Put down the writing books

writing advice

I’ve noticed in the course of my fiction writing endeavors that reading books on writing can be helpful — and then stifling.

The expert advice can make us smarter and ward us away from a lot of bad decisions. But after I had stockpiled a dozen books and was rifling through them, marking their pages with pen or post-it notes to flag a good tip, I realized all that information was weighing me down. Not just in my head but in my writing as well.

So today, I put all those books in the corner of my room, where they’d stay out of sight. Because to set your writing free, you have to turn off all the voices that tell you to do this or do that, or that it’s not good, and just listen to what the story and characters tell you.

Having all the voices from those books speaking at once — telling me what my writing should and shouldn’t be like — was like trying to write in a crowded, noisy room.

I’m not done reading books on writing. I want to keep honing my craft, and other, wiser people have a lot to teach me. But for now, I’m going to concentrate on writing my way. The lessons I’ve learned are still with me. I’ll just leave the rest for another day — when the writing is done and editing as all I have to think about.

And when I feel overwhelmed by this, by writing at all, I think of Anne Lamott. Just take it bird by bird, kid.

What do you think? Is advice ever too much of a good thing? How do you deal with it?

An exercise every writer should try

NaNoWriMo & Google Docs

NaNoWriMo & Google Docs

We can do some pretty amazing things with technology these days. We can build self-driving cars and 3D-print chocolate, but technology also gives us more outlets and tools for what we can accomplish with pen and paper: creative writing. NaNoWriMo is one example. Google Docs is another.

Last month, Google for Education partnered with National Novel Writing Month to help three authors from across the country write a short story together — in an hour.

At over 1,600 words and with three illustrations, the story about a memorial service set on an emu farm combines the imaginations of Edan Lepucki, Tope Folarin, and Mike Curato. The video below shows how it was done — in Google Docs, with the authors taking turns and a Google Docs user named Lauren providing the opening line. You can read the full story here.

 

The result is a great exercise for growing writers: Have someone think of the first sentence for you, and then work together with one or two other writers for an hour and see what you get. This teaches us to work without worrying about what we’re putting on the page and to allow our imaginations to roam free, uncensored. After all, the writers involved don’t have time to be afraid of what the others might think of their ideas. Their only job is to respond to what the person before them wrote to keep the story going.

So have fun, and give it a try! Free up an hour some afternoon — or better yet, do it tonight when you would otherwise be watching TV. Let me know how it goes in the comments. It’s good practice, and you might find that you and the other writers have a lot to teach each other, both while you’re writing and when the story’s done.

Happy new year! My first book of 2015 (plus the best writing device ever)

Happy new year, whoooo! As today’s the last day of my holiday vacation, I wanted to squeeze in a book and kick off 2015. I don’t know how many books you resolved to read this year, but the first one matters, doesn’t it?

On Writing by Stephen KingI chose Stephen King’s On Writing, a memoir and writing advice book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while and finally found discounted at Half-Price Books (I love that store). I enjoyed it so much that I finished it within 24 hours — not that it’s long (about 300 pages), but books that grab me like that are hard to come by.

A good chunk of On Writing is about Stephen King’s life growing up, which is far from boring. His whole purpose is to show how he as a writer was formed (writers aren’t “made”), and with 20/20 hindsight, he connects certain habits and events from his childhood and early adulthood with the shaping of the best-selling author he became. He was writing long before Carrie, in other words, and although he loved (and continues to love) movies, he learned to turn off the television early in life (it’s a killer to productivity).

The other parts of the book deal with his tips on writing and a good bit about his own process, which are probably the most valuable sections. Some of the final pages discuss his accident in 1999, when a man driving a blue van hit him while he was walking on a road in Maine, and how writing helped him through his painful recovery.

Probably my favorite section, which is even smaller, is a look at the editing process: King gives you several pages of a story (“1408,” as it happens) unedited and then provides a marked-up version and explains the revisions. One fundamental rule: Omit needless words. Another? Kill your adverbs (those pesky -ly words).

Some of the writing advice is common: Kill your darlings. Use strong verbs. Know your grammar. The rest is a hell of a lot of tough love. At some points I found King’s attitude a little snobby — he thinks we all should be writing unplotted novels, but we’re not all Stephen Kings, Stephen King — but other times he was humble and modest, and above all I think he’s probably right. Here’s a few of the passages that I dog-eared:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools your plan to work with.

So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best — always, always, always — when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.

Some ideas that King thinks are overrated: writing workshops, characters based on real life (not that you can’t take inspiration from people you know), the phrase “write what you know” (thank you!), plot (he writes everything from situation and character, but I think that’s a very advanced technique), and theme (it comes sooner or later — don’t sweat if you don’t know it right away, as it follows with the story).

A couple tenets he repeats often: Be honest in your writing (even if it will make people uncomfortable). Put the story first. Include only the description details that come to mind. And use the vocabulary you mean to — don’t dress it up to make yourself sound smart.

It’s a honest book full of advice that can be hard to hear, but that’s tough love, baby.

One thing I’ll note for anyone who’s curious about routine: King says read a lot and write a lot. He admitted to reading around 60-70 books a year, but I think your own pace is just fine. How much should you write every day? As much as you can, but I’ve seen 1,000 words pop up more than once. I think what’s important isn’t the word count you achieve but that you stick with it every day so that you establish a routine — whether that’s with the writing (door closed, as King says) or the editing (door open). Same with reading: Turning off the television and reading regularly helps you get into the right mindset for writing. And resist to the temptation to show anyone your draft until it’s done — or don’t dare talk about it. That’s my advice — like with New Year’s resolutions, if you share that you’re writing a novel, that’s when it dies.

So get yourself a copy of King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this year. And remember, you can read and talk about writing all you like, but the best way to learn it is to do it. For that I went on eBay and bought myself an AlphaSmart Neo. An author I follow recommended it for distraction-free writing, and it’s great. They don’t make them new anymore, but the company still supports it with documentation and so on. It’s basically a keyboard and a small screen, and it’s good for cranking out a draft of a chapter or whatever (so not for revising). You can’t connect to the Internet, and it’s light-weight (and inexpensive) enough that you won’t mind carting it around everywhere with you. It’s like the Hemingwrite, only more practical and much more reasonably priced (I paid $22, although most I’ve seen are around $40 — Hemingwrites will be $400-500). All you need is the Neo and a USB cord (the one that comes with your computer’s printer should work well).

I’ve used it and can vouch that yes, it’s damn good at helping you get the words out. It’s a lot better than staring at a blank white page and that goddamned blinking cursor (how it mocks you). You won’t be tempted to mess around with the font for half an hour. And uploading it to your computer (in any word processor — I use Scrivener) is easy once you find the right cable (B type, 2.0, I believe, but I bought two wrong USB cords before I figured that out).

You can’t store thousands and thousands of words, but you can save up to eight different files, and it has an autosave feature and a battery life like whoa (a year at least on three AAs). The keyboard is comfy, and you can adjust the font size and contrast (no backlight, though). Here’s a good Q&A guide.

Happy writing (and reading)! What book are your reading first in 2015?

Game of Thrones candle book

It’s totally OK to burn these books

When burned, these books give off a charming smell.

Like pumpkin souffle, clean cotton, and ocean breeze.

These are the smells of Hagrid’s Pumpkin Patch, Dobby’s Socks, and Gatsby’s Shoreline — all candles, and all great holiday gift ideas.

You can also find lip balms and wax tarts in the Etsy seller’s shop, From the Page.

Plague World: What constitutes a ‘good’ book ending?

tackyIn August, author Dana Fredsti released Plague World, the third and final novel in her Ashley Parker girl-kicks-zombie-butt series. Years ago, the first book, Plague Town, caught me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting something so good — Resident Evil novelizations have taught me that zombie fiction is usually kind of corny, while The Walking Dead comics and countless movies about the undead have convinced me that any visual probably suits the genre best.

Thankfully, I was wrong, and the Ashley Parker series is as good or better than any zombie movie (although it’s still a little corny, in a good, fully-conscious-of-its-corniness way of course).

Still, as much as I love Fredsti’s writing, I was a teensy bit hard on the second book, Plague Nation. I was worried that — with the zombie outbreak spreading so fast and then going airborne — maybe this thing was getting too out of hand for her or any of the characters to manage.

I didn’t know it then, but that was kind of the point.

plague town

Not everyone was happy about the trilogy’s ending. One reader on Goodreads left a one-star review (warning: it’s here, but spoilers!) and asked, “How on earth is that conceivably a good ending? An appropriate one? I … I can’t even … I’m so pissed off I wasted all this time just to end up with THAT! […] I will NEVER recommend this series to anyone (even my enemies) again. It was that wrong. If I could go back in time and unread the Ashley Parker series I would.”

So, yeah, strong reaction.

Let me first say that, without revealing any specific details, I thought Dana Fredsti did a beautiful job on the ending to Plague World. So big hint here: Somebody dies. Was I shocked by what happened? Yes. Was I OK with this death? Not so much, and I can understand why someone else might outraged.

But was it a good ending? Yes, yes, yes — because first, it was indeed “appropriate.” OK, minor spoilers here, but not really: It’s an apocalypse. People tend to die. Secondly, the ending wasn’t good because the characters died or lived. It was good because it was believable. I was expecting Fredsti to try to find a way to “resolve” the huge Zombie problem with a capital Z, but that wasn’t giving her enough credit. Would we be able to fix something like that in real life with a wink and two swings of a paragraph? No, I don’t think so. The consequences of a catastrophe that huge would last a long time.

I understand the reviewer’s disappointment. I even understand her anger. But to say that the ending wasn’t worth the journey because you disagreed with it — well, that’s like saying your whole life is shit just because something bad happens. And, hey, we all totally do that sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy unless you realize that you got some good stuff out of the experience, too, and maybe you learned something, and that has to be enough. Life isn’t fair, and frankly, the author doesn’t owe you anything — except maybe a conclusion to all hanging plot threads (which Fredsti addressed). Be happy you got a third book at all.

Take The Hunger Games, for example. I love that trilogy. But hell if I don’t think Mockingjay is the biggest insult to Katniss and readers everywhere. Do I hate it so much that I wish Collins had never even bothered, or that I hadn’t read a single word? No. Because the story wasn’t a waste. It provided me with some entertainment for a while, and I got to disappear into a world and become close to imaginary characters that mean so much to readers that they might as well be real. It’s the mark of a good author when you give a shit what happens to a character. If you’re angry or sad or scared or even happy — the author has done her job.

So if Fredsti made that reviewer that upset, she obviously wrote some good characters because the reader was attached to them. But to wish you had never picked up those books and met those characters is like saying you wished you had never met Dumbledore or — hell — anyone in real life. Because we all die sometime. And we’re all worth knowing, for however long or short of a time that we’re here.

Grade: B

In Real Life

A new young adult book that ‘navigates self-doubt, alienation, and resilience’

I’m proud to share the book trailer for my friend Lawrence Tabak’s (@LawrenceTabak) upcoming young adult book In Real Life. Publisher’s Weekly (Oct. 6 edition) said he “credibly navigates self-doubt, alienation, and resilience in his debut novel, which ends on a tantalizing open-ended note”:

In Real Life is about a 15-year-old named Seth Gordon, who has all the normal troubles of adolescence — girls, after-school jobs, grades — only he’s really, really good at video games. So good, in fact, that he travels to Korea to join an internationally famous pro gaming team. But the life of a star isn’t all that he imagined it to be.

It was my pleasure to read In Real Life this spring and to help Larry polish the book before its forthcoming release. Definitely give it a read this November!

You can read an interview with Larry and news outlet Technology Tell right here.

5 reasons why you should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle right now

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I’ve never read Haruki Murakami before I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. When I did, I fell in love. So if you haven’t read any of his books either, you’ll want to — and just start with Wind-Up Bird, okay? — because:

You’ve never read anything like it

Murakami is weird. While I was reading Wind-Up Bird, I had no idea where the story was going to go next or what new character I was going to meet. He kind of pulls things — weird things — from all over the place, and it’s very surreal. Yet at the same time, it feels totally ordinary.

Here’s what I mean: Wind-Up Bird is about a guy — a rather boring, passive, pushover guy named Toru Okada — whose cat disappears, followed by his wife. That’s pretty normal in a way, but then totally crazy stuff happens to him. His next-door neighbor is a girl who likes to talk about death and is slightly perverted and fakes having a limp and judges bald guys on a rating scale for the wig company she works for part-time. A series of women start consulting with him about his lost cat and have dream sex with him. His brother-in-law is a psychopath with the clout of Oprah Winfrey. And to get his bearings on life, he sits for days in the bottom of a well.

… Right?

Yet underlying these events is a gravity: a man trying to make sense of his life. Through this is a connectedness that spans time and space — between people in history and the present, and between realities and dreams. The story is hard to recap concisely, yet there is a cohesiveness to it. It’s hard to tell where the line between fantasy and reality ever blurred in the first place.

It’s a fast read

But it’s not a short book. You’ve got 600 or so pages to read, and it’ll blow right by you. Because it’s so random and absorbing, you won’t want to stop because where the fuck is it going next? Who knows!

Wind-Up Bird well

It’s kind of beautiful

“I was dying. Like all the other people who live in this world.”

Wind-Up Bird is surreal. That makes sense, given how strange it can be. But even with all the sex talk and the perviness and sometimes the violence, the way the words add up on the page can be quite beautiful and wise. The way the characters’ conversations get at the truth of human nature is affecting.

For instance:

That night, in our darkened bedroom, I lay beside Kumiko, staring at the ceiling and asking myself just how much I really knew about this woman. … In the dark, I thought about blue tissues and patterned toilet paper and beef and green peppers. I had lived with her all this time, unaware how much she hated these things. In themselves they were trivial. Stupid. …

But this was different. It was bothering me in a strange new way, digging at me like a little fish bone caught in the throat. Maybe — just maybe — it was more crucial than it had seemed. … I might be standing in the entrance of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.

Would I ever see the rest? … What was the point of my life at all if I was spending it in bed with an unknown companion?

Murakami pays the kind of attention to details and words the way a patient man does his surroundings — and both Murakami and the main character are painstakingly patient men. (OK, well at least I imagine Murakami’s that kind of guy.)

The descriptions can also be pretty funny

Sometimes I’m not sure if certain word choices just got lost in translation or if Murakami meant them to be that way. Like this sentence: “Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been dealt a mortal blow.”

I find some of the conversations totally ridiculous, too. There’s a woman who nicknames herself Nutmeg, for instance, and the conversations between the main character and his teenage neighbor are inappropriate yet oddly endearing. She’s way too open, he’s way too understanding, and somehow they conduct a perfectly civil conversation about how easy it would be for her to kill him — depending on her mood.

May Kasahara

The neighbor, May Kasahara, via Tumblr.

The chapter titles are like poetry

The Well and Stars
How the Ladder Disappeared

or

The Signal Turns Red
The Long Arm Reaches Out

How the pieces fit together to tell a story is a little like how the characters come and go in each other’s lives: Affecting seemingly little, yet making a ripple that touches everything, and in turn everything else.

Is there a message to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? I’m not sure, but it might have something to do with how little control we have over the reckless current of our lives, and how hard it is to change its direction. It might have something to do with your answer to this:

“… I feel as if my every move is being controlled by some kind of incredibly long arm that’s reaching out from somewhere far away, and that my life has been nothing more than a convenient passageway for all these things moving through it.”

… “Haven’t you ever felt that way?”