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.