Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Excuses, Excuses

So since I made a fuss about writing 2,000 words a day, I will also admit when I miss the goal. Namely, yesterday (about 1,850 which is not bad but I said this week I’d shoot for 2,250). And today: only 900!

I have plenty of excuses on why I didn’t hit my goal today. Would you like to hear them?

I spent a lot of time on the phone tracking down old 401Ks. I went for a run (which I often do, but somehow this comes up today as an excuse not to write). I also spoke to Chase about a strange $20 fee on my account. My ankles hurt. Right as I was about to turn off the TV after my TV/lunch break, HGTV’s Design on a Dime opened with an episode in Chicago. Well, I live in Chicago! I have to watch that. I recorded it so Mike could watch it later. That meant I could watch it later too. Still, the logic evaded me at the time.

Did I mention my ankles hurt? The upstairs neighbor is vacuuming. I have a second job interview later this afternoon. This is for a fun, minimum-wage, get out of the house a few hours a week part-time job; still it’s all I can think about! I wrote 900 words, so that’s not so bad. This morning I was wired from Diet Coke. This afternoon I’m kind of tired. I did some online critiques at Miss Snark’s First Victim this morning. I don’t really know what I’m going to write next. My knees kind of hurt too. I think I’m getting old. Etc., etc., etc.

It’s all pointless, really, the excuses. I’m kind of tossing in the towel that this is just a mess of a writing day. I don’t do it often, but heck, I’m human and some
days I have off days. This here is one of them.

Maybe I’ll treat them like personal days at work. You only get a few times a year when you can give your boss a vague, shielded-in-personal-privacy excuse of why you can’t make it to work at the last minute and you’re forgiven, no questions asked. I’ll forgive myself today, but if this becomes a habit, I’m probably going to have to meet with HR. Since I’m manager and worker and HR rep of my own little writing career, a meeting like that would totally blow my mind, so I’m probably best served to just get down to work tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Character Tags: Michael Scott and Mustache Jeff

A few weeks go, there was another great episode of The Office. In this episode (see the clip from Hulu) Michael does one of his terribly embarrassing, offensive, and in-the-real-world-would-get-you-fired things that we love to watch him do on TV. I will relate it to writing. I love making analogies to writing!

Michael gives a presentation on his great sales record to other branches. (Note also that this is one of many redeeming qualities of Michael that allows us to forgive him his awkward mistakes. Others are that he treats his officemates like family and really, really wants to be in love). In this session, Michael lets them in on a trick he uses to remember people’s names.

Michael proceeds to point at people right there in the room and say lots of offensive things about each person's physical appearance that I really can’t bear to repeat. But what he’s doing here is giving each person a character tag. In writing, this is a unique physical characteristic, mannerism, hobby, speech pattern, etc. that quickly helps the readers keep track of characters and fleshes out their personality.

I remember in one critique group a writer submitted a historical fiction piece. It had a lot of description and dialogue, but there was one character, the protagonist’s Aunt, who had a large, purple feathery hat on. Everyone in the group agreed that the one thing that stood out for us was this very minor character’s big purple hat and how she clumsily got out of the carriage as she was trying not to smash the feathers on her hat. And then how as she talked excitedly the rest of the night, the purple feathers on her hat would bob up and down.

I am writing a novel based in an office. Since I’m just in the first draft, I am not going crazy deep into character development just yet. However, I realized I’m having a hard time keeping track of the characters. And when I’m deep in the zone of pounding out words, I don’t want to scroll back 30 pages to remind myself what the name was of the guy who sat to the right of my character in last week’s meeting. Such a diversion will surely take me out of the story and so I keep on writing. I hope that later I will remember that when I said Bob on page 187 I meant Tom from page 146. But I’ve come to realize this may not be the case.

So yesterday, like the great Michael Scott, I named a character Mustache Jeff. I will never forget who he is and in another scene later that day I went on to describe all the glorious shades of brown, gray, white and yellow in his bushy, magnificent mustache.

And while I certainly don’t condone remembering people in real life this way (OK, if you must call me Big Blue Eyes Lisa I’ll let you) I do think it’s a simple and quick way to distinguish your characters in that rush of a first draft. And go back and develop those traits as you revise. You don’t want a one-dimensional character that’s nothing but mustache.

As I revise I’ll think things like, what does a guy with a mustache do? Does he have a wife/girlfriend/partner who begs him to shave his ‘stache or do they love the tickle of his whiskers on their face? When he’s shaving, does he comb his ‘stache? Then these become not just details about a mustache, but a character’s personality. If a guy combs his mustache each morning (knowing nothing about mustache maintenance, I am really stretching here, but just please go with me for the sake of example) does that mean he also puts his dishes right in the dishwasher after he eats? Is he the guy with a perfectly clean desk at work?

A quick little tag can soon develop into a full-blown character with real human traits just like you and me (aka Big Blue Eyes Lisa.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Agents Providing Query Insight

Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint Literary Management had a great post earlier this week on her responses to queries. She gave her reactions to 20 queries via Twitter and kindly posted a compilation on her blog. Here's the link. I will post two of my faves below, but you really must click the link and read more. It's quite helpful.

Query #16: This query was cc'd to multiple agents. Reject. You just shot yourself in the foot, dude.

Query #20: Loves me. Loves my blog. Has MFA. Won contest I've never heard of. Three paragraphs in and it's still not a query letter. Reject.

Also, since it's kind of related, check out Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford's post that lists stats of his 105-query three-day weekend.

Interesting fact from Nathan's post: "Queries that misspelled the word query or blog: 3"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When Reading Becomes Writing

I read a lot yet always think I should read more. But what I hate about reading lately is that there I am, settled into the couch, fully pulled into a perfectly fine book when I get an idea for my story. To be clear, it’s not like I’m reading a book where the character has a heart attack and I think, I know, my character should have a heart attack. The two topics are always completely unrelated.

But reading wakes up my writing bones and even more so as I’m doing more writing these days. I think a lot of writing is subconscious. I never ever plot a story. I have no idea what is going to happen when I sit down in front of the computer. Most days, I open my laptop and think “I have no idea what to write. How am I going to get 2,000 words out of nothing?”

But then I go ahead and write nothing. OK, I don’t mean nothing at all, but instead nothing significant. I start with very little things. I make my character walk down the aisle, go for a jog, walk her dog, go to lunch. A very simple forward motion (I try to avoid the character sitting around and thinking, but gosh, sometimes I just can’t help myself) and then do you know what happens? I start making things up. I make up a whole bunch of things, and have my character do these things, and then throw in obstacles to prevent future related things from happening.

I would never think up these things when I’m in the shower or cleaning the kitchen sink. I don’t think these things when I’m away from my writing for long either. But once my fingers hover over the keyboard, it’s like they get addicted to typing silly crazy things that I make up. And when my brain is reading words, it decides it has some silly crazy words of its very own to put into my very own book.

Shopping for clothes? No story ideas. Driving in my car? No story ideas, just singing along to the radio at the top of my lungs. Chopping broccoli? No story ideas, just laughs about Dana Carvey.

But when I’m in front of that computer or engrossed in a book, story ideas abound. I think it’s kind of magnetic. So put yourself in situations where, when the magic mountains come, you are ready to write all about them. That means read a lot. Go to the bookstore. Hang out at the library (seriously, when was the last time you went there?) Make new writer friends. And for crying out loud, but sure to sit at the computer now and again and type some words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AWP 2009

I attended the AWP conference last week. Us writers, we’re weird people. Let me say that my previous industry conferences have been run by and had as their presenters corporate trainers and marketers. These are people who know how to speak professionally and do it up right. They know how to sell their ideas. In fact, their jobs depend on it.

I think a writer's job depends on this a little, too. Yet, more than half of the sessions I attended consisted of people reading straight from an academic-like paper and making no eye contact or showing any general passion whatsoever. Maybe everyone was hung over, who knows, but at times I felt like I was at an anthropology conference. With the exception of the “Capturing the Attention of the Media” panel, where the great Chicago Tribune writer and radio host Rick Kogan was a surprise guest and pretty much made my whole day.

But, I always learn something. Some things you hear for the first time, and some things you’ve heard a million times but a refresher hits home.

A few notes:

  • The difference between point of view and narrative distance. One speaker talked about point of view being the camera and narrative distance being the zoom lens.
  • A speaker used the phrase “conventional bad marriage story.” Reminded me not to write these, which is a good reminder because I love so very much to write about love.
  • Another session tried to define the purpose of the chapter, but really just raised a lot of questions and I think expected us to stare off into the distance and philosophically ponder the purpose of the chapter. Although the speaker, Drew Johnson, had a good suggestion. Look at all your “white space” (i.e. scene breaks or chapter breaks). Did you ever use white space as a cheat to get yourself out of writing a tough scene or when you didn’t know what to do? Of course you did. Writers do it all the time. But take another look at those spots and force yourself to keep writing the scene and see what happens. A good pushing-yourself exercise.
  • When you’re on TV or the radio, tease your book, don’t give it all away. Give the listeners a taste of what your book is about so that they want to go out and read it. Don’t summarize it so much that they feel they’ve already experienced the book and know the story well enough.
  • When you get published, go to bookstores that carry your book and ask if you can sign copies. The signed copies often end up in highlighted places of the store.
  • Are you going to be on the radio talking about your book? Schedule an event (reading, sitting at a bar allowing people to buy you drinks) later that day or week for readers to meet you in person. And, you know, buy your book.
  • Someone asked a great question of when should you stop promoting your book? Rick Kogan said when it’s no more fun. Like when do you feel like you don’t want to date someone any more? You kind of just know when it’s over.
  • In case you haven't heard, you need a website. Add all sorts of neat tidbits on your author website or blog just like the extras on a DVD. Videotape yourself doing a reading, post it on You Tube, and link to your website. Get creative.
  • Donna Seaman from Booklist referred to book trailers (just like movie trailers) as “one more thing to ignore.”
  • When you’re choosing a conference to attend, consider what the goal is. Pitch to agents? Manuscript review? Writing workshops? Define that first, then narrowing down the options of which conference meets your criteria becomes so much easier.
  • One session on point of view got my vote for funniest title. "Omniscience: We Know, We Know," was another "let me read you my thoughts directly from these four pieces of paper in my hands" session. But one nugget I actually jotted down was the idea that "In the beginning you must be willing not to know." I'm pretty sure this comment related to the omniscient point of view, and that you can't really apply it until further drafts of the story after you’ve figured a few things out. But I think it's a good rule of thumb, a freeing one, for getting through those early drafts. Keep allowing yourself to not have all the answers about where your story is going or what your characters are up to. Give yourself the freedom to be, you know, creative.

And personal highlight of the conference for me was the release party (I was the bartender!) for my former teacher and all-around-great guy Scott Blackwood and his novel (the AWP Novel Award winner, mind you!) We Agreed to Meet Just Here. Beautiful book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kindle Crazy

Everyone is all crazy about the new version of the Kindle. The NY Times is drooling all over it. The original online headline read “New Kindle Is Faster, Smarter, Thinner” which I think means they want us all to take it out on a date. Even Computerworld has stuff to say about e-books in general. Yet, some are still fans of the Sony Reader.

But I am not in love with the concept, not yet. I’m perhaps a passive fan of technology. I love my iPod but didn’t get one until the video iPod version came out. I didn’t start paying my bills online until a couple of years ago. I only just recently parted with my collection of cassette tapes. Though I do DVR and love every commercial-free minute of it.

All of these things have made my life easier, faster, more convenient. And I guess this is what the Kindle is supposed to do.

But I'm not sold yet. Of course, there’s the cost of $359. And they say you earn it back after a couple dozen e-book purchases. But as my lack of jobness has recently made me switch from bookstore purchases to library loans, I am not looking to lay down that type of start-up cash right now.

People rave that when you return to your Kindle, it opens it up right to the page where you left off!! You mean, like a bookmark? I don’t get all the fuss. Plus, you can’t read it in the bathtub. And who cares that I take about one bath a year. When I do sink into those bubbles, I want something in my grubby little hands to read.

I will accept that the day may come (I won’t say will, not yet) when paper books and newspapers are obsolete and we (okay, I) will laugh at ourselves for turning our nose up at this new technology just like we did with TV, Eight Track Players and wi-fi. (But really, did anyone ever shun wi-fi? That stuff is fantastic!)

So Kindle, I guess you’re fine and all, and maybe we could have some good times together at some point down the road. But right now, I’m just not that into you. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Word Count for the Week

As promised (mostly to myself) here is an update on my word count this week.

Monday I hit 2,488 words total, and all before 2:00. This was great, and a rare treat. I savored it as it happened. First, the words flowed quickly. I think this was because I don’t write on weekends and the words were all stored up in my brain and fled right out of my fingers. Also, I knew I had two social activities on Tuesday that would keep me away from my keyboard for a while and it would probably help if I pushed myself harder while the words were easy.

Tuesday, I hit only 1,847 words. To me, that’s 1,900 (I understand the science of rounding actually makes it 1,800, but I am an optimist, so when it helps to my advantage, I round up). If I am feeling spent, and I’ve just wrapped up, and I’m around 1600 or 1700 words, and it’s late in the afternoon, and I made decent progress the day before, I’ll allow myself to stop for the day. This was one of those days.

It’s noon on Wednesday. I have not written a single word. I have not even opened the document. I have been surfing and reading and moping a bit. I know I will get some words out, but I think this is my problem: my husband is out of town on business, so I don’t feel the urgency to wrap up by 5 or 6:00. I can write until 8:35, I tell myself! Or even 10:35! (After that, I get sleepy.) My normal office working hours of 9 to 5 are a very good thing and logic tells me really should maintain them. But right now, I’m going back to reading a book. I’ll hit the computer later and see what happens.

Later: I’ve eeked out 702 words. That is not so hot, but it’s 702 better than 0.

Later still, but earlier than 8:35 (yay for me!): Hit 1,597. I wrote a tough (i.e. sad and rather emotionally wrenching) scene today. Those words are harder to come by. But there are more words on the page now than when I woke up this morning. I’m calling it a day.

Thursday I hit 2,331 words. Due to a slight alarm clock fiasco, I did not get up and at ‘em as early as usual. Plus, I had plans in the late afternoon, so I had a small window of time to work with. Boy, do I love pressure. It really works its thing on me. Good day. Pushing myself day (aren’t they all that way?).

Friday I hit 1,284 by 10am. Leaving to meet old work friends for lunch. It’s now 5:12 and I hit 2,045. And I really, really pushed myself to hit that 2K mark. I sat down in front of my laptop late in the afternoon wondering what else I could eek out. I had nothing. So I got a Diet Coke and as I was grabbing a handful of popcorn (what does that have to do with Diet Coke?) I had an idea. If I hadn’t forced myself to sit back down and at least contemplate more words, who knows what would have happened.

So, I tallied 10,308 words this week. It was holy moly hard. I did not always want to write so many words each day. I rarely had an idea of where the story would go or what I would say when I sat down in front of the computer. But sit down I did, and then typing happened and then a skeleton of a story was born. And only because I showed up to work each day.

But now, it’s Friday, my work week is over. It’s beer-thirty, so I gotta run.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Day in the Life

I think people wonder what I actually do all day without a paying job. For fun, here is a run-down of Monday, February 2nd.

7:20 Wake up.

7:22 Pee.

7:24 Return to bed.

7:45 Get out of bed.

7:55 Walk to 7-11 for Big Gulp. Also get a chocolate donut, which was not part of the plan. OK, donut was totally part of the plan, who are we kidding?

8:10 Surf internet, craft email message about launching blog. Email message to Mike and obsess that he does not respond in four minutes.

9:06 Open actual Word file that contains the novel I'm working on and remember that there is writing to do.

9:30 to 9:45 Receive and incorporate feedback from Mike on blog announcement email. Obsess about the link being purple instead of blue.

9:46 Forget about stupid purple shade of link. I mean, who cares?

9:52 Send out email about blog.

9:53 to 10:10 Check Google Analytics to see how many new unique page visits I get to Fiction City. About 5.

10:11 Shut up and write.

11:00 Do a word count of the day’s progress. At 1,445 words. Surf internet some more.

11:05 Read wonderful book called Good Grief by Lolly Winston and wish I could write like that.

11:35 Eat something I shouldn’t for lunch and watch Episode 10, Season 1 of Mad Men.

12:25 Turn off TV and get back to writing.

12:40 Check word count again.

12:42 Realize word checking is stupid and wasteful use of time.

12:43 Curious about how much time is wasted on said word count, decide to document how I spent various chunks of time this morning. Begin writing this time log.

12:46 Shut up and write.

1:00 to 1:10 Talk to husband on phone. (Just for the record, he called me).

1:11 Write an email.

1:12 Add stuff in log.

1:13 Realize there’s only 47 minutes until The Bonnie Hunt show and decide it would be a good idea to hit 2K words before then.

1:52 Hit 2,300 words and feel absolutely creatively depleted for the day. Watch a little Days of Our Lives.

2:00 Watch The Bonnie Hunt show and make plans to meet writer friend later in the week.

3:00 Leave for the gym, bringing book I cannot put down. Proceed to stop Elliptical machine three times due to pressing book into buttons due to the fact that I cannot wait to find out what happens next due to book being great.

4:00 to 4:20 Stop at grocery store on way home from gym and somehow end up buying little Valentine cupcakes.

4:20 to 4:35 Email friends to hang out, which should help to maintain normal amount of human contact and also be fun.

4:35 to 5:20 Shower (finally), clean kitchen, straighten up, etc., so as to appear as a normally functioning human being when husband arrives home from work.

5:20 to 11:00. Family time and general hanging around.