Month: March 2010

I want you to drop and give me fifty push-ups.  No really.  Yes, right now.  No, this isn’t the Drill Instructor.  Just little ol’ Jon Paul.  That’s right, fifty push-ups.

Trouble?  Oh, I see.  That’s alright.  Maybe we’ll do them later, shall we?  OK.

To tell you the truth, before I joined the military, I could barely do twenty-five push-ups myself, so I understand.  I’ve had a few “practice sessions” in the last eighteen years so I could do the fifty now, if need be.  In fact, just about anyone who’s spent time in the military could probably knock out fifty push-ups without hardly thinking about it.

Here’s a different proposition: what if there was a book deal at the end of those fifty push-ups?  Yeah, like the magic lamp and three wishes–sorta.  If you did the fifty push-ups, then there would be an agent there ready to sign you and ready to pitch your book to anyone and everyone.  Oh, OK.  I’ll wait.  OK.  Oh, you’ll  figure out something?  Great.  OK.  I’ll tell ya what.  Let’s knock out this post and we’ll come back to this idea.

Hiya!  Today is Part Five of my six part post series Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer’s Battle Plan.  If you missed any of the first four parts, they’re linked on the right sidebar.

So far in our Battle Planning sessions, we’ve identified goals and tasks and organized them into a staged schedule.  In other words, we’ve built the Battle Plan–or BP for short.  Having finished BP construction is a great accomplishment, but that only gets us half way there.  Your BP is still untested.  The quality of the effort we make to execute the BP and to judge our success are as critical to our long-term writing success as having a plan in place in the first place.

Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke, a late nineteenth-century military strategist, famously said: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”  This is the military corollary to Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  This will be true of your BP too; I can almost guarantee that day in, day out, month in, month out, your BP will not go the way you planned it to go.

What does this mean for us writers?  It means that we can have the best plan in the world, but there’s also this thing called real life that sometimes gets in the way.  Cars break down.  Kids get sick.  Sometimes we have to work late.  Sometimes an event occurs which changes the entire rhythm of our lives, but that shouldn’t mean that the writing doesn’t get done.

The trick to being successful has two parts:  1) get up on the writing horse, but equally if not more important 2) stay there!

When we talk about improvising and being flexible in the execution of our BP, what we are really saying is “Find a way to get the writing done, regardless of other demands on our time.”  Expect things to change.  Expect the two hours we set aside for writing this morning to become thirty-minutes.  Compensate.  Practice re-arranging your schedule to accommodate your writing tasks.  Sacrifice.  Make hard choices.  Give up the television show you love.  Buy voice recognition software for your laptop so you can record yourself on the drive to and from work.  Stay up a half hour later.  Get up a half hour earlier.  Get creative.  Do whatever it takes to get the job done. 

Think of it this way: every day you delay is another day before you get your book deal (or whatever your long term goal happens to be).  For success in the writing business, we need opportunity, but as Malcolm Gladwell argues, we also need to put our time in.  He believes that a person cannot become an expert in a field until they’ve put in 10,000 hours.  Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview following the release of his book Outliers:

Anything that is cognitively complex seems like it requires at least 10,000 hours. … It’s deliberate practice, so it’s focused, determined, in environments where there’s feedback, where there’s a chance to really learn from mistakes. What’s fascinating about this notion that expertise arises only after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is that it seems to apply incredibly broadly to an astonishing array of different professions – from playing chess to writing classical music to being a brain surgeon to playing hockey.

So putting your time in is key, and the key to finding that time is in learning to improvise and be flexible.  Practice writing, but also practice being absolutely ruthless with yourself in the pursuit of your goals.  Find a way to get it done.

Now back to the fifty push-ups.  Being able to do fifty push-ups without thinking about it comes from being physically fit.  If you want to succeed as a writer, you also have to attain a kind of improvisational fitness–beyond simple practice, until finding time for your writing is no longer a conscious effort, but an integral part of the day-to-day fabric of your life.

Years ago, when I graduated from Officer Candidate School, the Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant who ran the school gave each graduating officer a placard which I still keep handy and go back and look at from time to time.  It says “Be a contender, not a pretender.”

I believe that to be a true contender, you have to get the job done, come hell or high water, no matter what else is happening or what circumstances have changed.  Make yourself a contender!  Build flexibility into your BP!  Give your writing the planning, time and attention it deserves and you’ll be ready when the big writing opportunity presents itself.

Homework.  Take a look over your BP and identify tasks which may go by the wayside or are in conflict with other activities in your life.  Brainstorm and write down the work-arounds you’ll take to accomplish the task anyway.

Thanks for stopping by.  Part Six, Assessing Your Progress will be next week!

For fun, I leave you with this scene from “With Honors” starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci, highlighting how important flexibility and improvisation can be.

“Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.”

~~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Before we get started, if you didn’t hear, Anne Riley is hosting a Murder Scene Blogfest–sure to be a ton of great stuff to read.  Go sign up here!

Now say it with me: Mmmmm….beef stew.  Doesn’t the stew in the picture on the right look delicious?  I’m getting hungry as I write this.

What does food have to do with writing, you ask?  Let me tell you: lately, I’ve been paying more attention to my writing process–both in terms of my approach and to my end product.  I’ve concluded that the way I write is very similar to the way a cook might prepare a stew or soup: a pinch of one ingredient here, a dash of another ingredient there.

I would love to tell you I’m one of those Iron Chef types who can take the most exotic idea or character, throw him into any situation and out pops a tale so well told, so compelling that it is guaranteed to take the reader’s breath away.  I wish I could tell you that, but it’s not true.

Rather, my approach is to inch along, do the standard recipe with nothing fancy, get lots of words on the page, do tons of free-writing, lots of thinking, re-examine my assumptions, push on, cut out content, add a dash of exposition here, a sprinkling of description there, until what I have at last may or may not taste alright.  In fact, sometimes I’m not even sure the piece is complete when I finally make the decision to put it aside.

Once the initial first draft work is done, I bake in a desk drawer (or more often on my hard-drive) for anywhere from three days to two weeks before I come back to read it.  Only then do I know if I pulled off a tale worth keeping.  Looked at later, the story usually looks and tastes completely different than it did at writing time.  I see things I missed the first time around–either omitted elements that need to be added, or places where fat needs to be trimmed.

Because I am never quite sure how my stories will turn out, I tend to write more than one at a time, understanding that not every piece will be good when it’s done.  For example, in preparing for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest, I actually had two pieces in the running, but the one I originally favored didn’t turn out the way I thought it might–so I posted the second one.

This ramshackle writing approach has required me to learn to review my fiction with an eye for certain ingredients which I believe are essential.  Here are three that I always look for:

Is there an action or decision in the scene/story?  My feeling is that for a story or scene to work, the MC (or group) must take an action to achieve a goal (or take action to avoid a circumstance they don’t want), or must be faced with a decision.

Depending on the length of the story, it is possible for a character to be on the brink of a decision and not actually make it, but movement in the story relies on the MC approaching the point where they must make a decision, or having taken at least a step or two forward in pursuit of a goal.  It is also possible for a story to work if the MC has made a decision and is dealing with the consequences of that decision.

For this one, my most common mistake is to have characters who want things (sometimes really badly), but don’t take concrete steps (or struggle to take concrete steps) toward achieving their aims.  Usually, the chance for action is there, but I miss it in the first draft, or obscure the thrust of action in irrelevant detail.

Do the events in the story matter?  This one is probably the easiest of the three to fix, since what it deals with is stakes: what is at stake for the MC (or other characters) if the decision/action fails or succeeds.  Why is that guy robbing the convenience store?  Because he’s a deadbeat criminal, because he can’t help it, just for fun, or because his sister needs a kidney transplant that his blue collar father cannot afford?

The stake explains the motive behind the MC’s actions.  Without a clear stake, your characters will seem wooden and melodramatic.  With too much at stake–and if your characters fail to act accordingly–your characters will appear cold and uncaring.  Also, if every character in your story has an overly deep reason for the way they act, the drama in your piece may seem overwrought and heavy-handed.  After all, people (and characters) do things “just ‘cuz” sometimes too.

When writing, I typically know exactly what’s at stake for my MC, but I don’t always get it on the page, so adding a few lines explaining what he/she is really after usually does the trick.

By the end, has the MC changed? In my mind, this is the hardest one to pull off, because the change can take many forms.  The MC can learn new information, can understand themselves better, can have a different view of their world, can realize they were wrong about someone or something–the list is pretty endless.

The bottom line is that by the end of the story or chapter there must be something new in the way the MC behaves or sees the world.*  This change is a crucial part of the “a-ha!” moment felt by the reader that signals the end of the story.  If your story doesn’t feel done, it’s probably because nothing’s changed.

For me, I usually get some sort of change in, but it doesn’t always match the direction of the action and/or decision, so I end up going back and rewickering it to fit the beginning (or fixing the beginning to match the end).  It still surprises me how much the setup influences the quality of the ending, and making sure there’s a change is certainly one area where that is true.

These three are by no means a comprehensive list.  There are certainly other things to look out for in good fiction, other ingredients that need to go in to make it taste good.

What about you?  What is your writing process like?  What are the “ingredients” you look for?  What do you find you need to change to get it to “taste” right?

*It is possible for a story where the MC doesn’t change to work too, but these kinds of stories usually operate by comparing the lack of change to a change that should have taken place, i.e. a man who conducts a brutal killing but is remorseless in the end.  The reader understands that a normal man would feel remorse–and so the lack of change at the end creates drama through the comparison. 

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

~~Samuel Johnson

Wow! This week totally flew by–at least for me.  I don’t know if Father Time’s unusual quickness relates to my finally finding a sustainable daily rhythm in this new life of mine (returning from living overseas for a year can make that a challenge for a guy, I guess) or whether it relates to my excitement at being back home with the family–and a ton of friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years.  Either way, it’s pretty cool, frankly, and I’m pleased as pie. 

A funny thing has been happening: to my eye, accustomed to sand and T-walls and everything that comes from living in a combat zone, the objects and situations populating my current surroundings appear old and new simultaneously.  Old because I’ve lived here before; new because they look different and more interesting now. I find myself noticing details I would have missed before; I stop and smell the roses and savor moments without thinking about it or without undue effort.  On the drive into work this morning for example, the new day’s sun rising over the horizon caught my eye and looked wild and beautiful, and I couldn’t help but tap my fingers on the steering wheel along with the song from the radio and smile. I’m loving it.

On the writing front, I’m finally back on track–for the most part, I’m write my posts the night before and I am getting around more often (oftener?) to your blogs to see what you all are up to.  And everywhere I turn, I see great talent and great people and great things going on.  It’s pretty great.  REALLY! 

In other news, I am due to start the first draft of my novel next Thursday.  I’ve been doing research and thinking and character development and thinking and plotting and thinking.  I am totally grooving over how the prep process has gone so far, and if you are really nice to me and leave me lots of comments and stroke my ego in a way that only a Worldwide Audience of Blog Readers can, maybe I’ll share some 411 about it before the month is out.  Maybe.

But first, it is time for this blog’s weekly tradition: Friday Link Love, where I point out a few fun, useful, or fun, useful things I’ve seen around the blogosphere this week, with joke.

I suppose my jokes have gained a well-deserved reputation for their high groan potential, but I should still warn you: today’s gem is probably the worst groaner I’ve ever come across.  Since today’s joke is longer and groanier than usual, I’ll Share the Love first, and you few brave souls willing to wander further into dangerous territory can do so as you see fit.  

Up first then is Link Love:

Thanks all you knock-out folks for making this such a great week.  And now, for dessert:

The Tale of the Green Monkey (remember you were warned!)

    Jimmy went to spend the night with his friend, Zach.  They hung out most of the afternoon in Zach’s basement bedroom, playing video games and goofing.  After awhile, they got tired of the games and started telling each other stories in that braggadocious style unique to teenagers.
    Jimmy wanted to be a professional writer, and had in fact won a prize the year before with one of his short stories.  He felt compelled to tell a better story than Zach, and so spun out a long tale involving vampires and demons and other creatures of the night that ended in a epic battle for the future of humanity and for all Life on Earth.  Jimmy finished up, sitting back with a devilish grin, feeling like the yarn had been a pretty good effort.
    Zach, however, was unimpressed.  He said that not only could he tell a better story, but every word he would utter was absolutely true.  Jimmy guffawed.  He knew Zach was a pretty good storyteller in his own right, and the statement about the story being non-fiction was designed to raise the stakes and improve the story’s impact.
    After a minute, Zach began an elaborate tale about a race of monkeys who lived in an ivory-leaved tree on top of a crystal mountain, and their King, a green-skinned monkey who was half as large as the others.  They were peaceful, and spent their days hanging out in the limbs of the tree and eating bananas and smiling. 
    But anyone who laid eyes on the monkeys must be warned: don’t be drawn in by their calm demeanor and laughing eyes.  The monkeys would remain calm and peaceful until one thing happened–someone touched the green monkey.  If that happened, then all hell would break loose and the person who did that would live to regret it.  NEVER TOUCH THE GREEN MONKEY.
    Zach sat back with a grin of his own. 
    Jimmy shook his head.  “That was a pretty lousy story, Zach.  In fact, I’d argue it really wasn’t a story at all.”
    “Yeah, maybe you’re right,” Zach said.  “But it’s all true.”
    “Yeah, it is.”
    Jimmy knew that Zach was making the whole thing up and said so.  Zach said Jimmy didn’t know what he was talking about.  The argument went back and forth and escalated until they were practically yelling at each other. 
    “Fine!” Zach said at last.  “I’ll show you!”
    Zach led Jimmy over to a closet in the corner.  Upon opening the door, Jimmy saw that the closet was full of unusual equipment: machetes, rope, helmets, spiked boots, lanterns and flashlights.  Zach directed Jimmy to gear up.  The two boys laced up their boots and put equipment on tool belts and in backpacks.  Jimmy still thought Zach was pulling his leg until Zach reached up and toggled a switch behind the door frame and a hatch in the back of the closet opened with a vicious hiss.  Zach threw Jimmy the “See, I told you!” smile and pulled the hatch open.
    Leading the way, Jimmy crawled through a short metallic tunnel, like an air-conditioning duct, until they exited into a darkened cave-like chamber.  As they passed into the chamber, a bright flash of blue light engulfed them as if they had passed through one of those trans-dimensional portals Jimmy’d seen on Sci-Fi TV shows.  Jimmy popped through to the other side and looked around wide-eyed, waiting for his eyes to adjust.  Zach pushed another button at the lip of the tunnel and the sound of the hatch closing behind them could be heard.
    “What is this place?” Jimmy asked.
    “You’ll see.”
    Jimmy lit a lantern and the yellow circle of light illuminated what looked to be the inside of a cave.  They traveled along the rocky path, twisting and turning until at last, after twenty minutes, they emerged from the cave into the afternoon light.  Jimmy could see that they stood in a sandy alcove with dense jungle all around.
    Zach pulled out his machete and walked over to a tuft of jungle vines.  “Watch this,” he said.  He sliced the plants at the base and to Jimmy’s amazement the vines grew back to the original height after a few seconds.  Jimmy explained that they needed to get through the jungle, and in order to do so, they’d need to chop down the vines and then move forward so the vines would grow up behind them.
    Jimmy said OK and they set off.   They chopped at the undergrowth and jaunted forward, and the plants grew up in the spot where they’d been standing.  After awhile they realized it was kind of fun, and they laughed and challenged each other to see who could go faster.  In a half hour, they emerged on a beach.
    In the distance, Jimmy could make out an island across the water, crested by a shiny mountain.  Zach laughed at Jimmy’s wonder, muttered “I told you” under his breath, and walked up the beach a short way until they reached a shallow cove where a boat was pulled up.
    After climbing into the boat, they seated themselves and oared their way across the water, the silhouette of the island growing larger until the shadow of it loomed over them.  The whole time, Jimmy found himself speechless, and rowed on, feeling like he’d stepped out of his real life and into a strange dream.
    They arrived at the island and started off from the beach toward the crystal mountain.  It rose high above them, and the summit was wreathed in cloud.  The smooth surface of the crystals was slippery, but the spiked boots helped.  Jimmy kept looking up as they climbed, and finally, through the misty scud, the shape of a large white tree began to come into view.
    At the base of the tree, Jimmy could see everything: the ivory leaves that Zach had described, and there, high in limbs of the tree, a group of perhaps fifteen monkeys, all of whom stared down at the two boys with a kind of lazy amusement.
    “But where’s the green one?” Jimmy asked.
    “There.”  Zach pointed and Jimmy saw him at last, a blot casting a black shadow at the very apex of the ivory tree.  He was tiny. If Jimmy squinted, he could see a vivid odd looking face with a toothy grin looking down at them.  The green monkey’s eyes followed their slightest movement, beckoning and laughing–as if daring them to climb higher.
    Jimmy started toward the tree trunk.
    “Where you going?” Zach asked.
    “I want to see him.”
    “This is as far as we go.  Remember what I told you: No touching the green monkey.”
    “But what happens if we do?”
    Zach just smiled and turned away.  “Come on.  Time we headed home.”
   Jimmy hesitated, then followed Zach away from the tree.  They climbed down the crystal mountain, took the boat back across the water, chopped through the jungle, traversed the darkness of the cave, climbed back into the air-conditioning tunnel until they finally pushed through the hatch back into the closet in Zach’s room.
   “That was fun!” Zach said as he doffed his gear.  Jimmy muttered agreement, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the tree and the green monkey.
    They both agreed they were hungry, so they went off to get dinner, returned to play some video games until it got late, then laid down for bed.  The whole time, Jimmy couldn’t get the green monkey out of his head, and Zach had to nudge him several times to bring him back from his daydreaming.  What would happen if he touched the green monkey? Jimmy wondered, but he knew Zach wouldn’t tell him so he kept the question to himself.
    They climbed into their sleeping bags after midnight, and soon Jimmy could hear the sound of Zach snoring.  He couldn’t get the image of the monkeys out of his head.  He lay there and told himself to forget it, but every time his mind began to wander toward sleep, that green face popped back up and mocked him.
    Finally, since he couldn’t sleep, he made up his mind that he was going to go see the green monkey again for himself.  He went to the closet and geared up again, and felt around until he found the switch that opened the hatch.  The noise of the opening hatch door hissed into the silence; Jimmy looked back half expecting Zach to wake up, but the other boy slept soundly and did not stir.
    Jimmy climbed through to the cave, used a flashlight to light his way until he reached the cave mouth, where he stood in the sand and looked out at the jungle.  Strangely, it looked like it was daytime, with the sun still high in the sky.  Something really weird is going on here, Jimmy thought as he cut the jungle undergrowth with the machete and pushed on toward the beach.
     He climbed in the boat and rowed across to the island.  The crystal mountain was slippery but after a half hour of climbing, he reached the base of the tree.  The monkeys stared down at him, still in the same places they’d been hours before.  Their grins were haunting, especially the way the green monkey seemed to know why he was there, seemed to know what he was going to do next.
    The spikes in his boots dug into the tree trunk and with some difficulty, he started climbing.  As he got to the first of the branches, he could hear the monkeys giggling softly at him.  For some reason he felt an odd urge to nod at them as he climbed past, and they nodded back knowingly.  Finally, he reached the highest branches of the tree, nearly within arm’s reach of the green monkey.
    The green monkey stared back at him, a tittering light emanating from his eyes.  He was waiting.  Waiting for Jimmy.  For a brief instant Jimmy thought maybe this whole thing was a mistake, maybe he should have listened to Zach and he should climb down the tree right now and head home.  The way the green monkey looked at him gave him the creeps, and looking down below him, down from the tree and the high crystal mountain and the island’s sweep of beach and water beyond, an abrupt feeling of vertigo shook him to the core.  What the hell was he doing here?
    Then, as quick as it had come, the feeling passed.  He was being silly.  He shook his head, got hold of himself.  This was a synch, a piece of cake.  After all, he wasn’t a wimp.  What’s the big deal?
    Slowly, inexorably, he reached out his hand until his fingers were within inches of the green monkey’s skin.  The monkey’s eyes didn’t look down, didn’t hardly notice Jimmy’s proximity, but stayed locked on the boy’s face.
    The second he touched the green monkey’s skin, an electric shock ran through Jimmy’s hand, surprised him, took his breath away, and Jimmy pulled back his hand reflexively.  The green monkey began to grow in size, larger, larger, and that horrible grin kept taunting Jimmy, leering at him.  Jimmy started scrambling down the trunk of the tree, afraid of what was going to happen next, afraid of what he’d started.  The other monkeys shimmied quickly along their respective branches toward the main trunk and Jimmy narrowly missed several of their swipes.
    Moving as fast as he could, he hit the ground running and only managed one look back as he launched himself over a crystal outcropping on his way down the mountain.  The green monkey had tripled in size, huge venomous looking fangs growing from his mouth, rapier claws sprouting from every finger and tow.  Hand over hand the green monkey came down the tree trunk covering the distance in the blink of an eye.  The other monkeys fell in behind their King, and Jimmy cursed under his breath.
    Jimmy decided to throw caution to the wind and he threw himself feet first down the mountain as if he were tobogganing down a ski slope.  The monkeys bounded after, staying right behind him.  Jimmy realized if he could get to the water, they monkeys wouldn’t be able to follow him.  Monkeys couldn’t swim, right?!?
    He rushed to the boat, pushed it off the beach and rowed with all the strength and speed he could must.  The monkeys came up short on the beach and Jimmy started to breath a sigh of relief, until the green monkey plunged into the waves and swam after him, the rest of the monkey horde following in the green monkey’s wake.
    The small rowboat crossed the distance to the far beach in record time, the sting of exertion burning Jimmy’s arms and the backs of his legs.  He climbed up onto the beach, the monkeys right behind him.  Maybe the jungle will stop them, Jimmy thought without much hope.
   He chopped his way through the jungle, slashing like a weed-eater gone berserk.  A quick glance back confirmed his worst fears.  The green monkey and the others behind simply uprooted the vines and undergrowth, tossing the plants aside in enormous clumps and scampering along in his footsteps.
    A dense fear blossomed in Jimmy’s chest as he clambered past the treeline and into the cave.  By now, the monkeys were only paces behind him and Jimmy swore he could feel the green monkey’s breath on his neck, feel his ghastly-happy eyes boring into his skull.  The cave floor moved in a blur beneath his feet until he came up to the air-conditioning tunnel.  He started feeling around for the switch.  Where was it?  Where was it?
    He kept feeling for the switch with one hand, turning around, feeling their presence in the room, the air going cold, his breaths condensing like icicles in his lungs, freezing his mind.  The green monkey towered above, leaning over him.  Jimmy couldn’t believe his size.  He was so tall that looking up at his circus-clown face was like staring at the tops of skyscrapers.  Jimmy kept feeling around with his loose hand, but a sinking feeling passed through him like a jolt of electricity.
   The green monkey slid one massive hand down from the ceiling, moving it toward Jimmy’s chest.  To Jimmy, it was like standing in a freeway lane with an oncoming car hurtling toward him.  A noise escaped his lips: “Oh, God.”
   The green monkey’s hand flew right in without stopping, and in the last instant, Jimmy was sure he was going to die, sure that he was going to meet his maker right here, right now, in this stupid cave.  Why hadn’t he listened to Zach?  Why had he been so stupid?  What a dumb way to die.  What a dumb way to do exactly what he’d been told not to do.
    But at the last possible instant, the monkey’s hand came up short, the end of one massive finger hovering inches from Jimmy’s hyperventilating chest.  The green monkey ogled him, those terrible eyes still laughing, still sure where this was all going.
    Jimmy held his breath, unsure what to do next.  Gently, the green monkey touched Jimmy’s chest, touched him so lightly that Jimmy found his dread suddenly replaced by a feeling of confusion and surprise.
    “What…the….?” Jimmy stuttered.
   The other monkeys were laughing at him now, really laughing, openly mocking him.  When the green monkey spoke, his dark voice surprised Jimmy even more, and he hardly believed the words that issued from the green monkey’s lips.
    The green monkey said:  “Tag!  You’re it!”


Stay groovy and have a great weekend!