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!)