Current Reading: Tied to the Tracks

I’m more than halfway through reading Tied to the Tracks by Rosina Lippi.

In general, I like the book.  It kept me going on the treadmill for a lot longer than I originally intended (note to self: a good book is key to a good workout on the treadmill). 

The novel is kind of a southern chick-lit romance.  Our heroine, Angie, is hired to produce a documentary on a famous writer who lives in the small, charming and quirky southern town of Ogilivie–which also happens to be the place where the love of Angie’s life has recently returned to. 

Can you see where this is going? 

As I said, the book is a page-turner.  It has this wierd quality, though, that I as a writer probably notice more than lay readers.  The scenes often turn on what I would call unearned emotion.  There was a scene when Angie was going to see John for the first time.  She sets off in emotional turmoil, yet relatively calm.  However, by the time she gets to John, she is hopping mad–and I couldn’t quite figure out why.  Same thing happens in a scene with the town cop.  All of a sudden, halfway through, she is blazingly pissed off at him.  Huh.

But the novel is full of fun, charming characters–I love Tony, the 50-year-old who can’t stay out of married women’s bed, and Rivera, Angie and Tony’s kick-ass lesbian partner in the documentary business.  And the southern town is charminly evoked. 

I do beg to differ with Angie, though–she professes her love for sweet tea.  I cannot stand the stuff.

Quote of the Week: Quit Being a Laggard! Or, Its All About Willpower

Last week I took myself out for coffee and wrote up this whole elaborate schedule for finishing this draft of my novel (Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior). 

This made me feel virtuous and disciplined.

It made me feel disciplined until it came time to actually finish chapter eleven by my appointed deadline–which happened to be last night.

After a wee bit of a Happy Hour and a dinner of grilled bratwurst fresh from the Farmer’s Market, I was feeling just the tiniest bit unmotivated (read: tired from the wine).

But every Sunday night I get an email in my inbox from Kevin Hogan.  I hate to admit this, but I’m not really sure exactly who he is–some kind of marketing and motivational expert.  I will say that Sunday night is a good night to send out promotional material because nothing else ever comes in and so out of sheer desperation I generally read much of what Kev writes.

This is saying a lot because sometimes Kev irritates me.  I don’t always agree with his pronouncements and he says them in a very authoritative way which always makes me feel rebellious (sorry, Kevin, its really nothing personal, its just my nature).

But last night, as I was dithering about how I hadn’t finished my chapter and was thus in line to screw up my careful schedule before I’d even really gotten started, in came Kevin’s Sunday night email.  And, lo and behold, his first article was about willpower. 

Kevin talks about how developing willpower is what makes the difference between those who achieve their goals and those who don’t.  Its really a pretty good article.

Here’s Kevin’s takeaway quote on willpower:

"You CAN exercise willpower the same way you exercise your body (a little bit at a time gradually increasing intensity of your workout).

The important thing is to do it every day until you form a new habit. Habits don’t require self-control energy. Once exercise becomes part of your routine you can operate on autopilot. Funny thing is that soon you won’t need any self-control to exercise your willpower. "

I wrote the chapter.  And today I started on the next.  Thanks, Kevin.

Writing in Coffeeshops

I used to love to write in coffeeshops.  Now, not so much.

But lately I’ve been thinking I need to get back in the habit of going to Starbucks or an equivalent to write.  We’ve got the most fabulous coffeeshop/cafe right down the street called the Daily, and I always see people in there working on their computers.

The thing is, I’ve been spending way too much time at my desk, writing, and I feel like it might be good for me to get out more.  But I’ve been thinking this for a month and haven’t done it.  One reason is that my computer is going through this odd stage where it doesn’t like to open files after its been turned off.  Sometimes this happens even after its just been asleep.

I prefer to think this is a temporary hissy fit on the part of my computer and will be fixed, all on its own, soon.

Meanwhile, I remain chained to my desk. 

Remember Natalie Goldberg’s book,Writing Down the Bones?  In it, she was forever nipping off to some charming coffeshop in Taos (one of the best places in the world) to write with friends.  Ah, how romantic it sounded.  That was back in the day before we were all wedded to our computers. 

However, today I have Things To Do That Do Not Require a Computer.  And so I am off to Starbucks with file folders and writing pads in hand.

It helps that I have a fierce craving for a frappucino. 

Event I Wish I Was Attending: BookExpo

There’s an AP article this morning about the annual Book Expo starting in New York City tomorrow.  Interesting to note is the fact that MySpace is not only attending for the first time this year, but is a sponsor also.  The article notes the number of authors promoting themselves on MySpace and also discusses the site’s book clubs.

Years ago I went to a precursor of BookExpo, back when it was called the ABA–American Booksellers Association.  I attended as a representative of local writing groups, but it was a tough place to network if you weren’t a big author.  The main thing I remember was the books–oh glorious stacks and displays of books.  And people standing by them, forcing them on you.  Forcing. Books. On. You. 

It was heaven.  They actually had a room at the convention center where you could go buy boxes and ship the books home, because you ended up with so many that you couldn’t possibly get them in your suitcase.

Why aren’t I there this year? 

Read about it here.

Copywriting Twist–Reverse Outsourcing

I’m starting free-lance work this week with a new company.  Not sure if I can name names or not, so I won’t, but it cracks me up to report that I’ll be writing articles for a magazine to be distributed to young professionals in India. 

Its kind of like reverse outsourcing.  Isn’t that just the coolest?

Copywriting can be such a kick.  Also an enormous pain but hey, I’m grateful for it.

New (To Me) Author

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been lolling about all day.  The reason for this, besides the fact that it is the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, is because I am reading a novel I cannot put down. 

The book is called The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington and it is about a cynical single mother who falls in love with a former monk who has lost his faith in his vocation. I’m enjoying it so much, its kind of a "women’s novel" for lack of a better term, but deep. Apparently Tim Farrington has written numerous novels, including a sequel to this one that just came out, called, (wait for it) The Monk Upstairs.

I’ve got a couple great novels lined up from the library to read, including the latest from Lionel Shriver but once I’m done with those I’m going to have to start reading everything from Tim Farrington .

New Writing Quote

Its Sunday and even though I’ve been lolling about I’m now at my computer in order to post a quote of the week.  Here it is, from Julia Cameron:

"When I don’t write enough, I get a gnawing sense of disease. It is an appetite that isn’t sated by other things. I become lonely for my soul. I try to find it by talking with people. I look for a glimpse of it at the movies. I clean my office to see where I misplaced it. I get lonely and pine and blame it on my friends. I try to set things right every way I know and then–after I have set up the vase of lilacs, cleaned the room, fussed at my thoughtless friends, I remember: oh, yes, I need to write. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me…."

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

New Features

Typepad has done this amazingly cool thing which allows bloggers to create their own pages now.  I’ve been waiting for a feature like this.  Truthfully, I haven’t really, because I didn’t know it was possible, being the non-techie type that I am.  But I have been trying to figure out where to place some of my longer articles that I’d like to share.  I had started another blog for this very purpose, but that turned out to be way too time-consuming.  So out go the other blogs and in come new Pages.

Check ’em out.  I’ll be putting up more of them over the next few days.  You’ll find them, amazingly enough, under the headline "Pages" on the right.

The Power of Story

This is an article that talks about the power of story and attempts to define story. The power of story, and how story can even save your life, happens to be one of my favorite topics. I think stories may even be capable of saving the world.

Stories shape our lives. If you are involved in writing a story about something that happened to you, you give it a beginning, middle and end. You make sense of that event and that gives you life meaning. It also gives you knowledge, the ability to take the next step instead of floundering in the dark, the way people who don’t make up stories are doomed to do.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes on writing. It’s from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, which also is one of my favorites on writing. “But take hope for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural, on the borderline with telepathy. Just think: We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended….As writers we travel to other worlds not as mere daydreamers, but as shamans with the magic power to bottle up those worlds and bring them back in the form of stories for other to share. Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.”

Bear this quote in mind the next time you stop to ponder if story—if what you create every time you sit down at the computer—matters. It’s so important for us to tell our stories, to be the chroniclers of what we see. Remember that someone must shape events to give them meaning, and that task falls to us as writers.

After September 11th, I, like so many others despaired. And that despair encompassed my writing. What value could writing possibly have in the face of such evil? What use was it to create something so intangible as a story, when firemen and police officers risked their lives to save others? I thought and thought about this and finally remembered what my charge as a writer is: to chronicle what I see and feel and hope that I can touch, and possible help, someone who is thinking the same thing. Validation for this came from the fact that the essay I wrote out of this despair was consequently published in a national magazine.

One of my other favorite authors on writing is Robert McKee, whose book called, simply, Story, was immortalized in the movie Adaptation. I have to admit I’ve never gotten all the way through his book—its nearly 500 pages long, full of dense prose, but I’ve read excerpts of it and I’ve gone back to what he says in the first chapter over and over again when my own inspiration flags. Here’s what McKee has to say on story:

“Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, turn desire into reality. We’re swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, like a Gestalt, does flips: first serious, then comic; static, frantic; meaningful, meaningless. Momentous world events are beyond our control, while personal events, despite all effort to keep our hands on the wheel, more often than not control us.

“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question from the four wisdoms—philosophy, science, religion, art—taking insight from each to blot together a livable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in the traditional ideology diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.”

McKee goes onto talk about our enormous appetite for story in all its forms, TV, movies, novels, memoirs, advertising and says that because of this vast appetite the story arts have become the world’s primary source of inspiration. His comments then degenerate into a rant on dishonest storytelling (James Frey probably should have read his book) and says that when society is awash in shallow, untrue stories, it degenerates. He quotes Yeats, saying, “The center cannot hold.”

I hope that McKee’s comments energize rather than depress you. I think they will when put in the context of another book I recently read, in which the author avows: “The MFA is the new MBA.” My friend Mary-Suzanne got me to read the book just by uttering that sentence from it. Daniel Pink devotes a whole chapter to the importance of story in his book titled A Whole New Mind. His thesis is that it’s a whole new world and this world will be dominated by right-brainers instead of left-brainers, as has traditionally been the case.

He cites the three “As” as harbingers for this shift: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. In a world where we have abundant choices, it’s no longer enough to offer a serviceable product. That serviceable product will compete with many others, and as such, it must either feature a better design or be marketed via a story. Pink says it’s useless to wring our hands over outsourcing to Asia and replacing of jobs with automation. Instead, he says, “We must perform work that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that computers can’t perform faster, and that satisfies the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual demands of a prosperous time.” Pink presents six aptitudes that will be essential in this new era: Design, symphony, empathy, play, meaning and…..story. Pink has a whole section titled “The Story Business” in which he not only profiles Robert McKee but calculates that story is worth about a trillion dollars a year to the US economy. (This is based on his calculation that persuasion in the forms of advertising, counseling consulting, etc., accounts for 25 percent of the gross national product. If story is an element of at least half those efforts, than you get the one trillion figure)

He talks about how organizations are now hiring people to chart the storytelling culture of their businesses and cites other examples to buttress his argument that storytellers are the new MBAers. Of course, all of us know the value of story of we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out how to write them. So now that we’ve taken a look at the overall theory of story and its importance in our modern world, let’s get down to defining them. Which, like all things related to story, is more difficult than it would seem. We can start by defining them by word count.

The science fiction and mystery writer Kate Wilhelm, who has written a fine book on writing titled, Storyteller, says that in the genres, short stories can’t top out any longer than 7500 words, but I’ve read others who say stories can go as high as 10,000 words (which greatly relieves me as my stories tend to be long which is why I prefer writing novels). Wilhelm also says that a novelette is between 7500 words to 15,000, a novella from 15,000 to 40,000 and a novel is 40,000 words and up. The standard word per page count has always been 250 words per page. These days, with different fonts and typefaces, it’s all over, but if we use that standard we can get some approximate page counts.

Assuming the short story is in the 7500 to 10000 word range, that puts as at the 30 to 40 page range for the maximum length of a short story and that sounds about right to me. But beyond length are there any other qualities that define a story? You could write a character sketch 30 pages long, or an extended anecdote and it still wouldn’t be a story. The definition of story may ultimately be similar to the famous old saw about art: I don’t exactly what it is but I know it when I see it. You know it in your gut, right?

We could actually sit around and debate this all afternoon, so here’s a couple definitions for you to chew on while we move on. Research on the internet netted me this one from someone named Alex Keegan: “It is something that can be read in one sitting and brings a singular illumination to the reader, sudden and golden like sunlight cracking through heavy cloud.” Katrina Kenison, who has edited the Best American Short Story series for years, says the guiding light by which she did her work was the following, defined by an editor named Martha Foley many years ago: “A good story is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience.” Wilhelm defines a short story thusly: “A successful short story is a marvel of compression, nuance, inference and suggestion. If a novel invites one to enter another world, the short story invites one to peer through a peephole into the world, and yet the world has to have the same reality as in a novel. It is truly the universe in a grain of sand.”

Perhaps we can start to come up with some elements of a short story. Keegan says a story illuminates one facet of human nature. A character undergoes some event and experiences something which offers him change. I think “offers” the chance to change is a key word here—because in a short story, your character might not change, but he must be given the opportunity to do so. Rust Hills, who was the editor at Esquire for years and has written a book on short story writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular talks of “the loss of the last chance to change” and whether or not a character accepts that chance or declines it. Hills says a character must change in some way over the course of a story, even if that change is subtle. A character can be presented with an opportunity to change and not take it—and the reader understands that this will be his last chance. By not choosing, he is choosing.

No redundancies, no flashbacks, no applying novelistic techniques to the short story. A story must have a moment of truth—or what Rust Hills calls the last chance to change. Something important must be at stake for the characters, there must be moment of truth, and someone has to react to it. This is the difference between an anecdote or a character sketch and short story—it has that moment of truth.

Of course, whether you are going to write a short story or a novel, you have to know how to tell a story, which is the underlying theme of this essay. And whether you are creating a big world for a novel or a little world for a short story, there are some basic tools you can use to help you create those worlds.

First is the story question, the all-important question that guides the entire story or novel or screenplay. What is it that the protagonist wants so badly that she will risk everything to get? This is your north star. After writing my first novel, which I’m still writing, and struggling with issues of structure and an unclear story question, I vowed never, ever to write a novel or a short story without a clear and compelling story question. My most recent novel had one, and any time I got lost in the plotting or the storytelling all I had to do was return to it and I could easily get myself back on track.

Here’s a simple way to design a story question: A LIKEABLE CHARACTER overcomes INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL.

Another way to think about it is: Will (protagonist) (verb) despite the efforts of the antagonist? Note the simple idea that this means the character must want something. We all know what the most important element of a story is, right? Conflict. There’s no story without conflict. How do you create conflict? By having your character want something and not allowing him to get it. That simple, that complicated. It’s at the heart of every great story and the more conflict you can give a character, the better. The late Kurt Vonnegut said, “Have you characters want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”

How many of you have had the experience of being deeply touched by a piece of writing? I’d venture to guess all of you, or you wouldn’t desire to be a writer yourself. Think of how that emotional moment changed you, if even for a minute. What a powerful, wonderful thing the written word is and how damned lucky we are to worship at its gates. Next time you are sitting at your computer and the words refuse to come, remember this and be grateful that you are a writer. And furthermore, remember that the very act of writing is not only saving a life (perhaps your very own!) but it is also actively saving the world.

Short-term vs. Long-term Writing Projects

I’ve been out of commission for the last week.  First I was at a wedding in Santa Clara, California, and then I had gum surgery.  Yes, gum surgery, complete with graft and stint and a lot of wonderful gory details I won’t bore you with. 

I’ve used the surgery as an excuse to ease up on taking copywriting jobs and I’ve been working on my novel in my lucid moments (I exaggerate, as the surgery and its aftermath has been remarkably easy).

But because of all this I’ve been thinking about short-term vs. long-term writing projects and how to fit them both into one’s life.  I’ll tell you the one thing I know for sure about achieving this balance: it ain’t easy.

The thing about a long-term project, such as a novel, is that there is a certain amount of living in an alternate world involved.   Getting into the alternate world of the novel is a journey, and like all journeys, it takes awhile to get there.  You know? 

You don’t just jump in and jump out at will.  And once I’m there I like the locale and I want to stay awhile.  Sometimes a long while.  So its hard to write a long-term project in a one hour a day schedule (hard, but not impossible–I’ll share some tips for how to maximize your writing time in a future post).  Sometimes that hour goes awfully fast and you’ve barely just arrived in the other world when your time is up.

How to deal with this issue?  I beg, borrow and steal longer chunks of time whenever I can, like on the weekends.  Like right now, when its the most beautiful day ever and I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t live in Portland and yet I’m not outside.  I could theoretically be outside because I do all my work on a laptop.  But I know myself. And I know if I’m outside I won’t be working.  So I’m inside, at my computer, taking a break from finishing up a chapter to write this post.

Come Tuesday, after this glorious long weekend, I have 4 or 5 SEO articles that I have to get written by Friday.  And I’ll be gazing back at this time I took to work on my novel with longing. 

Anybody else have any ideas on how to manage both short-term and long-term projects at the same time?  My kingdom for a good solution.