Tag Archives: Writing

Book Beginnings: Italian Casual Surrealism

Today, I’m finishing up the editing of Part One of my fiction project, figuring out where the hell I’m going with Part Two, and preparing an article for Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit. I’m also ignoring the cat, who is currently telling me that I need to put the laptop down and cuddle with her. I really need to focus on the former tasks, but she just went from giving me cute, warm, and fuzzy looks, to turning off “Ms NiceKitty” and indignantly glaring at me because I’m at the other side of the writing room and clearly, I need to be next to her. The hardships a writer deals with, I tell you…

Today’s Book Beginnings post, hosted over at Rose City Reader,  isn’t about a book I’m currently reading (those would be War and Peace, and The Dragonbone Chair, both recommended, both subject to review soon). Rather, it’s about a life-changing book that I’m browsing again for a regular feature about underrated or underread writers. Here’s the first line, in Italian….

Stai per cominciare a leggere il nuovo romanzo Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore di Italo Calvino. Rilassati. Raccogliti, Allontana da te ogni altro pensiero. Lascia che il mondo che ti circonda sfumi nell’indistinto.

…and here is the first paragraph, in the English Translation by William Weaver:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

The book is If on a winter’s night a traveler. Here, Italo Calvino shows himself to be a talented writer and skilled craftsman at the pinnacle of his career. He’d become famous in the 1950s and 1960s with books like The Baron in the Trees (about a noble son who decides to stop putting up with his family and carves a new home for him at the top of a tree) and Invisible Cities (a masterful short book that imagines different worlds and realities throughout time… if you’ve read Einstein’s Dreams, you’ve read that book’s grandson) but this book is, simply, a love letter to readers. The book itself is about your quest to read the book you’re holding, navigating misprints, quirky bookstores, and all manner of inconvenience. Just buying the book requires a near-military operation where you, the reader, have to make it past

…the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you… among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written… but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Just slipping into it is like the feeling you get when you’ve wandered a foreign country for months; the people you meet are nice, and you’ve had great experiences you wouldn’t have had otherwise, but when you suddenly run into someone from your home town, speaking your language, your brain explodes in a frenzy of happiness, laughing, and pure undiluted joy. I liked this book so much that, before I’d finished Chapter 2, I bought Adrienne’s Italian in 32 Lessons so I could, one day, read it in its original language, and I’ve since read it the way he wrote it, along with several other books and stories by him. I was also led to other Italian fantasists like Stefano Benni, Umberto Eco, and even an independent writer of modern sword, sorcery, and adventure fiction with a heart, Davide Mana.

All because of an affectionate note, written in another language, by someone who spoke my language like no other writer ever had.

To Do Today:  I have 8000 words of manuscript to go over and edit because DAMNIT, I told myself I would be done with Part One by this week, and Friday Evening counts as ‘this week.’ I also have to start on Part Two… writing by the seat of my pants might work for getting a project started, but at this point, over a hundred pages in, I need to have a map of where I’m going.  Otherwise, I’ll be sitting at the keyboard, driving around the story in circles, ignoring my frustrated Muse as she keeps telling me “Rerouting… Rerouting…” and getting absolutely nowhere, slowly. I might even get a chance to indulge in my other arcane art, where I get to turn obscure incantations, unusual symbols, and arcane formulae into moving dots and lines and collisions on a screen. Merlin, eat your heart out.

Shelf Control: War and Peace

Yesterday was one of those horrible/ wonderful days in the life of a working writer. For the last week I had been struggling with organizing Part One of my project and plotting out Part Two, and after six days I felt like a mountaineer who had spent all that time climbing to the top of a ridge, only to look down and realize that I was actually on the top of Crapbucket Mountain, and the view was more crap, and I was really only a foot or so off the ground, and not a mile or more. But, for various reasons (most of which are unfit to print in a blog written for the sane and well-adjusted) I kept on going, and a series of revelations Monday and Tuesday helped put me back on track. Monday evening, I realized that I didn’t know the answer to the question “What happens if they fail?” Every author should be able to answer that, I think, and I think I’ve been guilty of not answering that in the past. Today looks to be a good day of inserting a few pages in Part One that answer that question, and moving on with Part Two. If you come back here Friday and my post is written backwards in crayon, that means I failed.

The other thing, perhaps the main thing I’m going to talk about today, is my reading. Bookshelf Fantasies hosts a weekly discussion called Shelf Control, and as someone who really only has shelf control because he travels with his family for the better part of the year, I highly recommend it. I’m kind of cheating, though. Instead of writing about a book I own, haven’t read, and want to read, I’m going to write about a book that I own, started reading, stopped reading, and now want to pick back up and finally finish. That book is War and Peace.

warandpeacemaudeThis is my second-and-a-half time attempting to read this. I’ve read much longer books before (Remembrance of Things Past, Joseph and His Brothers) and I’ve read nearly everything by Dostoevsky, so I’m determined to make it through this one. And it’s not a question of the writing being difficult of boring… I can’t speak for the Russian original or other translations but this is remarkably clear and concise writing. But, a few weeks after I started this, we moved to our winter digs in Florida, and I started writing a novel, and I got distracted by another book I’m reading, and I set this down somewhere in the middle of Part Five, in the ‘Peace’ section. (There are a couple. The book should probably be titled “War and Peace and War and then More Peace, but WAIT! There’s WAR!!!” but I can imagine that Tolstoy’s editor wouldn’t have liked it. Today, and every day til the end of the year, I’m picking it back up, finding out how everyone deals with the uneasy peace of failure and impending war and invasion, and getting this off my list.

If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend the book. Some parts are a little simplistic, some parts are predictable (and not just because we know who wins) but the characters are very accessible and it’s still fun, for some reason, to watch them do the worst possible thing they can do, and then deal with the repercussions they KNEW were probably going to happen anyway. Tolstoy also does a very good job of describing PTSD and battle shock, and if you’ve ever served in the military, or know someone who has, you’ll relate to what he says. It may be a famous classic work of literature, but it’s also famous and classic for a good reason.

That’s my post for today. It’s time to dive back in the trench and fire away at this thing until I either have good copy or I pass out from a tea overdose. I’ll be back Friday with a book review and more news from the front. Stay safe.

Bed Making and Other Composing Techniques

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m a writer, and I’m manic-depressive… but I repeat myself. I don’t think there’s a requirement for a writer to be bi-polar or clinically depressive or any other mental illness that requires us to spend a lot of time huddled in a blanket fort and threatening to Taser the face off anyone who bothers us (and in my case, that would be my face more than any other), but it does seem to go hand in hand. I think it’s because we as humans like to be entertained, and when you spend as much time alone as a depressive person does, whether by choice or because you can’t bear to move from your spot no matter how much you want to, you have to tell your own stories.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of a supremely low period, like I was yesterday (and like I suspect I might still be) I wonder how I ever get anything done, but I still manage to push through, day after day, in my journal at least, if not in my manuscript and any current programming project. My journal might be nothing more than me complaining about how I not only suck, but my pages of complaints aren’t even written very well, but I still manage to get things down. I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write something every day, I wind up in an endless feedback loop. Being depressed about not writing for a day makes it harder to write the next day, and if I succumb and take two days off…

This post is about a few things, including my return to blogging, my announcement of a new book project, and my pledge to fill people in on it, along with blips and blurbs about what I read, what I hear, and what I do on those days I decide to leave Fort Blanketopolis, but it’s also about how I learned my Mom was right. If she’s reading this, this is where she says “Oh, that’s nice, he’s writing fiction again,” but I do mean it this time. My Mom, a German immigrant who was born a few years after the war and came to the US just in time to experience Patti Page once she knew enough English to sing along, is a lot of wonderful things. And I really hate to indulge in a stereotype, but one set of genes my Mom got were the ones that dictated order and routine. Apparently, she liked those genes so much she decided to keep them all to myself and decided not to pass them down, and I spent a good part of my childhood arguing about how my clothes didn’t need to be folded, my room was okay as long as nothing was crawling around, and as long as my books were in order, nothing else had to be. I couldn’t see the point of a lot of the things she had me do, since everything was just going to get messy and disordered again. For example, I *DID* think it was nice to crawl into a made bed at night, but was it really worth spending a few minutes doing that every morning, especially when those few minutes took away from the little bit of reading I got to do before the bus showed up? I didn’t think so.

Fast-forward to me now, after serving twenty years in the Navy (where everything had to be in its place, but for a good reason: if something wasn’t, it could fall and trip someone on a damage control party or a firefighting team, or float away during flooding, or hit someone in the head, or in some way cause all manner of horribleness to happen) and I’ll admit to liking things in something resembling order. And I do like having a wide uncluttered workspace, since I know how easily I can get distracted. (Plus, I have long arms, and they need room.)

But, since moving into our new place a month or so ago, I’ve discovered the joy of bed-making as therapy. Originally, I started doing it because we had very little in our room at first, and I liked the idea of seeing everything straight and simple and in place; I wanted to preserve the way it looked when we first moved in. But even now that we’ve settled and arranged all of our things, I still find myself pulling down the covers, pulling up the sheets, and making the bed look decent, and I can’t do much else now until that’s done. Even yesterday, when I had trouble doing anything except for staring at the ceiling and wishing my brain would shut up and let me read, I had to make the bed. And after I did that, I was able to sit down and at least write four or five pages on my projects. I’m next to positive that the three or four minutes of routine activity helped jostle my working brain loose from the crowd he’d been hanging out with (the “I suck everyone hates me” brain, and the “read another chapter/ blog post/ funny comment on Reddit” brain are two particular friends of his). And that part of my brain has been responsible for me having a 110-page Part One of a novel, and is pushing me forward on the rest of the book, too.

So, thanks Mom. You were wrong about a few things, like how you think lamb is disgusting and mayonnaise is delicious, but you were right about this.

Meditative Monday

writers-block-graphic-how-to-cure-uncreative-periods-hemingway

I had a busy two-day working weekend, but I feel good about it. Not only did I make a good bit of money for our family business, I got further in my book project than I would have said I was going to, if you had asked me last Thursday. Today, I have to balance some more of that writing, along with paying a couple of bills, laundry, dishes, and some kid time as well… I was mostly gone from one this weekend and completely away from the other. And, I miss my sister and need to go see her. And my fiancée is still working and I won’t get to see her til Thursday. And I’m about a quarter into an amazing book. And…

All of those are amazing excuses, and also representative of the constant chatter in my head. Toss onto that pile of things my characters are saying about me and my own writing…

What about my scene? When are you getting to my chapter? OOOH, and then THIS part is coming up, and then this one, and don’t listen to what that other guy said, THIS is what really happened, but you should write it like this, and this and…

…and it’s kind of amazing that I get anything done. But, I have that writing mantra on my desktop background, and I’m determined to push out a little more. This book is not going to come easy, but it won’t come out at all if I’m not insistent.

Meditative Monday

writers-block-graphic-how-to-cure-uncreative-periods-hemingway

I had a busy two-day working weekend, but I feel good about it. Not only did I make a good bit of money for our family business, I got further in my book project than I would have said I was going to, if you had asked me last Thursday. Today, I have to balance some more of that writing, along with paying a couple of bills, laundry, dishes, and some kid time as well… I was mostly gone from one this weekend and completely away from the other. And, I miss my sister and need to go see her. And my fiancée is still working and I won’t get to see her til Thursday. And I’m about a quarter into an amazing book. And…

All of those are amazing excuses, and also representative of the constant chatter in my head. Toss onto that pile of things my characters are saying about me and my own writing…

What about my scene? When are you getting to my chapter? OOOH, and then THIS part is coming up, and then this one, and don’t listen to what that other guy said, THIS is what really happened, but you should write it like this, and this and…

…and it’s kind of amazing that I get anything done. But, I have that writing mantra on my desktop background, and I’m determined to push out a little more. This book is not going to come easy, but it won’t come out at all if I’m not insistent.

 

Draft Zero (or perhaps, Orez Tfard)

Lots of smoke, lots of shrapnel, lots of life changes over the last year, but I’m still here trying to put one word in front of the last word, whether or not those two words are friends, regardless if the second word once said something bad about the first word’s mother… DAMNIT, it’s MY project, and I’m going to make those words get along.

I’ll write more about the demise of my last  project, but tonight, I have to talk about the status of my new endeavor. For years, I’ve wanted to write a Southern Gothic novel. The fact that I had only lived in the south for a year when I first decided this meant nothing. The fact that I wrote primarily magic realism or fantasy with modern twists (the Dwarfs with Steampunk technology) also meant nothing. This might be linked to my early, impressionable years spent reading Stephen King and John Irving (New England Gothic, if that’s a thing) and my early writing years with Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. No matter. After a couple more years of working on a lot of different things, including moving and traveling for a living and spending my time with three people weirdly creative and respectful of my introversion, I picked up a pen last August and wrote 100 pages and four chapters about a family in northern Georgia, where I’ve hiked since first moving to the south, and kept going until I wrote into a hole. So I decided to read it from the beginning.

It sucked.

A vacuum cleaner running Windows Vista in the middle of a black hole could not have sucked harder.

But writers are nothing if not stupid… I mean, persistent, and I kept that on the back burner. After sending another project to oblivion, I went back, and thought, “I need to outline my characters and chapters and try again.”

Ten failed pages.

“Okay, how’bout I set this in northern Michigan, where I grew up? Okay, well, where I spent a lot of time about three hours to the north of where I grew up.”

Fifteen failed pages… wait, NO!

The prologue, all twelve and a half pages of it… which somehow emerged from my head after simultaneously thinking of The Brothers Karamazov and The Princess Bride… actually worked, when I reread it. It worked well. I yelped and jumped for joy. Actually, that was the other way around… I live in a house with low overheads. If you’re 5’13” like me, don’t ever jump for joy in such a place. Anyway, there I was, with a satisfactory prologue in front of me, and “Chapter One” at the top of the page.

Then at the top of another page.

Then at the top of a third page, with three pages of blah blah blech in front of it.

I’d thought that cutting out the first two chapters of my original attempt would help. I could start the story where the action started, and only insert those details that needed inserting, something that editing coaches and Lower GI Tract Doctors both advise. But that still didn’t work. I felt like I did the second day I drove a stick shift in San Francisco on a hill in stopped traffic… I was stalled, gunning the engine, and rolling backwards. At least in that case, I figured it out. I learned how to drive a stick shift in about two seconds. In this case, I think I have it.

There’s a writing technique called “Draft Zero,” though I’ve also heard it called “Expanded Outline” and I think I called it “Summary Outline”  myself, once. The object is to write out your story as absolutely fast as you can, skipping details unless they’re immediately there in your head. The result is something like a long outline (like, half the length of your finished project) or a stripped down draft. Then, you go back and rework it into a proper rough draft. I myself have usually called my first draft “The Raw Draft” and the second pass-through “The First Clean Draft.” (If nothing else, it’s clean because all the profanity I sometimes scribble in the margins doesn’t make it.) I thought… maybe if I try this technique and do a Draft Zero, or a Raw Draft for my Chapter, it will…

Well, it didn’t. I couldn’t even get out a sentence.

But something else stuck in my noggin. A lot of things do. By the end of a writing day, my superior temporal gyrus looks like the underside of a bus seat. A lot of it is crap, but just like that bus seat, some of it is tasty and useful. (Hey, I’m willing to try anything to get a book out.)

A few other writers, Margaret Mitchell among them, wrote backwards. Not word for word, but chapter for chapter, or even scene for scene. “What if,” my Muse suggested, “what if you write a rough outline-like raw draft for your first chapter, starting with the last scene?” Because, I knew how the chapter was supposed to end. I could see that vividly in my mind, and there was even a possibility that it was vivid enough for other people to see it as well, leaking out of my pores. But getting there… every time I tried, I just wrote around in circles. But… write what you know, right? And so, I did just that.

I doubt I’m the first person to ever think of that, but I’m definitely glad that I did. I now have a stack of index cards numbered from 0 to -5, and I’ll keep writing them, backing up a scene each time, until I’m at the place I think my reader wants to begin. Each card has about three sentences on it… I didn’t completely fill them up. Next step is to write a zero draft of the cards, probably going in the same reverse order… I still need to work from that ending. But then, then I’ll get to write from the beginning to the end in my manuscript, and for the first time since first thinking “Southern Gothic sounds fun,” I don’t dread working on this project.

It feels nice. Frighteningly nice.

 

 

Writing Tips: A List that is actually GOOD

One of the reasons I’ve been writing flash fiction (3 weeks, now… maybe 49 to go, maybe more…) is because I’m fishing around the little pools in my subconscious for a new book, and the short bursts of fiction not only help me hone my craft, they’re a way of baiting my hook and hopefully pulling a bigger idea out. And while I’ve finished 8 novel length manuscripts, I’ve only recently learned what works and what doesn’t. So, here is a list of things not to do in a first or second or tenth novel. Yes, I’m guilty of a few.

Top Ten Writing Mistakes