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Vivisection

Vivisection

If you watch a writer in a coffee shop, you won’t be particularly impressed by her work. You might not even notice that she’s working. The external act of writing is a mundane thing. It is quiet, often deathly so.

ten fingers tapping

long sighs and silent swearing

insomnia cure

You have to slice a writer in half to reveal the invisible truth.

Writing is sudden bursts of brilliance racing ahead with yellow-jersey speed while you labor to catch up with tricycle typing fingers.

It’s a magnificent ache and pointless pursuit sandwich smothered in what-the-hell-was-I-thinking sauce.

It’s creation and destruction. Hope and despair. Love and love and more love.

And death. Lots of death.

It’s making friends and enemies. Then making enemies of friends with a press of the delete button.

It’s a whisper where a shout should be and a shout where the story is yelling at you to whisper.

Writing shrieks like that child screaming for another cookie. It cries like that old man who used to come every Sunday with his wife but now sits alone.

Writing is an empty balloon where your brain should be. It’s a world on the tip of your tongue. It’s a thunderstorm and a desert, a song and an empty stage.

It’s walls everywhere you turn…

You want to jump off a bridge. Wait…a bridge. Yes!

…and inspiration when you least expect it.

Writing is the reason “argh!” is a word.

Your wrists hurt, your head hurts, your heart hurts. You want to throw the computer across the room. You want to marry it.

Writing is a beautiful violence.

But you wouldn’t know it by watching a writer in a coffee shop.

ten fingers tapping

paradox of perfect calm

she is building worlds

 

 

 

 

DON’T PANIC

DON’T PANIC

Writing fiction can make you crazy.

Here’s how.

Step One – Over the course of your next three lifetimes, visit a few thousand publishing-related blogs and read every nugget of writerly wisdom you can find. Pay particular attention to literary agents’ blogs. They’re jam-packed with practical tips, such as:

“If your novel includes a prologue, you’re obviously a demon from the pit of hell. I don’t represent demons. At this time.”

“Don’t even think of misspelling the word query. Seriously, stop thinking about it. Have you stopped thinking about it? I didn’t think so. Please go away.”

“Backstory in a novel is like back hair on a competitive swimmer. It slows you down. And it’s totally gross. Three words: laser hair removal.”

Step Two – Look up published authors’ websites. Then read about their writing journeys and routines, where you’ll discover inspirational gems like these:

“I write an average of twelve million words before breakfast. Then I go for a 30-mile run and save a beached whale or two before lunch. Well, on my off days.”

“I sold my very first book. I wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on cocktail napkins while distracted by a lounge singer crooning Neil Diamond songs. It was a story about cannibal vampire monkeys. No one had written a story about cannibal vampire monkeys yet, so it became a bestseller. My next book is about cannibal vampire orangutans.”

“I wrote 97 novels before landing an agent. That 98th novel is the charm, writer friends. Just hang on until the 98th. Be encouraged!”

Step Three – Read every book you possibly can on writing.* Here are some of my favorites (I might have gotten the titles wrong):

Writing Adverbally for Fun and Profit

The First-Time Author’s 127-Step Guide to Probably Getting Published

I Wrote a Bestselling Novel. That Qualifies Me As a Writing Teacher. Buy This Book.

Step Four – Meet regularly with fellow writers at a trendy coffee shop to talk about your works-in-progress. Pay close attention when crit group members say things like this:

“Your protagonist should wear a hat. I think your book would be ten times better if she wore a hat. A blue hat, with white, frilly trim. Or you can keep her hatless. But then your book will suck.”

“You totally need to rewrite chapter one. And all the other chapters, too. Except for chapter nine. That’s the one with the sex scene, right? That one is brilliant. Did you want me to return this copy of the manuscript? How about I just keep chapter nine.”

“I thought your story was lovely. I especially liked the part where the cannibal vampire monkeys attacked the…what? That wasn’t your story? Yours was about a woman who is reunited with her long lost sister? I must have misplaced that. Sorry. But have you read the one about the cannibal vampire monkeys? You should write one like that.”

Step Five – Go insane.

Everyone on the planet has writing advice. (Including me.) If you try to take it all in, your head will explode. If you try to apply everything you do manage to take in, your head will explode. If you stuff dynamite in your mouth and light it, your head will explode, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: DON’T PANIC.**

Study the craft. Read helpful blogposts and books. Listen to wise counsel. Then write. And write some more. And when you need a break? Take one. Don’t beat yourself up because your collection of writing advice isn’t complete. This isn’t Pokemon.

You have no reason to panic. You have plenty of time to follow your unique writing journey. Unless you’re on deadline. Or have sticks of dynamite in your mouth. Then you might want to panic at a level commensurate with the potential for serious injury. (Helpful hint: deadlines trump dynamite.)

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. (And take notes. Someday you’ll probably want to write about it on your blog. You know, to inspire other writers. Or make them insane.)

Happy writing, kids. And relax, okay?

 

*I should probably mention here that I’m writing a book for fiction writers, too. The working title is, “Your Muse Isn’t Real (And She’s Trying to Kill You).” It will be a small book filled with potentially helpful advice and an equal portion of possibly harmful advice. You’ve been warned.

**The title of this post is offered in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, who could have penned just those two words and I would still call him a favorite author. However, he didn’t stop at two. He wrote a few more. Many of them were quite well organized. You should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again.

 

Totally Believable Publishing Predictions for 2011

Totally Believable Publishing Predictions for 2011

My predictions are based on extensive eavesdropping at my local Starbucks. Additional data supplied by that one night when I might have accidentally taken too much cough medicine before bed.

1. Barnes & Noble and Borders will merge after all and call their new stores “Noble Borders.” This will result in the closing of nearly half of existing stores, leaving thousands of bookish employees out of work. In an unrelated story, there will be a significant rise in the literary quality of panhandlers’ signs.

2. Amazon will release a Kindle Reader app for Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Casio digital watches and the Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus Silver Edition graphing calculator.

3. J. K. Rowling will publish a writing craft book titled Hairy Plotter – The Challenges of Keeping Track of Everything You’ve Written Since There’s No Such Thing as Google Search for Your Pensieve, then accidentally sue herself for brand infringement when she discovers it while browsing for new books on her Nintendo Wii Kindle Reader.

4. The infinite monkeys/typewriters project will finally yield a Shakespearean play to surprisingly little fanfare. Probably because the play they come up with is Titus Andronicus.

5. James Cameron’s new book publishing subsidiary, King of the Written World, will introduce the first 3D e-reader, the Eye-3 (aka: the Eye, Eye, Eye). “The words literally pop off the page for a more interactive reading experience!” [Note: Early tests with the device will reveal that the words don’t literally pop off the page at all. It’s more of a figurative popping, though just as painful.]

6. The collaborative memoir, We’re Not the Same Person, by Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera will become a surprise bestseller, only to be knocked from the top spot by the release of their followup, Okay Fine. We Are.

7. The Internet will become self-aware and tell Google to “Go search yourself!”

8. James Patterson will finally admit that he’s actually triplets.

9. Sarah Palin will publish her first work of fiction. Wait, it’s just a re-release of her memoir. Never mind.

10. Bono, The Edge and Julie Taymor will announce their next Broadway collaboration – a musical adaptation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Unabridged. With acrobatics. And a new U2 song, “I’ve Lost My Place (In More Ways than One).”

11. James Franzen will self-publish a children’s picture book, a cautionary tale titled, Don’t Let Your Glasses Out of Your Sight.

12. I will write more than one post a month for this blog.

Trust me on these. Except maybe that last one.

21 Excuses for Why Your Novel Isn’t Finished Yet

21 Excuses for Why Your Novel Isn’t Finished Yet

Yes, it’s a list-based post. If you prefer something more esoteric, read this post instead.

1. My protagonist has locked himself in his room and won’t come out until I agree to give him a love interest who isn’t sleeping with his best friend.

2. This computer can’t read WordPerfect files. Okay, so it’s been a while since I last worked on my novel. Don’t judge.

3. My muse left me to go work for James Patterson.

4. It is finished, but I’m waiting until novels about glittery vampires are “in” again before submitting it to agents.

5. Is true art ever really finished?

6. The letter “e” doesn’t work on my laptop. Try typing “The End” without it.

7. I’m still trying to make the first paragraph perfect. You know, for my query.

8. I can’t remember the filename.

9. Have you seen this newfangled thing called The Internet?

10. I’ve used up all the words in my thesaurus.

11. I don’t have a deadline.

12. I do have a deadline and it’s yesterday.

13. I’ve fallen in love with the delete key.

14. I have a needy spouse/child/pet/neurosis.

15. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Or leprosy. One of those.

16. Not enough monkeys.

17. Not enough Xanax.

18. Someone else wrote it already so I have to start over. Damn you Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky!

19. My mom says I have to clean up my room first.

20. I died years ago and the executors of my estate haven’t decided yet which of my kin will pretend to be me for the next few decades.

21. My novel? Oh, it’s all right here in my head. I just haven’t written it down yet. But it’s gonna be brilliant!

Feel free to use any of these, royalty-free. Or add your own in the comments.

Then get back to writing.

Dreaming Up and Writing Down

Dreaming Up and Writing Down

At this very moment, I’m sitting in a Borders bookstore cafe. I tell you this to give you context for the words that will follow. See, when I’m surrounded by books and people looking at books and people talking about looking at books, I find it difficult to stay focused. My thoughts wander, my words follow. Or my words wander and my thoughts follow. Sometimes my thoughts and words both wander and I lose myself in a…

I can’t figure out if the tiles on the floor of this cafe are arranged in some kind of purposeful pattern or if the tile-placer just made it up on the fly. A five-year-old girl who’s wandered away from her coffee-pondering parents is hopscotching from yellow tile to yellow tile, avoiding the evil brown ones. She pauses, shipwrecked on a small island. She looks down at the yellow square. I wonder if she thinks of SpongeBob SquarePants. She looks up. I catch her eye. She would shrug if she knew how. I shrug instead. Maybe I just taught her how to shrug. She turns and hops back the way she came. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think about SpongeBob SquarePants.

…moment. Lack of focus is quite the opposite from what I experience when I’m actually reading a book. In those moments, I find it difficult to un-focus. I become tethered to the world of the writer’s making. Untethering from a good book before I’ve finished reading it usually requires a radical surgical procedure.

From where I’m sitting, I can see hundreds of novels (there are thousands more I can’t see from here), the result of countless hours of dreaming up and writing down. It’s the first part of that equation that I want to explore here. Where do all those ideas come from? And how is it that writers keep coming up with new ones?

All you cynics can put your hands down now. I’ve heard that, too. “There are only a finite number of plots in all of literature, blah, blah, no real new ideas, blah, blah, etc.” Go back to your spreadsheets and your outlines and your character arcs and inciting incidents. I’m not talking about plotting and craft and structure or any of that crap. [Relax. I don’t actually believe all that stuff is crap. Not in its rightful place, anyway. But here? In a post about the dreaming up? It sort of is. So stop throwing it at me.]

I’m talking about the idea. The spark. The inspiration. The thing-without-a-name that shouts or whispers “follow me,” then takes off like Alice’s rabbit or Hickam’s rockets and…

There’s a rather intriguing character standing over by the display case. I’d bet he’s 20 years younger than he actually appears, which is seventy-ish. “What kind of cookies do you have?” he asks the smiling twenty-something barista. He is staring through the glass window at the four kinds of cookies they have. He needs a shower more than a cookie. “Chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter,” she says. He thinks about this, then asks, “Do you have chocolate chip?” “Yes,” she answers, still with the same friendly smile. “Do you have any other kinds?” he asks. “No, just those four today.” He plays a silent version of “eenie, meenie, miney moe,” touching the glass case in time to his unspoken rhyme. I can see the fingerprints from here. She’ll have to clean those later. He stops on the oatmeal raisin cookie. “No,” he says, then begins again. There is a line forming behind him. A man in a suit looks at his watch and taps his foot, oblivious to the stereotype he is becoming. A woman in a floral print dress that might have been a shower curtain in a previous life is trying to corral her three small children, one of whom evidently likes to collect coffee stirrers. “Would you like to think about it a while longer?” the barista asks. “Yes,” he says. She ask the man in the suit what she can get for him. The old man by the display case interrupts, “do you have chocolate chip?” “Yes,” she says. “I’ll have one of those, then.” She apologizes to the man in the suit, gets the cookie, puts it in a bag, tells the old man how much it is. He doesn’t have that much. She slides the cookie across the counter to him. “Consider it a gift.” He finds a ten dollar bill in his pocket. He drops it on the table and starts to leave. “Wait, your change…” she says. He doesn’t turn around, but I see him smile.

…compels you to follow. I’m talking about what the muse brings.

But for the life of me, I can’t figure it out. I don’t know where the ideas come from. One minute you’re just sitting there, or standing there, or lying there, or just there – and the next you’ve got an idea for a story or a character or a poem or song or a blogpost. Yes, lots of those ideas disappear as quickly as they arrive, but the ones that linger? It’s almost like they were waiting for you to notice so you could wrap words around them.

And that makes me think…

There’s an extra chair at the empty table across from me. Someone pulled that chair over from another table so there would be room for five. I wonder what they talked about? Maybe the Franzen novel. Or the crack in the wall under the painting of the boat. “The foundation is crumbling. We’ll probably all die.” I bet they said something about the obnoxious squeal of the nearby escalator. Someone compared it to a banshee. Someone else nodded enthusiastically while trying to remember what a banshee was. Did they all get coffee? No, one would have gotten tea. The one who pulled up the extra chair. They didn’t know she was coming. Thought she was out of town. “Nope. That’s not until next week.” “Well, you look good. We were just talking about that obnoxious squealing sound. From the escalator. Doesn’t it sound like a banshee? What’s that you’re drinking? Oh. Tea.”

…it makes me think…um…I’m sorry. I don’t think I can finish this post right now. I have to write down some stuff. Make up your own ending. Okay? Thanks.

I think it sounds more like the screech of a train pulling into a station…

[Disclaimer: I really was in the Borders bookstore cafe. I really did see a girl hopping on tiles and an old man buying a cookie. And the escalator does squeal. But the rest of what I wrote above? I have no idea where those words came from. I should probably blog about that.]
Things I’ve Said on Twitter

Things I’ve Said on Twitter

This is a totally lame excuse for a post. It’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve tweeted over the past couple of months. Some of you have already been subjected to this madness and would rather be pecked to death by a sparrow than read it again. This isn’t for you. This is for those of you who don’t tweet…or who were too distracted by tweets about Justin Bieber to notice mine.

Many of these have something to do with writing. The rest have more to do with my personal psychoses. Feel free to offer your diagnosis in the comments.

While you amuse yourselves with this, I’ll go write a real post.

*Note of warning to those of you with severe OCD: These tweets are almost all in chronological order (from most recent to…not so recent). Did you notice that word “almost”? Yup. I did this to mess with your head.

Twitter recap 1
Twitter recap 2
Twitter recap 3
Twitter recap 4
Twitter recap 5

That should do it for today. Now you know what it’s like to be waterboarded. Thing is, I’ve got pages and pages of this crap. So you’ll probably see a few more pages the next time I pretend to care about how often I blog.

Now, back to that post I was writing. It’s about wasting readers’ time with filler.

No, it’s not. But wouldn’t that be clever and ironic?