December 22, 2010

How to Write a Novel About Novels

I've recently read two novels that on the surface have related premises. In HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely, Pete sets out to write a best-selling novel by analyzing the New York Times Best Seller list and incorporating every element that seems to contribute to popularity. Improbably but hilariously, his scheme works, and THE TORNADO ASHES CLUB achieves success, though the consequences aren't quite what Pete had hoped for.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING by Tanya Egan Gibson also involves crafting a book to the tastes of an audience -- not the entire reading public, but a single teen girl. Carley's richy-rich parents believe there's something wrong with her because she's neither skinny nor Ivy League material. They decide that somehow the key to turning her life around is to make her into an enthusiastic reader by commissioning a novel written to her specifications (and in a single month -- November, as it happens).

Neither of these books were what I expected from the premise, and both were far better. When I first heard Hely discuss HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST on NPR, I laughed at the concept, but it also sounded a little too easy, a bit too one-joke to be worth actually reading. My humble apologies to Hely, and my sincere gratitude to the friend who pressed the book into my hands. (And also sorry to everyone within earshot who had to listen to me giggle my way through the book.)

The story of Pete's rise to fame is not, as I perhaps imagined, based on deciding that THE DA VINCI CODE sucks and quickly knocking out a better version. Pete finds that compared to thinking up an idea, "Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass." And he also discovers that to write a plot-focused page-turner requires even more effort, more than he wants to expend. Instead of worrying about intricate plotting, Pete writes a literary-type blockbuster full of engineered emotional moments, pointlessly flowery language, and a plot that makes no real sense. I appreciated that Hely went in this direction, because as much as I might enjoy mocking THE DA VINCI CODE, I am well aware that Dan Brown's books are popular not because they are so carefully written, but because they have plots stronger than I could ever hope to write.

But don't worry, this book still lets you enjoy mocking Dan Brown and everyone else who writes novels that sell better than yours. Pete's literary world is full of fictional but easily recognizable stand-ins like Tim Drew, whose works include THE DARWIN ENIGMA and THE BALTHAZAR TABLET. And Josh Holt Cready, "the precocious author of MANASSAS, a novel about a precocious author named Josh Holt Cready who retraces the steps of his ancestor who fought for the Union and died at Cold Harbor," if Schadenfoer is more your thing.

Throughout the book, we are treated to excerpts from Pete's novel and those of his competitors. These are spot-on parodies of their genres, and the humor isn't that the writing is bad (it's not) but that each excerpt is so exactly what that particular style is like. Kudos to Steve Hely for this difficult accomplishment, which must have taken a lot more work than Pete was willing to put in. If you have a familiarity with the kinds of books that sell these days and some skepticism over what makes the lists, read HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST and scare those around you with your outbursts of laughter.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING also spends some time on literary parody, with a bunch of discussion of meta-fiction and other amusing mentions such as "the just-released ANNIE GONE, a retelling of ANTIGONE through the eyes of a twelve-year-old trailer park denizen." But the book isn't really about the novel commission, even though that's what the title and description suggest. It's a story about a boy and a girl (with a secondary story about another boy and another girl), and it's about characters wrestling with issues that can't be fixed by literature. It's about the question of how many times people will forgive being hurt by the people they love.

Carley doesn't need a love of reading or anything that her parents can buy for her. She needs their attention, and if they'd only listen, they might find out she's a smart, caring person who isn't much interested in books because she has more pressing concerns. She'd really like to get some help for her best friend, because he has a serious substance abuse problem and equally inattentive parents.

I learned about this book when Tanya Egan Gibson came to my writing club to speak about world-building. I bought the book and read it because I liked her presentation, but I had no idea that I was going to find a story so much more complex and significant than the description reveals. I especially didn't suspect this novel to be practically what I would request if I were commissioning a novel. Sensitive but damaged male protagonist? Check. Kid characters? Check. Multiple perspectives, humor, texts within the text, narrative gimmicks, non-linearity... Some of these are even elements I didn't realize I'd include on my manifesto for a perfect novel. I'm not saying this is a perfect novel, but it does remarkably well at being exactly the sort of book I love to read. Since that mirrors the purported subject of the novel, I suspect Gibson of some sort of literary voodoo. If this is also the kind of book that enchants you, read HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING and fall in love.

December 15, 2010

What I've Been Doing Instead of Blogging

I haven't posted here in a couple of weeks. This is what I've been doing with myself in the meantime:

→ Staying off the internet for much of the day. I decided to disable my computer's wireless connection before bed each night and not turn it on until finishing the day's writing work. To my surprise, most days I haven't been particularly eager to get back online, and after writing, I move on to reading, housework, etc without stopping to look at Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader. As a result, I've been more productive than usual in the non-internet world. As another result, I've only had time for "essential" online interactions, and I've regretted missing out on my normal levels of consumption and engagement. Such are the problems of our modern world (or not).

→ Engaging repeatedly in pointless turmoil that goes like this: I think of a brilliant blog post I'll write later that day and compose a few sentences in my head. I run out of time in the day for writing a blog post, due to accomplishing so many other productive tasks (or not). I tell myself I'll write the post the next day. The next day, I have lost all enthusiasm for the topic but have another brilliant idea. The cycle repeats. I do not write any blog post at all. I feel guilty about neglecting my blog and letting down my devoted readers. I berate myself for the narcissism of imagining that my readers, however devoted, are actually sitting around thinking about how I have let them down. I feel guilty about my narcissism. I feel narcissistic for posting about my guilt. I marvel at the fact that I do not yet have any posts tagged "guilt".

→ Thinking about patterns, habits, and cycles, both in my own life and in the lives of my characters. Despite my real or imagined narcissism, I far prefer to analyze these as they apply to my characters.

→ Making excellent progress on getting the story of my novel right by writing a synopsis. I'm sure this advice appears many places, but I know that in REVISION & SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell, he recommends drafting a synopsis (or several) as a way to assess a story before revising. I've been writing what I expect will be about a 15-page document that lays out the plot of my novel -- not the plot as it exists, but as it should be. This has been a slow, extremely useful process that is forcing me to come up with answers to all the questions like "How did that result in him believing that?" and "Why wouldn't she have told him that years ago?" Once I'm done with the synopsis, the idea is that I'll know what I need to change in the next draft, and I'll have some confidence that those things won't need to be changed again. I keep feeling like it sure would have saved a lot of time if I had simply created this synopsis before ever writing the book in the first place, but I know I wouldn't have come up with most of this stuff without writing it a couple of times. It would be awfully nice to develop the skill of doing it in the other order, though.

→ Smiling at my reorganized book collection every time I walk down the hall.

→ Rewarding myself for getting rid of 150 books by -- yes, you guessed it! -- buying more books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Paul Collins at Slate studies a Victorian writing guide and observes what the first how-to book for fiction can still tell us: "[Sherwin] Cody tells would-be Victorian writers to show and don't tell ('To say your heroine was proud and defiant is not half so effective as saying she tossed her head and stamped her foot'), to kill their darlings ('sacrifice absolutely everything of that sort'), and write what they know." (Thanks, Dick!)

→ Parker Peevyhouse at The Spectacle puzzles over When Writers Don’t Read: "Reading a chapter of someone else's book is like taking a shot of espresso -- it keeps me going. It puts me in the right frame of mind, like the author is sitting there with me waiting for me to jump in with my own story."

December 1, 2010

Sorting Out My Book Collection

Unsurprisingly, I own a lot of books. My collection isn't enormous, but it's large enough to present a storage problem. A growing storage problem, since a healthy book collection never stops growing.

At some point in the past, I had an appropriate number of shelves for the number of books, and the books were arranged on the shelves in a reasonable fashion. That point was perhaps four or five years ago. All books acquired since then ended up stacked in empty spaces at the ends of shelves, or on the floor, or on other nearby surfaces. I'd been meaning to do something about this problem for, well, four or five years.

This November, I didn't manage to write a novel, but NaNoWriMo did give me the motivation to finally reorganize my books. The First Annual Great NaNoWriMo Book Drive presented an opportunity to donate books I no longer wanted to Better World Books in support of reading and writing education. A chance to do good AND let someone else deal with my unwanted books? Count me in! (The book drive continues until December 15, so if you're also looking for a responsible way to get rid of books, I can help connect you with a bookdriver in your area.)

My local bookdriver-in-chief, The Book Roadie (aka Ealasaid Haas) recently posted a three-part series about organizing her library. My collection is smaller, so I didn't have to think as much about classification, but I roughly followed Ealasaid's technique for sorting and reshelving.

November 22, 2010

Getting the Story Right

There are many ways to divide up the elements of a novel, but here's one: You've got the story, and then you've got the way the story is told.

The story consists of the characters, the plot, and all the explanations of why these characters are living out the events of this plot and why it matters. It's the answer to "What's the book about?"

The way the story is told includes point of view, the style of the sentences, the amount of description and type of imagery used, and how much dialogue there is. You can change all these things and still tell the same story.

I'm currently trying to figure out my novel's story. Maybe you'd expect that I'd know the story after the first draft, or even before. I was hoping the story would be clear by the end of the second. Both these drafts have a story, but it's still not right.

The story isn't right primarily because it falls short in the explanation department. For example, the plot hinges on long-held anger that lacks a believable origin. The concealment and exposure of secrets is sketchily justified. A character makes major life decisions based on an improbable collection of motivations. As a result, I have a reasonably interesting novel that stops making sense as soon as you give it any real thought. That's not good enough.

I gather that there are many writers out there who get the story right in the first draft. They spend a lot of time on planning and outlining before they begin writing, and they make careful adjustments to the plan during the draft. For these writers, revision is all about improving the way the story is told, because they already have a properly assembled story after the first draft. Lucky them!

I suspect that other writers, ones like me who don't get the story right the first time around, are also using the revision stage only to focus on the way the story is told. These writers are taking poorly motivated plots, inconsistent characters, and unwieldy sequences of events and dragging them intact from one draft to another while polishing every sentence to perfection. That doesn't work. A broken story told beautifully is still a broken story.

I understand why writers avoid making story changes in revision. Changing a story creates a lot of work, and it was already enough work writing the damn thing once. Since the pieces of the story depend on each other, adjusting one part could lead to more and more changes. The work needed might be so major that you'd be better off starting over from scratch, and who wants to do that? It's much simpler not to think too hard about whether the story has problems, and it means revision will be completed so much sooner.

But I don't see the point in revising unless the story gets better. So I'm going to keep working on this until I get the story right.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Novelist Holly Black's pep talk for NaNoWriMo participants is full of great advice for anyone writing a first draft: "I know it seems like writing that pours out of your brain in a passionate flood should be better than writing that comes slowly and miserably, but the only person who will ever know the difference is you."

→ Editor A. Victoria Mixon offers 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot as a writer.

November 17, 2010

Why I Quit NaNoWriMo But You Shouldn't

Confession time: I quietly dropped out of NaNoWriMo a week ago.

I did it because I hated my novel and I wasn't having any fun. Now, I recognize that this is a phase many NaNo participants go through (often during Week 2, which last week was) and one I've gone through myself. In fact, this problem is a reality for most anyone writing a novel at any speed. Read Neil Gaiman's 2007 NaNo pep talk for evidence that it happens to even successful writers.

Faced with someone who had never succeeded at NaNoWriMo before and wanted to quit, I would urge them to keep going. I'd say that first drafts often become less loathsome around 15,000 words in and that writing gets easier and more pleasant as the story builds momentum and the writer gets to know the characters. I've found this to be true many times, and it probably would have been the case for me again if I'd kept going (I stopped at 12k).

But I just couldn't get excited about reaching the point where I started enjoying this particular novel. And I decided that was okay.

The value in National Novel Writing Month, and the core purpose of the event, is that it demonstrates to people who have dreamed of writing a novel but never come close that they actually do have the ability to write an entire book. That's what it did for me. I'd been writing my whole life, but I didn't have the confidence to try a novel, so I stuck to short stories, and honestly, I'm not very good at short stories. Attempting and winning NaNoWriMo showed me what I really wanted to be writing. It proved to me that I could do it, and it taught me about the discipline required to keep writing, even when it's hard.

I was a NaNoWriMo winner for 7 years in row. Long ago, I moved out of the category of participants who are proving something amazing and wonderful to themselves. These non-writers, or not-yet-writers, are the ones who NaNoWriMo is really for. They're the reason the event is focused not on what we're writing or how we write it, but on the act of getting words written, and more broadly, on setting a goal and meeting it. These are very important skills for anyone who wants to be a writer, and good general life skills, too.

Some NaNoWriMo participants, like me, turn into year-round writers. That's cool when it happens, though it's not the only way to gain something valuable from the event. So now I'm one of the people who writes all the time but uses NaNoWriMo as a way to churn out a first draft that would have been written anyway, if not as quickly. It's nice to have a month of being more social than usual about writing, but NaNoWriMo is a lot less of a thrill on this side of the fence. Ho hum, another novel.

I don't need another novel right now. I have a third draft to plan, and getting back to work on that made a lot more sense to me than forcing out another 38,000 words just to keep up appearances. So I quit, and I'm not sorry at all.

But if you're in the middle of a NaNoWriMo novel right now and you've never had the incredible experience of writing 50,000 words for the first time, keep going! You won't be sorry, either.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book Lady Rebecca Joines Schinsky talks about the "serendipitous intersection" that can occur when Reading Across Genres.

November 10, 2010

Talking About Setting

Last night's South Bay Writers meeting featured a great speaker, Tanya Egan Gibson. She's the author of HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING, which I have bought (the novel, not the love of reading), and she talked to our club about world-building and setting.

This topic is of particular interest to me because it's an area I need to focus on in my next draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE. Maybe you thought I was going to say "because my NaNoWriMo novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future." It is, and I'm having a heck of the time with the world-building for that novel, but there I'm dealing with such big, broad questions that it's as rudimentary as throwing paint at a wall, and Gibson offered advice for the detail work of filling all the spots around the windows. (You can see why I avoid similes in my work. Also painting rooms.)

When I wrote the second version of DAMAGE (based on, but vastly superior to, the NaNoWriMo first draft), I deliberately didn't worry too much about fleshing out the setting and description. I left those for the still-to-come third draft, anticipating that details of the world would be my main priority then, since plot and characters would be almost perfected. Well, plot and characters turn out to be rather far from perfected, but along with fixing those problems, I do need to turn my attention to world-building.

THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is set in the real city of San Jose, California, during three different time periods: 1963-1965, 1995-1998, and 2026. That means I have a lot of work to do. I have to learn about and understand the culture of the early 1960s and research what this area was like at that time. I have to remember and research a time period that I lived through but that's already alarmingly far in the past. And I have to speculate and guess at what will be different in the future. I've already done a lot of this work, so it's not quite as terrifying as it sounds, but so far I haven't shown much of the work in the novel.

I don't intend to fill the book with long passages of description that prove what I know. I'm not a big fan of description, and as a result, my work tends to contain so little of it that readers point it out as a problem. In this novel in particular, I agree that much more setting detail is required, because the place and the times are supposed to be an important backdrop for the story. It's not arbitrary that San Jose is the setting, and I want readers to have a sense of when and where the characters are and to appreciate how their world changes.

At the meeting last night, Gibson discussed how if your characters exist in a full, detailed world, whether it's real or one you invented, the story can emerge organically. Know the world, and you won't have to keep inventing new details that might seem random and forced into the story needs of the moment. The setting itself, when chosen well, can incite the characters to action, producing necessary conflict and revealing personalities by how they respond. Gibson pointed out that when a real location presents inconvenient restrictions that you might be tempted to circumvent by making something up, that's also an excellent opportunity to make the characters deal with another obstacle. I'm going to be thinking about all these ideas as I revise.

Books with a strongly conveyed real settings often get reviews like "the city itself is a character." I'm not sure that I'll ever go from "too little description" to that, but it's the direction I'm aiming in.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ No-longer-literary-agent-but-still-extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers Five Writing Tips From Reading J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER.

→ Farhad Manjoo at Slate discusses "the anxiety over what to call 'writing that lives on the Web'" in an analysis of the differences and similarities between blogs and online magazines. (Thanks, The Millions!)

November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo is Go!

At midnight, I started my NaNoWriMo novel. I was aware that I only knew how the opening scene went, and as I began writing, I realized that what I had in mind wasn't even a scene, but a character in a moment. I dragged that moment out to a page. I remembered that there's a dog in the story, and I got another half page out of introducing the dog. I decided that 555 was a nice word count to end on, reminded myself that the post-midnight hours are hardly my best writing time, and I called it a night.

It wasn't my most confidence-boosting start to a month of writing. But when I went to bed, I thought up a next scene that I can write at tonight's write-in. And that will probably lead to a next scene, and then another, and another, and eventually I'll have something vaguely novel-shaped, and that's what a first draft is.

I'm out of practice with first drafts. This was my problem last November as well. I used to be pretty good at suppressing the inner editor who says, "That's a really clunky sentence" and "You just used that word" and "Why are they having this boring conversation?" Now it no longer comes naturally to me to let the words lie where they fall to be cleaned up later, but I really do believe that's the best way to write a first draft. It just takes too long otherwise.

So I'm going to try very hard to keep that editor locked up in the trunk and to write all the ugly sentences, pointless scenes, and other raw materials that first drafts are made of. There's a story in there somewhere, and it's not going to come out unless it can grow wild.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson discusses the role and history of comedy in novels: "Show me a novel that's not comic and I'll show you a novel that's not doing its job." (Thanks, Henri!)

October 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo is Nigh!

National Novel Writing Month is only 10 days away! This week I finally started getting excited. I've been thinking more about that barely formed idea I mentioned last month, and while it hasn't come much more together, I'm now certain that I'm willing to spend a month with it.

I don't like talking about my novel ideas until I've come up with a way to describe them coherently, and this story definitely isn't to that point yet, but here's what I'll say: the story takes place in the aftermath of an epidemic that has killed a lot of people.

Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by post-apocalyptic settings, doomsday scenarios, and the collapse of civilization. I like to read this type of book (though I've only scratched the surface of the genre), so why not write one? The idea is appealing to me right now because I'm honestly getting tired of what I usually write, which is stories about people's personal problems. It's great subject matter and all, but I feel like it's time to write something where what's at stake affects more than a family.

Incidentally, there's a big earthquake in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, so I was already kind of heading in this direction, but in the U.S., even a large quake is only a limited catastrophe, and that novel is still mostly about a family's personal problems. I'm sure my NaNo novel will also focus heavily on individual lives, but I hope to explore some broader issues, too.

I've decided that what I'm going to do differently this year is allow myself to not end the month with a readable story. In the past, I've always written from beginning to end, making every effort to create a reasonably coherent plot and stay within the bounds of what made sense to put in the story. At the end of November, I always had 50,000 or more words that I could give to friends who understood the roughness of a NaNoWriMo first draft -- not for critique at that point, but to satisfy their curiosity and provide them with some entertainment. (The last couple of years, though, I was so disenchanted with my NaNo novels that I don't think I even passed them on to these interested trusted readers.) I always wrote an actual first draft of a novel (or, to be fair, a chunk of a larger novel).

This year I'm going to aim to write 50,000 words in service of a possible eventual novel. Some will be normal first draft scenes, but I also expect to write a lot of world-building, backstory, and notes that would never go into the novel itself. I might write out of order, and maybe I'll try out different points of view that I won't necessarily keep using. My kernel of an idea is much too vague for me to just start writing a story, so I'm going to try out this method and see how it goes.

I think this is going to be an exciting November.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ MobyLives talks about the problem -- one I've struggled with -- of putting current technology in fiction without turning it into fiction about current technology: "It's a fascinating literary balancing act, the precarious wire between timeliness and timelessness."

October 14, 2010

Things Are Going to Start Happening To Me Now

Not long after the East of Eden writing conference and contest were canceled, I read about another contest in the San Francisco Writers Conference newsletter. The Houston Writers Guild puts on a contest twice a year that's open to everyone. It turned out that the first chapter and synopsis I'd prepared for EoE exactly matched the length of the materials requested by the Houston contest, so with very little additional work, I was able to send off an entry.

Once my submission was in the mail, I tried to think about it as little as possible and not get my hopes up. If you've ever submitted anything to anybody, you know how well that works. Despite my extensive daydreams about winning, I was still pretty shocked when the winners were announced and I learned that my chapter took third place in the mainstream category.

Dude. I won a writing contest. I won the first (non-canceled) writing contest I entered! I'm still kind of stunned.

This is the only feedback I've received on THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE from anyone besides my trusted readers, who are insightful and fair but necessarily biased by knowing me. It's huge to have a stranger (or likely, multiple strangers) decide that the first chapter of my manuscript deserves a prize. Entering a contest isn't the same as seeking representation from an agent, but this bodes well for when it's time to query. Plus, this win will be a lovely item to brag about in a query letter.

Now I need to use this to get truly motivated about making the rest of the manuscript as awesome as the first chapter so the querying can begin.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund of The Juggling Writer is podcasting his novel, HELL COMES WITH WOOD PANELED DOORS, "a humorous coming-of-age story about a family traveling cross country in a possessed station wagon." I'm enjoying the trip so far!

→ Nidya Sarria writes at The Millions about Reading Outside Your Culture: "Yes, Langston Hughes was a black poet from the Harlem Renaissance, far from me in distance and time. But Theme for English B touched a nerve. The speaker's relationship to society could have been my relationship to society."

October 13, 2010

Once and Future Novellas

I finished reading DIFFERENT SEASONS, a novella collection by Stephen King. I previously posted some thoughts on the first two stories. The rest of the collection did not disappoint.

"The Body" follows four 12-year-old boys on a long walk along a set of railroad tracks to view a dead body. If this sounds familiar, you've probably seen the 1986 film Stand By Me that was based on the novella. The story opens with the line "The most important things are the hardest things to say," a theme I agree with that gets explored throughout. There's a lot packed into the story's 150 pages, including topics like growing up, death, friendship, and writing, and I was completely engrossed.

"The Breathing Method" also kept me turning the pages, in part because I never had any idea where it was going. It's a strangely structured tale, with a frame story that's almost as long as the supposedly main story. There's much left unanswered, including why the two stories were put together. Maybe King himself isn't sure. In the afterword to the book, he calls this novella "an off-the-wall horror story about a young woman determined to give birth to her child no matter what (or maybe the story is actually about that odd club that isn't a club)."

Also in the afterword, King discusses being typecast as a horror writer, even though that's not all he writes, as these stories demonstrate. And he talks about the difficulty of finding a market for stories of 25,000 to 35,000 words, particularly with a novella that's mainstream rather than genre. King was writing about this problem in 1982, and I'm sure it's even more difficult now to find print publications interested in works of this size.

But coincidentally, right after I read this, I saw the announcement that Amazon is introducing Kindle Singles:

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century -- works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the "heft" required for book marketing and distribution. . . . Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch "Kindle Singles" -- Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book.

It's a cool idea, and a logical one. Eric at Pimp My Novel has more thoughts on the subject (including noting that he had this idea a year ago): "I believe the sale of e-chapbooks, e-novellas, and even (gasp!) e-short stories via Amazon will help revitalize two flagging genres of American writing: poetry and literary fiction."

There aren't any Kindle Singles available yet, but I look forward to seeing what's offered.

October 8, 2010

Room... and Going Outside the Text

ROOM by Emma Donoghue was released in September, the same month it made the Booker prize shortlist, so I'd been seeing a lot about it on the literary blogosphere. The premise -- presented well by the book trailer -- intrigued and disturbed me: Jack, the five-year-old narrator, has spent his entire life in a room with his Ma, unable to leave, but perfectly content because he doesn't know there's any more to the world.

When I read Edan Lepucki's review at The Millions (contains spoilers), one line caught my attention: "[Jack's Ma] must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained!" I'm still in the middle of Helen DeWitt's THE LAST SAMURAI, and much of the first half of that book is concerned with the difficulties of entertaining (and educating) a five-year-old. Thinking about that connection pushed ROOM from "would like to read someday" to "must read immediately".

I bought ROOM (the Kindle edition) and devoured it in three days, with breaks to read this week's section of THE LAST SAMURAI and marvel at the cognitive dissonance produced by reading both books at once. I spotted all sorts of weird similarities between the books and occasionally confused myself by misinterpreting things due to making an association with the wrong book.

Considering the books together led to me thinking about the stories in ways the authors didn't necessarily intend, but that also aren't necessarily so far from universal themes they may have had in mind. The circumstances of the mother and son in the two books are very different, except to the extent that they aren't. The life that Sibylla in THE LAST SAMURAI has created for herself and Ludo is an isolated one, and she often feels trapped, even if it's not in the literal sense that Ma and Jack are. For both pairs, the intrusion of the outside world leads to problems that didn't exist in the simpler world of just-the-two-of-us. And every time I thought about how different the characters are in the two books, I noticed more ways in which they are alike.

This reading experience made me think again of the column I linked to last week about reading multiple books at once. In the essay, Julia Keller says, "A wonderful literary synergy is created by the accidental juxtaposition of reading materials" and also "You can deliberately set books against each other". I might make a habit of co-reading books that go together in interesting ways. Any suggestions?

Even if you don't choose to pair it with THE LAST SAMURAI, I highly recommend ROOM (though if you're already feeling more disturbed than intrigued, this may not be the book for you). It's clear that Donoghue put a huge amount of thought and research into what this situation would be like and how it would work, and I was constantly impressed by how real and believable the story felt. I loved and hoped for the characters, and I never wanted to put the book (well, my phone) down.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford talks about The Beatles. (Of course I'm going to link to that!) "Their greatness didn't just spring forth: they worked and worked and worked and worked some more. . . . the truth is boring: working very very hard and practicing a very very long time is not the stuff that great stories are made of."

→ A. Victoria Mixon offers 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive: "Why, if you did all this on every single page, you'd never have room for anything else! None of the other stuff you've written, none of the extra description, the unimportant actions, the insignificant dialog, the explanatory exposition, the filler. . ."

→ Vulture has screenshots showing what happens when Hogwarts gets online.

October 1, 2010

Oh Yeah, Duh

I think I should retitle this blog "Oh Yeah, Duh".

First I had to remind myself that, oh yeah, duh, I love reading. And then, huh, that's right, I do vaguely recall that writing is intense.

Now, for my latest blinding flash of obviousness, it's occurred to me that I should read my manuscript before revising it.

I don't want to go out on too much of a limb here, but it might be helpful to know what's in the novel before I try to fix it, right? And there's just a small chance that reading the manuscript might result in renewing my interest in the story, wouldn't you say?

To be fair, there was a point in time that I read this complete draft. I even read it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, as Anne Mini likes to say. But that point in time was over six months ago, and that point in drafts wasn't entirely the current version, though it also wasn't entirely different. But still, come on, how clueless can I be?

So if you need me, I'll be over in the corner with a dunce cap, waiting for my manuscript to print.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book critic Julia Keller explains why she loves reading many books at once. (Thanks, Beyond the Margins!)

→ And James Bridle at addresses the pervasive problem of book guilt: "People have confessed to me that it’s been months since they last picked up a book, because they still haven’t finished the last one."

September 28, 2010

Of Two Minds

This past weekend, I would have been at the East of Eden Writers Conference if it hadn't been canceled. Since my month has been largely consumed by things that have nothing to do with writing, it was mostly a relief to not have to prepare for and attend a writing conference at a time when my mind was occupied elsewhere. On the other hand, I'm having trouble finding the motivation to bring my focus back to writing, and a conference would have been a great jump-start.

My writing life is made up of oppositions like this. One day my novel is a work of brilliance that needs only a little more revision before I unleash it on the world and win fame and fortune. The next day, it's an unredeemable and unreadable piece of melodramatic tripe. My idea for a new novel alternates between fiendishly clever or completely not worth writing, provided I can even manage to write it, which I either certainly can or absolutely can't.

I'm conflicted about blogging. It's taking up too much time, or I need to spend more time on it. I should network and attract more readers, or I shouldn't bother because I don't have enough to say to more readers. Blogging fuels my writing. Or else it distracts me from writing.

I read marvelous books like THE LAST SAMURAI and can't stop thinking about how good they are, and this fills me with: A) inspiration to write something that has this effect on readers. B) despair at how I'll never write something that has this effect on readers. C) desire to do nothing for the rest of the week except hide away with the book and participate in the fascinating discussion at Conversational Reading. D) all of the above.

September 22, 2010

NaNoWriMo Is Coming

September is more than half over, which means November is practically here. And November means National Novel Writing Month. And NaNoWriMo means I'll be writing another novel.

As usual, I'm in the middle of working on some other novel, and I won't be finished with that project before November 1. Every summer I'm sure that I'll be done with whatever draft well before that date, and then by September I'm cautiously optimistic that I can use that deadline to goad myself to completion, and then in October I realize I'm deluded and there's no way I'll make it. This year is different in that I've already made peace with continuing to revise THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE past November. Maybe I'll work on it at the same time as my NaNo novel! (This is another recurring delusion.)

I wrote the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE during NaNoWriMo 2007. It was my sixth time participating, and it was the year I did the most preparation and wrote the most words (over 80,000). That was a great year.

In the two years since then, I haven't been particularly happy with my NaNo novels. I felt some burnout and also had to cope with my own higher standards for my work. Both years I tried starting a novel with little or no plan to see what that was like, and I've concluded that method doesn't work for me. I think the biggest factor in my discontent was that I lacked passion and obsession for the stories I was writing.

By now, I know that I can write enough on a daily basis to reach 50,000 words in 30 days, no problem. The social aspect of NaNo is great fun and at least half the reason I keep coming back, but I'd also like to care again about what I'm writing.

I have this one idea that I couldn't get out of my head back in the spring. It's only a quarter-baked at best, and though it churned in my mind every night for weeks as I lay in bed, I never did work out how to shape it into a story. It will either be a perfect NaNo project because I can spend a month trying to figure out if it works, or it will be another dud that I lose interest in. The obsession factor is potentially there, but I haven't given the idea much thought in a while. I guess I still have some time to see if I can get passionate again before November arrives.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Flavorwire has author photo poses to avoid. (Thanks, MobyLives!)

September 18, 2010

Advice Worth Repeating

This post first appeared as the September Writecraft column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


As I write about the craft of writing, I sometimes worry that I'm repeating myself. I'm certainly repeating advice that I've learned from other writers, who frequently share the same advice as still others. There's a reason for all this repetition. The tips I've encountered over and over again are the best ones out there. I'll take my turn at sharing:

1. Present a scene, not an explanation. This is what people mean by "Show, don't tell," an instruction that always struck me as enigmatic. Readers want to experience the events of a story along with the characters, so give them vivid action, dialogue, and sensory details, not a recap.

"Douglas and Bonnie argued over the laundry" is far less interesting than a scene in which the argument plays out through hurled insults and undergarments. Instead of stating "Howie felt anxious," describe the physical effects of Howie's anxiety or reveal his troubled thoughts. Avoid generic descriptions such as "Meredith was cute" that neither paint a picture for the reader nor offer insight into the mind of the character who's appreciating Meredith's cuteness.

During important parts of a story, allow the reader to get inside the scene and the characters. At times, however, it will be appropriate to summarize. If the argument about laundry is incidental, a sentence of exposition may suffice.

September 16, 2010

Good Books I've Been Avoiding

Participation in real life has kept me from writing or blogging lately, but I have found time for reading. I'm working my way through two books right now, and as it happens, they're both books that I didn't think I wanted to read.

For ages, I've been meaning to read Stephen King's ON WRITING, and I finally got around to buying it (there's a new tenth anniversary edition). But I haven't read that yet, because it occurred to me that I've never read anything by King and it might make sense to have an idea what his fiction is like before I start on his writing advice.

I'd never read any Stephen King because I don't like horror. Now, I am well aware of two problems with that statement. First, King doesn't only write horror. Second, I have throughly enjoyed some works of horror (the movie 28 Days Later comes to mind), and I wish I would stop pre-judging books based on genre. There are certain things in fiction that appeal to me more than other things, but mostly I like a good story, and King is known above all for being a great storyteller. It was silly of me to not read Stephen King because I think I don't like horror.

I asked for recommendations on Facebook and started with DIFFERENT SEASONS, a collection of four novellas, none of them traditional horror. Maybe I should have challenged myself more and tried a horror book, but several friends praised this collection. So far I've read the first two stories.

I was sucked into "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", as fast as I was into the excellent movie made from it, which I saw only a few years ago. I was a little sad as I read that I couldn't be surprised by what happens, but I did appreciate how knowing the ending allowed me the pleasure of picking up on the hints and foreshadowing as the story unfolds.

I hadn't seen the movie based on "Apt Pupil" and didn't know anything about the story. I would categorize this novella as horror of the psychological type; it's all about the horrific ways people treat each other. I didn't enjoy reading it, but it's not really a story for enjoying. Somewhere in the long middle (this is the longest novella in the collection) I considered giving up, but by the end, I was impressed by the story's effectiveness and glad I pushed on to see where it went.

I'll read the other two stories soon, but last week I remembered that I'd bought the Conversational Reading fall read and that I'd better start it before the discussion begins on September 19. The book is THE LAST SAMURAI by Helen DeWitt, I'd never heard of it before the selection was announced, and all I knew about it was what appeared in the blog post. All of which I'd forgotten by last week, so I found myself staring at this intimidatingly large book with a samurai sword on the cover and thinking, "I don't care about samurai. I don't want to read this." (More silliness, as I'm sure I could enjoy a good story about samurai.)

As it turns out, though, this is not a book about samurai. This is a book about a distractable classics scholar and her genius five-year-old, it's full of discussions of ancient languages, the text is riddled with typographic tricks, and why did nobody tell me about this book before? I devoured the first reading assignment over a couple of days. We'll see if I can manage to hold back and read along with the six-week schedule or if I'll rush on ahead. In the meantime, I guess I'd better go back and finish the other book I didn't want to read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ James Forrester at the Guardian Books Blogs says, "In creating good historical fiction, it is essential to tell lies." (Thanks, Pimp My Novel!)

→ Relatedly, K.M. Weiland posts Research: When in Doubt, Make It Up.

→ On the Book Lady's Blog, Frederick Reiken discusses books that jump around in time. (Thanks, PWxyz!)

September 1, 2010

Not Writing

As far as jobs go, novel writing is not that hard. Writing doesn't require heavy lifting or exposure to unpleasant weather. It doesn't involve responsibility for the safety of real people or the success of a corporation. A writer doesn't have to answer to unreasonable bosses, difficult coworkers, or annoying customers. A day of writing doesn't start with putting on ironed business attire or a uniform, and it doesn't end by changing out of work clothes covered in dirt or ickier substances.

Writing isn't easy, either. Few jobs are. Producing an entire novel takes mental effort, time, discipline, and persistence. Revision requires even more of all these. Writing is work taken on only by people who have a desire to do it, but it's still work.

Today I'm pondering whether the hardest part of writing is not writing. I'm not saying, "Oh, my soul so yearns to write that any day spent not writing fills me with pain!" I mean that if I'm working on a project and devote several hours to it and make some kind of progress, I feel pretty good. If I only get through a few paragraphs, I look back on the day as more difficult than if I do a few pages, but either way, I think to myself that I'm pretty damn lucky to have this job, incomeless as it may currently be. But if I intend to write and instead spend hours doing everything in the world except focus on my novel, I mostly think to myself that I suck and this is an impossible task and my novel will never be good enough so there's no point in even trying.

Guess which kind of day I'm having?

Memo to self: There is one simple way to stop not writing, and it is to write. It may not be easy, but it can't be as hard and unpleasant as what you're doing now.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chérie l'Ecrivain at The Rejectionist talks about coincidences in life and fiction.

A resolution on the relative statuses of mainstream, literary, and genre fiction by the Bookavore. (Thanks, The Millions!)

August 30, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I bought MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson after a friend read it and then told me over and over that she thought I'd really like it.

Usually this is what happens when I get a book recommendation: I say, "Oh, yes, I've been wanting to read that" or "Oh, I haven't heard of that, it sounds interesting" (the case in this situation). I dutifully add the title to the infinitely long list of books I want to read. A year later, the recommender asks if I ever read that book. I didn't. I sheepishly explain about the size of my list. I don't explain that I never actually read the books on the list. The books I read are ones that somebody hands me, or that some particular whim convinces me I must read immediately, or that I hear about right before I decide there's a compelling excuse to make a book purchase despite the hundreds of books on my shelf that I've never read. It's all a bit of a problem.

Several previous recommendations from this particular friend have gone unheeded in this way, and MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was similarly destined for the black hole of the list, except it happened that the third or fourth time my friend brought up the book, I was about to go on a trip. And going on a trip is one of the compelling excuses to buy a book. Never mind the crisp, newly purchased books still left unread from my last trip. This was a perfect opportunity to make my first Kindle purchase and try reading a book entirely on my phone. (The last ebook was free and read mostly on my computer, you see.)

The small screen reading experience was so convenient that I'm deciding what ebook I'm going to buy next, and MAJOR PETTIGREW was so much fun that I can't wait for Helen Simonson to put out another book. My friend's recommendation was right on.

The novel's protagonist, the retired, widowed Major Pettigrew, lives in a small English village where everyone knows each other's business. When he starts a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widow who runs the village shop, everybody around the Major lets it be known that they consider her an inappropriate companion due to her class and race. There's much talk of propriety among the Major's insufferable family members and so-called friends, but he's the only one operating with impeccable manners and morals at all times.

The stakes start small, with a disagreement over a family heirloom, but in time the Major gets caught up in a series of larger battles with increasingly serious consequences. Meanwhile, his friendship with Mrs. Ali becomes both more important and more complicated.

I enjoyed the way MAJOR PETTIGREW built gradually and with a subtlety that matches the Major's personality. The book and its characters are very funny, but in a subdued way. The tone and humor reminded me of Mark Haddon's A SPOT OF BOTHER, though that was a much darker comedy than this one. They're both great books. You should add them to your list.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller presents A reader's advice to writers: "I can tell you why I keep reading, and why I don't, why I recommend one book to my fellow readers, but not another."

→ Mary Jaksch at Write to Done advises adding some "weird" to make your writing memorable.

August 26, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

→ Assured my family members repeatedly that my novel isn't about them. Especially my brother, who has already "identified" himself in two of my previous manuscripts and who shares certain traits with a certain main character in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, which has only become more noticeable now that my brother has become a father. All of which is completely unintentional, because if anything, this character is the one modeled most closely on me, and it's not my fault that my brother and I are kind of alike. It's our parents' fault.

→ Discovered new similiarities between my family members and my characters everywhere I looked. Began to panic about whether my family would ever believe that the parallels were coincidental, or at least unconscious. Realized that while I've never paid much attention to "write what you know" as a piece of advice, "you write what you know" may be an inevitable curse.

→ Research. Mostly in the form of observing the behavior of the various kid family members encountered on my travels, with the aim of better writing the children in my novel at their different ages. Especially infancy. Rest assured that I would have been just as attentive toward my newborn nephew and inquisitive about his habits if I didn't have babies to write about.

→ Watched my father at work in his recording studio doing pitch correction on a vocal track until every single word sounded perfect. "That seems so agonizing," I thought. "I would never have the patience for that." Then it occurred to me that I'd just spent a week polishing a chapter until every single word was perfect.

→ Unearthed a box of stories I wrote in elementary and middle school, including a thick folder from eighth grade containing multiple drafts and worksheets on the revision process. I guarantee you'll be hearing more about this.

→ Answered "What's going on with your writing?" and "What's your novel about?" lots and lots of times. Still not as good at fielding these questions as I think I should be. Did not resort to responding with, "It's about you, okay?" (Because it's not.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Maggie Jamison offers fantastic advice about the exact issue I've been struggling with: "How do you create a character who suffers immensely, but who doesn’t sound whiny to the reader?" (Thanks, writerjenn!)

→ Bryan Russell at the Alchemy of Writing reminds writers to stay open to change when revising.

August 25, 2010

Back From Reality

I spent two weeks immersed in a wonderful, relaxing vacation. After this came two days of sitting around my house in a post-travel haze. At the beginning of the trip, I blogged about how returning to my novel reminded me what it's like to get lost in fiction. It turns out that long exposure to reality, especially the carefree vacation form of reality, also leaves me dazed and confused: "Oh, I have a novel? A blog? I'm a writer? I'm supposed to be writing something now?" So, no, I haven't really done anything since getting home, other than catching up on the many blogs I follow.

Instead of staring at the internet, I should be contemplating the Secrets Chart and deciding how I'm going to reconstruct THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE. Or perhaps the situation calls for moving right on to Chapter 2 and reminding myself that I actually enjoy this fiction thing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sean Di Lizio chronicles the experience of participating in the International 3-Day Novel Contest.

→ K.M. Weiland shares one of my favorite pieces of writing advice: Skip The Boring Parts. (Serendipitously, I cover this topic in my upcoming Writecraft column.)

→ Dan Wilbur helps you judge a book (snarkily) by its cover with Better Book Titles. My favorites are this one and this one. (Thanks, GalleyCat!)

August 17, 2010


Remember that contest submission I was preparing for the East of Eden Writers Conference? Well, the conference -- and its contest -- have been canceled. Not enough people registered to make it economically feasible to put on the event, and on top of that, the venue closed.

I'm disappointed. I'm sure the members of my writing club who spent the past year organizing the conference are even more disappointed. They've been working hard. It would have been a good conference, and it's a shame things didn't work out.

There tends to be a lot of disappointment along the path to success in writing. Last year I collected a large number of rejection letters. At first it was cool simply to be rejected, because it made me feel like a legitimate writer, but after a while I became impatient for the happy ending to my struggle. After a longer while, I understood that my novel and I weren't yet good enough. It was disappointing and demoralizing and no fun at all.

But I got past it. I can't figure out how to say the next part without sounding like a motivational speaker, so I'll just go with it: Staying on that path to success requires persistence, resilience, and a weird combination of honest self-assessment and overconfidence. Instead of quitting, I worked on another novel and focused on becoming a better writer. Disappointment isn't fatal.

I hope the conference planners can console themselves with knowing how many valuable skills and connections they gained while organizing. And I hope they are able to offer some type of smaller event or contest this fall, as has been hinted. I know that my own work on my first chapter and synopsis was definitely not wasted. I'm going to need those same pages to be as strong as possible when I next start collecting rejection letters -- and maybe this time a happy ending.

August 12, 2010

Seeking Feedback

This post first appeared as the August Writecraft column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


Critique, like revision, is an essential part of the writing process and one that many writers dread. It's scary to share your carefully crafted words for the explicit purpose of learning what's wrong with them. But there's no way around it: if you dream of the day when thousands of people will read your book, you have to start by letting a few people read your manuscript.

It's not trivial to find readers who can give you honest, useful feedback. Family and friends may be eager to read your work in progress, but don't expect to hear more than a few (biased) compliments when they do. Most people, even frequent readers, don't have experience reacting with much more than an "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." You may be able to coax out a more detailed opinion with questioning, but when sharing with people close to you, it's often better to accept the ego boost gratefully and then look for real critique elsewhere.

Other writers are a natural choice for feedback. They're already accustomed to analyzing stories in great detail, and they understand that when you hand them a manuscript, it's not going to be as polished as a finished book. You can join a critique group or find a writing friend to trade manuscripts with one-on-one. An added benefit of mutual critique is that as you practice responding to the work of others, you'll get better at evaluating your own writing.

You may also know non-writers who have experience thinking critically about stories. Anyone in a book club is a good candidate. Or ask that friend with a book review blog or the one who has lots of opinions whenever you watch movies together. Remember that reading for critique and offering thoughtful comments takes time. If you won't be reciprocating the favor with a critique of your own, consider treating your reader to a meal while you discuss their feedback.

August 8, 2010

Diving Back In

Writing can suck you in deep. I'd almost forgotten.

I was very busy last week, and it was partly just having so much to do that led to an unplanned blogging hiatus. But it was also that I was primarily busy with revising Chapter 1 of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for the East of Eden Writers Conference contest.

Though I've been doing lots of thinking and planning work for the novel over the past few months, there hasn't been any actual writing during that time. Last week, I dove back into the manuscript itself. I ripped apart paragraphs and threw out useless sentences and sent conversations off in new directions. Most of all, I reinhabited the characters to figure out what they were thinking, experiencing, and trying to say.

I believe it's that process of becoming the characters that makes writing so all-consuming. After intense writing sessions, I emerge a little bit uncertain of who and where I am, and definitely unclear on what season it is. Or I don't fully emerge at all. I appreciate how tolerant my loved ones are about my occasional (okay, frequent) lapses in attention when I'm deep into a story and the fictional people are more present for me than the real ones.

I've been reluctant to start the next round of revision because my expectations were more about finding it difficult than finding it enjoyable. Last week reminded me that while writing is difficult, as well as intense, it's also something I really like doing. Last week also demonstrated that my concern about not having time for both writing and blogging is legitimate. I deliberately started this blog during a non-writing period in the hope that I'd get into a groove I could sustain when I returned to writing. I'm still working on that.

For now, I'm on vacation, visiting family for two weeks. I've known for a while that when the trip was over, I'd start revising for real. I think I'm finally ready for it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black looks at what Star Wars teaches us about character introductions.

July 30, 2010

Don't Kill Them With Kindness

Halfway through reading DRACULA, I noticed one thing that was bugging me about how the story plays out, and as is the way with noticed things, I then couldn't stop seeing it. It's worth bringing up because it's a problem that can surface in any story. The problem is that the characters in DRACULA are all too damn agreeable.

There's a villain, sure, but Count Dracula only appears in a fairly small number of scenes. The majority of the book follows a group of friends who are trying to defeat the vampire. Like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, right? Except much of the plot of the Buffy series (and the most interesting part, as far as I'm concerned) focuses on the conflicts between the friends and their changing relationships. Whereas the Dracula slayers don't argue, they unquestioningly go along with whatever Van Helsing wants them to do, they always understand each other (often without even having to speak), and on the rare occasions when there is disagreement, forgiveness is soon asked for and immediately granted. That's all very nice for the characters, who have a difficult enough task in front of them, but where's the fun for the reader?

In real life, we hope for as little conflict and difficulty as possible. Real life doesn't usually make a good story. Stories need conflict, and the more conflict, the better. DRACULA delivers a strong main plot, complete with life-and-death stakes and mounting obstacles. But I wish Bram Stoker had spiced up the many planning scenes with some arguments and sniping. I mean, come on, three of the main characters were recent romantic rivals, and not once does anyone grumble, "If she'd chosen me, things would have turned out differently."

As I said in my last post, I'm always reading to learn, and this book was a good reminder to look for ways to make my characters cope with even more conflict. It's not easy, because I feel bad for them. And they feel bad when they fight, and as a result, it's been pointed out that my latest draft contains too many apologies. I'm really sorry about that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book distributor David "Skip" Prichard has an optimistic answer to Will the Book Survive?: "I think this is the most exciting time to be involved in the book business. Not only are books receiving more media attention, the new technologies offer an unprecedented opportunity to engage readers." (Thanks, PWxyz!)

→ Sonya Chung at The Millions analyzes different types of literary endings. (Thanks, Dystel & Goderich!)

July 28, 2010

Reading to Learn

I finished reading DRACULA, finally. It took me a while to get through the book partly due to being busy and forgetting that I love reading, but in part because I lost interest in the middle of the story and had to force myself to continue. The ending was satisfyingly gripping, as was the beginning, but the middle dragged (as middles often do).

Agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, "the one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, 'Do I like this?'"

I agree with the point he goes on to make, that "The real question aspiring writers should ask is not whether they liked a book, but whether they think the author accomplished what they set out to accomplish." But I do think there's value in considering whether you like a book, as long as you're thinking about the reasons why or why not, then figuring out how to do or avoid the same things in your own writing.

I didn't actually dislike DRACULA, though I've read plenty of books I liked more. I got a lot out of reading it and noticing what worked for me and what didn't. (More on that tomorrow.) While it's more fun to read a book that I love, it's usually more educational to read one I'm less than crazy about.

Bram Stoker accomplished what he intended to with DRACULA, and then some, since the book is still being read over a century later. It has survived because it's an exciting story told in an interesting way, and whatever flaws it may have are relatively minor compared to the book's longevity. (Insert vampire joke here.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tayari Jones urges readers to seek out books by black writers: "A reader-focused initiative reminds everyone that depriving the broad marketplace of books by black authors is a crime against society, not just an offense against the careers of a few folks who happen to write books." (Thanks, L. Rebecca Harris!)

→ Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond the Margins warns, "Revise in Haste; Repent in Leisure" and suggests some starting questions for revision.

July 25, 2010

Secrets and Office Supplies

I previously wrote about using index cards to plan a revision. I expect I'll be doing some form of index card event rearrangement before I embark on my third draft, but I'm not quite ready for that step yet. First, I have a specific aspect of the novel I want to focus on. I also have a large collection of sticky notes. These forces came together to create the Secrets Chart:

July 22, 2010

There's More to Writing Than Writing

This morning I stared into space for a while. I paced around the room. I scrawled notes onto half a dozen index cards. It was a productive morning.

Writing is, if I may be so bold, an indispensable part of the writing process. But thinking is crucial as well. The trouble with thinking is that it can't be measured with nice metrics like word or page count, and to a casual observer, it looks a lot like procrastinating. In fact, legitimate thinking can eventually become a form of procrastination if none of the brilliant thinkety thoughts are ever set down in writing.

So don't feel guilty for taking time to think instead of writing when you need to, but be realistic about when you need to. I give myself long, hardcore thinking sessions when I have big story problems that I need to resolve in advance or risk writing thousands of words in the wrong direction. When I know what comes next and am merely avoiding the scene or uncertain what's going to happen in it, I force myself to tackle the damn thing and figure it out through writing.

I'm between drafts right now, transitioning from the not-actually-doing-anything stage to the serious-revision-planning stage. I've been fiddling with index cards and other office supplies for a couple of weeks now, which I'll talk about next time, but this morning was the first solid chunk of nothing-but-thinking that I've had in a while. I made real progress. It felt good.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Janet Fitch encapsulates every useful guideline for writing dialogue into one brilliant post.

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard has some encouraging words about coping with rejection: "The fact is, rejection and negative feedback never feel good. They just don't, and if your twentieth rejection bothers you as much as your first, it's not because there's something wrong with you, it's because you're human."

→ Rands in Repose explains How to Write a Book. Big topic, big ideas, all valuable. Rands is coming from the perspective of a nonfiction writer, but his advice applies just as well to novels. (Thanks, Louise!)

July 20, 2010

Reading Confession #2

I often forget that I love reading.

I can't tell you how many times in recent years I've started a book and thought, "Oh yeah, books! I love reading books!" Or how many times I've been in the middle of a book, gotten too busy to read for a day or two, and apparently lost sight of the fact that I should find out how the story ends. This can happen even when I'm really enthusiastic about the story.

It's not that I have a bad memory. I actually have a rather good memory, especially when it comes to fiction, which is fortunate, since it allows me to resume reading after (sometimes) weeks and still follow the plot. And it's not like I ever seem to forget that I enjoy, say, watching movies or drinking coffee. But I sure do spend a lot of time in imitation of a person who doesn't like to read.

So I confess that I haven't gotten much farther in DRACULA than I was a week ago. I've been busy, yes, but my real excuse is that I'm too silly to know what I like.

Meanwhile, in the latest news of the coming printpocalypse, The New York Times reports that Amazon sold more Kindle books than hardcovers in recent months. I'm not excited by the idea of print books going away, but I won't be sad if hardcovers are phased out. I don't much like reading hardcover books because I find them heavy and harder to hold than paperbacks. I have no idea of the economic implications, but a future in which all new releases are printed in paperback is one that appeals to me.

July 16, 2010

Thickening the Plot

I write a monthly column for WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club. Today I'm busy working on my column for next month's issue, so in lieu of a regular post, here's my July Writecraft column.


The first novel I wrote is packed with events. Throughout the lengthy manuscript, my protagonist goes places, meets people, and encounters challenging situations. What's it about? Well, there's this guy, and after high school he stays at home while his friends go off to college, and then . . . some stuff happens. The story contains well-developed characters in realistic scenarios, but it wasn't until several years and novels later that I recognized it has no plot.

Plot isn't just a series of events. This is far from obvious. Even though I'd read countless novels before writing one of my own, I hadn't taken much notice of the way a sequence of linked episodes propels a story forward. I set out to capture an important year in a character's life (a reasonable topic for a novel), but I wrote it too much like reality, in which incidents occur mostly at random and with little connection or reason. That doesn’t make good fiction.

A plot is a structured progression of selected events that build to a resolution. Goal-oriented characters struggle against increasing complications until they succeed or fail, usually changing in the process. In retrospect, a tipoff to the plot trouble in my first novel is my uncertainty over when the story should end. My poor hero doesn't have any particular desires or avenues for change, the conflict doesn't intensify, and there's no conclusion to reach. Why would anyone keep reading if it's arbitrary what happens next?

July 14, 2010

Reading on the Screen

Recently Amazon made me very happy by finally releasing Kindle software for Android, my phone's operating system. I don't have a Kindle device, and while I read a book on a borrowed one and found the experience pleasant enough, it didn't compel me to buy one. But I was intrigued by the idea of reading a book on a gadget I already carry in my pocket all the time.

I figured for my initial test run, I wouldn't invest any money, so I started with one of the millions of out-of-copyright books available for free. I chose DRACULA, since a couple of friends read it recently, and hey, vampires are all the rage. A post about the book will come next week -- right now Kindle tells me I'm 42% through.

I'd previously downloaded Kindle for Mac to look at some first chapter samples, and I began reading DRACULA on my laptop. When I got hungry (for blood?) and went to eat lunch, I started up the phone app, and through the magic of syncing, it automatically found the spot where I'd left off reading on the computer.

The ability to transfer seamlessly between devices is a huge benefit. I've been reading quite a bit my phone while out and about, and it's great to get in some reading during times when I otherwise wouldn't (I'm not in the habit of carrying a book around). I don't mind reading on the small phone screen, but constantly turning pages gets a little tedious, so I've read much more of the book on my laptop, in longer sessions. I have no problem staring at a backlit screen for hours on end, and reclining with my computer on a lapdesk is somewhat more comfortable for me than holding a book. I'm finding a lot of positives in this screen reading experience.

I expect to read more books this way, even ones I pay for. I don't yet think I'm going to buy a Kindle device, though I'm not ruling out that ending to this story. I still foresee the purchase of some new paper books at a local independent bookstore in my near future. And I'm sure the topic of ebooks is something I'll be talking about more.

It's a topic a lot of people are talking about right now. Among the many pieces on the future of books that I've read or heard recently, two worth checking out are Mike Shatzkin's prediction about Where will bookstores be five years from now? and a Morning Edition story on Stanford's Engineering Library getting rid of books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A. Victoria Mixon enumerates 6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers and 6 Who Will Succeed.

→ The New York Observer investigates a secret, writers-only room at the New York Public Library. (Thanks, MobyLives!)

→ The New York Times looks at book trailers. (Thanks, BookNinja!)

July 10, 2010

Revision Is Just a Phase (And Then Another Phase)

During revision, you can't expect to do everything at once. A flawless second draft is a wonderful daydream, but it's an unlikely reality. Revision happens in phases.

When I started the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I made a deliberate choice to focus on character and plot, while leaving the development of setting and period details for later. This was a natural order for me, since setting is the part of storytelling I think about least. It also makes sense in general: you can still figure out if pacing and motivations work even when the characters are wandering around in something of a featureless void. Plus, keeping things vague in earlier drafts means you avoid doing research or worldbuilding that later becomes unnecessary when you remove a scene or subplot.

I believe my intention at the beginning of the draft was also not to worry about the careful crafting of every line. Again, putting off this step is sensible because it means you don't invest too much time on material that may not make it into the next draft. I seem to have forgotten this plan almost immediately, which helps explain why I spent a good eight months on a draft I wanted to get out in two or three. (Additional explanation: I have never, ever been right about how long something will take.)

Now I have a tight, nicely written draft, and if all I had to do was bring the setting to life and read up on 1960s childbirth practices, this novel would be going really well. Alas, though I made huge improvements to the characters and plot in this round of revision, there are still major weaknesses that require more big changes.

So I'm figuring out the next phase. I certainly won't be starting over, as I did for the second draft, but this revision is going to be more substantial than I'd hoped. It would be great if I could fix the remaining story issues and simultaneously build up the setting, all in the third draft. But I suspect that's just another wonderful daydream.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins explores the idea that stories endure longer than the words that tell them.

July 8, 2010

Responsible Internet Usage

Mamagotcha asked how I regulate my internet usage. While her comment was on a post about reading, what little advice I have relates to writing, so I'll focus on that.

Using the internet isn't inherently bad, but it's important to prioritize it properly. Writing time should be writing time, not internet time -- or laundry time, dishes time, or cleaning-dust-from-the-keyboard time. Some days, knowing there is undone housework nearby distracts me almost as much as the online world (which is lovely for my house, but doesn't help my writing). The extra challenge of the internet is that it's right there on the same device I use for writing.

I address this problem by temporarily taking my computer offline during designated writing times. Lately I haven't been as careful about this technique as I should, but for a while I had a predetermined set of hours every day that I'd disable the wireless on my computer.

I have enough willpower that I don't turn the wireless connection back on before I'm supposed to, whereas clicking over to email or Facebook is such an ingrained habit that I can't stop myself except by making these inaccessible. Others may need to resort to more drastic measures. Author Jeff VanderMeer has his wife hide the router every morning.

You have to be realistic about what strategy allows you to get writing done. Hannah Moskowitz recently blogged about her writing process, and I had to laugh at "I flip to the internet every 70-100 words and screw around", because that's exactly what I do if I don't take away my wireless access. Moskowitz gets through two drafts in two weeks, she has one book in print, and another one's coming out next year, so I believe she's being realistic that these internet habits work for her. I'll keep writing the practically old-fashioned way.

July 6, 2010


The other day a friend and I were talking about rereading. She often rereads books she likes, and so do many other readers I know. They talk about how comfortable it is to revisit old favorites. They tell me that they turn to familiar books when they feel like reading but don't have the energy to get involved in a new fictional world.

I totally get this. It takes a certain amount of mental effort to start reading something new, and that's exactly why my "books read" record often shows that I spent a week on one book and then a week or two not reading any fiction while I waited for some perfect alignment of time and brainspace. Would this pattern change if I became a rereader?

Because right now, I almost never reread. In the three and a half years I've been keeping this book list, I reread two novels, both for a specific purpose. I reread THE GREAT GATSBY because I was assigned Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND for a class, and I wanted to be able to intelligently discuss the parallels that the critics drew between the two stories. I was also curious whether I'd like GATSBY more than I had in high school. (Answer: Not a whole lot more, but I really enjoyed NETHERLAND.) This was definitely not comfort rereading.

The second book I reread was THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. It's one of my favorite books, but like most of my favorites, I'd only read it once. I wanted to experience the book again before seeing the movie. (Movie review: Not badly done, but not great. I liked some of the choices but hated others. Read the book.) This is certainly a novel that warrants a second reading, since there's so much that can't be fully understood until you get to later parts of the story. Reading it again was wonderful, comfortable, like visiting old friends, all those things people say about rereading, and it made me think I should reread more.

But there are so many books in the world! That's what keeps me from picking up old favorites. Time is finite, and if I read a book I've read before, then I'm not reading one I haven't. I'm a slow reader, which makes the time problem even worse. How will I ever get through my always-growing "to read" list if I repeat?

How do other readers balance the old and the new?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Editor A. Victoria Mixon has some reasons to pat yourself on the back in 5 Things to Celebrate About Finishing Your First Draft.

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins offers a stern translation of your critique partner's gentle feedback.