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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Many years ago there was this thing I heard about that some guy was doing, a project where people wrote a novel in 30 days. Sounded interesting, but I wasn’t writing novels at the time. A couple years later, in 2001, I thought I’d try it as a lark, mostly because it was immediately post-9/11 and I felt this great urge to do or say something. that was the first year I failed National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

I tried again in 2002 then again in 2004, failed on both counts, and decided it just wasn’t for me. November, it turns out, is just a terrible month for projects of any size. That sounds like an excuse but it’s been true across the board, any new project that starts in November is just a stress-filled wreck, and not just writing projects but for some reason writing projects are especially tough.

But a couple years back I stumbled onto PiBoIdMo – Picture Book Idea Month – which takes place during the NaNoWriMo and I thought Finally, a project that’s just my speed. Instead of a complete novel in 30 days PiBoIdMo consists of one picture book idea per day for the entire month. Not a completed story, no even a title, but simply an idea, a seed, a kernel of something that might one day provide fruit. This seemed like a nice bite-sized goal and one that could keep me feeling like I was still writing-active during a usually tough month.

Did I mention this would be easy? No, I did not. Because as it turns out, you can’t always come up with ideas out of thin air on command.

Nonetheless, for the last couple of years I participated and completed PiBoIdMo, and left the month with a handful of reasonable ideas and a couple of stellar ones, but mostly with a sense of accomplishment.

This year I couldn’t even manage five stinkin’ ideas before the month fell apart on me.

Can I blame the new job I started back in July? Well, for this and many other failures, but that seems like a cop-out because plenty of people manage to wedge in writing and plenty of other creative projects around jobs and family and whatnot. Best I can explain it (again, not to sound like an excuse) is I just haven’t found my groove.

I did have a new idea that I thought would/could have made and awesome NaNoWriMo project, entirely manageable and well-suited for short-chapter writing, but the last thing I want to do right now is start a new project with so many others outstanding. Compounding my November anxieties was the fact that I’d agreed to participate in a New Writer’s series put on at my local library. A reading. Of my own work. In front of strangers. I would be just like the readings I did in grad school, only in front of strangers, i.e. people who weren’t predisposed to being supportive no matter what. You know, like the rest of the real world. So where I might have spent my free time during November working on new pages I instead devoted that time to worrying every line of the one section of my WIP that I would be reading from.

It turned out not to be such a bad thing.

First, when you prep something for reading you are forced to read it aloud. Once you start to hear the lines in your ears instead of just in your head you quickly learn what does and doesn’t work. Sections that “read” well on the page suddenly seem to bog down the story aloud and send action and dialog crashing head-first into a metaphorical dashboard with a tremendous whomp. Stilted dialog gets ironed out, precious details get cut because they are too precious. In the end, the pages are tighter and the story is stronger. None of this alleviates the terror of reading in public, but you take what you get.

My reading suffered as well. I found long passages of text too distracting. This happens when I’m preoccupied, and the best thing I can do is give myself a bit of a reading vacation and let myself get book hungry again.

So here it is, December, and despite the harried holiday season and other possible roadblocks ahead, I’m feeling re-energized. I’m ready to finish this one thing and start something bold and new. Or bold and old. Or anything. I’m ready to tear through a backlog of reading and discover something new to become a new favorite.

November was hard, but November is gone.

Onward!

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In articles on writing, in agents calls to prospective authors, in creative writing courses everyone talks about characters needing a strong voice. You really want to see the characters in the way they talk, you want hear a voice you’ve never heard before. I get it, because when you read a strong voice it really sounds like you’ve captured something unique.

But I’m beginning to wonder if these strong character voices in literature are little more than the gilt edging on a book made from cheap materials. Oh, sure, it looks pretty, but how long is it going to last?

Can I blame our current trends in pop music for lowering our expectations? The radio (however you conceive it today) is full of a lot of hit songs that are catchy and bouncy and full of strong voices but musically they’re about as unique as a cheap ballpoint pen; they’re functional, disposable, interchangeable, and forgettable.

There was a time — pull up a rocker, the cranky old man is about to come out — when popular music moved from manufactured hits to artists looking to be more creative. Bands evolved into creative units looking to expand their musical vocabularies, a path blazed by the Beatles and followed by many. And when the Beatles broke up and become solo artists the era of the singer-songwriter blossomed. There are many things to be said — good and bad — about the music that came out of the “classic” era of classic rock, but for a period of time what’s clear is that music was a marriage of vocal, lyrical, AND musical ideas. True, Led Zeppelin was simply amplified blues and Jethro Tull towed old English folk sensibilities into their songs, but there were ideas that went beyond their singer’s voices. Crosby, Stills, Nash and (occasionally) Young didn’t invent vocal harmony, but they didn’t rest entirely on that magical melding of sounds; listen to the structure of their songs, their free-form progressions, and you realize that much of what they did would have been unique even without their stellar vocal approach.

The point is, there was more to pop music than a voice.

But today we have reality TV shows that celebrate the cult of voice as being above all things in music, throwing out the notion of original music by having people sing known songs and not dealing with anything more daring that a slightly different arrangement. As TV goes it’s cheap to produce, and besides a back-up band all you really need is a microphone for the singer, no messy band gear to set up. It is, in a sense, all surface with little substance.

And this is where I’m starting to have problems with this idea of voice.

In the Cult of Voice in pop culture an action hero with a reliable catch phrase is more memorable than a well-crafted monologue. Wise-cracking teens (who are much more articulate and quick-witted than real teens) dance their way through epically-told tales of romance and death fetish (zombies, vampires, etc.). But the author with a unique narrative approach, a story with three-dimensional characters with baroque dialogue, those are not the voices the gatekeepers are looking for, move along.

In a recent #kidlitchat on twitter a question was raised: in today’s climate would Shel Silverstein be published today? I immediately said ‘no.’ I wonder if many of the no-considered classics in children’s literature, or classic rock for that matter, would have survived our contemporary need for strong voices above unique ideas or a bold authorial style. If Vonnegut were just starting out, would he make it? Could Anais Nin unseat “Fifty Shades of Grey” on style alone? Is it possible that Roald Dahl could only have existed in his time?

I know I’ve garbled this subject, with music and TV and book references, but all the same I cannot help feeling like so much of what is published is voice-over-storytelling.

A correction is in order, a new balance. Writers need to dig deep down and let their freak flag fly. Hopefully the business side of the storytelling factory can hear the story above the din of empty voices.

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I am someone for whom the internet was invented. My friends have told me so. It has to do with my generally insatiable curiosity and the ability to ferret out the bits of life’s ephemera, the stuff that amuses and illuminates and unifies our lives. I am a scholar in the loosest sense of the word but no less so than one with a formal doctorate. Of course, internet surfing – or “research” as it is sometimes derisively called in our house – has turned us all into masters of the ephemeral, but it also has become a giant time-suck as well. Such is the double-edged sword of knowledge.

On one of my ventures into the wilds of the internet I came upon a tumblr blog that did a daily upload of the scans made from the journals of artist Keith Haring. I could try to summarize Haring’s life, style, and his impact on the art world, but that’s what the internet is for, and others have already done that. I subscribed to Haring’s journal feed because the archive handling his journals were uploading pages chronologically from Haring was a teen and I was curious to see if there was a moment when you could see an artist emerge. I wanted to know because I have a back-burnered project to write about a teen artist coming into their own and I was hoping to limn some sense of what it looked like from within.

There was a lot of earnest trying-to-be-an-artist type entries, and while I recognized the truth in this from my own life – those early days when everything is so deep and so full of meaning, as if you were the first to have these thoughts – what I wanted was the moment when the trying became simply being. This, I knew, was what I wanted to capture, the narrative moments that rang true without all the sturm und drang attached. Sometimes capturing the truth means editing out the whole truth. Then this past week the beginnings of a new journal were posted and I felt like I’d found the emotional core of what I was looking for.

WRITING IN A BOOK IS ALSO PUTTING TIME IN BOXES – PAGES – THE TIME IN BOOKS IS A DIFFERENT TIME THAN RECORDED TIME BECAUSE YOU CHOSE WHAT SPEED TO READ IT.

Haring had written this on the inside front cover, and it encapsulates not only the inculcation of a life deliberately set on understanding the process of creating, but it so underscores the experience of the reader and the writer and the event. Haring isn’t likely the first to articulate this idea but his youthful phrasing was what I was looking for, and his use of a box as a metaphor was exactly what I’d hoped to find. He elaborates on the first page of the journal proper

TIME defines CONTEXT

We experience “art” as a result of many factors outside of the actual “art” itself.

Are all of the factors part of the “art experience” itself?

Three years after Haring had written these words I was coming to a very similar understanding though through a different lens. I had encountered Koestler’s theory of bisociation at the same time that I discovered the Dadaist art movement and suddenly it was as if the creative world started making a whole lot more sense. But I didn’t keep a journal (foolish me) and it was stumbling onto Haring’s that helped me understand what I had been wrestling with in this shelved project.

But beyond my personal searching Haring underscores what makes books a distinct storytelling medium that has survived, and thrive, despite the development of television, movies, and other narrative distractions. Other media control the speed at which the story is told but the book allows for an individual, personal, and perfectly tailored experience. Naturally time can be controlled within all storytelling – it can be condensed, expanded, telescoped, and otherwise manipulated – the the experience of that time, that’s the ability to look inside the “box” and decide when it’s time to move along. When you look at a painting or a photo and are amassing the thousand or so words the picture paints you are composing the page that places that experience, that moment, in a box of memory. Likewise, reading a book allows the reader to take in the information at their own speed before defining the memory box in which it is kept.

So while casually looking for an attempt to capture the feel of a young artist making sense of the creative process I managed to find some comfort that working in the written word isn’t the pointless exercise it can sometimes feel like. Especially when the idea of finding an audience is still in a distant “someday,” a box full of time for another day.

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That’s right, ignore everybody.

Those aren’t my words, nor are they really Hugh MacLeod’s words either in that he’s probably not the first person to ever use the phrase, though they are the title of his book on creativity called, appropriately, Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  The title is a pretty good summary of his 40 short, zen-like chapters (taken from various blog posts at gapingvoid.com) where he lays out the problems and pitfalls of what it means to be a working creative, in any field.

I’m mostly throwing this out there to any of my creative peeps, but really there are a lot of people who could use a good shot in the arm when it comes to (re)thinking their priorities. For the writers and artists I know, there’s always something nibbling away at their confidence, something gnawing at their creative productivity, for better or worse. I know for me much of what is in MacLeod’s book isn’t new so much as a collection of reminders about when, where, and what to focus my creative energies on. In a lot of ways the chapters are like concentrated versions of much larger ideas bulking out other books on creativity (which shall remain nameless); these are like espresso shots in a world of watered down instant coffee crystals.

Though I would probably get different things from the books little aphorisms depending on where my head was at when I read it, this time around what stood out were the following:

3. Put in the hours
7. Keep your day job
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs

Numbers 7 and 34 hit a funny chord in me as I recently found myself working a day job (after four years of unemployment) and, separately, been thinking of starting a new venture that would effectively turn a would-be hobby into a job. This is where number 3 kicked in to remind me that I just need to put in the hours. On the thing that is most important. Which is the creative stuff.

Number 27 probably ought to be lumped with number 12 to have the most meaning for the writing community – If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. Accepting the pain is about the rejection process, and the approval process is a corollary to not caring and letting the process roll of your back. It’s a tough thing because somewhere deep-down the need for approval (or to not be rejected) has to do with confirming that we’re on the right path. Doubt, fear, confusion… they’re all there to keep us off-balance, to keep us from doing the work we’re driven to do.

Friends, creative or otherwise, hunt down Ignore Everybody and see what I mean. Do as I did and read it while commuting or someplace else public; you can practically feel people seething as they notice you reading a book that instructs you to ignore them. Consider it a first step to a new creative path (or path correction, as necessary).

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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It’s a very simple equation, one I’m sure others have come across elsewhere, but it struck me with an arrow of truth last week. If there is a problem with the publishing industry as it stands it comes down to the disconnect between the motivations of the writer and the publisher.

I came about this a roundabout way. I happened onto a marketer’s blog post discussing what made Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple, so successful. The crux came from a quote from Jobs at the end of his recent biography:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.”

Many companies have this upside down, or if they start as innovators they quickly switch over to a profit-first mentality to maintain their position. The idea is that if you innovate, people will come, and profits will grow, allowing you to innovate further. This lead me reconsider what I felt about Steve Jobs last year when he died, how I had come to think of him as the Edison of this century. But that’s not exactly a good analogy, because where Edison may have refined existing patents he is credited with creating the technology that is still with us. Jobs did not invent nor is he credited with inventing the computer, the phone, the television, or the music playback device. He didn’t even invent the MP3 file technology that the iPod uses to store and playback music. What he did was take what was familiar and ask the question: How can I make this consumer product more friendly, inviting, fun, and turn it into a brand people can trust?

Essentially, Jobs is the Disney of our age, not the Edison.

Walt Disney did not invent movies, animation, or the amusement park. Hell, he didn’t even create new characters or stories to tell in his animation once he started making feature films. What he did was insist on instilling passion into great products that people would enjoy. He may have been a tyrant to his employees, as has been reported, but he was no petty dictator. He pushed his people to innovate and his legacy of creation continues nearly fifty years after his death. People don’t often remember (or know these days) that he mortgaged his personal property and his entire company to create Disneyland. Had that gamble failed it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened, but Disney was passionate and he was certain that if his people were motivated to make something great, then success was assured.

In reading about the history of publishing in America over the years I have come to believe there may have been a time when publishers were more in line with Jobs and Disney than the corporate entities they have become. There was a time when author and editor were both striving for something great, that profit was not the determining factor. Editors built stables of authors and nurtured talent because they believed in them, and in return that quality generated profits. Today, the profit-first model prevails, and a movie-tie-in complete with residual merchandising trumps the notion that quality is a motivating factor.

Are writers similarly motivated by profit in creating a work, or are they more interested in the quality of storytelling first? This gets tricky, as writers are now expected to market their works and to nail that sales pitch before anyone will bother to look at it. In many craft books there are instructions for plotting a narrative arc only after the summary has been honed as a guide stone. Lord help the writer who can’t rattle off their elevator speech at a convention even before they’ve finished their first draft!

It’s reductionist to insist that all writers, publishers, and editors behave as a unified front, but its hard not to wonder if all parties have lost their way.

“Traditional” publishing (or “Legacy” publishers, if you buy into Amazon’s propaganda machine) will most likely need to revert back to their old ways in order to survive. Editors will need to operate free from the chains of corporate acquisitions and, more importantly, spend more time personally guiding talented people toward great ideas. The motivation to publish books will then fall back in line with the writer’s motivation.

Great books will be written and published when both parties can’t imagine doing anything less; the profits will sort themselves by-the-by.

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Toni Morrison said this the other night on the PBS NewsHour. Here’s the context from taken from the interview.

JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?

TONI MORRISON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was?

TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.

JEFFREY BROWN: More?

(LAUGHTER)

TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.

I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.

I have to say, I’ve been feeling this for some time about a lot of fiction. Adult fiction, YA fiction, Middle Grade fiction, all of it has been feeling rather bloated around the middle. I don’t know where writers pick up the literary equivalent of a spare tire (perhaps it’s MFA programs?), but whatever it is undermines a lot of good books that always leave me feeling like they could have been just that much better with a trim.

It is the middle of many books that are the problem. And from a writer’s point of view, middles generally are a problem. Starting out, you pretty much have to know where you’re beginning and where you plan to end up and then somehow connect the dots. There are various philosophies about this – the general divide is between “pantsers” who write but the seat of their pants, so to speak, and “plotters” who detail every step of the way – but no approach I know of has an advantage over the other. I have followed detailed outlines and I have winged it and it both cases revision has shown that many of my problem came from a flabby middle.

The one revelation I had about middles came when I was working on my creative thesis in grad school. I was working the story from both ends inward, a path I chose because I wanted to have the story elements “mirror” each other in a balanced way, when I got to the point that, in my mind, was one of those “cross that bridge when I get to it” moments. I had always assumed that the incidents and characters would help define what I needed to do to bridge these moments but I suddenly felt stumped. I was certain I had reached the point where I had no middle act, that the story required an additional element that seamlessly fused the two parts… and that I’d have to go back and weave these new elements into the two halves I’d already created.

Then a voice in my head asked: Do you really need to say anything more?

All it took was some slight changes to account for a leap of time and the two parts melded as if I’d planned it all along, and in my subconscious maybe I had.

Now, it goes without saying that I’m no Toni Morrison, but she’s right about the fact that it is harder to write less and make it “more.” Economy of language, or dialog, or scene and symbolism, boiling down those words into a condensed space makes it all the richer. It is easier to sit and write and throw it all out there on the page, much harder to weed and trim and make what’s already good that much greater.

Less is more. It isn’t a new thought, but perhaps it could become a renewed pledge taken to reassure readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Number 1 Rule of Creative Writing 101:

 Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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