Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Part of the Majority

I’ve blogged a bit (in scattered sections) of my “limited” success in writing: mainly short fiction a few years ago, but also some article/newspaper publishing even farther back.

I don’t mean to be self-depreciating when I talk about my publications this way. In many aspects, limited is better than the alternative. What I’ve come to realize over the years is that the writing life is made up of dedicated obsessives; those who continue to work on their craft but have no substantial rewards to show for it.

Most writers are really part-time, whether they want to be or not. Easily 95% of the articles/novels/shorts you read are from people who have to “work” at other jobs. Writing may take up 20 hours of the week, but another 40 or so has to be dedicated to what some would call “a real job.”

I fall into that majority. I teach English for a living. However, I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I love my job. Almost every day I find some value in what I do. That’s unique, not only for those who wish they could devote all their time to the written word, but for most of everyone else out there to. I’m blessed in that aspect.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. In my 20s, I hopped from job to job (and college to college). Writing was meant to be an escape from my life; it was my ticket out of a mundane routine I hated. I ached for the glory of being a Writer – capital W, cause it’s damn important! In that youthful desperate state, I also believed that great writing can’t be taught. Why go to some writing workshop/class/degree program when creativity was really all about inspiration.

Yeah, I was an idiot. Worse, actually. I was an idiot who didn’t realize he was being idiotic.

It wasn’t until in my mid-30s where I began to see some basic truths. The first thing I had to accept is that good writing is damn hard. Great writing is damn near impossible. And that workshops et al are the necessary steps for poor semi-talented slobs like me to gain some insight and get better.

Around that same time, I also decided to find something else that I love to do -- and that something else really needed to bring in some cash. With my recent EngLit degree, I started teaching. Not full time, but night school or off-campus classes. I still had to keep another job (for rent, food, and those other annoying necessities), but it got my foot in the door, gained me experience, and started me on the right path. Once again, lucky me. Teaching is a job that suits me well, and eventually a couple of decades later (and a lot of adventures in between), I ended up with a wonderful university making more than enough cash to be comfortable.

Doing all that allowed me to refocus on what's important in being a writer, too. I knuckled down and began taking the nuts and bolts of editing seriously. I began spending much more time on honing my craft, instead of reveling in my story.

Now writing is what it’s meant to be. Not an escape, but a release of emotion. A way to affect others. A connection to what binds us all together. I may only have “limited” success, but I’m happier now with my writing than I’ve ever been. I think that’s because I’m happier with my life now than I’ve ever been. Still got a long way to go, but at least I’m looking forward.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pieces of the Whole

Part of this new novel I’m writing – and more to the point, the whole thrust of a new technique I want to explore – is to create a series of shorts in which each “chapter” stands alone as if it was a short story, but when you combine the experiences all together, they form a much larger, deeper story.

It’s not a new technique. Many better and more well known writers than I have done this. Yet, I’m blogging about it now, because over the past year I’ve realized this style is where my true talents lie. If nothing else, I have mastered the concept of packing short fiction with multi-layers. That’s what I’m good at.

Or, on a slightly different angle, what I really suck at is continuity.

In the past, my novels had a handful of great scenes, barely held together by expanses of dialogue or events that were meant to show a flow to the characters’ lives. Not that I had to write about every minute of every day, but I felt the need to account for those “in-between moments.” So, the end result was good part, good part, long boring part, good part, long boring part, good part, etc.

This problem really hit home a few years ago when I was trying to finalize my Memphis novel. This novel is about uncovering a family secret decades after the event, and I experimented focusing on a single week of the main character’s life, but ended each chapter with loosely connected childhood memories. The plot itself is good (or so I think) and the characters seem real. But the methodical trudging along to get from one clue to the next (to uncover this secret) was killing me.

Just when I was about to trash the whole damn thing, I suddenly thought (another one of those subconscious wake-up calls!): What if I cut it all up into just memories. No continuity at all. Just a jumble of events of the immediate past and long dormant childhood memories. Each chapter is a unique, independent flashback, nonsequential, seemingly nonrelated, but at the end, when the reader is done, suddenly a picture of the main character’s life has formed. And the dark secret is revealed. Ta-dah!

Like I said, it’s been done before, but the concept was like a surge of energy to me. In fact, that idea is the main reason why suddenly after all those years, I’m back to writing again. I love the thought of creating a literary anagram. It may not make sense in the beginning – at least not in the traditional sense of a novel. However, by the end, you’ll have all the pieces to the puzzle.

The image of a reader suddenly going “Oooooooh…..” and seeing how all those separate short pieces fit into one? Wow. That would be something.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Change of Direction

One of the joys of writing is when all the planning and mapping and character research is suddenly jumbled, and a new direction emerges. This weekend was such a moment for Chap 8 of The Empty Everything (which I’m gonna have to find an abbreviation for that title because I’m sick of typing it out all the time!).

I hit a snagged a few days ago, but pushed through this weekend when I had a bit of inspiration. A thought, a possibility, came to me while working out – this is a common occurrence for me. When you least expect it, your subconscious decides to take a moment to solve everything for you. Thanks subcon!

This change means rearranging the plots for a couple of other chapters, but that’s okay. In fact, it becomes a catalyst for even better ideas. The core of the novel is the same; it’s the way the message is presented which has changed.

After this deus ex machina moment, I scrapped a portion of the chapter, but then wrote like crazy. At this point, I’m about 3/4 of the way done (only the chapter, not the entire novel, dammit!) but I have a much clearer idea of where I’m going.

Now the big question is … maybe I'll post it online here for a sneak preview? Hmmmm. I would, but I don’t think anyone is reading this. Sort of like the dilemma of the tree falling in the empty forest.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Slogging Away

I'm in the middle of the slow, grinding slog of writing Chapter 8.

In a way it's mind numbing. Brutally depressing. So many starts and then stops, and then backtracking, editing, revising, rewriting ... and let's do it all again.

Nothing abnormal. I'm used to this gauntlet whenever I start a new project, but in some ways this one is different.

First is the fact that I know it will get published. The Empty Everything will be available online next Fall. It's a promise I made to myself. So, getting this right means so much of what I do now has extra weight. No more screwing around. No more hiding behind "It's not quite ready yet" excuses.

Second ... well, having been through this before in a myriad of unpublished novels, I was hoping it would be easier. Nope. Not a chance.

So, I stopped writing for the past couple of days and hit the research trail again. Gained a few insights and today I'm back at the keyboard. Going to plow through to the end this weekend, I hope.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Commitment of More Than Time

Ran across an excerpt from this article by Mark O’Connell:

You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.

Since I posted yesterday about my return to reading, this reminded me of how I used to love (and still do, I suppose) the great months-long commitment to a mammoth novel. O’Connell expresses the rewards far more succinctly than I can … but let me just add, that I simply admire and respect the ability to create a world where the reader simply loses himself. The epic novel transcends all reason, actually and especially when so many “easier” reads await in the wings.

I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow for a novel seminar back in 1988, hating it at first and then loving it—the mood swing was simply a matter of finally surrendering to the style. Once I stopped fighting, it all made sense in its rambling imagery and nonsensical dialogue.

I took on War and Peace when I was a teenager and adored each word as if I was proving my adulthood page after page.

There have been many other epic novels in my life, of course. But just seeing those titles in that article brought back the memories of accomplishment. Not only did I finish the tomes, but absorbed some sense of purpose out of the deed. And out of the novels themselves, too.

As for Ulysses … I’ve tried twice to read it (at 19 and then again at 29) but found myself stuck both times, unable to force myself to continue, around the page where any minor cohesion of plot and character gives way to the confusion of whatever Joyce wanted to say. I have Ulysses on my current reading list, already downloaded and waiting. I plan to tackle it again this year. When? I’m sorta delaying a specific date. Yeah, that hesitation is a form of dread.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reading and Writing

Reading fiction is difficult … at least it was in the past.
 
Wait, that’s untrue. When I was a youngster, then teenager, then in my 20s, I read fiction steadily, constantly, all genres, all the free time I could. I whipped through novels with enthusiasm—late night, bleary eyed, telling myself one more chapter.

Then things changed a bit. I started writing fiction myself, serious about getting published, and the novels I used to pick up for fun turned into moments of study. It was no longer a way to relax and pass time, but had to be analyzed and broken down, taken apart like an autopsy.

As I grew older, it got worse. As each year passed without me writing that great novel, it became agony.

You see, as a not-so-successful writer (a polite way of saying “a part-time hack”), I developed two common reactions whenever I read a novel.

1. This sucks! How in the world did this garbage get published! It’s trite, predictable, poorly written, hackneyed, stupid, boring, and a waste of paper….and if such crap can get published and I can’t, then what does that really say about my writing?

Or

2. This is brilliant! The story and plot and characters are wonderful. I’m moved. No seriously. I’m changed by having read this and something intangible touches upon what it really means to live in our so imperfect world … and I’ll never be able to write like this. My stuff is trite, predictable, poorly written, hackneyed, etc.


Stupid, I know.

So, my answer was to stop reading fiction all together whenever I was writing. It’s easy to do overseas (where I live and work) because most English bookstores have a somewhat limited selection: classics, romance, horror, and suspense. That’s about it. Those have their place (the beach, the train, the lazy summer days), but mostly not my favorite styles. Avoiding them is easy. And soon, after a while, I find other avenues for reading: articles and blogs and magazines and toothpaste tube labels. That sufficed.

Of course, during those bouts of swearing off the writing life, I’d suddenly jump back into reading again, selectively. Harry Potter series was a godsend for my life in Cairo 10 years ago. Atonement was a revelation one listless summer when I had no place to go. Novels weren’t completely banned from my life, just not a part of it when I was intent of publishing.

Looking back, this seems so restrictive and self-destructive. So what if a novel is great or horrible? What does that have to do with my writing? Nothing, of course.

I’m now reading like crazy, again. And writing at the same time. It’s sort of the new me. Changing old habits to break out of this not-good-enough funk. I may never write the great novel. But I will write. And I will read. Because it’s what I’ve enjoyed my who life. It’s about time I stopped taking it all so damn serious. C’mon, I tell myself. Have a little fun for once.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Negative Space

After beginning Chapter 8 of The Empty Everything, I realize something. After a month of research there is still so much I don’t know.

All my outlines, character charts, timeline, reading, note taking, plot schemes, techno research … and yet, here I am with huge holes of missing information. Gaps of continuity. Emotional voids.

What I have always found amazing in writing is how the ideas of the imagination undergo such a huge transformation when put down on paper. The scenes which flow so smoothly suddenly appear made of lead. Images that held such power come across flat. Ugh, it’s frustrating – and typically much worse at the beginning as a writer tries to find the voice of the novel.

Yet at the same time, when portions of what I plan to write just don’t work, I’m suddenly hit with inspiration … and the words flow and it reads great and sounds great and works better. Where did all that come from? Why didn’t I think of that the first go-round?

Sometimes I feel that writing is actually made up of negative space. It’s not what you put down, but what you have to remove, which creates something good from something passable.

Novel Progress Update

After about a week (actually approx 9 hours of writing), I’m just shy of 1500 words.

Time for the math:

1.      That’s 166 words/hour … or 2.7 words a minute. Am I typing with my toes?

2.      Ten chapters total. An estimate of 60,000 words for the entire novel. (Maybe more. Maybe less.
    But close enough.) That means I’ve written 2.5% of the whole project.

3.      Total estimation of when I’ll finish the first draft: 360 hours.

4.      Estimate income when digitally published: $30.00.

5.      Wage: 8.3cents/hour.* Someone call the Feds.

It’s a start, I supposed.

*this assumes I don’t spend another 360 hours editing/revising. Yeah, right!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quote of the Moment: Time as Never Ending

Graeme Wood: 
Humans have been interested in the future for millennia, mostly as a subject for theologians. But theologians were, along with everyone else, thinking small. Most humans who have ever lived have died in conditions almost exactly like the ones into which they were born, and without written history had no way to grasp that the future might be different at all. Only now have we gained the scientific knowledge necessary to appreciate how exactly how deep a rabbit-hole the future really is: not just long enough to see empires rise and crumble, but long enough to make all human history so far seem like a sneeze of the gods.

Quote of the Moment: Art as Justification

Woody Allen:
"In the end, like in Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I've come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day."

Thinking Things Through

As you know (or may not, depending on those memory pills!), I'm beginning my sci-fi novel. Or have begun, I suppose is a better tense.

I know the eye rolls whenever I say sci-fi, considering most (all?) of my friends are literary and well-read and intelligent and have little if anything to do with science fiction as storytelling. They're not snobs, not by a long shot. It's just that sci-fi has transformed itself into something silly, in many ways.

The problem, as I see it, is that sci-fi changed from when I was a kid, dealing with the perspective of "What is Life" and "Where do we fit in?" -- Bradbury, Heinlein, Wells, Shelly -- to the sci-fi of today, mostly known from movies. What used to be a genre to extrapolate "where are we going and what will we find" has turned into more of the adventure western: good vs. evil, aliens vs. humanity, humanity vs. some apocalypse, etc. The adventure has completely overwhelmed the philosophical. And that's a shame.

When I think of The Empty Everything as I write, I am moved not by the future of science (which is interesting enough), but by the essence of humanity. How far away from what we accept as human today can we move before we no longer recognize ourselves? Is being biped, semi-hairy, vocal, and aware enough? If the human race was reduced down to 1.5 meter tall (About 4.5ft), thick boned, dark skin, hairless people, but who spoke a semi-recognizable language and walked on 2 legs, had 2 arms, 2 eyes, 2 ears, and a tendency to laugh ... is that enough for us to automatically say: Yes, they are human.

I think so. Not necessarily by the physicality, though it's close enough to certainly reassure us immediately, but more by what makes us really human to begin with. I believe a sense of humor is the key. Laughing, at others and ourselves, is what really differentiates us from any other species, earthbound or alien. (Well, alien, as far as we can speculate.)

So, my idea of sci-fi is one of philosophy. A chance to turn the mirror on our society and try to guess not only where we are, but who we are. That's interesting.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bouncing Around

Well, I started The Empty Everything yesterday (Wednesday). Yeah, my last post said I was going to begin on Friday, but I decided to just go ahead and get the damn thing moving.

What I want to talk about now is that I’ve begun with Chapter 8, which is near the end of the entire book. Why? Don’t most authors begin at the beginning and end at the end?

I used to be very linear when I wrote. In fact, I had to start writing on page 1 and move consecutively from that point forward. In addition, I had to reread what I had written previously, make editing changes, add/delete portions, etc before I could write brand new stuff. So, the act of writing became a very methodical, repetitive drudge.

This linear technique was all I knew until a few years ago – that’s decade’s worth of writing in the same methodology. Then, out of necessity rather than experimentation, while working on my novel about Palestine, I had to bounce around. Different characters appeared (and voiced) different chapters and to maintain that consistency, I had to group those sections into cohesive weeks-long writing sessions.

And then … suddenly … freedom. Once I released myself from the restrictions of writing from cover-to-cover, I refound a true joy in creation. I was able to focus on the chapters I wanted to write. I was able to maintain a common thread for characters with ease. And, finally, I was able to see the novel as a collection of “episodes”, rather than this long long marathon of trying to bridge the gaps between scenes.

What’s truly amazing in this change, overall, is I suddenly realized what my true strengths are when writing. I know, after all this time, one would think I’d recognize where I’m good and where I struggle, but it’s not that easy. Creation is never a logical exercise. Never. In suddenly bouncing from chapter to chapter, in no particular order, I came to see that short fiction has always been my strength. Where my past novels have failed (more in my expectations than anything else) is the horribly boring “blah blah blah” I always felt obligated to insert between key scenes I was aching to write. This formed an inconsistency both in writing and character. And it bugged the crap outta me.

So, two or three years ago, I actively changed my style of novel writing into one a little more disjointed – primarily seen (or one day will be seen) in my Memphis novel. Now, my goal is to produce novels that are more fragments of time and characters, all joined by a common theme, but sometimes never even coming in contact with one another. I call this style “slices of life.” (Now seeing that phrase in print makes me a bit embarrassed. I really need to come up with something cooler).

I plan to delve into the nuts & bolts of this style much more in the future. It’s not anything ground shakingly new … I can think of quite of few novels which use a similar if not the same technique. But I’m not saying I’m a creative genius. I’m simply trying to find my niche in order to write something worth reading.

So, yes, I’m happily beginning with Chapter 8. Maybe one day you’ll happily read it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Starting Point

I begin writing my novel on Friday.

The few days before beginning a project like this are always filled with doubt.

Unlike short fiction, where the end is in sight before I even begin, writing a novel means dedicating all my future spare time to this needy, clingy, never ending, consuming addiction. Yeah, I can stop whenever I want – I’ve obviously done it before with my 2 novels on hiatus. Yet, if you’re reading this blog, then you know that even after stopping, those remnants of unfinished projects never really die. Each one haunts me, with the continual promise of “I will finish!” I’ve been saying that about both for almost 5 years now. And I still mean it. I do.

So, as the inception point looms closer, I automatically begin to doubt whether all the energy and torment I put myself through (for the sake of art! and literature! and the great American novel!) is really worth it. It’s not like I’ve have a lot of success with long words of fiction … er, “not a lot” means none in this case. Of course, I begin to think that once again I’m opening myself to so much grief over something that will be read by no one. I’m not the type of person who writes just to write. I believe you must write to be read. Whatever purpose could possible exist.

Do I go ahead with this project? Or should I just scrap it. Delete this stupid blog (unread by anyone anyway). And be happy with the other aspects of my life – and I do have a lot to be happy about.

The answer lies in my very first post. I just can’t give it up. I’ve tried. I’ve gone years without writing. Yet, here I am again, always crawling back for more. The process means too much to me. It’s more than storytelling. I see fiction as a way of connecting with the common thread of life. We see ourselves in the characters we read. We share experiences and emotions. Or at least, I do.

I’m determined to do this. As I’ve said before, this novel is different than my others. It’s in a genre I have enjoyed since a boy: Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc. I read them all in grade school, and then high school, and then beyond. I’ve never tried my hand at writing sci-fi before which, come to think of it, is kinda peculiar. You’d think that my love of the genre would be a natural path for me to take. But nope. Fantasy? My first “novel” when I was 18 was a swords and warriors type with glass and wooden unicorns. And charcoal horses! Ha ha. But I quickly moved on to more real, more personal.

Ah blah blah blah.

In the end, I’ve done my research for this novel. I’ve made my notes. I’ve brainstormed for over a month. I have a good handle on what I want to accomplish. All that is left is the real work.

Sounds easy enough.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bacterial Growth

The main push behind this blog is to force me to stop and think about the process of writing.

For so many years, I basically wrote whatever moved me … a vast majority of that was my own personal memories. Some might call it therapy, being able to relive and rewrite what has happened in the past. I suppose. Except that I never seem to mode my representative to benefit the real me at all. Well, at least not the way one would assume writers do all the time – the old cliché of “Don’t get mad. Get even by writing a famous novel that skewers that fucker!” Nah. I just can’t do that. My representative in the story never ends up the hero (or victim) for that matter. In my short fiction – those that are semi-autobiographical in nature – the representation of “me” always seems to come across as helpless, a mere walk-on in the drama of his life.

Wow, that sentence along could cost me years of therapy.

However, to change the subject before serious meds are prescribed, my novel The Empty Everything is a departure from that past tendency. This is deliberate decision. My other 2 novels are very personal, but in different ways. That closeness makes the act of writing much harder. It’s all so “poignant.” Oooooh, how I hate that word.

This time I’m forcing myself to write about something that’s not me me me (always a good idea, but then I say that in a blog all about me). To analyze this even further, I’ve also decided to slow down and observe just how the process evolves and comes together – hence this blog.

So far having not written a single sentence yet, but diving into the research and foundation building, I’ve realized that all of my fiction begins with one specific question. This question is always so simple and basic:

1.      What must it be like to live in a country where there are no police?

2.      What if your father was the perpetrator of a horrible vicious crime when you were a child, but never knew?

3.      What would you do if the person you loved committed suicide with no warning?

4.      How can a single person be viewed so many different ways by the people around him?

All of those are actual questions which started out as a mere germ and then expanded in full-fledged (in-progress) novels. It’s so strange to let the mind wander and explore from such a insignificant starting point.

I read many many years ago something that has stuck in my head. A critic was reviewing a Shakespearean play, can’t remember which one, and wrote (more or less): The beauty of Shakespeare is that every single character is convinced of their own righteousness. Each one speaks such Truth.

That’s what I strive to do. I want each of my characters to believe in their words and actions. By beginning the process with a question, I put myself in their shoes and plan and scheme and plot and set a course of action that I hope is a true representation of the situation. From this concept, a novel forms.

Now, whether that’s good or bad, no one really knows, do they? Not published is the same as not writing.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Right Profession, Wrong Job?

Maybe I missed my true calling.

I mean I’ve been mildly successful in my writing career … over the past 20 years. Yikes, put that way, maybe I’m misusing the term “career” here. Hmmmmm, let’s say that I’ve had my good moments. Front page stories in small local papers. Magazine articles. Travel articles. A bunch of short stories published about 5 years ago. So, okay, not horrible but not great.

However, today I received word that my dear dear friend Mai just got her short story accepted … by someone who actually pays a cash! And believe me, finding payment for short fiction is an incredibly shrinking market. So, Whoopee and Hooray for Mai!

Oh wait, why do I care? Because according to her, I was instrumental in the editing/critiquing/formation of the piece. Yeah, I read it twice and gave a volume of feedback over the past month, but during all that I didn’t really feel that I was helping much. I was simply stating the obvious and helping her focus more on the core of her story. She did all the work. I merely carped from the sidelines. Yet, she insists I deserve some credit, so I humbly accept.

My editing skills have always been good – better for other people’s writing than my own, of course. That’s how these things work. In general, I tend to be lousy on noticing obvious grammatical errors, but have a knack for plot and characters and boiling down a story to its bare bones. Or so I’ve been told. But now it’s nice to see a little reward for all that, even if it’s not my own.

Of course, Mai deserves it. Her stories are so weirdly amazing. Helping her out is a rare privilege and tends to make me want to write better and more and deeper. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right

Now, though, I can’t help but think that maybe I should have been an editor all these years. Maybe I’ve missed out on my true destiny. Ah … the man behind the woman who gets all the glory. Yeah, I could deal with that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Naming Names

Selecting character names is not especially hard for me.

I’m not one to manufacture a name to represent some deep emotional chord, i.e. Gale Storm or Sam Spade or Ratso Rizzo. I’ve never been much for that sort of obvious tag on my characters.

Mostly, I use first names only. For some reason I find it a bit prissy referring to characters by their full names, even though I do create full names (and family history) for all of them. By only using their first name, it’s more intimate. Personable. As if I’m relating a story about people you already know.

For my more personal writing (see any of my published short fiction) I pick a name of someone I know. I do that because I think my friends might get a kick out of seeing their name in a print (as if anyone is going to read anything I write?). I also do that because it’s an easy “cheat” for me to form a mental picture of my character’s physical appearance.

Maggie and Me in London
So, if I choose the name “Maggie” for my female lead, then I can immediately picture my Polish friend and her smile and hair and the way she talks or walks. It’s like an instant projection from nothing to shape. However, that is where I stop … or where fiction takes over for reality. I never assign actual personal traits from my friends to characters using their names. If anything, especially in my short stories, I mix and match. I may use the name Maggie, and thus the way she looks, but then make that character a chain smoker (something the real Maggie would never do) or I’ll borrow an observation from another person in my life and add it in to the mix. Very Dr. Frankenstein, I know.

In a way, I suppose someone might be insulted by all this. I mean, if I saw my name used in a novel written by someone I knew, and recognized obvious physical similarities, but then found out that this character “based on me!” was some sort of retard, perv, liar, and ass … yeah, I could see me wondering what the hell.

However, it’s not like that. Writers borrow real life scenes and words and events all the time. Yet, in our minds, we change the details, we manipulate certain key points, all to move towards whatever emotional goal we’re aiming for.

I guess it’s all in the perspective. As a writer, I use my own experiences freely. I see nothing wrong in it – I’m not doing it for some sort of payback. These real events create real stories, and that's important to me.

I realize I’m not exploring anything new here. Writers have dealt with this problem for centuries. Capote had a lifelong difficulty with this issue, breaking apart many friendships. Phillip Roth also struggled with friends’ and family’s reaction to some of his novels. In fact, Roth grew so disgusted he created Nathan Zuckerman, just to sort through all his internal bullshit while writing about it at the same time.

Well, all this rambling is because I’ve decided on my character names for The Empty Everything. I have 16 characters, of which 10 are main voices or point of views. Oddly enough, the idea for the names all came together at once, while I was researching another aspect of the novel. While in the past I’ve never put much stock in my name choices, in this case the names definitely means something. They are all linked under a common idea. It harmonizes with the overall theme. The names add a sudden depth, something I was struggling with a bit.

It’s really something when suddenly all these random pieces come flying together. Amazing how the brain makes those quantum leaps from chaos to order.

As of today, I’m almost there. The actual writing process begins soon enough.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On the Edge

I’m almost ready to begin … I’m starting to feel that twitch to get this damn novel in motion.

It’s usually at this point – the preparation to write that first word – where I have a continual unavoidable wish for the whole thing to be over already. Done. Completed, for better or worst. I want to skip ahead to the end right now and save me all that crap in between.

Most non-writers don’t realize the huge emotional investment it takes to begin a project this big. Even with The Empty Everything, which is going to be relatively short (by novel standards), I know I’m looking at 3-5 months of continuous work. Unfortunately, only 1/3 of that is the good type of work – the joy of creation and the unexpected sudden surge of an idea that comes out way better than you had hoped. Those times are great. It’s the other 2/3rds that rips apart your psyche.

It's the vivid painful memory of the slog of editing (and thus I tie into yesterday's post). It's the self-doubt. The agonizing writing block over one stupid fucking word. In projects past, I’ve stared at the page for over an hour, trying to sort out a sentence. It’s brutal, because in the end when you think you’ve found it, that perfect combination, the next day inevitably arrives. After what would be a brief reread to get up to speed, you suddenly realize it’s still all shit. All that effort the day before amounted to nothing.

Somehow, all those failures of the past have to be pushed away. Somehow, I need to think positive that this time will be different. Today, I’m at the edge, ready to make that leap of faith, eyes wide open, taking a deep breath, and steeling myself for another long haul.

The one thing that helps in all this doubt? It's obvious. This time there is a difference between  now and those (non-published) novels in the past? This project has a set publishing date. The Empty Everything goes digital in September. That’s a promise and it almost (almost! oh so close!) makes the dread worthwhile.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Snail's Pace

I am an incredibly slow writer. Well, sort of.

My first draft tends to fly out. I’m a fast typer and I can churn out 10 pages in 30 minutes, counting the few pauses while my brain freezes trying to find a specific word. Yet in all, a chapter or section is created in record time, sort of like a volcanic explosion.

Then comes the glacial period.

Initially, I usually find that I’m happy with maybe 60% of my first draft. As I read (and reread) (and reread again and again), the changes I make are seldom to the core of the plot or characters. It’s all about the words. Getting the tone just the way I want.

Later, after a break, I begin to deconstruct the story itself. I start rethinking some of the characters and how they act/react. It’s here that I begin to rip apart sections of whatever I’ve written, trying to get to the heart.

Finally, I find myself recreating it all over again. Taking a new angle. Trying to remove all the clichés and forced dialogue and obvious set-ups. It’s basically a mash up of my original idea. At times, it’s not even recognizable as the original story, except for maybe a key scene that was the purpose of this entire effort anyway.

Taken all together, I can spent hours and weeks and months on something. I’m definitely one of those writers who feels no story is ever finished. There will always be something to change or improve.

In many ways, this is depressing. The constant toil at something which never ends. Yeah, feeling a bit hopeless right now. And I haven’t even written the first word of this damn novel.

Ah, don’t worry. I always get like this when I write.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

From the Ground Up

I've started the basic research for my latest novel. (I say latest, because I've written 3 others, though none are published. More on that stigmata in a future post.)

Once upon a time, I used to begin a novel by sitting down and typing, Chapter 1, Page 1. And then, with a rough idea of who my characters were and where I wanted them to go, I would churn out a few dozen pages. All in the hope that I could bridge the gap between a few "key" scenes and all that filler crap in between them.

This isn't necessarily a bad way to write, but it isn't really efficient. I end up with more useless pages than useful ones ... which plays havoc on my confidence. Oh, not my confidence in writing, but in the belief that this whole piece of shit is worth completing.

Yet, times have changed. A few years ago, tackling a major novel, I began doing research to help with the background of my characters. Then some more research about other aspects dealing not with my characters, but their families or schools or religion or neighborhoods. Of course, this grew into some major commitment of time and energy building a detailed history of my characters, most of which would never see the page.

I really found it liberating. Yes, I removed much of the spontaneity in my writing. But I was adding a solid foundation that made it so much easier to describe the what and why of everything that happened.

This change was monumental in the way I wrote. A good change.

So, for this new novel, The Empty Everything, I'm spending all my time doing research. I'll probably keep this up for another couple of weeks and then dive into the actually writing part.

Oddly enough, now that I think about it, I did no research for any of my published short stories. None. I think that's because I tend to write flash fiction (1,000 words or less). Also, much of what I write in short form is semi-autobiographical. I don't need to research actual events in my life -- even if I do manipulate them.

Well, more on all that in later posts. I have a lot to say, it seems, and am just getting started.