Tag: philosophy of writing

“I don’t care if it hurts,
I wanna have control,
I wanna perfect body,
I wanna perfect soul…”

–Radiohead, “Creep” (video at the end)

SO HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED: I stepped away from my computer for a second–seriously like for the space of time between when an eye starts to blink and the blink ends, and–BOOM!!  Like six months blew by!  No really.  I swear that’s how it happened.  Like some modern-day Rip Van Winkle, just waking from his nap.  I even had more wrinkles under my eyes and couldn’t remember a thing.  When I looked in the mirror, I looked like this guy:

Froot Loops, action figures and all.  Yeah, it’s a bit strange, isn’t it?  Maybe I was hungover.  Or ruffied….

*sheepish grin*

Doesn’t work for you?  Hmmm…OK….

WAIT!  So, OK, like six months ago I was going skateboarding in an abandoned mall parking lot in the middle of the night and this silver De Lorean–completely encrusted in electronic gewgaws and wires and all manner of piping–comes screaming out of nowhere and–WHISH!  The door opens and out pops this dude in a white lab coat talking all kinds of nonsense, something about going back in time and “1.21 jiggawatts” and stuff…and…and…

You’re not buying that either, huh?  Something tells me you’ve heard this story somewhere before.

Well.

Hmm.

Maybe I can’t ‘excuse’ my way out of this one.  But the trouble is the truth isn’t near as exciting.  Nope.  Not even close.

 
OK.  Fine.  I suppose it’s worth a try.  Here goes nothing!

HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: I wanted to be a good blogger.  Yep.  That’s it.  No.  Strike that.  I wanted to be a great blogger, a d**n fine blogger–the best blogger on the block, on the continent, on the planet even!!  I wanted to be the Michelangelo of Blogging, to have people marvel at my jokes, go on about my stories, share my witticisms the same way they might share gossip at a cocktail party.

I wanted a perfect blog.

There’s only one problem with that idea, as this chart shows succinctly:

When you get right down to it, I’m a pretty competitive fella, see.  So you probably know where this story is going.

Every time I saw something cool that someone else was doing, I wanted to do it too.  I wanted more mentions and more followers and more accolades and more cool ideas and more pageviews and more comments than anybody else.  And that takes time and work and effort and most of all: more time.

So I kept writing posts and putting them up, writing posts and putting them up, wondering as I was going along Why in Fonzi’s Name I couldn’t find time to write, and somehow it never hit me.

And yeah–you know where this is going!–it got ugly.  Really.  Ugly.

Pretty soon I was swaggering around the house in a bathrobe, over-sized Lightning McQueen slippers–the ones with the flashy little lightning bolts on them!–wearing a beekeepers hat and two gallons of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” Commemorative Cologne, packing an Old Milwaukee in one hand and swinging a riding crop in the other, screaming Alfred Lord Tennyson quotes at the top of my lungs like the lead singer of that now defunct Eighties band, Cinderella.

Wow!  I, uh, I, I really liked those guys!

Well, maybe I’m overstating this a little, but the bottom line is I lost track of things.  And with trying to top everyone else and myself, I got plain old BURNT OUT.  I didn’t understand what was happening to me at the time, and it’s even kinda hard for me to admit it now, but that’s the truth.  And for my REAL writing life, a similar fate.

We have a term for this problem in the military: mission creep.  You start out thinking your mission is to do one thing, but slowly other tasks get added on, creep in, and then a few more and a few more, until what you’ve signed yourself up for is basically impossible.

If we run real fast, I think we could get airborne, EVEN with a full bomb load.

And like they say, difficult we do tomorrow.  Impossible may take a while.

But yeah, I’m back.  For now.  Not quite sure yet in what capacity.  I’m still getting my wits about me.  And it is quite clear I need to revisit my reason(s) for maintaining this blog, and how it serves my greater writing and creative needs, as well as what I owe to all of you.

So, I’m putting on my thinking cap.  Thinking.  Thinking.  Thinking.  Thinking…

In the meantime, enjoy this oh so awesome video from one of my favorite bands, Radiohead.  Oh yeah: stay groovy too!!  We’ll be seeing you soon.

First, don’t forget to SIGN UP for the the SECOND ANNUAL Drunk At First Sight Blogfest!  It looks like a little smaller crowd this year, but I know it’ll be a blast!

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.  😀

Not too long ago, I came across this article–discussing a recently-released book entitled How To Write A Sentence, by literary critic and New York Times online columnist Stanley Fish.  The article really got me thinking.

Now I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment on it as such, but the article lists a number of sentences highlighted as being Professor Fish’s favorites (I’ll let you take a minute to review those if you wish).  Each of these sentences seems finely wrought, elegant even, and (although a little out-of-date for my tastes) certainly well put together.  I’d even go so far as to say that I’ve never written a single sentence that equals any of these, novice writer that I am.

Elegant as this prose is, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that single sentences can be so important to good fiction. 

In writerly circles, there is much talk of the importance of chapters, scenes, beats, in some cases even paragraphs (what are the elements which make the first paragraph in your novel really hook the reader/agent? for example), but seldom (at least in my experience) do fictionists drop to the level of discussing the importance or impact of individual sentences.

I think there’s a reason for that.  In a well-structured piece of fiction, we hear time and time again that every element–word choice, tense, POV, pacing, etc. etc.–should serve the purposes of the story being told.  Sentences are no exception, IMHO.

This means that scads of poorly constructed sentences (like poorly made bricks in a wall) WILL erode and obscure the story your fiction is trying to tell.  Prose must be like a window: sturdily constructed, transparent and clear.  If it is not, then the story becomes confused, the yearnings of your characters muted and obscured, and your reader may walk.

Therefore, when you, dear fiction writer, build a story–like hand-constructing a machine to tell the tale of the characters involved–you must add parts and pieces with care.  You must write sentences in context to move the story along.  Like any machine, extraneous parts gum up the works or make the the machine stop working.  Poorly constructed parts may cause the machine to bog down or take too long to produce the desired effect.  Each part must be part of the larger whole, and all parts must work together in unison.

Given these realities, I question whether individual sentences are all that critical to good fiction.  Would you walk up to a freshly constructed building and identify a single brick as being key to the building’s functional and aesthetic success?  Or point to a single hue in a painting and state unequivocally that this individual color made all the difference?  See what I mean?

But I know what you’re going to say:  You have a veritable cornucopia of sentences, being your favorites, jotted down in your writer’s journal.  I do too!  And the question before us is why those particular sentences have been chosen.

Where does sentence greatness really lie?  Why are sentences like these–

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea)

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed; hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision. (Ginsberg, Sunflower Sutra)

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’  (Kerouac, On The Road)

–quoted and referred to and pointed at as being greater than your average set of words strung together? (These are some of my favs BTW).

I’m sure there are many theories out there, but this one is mine: it’s all about context.  The reason why these sentences (and many others) speak to us is because they evoke the larger issues/struggles/images/ideas of the work they are a part of.  They feel like a brief, finely wrought distillation of a big idea, a thought or concept which is a fundamental plank of the larger story.

What makes these sentences great is that they are part of a greater work of value.  Would Hemingway’s opening sentence be so powerful if it stood on it’s own, with no story to follow?  Would Kerouac’s bounding and nostalgic prose be so moving if it wasn’t a larger piece of the puzzle?

My feeling is, great as these one-liners are, it is their part in the larger whole, like a single high note in a symphonic movement, rising above the ebb and flow of the rest of the orchestra, held longer than seems possible, stretching, straining, capturing something more than itself, that makes them great.

What do you think?  What makes a sentence great?  What are some of your favorite sentences?

In addition to being a patent clerk, it’s note widely known that Einstein also was one of the founding members of the rock band Kiss, although he had to quit after two weeks because the music was making him “verklempt,” he said.  He later performed with the Moody Blues, Blink 182 and occasionally, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson (Willie, reportedly, was a big fan).

His other accomplishments, in addition to positing the theories of General and Special Relativity–essentially founding an entire branch of physics called Quantum Mechanics–include being one of the first people to solve the Rubik’s cube blindfolded, inventing a new skateboarding maneuver called the Quantum Jump (involving bubble gum, sticky tape and some high-end mathematical gymnastics), and being an extra in such well known Hollywood blockbusters as Lethal Weapon 2, Shrek, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (where he performed as one of the oompa loompas in the Mike TeeVee scene).

But it all started in that patent office.  I imagine him as a young man, a knowing glint in his eye, staying at his desk late into the evening, scribbling down formulas, referencing various arcane physics texts, performing thought experiments, projecting his view of the world into the future.

I wonder if he knew during those quiet moments the greatness in his future, the changes his mind would make on the universe and our understanding of it?

As writers, we face a similar prospect when we face the blank page.  Sure, probably not a one of us will rise to the lofty heights occupied by greats such as Einstein, but the process is the same.  We must project our current efforts into the future, have faith that what we are creating, even if it falls short today, will make a difference tomorrow.  If we don’t believe that, then why keep plugging away?

Anne Lamott talks about the need for writers to be reverent, present, to stand in awe of the beauty of the world.  It’s something I struggle with, but when I do find that place where my writing has captured some small piece of the universe, where it begins to talk back to me, it truly is something to behold.

And the more I struggle, the more those moments happen.

One of the keys, I think, is remembered that the greats all started somewhere.  Hemingway, King, Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky.  They all started as patent clerks.

So maybe I haven’t started any world famous rock bands recently, or discovered some heretofore undiscovered secret of the universe, or published a bestselling novel, or written a classic, but I am in the process of converting my home writing space into something like a patent office.  After all, “starting somewhere” worked for the greats.  Why won’t it work for me?

What about you?  What are the things you tell yourself to keep looking forward, looking up?!

NOTE: The pics that backdrop some of my template have up and disappeared (!!!!!!:( ).  I will see if I can load them up before the day ends.

Wow!  This week totally flew by, and when I say flew, I mean in more than one way.  I was basically in the air almost every day this week–not a usual occurence, but one I do enjoy when it happens.  On Monday, I headed out to Naples and back, Tuesday brought some training, Wednesday we flew to Rota, Spain and then we flew the return leg Friday.  This morning, I’m in early again for a trip to Greece and then back to Naples.  In total, more than 25 hours airborne.  I feel like a world traveler, a vagabond of some sort.

As is the way with real life (RL we can call it for short), it gets in the way of some things–writing for example.  I do have some concern that I will have trouble maintaining the required pace to complete NaNoWriMo if I draw a busy flying week or two in November, but I am still committed to trying to pull if off.  If push comes to shove, I’ll drag the laptop along and hole up in my room in the evenings to make sure I make my goals.

But I’m not overly concerned about it, because I’m in it for the long haul.  In fact, on one of the flights I got to talking with my co-pilot about the book I’m currently reading (Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife) and that lead to a discussion of NaNoWriMo, and all that writing a novel entails.

He was surprised (beyond simply finding out that I wrote or tried to write fiction–a very unpiloty occupation) that I had not one but three ideas for novels, all of which I expected to complete over the next two to three years.  Wouldn’t it be better, he questioned, to put all my effort into one novel, send it out, see how it does, before I start into another project?

After sharing that some novelists never even “break out”–to steal a term from Donald Maass–until their third or fourth book, if ever, I explained that I was expecting to stick around for a few years.  I wasn’t expecting quick success.  If I got it, so much the better, but based on an evaluation of my current writing skills and the market, I still have plenty of work to do.  Thus, I think it is unreasonable to expect to achieve overwhelming success on the first try, although I do understand that it happens from time to time.  It’s a question of whether people are buying what you’re selling.

A thousand years ago, in another life, when I sold life insurance and financial products door-to-door for a national insurance company, I had one of my sales managers explain the problem thusly:

1) Assume that for every ten doors you knock on, you get in three doors.  In other words, they want to hear your presentation, hear what you have to say.

2) Then assume that for every ten customers who hear your presentation, three say yes they are interested.

3)  Then assume that for every ten that say yes, seven are qualified (after seeing the doctor, etc.).

What that means is, if I wanted to sell ten policies a month (enough to make a living on), I would need to knock on 159 doors.

In the interest of showing my work:

159   x .3 =  47.7 let you in.

47.7  x .3 =  14.3 show interest.

14.3  x .7 =  10.01 are qualified and purchase a policy.

For me, the takeaway is that you can’t predict what people will like.  You can’t judge the market or time your submission to give you an advantage.  You might get lucky and market realities or some new buzz might help you out, but the opposite is just as likely to happen.  The only choice left then, IMHO, is to keep slogging away until some agent somewhere bites–and that means knocking on a lot of doors.  In my mind that means having more than one novel in the planning phase–and querying anyone and everyone with the one completed.

It’s like when Isaac Asimov–who wrote more than 700 books in his lifetime–was asked what he would say if his doctor told him he had only six months left to live.  “Type faster,” he said.  😀

What about you?  What is your approach to planning your next writing project?  Do you have subsequent projects in the works, even before you’ve completed the one you’re working on?  How do you go about knocking on doors, or querying?

I’m at home and up relatively early this morning.

We have a four-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday and–although I drew a flight to Spain on Sunday–I have every intention of making the most of my time off.  Namely, I’m going to do some plotting (the villainous, rubbing-my-hands-deviously-together variety, not the I’m-trying-to-figure-out-where-this-story-is-going variety) on how to finish a short story I’ve been kicking around, and what prep I need to do for NaNoWriMo.  Are you doing NaNo this year?  Do tell!

You’ll be happy to know that a gentleman from Italian Telecom has just departed the premises.  Yes, it’s true.  We now have a phone–only three short months after moving in.  Man, these Italians move quick, let me tell you.  Pronto, indeed.  What that means to me, dear reader, is that I will soon have “real” internet access at home (right now we have a Vodaphone internet “key” which allows very slow access–think dial-up on quaaludes–for a limited time each day).  Next week, all will be a go I’m thinking.

This is not to say that my recent hiatus from the land of ones and zeros hasn’t been fruitful.  The opportunity to live life unplugged comes with it’s own set of street signs, a set of rules and regulations that stands apart from the gregarious social standards of the crowd.  This time away got me thinking about a whole host of different ideas and issues, including this one: fiction matters.

I bet, hearing that, your reaction will fall into one of two schools.  Either you think “No, duh!”, as this seems the most obvious idea in the world, or you think “Does it really?  I mean: R-E-A-L-L-Y?”

I think it is a pretty obvious concept, but I also think that the truth lies in a place other than where one might think it lies.  For example, in my life as a pilot, the currency of my day tends to be extremely technical and “fact” driven.  Airspeeds.  Altitudes.  Clearances.  One might argue that it is all fact, no fiction.  Much of life is like that, or so it appears.

This is a widely held view.  When a few of my fellow aviators recently learned that I dabbled with writing fiction, laughter was their reaction.  Why mess with something as unimportant as that? their reaction seemed to say.  It’s so…touchy-feely, so inconsequential.

I couldn’t agree less with this characterization.  Sure, facts and science have their place, but I think it is fiction which holds dominion over all that is most important to us.  If we look closer, we can see that the entire underlying structure of life is not factual at all, but is entirely fiction.

Let me give you an example.  One of the “rules” that governs flying is called the semicircular/hemispheric rule.  What this says is that aircraft flying eastbound (above a certain altitude) will be assigned to an odd altitude–say 23,000 feet.  Aircraft flying westbound will be assigned an even altitude like 24,000 feet.  This means that aircraft flying toward each other from opposite directions will not find themselves in the same piece of sky at the same time at the same altitude.  This in my opinion is a great rule, but please observe: it is a fiction.  The rule might well have been something else completely, but this is the approach pilots and controllers have agreed to use, and so everyone lives their lives accordingly.

Yeah, I know what you’re going to say.  Maybe I am broadening the definition of fiction a little, but stick with me for a minute.  My point is that these agreed-upon rules have a profound impact on our lives (after all avoiding aviation accidents is a good thing, for example!), but the rules are not governed by any physical law or other constraint that affected their “shape.”  They amount to a collective “choice”, and these choices underpin the fabric of our lives.

In fact (pun intended), if you look around, you’ll see these fictions everywhere.  Traffic lights.  Laws.  Ethical standards. Novels.  Plays.  Movies.  Music.  Art.  All made up, all created from thin air.  These ideas are the fictions we’ve chosen to believe in, and they are, in my humble opinion, essential to a contented life. 

Don’t believe me?  The final proof, I think, comes in this little anecdote: we recently showed our two-year old, Muffin, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty for the first time.  Boy, she loved it!  She couldn’t stop talking about it!  She gabbed about Sleeping Beauty for days afterward.  She wanted to sleep with the video next to her in bed.  She will no doubt remember this story for years to come, and she’s already asked for a “twirling” dress and fairy wings.  There’s no question: this fictional story affected her far more deeply than any other thing in her life.  It was as plain as the smile on her face.

Think about your own life.  What moves you most?  What are the stories or ideas that make you want to get out of bed in the morning, that make you stay up all hours of the night turning them over in your mind?  What are the things you really love, that you really believe in?

Don’t kid yourself.  Fiction matters.  When you sit down to put words on a blank page, you are doing important work.  Essential work.  Work that matters.  Believe that you can touch someone’s life and, with enough blood, sweat and tears, you will.

Really.