At the Feet of a Master

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I didn’t post last week, not because I was inactive. No Sir! I was fairly active in my writer’s life. I dug into my reading. I attended a panel discussion at The Center for Fiction (more on that in a future post). I finished the second draft of my novella. So I was pretty active. I didn’t blog because I didn’t know what I wanted to blog about specifically. But this week I come back with a vengeance, baby!

My reading consisted mainly of the book Stephen King On Writing, which I just finished. This is King’s definitive work on the craft of writing with a ton of insightful memoir thrown in. King wanted to do a book on craft but also wanted to do a memoir as well. So the master that he is, decided to put the two together. This book succeeds on both counts.

The first half of the book is memoir. King relates pivotal events in his childhood (constant ear infections, school, reading interests as a child), his single mother’s trials and tribulations raising two sons alone, his extended family, his first forays into writing, college life, meeting his wife, his alcoholism and addiction. He links his life’s adventures to what inspired some of his story ideas and his opinions on craft. For instance, Carrie was inspired by two outcast girls in his high school. Graveyard Shift is based on King’s time during college working at a textile factory one long hot summer.

The second half of the book is on craft. King’s take on writing is most insightful. King states, “…good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your ‘toolbox’ with the right instruments.” King believes that, “…it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” I’ll put myself in this category for now, if I’m being honest.

Regarding craft, King also says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I might have mentioned this in another post. My online instructor agrees with this philosophy. Not only that but my instructor attached a number value to it. A writer should write 20% of the time and read 80% of the time. Whoowee! That’s a lot of reading. Not sure if I’m at that level, but it makes sense. King says, “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

King continues, “Good writing…teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.” The horror master brings it home with this straight-to-the-point nugget: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” It most certainly is as ‘simple as that’!

Near the end of the book (pg 271), King displays an excerpt from a rough draft of his tale 1408First he shows the rough unedited version, then he shows the version again, but this time with all his notes and edits for revision. Then King explains his reason for revising the particular sections. It’s a great look into the mind of the master and how he first drafts, then revises and why.

The book is just chock full of ‘aha’ moments that you can take to heart or not. Here’s a good one: eliminating adverbs from your writing.

Over a year ago, I started removing adverbs from my writing after reading an article on the subject. It stayed with me. Now I’m a firm believer. Stephen King subscribes to this belief, as well. Although King still uses adverbs, he does so at a bare minimum. King states, “The adverb is not your friend.” Goodbye Lolly, Lolly, Lolly and take your damn adverbs elsewhere!

King goes on to say, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind…the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously…With adverbs, the writer tells us he/she is afraid, isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” King uses the process of revision to seek out and replace any adverbs he may have lazily used as filler in his first draft. Be as clear as can be in your writing and you won’t need most adverbs.

At the very end of the book, King lists the books that he likes to read. It’s fairly extensive with over 200 books he recommends, and you can be sure those were just the tip of the iceberg. They were pretty much what he could think of off the top of his head, more or less. But before King gets into this list, he has a section called, On Living, that is set aside for him to discuss his road accident.

On the 19th of June, in 1999, King was hit by a Dodge van while walking against traffic on the shoulder of Route 5 in western Maine. Bryan Smith, the driver, had a dozen vehicular offenses to his credit long before he allowed himself on this night to be distracted by his dog. Smith rode up on the shoulder of the highway and sent Mr. King flying. The writer barely survived and needed months of recovery.

Since King was in the middle of writing On Writing  when the accident happenedhe wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get back to finishing it or any other book for that matter. King had to dig down deep and find the reason why he wrote in the first place; and that was for the love of it. Writing made his life “a brighter and more pleasant place.” This is why we should write; to create a brighter and more pleasant place for our readers and ourselves. King had to learn that again in order to write again.

I’m going to end this post with King’s words from the end of the On Living section of his book:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

and…

“…the rest of it (this book) is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Folks, I know King is right. I/We have the permission to write, so let me/us fill ourselves to the brim!

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Distractions

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Uh-oh!  I think I did a bad thing!

Last week I had a $230 gift certificate for Best Buy. Currently, there was nothing of a pressing need electronically for my household. So I asked my wife, Rochell, if there was anything we needed around the house, but she said no. So I cursed the powers that be under my breath because I knew what lurked on the surface of my desire; wanting me to want it. I decided to swallow my pride and suck it up and bent to its will; I put on my big boy pants and went and bought myself an XBox One S! The top of the line in Microsoft gaming console goodness! Its white sleekness and slim design looks stunning.

Now I know some of you out there are saying, “Yeahhhh, that’s awesome! When can I come over and play?” I don’t know. I’m currently not entertaining gentlemen video game callers. But what you all should be saying to me is, “Zeke, nooooooo! Why would you do that?”

What’s the problem? Well, video games and writing are a dangerous mix. Dare I say an impossible mix, unless you are someone who writes about video games. It so happens I do not. When I play video games, I do not write. When I write, I do not play video games. Why? Because video games distract me from my creativity. Sure video games are fun and great at helping you problem-solve, but they sap you of your imagination, creativity and time. Part of my writing journey is finding and allocating more time to write. And what did I go and do? Why jeopardize my writing time by purchasing the beautifully alabaster-hued XBox One S of course.

The XBox One S came bundled with the game Battlefield 1, a highly advanced and entertaining simulation of World War I. BTW, World War I is my favorite war. Yes, I have a favorite war. And yes, “favorite war” is a thing. Don’t judge.

I bought the XBox One S on a Wednesday and resisted its siren call to un-box it. So it sat unplayed until the following Monday. Now that’s what I call willpower! To be honest, I tried hooking it up on Saturday night but the HDMI port on my cable box got damaged and I had to wait. Hey, I still consider that abstaining. On Monday evening, I fired the system up and began playing Battlefield 1 after downloading it.

The game looks stunning. It’s frenetic and realistic and frightening at times. World War I was hundreds of times more frightening, I’m sure, but this game will have you on the edge of your seat. If you decide to play the campaign missions, you grow attached to your playable characters who happen to be named after real-life participants of The Great War. After playing the tutorial as a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, you then play a grueling campaign as a British tank driver. I began playing at around 8pm and didn’t stop until 3am! The time simply flew by and that is the danger I mentioned earlier.

For those who follow this blog, you already know that I am currently revising a novella. If I sit down and revise with no distractions, I’ve been able to get through a chapter in two hours. In the time I spent on Battlefield 1, I could have revised 3 1/2 chapters! That’s not good. How do I deal with this dilemma of my own creation?

Well first acknowledge the problem: video games distract me from writing. Second, understand that video game distraction is nothing more than our old friend Mr. Resistance in disguise. He keeps coming back. He always comes back. Be ready for him. For now as a stop gap solution, I must allot time for playing just as I have allotted time for writing. And the twain must never meet. The time needs to be strictly enforced. Also, and this should go without saying but I will, writing must come first. My mother always said, “Business before pleasure.” Writing must be my business. To hammer the point home, The Good Book tells us, “Pay unto Caesar what is owed Caesar. But pay unto God what is owed God.” Video games are Caesar. They are mere materials of worldly pleasure that act on us externally. Meanwhile, writing effects us on an internal level because writing is art and art comes from God.

What’s the Story, Morning Glory!

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I’ve begun to write in the morning when I wake up. Well more like revise in the morning, but you get the idea.

I was listening to an episode of Jeff Goins’ podcast. His guest, Hal Elrod, promoting his book, The Miracle Morning, talked of the benefits of writing and being creative in the morning. In order to do that you have to get up. No hitting the snooze bar! When the alarm goes off, get your ass up! Elrod also suggested that you should have a glass of water next to the alarm clock because having a drink of water when you wake up is more effective at waking you up than coffee.

The best way to not snooze-bar it is to put your alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom away from your bed. This way you will have to physically get out of bed to turn it off. Back in the day, I used to do this. It was helpful for a while, but eventually I developed an immunity towards my alarm clock buzz and stopped hearing it altogether. Once I was in such a deep sleep, my alarm had been buzzing for two hours! Hopefully that doesn’t happen this time around.

So far I’ve been successful. I’ve woken up early five days straight, got out of bed and did about 45 minutes of revision each time. That’s a good start, I’d say. Maybe I should make a 21 day challenge of it and make it a habit. It’s all about living that writer’s life baby!

Now the challenge is to carry this over to the weekends and days I have off. This past Saturday I read and critiqued my fellow writing group member’s work when I got up. But Sunday I didn’t do a darned thing and slept in late. I did finish reading The War of Art, though (I swear I will do a post on this book soon.) But I’m off from work all this week and I haven’t gotten up early to write. I’ve written a bit during my time off, enough to revise two chapters of my novella, but I had time to do more. I still have two more chapters to go in this round of revision. At the same time, I can’t beat myself up for not using my time wisely. Move on and do better and take victory in the fact that I was able to get up early and write last week.

 

Reading With Purpose

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I’m am currently mired in the revision process for the science fiction story I’ve been working on since August. The good thing is that I’m on my second draft and I’ve completed revising three chapters. Unfortunately, I have five more chapters to go! I can get her done. I must.

Also I seem to have stalled in my quest to find outlets to submit my fantasy story to. Not sure why. Who am I fooling? I know why! Resistance. I am experiencing the resistance that Steven Pressfield wrote about in his book The War of Art, which I’m currently reading (more on this book in a future post). My Gotham Writers’ Workshop instructor bade us read this book and I have finally cracked it open. So far so good. The main takeaway: Resistance is the enemy of creativity and personal progress and it must be defeated whenever and wherever it rears it’s ugly head.

So in the meantime, while I marshal my forces in my never ending struggle against Resistance, I try to read with purpose. Previously, I wrote about the Gotham Writers’ Workshop courses. Once I started taking classes, I purchased their short story collection Fiction Gallery. This collection is full of great stories written by some of the great authors of short fiction. The purpose: to help you the writer be a better reader. By better reader I mean to become better at reading with purpose. That purpose is to understand technique, theme, character and mood; then be mindful of how the authors used these effectively so that you may use these more effectively in your own writing. After finishing some of these stories, I wrote down a synopsis, what I thought was the theme, and the writing style (i.e.- POV, tense).

The stories in Fiction Gallery are split into six distinct categories: Starting Out, Longings, Those We Know, The Job, Strangeness, and Sunset. The authors within each category are a diverse set of masters from different time periods brought together to give you a fine cross-section of successful short story technique.

Starting Out is composed of stories that focus on child protagonists. A few standouts in my opinion: Anton Chekhov’sA Trifle From Life.” A short tale of a young boy who learns the hard truth that adults are not always honest and will throw little kids under the bus if need be. ZZ Packer’s Brownies deals with a young group of African-American Brownie troopers learning to not judge a book by its cover and to not always assume the worst.

The section on Longings contains stories that deal with characters who long for true love. Sometimes that longing leads them down the most interesting and detrimental paths. There’s “Labors of the Heart” by Claire Davis, where an overweight man falls for a woman who has given up on men. Talk about a challenge. Lou MatthewsCrazy Life” is about a teen Latina who stands by her gang-banging man, even though she knows she shouldn’t. I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle‘sAfter The Plague“. Who said relationship turmoil would end during the Apocalypse?

The category, Those We Know, has stories about people who learn that the people they thought they knew best aren’t really known at all. Dorothy Parker’sHere We Are deals with a couple on their honeymoon already suffering from marital strife. For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story by Anthony Doerr starts off with two young sisters as teens; one, tall and popular destined for notoriety, while the other sister is short, drab who sinks into the shadows. Their paths, of course, diverge only to reconnect for a reunion that’s more like a confrontation. My favorite in this category is Hannah Tinti’s Home Sweet Home.” Two suburban homes are effected by a double murder. As we follow the detective’s investigation, we learn about a chain of events and the relationships of the occupants of the two homes. We learn the identity of the killer, but the relationships of the characters are way more interesting.

The next category is The Job. The tales in this section deals with characters dealing with their occupations both positively and negatively. Daniel Orozco’s Orientation is a satire about a new employee being shown around their new place of work. John O’Farrell’s Walking Into The Wind is about a man trying to gain respect for his most hated of professions. Edwidge Danticat’s Night Women deals with a woman trying to shield her child from her chosen line of work. Ethan Canin gives us The Palace Thief. A story about a Roman classics teacher at an exclusive boys’ school who’s mission to teach morality and ethics to the future captains of industry seems to fall on deaf ears, forcing him to question his life’s work.

Strangeness is next. This section has stories in which characters’ normal lives diverge into the Strange. Jose Luis BorgesThe Book of Sand deals with a book buyer solicited by a bible seller with a strange book that should probably go unread. In Charles Baxter’s The Next Building I Bomb deals with a protagonist who finds a scrap of paper with a bomb threat written on it. Is the threat real or is the protagonist’s imagination running away from him? In The Secrets of Bats by Jess Row, the strangeness of an American teaching in a Hong Kong school is surpassed by a quiet student’s ability to echo-locate and why. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Third and Final Continent is the story of a Bengali man who comes to America to work in a university while adjusting to life in a new land. If that isn’t enough he lives in the home of an eccentric 103 year-old woman and is an arranged newlywed.

The final category in the book is called Sunset. In this section, the stories deal with aging and going past one’s prime. John Cheever’sThe Swimmer is about a man who decides to swim his way home through all of the swimming pools in his upscale neighborhood. He may be trying to prove he still has his great swimming skills, but in actuality he may be trying to avoid the fact that he’s old and his life is in shambles. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour is a classic that deals with a woman who received bad news about her husband. But instead of grieving about the tragedy, she oddly finds freedom in it. Thom Jones’ I Want to Live is about a woman battling cancer. No punches are pulled. The disease’s progression is shown warts and all. The last story in the book is Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by the great Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an early science fiction tale of an old scientist who gathers a group of his aged friends for a drink of an elixir made from the Fountain of Youth. With the prospect of becoming young, will the test subjects use their newfound youth to redeem their past selves?

These themes are a good cross-section of great short story ideas. Coupled with interviews of some of the authors at the back of the book, Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery is a great source for reading with purpose and understanding some of the authors’ process and their views on writing. You don’t have to be a student of Gotham to get the book.

So remember whenever you’re reading, try to read with purpose. Be mindful of theme and style. And when you’re done with reading a story, take a breath, sit with it for awhile then write down what you think is the story’s synopsis. What are you waiting for?

Better Book Ideas Webinar: The Takeaways

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This weekend, my writing group tried to come up with a name for ourselves. All the famous writing groups have one. There’s the Algonquin Round Table with Dorthy Parker and Harpo Marx. And what about the Inklings with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien? So some of us felt we should have one too. I put forth The BlackRock Writing Group, since we meet in the BlackRock Atrium of the BlackRock building (not to be confused with the building CBS owns). Writing group member, Justine T. suggested The Climbing Ivy Writing Group as the name because the atrium’s lobby is decorated with ivy that climbs up wound steel cables. She felt that ‘Black Rock’ was too reminiscent of the mercenary contractor group, Black Water. But in order to live the writer’s life you must be cutthroat like a mercenary to move from aspiring writer to professional! Our conversation of mimicking great writing groups and coming up with ideas reminded me of a webinar I attended earlier in the week. It was called Better Book Ideas and was hosted by author Joe Bunting.

The focus of Better Book Ideas was to understand  what separates professional authors, who are published, from aspiring writers. Breaking it down into four points, Bunting showed that the key in being a published professional writer is our actions.

The first thing professional writers do is Study. Pros study books by authors looking for patterns in style, theme and premise that succeed with audiences. For instance, according to Bunting, there are nine books in literary history that have sold 100 million copies. Bunting uses them as examples to show how these nine books have a similar theme and that is the concept of ‘two worlds’. Books like Alice in Wonderland, A Tale of Two Cities, The Little Prince, and The Wizard of Oz all have the theme of ‘two worlds’; the protagonist  who lives in their ordinary world is suddenly transported or goes to a place that is new, unfamiliar or hyper-realized. Studying these nine books is a good way to understand what made them successful and why the ‘two worlds’ concept resonates with audiences. Also according to Bunting, books that have gotten nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize within the last few years have often dealt with death as a theme. So writers should study Man Booker winners and finalists and explore why the subject of death resonates so well with readers. The point is, according to Bunting, successful, critically acclaimed books are written by authors who studied the works of the successful writers who came before them.

Studying leads into the second point: Aspiring writers come up with original ideas, while successful authors Steal them. According to Bunting, an author needs to steal ideas from other books and history. For instance, Shakespeare got the idea for Romeo and Juliet from a British author who wrote twenty years prior. That author stole it from an Italian author who came before him in Italy. Even George R.R. Martin stole the idea of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) from history. The books are based on the actual War of the Roses. Supposedly, if you study the War of the Roses well enough you’ll get a good idea where Martin’s tale is headed. The idea of stealing is not to just copy something that is successful. You shouldn’t just imitate. Instead, you steal the successful idea and make it uniquely yours by making changes that work for you.

Third, have Interesting Ideas. Simple enough, but the idea can’t be interesting only to you. It has to be interesting to someone else. But how do you know your idea is interesting? You test it like how a scientist tests a theory. Like how the scientist creates a hypothesis, Bunting says the writer must create a single sentence premise, hook or elevator pitch that will grab an audience. A good premise can get you published. This premise should have a named character with a descriptor adjective attached (ex. plucky Jane), a situation the character is in (ex. enters a cave), and the goal (ex. to get the gold pot) of said character. This technique applies to fiction. In memoir and non-fiction , you should show a problem, give a solution and then show it’s application. Bunting says you should go out and ask the opinion of those you trust or people who are interested in your genre if your premise is interesting. According to Bunting, when it comes to ideas, aspiring writers create ideas for themselves. Published authors create ideas for an audience. Now what if someone steals your idea? Don’t fret. The idea is not the best part. Your writing is the best part. The writing of the individual writer is what separates similar ideas. Also if people hate your idea that’s okay. You can change it and move on. Don’t waste time on it. Move to the next idea.

The fourth and final concept on what professional writers do as opposed to aspiring writers; Execute your ideas. George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are useless. Execution is everything.” What that means is you can have all the great ideas in the world, they are nothing if you don’t put them to page and get them out to the public. Spend a short amount of time planning than actually writing. When it comes to execution, getting the story out of your head is most important. You can always revise later. The process of execution requires commitment. This is an essential part of living the Writer’s Life.

Bunting’s advice on generating better story ideas seem pretty solid so I will try and integrate study and ‘stealing’ more into my writer’s life. Since I already have a ton of ‘interesting ideas’, I simply need to execute them.

Please Be Kind… And Revise

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My life now is revisions and submissions. But that’s okay! Revision and submission are a fact of the writer’s life. The only thing is I need to be more adamant about it. I’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy. I’ll revise here a little, submit there a little. More needs to be done though.

Last week, I submitted my fantasy story again and it got rejected again. But once again the rejection held promise. It was rejected with notes, which is always a good thing, regardless if you agree or not. It means they’re reading your work and taking the time to offer ways to improve your story. The editor said they didn’t like the pacing. Pacing — oh okay. When I ran this information by members of my writing group and my colleague/writing support buddy at work, they could not find reasons to agree. That’s a point for me I guess. Regardless, I revisited the manuscript on MLK Day and gave it a good going over once again for its third major revision. I tried my darnedest to find areas where I could ramp up the pacing. Unfortunately, the editor didn’t say if the story’s pacing was too fast or too slow. Fast pace was always my intent, so I tried to increase it. Now if that editor wanted me to slow the pace down, well that sure didn’t happen. Oh well. Also I tightened up some plot points and clarified some sentence intent as well. From the start I wanted to keep my word count under 5000. With this latest revision, word count went from 3700 to 3800. Back into circulation it goes.

Meanwhile on Saturday, I workshopped part five of my sci-fi story with my writing group. I received great feedback from the group, which let me know that for the most part, I’m on the right track with this story. The second draft has begun and is in full swing, but I’ve been dragging my feet with it though. I really need to focus on it. I plan at least two more revisions with it; one where I change the tense from past to present and one where I try to double the word count.

Remember I said reading is also part of the writer’s practice? You gotta work that 80/20! Pretty sure I’m doing that because I read everyday on the subway and in the bathroom. I finished reading a short story over the weekend called The Secrets of Bats by Jess Row. The story is of an American living in Hong Kong who teaches English to high school students. He develops a connection with a quiet girl, named Alice, who has learned how to echo-locate. Echolocation is the sound technique bats use to navigate their way around their environment due to their extremely poor eyesight. Alice has taught herself echolocation despite the fact that she isn’t blind or even nearsighted. The teacher is determined to know how Alice has done this but why. The girl prefers to use echolocation rather than use the perfectly good eyes she has. Themes I found in this story deal with obsession, trust, and letting go. The writing style is devoid of quotation marks though there are many instances of dialogue. Not sure why the author decided to use this technique. My guess is the author did this as a way to convey  that the narrator is ‘reporting’ what is happening or is relating this moment in time to someone as if they are having a mere conversation.

I’ve started a new short story read and I’ll write about it soon. For now it’s back to revising and submitting. Hey! Why are you just sitting there reading this post? You’ve got some revising and submitting to do too!

Success…Sort of

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Sunday made 24 out of 25 days of writer-centric activity! Okay, so I didn’t do 21 days in a row, so what! But I’ll take it. I wrote, revised, critiqued, blogged and read during the 25 days. When I sit back and look at it, I have a lot to feel good about. So much was accomplished.

I was able to finish off the first draft of my novella and complete a short story within this time period. The short story was even entered in a contest. Christmas vacation didn’t stop me. I could’ve have easily sat back and immersed myself in family, eating, drinking and holiday nothingness. But I had 3 days on vacation where I actually had some seriously prolific writing jags. My initially stated goal may not have been fully achieved, but so much good came out of this period that it can only be considered successful.

FYI – I consider critiquing part of the writer’s life. According to Gabriela Pereira in her book DIY MFA, the writer’s life should be divided into three categories; writing, reading, and community. Critiquing is part of the community category. Writers need the support of other writers. If you can critique a fellow writer’s work, you most definitely should. On the flip-side, you should be seeking other writers to critique your work. The life of the lonely writer is a stereotype we should not play into. The reason I bring critiquing up is because this past Friday and Saturday I did not write or revise. I just critiqued submissions from my writing group.

The experiment may be over, but the day to day writer’s life carries on. Learning that I have it in me to live a writer’s life gives me great pride and hopefully the momentum will take me into an orbit that never degrades.