Thursday, October 13, 2011

Voice of Reason

Sometimes it takes an obvious observation to make sense of the Inner Critic.

And sometimes you have to keep pushing forward no matter what.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Desconstructing the Pause

Okay, not everything I write is crap. I know that. Yet, after finishing a project I can’t avoid the disappointment. Every time.

Even though I’ve had many compliments on my writing (thanks to those of you who know who you are), the Inner Critic (as it is labeled) is louder, more insistent, and knows exactly what buttons to push.

In the long, drawn-out past of my writing career (er … endeavor?) I have thought it was my “fear of failure” which stopped me from ever completing a project. Oh, by completing, I mean finished to the point of real life publication. Now, as I’ve aged and, frankly, as my writing has become less of an escape clause and more of a feature to my life, I realize that it’s not fear of failure which causes this sudden screeching halt to actual production.

I’m not afraid I’ll fail. I’m afraid I’ll never succeed.

Is there a difference? Yes. As many self-help books/websites/gurus/nags will point out, there are hundreds of examples of famous creative people who were rejected time and again for their masterpieces. They didn’t fail, the advice goes, because they never gave up.

Well, as any regular reader of this blog knows, (all two of you!), I don’t give up on my writing. I can’t. It’s an addiction. If it weren’t, I would have stopped years ago and never looked back.

So, I can’t fail in that sense of the word, as in surrendering to my lack of talent.

My writing-seizure right now is more based on the “I’ll never be good enough” doubts: I can spend another 40 years on my writing and still won’t be able to reach that plateau of …. what? Greatness? No. Impact. That’s the success I want. My writing should have impact on whoever reads it.

So what now? Work through it all, I suppose. I still have tons of ideas. I’m still determined to finish E2. I know what to do. And eventually, I’ll sit down and do it.

Meanwhile, to tease my addiction, I write this blog. Sort of like taking a hit of methadone when I crave the smack.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Disappointment of Reality

When I wrote of my disappointment in BoTS, it was the reiteration of a common theme of my writing.

I don’t mean to imply that all my fiction is crap – as a writer that’s really not my decision. In fact, I believe that anyone who truly dives into writing as art eventually places him/herself outside any normal perspective. I'm totally unable to judge the quality of my writing because I'm so deep into the structure and style and voice that I’ve lost any other viewpoint.

My writing may be genius. It may be crap. I have no idea.

When I talk of my disappointment, it’s meant as the overall feeling I get when comparing the final product with the creative arc. Or more plainly: the “what it could have been” to “what it is”.

That might not be fair, yet it’s the way it is.

BoTS is not even close to the dynamic organic mystery I wanted it to be. I’m not out to tell a story. I’m not even striving to entertain. I’ve always endeavored to develop much more in my fiction. I love to work in layers. I want complexity. I want mystery. I want my reader to wonder what the fuck is going on … until a moment clicks and then suddenly it’s all “Aaaaah, I see.”

With BoTS  I hoped to dissect a life, and then join it all back together in some sort of Frankensteinian monster of memories. We all selectively remember our past. That makes us who we are. I wanted to show that. I wanted to blow a man apart and put him back together.

Overall, I think I’ve fallen far short.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Back to the Beginning

Instead of a blog about writing, Word Curse seems to have evolved into a blog about reading … judging by the last 2 months of posts. Well, there’s a good reason for that. While I continue to read voraciously, I haven’t written anything since end of July.

August was a travel month, so that’s a legitimate excuse for not sitting down in front of the laptop. Then came September and the beginning of teaching … which is a so-so excuse. But now it’s October and yet, I just can’t seem to get myself in the fiction-writing mode.

There’s a reason for this. It’s taken me a few days to dig it out and accept it. I’ve lost the impetuous to write due to one event: Based on a True Story.

Last summer was a major push to finalize Based on a True Story Part 1 and Part 2. In fact, I did complete both of them. They are done. Uploaded. Digitally published. And available or purchase. It was a major goal of mine for this year and I accomplished it completely.

You’d think I’d be broadcasting this accomplishment far and wide, in this blog and elsewhere. Well, that was my plan. I had structured a publication rollout for September, but when the time came … I realized something: I’m just not happy with the way BoTS came out.

The short stories, individually, are fine. But I had higher hopes. I wanted the collections of shorts to form pieces of a much larger, more complex puzzle. As the reader dove into each scene, an encompassing picture would emerge of the main character. Each story was meant to be an exercise in how the smallest, seemingly insignificant event of a man’s life builds momentum, clumps together like a snowball, and in the end overwhelms. A person’s life is no more than a series of memories. BoTS was meant to show that.

Yet, I don’t think it works. I’m unsure if each story propels the reader to continue. An overall concept like this requires patience. It also depends on trust: the reader must believe that I’m actually leading someplace, even though each story seems so disconnected and out of sequence. However, that trust is just not there. Of course not. Why should it be?

So, yes, I’m greatly disappointed in how it all turned out. That sort of feeling lingers. It’s been too long on this road. I’m so tired of ending up in the same place. For now, I need to think. I need to reflect on why I write and where I need to turn. The desire is still there. I’m filled with stories. Somehow I need to let it all out without the disappointment. I don’t know if that’s possible.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: The Leftovers

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta has an interesting plotline: What would the world be like if one moment millions of people simply disappeared? Is it the rapture? Is it aliens? How would the survivors carry on?

That’s my type of story, where I believe the real truth is found in the details.

However, by the second chapter the actual disappearance and initial reaction is rushed through, with barely any development of characters or any chance for me to savor the oddity of the situation. The novel begins 1 year later (or so) and before I hit page 30, it’s skipped to 3 years later.

That was so frustrating. I really wanted to see this unfold. I wanted to immerse myself in the chaos of that time. Yet, I’m never given a chance.

Oh the writing (technique and style) were good. The imagery was sharp. But I couldn’t overcome the feeling that I walked in on a movie halfway through. While I was reading, my imagination kept going back to what might have happened, what might that first week been like when so many people vanish. I couldn’t focus on the author’s present because I yearned for more details of the past.

I suppose this was a conscious decision by Perrotta. Maybe this time frame was meant to push us forward. Yet, I can’t help but feel that it was an easy way out – sidestepping the emotionally turmoil by mere summarization. That’s not what I’m looking for.

I want the minutia. I need those tiny moments of an altered life. Then, and only then, can I feel invested in what comes next.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You've Got 10 Minutes ... Impress Me!

Never judge a book by its cover … but can I judge a novel by the first 30 pages?

Lately, I’ve been doing just that. I love my iPad and its digital library. Hear about a novel? Just search, find, and download a sample.

However, I’m old enough to remember the days of searching books stores, used and new, trying to track down something highly recommended. There was a time (mainly during my late teens and early 20s) when I spent much of my weekend browsing and perusing and simply enjoying the feel and touch of the books. This is way back in the day when the only “search” available was to ask the bookstore help, who may or may not have a clue to what you’re talking about. Eventually, I’d come home with a bag full of paperbacks feeling somewhat superior to … well, everyone else.

And now, what took hours simply takes minutes. I love the convenience. I love the accessibility. And I love the downloadable sample … being able to get a feel for a book before opening my wallet is great.

Yet, at the same time, sampling means I’m no longer invested in a novel. The time it took decades ago to find a specific novel created a social contract, in a way. “I’ve tracked the damn thing down; I’m reading it from cover to cover goddammit.”

That’s no longer the case. If I don’t like the tone or writing or character voice or whatever in the first 30 pages, then poof! it’s deleted. Gone. Not a thought about it again. In many ways, that’s sad. I can’t help but think I’m missing out on something – yet at the same time, there are so many great novels out there, why waste my time on one that doesn’t grab me at the beginning?

This instant (well, almost instant) need-for-gratification affects my writing immensely. I fret over the beginning of my novels so much. I’m terrified that the first few pages will simply bore my read just enough so that the rest of my energy and ideas and creative endeavor are tossed away. I know how I’d feel if I saw that happening…but even this connected sympathy can’t stop me from doing the same.

Maybe that might make me a better writer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Misdiagnosis

A few friends (here and there) have commented to me about my “writer’s block”, offering a few helpful suggestions. I appreciate the advice, except that it doesn’t apply to me.

I know writer’s block. I’ve seen writer’s block. This funk I’m in is not writer’s block.

In my experience, writer’s block is the emotional hell of wanting to write, but being unable to form the words or find that creative thread. The image that links to this is the cliché of sitting in front of the laptop, blank screen oscillating, and not having a single word pop to the forefront. Sort of like insomnia of the creative mode. Having struggled with writing fiction for (gulp!) 30 years now, I understand my moods and difficulties completely. What I am facing now is not at all like that.

I have good ideas. I have momentum. I’ve always had direction and plot and characters. Sitting down and hacking out 3,000-5,000 words is easy for me. I’m a fast typist and it’s simply of matter of translating the  images in my head onto the paper. I know that the moment I place myself in front of my laptop, the words will easily pour out.

So, if I don’t have writer’s block, then why haven’t I written anything in weeks?

I know what I want to write … but I simply don’t want to write. I have no desire to continue onward with my current novel. Not out of boredom – I still believe in this idea and the project as a whole. My snag is a lack of energy and determination to forge ahead. Maybe it’s the mid-project blues?

However, like I said, I know myself as a writer. This happens a lot to me. It will pass. I will (soon) sit down and continue onward, due to pure stubbornness.

Until that moment arrives, this blog will basically be me bitching about how I’m not writing. Maybe the boredom of writing on this theme (and you reading it!) will get me moving?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Moment Please

It’s been 6 weeks since I wrote a word for E2.

[Update and clarification: Okay, of this 6 weeks, I was traveling for more than half. So I guess that's a good excuse for part of this span.]

Seems like forever … and I have to wonder why I can’t seem to sit myself down and get anything done. A lot of excuses pop up, though lack of time is not one of them. The new semester has started at the university, so that has me a little preoccupied. However, I had a good 2 weeks before that to write, and I didn’t. It’s not a lack of ideas. Oh, I got me some plenty of them ideas. It’s not boredom, per se. I want to see the end of this novel. I want to mold it into something worthwhile.

Yet, I just can’t seem to get my fingers to do any work on it. (Yes, I do see the irony that I happen to write plenty enough for this blog!)

I think, overall, it’s certain doubts that cause this pause. I’m uncertain that the finished novel will do justice to the original concept. It’s the long slog ahead of me that, honestly, at times is not pleasant at all. It’s the uncertainty of “What now?” when I actually do finish. Nothing new here. I’ve seen it all before.

I believe it’s simply a matter of time. I’m working at being patient. Eventually, I will find that spark to sit down and let the words flow. I know what to write. I know where to begin (and where to end). All I gotta do is start with the first letter.

Soon.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is a novel that hides nothing.

It announces right up front what’s going to happen and then dares the reader to continue. And the pure brilliance of this novel is that I want to go on. Because while I know the whats and sometimes even the hows of the future actions, it’s the why which keeps me hooked. Well, that and Eugenides amazing lyrical voice.

There are passages hidden within the continual narrative that simply sing.

It’s like … like what? Oh, like the small crowds in 1864 who gathered for a hillside picnic as a civil war battle formed in the field below. They came to watch “the spectacle” only to find horror. Yet, in that horror unfolding before their eyes, someone sees a minor detail – something so brief and insignificant but at the same time inspirational in all the death and destruction and hopelessness.

The Virgin Suicides gives that moment of beauty. Within the isolation of its main characters. And the vagueness of the private lives of others. And finally in the  senseless unexplained deaths. The novel shies away from none of this, knowing that in the sadness of all these details is, somehow, a celebration of life.

As a reader, I’m powerless to alter a single event. And in many ways, I separate myself from it all – it’s simply a novel. It’s not real. These are not people. Yet … yet … I suppose the fact that in the end I do care is a testament to the power of the writing. Eugenides makes me care.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Voices in My Head

While writing opinions of the books I’ve read this summer, I realize that maintaining a high level of quality from page one to page last is a monumental task. As a reader goes through a book, it becomes a singular activity on a linear time line taking maybe a week or so. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that the writing of the novel may have taken years and is much more dynamic, with jumps and pauses and switches and melt downs. The effort to stay focused and continually improve a work of fiction is an emotional marathon. The whispering voices inside every writer’s head are a constant source of despair.

There is always the mean spirited voice that says: “It’s not good. And it will never be good enough.” That insinuation is so difficult to ignore.

Then there’s: “You’ve spent how long on this? And you’re not done yet?” that brings out a sense of eternal doom, forever cursed to push a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down.

One of my perennial internal critics is the whisper that says: “Why bother? No one is ever going to read it? What difference does it make if you finish or not?” Yeah, that’s both hard to take and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then, even after putting in months and months of work, there is the insidious “It’s good enough. Stop being a perfectionist.”

That last voice embodies the real evil of writing – it’s such a solitary endeavor that  even when the emotions are drained and objectivity has set in, there’s always a fuzzy, undetermined point of when is “done” actually “done”?

Ah… Any writer can fill you in: It’s never done. Never. Sure, eventually every writer has to let go, but given another opportunity, there’s always another sentence to improve, another character detail to expand, another plot scene to develop. Never. Ever. Done.

Oh my gawd, that’s depressing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Sparrow

There are many things to like about Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow. It’s realistic look at space exploration. It’s filled with clever ideas behind alien life and civilization. And the way it builds suspense throughout the first half of the novel is really really good.

I suppose the key word in those first thoughts of mine is “first half.” That’s because I found that the deeper I got into the novel, the more I felt the plot and characters were losing their edge. As I talked about previously (here), sometimes a single scene in a novel can lower the overall appreciation of the entire work. Once again, that is the case here.

Oh, it’s a good novel. Well written, well thought out. And it has some great moments. But a few missteps here and there unfortunately change a great novel into something that is merely good. However, nowadays, good is something well worthy of my time.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Wind Up Bird Chronicle & The Curfew

Sometimes I run across a book where I want to continue, but the narrative voice is so damn irritating that I can’t.

Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami begins with the main character who is so passive and pliable that it’s hard to care what he does. Moping around his house? Check. Seemingly giving up on life? Check. Accepting demands from others because who really cares? Check.

By the time the plot tries to pick up the pace and get interesting, it’s too late. I don’t care what he does, mainly because I’m not sure he’s going to do anything. At least not until it’s too late or too weird or too many pages have passed by.

I don’t need every page to be action packed, but at least give the characters a little momentum. That would be nice.

The Curfew by Jesse Ball is a different sort of problem. The premise starts off in complete mystery as the society introduced is similar but so different. I wanted to read on. I wanted to learn more. However, the narrative voice (there it is again!) was so stilted and clipped and confusing that I couldn’t get past the first 20 or so pages.

It could be that style is just not for me. I’ll accept the blame here – this book has received quite a few good reviews. But in my defense, I don’t mind a good confusing strange universe (see here), yet at the same time I need the narrative to at least help me along, just a little bit. The beginning of this book simply irritated more than enticed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lots of Reading – No Writing

After spending the month of August traveling (London and Buenos Aires) and then battling the flu for the week I returned home, I haven’t spent any time writing at all. Not a single word on paper (or the electronic equivalent).

Oh, I’ve done a ton of reading. No doubt about that, as the last few posts here have evidenced. But as for producing the written form in a form of fiction? Nope. I can’t really count my dream, even though it helped solidify much of what I have to say for E2. It’s still all trapped in my head.

I want to write. I think about it every day. Yet, the physical act of sitting down and judging my output … well, I don’t seem to have the energy. Fear of failure? Maybe? Most probably, though, it’s simply fatigue.

I spent a few hours almost every day from April through June writing, editing, plotting, doubting, etc on my stories. Overall, it takes an emotional toll. Right now, in my way, I’m recharging before I jump back into the fray.

Until then, I’ll continue to read. It’s a balm for me. It’s a learning experience. It’s relaxing. And in many ways, it gives me hope. Hope for a better life for me. And hope that one day I’ll be able to finish something worth publishing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Snowman

Here’s a question: Can a single scene in a novel ruin the whole experience?

To qualify, I don’t mean a bad ending. I think we’d all agree that a stupid conclusion can spoil anything that has come before. What I’m asking here is whether a scene in the beginning or middle, if poorly done or out of character, can taint the rest of the novel … even if the novel is overall good?

Yeah, I think it can.

And thus this brings me to The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (sorry, the author’s name has some special Scandinavian letters that I can’t duplicate here).

The Snowman is a reasonably good thriller set in Oslo. I think there’s a current trend for a lot of mystery/horror translations from this area, and while Nesbo’s novel is good, it’s certainly not of the quality of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But still, it’s a well crafted plot and interesting characters.

However, there is one scene about midway through which made me roll my eyes and groan. Briefly, a possible victim of the serial killer is running away, axe in hand, in the woods surrounding her house and in this tense moment of the possibility of escape, she … wait for it … gets her ankle caught in some sort of wire loop – an animal trap that her own husband had installed and that she knew about. Ah, but worst, she can’t seem to free herself.

Oh please! Any attempt at making the killer look sinister and devious and unstoppable throughout the whole first half of the novel is ruined by this stupid twist. Now it just seems like his victims are idiots. I lost my sympathy for her plight. I lost my awe of the genius evil killer. And I certainly lost my respect for the author’s plot.

I did keep reading though. The novel is written well enough to hold my interest, even after this big letdown. But my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I kept fearing another one of these convenient stupid accidents.

That’s a shame. I really wanted to like this book. In the end, however, that one bad scene made a handful of other questionable scenes seem that much more unbelievable.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: Light

The sci-fi novel Light  by M. John Harrison drops the reader into the confusion from the very beginning. At first, it’s a bit of a struggle to know what the hell is going on … and it certainly complicates the attempt when one of the main characters is a brilliant physicist and a psychotic paranoid killer.  No spoiler here; this all comes out in the first few pages.

However, when you keep at it, go with the flow, the novel slowly comes together. It begins to make sense. And when it does, the beauty of Harrison’s universe becomes apparent in its weird multi-dimensional glory.

It’s not the easiest novel to understand, but I found that challenge as part of the enjoyable experience. That’s what I expect from good hard sci-fi. It’s not all easily explained. It’s not a world that we can be completely comfortable with. Yet in the end, it’s a good novel, good plot, and at times some amazingly written passages.

What I've Finished Reading: The Sisters Brothers

A summary of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt in one word? Brilliant.

It’s not often a novel hits the balance between such a unique voice and an amazing story. This western isn’t really anything new … if you’ve any experience with traditional western movies/books, then the characters and plot will not strike you as original. However, the way the story is told with such humor and honesty and gritty violence is fabulous.

Halfway through, what dawned on me as I read was that the two main characters are despicable, immoral killers and yet I liked them so much. They were funny and endearing … and then would suddenly explode in abject violence. The mixture is near impossible to pull off well, but deWitt does it with style and skill.

This is one of the few books I’ve read this summer that I didn’t want to put down. The chapters are short and stark. The plot is straightforward and brutal. Yet, all together it forms such a wondrous world that I was sad to see end.

I really enjoyed this novel, both as a reader and an author. I simply wish I could write so well.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Glass Palace

I made it halfway through the novel Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh before finally closing it for good. Why?

Because everything and nothing happened.

Glass Palace falls into the category of the “Suffering Colonial Epic” for me … one of those books which tries to encompass life under English rule in some far eastern country. You get the typical poverty, the brutality and disdain from the English, the extravagance and pointlessness of emperoric rule, the sweeping generational movement of time, etc.

I find it all so predictable and in this specific case, not that interesting. I think Glass Palace wants to be a love story, but its scope tends to skip over those details that make love interesting: the depth of the interaction between the characters. Basically, in late 1800s Burma, a 10-year-old boy sees a 10-year-old girl and finds her “the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.” They are then separated for 20 years, more or less, in which their lives jump and bounce around with no real development. Of course, he becomes a financial mastermind (with little believability except that it just sort of happens) and tracks her down. She barely remembers him, but in one brief conversation decides: Sure. Why not? Let’s get married.

That’s where I stopped.

The whole thrust of this type of story is supposed to be one of discovery and emotional investment. Instead, I get a Bollywood plot and a rambling story which heads in a predictable direction. I knew, without continuing, that I’d be faced with their hardships and children and overcoming whatever obstacles to soldier onward. There'd continue to be no details, no impact, no explanation of why things happen except in the mode of it's meant to be that way. Whatever.

I have no tolerance for that type of story, written in such broad strokes. For me, Glass Palace lacks the volume of detail and real-life emotion to make me care.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: Song of Fire and Ice

This series by George RR Martin is better known under the title of the first novel (part 1) Game of Thrones. I had heard some good things about this medieval adventure series (with just a tad of magic and dragons thrown in), so I decided to read the first novel and see what I thought.

Six weeks later, I plowed through one part after the next: Game of Thrones, Feast of Crows, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords, and Dance of Dragons.

For its genre, these books are exceptional. If you like power struggles, intrigue, deception, a cast of hundreds, wars, murder, and real insight into unique characters, then this series is one you have to read. I found it fascinating. Thye are detailed and developed with such care and forethought. Martin truly rivals some of the classic novels that have created their own world and dragged the reader into the midst of it all.

Of course, many comparisons have been made (by others) to Tolkien. Yes, obviously so. But I also see echoes of other great series, like Dune by Herbert or even the Harry Potter series by Rowling. It takes a real lover of writing to spend the time and energy to build an entire civilization, complete with geography, politics, family rivalry, history, and war. From the moment you begin the first novel, you are transported into a world both familiar and unique.

Truly, even beyond the mere escapism that this genre provides, Martin entertains and amazes with his writing skill. It naturally flows and grabs your interest from paragraph after paragraph.

And I’m still not finished. As if hundreds of major and minor characters aren’t enough, there are at least 2 more books to complete the saga. I can’t wait to see where this all ends up.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Stumbling and Bumbling

After 3 weeks of traveling, I return home to be hit by the flu. Days of fever and coughing and aches and throbbing and lack of sleep – probably no more than an hour at a time to be followed by 30 minutes of coughing and hopelessness. The jumpstart I was hoping for to continue onward with E2 dissipated into delirious haze.

And I dreamt.

In those short bouts of sleep, my unconsciousness ran rampart. I had dreams of castles in clouds of silver. I dreamt of murder and suspects. Long involved chases and gardens filled with flowers. I saw old friends and we laughed and talked.

And one early morning I awoke with another chapter of E2 written.

I do not mean I dreamt that I wrote a chapter, as if I was viewing it from afar. No. I actually wrote a specific chapter of my novel in the dream. I saw the words as clearly as I would see them on the laptop screen I’m staring at in front of me right now. The entire 5,000+ words of the chapter, all in my head, mapped out in detailed, repeated over and over in an endless cycle: edited, refined, encapsulated an amazing breakthrough for which I had been waiting.

All bow before the creativity of a cooked brain.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction

I happen to be traveling write now ... er ... I mean right now. Now that's a Freudian slip. Anyway, while I'm on the road (or in the air), the absence of posts about writing is an obvious result. Too busy living right now.

But I do have to say this: No matter how many narratives I create in my head, sometimes reality throws such cosmic coincidences at me that if I included these bizzarre plot twists in a story, no one would believe me.

Oh well. Another memory to add to my pile.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

All Quiet on the Writing Front

The past few days have been uneventful in my current writing project E2.

I’m more than half-way finished with my first draft … which is the equivalent of being 1/4 of the way finished with a finished product. Or something like that. What I mean is that I still have a long way to go.

This week I’m at a bit of an impasse. The section I’m working on is in fact multiple sections that appear throughout the novel and the main character is supposed to be charismatically intellectually brilliant. Yeah, two things I’m not.

The reason this character is so important is because he represents (both for the plot and philosophically) the main question of my novel:
How would a single person go about rebuilding the human race from scratch?

It’s a question with a layered, complex answer. So, I’m taking it slow right now … to get it right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My First Time

I was thinking this morning about the first time I realized that my writing was good.

I’ve wanted to be a novelist from the age of 16. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those cases where my wants and my abilities didn’t quite match up. Oh, I worked at it. I wrote two novels by the time I was 21. Two unpublished, haphazard, disconnected, rambling, typo-ridden, two-dimensional, sloppy novels. (Hmmmm…detailing the plot and characters of those might be a fun post.)

Looking back (after a few decades) I can see that I had some moderate talent but no focus. I had no idea how to edit. A story would pour out of me and as far as I was concerned, that was that. Check for spelling and it’s done.

It wasn’t until another 10 years later, when I was mid-30s, that I finally said to myself “Self, you gotta get some training. You ain’t no genius.” [Note: I advise myself using a heavy Jersey accent.]

Thus, I went back to college. English Lit was my major and one of my first courses was a fiction writing seminar. This group was fabulous (and is the model I use for every writing group I’ve ever formed).

The turning point for me – the actual time when my writing evolved from so-so to publishable – came during this semester of reading, editing, and critiquing some of the absolute junk that passes for fiction. Of course, now, I know that the “junk” I saw in this seminar was in fact very similar to the junk I churned out in my early 20s. So that allowed me to see value in the new, maturing writer I was becoming.

It was here where I realized that the talent I had was actually quite good. Not great, mind you. But good. I still ain’t no genius. But, by editing other people’s mistakes and bad form, I focus more accurately on my own flaws. I became a better writer because my classmates were worse.

I still edit every chance I get. (see here) Each story I critique makes me improve. It’s a win-win situation.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lazy Writers

As a writer, I’m faced with the challenge of character description.

I say “challenge” because there are easy ways and hard ways to go about this, from outright listing a character’s physical attributes to poetically waxing on a character’s appearance. It all works out, depending on the style of the writer.

However, there is one method of character description that I cannot tolerate. It’s the pop culture reference. Here’s an example of the style I’m talking about:
She looked like Madonna. Maybe with a little Cher tossed in around the cheekbones and eyes.

Ugh! I hate it. It’s lazy, cheap, sloppy writing. It automatically distributes the workload away from the writer and to the reader. The author might as well say "I didn't really feel like spending any time telling you what she looks like, so here's a popular cult personality and you can just paste that image in here."

The problem is that this technique is far more prevelant than it should be. I come across sentences similar to this all the time. When I do, I have to stop reading. Close the book and walk away.

Why should I continue when the author is too lazy to actually construct a real person?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Another Brush With Fame ... Sort Of

Well, well, well.

After being called out by a well-published author (here) a couple of days ago, I've yet again hit the big time. By big time, I mean a random 2 minutes of fame that is meaningless. Something our society is making more and more common.

So, my 2 minutes is from "Books on the Night Stand", which is a podcast about books and reading. It's hosted by two great people, Ann and Michael who work for Random House but talk about any book they find interesting. The short half hour podcast is fun and free. Can't beat that combination.

Anyway, I wrote them an email for one of their shows. It seems my response was good enough to be read aloud. That's sort of cool. Both as a listener and as a writer. But also because it's nice to hear positive feedback on my thoughts and plans ... even if that feedback comes from strangers. [Can talking heads ever be strangers after 6 months of listening?]

Here is the edited version of my brush with fame, which came at the beginning of the show.

video


Now, if there is only a way I can figure out how to make money from this. ha.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Whoops ... I Should Know Who I'm Talking About

Concerning my previous post about novels I couldn't finish (here), I happen to write:
... The Good and the Ghastly by … er … somebody (sorry) ...
The author's name escaped me while I was typing and I was too damn lazy too look it up. Well, guess what. Someone else wasn't too damn lazy to let me know.

So who took the time to remind me about the author's name? James Boice! That's who! Oh yeah, he only wrote the damn book.

He emailed:
"The Good and the Ghastly by, er, somebody"? That's by me, sucka!
So there you have it ... even a hack like me can get called out by the big guns.

Sorry there James Boice. Next time I talk about your writing (or anyone else's I suppose) I'll have the courtesy to name names.

Of course, I have to give Boice's novel The Good and the Ghastly another chance now. I mean, otherwise I come across as a real schmuck.

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: General Commentary

The past couple of weeks I’ve gone through a group of books that I simply cannot finish reading.

When I was teenager (and into my 20s) I had a policy that I would finish every book I started. Back in those days I reveled in the star-eyed fantasy of being a great novelist, and I felt it was my duty to give each and every author my complete attention. No matter how unreadable a novel was, I meant to finish it. And yes, I suffered through many a Grishom novel because of this.

True Story: One Kingsolver novel (The Bean Trees I believe) was so mindnumbingly annoying, I used to chase my roommate around reading aloud, while she ran from room to room screaming.

Well, somewhere in my past I tossed that read-to-the-bitter-end obligation overboard. Now I read what interests me or move on with my life.

The digital marketplace makes this so much easier now. I can download the first 100 pages (more or less) and get the feel of a novel. That’s great, because I pass judgment before spending the cash. But it’s also horrible, as I feel trapped in a short-attention-spanned existence. It’s like I’m insisting: “Satisfy me quickly, or deleted you shall be.”

Then I realized that it’s not the plot or characters that turn me off a novel. In fact, I’ve recently finished 2 novels that are filled with hateable characters and brutal plots. So I can deal with a large variety of styles. What stops me in my tracks is boring, plain, unimaginative writing. Page after page of predictability makes me hesitant and, ultimately, reluctant to continue. Eventually, I give up.

It’s not “bad” writing, I’m talking about, but writing which takes no chances. Writing that has discarded any wit or mystery. I want a challenge when I read. I want snappy dialogue that surprises me. I want descriptions that flow and inspire.

Lately, novels with that panache  have been a bit sparse. The most recent novels I’ve started but couldn’t finish are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, The Good and the Ghastly by … er … somebody (sorry) [surprise update here], and Everything is Illuminated by Foer (look here for post on why).

It makes me feel a bit guilty. These are accomplished writers, but they bore the hell outta me. The narrative seems so formulaic. The characters seem so transparent. And trite. Oh, how I hate trite.

All I want is something interesting. They are out there. In fact, I’ve read a couple of them already: Blood Meridian (posted here) and The Sparrow. Not perfect, but that’s okay. They were entertaining and provocative and different. And then there is Game of Thrones which is really really good. Not exactly intellectual. But that’s okay. What this series is is dense. Brutal. Surprising. Everything I just mentioned I want in my novels.

I suppose this reflects on my goals as a writer. I know that my style is not quite mainstream. My pieces tend to be short and disjointed (BoTS is a prime example of that) or tunnel-visioned and off kilter (E2, anybody?). At least, that’s my goal. I want to write something that will challenge my reader. I leave stuff out. I skip time periods. I mix things up.

I see writing as a puzzle, not a presentation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

3 Days of Nothing

I haven’t written anything in the past 3 days.

Not that I haven’t thought about it. Every night I mentally set my schedule to get cracking on E2. Then the next day I sort of mope around, bored but not wanting to do anything either. Hours pass by and suddenly that night I realize “Whoops, nothing written again.”

Part of the problem is that I just finished up BoTS Part 2, and there’s that moment of exhalation and exhaustion when a project’s done. It’s like I need a few days of rest before I keep slogging on.

Another part of the problem is the restructuring of E2 itself. The plot is the same as always, but what I thought was going to be the first chapter has inspirationally expanded and fragmented into numerous sub-chapters. Sort of like tiny intermissions between the core chapters. I’ve decided what’s important in this novel, unlike most other sci-fi novels I’ve read, is not the plot or the science. It’s not even the characters, per se. It’s something deeper.

I’m exploring the concept of philosophical sci-fi. It’s not a new idea of mine, but more mimicking the genre of older, classical science fiction writers. Sure, the plot and characters and science will be there. But what really interests me is our need to explore, to decipher, to deceive, to love, to sacrifice. Where does all that come from? How does it define who we are as humans?

Well, that’s the idea anyway.

So, that has me a bit hesitant. I need the core chapters – those scenes that take place on the ship – to be of a certain style. The ones I’ve written fit perfectly within that scope. It’s the other chapters – the ones that sort of explain the concept and origin of this trip – that need to be different. Therefore, I’m experimenting with formatting and perspective. Not sure how that’s going to work out.

All this is running through my head. No wonder I’m sort of stuck right now. Probably thinking too much. Need to write more.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Smells the Same to Me ... Update

While commenting on naming characters in the previous post, I used George RR Martin's Game of Thrones as an example of one end of the spectrum of the possibility in naming characters. It was a general comment, sort of tossed in there.

Last night while reading, I came across this perfect example:
"Lord Littlefinger," Podrick managed a quick look at his face, then hastily dropped his eyes. "I meant, Lord Petyr. Lord Baelish. The master of coin."
Yes, the character of Podrick is trying to talk about one person, but uses 4 titles: nickname, first name, last name, and position. As I had mentioned in my post, Martin gives his characters so many different labels, that at times it is a bit difficult to follow.

And you know what? I like it. This style adds to the realism. It adds density and complexity. As frustrating as it may be at times, in the end I like the technique.

Not that I'll mimic it in my writing. No thanks. I'll stick to my one-name style, but I can appreciate the alternative.

Smells the Same to Me

A few weeks back I touched upon the task of naming characters. I think this deserves a little more exploration.

Basically, what’s in a name?

Not much, I think. At one time, I experimented with not naming my characters at all. Interesting enough, but technically a nightmare if the story deals with more than one characters. Make two of them men, and suddenly you’re trapped in a series of “he” this and “he” that and no one knows what’s going on.

Yet, on the other end of this spectrum, is a project like George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones in which there are dozens (hundreds?) of major and minor characters that not only have full names, but titles and nicknames and fathers brothers sons who share part of their name. It’s massively impressive but so easy for the reader to get a bit lost. Even though I’m in Book 2 of the series, there are still times when I have to pause and say “Huh?” because I don’t connect the first name with the kingdom or banner or whatever.

I suppose my writing falls somewhere in the middle, but more likely leaning toward the minimal the name the better. For example, in BoTS Part 1 & 2, I’ve only used first names. Oh, I have last names for all my characters. I even have family history and schooling and jobs and sibling names. Little of that is used in the story, but I’ve found it helps me a lot in writing. Takes the randomness out of my characters.

Yet, at the same time, I find a certain comfort in using first names only. Sort of the “everyman” scenario.

That said, the names I use for E2 are different. They are far from random. In fact, they are crucial to the whole structure of the story. So crucial that I can’t divulge the name format here in this blog (yes, it’s a format!) because that would give away one of the underlying themes. Not ready for that. Not even sure it matters, but still this is unique for me. E2 has changed a simple process into something far deeper. I like that.

It is a big change. How big? Well, I’m struggling with naming minor characters now. It’s kinda stupid, I know. But still … I need even these passing characters to have specific backgrounds and that means the name matters.  At the same time, I find myself a bit irritated that I’m wasting energy on this.

Of course, there are the big questions: Does a name really matter? Does it affect the story arc or the reader’s acceptance? Would Romeo and Juliet still smell as sweet if their names were changed? I think Shakespeare would say “Who gives a shit?” Yeah. He would.

I’d have to answer: Um … I do. I think I do.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Based on a True Story Part One and Part Two … Finished

Today, I’ve finished editing BoTS Part Two. And by “finish” I mean I can’t do any more. I could rethink and nitpick and change a dozen tiny different things forever. That part of writing is never done, because there is always another word, another way of phrasing, another perspective. I could drive myself crazy by second guessing it all.

So, I’m through. Complete. That’s it.

After formatting it, I uploaded the file about 30 minutes ago. BoTS Part Two joins its sister BoTS Part One. Both of these will be available for purchase very very soon. Obviously, Part One a bit sooner than Part Two because it has a 3-week head start.

Releasing these two projects is strange … knowing that I need to walk away and stop fretting. They are as good as I can make them and that simply has to be good enough. I’ve reached a point where I can no longer accurately judge their worth.

Separately, each of the short stories in these two collections is brief and unique. Hopefully powerful. Yet, the true test will be when, taken as a whole, each story builds and overlaps and merges into a complete world. My ultimate goal is to have the reader witness an entire life without even realizing until he/she closes the back cover on Part Four.

Well, that’s my hope.

As for the immediate future, I plan to officially roll out a group of publishing announcements, links, celebration emails, details, and all that other junk at the end of August 2011. So, keep a lookout for the emails and posts. Get those spam filters up and running. And hide your wallets. You have been warned.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Static Status

My days of writing are beginning to blur into one constant repetitive motion.

Whether it’s E2 or BoTS Part2, I’m caught up in the constant writing, rewriting, editing, worrying, fantasizing, doubting, despairing, and resignation that I’ve always had.

Like running a marathon, a writer eventually reaches a point at the halfway mark where even putting one foot in front of the other is so mind numbing that it’s easier to think of so many other things. The goal is to keep moving forward.

So, that’s what I’m doing.

As for E2, I now have four chapters written. I've also reconstructed the layout of the novel to be more vibrant (hopefully). The finished chapters need more work – I consider them more of a line drawing rather than an oil painting. (Wow, I’m really mixing up my metaphors here.) Once that is done, then I hope to offer them up for pre-reading and critiquing.

As for BoTS Part2, this collection of short fiction is in the final stage of editing. (For what that really means, check out my thoughts here, here, and here.) This should be done by tomorrow and then comes the formatting and the uploading for publication.

I suppose this update brings up the question: what about BoTS Part1? I hope to have some news on it soon. Very soon. (And it’s good news.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Juggling Chainsaws

Half way through my first draft of E2, and it’s getting a bit confusing.

All my previous research helped build a great foundation for the technical aspects behind my sci-fi novel. However, the tech stuff is simple background; much of it will not even show up directly in the book. Now I’m at the point where the characters are front and center and creating them from scratch is damn difficult.

This is nothing new. Write anything of significant length and importance, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of chaos, wondering if you are losing track of all those threads holding shit together. Since my novel spans about 120 years with overlapping characters and substantial themes that run the entire time period, it’s churning into gobblely-gook inside my head.

I take notes – scribbled in my notebook here and there – but frankly the amount of data I want to keep track of is a bit overwhelming right now. I’m juggling about a dozen scenes in my head that are not yet written, plus I’m toying with reconstructing some of the format (like breaking up a chapter into separate pieces or introducing each chapter with a character quote). I keep jotting all this stuff down. I slowly work on existing chapters. It’s almost like I’m afraid to really handle this mess because I’m not sure where I’ll end up.

On top of all that I begin my summer travels in about 3 weeks. Plenty of time to write more, but not enough time. I’m really scared to hit a rhythm only to have to take a break and lose it all. I suppose that’s the main issue right now: One slip and I feel the entire project becomes a bloody mess.

Ah, the old fear. Welcome back. I’d say I missed you, but we both know you’ve never really left once I started writing again.

Nothing to do but keep plugging away. More research. More revision. And I’ll be starting the hard chapter next week. Better to face it than keep procrastinating.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Time Limit

I’m always amazed at writers who state that they spend 7+ hours a day at the computer. Whaaat? Really? I just don’t know how they do it.

Of course, those are fulltime writers, but even allowing for that, I don’t know how they can expend such a huge amount of emotional energy day after day. Writing is not like any other job where you can distance yourself, build a wall to shelter those inner demons. Writing is all about exposing those voices. Giving them free rein and then listening. Actually listening. It’s brutal at times. Honestly, after one and a half hours, I’m exhausted. I can’t go on. I gotta get away and clear my head.

On my best days, I spend 4 hours working on projects. That’s usually broken up into at least 2 shifts. And that also counts any internet research, brainstorming , or moping around thinking about how I have no clue to what I’m doing. I can’t imagine spending more than that … and often, I work much less.

Oh, I have the free time. One of the great things about being a teacher is the summer holiday. Right now I have nothing else on my schedule but to write. Still, I can’t seem to knuckle down and break through the grind. Frankly, I don’t see a situation where I would ever spend that much time on my writing in a single day. I’m not built that way.

Then, I remind myself, all of the authors who put in that amount of work are published. Well known. Successful. Yeah, and I’m not. Now there’s something to think about.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Everything is Illuminated

Or a more apt title for this post: Too Much Personal Information … My Reading.

Jonathan Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is well-written, but only if you appreciate a broad, coarse humor. For me, it was too much, too heavy, and lost me about 100 pages in.

In addition, I had a serious annoyance with the type of characters he introduces. The one with the biggest voice in the novel is a Ukrainian man who tends to struggle with his use of English. This is all fine and funny, but it’s also when my own experience ruins an otherwise good novel.

I’ve taught English as a foreign language for the past 15 years overseas. I’ve met and befriended many people, whose range of English is from near perfect to horrible. Many of my closest friends are Polish, and while that obviously is not the same as Ukrainian, it’s damn close. What all this preamble means is that the author’s character rang mostly untrue to me. Oh, there are parts of this ad hoc English usage that he gets correct. But mostly, the Ukrainian’s overuse of a Thesaurus for even the simplest words comes across as unbelievable. It’s meant to be funny, but it’s more annoying.

My experience has shown me, time and again, that foreign language learners may struggle, but they nail down the easy stuff like adjectives: hard, soft, tall, short, love, hate. In this novel, even the simplest words were replaced with such weird alternatives that I found it impossible to continue. This most easily found in those sections that represent the letters exchanged back and forth between the author and the character. Oh yeah, it doesn’t help that the author inserts himself in the novel, as a character, as himself, as a plot device. I’ve never liked that at all – with the exception of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, but that is a masterpiece.

As an example of what I'm talking about, here’s a quote:
It is a queer thing how I wish everything for my brother that I wish for myself, only more rigidly.

Okay, I have problems with that. First, where are the spelling errors. Believe me, in the many emails I get from my Polish friends, sometimes it takes me 15 minutes to decipher what word is what. In addition, the use of “rigidly” just does not ring true. Examples of this type of mistake are prevalent and they are more a reflection of what a native English speaker guesses the problems are, rather than what the real problems are.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

Overall, it’s a shame. There were parts of this novel I really enjoyed … like the late 1700s history of a Jewish village in that part of Europe. I would’ve loved to read a ton more about those characters. Yet, I couldn’t go on.

Finally, I know it’s kinda pretentious for me (an unsuccessful author) to be criticizing a novel that has received rave reviews. But I know that I like. And I don’t like this novel.

Too Much Personal Information … My Writing

Okay, the title of this post can apply to two parts of my life right now.

The most obvious one is BoTS … is my collection of short fiction too personal? Will those who know me read too much into it all? (It’s an important question because I expect only those who know me will read it at all.)

BoTS is personal, but not in the way most readers might suspect. It is not meant to be an factual representation of my childhood (and beyond when the other parts come out). It is merely a reflection of some things, wishful thinking on others, pure fabrication of a lot, and a hint of the truth.

Ah, it’s that hint of the truth that matters, I suppose. What is true and with is not? How do I really feel?

My answer is simple: Who cares? I am no more represented by my characters than a singer is represented by her song or a painter is represented by his model. Art is a carnival mirror. It shows you back whatever you care to focus on.

So is my BoTS too personal? Of course it is. But not in any way that I can possible explain.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Slow and Steady

E2 is progressing, even if most of my posts talk about BoTS.

I’ve “completed” two chapters, so far, and started on a third one this morning. That word is in quotes because I'll eventually return to revise and edit. That's a given.

I've long ago realized that it’s always more difficult to begin than to end these sections. As detailed as my notes are, I rarely sit down and map out the exact dialogue or tone. My research is mainly for background, scenery, and those outside forces that affect my characters environment.

But their personalities and moods? I leave that up to the actual writing.

So, in the beginning, it’s a lot of stop and go. I write a page, then reread it. Sometimes I like. Sometimes I hate. But always I end up refining and rewriting. I’ll spend a hour or so on the first three pages to get it right, so I can move on from there. It’s exhausting in many ways. I’ve never been a writer who can pour over my manuscripts for hours. Too much for me. Too many thoughts bouncing in my head.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to write something so perfect as to never have to make major changes. What must that feel like to put the words on paper and then say, “Well, I guess that’s that.”  Never gonna happen to me.

I do what I have to do. And each day, gaining a little, improving some more, by the end I hope to have something special. No way to know right now.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sneak Preview: BoTS cover blurb

The writing I hate the most? The damn cover blurb that's supposed to describe my book interestingly enough to make strangers pick it up and spend money.

How can I sum up something that took years to write in 400 characters or less? I struggle more with this short paragraph than any other writing I ever have to do.

Well, after some head-banging, this is what I've come up with:

"Part One: family and childhood from the outside looking in" is the first installment of a four-part series that asks the question: Can anyone ever truly be more than the sum of his experiences? These 14 memories are simply mere reflections of a lifetime ... an attempt to construct the whole of a man from fragments of his past.

Part Two: love and hate and the stuff in between

Part Three: strangers in other places, other times

Part Four: death and dying and other unknowns               

Sneak Preview: Cover for BoTS P2 - First Draft

Here's the preliminary cover for Part Two of BoTS.

Same design as Part One but with different photo. At first go-round, I like it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Editorial Slippage

The collection of books I’m reading this summer are all digital. I’ve grown to really enjoy my iPad in this way, as it allows me to adjust the print size, the background light, and lets me even look up words in the built-in dictionary. Sweet.

However, ebooks are nascent. And that means there are some minor bugs that pop up even in main stream releases.

Examples found in my copy of Don DiLillo’s Underworld were:

1. “Pd” instead of “I’d”

2. misplaced hyphenization, like “move-ment” in the middle of a sentence

3. misplaced line breaks, truncating a sentence before the edge of the paragraph

These mistakes are found more in older books, like pre-2000. The reason why is that each page is scanned from an original paper-printed copy. The scanned text is then converted to a digital file, which can be formatted for ereaders. However, as good as this text scanning has become, it’s not perfect. Thus, whatever formatting the original book had, it is kept. And sometimes, certain words are misrecognized.

I don’t like it. Yeah, it doesn’t really affect the novel, per se. But it’s sloppy. It's hard to ignore. It shows a laziness. A lack of quality. All so these older novels can be converted. It rips you out of the story. And frankly, it’s unprofessional.

[Note: an abbreviated version of this post was used by myself as a review posted in iBooks.]