Saturday, October 30, 2010

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.  

~Ray Bradbury

Cast Party

Friday, October 29, 2010

***WARNING: Rant only tangentially related to writing inbound.***

BEHOLD!  My left foot!  Or more correctly, my left foot in a cast.

Yeah, I went and done it.  I am a bit of a jogger--more an athletic dilettante--and I've run on roads all over the world while managing not to fall down (I've discovered, the not falling down part is pretty key). 


But it turns out the roads here in Sicily are pretty bumpy, and yeah, I happened to be suffering from foot-in-pothole disease last Friday.  I fell down.  :(

The doctors tell me I sustained what is called an avulsion fracture.  Of course I told the guys at work a wild story about getting chased by jewel thieves and having to save some bikini-clad princess in distress.  They bought it hook, line and sinker.  I do write fiction, after all.

Still, it's a pretty big bummer, especially considering our house has three flights of stairs.  When told I'd be in a cast for six weeks, my ears almost fell off.  No flying for me either, which is the part I suppose I hate the most.  But hey, roll with the punches, you know what I mean?

Perhaps at this point you've also realized there's a silver lining: I should have plenty of time for NaNo!  If I didn't feel like such a horse's patoot, I'd be right excited about that.  But my momma also taught me that when life gives you a broken foot, make broken-foot-ade.  Or something like that.  Never mind.  The point is, in other words, I think I've thought of a way to turn this spot of bad luck into some fun.

Wanna sign my cast?  :D

Yeah, I mean YOU wanna sign my CAST?  Yeah, really sign it?  It's like a big white canvas around MY ankle screaming YOUR name!

Except by "sign", I don't mean actually "really" sign, unless you wanna buy a round trip ticket to Sicily.  No, I'll let you "sign" it if you want to.  All you gotta do is leave me something witty in the comments--you can even tell me which little strip of plaster real estate is yours!--plus tell me the color (red, blue, or black) and we'll get it stenciled on for you in a jiffy.

All you writerly folks can think of something cool or interesting or profound to say, can't you?  And if you think this whole thing is only a stunt to curry sympathy and get some attention, you're absolutely right!!!  Pictures to follow!

Stay groovy guys, and for those of you gearing up for NaNo, good luck Monday morning!

Raison D'Etre

Thursday, October 28, 2010

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. 

~Toni Morrison

Step By Step

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When we paid a visit to Rome in July, I snapped this picture of an outdoor stone staircase near the Colloseum.

The wear and tear on those steps, the way the curves seemed to speak of a several hundred years-long process of people walking up and down them and wearing them down, really fascinated me.  If my travel companions hadn't been tugging gently on my sleeve--"Come on," they urged.  "We have a ton to see!"--then I probably would have spent the morning taking a million and one snapshots of this set of stairs.

Many images and objects I come across in daily life make me think of writing, and the writing process.  My environment gets me thinking, or, rather, I puzzle at the writing process utilizing an objet du jour--a set of stairs, for example!--as a sort of lense through which I filter my thoughts.

In this case, the steps made me wonder about the stages involved in writing, in the step-by-step process of taking the barest seed of an idea, developing it, first-drafting, marching right through Revision Hell (sometimes more than once!), getting beta and second-reader eyes on it, querying, and if everything goes really well, maybe even finding an agent and getting the durn thing published.  What we all hope for, right?

The staircase becomes a metaphor.  What could be simpler.  But looking at that staircase, another set of thoughts hit me.  As the steps led from the most ancient part of the city to the Colloseum, no doubt they were heavily travelled.  Over the years, countless travellers on their way to Gladiator Games or Chariot Races must have climbed or descended them with nary a thought as to their construction, or with any true understanding of their utility. 

Yet there must have been a certain class of citizen--perhaps the Colloseum workers or the Senatorial runners (whose job it was to run messages back and forth all over the city--the ancient equivalent of e-mail)--who knew those steps better than anyone, who knew every crease in the stones, the measure of every riser, the missing knots and blemishes worn slick by sandal and shoe, who knew the spots to avoid, the safe passage.

After all, they'd been up and down those steps a whole lot more than the average bear, fallen a few times, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off.  They'd successfully traversed those stairs in darkness, sometimes when the rains blew in, or in the newday light of morning when the stones were slick with dew.  Those few had skipped the tricks of the trade and learned the trade instead, a process which granted them a wisdom not shared by their peers. 

Their continued success was built on that wisdom.

As writers, I think we share the same challenge.  The best way up the hill may not be the fastest, or the safest, or the easiest, but it's up to us to discover what works, to uncover our own set of rules.  As I thought about this, and tarried to marvel at those majestic stone steps, I realized when it comes to writing, my stairway looks a lot like this:

Clearly, I have plenty of work to do.  :D  But I am committed.  I want to keep building, learning, discovering.  Someday, I want my writing process to feel as weatherworn and understood and real as those beautiful Roman steps.

_ _ _ _ _ _

But wait!  The story's not over yet!  Hours later, over a beer and in a goofier state-of-mind, I wondered what the stairs for different types of fiction would look like.  I mean, would Horror look different from Science Fiction?

After some snooping and hunting around on the intertubes, here's what I came up with.  Enjoy!

Short Fiction:

Experimental Fiction:

Mystery/Thriller Fiction (DL, I'm looking at you :D):

Epic Fiction:


Historical Fiction:


Science Fiction:


Combat Fiction:

Pantser Fiction:

Plotter Fiction:

Writer's Block Fiction:

Unfinished Fiction:

Here's hoping my upcoming NaNoWriMo project--and yours too if you're doing one--doesn't end up looking like the last two!  What about you guys?  What would your fiction look like as a set of stairs?  Or any other architectural device for that matter?

Hope you're having a great hump day, and don't forget to stay groovy!

Mood Net

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?  For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.  That is where the writer scores over his fellows:  he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. 

~~Vita Sackville-West

On The Premises

Monday, October 25, 2010

I spent some time this weekend, despite flying a number of hours, working on what I had called--until recently--a synopsis for my NaNoWriMo project.  I now realize I've been using the wrong term and, if my information is correct, the product I have actually been developing is called a premise. 

That particular insight was mined from James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers, a fantastic book to have just digested considering my busy November.  Another great I finished only last week is Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel.  If you haven't read these both, I highly recommend them.

To be clear, a synopsis is second cousin to an outline or treatment (although I believe the term treatment is more commonly used for screenplays).  A synopsis' purpose is to detail all the differing plot lines, scenes, etc.  In other words, it's a semi-detailed recipe of what happens.

A premise is more basic and simply sketches the broad outlines of the story in general terms, with enough detail in a few lines to catch someone's interest.  This is also similar in scope to a pitch.  If a synopsis is a photograph, a premise is a watercolor painting.

My preference in a premise is to try to capture three primary components:

1) The chief story problem/inciting incident.

2) The action/reaction of the main character to the story problem or situation.  This sustained motivation and the obstacles encountered become the general confict arc of the novel.

3) Complications or reversals needed to sustain the second half of the story, and keep up conflict.

What I discovered over the last year--and this seems more true of story ideas I am confused about or unsure of--is that the act of getting the premise down on paper really focuses things.  I am forced to choose specific actions through careful verb choice, pick main characters, untangle confusing scenes or deal with unrealistic motivations.  Nine times out of ten, I walk away from the premise-writing exercise with a much clearer understanding of the story I am trying to write or edit.

At this early stage, this is also true of my NaNoWRiMo project, Daisy.  Here it is for you reading pleasure:

Doctors diagnose Daisy who's been in and out of hospitals for most of her sixteen years with a rare and lethal form of brain cancer.  Opposed to an experimental treatment that promises to turn Daisy’s final days into a torturous, excruciating nightmare, her father Kodi “kidnaps” her. 
Together father and daughter flee across the country, trying to outwit law enforcement and stay one step ahead of Daisy’s mother, who has made their flight—and the uncertain future of her daughter—a national news story.  On the road, Daisy and Kodi each discover a love they never bargained for, and learn that life is about more than looking for an exit.

I'd be very interested in hearing your comments or suggestions.  It will be fascinating to see if this premise is still accurate after the first draft is done.  I'll keep you posted.

What about you?  What process(es) do you use to refine your understanding of you WIP?  Got a premise you'd like to share in the comments?

Playing The Numbers

Friday, October 22, 2010

NOTE: The pics that backdrop some of my template have up and disappeared (!!!!!!:( ).  I will see if I can load them up before the day ends.

Wow!  This week totally flew by, and when I say flew, I mean in more than one way.  I was basically in the air almost every day this week--not a usual occurence, but one I do enjoy when it happens.  On Monday, I headed out to Naples and back, Tuesday brought some training, Wednesday we flew to Rota, Spain and then we flew the return leg Friday.  This morning, I'm in early again for a trip to Greece and then back to Naples.  In total, more than 25 hours airborne.  I feel like a world traveler, a vagabond of some sort.

As is the way with real life (RL we can call it for short), it gets in the way of some things--writing for example.  I do have some concern that I will have trouble maintaining the required pace to complete NaNoWriMo if I draw a busy flying week or two in November, but I am still committed to trying to pull if off.  If push comes to shove, I'll drag the laptop along and hole up in my room in the evenings to make sure I make my goals.

But I'm not overly concerned about it, because I'm in it for the long haul.  In fact, on one of the flights I got to talking with my co-pilot about the book I'm currently reading (Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife) and that lead to a discussion of NaNoWriMo, and all that writing a novel entails.

He was surprised (beyond simply finding out that I wrote or tried to write fiction--a very unpiloty occupation) that I had not one but three ideas for novels, all of which I expected to complete over the next two to three years.  Wouldn't it be better, he questioned, to put all my effort into one novel, send it out, see how it does, before I start into another project?

After sharing that some novelists never even "break out"--to steal a term from Donald Maass--until their third or fourth book, if ever, I explained that I was expecting to stick around for a few years.  I wasn't expecting quick success.  If I got it, so much the better, but based on an evaluation of my current writing skills and the market, I still have plenty of work to do.  Thus, I think it is unreasonable to expect to achieve overwhelming success on the first try, although I do understand that it happens from time to time.  It's a question of whether people are buying what you're selling.

A thousand years ago, in another life, when I sold life insurance and financial products door-to-door for a national insurance company, I had one of my sales managers explain the problem thusly:

1) Assume that for every ten doors you knock on, you get in three doors.  In other words, they want to hear your presentation, hear what you have to say.

2) Then assume that for every ten customers who hear your presentation, three say yes they are interested.

3)  Then assume that for every ten that say yes, seven are qualified (after seeing the doctor, etc.).

What that means is, if I wanted to sell ten policies a month (enough to make a living on), I would need to knock on 159 doors.

In the interest of showing my work:

159   x .3 =  47.7 let you in.

47.7  x .3 =  14.3 show interest.

14.3  x .7 =  10.01 are qualified and purchase a policy.

For me, the takeaway is that you can't predict what people will like.  You can't judge the market or time your submission to give you an advantage.  You might get lucky and market realities or some new buzz might help you out, but the opposite is just as likely to happen.  The only choice left then, IMHO, is to keep slogging away until some agent somewhere bites--and that means knocking on a lot of doors.  In my mind that means having more than one novel in the planning phase--and querying anyone and everyone with the one completed.

It's like when Isaac Asimov--who wrote more than 700 books in his lifetime--was asked what he would say if his doctor told him he had only six months left to live.  "Type faster," he said.  :D

What about you?  What is your approach to planning your next writing project?  Do you have subsequent projects in the works, even before you've completed the one you're working on?  How do you go about knocking on doors, or querying?

I Got A Fevah!

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's Friday afternoon here.  I'm home, sipping a beer, enjoying some downtime.

It rained all week, so it was a surprise to wake this morning and find the sky clear, the distant line of mountains visible, and the air cool--like a forest when there is no wind.  Driving in, I found I was humming to myself--no tune in particular--but happy with the sun and shade, and my lot in life.

It's been a week now that I've been back to posting on this blog.  It feels pretty good to have once again found my rhythm.  In fact, there's a little part of me that marvels frankly that I was able to go so long without it.  It's ineffable, but hanging out here with you all in this thing called the blogosphere makes a real difference, at least to me.

Basically, I still got the writing fever--the one I caught late last year in Baghdad.  There was a moment or two late this summer, when I hadn't posted in ages and hadn't written a word on my WIP or on any of my short stories, where I wondered if I had gotten "over" my sickness.  I puzzled at the symptoms, speculated that maybe this whole writing thing was a passing fancy, a lark, an experiment.  Maybe writing fiction was an avocation that looked inviting when living in a desert far away from home, but not an endeavor essential to an easy, well-defined life among family and friends and responsibilities.  Maybe I was no longer "sick" to write at all.

Being back has told me exactly the opposite.  I still got the fever--and it's not going anywhere soon.  Yeah, it's morphed some, mutated, transformed into an illness a little less desperate and a lot more grounded, but I still feel a deep affection when I read a new novel, and I still drive home of an afternoon thinking on how to solve a particular plot or character-related dilemma, only to arrive at my front door having no clue or memory how I got there.  (Gawd, I really love that!).

No, in a word, the prognosis is bad--uh, er, good!  I got a fever, and the only prescription is more writing!

Since I totally lifted that line, and since I want to send you off to the weekend in a good mood, I now present the comic stylings of Christopher Walken and Will Farrell!  Enjoy the video, and have a great a groovy one!

I can hear it now, me sayin': "Yeah, but when I put my pants on, I write blockbuster novels!" :P

Under Cover

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I thought I'd combine my several semesters of college art classes (don't ask!) with my deft Powerpoint skills and throw together a faux-cover for my upcoming NaNoWriMo project.  I thought: "Everyone else is doing it!  Why not me?"

I found that designing a cover is considerably harder--nigh on near impossible!--when the book has yet to be written, but hey I figured I'd run with it and see what happens.

Thoughts?  Critiques?  Too floral?  Too literal?  I am curious what kind of story you think it is based on the cover...some feedback would be great!

The suggestion box is now open!

(BTW, the background photo is the work of Bas Lammers--used under the creative commons license.  He has a cornucopia of other amazing photos.  Go check them out--if you dare!  :D)

P.S.  All this talk of pantsing it and working without a net has been extremely inspirational, and has definitely pumped up my own internal volume for this project, but one thing I refuse to work without is a synopsis.  I find that forcing the idea into the synopsis format helps me distill things down to a basic conflict and action.  Do you find that?

Long story short, I hope to put up my synopsis in a few days and you can throw stones at that too!  And remember, throwing stones doesn't mean you're not still groovy!

Brain Bypass

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Love letters and poems aren't the least bit difficult to write, if you write directly from your heart into the ink and don't channel through your brain first.  

~~Graycie Harmon


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

As I mentioned the other day, this year I am jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon.  I'm a total newb and I haven't the first clue what I'm doing, but being clueless is half the fun, isn't it?

Actually I am taking a different approach to this project than I typically do.  I'm a plotter, one of those folks who tend to plan my stories out to the nth detail.  Outlining and creating character sketches/backgrounds are tasks that are an integral part of my writing process.  I sometimes even go so far as to dig up pictures for my primary players and paste them around my writing space; this helps me better conjure images of my characters when they interact. 

While this process is important to getting the outline of the story straight in my mind, another wrinkle of my unorthodox approach is that once I sit down to write, I become more like a pantser.  Much of what I developed in my plotting stage gets tossed aside while writing the first draft.  It's almost as if I create a blueprint of my story, right down to the addresses of key locations and dates of birth of main and secondary characters, only to deviate from this gameplan at every opportunity in the first draft.  I know what your thinking: schizo much?  Yeah, I know, but it's worked for me so far, so why change it, right?

Still, that's exacly what I'm going to do--at least for NaNoWriMo.  I've been curious about other writing approaches, recently.  I really respect those folks who can sit down with nothing but a blank sheet of paper and just let things fly.  In my mind, this kind of writing is walking on a tightrope, working without a net, letting go of all that is cautious and familiar and easy.  Dangerous.  Death defying.

So I'm taking the plunge.  This year, I'll jump in the deep end of the pool, wing it, and just write on the fly, just see what happens.

I'd be lying if I said I haven't done any tinkering with this story idea.  In fact, it's been kicking around my brain for well over a year now, so of course I've given it some thought.  But I certainly ain't gonna do the detailed plotting/planning that I usually do.  I'm just going to put one word in front of the other, until the thing's finished.  What could be so simple, right?

I'm so curious to see how it turns out--and so anxious to get writing!--that I can hardly hold a coherent thought in my head (as this post no doubt attests :D).  What about you?  Got any big NaNoWriMo plans this year?  Is this your first rodeo?  Will your process be the same as previous projects?  What are you doing differently?

P.S. My NaNoWriMo handle is jpcircusboy, so come look me up if you're in the neighborhood!

Fiction Matters

Friday, October 8, 2010

I'm at home and up relatively early this morning.

We have a four-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday and--although I drew a flight to Spain on Sunday--I have every intention of making the most of my time off.  Namely, I'm going to do some plotting (the villainous, rubbing-my-hands-deviously-together variety, not the I'm-trying-to-figure-out-where-this-story-is-going variety) on how to finish a short story I've been kicking around, and what prep I need to do for NaNoWriMo.  Are you doing NaNo this year?  Do tell!

You'll be happy to know that a gentleman from Italian Telecom has just departed the premises.  Yes, it's true.  We now have a phone--only three short months after moving in.  Man, these Italians move quick, let me tell you.  Pronto, indeed.  What that means to me, dear reader, is that I will soon have "real" internet access at home (right now we have a Vodaphone internet "key" which allows very slow access--think dial-up on quaaludes--for a limited time each day).  Next week, all will be a go I'm thinking.

This is not to say that my recent hiatus from the land of ones and zeros hasn't been fruitful.  The opportunity to live life unplugged comes with it's own set of street signs, a set of rules and regulations that stands apart from the gregarious social standards of the crowd.  This time away got me thinking about a whole host of different ideas and issues, including this one: fiction matters.

I bet, hearing that, your reaction will fall into one of two schools.  Either you think "No, duh!", as this seems the most obvious idea in the world, or you think "Does it really?  I mean: R-E-A-L-L-Y?"

I think it is a pretty obvious concept, but I also think that the truth lies in a place other than where one might think it lies.  For example, in my life as a pilot, the currency of my day tends to be extremely technical and "fact" driven.  Airspeeds.  Altitudes.  Clearances.  One might argue that it is all fact, no fiction.  Much of life is like that, or so it appears.

This is a widely held view.  When a few of my fellow aviators recently learned that I dabbled with writing fiction, laughter was their reaction.  Why mess with something as unimportant as that? their reaction seemed to say.  It's so...touchy-feely, so inconsequential.

I couldn't agree less with this characterization.  Sure, facts and science have their place, but I think it is fiction which holds dominion over all that is most important to us.  If we look closer, we can see that the entire underlying structure of life is not factual at all, but is entirely fiction.

Let me give you an example.  One of the "rules" that governs flying is called the semicircular/hemispheric rule.  What this says is that aircraft flying eastbound (above a certain altitude) will be assigned to an odd altitude--say 23,000 feet.  Aircraft flying westbound will be assigned an even altitude like 24,000 feet.  This means that aircraft flying toward each other from opposite directions will not find themselves in the same piece of sky at the same time at the same altitude.  This in my opinion is a great rule, but please observe: it is a fiction.  The rule might well have been something else completely, but this is the approach pilots and controllers have agreed to use, and so everyone lives their lives accordingly.

Yeah, I know what you're going to say.  Maybe I am broadening the definition of fiction a little, but stick with me for a minute.  My point is that these agreed-upon rules have a profound impact on our lives (after all avoiding aviation accidents is a good thing, for example!), but the rules are not governed by any physical law or other constraint that affected their "shape."  They amount to a collective "choice", and these choices underpin the fabric of our lives.

In fact (pun intended), if you look around, you'll see these fictions everywhere.  Traffic lights.  Laws.  Ethical standards. Novels.  Plays.  Movies.  Music.  Art.  All made up, all created from thin air.  These ideas are the fictions we've chosen to believe in, and they are, in my humble opinion, essential to a contented life. 

Don't believe me?  The final proof, I think, comes in this little anecdote: we recently showed our two-year old, Muffin, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty for the first time.  Boy, she loved it!  She couldn't stop talking about it!  She gabbed about Sleeping Beauty for days afterward.  She wanted to sleep with the video next to her in bed.  She will no doubt remember this story for years to come, and she's already asked for a "twirling" dress and fairy wings.  There's no question: this fictional story affected her far more deeply than any other thing in her life.  It was as plain as the smile on her face.

Think about your own life.  What moves you most?  What are the stories or ideas that make you want to get out of bed in the morning, that make you stay up all hours of the night turning them over in your mind?  What are the things you really love, that you really believe in?

Don't kid yourself.  Fiction matters.  When you sit down to put words on a blank page, you are doing important work.  Essential work.  Work that matters.  Believe that you can touch someone's life and, with enough blood, sweat and tears, you will.


The Audience

Thursday, October 7, 2010

No man should ever publish a book until he has first read it to a woman.

~~Van Wyck Brooks

Coming Out Of Hibernation

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yes, I am alive.

If I may steal a witticism from Twain: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."  :D

In fact, life has been very good to me these last few months and, excepting a conspicous lack of internet access which has so rudely and inexplicably interrupted my online life (as you dear reader have no doubt already noted), I have absolutely no complaints.

On the contrary, our new life here in sunny Sicily has taken root, truly.  The road to and from work is well travelled, beds made, candles lit, boxes unpacked, books and parcels placed, pictures hung, floors swept, mopped, made to shine in the lavalamp glow of our wondrous Mediterranean light, produce markets explored, fresh vegetables pawed and purchased, wines and beers sipped and savored, bedtime stories shared, and all the indescribable little things that make life worth living have been appreciated.  It's been an amazing kind of miracle, really; the kind that's hard to talk about without breaking into a knowing grin.

I have much to share with you and am excited to be "alive" again.  We have found a solution, though imperfect, to the internet access problem and so I will begin posting regularly, and will be around to your blogs in a jiffy to see what you've been up to.  In fact, let me pose the question: what have you been up to?  You see, I missed you--terribly!--and, like a distant cousin or long lost friend just returned from an extended journey, I feel the need to curl up next to the fire and bask in the stories and tales you no doubt have to share.

The writing, you ask?  Well, let us talk more about that in due time, shall we?  Suffice to say that though my word count is low--strike that! Virtually nonexistent better describes it--I have done much which I think counts toward the overall goal of perfecting my writing craft.  Trust me on this one.  Sometimes doing something looks alot like doing nothing.

So I pledge there will be more to follow--the proverbial end of the story, we'll call it.  And one last thought before I get down to business: it's good to be back!

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