Jun 112013

Summer provides me with time to write. Once the semester ends, I go into overdrive working on personal projects. Of course, I’d like to be productive all year; however, I’m still learning how to reserve  enough time and energy for my own work while classes are in full swing. Frankly, I’m not sure that will ever happen. Regardless, summer’s here, and I have a nice list of projects lined up. Two of those projects included updating this blog and sprucing up the website.

That didn’t happen for a full month.

Sherman Alexei counsels writers: “Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.” For the most part, I’ve taken that sentiment to heart. But I enjoy the challenge of coming up with concise posts about the craft of writing fiction, compelling literature worth reading, or a combination of the two. While posting regularly remains a goal, I’ve come to understand why many successful writers are so stingy with their time.

This is a recent development for me. But, the more time I set aside to write, the more I become aware of how minutes and hours spin away. And I’ve become a selfish bastard when it comes to time. This summer, I secured a quiet room for writing. As the room has no internet access, the only other potential distraction is my cell phone. I go to the room, and I write or read. While I’m happy to report I’m getting a more done, my work tempo still could use some fine-tuning. (Making it sustainable would be nice too.) Still, the time flies.

Time – always seems to be the enemy.

An example: I begin writing with five hours on the clock then look up stunned to find only thirty minutes remains. Invariably, I feel as though I’ve just hit my stride. Likely, some of this learning how to write more efficiently, but maybe not; maybe, I’ll always be glaring at the clock. Regardless, this feeling of time slipping away reminds me of a cranky, old Harlan Ellison.

On Letters of Note, I was amused to read Harlan Ellison’s crotchety response to a member of his fan club. Ellison is a complete prick to this young fan and begins the letter by saying:

“All a writer has is time and a portion of talent. Answering queries from readers eats away at the former, thus disallowing full use of the latter.”

Ellison then moans about how he hates to be disturbed. Amusingly, he goes on to answer the fan’s question in detail. In my humble opinion, either you can’t be bothered to respond to your mail, or you feel some obligation to do so. But if the latter is true, then do it with class. –That said, Ellison’s words haunt me: time and a portion of talent

The talent I bring to the table is not something I can control, but I need every second I can find to hone what I have. The more I write the more respect I develop for those who have truly mastered the craft. It takes time, discipline, and persistence to improve one’s work. That’s it. Those of us not born with innate genius must fall back on hard work, tenacity, and a fair bit of luck. I’m OK with that.

But, returning to the topic of responding to fans, I found two other responses on that same website related to this topic that I found interesting. (Fair warning, there are loads of terrific letters there, and you can easily burn four of five hours browsing them when you should be writing.)

Apparently, Robert Heinlein had a multiple-choice form letter he used to respond to inquisitive fans. It’s worth a read as the the choices are hilarious.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this in-depth response from cartoonist, John Kricfalusi, who not only wrote a long letter full of encouragement and advice but even sent back some reading material!

Anyway, I’m headed out to write. While I have more to say here and the exercise of posting is helpful in a number of ways – I’m not sure I posess the time to commit to it.

After all, I have fiction to write.

Mar 252012

It often seems easier to spot problems and the solutions to those problems in other peoples work. This is one of those annoying truisms that I repeat like a mantra when running fiction workshops. But I’ve been working at this writing thing for a few years now, and I expect to see the ‘big’ issues and know how to respond to them on my own. So when I have spent over a month revising a very short piece, I end up thoroughly frustrated that I should have spotted a major flaw much earlier in the process. To compound my frustration, I ‘like’ the piece as it stands, but can’t be certain of anything at this point.

I just don’t want to be “that guy.”

There are two general ‘types’ of writer that I do not wish to emulate: those who, for whatever reason, walk away from a piece convinced it is a masterpiece when it’s clearly shit, and those who dither polishing a manuscript when their efforts have ceased to accomplish anything significant that will change or improve it.

While I seem to be stuck with endless revisions, what I’m dealing with is different; or at least it seems different, from poking at polished prose. I wrote a piece for a Florida-themed flash contest where submissions were constrained to 305 words. It was loads of fun meeting the challenge. I was forced to compress and distill language, and the result was a piece that is much more lyrical than what I usually produce. After reading an early draft at a function, someone commented that they liked the poem. At odd times, I seem to lack basic social skills, and I replied it was fiction a tad more harshly than I meant to sound. Honestly, I couldn’t tell them it wasn’t a poem with a straight face: I think that got under my skin.

The genre nomenclature game is for suckers. That said, any piece I’m working on needs to succeed on my terms. Generally speaking, my fiction contains narrative tension with clearly evident stakes. In contrast, I’m comfortable with creating poetry that sends up an image that can then interpreted by the reader to be meaningful in X, Y, and Z ways or is just resonant and effective for other reasons.

The piece I’m referring to, this annoying piece, whose shortcut icon mocks me from the desktop even as I compose this entry, has no explicit narrative tension. Last night, I spent several hours trying to add context, back-story, and characterization, but everything I write seems tacked on. The image works for me: it resonates. I think I shall affix a tiny scrap of paper to the piece and scrawl ‘poem’ on it before firing it off to be judged.

At some point in the future, I should say some things about choosing a PoV because this piece was a good lesson in the significance of that choice. But I have a poem to finish…at least I think it’s a damn poem.

Mar 192012

The blogosphere is plagued with posts where the writer makes intermittent apologizes for neglecting their duties to perform like the trained monkey they signed up to be. If you have a readership, you are expected to dance. I feel little need to dance because, stealing a line from Kenny Goldsmith out of context: ‘I assume no readership.’

Really, I maintain this blog for a few very specific and selfish reasons:

1. I’m working to become a better writer.
2. I’m working to improve my grammar.
3. I’m working to have more options when I write a sentence.
4. I’m working to produce more ‘good’ writing in the first draft.

If I said that I was too busy to maintain this blog, I would be lying to myself. I was ‘busy’ doing other things. One of those things was wasting precious time. Recently, I quit Facebook because I was creeped out by their business model. Well, that and I was sick of the obsessive verbal twitching and inane outbursts that social networking both enables and encourages. Yes, my current job takes up a lot of my time, but that is a lame excuse to not be productive. In short, I need to get my ass back in gear, though I’m not really sure I capable of it.

I digress. The blog is a cool space to work because it allows me to work on the four points above with low-stakes writing. My grammar, though far from perfect, has improved, and I am getting better at generating posts in less time. But Sherman Alexie makes a good point about the dangers of blogging, when he says something like: ‘every word on a blog is a word that’s not in a novel.’ This kind of truism is annoyingly accurate. That said, here is a short defense of literary dithering.

I find that I can keep myself on-task when I have an imaginary audience. When there is a novel sitting around that I must make time to read, it is a lot more likely to happen if I imagine someone waiting on my thoughts. This same imaginary audience helps to keep my posts fairly focused and is often very noisy about stupid, sentence-level errors.

Anyway, I am going to try to get back to working on this thing. My new self-imposed rules are to try to reduce the overall post length, generate content faster, and find things of note to talk about outside of fiction.

I really have no idea if I will be successful. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it.

May 292011

The kiss of death sounds like this: “It’s not boring all the way through, But, I wasn’t interested right away.” This statement means a story has failed on page one. A friend said something close to this after reading one of my pieces and suggested a hook. While agreeing in my head, I couldn’t help but blurt, “I was hoping the reader would be patient.” This verbal tick was one I immediately regretted; of course I want the reader addicted by sentence one. However, that stupid comment led to a larger point of discussion – patient readers are nearly extinct.

Long-form fiction may fast be becoming an archaic art form. The irony of jotting that last sentence down while smack in the middle of revising a novel is not lost on me. But my own folly notwithstanding, one cannot but help but notice the increasing trend of brevity in fiction. Sometimes this trend is taken to ridiculous extremes. One of the MFA students showed me a book of short fiction where each piece was all of thirty words in length. Hey, it’s interesting to flip through for a few minutes, but I’m not going to actually read the damn thing cover to cover. And that’s the point. If publishers are tuned into cultural trends, wouldn’t it make sense to deliver narratives that resemble Facebook status updates? No fucking way I’d be interested, but I can see the logic.

This attention span of the contemporary reader is a dead horse that has been beaten into goo. But I’m invested in writing fiction, and that particular the angle of the topic interests me. I’ll not moan over the state of the modern reader. If I did, it would be a statement of both hypocrisy and denial. I’m plugged into Facebook, blogs, Youtube and all kinds of digital distractions. However the problem is much more insidious than entertainment. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been on a steady diet of intellectual junk food. I’m not talking about the writing I know is crap and read for kicks but articles written for a thinking audience.

In grad school, I’d force myself to chew through difficult texts because people I respected told me they were worth the effort. But for the most part, outside of ‘required reading,’ I’ve been a mental goldfish. This lack of focus is encouraged by a kind of positive feedback system where ‘smart stuff’ is merely content along with everything else. The brightest minds now deliver shorter articles, written in scannable paragraphs via aggregate hubs like Arts and Letters Daily. These hubs allow the reader to graze and dip into subjects without ever really digging in to fully understand them. Don’t get me wrong, I love that site and others like it, but consuming one’s knowledge in semi-digested nuggets can’t be seriously considered a sustainable or healthy practice over the long haul. If an interesting lead doesn’t actually lead to substantive inquiry now and then, this kind of grazing is as much of a waste of time as anything else.

My solution is to unplug – within reason – slow down, forcing myself to read longer books and articles for longer periods of time. I say force because I‘ve become impatient as well. I can’t help but think that I should take care of my mind with the approximate care I do my body. I’m no health nut, but I’m careful not to eat pork rinds and drink beer for a week straight. I work out on a regular basis. So why not force myself to read a really long, difficult text with the same regularity? Why not be patient with a piece of fiction? Why not take care to be sure I’m not just giving into the 21st century’s digital twitch? Take it further, and consider real reading an exercise that sustains me the same way lifting weights does. And it does. Once I’ve struggled to understand something difficult, whether it’s fiction, philosophy, or science, I’ve invested in the possible depth of my own work much in the same way exercise is investing in a healthy heart. It might never pay off, but the story I save might be my own.

I’m not going to presume to prescribe action for anyone besides myself. But if you should stumble across this entry, I would ask you think about the consequences of technology saturation. Fully unplugging would be counterproductive at this stage of the game; however, there in front of you, the circus continues to vie for your eyeballs and mouse clicks. Aldous Huxly’s letter to George Orwell upon the publication of 1984 comes to mind, where he predicts governments would discover “suggesting people love their servitude” would be more effective than beating them into it. This may seem like an extreme and tangential point, but I’ll leave it to you to consider the implications of a world that’s fully distracted at all times.

The trite self-help regimen discussed above does little to answer the question about contemporary audiences and their attention spans. Reading really good fiction provides hope. I was looking at exam copies of short fiction and fell into a piece by Sherman Alexie that I hadn’t read before. I was hooked from the first sentence to the last and didn’t look to check the web or stop to study an effective passage. In fact, I ignored two phone calls along with the call of nature. Until I was done, I was immersed and invested in a story and characters that would not be denied. Experiences like this give me hope for fiction because I think if a piece speaks to a reader they will be unable to not finish it. I’m not sure it’s realistic to deliver that kind of intense immersion in chapter after chapter for a number of reasons. But I do think novel readers will respond to something that resonates long enough for a writer to hook them into coming back. If they come back with a desire to read the work again, then I would say the writer has succeeded.

Nabakov makes this point, stating that popular fiction is merely read once, then discarded because the reader is satisfied upon completion. In contrast, he says, literature is something one rereads. The reasons readers return to a piece are their own, but their return is a common thread. Fiction worth rereading is Nabakov’s touchstone, and I believe it to be a fine one. If the world is becoming more distracted, then why not work at creating something a reader is more likely to come back to? Work at writing something that gnaws at a reader to finish and maybe read again. Work at writing things that will merit a second look and maybe a third.

Readers are no longer patient, and the world is just as full of competent fiction as it is bad. This means I need to work that much harder at writing something more than worthy of someone’s time to reread. That goal might ultimately prove to be unreachable, but it’s one I’ve come to enjoy the process of striving toward. As soon as this post is complete, I’ll get back to figuring out a hook.

Jul 292009

Though someone with a limited view of the world might call it procrastination, I have elected to begin the long process of organizing my library. This is kind of a weird project to take on right now seeing as I have a complete manuscript on my hard drive, give or take a few chapters. This manuscript needs to be completely revised: front to back. However, I see the inventory of my book collection as part of the writing process.

Approximately ten years ago, I went back to school with some vague notion of trying things on for size. I enjoyed playing MMOs and had the idea of becoming a programmer. A business project I was involved in started to wind down, and I found that school was fun. Long story short, I did not have the math skills to be a programmer but did reasonably well in English courses. Soon, I discovered that the process of reading books and then writing about them was not only fun but an academic discipline. While excited about becoming an English major, I felt embarrassed by the gaps in my reading. Right away, I set about reading things that other people thought were important along with things that were fun.

This has evolved into my current strategy of setting aside three books to be read: fiction, theory, and nonfiction. Out of the fiction books, I try to throw a classic in the mix every now and then. Like, I am reading Delillo’s Underworld right now and have a copy of Paradise Lost on the way. The whole theory/nonfiction thing is really a blurry line – The Federalist Papers is my next theory read, and some kind of historical account will be consumed in the name of ‘nonfiction.’ Anyway, the point is that I read things besides fiction to help provide significant details in my own work: philosophy, essays, etc.

The strategy itself, as well as my expanding library, grew directly out of my experience of going back to school. While pursuing a degree, I was required to read for courses but made it a goal to be sure to read outside of class in order to catch up. Now, I am not reading to please anyone else besides myself. I like the feeling of getting through something really difficult or understanding someone’s argument. School provided me with some of the tools to become a more engaged reader, and I continue to learn how to read slower and more carefully. In addition, the more I learn about syntax and constructing stories, the more I learn from the books I now read and reread. On that point, I would say that is one of the things I am looking forward to in the indexing process. Cutting back on purchases would be smart as there are a number of things that warrant rereading and a whole slew of titles I have not yet glanced at.

So yes, I have novels to write and literature  to read, but not knowing what’s in my collection, or where it’s at, is really getting on my nerves. Cataloging what I have, and where it entered my life, will both allow me to chart my current progress as well as expose the massive gaps that remain. After all, there are a lot of books to read.

Feb 192009

So, I know that I have not been keeping up with this here blog. Mostly that is because I am in the middle of writing a book, but I can’t say that excuse holds much water with me. After all, I will often recharge my mental batteries by surfing the net or mindlessly browsing Facebook. I could have been using that time to read something else or reflect on what I have been reading. Recently, I have resolved to opt out of the ADD techno culture that is causing the human race to rapidly devolve into giant butts with opposable thumbs; instead, opting into the use of my privileged situation and technology to think, create, and participate.

While I am up on my little soap box, allow me to take myself down a peg. In a recent seminar, one of my mentors started to mock a literary review that attacked a book we were reading. Mid rant, he pointed to a comment by the reviewer, identifying it as a ‘big ass cliché.’ I must confess this observation was a humiliating epiphany for me. When writing fiction, I go out of my way to avoid hackneyed phrases, vary my syntax, and generally pay attention to language*. But when writing analytically, I tend to stay so focused on getting my point across, without sounding like a complete moron, that I will often use a line from my standard toolbox of lines – this toolbox is well populated with clichés – to get my point across and call it a day. This cannot continue. Either one writes as best they can whenever they are writing or they do not.

Of course, all of that is well and good, but I have a self imposed quota that, as of late, has not been met. I am going to try to write about at least one book every two weeks. I cannot expect myself to produce brilliant, penetrating posts every time. But, I can set out to try to pay more attention to what I am saying and how it sounds no matter what the mode of writing might be. As my coursework winds down, I do not see much occasion for me to be writing academic essays in the future. Scholarly, critical work holds very little appeal to me. However, many of my favorite writers have produced some marvelous essays that cause academics to wince, wiggle, and opine; the reason that I find that work, essays produced by artists for artists, so interesting is that it often breaks the unspoken stuffy rules of academic discourse. In short – you can show your ass. I very much like the idea of writing about things on my terms, for my edification, clarification, amusement and/or pleasure. I just want to write them well.

Hopefully, the more I write the closer I will come to achieving my goals. After all, those of us not graced with genius must resign ourselves to working that much harder to articulate our ideas.

*Yes, I am aware that I tend to nearly always use three items in a list. Baby steps people.

Oct 112008

The other night, I was laying in bed, reading a novel, as John and Barry pointed fingers at one another on my television screen. I found it remarkably easy to concentrate on my book and shut out the debate. The bailouts’ passing was like one last kick to my skull. I have no fight left in me.

This is a good thing.

My anger over where I see this country heading was getting me nowhere with my writing. I have been angry, frustrated for weeks. The evening would find me typing out long impotent letters to my senators and congressman. I was nasty to family, friends and unfocused at work, upset about a system that has very little to do with what really matters in my life.

In contrast, my mindset of the late eighties and early nineties was much healthier. I have always detested politics and politicians and had a healthy dislike for authority of any flavor. It is much better, for me, to live snugly wrapped in the assumption that neither of the major parties gives a damn about me or mine. I have a couple of core issues I care about. Beyond tracking those major concerns, I am better off keeping my head low, the powder dry – and writing my ass off.

That same night, I began to think about my thesis and what I wanted to write about. Suddenly, it all crystallized and I could see where I wanted to go. I am compelled to write a novel length story. That story will be influenced by my own obsession regarding race and class, but those issues will not be its motive force. It is extremely important, to me, that the stinking carcass of polarized, political ideology be kept out of my fiction. I know that my politics will always inform my working aesthetic just as they inform my taste in music, clothing and even food. But in the end, I believe my own ambivalence (or vehemence) regarding such things can only frustrate my fiction and my reader.

Recently, I read an introduction to Labyrinths, a collection of Borges stories, which helped to bring the idea of the effects of the historical climate on a writer into focus. One passage in particular caught my eye:

Borges’s and his companions’ situation as not unlike that of some North American writers of the same generation who suffered the impact of war, industrialism on modern European art on a tranquil Midwestern or Southern heritage.

But out of these general conditions, shared by many in our time, Borges has created a work like no other. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of his writings is this extreme intellectual reaction against all of this disorder and contingency of immediate reality, their radical insistence on breaking with the given world and postulating another.

I have always felt a deep connection to these stories. Borges has informed my own view of literature in a number of ways. However, I was never sure how it would impact my work. I feel I have solved part of the riddle, and I am comforted. There was a reason these brief, yet vast, stories spoke to me for so long. It was important enough to wait for, and I am humbled by it.