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.

Nuh-nuh-nuh Nineteen Nineteen

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Here we are at 19 days! 19 out of 22 days so far. The end goal of creating a writing habit is in sight. This is good. What’s even better? I finally finished the first draft of a science fiction story I’ve been working on since August.

The story, originally intended as a short story in under 9000 words, ballooned to more than double that. My friend and writing group colleagues have suggested that I should stretch it out to novel length. Not sure if I’m ready for that. I have so many ideas for novels that to add this current story to the mix would be overwhelming. I really want to concentrate on short stories for now, but damn novel ideas keep popping up.

With my story just under 20,000 words, a problem has presented itself. 20,000 words means that it’s a novella. Not many literary magazine publishers want to deal with novellas. They want short stories under 10,000. And as far as novellas go, this is a short novella. Book publishers are going to want more. So I think I’ve come up with an idea on how to deal with this conundrum.

After revision, I will use this story to pitch to agents with. If agents and publishers take it as the short novella it is, then great. If publishers say they want more, then I will put my nose to the grindstone and stretch it out to 40,000 words. Hopefully, I can make either happen.

The battle continues.

Quince Breakdown

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Noooooooo! My glorious streak was stopped at 15 days in a row of intentional writing. I was doing so well. Even on Christmas vacation I was able to get a ton of writing in for my current story. Look at this word count:

12/15/2016 – 300
12/16/2016 – 309
12/18/2016 – 530
12/19/2016 – 331
12/20/2016 – 1432
12/21/2016 – 344

12/22/2016 – 632
12/25/2016 – 830
12/26/2016 – 752
12/27/2016 – 1904
12/28/2016 – 1445

On 12/17 and 12/23, I blogged. On 12/29, I outlined for half a page, the end of my current story (probably not using any of it). On 12/30, I wrote two paragraphs for my current story (my cold firmly entrenched).

What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. I was in the middle of driving back from Hammond, Indiana to NYC and I’m sick as a dog. I haven’t been this sick since April and I feel worse than that time. This is the second time in a row that I have gotten sick on the tail-end of my vacation. Boo!

The drive back to NYC took 11.5 hours, 5.5 of which I drove. There was too much coughing, sneezing and hacking up phlegm during the 6 hours my wife drove so I didn’t have the energy to grab the old laptop. I thought about writing a few lines to my science fiction story once we arrived home, but when midnight New Year’s hit, I kissed my wife wished her a happy one, took a shit-ton of medication and went to bed. I even brought my laptop to bed with me, but Nyquil knocked me out faster than Amanda Nunes did Rhonda Rousey. Excuses, excuses; I know.

So the next question is, what do I do about it? For one, I mustn’t beat myself up about not being able to reach my goal. Shit happens! I mean did you see Mariah Carey’s ABC New Year’s performance? Dude, shit happens! So like Ms. Carey, I must pick myself up, dust myself off, get healthy and get back to business.

When a goal is not reached one must examine the original goal, understand why it wasn’t reached, and begin a new goal. I’m not sure how to go about it though. Do I start from Day 1 again or do I keep my tally and write for 21 out of 22 days? This is my program, so I must do what’s best for me and I choose the latter. It’s not like I’m an alcoholic and have to start at Day 1 sober again. It doesn’t make sense for me to throw away the days I was actually productive. They count! These blog entries count!

So here we go! Day 16 of 22! I’ve been knocked down but now I’m sitting up in my sickbed and I must sally forth!

And On the Seventh Day…No Rest for the Writer!

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Seven days of writing at least something significant are in the books! Woohoo! One week down, two more weeks to go! Can I do it? I hope so.

Yesterday was tough. I went to the car dealership where I bought my car. It was time for service so I got a tune up. While I was there, I read a book of short stories that I brought along, GOTHAM WRITERS’ WORKSHOP FICTION GALLERY .  

I knew I was going to be waiting a long time for my car, so this was the perfect opportunity to get in my 80/20 reading. 80/20 is 80% reading and 20% writing. That’s what the experts say you should do. While at the service department, I read two stories: WALKING INTO THE WIND by John O’Farrell and NIGHT WOMEN by Edwidge DanticatWALKING INTO THE WIND is about a British man who laments about his trials and tribulations of being a mime in a society that just doesn’t get it. As you could imagine it’s quite humorous. NIGHT WOMEN is about a woman who watches her young son while he sleeps. She ruminates on her hopes and dreams for the boy and how she would love for the two of them to live in a dreamworld. The reason why is because the woman is a prostitute and she is waiting for her next john to arrive.

After I read these two stories, I wrote about them in my little note book that I carry. Each story got a page each where I gave a synopsis, tried to identify themes, and tried to identify writing styles. And yes, I count these exercises as writing (143 words). I wanted to work on my science fiction story some (4 days, 2500 words since my last post) but was just way too tired and fell asleep watching the Doctor Who Takeover on BBC America!

Now the real hard part is coming. I’m spending Christmas for 8 days in the Midwest with my in-laws. I’m bringing my laptop with me. But with all the ripping and running, how am I going to get any work done? I have to figure out a way. I will find a way, damn it! It can be done. At least 100-300 words of something each day. I can do that can’t I? Wish me luck! I wonder does this blog count?

21 Days to a Better Writer’s Life!

 

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The writer’s practice is tough. Just this past Monday night was a perfect example of it. I wanted to sit down and watch television and maybe get 300 words into this sci-fi story I’ve been working on since August. Of course, it should go without saying that I was setting myself up for failure by combining television and typing 300 viable words.

My wife was preparing schoolwork in our office. She has the uncanny ability to be able to work and catch up on her favorite shows at the same time. So I decided to work in the living room and re-watch the mid-season finale of The Flash. Unfortunately, I do not have my wife’s skill at multi-tasking. I quickly became blocked, as you might imagine. The new ideas for my story were few and far between.

When my wife finished her work and decided to join me, she suggested that we watch an episode of The Walking Dead on DVR instead. We were two episodes behind for God’s sake! Foolishly, I agreed. As the show’s signature opening credits played after a thrilling opening scene, I realized I wasn’t going to get any work done. I looked down at my trusty Scrivener word count and found that I had only typed 90 words; two paragraphs. Annoyed at myself, I closed my laptop in defeat and watched the remainder of TWD with my wife. The typically awesome performance of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, brightened my spirits only temporarily, but once the episode was over I slipped back down into the trap of what I like to call ‘writer’s regret’. 300 words-a-day missed again.

So what’s the takeaway from this? I must guard my writing habit. Did you see what I did there? I called it a ‘habit’. It’s not inspiration. The late great Octavia Butler once said:

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

I’m trying to take this to heart. Write as a habit, not from inspiration. That is so tough. We think the greats must have been writing from inspiration, but if we investigate we’ll find that they wrote everyday. Stephen King writes 2500 words a day. Heman Melville secreted himself away from friends to guard his writer’s practice. The initial story idea maybe came through inspiration, but that’s about it.

Some say the key to creating a habit is to do the action for 21 days. After 21 days, your body and your mind become conditioned to doing the action.

This is the third day I’ve worked on this blog and the first day since refocusing my writing efforts. So let’s say that I have 18 days to go. God, I hope I can do it. I have to dig down deep and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone and just do it. Thank you Shai LeBeouf!

21 days is the goal! At this point in time, this goal is more important than what I produce or the quality of what I produce. Just write for 21 days. I can do it!