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 iheartoutlines.com, 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!