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 Two unpublished, haphazard, disconnected, rambling, typo-ridden, two-dimensional, sloppy novels.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.


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.