Category Archives: Writing

Why I’m Saying No to NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMoAs most writerly folks know, today is the first day of NaNoWriMo where scribblers around the world pledge that they’ll get 50,000 words–any words–on the page by the end of the month. Each year when this event kicks off, I think about joining in. Then opt out. With 170,000 participants last year who collectively penned over 2.4 billion words, it’ll do just fine without my meager output.

Here’s my reasons for saying no to NaNoWriMo:

First, I’m about 20,000 words through the rough draft of a novel. The national writing frenzy is all about starting a brand new project, and I don’t want to put my current story aside. It’s at a fragile stage where I’d possibly never pick it back up again. I’ve lost sight of how awesome this idea was when I first started hammering at it. The sheen is gone. While part of me would love to start on a squeaky, new idea, the rest must resist. Also, while I might have this rough draft done by the end of the month, if not that’s okay too. I’m withholding freak-outs until the end of the year.

Second, I’m heading off this weekend for the SCBWI Weekend on the Water retreat at Alderbrook Resort & Spa. Sounds very spiffy. I haven’t been to this before so not sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to getting some early feedback on the novel that’s underway. It’ll be good to meet some other writers (and illustrators) who focus on kid lit and stretch the writer muscle a bit. Plus, a little time in a beautiful place never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, I have an appointment with my six-year-old niece to bake an apple pie in Massachusetts. It’s become our annual Thanksgiving tradition. One of the posts I read on NaNoWriMo mentioned how it’s a great excuse to get out of Thanksgiving obligations with the family. A few years back before the nieces and nephews arrived I may have agreed, but now I wouldn’t trade the pie making for any number of words. I figure in another ten years, I can hand off the pie responsibilities entirely. And yes, the crust will be from scratch. The secret is to make it the night before and refrigerate so that it’s easier to roll out.

So, another year with no NaNoWriMo for me. Best of luck to all who are participating, maybe next year I’ll join you…

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Thoughts on the Shitiness of First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a novel. I hate first drafts. Short stories are bad enough, but novels are much smaller boats set adrift on bigger seas. Many writers have commented at length on this process, but I’ll put my trust in Hemingway. He summed it up best: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

When I first came across this quote, I thought someone made it up. How could an undisputed writing master utter such profanity? As I continued in my scribble quest, I thought it meant that first drafts need to be tidied up. Kinks must be worked out, language made pretty so that it flows. Though even then, I thought Hemingway resorted to such a  statement due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before.

Many years later, I get it. First drafts are gangly beasts. First drafts pass out on the floor, quivering masses that drool and fart and disgorge fleshy things. In the first draft, a new character will suddenly appear halfway through and act like she’s been in the book all along. The names of places, characters, and things will change, then change again, then change back again. A factory will produce Twinkies in one chapter, heart monitors in a later chapter, and then settle on Chevy Priuses by the end of the book. The main character will set off on his journey, only to be hijacked by his sidekick who demands that he is, in fact, the main character. In first drafts, the end that seems so crystal clear in the beginning, will wither into hilarity before 50 pages are written, not just snuffing out the much celebrated light, but taking the whole tunnel with it.

I always understand how to write a chapter just as soon as I’ve finished writing it. This is the tricky part. The first draft black hole. I now resist the temptation to go back and make things right. Instead, I take notes and move on to the next chapter, which in turn will only reveal its true form once I’ve slogged clear through it. Often, the chapter before or even one much earlier in the book will change with it. Which is why there is never any going back. I’ve tried that before, and produced some very lovely first chapters. Anyone want to buy a first chapter? Cheap.

When I reach the end, the first draft–clunky though it may be–is a thing of beauty. It went from nothing to something, a miniature big bang. First drafts are manuscripts that live across parallel universes. The trick is to get all the way to the end to understand which one belongs in this universe. Only then do I let myself go back and write the far more fulfilling second draft, yanking the remaining bits of the story into this universe.

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Sir Arthur Canon Doyle on Sherlock Holmes and Psychic Matters

I love the raw quality of this video. The audio alone makes it worth ten minutes from your day. Doyle has a wonderful raspy voice and is no slouch in the vocabulary department. He speaks of his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, how the character launched from modest beginnings to become a “monstrous growth.” Then he delves into the “psychic matter” which he found to be a more worthwhile pursuit than literature in his latter years.


Best of all: his interactions with the dog. That’s one happy dog.

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Temptation Blocker

I’ve often thought of how much easier it must have been to write novels with quill pens, back before the internet and infinite distraction was only one click away. Hmmm… I wonder what the best way is to outrun a charging bull? As I detailed in this earlier post, I had this all worked out. That is until two weeks ago when my dedicated (and geriatric) writing computer crashed. Note to self: back ups really are important. I didn’t lose too much work… though strangely I did kind of mourn that machine’s passing.

I’m now writing on my laptop (previously my play computer). I made it feel less internet prone by plugging in a monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse, but still something about all that temptation just one click away ground my productivity to a halt. Then I found Temptation Blocker, created by Hugh Brackett. This guy deserves the Nobel! It doesn’t directly block my internet connection, but does block my browsers. I like this because it lets other things connect and do what they need to in the background while I scribble. Temptation Blocker can also block any other applications, like all the games that came pre-installed that I normally end up deleting once I get so disgusted with myself for spending two hours playing SpiderSolitaire rather than writing.

The user interface is pretty simple, just set up what you want to block (you only do this once), enter a time, click the slave-driver button:

If you later decide that you need access to something before time’s up, you can either reboot the machine or enter a 32-digit code. The tool generates a new code each time you bring it up. And cut and paste isn’t possible. Yes, you need to type it, which works like a charm. Once you get though digit 12 or thereabouts, the shame sets in and you get back to work.

As far as I know, Temptation Blocker is only available for Windows. I’m running it on Windows 7 and it works just dandy. Another similar product called Freedom was originally available only for Mac, but now also has a Windows version. I haven’t tried it, opted for Temptation Blocker as I really need to curb my Solitaire addiction to get any writing done. Freedom asks for a nominal $10 donation. I’d gladly pay that to Mr. Brackett if he was accepting donations. There’s a pretty page out there offering Temptation Blocker when you give your e-mail address and sign up for a TrialPay offer, but I used the above link on Sourceforge.net with no strings. I did have to click through to initiate the download on the second page (it didn’t start automatically) but I never gave an e-mail address.

Neither of these tools lets you set a specific time each day when it will activate. This would be a great added feature. I write in the mornings, so I’d love to have it just automatically block me each morning.

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Ray Bradbury and Science Fiction Cave Paintings

In his essay “Dusk in the Robot Museums: The Rebirth of Imagination” from 1980, Ray Bradbury writes about the transition he saw in how science fiction was viewed during his lifetime. This essay, along with many other gems, is collected in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s one of the best writing books I’ve found, never strays far from my desk.

Bradbury notes: “If you went into the average library as you motored across America in 1932, 1945, or 1953 you would have found no Edgar Rice Burroughs, no L. Frank Baum and no Oz. In 1958 or 1962 you would have found no Asimov, no Heinlein, no Van Vogt, and, er, no Bradbury.” He credits the introduction of books by these authors not only to libraries, but to the curriculum of many schools, with a bottoms up approach. Kids demanded it. Teachers and librarians saw that not only were kids willing to read these books, they devoured them. Why? The books are about something.

The kids grew up and took their pitchforks to art museums and galleries, similarly demanding that art be relevant. While Bradbury doesn’t call it as much, he essentially highlights a postmodernist reaction to modernism:

They have walked through the halls and dozed off at the modern scene as represented by sixty-odd years of abstration super-abstracting itself until it vanished up its own backside. Empty canvases. Empty minds. No concepts. Sometimes no color. No ideas that would interest a performing flea at a dog circus.

Bradbury goes to great pains to say that science fiction first began with cave paintings. Such art doesn’t show some middle-aged guy sitting in a corner ruminating on his existence. It shows fantasy. And action. The hunt is idealized with tiny hunters and enormous prey. First the problem is understood: we need some meat. Then speculative fiction theorizes how it might be solved. Bradbury claims this is essential in creating art that resonates, while also cautioning about having it all get ahead of itself:

I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with a death of a thousand analytical slices.

This lesson seems far more relevant with the state of publishing today than when it was first penned thirty years ago. Please, no more lamentations that there are no readers. There are plenty of them, and they are buying and reading and celebrating books of all shades and colors. They just might not be gobbling up that which those who tend to think that only “good” books written by “good” authors are worthy of anyone’s time.

Interestingly, The New Yorker went to some lengths to claim that the authors they selected for their 20 under 40 list do indeed write books with plots. There is hope. Yes sir. Plots are good enough once again for The New Yorker.

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6 Rules for Writing Book Reviews

A couple of author blogs that I follow have had some great recent posts on the role of the book reviewer. First, Mark Charan Newton weighed in with a discussion on the value of hype. And then Sam Sykes on reviewing authors on their own merits rather than through comparisons with other authors. One thing that doesn’t seem to be open for debate is that the reviewer has been yanked out of the ivory tower. No longer is the club limited to those with access to a publishing outlet. Today, anyone with an internet connection can join, and start posting reviews far and wide.

I love this egalitarian approach. It makes for an interesting precursor to what we’re likely to see happen with the book itself over the next 10 years. But as is so often lamented on this topic, quality will vary greatly. We’ll need these egalitarian reviews to help us figure out what to read as the number of books published in the English language soars past the 1-million-per-year mark. As someone who used to review books for The Seattle Times, I’ve likely thought a bit more about the subject of the book review than most.

Here’s my two cents on the essential elements of a book review:

1) It all starts with book selection. Reviewing a book puts it above the other books published by both traditional presses and independent authors. This is why I harbor such angst for Kirkus Discoveries. They’ve abdicated one of the most important roles of the book reviewer: choosing what gets reviewed. They’ve prostituted this out to anyone willing to cough up $500. There’s also the slew of review factories willing to write reviews and post them on Amazon for a fee. In some ways I find them less reprehensible though. They’re at least up front about the prostitution part of their work.

2) Read the book. Yes, the whole dang thing. It’s amazing how many reviewers–even those of the professional ilk–don’t do this. I feel that I have two options if I’m not liking a book that I intend to review. One, finish it and write the review. Two, throw it across the room and review something else.

3) Convey an impression of what the experience of reading the book is like. This is the most important aspect of the book review. People read reviews to decide if this book is worth their money, and more importantly, their time. The reading experience is intensely personal. No two readers walk away from even the same book with the same understanding of it. The most valuable thing a reviewer can do is not christen a book as good or bad–thumbs up or thumbs down–but let readers know what a book is like.

4) Review the book that’s there. The desire to review the book that the reviewer wishes was there, instead of the one that actually was written, can be huge. It doesn’t do either the author or the reader any favors. The review should demonstrate that it understands what the author set out to do, and then comment on how well this was achieved. If it’s a thriller, review it as such with plot and pacing paramount. If it’s a literary novel, look at language and style and theme. If the book is overly hyped, ignore it. If you’ve heard the author is Charles Dickens reincarnated, ignore that too. Just read the dang book and write about what’s there.

5) No spoilers. Again, this should go without saying. While a bit of summary is good, anything more than what’s revealed in the official publisher blurb is too much.

6) Understand that every review reviews the reviewer as much as what’s reviewed. A book review says as much about the person writing it, often more, than it does about the book itself. This to a large extent is why I stopped writing reviews for The Seattle Times. As I got into my own writing and came to understand how much work it is to write a novel, I came to question if I had any right to say anything at all about what someone else had written.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Short Story Writers

I first encountered Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. when it was published a decade ago. It collects his short stories that didn’t make the cut for Welcome to the Monkey House. Most were originally published in magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post, back in the enviable days when writers could work through an apprenticeship by crafting short stores.

Having already read almost everything by Vonnegut, I devoured these previously lost stories, comforted by the fact that some of the cracks in the plaster showed. These aren’t the best stories. Even great talent needs time to develop, but the stories in some way showed how one might set off on such a path.

Something in those stories must have stuck with me through the years since. I’ve been working on an entirely new story, and feeling a bit lost. It’s a different sort of tale from those that normally come to me, and reminds me of the ideas that Vonnegut explored. I’ve been hankering to go back and reread Bagombo Snuff Box, which I borrowed at the time so would need to track down a fresh copy.

In the process, I came across his rules for short story writers. It’s amazing these aren’t more well known. Here’s a video of Vonnegut reading his advice, which almost makes the accompanying montage worth watching:

And here they are written out so they’ll stick in my head:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where, and why that they could finish the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I like the last one in particular. (I’ve been a sadist for ages now.) One of the things I keep coming back to with my writing is clarity. It should be crystal clear to the reader each step of the way what’s going on, and for the most part why it’s all happening.

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