October 31, 2012

A Pleasant Change

I've been in a different writing mode this week, and it's been a rather nice experience. I mentioned that for my application to Lit Camp, I needed to get my first chapter into shape, so I started by printing it out and reading it over.

That part of the experience wasn't so nice. The last time I worked on the first chapter was a year and a half ago, when I had progressed a year and a half less far in my development as a writer. Compared to what I'm writing now, I didn't think the chapter was very good. To be honest, I hated it so much that by the end I wasn't even reading all the words because I was so eager to be finished.

I knew this problem would exist, and I've written about it before. There's never consistency between the beginning and end of a draft on any lengthy pass. My best work is whatever I wrote most recently, but I'm not going to submit a chapter from the middle of the novel. Especially because my novel has a damn fine opening -- except that it was suffering from painfully awkward sentences and stretches of utterly boring dialogue.

So I took up my pen and started attacking the pages. I can't really say why this was a paper-and-pen task when I do most of my work on the computer, but it was. (Maybe I'll come up with some musings on this later.) I was ruthless, and I was working hard, and it was difficult, slow work, but I was making serious improvements. And then suddenly it was four hours later. The next day I continued where I left off, and same thing: I was shocked to find four hours had passed.

I'd love to tell you that every day I write for four hours straight without succumbing to any distractions, but that would be a great big lie. You might speculate that since I've been mostly working on paper, I couldn't as easily get lost in online distractions, but I don't think that's the main reason this was different. I was just highly focused in a way I haven't been in a while, and maybe it's due to the different nature of the task, or maybe it's simply that it's a different task and I've been desperate for a change.

If this level of editing is always going to be this engrossing and satisfying, I'd love to keep going with the next chapter and the next. Alas, I need to get back to the rewriting I've been doing and see it through to the end of the story. But I will get there. And then I guess I can look forward to this strange reward of crossing things out and filling margins with my indecipherable scrawl.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins talks about why The Novel with Many Narrators is a Multiheaded Beast: "More narrators means more work. No question. You need to know each of your narrators very well. Think out each of their back stories, mannerisms, quirks, fears. Know everything about how each one views the world, looks, moves, ties shoe laces."

October 26, 2012

Great Stuff Happening: FOGcon and Lit Camp

There are a couple of Bay Area events happening next spring that I've already started getting excited about and planning for.

→ Registration just opened for FOGcon, the speculative literature convention that I had a great time at last year and this year. FOGcon 2013, with a theme of Law, Order, & Crime, will be held March 8 to 10 in Walnut Creek (east of San Francisco and Oakland).

This is a convention for readers who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres. Many of the attendees also write, so there are some events aimed at writers, but the main audience is fans -- people who like to read and think deeply about stories. The con activities are mostly panel discussions, some about the theme topic and some not. Now that the con is in its third year and growing in size, I expect the schedule will be fuller than ever.

I'm looking forward to my third FOGcon. I hope to see many friends there again and to recruit some new attendees! Register before November 15 for an early rate of $60.

→ Perhaps I shouldn't tell anyone about Lit Camp, because this new writers conference is juried, and the less competition for the 40 spots, the better my odds will be. I'm submitting a writing sample to apply for the conference, which will take place April 4 to 6 near Calistoga (north of San Francisco and Santa Rosa).

I have no idea what my chance of acceptance is, but I'd love the opportunity to attend this event organized by Litquake and the San Francisco Writers' Grotto. The faculty are writers and editors from a variety of publications who will lead workshops and panel discussions for the lucky selected attendees. (To be clear, after acceptance, there's still a rather sizable cost for the conference and accommodations.)

The submission deadline is December 31, leaving plenty of time to procrastinate, but I plan to get my application ready well before then. Next week I'll be pausing in the forward progress of my revision to go back to my first chapter and polish it as thoroughly as I can. After that, fingers crossed!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade offers a helpful explanation of techniques for writing in deep point of view: "Avoid ... putting extra words into your sentence that remove the reader from the experience of the character. When you go through your life you probably don't think distantly about what you're perceiving. You hear a car horn and you don't think, 'I'm hearing a car horn.' You think, 'Hey, that's a car horn!'"

October 22, 2012

Ramping Update

A month ago I announced a goal for myself. I said, "I'm going to increase my hourly goal each week for the next four weeks. At the end of that time, I'm going to post about this again and tell you how well I'm doing."

Well, it's the end of that time, and I am now bracing myself for your mild disappointment, because I have to admit that I failed in my goal. Go ahead. Lay it on me. Really let me have it.

Done? All right. Now I'm going to rationalize why my failure is okay.

(I'm only partly serious about it being okay, because part of me hates that I failed to meet my arbitrary goal and doesn't see any way to live with it. But another part of me understands that one of the least productive uses of my time is beating myself up over past failures to make productive use of my time. I'm telling you this to assure you that I'm neither consumed by self-loathing nor bathing in zen-like tranquility, but somewhere in the mundane middle.)

First of all, I didn't fail to the point of not working on changing my habits at all. The first two weeks of the endeavor, I ramped up as planned, and in fact I even did one more hour of writing than I'd committed to. Of course the project grew more difficult as it went on, and the third week was just a flat-out failure in which I wrote less than half of the hours I was supposed to for no particularly good reason.

I made an important realization during that third week. Some time ago I began calculating my productivity by week, and since then I've developed a bad habit of thinking, "Ugh, this week has gone badly so far and I'm way behind, so there's no point in even trying until next week." To counteract this tendency, it would work a lot better for me to think about each writing day independently and adopt the philosophy that every day is a chance for a fresh start.

So for rationalizing purposes, I would like to put forward the theory that coming to an important realization to improve future habits is far more useful than meeting an arbitrary goal. Therefore, this week of failure was probably the most useful one of the experiment. Heck, I'm so convinced of this that it doesn't even feel like a rationalization.

In the fourth and final week, I was determined to make up for my failings of the week before, and I had a carefully laid plan to fit in my required hours. But my calendar had different ideas, and I was up against a greater than usual amount of competition for my time during the week. I might have met my goal if I'd skipped some of those appointments, but instead I fell somewhat short. I've decided that my failure in week four was only a technicality.

The way I was focusing that week, I would have made the goal if I'd been home a little more, because I spent just about every non-scheduled hour working on my novel (that's why there were no blog posts last week). In the past, I've usually accomplished very little writing during a busy week due to my distractibility. For me, this week was a huge success, despite not quite meeting my numerical goal.

Now here's the biggest rationalization of all: It's kind of a relief that I failed to do what I committed to. If I'd succeeded easily, I'd be kicking myself for going so long without writing more hours all the time. As hard as it is for me to accept, I'm already writing at close to my limit.

Once I've had a chance to recover from your disappointment, I'll try to share some more embarrassing admissions on this subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Bill Morris looks at five cases of good and bad literary timing: "While Shakar's misfortune was that events [9/11] made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen's good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair."

October 12, 2012

I Am Uncomfortable Writing This

At various times, I've encountered the advice to not shy away from writing the things that make you uncomfortable. Jenn Hubbard touched on this topic recently, posting, "You must write about the thing you must not write about."

It's good advice. I often set out to write a scene one way, and then I think, "Oh, well, instead I could have them do THAT. No way, that's much too gross/shocking/ethically questionable. Well then, I guess it's perfect." I'm not proud of the twisted things my mind comes up with, and writing them sometimes gives me an icky feeling, but I know if I can produce the same feeling in the reader, I've created something powerful. (Yes, that in itself is twisted. Frankly, writing fiction is a sadistic practice. Also, I was lying: I'm very proud.)

Some of the uncomfortable stuff I'm talking about is of the obvious sort. For example, my novel contains more vomit than anyone really wants to read about. Including on the first page. In the abstract, I don't consider this an especially good strategy, and I know readers may find it off-putting, because I find it off-putting myself. But I've given that opening vomit a lot of thought (the writing life is so glamorous!), and I have clear, non-gratuitous reasons for including it. It's uncomfortable, but I believe it's good and effective for the story.

Last week I was contemplating a scene idea that made me uneasy in a very different way. There's a definite individual element to many uncomfortable topics -- some readers may be even more bothered by this story event than I am, and others won't give it a second thought. The incident involves an apparently atheist character who, in an extreme moment, is moved to prayer.

The character's beliefs don't play a large role in the story, but I have established that he's scornful of the idea of religion or a higher power. He is not a person who prays, and he would never anticipate that he might resort to prayer in desperate circumstances. But he does pray in this scene, and while it doesn't lead to a religious epiphany or anything like that, it affects how he views the outcome of the situation.

In the version of the scene from the previous draft, the character makes his appeal to God even while thinking that he doesn't know if God exists. When I reached the scene again during this revision, I wondered whether to keep the prayer at all, because the whole thing was fairly weak and uninteresting. Then I imagined the character actually getting to his knees and praying in earnest. The image of him down on his knees feels unequivocal to me. I was uncomfortable with the idea that he'd do that, because he would be uncomfortable with the idea. My discomfort made me think it might be good for the story.

As always, I won't truly know if it works until I get feedback from critique partners (who I hope won't be too biased by this advance out-of-context analysis). But for now, I like it. Because I don't like it one bit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rachelle Gardner explains the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing: "When you foreshadow, the reader usually doesn't notice it when they initially read it. But later they might have an 'aha' moment, remember it, and put two and two together. Often foreshadowing can't even be detected until someone reads your novel for a second time. It's that subtle." (Thanks, Livia Blackburne!)

October 10, 2012

Podcasts for Writers

Yesterday I recommended podcasts for readers. Naturally, all those book discussions and author interviews have a lot of value for writers as well, but today I'm going to cover podcasts that are all about the writing process:

Writing Excuses is a very focused podcast from some very focused writers. Their slogan is "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart," but that last part is false modesty, given that the hosts are successful professional authors from a variety of genres. Each week they discuss a specific writing problem or technique, such as using a city as a character or writing from the omniscient viewpoint. Occasionally they pick apart a work by one of the hosts, as in this episode analyzing an outline. Every episode is packed with great examples and ideas, and I always learn something from listening. While the time constraint keeps the discussion on topic, there's also a good deal of joking around among the fun group of hosts. The podcast has been running weekly since 2008, and I only tuned in about a year ago, so at some point I'm planning to go back and explore the archives for topics I'd particularly like guidance on.

The Deceptionists is in some ways the opposite of Writing Excuses. The hosts write fiction on an amateur basis, and the episodes are sprawling discussions that usually run at least an hour. The show resembles the conversations I have when I get together with my writing buddies, with plenty of debate and ideas to ponder. Each episode covers a broad aspect of storytelling, for example, characters or setting. When I discovered the show not long ago, I saw that there was a logical progression to the topics, so I decided to start at the beginning (there are 24 episodes so far, and I'm listening at a faster rate than they're broadcasting). In this way, I'm getting a sort of writing class experience out of the show. There's even a workshop component in which the hosts read from their own work. I was very taken with the first story contribution, How Smitty Smokes a Cigarette by David Accampo.

Obviously, this list of recommendations is far shorter than yesterday's. I know there are many podcasts about writing out there, but I haven't come across any others I really enjoy. Please tell me about your favorites!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford discusses Writing as Catharsis: "Even in the course of writing a wacky space adventure, I was still channeling myself into the novel. We all do, whether we're writing precisely about what we've gone through or not."

October 9, 2012

Podcasts for Readers

I listen to a lot of podcasts (if you're not familiar with the concept, here's a brief introduction), and that's where I learn about many of the books I end up reading. These are my favorite podcasts for readers:

Bookrageous lets you listen in on the conversation of some book-obsessed friends. The three hosts work as booksellers and critics, and they have a good range of literary preferences. On every show, they each share what they've read recently, and then they discuss the episode's theme topic, for example, nonfiction or taboos in literature. The chemistry between the hosts is great, and they often bring in guests who liven things up even more. The show is always a ton of fun, in keeping with their slogan: "We're serious about books, but we're not exactly serious."

→ I only recently started listening to Books on the Nightstand, but I'm not sure how I missed it earlier (especially since the Bookrageous folks credit the show as their inspiration). The hosts are both publisher sales reps, so they get to read advance copies of books and introduce them on the podcast right before the release date. A typical episode features some piece of book news, a short discussion about a subject like book jackets or the difference between mystery, thriller, and suspense, and a recommendation from each host of "a book we can't wait for you to read." Overall, this podcast is more formal and less chatty (and shorter) than Bookrageous, but it packs a lot of great information and ideas into each episode. The show also has an active community of listeners on Goodreads, which I haven't yet explored.

Inside The New York Times Book Review is just that: audio coverage of the content appearing in that week's Sunday Book Review. Each episode includes an interview with one of the reviewed authors, a discussion with a reviewer about a different book, news from the publishing industry, and a rundown of the best-seller lists. I especially appreciate these last two segments because they frequently allow me to appear more knowledgeable than I really am in later conversations.

→ The NPR: Books Podcast isn't specifically produced as a podcast but is rather a compilation of the latest book-related segments from NPR programs such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Fresh Air. It's a great way to hear NPR's author interviews, book reviews, and publishing news without having to seek out the relevant content from the different shows. (Incidentally, NPR offers similar podcasts that compile stories on various other topics, like technology and pop culture.)

I listen to every episode of the above podcasts (all appear weekly, except Bookrageous, which is less frequent). There are also some podcasts for readers that I enjoy listening to when I'm interested in the particular book or author:

Bookworm is the most hardcore author interview program I've ever heard. The host, Michael Silverblatt, has not only read the work under discussion, but he often has an analysis that even surprises the author. For this reason, it's especially interesting to listen to an interview after reading the book, though I also find it a good way to get a sense of whether I'll enjoy something.

Book Lust with Nancy Pearl is a Seattle cable TV show hosted by the famous librarian. I would happily listen to Nancy Pearl all day long because she's so delightful. On the program, she interviews authors of popular books for adults and kids about their new releases. The episodes are available in either video or audio format.

The Writer's Block presents recently published authors reading excerpts from their own work. The show is produced by San Francisco station KQED, so there's a bit of a Bay Area slant to the participants, but it features authors from all over. Though I don't tend to listen to audio books, I do like hearing a first chapter performed by the author when I'm deciding whether to read a book.

Am I missing any other good book podcasts? Tomorrow, I'll recommend podcasts that focus on writing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Amwriting blog, J. M. Strother shares his experience (another for my collection!) with starting a novel over: "My current experiment seems to be working out quite well. The new document, while essentially the same story, is developing with much more depth and texture than the old one ever had. Things like foreshadowing come much more naturally as you can imagine as I've already been there once before. The novel still has the same characters, the same setting, the same plot points, but the overall flow and feel are much improved."

October 3, 2012

Gone Girl

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn was the book this summer among people who obsess over books online. I'm always hesitant to read what's extremely popular, due to my contrariness (apparently I'm not the only one), but a friend talked me into it (thanks, Lauren!), and I'm so glad. And now I want everyone else to know: You have to read this book!

The story opens on Nick and Amy's fifth anniversary, which is an awkward occasion, because things are going badly in their marriage. Nick comes home to find the house in disarray, the kettle burning away on the stove, and Amy gone. He calls the cops, horrified, and we know he's horrified because he's the first person narrator, but... What exactly is going on here? Is Nick hiding something?

What's noteworthy about this novel, and the reason everyone's talking about it, is that it keeps you guessing. Honestly guessing, and second-guessing, and then changing your mind back again. Nothing in the story is what it seems. Flynn has done a brilliant job with all these twists and turns, taking care to provide details that answer every "but how did...?" and "why wouldn't he just...?"

From a writing perspective, I was in awe of the intricate plotting and the way the story unfolds. The book also contains some great examples of how to end a chapter or set up a cliffhanger. And Flynn does interesting things with character likability, the topic we were discussing last week.

A warning: I read the Kindle edition of the book, and it contains a table of contents with chapter titles that give away elements of the plot. I suspect the TOC is only for digital navigation purposes and that it isn't designed to be included in the book. So don't look at that (or any reviews of the book, for that matter) if you want a spoiler-free reading experience. And go out and start reading it, quick!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Etgar Keret presents Ten Rules for Writers: "Love your characters. For a character to be real, there has to be at least one person in this world capable of loving it and understanding it, whether they like what the character does or not. You're the mother and the father of the characters you create. If you can't love them, nobody can." (Thanks, The Millions!)