When One is Born a Writer….

…one is simply different.  That's all there is to it.  We writers are unique (some might say odd), and often misunderstood, because we have a passion for words.

Queen Victoria, ever mindful of propriety and history, once told her granddaughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie, the future queen of Spain, "Young woman, when one is born a princess, one cannot behave like others."

So, too, with writers.  When one is born a writer, one cannot behave like others because one, above all else, must write.  This means a few adjustments to a normal life. 

When One is Born a Writer, one often must:

  • Stay up past midnight late to write
  • Rise with the dawn to write
  • (When Nanowrimoing, one must sometimes do both of the above)
  • Miss sunny days to work on novel revisions
  • Skip meals to write (somehow, this one never happens to me)
  • Consider books a line item in the budget
  • Live with either pen and paper in hand,  or head buried in a book. 
  • Appear antisocial because of the above
  • Appear dim-witted because you listen and observe instead of talking
  • Have stooped shoulders from working on the computer so much
  • Have poor vission from above
  • Be incapable of walking past a bookstore without going in
  • Be also incapable of walking past a stationary store without going in

Anyone want to add to the list of congenital traits of writers? Post a comment,and I'll compile them all for a future post.

Top 5 Ways to Prepare for Nanowrimo

I'm not going to do Nanowrimo this year, because I need to focus on the final rewrite (yeah, right, how many times have I said that) of my current novel.  But I'm a huge fan of it and had a blast doing it several years ago, when I "won" by the way.

(In case you live on Mars, Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a project which encourages people all across the globe to write a "novel" of 50,000 words over the month of November.)

But since preparing for Nanowrimo is much like preparing to write any big project, I thought I'd post some tips.  Here we go:

1.  Set a page or word goal.  I figured to win Nanowrimo I would be safe if I wrote 2,000 words a day.  This allowed for acts of god and trips to LA, when I couldn't write every day.  If you aren't doing Nanowrimo,  you might want to set a page goal.  Three pages a day is good.  Doesn't sound like much but if you write three pages a day at the end of a month you have 90 pages, which is 1/3 of a novel. (God, this is such good advice, why don't I follow it?  Because it is much harder to set a specific page or word goal when you are rewriting–some changes are simple, some lead to many other changes forward and back.  Okay, I feel better.)

2.  Get it done first thing.  I like to get up first thing in the morning and write.  If I get going on the novel first, everything else falls into place.  If I decide to work on some other project, like those pesky ones that pay bills, I'll never get back to the novel.  When I did Nanowrimo, my deal with myself was that I couldn't go to bed until I had my word count done.   If I didn't finish in the morning, I had to keep going back to it until I did.  On the other hand, I know that there are people like my friend Tony who prefers to write from 8 PM to 1 AM. Huh.  A different opinion than mine, imagine that.

3.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.  C'mon, you've still got three days.  That's plenty of time.  Nanowrimo rules say you can do as much preparation as you want–as long as you don't write word one until November 1st.  Make lists of plot points, decide on character motivations, figure out what your characters want and what will stand in their way.  Choose locations and make notes about them.  Think about where your characters live and what they wear. What do they do on an ordinary day?  By preparing to write your novel in this way, you are also prepping your subconscious for what is to come–and trust me, those 2,000 words a day will come much easier.

4.  Tell family and friends to go jump in a lake.  No, perhaps it is a bit too cold for that, so tell them to take a hike.  Or rent every season of Friends, or the entire set of the Lord of the Rings and lock themselves in the TV room.  Or perhaps this is the time to tell your wife to finally read Anna Karenina.  The point is to (kindly) get rid of them.  Let them know you'll need time, space and energy to complete this goal that is important to you.

5.  Treat yourself well.  Now, and for the entire month of November.  Go easy on the alcohol (I hate that part) and eat healthy, natural whole foods. Exercise regularly.  My favorite exercise is pushing myself away from the computer desk.  Kidding.  I love to walk, and walking is excellent for pondering plot points.  Do all the things that you know will create energy for yourself.  You need to be alert and full of energy to write those 2000 words a day during November. 

Here's the bonus tip:  HAVE FUN.  Nanowrimo is a blast, and I love that it gets people writing and also connecting in Nanowrimo meetings.  So enjoy it.  And keep me posted on your progress.  Good luck!

The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal

Pumpkins 1
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats.  We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.

I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.

I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning.  It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me.  Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries.  They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates.  I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting.  But something compels me to do so.  And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.  Pumpkins 2

(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire?  Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques.  All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)

Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction.  It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel?  Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project?  When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal.  And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.

However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is.  Honestly?  I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one.  I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy.  But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too.  To wit:

1.  It gets the crap out.  If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write?  Get it out on the page and get rid of it.

2.  It encourages the practice of observation.  There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down.  The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.

3.  It is a place to make notes on projects.  Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article.  I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.

4.  Regular attention to a journal can be life altering.  Sounds grandiose, doesn't it?  But it is true.  When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note.  Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start.  Is this a clue to what you should be doing?  Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage.  Is it time to make a change?

5.  You can track your writing goals.   Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator.  Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too.  John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels. 

Bonus point:  It is a spiritual practice.  People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too.    But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices.  One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice.  It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.

One last thing.  Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today.  He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal.  Read it here.

Avoiding the Curse of the Superficial

The superficial, the general, skimming across the top, whatever you want to call it, hear me now, it is not a desirable thing, either in people (sorry, Paris Hilton) or the written word.

I've read several different pieces lately that shared this dreaded affliction.  The words stayed on the surface, never delving deep.  Think about it: remaining on the surface is like flat-lining, no peaks, no valleys, no highs, no lows.  It is like talking to someone who drones on in a dull monotone.  You are lulled to sleep.  This is not a good thing, either when talking to someone or reading something.  You want to keep your readers awake, thrilled with the liveliness of your prose, desperate to keep turning pages.

But how, pray tell, does one do this?

One way is through the use of detail.  For instance, perhaps you might have a sentence such as the following:

They sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

It is an okay sentence, though a bit boring.  How can we make it more interesting?  Unwrap it.  Think of how much fun it is to unwrap a present.  The same is true for unwrapping a sentence.  It is a process of taking it apart and adding more detail, of going deeper in order to show the reader the picture you have in your mind.  You do this by looking at every aspect of the sentence and digging for more details.

So, looking at the above sentence, let's begin with they.  Who?  How many of them is implied in they?  What do they look like?  What is their relationship?  So perhaps you answer these questions and come up with:

The two sisters with blonde hair sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

What about the verb sat?  What did the two blonde sisters sit on?  A porch swing with pillows?  Two deck chairs?  A wood bench?  Did they perch on the steps of the front porch?  These choices affect your narrative in multiple ways.  A porch swing covered with pillows implies a higher level of prosperity than a complete lack of chairs or two old dusty lawn chairs.  If the two sisters are sitting on a hard wooden bench they may not be as apt to linger over the conversation as if they are gently swaying on the porch swing.   So now, after pondering such issues,  we might have a sentence that read:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the front porch and ate breakfast.

Now, onto the porch.  Does it wrap around the house?  Is it a wood deck?  Or perhaps more like a broad landing at the top of several steps?  Or is it a low veranda?  Here we go:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house and ate breakfast.

And now, you guessed it, time to figure out breakfast.  Pancakes and syrup?  Maybe that's a touch too hard to eat on the swing.  How about Egg McMuffins from McDonald's?  But does that fit with the wood swing and the plump pillows?  No let's go with peaches and yogurt.

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house, eating peaches and yogurt.

So there you have it, an unwrapped sentence.

Ah, but perhaps it is just the wee-est bit too much.  Too many details blur the ultimate effect.  So now what you must do is decide which detail you wish to emphasize.  Find the telling detail for this particular scene.  Do you want to emphasize how much the sisters, with their blonde hair, look alike?  Is it a scene set in the south, where the day is going to be a scorcher, and thus you want to emphasize the languor or the day, focusing on the delicate swaying of the swing?  Or do you want to linger on the sensuality of the peaches?

Only you, the author, can decide.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Igor, the Blind Pug

Igor Doing High Five
Due to popular demand, I'm posting photos of Igor, the blind pug.  The photo to the right is a bit blurry because he is in the process of doing a high five, which he does because he thinks he is going to get food (note to new pug owners: pugs will do anything for food).   Igor learned how to do this all by himself–I'm not kidding–years ago.   Assorted family and friends were sitting around the dinner table with the pug on the floor next to me (he knows who the sucker who will feed him is) and I looked down at him and said, "Give me five, Igor," and he did.  I'm not kidding, that really happened.  It is his one and only trick, and it is a good one.

Igor started going blind a couple of years ago, due to cataracts.  Pugs do tend toward eye problems because their eyes are so bulgy.  You can get cataract surgery for dogs, but he is not the best candidate for it, as he has had breathing problems in the past.  One New Year's Eve day he had to spend an entire day in the oxygen room at Dove Lewis, the emergency hospital here in town. 

Our vet calls him the King of Pugs because he is, well, huge.  He used to weigh nearly 50 pounds but now he's down to his fighting weight of 45.  Its not fat, its muscle!  (The average weight for a male pug is about half that.)  But his father was very big, much as he is.   Here are a couple other photos of him:

Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 001
Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 032Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 028He gets around amazingly well in his blindness, he uses his head to bump into things and tell where he is.  Also uses his paw to reach out and feel the edge of a step he knows is there, such as when he is attempting to get off the back deck.

All I can say is, if you have ever thought about getting a pug–do it.  They are the best dogs in the world, comical, sweet, endearing, great companions.  The best dog a writer could possibly ask for.   

I Find Myself Once Again in Portland

Having left LA last Friday and flown up the coast, I am adjusting to the relative cold up here (oh who am I kidding, forget the relative part it is flippin' freezing, 50 degrees colder than it was when I left California). 

But this morning was one of those foggy autumn mornings that I love, and when I stepped out back to make sure Igor, the blind pug, got himself off the deck okay I saw one of the 50 spider webs that ring our house covered in dew.   So I grabbed my cell phone and took a photo.  It is not the best of photos but I am happy with it anyway.   Pretty  awesome spider web, eh?

Photo_102108_001

I'll be returning to southern California next month, to keep Robert Hoyk company while his wife is out of town, and also to meet with clients.  I love my clients.  They all live in LA, every single blessed one of them.  And that means I get to return to LA often.  Here are some of the recent reasons I have enjoyed LA:

An Empowered Woman.  An amazing networking group–and more.  Let me tell you, I've always hated and resisted networking groups but I love attending events put on by An Empowered Woman because they are fun. Good shopping, interesting speakers, a fabulous collection of women, what could be better? Desiree Doubroux, the founder, is a force of nature.  She's amazing, and so is her group.

One of the event was held at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air.  I think that's where it was, I still get confused in LA.  It is on Sunset Boulevard, right off the 405, okay?  That's as specific as I can get. And wherever it was, I loved it.  That is how I think I should live all the time: men fluttering around as I arrive, lovely outdoor seating areas, a gorgeous lobby.

As always, staying with my wonderful friend, Suzanne, who is an healer extraordinaire.   She celebrated her birthday while I was there and besides eating at Maria's Kitchen (amazing Italian food and the best staff in the business–thank you, Joshua, we love you) we also drove up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory.  Fabulous views of the entire LA area, even though the valleys were all covered in smoke from the fires.  Fascinating place–the observatory was closed but it is quite an installation, the peak is covered with transmission towers and the like.  Not exactly sure what all goes on up there, but I'd like to find out.  I think.  The full moon rose on the drive back down the mountain and the sun set brilliantly red from the fires on the other side.  Amazing.

Another evening we drove up to Chantry Flat, then hiked down into Santa Anita Canyon.  Walking back up was a bitch, but it was worth it because at the bottom of the canyon there are cabins.  They are only accessible by foot and to get supplies in you have the packed in on burros.  Is that cool or what?  We only saw  a couple of them, but apparently there are many more still in existence and a whole camp at the bottom of the canyon.  You can see photos of it all here.

And besides all the fun, there was work, too, such as meeting with prospective clients, who shall remain nameless, and meeting with fellow writers. If you are in the Pasadena or Alta Dena area and you need help with marketing or marketing writing, you should call Don Simkovich.  He'll be happy to help you out, and he'll do a great job for you. 

I also spent a great deal of time critiquing the novel of my screenwriting friend Brian, who despite my best efforts does not yet have a blog or website that I can link you to.  And I spent time working on packets for the Loft.   I even got some work done on my novel while I was there. 




How Far Away Are You? Part Two

Several days ago, I wrote Part One of this post on distance in viewpoint.  Rashly, at that moment, I promised a Part Two,  complete with how-tos.   The how-tos are the hard part, because as with all writing, they are difficult to explain and sometimes even more difficult to put into action.  But sometimes not. 

But never let it be said that I have backed away from a challenge. So here goes.

The goal at hand is to get deeply into the head of your viewpoint character.  There are places in your novel when you might want to stay in a more distant, cooler viewpoint, but that is not the point of our discussion today.  The point of our discussion is closeness, hot and intimate closeness.  None of that Ice Queen distance stuff for us, baby.  Its all about connection. 

How to accomplish that, given that we're talking about on the page and not on the body?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Am A Camera.  Or you are.  You job as the writer is to be the camera inside the viewpoint character's head.  Go deep inside your character (it is not as kinky as it sounds) and see the world through his or her eyes.  What does he see, smell, hear, taste, feel?

2.  Write Character Journal Entries.  One of the ways you get a character's voice on the page is to know that character well–so well that you can write her viewpoint as easily as you talk.  You don't always plan out what you are going to say, do you?  No, instead you talk.  Most of the time it is as natural as breathing.  Theoretically, the same should be true of writing in your character's viewpoint.

3.  Read Out Loud.  The best way to find out if your character talks the way you hear him talk is to read your manuscript out loud.  It makes a huge difference.   You'll pick up phrases that don't sound right and dull lines of dialogue.  If you character is the Duchess of York and you have her talking like Daisy from the Dukes of Hazzard, you'll hear it when you read out loud.

4. Interview with the Vampire, or at least your hero.  Another way to get inside your character's head is to ask her questions.  Make like Barbara Walters and find out what kind of tree she might be, among other things.

5.  Ordinary Day.  We all know there aren't any ordinary days, but just for the sake of your best-selling novel, let's pretend there are.  Take your character through a typical day in her life from the minute she gets up until she hies herself to bed.  Step by step.  This sounds tedious, but it is not, it is fun, and you'll discover way more about your character than what kind of toothpaste he uses.  You might get insight into what drives him (and also what kind of car he drives), what his day to day conflicts are, and perhaps even a taste of his motivation:  what gets him out of bed in the morning ( and the answer has nothing to do with an alarm clock).

6.  Put Her In Action.
  Have her do something.  Write a scene with your hero mowing the lawn or driving across New Mexico or teaching a child to swim.  These scenes will probably never make it into your book, but they will help you to understand who your character truly is as person.  Make a list of activities (use your life as a starting point) and every time you have a few minutes, choose an activity and write your character doing it. Action defines character.  Action is motivation in motion. 

So, are we recognizing a theme here? Are we perhaps noticing that the common denominator in all these exercises is a sincere desire to get to know our characters better?  Knowing your character inside and out is the key to being able to get inside his head to write in his viewpoint.  If you're having a hard time making your character's viewpoint come alive, go back to the starting point–character.  Ask more questions, delve more deeply, learn more about who you are writing about. 

How Far Away Are You?

I refer to the issue of distance in viewpoint.

Yawn.   Way to make a post fascinating, right?  Excuse you while you lean your head back in your chair and take a wee nap.  Once you've dozed for a minute, you might want to rouse yourself for this one, because it can make the difference between an engaging novel and one that skims along the surface.  Between a book that sells and one that doesn't.  Between a book that hits the best-seller list and one that languishes.

Perhaps you are now wide awake and paying attention.

Explaining viewpoint can be thorny.  Oh who am I kidding, even people who've been writing and teaching writing for years don't grasp every aspect of viewpoint.  So attempting to explain one aspect of viewpoint–distance–is tricky.

But I shall persevere in my effort, because, after all, you want to sell that novel, don't you? 

So let's begin with a quote from Janet Burroway, the godmother of all creative writing instruction (if you don't have her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, stop what you are doing right now and go buy it.  There are seven editions, and the most current one is dreadfully expensive, but you can buy one of the older editions in a cheaper used version.)  Here's the quote (its from one of the earlier editions, like the second or third, so don't go looking for it if you a later book):

"As with the chemist at her microscope and the lookout in his tower, fictional point of view always involves the distance, close or far, of the perceiver from the thing perceived.   Point of view in fiction, however, is immensely complicated by the fact that distance is not only, though it may be partly, spatial.  It may also be temporal.  Or the distance may be intangible and involve a judgment moral, intellectual, and/or emotional."

The kind of distance in viewpoint that I'm talking about here falls into the first category that Burroway mentions.    For instance, yesterday I was at a networking meeting here in LA,and a woman asked me to take a photo of her with my friend Suzanne. I'm a terrible photographer and so I did what I always do–aim and shoot.  The resulting photo was of the two of them from the waist up. The woman asked me to take a closer shot and she jiggled some button on the camera and in the lens zoomed and the two faces of the women were now framed in the viewfinder.  Et voila, a much better, more interesting photo.

Why was it more interesting?  Because the photo got in close enough to capture the essence of the two women.  You could see their expressions, the way each of them smiled, the twinkle and joy in their eyes.  None of that was visible in the waist-up shot.  If you've ever taken photography classes, you've probably been admonished to get in close to get the good shot. 

So, too, in writing.   A favorite admonition is to "go deeper."  Often what this means is to go farther into the head of the viewpoint character.  Think about the last piece of deeply involving fiction that you read, or the most recent discussion you had in your book club.  Odds are good that you talked about how alive the character felt to you, how you wanted to know what happened to them after the book ended.  How you thought about them after you finished the book and wondered what they were doing now–just like a real person. 

This kind of character identification–when we are so deeply bonded with a character we forget she is not real–does not come from a distant viewpoint.  A distant viewpoint is me taking the photo of the two women from the waist up, so you can't really see any of the details.  Close-in is that photo I took when their faces filled the entire frame.  Distant skims the surface, like God looking down on the world he created and watching all the little people do their thing.  Close-in is God being inside the heads of those characters.

To put it (broadly) another way–distant tells, close-in shows.  Distant explains, close-in feels.

Alright, enough already, how is one supposed to accomplish such a feat?

As with all fiction, that feat is easier said than done.  Easier explained than accomplished.  However, I shall rise to the occasion and do my best to give you some how-tos tomorrow.

Writing and Reading Odds and Ends

1. Le Short Story.

From my buddy Roy, here's a nice essay on the short story.  Best quote from it:

"That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William
Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a
grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small,
contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you
concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of
the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world
itself."

The essay is by Steven Milhauser.

2.  Le Frenchman180px-Nobel2008Literature_news_conference1-1

In case you hadn't heard, a Frenchman won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 
His name is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him until he won.  I'm intrigued by him, though, especially given that he divides his time between Albuquerque and France.   Check out the list of all the Nobel Prize winners at their website.  Its kind of a cool site.  Who knew?  (The photo at the right is of the announcement.)

3.  Le Weekend

I don't have a three.  It's Friday afternoon and I've been trying to get to my novel all day and so instead of casting about for some fascinating tidbit to balance out this post, I'm simply going to wish you a happy weekend and go write for a bit.


Photo from Wikipedia,
  published under the following Creative Commons license:
Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.0

What Do You Know About Ethics?

What do you know about ethical behavior?

If you are like me, the answer is probably not much–except, like art, you know it when you see it.

Given the current madness of the financial markets and its cause, good old fashioned greed, all of a sudden the topic of ethics is looking positively hot and glamorous.

So I've got a hot book idea for you.  Its called The Ethical Executive, and it is by a wonderful man named Bob Hoyk.  The book is grounded in practical science, and has an easy-to-read format (short chapters!  You gotta love 'em!)

Head on over the The Ethical Executive website and check out more about it.    Also watch for a page with more information to be posted at my companion site, bookstrumpet, and a full review will be coming soon over there.