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Writing About a Utopia

If you’re going with the idea that wherever characters are gathered is a utopia, remember there is no such thing as a utopia. It usually takes an outsider to see it. The insiders love where and when they are. And even if they don’t, they have put themselves – or one of their own has put them – into the mindset that whatever sacrifices are required to create what appears to be a utopia is worth the price.

The outsider needs to experience the world before denouncing it. It has to be a place they’ve always known in their heart they NEED to (actually, THINK they need to) explore and be a part of. It has to look so good, better than they thought it would be even. They need to see the flaws emerge, though, and be torn by them. Conflict of the heart. All of that needs to happen in a perfect, utopian story of experiencing a utopia.

Or, it doesn’t. 🙂

-nm

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“The War of Art” for-two-bucks sale is here!

I warned you last week and now it’s time. Get your credit card ready to pay a measly little $1.99 to get your electronic copy of Steven Pressfield’s phenominal book, The War of Art. It’s on sale today and tomorrow with a price spike after that so get in while the sale is good.

FastPencil offers the book in both .epub and .pdf formats. I’m still new to electronic books (I still don’t have a Kindle, though my relatively-new Droid X displays Kindle books, no sweat) and thought I may have more use for a .pdf file. At least, I know what I can do or not do with it and so that’s the route I went. If anyone wants to tell me why .epub is the better route to go, I’m all ears and willing to shell out another $1.99 for one of the most inspirational books about changing my life I’ve ever read.

Does that last sentence sell you, dear reader?

-nm

Writing with the door closed.

One of my favorite books on writing is, well, On Writing by Stephen King. I’ve never actually read it, only listened to it. I first heard the audio version in 2002 and ever since I have listened to it at least once a year, usually right at the beginning of the fall semester, as a sort of rejuvenation of my writing spirit. King reads the book himself and it’s a great presentation. I’ve heard it so many times – and enjoy it so much, to be honest – that listening to it at the end of September, I had fun seeing how many times I could say the lines right along with Stephen. Surprisingly, or perhaps not-so surprisingly, it happened pretty frequently. I guess you could say I’m a King convert when it comes to many of his ideas about writing. I have close to ten copies of the book in its print form, by the way, and they get loaned out to friends on occasion (and were used by the Ron Book Team last week for the October book club discussion) if you’re in the area and we’re on first-name basis.

I’m writing today to bring forth one of King’s great ideas, one he cribbed from a newspaper editor he worked with in high school: Read more…

Focus on the story, not getting published

If you’re a young writer and you’re not reading Steven Pressfield‘s blog, particular on Wednesdays for his regular “Writing Wednesdays” segment, you’re doing your art a great disservice. He’s got plenty for we who are trying to improve our writing each week and it’s worth your time.

A couple weeks ago, Steven wrote a post entitled “The Crazier the Better” about a friend named Paul’s concern his writing was going to such dark places and he was so into it that the darkness was perpetuating itself and as a result, no publisher would ever want the book. Steven’s advice is to pursue the harder ideas, that is, the ideas that excite us and even if they seem crazy will likely make the most compelling stories. I couldn’t agree more and urge you to read more of Steven’s reaction to Paul’s (self-imposed) dilemma.

I’d add one other thought on why Paul should continue this writing he’s so caught up in, whether it’s dark or not. As Steven puts it, “He’s worried that the book will come out so evil, no one will want to touch it.” My advice: time spent writing should be spent on the story, not worrying about hypothetical publishing deals. It’s great to dream about publication and beyond – I certainly do it from time to time – and yet if I’m worrying about publication as I write the story then I’m not focusing on the right thing(s). This is, I think, especially true when writing a novel. If one is trying to finish a novel (sometimes the hardest thing for many a young writer to do – finish a novel), get those 300 pages printed or 50,000 words typed up or “The End” down on paper and then worry about whether some publishing house will buy it.

If it’s good, someone will buy it. No matter how “dark” it is.

What thoughts do you have? Leave them here and/or at Steven’s blog post.

-nm

Conan and Leno and Ethics, Oh My!

For those reading my blog on Facebook, I’d appreciate your leaving comments on my blog instead of Facebook, thanks. 🙂

I enjoy Conan O’Brien more than Jay Leno and that clearly influences how I feel about this whole late-night debacle. He’s who I watched when I stayed up late in high school to do homework and he’s who I watched in college when the night was just beginning and he has been who I watched in my young adulthood. When he took over The Tonight Show, I was thrilled, and when his first musical guest was Pearl Jam – my favorite musicians of all time – I knew he understood his demographic exactly.

Or, more accurately, me.

When Conan started making high schoolers and college students laugh in 1993, Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the universe. Now here they were, in 2009, kicking off a new Tonight Show. And that’s not the only musician I can link Conan to, either. Check out this list of the guests and musical guests from his days on Late Night. For me, I take note of some of my favorites, all appearing in just the first two seasons of the show: Radiohead, Blur, Reverend Horton Heat, Weezer, Jars of Clay, They Might Be Giants, Meat Puppets, Better Than Ezra, The Goo Goo Dolls, Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories, and don’t forget Ben Folds Five made its national television debut on Late Night. ((According to the link, this was on December 26, 1995. I wonder if they sang “Brick” with it’s line “Six a.m. Day after Christmas…”)) As for Pearl Jam, blogger Chris Hanaka recalls that they only appeared on Letterman (SNL aside) until they were the premiere musical guests for The Tonight Show in 2009, and I’d argue appearing on Letterman, Conan’s Late Night predecessor, is miles closer to Conan than Leno.

And what of The Tonight Show’s musical guests from that era who I enjoy and are still kickin’ it old school? Pearl Jam, Green Day, Alice In Chains, Incubus, Wilco, Chris Cornell, The Flaming Lips, Weezer, The Brian Setzer Orchestra. And that’s in the show’s first seven months. Check out the whole list here. ((If you ask me, the only real misstep was Creed, but I suppose that’s pretty subjective.)) These bands scream me. I cannot recall musical artists who appeared on Leno because I either tuned out before they came on or I didn’t hear of anyone who really compelled me to watch (or it’s possible I was just unaware or am missing artists in my mind). This roster and the previous Late Night roster help me know Conan is shooting for my demographic and that’s okay with me.

Read more…

Elmore Leonard answers my questions

Last week, Elmore Leonard answered reader questions at the Barnes & Noble Center Stage, a message board thread in which prominent writers are given an opportunity to interact with fans. I’ve read a lot about Leonard’s approach to writing, thoughts on writers, and so on that it took me a little while to think of unique questions I wanted to ask. I came up with two sets of five and ended up with all of them answered (even if #9 – which is #4 of Conversation #2 – didn’t really get answered specifically, ‘no’ is still an answer).

You can visit the link above or read the following transcript. I’ve put my original questions in italics, Elmore’s responses in boldface type, and my commentary in [brackets].

Hi Elmore,

I’ve been reading your work since I was fifteen (I’m thirty now) and my friends and family always know when you have a new book coming out soon because I won’t shut up about it. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories and I wrote an analysis about it for my final examinations to earn my MFA in Creative Writing last spring. I have a few questions for you and I appreciate the time you’re taking to answer my and other peoples’ questions.

1. I enjoy the way you introduce unique, distinct characters and then let them play with each other as the story develops (Tishomingo Blues comes to mind right away).  I wonder if, in your writing process, you first have an idea of events within the story or if you prefer to start with an idea for a character(s)? If you’ve tried both of these approaches, why do you find one more successful than the other?

— The way I approach it, I always start with characters and  then fit them into a situation or place, like a town in Mississippi for example  I usually have an occupation for a character.  Like in Tishomingo Blues, Dennis is the high diver goes who dives off an 80 foot ladder into a 20 foot wide pool that is 9 feet deep. Up on his perch, Dennis witnesses a murder down at the base. So then I think about more characters and give them names and backgrounds.

[This response doesn’t surprise me but his approach amazes me. He places such trust in his characters to push the story forward, it’s so bold.]

2. Your supporting characters are fun to read about. When you’re creating characters like The Mutt in Pagan Babies, Glenn in Get Shorty, and Arlen in Tishomingo Blues, what helps you create someone who’s memorable and compelling without stealing focus from your main story? Do you have plans for a new short story collection featuring supporting characters? You spoiled me with the tale of Chickasaw Charlie in When the Women Come Out to Dance.

— I don’t want to create an obvious character.  I want an interesting one who the reader will want to know about.  Often they are cast against the obvious type.

— I don’t really write short stories unless someone, like Otto Penzler, asks me.

[He’s talking about building a natural intrigue in his characters, a sort of something that makes the reader compelled of their own accord to learn more about them. In essence, he’s talking about character charisma. For a guy who cut his teeth delivering short story after short story to the western dime digests for twenty years, I suppose I’d want to move on to something new, too.]

3. Given your enjoyment of the film adaptations of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, did the thought of seeing satisfying film sequels spur you at all to write Be Cool and Road Dogs? If not, what compelled you to re-visit Chili and Foley?

— Definitely Chili.  I though for sure they’d want another one.  Too bad the sequel was such a terrible movie.  Road Dogs, I don’t think of it so much as a sequel.  I just liked the characters so I used them again.  But if George Clooney wants to play the part, I’m all for it.

[Part of me was afraid this would be perceived as a rude question, like I’m implying he made a cash grab. I’m glad he didn’t take it that way because I was genuinely curious. His glib answer about the film adaptation of Be Cool is unabashed and appreciated. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories, both in novel and film versions, and I’d love to see Road Dogs turned into a film, too.]

4. I’m a big fan of listening to your work as an audio book on road trips (I think George Guidall reading Cuba Libre is particularly excellent). What level of involvement do you usually have in these presentations? What is your favorite audio presentation of one of your books? Do you ever listen to audio books for your own reading pleasure?

— None.

— Never listened to any.

— Never.

[I can’t say I’m too surprised, but I really, really like audio books. I “read” more audio books in 2007 than I read in print and I enjoy an excellent audio presentation. I thought Elmore might enjoy them, but I can also see him not taking to this form of technology.]

5. Will we see you in Minnesota any time soon? :smileyhappy:

I wouldn’t mind going to Minneapolis again, but  I have no plans.

[Bummer. Good thing my wife bought me an autographed copy of one of his books in a Minneapolis used bookstore a week ago. But that story is for another blog post. One which will appear here next week, in fact…]

Conversation #2:

Hi Elmore,

Thank you for answering my questions yesterday and everyone’s questions this week, I appreciate it. I came up with a few more, if you’ll indulge me.

1. Where do you like to write and at what time of day? Do you write every day or have some sort of ritualistic behavior when it comes to sitting down to write? How much of your writing time is spent researching or reviewing Gregg’s research?

— In the living room all day, 10-6

— Yes

–I try to read a page or so of a previous book, it could be an old one, just to get in the rhythm of the writing.

—  I’m not sure what percentage of my time, but I always read the pages he sends me.

[Wow, that’s commitment! Yeah, he’s a professional writer so really, he gets to write for eight hours a day. I’m trying to hold myself to two hours a day, five days a week, this summer and I’m envious. I really like the idea of reading from one’s previous works to get the blood flowing, and he does so without thinking of editing. That can be difficult for me because I see so many chances to improve a story. I also like how he makes research a part of his writing time. “Writing time” isn’t all writing (though for me, maybe it should be more writing than it currently is) and I don’t think it should be; it’s also research, reading, editing, and so on.]

2. I’ve read that your Ten Rules of Writing began as a tongue-in-cheek presentation for a speech before revising them for the New York Times. And yet, I wonder which of these rules have been part of your arsenal for the longest? Do you have any particular instances in your writing career when you can identify when a writing rule first manifested for you? Is there one in particular you wish more writers followed?

— “Try to leave out the parts that people tend to skip” and “If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.”

— I think most of the rules came from reading other writers, those that use “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose.”

— That they would use “”said” when indicating dialog and not modify it with an adverb.

[Since Elmore’s Ten Rules of Writing originally appeared in the New York Times in 2001 just three days after I turned twenty-two, I have never used any word other than “said” for dialogue. I’ve since learned two other beloved writers of mine, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, say the exact same thing. I’ve put myself in good company. I’ve also become hyper-aware of “suddenly” throughout the years and I think the leaving out “the parts that people tend to skip” is probably the one thing an aspiring writer should wrap their head around pretty quickly if they want to succeed.]

3. Who did you read when you were first starting out and how did they influence or inspire your work? Who specifically do you recommend an apsiring fiction writer read today and why?

— Hemingway.

— By being very spare in his writing, not overdoing it.

— Cormac McCarthy because he knows how to write.

[I enjoy Hemingway but I don’t read enough Hemingway. I enjoy McCarthy but I don’t read enough McCarthy. I enjoy Leonard but I don’t read enough Leonard. Do you see a pattern developing?]

4. What’s the one question you’re never asked by your fans or in interviews that you wish someone would ask? Of course, you’re welcome to answer that question here, as well. 🙂

— None comes to mind.

[I based this question off the question Stephen King asked Amy Tan and which gave him inspired direction for his memoir on craft, On Writing. It’s my one wild card in the bunch and I’m not surprised he didn’t have an answer off the top of his head, though it’s a bummer, too. Maybe some day I’ll have to come up with the question instead of asking the subject to do my work for me.]

5. What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Djibouti?

— A documentary film maker is investigating the Somali pirates with a sympathetic point of view and soon finds out that that maybe Al Queda is involved.

[This isn’t Elmore’s first fictitious visit to Africa (Pagan Babies) and it’s clear this topical subject has his full attention. His last few books have returned to characters he’s already written about and I believe he’s excited to explore this new territory. I’m excited to read it.]

There you have it, a conversation between me and Elmore Leonard, separated by a few hours in time and a few hundred miles in distance but a conversation all the same.

-nm

Creating a Summer Writing Plan, Part III

My summer writing plan in five steps:

1. I have chosen to have a set amount of time to write each day. I think putting in my time will be more effective for me than holding myself to a word count. It’s not that I think I’ll get more writing done this way, it’s that I think I’ll pour more talent into my time if I set it aside to be used instead of wasted. I want to try writing for two hours a day, Monday thru Wednesday and Friday thru Saturday. That’s ten hours a week. If I lose time one day, I make it up another time during the week. I’m down to one job now – this shouldn’t be difficult to do.

2. Thursday mornings are for sending out submissions. I’ll do this every two weeks starting on June 4 and let you know what I’m sending where. Submission day takes the place of a creative writing day, though I’ll be doing technical writing in the form of query letters and database keeping.

3. My writing will be split between short projects, long projects, and priority projects. I’ll work on one until another one calls me, all while leaving room for new ideas to be explored. I’ll do my best not to let this backfire into a situation in which I have a lot written but nothing finished. I’ve detailed my proposed writing projects below.

4. I’m going to challenge myself with challenging projects. I’m going to try tackling more time-consuming projects first (see long projects) and more emotionally-difficult projects (see nonfiction short projects) as soon as possible to challenge myself. The priority projects still stand, since they’re both under deadline.

5. I’m going to have a lot of fun along the way. If I’m not, then I need to stop. Writing cannot be work. Writing cannot be work.

My Priority Projects:

– My Application for something big. I won’t divulge what the “something” is until I hear the outcome, but this needs to get done and get done fast.

Sketch Comedy for a show I’m writing and acting for in June. It’s The Weekly: Yesterday’s News Today and features sketches written the same week they’re performed that are about current events both local and global. It will be interesting to see how the pacing of this show works and I’m excited to be asked to do some ensemble work.

My Short Story Projects:

Lucky Seven (fiction, short story), a story that’s gone through two drafts and has been sitting around waiting for a polish so it can make the submission rounds. I dig this story and it deserves to be treated better than I’ve done with it.

Wing Sauce (fiction, short story) got amazing notes and suggestions from my NCC writer’s group of fellow instructors during the first week of March and has sat on my hard drive ever since. It’s about a car crash and love, and it’s hitting too close to home. After my wife survived a pretty bad car crash with a broken leg mere days after getting workshop notes, there’s a part of me that’s really invested in the story (her, too, because she liked this story when I showed it to her) and there’s a part of me that just can’t work on it right now. My wife goes back to work next week, so I think I’ll go back to the story.

Meeting Santa Claus (nonfiction, short story) may sound like an odd story to work on in the heat of the summer, but I wonder if writing this and preparing to submit it now sets it up for a better chance to appear somewhere in the Christmas season.

Her New Scar (nonfiction, short story) is a piece that’s only a few scrawled paragraphs at this point. It’s about my wife’s latest surgery scar from her car accident and other scars from her past. It’s something I think would be good for me to write as we walk away from the accident together.

My Long Projects:

My Super Secret Screenplay (script) doesn’t have a third act. It needs to be finished, it needs a new draft, it needs new readers, and it needs to be looked at with fresh eyes. I stepped away from it for some time on purpose so I could come back to it when I’m ready. And I’m ready.

Scrawlers stories, comments, and blogs need to be a regular part of my writing over the summer. I’ve been away from blogging too long and my taste for it has returned. With the new Scrawlers redesign, I’m excited to write and comment there again, too.

My Super Secret Novel (fiction) probably deserves to be looked at this summer, too, but I’m honestly not in any hurry. I feel like I already have a pretty full load as it is.

So that’s my plan. What’s yours?

-nm