friends and even like extended family. I have two former students who were on my speech and debate team years back who are as close as I'll probably ever get to having real daughters. Jenna and Poonam live far away, but stay in touch regularly. They visit me when they can, which isn't often because they have very busy jobs, and I visit them as well. I love them so much that it's hard to imagine being able to love a biological child more. So in that way, she is inspired by them and my unfulfilled desire to have "real" children. I never could, so I do it through Harry.

That having been said, Jenn is really none of them. As I've said before, Jenn has the face of a former student named Courtney, who kindly agreed to be the cover model for the book, but the resemblance
Jenna and Poonam with me, along with
Jenna's husband Mitch.
is superficial. I didn't base Jenn on any one of those young ladies. She is, in the truest sense, a character I created from scratch. Yes, she resembles many of my former students and even some of my friends, but only in the most generic sense. I could point to lots of women I've met over the years who share some of her traits, but not enough that I could say that I based that trait on any of them. Similar to Dee, Jenn is my idealized vision of an adopted daughter. She's been through a lot and she needs protection, but she hasn't let it misshape her to the point that she's incapable of love. She's smart, loving, enjoys being taken care of but is independent at the same time. She's taken the awful things that have happened to her and channeled them into a desire to help others who are being hurt by someone in power over them, which is why she wants to follow in her adopted parents' footsteps.

So, to sum up, Jenn Shalan is inspired by every female student I've ever known, but based on none of them. That may or not make sense, but it's the truth.



Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 2

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 04 March 2017 · 299 views

As you may recall, I'm in the midst of a series of posts in which I answer questions that I commonly hear at author events. Last week, I talked about Harry Shalan. This week, it's his better half, Dee.

Dee is much more fictional than Harry. She's not based on anyone in real life, though she is probably very distantly inspired by my ex-wife, who is a redhead and a nurse who has a beautiful singing voice. But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. While Harry's family is based on mine, Dee's is completely fictional. She has a family history of difficult pregnancies, which is nothing but a fiction for the sake of the story.

Dee is Harry's partner and equal in a lot of ways. He openly admits she's a better shot than he is, at least against paper targets. She's athletic, keeping up with Harry in the gym. She can more than hold her own in hand-to-hand combat, and she's got a quick, deductive mind. And on top of all that, she's a bit of a bombshell. So in that, she's not really inspired by any one true person. When I write her, though, I see Karen Gillan, who played Dr. Who companion Amelia Pond, minus the adorable Scottish accent, of course. If my books were ever made into movies, she would definitely be who I would want to play Dee.

Karen Gillan (wikipedia.com)
There is one part of Harry and Dee's life that is drawn from real life, at least in part. How they fell in love is inspired by the night I met my now ex-wife in that it is similar in nature, if not in the exact incident itself. Again, I fictionalized the event to fit the flow of the story, but I did hear Andrea before I saw her and fell in love with her voice. But in real life, it was literally the first time I ever saw her. In "Harry and the Redheaded Angel," they had known each other as schoolmates, but were meeting for the first time as adults.

So, while Dee has a tiny kernel of inspiration from real life, she's really just pretty much my dream woman. Does she have flaws? Yes, but they're flaws that come from loving too much. She's high maintenance, but in a good way. Her faith is important to her and so is her family. She's loving, affectionate, kind, drop-dead gorgeous but completely unaware of it, fun-loving, athletic, sexy, and she laughs at Harry's jokes. Who could ask for more? Oh, and did I mention the red hair?

Next week: Jenn Bezaleel Shalan



Where Do My Characters Come From?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 25 February 2017 · 195 views

An author event in Charleston where
I, no lie, answered this exact question.
As you may recall, last week I started a short series in which I respond to common questions I get at author events. Last Saturday, I discussed where I get book ideas. This week, I begin responding to the folks who want to know where my characters come from. So here goes. There's no short answer to that, so I'm going to concentrate for a while on one character at a time, starting with this question:

"Is Harry Shalan you?"

Seriously, you should
see my classroom. It's
like a museum.
I get that all the time. The short answer is no. The long answer is a little more complicated. It's really hard to deny that he and I are strongly connected. I'm an English teacher and he's a former English teacher. He only taught for one year, though, and I'm in my twentieth year at my school. I was a seminarian and he was too. But I quit to take a job at a church while he quit to become a gumshoe. I like trains and superheroes and he likes trains and superheroes. And my friends who read my books say that Harry sounds like me in their heads, but that is pretty much where the resemblance ends. He's a tough guy and I am decidedly not. He has shot people and put away lots of criminals. I have shot paper targets and put away lots of pizza. He is athletic and muscular, his body only marred by the occasional bullet wound. I give dad bod a bad name and my body is only marred by my gall bladder surgery scars. He's happily married to a gorgeous, sexy redhead. I am decidedly less successful in the romance department. Ladies, I am, as hard as it is to believe based on my description of myself, available.

Probably my proudest moment as a teacher,
the year I received the Milken National
Educator Award. The young lady with
me is one of many inspirations for
Harry's adopted daughter Jenn. Her name
is Marissa and she and her husband
are expecting a baby soon!
Because we have the same voice and I know we have the same speech patterns, I guess you could say that Harry is, to borrow a DC Comics concept, me from a different Earth in the multiverse. Actually, if you want to know where I got the idea for creating a character in this way, the answer is my writing hero Robert B. Parker, who stole the idea from his writing hero Raymond Chandler, creator of the iconic Philip Marlowe. He was open about the fact that he based his main hero, Spenser, on himself. He created a character who sounded and thought about the world just like he did, but that was where the resemblance ended. I loved Spenser from the moment I started reading that first book back in the 1980s, but his worldview is a lot darker than mine, so it makes sense that in stealing Parker's idea, it would be by creating a character who wasn't as sullied by the world as Spenser is. Like Spenser, Harry sees himself as an Arthurian knight born out of time and believes he's in the world to help the weak and defend the downtrodden. And he has a code that guides his life. But Harry's code and Spenser's code are different in a lot of ways. One of the big differences between Harry and Spenser is in religious beliefs. Harry, like me, is a man of faith, while Spenser is agnostic. That gives a completely different tone to my work from that of Parker. For one, you'll find not a single curse word in any of my books. There are, hopefully not too graphic, sex scenes in my books, but they are always between Harry and Dee and that's on purpose. I think it's important for the world to understand that Christians aren't anti-sex. And while Harry never judges, always helping and encouraging, he and Dee are quite open about their beliefs, especially with their daughter Jenn.

I could go on and on talking about the one fictional character I probably know better than Spenser, but I think that will suffice. To sum up, the answer to the question with which I started this post is yes and no. Harry is me, but he's most decidedly also not me. Does that clear it up?

Next week: Dee Shalan



Where Do I Get My Story Ideas?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 18 February 2017 · 236 views

I like to answer questions about my writing. I much prefer that to the actual readings. I just realized that as I typed it, but it's true. I don't know if it's the interactivity of it or that I'm not confident that I do a good job of reading, but I do know that I like to talk about the process I go through in my writing. And that's true despite the fact that, no matter how many times I do events, I get the same few questions every time. Once in awhile, someone will surprise me, but mostly it's some combination of the same three or four questions. So I thought I would do a short series of posts in which I answer those queries. 

One thing that is almost always asked, especially at events that aren't with other authors, is where I get my story ideas. The first time I was asked that, I have to admit that I was taken aback to realize I didn't have any idea. And the reason for that is that when I first started writing Harsh Prey, my first book, it was more about the characters than the story itself. I had two people who loved each other deeply, but one of them wasn't sure if she could deal with the violent job of the other. It was almost like I had a snapshot and I built the whole story out from that still frame. It's not almost like that, actually. It's exactly like that. I had no idea where the story was going. At the beginning, I asked myself, what if she's been gone to decide if she can deal with his being a detective and she calls, only to have the violence of his job intervene? And that seemed to work, so I had to ask why the violence happened. The answer was what propelled the story. But regardless of what happened in the detective half of the books, they were, and always will be, more than half about that relationship between Harry and Dee, and now Jenn and Emma Grace too. The Shalan Adventures are, for good or bad, stories about a loving family and the things they go through together. It's almost incidental that he's a gumshoe. 
The second Shalan story, Kisses and Lies, was loosely inspired by an event in the life of the young lady upon whom I based the leggy blonde at the beginning of the book. She had gotten married--in fact, I had performed the wedding--and found that her new husband changed immediately afterward. It was nowhere near as violent as it was in my fictionalized version, but it was, as usual, this series of what-ifs. What if he had been hiding something darker? What if it got violent? What if there were a family dynamic that added a level of depth? And the story grew from there.

The next two, In the Shadow and Dawn of Grace, are really one giant story arc broken into two books. The arc actually begins at the end of Kisse and Lies when Harry finds out that Dee is pregnant. That story was always going to be primarily about them losing that baby and then getting it back. I made the story of Jenn to parallel that. The Jenn part was again inspired loosely by real life events, though no one incident in particular. I'm just exposed to and touched by stories of abuse against young people because of my job as a high school teacher. And when I started writing In the Shadow, I just chose a young lady who was my student and made her the face I saw when I imagined the story in my mind. This young lady wasn't just my student. She was one of my adopted kids, the gang who eat lunch in my room and stay after school to watch movies while I make pancakes and come see me after they graduate when they come home from college. So when I pictured someone doing terrible things to her, it helped me tap into the rage that drove Harry to do what he did at the end of the book. 

As for my current work in progress, it grew out of a scene from a classic book. I read it as part of the AP reading last summer. It was about a young lady taken in by someone purporting to be her father, but he turns out to be a very bad man. Over the course of the week of the reading, I started building a story on that concept that had nothing to do with the original book at all, but that evolved from that situation. What if a teenager had no family and suddenly someone came along saying he was her long-lost father and he wanted to take her in? So that made me ask the next question, which was how did she come to have no one? Was she always an orphan or did she have a family that she lost somehow? And what if, like in the original book, he wasn't really her father? Why would he be interested in taking her in? I knew he had to have some ulterior motive, but I really didn't want it to be anything sexual. I'd had enough of that dark realm and wanted his motivations to be evil in a completely different way. So the story built from there. 

So I guess the answer to the question of where I get my story ideas is that I start with a character or a group of characters and a beginning point--a snapshot in time--and I start asking what if. What if this happened? What if he or she reacted in that way? And once I've asked and answered enough of those what-ifs, I have a book. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake. I better wrap this up and have some breakfast. 

Next week: Where Do My Characters Come From?



Do Authors Have To Have Had a Miserable Life?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 04 February 2017 · 512 views

I've heard a lot of people say that in order for someone to be a good writer, he or she must have led a dark life full of sad experiences and alcoholism and just misery in general. When I first heard that, I thought I was doomed to failure because, as I only half-jokingly say, I grew up in a combination of a Norman Rockwell painting and a situation comedy. Sure, there were tough times, but life in general was happy. Or at least that's how I remember it--I've found over the years that there are less than positive events, like family fights, that, when I've been reminded of them, I realize I have absolutely no recollection of them. You may think that means I'm blocking out bad memories, and maybe I am, but I would argue it's more about having a terrible memory in general. I am occasionally reminded of happy events that I don't recall at all either. 

But I digress. Let's get back to the question of whether an author's life must be one of abject wretchedness in order to be successful. I should probably say that, depending on your definition of success, I may have no right to answer the question. I've made no best-seller lists, won no contests, or even succeeded in obtaining an agent or publisher. So if your definition is a traditional one, I've been an utter failure. And maybe that's made me a better writer. But that's not how I measure success. The fact that I've written four novels and a novella that people have enjoyed makes me successful. I have people who like my characters and my voice as a writer. I have a tribe. It's a small one, but it's real nonetheless. So I feel successful. And like I said, I haven't been abused and filled with mental anguish all my life. 

So why do people think that authors need to have lived like that? I guess probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many authors, like creative people in practically every field, have suffered from hard lives, substance abuse, and/or mental illness. But I think we only notice those folks for the same reason we notice the bad news on TV and the Internet before the good. We're drawn to the negative, the lurid, the spectacular, not really paying attention to the fact that for every wacked, out pill-popping, drunk author/actor/singer/artist, there are many quite successful ones that lead lives of quiet normality. 

But what of the argument that in order to write about sad things, one must have experienced those things? Well, the short answer is that that's just silly. Based on that thinking, no man could ever write in the voice of a woman, no white person could ever write in the voice of someone of any other race, and no one who has never been to another country could ever write about that place. And yet people successfully do this every day. How? Paying attention and being sensitive. 

Harry and Dee, the protagonists of my Shalan Adventures series, lost a baby. I've never experienced that, and yet people who have read my books say that I handled the emotional responses to that event accurately and with sensitivity. I've also never been sexually molested, physically or psychologically abused, been shot, or shot anyone. And yet my readers tell me that I've told stories about these events with believability. How? I know people who've gone through many of those things. I've listened to them talk of their experiences. I've hugged and cried with them as they've struggled with them. And their experiences have informed my writing. 

What of the things I've not experienced directly? As I've said before (like last week), good writers are first voracious readers. For every word I've written about the ins and outs of the life of a detective, I've read thousands. I've read books, articles, pamphlets, interviews, medical reports--you name it, I've read it for the sake of being able to write about it in a way that rings true. 

So successful writers don't have to write or drink themselves blind in order to get the voices in their heads to shut up for a while. They don't have to have been beaten or neglected or abandoned as children. They don't have to have been or done anything. But they do need to be aware and sensitive enough to internalize those experiences when they happen to the people around them and/or the characters they read about. So I guess the key to being a successful writer is compassion. Well, that and the ability to, you know, actually write. All the sensitivity in the world won't help if you just don't have a way with words. But the reverse is true too. Great wordsmiths who can't feel others' pain will write beautifully crafted, eloquent words that ring hollow to the reader. 

So maybe being good at writing is less about any one thing and more about lots of things coming together. Which makes writing a lot like life in general. The happiest, most fulfilled people are the ones who have the ability to enter into and come alongside the lives of the people around them and also have found a career that combines their passion and best abilities. 

You notice I didn't mention money in there. In my opinion, anyone who measures success based on their bank account is going to end up miserable. There's nothing wrong with making millions of dollars, but it should be a by-product of success, not the end product. 


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