|—||Thomas Pynchon’s response in a 1977 interview with Playboy when asked about the complexity of his stories.|
- The Son by Philipp Meyer
- Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
- The Second Coming by Walker Percy
- A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
- Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
- Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
It’s been said that Vonnegut wrote some of his greatest works while being employed full-time and having a houseful of seven children (three of his own, four adopted) waiting for him in the evening.
Vonnegut was a writer whose genius has rarely been surpassed, so perhaps even that distraction was inconsequential. With his skills as a writer, he was able to transgress workday fatigue and a busy homestead to produce some of the finest works of American literature.
As for me and my lack of genius, my writing process slows during the school year. After a long day of dealing with squabbling teenagers, I arrive back to my relatively quiet abode, I sit in my usual seat at the dining room table (which is, of course, for writing, not dining), light a candle, and I face a particular white wall with my freshly brewed dark roasted coffee. Once situated, I open the document and stare at the words, which all seem to blend together into a mishmash of confusion. Where was I exactly? Where was I taking this particular conversation? Where did I want to take the story from here?
"No more thinking," my mind begs. "Shut off your brain. Lay on the couch. Crack an ice cold beer. You deserve it after such a long day."
My mind makes a convincing argument. Sometimes, it takes the more rational part of my mind to conduct a takeover of the lazy side to overcome that master of convincingly crafted excuses.
So, I trudge forward and I write anyway. I edit. I know that I don’t write as well when my brain is tired (which is most of the time during the school year), but the important thing is getting the words (or the red ink) onto the page.
How Vonnegut or some of these other writers were able to do it, balancing their writing with other full-time careers and responsibilities, is a skill I am still working on. I can only hope it is a skill that can be learned.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. …
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals. You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different. …
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds … you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
|—||From a recent lecture by author Neil Gaiman. Read it in its entirety here.|
I use Grammarly’s grammar check because…
It provides more than the simple red and green squiggly-lined feedback offered up by Microsoft Word. This is beneficial to my teenage students who need practice in analyzing their personal writing styles.
In evaluating a piece of writing, this service offers a score out of 100 and breaks the score down into sub-categories that include plagiarism (like TurnItIn), contextual & spelling check, grammar, punctuation, and perhaps the most interesting, style and word choice.
Young writers often have the spelling and grammar aspect of writing down, but it’s a writer’s style that often takes time (sometimes decades) to master. This could be an effective tool to get students thinking about it. Because, you know, students may not trust their teachers, but they sure do trust computers.
I knew that was more than the average length of a novel, but I still needed a point of reference. That word count puts it somewhere between the length of the first Harry Potter book (77,000 words) and Orwell’s 1984 (89,000 words).
I’m not yet done with the initial draft. I estimate that I have another 15,000 words or so before I’ve told the story that I intend to.
My output of words-per-day has slowed to a crawl. In hindsight, I recognize that I should have invested even more time in writing over the summer, taking advantage of the momentum to finish my first draft before the school year began. Writing after a long day teaching followed by a few more hours of lesson planning, grading, meetings, and phone calls is downright difficult. Although surely other writers have written under more difficult circumstances, so it’s little more than an excuse.
Then, of course, there are the real decisions to make. Do I dive into the editing process immediately? Do I let the story sit for a few months first? Do I - *gasp* - let others read the first draft and provide their input? Do I start right away on one of the other projects that have been brewing in the back of my mind? Do I cleanse my mental palette by writing and reading some nonfiction?
That doesn’t even begin to consider the process of shopping it around, but I am quite some time away from even considering that, especially considering my editing process (actually, I spent some time editing the first ten pages… the amount of red is horrifying).
I think I’ll sleep on it and decide all this later.
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. …
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
|—||George Orwell in his classic essay “Why I Write" (1947), expressing much more eloquently what I was attempting to explain a year or so ago.|
If you’re bored enough, I made list of posts on my blog that I find notable and still readable these many months later. That’s an admitted smugness to this and I’d like to lie and say that my publicist had me do it, but since I don’t have a publicist (any takers?), the claim would be a stretch. Really though, it more serves the purpose of me being able to go back and find the posts easily.
Otherwise, I’m still writing away and I’ve passed the 150 page mark. How many pages this would be published, I’m not really sure, although it’d unquestionably depend on the format in which it was published. It might be 200 pages. It might be 250. I haven’t a clue.
I also have a few sprawling historical essays with original research that I’ve been shopping around to various journals and publications: one on the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of the NSDAP in Germany (a tired topic, I know, but it’s entirely original research) and another on the evolving historiography of one of the founders of socialism, Robert Owen. I’ve always been hesitant to start this process, as I’m perpetually unhappy with my writing when I reread it. There can always be improvements and it’s been a task for me to reach a stopping point where I can say enough is enough and stop editing. Furthermore, I have dozens of 3-6 page essays on various educational theories that I have been trying to decide what to do with, which I’ve considered editing and weaving into one single work.
But really, my focus is finishing the book first. Once I’ve finished it (and the end is in sight, I think), I’ll need to mental break and I can work on some of these other projects before I go back to edit my first draft of Muddy River.
Unfortunately though, I’m gazing at the calendar and I see that one week from today, I’m back to work. Summer break will soon be a distant memory. As a kid, summer’s seemed to go on endlessly. Nowadays, I blink and it’s over. I suppose it’s all relative. When you’re ten years old, a summer is 1/40th of the entire life you’ve lived. That’s a long time. When you’re 26 years old, a summer is 1/104th, which doesn’t seem quite as long. I’m not a mathematician, but we’ll go with that explanation.
|—||William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style|
The story is turning out to be far more complicated than I ever imagined. I never expected that he would do that or that she would become such a vital character. I didn’t want him to say the things that he said, but he said them anyway. Not even my delete button could prevent him from blurting out those words which altered the course of where I had originally envisioned the story heading.
Such is the life a writer and those unpredictable characters within his stories.
Today, I hit the milestone of 100 typed pages on the novel, which is significant considering how often in the past I have abandoned stories that I’ve started writing. I’m never happy with what I’m writing while I’m writing it. Or afterwards either, I suppose. It’s been a process accepting that this is more or less how my mind functions when it comes to my own work and, from what I understand, this isn’t unique to me.
It’s still difficult to avoid the temptation of going back and editing what I’ve already written (for chrissake, on my insignificant blog posts, I tend to go back and edit my wording three, four, sometimes five times), but I’ve learned from experience how that can kill the momentum of my writing. So far, I’ve managed to avoid this endless trap, and if an idea pops into my head to improve an aspect of the story that I’ve already written, I jot it down in my notes so that I can go back and alter or add to it later.
For the writer, sometimes the most important lesson in staying focused is simply to keep the story moving forward, no matter what, writer’s block be damned.
Plot holes, inconsistencies, weak character development, unclear thematic elements, overused vocabulary, the occasional grammatical errors - all of that can be fine-tuned in the second draft.
Right now, my job is the complete the first.
To the young writers, I would merely say, try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say - or more - a day to write. … So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff.
Read what excites you, would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight. Other than that, don’t try to get rich … If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But, on the other hand, I would like to think that in a country this large - and a language even larger - that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.
|—||Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author John Updike’s advice for those who want to be writers in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement|
The book is tentatively titled Muddy River.
Whether the name sticks or not remains to be seen, but it’s nice to have a title floating around in my head when thinking about it, something other than another “Untitled Novel Manuscript.”
Somehow a title makes it seem a little more real.
I’m on page 61 of the first draft, meaning that I have a long way to go still, and even further considering that I tend to take even more time editing than I do actually writing.
Overall though, I’m pleased with my progress. That’s over a page per day since I’ve started it. I expect to be able to write one page each day. That’s the goal that I set for myself, at least - although sometimes there’s less, sometimes there’s more.
Those moments of inspiration come in waves and, it seems, less frequently than I’d prefer. There are days when I’m not in the mood, or I’m too tired, or too distracted, or have too many other things on my daily agenda, but I still force myself to sit and write anyway. It’s better to get some words down onto the page, even if I’m not feeling those pangs of inspiration (that has always been an excuse for me not to write), than to have nothing for the day.
That’s why the writing gods created editing. I have to fight the temptation to not go back and edit as I’m writing - and I do, on occasion. There are times when it’s necessary. But it’s easy to get caught in the trap of editing purgatory, spending hours trying to perfect a single page, a single paragraph, a single sentence despite there being so much story left to tell. Despite knowing that, in my mind, it’ll never be perfect. I could edit forever and still never be happy with it. It’s better to be in writing hell.
So, dear blog, I must continue to avoid and neglect you. I must go back to Muddy River.
Tyler Addison James, one of the greatest guys on the planet (not to mention, one of the sexiest), released his EP album Eastbound today.
You can purchase either a digital or physical copy of the album right here for $5. The site lets you stream the five songs also, if you’d like to hear them before you spend your hard-earned cash - but trust me, you’ll want to.
You can tweet him @TylerAJames (and if you re-tweet one of his tweets, you can get 15% off the album).
You can follow him on Facebook right here.
And you can check out his website and download photos of him for your laptop wallpaper right here.
You should probably do these things. Most importantly, you should re-blog this. Because if you don’t, you’ll go through the rest of your life regretting the moment that you chose not to, wondering “what if?”, thinking that if only you had re-blogged that post, how differently your life might have turned out.