Monthly Archives: December 2009

How to Get More Writing Done

Midway through last year, I scribbled down a few rules for myself. They’ve been on my desk ever since and seem to be working, last year was one of my best for total output.

As it’s time for resolutions, I’m sharing them in case they prove helpful to anyone else:

1. Don’t check e-mail or start surfing anywhere

In other words, remove all distractions. Implied in this is setting up a regular time to write. I had done a good job of the first, but my focus was never there. Recently I took this rule one step further and removed the internet connection from the computer where I write. After sitting and staring at the ceiling for a while, I get bored… so I write.

2. Get up earlier, which means go to bed earlier

I used to be able to sleep four hours, then get up and write. No more, now if I want to get up at 6 a.m. and spend a couple of hours writing anything coherent, I need to be in bed by 10 p.m.

3. Don’t stay so late at work

I have a day job, and I’m both good at it and get a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment from it. But that doesn’t mean I need to be my overachiever self and the last person out of there each night.

4. Get a dishwasher, yard service, and house cleaning service

Aside from the dishwasher, this one hasn’t happened yet. But the point is still there. If writing is the priority, then the house and yard can wait.

5. Go food shopping no more than once per week

Basically I’m trying to take less time on all the “life maintenance” stuff. I’m thinking about revising this one and shifting my food shopping online.

6. Friday night is another school night

If Saturday morning is some of my best time available for writing then Friday night is another work night. Celebrating the end of the week with everyone else needs to wait one more night.

7. Delete solitaire

I posted about this before, but yup, nuff said.

8. Write 100 words before you get your first cup of coffee

This one was also touched on in my earlier post. It’s a bit too draconian for me right now, but good to use as a threat if the words stop flowing.

9. Always leave off at a place where it’s easy to start the next day

This is a great tip that I picked up from a writer–whose name I can’t recall–far more wise and experienced than I am. If I’m a few lines off from finishing a scene I leave it, then it’s easy to come back in and get the story rolling. Inertia can work in favor of as well as against writing.

10. Join a critique group

I haven’t done this one yet either, but do have a group of writer friends whose feedback on my work is invaluable. I’m fortunate to have found some stellar first readers.

11. Believe

When I’m sitting there in the morning telling myself that I’m wasting my time, no one will ever care about what I’m scribbling, none of it matters, another voice now comes into my overcrowded brain and tells that first voice to shut up. Deep breath… believe.

Happy 2010!


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Christmas Book Haul

Christmas BooksLike most book folks, one of the best things about Christmas for me are the books I get from friends and family. I received a treasure trove this year, with fantastic variety.

How to Hepburn by Karen Karbo and Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn: With a film career that spanned seven decades and four Academy Awards for best actress, Katharine Hepburn is a huge inspiration. I’ve seen a little more than half of her 44 feature films. Not all are great, even Kate Hepburn can deliver a dud, see Dragon Seed from 1944 if in doubt. But performances like her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter are truly phenomenal. She’s assisted by a stellar cast and crisp dialogue in this story set at the Christmas court of Henry I and Eleanor, a favorite of mine to revisit at this time of year.

The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir: I read Weir’s later biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which led me to this one. My interest in Elizabeth began when I visited Westminster Abbey. Her enormous tomb is across the nave  from the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she had executed for treason. Henry VII, her grandfather, lies between them. That was all weird enough, but the face of the effigy on her tomb was taken from a cast from her deathbed, showing a strong woman with firm features. I never tire of reading accounts of how she managed to first claim power, and then hold onto it for over 40 years in such a turbulent time.

The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe: This one is written by Obama’s campaign manager, with the subtitle “The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory.” It’s another story of an unlikely character to emerge and claim power. One assumes that Obama likely won’t still be president 40 years from now, but this should be an interesting account of how he got there.

Paper Machine by Jacques Derrida: This is the smallest book of the bunch, but the heaviest. From the back of the book: “This book questions the book itself … what takes place between the paper and the machine inscribing it. He [Derrida] examines what becomes of the archive when the world of paper is subsumed in new machines for virtualization.” I discovered this one thanks to Robin Sloan, who has been making some encouraging waves with his self-published work.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: These two are probably the first that will get read, and surprisingly the only fiction. They come highly recommended from my 12-year old niece who anxiously awaits the third in the series, which is all the endorsement I need. They’re also prominently placed up front in bookstores everywhere, and one can only assume the movie adaptation isn’t far off–though as my niece has informed me, the book is always way better than the movie.

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A Little Time for Reflection

Here’s a snippet of Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Nativity of the Virgin, with some great images of illuminated manuscripts. One can only wonder what the monks must have thought of Gutenberg and his crazy invention.

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Will Bookstores Disappear?

PhonographBlogging for the British Telegraph, Basheera Khan does an admirable job of rousing the book-reader rabble in the provocatively titled, No more bookshops? Good riddance. I worked at Books Etc. briefly when I was a student in London, and can’t say I’ll miss them much. That said, the post raises some questions, even if it does seem to be primarily constructed to produce the sort of tirades seen in its comments section.

Are bookstores truly in jeopardy? Will they go the same way of the Virgin Megastore? A favorite of mine while in London, I was surprised on recent trips to San Francisco and Chicago to find the Virgin Megastore in each city boarded up. Reading through my journals from a couple decades back (yeah, that loooooooong ago) I get nostalgic about how much time I spent hunting down record stores, how excited I got when I found a new and super cool shop. It was an obsession during the year I spent in Europe in the late 80s, when every record on every shelf in every store became a coveted import. I spent a small fortune on 12-inch singles. (Anyone want the entire oeuvre from Howard Jones?) Today I don’t spend nearly as much money–or time–on music as I did then. Is it because I got old and boring and busy? Or is it because the way music is distributed changed? Probably a bit of both.

A lot of those records I bought weren’t so much about the music, but all that stuff that came packed with it, even just the cover art. CDs never had the same pull, even though some artists did get fancy with clear plastic covers, inserts, and strange printing on the CD itself which made it impossible to know what music was actually on the thing. Then came the download. The idea of buying music without being able to hear it first, based on a pretty cover, now seems bonkers. And with that switch, I pretty much stopped going to record stores, as it seems has everyone else… almost.

Also on my trips I noticed that independent record stores everywhere have hung on, and interestingly enough, seem to be growing their vinyl selections. Again I find myself trawling through their racks for vinyl, not CDs. Vinyl comes in two flavors now: vintage and cheap, or newly released and expensive. Could this be what is to come for bookstores? The bland tiny mall store may disappear (if it hasn’t already) and the mega chains may have to work hard to stay afloat, but could the independents–with both new, limited editions and vast selections of used books–end up the only bookstores in town? They’re the places we go not for just the books, but for knowledgeable staff, local readings, and a sense of community. Buying a physical book, unlike an ebook, is about a whole lot more than just the book itself. The only question is: how many of us are willing to pay a premium for the experience?


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Words, I Want Words!

InkwellIn the so-called golden age of the novel, the writer had little more than his pen and ink fountain to foster procrastination… yet I wonder how much time many a great author spent searching for the right pen tip, making sure the ink was of the proper consistency, and fiddling with that stack of blank paper. Ahh, such simplicity. Today most scribblers work on a contraption that comes packed with not only a myriad of card games, but also the lure of stock quotes and and video snippets and blog tirades and shopping (for reference books, of course).

No more, I say. Today I’ve taken drastic steps to block such frivolities. The laptop, where I’m composing this right now, will remain attached to all such temptation, but my desktop–where the fiction writing happens–will become a temple that harkens back to less distracting times.

First, I yanked out the shiny blue cord that connects the machine to the internet. It shall from this day forward be a closed box, doomed to never again update its browsers or patch its operating system. It’s a geriatric PC, nearly seven years old, and already barely able to run much more than Word 2000, so it’s time to turn the old boy into a glorified typewriter. One can only imagine what else Dickens, Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy may have left all of us if they had possessed such a glorious, yet lonely device.

Second, and this is where things get frightening, I deleted solitaire. Yowza! My writing machine at one time had a multitude of games on it, but one by one they’ve been whacked. In days gone by, there was a version of solitaire that showed how much time I had been spent playing it each time I closed out of it–like the alarm clock, a truly horrendous idea. That got deleted once it stated I had spent a solid month at solitaire, only to soon be replaced by a much simpler, and far more polite version. Today, this lone game holdout is gone.

In a few weeks if the words aren’t pouring onto the page, I’m prepared for one, even more drastic step. I shall withhold coffee. I forget where I got this tip, but a well known author had a firm rule of no coffee until 100 words are down on the page. I write in the mornings, early in the mornings, and coffee is essential. Words, my boy, I want words!


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Taking Another Shot at the Pros

I’ve been a terrible lurker around the internet spat that John Scalzi started about Black Matrix Publishing offering the princely sum of one-fifth-of-one-cent per word to their esteemed writers. Scalzi’s posts were followed by a guest post from Rachel Swirsky on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog and a post by Ann Leckie on her live journal blog about what type of credits they notice. (They’re both editors of PodCastle and short story writers themselves.)  Then things got a tad heated in a guest post on SF Signal by a new writer, Jennifer Marie Brissett.

It all got me thinking, re-examining exactly what it is that I want to get out of my short stories… not the writing part, but the publishing part. The plan to take “A Fine Arrangement” directly to Kindle grew out of frustration from my last short story. It’s called “The Stain,” made the rounds of everywhere I would want to see it published, and got rejected by one and all. I then found myself perusing websites that looked like they emerged out of some high school kid’s basement–perhaps some of them did–for newly sprung up publishers. I couldn’t bring myself to send them “The Stain” so that it could be “published” for a pittance.  I worked damn hard on that story, and if it couldn’t find a good home then no home would do. Until the Kindle idea came along, that is.

But this all misses the point. The better publishers–the pros and some of the semi-pros who know a whole lot more than me about fiction–offer a lot more than just pay, pay that self publishing on the Kindle could potentially surpass. With established publishers, there’s potential to be included in year’s best anthologies, qualify for membership in the SFWA, work with a solid editor, gain a credit that other editor’s will recognize, and if nothing else get a little feedback on the story that can help me improve it and grow as a writer. “The Stain” got responses like: “The tale is well told, and has a certain touch of the surreal” and “The storyline is good [rather like something out of Twilight Zone]” from some of the pros out there. Of course, this was followed by a “but” and some other not-quite-so-rosy bits. Though now that I have a little more distance from it all, that stuff that follows those “buts” are tips on how I can both improve that story, and create better stories going forward.

So while painful and slow, the process is working. “A Fine Arrangement” is a much stronger story than “The Stain.” It deserves a shot at the pros, but first it needs to be attacked with a meat clever so it’s not quite so long. And “The Stain” after a “merciless rewrite” as suggested by one editor, may make for a fine Kindle candidate.

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Thoughts on The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

The CollapsiumI discovered Collapsium by Wil McCarthy in a backwards sort of way. I first bought Nebula-nominated To Crush the Moon–the fourth book in this tetralogy–off the staff recommends shelf of a local bookstore. It wasn’t until I got To Crush the Moon home that I realized I needed to start much earlier. Even more surprising, Collapsium was out of print… though found easily enough on eBay.

How can the first book in a series go out of print when its fourth and final installment gets a Nebula nod? (Though Collapsium has since come back in print.) The book’s cover shows a serious man in a spacesuit that gives the book that hard-science-fiction feel. And in a sense, Collapsium is hard science fiction. McCarthy was once a rocket scientist (really) and his novel comes complete with glossary and appendices to explain how everything in the book might actually happen… such as matter that can take on any form, spaceships that can grab hold of the sun and push, and fax machines that can send people hither and thither–or make copies of them–on a whim.

But such technical details and the book’s cover give a poor impression of this novel. What makes it most interesting are its characters. They’re immortal, yes, but unlike most immortals in fiction seem to have actually lived long enough to get bored. They’re characters in both senses of the word. The lead Bruno de Towaji, a brilliant scientist and the richest man in the queendom, builds his own world to take up a hermetic residence where he can experiment with heavy matter unencumbered by the niceties of polite society. Tamra-Tamatra Lutui, the Virgin Queen of All Things, spends much time thinking of fashion, while not burdened by the pomp and ceremony demanded by her crown. Monarchy is back, as the world finally realized it is humanity’s natural state. We’re much happier when we have someone else to blame for all our problems.

The story is a bit disjointed. It’s broken into three sections that come to conclusions a bit too abruptly, but overall Collapsium was a highly rewarding journey, surprisingly thought provoking. What would it be like to live as multiple copies only to suddenly be reduced to a single copy… one that could be killed no less? Or Hugo the robot, who is set free only to become “helpless and confused, in an environment beyond its comprehension” according to Queen Tamra. (He spends much of his time crawling on the floor saying “Meow.”) She is placated by Bruno: “Life is nothing more than the choices thrust upon us when ability and incident collide.” Could anything more perfectly detail the trappings of free will?

The Collapsium at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

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