Category Archives: Craft of writing

The Pricelessness of Time, and a Couple of Great Links

There are only 24 hours in a day. That’s it. Even those people who have a natural need for only 4-5 hours a sleep a night (or even none) can’t get around this time limitation.

Several swift deaths that have happened to people I cared about over the past three years have brought home to me just how priceless the time we are given is.  Once Death shows up for you, it’s over.  That’s it. We all like to assume we’re going to live into our eighties or later, but there’s no guarantee. And people love to assume that they’ll have lots of time to put their lives in order and do those things they always dreamed about.

Death can kill you in seconds. A stroke can strike you down where you stand and there won’t be time to say, “Goodbye,” or write a couple of poems before it is too late.

Never assume you can wait until retirement to do the things you dream about. People die before they reach retirement all the time. If your dream is to go to Paris before you die, start planning out tiny steps tonight that you take to work towards making that dream a reality sooner rather than later.

I think about time a lot, since I’m in the “squeeze” years. There’s work to do, a family to raise, a house with never-ending repairs to deal with, and writing to do. Several of my hobbies had to be put aside when I started to pursue writing in a serious way–there were only so many hours in a day.

Several months ago, I decided to turn off comments on my blog, because it was either do that or stop blogging all together. I didn’t know what impact it would have, but one of the surprising results was that now my blog thoughts sometimes dig deeper into things.  The time I used have to waste wading through spam in the queue instead gets spent thinking and writing the post instead.  There is only so much time each week I can devote to a blog, and I was actually surprised at how much a help it was time-wise to have comments off.

Zoe Winters did a post not too long ago about why she turned off comments on her blog, and brings up her reasons why a writer may want to do so.  Every writer is different–one writer’s healing potion is another writer’s poison. So each of us will have to experiment to see what works best.

In other news, I stumbled across a wonderful short essay by James Lee Burke on writing, “Seeking a Vision of Truth,” that can give consolation to writers in difficult times. I hadn’t known that his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie received 110 rejections during nine years of submission.  I’ve provided the link to get to it on his website.

Also, musician Jonathan Coulton has done a long thoughtful essay on how he became a success as an indie musician. I think what he has to say also applies to becoming a success as a fiction writer (whether traditional, indie, or a traditional/indie combo).

So, I leave you all with the question, “When Death comes for you, is there anything you’re going to regret having not done? And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ what small steps can you take here and now to change that?”

Dealing With a Mental Jam When Writing

Here’s a neat trick I learned from a pro that can help to figure out what’s going on when a story jams (I’m pretty sure it was David Morrell’s trick, but it might have been Lawrence Block).

1.) Open up Notepad or TextFile on the computer.

2.) Call a meeting of the characters. Imagine sitting down with them.

3.) Now type in “What’s wrong? Why are things jamming up?”

4.) Write everyone’s responses down, including your own. Keep going until the characters and you run out of things to say.

5.) Now type in “What do I need to do to get this story moving again? What do you need?”

6.) Write down everyone’s responses.

I’ve been surprised at how well it works. Sometimes the problem turns out to be a missing scene, or that I need to throw the entire draft out and start over, or that the story isn’t ready to be written, or that I’ve simply got a bad case of self-doubt and need to plow onwards.

It’s weird to have imaginary characters bitching at me in my head during the “meeting” as I transcribe stuff down, but so far it’s always been a help to do the exercise (if only to nail down what the problem is).

The Joys of Project Gutenberg and E-Readers

I went on a trip to Disneyland, and for the first time experienced the joys of not having to lug around a stack of paperbacks and hardbacks in my backpack.  I just got an e-reader (a Nook) and had a wonderful time exploring the Project Gutenberg website, whose mission is to provide to readers free access to classic books and reference works in the public domain (though donations are encouraged).

I was able to download electronic versions of books such as ALICE IN WONDERLAND, TREASURE ISLAND, THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, EMMA, and several other classics.

If you’ve ever lugged around a hardback version of THE COLLECTED WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, you know what a pain it is to the back and wrists.  Being able to carry Shakespeare around in a feather light electronic device was a joy.  Plus, when we got stuck in the airport due to flight delays from all the snow back east, I had enough old classics written for kids on the Nook to keep my son entertained for hours.

I’ve heard people talk about how they’ll never get an e-reader because they love the smell of paper, but I think one can have fun owning both paper and electronic books.  Each format serves best in certain situations.  When stuck in an airport, an electronic reader is an amazing tool for people who love to read and who want to share that love with their children.

I also encourage writers who are doing research to check out the non-fiction collections that Project Gutenberg has put together. I’ve found some wonderful out-of-print reference books from the 19th century to download to read in preparation for doing various writing projects.

Project Gutenberg provides their electronic files in various formats (ePUB, Kindle, rtf, html, and txt).

An Interview With Tyler Perry

Whatever your opinion may be about playwright/director/actor Tyler Perry’s work, consider reading the interview he did with Oprah for the December 2010 issue of her magazine.

When he started out, Mr. Perry’s plays failed six times in a row over six years (one play failure each year, and then he’d have to work odd jobs to scrounge up the money to start over the following year). It wasn’t until the seventh attempt that he wrote and produced a play that succeeded.

During those six years when he was trying to make it, there were times he was sleeping in his car to put together the funds for the next play production attempt.

Too often there’s a belief that one must be successful with the first short story, novel, screenplay, or play written. And that if one fails, that means one has no talent and should just give up.

It takes time to learn a craft and reach a professional level. An important lesson to take away from Tyler Perry’s story is that one must be willing to learn from failure.

When Reading Stories and Going to Bookstores Turns into Work

I think what I’m about to blog about happens to any writer if he or she stays the course long enough towards publication.  There comes a day when one discovers that reading books and going to bookstores has changed from being a fun way to relax to feeling like work.

It isn’t that the books have changed or bookstores.  It’s that one’s experiences and mindset have changed.  Before I started writing for publication and reading the writing trade magazines, I could go into a bookstore and simply lose myself.  Now I notice the store’s layout, the traffic in the store, and find myself thinking about the latest business news about independent bookstores, about whether Borders is going to go belly up in 2011, about pricing, about cover layout, about blurbs, on and on.

To no one’s surprise but my own, I recently realized that I visit bookstores a lot less than I used to.  It’d become a “job.”  So I had to make a conscious effort to change my mindset to enjoy going again.

What helped was realizing I needed to ditch the idea that I ought to do business research every single time I set foot in a bookstore.  I needed to give myself permission to have occasions that I would go in just to have fun instead.

Shutting off the business side of the brain sounds easy, but is a lot harder to do in practice.  I found that it helped if I had my 9-year-old along with me when I went into the bookstore; it was easier to remember I was there to relax, not do market research.

The bookstore mindset problem also ties into another problem: if one isn’t careful, one can lose the ability to read for fun.    There’s the danger of the marketing and editor voices in one’s head becoming too dominant, to the point one finds it’s difficult to shut them off.

I must say that losing the ability to read for fun due to the “critical voice” in one’s head is a serious pain.  It’s no fun to be always feeling like grabbing a red pen to do editing when reading someone’s story, and makes it so that one doesn’t feel like reading anything.  Reading had become work.

What shook me out of that reading slump was switching to genres I never write stories in.  So instead of trying to read fantasy and science fiction stories like I “ought” to, I switched to reading mysteries instead.  And found the joy of reading again–Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, John le Carre, John D. MacDonald, etc.

It was such a relief to shed that critical voice that was tearing apart every single book or short story I tried to read.  And lately I’m finding I can add a little science fiction or fantasy to the reading mix without the critical voice immediately shredding it to bits.