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.