Tuesday, November 8, 2011

buen camino (and a thank-you to Emilio Estevez)

A few weeks ago, I went to see a film called The Way, starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Sheen plays an American father named Tom who, under tragic and unexpected circumstances, embarks on the Camino de Santiago, also known as "The Way of Saint James." And, of course, what he finds along the journey is also beyond his expectations.

I'm being deliberately vague in my description of the film. This is one of those times where I want to give nothing away. I want you to come to the journey as ill-prepared as Tom.

I had to wait at least a week before The Way came to a theater near me. When I was on Long Island two weeks ago, I tried to find a theater close enough so I could take my mother to see it, but we had no luck. I was disappointed; I knew she would be as profoundly moved by the film as I was, and I so wanted to share the moment with her in person.

The Way contains no CGI. There are no explosions, no vampires, and no American heartthrobs. No sex, no guns, and no killing. You can see why Hollywood wanted nothing to do with this film. This is also not a religious film. But there is death, there is love, there is hope, and there is the journey. Not to mention the scenery. The scenery alone is worth it.

Last night I had the opportunity (and honor) to speak with Emilio Estevez via a "fan phone chat" thanks to a contest posted on the Facebook page The Way The Movie (Go there. Click "Like". Now. Please.) Because there were many in line to speak with him, we were each allowed only one question. However, we were able to listen in on his conversations with the other lucky callers while we awaited our turn.

A friend of mine on Facebook remarked how cool it was that I was about to talk to a celebrity. But when the call ended, I realized that was not the case. I hadn't talked to a celebrity. Kim Kardashian is a celebrity. Justin Bieber is a celebrity. No, I had conversed with an actor, writer, and director. Better yet, a fellow storyteller. We talked about writing, and there was a moment when Emilio spoke about writer's block ("as I'm sure you know all about," he said; oh dear God, yes) when I knew I was talking to a kindred spirit. In fact, I was nodding my head throughout the entire conversation, and not just the one he had with me.

All that was great. But that's not what inspired me to write this post.

For the last few months, I've been going to a park near me with a walking path, three to four times a week, and completing anywhere from three to five miles in one stretch. Lately I've been feeling somewhat like Tom--frustrated, fearful, head down, eyes in front. I've had my iPod Shuffle on, yet my mind has been a one-track-thought, looping incessantly.

This morning was no different. Despite having a great night, I woke up deflated. I walked head down, music on, frustrated, fearful, the whole nine yards. Interestingly, I had forgotten to put on both my watch and pedometer (two days before that I'd forgotten to bring my water bottle, to give you an idea of how distracted I've been lately).

At some point I started to replay not just my conversation with Emilio, but some of the other conversations I'd listened to. I thought about some of the things he said (and I'm paraphrasing, at best):
"I'm interested in making films that are uplifting, that feed the soul."
"I'm still on the journey. I get to re-live it every day by hearing all of your stories and experiences."
"I'm a storyteller."

And then it hit me: I'm on the Camino. Right now.

I turned off my iPod and started listening to the ducks quacking, the leaves rustling, the other walkers chatting while their dogs explored. I took notice of how beautiful the foliage is (it's piquing here in North Carolina), how the sun was dappling on the water, streaming between the branches. I exchanged friendly hellos with other walkers.

And sure enough, the fears and frustrations melted away. I found myself mentally composing again: Ideas for the novel-in-progress (the protagonist is a screenwriter, after all--what kind of movies does he want to make?). Ideas for this blog post. Solutions rather than problems. I even remembered a scene from Ordinary World, when Andi begins to write a novel about two travelers on the Appalachian Trail. Her working title was called Walking. Maybe she was on to something. Or maybe I was when I wrote it.

As writers and storytellers, we're all on the journey. Writers so often walk in solitude. But we need that connection with others to make it from place to place. And not just writers. We all do.

That path in the park I go to may not be the Camino de Santiago, but miracles can happen there. And for seventy to ninety minutes, I can walk. Reflect. Heal. Just be. The path is a circle. I don't have to "get" anywhere.

It's not even about the walking. It's about the journey. It's about the way.

Find a theater. Travel, if you must. Go see this film. Tell your friends about it. Spread the word. Then find your own path.

Thank you, Emilio, for making this film.

Buen Camino!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

follow-up to "yep, I'm blog fatigued"

Thank you to all who responded to last week's blog post either here, on Facebook, Twitter, email, or in person. One of the things I learned was that many of you are reading, but not commenting. I can certainly relate to this since I try to keep up to date with certain blogs but don't comment. I also learned that some are not only blog-fatigued, but internet-fatigued in general. Too much screen time, not enough face time. I can relate to that as well. I especially appreciate those who didn't want to see the blog go away, who look forward to my posts and little lessons. Again, thank you all.

Alas, after a week of reflection, I've decided to put the blog on hiatus at least until the end of this year. My priority is getting my novel finished and giving my students the attention they need. Not to worry, you can still catch up with me on Twitter or my Facebook author page. And who knows-- inspiration may strike, and I may have something to post here. I wouldn't be opposed to that.

And so, to repeat once more (sometimes repetition in writing is a good thing), thank you again for your feedback, encouragement, and support. I couldn't have had all these wonderful writing achievements had it not been for you.

See you on the flip side.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

yep, I'm blog fatigued

This past week the topic of “blog fatigue” has popped up in various places (Nathan Bransford being the latest), as well as the debate by both agents and authors about whether authors need to start (or continue) blogging. I can certainly relate. Those of you who have been loyal readers of my blog, especially in the last few years, know the identity crisis it occasionally goes through from time to time. Like me, my blog has re-invented itself more than once. But as the woman behind the blog, I am not certain I want to continue putting in the time an effort to keep its identity intact. Yep, I'm blog fatigued.

I have my reasons. For one, keeping a blog is time-consuming. I bow down to those who have consistently, reliably posted every weekday (I’m lookin’ at you, Elspeth!), keeping their posts fresh and fun. I know that even if I can’t read it every day, I at least know it is there. My teaching responsibilities and my writing/author responsibilities (that includes promotion, etc.) count as two full-time jobs. It can take me up to one hour, sometimes longer, to craft one blog post (I should time myself now as I write this one). Doesn’t sound like much time, but for me, it is. I want to put that hour elsewhere, either into reading or writing, or, when the semester starts to get crazy (like now), grading. I’m lucky to complete one post a week, and even that can be difficult to maintain, as you’ve seen. Without consistency, the credibility of the blog suffers.

Another reason I’m considering putting my blog on indefinite hiatus is that I think the internet is oversaturated with blogs, and readers simply can’t get to them all. Take a look at the blog list on this page—I rarely get to read more than two of them on a fairly regular basis. I believe mine is lost in that shuffle, and based on the number of comments I get per blog, I question how many followers are reading my blog on a regular basis. That may be an unfair conclusion to draw, but so be it.

Besides, I don’t think I’m writing anything original. The things I have to say about writing have already been said by Stephen King, Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Anne Lamott, Nora Ephron, Larry Gelbart, and more. I just try to apply a firsthand perspective and some humor to it. I could easily share some of these tidbits via Twitter or my Facebook author page, and perhaps save a blog post for those times when 140 characters won’t cut it, or when I get really inspired.

I’m a teacher as much as I am a writer. I enjoy sharing stories and ideas about the craft, the process—I thrive in a classroom. There are times when this blog has been a classroom—I think that’s what I had wanted to be when I started it almost five years ago. But I think it’s time for me to find new classrooms, new forums, and, most of all, to do what I want to do more than anything else right now—write my novels.

What has kept me here all this time has been YOU, my dear readers, and I’m hesitant to leave you. I’d like to hear from you. Do you follow my blog on a regular basis but don’t comment? Do you look forward to my blog posts? Are you frustrated by the inconsistency? If I kept the blog going, are there topics you’d like to see me write about that I haven’t, or perhaps topics you’re sick of me writing about? Or are you also suffering from blog fatigue, as I am? I can’t make any promises, but I’d like for you to have a say. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

stepping out of solitary

A couple of days ago I was struggling to write the final chapter of my novel-in-progress. I knew exactly what the ending was going to be, but tying up the loose ends to get to said ending was proving to be a bit of a challenge. (Part of the problem was that my characters had "forgotten" to an address an issue in prior chapters -- yes, I blame it on them -- and I was attempting to confront it in the final chapter.) And so I did the very things I discussed in last week's blog post -- I sought out my trusted inner circle of writers and talked out some possible scenarios for getting from Point A to Point B.

The very act of explaining the scenario to my fellow writers revealed another oversight that could unravel a whole lot more of the plot. They talked it out with me, gave me ideas, asked questions. They were very helpful and I was so grateful to have them to talk it out with. And yet, the re-writing task felt rather daunting.

That same day, my Why I Love Singlehood co-author happened to ask me how the writing was going, and I shared my frustrations. She invited me to send her the chapter for peer review, and I jumped at the chance faster than I pounce upon a package of Pop Tarts.

Sarah responded to the draft no differently than she would have were it a WILS draft--she asked direct questions, made suggestions for word changes, pointed out problems, and assured me that she wanted to keep reading. She could tell where I'd hit my stride as well as where (and when) I'd hit the wall.

It was like being home.

It's funny how, as a writer, you know the difference between showing and telling. You know the former is preferred over the latter. And yet, you don't seem to realize just how much you're telling rather than showing until someone like Sarah points it out to you. I love her ability to do this for me. I love that she chooses words I wouldn't have thought about, and yet they're perfect. I love that she gets me thinking about ways to tie up those loose ends, and reminds me not to take the easy way out. Best of all, I love that the act of her responding to my draft not only made me eager to get back to work on my chapter, but also re-invigorated her excitement for her own work-in-progess.

Perhaps my writing partner and I were just missing each other and our collaboration. We've enjoyed working solo, but we also enjoyed our collaborative process, and all it gave to us.

Writing is so often a solitary act. But every now and then, we need to step out of that solitary confinement and go out into the community of other writers. As I mentioned in last week's post, there comes a point when we need to share our writing, talk things out, and cheer each other on. Perhaps this is a need that not only applies to writers, but to all human beings--the need to belong, to be part of a group or a community. From one writer to another (and from one human to another), I invite and encourage you to find yours.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

the stages of sharing

A question I am often asked is at what point in the process a writer should share his/her writing with others. My answer is that it often depends on the writer, as well as the purpose for sharing at any particular stage.

There are some writers like myself who are quite wary of sharing their writing with anyone, regardless of what stage it's in, draftwise. Actually, I should clarify my own position on this. It's not that I'm reluctant to share my writing with anyone, it's that I'm reluctant to talk about it. With the exception of a small few, I don't even tell people the title of my work-in-progress, much less what it's about. Andre Dubus III likens this to opening the oven door too many times to check on the cookies baking. Imagine yourself showing your friends: "Look at these awesome cookies I'm baking!" as you explain each ingredient and how you measured them out and what you added and what you took out and perhaps you should've used pecans instead of walnuts and you hope they'll turn out chewy and not too crispy, etc. All the while that oven door is open, and the cookies aren't baking, to the point that they never get done. I tend to agree with this. Too much talking about your idea, your story, your character, etc. saps the energy and process of creation. If you've talked it all out, then what reason is there to write the thing?

When I do talk about the content, I'm usually consulting someone for insight or assistance (perhaps it's someone with an expertise that the character shares, or someone who can help me map out a cause-effect scenario), and I keep that inner circle to a bare minimum. Sometimes I just need to talk out character motivation and direction out loud -- just like therapy, the very act of my talking it out reveals the information that I need. My WILS co-author, Sarah Girrell, is a great person to talk to about such things since she has such a keen awareness of my writing style and approach to character, and she's a good listener.

At some point during the drafting process, however, a writer needs feedback. I know all too well how daunting it is to show someone an unfinished draft, especially in the early stages and especially when you know it's not working. You can't help but fear judgment from your peers, judgment that you're really not that good after all. But I also know how useful this feedback can be and how, when coming from the right person, can actually psyche you up to revise, do better, and enjoy it. Again what I show and at what stage, depends on the person and the purpose. I have no problem showing Sarah a rough draft of anything I'm working on (and yet, I still feel the need to apologize profusely to her for how bad it is). For others, I'm more comfortable showing drafts that have undergone some revision. Lately I've been sending a good friend chapters from my work-in-progress after I've revised them, and it's been good for my ego as well as my process--he gives me encouragement and praises me for what works (not having seen them in previous incarnations), and he also points out things I often don't notice, minor details that make a major difference. He's not a professional writer, but he knows me pretty well.

What about writers groups?

I've participated in several writer's groups over the years, and have had both positive and negative experiences with them. The right group will motivate you, keep you accountable, and provide constructive feedback on a regular basis while keeping your ego in check. Another great thing about groups is the aspect of getting to see other people's writing. Aside from the community aspect that is so important for writers (after all writing is, for the most part, a solitary act), seeing other people's drafts can almost always give you insight into your own. By seeing what works and needs work in someone else's draft, you return to your own with new eyes, seeing things you didn't see before, or perhaps seeing them with a fresh perspective, which can only aid the revision process.

And then, there are "beta-readers." A beta-reader reads your "finished" manuscript -- that is, you've revised and edited it considerably -- and provides you with specific feedback to determine what, if any, additional revision/editing needs to be completed before it's ready for submission or publication. This could be as simple as making sure you haven't changed a character's last name halfway through the story or keeping the timeline consistent, or it could be as challenging as re-examining a main character who isn't resonating with readers or eliminating a key scene that doesn't work. For me, beta-readers are crucial to the process, and it's important that you choose your beta-readers carefully. I go with a few people who are either well-read or well-written, people who might have a special expertise related to the story, and those who will give me honest, thoughtful, respectful feedback. It turns out these people are my close friends or my twin brother, but that's not to say you should only show your friends.

Do I take every suggestion and make every change suggested to me? No. Writing is a series of choices--you must be comfortable, confident, and accept the consequences of every choice you make. You'll never be able to please every reader, but you have to be satisfied at the end of the day, when your book is finished, printed, and published, and there are no more opportunities to revise.

And so, I invite you to reflect on these questions: Do you share too much of your work-in-progress, or too little? Are you choosy about with whom you share or talk about your writing? Should you be more choosy, or less? Are you afraid of criticism? Are you too controlling? Is a writer's group right for you? If you're currently in one, is it the right group of people for you? Are you one to provide feedback to others? If so, do you give the kind of feedback that you would want to receive?

I wish you well in all stages of your process.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

the reality of writing

I'm sitting in a coffeeshop right now and have been staring at this blank Blogger box for the duration of at least two Beatles songs. (I can't help but sing the harmonies. ) Usually I take the week to think about the upcoming blog post. Sometimes I'll take a book about writing, open it to the table of contents, or just any ol' page, and choose an aspect of the writing process.

But right here, right now, I got nuthin'. Just George Harrison singing "Taxman".

And yet, I don't want to write another post about writer's block, especially mine.

But this is the reality of writing sometimes. Sometimes you sit there and stare at the screen, waiting for inspiration. You think, hope, pray that if you sit still enough, quietly enough, patiently enough, it'll show up.

But sometimes it doesn't. And the next Beatles song plays ("Ahhh, look at all the lonely people..."), and you wonder how the hell this could be happening -- you were on fire yesterday, your hands couldn't keep with your brain.

This is the reality of writing sometimes.

So I decide, I'll just sit here. And I'll finish my vanilla chai and enjoy these Beatles songs, and smile at the thought that they probably had their days in the studio when it just wasn't happening for them, either. I'll type the next word, and the next, and let it be what it is. I'll write another blog post next week, and the week after that.

I'll just keep writing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years: my annual peace message

We remember the day. The dazzling blue sky. The tranquility of the morning, interrupted by a thundering fireball.

We remember the stories of two men carrying a woman in a wheelchair down countless flights of stairs in a burning building, of one person jumping on another to shield him from debris, of strangers in tears and locked in embraces, trying to make sense of the senseless.

We remember firefighters and police officers running into, not away from, the towers as they leaned and shook.

No one stopped to ask whether the person they were helping was Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or atheist. No one refused to rescue another because of their sexuality or race or stance on abortion. None of those strangers embraced on the condition that they disclose their income.

It was the grace in the midst of the suffering, the realization that we had so much in common. We were not nationalistically united, but collectively humanized. It was the only thing that brought us some comfort. We were all in this together.

Then came the anger.

Anger is a part of the grieving process. It was not wrong to be angry. It was not wrong to want vengeance. Our brothers and sisters and parents and children and spouses and friends and lovers died. Some channeled that anger into art. Into music. Into stories. But the policy, unfortunately, channeled the anger into war. It acted on that desire for vengeance rather than the desire for justice.

Our collective humanity has suffered so much more in the last ten years as a result.

What if the ultimate act of justice was nonviolent? Could that be the way to defeat terrorism? The Civil Rights movement proved it could. Gandhi proved it could.

We need a remembrance for this day. We need a remembrance of our collective humanity, where the lines of religion, gender, race, political ideology, sexuality, and class revealed themselves to be transparent, if existent at all.

My message today is to honor the day by practicing random acts of kindness. Refrain from political rhetoric, jingoistic nationalism, and glorification of war. Read a book. Watch a Frank Capra film. Eat something chocolate. Forgive someone who needs your forgiveness, even if that is someone is you. Apologize to someone you've wronged. Say thank you as much as you can.

I pray you'll find grace in the midst of the sadness and suffering on this day of remembrance, even if just for a moment. I pray you'll reconnect to our collective humanity. I pray you'll know peace. I pray we'll all know peace.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

it's all about the words

My favorite class in grad school was Stylistics; that is, the study of writing style, or how words are put together. Each week the professor would give us a text—a set of poems, some ad copy, short fiction, etc.—and we'd analyze the number of words, sentences, commas, words in italics, words in sentences, one-syllable words, two-syllable words, and so on, never quite sure if what we're attempting to explain made any sense, or quite fully grasping the phenomenon of a finished piece of writing.

The exercises were especially fun: making lists of our favorite words (sound familiar?); putting together words from those lists in no particular order (ostentatious cookie bunny), and yet feeling compelled to make meaning somehow; guessing which word lists belong to which of our classmates. We learned rhetorical stylistic devices (amplification, antithesis... I always seem to remember all the A- devices first, probably because I learned them all alphabetically). We also occasionally had to read extremely dense texts about metaphor (I'd rather get my eyes lasered... hey, a metaphor!). Perhaps the best assignment was our mid-term, in which my professor gave each of us a short story, cut off halfway through. Our job was to write our own completion to the story in the style of the author so flawlessly that she wouldn't be able to tell where the original author left off and we picked up. Moreover, we had to submit an accompanying analysis both of the original piece and our own.

I nailed that one. But it took constant re-reading, analyzing, studying.

By the end of the semester, I couldn't read the label of a cereal box without thinking about it in stylistic terms. How do these particular words, and the order they're in, contribute to the rhetorical purpose of the reader? How do they persuade the reader to think, feel, act, keep reading? Why these words?

At that time my brother, a musician and producer, had created a website containing his discography and a short bio. He had asked me for feedback on the site's layout, visual appeal, etc. As part of my feedback, I told him that his wife did a good job with the bio. Shortly after, he called me.

"How did you know she wrote the bio?" he asked.

I proceeded to do a mini-stylistic analysis. Because English is my sister-in-law's second language (actually, I think it's her third), I noticed a preciseness in the grammatical structure of the sentences. I also noticed she'd used the word steely as part of the description of my brother's musical style—it wasn't a word I'd ever seen my brother use in his own writing.

When it gets right down to it, it's all about the words.

There's a difference between ire and irk. There's a difference between sad and blue, between mad and manic. There are times when the f-word is absolutely the right word, and other times when just plain ol' f-word suffices.

And I don't care what your K-12 English teachers told you: ain't is most definitely a word.

As writers, it's our job to put the best words together, in the best order (and I just replaced right with best both times), with the right rhythm and cadence and meaning (should I change that last right as well?). We achieve this by studying the style of our favorite writers. I know that Aaron Sorkin, for instance, likes the word feckless, and Nora Ephron doesn't like the name Thelma. I stole the phrase “paused for a beat” from Richard Russo, and occasionally try to mimic Stephen King's “folksiness”. I pay attention to other things, too--use of em-dashes, repetition, italics, numbers.

Says Sam Seaborn on The West Wing: “Good writers borrow from other good writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” I never set out to write like Aaron Sorkin or any of my other favorite writers, but just as I hear the influence of The Beatles in my brother's songs—a drum fill or a guitar sound or a particular harmony—so occasionally will a reader find a Sorkinism, a Russoism, and so on, in my novels. And yet, my brother's style has become inherently his own, as has mine.

One last style story, again musical: Eric Clapton was recording the From the Cradle album and was listening to the track he'd just laid down, shaking his head in dismay.

“What wrong?” asked the producer.
“I don't like the way it sounds,” said Clapton.
The producer looked at him incredulously. “I don't understand, it sounds fantastic. What's wrong with it?”
“It just sounds like me playing a Muddy Waters song,” said Clapton. “I wanted it to sound like Muddy Waters.”
The producer said, “That's exactly why it sounds fantastic. We've already heard Muddy Waters play it. Now we wanna hear Eric Clapton play it.”

Learning the style of others is important. My brother Ritch learned to play guitar just like Eric Clapton, all the while developing the style of Ritch Lorello. My brother Mike can produce the Jeff Lynne sound practically better than Jeff Lynne can; and yet, he has perfected his own repertoire. (And the ultimate compliment? Producers hire other keyboardists and ask them to play it like Mike Lorello would!) In the end, however, don't try to write like Fitzgerald, Welty, Grisham, Sontag, etc. because you think doing so will sell more books. We've already read those guys (I considered replacing guys with authors for the sake of political and gender correctness, but it didn't sound like me!). Don't try to be “the next” anybody. Read. Read more. Play with the words. Put them together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and see the picture that forms. Then write it the way you would.

Need a start? Try making a list of your 20 favorite words, in no particular order. Better yet, make it 50. Then let the games begin.

In fact, please do share some of your favorite words here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

raising the stakes

So I've made my outline. Checked it once. Checked it twice. And the comment I made in almost every scene was "raise the stakes." Or, I found myself asking a somewhat related question: "What is at stake?"

I'm not sure I consciously thought about what raising the stakes meant until recently. When it comes to screenwriting, I learned this summer that you have to torture, torture, torture your protagonist. Whenever you can, turn the screws. I think this rule applies to comedy as well--perhaps even more so. Larry Gelbart used to advise writers to always put the protagonist somewhere s/he doesn't want to be, even if it was something as simple as in an army boot with a big hole, walking through the rain.

At any given time, a character has an intention (I want something) and an obstacle (something/someone is in the way of my getting it). When we ask the question "What is at stake?" we're asking the character what will happen if s/he doesn't get what s/he wants (or, perhaps, what happens if s/he does). Put another way, "What have you got to lose (or gain)?" If there's very little at stake--a bruised ego, a slap on the wrist, etc., then the reader is going to lose interest in the story, as well as the character. Raising the stakes means taking your characters to the brink-- losing a job, a home, a relationship. Becoming a fugitive, a refugee, an exile. Or perhaps it's gaining a child and not being able to afford to take care of her, or winning the lottery at the expense of losing a friend. Perhaps it's coming face to face with death.

Torture, torture, torture.

Knowing what's at stake will inform how or why our characters behave the way they do. When we raise the stakes, our characters enter the Point of No Return. They're forced to make choices that cause anxiety. They have to do things differently. And that's what keeps our readers riveted.

As a revision exercise, take two scenes from your draft -- your best one and your worst one -- and study the action of that scene. Is there an intention? Is there an obstacle? Is your protagonist somewhere s/he doesn't want to be? Determine what's at stake. Then turn the screws -- raise the stakes and see how your character responds. What happens?

I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

to outline or not to outline

Here's the thing: organization is not one of my strong suits. I don't think I'm messy by trade, but I certainly have to make a conscious effort to control the clutter. That goes not only for my living or office space, but also my writing.

I'm also not a very good planner. I'm more of a visualizer. Yes, I make a syllabus for the entire year, and I try to stick to it. I really do. But past students will attest to days when I've walked into class and said, "I got a great idea for a workshop on the way to campus today, so let's try it out." And if something's not working in class-- the students aren't grasping a concept, a workshop isn't producing the desired effect -- or, if the class gets off on an exciting tangent and I don't want to quash the energy of the discussion, then I'm ok with changing the plan, even if it's on the fly.

Ditto for writing.

Knowing all this, then, you can speculate how I might feel about outlines. It's not that I'm not a fan -- in certain writing situations, I find them very helpful -- but I'm not very good at them when it comes to my own writing. I would never begin my novel-writing process with an outline, for example (some basic notes, yes). And I did no outlining whatsoever with my first two novels. Nor my third. My co-author, Sarah, did the outline. She's very outline-friendly.

And I have to say, the WILS outline turned out to be rather useful. We (ok, she) outlined after we'd already had a draft of the novel, and for me that's when an outline is most helpful. It was a way for us to trace our steps and see what the path looked like, a map. If the streets didn't meet, were full of potholes, etc., then we had an idea of how to go back and fix it -- add or delete scenes, develop characters, raise the stakes, etc. (and heads up: I have a feeling my next blog post will be about what "raising the stakes" means). And considering that we patchworked this novel together, we very much needed that roadmap. The outline also helped us decide who would tackle which sections needing the most work.

Outlines came into the picture yet again during my screenwriting classes last month -- story and character outlines were essential before writing a word of the screenplay. And yet, I could see their applications to my novel-in-progress, too.

So here I am, writing solo again, and I find my draft stuck in the mud. And I realized that I was going to have to make an outline.

By myself.

And so I did, with the help of a writing software program called Scrivener. Using the very basic template, I broke the entire draft down into sections (mostly by chapter, although some chapters got split into several scenes) and tried to capture the gist of that section. And lo and behold, the map started to come together, and I started to get an idea as to why it was so muddy.

It goes without saying that every writer has a different process. For some, the outline comes before all else. For others, it is the very final step. For others still, it plays no role whatsoever. I don't think I'll ever be an uber-organizer (heck, I'd just like to clear my coffee table!), but I'm coming to appreciate the outline more and more, and finding it a helpful tool in my process. In the meantime, I'd love to know how (or if) it works for you, or doesn't.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

what our characters say reveals who they are

I came up with the idea for this post in the middle of the night as I was trying to fall asleep. My only hope is that the post doesn't read as if I wrote it in my sleep.

As writers, we've all heard the lesson of "show, don't tell" ad nauseum. We've dispensed and taken this advice throughout our writing lives, not to mention our drafting and revision process.

Example of telling: I opened the oven door to discover that I'd burned the roast. It was black and unrecognizable.

Example of showing: Marcus' nose emerged from behind the book he was reading, and crinkled. "What's that smell?" Just then the scent of smoldering sandpaper hit me. I raced to the kitchen, yanked open the oven door, and was assailed by a cloud of putrid grey smoke before pulling out the boulder formally known as my roast.

Ok, so that's a little wordy. But you get the idea. Showing involves the senses. It uses active voice and puts the reader courtside rather than in the bleachers seats.

Dialogue is not only a great tool for showing vs. telling, but also for revealing the various layers and aspects of your characters. In other words, what our characters say reveals who they are.

Consider this exchange between Devin and Andi during their first tutorial in Faking It. I'm deliberately taking out all the narration, but leaving in one direction of nonverbal communication.

DEVIN: What kind of music do you like?
ANDI: Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, Nat King Cole, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, John Mayer...
(Devin glares at Andi and cocks an eyebrow.)
ANDI: I like guitars and pianos.
DEVIN: What kind of music makes you feel sexy?
ANDI: I'm not sure. I've never thought about it.

On the surface, this looks like really simple dialogue. One character getting to know another character, perhaps. But in the context of the rest of the scene, so much more is happening. For one thing, Andi and Devin are having a miscommunication, revealing that they don't know each other and are far from the point of reading each other's minds and finishing each other's sentences. Devin is asking the question not in a social way, but as a teacher, and assumes Andi gets the context. But Andi has missed the purpose of the question (hence the look he gives her). It reveals her disconnect with the subject of sex as well as with her own sexuality.

Additionally, the reader learns something about Andi that Devin doesn't yet know. Andi's musical preferences (at least in her answer) are mostly the product of her brothers' influence (one is a rock guitarist, the other a jazz pianist). And it's interesting that she doesn't explain this to Devin but rather declares she likes the instruments. We see that the strong connection to her brothers is special but has also been overbearing at times. We also see that she's withholding information from Devin.

Rhetorically speaking, the Socratic method is at work here (and forgive me for defying everything I teach my students and quoting Wikipedia, but it's convenient and defines it well): "a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas." This is probably one of the reasons why dialogue so appeals to me as a novelist as well as a rhetoric geek. I'm all about the peeling back the layers, the getting to the heart of the matter, the quest for meaning, and ultimately, truth. I'm all about using argument and persuasion to get one person to see the other person (or perhaps themselves) in a way they've never seen before.

Besides, sometimes it's downright fun, like this exchange between Devin and Andi well after they've gotten to know each other (again, minus the narration):

ANDI: I absolutely adore the Impressionists.
DEVIN:You what? You adore the Impressionists? No. You can't adore them. No one adores the Impressionists.
ANDI: Why not?
DEVIN: You just don't. You--no one adores them. It can't be done.
ANDI: What the hell are you talking about?
DEVIN: The Impressionists are not "adorable." Things that scamper are adorable. Fluffy bunnies hopping in meadows. Little dogs with knitted sweaters. Those little hats that newborns wear. Baby shoes are adorable. Not Impressionists.
ANDI: Wha--?
DEVIN: You don't "adore" men who cut off their ears. You don't "adore" men who eat lead-based paint. Men who refused to compromise themselves or their work, even when it meant depriving their families of food. Men who kept mistresses. Who died poor and alone and bitter. There's something much bigger happening in these paintings, something way beyond adoration.

I love everything about that exchange (and there's more, but why give away my best stuff?) -- the rhythm, the humor, and the style (another post altogether); and yet again, there's something bubbling under the surface.

This time do your own dialogic analysis and tell me what you see.

If dialogue is not your strong suit, try a simple exercise of putting two people with opposite traits, opinions, backgrounds, etc. in a room together (better yet, have them get stuck in an elevator) and see what they have to say. Leave out the narration. I'll bet you'll be surprised what they reveal.

I also use dialogue to help me when I'm struggling with a character's motivation. In that case, the dialogue is usually between me and the character.

Overall, have fun with dialogue. Explore. And most of all, listen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Antagonist 101

Although I learned quite a bit from the short fiction workshop I took at the Southampton Writers Conference, it was the screenwriting workshops that resonated with me. Namely, the various discussions about character. I had already known that I was more character-driven than plot-driven when it comes to novel-writing, but these workshops reinforced just how comfortable a place that is for me to be.

Two of the most eye-opening moments for me came about as the result of conversations about antagonists. The first time, my screenplay adaptation instructor Stephen Molton asked me who the antagonist was in Ordinary World (I had chosen this work to adapt). I had to think about this. Remember, I'm trained in rhetoric, not literature. This stuff doesn't come as quickly to me.

"Um, I think it's Andi's grief," I replied, my voice full of uncertainty.

Stephen, the nurturing teacher, clarified that grief was certainly one obstacle in the way of Andi's intention. (And then, a blast from the past: "man vs. man", "man vs. nature", and "man vs. himself" emerged from the memory vault marked "7th-grade English".) But there was a more obvious antagonist.


Of course. He's the guy who always pushed Andi's buttons, first as Devin in Faking It. Literally, the antagonizer. I had never thought of him as such because I had always believed antagonists to be villains with sinister motives; and quite frankly, Devin/David never appeared as such to me.

Eye-opener number two came on the heels of this revelation in a second workshop with Will Chandler who mentioned, almost in a by-the-way fashion, that "the antagonist never thinks s/he's the antagonist; s/he always thinks s/he's the protagonist."

And just like that, my world opened up. Of course. Of course! No wonder David never appeared to be the antagonist. He even fooled me into thinking he was the protagonist (well, one of them). This revelation brought with it a new pair of eyes with which to see my current "cast" of characters in my latest novel-in-progess. It opened up possibilities in terms of exploring their depth, their motivation, and their perceptions. It made me excited to (re-)visit them.

And if that wasn't enough, Stephen, with super-screenwriter x-ray vision of his own, saw another antagonist, "the one hiding in plain sight," as he called it, that could be developed for the Ordinary World screenplay.

Can you guess who it is?

So, to sum up, here's what I bring back to my novel-writing: when getting to know my characters, it is key for me to ask what my protagonist wants (intention) and what's in the way of her/him getting it (obstacle). It is key for me to identify my antagonist not necessarily as the villain (although s/he very well may be), but perhaps either as one of those obstacles or, more literally, the antagonizer. And as I explore my antagonists' psyches, it will be key for me to listen to them make their case for protag status. No doubt I will learn plenty from them when they tell me. And so will you.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

conference de-briefing

A new blog post can be quite intimidating if you've been away from it for awhile. I've returned from an incredible three weeks in Southampton, NY with writers block not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much to say. I already know that this post won't do any of it justice, so I'll just generally sum up.

Some things I learned (or affirmed) about myself as a writer during this conference, in no particular order:

  • I'm a storyteller, and my stories are driven by character and a what-if.
  • Screenwriting and novel-writing suit me well. Short story-writing does not.
  • My bachelor's degree in psychology was money well spent.
  • I have a hard time grasping the concept of "literary".
  • I'm very proud and appreciative of my rhetorical training and perspective.
  • My insecurities about (not) being "well read" have resurfaced. (Then again, I grasp the concept of "well read" about as easily as I grasp the concept of "literary".)
  • A classroom is a special space. So is a Long Island beach.
  • Ice cream cures writers block. (Rather, it makes you not give a damn about it.)
  • Man, and I can get paid for this!
  • Revision is still my favorite part of the process. So is the thinking part. And, when the time is right (and it needs to be just right), so is the talking-it-out part.
  • I have to serve myself as a reader before I can serve any other reader(s).
  • I'm on the right track.

Maybe some of these resonate with you. I don't think you need a conference or a class or a workshop or even an MFA to discover these things. But it's quite validating when you do so in the company of other writers and writing teachers. At least it was for me.

As I take this week to work on my syllabus for the fall semester, I will be thinking about this blog as a classroom space and get back to the teaching of writing here, too, starting with character. I can't wait to share what I learned about protagonists and antagonists!

Happy writing, folks. And take my word for it on the ice cream.

Monday, July 11, 2011

checking in

The Southampton Screenwriting Conference ended yesterday and the main conference doesn't kick off until Wednesday, so I thought I'd take a moment to check in. I'm a little under the gun in terms of time, however, being that I'm posting this at the public library in Sag Harbor, and my mother is patiently waiting for me to be done so we can head for the ocean. (I know. Tough life. I'll shut up now.)

Thing is, I'm not sure where to start with this post. So much to share! If I had to start with a "complaint," it would be that four days went way too fast, and I was hungry for more. In all, a fantastic experience, the kind that reinforces my love of being a writer, a student of the craft, and a teacher all at the same time. There's something about being in a community of other writers, all of us speaking a common language yet in different ways of expression. Perhaps because writing is so often a solitary act, we need our communities from time to time. We need human contact every now and then.

Some might be surprised to find that I am usually quite shy and reserved at the onset of these things. Registration and orientation made me feel like a college freshman all over again, away from home and overwhelmed and wondering what I was doing here and if I belong. And, as is usually the case, I was making friends and administering hugs on the final day, hoping to see them again.

The days are structured so that the main classes ("workshops") take place in the morning, and additional sessions ("electives") in the afternoon. Evenings are filled with panel discussions and guest speakers, an open mic night, readings, etc.

My workshop couldn't have been more tailored for me, a newbie screenwriter, not to mention my interests. It was recommended I take Stephen Molton's Screenplay Adaptation class. My two classmates and I (and how awesome was that--so much individual attention for each of us! I'd love to shout from the rooftops that everyone should take this class, but the small size was utterly delightful for me) each chose one of our own pieces to adapt. One of my classmates chose a short story; the other, and myself, chose a novel. I went with Ordinary World because my WILS co-author and I had already collaborated on a screenplay for Faking It 5 1/2 years ago, and I wanted to work with something else.

Stephen is a fantastic teacher--artistic, intelligent, engaging, charismatic--he is the quintessential storyteller with a wealth of experience and an ability to listen as well as to see. He knows how to spot the gold nuggets in the sand (anyone notice how that's become my go-to metaphor as of late?), and got me to step out of the literal (and literary) progression of Ordinary World and see it more as a visual medium, inviting me to develop antagonists "hidden in plain sight," as he described them (and I hope to do a blogpost on protags and antags when I get back). He had this insight for each of us. He was respectful of our work, our craft, and our level of expertise (or lack thereof, since we were all beginners as far as screenwriting was concerned).

We didn't get to do any actual screenwriting--there simply wasn't time. However, by our last meeting, we had each crafted an outline and saw the possibilities for our works-in-progress. Ultimately, Stephen (and two electives, in particular) got my wheels spinning and caused me sleep loss, all in that way that is more invigorating than debilitating.

All this set in Southampton. Who could ask for more? And how does one go back to daily life?

Up next: Short fiction. Admittedly, this class was not my first choice (novel-writing was already filled), and I am even more nervous and intimidated than I was to be surrounded by so many talented screenwriters. However, after talking with my fellow writers, I was reminded that the experience will, if nothing else, put me in the shoes of my freshman students who come to me just as afraid and intimidated because they are sailing in unchartered academic waters, looking for me to be their compass. I will be able to relate to them, assure them that they know more than they think they do, and they'll know something by the time they leave.

If only I could do that on the backdrop of an ocean breeze.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

when reading is writing

Some of you know that this past week my writers block returned. I did the usual things -- tried to psych myself and write through it, read other people's writing instead, complained on Twitter, curled up on the floor in a fetal position.... (just kidding about that last one) before once again taking the advice I give to many writers in a similar position. I printed out the 80+ pages of the writing I've done this past month as-is (single space to save paper, although I regret not giving myself more margin space for annotations), headed for the coffeeshop, and began to read.

Maybe it was the iced vanilla chai that had mellowed me out (that particular brand always takes me back to my old hangout in Massachusetts), but once again I was pleasantly surprised (not to mention relieved) to find that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, it was a first draft in need of direction and description, with gaping holes in the timeline and telling rather than showing. But it wasn't bad. Heck, I even laughed out loud a few times (in a good way). It's always a great feeling for me to write something funny enough to make someone laugh, but perhaps it's even better when that someone is me.

I got through half the pages in three hours, making lots of notes and corrections, yet not crossing out entire blocks of text (although I suspect that will come towards the end). The realization that my novel isn't sucking is sometimes the very thing that snaps me out of my writers block. And even if it doesn't, I feel better about taking that physical writing time off and allowing the mental composing to take over again, sitting with the characters a little more, the whole lot of us hanging out in the coffeeshop of my imagination and chillin' out on iced vanilla chais. It certainly beats complaining on Twitter.

Sometimes reading is writing. It's such an important part of the process. Whether you read as you go along, following that day's writing, or wait until you're 30,000 words in, or until you've got the entire first draft of the manuscript done, the act of reading your manuscript (either with the eyes of an intended reader or one who knows these characters intimately) allows you to see both the little things and the bigger picture with more clarity. The revision process happens as you subconsciously ask (and answer) questions about meaning, order, arrangement, imagery, voice, behavior, setting, audience, purpose, style, and so much more. You find direction. You find little nuggets of gold, or keys to portals of brilliance. And sometimes you even make yourself laugh for all the right reasons.

And on a different note...

It figures--just as I was getting back into the groove of posting regularly on my blog, I got the Linknews that I'd been accepted and invited to the Southampton Writers Conference on the east end of Long Island. Yep, I'm due north yet again! I've been wanting to attend this conference for years, ever since my mom started cutting out the full-page ads in the Sag Harbor Express and mailing them to me. And every year I'd gaze at the ad, reading the list of that year's participants (ranging from Alan Alda to the late Frank McCourt) and lament that I could barely afford to set foot on the campus.

However, I decided to put it on my 2011 to-do list, and lo and behold, the opportunity (not to mention the financing) came through. I was afraid to make the commitment at first, coming up with all kinds of excuses. But something inside me knew that I would regret not going far more than any of the so-called inconveniences I was contriving to feed my fears.

I'll be on the Island for almost the entire month of July, and I imagine most of my time and energy will be devoted to the writing sessions, instruction, networking, keynote speakers, etc. (plus, I need to go to the beach again). I would love to share my experiences with you, but be prepared for yet another blog hiatus. My apologies for abandoning you yet again, and my thanks to those who faithfully await my return.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

more than words: playing the Taboo game

Back in my early teaching days, I had assigned my students to write an essay about the concept of Home. However, they were not to use the words home, house, warmth, comfort, familiar, etc. (I think we even played a couple rounds of the game Taboo.) Almost ten years later, I still remember some of those essays (and interestingly, so do they-- one of my former students recently told me that he saved that particular essay, citing it as one of his all-time favorites). The ones who really "got" it were the ones who mastered "showing" vs. "telling", capturing the meaning of the experience (or the experience itself) by using a completely different image or experience. They revealed a truth without explicitly telling it.

The other night I was on the phone with my twin brother. I was bragging about that day's word count (3200!), yet lamenting how disappointed I was with what I'd written.

"It's supposed to be a pivotal moment," I explained. "A breakthrough. It's emotional. Everyone's crying. But it's hard to write or describe people crying without it sounding like a bad soap opera. You know when you watch a TV show and the character's supposed to be so distraught, but the actor can't get him/herself to cry? That's what this scene feels like (and all my crying scenes/descriptions, really). Just so disingenuous. I don't know how to make it work."

My brother's advice floored me: "Play the Taboo game. Write it without using the words crying or tears and see what happens. Describe the physicality of what they're feeling rather than filming what they're doing."

Describe the physicality of what they're feeling... my God, that's brilliant!

I told him what a great idea that was, and couldn't wait to try it. "You know," I said. "That reminds me of an essay assignment I gave like ten years ago."

"Yeah, I think that might have been where I got the idea, actually."

Moral of the story: as writers, we need to remember that we're smarter than we think. And when it comes to description, conveying meaning, and showing vs. telling, we need to play the Taboo game every now and then, surrendering generic words and descriptions for unique ones. Revealing the truth without explicitly saying it. Try it in your own manuscript and see what happens. I will too.

Friday, June 17, 2011

wherever you go, there you are

I'm always flattered and humbled when someone sends me an email to tell me that I've inspired them to pick up writing. More often than not, many are writers who gave up on writing at some point in their lives because they or someone else told them they were no good, or that it wouldn't pay the bills, and so on.

I can't tell you how many of these aspiring writers are hung up on perfection. This is an observation, not a judgment. Just yesterday I posted on Twitter about the 2100 "teeth" I pulled. It was rough, man. And the whole time I was writing, a little voice in the back of my mind kept taunting me about how crappy the writing was, how it would never amount to anything, etc. I know the perfection hangup. I've occasionally got that monkey on my back.

Nothing is more debilitating than the fear that what you are writing is no good. The best of us have had this fear. Even a certain recent Oscar-winning screenwriter has had this fear. And nothing is more debilitating to the process than obsessing and worrying about perfection during the drafting stage.

There isn't a right or wrong way to write a first draft. Some, like me, bang out a first draft by seemingly spilling it all on the page without pausing for too long to consider the right word, phrase, description, etc. We don't get hung up on timelines or loose ends, not at this stage. We simply get it out of our heads. Once in awhile I re-read the last chapter or few pages I wrote before starting a new one, just to get a sense of place. Sometimes I even go back and re-read when I'm finished.

When drafting, I write until I run out of steam or hit a wall (couldn't decide which metaphor I liked better; both are applicable). I don't think I've ever stopped in mid-sentence or even mid-paragraph (although I'm probably forgetting), but I've certainly stopped mid-chapter, and I'm ok with that. I'd even be ok with stopping mid-sentence. I'm sure others have.

Many writers prefer to edit as they go along. They write a few pages, stop, then re-read what they've just written, making adjustments along the way. They write a few more, stop, re-read, re-write, and so on. Perhaps they don't want those loose ends or gaps in timeline. Perhaps it helps them organize their thoughts, develop their plots, better hear their characters. Perhaps it means less work later on. Perhaps they just like the idea of a tight manuscript.

There is no right or wrong way to write a first draft. There is no right or wrong way to revise, either.

But it's rare to find a first draft that is without flaws, even with the rewrite-as-you-go method. First drafts are going to be flawed. They're going to be messy, going to lack direction or depth. First drafts are going to have poorly constructed sentences, incomplete thoughts, under-developed ideas. First drafts are going to have characters who aren't sure what they're doing or why, or where they're going or why. They're going to have words that are cliche, descriptions that are confusing, dialogue that is forced. They're going to be either too long or too short. Too many words, or not enough. Too much info dump, or not enough context.

First drafts are not final drafts.

At some point, you've got to quiet the voice that is taunting you, telling you it's no good. You've got to shout back, "Of course it's no good, you idiot! It's a first draft! But I wanna have some fun, here. I have something to say, and I'm going to say it, and by the time my book is bound, I will have said it as best as I can."

Revision can be the sandbox where you play, digging for treasure, building castles and tearing them down again and loving every minute of it, or it can be the mudpit where you get stuck spinning your wheels. Of course I much prefer the sandbox, and it's way more fun to be there when I'm not criticizing my draft as, well, nothing more than a ton of sand. To get there, you've got to accept your draft for what it is, where it is, at any given time. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Your manuscript will get to where you want it to be. But first you need to accept where it is. And you need to accept what it is not as well as what it is. Some days pulling out the words will be like pulling teeth. Some days will be the mudpit. You've got to allow your draft to be bad. And you can joke about it being bad, by all means; but you've also got to cut yourself some slack. And by god, you've got to have some fun. At some point, give up spinning your wheels in the mud and start making mudpies. What's the point of writing, otherwise?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

where I've been

Hi. Remember me?

It shocked me to see that I've not posted anything in over two months. I've been busy, I swear. First there was the end of the semester. I felt like I was grading non-stop for four weeks, at least. The semester's end always makes me crazy. I eat a lot of junk food, clutter my living space, and mutter quietly to myself.

Following the end of the semester came the BookExpo America. I was invited and attended courtesy of AmazonEncore.

In a word, friggin awesome. Ok, so that's two words, but I kept saying it as one.

As if I wasn't already proud to be an AmazonEncore author, this trip clinched it. Everyone I met who is affiliated with Amazon Publishing fits the friggin-awesome description. Friendly, funny, committed, smart, encouraging, supportive... shall I go on? As if that wasn't good enough, I finally got to meet, in person, my good friends and fellow AE authors Rob Kroese, RJ Keller, and Karen McQuestion, as well as some others who had previously been names that kept appearing on the Kindle boards and blogs, like Craig Lancaster and Greg Smith, and the charming Maria Murnane. I got a little spoiled with the rock star treatment for the three days in Manhattan--nice hotel, limo pick-up, and people saying "You're Elisa Lorello? So cool to meet you in person!"

But perhaps the best part was seeing my Why I Love Singlehood co-author, Sarah Girrell. We haven't seen each other since spending a week in December, 2009 on our then-manuscript. Sarah and I were a bit like conjoined twins--we were rarely seen separately. We had a great time explaining to people how we met, how we collaborated, how we feel about being AmazonEncore authors (I'm tellin' ya, it was a love fest), etc.

Following the three days in Manhattan, I took an extended vacation on the East End of Long Island. Being on the beach--namely, the ocean-- was nothing short of life-affirming. As I wrote in a tweet, "I re-charged the battery of my soul. I also got sand in my ear." It was pretty tough having limited internet access (the folks at the public library were starting to set their watches by me showing up, I think), and I could do without the asshole drivers, but I'd suffer through both all over again if just to have one more day on the sand, with that big, blue, vast stretch of water and horizon, and my oldest, bestest buddy, who also happened to come to town.

Oh yeah, and my New York accent returned. Big time. Couldn't help it.

Meanwhile, lots of good things happening for Faking It. In addition to hitting the Kindle Bestseller list (again!) for 18 days straight, Harcourt Houghton-Mifflin will be taking over the print distribution in August of this year. That means a snazzy new cover (again!) and a lot more exposure in bookstores.

So then, after all this, What's next?

Back to writing, of course. The novel ideas are coming to me faster than I can get them on the page. Here's hopin' for a long, productive summer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

when the floodgates open

The writing has been coming at me like floodwaters these past few days, bombarding me with scenes and stories and snippets of conversations. They're not even in sequence.

I love when this happens. It's the part of the process that is magical--miraculous, really. I never know when it'll happen, but I have to drop everything (sometimes even pull over to the side of the road) and get it down on the page. Almost always, it comes to me longhand. My scribble can hardly keep up with the rapid-fire dictation that happens in my head, or wherever this stuff is coming from. I put my pen down and close my notebook only when I catch myself pausing for a thought. When it becomes a conscious act to come up with the next word, I know it's done. For now.

I don't love, however, the way it can wreak havoc with my sleep schedule or to-do list. Unlike other things, I can't procrastinate or re-schedule this writing--it won't let me. A couple of nights ago, I was up at 1:30 in the morning, and wrote for at least an hour. This morning it came to me after my shower, before breakfast (and yet, I was oblivious to the growls of my stomach). And once again I've been forced to put off doing laundry either 'til later in the day, or perhaps on Friday, if I can hold out for that long. And if I don't get a jump on the latest batch of first drafts from my students, then they, not I, will suffer for it and I can't let that happen.

When these writing floods happen, the writing itself isn't often that good -- an elegant turn of phrase might come out of it, or a funny joke, or a rather visual description -- little nuggets of gold in all that sand. But that's ok. That's what revision is for. Many times it is during these floods that secrets are revealed. My protagonist spilled his to me this morning, and I've been heartbroken ever since. I knew it was coming, and knew it wasn't pretty. I so want to spare him from it, but I can't. Because if there's anything I've learned, these bursts of writing are really about the truths that so urgently need to be told. They refuse to be ignored. For me to spare any character from pain is to be disingenuous to my story and to my reader. To me.

I'm tired, and my day is already shot to hell in terms of any semblence of a plan I had. But I was given a key to my protagonist's heart, and that's worth it all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

why I don't (like to) read my reviews

To date, my three books have collected over 200 reviews combined, and that's just on Amazon.com. I haven't checked GoodReads lately, or the many independent blogs who have been kind enough to post reviews. I'm appreciative of all those who read my books and take the time to write a review, be it positive or negative, but I've stopped reading them for the most part. Occasionally, one will catch my eye and I'll look at it, or I'll be alerted to a review on a blog and, if it's favorable, I'll post it on Twitter or the Faking It Fans page. But, more often than not, I find myself feeling worse, not better, after reading reviews. Even the good ones. And it is for that reason, among others, that I discourage myself for reading reviews. Let me try to explain.

Reviews are for readers, not authors. When a reader posts a book review, s/he is telling other potential readers of that book whether or not the investment--be it in time or energy or money--is worthwhile. As an author, I've already written my book. And read it. In fact, I wrote it because it was the very kind of book I wanted to read. I'm already sold that it was worth my time and energy (and even money).

Reviews develop a false sense of security (or insecurity). As a writer, I'm somewhere on the continuum of not as good as some (ok, many), and better than others. Most writers are. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pleased that my books have gotten so many favorable reviews -- heck, what author wouldn't be happy about that? -- but reading them is a different story. If I were to read nothing but the favorable reviews, I'd start to think I was infallible, and that would affect my writing (not to mention turn me into somewhat of a jerk). On the other hand, if I read nothing but the bad reviews, I'd start to question my talent and worthiness to write at all. That, too, would affect my writing.

Of course I know that I can't and won't please everyone. I don't even try. Of course I want as many people as possible to like what I write. That's only natural. But above all, the first person I need and want to please is me. If I don't like what I write, I can't ask anyone else to. "To thine own self be true."

Negative reviews hurt. There's no way of getting around it. I tell myself it's just a bruised ego, I tell myself it's one person's opinion, I may even criticize the review. Regardless, I walk away from a negative review feeling like total crap. Why put myself through that willingly?

Some say the greater act of ego is to not read any negative review for the sake of sparing myself. Perhaps. But that's why I decided to refrain from reading all reviews.

Some authors read their reviews, especially negative ones, in order to learn what they can do better. This can be a helpful tool, I suppose, and I've read some reviews with criticisms that I did indeed take to heart. But I'd rather receive constructive criticism from those beta readers and others I entrust with my manuscript. As I stated earlier, reviews are for readers. Beta reasders and critique groups are for writers. This is not to put down reviewers, or to dismiss them.

Thing is, when it comes to reader reviews, that pesky ego gets in the way and I find it wanting to defend my characters and my work. Not good. I've seen authors self-destruct on blogs that posted a negative review, or ranted on Twitter about a bad review, trashing the reviewer as well as the review. So not good. In my early days as an indie author, I responded to an Amazon review in which I told the reviewer that she misinterpreted the ending of Ordinary World. At the time, my intention was to politely offer my insights and explanation as the writer -- I didn't mean to be accusatory or even bitter about the fact that she didn't like the ending. I've considered deleting that comment time and again, afraid I'd be lumped in with those aforementioned self-destructive authors. And while it hasn't seemed to hurt my reputation (phew!), it taught me a crucial lesson: Don't respond to any reviews other than to say thank you. And even that much is offered only if a reviewer has directly informed me of his/her review.

Let me re-state that I appreciate all readers who take the time to read my books and post a review. Like books, emails, lab reports, political speeches, business proposals, etc., writing an effective review of any kind takes skill and practice. The average reader doesn't make a living from writing reviews, and that's ok. My intention is not to discourage anyone from writing a review. I only want to keep my head where I think it belongs: writing the best stories I can, so I can get more of those favorable things that I won't read. I'll leave that up to you.

Monday, March 28, 2011

my advice about indie e-publishing

I've been getting a lot of emails from writers wanting to know more about how Faking It and Ordinary World became a self-publishing success on Kindle. More specifically, they really want to know how they can achieve the same success. I wish I could tell them that there was some formula to it, that if they follow each step precisely, they too will sell thousands of copies. I wish I could've bottled it-- or, at the very least, paid more attention at the time.

But unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way.

The x-factor to any publishing success or failure, traditional or independent, is the content. No one can really predict what's going to be a hit or a flop. Who knew that a series about a boy wizard was going to take the world by storm? Who knew that The Bridges of Madison County would sell as many copies as it did? Who knew that Water for Elephants or The Art of Racing in the Rain would be such literary sensations, especially without Oprah's help?

I had no idea if anyone other than my professor friends would like Faking It (and even then I questioned whether they would read it). I had simply written a book that I had wanted to read at the time, a story that kept me turning the pages, an idea that just wouldn't leave me alone. And when it was finished, I decided that I didn't want it sitting in a drawer with other unpublished pieces. Perhaps no one would like it, but I wanted to give them that chance to read it.

Fortunately for me, people liked it. But some don't. I'm ok with that (although stay tuned for my next post about why I don't like to read reviews).

For those who have been inspired by my success to write and publish their own novels/stories/ideas, I'm touched and grateful. And I do have advice. You may have heard the same advice from others, or you made have even heard it from me, either on this blog or in interviews or elsewhere. At any rate, here it is:

Write the best book you can. Don't rush to publish just because the iron is hot right now. Your book will only get lumped with all the others who have poorly written, revised, edited books. When one of my brothers was a mechanic and owned a service station, he used to have this sign posted in the garage: "Do you want it done fast, or do you want it done right?"

Ask others to read your work. This may happen in the form of a writers' critique group, or what are known as beta readers, individuals you recruit to read your manuscript. I like to show my work to a mix of authors, those well-versed in literature or the genre my work typically falls into, someone who has a particular expertise with an aspect of the character's profession (like art or computers, for example), or everyday readers with no particular expertise other than that they enjoy reading. These readers should be willing to offer you constructive feedback--constructive, by the way, doesn't mean disrespecting the writing (or the writer) if it's not working. But it also doesn't mean trying to preserve the writer's self-esteem. I've received criticism that was very hard to swallow. But when I cooled off and got my ego out of the way, I listened to it; as a result, my writing (and the novel) got better.

Do you always have to make the changes your readers tell you to make? No. But neither should you dismiss them altogether.

Edit and proofread as if your life depended on it. Or, at the very least, your livelihood. Because it does. If you want to be respected as an independently published author, go back to my first point about writing the best book you can. Editing and proofreading are part of that. An editor and a beta reader are not one in the same. Although readers may point out some editing and proofreading errors along the way, it's wise to have someone whose sole job to just edit.

When I published Faking It and Ordinary World, I couldn't afford to hire a professional editor. I trusted that my grammar and editing skills were strong enough to get by. And, in comparison to other books I've read, they were. However, it wasn't until AmazonEncore stepped in and brought in professional copyeditors that I realized how many mistakes I'd made. (Readers noticed, too.) I suppose the question you need to ask is, "Do you just want to 'get by'?" I realized that I didn't. Had Sarah and I not contracted with AmazonEncore, we would've hired a professional editor for Why I Love Singlehood. Heck, if I were to go back in time with what I know now, I either would've gone into debt or saved my pennies or worked an extra job to pay for an editor. Ditto for a professional cover designer. Which leads me to...

Hire a professional cover designer. The argument I just made for editing applies here. I always hated the cover I made for Ordinary World. It was worse than amateur, and I would even guess it's one of the reasons why the book didn't sell as many copies as Faking It (that cover wasn't much better, but it was more eye-catching and a higher quality photo, at the very least).

What this really boils down to is that
Self-publishing is more than a time investment
. I had absolutely no money to invest when I self-published. I got lucky. I don't recommend others follow that path, however.

Make sure your files are formatted for Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, etc. Whether you do it yourself or hire someone else, get it right. Otherwise your readers are going to let you know in no uncertain terms that they're not going to waste their time or money on your book. There are plenty of forums on Digital Text Platform and elsewhere to assist you if you want to do it yourself (Smashwords has a style guide that you can download for free, although I had trouble with its directions).

Set your price accordingly. There's nothing wrong with selling your ebook at 99 cents, especially if you're an unknown author. Readers will be willing to take a chance on you, and if they like it, they'll tell others about it. I am increasingly convinced that the best price for an ebook for a known author is no more than $5.00, and I'm happy to keep Faking It and Ordinary World at $2.99.

And finally,
Buy this book. Rob Kroese's Self-Publish Your Novel: Lessons from an Indie Publishing Success Story says much of what I said here, and doesn't provide so much of a step by step guide as point aspiring authors in the right direction. I would've loved to have read this when I was starting out, and even now I learned some useful tips.

I wish all aspiring authors could experience the same taste of success that I have. None of these things will guarantee you'll make it, but they might improve your chances. Good luck.

Monday, March 21, 2011

check all egos at the door

I really want to write a post about writing today, but not before I tell you how blown away I am by the response Faking It has received just one week after its AmazonEncore release. In particular, this Charlotte Observer article has given the Amazon rankings a hefty spike, inspired people to write to me, and made me feel da love. I can't express my gratitude and appreciation enough. It's motivating me to keep working on my latest novel-in-progress.

And if you haven't had a chance to pick up your copy of Faking It yet (have you gone to your local bookstore and asked if they're stocking it?), head over to Book Soulmates and enter to win a copy, plus a dozen roses! Cool giveaway, yes?

So, as I said, I'm grateful for all the attention the book is getting, and it's motivating me to keep writing; but there is a danger to this kind of publicity, and that's the ego slipping into the writing process. In fact, if you want writer's block, invite the ego in.

Aaron Sorkin has publicly spoken about being terrified to write "the thing that comes after The Social Network," and I can relate to some degree. Granted, I'm no Oscar winning writer, but I get the fear part. I've written two books since Faking It, but neither have matched its sales numbers. Understandable. They've not been around as long.

But all the ego needs is an excuse, and it doesn't have to be precedent on previous successes. It could be precedent on previous failures, rejections, or just plain ol' doubt whether anything you put on the page will be any good. You want to please your readers. You want them to like what you write. Perhaps you even want them to like you.

But try to conform your writing to that anticipation or desire, and you'll surely come up short. I can't write a character that I think is going to make other people laugh or mad. I can't put words into my character's mouths that I think other people want to hear them say. Ego sometimes makes you do that rather than sitting quietly and listening to what your characters have to say to you. Ego tells you it has to be good, otherwise you're over.

So how do we get past that?

By staying in the present moment, and trusting that the work in progress is exactly what it is and where it needs to be: in progress. That it neither has to be good or bad at this stage, and the only one making a judgment on it at this point is you, so stop that.

By remembering why you write in the first place.

By making sure you like what you write (and that you like you, too!).

And stop comparing it to your other works. We all know how one kid feels when s/he has to live in the shadow of an uber-successful older (or even younger) sibling, and how damaging it can be for parents and teachers especially to compare one to the other. The metaphor of authors' books as their children might be cliche, but it's cliche for a reason. It's a metaphor that resonates. Each book, like each child, is special for reasons of its own. Each one deserves its own love and attention, and needs to be honored for being unique. Fred Rogers's words still comfort me: "You make each day a special day by just your being you." That affirmation applies to our books, our stories, our characters--each and every one--as well as to us.

Embrace the gift of that specialness every time you sit down to write. It'll do wonders for your writing, and you.

Monday, March 14, 2011

many thanks

Tomorrow's the big day. Faking It launches as an AmazonEncore title with a brand new cover (which I love, by the way) and editing, will be available in select bookstores, and will be available in print and Kindle editions.

Who would've thought that, back in June 2009 (when I self-pubbed on Kindle--it had already been a Lulu title for six months), I'd be making such an announcement? Seriously, it's way cool.

But I'm able to make this announcement thanks to you, my readers. You got me to this place. Thanks to your reviews, your word of mouth on Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads, your lending your print copies and recommending your Kindle copies to your friends, your selecting it as a book club read, and more, Faking It came into the range of AmazonEncore's radar. The rest is history.

More thank-yous:
Thank you to every single person who made the 99-cent investment and were kind enough to say that they'd have gladly paid more.

Thanks to all those who *did* pay more-- in the early days, significantly more, be it in print or electronic-- and believed it to be worth every penny.

Thank you to everyone who told a friend or family member.

Thank you to every male reader who wasn't ashamed to say that they loved what was essentially marketed as a chick book.

Thank you to every one that wrote me a letter about how deeply touched you were by Faking It, or bothered by Andi's f-bomb usage, or demanding a movie version soon.

Thank you to every woman who fell in love with Devin and every guy who fell in love with Andi.

Thank you to all the Undeletables who also took a chance on it (and me) when you didn't know me very well, and shared your praise of it with 10,000 others (including Aaron Sorkin) presumably "listening".

Thank you to every blogger who wrote about it on their own, or hosted me and let me do the talking. You, too, put Faking It on the map.

Thank you, Stacey Cochran, for helping me get the ball rolling and leading by example.

Thank you, Lulu (and the cool people I met there), for being the first to help me love the book into being.

Thank you to AmazonEncore, for loving the book just as much as I do and wanting to bring continued success to it.

If there's anyone I left out, please know that in my heart, I am profoundly grateful.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

for Aaron Sorkin

It seems that I am constantly apologizing for not posting on my blog. I'm sorry for always apologizing. And I'm sorry for not posting more. On the plus side, it's because I've been busy writing posts for other people's blogs and gearing up for the publicity whirlwhind that is coinciding with the AmazonEncore release of Faking It, just a mere dozen days away. On the minus side, I've used up all my good ideas for the blog tour, and blog-posting can be quite time-consuming, especially when you also teach 40+ students and have just as many papers to grade, the average 5 pages long apiece.

The Oscar fog has lifted and the red carpet has been rolled up and taken away, but I'm still basking in the glow of Aaron Sorkin's win for Best Adapted Screenplay, as I'm sure he still is (I always wonder if winners actually take their trophies to bed with them the first few days after winning... I probably would).

I never blogged about my meeting Sorkin back in September of last year. For one thing, it was part of a wave of meeting several people who have had some influence throughout the course of my life, from Patrick McDonnell (Mutts creator who is now getting some attention since his little book The Gift of Nothing just made Oprah's list -- it's on mine as well) to David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, who took the time to follow up and send me some potential teaching materials). But for another thing, I didn't want to make a big deal about it. It was a personal thing, and I didn't want to attach any fanfare to it.

Unlike getting a tweet from my teen love John Taylor (in response I did a happy dance around my apartment and immediately posted about it on Facebook -- I recall a lot of exclamation points), I wasn't the least bit starstruck when I tapped Sorkin on his shoulder following a Q&A at an advanced screening of The Social Network, which I was fortunate to attend. I'd been visualizing that moment for months-- not as a fantasy, but more like something already actualized. I'd made it an intention to meet the writer who's given me so much inspiration, and had sensed it was going to happen during my fantastic "Year of Turning 40."

We didn't have a chance to say much to each other -- he, Jesse Eisenberg, and Armie Hammer were on their way to another screening/Q&A scheduled the same evening -- but he recognized my name from my interaction on the now-extinct Facebook discussion forum, took my hand, and seemed as genuinely pleased to finally meet me in person as I was to meet him. If I'd had more guts, I would've asked to tag along on the way to the next screening just so we could chat some more. But alas, I'm not that daring. Besides, in that moment, I wasn't a fan. I haven't been for quite some time (that's not to say I've lost admiration for his work -- far from it). I don't know if I would consider myself a colleague, or even a friend -- neither of those labels feel accurate either. I suppose I was just one writer meeting another writer.

Following Sorkin's Oscar win, one of my dear friends (whom I met via Facebook thanks to that aforementioned now-extinct discussion forum, along with about 30 other darling people, some of whom I still have yet to meet in person, although it certainly doesn't feel like that) called me and left a message: "We met an Academy Award winner (he had met Sorkin during the TSN premiere in NYC, which about 16 of our group attended, meeting each other in person for the first time, yet feeling like we'd just seen each other the day before). How cool is that?"

Yeah, it is cool.

It's cool not because it's Aaron Sorkin, but because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. My friends and I felt like we had watched this movie unfold from pregancy to birth, watched it grow up and graduate with honors. Kind of like honorary aunts and uncles. And Aaron was gracious enough to let us be a part of it for that short time. We're proud of everyone who was directly involved with the film (and although Tom Hooper was certainly deserving of his Oscar for The King's Speech, I was bummed that David Fincher didn't win for Best Director). But we're more touched by what we've come to mean to each other. I stood up and cheered (actually, it was more like a YAWP) when Sorkin's name was called, and remained standing while he said his thank-yous, my hand lightly tapping my heart.

I hope to meet Mr. Sorkin again, and this time exchange more than cordial hellos. I think there's much to talk about, none of it having to do with Facebook or The Social Network. I just like talking to writers, I guess.

If I had the chance to say anything to him right now, I'd say this:
Congratulations, Aaron -- you did it! Way to go. I know you're afraid of what comes next, that anything you write will be known as that-thing-you-wrote-after-The-Social-Network, and will be held up against TSN (probably not unlike the way Studio 60 was that-thing-you-wrote-after-The-West-Wing). Just do it, just write. Keep doing what you always do--writing the best you can, what you like--and allow it to be whatever it turns out to be. Then write the next thing. And the next.

From one writer to another.