Friday, December 30, 2011

Ugh

This post today is coming pretty much straight off the top of my head. I'm shooting from the hip. Working without a net. Pick your metaphor, whichever you like.

I hadn't intended to take a Christmas blogging break, but in truth, I haven't been thinking a whole lot about the blog this week. No big advance plans, like "on Friday, I'm going to write about..." I do have a couple-three half-completed posts sitting around, but getting them up to ready stage would be too much work, and today, I feel like I got flattened by a truck. Or a whole convoy.

Yesterday morning, we took a three hour drive into the depths of Pennsylvania to see a friend we haven't seen in a little over four years. In fact, the last time we saw her, her now four-year-old son was a mighty huge lump in her belly, so it was our first time meeting him. We had a great time, and the young one was not shy at all. We ended up leaving a little later than expected, and found ourselves driving through snow for part of the way, on some windy country roads, with a lot of truck traffic (and now I have seen what gas drilling can do to once-quiet rural neighborhoods, but that's something I won't talk about here, now). It was uneventful, but the first forty minutes or so were pretty tension-packed for me, so I'm a little achy this morning.

Anyway, about the four-year-old. My own kids are a long time removed from that stage, and I'd forgotten how much fun this stage is (especially when the kid isn't yours). Not enough to make me want more kids, mind you, but they sure are fun at that age. And they say some pretty funny things.

We were in a restaurant for lunch, and the little guy looked like he got his foot stuck in the chair. I said to my daughter, who couldn't see what was going on, "He's trying to extricate his foot." The little guy hears me, and says, "No, I'm trying to pull it out." Later on, he was showing us some cars (big fan of cars, he is). One of them had machine guns mounted on the sides, and he started to pull them off. "I can store them under the chassis," he says. I said, "Oh, they're removable." "No," he replies. "You can take them off." As Kenny Bania would say:



I love it.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself trying to write a four-year-old, it's good to remember: they're wheeler-dealers. They try to negotiate everything. They put Monty Hall to shame. Maybe I'm so tired today because of 'sympathy exhaustion' for his Mom.

Forgive the rambling, and have a safe and happy New Year's Eve. If you're out on the roads, be careful. We'll see what's in my noggin come Monday.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas

Thanks for coming and taking a look around, reading my ramblings, and having something to say back. I'd love to say this is my own photo, but I've given up taking pictures of my Christmas tree. They never come out right, the lights are always all blurry and jumpy. Have a great Christmas, or just a heck of a nice weekend, I'll see y'all on Monday.


image courtesy of capl@washjeff.edu

Monday, December 19, 2011

O! Tannenbaum


So, who does it?
If you put up a Christmas tree in your house, who gets the job of putting the lights on it?
Growing up, it was always my father. Now, it’s mine.
Every year I swear that this is the worst job I’ve ever done on the lights. Ever. Seriously, I think this year I started saying this even before I’d finished getting the first string up. And yet, when it’s all finished, it still looks good, and nobody really notices the things that drove me crazy, how I was constantly finding a blue light right underneath a blue light, no matter how I tried to manipulate it; or that half the lights aren’t actually on any branches, they’re just sort of hanging in mid-air, because there’s only four inches between bulbs and the wires are too thick and inflexible, and putting a bulb here pulls that bulb there off the spot where I’d placed it so carefully and….
Calm. Deep breath.
My Dad was a pretty calm guy. It was my mother who had the explosive temper. Dad did the slow burn. He’d grumble. He’d mutter. He’d get a certain look on his face that was hard to explain, but you knew he was getting steamed. Very rarely did he actually explode, though. But putting up Christmas tree lights, we’d often see that steam. As a kid, I could never understand it, it seemed like a cool job. Now I know better. It’s possibly the most hateful job of Christmas, a time-consuming, frustrating activity that leaves your hands sticky and scratched, smelling of pine, and frustrated, needles in your hair and down your shirt... Yet, in the end, the tree always looks good.
This year, as I worked, I watched a story play out in my head, a story of a little boy, his mother, and his grandpa preparing for Christmas. It was perfect, though unfinished, in my head, and I got a decent start of it in my writer’s group yesterday; now we’ll see if I can finish it for next Christmas, ha ha. Anyway, that’s about all. See you on Friday. And I’ll leave you with music from the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which may be my favorite Christmas special ever.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Feel Good Friday, a Pseudo-Blog Hop


When I got my MS back from an excellent reader, I scanned the pages looking for red ink, exhilarated and terrified at the same time. I tingled when I saw positives like “Great imagery!” “Hah, that’s great” or “I like how you…” I cringed at the negatives, but it was more reflexive than anything. In truth, the negatives didn’t hurt that much because they were on target. There’s a lot you stop seeing when you’ve been living with a story for nearly a year. After reading through the comments, I felt good. The good comments made me feel good, and the ‘bad’ comments were either things I had suspected, or were things I realized my critter was pretty much right about. It was a very positive process.
And then the Doubting Writer surfaced.
There were a couple of big sections in the manuscript where there no comments at all. Rather than accept this as ‘no news is good news’, the Doubting Writer whispered in my ear, “Maybe they fell asleep reading this part”, and “Maybe it’s so bad they couldn’t bring themselves to make any comment at all on it.” That Doubting Writer can be a real bastard. So the Doubting Writer went to work. “I notice you didn’t say anything about this,” e-mails the Doubting Writer. “Did you think blah blah blah.” The Doubting Writer has an almost-pathological need to believe his book is awful.
BUT – before you rush to tell me that you’re sure I’m not that bad, rest assured this post is not really about how I did on my crit report. This is really about how we treat ourselves. And I want us all to treat ourselves a little bit better, at least for today, or this weekend.
As writers, we need to be self-critical. We need to be honest in our assessment of our writing, and we need to be able to look at critiques with enough logic and …stoicism, for lack of a better word, to see what’s on the money and what isn’t. That’s how we improve as writers. All too often, however, criticism feels like a negative, because it’s always couched in terms of what we could do better.
But a part of criticism is also acknowledging what we do well, and that’s what I want this to be about.
On Wednesday, Lisa L. Regan celebrated her 100th follower (Cheers, Lisa!). She asked her readers to post questions/suggest topics for future posts. Being an obnoxious sort, I asked her the following question, perhaps the writerly-version of one of the most-dreaded job interview questions out there:
What do you think is your greatest strength as a writer?
I suspect the real value of this question to a job interviewer is less in the answer itself and more in how the respondent handles it. But in this case, I’m asking because I want to be positive. There’s so much negativity associated with writing. We write. We let people read it so they can critique it (which, again, feels like it focuses on what we do wrong). We write it again, and again, and then we face rejections over and over. Yes, we need to learn from what we do wrong, but we also need to acknowledge what we do well, if only to keep us from trying to fix something that ain’t broke.
So take a moment. Or two or three, or however long you need. Think about something you do really well as a writer and tell me – tell everyone – what that is. Bask in it. Enjoy the glow. Don’t get a big head, but allow yourself a little time to say, “This is what I do well.” Put it in the comments here, or write a post on your own blog about it and link it in the comments. I won’t call this a blog hop, because I’m dropping this on you with no advance notice, and no fancy sign-up sheet, and no spiffy buttons. If you choose to do a blog post on it, pop the link in the comments here so we can all pop by. That’s it.
So, I guess I have to start, huh? Well, okay, here goes.
I am very good at descriptions.
Wow. That felt good. I’ll say it again. I’m very good at descriptions.
I hear this a lot. My wife has said it to me on a number of occasions. I hear it almost every week in the little writer’s group I’m in. I’ve even seen it from time-to-time in comments here, so that’s what I’ll go with. For today, I’ll pat myself on the back over my descriptive abilities and sit a little taller in my chair. I’ll keep the Doubting Writer at bay for one day.
So, there you have it. Celebrate your strength, enjoy your success, love yourself and your writing, even if it’s just for a moment. Later on, you can go back to picking at your words, grousing over stilted dialogue, clichéd characters and your propensity for purple prose (or an abundance of alliteration, for that matter).  For now, tell us what you’re good at, be happy, and have a great weekend.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Musical Monday: In Dreams

Something frequently listed on Absolute Write as a moment that 'makes you want to throw the book against the wall' is the dream sequence. You know, where Our Hero has a dream of such clarity and significance that he wakes up with a perfect understanding of his problem. “Rubbish!” says the reader – or, at least, so says the reader who is also a writer. We know better. We know that dreams are slippery things, confused images that disintegrate on waking like smoke rings in a stiff breeze. Still, there’s an allure to the dream sequence, isn’t there? It’s tempting to slip one in. I'll do it better. Dream on.
I have a hard time listening to this song without thinking of David Lynch’s film, Blue Velvet. The song was a favorite of the film’s villain, Frank Booth (masterfully played by Dennis Hopper). Much of that film was like a bad dream: upsetting and disturbing, with weird stuff happening at the edges. But the song, divorced of the movie’s images and violence, is beautiful, and Orbison’s voice is ethereal and haunting. Kind of like a dream. Enjoy.


Friday, December 9, 2011

The Back Room


I sometimes think of my brain as being like one of these big, old Victorian houses. The kind of house that has rooms off of rooms, nooks and crannies everywhere, and a surprise around every corner. I love houses like that; they fascinate me, and the brain is every bit as complicated as some of those houses. For the purposes of this post, we’ll simplify things and talk about it in terms of front room and back room.
Most Victorian houses had a nice little parlor. This was on the front of the house, and was where guests were entertained. Someone drops by to visit and they’re ushered into the parlor, where you sit with them in overstuffed armchairs with lacy doily-things covering the arms, and there are lamps with tasseled shades, and dark, striped wallpaper. You sit in the chairs for a while and you visit and eat finger sandwiches and have a cup of tea, and it’s all very pleasant.
When the visit is over, your guest doesn’t say goodbye and go back out through the front door, however; they take the OTHER DOOR.
These old houses are full of doors, but this one is different. Instead of a nice, solid door with a fancy brass knob, it’s a shabby-looking curtain. Occasionally, a breeze stirs the curtain but you can’t really see what’s back there, because it’s dark. All you can see are shapes, some moving, some not, and sometimes, you hear things…and they don’t always sound pleasant.
Your guest says, “See you later, it’s been fun” and wanders off through that curtain, and you sit up in the front room and look out the big windows at the world and go on with your business.
But while you’re looking out that front window and entertaining more guests in the front room, and watching things happening in the world through the big bay window, there’s some sort of party going on in the back room the whole time. You don’t know what the hell is going on back there, and most of the time, you don’t care.
Until something pops out, and it looks like this:

It’s pretty horrible, but if you’re lucky, it’s just perfect for a story.
Very few of my story ideas arrive in the parlor via the front door. On very rare occasions, something happens that is Just Exactly Right, and I’m off and writing. Far more often, things come into the parlor, spend some time with me, and then go off into the back room. There, it spends weeks or months while I think it over. The funny thing is, that thought goes on behind the curtain. I not even aware I’m doing it. The book I’m working on now, which was last year’s NaNo revived, is a product of many months in that back room. It started with an incident two Novembers ago, when an insurance SNAFU got my car towed and nearly got my wife arrested. At the time, I was also watching a lot of the HBO series Oz. For several weeks, I entertained the insurance issue in the front room of my brain, trying to get something out of it. At that time, the writing bug was starting for me, but hadn’t really kicked in yet. I tried to pull an idea out of this, and failed. So, after a while, I said goodbye to the incident and it went back through the curtain.
Fast forward to the following spring. As I drove into town one fine morning, I saw a good-sized Snapping turtle sitting on the roadside, presumably off on her way to lay eggs somewhere. BANG (and this is why that other room needs a door – it’s far more dramatic  for an idea to kick the door open with a house-shaking BANG than it is to fling back a curtain in a whisper of fabric). Just like that, Oz and the insurance incident popped out of that back room, almost unrecognizable. They/it melded with the turtle, and became The Idea. The rest of the way into town, narrative filled my head., and I suspect I was quite guilty of driving on autopilot.
The turtle was a catalyst of sorts. I’m not sure if the other two thoughts had spent the winter cozying up in  that back room and had already merged into some form, and just needed the turtle to complete the reaction, or if it was an instantaneous combination of the three ingredients. I’ve had this happen several times, where something seen, heard, or read right now triggers some reaction among things that you’d forgotten about. Regardless of how it works, I have to say, I love those moments.
Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Anniversary to Me!

Eight years ago, my family and I movedto our current abode here in the frequently-frozen hills of central New York. A couple-three weeks (as they say up here) after that we had a chimney sweep come in. We wanted to use the fireplace (it was March, and still cold), but had no idea how long it had been since it had been used, and we were concerned that there might be creosote build up or animals living up there (amusing side note: the following summer, we had Chimney swifts move in. Several nights running we heard twittering from the chimney in the middle of the night. The cats found this quite intriguing).
The chimney sweep was a rather engaging guy, and we had a lot of fun talking to him. While discussing some of the work that needed to be done on the house, he gave us this bit of friendly advice: “You have to be careful up here. Anyone who can use a hammer calls himself a contractor.”
There are laws governing contractors, and plumbers, and electricians, etc., etc. But there are no laws governing writers. We could change the sweep’s words: “Anyone who can string two sentences together calls himself a writer.” Hey, look at that: I’m a writer! And so are you!
But we usually don’t do that, do we? I think most of us don’t consider ourselves writers until we get an agent, get published, get paid to write, or can make a living from it. I’ve been published – I had an article on Turkey vultures appear in our weekly newspaper a few years back, and last year I had an article on the environmental benefits of local foods printed in a guide to the local farmers' market. Two short stories ran in Time Frame (but I know those don’t count, officially). I’ve also been paid specifically to write: I have a couple of trail guides to my credit somewhere out there, which theoretically makes (or made) me a professional writer.
Yet I wouldn’t tell people, “I’m a writer.”
I think of the Chimney sweep's words now because today, December 6, 2011, marks an anniversary of sorts. One year ago today I sat down and committed the ink to paper (okay, cyber ink to cyber paper) of what is currently-known as Parallel Lives. As I look back on it, this date feels important to me. Even though I had been dabbling since the spring of 2010, getting a couple of thousand words down on two different novels, entering short stories in two contests, and even completing NaNoWriMo, it felt like dabbling. On December 6, 2010, some sort of switch was flipped inside of me, and I went from I’m-just-goofing-around-here to I’m-not-kidding-anymore. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there was something about that day that was different. And I didn’t know it at the time, really; like many important dates in history, you don’t always recognize its importance while it’s happening. You need time and perspective. As I look over the last year, I do realize that something happened to me in that time, something has made me more serious about this, and it centers on this date.
I realize how presumptuous it sounds, to say “I’m a writer.” I have no agent. I’m not ready to query, but I’m closer. And, despite the fact that I’m not really hiding it from anyone, I’m not exactly running around telling all my friends and relations, “I’m a writer!” But I’m becoming more comfortable telling people that I am writing. So, I’ll say it: “I’m a writer.”
Wow. That felt kind of good.
Since this is an anniversary, have a piece of cake.


When did you feel like you were a writer? Was there a specific date or event that occurred that made you say, “Today, I became a writer?” Or is my ego running suddenly out of control?


EDIT: Erm ahem. Big time apology incoming. At the dinner table this evening, it was pointed out to me that today, Tuesday, is December 6. My anniversary is December 6. Somehow, I became convinced that yesterday (Monday) was the sixth, thus my post was one day early. So, I'll just give my piece of cake over to someone else and have a bit of crow, thanks.
Oh, what the hell, I'll celebrate twice.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Movies to Books

As a kid, I didn’t realize that many – maybe even most – movies were adapted from books. The first time I really became aware of this was around the time I was ten, and saw the movie, Jaws. We saw it in the theaters. After seeing the action-packed, tension-filled production of Jaws on the big screen, the slow pace and wordiness of Peter Benchley's novel was a huge letdown. Movies are better than books!

The same year Jaws came out, Milos Forman directed Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. What a year for movies! I did not see the movie until a couple of years later, when it came out on cable. Like Jaws, I thought the movie was terrific. Shortly thereafter, I read Ken Kesey's novel. It lost me completely.

In hindsight, it may have been less to do with the movies being superior and more to do with me. While I was an advanced reader for my age, I just didn’t ‘get’ either book. This really hit home for me when my daughter brough Cuckoo’s Nest home last month to read for her AP English. She was loving the book, so I borrowed it from her and re-read it.

It was fantastic. The film itself holds up well (I watched it after reading the book), but the novel really impressed me. Kesey’s book is full of powerful images, and the perspective is so different from the movie that it might as well be a completely different story. I heartily recommend it.

It's possible that part of my problem all those years ago was that I read the books too soon after seeing the movie versions. Maybe I needed more time to clear the image of Jack Nicholson out of my head (I was able to create my own visual image of R.P. McMurphy when I read the book this time around, though Nicholson’s voice still came through); more likely, I was just too young to fully grasp Kesey’s vision. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I read it again.

My daughter is also in a theater arts class this year. Every couple of weeks, the class is assigned a movie to watch at home. They’ll spend a couple of days in school discussing the film. The last film she watched was Fight Club, the 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name.

I've heard a lot about Palahniuk. He’s been recommended to me by a number of people, but for some reason, I’d never walked out of a bookstore or library with one of his books under my arm, I’m not sure why. Until recently (after I watched Fight Club, in fact), the only thing of Palahniuk’s I’d read was his short story, Guts. It was good writing; a very effective piece of writing, in fact, but it was revolting. You can read it here (Ever notice how we always do that? We find something that turns our stomach, and the first thing we do with it is try to push it off on someone else. “How’s your meal?” “It’s horrible! It tastes like crap. Here, try it.”). Suffice to say, I’m not part of the Cult of Chuck (that’s what his website is called. Seriously.)

However, I might become part of it yet. Ten minutes into the film, I found myself sitting there thinking, “I’ve got to read this book.” I don’t think I’ve ever had the reaction before. Maybe I was suckered in by David Fincher’s vision. Maybe it was the acting – Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, and Brad Pitt were terrific – I’m sure that was part of it. But what it really was, was the story, and the Voice, which was strong throughout.

Some time soon I’ll land me a copy of Fight Club, the book. I’ve been told by some of the people who are part of the Cult that Fight Club is not Palahniuk’s best work, but I’ll read it anyway, and hope that it’s not too soon after seeing the film, though I'm much better than I used to be about judging each on its own merits. I hope I enjoy it. I hope it doesn't totally gross me out.

Have you ever seen a movie that compels you to read the ‘source material’? How was it for you?

Thanks for reading, and have a nice weekend.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Leftovers, and Some Fresh Meat

First, the leftover thoughts from last week:

Why do dogs love turkey so much? We left the turkey on the stove on Saturday night, to be picked at. My dog parked herself in the kitchen and barked at it, one bark every 5 or 10 seconds, until we kicked her out of the room.


Thanks for the comments on my last post. This is something I’m ruminating on and will likely come back to in the not-too-distant future.

Now for some fresh meat:

Well, there’s two days left in the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. To those of you that have crossed (hi, Donna) or will cross the finish line with your minimum of 50,000 words, a big, hearty congratulations! I’m sure you know the work isn’t done yet, but you definitely deserve a pat on the back.

For those of you who tried and did not or will not reach the magic line, that’s OK. I sometimes think we overdo it with our kids and the non-competitive thing – you know, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game and all that – but not in this case. For NaNo it really is the effort that counts. So, congratulations on trying, hopefully it is something that was good for you whether you reached 50K or not. The real important part is what comes next: finishing. I mean, really finishing the story. That means not stopping just because you hit 50K words if the story’s not really finished.

NaNo was a bust for me this year, but that’s OK in my book. I probably shouldn’t have signed up for it in the first place. As my musings in September and October showed (okay, so that last one was really November. I didn't want to throw off my posting schedule), I was rather ambivalent on it, and, once I started, I was not really ‘all in’. I was still pounding out revisions on that other thing, which was much more important to me than NaNo. So, in the first two weeks of NaNo, I managed all of 4100 words. When I cleared Parallel Lives from the deck I had a brief burst where I nearly quadrupled the word count in a span of four days (which was also tied into a change in PoV on my NaNo novel). And then I pretty much stopped, overwhelmed by a combination of Holiday preparations and something new that crept into my brain.

But again, it’s okay. NaNoWriMo 2010 showed me two things: first, that I could shut down that irritating (and often disabling) internal editor; two, that I could write 50,000 words in a month. Knowing this, I really didn’t need to do NaNo this year. After finishing last year’s NaNo, I cranked out 44,000 words on what became Parallel Lives in just under a month. So I came into the year’s NaNo without really needing it in the same way I needed it last year.

Detractors of NaNo point to tips on padding word count and talk about how it encourages sloppy writing habits. What I found this year, in particular, once I got way behind, is that I didn’t like pushing myself in the same way I did last year. I would start a writing session knowing that I ‘needed’ 2800 words to meet my quota for the day, and I found myself obsessively-checking my word count, and pushing on when my body and mind were telling me I was through for the moment. This works well for some people, but it’s not my style.

I think the biggest problem with me and NaNo this year was I just didn’t quite have the story down. It’s been in my head for the last year-and-a-half or so, and I’ve done a couple of start-stops on it. I figured, let me give it a fresh start for NaNo. Good idea. But I could never quite get a good hold of it. I thought I might be onto something when I changed the PoV (I keep hearing a particular character in my head as the MC, and was using first; it wasn’t until I switched to 3rd that I had my biggest burst of writing). And then, in last week’s writing group, I wrote a vignette about a man and a woman in a workplace breakroom. I like it a lot, and really want to do something with it, I just don’t know what, and it’s kind of pushed this story back a little bit. And, in the spirit of NaNoReviMo, I also broke out last year’s NaNo and started reading through it. I was never happy with the way it ended – it felt rushed at the time, the product of erroneous thinking on my part, that I needed to not just hit 50K words, but that I also needed to finish the story. I also wanted to see if it was as bad as my memory of a quickie read-through last April or May told me it was. It was, and it wasn’t, but after getting through half of it yesterday, I think I can see the diamond in the rough.

So, I pretty much put this year’s NaNo to bed at 19,000 words. It’s still a story that wants to be told, but I guess I’m just not quite ready to tell it. Not yet. Right now there are other stories to tell, other stories to polish. I guess this one just needs more time in the hopper.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Women and Men

First, some music, just because I like the song, and we haven't heard from They Might Be Giants in this space for a while (Short video, 1:47):



In early October my wife and I had the pleasure of playing host/tour guide for a gentleman who was in from out of town. How this came about is too long for this space, but neither my wife nor I were particularly looking forward to the day: there had been some unpleasant e-mail exchanges between my wife and this guy in the last two weeks before his arrival. Again, a long story. But we had an obligation to the guy, and, as much as we wanted to just tell him, "Do whatever the hell you want," we're not that kind of people.

He arrived in town and we met up with him, took him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and then out to dinner. Everything was civil and pleasant, we all had a nice time. Finally, we took him to a local bar to watch one of the World Series games (it might have been game 1; I’m not really up on these things). It was very important for him to watch the World Series out somewhere, as opposed to in his hotel room. You see, as far as I can tell, the main thrust of what this guy does is, he collects stories and uses them to build contacts with people. For what purpose, I'm not really sure. So, throughout the day, we heard about how he was in this town or that, how he met this person or that (not name-dropping, by the way; it wasn’t a celebrity name-dropping sort of thing), and what he talked to them about. And we saw some pictures. So, naturally, we also had our picture taken in the bar, with the TV in the background, so that he could undoubtedly say, somewhere down the line, how he watched the World Series in Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball*. Hey, nifty!

Again, it was more pleasant than I expected, but I was sneaking glances at the clock, willing the hands toward 9:30 when we would have to say goodbye. The kids were at rehearsal, and that’s when we would have to go and pick them up. And then another couple came in and sat just around the corner of the bar from us, and everything changed.

Our guest (we’ll call him ‘G’) overheard something the new man (henceforth known as ‘N’) said, and made a comment. Soon, he had out his blackberry and was showing them a picture of how he was, just a few weeks ago, in the very town they live in! They were from Cape Cod, which was evident the minute N opened his mouth. So, within a few minutes, the five of us were in a cheerful conversation.

After a few minutes, N’s wife (now called ‘D’) came around the corner of the bar and started talking to my wife. I was involved in the conversation for a few minutes and then got dragged into a conversation about hockey, which is a much better thing to talk about than baseball, as far as I'm concerned. As a native New Yorker who somehow grew up as a Bruins fan, it’s rare to have a conversation about my favorite team that doesn’t devolve into “Bruins suck!” (not quite; that was high school, it’s better now). I did notice that my wife and D seemed to be having a pretty serious conversation, while We Men were yukking it up.

All-too-soon it was time for us to go (funny how that changes; I was now sorry we had to leave). The evening, which had been crawling by after dinner, ended up flying. The plot picked up via the introduction of new characters. We said our goodbyes and, on the way to the car, I said to my wife, “Well, you and D seemed to be having a pretty serious conversation there.”

Indeed, they did. My wife learned how D’s father had recently passed away, and N’s brother as well. The trip was a way for them to celebrate N’s birthday privately, a chance to get away for a little bit from the reminders of recent losses. She also learned that N and D were childless, and that D had suffered through at least two miscarriages during the early days of their marriage.

I marveled over the exchange of information and said, “I learned that N’s favorite all-time hockey player is Terry O’Reilly.”**

One of the surest ways for me – or anyone, for that matter – to get into trouble is to make sweeping generalizations about the sexes, which is part of why I sat on this post for so long. And yet, I can’t help it. We spent six hours with G, and never really learned a thing about him, though I can say he also didn’t learn a whole lot about us, either. In forty minutes, we both learned more about N and D than G, and my wife learned far more about D than I did about N. Is this just a case of two people who clicked in a particular way, whose personalities were matched in such a way that information was passed back and forth so freely? Or is this the sort of thing that is much more common among women than men? At the risk of a controversy, it seems, from this man’s perspective, women in general are much more willing to talk about personal stuff than men, even among people they don’t know. But that’s how I see it. Am I wrong? Since my readership seems highly-skewed, I turn it over to you: what do you think?

Thanks for reading, as always, and have a pleasant weekend.

*Cooperstown as the birthplace of baseball is a myth long-since debunked.
**Terry O'Reilly is pretty high on my list of all-time favorites, a great example of how hard work and determination can pay off. Youtube highlights tend to focus on his many fights, but he developed into a pretty good all-around player.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Fluff Post: Suspension of What?

A few weeks back, we had a conversation at the dinner table about…something, I don’t really remember what it was. Books, movies, maybe something else, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is I reached for a phrase, one that the writers among my readers are probably familiar with (and maybe everyone, I’m not sure): Suspension of disbelief. I reached for the phrase, but what came out of my mouth instead was ‘belief’, as in “suspend our belief” I’m not sure why it came out the way it did, except that it seemed exactly right at the time.

The very next day I saw this phrase in a comment on someone else’s blog: “but it certainly requires some suspension of disbelief.” Funny that this popped up less than 24 hours after I butchered the phrase. It made me think about it again. And, turtle that I am, here it is, a month later, and I’m finally posting something about it.

According to history as told by Wikipedia (suspect though it may be), and Bartleby’s familiar quotations, the phrase was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge back in 1817:
“It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Wait, what did he say?

Let’s see. If I read a book that involves a magic carpet, what am I suspending to enjoy? As far as I know, carpets can’t fly, they can’t be imbued with a magical energy that lifts them off the ground and renders them capable of flight. So, I suppose I don’t believe in flying carpets, thus I’m suspending my disbelief. ‘Suspending my disbelief’ is, therefore, the correct expression.

But wait! Carpets can’t fly! To believe that a carpet can fly, I must suspend my belief in the world I know, in order to pretend to believe in something else. So, maybe I am suspending my belief after all.

My head hurts. I believe it’s time for another cup of coffee.

On another note:

My wife returned from her trip to visit her brother. She did not bring my book back. I think she tossed it out somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Seriously, it’s now in the hands of my sister-in-law (hmm, she’s married to my brother-in-law, so does that make her my sister-in-law, in-law?), who is an avid reader. Once my wife had read it, I found it was easier to leave it with another person that I know. I am relieved that my wife liked it, and that she didn’t come home giving me this look:



I have to have a serious conversation with her about it now, though, see if I can tease out of her anything that was wrong beyond the page of spelling errors and typos that she e-mailed me.

It’s been a relief, I have to say, having it out of my hands, and my head. I’m nervously awaiting an unbiased opinion, but that was one big hurdle crossed.

For my American readers, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving. For my non-American friends, I wish you a happy, healthy and safe week. I’ll be back on Friday.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Fiddler of the Truth

In Monday’s post I alluded to my girls’ participation in the high school musical as being difficult for me. It was, but it wasn’t all related to the seemingly non-stop shuttling of kids back and forth to school for evening rehearsals. That could have been a lot worse. Our town is in the hinterlands relative to the school, a ten- to fifteen-minute drive, which isn’t too bad, but that ten minutes is ten miles of wear and tear on the car, ten miles of gas, and ten+ minutes of my life – each way. Fortunately, we did some ride sharing with a family that lives nearby, which took some of the load off. But I also got to let my daughter drive a bit, which is good practice for her. She’s improved quite a bit since she got behind the wheel for the first time this summer.

No, the tougher part was the emotional wear-and-tear. The school production this year was Fiddler on the Roof.

Now, I like to play at being the hard guy. I sit at the dinner table and make sweeping generalizations, bold proclamations, rigid declarations, and astute observations. I play at being the tough Dad. I have to, as I’m the only man in the house. Even our pets are girls. I’m completely surrounded. Someone’s got to be the stern male role model, right? So I bother the girls incessantly, and ask them if this boy or that one needs to have a conversation with me and my trusty lead pipe. For some strange reason, neither of the girls has brought home a boyfriend yet; I wonder why…

Despite the bluster, I’m a soppy sentimentalist, and everyone in this house knows it. And after seeing Fiddler on the Roof (the movie) for the first time, just before school started, I was not looking forward to watching the school production. Why?

If you’ve never seen Fiddler, it’s the story of a community of Jews in a small Russian village in 1905. At the outset, all is well and peaceful. However, change is coming, and we see the protagonist, Tevye the milkman, struggle to deal with these changes, which come from outside and inside the family. These changes threaten the very foundations – the traditions – his life is based upon.

The musical is fiction, based on a series of stories by Sholom Aleichem, yet it is also The Truth, and that is what we strive for in writing fiction, The Truth. Tevye is forced to come to grips with a changing world and changing traditions as his daughters assert their independence, and seek control over their own lives. I can relate to it so well, because I’m living it. While neither of my daughters has brought home a suitor (it must be that lead-pipe talk of mine), change is coming in my house. Both girls are in high school. One is college-bound next year. The entire dynamic of the family is changing; the house will seem so much emptier with one less child, and our lives, which have revolved so much around the kids for the last 17 years, will shift in some new direction. These thoughts were very much on the front of my mind when I approached that auditorium last Thursday night for the premiere, and I was honestly afraid I’d sit in the audience with a finger wedged into the corner of my eye to keep it from leaking.

And it wasn’t just from watching my own kids up there, either (in truth, both of them were chorus girls, though my older daughter also had the scene-stealing role of Grandma Tzeitel in Tevye’s dream sequence. I’m hoping someone sticks a video up on Youtube, but it hasn’t happened yet). It was from watching all the kids -- the ones I’ve seen grow from gap-toothed, chubby-cheeked imps to handsome young men and beautiful young women -- play-acting as adults, and knowing that, all-too-soon, they were no longer going to be play-acting.

I am happy to say that the performances (I went to 3 of the 4; Good Dad!) were excellent. It helps that the play’s director is a theater professional and was a member of the original Broadway cast, and that there are some remarkably-talented kids in this school. The kids were fantastic. And I didn’t embarrass myself, I didn’t choke or sob or cry, though The Truth behind the fiction was there the whole time, poking at my mind.

As a writer, I hope my little made-up stories and worlds can convey The Truth as well as The Fiddler on the Roof did, because that is how you really grab someone. Lots of stories are fun and entertaining, but the ones that stick with you long after you put the book down are the ones that find The Truth. They can be set on a starship 500 years in the future, or in a Ukrainian village 100 years ago, but they’re relatable, no matter what, because they hit the mark, they find The Truth. That’s what I want to write: The Truth.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Back on Track?

Last week was a tough one. If you read – or, rather, viewed – Friday’s post, you get the idea of what I was up against. It was a trying week on several levels. First, my NaNoWriMo and my NaNoReviMo turned into NaNoNo-Mo. Hence, the brick wall. The WriMo was understandable. I had written two days, getting a little over 4000 words total, but my focus was on ReviMo, trying to clear Parallel Lives off my desk and out of my mind. And that’s where the bigger problem was. By Tuesday last week the brick wall was evident. I knew there were problem areas on the MS (and still are). Unlike past weeks, when I pulled out a chunk to work on it, I had nothing. Usually I can rewrite an entire chapter without too much trouble, and even if I end up circling all the way back to where I started and decide it was better off that way, I can write, I can work it, I can play around with it and think about it. But not last week. I was stuck.

My end decision (and I may touch on this more on Friday) was to ship it out. It went on Friday to my committed reader. And this morning, I printed the bugger out and handed it to my wife, who is quite happy to finally have it. Whether she will still feel the same when she finishes it, I don’t know. I was able to do this in part because she’s gone away this week to help out her brother and his wife, who are in the process of bringing verrrry small triplets home from the hospital. I’m not sure who’s more frightened: her, at having to handle 5-pound babies, or me, at the prospect of my wife reading my book. I’m glad, on some level, to not have to look at her as she reads it. I gave her an excerpt last winter and spend 25 minutes walking up and down our snowy street while she read, just because I couldn’t sit while she read it. I’m going to have to get over this. I actually feel good, though, now that I’ve done it.

The other tough part of the week was the high school musical. Both my girls were in it. They had to deal with a grueling rehearsal schedule up until Thursday, when the musical premiered. It was hard on them, but tough on me, too, for reasons that went beyond arranging car pools and schlepping them to and fro. More on that in the near future.

Now that all of that is out of the way, perhaps I can get back to the WriMo. According to my stats page, I only need to average 2700 words per day to finish on time. Piece of cake!

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Lost Dream

Dreams are often filled with garbled messages and strange people—do they really mean anything? In all likelihood, yes. The problem is, dreams tend to dissolve on contact with the waking world, like cotton candy in your mouth, and the harder we try to remember them, the faster they disappear. In literature and movies, dreams are often presented as perfect bits of narrative with often-clear symbolism that everybody – reader and fictional protagonist – 'gets'. The reality is, they usually look more like something out of a David Lynch film:



I woke up at that slippery point that would still be considered late Saturday night, but is really Sunday morning – somewhere between 1 and 2, according to the clock, though I could be misremembering – with a crystal clear image in my mind, something from a dream I’d just been having. “Yeah,” I thought. “That’s good. That would make a great story.” And then, turning it over once or twice in my head, I went so far as to think, “That might even be better than my NaNo. I might want to scrap the NaNo and do this instead.” That’s how good it was.

You already know where this is going, don’t you?

I sat up in bed and wrote out a couple of lines in my head. I heard the words, saw a scene working out. “Yeah, that’s good.” And then I went back to sleep.

In the morning I stumbled down through the dark, made myself coffee, sat at the computer and started checking NaNoReviMo messages (17-1/2 hours for Peggy—way to go!), eyeballed some blogs—and it hit me: I had an idea last night, a good idea.

And that’s all I can remember, is that I had a good idea.

I broke a fundamental Rule of Writing, one that may be even more important than “Show, don’t tell”; “Avoid adverbs like the plague”; etc.

Keep a notebook handy at all times.

The funny thing was, when I was getting ready to go upstairs to bed, I eyeballed my notebook. It was sitting there, smack dab in the middle of my desk, standing out like that one Pope in the ‘Find the Pope’s in the Pizza contest’ (“All two hundred and fifty-four…Some are easy, some are hard…”). I looked at that notebook and thought, “I should take it up, just in case.” I wasn’t planning on writing, and nobody really wakes up in the middle of the night with a great idea that just needs to be written down right now, do they? That’s just some cheesy cliché. It doesn’t really happen, does it?

Apparently, it does.

I can console myself at least with the fact that I may not have written anything down even if I’d had the book. It’s quite likely I would have just gone back to sleep, without even thinking of the notebook. Or maybe I would have written something illegible, or something nonsensical. I went to my writer’s group and tried to write my way to it, by writing about what I thought I could remember about this dream, or image, or whatever it was. I don’t think I got any closer to it, however. But I did learn my lesson. Last night, the notebook came up with me.

And I brought a pen, too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Frenzy: The NaNos

Oh, what a fool am I.
So, I committed to two NaNos this week.
NaNoWriMo, of course, that you know about. But when Peggy Eddleman started talking up NaNoReviMo, I thought, why not?
Why not? indeed. Parallel Lives was just about ready to go. And it’s about time, too. I’ve been writing that sucker since last December (oh, and there was a good chunk of November when I was thinking about it). It’s past time for other people to see it, and I saw the end approaching: I was almost done. The way I figured it, I’d have it out the door in the hands of at least two readers by this past weekend. It would take a few days (or maybe even weeks) to get a response, and then I could look at the responses, process them, and get back to work on it. Yes to NaNoReviMo!
In the meantime, I figured I could make good headway on a novel that’s been in my head for closer to two years. 50,000 words in a month? No problem, I’ve done it before (Twice, in fact. NaNo last year, and it took just about a month to get the first 50K of Parallel Lives down last December). And the fact is, I need to get onto something else. I don’t hate the WiP, but there is that deep-seated need to write something new. You know all about it, I’m sure.
I closed my document last Friday feeling good. I was pretty sure I was done (again). I told one of my readers to expect it over the weekend. I knew there would be issues with it, there were some orphans and hanging bits here and there, but it felt like it was time.
And then I took one last, quick cruise on Saturday. Damn those last, quick cruises (actually not; I’m glad I did). I found a hole I could drive my grandfather’s 1966 Chrysler Newport through.

“Crap,” I said. “Oh, well, easy fix.”
Not so easy.
It took me three full days of pounding away at that problem before I got to the point where I could move on, and I’m still not sure I like the solution I came up with. And, like picking at a loose thread on a sweater, I found more problems that I just couldn’t quite live with. As a result, I’ve been living NaNoRevMo, and NaNoWriMo has lagged way behind. I managed to crank out 2074 words on Tuesday, and I’ve done absolute zero since. According to the NaNo tracker, I now need to average 1776 words per day to hit 50K by November 30. That actually doesn’t look so bad, really, but it’s contingent on clearing Parallel Lives off the decks.
The good thing is, I’m not all that worried about ‘winning’ NaNo. Yes, I’d love to get this idea fleshed out this month, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if I don’t. No, the novel that is nearly ‘complete’ is much higher on my priority list right now. That’s the one I’ve got to get done.

Other business: Many thanks to Cassie Mae for bestowing the Versatile Blogger Award on me last week. I really appreciate it, Cassie! I’m supposed to tell you seven things about myself and then pass the award on to 15(!) other bloggers. Given my current condition, however, I’m going to cop out and say check out this post for Ten things about me, if you haven’t already. I’m also going to have to pass on passing this along right now, I’m sorry to say. It’s just that kind of week.
 I hope you all have a great weekend.


Photo courtesy of denizen24

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNo Yes, or NaNo No?





NaNo YES!


I must be nuts. Appropriate, since I just finished reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (I'm just loving my daughter's AP English class reading list). I heartily recommend that book, by the way. But, yes, I'm in. I actually sketched out a short list of characters and the barest bones of an outline. I'm kind of cheating, I guess,  because it's a story that I started two years ago, probably got about 10K words on paper, but I'm starting fresh with the writing, so that counts for something, right? Oh, boy, see you in December....

Actually, I entirely aim to keep up with the regular posting schedule here. Whether I produce anything of value is an entirely different question.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What if...?

Here's a bad old joke I remember:

A man walks up to a woman in a bar. He introduces himself and asks, “If I paid you a million dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman considers the question, and then says, “Yes.”
The man then asks, “Well, if I paid you five dollars, would you go to bed with me?”
The woman looks outraged. “Of course not. What kind of girl do you think I am?”
The man says, “We’ve established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

On Friday, Rachelle Gardner (if this keeps up, I’m going to have to start calling her my muse) posed this question: What if there were no money in writing? Would you still write? Like most of Rachelle’s posts, it generated a lot of comments, quickly: 179 as I sit down to polish this up now. The overwhelming run of comments went one of two ways:
1. There’s money in writing? Lol
2. I don’t write for the money. I’d still write.

Reading the post, and those responses, the next logical question occurred to me: If a publisher told you that they would devote their top team to your book – the best editor and proofreaders, the top typesetters and layout designers, their number 1 cover artist, and the best of their marketing department; if they told you they would spare no expense in getting your book into book of the month clubs, and on ‘Off the Page’; if they could do all that, but told you they wouldn’t pay you a single dime for it, that the book was either going to be given away for free, or they were going to keep all the money from sales—would you do it? Would you give it away?

Keep in mind, there are no guarantees. Your book might flop. Or, it could be critically acclaimed, a mega-bestseller that moves a generation and becomes a beloved classic, read for generations to come. It could be just another throwaway read, the sort of thing that ends up in library book sales for $1, quickly read and enjoyed, but just as quickly forgotten. It could launch you on a career path like Stephen King’s, or it could go absolutely nowhere. You could end up toiling in anonymity for the rest of your days.

Would you do it?


As a businessman, I know there are times when it's a smart decision to take a loss on something in order to build reputation and goodwill. But setting out an entire book (at this point, almost a year's worth of labor) for free is not the same thing as tossing a few hundred bucks at a community event, or giving away a few dozen widgets at cost. My inclination is to say no. But pondering it in the theoretical world is a lot different than having the question posed in the real world, so I would have to think about it, very carefully.

What about you?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Casting Call!

Yesterday, the white stuff fell for the first time this year, amassing a whopping less than half an inch. My wife is grumbling. I point out that last year, the school had to burn a snow day before the month of October was out, so we're ahead so far (technically, we're even with last year, because we had to cancel the second day of school due to Tropical Storm Lee, but that was extreme rain, not snow). She didn't appreciate the sentiment.

So, here it is ....


Thanks to Melodie Wright, Lisa L. Regan and Carrie Butler for hosting this. It's been a lot of fun to think about, and a lot of fun to see imaginations in action. It took a lot of work, and it was a lot harder than I thought to find images that were just exactly right (and free!). In fact, I'd say my internal vision doesn't match up at all with what I could find, but in the end, that's OK. When you read my book someday, you will have your own pictures in your head of what these people look like, anyway. The experience was enjoyable, and breaking away from the WiP to go on an image hunt was like getting up and taking a walk around the block every once in a while.

In the end, I decided to use some words from the actual book to help describe my characters . So, here we are, the Parallel Lives Casting Call:

CHRIS BURKE (Camera shy)
“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “And look at that hair!”
I ran my hand across the top of my head. My forehead was now a five-head, but I was lucky: I had more hair than Dave and Mike combined.
“Implants,” I joked. “Had to look good for the boys on the cellblock, you know.”
Her smile vanished. “That’s not funny.”

MADISON COOPER


"The illusion broke and I saw her as she was, a forty-something year-old woman, still pretty but starting to lose the battle against time. Strands of grey lurked at her temples; tiny deltas spread from the corners of her eyes and mouth; little pouches of flesh sagged here and there: beneath her lip, along her jaw line, at her throat. Her eyes and her smile still radiated warmth, but it was a pale reminder of what it had been, like the sun in February: you can see it, and almost feel it, but it’s not as strong as you want it to be."

JAMES LAVALLE

that's so high school!
"LaValle cultivated a tough-guy look, with his denim jacket with the Pink Floyd logo painted on the back that he wore everywhere, his faded jeans, and boots. He carried a wallet on a chain in his back pocket…In this picture, he didn’t look at all like the sneering, jeering King of the Burnouts; he looked like everyone else in my high school yearbook: a kid looking forward to a bright future. A future he never got to have."

There you have it. I still have a lot to learn about formatting and making things look neat and clean. I'd like to blame blogger for limitations, but that's a cop-out: the limitations are either with my own vision, or my ability to play around with code. Now, I'm off to check out some other Casting Calls. Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

NOTE: Photo credits: 'September Sun' by Yana Ray. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=5826&picture=september-sun

'That's so High School' by Paul Moody.




Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Musings

In case you’re not already aware of it (and aren’t a reader of blogs belonging to Carrie Butler, Lisa Regan, or Melodie Wright, this week they are running ….




and I jumped in with an entry (Fool! What have you done?). However, I’m not ready to run mine today, so it will have to wait, probably all the way until Friday—unless I decide to break with my usual Monday-Friday posting schedule. We’ll see….

Parallel Lives drags along. I haven’t been working on it too much over the weekends lately, I’m not certain why. I have been hammering away at it during the week, however, and I think I could actually be done with this latest run through by the end of the week. And then, it’s off to a couple of readers, including my wife, who has been waiting for a long time. That may be the biggest hurdle yet for me. Maybe subconsciously I’ve been dragging my feet out of fear of giving it to her (if you’re new to this blog, we’ve covered why here).

I continue to produce what I think are interesting bits for my Writer’s Group, but they’re like the little doodles you do on a cocktail napkin. I haven’t done anything with anything I’ve written in there in who knows how long. It’s not a waste of time-it's practice, if nothing else—but it would be nice to come out of it with something more than a collection of words and a feeling like, "this could be something; but what?"

I’ve experienced a ‘senior moment’ yesterday afternoon. I asked a question on Absolute Write in response to someone’s problem. Late last night I went to see if the ‘OP’ had answered said question…and I couldn’t find the thread. I scoured up and down, all the various subfora, nowhere to be seen. I checked into my post history, it wasn’t there. I went to bed last night wondering about my sanity.
This morning, I found the thread and the post, and realized it was there all along. I just completely ignored the particular thread title. “That’s not it,” I’d say, whenever I scrolled past it. Help!

NaNo Yes, or NaNo No? Still haven't completely decided, but I'm leaning towards NaNo Yes (hunts down old notebook for that really good idea....)

That's all for today. See you on Friday. Or, possibly, sooner.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Back on the Platform Again

A few years back, I had the following conversation with a friend of mine, who was considering selling his house in order to get a larger one for his expanding family.

Him: “They’re [real estate agents] telling me my house is worth $400,000. You’ve been in my house, Jeffo. You know it’s not worth $400,000!”
Me: “Rob, if they’re telling you it’s worth $400,000, it’s worth $400,000!”

The way I saw it, the real estate agent case is the professional. She can look at the house and assess the kind of condition it’s in. She knows what similar houses in the area are selling for. She knows the sales trends in the neighborhood. In short, she knows her business, and if she thinks she can get interest in the house at that price, then my friend was best-off deferring to her. The real estate agent is hired for her expertise; let her use it.

I’m thinking of this story as I continue to sort out this whole platform thing. Rachelle Gardner stepped into an even deeper pile (but you knew this, right? Because you already follow her, right?), when she published this piece earlier in the week The venom in some of the comments spurred her on to write this one the next day, and also note, in the comments section, that it’s enough to make her consider giving up blogging. Let’s hope she doesn’t; her blog is an excellent resource for writers.

Anyway, my new conclusion on this whole platform thing is this: If the agent believes that platform is important, then platform is important. Rachelle has her finger on the pulse of publishing. She’s an industry insider. It’s her business to know the trends in publishing. Her livelihood depends on knowing the business, inside and out. She’s in contact with editors and the like every day. Note what she says: “what publishers want to see”. This is the information she’s getting back from the people who are deciding whether or not to print YOUR book. Like it or not, it’s part of the face of publishing in this era. Two years down the road, something else may matter more, but for now, platform is important.

So, what do we do? Let’s go back to the one that got this whole thing going in the first place, 10 Tidbits About Author Platform, specifically, tidbit #3:
“For first-time novelists, publishers still make their decisions based on the book itself, but they’ll expect you to have a head start on some kind of online platform, and they’ll expect you to step it up once you have a contract.”

This tidbit keeps getting lost in the shuffle. I think a lot of people (ahem, maybe myself included) latched onto the rest of the things in her posts and interpreted the worst-case scenario, which is something along the lines of, “They want us to get 15000 unique page views a month! Not only am I supposed to write the book, now I’m going to be the only one marketing it! GAAAAH!”

Most of you who are regular readers of this blog are like me: somewhere on the long road to getting your first novel published. Some have already jumped the hurdle of getting an agent and have one or more books out on sub; some of us haven’t even gotten our first queries out the door yet. Should we be dropping everything we do in order to re-craft our blogs into something so spectacular that we can point to several thousand followers when we shop for an agent? Or, worse yet, should we pay someone to artificially-inflate our numbers and hope that no one realizes it?

In my opinion, the answer to both is an emphatic NO. To address the second part first, dishonesty is no way to begin a relationship with a publisher. I won’t go any further than that, other than to say it’s cheating, plain and simple, and if you are found out, you might find yourself pretty much frozen out of the publishing game.

It’s the first part that’s more intriguing. From what I gather from looking at the profiles and blogs of my 17 followers (woot! Up 1 from last week!), most of us are in pretty much the same, overcrowded lifeboat. We are all somewhere between writing a first novel and getting published. Some are a little further along, and have multiple books written; some of us already have agents and actually have their works in circulation; at least one of you has self-published a book. What I think appeals to you about this blog is pretty much the same thing that attracts me to yours: Commonality of experience. We can relate to each other. Let’s face it, most of the people we are involved with in our 'Real Lives' don’t really understand how this whole writing thing works, or what we put ourselves through day-after-day, in search of the right words, and the right story, and the right audience, but YOU, my fellow bloggers, YOU do. And so I can come in here twice a week and spout off about this problem or that insecurity, and YOU get it, you know exactly what’s eating me, and you offer sympathy and encouragement, tips and tricks about how to get over it. For me, that’s the real benefit of this blog, and if I changed it in an effort to build up an army of potential book-buyers, I would lose what is most valuable to me at this moment.

I think the best course of action--for ME, right now--is to spend most of my time working on my books, in the hope that the books themselves become the platform. Maybe I’m being naïve, but that really seems like the best approach right now. In the meantime, I’ll continue posting here, reading and commenting on your blogs, and working on being a better participant in the bloggy sort of things that go on in the blog world around me, but I’m not going to let the tail wag the dog. Platform is important, yes, but the book must come first. I hope that makes sense.

Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Don't Like Mondays

(Actually, I really don't have anything against Mondays)

When I was in my teens, radio wasn’t quite like it is today, where everything feels so compartmentalized and genreficied (I think I just made that up). Sure, you had stations that were rock, and stations that were country, and stations that were dance and new wave, and yet, it seemed like there was a lot more freedom in playlists. Yes, popular songs got a lot more airplay, but you could hear plenty of unusual songs, and more so-called ‘deep cuts’ on the album-oriented radio stations than you get today.

In the latter half of 1979 and early 80, one of the songs that got a lot of airplay was I Don’t Like Mondays, by the Boomtown Rats.

According to Bob Geldof, the Rats’ singer, and writer of the song, the song is based on a real-life event. Geldof was doing an interview at a radio station when the story came out over the station’s telex machine, a terrible story of a sixteen year-old girl who opened fire on a school playground. When asked why she did it, her response was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

It’s a grisly tale. The song itself was released in the UK in July (and became a #1 hit). It didn’t fare so well here, but received regular play. I remember hearing the song a lot, but the song’s true inspiration was just a rumor. It certainly sounded plausible, but so did the stories that Mikey, the kid from the Life cereal commercials, had died from eating Pop Rocks and Pepsi (this might have gotten started from a joke that made the rounds, that said Mikey died because “he ran out of Life”, haw haw). In the pre-internet stone age I lived in, there was just no reliable way to prove anything. In some ways, it was a lot more fun back then. /nostalgia




Inspiration strikes in funny ways. We are constantly bombarded with information, sights, sounds, images, from all over. A story can come from anywhere: a woman sitting on a park bench; a spilled bag of flour; a report heard on the news. It’s a process I still don’t understand, but I’m always happy when it strikes—although I may not like the ‘inciting incident’ all that much.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Epically Bad

In 1982, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, The Who, announced that it was over. They put out one last album (It’s Hard) and toured North America, culminating in a concert in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in December. The tour brought them to New York for two nights at Shea Stadium. Given that the Mets were in the process of finishing about a million games out of first place, there was absolutely no chance of a conflict on the date. I had the privilege of seeing them on the second night, October 13, a night of trains, rain, and music, and not getting home until close to four in the morning—and then having to go to school the next day. As my mother said the following day: “That’s the last time you go to a concert at Shea Stadium.” Turns out she was right about that. It also turned out that I saw the Who more after their ‘retirement’ than before (coincidentally, on Thanksgiving night the following month, I saw another great British band, Squeeze, in their ‘final’ New York appearance. Like the Who, I ended up seeing them more after their ‘retirement/break up’ than before. Go figure.). As Seinfeld might say, "Everyone knows the first break-up never takes."



I went with three of my friends, one of whom was on the school newspaper. A few days after the show, he told us he had been tasked with writing a review of the show for the paper and, since we’d all gone, he figured we should pitch in. So we got together, sat down with a notebook in front of us and….

Nothing.

The problem wasn’t with having four differing viewpoints about the show. We all loved it. The problem was getting started. We just didn’t know how to begin. After spinning our wheels for some time, someone suggested we start at the beginning.
What was the beginning? The unexpected set by David Johanssen? Maybe we should start with the Clash, a band that many had anointed as the natural successors to the Who (and who would be broken up within a year). Or was it when the Who hit the stage? We didn’t know. We couldn’t start, until someone wrote down what we thought of as the real beginning:
“First, we went to Lee’s house.”
What followed was a lengthy recount of the night’s events, which included opening a beer bottle on a garbage can, changing trains multiple times, having a couple of guys offering us $10 for the shirts we had just bought for $14 (hey, it was 1982; the concert tickets themselves were probably less than $20), wading through nearly ankle-deep water in the outer concourse that seemed to emanate from the row of port-o-johns, and a four AM walk-through at a Burger King drive-thru. Oh, and there was music, too. The hallmark of this piece was that, aside from the first line (“First, we went to Lee’s house.”), every other sentence began with the word “Then”. So, it went something like this:
“First, we went to Lee’s house. Then, Dave came. Then we drove to the train station.”
Etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

We knew as we wrote it that it was not publishable in any way, shape or form, and not just because there was cursing and references to underage drinking. It was bad writing, plain and simple, but a hoot to write (and it’s a hoot to read—every few years, we get together and have a reading of what is now known officially as “The Epic”, not to be confused with “The Script”, which is a much better piece of writing in which two of my friends were turned into Superheroes trying to save Levittown from nefarious evil-doers. That one might actually be considered good. But I digress).

Once we got the silliness out of our system, we were able to write an actual review of the show, one that focused on the night of music that we had witnessed. I won’t claim that it was a great piece of writing--when one of your sentences states that drummer Kenney Jones “pounded the skins and rattled the tins”, how good can it be?--but it got the job done. But we did indeed need a starting point, a way to open the mind get words on the paper.

So much writing time is spent in thought. I know sometimes feel like I spend every waking moment thinking about my book or my story, worrying over this event or that line of dialogue, wondering if there’s enough at stake, and on and on and on. The worst time for writers is often when they first sit down, be it at the computer, the typewriter, or the coffee shop, notebook at the ready and pen poised, and stare at all that white space. Everything that was rattling around in the brain, the characters, conversations and situations that were so vivid, go as blank as the page. Now what?

Just start. Even if it turns out to be nonsense, the important part is to just start, just put some words that relate in some way to a character or situation down on the paper. It may be bad (but it won’t be as epically bad as “The Epic”; trust me on this) but it’s something. And when you’re just getting started, whether it's as a writer in general, or a new project, just getting started is more important than the quality. I also find that the quality tends to improve as I warm up.

Just write.

Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Note of Explanation...

...for why this is what it is.

I admit it, I am a fan of so-called ‘Seat of the Pants’ writing, or, as it’s frequently-called on Absolute Write: Pantsing. I hate that phrase, not because it isn’t accurate (it is), but because of the way the word looks and sounds. Pantsing. Pantser. It looks ugly in print, it sounds ugly when you say it. It’s ugly. People who don’t write ‘by the seat of their pants’ are called planners, plotters, and outliners. Those all sound much better (though ‘plotter’ has a bit of a menacing tone to it). I much prefer to use a phrase like ‘Discovery Writer’ or ‘Adventure Writer’, though both of those are rather clunky, and ‘Adventure Writer’ is a genre, I suppose, not a method.

Discovery Writing can be a lot of fun. When I sat down to start Parallel Lives ten months ago, I had nothing more than an image in mind of a character. I knew her personality, what she looked like, what she was interested in, what she was all about, but I had no story, no plot, nothing. I had done several weeks’ worth of thinking, several weeks of trying to generate the right situation, the right story, for this character, but I didn’t have a real idea. So, I sat and started to write. I started with the description of the character, a story began to develop, and, in the great tradition of discovery writing, things went in directions I had never imagined. It was great fun.

The thing is, ‘discovery writing’ is great for fiction, especially once you get the ‘front of brain’—where all the visible stuff happens—working with the ‘back of brain’ (I’ll talk about my own vision of front of brain/back of brain another time). It’s not so great when it comes to fact or opinion pieces, however. It’s too easy to write yourself into a corner. And when you’re writing for your own blog, where there’s no editor looking over your shoulder and saying, “What the hell are you going on about?” it’s easy to publish something that maybe should have been reviewed a little bit more, thought about, considered, and, yes, planned a little more.

I didn’t exactly go off half-cocked on Friday in my post about Platform, but I knew, even as I hit the ‘post’ button, that I wasn’t quite done with it, that there might be more that needed to be said. And there is. That became evident when I was commenting on the comments. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to order my thoughts on it enough to get something up today. Maybe Friday, maybe next week, but I will get to it. Some things just take more planning and consideration.

In the meantime, I stumbled across an interesting blog this morning--Shrinking Violet Promotions. I haven’t had time to delve too deeply into their online workshop (which was begun just about a year ago), but I like what I see so far. Take a look, and enjoy. I'll be back on Friday.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Platform Thing

About a week ago, Nancy Thompson wrote on her blog about…well, blogging, and how tiring it had become. She started her blog because she’d read that it was important for writers to ‘establish a platform’, and blogging was a means of doing that. But the blog thing is wearing her down, and Nancy finds herself yearning for the days when she could just write her book in blissful ignorance of this whole ‘platform’ thing. Nancy wondered if it was that important, given how much time the whole blog thing took, both in terms of crafting her own posts, and visiting and commenting on other blogs all the time. In the comments section, I suggested that platform-building was perhaps not as important for fiction writers as for non-fiction writers, and that she should really concentrate on her fiction writing.

Based on my definition of platform, I thought I was right. My definition of platform was very similar in idea to what Jeff Goins expressed in his post the other day. He said:
In the simplest terms, a platform is permission. It’s the right to speak to a group about a certain topic. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting that.

If you have something worth saying, you want people to hear it. A platform amplifies and legitimizes your message. It gives you authority to influence.
And that’s pretty much how I understood it when I first came across the phrase. ‘Platform’ is an author’s expertise, her credentials, her bona fides, her credibility. When viewed this way, it’s understandable why I would think it applies to non-fiction, not fiction. You won’t buy a book on fish biology by Luca Brasi simply because his author bio reads, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”



You might pick it up and look inside to see if it was a joke, but if you were serious about learning about fish biology, you’d put it down and pick up something by a guy with a Master’s in Icthyology. Lee Iacocca has credibility when it comes to management strategy or the auto industry. Neil Armstrong has a platform on the space industry. The cast of “Jersey Shore” has a platform on…well, whatever it is they actually do. I might be able to write a non-fiction book on GM or NASA or tanning, but one look at my biography, and an editor would probably say, “Why should I believe anything you say about this subject?” I’d have to write one hell of a book to get a look, and rightly so.

I thought expertise could help for fiction, but that it wasn’t necessary. If I were to write a series of books about a New York City detective, an agent/author/reader might give me more weight if my bio said “Jeff O’Handley was on the NYPD for thirty years.” Reading that, you might figure that I could capture a lot of the gritty details of police work, along with the culture of the NYPD. If you were in a book shop and saw two detective novels side-by-side and could only buy one, would it really matter that much to you that one is written by a retired detective and the other wasn’t? That ‘platform’ might account for a few sales here and there, but it probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. The key for fiction, I thought, is a good story, written well, that finds its way into the right hands at the right time. Platform? That’s for the non-fiction writers, right? That’s what I thought, anyway.

Well, a week after Nancy's post, Rachelle Gardner wrote a piece that defined platform in a completely different way. Rachelle’s definition:
“It’s the way you, the author, will get your name and your book in front of potential consumers. It’s the way you will bring sales to the table. It’s a group of people who are likely to buy your book, if you should ever publish one, because they already know of you and they like something about you.”
That’s a game changer, isn’t it? So, in view of this, what can I say?



Huh. Thirty-something years later, Fonzie still can’t say it, but I can: I was wrong. And so I apologize to Nancy and anyone who read my comments and thought, “Cool! Jeff says I don’t have to worry about platform!”

This new definition of platform certainly makes sense, given the way the world—and the world of publishing—has changed in the last 20 or so years.

Think about it: Agents and editors assume a huge risk when taking on a client or a project. Most of us authors have a source of income aside from writing. We pour a lot of ourselves into our books, and lay ourselves on the line, but unless we’ve quit our day jobs to become authors, the only risks we take when we query are to our egos, and our hopes and dreams (not that that’s a small thing). The agents do a lot of free work on our behalf in the hopes of a big payday. It’s entirely possible they will flog your book—talking you up at meetings and conferences, writing queries (do they call them queries when they come from agents?), shopping you around--for a year or more and not get any takers. No sale means no income. Publishers, meanwhile, lay out actual cash in the hopes that your book does well enough to at least break even. They assume a huge risk in offering a contract, with no guarantee that your book is going to earn back the advance, let alone all the other costs associated with getting it published and out there. It’s natural they’d want to hedge their bets, and I guess they look at an author with a blog-following, tweet-hanging, facebook-friending army of a few thousand as less of a risk than someone like me. After all, an author with a few thousand blog followers is going to sell books to at least some of them, right? And a lot of those followers have blogs of their own, with followers of their own, and word will get around and make that book into a best-seller. It makes more sense than taking a chance on someone like me who has 15 followers and a whopping 140 blog hits a month (I'm not entirely sure this line of thinking is totally accurate, but that's a subject for another day, because this post is already too long, and it's all speculation; I have not platform).

But Rachelle’s piece also speaks to another question, one that was just asked of me this week by a fellow blogger and reader of a portion of my manuscript, and one that I've been avoiding as I write: who is my audience? Are you, my dear 15 followers, the true audience of my WiP, or anything else that I’ll write down the road? Or is it someone else? And if you're not, should I aim my blog at them? I’m afraid to say I haven’t really answered the audience question, but I’ll have to address it by the time I’m ready for the query process. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my book, and blogging the way I do. But I’ll be thinking....

Have a nice weekend, all.