Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday - my (ouch) 43rd. But I don't feel 43, which is good. I received several nice cards/wishes/gifts from family and friends and my family & friends are giving me a party Friday night. I really have been blessed in so many ways.

As far as writing goes, a lot of things happened during the past year:

I had some articles published in a couple of local newspapers and one magazine.

I've been asked to teach a future DC Writers Way workshop.

I was accepted to Clarion (East) where I met and lived with seventeen wonderful new writers and seven established ones.

I'm still getting rejection letters from markets, but most of them include hand-written notes (some of them even saying "send more"), which is a big step forward. (Hey, at least the notes don't say "Try using verbs in your next story.")

I've established a schedule and process for reading and studying stories on a regular basis.

I know that I'm getting closer to becoming a good writer. I can see progress. My First Reader (Cindy) can see it and my writers' group P.O.E. can see it. Now it's just a matter of sticking with it and working on it everyday.

I think it was Ray Bradbury who said you've got to write about 1,000,000 words before you produce anything good. I figure I've written about half that, so if I've climbed the mountain, maybe I'm on the way down. (Or maybe I'm just halfway up the mountain and the hardest part is yet to come?)

But anyway, the journey is terrific.

Now Playing = Now Here is Nowhere - Secret Machines (birthday present - Thanks Bob and Em!)

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Journey

I’m convinced that the people who are most successful – writers, actors, musicians, football coaches, business people, software designers, restaurant managers, sales people - have a plan. That’s certainly no revelation, but I think sometimes we forget about planning.

I still remember what one of my mentors told me when I was a band director. “To have a great band, you only have to go through three steps: Step One – Know what a good band sounds like. Step Two – Know what your band sounds like. Step Three – Know how to get your band from Step Two to Step One.”

That’s the plan. First, find out what a good story is like. Right now I’m studying one story a week, one story that I really admire. (This week’s story is “Only Partly Here” by Lucius Shepard.) What is this writer doing in this story? How does he do it? Why does he use this tense? This point of view? What does this scene do? How does he convey information about the characters, the story, the setting? Why does he use dialogue in this scene and not this one? What does this symbol mean?

Then know what your stories are really like. If you’re getting your stories critiqued on a regular basis, you’ll start seeing patterns. Right now I know that I have too many ideas in my stories. I also sometimes don’t make pivotal story points clear enough. You’ve got to point to specifics in your stories and be able to say, “This is a problem.” (And I believe you need somebody to point them out, whether it’s a first reader, an editor or a writers’ group.)

Now the fun part. Moving from where you are to where you want to be.

I remember the first band I taught. They sounded awful and it was my fault. I asked a director friend of mine to listen to them. When the rehearsal was over, I said to him in frustration, “Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. What do I do?”

“Isolate problems,” he said. “Fix the most obvious problem first, then tackle the others one at a time. That’s it.”

When it comes down to it, he’s right. That’s exactly what you do.

And I wasn’t kidding. The journey – learning and applying what you learn - really IS the fun part! Maybe I’m weird (a given), but when I discover something about my writing I didn’t know before, and how to make it better – that’s exciting. That means I’ve taken one step closer to becoming a better writer; not necessarily a published writer, but a better one. And I can live with that.

Now Playing = Tales From Topographic Oceans - Yes

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Publishing Crap

It happens all the time, but it still gets under my skin.

You pick up a novel that looks somewhat interesting. It’s by an author you’ve never read, an author who has several books to his/her credit. It’s worth a shot, right? And so you start reading.

And it’s crap. I mean not just bad, but so bad you want to join the Save the Trees Foundation and picket the publishing company until the author of that pile of debris takes a vow to flip burgers from here on out.

I won’t tell you the author or the publisher, but they’ve both been around for years. I kept reading the book, hoping it would get better or at least not get any worse. I’ve only thrown one book across the room in my life and it was better than this one. I started to heave it, but thought the action would use too much precious energy. Besides, I was in the basement and I was afraid it would hit one of my bookcases, thereby infecting a great work such as The Sound and the Fury or Pride and Prejudice or one of my beloved Nero Wolfe mysteries. (My sf books are all upstairs. If anyone breaks in, they’ll have to sift through all the general fiction first, and by that time, Bullet will probably have his teeth sunk into some very painful portion of their anatomy.)

I couldn’t believe someone actually published this. So naturally, I marched up to the computer and started a new story.

Of course, it’s crap too.

But it won’t be forever. It’ll get better. I’ll figure out who the characters are, what they want, what’s at stake, who has the most to lose. I’ll let the characters speak, let the story tell itself in the way it wants to. I’ll work out the setting, the descriptions, the details. Then I’ll agonize over the language, spending time weighing one word against another, finding what I hope is the right flow.

And when I’ve gotten it as good as I can get it, I’ll send it out.

And when it comes back, I’ll do my best to heal the cuts and bruises and send it back out into the world.

All because some lousy book made me mad.

I guess that junk is good for something.

Now Playing = So Long, So Wrong – Alison Krauss and Union Station

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Job Hunting, Miss O’Connor and Writing Without Teachers

I’ve never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for
- Gillian Welch

I sent resumes out to two companies last week and inquired into a third. Two of these companies I think I could work for and one I’d love to work for. Although who you’re working for may ultimately be more important than what you’re doing, I’d love to find anything connected to writing or supporting the arts in general.

Right now I’m reading The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. The woman was brilliant. There’s something about the way she combines the Southern mentality, Christianity, and finding/rediscovering your place in the world that really connects with me. I’m also reading Understanding Flannery O’Connor after each story I read. I think I’m becoming a better reader – I usually know what the author in Understanding is going to say before I read the passage about that story. Growth happens in small steps.

I’m also reading Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers. Elbow talks a lot about freewriting (which I already do). Don’t think, just write. When you freewrite, you allow your subconscious to flow and move, you don’t stifle it and you don’t edit. You can edit later. Too many times I’ve looked at the freewrite as a basic structure of a story that’s already in place. What I haven’t done is allow for different points of view (not character POVs, but different ideological POVs), different interpretations of what I’ve written. I haven’t allowed the element of conflict to germinate so several of my stories have seemed static and feel manipulated. Speculating. Dreaming. Exploring. I haven’t done that enough. How to fix it? Cook those differing ideas more, let them mix and blend with each other, even if it takes many drafts. Understand that you’ll revise later. Probably a lot.

My friend Marjorie has some great new stuff on her website and some great links. Check her out at

Now Playing = Everybody Loves a Happy Ending – Tears for Fears