Sunday, December 25, 2011

New Year's Resolution: Keep It Simple

This is what I keep coming back to when I think about publishing my wip: keep it simple. I've read all the arguments for and against publishing through legacy publishers, and I can't imagine going the traditional route. Translation: I can't see sending out tons of query emails to agents only for them to turn me down (because my book is weird), can't imagine finally finding that one agent who'll take a chance on me after a year of searching only for no publishers to show interest.

I can imagine lots of things, but this I can't.

What I can envisage is this: finishing my wip, editing it to a pulp, rebuilding it into something beautiful, showing it to writers I trust, re-editing it, and then publishing it myself. This is all I can actually see doing.

Am I insane?

I've gotten to a point in my life where patience is no longer a virtue. I can be patient; that's not the issue--it's that I'm worried that if I'm too patient, I'll die being patient and not being a published writer.

So this is my New Year's resolution: keep it simple. Publish your vision. See if anyone catches on. And then keep writing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

RIP Hitchens

I've lost a teacher today. I'm sure lots and lots of people feel the same way. I never fully accepted all of Christopher Hitchens' viewpoints (I've probably seen every single one of his YouTube videos and read tons of his Vanity Fair pieces, so I have some idea of his positions on just about everything).

I believe there is a God. Or, to put it better, I don't believe there cannot be a God, as he did right up to the end. I think his intolerance of religion is just as weird as I find the intolerance of very religious people towards secularism. His stance on Iraq, blind as it was to the subtleties on the ground, has always mystified me. Etc. etc.

But I don't think anyone can fully accept every single stance of another person. We're all too complex. And Hitchens was way more complex than most people. Not that I ever met him, obviously. But all you had to do was listen to him for three minutes to realize the staggering breadth of his knowledge. He'd read everything, and could recite it off the top of his head. Or so it seemed.

I don't want to make this long, since there are people who actually knew him who are grieving right now, and I have no place in that process. But I just wanted to say that I loved him as dearly as anyone can love someone they've never met, as much as one can love a Dickens or a Lucas or a Hafez. He was a genius, and I'm much smarter and I care about the truth that much more passionately for having read him.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spammer of the Year Finalist: Tish

For this gem:

Your cranium must be prtoetcing some very valuable brains.

Yes, Tish. It is.

I love my spammers. I don't care what anyone says about bots: they have feelings too. And Tish, your brain must be "prtoetcing" some very valuable brains too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finish It, Already!

Have you ever gone out to eat and, though your waiter was great, bringing your food quickly and not badgering you with rounds of, "How is everything?", he/she totally dropped the ball at the end by taking forever to bring your check? This happens to me over and over again, and I'm starting to see a parallel in my own writing.

I have a problem sealing the deal.

I've written 500+ pages of my first draft, and the more I write, the further away the endzone seems. Why is this?

Well, one explanation is that I don't want to short-change my future audience by tacking on a hastily-worded ending. Believe me, I want it to be over. Writing a first draft is a brutal, ego-pulverizing experience, and the sooner it's over, the better. But I'm weighing that desire for a coup-de-grace with the certain knowledge that if I speed through this stage, I'll have to revisit it in the second draft anyway, so may as well do it right the first time.

But man oh man, do I want this madness to end. The original date I'd assigned myself to have the first draft done was July, and I've obviously blown that. Now my sights are set on January 1st, which is my new, no-holds-barred deadline.

Writing for only one hour per day makes meeting deadlines especially dicey, though, so we'll see how it goes. But I could use some encouragement. Anyone else out there know what I'm going through?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Genres are Not Four-Letter Words

Most writers want to be John Steinbeck. I don't mean that they literally wish they could write about Cannary Row all day long; no, I mean they aspire to grandiose goals, just like Steinbeck. His most memorable quote, as far as I'm concerned, is when he was asked to describe his book "East of Eden" and he said (and I'm paraphrasing), "It's all in there."

By "all", my professor at the time said what Steinbeck meant was that all of his aspirations as a writer were contained within its covers, all of life and its vicissitudes. In other words: everything.

That's a grandiose statement, but if you've ever read "East of Eden", you'll see that it spells out what was probably Steinbeck's view of life in a pretty straightforward manner, albeit wrapped in Biblical imagery.

This is what so many of us writers start out wanting to do from an early age: explain the world as we see it. Tell parables others can learn from. Be the wise man/woman others search out for guidance. We want more than anything to wrap our arms around the impossible immensity of life and show everyone the beauty of it.

But honestly, those days are over.

True, we still have Jonathan Franzen, and a few others of his ilk, but his kind are few and far between. Unless you're a genius and you also get lucky, your tomes aren't going to be seen by anyone but the mealworms who eat out the pages as they sit moldering in your desk drawer.

Which is why it's a good idea, if you haven't already, to try to become the master of a much smaller domain.

Far be it from me to tell you to aim low -- you should still try to be a great writer. But specialize. Don't be afraid to be weird, to create characters that are outside of our everyday realm. And don't apologize for it.

From everything I've read, in the age of the internet, specialization is the new watchword. Try to be the best (insert genre here) writer you can, introduce us to inimitable characters conjured out of your sub-subconscious. And for the love of all things holy, don't stray into fifteen other genres before you get really good at the one genre you really want to master.

I mean, it's a free country -- write what you want. But it seems like unless you stay laser-focused on a single genre, you won't make much money, and it'll be harder to maintain your craft. I'm just telling you this because it's the strategy I've decided to implement after careful consideration, and I'm very optimistic about it. It'll be interesting to see if I can stay focused, considering my average attention span of 5.2 seconds. But we'll see.

What do you think? Is this is a good or a bad strategy? Am I thinking too small? Give me your take.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Scourge of Too Many Characters

Dickens did it. So did Dr. Seuss. Oh, and don't forget about Tolstoy. Man, he was the worst offender of all.

These authors jammed their books so full of characters that after a while, you start forgetting who is who. It's not that I dislike these guys--I respect their work very much--but part of me has always liked books where you can keep everyone straight without resorting to a flowchart.

I'm looking at you, Tolkien.

And, as with most things I rail about, I'm guilty of it, too. In my current wip, I've gone overboard. I literally couldn't tell you how many characters I've introduced because I've lost count. I think I've done a good job of distinguishing them from each other, but still. I'll go back and read over sections of my first draft and realize I've totally forgotten about certain characters, allowing them to vanish altogether.

I'm of two minds about this. During the writing process, I've enjoyed conjuring up a myriad of characters because it keeps things lively. But I'm wondering if I've passed a tipping point, and if readers will be overwhelmed with the sheer number of people and creatures who inhabit my book.

Have you ever run into this issue? I'm nearly done with the first draft, and I realize I'll have to consolidate some characters and drop others, but how do you draw that line between who stays and who goes? I'd be interested to know.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pilot Your Own Ship

If you lack the iron and the fuzz to take control of your own life, if you insist on leaving your fate to the gods, then the gods will repay your weakness by having a grin or two at your expense. Should you fail to pilot your own ship, don't be surprised at what inappropriate port you find yourself docked.

-Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

The longer I live, the more true this statement becomes. But lots of people fail to live up to it. Why? What I think happens too often is not that people fail to understand the value of taking ownership of their lives, and it's not most often the case that unforseen circumstances crop up that bar them from taking control (though certainly this does happen): the single biggest stumbling block that stops people from piloting their own ship is impatience.

Everybody loves the idea of being in charge of themselves. I mean, who wouldn't want to chart their own course? It's when they go to implement this mantra in their life, however, that the trouble starts. People make a few changes--maybe they refuse to do some project that would've meant spending extra time at work, maybe they decide to finally sit down and write that novel they've been meaning to write--and then, voila! they expect to wake up the next morning a changed person.

Doesn't work that way. No, the choice to master one's own life is only the beginning. It's realizing you're on the wrong path, deep in a dark, shadowy forest, and then deciding to double back to where you saw the path fork off in the other direction. It's an a-ha moment.

To be sure, it's an important decision, and one not to be taken lightly. But that's all it is: a decision. It will take some doing to get back to the fork in the road, because it will undoubtedly be beset by fallen limbs and cracks and strange creatures with flashing eyes.

And doubt. Oh yes, there will be doubt. Because you will have gone so far down the wrong way that, in a weird way, at least, you'll tell yourself, you know what's there; at least you know there are no forest fires the way you just came from.

It's the devil you know.

You'll be tempted to throw up your hands and turn tail and head back down the road most traveled because it's just easier (so says your lazy side).

But if you just ignore those doubts, push them down, recognize they're just your over-protective mother's voice ringing in your subconscious, if you keep pushing toward that other path, you'll gain confidence. You'll realize that the felled trees can easily be climbed over, that the scary animals are just raccoons, that really, the only thing scary about the forest is the darkness and darkness cannot last forever.

We're stubborn-minded creatures. How do you think we outlasted the Neandertals, who science tells us were probably smarter than our ancestors? Because we don't like to be told what to do. We like to think that we know what's best, and even if the odds are stacked against us, there's a little insane whisper of a voice inside us that says everything will be all right.

So make that voice work for you. Only tune into the one that says you can correct your course. Even if it's the weakest of all of your internal voices, pay it heed. Because it's often the quietest voice that's the most self-assured.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why First Drafts are the Best Drafts

I'll probably get run out of town for saying this, but I love first drafts. They're by far the best drafts I ever write of anything. No, they're not grammatically correct, and granted, they go on and on in weird directions that often, upon second glance, make no sense. But still, I love them more than any other draft, even the final one.

Let me explain.

Writing a first draft is about saying "yes." Most of the time, we are forced to say "no" -- when shopping, when taking on projects at work, when trying to decide between seeing a movie or getting coffee. "No" shapes our experience much more than "yes" does, overall.

And yet, when we sit down to write, we can say "yes" to anything. ANYTHING! Think about that for a minute. True, you don't want to start off writing a book about werewolves and end up writing about the stock market crash of 1929. That would be a pain in the ass.

But barring that, you can write about anything you want. So why would you censor yourself? I see authors outlining their brains out, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing to do in general (I mean, truth be told, I write up general outlines when I write), but my advice is to not let outlines box you in too much.

For instance, with the wip I'm working on now, I deviated from my outline on page ten or so. I refer to it now and again, but for the most part, I haven't looked back. I realized early on that most of the groundwork I'd laid no longer served the story that was emerging from my imagination.

And that's the important thing to remember, in my opinion: an outline should serve your imagination, help to organize it a little better. It shouldn't work the other way around, where your imagination has to take a back seat to rigid organization.

Saying "yes" means that you have to be ultimately flexible, able to accept new ideas and write them down without questioning them. And also, you have to be prepared for your draft to take longer than one associated with a strict outline would take.

But what you get in return is so much cooler.

I barely ever question ideas in a first draft. They come from a mysterious room in the dungeon of my brain, from behind a door that's been bricked over and covered with wallpaper. Somehow or other, little chinks of mortar have chipped off, and when I write, a faint breeze starts to blow out of the room and straight into my fingers.

This air has been bottled up for so long, told that it must live in darkness at the bottom of a pit ten thousand feet deep, that you can barely feel it coursing through you. But it's there, all the same. So what a pity it would be stamp it out.

A lot of people never make it out of the first draft stage. I've abandoned lots of projects before finishing even one draft. We all do it. And I think I've mostly done it because I didn't see how I could finish those drafts, given the chaos that had broken out in them. But looking back, I really wish I'd hung in there, because there's no telling how beautiful they could've been if I'd just kept opening myself up to what they could become.

Say "yes" as much as you can, especially in your first draft. You'll end up with lots of unusable stuff, but you'll also end up with cool ideas that never would've occurred to you had you stuck close to your outline.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nostalgia, Thy Name is Autumn

It's turning out to be a gorgeous fall here in DC. This town, to my mind, is a gross, cement-lined mosquito nest of seething humidity for 3/4 of the year. On top of that, it's filled with busy-body technocrats who dress head-to-toe in black/gray/grayish black clothes. Honestly, you sometimes don't know whether you're following a funeral procession or people on their way to work.

But come fall each year, a cool wind blows in, the trees blaze up into reds and golds, and the whole place becomes awesome.

Nostalgia, thy name is Autumn. Hell yes it is.

I've always liked the Autumn. It's a time of death before renewal. There's something instructive in that. Something that lets us know on an intuitive level that after the Fall comes a rebirth of sorts. It unsettles us with its burst of beauty, its shrivel and decay, and its promise of a new, brighter world to come.

As authors, it's important for us to understand nostalgia. We should respect it, not toss it aside as base sentimentality. Because to me, the best books tap a reader's well of pleasant recollections, most especially from childhood. We should open our minds to what we've loved and lost, and try to recapture it in our writing. Because others will sense this sharp, sweet sense of loss too, and it will remind them of their own humanity if we do it right.

Communining with others in this most human way is what great writing is all about. Whether you're writing a post-modern novel or a picture book, your vulnerability has to be on every page, in every word. And nothing will make you feel more vulnerable than the pinch of nostalgia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Don't Force Your Ending

That's what I keep telling myself. I want so SO badly to be done with the first draft of my wip--I'm in the midst of writing my first YA fiction fantasy saga-ish book right now--but, alas, I'm not finished.

I'm ALMOST finished. But I haven't entered the last period, haven't printed off drafts for my beta readers to sink their teeth into yet. I'm writing the penultimate battle scene at the moment, and there are still two major sequences to go after that.

While it would be super convenient to just hurry up and contrive some ending and slap it on there, I can't allow this. Because books, once they get going, take on a life of their own, and you cannot suffocate that life. It just has to wind down of its own accord.

And let me tell you, it's taking its sweet time.

I can feel I'm close. It's kind of like at night, when all of the lights are off. You stick out your hand because you know the bathroom door is close, it's only a few inches away, but you can't quite see it.

Not to equate my book with a bathroom. But you get the point. If you're in a similar position as me, realizing that even once you finish your book you still have months of edits ahead of you and, doggone it, wouldn't it be better to just finish the draft and get it into your readers' hands asap?--don't succumb to this urge.

Finish what you started. Give your book/story/play some space and let it end the way it's supposed to end. Otherwise, your readers will sense that you tacked on an ending. And that's a huge mistake because it makes it seem like either A.) you don't have a very firm grasp on the internal universe of your story, B.) you're in it for the money and are just cranking stories out like some book-writing machine, or C.) you just got bored and said, "To heck with it."

Why would a reader stick with your book if you weren't even willing to? Haste makes waste. So do the right thing!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Ok, I'm officially into Halloween now. Not sure why, but it just hit me that Halloween is exactly 20 days away!!

Friday, October 7, 2011

What to Do When You Feel Like Giving Up


Keep fighting.

Unless it's driving you crazy, then take a break. But don't give up entirely. If you're breaking your neck to write three or four blog posts a week, just write two. What's the big deal? Will the world not be as interesting without one or two of your blog posts each week? No it will not.

Because the world is just fine without you.

But that's all it is. Just fine. You'll make it much, much better by producing your art, but let's face it: the world will not explode into a billion bitty pieces because you didn't tell us how many pages you wrote last night.

Which is liberating! It's not negative in the least. Nope, it takes all the stress away. I think when people get all stressed and down about not having achieved enough, they forget that even when people achieve a lot, these achievements may linger on in the memories of their kids or friends or colleagues, but after they die or go insane, unless they're very, very lucky, not many people will remember what they did.

After all, do you know who invented the can opener or who developed modern atomic theory? No? These were massively important inventions. And no one even pays homage to these titans anymore.

Sure, you might write something that transcends the ages, but odds are you won't. And even if you do, you may be ridiculed in your own lifetime, or, if the stars are shining on you, your books may go unread only for some nerd to stumble upon your masterwork in the future and, through sheer force of nerdy intellectual will, get you some mad props.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you why you should write—there are lots of reasons to write. But for me, I couldn't bank on the slim hope of getting famous or rich from writing to sustain me spiritually. I want to write for the sheer happiness it (hopefully) will bring people. That may sound hippyish and cloying, but it's true. What other more tangible goal can there realistically be?

The point here is not to give up. For even trying to become a published writer, you are awesome. Scale back the work if you have to; there's no shame in that. Heck, I only blog twice a week nowadays. No, I'm not burning the world up with followers (thanks, by the way, to my loyal band of 6!), but I also don't have a product to sell right now (am working on that), so whatever. Forcing yourself to spew up content is like telling an elephant to sit on an almost-empty tube of toothpaste: sure, something will come out, but it won't be much, and you will have angered a three-ton animal in the process.

I used to think I had to be all over Twitter every third second in order to catch eyeballs, but the weird thing is, when I take a couple of days off from tweet-land, I often come back to find that I have more followers.

Sure they're spambots...but they count too, dammit! Don't you dare dismiss spam. And that's not entirely true, some of them are actual people. So.

Don't give up, intrepid ranger! If you just can't think of a subject to fill your weekly quota, embed a cool-ass YouTube video. Or a timely picture like this one. Do something to let us know you're still kicking.

Don't quit!!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Monday, October 3, 2011

My Writing Playlist #2

Hi, all. Every once in a while, I list a few of the artists/songs I've been listening to lately while writing. Maybe this will help you get into a good head-space while you write your WIP. I'm working on a fast-paced young adult fantasy novel at the moment, so I need lots of high-octane tunes to get me through my writing day

Note: I don't like a lot of lyrics with my tuneage, especially when I'm trying to write a complicated scene, so I've found that these artists are great for that. If there are lyrics involved, the singers' voices are sweet and soft and don't elbow in on my thoughts.

Just click on the little icon at the end of each description to be taken to sites where you can hear samples of the music. Some of these albums are better for listening to while writing certain scenes than for others. Here goes:

1.) Loud Pipes by Ratatat

This NYC duo really hit a nerve with me. It's got driving undertones that really help me when pacing a scene where tempo builds to a crescendo. But, oddly, at other times it soothes me so that I can write more tender scenes. The song sort of reflects whatever mood you're in, or what mood you need to be in. If you know you have to write a hard-driving scene on a certain day but just don't feel up to it, pop this in your iPod and give it a try.


2.) Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap

Going against my pre-stated disdain for lyrics in songs (I know: a writer who dislikes lyrics? Weird, I admit), I love this song. The dude sings so lightly through most of it, and in such a weird register that I only hear as background noise, that this is perfect writing material. Their stuff varies widely, and is uneven quality-wise, but this song, to me, is fantastic. There's something about it that reminds me of an ending song for a movie, something that signifies a denoument, so it's good to listen to if you're trying to wrap a scene up and can't figure out how.


3.) Animals by Miike Snow

I know nothing about this guy (so I have no idea why he spells his name with two "i"'s), but stumbled across him while listening to Pandora. I couldn't tell you a single lyric from any of his songs; it's great for background writing music, because, for whatever reason, his music puts me at ease. Good for writing upbeat or whimsical scenes.

last fm

4.) Is There a Ghost by Band of Horses

Leave aside the atrocious video here and the godawful group name (it reminds me of a bunch of My Pretty Ponies running through a sun-dappled forest) and this music is oddly hypnotic. Good for writing transitional scenes where time is passing by because it's got a lyrical, time-gone-by feel to it.

last fm

This is just a brief sample of what I've been listening to lately. Hopefully these songs help you relax and write well. Do you have any suggestions for good writing music? Let me know in the comments section!

A pick-me-up

Can't seem to get enough of this song. It's by Ratatat.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Give Us Someone to Root For

So I've been watching the show "Revenge" on ABC. The second episode aired last night, and I have to say, though it looked preposterously stupid from the advertisements, I've been pleasantly surprised at the high level of storytelling going on. And the acting ain't half bad either. There's only one problem: everyone sucks.

Let me explain.

The premise is simple: twenty or so years ago, a little girl named Amanda Clarke, who lived an idyllic life couched in the lap of Hampton's luxury, watched as the feds raided their beachfront home and dragged her father to jail. He was hung out to dry by powerful friends, dying a solitary death in prison. Now, his grown-up little girl, who re-named herself Emily Thorne (an excellent Emily VanCamp), has returned to the Hamptons to exact revenge on the gang of super-wealthy elites who robbed her of her father.

Her dad left her a fortune somehow or other (details are slowly being revealed each episode), and she's just closed on a beach house situated next door to the richest of the rich, the queen bee-ist of the queen bees of Hamptons society, Victoria Grayson (a steely Madeleine Stowe). All sorts of strange and slick characters cross in and out of Emily's days in the beachfront town, most of whom are on her blacklist. At least once per episode so far, she has begun destroying her enemies in spectacular fashion.

The only problem I have with the show (besides the fact that we don't really have time to become acquainted with characters before she starts ruining their lives (an exigency required by TV audience attention-spans no doubt)) is that there's no one to root for. We see all of the town's residents--nice and swarthy alike--as Emily sees them: as chess pieces to be manipulated.

You want Emily to get her revenge on the mega-billionaires, of course, because we all want to watch billionaires squirm a little these days. And added to that, they threw her dad under about five double-decker buses. And sure, it would be nice if she and the little boy she used to pal around with as a kid who grew up to be an honest, blue collar restaurant owner's son (Nick Wechsler) got together, and if the guy could save his dad's restaurant from bankruptcy.

But honestly, I hate just about everyone on the show.

And this brings up an important lesson for writers. You can do anything you want, it's a free country, but when I'm reading a book, I need someone to root for. I have to like them, and my values have to be aligned with theirs on some level, and they have to be fairly central to the book/story.

Otherwise, why am I reading the book? I don't think I have much to learn much from, say, oh I don't know, a person hell-bent on excoriating everyone who ever looked at her the wrong way. It's the same question I'm asking right now about "Revenge": do I really, in the end, care if this woman ruins a bunch of people's lives and careers? It won't bring her dad back, and it will probably feel hollow to her, having wreaked so much havoc. Or maybe not, but should she be admired if she actually enjoys stepping on people's jugulars?

Part of what the producers are banking on, I'm guessing, is that people are so sick of Wall Street that they'll love watching investment bankers and high-society floozies get what's coming to them. Meh. I don't obsess about the idiots in the Battery any more than I obsess about an asteroid someday hitting the Earth. Sure, I hate them on the same level, but whatever.

At any rate, my advice to you is to not make your main characters so destructive that they have very little room for humanity. Emily looked on as a group of bullies eviscerated her father. I wish she'd grown up to found a charity in her father's name and tried to make his legacy a positive one. I know that doesn't make for riveting drama, but at least I could get behind her motives.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As a tireless advocate for spam, I've grown tired of watching spam get smeared in the press, sick to death of the awful things people say about it every day. I know there are lots of you out there who'd never admit it to friends, or maybe even to yourself, but deep down, you know that spam is beautiful. You know that without it, the sun wouldn't shine as bright. The colors of the rainbow would turn from red and yellow to gray.

It's time to come out of the shadows. It's time to fight the good fight.

Yes, that's right: I'm starting a Spam Political Action Committee (SPAMPAC).

Think about the manifold good spam has brought into our lives. Spam keeps us grounded. When we bloggers have had a run of great comments on a particular post, our heads inflate. We think we're awesome and will soon overtake Arianna Huffington's empire.

Not so, says the spam. Case in point: you see that you've got a fresh new comment. Your hands shiver with anticipation as you click on the link to open it, only to find this:

Hi there there! This publish couldn’t be created any far better! Reading through by means of this publish reminds me of my prior space mate! He constantly stored discussing this.

Ah, I see, spam. Your space mate was constantly stored discussing this, eh? Please, tell me more.

I’ll ahead this short article to him. Rather certain he’ll have a very very good go through. Thanks for sharing

Nice words, but obviously computer-generated. You see? Spambots keep you from getting too big for your britches. And this is where spam's value is underrated. I have decided to stand up for this underrepresented group because our Constitution guarantees them certain inalienable rights, and I'll be God darned if I let anyone trample on their liberty anymore! I'm taking my country back!

Will you join me? If so, call your senator and tell him/her, "If you vote against spam again, if you chip away any more at their hard-won freedoms"--after all, spam fought honorably in the Civil War and in every conflict since then (except Korea, where they abstained and were thrown into jail for their acts of civil disobedience)--"if you stamp out their sweet light forever from this Earth, I will never vote for you again!"

Come on, everyone! Let's link arms and fight for spam before it's too late!

*Paid for by SPAMPAC and SPAMPAC's sponsors (who include mainly spambots)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Commuter Salute

Hi all, I've decided to do something new on Fridays. Every Friday (if I'm able) I'll salute my fellow commuters who made my hour-plus commute to work particularly interesting that week. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't do something either impossibly dumb or unexpectedly kind on the subway/buses (yes, that's plural) that I take to work. This week was a bad one for commuting, for some reason. Anyway, please raise your glass with me as we toast D.C.-area commuters:

-To the persnickety a-hole in the stupid Greg Norman straw hat with the wide brim who said, "I guess you don't believe in standing in line" when I attempted to join a line of zombies going up the escalator and, unbeknownst to me, cut him off: I salute you.

-To the woman with the fanny pack who wouldn't stop holding onto the balancing bar even when the train was stopped, forcing me to awkwardly duck around you instead of you, you know, just stepping the hell out of my way: I salute you.

-To the giant man with gangly limbs who, though he could've stood anywhere on the train, decided to stand right up close to me so I had trouble writing in my notebook: I salute you.

-To the man-child leaning into me in an overwrought attempt to stay balanced on a barely-swaying subway car: I salute you.

-To the bus driver who leaves the bus turned off while we all pile in, thereby leaving the A/C off and allowing us to baste in our own juices: I salute you.

-To the woman basically sitting in my lap who only covered her mouth every fourth time she coughed while filling out a soduko...sudoko...sunoco...oh, whatever: I salute you.

-To the girl with the hunted eyes who, even though she's sitting two rows back and who got on the bus way after me, leaps up before the bus has even stopped just so she can get off the bus first, showing no appreciation for the coveted "I was here first" rule: I salute you.

Honorable mention goes to the lady with the wheely luggage who never fails to ditch the line leading onto the bus: I salute you.

That's it for this week. I'm sure there were some acts of kindness, but honestly, I can't remember any. Anyway, as they say on the Continent: salud!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stop Trying to Justify Yourself

If I could go back and say one thing to my 25-year-old self, it would be this: stop worrying about what people think of you. Everyone else is not you. You have needs that the vast majority of them don't. You need to fill yourself up with words and then write them out. You need the ocean. You need the open sky and you need people to be nice to you. You need to feel the brush gliding across the canvas. Stop worrying about what other people think you need.

And for cripes sake, stop trying to justify your life to everyone!

Because they'll never get it. They're not you. All they need to be happy is a job that makes them feel special. A nice car. An XBOX and golf every other Sunday. A big title; a fat raise.

Your needs are important, despite what they may say. They'll call you flaky. They'll say you have no drive, no plan for life. How wrong they are. You know exactly what you need, and you must banish any guilt you feel for needing it. You need to express yourself. Why? Who the hell cares why? You need it, OK? Stop trying to explain the unexplainable. Just do.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This Video Makes Me Happy

I love the Pacific Northwest. Wish I could visit more often.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Books Will Write Themselves

In the not-too-distant future -- maybe after you and I are gone, but maybe not -- I predict that books will write themselves. Not all books will be automatically written, but lots of them will be. I'm not big on predictions, but it's just the way I see things going. Not to worry you, but, you know...prepare yourself.

Over the weekend, I was discussing this idea with a friend, and they practically punched me in the face. "What a stupid thing to say!" my friend chided. "And how depressing!" See, I don't think it's that depressing a notion. It could be seen as a negative thing, obviously, or it could be seen as an opportunity.

The vast majority of people who read in this country (which is not all that many, anymore) probably read books that they feel won't demand much mental energy. It's hard to blame them; with folks working longer hours these days, most are fried by the end of the day. They don't want to come off working the late shift at Denny's and dive into "War and Peace." I get that. No arguments here.

But what this means is that more books will be produced to suit their low-bar needs. After a while, if you take this line of thinking to its logical end, formulas and algorithms will be devised so that a weary soul will be able to sit at a computer, type in their favorite book titles and authors, their genre of choice, a few themes they want to read about, and maybe a time period, the computer will do the math, and then it will export an instantly-written book to their e-reader. The whole thing would take less than five minutes and they'd get a book custom-written to their preferences.

This is where we're headed. Heck, James Patterson doesn't even write his own books anymore. In this new era of high-speed digital customization, I can't imagine the market dictating anything else; it's the most convenient process in the world for readers.

Of course, there will still be people who want to read books written by actual human beings. Though there may come a time when computers out-pace humans at piquing reader's imaginations (I cringe just writing that), I have to believe a cadre of hard-core readers will remain who will want to go the traditional route. So it's important to establish yourself as an author who can deliver consitently good, thoroughly-edited books. Because you can bet the book writing programs of the future won't make typos, and you'll be competing with a smaller pool of writers for this sought-after audience.

(Note: I say "you" here, but it may be your grandchildren who have to worry more about this.)

Look: it's fine to want to write books in order to get rich. This is a free country. But I write because I want to communicate and I want to increase my ability to have empathy for people. Because reading is all about building our capacity to feel empathy toward others. This should not come with a price tag. You can write for lots of reasons, but to me, the best reason of all is to make the world an easier place for people to love each other.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Beat the Apathy Monster

Hey all, I've been unplugged for the past few days. It was nice to take a break, but I'm happy to be back. While I was away, working hard on my WIP every free second I got, I was thinking about how there's nothing worse as an author than to be unpublished. I know this feeling first-hand because, well...I'm unpublished (outside of a few magazine articles). Telling people you're working on a WIP doesn't cut the butter. People want results. They don't think you're a "real" writer unless you've put yourself out there and published.

Which I get. Fine. You can talk about Emily Dickinson all you want (the great American poet had less than a dozen poems published in her lifetime, and yet she's been hugely influential), but no one is going to think you're the next Emily Dickinson. This is America, baby. We want results.

Enter: the Apathy Monster. Unpublished authors are stalked by this blood-thirsty predator. Some published writers are as well, but not as many. The beast is mostly bred from within: it's fertilized by self-imposed, unrealistic expectations, grows in the womb of our self-doubt, and comes to term when we most need to keep faith in ourselves. Thinking that all our hard work might go unnoticed is one of the most desolate feelings in the world. It derails people for years, making them question why they continue to put themselves through this.

The monster scares us so badly that we forget all the great lines we've written, all the wondrous forms we've painted, and worry only that people--if they notice us at all--will only notice our flaws.

Not that I'm a successful artist (yet), but my sense of this is that successful artists know they can't eradicate this hopeless feeling. So they don't even try. My guess is that they accommodate this emptiness, even use it to inform their work. Because I don't care who you are, whether you're the MVP of the Super Bowl or a window washer working up on the thirtieth floor, you have self-doubts. The wise artist understands this common human thread and weaves it into their work. In doing so, people recognize themselves in the work and connect with it.

Don't dismiss your doubts. Don't bury your fear of the Apathy Monster. Don't judge your feelings while you create because you can't allow your focus to waver. If you can befriend the monster, build him a little efficiency suite in your heart, then we'll all be better for it.

I'm here to tell you that you can succeed. I have crushing self-doubt sometimes, too. Don't worry. In fact, this past week there were a few moments where I felt like quitting. But we can't ever quit. There are too few of us artists to begin with.

You can do it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Creator's Manifesto

I've added a new page up above in the menu there. It's called "The Creator's Manifesto." As I say on the page, I don't much care for the word "manifesto", given its connection to politics, but it's a useful shorthand so I'll go with it.

I felt the need to outline some of my reasons for staying creative even when the world seems hell-bent on derailing you. Often times, when I feel like throwing in the towel, it's because I feel like I'm never going to be successful and make tons of money and prove to the naysayers that I'm a brilliant thinker.

But then I have to check myself. Success and failure seems like too rough an equation when it comes to art. The real reason we should make art is for others, not because we seek riches for ourselves. We should want to impart our wisdom/sense of humor/insights to other people so that they can become better people.

Usually, this does the trick for me.

Do you have core reasons for being an artist that you grapple onto for support when you're feeling down? Let me know.

Update: I wrote this manifesto late last night, and in retrospect, I think a lot of it had to do with my reflections on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 being today. In listening to the radio all morning and re-watching old footage of the attacks taking place, I'm reminded of how utterly hopeless and sad I felt that day, and in the months afterwards.

I was living nearly 2000 miles away from Ground Zero at the time, so obviously I wasn't directly impacted by the events. So I'm only speaking for myself here and not anyone who was directly affected. In my opinion, the only appropriate response to acts of horror like Sept. 11th is love. Do what you love every day. Be nice to everyone. Create art for the benefit of others, so that your love will spread around the world.

Some people think they can't do anything in response to 9/11. They feel weak, even ten years on. But the truth is, we can do something. We have the strength to drown out the sadness. We must align ourselves so that we project love into the world through our art. Unhesitating love is the best response to hate. We have to trust each other again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Passionate and Humble Defense of Spam

Spam is stupid. This much everyone knows. We all try to police it, but somehow, no matter how many hurdles we place in its way, it still sneaks through. Bots are like your Uncle Richard who only knows how to talk about his uninteresting life ("I got two pounds of salmon for $8 at Piggly Wiggly last night--you shoulda seen the look on my face! What a deal!"), ignoring any attempt on your part to get a word in edge-wise: both are impervious to your efforts to shut them out. Listen, it's just life: Uncle Rich will keep coming over for Thanksgiving dinner even if you have it in the tool shed out back with the lights turned out on the second Tuesday of November. He will find you.

But looked at the right way, spam can also be fun, provided it's not some mashup of words devoid of prepositions or definite articles like some Djuna Barnes nightmare. The ones that highlight male enhancement I can do without (which I've been getting a lot of lately, and which are making me feel like someone out there knows something I don't). But beyond that, I've been seeing some funny ones of late.

And by funny, I mean lazy. Whoever dreamed up this spam is a mental midget. Or I don't even know how it works--does some software program generate spam it thinks will lure people in? If so, James Cameron can rest easy--I don't think we have to worry about computers taking over the world anytime soon. Not when you see messages like this:

Hahah. Totally! That so true. Hilarious stuff. I bookmark your page and show all my friends. My website: _______.

That one was left in the comment section of a post I wrote about how life is fragile and we all could die at any moment. That's what I mean: lazy. Know your audience, spambots! Here's another left on a post I did where I photoshopped Teddy Roosevelt's head onto Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream":

Oh wow! Your post really made me stop and think. Your words are so deep and meaningful. You capture exactly my life. Here's my website: ____________________

Well, at least someone knows I exist on the internet. Which is a comfort, I guess. And apparently their first language is not English! At least spam keeps things interesting, with their silly pidgin-speak and ballsy pronouncements to "Visit me website!" We should all be so bold.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Value of Toothless Tonya

Being a hard worker does not make one great. After all, Mao Tse-Tung loved to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and Josef Stalin -- a busy beaver if ever there was one -- was a renowned workaholic. But there is something to be said for the art of work. Hard work gives us writers the opportunity to come out of our shells, to understand how real people really talk, to get a sense of their aspirations and their misery. And it humbles us, showing us that we must put in the hours day in and day out, that what we accomplished yesterday matters little next to the demands of the present.

These days, though, our society's reverence for hard work has waned, even as people are working more hours. I heard an NPR segment on Monday about meaning of Labor Day, and something clicked. E.J. Dionne, the writer and guest who'd written a Washington Post article on which the segment was based, argued that we no longer praise workers for their hard work, but instead we deify capital, i.e. money.

And I realized that's true. And also that it's sad and stupid, because people are working their ever-loving asses off right now and that wealth is being transferred to the super-wealthy, and if that keeps up, things will get bad. But I also realized it's stupid because, from the persepective of a writer, so much great literature has come out of examining the lives of workers: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (if you haven't read this book, please do), the U.S.A. trilogy by Dos Passos, "The Jungle." And it's enduring literature, because almost everyone can relate to the characters in these books, regardless of time period or geography.

And anyway, like I was saying before, working hard -- whether that be at a minumum wage job or as an engineer -- gives us writers a window into how the world actually works. Hedge fund managers may think they understand how the world works, but they don't. They're up too high. No, that's not real life. Who would want to be way up there where the air is so thin?

I've worked a trillion minimum-wage jobs in my lifetime: bag boy, administrative assistant, waiter, bus boy, front desk worker at a hotel, mowing lawns, flipping pizzas -- you name it, I've done it. Once, in college, I worked as a bouncer (which is hilarious if you know how non-confrontational I am) and at the end of each shift, it was my job to clean the vomit out of a huge, trough-shaped urinal with a mop. Yes folks, that's how I paid for books and rent my senior year of college. The crowning glory of my four years in higher ed. Cleaning puke.

But what's interesting is that, at the time, my friends (all of whom also had crap jobs while working their way through school) and I looked at our jobs as badges of honor. We inevitably worked beside "townies" (people who'd spent their whole lives in the tiny town where our college was located), and we all wanted not to seem like jack-asses to them. So we tried our best to fit in, enduring last-minute schedule changes to give Toothless Tonya more hours, putting up with derisive laughs from folks who'd been making pizzas since age 9.

But all of this worked to my advantage. I now know how people other than myself think and feel, I know their hopes and aspirations and I know how they can suck sometimes. Which helps me when creating realistic characters. Because if you don't have the ability to deeply empathize with someone who's completely different from you, then you cannot create rounded, interesting characters.

So if you're stuck in a dead-end job or if you're a recent graduate, and if you like to write, try (I know it's hard and it sucks, but try) to see your current situation positively. Because who knows? Your boss Bernie McBastard may find his way into your book someday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keep It Simple

Lots of people want to rule the world. They want to be the most influential person on the block, the mogul, the alpha dog. They make dozens of podcasts to support their blog, tweet fifty times a day to win people over to their cause, shoot and edit enough videos to put Spencer Gordon Bennett to shame. This is great if you have a trust fund and can afford sinking huge chunks of time into what, in the end, can only be described as a monumental project in self-absorption.

I think you see where I'm going with this.

I just read Konrath's latest blog entry, and it resonated with me. Those people who Spielberg-up the place always seem like dogs chasing their own tail to me. It's amusing to watch for a while, but pretty soon you start getting dizzy just watching them go, go, go. And I start to wonder: how much time are they really spending on the product that all of these props are meant to promote?

To me, the simplest advice is the best advice: stay focused. If you have a product to sell that lends itself to a massive world-building effort, then (judgmental?) people like me will be more forgiving. But I have yet to read the book description that warrants an all-out sensory assault.

Not having published a single book, I realize my advice holds about as much weight as a rice cake being eaten by a ghost in a zero-gravity chamber. But seriously, please concentrate on writing good books. If done right, a book will do the job of launching us into another world. You won't need smoke and mirrors to do that. Trust that your audience will appreciate your words and not need an IMAX experience to bring them back wanting more.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Right Kind of Tired

This is the kind of tired I've been looking for for a while. I only feel this bushed after putting in lots of writing time, which I have done today. No other endeavor can give me this kind of exhausted high. Except maybe climbing up a seventeen story flaming building using only a series of shoelaces that I tied together to save a helpless child. Maybe that would be as satisfying. But probably not.

It's the kind of knackered where you physically couldn't type one more letter (which is technically not where I'm at, since I'm typing this blog post, but I'm danged close). The kind where you'll allow yourself to watch Access Hollywood because you've used up so many brain cells writing that to watch something more edifying will make your head explode. The kind where you couldn't be bothered to pick your dirty clothes up off the floor because whatever, you've just moved a mountain. Does anyone make the Hulk launder his purple pants? No.

It's days like today that I remember how lucky I am to be a writer. Not that I make a living with my fiction (yet), but on days like today, I feel boundlessly optimistic that I will someday soon. This is how my ancestors must've felt after culling their wheat for 15 hours a day every day for a month straight. Their German shanks literally falling off from shear, unadulterated exhaustion.

Oh my God. Flipping Out is on! I gotta go.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The East Coast Quake: Why Earthquakes are Unawesome

I've often wondered, at the very moment I crush a bug, what it would be like to be that bug. We humans think the crushing is instantaneous, almost humane--as if the bug is alive one moment and then thrust into the afterlife the next. Flying up through the clouds, plucking a miniature harp with its forelegs. But that's probably not right. Probably, in the millisecond before the sky comes tubling down, microscopic pieces of dirt fall on them from your shoe, alerting them to their imminent death, and then intense vibrations buffet them from all sides, throwing a cold, depthless fear into them. But still, I didn't know for sure...

Well, I don't have to wonder anymore. I was in an earthquake yesterday. Which is weird, because I live in Washington, DC. It was a pretty sizeable one, from all accounts. 5.9 magnitude and with its epicenter a mere 83 miles from DC, this thing shook nearly the whole Eastern seaboard and then some--a friend in North Carolina said it rattled her cubicle and I heard from someone I know in the Midwest who said everyone's cubicles were shaking. So all in all, it was a big cubicle-shaker. For a good half hour it seemed like all cell phone coverage was lost within DC. Everyone was standing outside of their office buildings, looking up to see if huge chunks of masonry would fall to the ground. Tourists held each other tight.

Needless to say, it was ridiculously scary. I had three initial thoughts: A.) The Libyans are attacking, which gave way to B.) my office building's boiler is about to explode to C.) the construction work that's been going on to the exterior of my building hit some load-bearing wall and the whole building is falling down crap crap crap crap crap!!!!

As I made a beeline for the exit, looking back, the menacing fear mainlining through my veins must've been similar to that a bug experiences it at the moment of splattenation. It was only after I hit the third floor at an insane sprint that I heard someone mention "earthquake" and my reptile brain relented a little and I remembered the 3.0 quake that had hit Maryland the year before. By the time I got outside, it was confirmed: a big earthquake had just hit Mineral, Virginia.

This has nothing to do with writing, by the way. In case you were waiting with bated breath to see how I was going to equate my (not quite) near-death experience with writing, I'm sorry to disappoint you. There is no comparison. The rattling only lasted 45 seconds, but it's the closest I've come to thinking I was going to die. It beats the hell out of the time I totaled my car on an interstate, doing a complete 360 as semi trucks barrelled past me on both sides and then I got smashed by a huge 4X4 hauling a car behind it. That was nothing compared to this. I thought a building was about to be delicately inserted onto my head.

Anyway, I'm fine. Everyone I know is fine (as far as I know). My takeaway here is to never take anything for granted, because you could end up in an improbable natural disaster. I mean, what's next? A tsunami in Missouri? A blizzard in Mexico City? Listen, if an earthquake can hit D.C., anything can happen. My advice is simple: appreciate the good things and try like hell to forget everything else.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Horrible Danger of Boredom

More than anything on this blog, I want to give you encouragement. Not give you advice so much: mostly I want to inspire and reassure you. Most of my language will be sheathed in writer-speak since I'm a writer and I don't know how to give, say, a firefighter encouragement to do a good job (other than, you know, avoid the fire). But you can take what I say and apply it to any number of jobs, hobbies, what have you.

I try to avoid giving you preachy advice because I've found that everyone approaches writing differently. I've cobbled together my approach over years of trial-and-error, so how can I expect you to take what I say as the end all, be all?

That said, I want to give you some advice.

I was watching Sofia Coppola's movie "Somewhere" last night, and from the first frame, my writer brain started blowing steamboat whistles of disapproval. Literally one minute into the movie, I was so bored that I wanted to turn off the TV. Three minutes in, I was locked in the fetal position. Five mintues in, I wished the house would crash down on me, ending my suffering.

What could be so bad, you ask? I kid you not, for the first five minutes of the movie, Stephen Dorff (the weirdly-cast star of the movie) gets into his Ferrari and drives around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around a dirt track. There's no music. No effects. Whole stretches of dead time where all you're staring at is a blank sky. It's the stupidest five minutes in film history, and it comes right at the beginning. Honestly, after that point the movie could've been Star Wars and I would've hated it.

It called to mind some wise advice a professor once gave me: he said that if I ever depicted a character being bored a story, I should NOT let the reader be bored by it. As academic as my teacher tried to be, some little speck of him understood that fiction writing, at bottom, is not neuroscience or astrophysics, it's not geology or anthropology: it's entertainment. To allow a reader to get bored is the worst mistake a writer can make.

"But if I want my book to be realistic, I have to include pockets of boredom," you might argue. "That's how life really is." Exactly! And it's from those pockets of boredom that we're trying to escape when we open a book. So don't, for crying out loud, let boredom seep into what is meant to be a form of escape.

This is what Coppola got hugely wrong with her movie. According to IMDB, the film is about a movie star named Johnny Marco (Dorff) being bored between projects. He takes care of his daughter, but a big priority of his is to stave off boredom between movies by partying and driving around in his fast car. Can you imagine pitching this film to a studio exec? "See, this movie is about boredom. That's why it's revolutionary!" No. A movie about boredom is bad enough: at least make the character's attempts at fighting it interesting. But no, this is cinéma vérité, where we have to feel Johnny's tedium, get inside his ennui and, in the end, wish for oblivion.

No, no, NOOO! All this does is make the audience bored. It's not deep, Sofia: it's just a waste of time. Which you never want your audience to come away thinking! I only watched 20 minutes of the movie, but within those 20 minutes, Johnny was shown either falling asleep or conked out in bed half a dozen times. Ugh. Stephen Dorff seems like a nice enough guy, but I don't want to watch him chain smoking and zonked out in his jeans for two hours.

Never, ever, on any account bore your audience. They have waaaaaay too many other things to be doing than reading your boring-ass book. If you want to be experimental, then have at it. Be the next Dos Passos or Gertrude Stein. Just don't expect anyone outside of a small, insular group of brainiacs to appreciate your work. For my money, you should want your reader to identify with heart-pounding moments, not moments of extreme boredom. Give this movie a pass, and please, please learn from it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Art of Gratitude

JoyGratitude is an art form. You have to work hard at it every day or else, just like any acquired skill, you'll forget how to do it. It's also like a relationship in that sense. It's easy to be flush with gratitude when times are good; it's when times are rough that you have to remind yourself how lucky you are.

What does gratitude have to do with writing? A lot. No, I'm not talking about an author's gratitude for their fans. That's important, of course, but you have to lay the groundwork first. If you're a successful writer, then kudos to you. Gratitude for fans becomes a much more meaningful notion at that point, so you're ahead of me there. But if you're like me, someone who's just hitting their stride with their writing, then things are still hazy on the fans front. So leave that aside for the moment.

And as for gratitude you may day-dream about for your as-yet-unrealized literary success (from time to time, I imagine myself being interviewed by Charlie Rose about my most recent literary smash success, so I'm as guilty as anyone), let's ignore that for the moment, too. Because there's no guarantee that all of your hard work will pay off in the form of critical accolades, and even if it does, that doesn't always translate into lots of money.

So forget about success and failure for a moment. Are you still with me? I know it's hard to stop thinking about success because we're programmed in this society with the need to achieve, achieve, achieve. That's fine for some people - for some, material success is like water to a fish. But for those of us who believe there's more to life, let me offer one simple piece of advice:

Be grateful for your interest in writing.

I'm careful to use the word "interest" here instead of "love" or "passion", because, in my opinion, at least in as much as they apply to writing, I think the words "love" and "passion" are over-used. What is it that Jack Nicholson once said about acting? If it's fun you're doing it wrong? That's my opinion on writing.

Not that it should be torture. There are moments when your mind seems to be hooked into some story-making machine, and those moments, for me, are divine. But they don't happen all that often, and in my experience, there are long stretches where I have to force myself to write when I really don't feel like it.

So forget about "love" and "passion". Just be grateful that the universe imbued you with an interest in the written word. Not that it gave you some pass to love words unconditionally (it's your job as a writer to control words, not to let them run free - to be too in love with words can be a problem), but be happy that it said, "All right, I think I've made enough Wall Street traders and tax attorneys and defense lobbyists and televangelists...what we need now are some writers!" And then you were born.

This is something to be extremely grateful for. You get to tell people's stories. Maybe not actual people's stories (unless you write biographies), but the stories of people who represent all of us in some way. This is a priviledge, even if you never get paid one penny to do so. You get to fill your free time with playing make-believe. Isn't that awesome?

And who knows if you're any good? Honestly, the word "good" as it's used in regards to writing is, again, useless. Being grateful for being a good writer is like being grateful for having "good" hair. If you have curly hair and you happen to be the kind of person who likes curly hair, then it's a boon; if you have curly hair but want straight hair, then it's a curse. And even if you like it, some days it just poofs out and you can't do anything with it. I'm fully aware that I'm a guy saying this, but whatever: I have curly hair and sometimes it's cool and sometimes I want to burn it off.

Ahem. My point here is that you have nothing to do, ultimately, with the curliness of your hair. It is what it is. It's how you approach it that matters.

Listen, some people will like what you write and some will not. There's no way to ever tell if you're "GOOD". But what makes a lot of sense is to be grateful that you have an interest in it (even if it's just a hobby for you, it's still important work you're doing).

And I'm not saying be grateful for what you're not; you shouldn't say, "Well, at least I'm not a window washer" (nothing against window washers). Just be happy that you have such a human-centric, empathy-building interest. If you can be grateful for this, you will always be successful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where I've Been

Sorry for not posting as much here lately. I've been using every single free second to work on a new novella. I've put aside the YA fantasy novel I'm working on for the moment. I've reached the 300 page mark on it and only feel that I'm about halfway through writing it, and it's becoming a slog. I am a believer in the idea that if you're bored while writing something, that boredom will translate itself to the reader. And I don't want that.

Part of my motivation to change things up comes from a book I'm reading, a little-known gem called The Hunger Games. Yeah, right: maybe it's little-known in Siberia, but that's about it. Anyway, the writing is so crisp and the pace so awesome and the stakes set so high that it forced me to take a hard look at my own writing. By comparison, my YA fantasy novel feels like an elephant retaining water who decided to drink a trough-full of water while wading in a swimming pool. It's bloated and stilted; a page-turner it is not.

So I'm switching gears, outlining a YA-type-o'-book about a teenage boy who is ripped away from his family and inserted into a world unlike any he's known. We'll see where it takes me. I'm going to try really hard to stick to an outline this time.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Everyone Clap Now

I was doing some work around the house last night and happened across this song in my iTunes. It never ceases to make me feel happy and optimistic. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Outlines, How I Hate Thee

Outlines and me are not friends. We tried to hang out a few times, but I felt like the outlines I was meeting just weren't giving me enough. It was always me giving, giving, giving. We'd always get to the end of a meal at a restaurant and they'd casually slide the bill over to me, expecting me to pay. I'd end up driving them to work and buying their groceries for them. "I'm between paychecks, baby" they'd say in that syrupy tone of theirs. "You understand." I even tried meeting a few outlines online at, but they all turned out to be leaches.

Honestly, I got tired of being treated like a doormat.

So I resolved to stop. Well, not entirely. Because I like what I can't have, I like the proverbial "bad boy", so I still do vague outlines. Just enough to give me the faintest skeleton structure for my stories. And then I jump in and start writing.

I find that it's a waste of time to outline anything in too much detail, because I invariably come up with way more cool stuff on the spot than what I'd written in my outline, and I go way off the reservation. This, incidentally, is also the approach of arguably the greatest writer in the history of the universe, Tom Robbins. When asked in an interview by January Magazine once if he plots out his scenes before writing, he said this:

No. Almost none. When I begin a book I have only the vaguest sense of how the plot is going to shape itself and no sense at all how it's going to end...(a)nd that's the adventure of it, for me. That's the fun of it. That's what keeps me doing it every day. But in order to do that and to make it appear as if I knew everything in the beginning it demands a tremendous amount of concentration and energy. At the end of every writing day I feel like I've been wrestling in radioactive quicksand with Xena the Warrior Princess and her five fat uncles.

Exactly. I like the adventure of writing, not knowing what exactly is going to happen at every step of the way. Of course, the downside is that you don't know when you're going to finish your book, but that's not all that important to me in the grand scheme of things.

How do you write? Do you need an outline to keep you oriented within your story, or do you like to work without a net?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

You Might Be a Tourist If...

I'm going to break form today and talk about something other than writing. Because it's the height of tourist season here in D.C., and I'm at my wit's end. Having lived here nearly a decade, and having relied on public transportation during that time, I've come into contact with hundreds of tourists in the wild. And I'm tired of seeing the same patterns over and over again from you guys. At this point, I can tell a tourist from a mile away, with one eye closed and wearing a scratched-up monocle in the other eye. If you're traveling to the nation's capital this summer and want to blend into your surroundings, take heed of these characteristics that will call you out as a tourist right away and probably get you mugged.

You might be a tourist if...

1.) You're wearing a T-shirt that reads "Go Hard or Go Home."

2.) You insist on blocking the full width of the aisle on a subway car with your body while people try to squeeze past in order to get to, you know, work.

3.) You talk in a stream-of-consciousness about how you can't wait to see the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and then proceed to miss your stop.

4.) You're wearing a crisp, not-worn-in baseball hat of the Washington Nationals.

5.) You smile.

6.) You call attention to your cluelessness by bending over at the waist, staring blankly at the subway map for fifteen minutes.

7.) You talk at the top of your lungs at 8 A.M. Just so you know, everyone hates you.

8.) You leap with no invitation into other people's conversations. I remember once overhearing two D.C. young professionals discussing a college they'd both considered attending many years before, but neither of them could remember where it was. Some random guy with a crisp white baseball hat chimed in and said, "Oh, that's in Oklahoma. We're from Oklahoma!" The two professionals smiled politely and then turned their back to him, continuing their conversation.

Message: Get away you annoying little man before I scream!

9.) You're carrying a giant plastic bag with the words "National Holocaust Museum" on it. You may as well just throw your wallet on the ground and call it a day.

10.) You have more than three children. No one in the city has more than three children. It's the law.

These are just a few tips to avoid being marked as an easy target by thieves, or even just keep from being an ass to your fellow man. Do with them what you may!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Blogging Pointers for Hermits

My name is Chris and I'm a hermit. Not really, but I actually fantasize about it. To hermit my life away, to become a real, honest-to-goodness, guy-whose-front-yard-is-way-too-overgrown dude: this is what I pine for. The way some people fantasize about walking the red carpet? I fantasize about being a shut-in.

So it makes sense that I'd self-publish my WIP, which I'm about halfway through writing. I've been to enough author readings and book conferences to know I would hate being a part of them as an author (it's hard enough to will myself through them as an annonymous attendee). All the hand-shaking and reading from my book as though I enjoyed orating to a bunch of grown adults? Frederick Douglass I am not. No thanks.

If I don't want to go on physical book tours, then that leaves me with virtual book tours and blogging/tweeting/Google Plus-ing/facebooking to promote myself. Which, honestly, sounds tedious as well. And I haven't 100% decided that I'm going to choose that route; I may query some agents just to see what happens. But being a realist, and excited about the prospects of hocking my book in a way where I won't have to meet anyone face-to-face (which is huge), here is how I will mentally prepare myself for digital promotion in a way that will let me keep my humanity intact.

1.) Authors don't owe anyone anything -- This is a big one. Books are unlike texting or instant messaging or emailing because as a medium of communication, they are a one-way street. It's very important to preserve this balance, this one-way street, because, once the author is done writing a book, it becomes the reader's turn to take the raw materials supplied in the book -- words and images and character names -- and use them to fashion their own worlds of meaning.

This is just me, but I don't want to know much about a given author. Because it's really beside the point. I don't want to read a well-turned sentence and then immediately send a tweet to the author asking what inspired them to write it. No, because as a reader, at that point, whatever image I've crafted out of the author's words is mine and mine alone.

I often see self-pubbed authors scrambling to reply to dozens of comments left on their blogs and tweeting the holy bejeezus out of twitter in a mad attempt to get people to follow them. Or, more accurately, to get people not to un-follow them. None for me, thanks. I'm not trying to set the world on fire here. I'm just trying to make a living. I don't owe anyone a huge chunk of my free time except for those who are closest to me. And once I'm done writing, I don't want to influence how my readers construct their own worlds out of the raw materials I've given them. I don't want to be an imagination dictator.

2.) You're allowed to write rubbish sometimes -- This blog post is living testimony to this point. It's good to post a good deal on your blog, and the majority of your articles better be helpful or at least entertaining. But sometimes, the well is dry. So if I get blogger's block for a few days, I'll just blog about whatever minutia is happening in my life, and hopefully people won't avoid buying my book because of it. I've read enough swag blog entries to know I'm right here.

3.) Set aside a dedicated block of time for digital promotion and don't exceed it -- This is a big one. Given the fact that I have a full-time job and other responsibilities, I won't be able to fritter my time away on twitter or log a ton of time on my blog or debase myself on facebook or doodle away on Google Plus. There's just no time to do that. So I won't. And if I don't have a bazillion followers/friends or whatever, then that's fine. Over the long haul you don't get a lot of sales through having truckloads of friends; you sell books by writing a lot of books. So work and writing take first priority. This is inviolable.

4.) Don't promote on the weekends -- This is where I may lose those I haven't already lost. I won't be blogging/facetweeting/google tumbling on the weekends. That time is just too precious, and I want to live my life instead of being tied to a computer all the time. Weekends are my opportunity to LIVE, which is imporant for a writer. We have to have experiences, and that's hard to do when shackled to a laptop staring at status updates.

I hope these tips help. I don't have a product to sell at the moment, so I haven't implemented all of these rules into my own life yet. But I'll try to stay committed to them going forward even as, doubtless, my follower/fan numbers fluctuate. It's important to live as balanced a life as possible, especially for us writers, who tend to the dark side unless we really watch ourselves. And for the hermits among us, we have to preserve time for...hermitage.

If you have any tips to add, please let me know in the comments section. Good luck!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Trap of Being Too Clever

Finger Wag Alert Level: 6

I just saw a trailer for a new Justin Timberlake movie (he's not annoying enough in music and on SNL, now he thinks he's an actor?) that has my head spinning. It's called "In Time" and it also stars Amanda Seyfried. From what I can gather, it's a near-future dystopian film where everyone has a cap put on
their lives of 25 years of age. After that, they kick it. So that people can gauge where they are in their life, each human has a digital-hologram-like countdown clock implanted on their wrist, and the numbers are ever descending. Once you hit 25, you can buy more time if you have the money, or you're dead meat.

Ok, mildly interesting. But here's where it gets dumb real fast.

In the interminable trailer I watched (note to trailer-makers: please keep trailers under 2 minutes; this one lasted a whopping 4 minutes!!), Timberlake (ugh) is a poor man who can't extend his life, and he's on the eve of his death birthday. So he runs away. Then he somehow meets a guy who has bought himself a century of more time, but some other bad guy wants that time, and Timberlake finds himself helping the century guy escape. *Pauses to take a breath* Ok, then the random century guy uploads his time to J.T. and then throws himself off a bridge.

Why? I guess because he doesn't want to be hounded by the bad guy. I don't know; the audio was bad.

Now J.T. has a century to live, but not really, because all these bad guys want to steal his time, including Cillian Murphy (who I happen to like). Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, J. to the T. ends up kidnapping some rich guy's daughter (Mamma Mia Seyfried) for some reason and holding her hostage so that people don't steal his life or whatever.

Ok, timeout. This has already gotten out of hand, and we're just talking about a trailer. Can you imagine sitting through a whole movie of this, trying to keep track of what the hell is going on? To me, this movie seems to have all the makings of the next "Inception", a movie I'm not afraid to say I hated from minute one. I know it makes you sound like you're not smart if you didn't enjoy it, if you didn't just love love love it, but I found Inception incredibly talky and, yes, totally impossible to follow. I felt like I was doing homework the whole time, and it wasn't fun.

As I said in an earlier post, don't be an imagination dictator. There's so much explaining in the "In Time" trailer that I almost fell asleep. "I'm kidnapping you because you'll help me to stay alive," J.T. intones at one point, trying really hard to seem deep and troubled (dude, you were in N'Sync--get over yourself). And there are a bunch of other expository lines like this that made me cringe.

Bottom line: it's too clever for its own good.

Remember "Blade Runner"? Sure there were some talky lines in there, but by-and-large, Ridley Scott trusted enough in the intelligence of his audience that they'd figure out what he was doing. He didn't feel the need to explain every little thing. And the movie is brilliant because of that.

This is a lesson us writers can take away from a pre-tragedy like "In Time": trust your audience. You don't have to explain every little thing. If you do, your reader will hate your guts. Because you're implicitly saying, "You're too dumb to get what my world is all about, so I'm going to run you through all of the bullet points."

Instead, let the drama speak for itself. Instead of Timberlake saying in his narration "I just want to wake up and not have to worry about my life winding down" or whatever dumb line he says, just show the clock on his arm. Show people--young people--dropping dead when their clock expires. Bang! You've just communicated to your audience that once people reach a certain young age, they die. And you didn't tell them. Show, don't tell--remember your third grade teacher telling you that?

Anyway, now I'm getting overly talky, so I'll leave you to the rest of your day. Good luck!

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Skip ahead to the 2:20 mark to see this guy's genius at work. He makes it look easy, but doubtless this guy has spent hundreds and hundreds—more likely thousands—of hours relentlessly training himself to be able to have the dexterity to play the keys this way. Combined with his great voice, it's a sight to behold.

I don't have a lot to say about this, other than the fact that if this guy can achieve his dreams, you can too. There is literally no excuse. You may be facing tough odds (I don't want to presumptuous because I don't know you), but you'd be hard-pressed to be facing tougher odds than this guy.

So next time you think you can't do something, next time you're so frustrated that you just want to quit, think about him. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see that he swims, puts his clothes on by himself, and brushes his own teeth. And then he goes out and sings the hell out of songs.

I don't know about you, but I feel super inspired after seeing him go!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Artists are the Best People in the World

Ok, that’s a little grandiose. There are several artists I can think of right off the top of my head who are or were horrible a-holes (I’m looking at you, Paul Cezanne). Frigging two-timer. Anyway, what sets (most) artists apart from other people is our ability to speak the truth and appreciate beauty. This is an undervalued trait that should make people wish they were an artist.

I live in Washington, DC. For the most part, I try to ignore politics. But that’s a little like living in Minneapolis and trying to ignore Prince—hard to do. Right now, I’m sick to death of these moronic politicians trying to out-posture each other for the sake of getting what they want during the debt ceiling fiaso/crisis/crapstorm. This macho inability to show flexibility and acknowledge that each side has to give a little in order to make the deal work is so depressing, and it’s all happening mere miles from where I now sit.

But enough about politics. A true artist doesn’t have the luxury of “posturing”; they have to produce work that people will either like or dislike. It’s extraordinarily simple. They cannot utter platitudes and empty phrases and hope people will take them seriously. They cannot rely on an unthinking cadre of robots who have been conditioned to do anything they say. An artist has to put up or shut up. And this is a beautiful thing because you owe no one anything, and they don't owe you anything, but you have exchanged love in the bargain.

So thank the universe every day that it made you the way you are. Because what’s the alternative? I love this Tom Robbins quote:

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government
and business.”

Amen. Believe in the magic within you. You have the power to make people forget their troubles and give them hope, and that’s more power than any dopey politician has.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Genre Shmanre

Like most things in life, genres can be good or limiting concepts depending on how you look at them. From a consumer’s perspective, genres are helpful: they give the purchaser a snapshot of what a book/movie/play offers in terms of content, which helps them make a decision on what to buy.

From a writer’s point of view, genres can also be a good thing, depending on what type of writer you are and the goals you set for yourself. If you want to set out to tell a story that fits snugly within a certain set of parameters, if you want to emulate a certain author’s style and expand on their universe (and, of course, if you want to try and hit it big and make lots of money), then genres can provide you with the markers necessary to stay in bounds.

But if you’re anything like me, the concept of genres is an incredibly annoying thing. I’ve tried to write within genres before, but I always end up throwing fantastical or thriller or true crime elements in at the weirdest places, shaking things up (probably out of the boredom that comes from hewing too close to a formula) and thereby destroying the neat picket fence I’d constructed around my story.

Even now, I’m in the middle of writing what most people would probably call a young adult fiction book, but its got highly-whimsical aspects to it, as well as philosophical overtones, that I don’t think make for a snug fit in the YA genre. But you know what? I’m not sweating it.

Because rules were made to be broken. I once had a writing teacher who told me, “Don’t try to write within a genre. Once you’ve finished writing your book, let other people decide where it fits.” Like many other bits of wisdom from this teacher, his words have proven to be incredibly helpful over time. From a marketing perspective, writing exactly how I want to write without regard for genre may cause me headaches, but to me, what good is writing if you can’t do it exactly how you want to do it?

Look, we’re told how to live our lives 24 hours a day by people who claim to know better. We have to dress up nice and play within in the rules of a game in which we have absolutely no say throughout the better part of our lives. Why would I want to worry about playing by the rules when it comes to writing? “Because you won’t sell any books, that’s why!” you might say. “Readers won’t know what to make of your book unless it’s spelled out for them!”

Bah. I believe that readers are sophisticated enough to get what I’m saying, even if I don’t wave a huge red flag in front of their eyes with the words “YA Lit” screen printed on it. And as for making money? Well, that’s a value judgment, an extremely subjective point. Would be great if I could get an agent and a publisher to publish my writing? Sure. But in the age of self-publishing, I have options.

For my part, I don’t care about not becoming hugely wealthy from my writing. Becoming a millionaire is not why I write. I write because I want to express who I really am, what I really believe. If I can make some money while doing that, then bonus points for me. But it’s not what drives me.

Let me hasten to add that I don’t think my writing is groundbreaking or mind-bending; perhaps you’d look at it and say, “I don’t get what all the hoopla’s about; this is YA, hands down.” My point is that I would never go into writing a project thinking about how I’m ultimately going to market it. For me, that destroys the creative process. Marketing is important, don't get me wrong, but in my opinion, you should wait until you’re closer to finishing your novel before you start thinking about to whom you're going to market it.

At least, that's the approach I'm taking. And I'm very happy with that approach. For now, my advice is to just write. And don’t edit yourself too much as you write your first draft. Just live in the writing moment and worry about the business side of things later. Good luck!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Do or Do Not: There is No Try

Ah, Yoda. You have to love him. Even all these years later, whenever I watch Empire and/or Jedi, I still think, "Dag, that puppet looks so real!" Forget CGI: Yoda makes computer graphics look weak.

But still, the best thing about Yoda isn't how cool he looks, nor how much he may or may not resemble my sixth grade social studies teacher; no, it's the wisdom he dishes out. (And yes, I'm using the present tense on purpose because I believe his ghost still walks the swamps of Dagobah). My favorite line from Empire? "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

These are words to live by. When I was a kid I thought these words seemed over-simple and ignored them, choosing instead to concentrate on the flashier elements of Empire, like Cloud City and Luke getting his hand chopped off. But over the years, the little green guy's words have come back to me. And I believe they are absolutely right: there is only "do," there is no "try."

Even though my last blog post was called "Just Try", I really should've amended it "Just Do", but then I thought the Nike folks might sue me (joke). Set your mind to what you want to do and just do...well, you know the rest.

Given all of the distractions we encounter in life, you have to set your jaw and attack your goals head-on. You have to carve out time for them on days when there seems no time available, putting off that haircut so you can shoehorn a half-hour writing session into you day, whatever. You can't just dream it: you have to know that you will succeed.

Ever since I've adopted this approach, I've felt a huge sense of purpose in working on my WIP. And I've been much more productive. Even though I haven't published anything yet, I know without a doubt that I will, and I get one step closer every day. And I have a 900 year-old talking iguana to thank for it!