Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 3

Last week I posted another blog in a series of highbrow lectures about how little ol’ you can be more like Ernest Hemingway. Not that I have the slightest clue. But these days, who gives a #@!% about whether or not anybody actually knows what they’re talking about? Full steam ahead.

On to the business, then.

Let’s talk about references. When I was earning my wee business degree at a school that I can decidedly recommend against attending, I nevertheless picked up more than one useful thing for all the tedium and money expended. One of these was a grammar guide. It’s laminated and three-hole punched for your convenience, and tells you all about how to use pronouns. And other useful tidbits. I recommend finding something like this at, say, a college bookstore.

Another useful publication that resides happily on my shelf is this: The Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Shaw, Harry, McGraw Hill, © 1975). This book tells you when to use farther versus further, the difference between hung and hanged, lay and lie, than and then and so on. These are all handy things to know, and they make you look far more intelligent than you actually are. I use it ceaselessly and obviously to great effect.

While we’re talking books to have on hand, we really need to, as professional writers (or at least people who fancy themselves professional writers), build our own library, starting with our very own reference shelf. To that end, I suggest starting off with a quality dictionary. I mean an actual paper one. The older the better (those old ones have such nicely groomed words in them; they never chew gum whilst speaking). I have one from the 1950’s and an unabridged Webster’s from 1890. At one point or another, you’re going to outgrow the stupid and clunky Encarta tools that Microsoft builds into its Word application, and you’re not going to have anywhere to turn if you’re not prepared. I’m warning you now. These older dictionaries are really handy, by the way, for writers of historical fiction or steampunk.

We can include in this vein of reference materials a quality thesaurus. Contrary to what most ignorant bumpkins might think, these are alive and well, and not in fact extinct. I have a youngish one; it’s paperback and about thirty years old, and already segregated at the binding around the l-m area. So I must treat it carefully. This, again, is an indispensible tool for writers looking to find another word for “suddenly,” or, “therefore.” I’m told by an accountant friend of mine, who was highly irritated as she read through the Twilight books, that she suspects that’s mostly what Stephenie Meyer did especially in books two and three of the series: right click>synonyms in order to make things more interesting. I’ll leave it to the peanut gallery to decide whether or not, as Stephen King has asserted, “She can’t write.”

Now that I’ve worked in a King reference for three weeks straight, I’ll call this a perfect finish.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 2

Last week I posted the first in a series of blogs about how to be a good writer. I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me past the sheer presumptuousness of the very idea. And now that my anti-self-aggrandizement clause is out of the way, let’s get down to it.

In keeping with the template, I’ve come up with three more things good writers do all the time:

  1. Write.
  2. Write.
  3. Write.
Point one: write. Keep notes, in other words. Again with the reference to Stephen King here, but good writers always have a notebook handy and that’s something I learned by reading his book, On Writing. You never know when your ideas will come. Well, scratch that. You know precisely when they’ll come. 5% of them will come at extremely inconvenient times, like when you’re driving on the freeway or in the shower scrubbing off the detritus of another sweaty day at the keyboard. The other 95% will come at the moment you are just drifting off to sleep. To minimize blazing fits of profanity, please at least keep your notebook on the nightstand. Try to make a habit of it. And don’t forget the pen. This is very important—writers should always have some way to record their ideas and keep their notes near at hand at all times. You may think, as I have done, that you’ll remember it in the morning. You won’t. Trust me.

Point two: write. Write articles. This is where the rubber begins to meet the road, folks. I read about this little bit of advice in an article (imagine that) on Helium, a great place to get exposure and get feedback. You can sign up to become a contributor there, or on sites like Factoidz or I’ve done all this. And the discipline of writing concisely, clearly, accurately and simultaneously threading in various keywords for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) purposes will only help you in the long run.

And the long run perspective, by the way, is the one you’ll be wanting to adopt as your own. This is a little aside, but writers—or anyone, really—for the most part, do not make it big overnight. Sure, your life can change in a single day, but that normally only comes after years of hard work. So many of us newbies (a moniker I’m only now just beginning to outgrow) have this completely unrealistic attitude that something is owed to us. It doesn’t go well for anyone with that mindset. But I’ll get into that more next week.

Point three: write. Write stories. Now, I’m not recommending that you run off all half-cocked and dive into your magnum opus. I dabbled with that; it’s more work than it’s worth, really. Start off with a 5,000 word short story. Find a professional editor who will give you a read and give you some detailed feedback—you’ll probably pay them about $50-$100 for this, but the investment is well worth it. You might also want to look into joining a local writers’ group, where fellow writers meet perhaps once per month to read and critique their work, and read your stuff there. Your next short story might have a goal of 10,000 words, and you could do a novella, around 20-30,000 words, after that. You can even publish eBook versions of your (finely polished and edited) writing on Amazon while you’re busy working on the next project. It helps to earn rewards for all that work.

Next week I’ll share my thoughts on how to be a good writer a little more. We’ll be covering writing mechanics, plot and character development, and the all-important Attitude. Until then my friends, go forth and write boldly.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Check out my guest post on the Vox

Vincent Zandri, who sold over 100,000 books on Amazon in the last two months, invited me to guest on his blog; the Vox. Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, parts 2 and 3 (coming soon)

Just a quick post to let you know that I'll be posting more of my thoughts next week on what makes a good writer. I know, that kind of thing is slicker than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree, but one can always try.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer

Recently I received notice of an anonymous comment posted to my blog that said simply, “How do I become a good writer?” I’d like to respond with my own thoughts on how I’ve gone about that very thing. Keep in mind that there is no formula; there are no quick and easy steps to take to become brilliant. It’s all about the hard slog.

Now—I don’t want to be presumptuous here—I know I’m not God’s gift to writing—but I know at least enough to offer up three recommendations:

  1. Read.
  2. Read.
  3. Read.

Stick with me. There’s a method to my madness.

Point one: Read. Read books about how to write. I covered this in a previous post (Archetypes), but read Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. Hugely instructive, that. I cannot recommend more enthusiastically a book written by Stephen King, entitled On Writing. You may or may not be a fan, but King is one of the masters of the craft. He’s also been quite successful. Besides, getting outside the boundaries of your preferences occasionally is part of what transforms your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.

Point two: Read. Read history. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important disciplines for any member of society to undertake because the reading of history provides so very much in the way of foundation of character in a person. It’s not to say that you have to go and pick up some dry old tome on the foundations of colonialism in West Africa, either, unless of course that interests you. The key here is to find something that does interest you and then read about it. I personally found Stephan Talty’s book Empire of Blue Water, a gritty and honest thrill ride about the real pirates of the Caribbean and the actual Captain Henry Morgan, to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. It was one of those books you don’t want to finish because you don’t want it to be over. Anyway, read history—for your own good, for the good of those around you, and for the exercise of reading.

Point three: Read. Read fiction. This is something I’ve had to work at. But if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, that is, a storyteller, you can’t get around reading it. The only way to discover how to produce good dialogue (i.e. believable dialogue) is to read how other writers have done it. Some of it will be crap, and some of it will be stunning. You never know until you try. And you’ll never know how to construct a plot, develop a character, devise a good mystery and on and on, until you read enough of them to get some ideas of your own. One book that simply blew me away was Stephen King’s Desperation. Not for the faint of heart, but very rewarding. Another King novel that's not quite so gruesome, and still excellent, is Duma Key.

The idea, and hopefully you’ve guessed it by now, is to read enough different things that your mind is stimulated in new directions and then follow that stimulus on to wherever it leads. For now, remember that the only way to grow as a writer is to grow as a reader. Good writers are always reading. No excuses. On the treadmill. During the commute (if you drive, get into audiobooks). As an alternative to watching the drivel that spills out of the TV. Read several books at once, and on wildly different topics. You get the idea. And one last thing: get to know your public library. That place is amazing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Vox

Coming up later this week, I'll be guest posting on the Vincent Zandri Vox, so don't miss it. We'll be covering the just-released Airel (with Aaron Patterson), a teen thriller about a 17 year old girl who discovers just how much weight bloodlines can carry--and what it might cost her in the end.

We'll also be chatting it up about writerly stuff like this: is there some law that says all fiction must be written in 3rd person past tense? Check it out toward the end of the week, I'll be linking to it.

Thanks, as always, for your follows.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Warning! Profanity...

We might as well jump in with both feet here. I read all kinds of books; some have blue speech in them and some do not. But what happens when, in the book—in the story—a writer; let’s just say he’s me, is crafting some kind of life and death struggle between hero and villain and he wants the reader to be able to buy in 100%?

Let’s use examples. Which of the following would you prefer?

Jimbo holds a Glock .40 point blank to Harold’s face. “What’s it gonna be, Harold? Are you really willing to die for her?”

“Keep her out of this.”

Jimbo laughs cynically. “I wasn’t the one who brought her into it. And now, my friend, you both have poopy pants.”

Jimbo holds a Glock .40 point blank to Harold’s face. “What’s it gonna be, Harold? Are you really willing to die for her?”

“Keep her out of this.”

Jimbo laughs cynically. “I wasn’t the one who brought her into it. So now, fucko, you’re both gonna die.”

It may be distasteful to you, but I personally believe the second sample is, if nothing else, more realistic. I don’t know of any villains who would use phrases like “poopy pants.” At least not believable ones. Unless, of course, we’re talking about some slapstick comic version of the story. But in a serious drama, if a person is evil enough to threaten to take another person’s life, they’re probably evil enough to use blue speech.

I’ll give ya that Jimbo could have said, “idiot” instead of “fucko,” or even “you’re in deep shit.” It depends on you, your audience, the situation in the story, and whatever religious preferences you might have. And probably a lot of other stuff as well.

All this to say that I have come a mighty long way on my journey out of religion into freedom. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a Christian—but not by virtue of attendance on Sundays. I’m a Christian by virtue of Christ. That’s a post for another day. Some might see a contradiction inherent when I use profanity, whether it be in my writing or in my daily speech. I’ll say this: a lot of it just depends who I’m with. And whether or not I have a cigar in my hand. But that too is a blog for another day.

I’m just curious though, because my rough draft of this novel has profanity in it. Is it something you as a reader would refuse to read, try to muscle through, or enjoy thoroughly? Or something else, possibly?

What I’m attempting to do in my story is show the situation—paint the picture—as honestly as I can, depending upon what's happening. If a character’s decisions are producing mortal peril for him, depending on what hangs in the balance, I’m pretty sure depending on who they are profanity will be a part of it. At least in real life. Your thoughts?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Just Finished LOST...

Wanna know what I don't get? I don't get why so many people were so hacked off about how the show ended. I thought it ended just fine. But I'm a writer; I'm weird.

Aside from Nathan Bransford's infamous post on The High Cost of WTF, which I thought was hilarious and well-deserved, I beg to differ, at least on a few things.

The thing about Story, which I covered in a previous post, is that these days, in order to keep people guessing, the writer has to pull out the stops on WTF occasionally. And yeah, the team on LOST definitely did that, and I think it was purely intentional.

That's why I think the ending was entirely apropos considering context. When Christian tells Jack that basically here and now doesn't exist, it fits, because for the entire sixth season, the audience is wondering when the hell they are. And though I'm not positive on this, I'm pretty sure everybody was dead in all those off-island scenes.

Here's the deal: LOST doesn't fit Biblical doctrine, at least not entirely, so nobody should try to make it fit. If anything, it fits eastern mysticism and New Age hippie bullshit more than anything, and I don't have a problem with that. I still think it's got a lot to contribute to the community, insofar as it provokes thought.

And speaking of, I thought there was a wry polar irony, if one can call it that, as concerns certain characters.

Sawyer, for instance, traveled a complete journey from con to cop.

Hurley graduated from being completely crippled by his anxieties to finally attaining the supreme self-assurance that was required to be the new Jacob.

John Locke overcame insecurity as well, finally being able to let go of being pissed off at the entire world for everything from his wheelchair to his daddy issues.

Sun and Jin passed their test of selflessness in the submarine by each one preferring the other, and in turn accepting the other's refusal to be selfish.

Claire finally got over her obsession with abandoning Aaron because of her paralyzing fear of being somehow doomed to be a bad mother, though this was not made as clear as I feel it could have been.

Sayid finally embraced grace, through the simple act of providing it to those trapped on the sub--plus, he found his reward in his reunion with Shannon--his true love.

Kate was able to pay a kind of penance for her rashness, though this has been played out over the last two or so seasons with her character, because she was able to nurture Aaron in his most vulnerable state, then rescue his mother and (ostensibly) reunite them, facilitating the restoration of a family. Remember that the story starts out with her utterly shredding her own.

Jack was a special case. Jack was hard-wired to fix stuff, and that was his function in the story. He fulfilled that purpose, but he also was able, finally, to be right about a decision he made as a leader. He installed Hurley as the new Jacob, and that turned out to be destiny. But he also saved the island, and was able to pay the penalty his prior mistakes demanded of him, by giving his life for his friends--and what's even more precious is that he was able to witness their escape as the plane flew over the bamboo forest (which, by the way, was a mirror image of how all of this got started, to include the close-up of his eye--this time, closing rather than opening).

And speaking of that, I notice a perfect symmetry in the story of LOST that I just love, and frankly, of which I stand in awe. The writers did a bangup job of it.

It also apparent to me that the cast is a nice cross-section of humanity. Practically every major segment of the contemporary global population is represented in the characters, which I think makes the message more universal.

So, what's the message?

I think it can be almost anything you want to make it. One message is "what's done is done;" in other words, get over it. The characters in the story have to deal with all kinds of pain and suffering, but ultimately they get past it--in life or in death (but most often in death). I find that inspiring for my own daddy issues, and maybe that's why I identify so wholly with John Locke's character. In that sense I found the show to be very inspiring.

I think though, that there's a larger perspective that one can gain through the story. There's so much human nature in there, paraded for us in all its ugliest and most beautiful costumes. There's so much intrigue and betrayal, but there's also tenderness and sacrifice. There's a lot of death and blood, but it also seems like every time one turns around there's some kind of childbirth going on; or at the very least a pregnant woman in the plot. All of it echoes with the grandness of our designed-in potential as human beings. But it shows the seamy underside as well, dealing with addictions, murder, ambition unbridled by morality, and deception, therefore telling all of the story--or at least a more accurate version.

So what story am I talking about? Why, the universal one, of course. Every good story is an echo of the archetype. LOST definitely fits the bill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I just finished with a book. Notice that I did not say I "finished" it, but instead that I finished with it. Such is the plight of the borrower at the public library. One can always try.

And try I did. The book I'm talking about is The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. While it was amazingly helpful, I couldn't get through it, and it's not the first book I've failed to finish. I've been known to be a bit of a book whore, truth be told--I'll take five of them home with me on a given day and be faithful to one or none, I don't care. If they don't grab me right, I have better things to do with my life.

And this one grabbed me right. It's just that I ran out of time on it. It would be a great addition to my reference shelf, even with the obscene amount of copy errors it contains, because it resounds so deeply and truly in regard to story. Capital S Story, actually.

Given my lifelong immersion in Biblically sourced values, to include my perspectives on philosophy and religion, I came away from this book with a rather large exclamation mark over myself. Mr. Booker makes a case for the existence of seven basic plots, or archetypes of story, that define every book ever written, every fireside ghost tale ever told. But he also makes a case for these seven being types of each other, and gives examples of books that are exemplary of all of them at once.

Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is one fine example. While this work is monumental (and I would argue remains as a singular representative of the fantasy genre), there is another story that resounds as The Archetype of all History.

That, in my opinion, is the Gospel. The story of creation, the fall, the flood, the giving of the law of Moses, exiles, ongoing redemptions, prophets, priests, judges, kings, and the innocent babe born right into the poverty of the midst of all of it, that hearkened back to a time before time, and the plan of redemption that we can see from here near the end has been interwoven throughout all of it--stuns the imagination and challenges any denial of its veracity. It actually takes a lot more energy to deny the truth of the Gospel than to accept it as the simple truth it is.

To me, Booker's work on the archetypes of story is yet another witness to the Glory of God, among millions of others that, wittingly or not, have verified the truth of the Original Story. One of the most amazing parts of it is that 1) the story is ongoing, and 2) we are participants. And what else can be said? I am intensely warmed and encouraged by all of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ownership v. Access

Imagine this: for the same price, you can either buy one book (or attend one movie) or you can have access, for one or two or possibly even three months, to a collection that makes the legendary Library at Alexandria seem pointless. Which would you choose?

More and more people are choosing to pay for access rather than ownership. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are at the tip of the spear on this issue because they are central to what technology has made so ubiquitous now. I have a Netflix membership, for example, because ten bucks is far less than I would spend on buying movies I would like to see—never mind rentals and satellite or cable service. These may not be the latest greatest shows, but I also don’t have to try to explain anti-depression ads to my seven year old. For me, it’s a no brainer.

The same kinds of generally accepted “best practices” are being challenged in the world of books. What’s happening in publishing is akin to a reformation, really, and it’s all market-driven. The savvy authors and publishers are rising up, challenging the self-appointed Keepers of the Flame of Tradition (or whatever) and asking the question, “why does it still have to be done the old way?” This is like a guy standing up in church and asking why there’s this crazy dividing line between pastors and the “throng” when we’re all supposedly brothers. Such temerity is usually received with a gasp of shock.

The Big Six can be as shocked as they wanna be. What’s happening in media today is placing Power in the hands of the people, and the market is sorting out and rewarding appropriately those with the ability to handle it. What’s happening in publishing now is pretty much what happened in music in the age of Napster. Unfortunately for them, the powers that be are reacting in pretty much the same way; attempting to hold on to the conventional business model and in the process losing everything. All that will be left for those who want to “own” is the ultra-niche, like rare and antique books.

I am fortunate enough to be a part of a company that has embraced the access side of the access v ownership debate. It only makes sense that, rather than pay $25 for a hardcover book, people can buy eBook versions for their eReader for a fraction of that and carry their not inconsiderable library with them wherever they go. And by the way, did you know that Kindle can display most office docs too? Yeah, it’s pretty neat. What’s even neater is how, every once in a while, a secret gateway opens in the deep woods of life and maybe once a guy just happens to be standing right by it when it happens.

People like Aaron Patterson have been shouting about this for a long time now, and I’m joining the chorus. What’s weird is how so many people are so stuck in their ruts of strife that they’d rather stick with the familiarity of failure and rejection (authors? Do ya hear me?) than explore the possibilities. Oh well. More for me, I guess.

Chris is acquisitions editor for StoneHouse Ink and has co-written a thriller with Aaron Patterson entitled Airel. He has also started up the illustrated Jammy adventure series for kids. Check out his other blog and his Web site.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


It comes at the most inopportune moments, I find. Like last night.

First of all, my boys weren't sleeping well anyway. There must have been some kind of atmospheric anomaly (i.e. dad made chili for dinner or something). Anyway, I was up a couple of times at the rude hours, and finally around 5 AM I crashed into my bed again, only to be hounded by the most vivid mind-picture.

I know what happens in these circumstances. I say, "self, thou shalt remember this later," only to wake up and either disremember it completely or remember it enough to regret not writing it down. So I have to give in these days, and write this stuff down.

And dammit, my notebook was not at bedside where it should have been. When it is, I write in the dark the most disturbing sentence fragments in the worst hand. When at last I behold it in the light of day, I shiver. It looks like the handiwork of a madman.

In this case, I found a scrap of paper with crayonized illustrations by the hand of my two year old, reversed it, and stood by the light of the microwave oven in my kitchen with a pencil that I had found there and wrote the following:

  • peach-orange translucent fish flesh
  • someone else was speaking, telling the story he was seeing but he had no control of his own faculties; as if what was happening was theft.
The idea is that some monster, or some part of a monster, fits the first bullet point as it takes control, perhaps, of the character in question. The character can see the second bullet point, or perhaps the first, in his mind's eye, but he can do nothing about it--because the monster is inhabiting him to the point where his mouth is forming the words of the story without his permission. But there's a definite feeling of take going on here.

So where will I use it? Who knows. But at least I wrote it down.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Positive Phantasmagoria

Deep forests tower over gnarled terrain, the groundcover of moss and ferns subject to the shade provided by massive old growth Ponderosa pine and Doug fir; whatever rain is allowed to penetrate whittled down to mist, fog, wisps of cloud. Something about rain speaks wordlessly of these things, speaks deep to the writer within and I come crawling out of my shell to behold it. I soak it in; soak up the mists of potential that fall from bough to bough, filtered fresh and delivered directly to the place of my being.

A trailhead stands protected by a gateway of brambles that bar the way in. Still, the light behind the barrier beckons me the writer come. Be. It’s a race not bowed or cowed to the swift; rather joined to its antithesis in mutual reality, conjoined in covenanted appetites for activity that benefits the both, the whole.

Rains wildly tossed by winds wash treetops with wave upon wave, a flood rinsing out branches and falling, running, splashing, dripping down to the ground where it becomes rivulets that twist and wend, gathering the wet, collecting the dust, washing away, growing, trickling, splashing, running, falling, becoming a flood, washing into rivers, to the wildly tossed sea.

I the writer see the cycles and understand awe; at least in part. Further understanding becomes wisdom as I part the veil to the path of participation and see the sun breaking in, setting alight millions of drops in the whole pantheon of color, these not gods but witness to One who Is, He who made the whole with Open Hand that remains extended to I; the participant.

Rain washes down from the atmosphere to where I dwell, the writer awakened and entranced and spellbound by its action that drives toward revelation. The pen and the page, figures born upon it that speak in echoes of Truth, pointing, participating.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts on LOST at the end of season 4

Thoughts on LOST at the end of season 4

I’d never seen LOST until this year, when I got Netflix. I’m convinced it’s the only way to take in a lengthy series: commercial free and without waiting. Permit me to regale you on my ignorant thoughts about it as it unfolds.

Obfuscation. Boy oh boy. Boy howdy. I feel like a dunce at the end of almost every episode, because I end up saying, “WHAT?!” But we all love that; it's one reason why we love stories.

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. All I can think to say is that the island seems to be some sort of gateway to the underworld. It’s “special” to be sure—and I’m guessing Mr. Whitmore is interested in it for some as-yet undisclosed dark secret.

I’m still amazed at the interwovenness of the characters. They’re either distantly related to each other, called to the island mysteriously, or at one time unwittingly traipsed into and out of each other’s lives before the crash. It’s good writing. I’m guessing JJ Abrams had to outline this sucker in detail as he and the other writers were brainstorming the plotlines, and there were significant go-back-and-revise-that sessions.

Isn’t it interesting that Kahana, the name of the freighter that shows up off the coast of the island, means “turning point”? I find that to be very interesting, especially since it fits into the story as its namesake.

And by the way, one of my favorite characters, whom I had begun to loathe, is now back in my good graces: John Locke. He’s a man who answers to no one, and isn’t afraid to be caught without a plan. Benjamin Linus, however, seems to always have one, and even says as much. Again, these characters are named for famous philosophers, including Locke's alias, Jeremy Bentham. I've mined some old stuff for good names before, and this is a great example of just that. I just don't yet know if all of it has some greater purpose outside of itself.

And I suppose I should have seen it coming (another phrase muttered often as I watch the show) that Michael makes his reappearance as the penitent suffering martyr-yet-to-come. Walt, I’m sure, has a major part to play as things come to a head in the coming seasons. It was telling that Michael was told just as the C4 was about to blow that he could “go now.”

Which brings up another point: the significance of Jack’s father. I’m guessing he plays the role of Dark Overlord in the story; he’s the father of two main characters, and his coffin crashed onto the island as well—having been found empty by Jack. For what reason and purpose was he drawn to the island? I’m sure it’s yet to be revealed. But I suppose I should steel myself for disappointment on that and other notes.

Those flash-forward episodes are an interesting way to tell bits of the story. In a fool’s hand they would take the fizzle out of the plot, but these writers are deftly able to tell just enough to keep us guessing. It’s a method I have been planning to use in K, albeit in a different way.

At any rate, I have two more seasons to go until I’m finished. Like any good book, one can only experience it for the first time once, so this is momentous. I am loving the way good work stimulates good work.

Weak Sauce

I just realized this morning that I have a new (for me) insight into why I groan inwardly for the deplorable state of our American pop culture. We are a culture of imitation rather than creation.

If you disagree with me, think back to the last time you had a lengthy “conversation” with someone that was pretty much composed entirely of movie quotes. And while I participate willfully in these things, and even enjoy them, it still irritates me that quite a bit of my discourse when amongst friends can be summed up with this phrase: “that’s what she said.” Even though I find it to be freaking hilarious, it qualifies as the antithesis of uplift. Besides, I’m pretty sure that’s not what she said.

This might seem a bit off-topic for a blog on writing, but to me it’s relevant.

I think we amuse ourselves far too much, from time to time, and it’s detrimental to our culture and society as a whole. In other words, are we writers fully “in the harness,” as Harry Truman would have said? If I was perfect, every word I write would have some kind of positive impact on whoever reads it. My work would cause people to think about their positions on [name that topic], urge them to not take things for granted, stimulate thinking and debate.

So many times, and I’m speaking mainly as an editor here, I run across Weak Sauce. It’s usually one of two things. 1) Someone fancies themself a writer when in reality they’re a physicist or politician or worse. 2) An actual writer has phoned it in. The result: may I quote my platoon sergeant of yore? “Ten pounds of $#!* in a five pound bag.” Or, “a bag of smashed donuts,” for those averse to even the mention of the profane.

This is my call to the writers of the world to step it up and be as excellent as possible. More often than not, it’s the thinkers who man the rudder of society, and that’s us, among a select group of others. Therefore, if society at large has been reduced to movie quotes and inane innuendo it is at least obliquely our fault.

My hope and prayer is that K will be one example of a work that lives up to the higher standards of creativity amongst the great cloud of witnesses that has preceded this generation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Subtitles and the Three-Volume-Novel

“Do not speak slightingly of the three volume novel, Cecily!” Yes, Miss Prism.

I must confess that I hate the idea of being like anyone else, even if it is good business. Something about the way I have been knit together just cringes at the idea. I was made, I think, to resist the vicissitudes of society. Whatever they may be. If for some reason everybody I know suddenly takes a liking toward Eminem, as they did when Dr. Dre first swept him onto the scene in the late 90’s, I tend to move in an opposite direction. If everybody liked some polar opposite version of that music, probably something written by Phillip Glass, then I would decidedly become a fan of Eminem. At least in theory.

So while all my writer friends are out there doing what makes sense from just about every business-related perspective and writing their three volume series of novels, I’m sitting here at home looking into the mirror saying, “Luke…you must resist the dark side.” And I have tried. But since a certain event happened to me, I’ve had a change of heart.

I’m jumping on the three volume bandwagon.

“But whyeeeee,” you may ask. Hang in there, Theophilus. We’re getting to it.

It has to do with a little book I picked up the other day, and this is the topic of another post. Actually, it’ll be a rant. But I picked up an old dictionary the other day, and as I was thumbing its ambrosia-scented seventy-year old pages, I ran across a word I haven’t seen used in a while: phantasmagoria. That word is like some impossible mix of Ferrari and stretch limo. It’s excessive. But I found that it described what happens in K quite well, actually, and right there, I knew I had a three volume novel on my hands, dammit.

Follow the logic: I can’t rename my novel “Phantasmagoria,” because, well, because it just doesn’t seem right. Instead, I decided on the spot to use phantasmagoria as a subtitle to the already established one-letter title, “K,” which I like very much. The problem then arises that “K: phantasmagoria” sure rolls off the tongue like it’s part of some kind of series. Dammit! So there you have it: destiny strikes again. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.


I have to ask you a question: is there some rule that states all stories must be told in the past tense? There’s a few who have dabbled in the present tense, to my knowledge; and not that I’m all that well-read, but Dean Koontz did it in “Intensity,” as did Hemingway occasionally. So why do the vast majority of stories play out in the has-been tense?

I understand convention. And tradition. And sensibility. Okay, well, I understand them in a limited way. If I said otherwise I would be in trouble with my wife. But just because we have those things doesn’t mean they’re not to be used by default. After all, and human history will bear me out on this, the rules were made to be broken.

So the obvious conclusion I have reached here is this, and it too shall be phrased as a question: why not write a novel in the present tense?

I’m not an idiot. Even if the idiot “doth protest too much.” Just hear me out. Imagine a story told wherein the plot takes on an immediacy the simple past tense is unable to muster. Imagine a story told where the present tense takes center stage, thus allowing the writer—and the reader—to engage time and tense in whole new ways.

My story features time as a central, well, character, almost. It makes sense for me to fiddlefart around with the tenses in such a story. I have other very good reasons for messing with convention and tradition and sensibility, but they are top secret. Mwah-haha.

I’m finding, as I rewrite the opening to my novel in the present tense (initially as an experiment) that it opens up all kinds of subtle doors, especially in dialogue. It does take some getting used to, both as reader and writer. But it’s addictive. And I love it, because it allows for so much more depth and flexibility in the writing and story. I love it so much that, in spite of myself, my new opening has become about 20,000 words.

Granted, right off the bat, present tense is not for every writer, reader, or story. Besides, like I said, I have some aces up my sleeve. But in this case, for this story and this writer, it was an epiphany.

Getting Started

This is somewhat impulsive, but it’s right to start this blog off with something that speaks powerfully.

Two things first: I’m halfway through LOST. I’m watching it on Netflix just a few years late because that’s just how I am; I swim against the tide. Second thing, I’m reading Christopher Booker’s brilliant work on story entitled, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.” Just so we’re clear, those two things are affecting me deeply as I grapple internally with my own novel concept.

I say it’s a concept because it’s not yet a coherent story. For this, I’m very glad. Even though I’ve already produced close to 120,000 words on it, if I didn’t work hard to smith them thoroughly into something of greater value than they now represent, I would be cheating the gift I possess for writing. That’s something I think we all can agree is intolerable.

On to the meat of this first post. I’ve been wrestling with my novel, my first novel and therefore probably my magnum opus (at least at this point), for what feels like forever. It first began to hit the page as something substantive a couple of years ago. It started out fairly, but I don’t want to publish something simply fair. I want to publish something that adds to our culture and our society in a net positive; a gross positive. So much that has been artistically wrought in all kids of media since the mid 20th century has not benefitted us as the human race, and I aim to be a part of the solution as opposed to the opposite, if I at all can. I therefore find it very interesting that I’m finding such inspiration in a television show. And I don’t know how LOST ends—so don’t tell me—but so far, I find it to be a masterpiece of storytelling.

One of the main threads or plotlines in it is especially touching to me. Desmond David Hume (named for a famous philosopher, David Hume) plays the part of Odysseus to his girlfriend Penelope, whose namesake in the Homerian epic had to endure the increasingly antagonistic wooings of 108 suitors in her hero’s absence. The clock in the Hatch, where Desmond had to push the button every 108 minutes, clued me in on all of this. I love stories that have codes to crack. And I love real manly romance—which seems to have died alongside true masculinity, at least here in the west.

All this to say that I’m becoming inspired to begin to organize my story. LOST is serving as the mindbending inspiration, and Christopher Booker’s primer on the art of the story is the toolbox.

The last episode of LOST I watched was called The Constant, in season 4. It has within it something that I knew was not original, but something I came up with independently nevertheless: it’s the idea of becoming unpinned from one’s proper place in time. I plan on using it in a much different way in my novel, but it remains one of the central leitmotifs, if you will. Thanks to the German genius Richard Wagner for inventing that, by the way. The leitmotif is a recurring element of a story or song that represents part of a character or even part of the story that needs simple representation as the larger narrative unfolds.

I’ll blog more in the coming weeks about where I’m going with all of this, so stay tuned. Now that I’ve committed to blogging about my novel, it has all at once become more real, less daunting, and possible. I’m glad we’re on this journey, whatever it might be, together. Thanks for following.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Coming soon!

Coming soon, a psychological thriller that is going to get me into trouble. Just you watch.