I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

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The current word count for Muddy River is 86,155 - although I expect that to surpass 100,000 with the ending that I have yet to complete (which I have mapped out in my mind) as well as some fleshing out of certain scenes and characters. Then after editing, who knows?

Last fall, when I reached what was initially the end of my story (which is now no longer the end), I took a long break from writing. It’s actually been over nine months since I began my initial editing process and six months since I’ve spent any significant time with the story.

It’s been fun over the past few days refreshing myself on the story and characters with a reread of what I have written, although it’s clear that the editing process is far from complete.

Now that I’m on summer break, it’s back to the grind. I’ve set myself a deadline of July 4 to complete the added writing as well as the next phase in editing.

We’ll see how that works out.


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If you’ve ever attempted to write a book as an adult and writing is not your paid profession, it’s likely you’ve experienced the silent skepticism of others or, even worse, the congenial smirk.

"Oh, that’s cute," they say in a tone reminiscent to a kindergarten teacher commending a student for saying they’re going to be an astronaut when they’re all grown up. They ask about the story and you’re torn between trying to explain an inexplicable plot or mumbling that you’re a better writer than Nicholas Sparks before scurrying away bitterly.

In many ways, writing - at least writing fiction - is juvenile. It’s a refusal to let go of one’s imagination. It’s the deliberate choice to spend one’s increasingly finite time building stories rather than kitchen cabinets or car motors, the refusal to stop playing make believe as one does on the playground, only now, it’s expressed on paper with words instead of being acted out with verbalized sound effects and poorly executed kung fu kicks on weather-worn blacktop.

Maybe it’s silly, but really, so is life. Might as well act accordingly.


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Why should things be easy to understand?
Thomas Pynchon’s response in a 1977 interview with Playboy when asked about the complexity of his stories.

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The Best Fiction Books I Read in 2013
  1. The Son by Philipp Meyer
  2. Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell
  3. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  4. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  5. The Second Coming by Walker Percy
  6. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
  7. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
  9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  10. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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Writing through fatigue

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.


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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.

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Spent some time today polishing the first draft of the book.
This could take a while.

Spent some time today polishing the first draft of the book.

This could take a while.


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81,654 words.

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.


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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.

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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. 


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Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style - all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

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Progress

130 pages.

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.


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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.


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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

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