Monday, October 25, 2010

My First New England Fall

The novel I've so long neglected talking about hasn't died, I promise. It's simply in limbo as I decide how to handle the feedback I've gotten from different readers.

In the next couple weeks, I'll be attacking whatever re-writing I ultimately decide to do. And soon after that, I'll start posting again.

For now, I'll post a few photos.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

(nearly) Time to Shift Gears

I've got a draft of the novel out to a small group of readers. This is the first full print-out of the book. Nice to have it in hand as a touchable thing that takes up space and weighs down the table a little bit.

I also have a version of my query ready to go and several agents selected for a first approach.

The early feedback on the story has been good. But still I have to be patient.

I need to hear from everyone and make any more changes their impressions demand.

As soon as that's done, I shift into sales/marketing mode. It's a part of the process I haven't done well with, historically. Like most writers, I think, my instinct is to sit in a corner and write while someone else handles all that messy stuff. But I've finally figured out that there is no one else.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

iPad for Writers, First Impressions

I just last week bought an iPad with the intention of developing software for it.

I wouldn't, as a consumer alone, have made the purchase. But it's important as a developer to really get to know the eco-system, to become a real user in order to understand how such applications would be expected to behave, to lean what's already possible, and to find out what users might need.

Almost immediately, I really like the device, like it far more than I expected to.

Here are a few early impressions for potential iPad buyers. This will look nothing like a formal review. I've never done one and don't figure to star now.

I bought the cheapest version of the iPad I could get (the 16 gig WiFi version), because I don't intend to pay for 3G every month (I have a WiFi connection available enough of the time), and I won't be loading the thing up with media. Applications and data alone won't come close to burning 16 gig.

Another aspect to consider is that Apple will certainly be updating this thing in a year, leaving whatever you buy today sadly in the dust.

I bought the EcoVue for iPad case and like it so far. It's a leather notebook-style folio that protects the iPad well when not in use and allows standing it at a low angle for onscreen typing. It also has an elastic strap for one-handed holding when you're simply reading a book or browsing.

Whether you buy the EcoVue or not, you will want some kind of protection for you iPad. The glass screen presents a large target, and the naked device is slippery. The first time I held it in a store, it wasn't three seconds in my fingers before I nearly dropped it.

The iPad feels heavy (a little heavier than I would wish but not truly burdensome). It's screen is lovely and bright, though too reflective in direct daylight for reasonable reading.

Default brightness settings were too bright for me (and likely will be for the average user) unless I'm using it outside. This setting is easily adjusted.

Don't expect to fire up the iPad as you're walking it from the store. You need a machine with an iTunes account to bring the thing truly to life. After the first connection and a software update, it's possible to do software downloads, browse the web, and check e-mail without a connection to another machine.

Battery life, on first blush, seems pretty decent, though I haven't stressed it enough to see if, during my everyday use, I'll get the promised 10 hours. Some users are claiming to do even better than that.

There are a ton of free applications of all stripes. Do a search for something like 'Must-have iPad applications' and you'll get a bunch of useful lists.

I bought Pages, Apple's word processor, for $10. I also purchased a mind-mapping app,  a relatively sophisticated drawing app (neither of which I've used enough to comment on), and a dictionary/thesaurus combo that looks promising. 

It's too early to tell how well Pages handles short story and novel writing, though I can say that it isn't really tuned for long documents. There is no useable scrollbar that I can find, so the only way to navigate is to scroll by swiping (painful) or to do a Find on words that you know are in a scene you care about.

The process of purchasing and downloading applications to the device is simple and quick.

I have big hands and won't be able to type seriously on the iPad's onscreen virtual keyboard. E-mails and short notes will work fine. For more than that, however, I'll want to have a wireless keyboard (Apple makes a small version that looks pretty decent).

Several of the free and inexpensive games I bought for my iPod Touch work well with no updates on the bigger screen of the iPad. In fact, this device is a huge improvement in terms of usability.

I've just started syncing iCal with Google Calendar. This feature seems to work well and is incredibly handy, though I haven't yet found out how to use Google's tasks (a sort of ToDo list feature and an offshoot of the calendar proper) in iCal.

The application I've used most so far is the Kindle app. It is free, easy to use, and presents a nice reading experience. Within a couple seconds of having bought a book through Amazon's Kindle store, assuming you have a connection on the iPad, your book will be downloaded and ready to go.

If you have multiple devices with the Kindle app installed, you can jump among them and your bookmarks will remain in sync.

The application allows enough customizability of screen brightness, font size, and screen colors to tune things to please any reader I can imagine.

It's my impression that writers will come to love iPad. It's always-on nature (no waiting for boot-ups) and its un-computer-like impression is bound to please. The array of applications a writer might find useful is already impressive and is bound to grow quickly.

Next time I'll talk a bit about this device versus the Kindle hardware, about my continuing experience with software, and about any other new impressions I have.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Not Dead. Just Moving Slowly

The final stretch of coming up with a draft of the novel that makes me really happy has been painfully slow.

But I'm very close now to the query letter stage and will post about that process as I go through it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Shaken Confidence, Muddy Vision

Novel writing is a humbling experience.

In my final stretch of working on my current book (I hope), I'm struggling to make the kind of improvements I really want to see.

I have more than enough words, and the basic dramatic structure seems to work okay, but the scenes I feel need to be exceptional don't yet move me the way I want them to.

I'm sure, as I plod along now, that part of my problem is snow-blindness. I've been looking at these scenes too many times in quick succession to be able to truly see them any more.

As I've been doing some diversionary work on a Smashwords book (a collection of short stories and photos), I've read many of my early short stories and found some stretches of writing that strike me the way I hope to have the novel strike me.

I'm considering taking a break from this particular book to work on a short story to submit to Ellery Queen magazine. The size, genre, and tone of this story are different enough that it may, with the simple help of time, clear my vision.

I hate to move away from the story when I've already blown past my self-imposed deadline, but a good outcome is more important than my deadline, and this feels like the sensible thing to do.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Slow and Painful

I'm still working through Story by Robert McKee and still finding it helpful.

I've spent a lot of time noodling on the issues of my story, knowing that it didn't have the necessary dramatic drive, considering what that meant and where repair might come from.

This stage has been far too slow-going. I've felt at times both dispirited and incompetent.

Finally, I've come up with an entirely new opening chapter that I think will help set the tone for a stronger main character and a better-driven story. In order to make the change pay, I've also got to perform surgery on a handful of scenes scattered throughout the novel.

As much as I wanted my first serious draft to work at all the fundamentals, I'm thrilled to have found problems and to be--however painfully--solving them before I put the book in the hands of an agent.

My main goal, when I set out to write this book, was to get to the point that I was truly proud of the work before I inflicted it on anyone in the publishing world.

When I'm finally finished with this draft, if it too turns out to be less than I'd hoped for, I'll be back to work, continuing this cycle until I'm truly happy with the novel.

I'm anxious, still, to get to work on a query letter. But for now it has to wait.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Long Ago Tree

Removed to make room for a new high school.

Could I maybe have the tree back?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Woody Guthrie Was a Genius

Fine writing comes in many forms. In recent days I've fallen utterly in love with a Woody Guthrie song that makes the rotation occasionally at Starbucks. My affinity for the song only grew stronger when I took the time to actually listen closely to--and ultimately read--the lyrics.

California Stars

I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d love to feel your hand touching mine
And tell me why I must keep working on
Yes, I’d give my life to lay my head tonight
On a bed of California stars

I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars

Simple language creating touching, undecorated imagery.

Billy Bragg and Wilco did a wonderful job with music and presentation.

I can't hear this song enough.

Here's a YouTube version. Ignore the awful, hamfisted video, itself (it's all I could find aside from the live version, which is recorded badly enough that I don't enjoy it). Just listen--loud--to the song and read the lyrics.

It Resisted For a Reason

Recently I noted that I'm struggling to get through the final third of my novel, to craft an ending that brings things together in some satisfying fashion (Resistance is Futile, Stupid Novel).

My difficulty revolves around the fact that the story doesn't have nearly enough story drive for my satisfaction. I like the characters. I'm happy with several of the important scenes. But in the end, a story must have a compelling narrative drive.

I'm not there.

In my frustration, I bought Story by Robert McKee. I wasn't in the mood for yet another paint-by-numbers writing book, or any damn writing book, for that matter. But this one has shown up so frequently, in so many disparate places for me lately that I felt I needed to give it a look.

Robert McKee (his seminar, not his book) is the target of funny ridicule in the movie Adaptation. I came to the experience with some hope but low expectations.

I have, to put it mildly, been pleasantly surprised.

This is no paint-by-numbers horse-manure. It isn't even strictly a screenwriting book. Most of its example are from the screen, it's true, but its notions are much broader, much more usefully applicable than that.

It has one of the more coherent discussions of types of plot, their possibilities and audience expectations that I've seen.

It also talks a great deal about what does and doesn't make a story compelling, why some stories fall flat while others don't. And it does it in a way that makes sense to me.

In the reading, I've come to understand why my story lies flatter than I'd like it to. I don't exactly have the cure figured out yet, but I have a sense of where I should be looking and the kinds of surgeries I should be attempting.

That realization, alone, makes the book a worthwhile purchase.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How To Shake Hands

Okay, this whole shake like a flaccid dead mackerel thing has got to end.

Fingers extended limp and lifeless do not a handshake make.

A good handshake should be applied with the same force you'd apply when giving a caring hug. But unlike a good hug, you owe it even to a perfect stranger to shake with conviction.

In other words, you don't want to spill guts with your squeeze, but you want to prove that you care enough to activate the muscles in your forearm. This goes for women as well as men. The rules are not different. Prove that you're alive, and then stop squeezing.

A strong handshake implies confidence and, believe it or not, confers warmth.

A weak handshake projects timidity and blows a chill breeze into the a room. Don't do it.

Even if you have no interest in impressing the person in front of you, a weak handshake projects a weakness that does you no good.

For the hypochondriacs among you, take your 5000 iu of D3 a day and get over it. You’ve touched, anyway, you might as well go all in. If you’re going to shake hands, do it correctly.

Is it possible to overstate the case? To exaggerate the damage done by a wimpy handshake? Of course it is. But why risk starting with a weak impression. It’s such a simple thing to get right.

So, do the world a favor . . . save the dead mackerel to fertilize your garden and bring some conviction to your handshake.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fighting the Hero's Urge

I have a tendency, when I don’t like the progress I’m making in some area of my life, to make bold pronouncements to myself about the fixes I’m going to make. I will correct--pronto--everything I believe to be broken in myself.

I don’t stop there, of course. These things aren’t magically gonna fix themselves because I, at one time, willed them to.

I make urgent plans. I give myself pep talks. I set ridiculous timetables.
I behave, in other words, like a complete loser.

Successful people understand, even if it’s not entirely conscious, that sporadic fits of heroic action don’t make for a successful life.

Our guidance systems, when we’re in a panic, tend to underperform.

I’ve read the book Wooden on Leadership a couple times, and a major theme of John Wooden’s* leadership is the idea that there are no big things. There are only a whole bunch of little things that, by accumulation, add up to something much larger.

The man is famous for, on the first day of practice each year, teaching all the new recruits how to put socks on correctly and how to tie their shoes. Many of the players he coached assumed it had to be a joke when they first had the experience.

The idea is that you must get all the basics--all the little things--right in order to be a successful basketball team. Socks incorrectly applied lead to blisters, which hinder performance.

And how do we choose which little things we will pursue?

They must be the building blocks of a much bigger goal. Building blocks that ultimately make something we value.

If I were, for example, trying to lose 30 pounds, I wouldn’t make a loud proclamation that I’ll have it done in 30-days and begin with a fast to launch the endeavor. Instead, I might toss the Ho-Hos I have stacked high in my pantry and choose to start eating my cereal out of the smallest bowls in the house, even throwing away the larger ones, if necessary.

The first approach involves hopeless magical (heroic) thinking, the second breaks the problem down to tiny, unintimidating actions. Which path is more likely to succeed?

Consistency in all these well-chosen little things ultimately--and often in less time than we imagine--will take us where we want to go.

One beautiful side-effect of this kind of attack is that it erases the need to conjure some kind of giant magical cure for your ills. It removes the need for the heroic entirely and turns self-improvement into an exercise of making incremental, approachable changes that move you in the direction you want to go.

We aren’t heroes, and we aren’t magical. Pretending to be only guarantees failure and self-loathing. We can, however, reasonably hope to make what seem smaller, even mundane changes in pursuit of our goals.

The point of self-improvement is to create sustainable progress. Heroic efforts aren’t sustainable; magical ones aren’t achievable in the first place.

So consider starting with how you slide on your socks in the morning. And then get the shoes correctly tied. Let the hero off the hook for today; Metropolis may need saving.

Good things are bound to follow.

* for the uninitiated, he was the finest college basketball coach who ever lived and legendary for being an impeccable gentleman the whole way.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Moon and Contrail

Resistance is Futile, Stupid Novel

I'm in a bloody-knuckled brawl with my book. Finishing is like walking a mile up a steep hill over broken glass . . . on my bare hands.

The keyboard resists. The words give me the finger. Good ideas mock me.

But I'm slugging it out.

My goal is to (finally) have a finished draft by the end of next week. It won't be exactly what I want, but it will be close to something I'm happy with. And, having typed 'The End,' I'm pretty confident that the following rewriting will go more smoothly. I simply need a fully completed something in hand first.

The minute I have that 'completed something' in hand, I plan to start crafting a query letter. And I plan, very soon after that, to start pestering agents.

An interesting lesson that I'm too-slowly learning in this process is that if I don't have a stated goal, a stated deadline, for each phase of the work, it will take much longer than I'd hoped. It always takes longer than I hope it will, but the situation's worse without goals/deadlines written down somewhere.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lone Seagull and Catalina

Misting the Orchids

I'm reading The Devil's Guide to Hollywood by Joe Eszsterhas, who wrote Basic Instinct and Flashdance and is considered a volatile Hollywood rebel.

He has what he calls ReelSpeak peppered throughout the book in little call-outs.

Here are a couple examples:

An Ambiance Chaser:
A director who uses smokepots in every scene

Parallel Creativity:
phrase used by someone who has plagiarized you

and then there was the one that struck me particularly in this phase of my rewriting

Don't Mist the Orchids:
Don't lay on the sentimentality too thickly

This is apropos for me because I'm writing a novel that has a large romance at the core of it and that happens, ironically, to have some orchid-like flowers skulking around in one scene.

In the stories I've written that I like best, the stories that seem to move people, I've never written with much direct sentimentality. The emotion has come, I think, from what a reader imagines the characters must be feeling, not from what the writer claims they are feeling. And the reader imagines that the characters must be feeling these things because I've proven it with dialog and description.

It's not an intellectual proof, of course. The reader doesn't rationalize that these feelings must be true. She simply feels them.

To a certain degree, I haven't found the right tone, the right approach, yet in several of the important scenes in this book. I've done, I think, too much misting of the orchids.

This aspect of the writing is tough. Finding the right balance, feeling the moment when a scene proves itself emotionally can be a slippery exercise. But in a book like the one I'm writing, it's an all-or-nothing affair. I either get this part right or I go home a loser.

I'm starting by excising nearly every direct reference to a character emoting. Losing sighs, exhalations and tears as fast as I can hunt them down. After that, it's a very painful matter of finding action and dialog that can evoke the intended emotions in the reader without directly begging for them with such ham-fisted tricks by my characters.

If I can manage to turn a failing scene around in an interesting way, I'll post the before and after for your 'enjoyment.'

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Gap-Filling Project

I’ve hit some resistance as I’m working on the last third of the book and rewriting, based on reader feedback, the first two-thirds. Not sure what it’s about, exactly, but I’ve found myself fiddling far too much the last several days.

So, rather than stare off into space, or at facebook, or at any of myriad photography sites, this morning I got to work on corralling a group of short stories and photos for the Smashwords book I’m going to post soon.

It’s fun gathering, making decisions about what should and shouldn’t be in there, and arranging.
For each of the photos and each of the short stories, I plan to write a very short sort of bio explaining its context. I’ve decided that I won’t edit any of them, even if I’d make different choices now than I did when I first wrote them.

Several of the formats produced by Smashwords (the Kindle, particularly, comes to mind) won’t do well with photos. But I still like the notion of including them and at least get a sense, for next time, if there’s any way to make it worth doing.

As I get into deeper into the flow of producing this ‘book,’ I’ll post about my experiences in case anyone else has any interest in giving it a go with their writing.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Listening to You Inner Nag

I've gotten feedback about the mid-section of my book from several readers now. While most of the responses are positive, a series of important questions came up in the critiques. More than questions, really. Too many were of the form I don't like when . . . , I don't believe it that . . . , I don't like this character when . . .

The first response when I read this kind of stuff is, naturally, Damn It. This comes from the conflicting urges that swirl around inside me. I want to be told that my writing is magnificent, perfect just the way it is. That it cures cancer, enhances women's bustlines and improves male performance. But the second urge, the one that has to win, needs to hear the truth.

So, after about three-second's-worth of depression, I sat down to consider the complaints.

It didn't take long for a very consistent theme to emerge. Nearly every one of the larger complaints related to something that I knew, at some level, was problematic. As I was writing, I had some niggling sense that I was stretching things, that I was asking for trouble.

Usually this happened because I knew I needed to get my character into a certain situation, didn't care much what the excuse was, and went with the first thing that came to mind. The situation causing a reader to complain wasn't the point of things, it was just a transport mechanism from some point that mattered to another point that mattered.

I wasn't exactly being lazy. Impatient is more the word. And in my impatience, I chose to ignore my Inner Nag.

I can't tell you how many times this proves to be a bad idea. Readers have eyes like I do. Very likely they'll see the jangling shortcut and complain.

So now I'm going back to give these transitions the attention they really deserve. And I'm hoping to be a better listener the next time Nag has something to say.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Disruptive Brainstorm

I've had the feeling (and some feedback) that the main character in my novel is too damned wimpy. She's meant to be afraid of the world in some important respects--at least to open the story--but she can't project as a hopeless, boring wimp.

As I studied the first two scenes, I had a minor brainstorm and just did a little riffing, re-crafting the end of one of them, modifying the tone of the star to, I think, a meaningful degree.

Unfortunately, assuming I believe this tone change improves things, I've got to rework nearly every scene in which my star has anything to say. Some of the reworking will be trivial, some of it painful. But so far I believe the change is for the better, and that makes me very happy.

So my brainstorm was, at once, an 'aha!' and an 'ah, sh**!' moment. I'll let you know how my editorial readers and I take to the change.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Long Beach Dawning

Appoaching a Finish Line

I sent the second third of the book out to a group of readers yesterday. Today, I'll print all the pages up to that point for my first straight-run read. I look forward to hefting a stack of 230+ pages, to fanning them and sitting down for a careful read. There's something about the bulk of a stack like that that brings a book breathing to life in ways it doesn't when I'm just staring at it on a computer screen.

I'd hoped (actually had a stated goal) to be done with a solid draft by yesterday, but since I'm still making steady progress, still working in earnest, I'm happy enough with where I sit.

I'm going to give myself another three weeks to finish a full draft and get the final pages out. As soon as that's done, it will be time to lean into a query letter.

The only thing I can foresee possibly derailing my timetable is some bit of feedback requiring major surgery. I want that kind of feedback if it's necessary, of course. But I'm hoping it's not necessary.

It's been a long time since I chased an agent, chased publication for a novel. So it will be a huge moment to get myself back into that phase of the game. I can't wait to begin stalking both real-world mailbox and my gmail version, waiting for responses from the professionals.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Yes, Indeed, I'm a Flunky

On Friday night, I worked on a film based on a short story a friend of mine wrote. It's the first time in a long time that I've been on a real movie set, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The point of it, for me, was to prime the pump for the movie I'm planning to make, to get my head into the game again. On that count, it worked like a charm.

The work I did could have been handled by a precocious monkey, it's true--laying 'stingers' (extension cords to the uninitiated), hanging lights, trailing actors-in-motion with lights, packaging up gear when the night was done--but it was necessary and it gave me the chance to watch the flow of a movie again, to see the latest gear, and to watch things like a director's interaction with an actor.

Throughout the night, especially when I wasn't actively engaging in my flunky-hood, I watched and thought, how would I handle what's going on here?

In many cases, on topics ranging from lighting, to dialog, to the intensity of performance, to camera angle, I'd have made different choice than the director did. This is no insult to the director. Film-makers--even expat filmmakers like me--have egos and ideas. It's why, in the end, we want to direct.

So the process of thinking, What would I do here? really did awaken the director beast in me.

Very useful and great fun.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Random Blatherings

I've had some hard slogging in the last couple weeks, not performing--in most respects--the way I've been hoping too.

I'm working 'diligently' to edit what amounts to a little more than the central third of the book in order to get it into the hands of my group of readers. I'm finding a handful of sections that need a loving hand and repeatedly struggling to lean into the fixes the way I need to.

In the rewriting phase, goal-setting is a little bit more difficult than when I can simply say, "Today, I must produce a thousand words." Many days during this stretch, my novel has shrunk. Other days, I've simply made subtle changes that, I hope, improve small stretches of scenes.

Why some scenes prove more resistant to improvement than others, I'm not always sure. Often when I force work that doesn't feel like coming, even difficult fixes sorta melt away with just a handful of keystrokes. But for whatever reason, some fixes look daunting. And sometimes their resistance is enough to drive me away from those pages for good stretches of time.

I'd like to understand this problem and to be able to blast away at it with more gutty consistency, but I'm a work in progress this way (of course I'm a work in progress in every way, but you get the point).

Speaking of works in progress, I'm reading a book called Talent is Overrated.

The basic premise is that the idea of prodigy, of God-given-genius, is a fallacy. Instead, the author contends that there are essentially no shortcuts to brilliance in any given field. He traces the history of people like Mozart, Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice and others to build up a proof that a long history of what he calls deliberate practice is required to create a prodigy.

The definition of deliberate practice is vitally important:

Deliberate practice . . .
  • is designed specifically to improve performance
  • can be repeated a lot
  • allows for continual feedback on results
  • is highly demanding mentally
  • isn't much fun

The last will probably send a lot of people heading for the aisles, but this is an important point because, naturally, if it were fun everyone would do it.

The good thing about this line of thinking is that real achievement is possible to more people than might be imagined.

'So,' you might ask, 'Why should I give a rat's behind?'

Well, I'm not sure why you should care, but I care because I'm always hoping to figure out how to improve my chances of building the life I really want to live (and I always feel like there's vast room for improvement on that count).

This idea of deliberate practice erases a great deal of magical thinking that so often circles around great achievement. Since I'm not magic, I prefer workaday answers to the questions I have about how to get where I want to go.

Of course deliberate practice is easier to define and grade in an area like sports, so full of built-in measurements for success. For writers, it's not so cut and dried. But I really hope to figure out how to lay out a long-time stream of work that will qualify as deliberate practice. And I hope along the way to improve radically my ability to deliver the way I want to as a writer.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

'In a moment,' My Ass

Listening to the middle section section of my book (a little more than a third in terms of word count), I'm drowning in transitions that reflect some version of passing time. Most of them have the word 'moment' in them, and most of them need to be shown the door.

I know I've said it before, but I can't recommend listening to a reading of your story (even a lousy computer-generated reading) to guide the editing process strongly enough.

It's true that rewriting the old-fashioned way is helpful, but, at least for me, there's a snow-blindness that makes it far too easy to glide over all manner of problematic prose. Beyond improving the hunt for errors, I find myself having more 'brainstorms' about how to draw threads consistently through the story when I listen than I would otherwise.

The listening is especially good for giving you a sense of how well tension plays out in your story. Several times, I've realized that I've laid out some form of drama only to pay it off far to soon to allow for real tension to take hold. This tension (or lack of it) seems far more evident in the listen that in the read.

I'm not at all sure if this is due simply to the snow-blindness (I've read all the words 20 times for every listen), or if there's something more fundamental about a listen. But in the end, I don't suppose it matters. The out-loud version of editing is helpful in ways red-pen-to-paper isn't.

Another happy side effect of the out-loud edit is that it's fun. The story becomes more like a product you might have purchased someone than like the same words-on-paper crap you've been staring at for months on end.

If I haven't sold you by now on the concept of Out Loud Editing, I don't suppose I ever will. So I'll just say it one last time. Give it a try.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Limping Through the "I Stink" Phase

I've been working on a particularly important scene in my novel knowing that it has to have huge impact for the story to payoff well.

Reading what I've written so far--and the dreck that keeps flowing from my 'pen'--I'm worse that riddled with doubt. I hate what I see, in all its permutations. It's boring, trite, and maudlin. It has lumpy rhythms and it smells bad.

This is one of the moments in a project tailor-made to test how serious I am.

Every project with anything more than trifling ambitions has these kinds of moments sprinkled throughout. Crises of faith, I'll call them.

All I can do is grind away at it, determined not to let the struggle shake my confidence too seriously. I will undoubtedly come back to this scene several dozen times, trying surgeries both minor and major. I will likely have to let it sit and fester a while (to give bored and disgusted eyes a chance at renewal).

Eventually, I'll read it and feel like it has started to come around, like some change I've made has excised the cancer of ineptitude. And in that moment, I'll likely have a sense of what made it better, of what it needs to go from a scene that doesn't stink to one that sings.

Between now and then, I must persist. This is simply another permutation of the world asking me, "How Serious Are You?"

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Serious Are You?

In a recent conversation, the issue of persistence came up, though it was being applied to a topic totally unrelated to writing. As I thought about the word and its implications, I made an interesting connection to my efforts at self-improvement in several areas (including writing, photography, and pursuit of joyous adventure).

It seems clear to me that the measure of your persistence in the pursuit of a given goal is a really solid way of asking the question “How serious are you?”

As I sat down to begin my current novel--and when I reassess my progress at various stages throughout--my overriding goal was and remains to produce a completed novel that makes me happy within a given timeframe.

My dream is, of course, much bigger than that. Publication, best-sellerdom, financial independence, and an an active fan club come to mind. But my goals--the things I can fully command--only extend to the writing of a book that makes me happy and doing everything in my power to put it in front of someone who will likely publish it.

The extension of that goal is to, with hard-nosed determination, make any changes indicated by the responses I get from the publishing world when I begin my pursuit of an agent and publisher.

The easy distillation of these goals is to say I’m looking to prove my willingness to persist.

Throughout my younger life, I rarely proved either a willingness or an ability to persist. That failure cost me dearly. I didn’t fail in this regard due to laziness. Instead, I failed because of a fundamental lack of confidence.

At a certain point, I came to realize that, on the rare occasion that I did demonstrate something approaching a hard-nosed persistence, the world didn’t often refuse me. But in the far-too-common case in which I showed too little persistence, the world was happy to thumb its nose at me.

I hadn’t in the end proven myself to be serious, so why should the world bother to reward me?

But I'm a different person now, a different man. And I have learned the lessons I wish I'd learned long ago. I am very serious, and I will persist.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rewriting and Snow Play

I'm on a brief hiatus from blogging and should be back to my regular ramblings by 2/26.

I will be exercising the red pen on the novel and hurling snowballs, though not sure what the balance of those two activities will be.

With any luck, and a tiny bit of discipline, I should have a few nice photos to show, too.

Come back soon.

The Weaver

One of the more interesting parts of the rewrite of my novel as I near the end is the work required to make the story feel like it's of a piece, to make it feel like the purpose that guided it had a coherence from the beginning.

What I've just said is way too vague to be useful, I'm sure.

What I mean is that, for a story to feel crafted, for a reader to feel like she's in the hands of a storyteller with a clue, a story needs many threads, some big and some small, that wind back on themselves, that interleave with each other. Items, even small items, that presented themselves in one scene come back to be given more meaning later.

A couple examples will likely clarify. In my book, a pair of mallards shows up early on. I pay enough attention to them in one scene that I have, in effect, made a promise to the reader that these ducks matter. So I must come back to them. Must give them their own story that flows through the main plot in some coherent way.

As a second example, the star character in my book proves to have a talent for drawing and painting. I cannot have this skill appear from nowhere the first time it proves useful to the plot. Instead, I have to back up in the story and lay the seeds.

The exercise of weaving both of these plot threads through the novel is fun and challenging. It's easy to break plot while injecting new stuff, and it's frightfully easy to have the new material stand out like a badly-done room addition to a house, with a great thunking lump on the threshold.*

One other risk is that of having the new threads show up too aggressively. They are supposed to be invisible. You aren't supposed, as a reader, to discern the coherence they give a story. It's all meant to be magic.

If readers are ooh-ing and ah-ing (or boo-ing and bah!-ing) at the vibrance of one particular thread of the story, I've blown it.

*I know I'm mixing metaphors here--house-builders aren't weavers, after all, and neither are farmers (and as you continue the paragraph, it only gets worse!)--but I'm gonna run with it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Next Phase

I'm still busy writing new material and re-writing old on the novel. I am, in fact, still waiting on feedback from several reviewers of the first eighty pages.

But I decided a couple days ago to begin the process of hunting for an appropriate agent. So yesterday I spent a couple hours at the library, poring over The Literary Marketplace, which--I believe--is the definitive listing for agents, publishers, book printers, and the like. It provides not only names and addresses, but gives you vital information about their requirements, the kinds of books they represent, and whether they charge a reading fee (which, in my book, disqualifies them immediately).

After having gone through perhaps half the listings, I came away with 18 names of potential candidates. I had landed on 15 as a good starting place for a first round of query letters, but may cut that back to 10 on the first pass.

Now, interleaved with the work on the novel, I'll begin work on a query letter. I've promised myself I won't send it out until I'm thoroughly happy with the book, but I plan to take my time with it, to work it over 'til it shines.

Putting postage to those envelopes (or pressing Send for the electronic types), will be a huge moment, indeed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rose In Window

A Different Set of Challenges

I've started to get feedback on the opening of my book (with about half of the precincts reporting).

Of course, what a part of any writer really wants at this stage is for everyone to tell you they plan to sing the praises of your book to the heavens, and for one of them to mention in a hushed hallway conversation that their first phone call will be to their twin sister, who heads up McMillan Publishing.

But the smart, feet-on-the-ground part of you wants real, hard criticism. And beyond that, you hope for consistency--in the good and the bad--of response. This simplifies your direction as a writer. It may not make the correction easy, but it does define one aspect of the path clearly.

The early responses to the opening my book have been consistent in one area ("Richard's a jerk and I don't want to read about him") and inconsistent in another (the main character's personal injury, and her timidity, bother some people but not others).

I can fix Richard's malfunction. And I know, based on readers' consistent response to him, that I should. It's not their responses alone that convince me. My decision would be far more challenging if I disagreed strongly with what they were saying.

But the jury's still out on how to handle the main character. For now, I wait out the rest of the outstanding readers and see if they bring any consistency to the story. For now, I try not to overreact, not to do unnecessary surgery. For now, I hold my breath and sit on my typing hands.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Real Progess

Just hit the 50,000 word mark (even after deleting several scenes) in the current novel. The final word count will wind up somewhere around 57,000.

Through some very difficult personal times, I've managed to plod along. I'm proud of my continued, if too-slow, progress, and I'm excited to type 'The End' on a novel that makes me proud. I'm not quite there yet; there are some reads and rewrites to come. But I can see 'The End' from here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

### ICK!!! ###

When I'm making notes to myself in a draft of any piece of writing, I've taken to using three hash marks front and back to make it stand out.

After one particularly pungent, overwritten phrase in my novel, I wrote
'### ICK!!! ###' and simply moved on.

I find that the more willing I am to do that, to note my dissatisfaction and then charge on with the work, the more work I get done.

'Well, duh!' you might say. But the story's a little more complicated than that. It's not simply that I write more words, but that, in the end, I write better words, too.

This gets back to the point I've made in a couple other posts that it's necessary, if I want to actually get something done, to allow myself to write utter crap. The more freedom I give myself to do that, the more I write and the more good stuff I write.

This works from two angles. The first centers on the fact that you can come back and rewrite (and you will be re-writing, no matter how brilliant the first pass feels to you). The second is that fact that, as a writer freed from his overbearing internal editor, I give myself a chance to write more freely, a chance to have better stuff come out the first time.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Not Even a Goodbye

I just found out yesterday that a very good friend of mine, Marilyn D'Andrea, died unexpectedly recently. She was a lover of writers and writing, books and reading.

Over the years, she'd been a valuable friend when I was most in need. We met in a writing class, transitioned to a critique group, and through years of further transitions stayed loosely in touch.

Just last year, she said the most generous things to me that anyone's ever said. And she sent me a novel, Blindspot, in a smiling Amazon package. It was the last of many meaningful gifts over the years. I haven't read it yet and am actually glad of the fact. For as long as it takes me to read that novel, she will, in a sense, still be here.

In the wake of official discovery yesterday, I went to Starbucks and wrote. The words came easily and, not surprisingly, carried real emotion. My novel was a project that already carried some urgency for me, but my friend's death has turned that urgency into a different, more insistent drive.

One of the last things she said to me, after being impressed by one my recent short stories, was, "I pray to God you're working on a novel."

Marilyn's death is just another reminder (sad that we still seem to need reminders) that not one of us knows which of the days of the calendar will be our last. And the big question hanging in the air is, Will I make the most of all the days between now and then? Will I deliver on the promise this magnificent gift of days that I've been given?

All I can say is, I will try.

Goodbye, Marilyn. It came and went much too fast.

Friday, February 05, 2010

My Latest Short Story Effort

I recently entered the short story contest at Reading Writers (results here). The prompt was "Snow" with a line drawing of a cabin with a snowman in the foreground. The word count limit was 500.

I had relatively high hopes for my story but didn't win or even get an honorable mention.

This is my favorite contest for multiple reasons. It's the first I ever entered, the first I ever placed in (an honorable mention), and the first I ever won. Even better, the judging typically makes sense to me. I'm not generally confused too terribly by the results.

Check out the winner and perhaps consider giving the next iteration of this long-running contest a try.

And see my entry below.


A Withering Cold
by Trevor Hambric

I’ll soon be a snowman.

I didn’t expect it to end quite this way. Snow in September, me sitting under a pine tree, miserably shivering. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months, it’s that life has infinite capacity for painful surprises.

Was it really only June that Lori found guilt and said goodbye? It seems so much longer. So many waves of pain since.

I have a nine-year-old son and wife at home. I’ve come to these mountains so they won’t be the ones to find me. My son, particularly, I want to protect from my weakness. The years ahead, alone with his mom, will be hard enough.

My suffering isn’t for Lori, exactly. It is for our relationship, for what she and I were together, what it said about the world’s offerings.

Who could guess, as I sit here, minutes from eternity, that I was at my happiest only four months ago? That life had started to blossom as the world opened up and began to make sense.

One day, I heard ‘I love you’ in the throes of lovemaking three times in as many breaths.

Two days later, when Lori found guilt, we were done.

I tried not to be broken by her pronouncement. Tried to stand up like nothing had happened.
But for the first time in my life, real trying proved worthless.

Now, having failed my calling to strength, I watch my tears fall to the snow, watch them darken a small circular patch in front of me. It’s an impressive flow, more tears than I cried in the twenty years before I met this woman.

I waited this long to say goodbye to the world--stood up and pretended recovery--to give me time to prepare the way for my son, time to know that I had--financially, at least--stood strong for him.

But it occurs to me now, as I feel my numbed body begin to sag, that my son will soon hear that I am dead. That his life will be broken in a very specific way. I see his face turn, tears welling.

It’s not an image I’ve allowed myself to conjure so directly until now. In all the time leading up to me stepping into the snow with a bottle of pills, I simply thought, He will suffer. But I never allowed myself to see his face.

I realize that I’ve dropped the now-empty pill bottle somewhere nearby.

It matters, I suppose, because I’m deciding, as the cold blossoms in me, that I have to get up and go back inside. Have to dispose of that bottle somehow.

My son needs me. He needs his father.

I attempt to prop myself up on one arm, attempt to lift myself from the crippling cold.

But it’s too late. Standing is impossible.

In the end--I now know--I’m an ill-formed snowman. And my days of standing are done.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Santa Ana River

Addendum to Time For Feedback

I forgot to mention that I think it best to save the reading of your story to some kind of MP3 player and go listen to it somewhere away from your computer, somewhere that you can sit, uninterrupted, and pay serious attention to the read alone.

Time for Feedback

I'm at a stage in the novel I'm working on that I want to hear feedback from a handful of readers.

But first, before I embarrass myself, I need to read and hear it for myself.

Occasionally, in the past, I've recorded my own reading of a short story. But, for now, I won't take the time to read 15,000 words aloud. Instead, I just took the first 75 pages of the novel and, using Automator on the Mac, had the machine record a reading.

Hearing your own writing read to you like this is immensely helpful. Make no mistake, even with modern technology, standard computers with off-the-shelf software do not read well. They do, however, do a good enough job to get some sense of rhythm and a very good sense of things like unintended repeated words.

Within the first few minutes of listening, I made note of half-a-dozen spots that needed something for rhythm. And this is true after having read the first couple chapters countless times during the early editing process.

Hearing it aloud is just plain different.

It's been a while since I did any of this kind of work with a Windows machine. But I know they are as capable (perhaps with a little bit more inconvenience) of reading/recording your material for you.

Give it a try and see if it doesn't help you spot problems in your writing that you would otherwise miss.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Simple But Helpful

My editor of choice (Scrivener on the Mac) has a full-screen editing mode that I just started using. It's a godsend for the easily distracted. Somehow, it prevents me from constantly glancing at my e-mail inbox, keeps my eyes from wandering over to the Facebook status tray to look for pointless new updates.

Many editors have this full-screen feature (though Scrivener is by far my favorite). I suggest giving it a try if you have a need to improve your focus.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Values vs. Moods

It's easy in life to be driven by moods.

Even someone who typically runs on level ground can defer to moods more often than he should.

Without a plan that's been crafted to align behavior to values, the values will lose to moods more often than not. And the specific outcome will be unpredictable but predictably bad.

Most of the goals worth having represent some sort of ambition requiring a long-term commitment. Moods, even among the most even-tempered people, are sadly far too variable to bank on them guiding you in any sort of consistent direction.

I feel this dilemma acutely now as I'm being challenged personally more than I ever have and am, at the same time, fighting to reach several new meaningful goals.

I am desperate to chase my bigger goals, even as moods too-often try to direct me places I don't want to go.

This kind of thinking, aligning actions to values rather than moods, applies to many areas of life, but it fits particularly well with the notion of writing and inspiration.

Waiting for inspiration means, in essence, waiting for the right mood. I'm working hard not to do that and suggest that you do the same. The value, to me, is finishing a novel that makes me proud. In order to do that, I have to produce consistently, irrespective of my moods.

Basic Dialog Mechanics

Dialog seems to have a particular reliance on a sensible rhythm for its power. This is true of all writing, but especially true, I think, for dialog.

I can't generate a useful definition for good rhythm, but like the supreme court justice said about defining pornography, I know it when I see it.

There are certain very low-level mechanic aspects of writing dialog that can make a good difference, though.

Attribution Styles

How do you attach a given piece of dialog to a given character?

There are, mechanically, a handful of methods.

Basic Tag

"I know," he said.

He said, "I know." This one seems to have fallen into disfavor. It feels anachronistic.

"I have no idea," Danny said. "But I'll let you know when I find out."

"I have no idea, but I'll let you know when I find out," Danny said.

I prefer the first of the two above. It's a common mistake to push the tag too late into the character's dialog. We need to know quickly, for both rhythm and understanding, who's speaking.

If you're going to use this style of tag, you are, for the most part, best off sticking to 'said' and 'asked.' There are obvious times, liked a shouted sentence, that you should say they shouted. But don't get much more creative than that. Said and asked have the added benefit of being essentially invisible to most readers.

Action Tag

Here's an action tag--rather than the basic he-said, she-said approach. It tends to be closer to invisible (a very good thing) than those tags are.

Danny winced and shook his head. "I have no idea, but I'll let you know when I find out."

"I have no idea." Danny shook his head. "But I'll let you know when I find out."

No Tag

There's currently a strong preference for tagless runs of dialog. Readers like for pages to move, and it works, as a sort of artificial trick, to make the story feel like it's moving along, as well.

Carla stood nearby, simply staring. "Why?"

"I like glue."

"Again, I'll ask you, Why?"

"Curls my toes. And my nose hairs."

The risk, in long runs of this kind of dialog, is that it can feel very thin. It's also easy to write scenes that have no rhythm save an unchecked gallop.


* End with a comma if the tag is a continuation of the sentence, a period otherwise.
  • "I hate it when you do that," Janey said.
  • "I hate it when you do that." Janey turned an angry look his way.

* Get the rhythm of the tag's placement right:

"Why in God's name are you sniffing glue?" Carla asked.

"I like glue, because of the way it curls my toes and my nose hairs," Nick said.

In the previous sentence, the tag comes too late (though this is not a terrible example).

Instead, something like the following would work better.

"I like glue," Nick said. "Because of the way it curls my toes and my nose hairs."

This is an improvement because, most often, it's best to finish with dialog, rather than a tag. And, in this case, the tag is in the best place rhythmically.

* Forget the editorial

"I love you with all my heart," she said lovingly.

This is obviously intentionally bad. But the point is, either the dialog carries the tone or it doesn't. Your editorial only gets in the way. If the dialog hasn't carried the intended tone, it's too late for your editorial to help. I've already read it and, if I'm paying attention, had it ring in my ears in my own way.

If the dialog doesn't say what you'd intended, in the way you'd intended, the editorial aspect of the tag is unlikely to fix the problem.

I'll paraphrase John Gardner here--though I think he was quoting someone else--and say that writing should create a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind. When you're dealing with the mechanics of dialog, do your best to make those mechanics invisible, to avoid interruption of that vivid and continuous dream.

I'll refine this article and add a few thoughts soon, but I thought there was enough here to be worth putting out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sandpiper Stroll

Newsy Bits

I've just started pulling together the short stories I've written that I don't look back on with scorn. I'm planning to publish them as a Smashwords book and link it from the main page of this blog.

Smashwords is a free platform for publishing e-books to multiple platforms (including Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook).

It should be a fun exercise, and it will give any readers of this blog a chance to figure out if they'd be smart to ignore every piece of advice I have about writing. I'm planning to have this book together in the next few weeks. It will be woefully short, but, on the bright side, free.

I've also started working on a series that I wish I'd had when I was a true neophyte writer. It's a bunch of short posts about the mechanics of writing and possible solutions to story-telling problems. I'll cover things like, How do I decide how much physical description to give in a scene?, How do I deal with the attribution of dialog to characters?, and How do I figure out where to begin and end a scene?

I don't pretend to have the 'right' answer to any of these questions. But I do have an answer. And when you're new to story-telling--and you're struggling--any help seems . . . well . . . helpful.

These articles will start trickling in by the end of the week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Big Writing Day

For the first time in a few weeks, I had a writing day that makes me proud.

Working on a big dramatic scene that pretty well summarizes the whole point of the novel to me, I wrote like the wind. Well over a thousand words.

It feels, as I re-read it, dramatic and reasonably balanced. It's incomplete still and will need re-writing. But the core of it is there and seems--with my admittedly very little distance--to be working pretty well.

As I wrote, I actually felt some of what I would hope a reader might feel reading it.

It's amazing to me how powerful a thing it is, how great it feels and how complete, when the writing goes well. All manner of sins get erased in that rush.

Very nice, indeed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Seeking Grace

In October last year, several big events in my life conspired to knock me convincingly on my heels. There were moments when I felt like I was incapable of handling what came next, unable to make a sensible decision in any given moment.

Considering that I've slogged through some pretty deep, fast-moving water in the past, this state of affairs shook me.

That feeling convinced me to go seek help in the form of therapy.

Though there were (and are) unpleasant situations over which I have no control, I have, for the most part managed to take control of the things that seemed reasonably graspable. And that achievement has made all the difference.

In the last couple weeks, however, with the help of a few taxing events, I've felt myself slipping a bit, felt the breathless panic of powerlessness creeping in.

In talking with my therapist, his goal is that, in the heat of battle--talking about one particular interpersonal struggle here--I get to a place that I handle things with a sort of emotionless equanimity. That's not how he put it, exactly. He said to find my own sort of Zen place to help me fend off the fury with the least possible bleeding.

But he knows what should be obvious; it ain't easy.

The best you can hope for in situations like this, I think--the Holy Grail of responses--is to handle the moments with humor and grace. And, historically, before the toughest of this struggle, I think I've done a reasonable job with this. Second comes my therapist's recommendation, a steady sort of equanimity. Third is the head-in-hands, hair-on-fire survival mode.

Today, in the heat of battle, I fell back on the last. Almost immediately, I was annoyed with myself for it, for being incapable of even approximating what my therapist was recommending. I let the situation, in essence, own me. Let it tear me up. And I know I must do better.

It's hard, after all, to chase goals when your hair's on fire. And goal-chasing--in one form or another--is, in the end, what 2010 is about for me.

But sometimes the lowest form of survival is the best I can manage.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Perfect Moment, Perfect Place

look close at the bigger version for loons (on the right side)

A few years back, on a brisk August night, my cousin and I sat in chaises on this New Hampshire beach chatting and watching falling stars over the lake. One star, in particular, made our evening.

At first, it appeared as a nearly stationary light in the sky. The only visible difference was a sort of vibration. Eventually, after perhaps a minute, its movement became more visible. Slowly, we figured out that it was, indeed, a falling star and that it was falling right toward us.

The whole show, the time from original spotting to fading away, took perhaps two minutes. Sounds impossible, I'm sure, but it happened.

Years earlier, as youngsters, this same cousin and I had lain on the ground--she and I remember differently about exactly where--and watched falling stars for a long time. That, too, was magical.

These moments come to me occasionally--like now, when I'm struggling with loneliness--and they put a smile on my face.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


rain on windshield

colors through old-style window

I'm using my little pocketable camera (the wonderful Canon S90 IS) as a scratch-pad in preparation for making a micro-budget feature film. Look at the larger version of each to get a better idea of the real feel.

The idea is to capture the mood, in pictures, that I hope to create with the movie. When I have the mood right, in a series of a dozen or so images, I'm expecting that I'll know. And I will print those images large and hang them around my work room as I write.

My goal, as I begin, is to make a suspenseful movie with a tense sort of desperation hanging over it. To capture a star character suffering, but hopefully with a point.

I plan to make strong use of disappointments and struggles I've been through in the last couple years, to apply hard emotions to a story that really works (see What is Fiction For? and Writing Through Pain for details). This is where the challenge of harnessing difficult emotions and making powerful use of them as a storyteller comes in.

I'm hoping that I have the proper distance to make it work. I'm not, after all, doing this for therapy. I'm doing it to tell a story that will move as many people as possible.

As I go through these earliest of steps (taking stills to help divine the look and feel and mood of the movie), I will post my efforts and explain my moods. With any luck, it won't bore the hell out of anyone reading.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

People Can Surprise You

I just had a laughably petty experience--more petty, even, than anything I might have witnessed in junior high school--and it got me to thinking about characters and how they can surprise.

There are people we know who seem powerful and pulled together but who collapse under the slightest duress. Level ground is all they can handle, but they handle it well. And there are people--humble, unassuming people--who, when conditions demand, stand and deliver in shocking ways. People who don't display their greatness until serious trouble arises.

The latter is a rare breed, but it's a glorious thing to behold. It reminds me of the North Carolina state motto, To Be, Rather Than to Seem, which I love.

It's not fun to be shocked by the clay feet of someone you respected, but it is interesting.

And, more important on a writer's blog, it's valuable to think about with respect to the characters you write. I've never really taken advantage if this real human character trait. But you can bet I'll try to exercise this option in a story very soon. I imagine there's actually a great spot for it to play itself out in my current novel.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Did You Really Mean to Do That?

Today, I caught myself frittering away time in Cafe World on Facebook. For the uninitiated, it's a casual game in which you run a cafe and can recruit Facebook friends to help.

I cursed myself when I thought about the writing I could be doing with that time.

Dennis Prager, a radio host, once said that everyone should have to put the number of hours he spent watching TV on his gravestone. The thought was so striking, so horrific to me, that it actually changed my viewing habits pretty radically.

That notion could be extended, clearly, to any kind of frivolous, unplanned activity.

That's not to say that frivolity has no place. Of course we need time to vegetate, to play without serious obligation.

But the important question is, Is this what you'd actually prefer to do with these minutes?

How often do we claim to lack for time? And how much of that time is given away to unplanned--and often pointless--trivialities.

Are you forgoing valued pursuits in favor of easy, pointless diversion? For me, the answer is that too often I am. And it's time to change that.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Solitary Pursuit

Writing is an alone experience.

I don't say lonely because, I suppose, some people might be built best for time alone and might never feel a moment of loneliness.

That said, there's no denying that it's a solitary, isolating pursuit.

Novel writing, particularly, tends to isolate. So long between inception and any kind of feedback.

The novel has always been the holy grail to me. Being a writer meant being a novelist.

But in the last couple years, thanks to a friend's influence, I've occasionally written short stories targeted at contests.

The discipline of trying to tell a compelling story in a confined space, and to do it on a deadline, has been very good for me.

I have, for a long time, thought I could write, that I had a decent facility with words on paper. What I lacked was the ability to tell a compelling story (a far more important skill). Chasing the short story contests has helped with that.

The contests have also helped with the isolation. In a relatively short span, you can conceive a story--often based on a promt--complete it, and get some kind of feedback . . . even if it's only that you didn't place.

And, occasionally, you just might perform well enough to get happy feedback. This, too, is a cure for the isolation. And it is wonderful fuel for the long, silent road to a finished novel.

Try it and see if it doesn't make your writing better and make you a happier writer.

In service of this little tid-bit of advice, I'll be posting links to contests now and again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Little Bit Mournful, Extremely Appropriate

Writing Through Pain

In the last post, I wrote about one part of what I think it takes to move a reader and how important I think that work is.

Now I'll talk about a related aspect of that.

How do we translate big, real-world feelings to the page in a way that is useful?

I've made it clear enough in recent posts, I think, that the last year-plus has been a struggle for me.

The details, in this case, don't particularly matter (and, No!, you can't get away with such a cop-out in your fiction). But I found myself with a life that was nauseatingly off track, broken enough that I felt utterly incapable of smart corrective action. There was much painful drama, too. Not the worst that people can suffer, for sure. But the struggles were numerous, persistent and often-surprising. Redirecting my efforts in life has proven painful, as well (it looks to people as if I'm changing the rules of the game at half-time, and they resent it).

The point here is not to garner sympathy. If I were after that, I'd have had to prove it with details, right? With simple action and dialog. All I've done here is crappy editorial. But I'm allowing myself because the next point is the one that matters.

How do you translate these kinds of struggles into something meaningful on the page?

It's great as a writer, I think, to experience just about every possible emotion, to experience it big and small. How else does your writing acquire a depth and legitimacy?

So, even suffering is useful.

The struggle, though, entails translating powerful feeling to the page in a way in which readers can feel it. This is where the rule from the previous post--prove it with action and dialog--comes in.

Your editorial voice is at its most powerful when you're buried in the throes of something real and emotional. And if you embrace that part of you during the writing, you will likely produce a whiny diary-like effect. In which everything is suffering and your characters eternally put-upon. This will not move readers.

Suffering, at its worst, feels utterly pointless. And so will your story. Readers, whether they know it or not, demand a point.

Time and distance, as best I can tell, are required. But so is a simple understanding that you will lean toward bleak and whiny. At every turn, look for a way to lift your story out of the darkness. I'm not talking happily-ever-afters, here. I am simply saying that suffering alone is not a worthy topic for a story.

Next up, in the spirit of Prove It, I'll present short samples that I hope will approximate the best of what I'm recommending.

What is Fiction For?

Writing, at least from where I sit, is best when it evokes powerful emotion. If you as an author make me laugh, if you make me cry, if you scare the hell out of me, you've done your job. And I'm glad to have given you my hard-earned cash.

Making me think is a fine thing. But it's trumped every time by making me feel. And, No, I'm not someone for whom feelings alone guide the universe. I'm talking fiction here. Why I buy it and why I read it.

So, having said that fiction that makes me feel is a good thing, how does a writer do it? How do you move a reader?

It's not even close to enough to have your characters emote all over the page. Not nearly enough to tell me they laughed and cried and pined away for lost loves.

Because, unless you've already proven it to me, I don't believe you.

And if you insist on blathering on about such things, describing in your editorial way, the big emotions your characters feel, I won't trust you, either.

So, what is the trick, then?

Prove it.

Emotion that really works in fiction comes from plainly stated actions and dialog that move a reader. It doesn't come from the editorial. It doesn't come from the author telling me what to feel about what I've just read, trying to run around behind his characters' actions and patch the holes he's left with his own incompetence.

If the action and dialog hasn't moved me, your editorial can't fix it.

Is this--proving the emotions--easy to do?

Hell no.

If it were, every romance we ever read would be tear-stained. Every suspense novel would come with a pack of Depends.

It's not easy.

But my premise--beyond that immensely un-helpful note that it isn't easy--is that you must prove it. And you must prove it in actions and dialog. Don't make me trust an author who isn't capable of proving his point.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

"Learn From This"

The last year has been loaded with painful moments, some stupid missteps, and meaningful growth.

Recently, after I had made a painful misstep, someone who chose to be a good friend in that moment, said, "Learn from this."

I will.

I wish the mistakes only came in quiet moments in a room alone. But they don't. Sometimes they come loudly in public.

I'm hoping, as I stumble through, that they will soon be fewer and farther between. And hoping even more that any pain they cause will be mine alone.


"What the hell does this have to do with writing?" You say.

I'll answer that in the next post.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Straight Shooting

He stood, dumbstruck
by her question
Her question
that shouldn’t need asking

You tell, stupid
Before the question gets asked,
You. Tell.

Pieces fell,
around his feet
as he pondered
and found nothing

words and thoughts
in the face
of a truth
he never shared

I’m sorry
he says
too late to matter