Write, and Live Forever

by James Scott Bell

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Growing up in SoCal I was privileged to meet Ray Bradbury on a couple of occasions and hear him speak several times. He loved libraries, and one evening spoke at the local branch were I first learned to love books.

There he told his famous story about a meeting that changed his life. As he recounted:

One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end….He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

And Bradbury does live forever…through his books! His wonderful body of work will always be there to be discovered by new generations of readers. In junior high I read The Illustrated Man. It fired me up to think that perhaps someday I could write things this marvelous. In college that desire got knocked out of me by some who looked at my attempts and sniffed and told me you cannot learn to become a writer. You either have it or you don’t, and I didn’t.

Only many years later did that desire re-emerge, and I knew I had to try and keep trying.

Bradbury’s work was still pulsating inside me, like electricity. I picked up his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, and the current got hotter. I started living forever.

We have various reasons we write. Of course, we all want to make some dough, but there are other reasons, not the least of which is the pure joy of storytelling.

And for others (like Mr. Steve Hooley) there is the desire to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.

When I started to get published, I knew I wanted to write books that my kids could someday look at and not be embarrassed. Or think, Dad wrote THAT???

One of the joys of being an indie writer is that my forever books become available within 24 hours of completion (meaning done, edited, corrected, proofread and with a good cover).

But one of the challenges of being an indie writer, especially for the impatient, is putting out a book, as Orson Welles used to say about wine, “before its time.”

I recall reading a piece by an early indie pioneer who posited that maybe the idea is to be fast and not worry about top quality. To wit:

Why write longer? Why write better? What’s the benefit?…Now, I’m not talking about releasing a book with errors in it; plot problems, story problems, typos, formatting probs, and so on…I’m talking about releasing a book that would average 3.7 stars from readers, whereas if I spent an extra month on it, I could average 4.2. Seems like a gigantic waste of time.

Admittedly this was a thought experiment, and presented a rational argument. I thought about it for awhile. Then decided I couldn’t do it. For me, the extra time is worth it because…living forever!

It’s like the corpse of Sonny Corleone, shot up at the toll booth. Don Corleone has the body taken to the undertaker, Bonasera. As the Don looks at the body, he begins to weep. “Look how they massacred my boy.” He wants Bonasera to use all of his powers and skills to make the body look presentable for Sonny’s mother.

Now, this metaphor is not perfect. I don’t produce corpses upon first draft (at least I hope not!) But I do want to use all of my powers and skills to make my books the best they can be. They will be here long after I’ve gone to my Final Review.

Do you think about that when you write? What your books will mean to others—especially those close to you—after you’ve gone? Do you have legacy in mind? Perhaps not, which is okay. I’m not advocating any one position. Let’s talk about it.

56 thoughts on “Write, and Live Forever

  1. Interesting post. I can’t imagine putting a book “out there” that wasn’t the very best work that I could do. Books cluttered with grammatical errors and mistakes that look like a sentence was changed but not checked, indicate a lazy writer at best. It’s distracting in a work of fiction, but worse in non-fiction. This person expects me to be impressed with the advice while looking past all the mistakes? I’m not.

    As for the writing itself, not everyone can write like Bradbury, but some people are born storytellers, and while that can come through on the pages of their novels, it can also, sadly, be lost because the author didn’t take the time to get it right. It seems unbelievable to me that someone would be okay with publishing a 3.7 instead of a 4.2. Has self-publishing created a new standard where mediocre is the best we can do? I certainly hope not. And I believe the writers on TKZ are not okay with that, either, or wouldn’t be taking the time to help others. So, thanks to all of you.

    • To be fair, Becky, the author was not advocating typo-ridden books, just taking more time to get to a higher “level” of quality when (if making money is your main thing) speed of output is the primary driver of revenue. There’s an argument there. But the title he gave to the piece was, I think, misleading vis-a-vis his point. Anyway, as you indicate, I agree that if I KNOW how to raise a 3.7 to something higher, I’ll do it every time.

  2. This sentence of yours resonates with me, “I knew I wanted to write books that my kids could someday look at and not be embarrassed.”

    One of my goals is similar: I will only submit or publish writing I am comfortable letting my two sons read.

    It would be wonderful if my family considers my work an accomplished legacy, but that’s not why I write. I write because I like playing with language.

  3. AndI’ve often thought that my kids and grandkids will be able to read my books and maybe know me a little bit more. That after I’m gone, there will still be something of me alive in the pages of those stories.
    I always try to write a story that is better than the one before.
    I try.
    I hope that I succeed.

    • Right on, Nic. “Better than the one before.” This is often why longtime pros will say that writing gets harder with each book. It’s because they know more and their standards get higher.

      Of course, there are some writers who, once established, are content just to “mail it in.” And still land on the bestseller list.

  4. I’m not the least bit ashamed in having my family read my books. I only wish they would, but “I don’t read that kind of book” is their response. (i.e., fiction). Except for my mother, who’s amazed I can write books at all. Sadly, her vision has degenerated to the point where she can’t even read large print books anymore (including e-readers with the font bumped to max), and has no interest in audio.
    Like many others, I want each book to be better than the one before. “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”
    Although I supposed the 3.7 author doesn’t care enough. I do.

    • Ha, Terry…so many writers have had family members cluck and pat them on the head, but don’t bother to read their work. Or don’t understand why people pay them for their books!

  5. Good post, Jim. As you know, I write one clean draft and publish. In that endeavor, I always bear in mind two things:

    1. I really am the worst judge of my own work, but that’s true in both directions, when I think the work is good and when I think it’s bad, and

    2. No matter what I think of the work, the reader’s opinion is the only one that matters.

    • Right, Harvey. The ultimate judgment comes from the readers…and as several have mentioned, part of that readership may include our kids.

      Part of Joe K’s argument is that readers of a series will stick with the author even if some of the books are less than stellar. But then there are the readers who don’t jump on board in the first place.

      It’s all a fog…so we keep writing into the fog (to coin a phrase!)

  6. Good morning, Jim. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently, after finishing my latest work, a novella which will be published Tuesday in the new High Moon urban fantasy anthology. I sweated this story out over the summer, and worked as hard on it as anything I’ve published. I had to make it hard on myself and have two converging story lines, with two POVs, the first person investigator (“magic cop”) and the third person female werewolf and her pack).

    It’s important to put the time in, to get it right, to get it as good as I can. I’ll never make it perfect, but I gave it my best shot (cue Pat Benatar 🙂

    The legacy part is something I’ve been thinking about, too, and why I’m excited to return to my library mystery series. I want the series to be fun, but I also want it show what the library was like in the 1980s and 1990s, and possibly into the 2000s, depending upon how long the series ends up running. This is important to me, along with creating fun, engaging mysteries.

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

  7. Absolutely. I think about leaving a legacy all the time, which is why I pour so much of myself into my books. Long after I’m gone those closest to me will still recognize pieces of me within the pages, even if they’re hidden behind my characters. There’s something so special about that, something magical.

    Have an amazing Sunday, Jim!

    • Special and magical…so agree with you, Sue! Deep down, I have to believe the vast majority of writes long for true, reader connection. It’s just a question of whether you want to nurture that part of you or not.

  8. I only have legacy in mind in terms of the themes I tend towards. I address the themes that matter to me and hope it will matter to future readers too.

    And yes, I agree, I’d want to take the time to get it from 3.7 to 4.2. However, don’t get caught in the trap of waiting to release until it’s a 10.0 starred review. That’s a trap of another kind.

    • Good addition, BK. We can get caught in a “perfectionist” trap. Sometimes that’s a subconscious defense mechanism for a writer who is afraid to fail. The mental game of writing goes on!

  9. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for addressing an important subject, and thanks for the mention. I want my books to be a legacy for my grandchildren and descendants, but I want them to work at three levels: I want to entertain the current generation of young people with adventures that catch their imagination. I want my grandchildren to read “their stories” and someday read them to their children, and learn how the world was before it became so “messed up.” And I try to hide symbolism and hidden meaning in the stories (easier because they are fantasies) that someone will someday find and explore, like looking for hidden treasure.

    I realize that I may not achieve that, but, hey, I can try. I’m manic. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And therefore it’s worth preparing the book, even if that means it takes longer.

    Thanks for discussing this subject, because that leads into something I wanted to write this morning. I believe you are leaving a legacy for your family with your Mike Romeo series. I read ROMEO’S TOWN this past week. It kept me up turning pages late into the night. I won’t talk politics here, but simply say I like the way Mike thinks and speaks and acts in regards to the disarray of our current situation. A huge audience exists out there hungry for Mike Romeo’s philosophy, and someday your grandchildren will read the series and say, “Hey, Grandpa was onto something. I like Mike’s philosophy.” I hope you keep the Romeo series rolling.

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks for those kind words, Steve. I like your three-pronged approach to legacy. We are leaving to future generations a picture of our times and the way people handled them…passing along a hopeful vision that will help. That was John Gardner’s philosophy, as opposed to fiction that merely looks “because it is fashionable” into the abyss.

    • I read it, too, Steve, and I agree with what you said about Mike’s perspective on the state of current affairs. Mike says things I’d like to say at times, but he can get away with it easier than I can. 🙂

  10. Crafting a legacy is always in the back of a writer’s mind. Months ago, a reader took the trouble to email me a short note of thanks for the way I presented an autistic character in a mystery story. That simple note made my day — maybe my whole year.

    • Isn’t that the truth, Mike? I also have an autistic character in DON’T LEAVE ME, and have received several emails to the same effect. Such messages really do lift the spirits!

  11. Good morning, Jim, and thanks for reminding us how important this writing life is. Absolutely, I think about the effect my books have. I want my family to be proud of my work.

    Just as important, I want my books to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. I touch on the larger themes of relationship, belief systems, and inner strength all within the pages of cozy mysteries, and I hope that resonates with my readers.

    The realization that the books will live forever is awesome. I want each book to be the best I can make it.

    • Boy, Kay, if we can make our books BOTH entertaining thought-provoking, we’ve really done something. There are many novels written with an obvious agenda that aren’t entertaining…and a lot of novels thar are just entertaining fluff (I don’t mind the latter). But combining the two is a great standard to shoot for.

  12. As always, Jim, you make us think and dig deeper into why we do what we do.

    Unlike most people here, I don’t have kids or grandkids so legacy is not at the forefront of my priorities. My prose isn’t lasting and deathless–I write fluffy little stories that readers consume like M&Ms. Not terribly nourishing but entertaining.

    But while I’m here, I want to make *today* better for someone. If they enjoy what I write or my books take their mind off their troubles for a little while, then I’ve done my job.

    • Debbie, as I just said to Kay, above, entertaining fluff is enjoyable on its own terms, and if it gives people some relief from the world of toil and trouble, so much the better! You’ve done your job indeed.

  13. Jim, I think about it All. The. Time. as I’m writing the story. I have a quote taped to my keyboard.

    “Write, not just for today’s reader, but for the third and fourth generation.” ~Mark Batterson, Chase the Lion

    My hope is that my writing will leave the world a better place. Quite lofty, I agree. So I remind myself that the whole world is contained in one person, so if just one person is encouraged, entertained, or made to think deeply, it is enough.

    Happy Sunday all . . .

  14. Actually, NO! With an exclamation point.

    I used to write a long time back under my real name. It didn’t work out how I wanted. Back then, I would have thought I was laying out a legacy; I wrote to suit the tastes of my wife back then.

    This time around, (meet Ben Lucas), I’m doing it for different reasons. My major push is to just get out there and TRY!. I have so many ideas in my head that I feel more compelled than anything to establish a story than worry about legacy. I actually choose a pen name because I might get racy and there will be some negative reactions to what I want to cover in my novels.

    I’m taking care of the product that I produce. That has more to do with the commercial aspects of my potential books; that I want them to appeal to readers of all types. But I know I’m going into some rough terrain to draw out some of my characters.

    BTW—Reading Romeo’s Town. Poor Mike. I think in a future book you send the guy up north for some free health care, considering all that he’s been through.

  15. Thank you for this, Jim. Legacy must be part of the writing urge itself. On my bookshelf is a small work published in 1903, Real Diary of a Real Boy by Henry A. Shute. Passed to me by my wife’s father, who read it as a boy, and on to my son who is now a grandfather himself. A family treasure, hilarious episodes about a mischievous boy’s life in Midwest America during the 1870s. Shute also wrote “Brite and Fair” and “Plupy and Beanie,” a series of a sort.
    Our stories can reach far beyond our first readership to touch generations we can’t imagine as we write them. That long life makes the effort worth the pain and sacrifice as well as the joy.

  16. Someone, reporting on Walter Mosley at the recent Killer Nashville, quoted him as saying he revises 25 times. (A few in the audience may have required medical help.)

    I may or may not have that right. I do know that he has written something to the effect that when he publishes a book, he may still see flaws. He said he publishes the book when he can’t fix any more of the flaws. So I take him to be saying that if you see a flaw and you see a way to fix it, don’t publish.

    For most of us, there are always flaws that we won’t see. Mosley’s probably very good at seeing his own flaws. But I’d guess that he has his editors or even beta readers as well. (Wouldn’t that be awesome, to be a beta reader for Mosley. Would one dare make any criticism?)

    In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells about getting an MS back from her editor with critique that made her rethink the entire novel.

  17. Extending legacy, Jim, writers (especially older writers 🙂 need to consider the financial end of their work, ie. what happens to royalties after they expire. Amazon and the other e-tailers have no idea if you’re alive or dead when it comes to organic sales, and they’ll keep dumping $$ into your account long after you’re pushing daises or spreading ash. It’s probably wise to have a will clause for that which I probably should do while I still can. Enjoy your day!

    • Absolutely, Garry. My intellectual property is in a trust, and directions for handling my literary output after I’ve gone to my Final Review has been laid out in detail for my heirs. Good reminder.

        • Sorry, I accidentally posted my comment when a huge spider dropped on my arm while I was typing. I nearly had a heart attack while swiping and shaking it off in a blind panic. (Yes, there is a spider phobia involved.) So after a wild chase with a handful of tissues, the villain flushed away, and an icky-creepy-crawly-feeling dance completed, I will calmly and adult-ly continue my request.

          It seems essential, now more than ever, that writers claim and manage their intellectual property. Planning for what happens to your words and any revenues coming in after death is just common sense. But most lawyers don’t specialize in intellectual property issues. A post on how to think about what you want to protect and maybe some steps in that process would be useful and thought-provoking.

          And no thanks to that eight-legged fiend, I’ll still be around to read and take action on your advice.

  18. I’m definitely writing for “forever” (500 years is my goal). Heck, I’m already a few years into getting there. And plan to be around to see it.
    And while I sweat the details with each book, I eventually let it go knowing that the next one will be better.
    And Bradbury is always on my mind when writing in cinematographic style.

  19. Good blog, Jim. I write to entertain my readers and make money. My books are my legacy and I hope they’ll be read when I’m gone. The Missouri State Library has requested my papers and manuscripts for their 20th Century Women Writers collection. That’s a kind of immortality, too.

  20. A teacher once said to my class that “good enough” is never good enough. This is exactly that.

  21. When I was a kid, I had to wash the dishes every night. If one fork or spoon got put away dirty, I got to wash every knife and fork and spoon in the bin, because if one was still dirty they all might be…it didn’t take but a time or two to learn it’s better to do it right the first time. Another way to say if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. 🙂

    Like some of the others have said, I hope each book is better than the last…not that the last was bad, but hopefully, I’ve learned something about writing from one book to the next. And I loved Romeo’s Town! I hope we don’t have to wait a year for the next one! 🙂 If so, throw in a Sister Justicia Marie story. 😉

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