Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Process is as Important as Product.

I reached 10,000 words today. They may be terrible words. Each one might have to be rewritten more than once. Still, when I think that I'm an eighth of the way through my goal, and weve only  been at this for about ten days, it makes me hopeful about what can be accomplished when you are consistent.
As I mentioned last night at the Beyond Baroque group, I'd like to see how I can morph this into a method I can use for projects I'm taking more seriously than this one. Or, do I have to pretend, in my own heart and mind, not to take the current story seriously if I don't want to be too paralyzed to write it. Let's face it. No one needs another book. Even though a few people have asked me when I'm going to have another one out, legions of people are not waiting for my next masterpiece to hit the bookstores. This is not being negative. It is right-sized thinking. We write because we want to and because we think we have something to say. Whether we are tortured artists or not probably has little impact on the work. We are what is inside us. We have inspired moments, but good work will likely best be accomplished my mastering the skill.

Mastering anything takes practice. If I wanted to master a martial art, I wouldnt show up just twice a week for an hour and think I'd be a master by the end of the year. If I wanted to learn to cook or to draw, I would have to practice. If I want to get fit, I can't just watch other people on treadmills. Believe me, I know this from experience.

Writing is an action. You might think about writing in the shower or while doing the dishes or exercising, but thinking about writing is not writing. You may dream of penning a bestseller and having fans want to bed you, but, unfortunately, that is not writing.

This exercise we are doing is practice like any other. One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, 1953, it is a great disquisition on how "practice" works. Herrigel learns about life and mastery through archery. You have chosen writing. Practice will enrich you no matter what results from it.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Where Have Books Taken You and What Have You Brought Back?

Though sometimes it may feel that way, writing is NOT like climbing Mount Everest in the dark. You can die climbing Mount Everest. You can get caught in an avalanche. You can come back down to find a whole city decimated by an earthquake.

There is real tragedy in the world. Today, I am not going to moan about having to write, I am going to be grateful for being able to write. It is, after all, in most societies (and ours is no exception) an indulgence. That’s ironic because stories help us understand our world and are, therefore, essential. They also allow us to escape reality when we don’t like it. At their best stories are art, and perhaps things of beauty. I believe art raises us up, even if only from somewhere subterranean to the sidewalk. Sometimes, it brings us higher—much higher.
So, write. Write your hearts out. Write as if you’ll die if you don’t. Or, write because you are a person on this planet, and you believe you have something to contribute. And if you have no reason to write and can’t come up with one, write anyway. If you don’t make writing your enemy, it can be a  very reliable friend.

Sorry this is so sappily encouraging and not even funny, but the earthquake in Nepal made me take a hard look at my blessings today.
Let's read novels about people in places who don’t have as much privilege as we do. I recommend THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL by Bob Shacochis, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. It is long (over 700 pages in hardcover). It is convoluted, but it is sometimes transcendent and will likely never leave you. Please recommend more books in the comments section. Let’s hear what books uplift you and change you, which books don’t allow you to look at a country the same way ever again. The stories don’t have to be about foreign countries. I was never the same after reading BROWN GIRL, BROWNSTONES by Paule Marshall or Amy Tan's THE JOY LUCK CLUB. 
Where have books taken you and what have you brought back?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The CRITICIZER: Friend or Foe?

I believe this is day seven, and I just wanted to report in on how it is going and encourage anyone who is doing this with me.

I have reached 6,390 words, all on my iPad with its handy-dandy Zagg keyboard. Have I felt like doing this? Do I ever feel like doing anything? Today, if you asked me, I'd say I rarely feel like doing anything, and I only manage by stint of taking unusually tiny bites out of everything, except food.

They way I am making sure to keep up with this is by making my 250 or 500 words be my dessert after editing other people's work. I write whatever the hell I please, and I try not to think about it too much. The self-doubt and self-criticism are likely to squeeze the breath out of me if I let it. I have sent the CRITICIZER on vacation. I don't know where she went, and I don't care, but I hope she is having a terrible time because that's what she deserves. I hope that every time she goes into a restaurant, the food is bad. I hope that if she goes into the ocean, she gets bit by a man-of-war. If she goes hiking in the desert, I hope there are plenty of poisonous snakes. Maybe she won't come back. Oh right. I need her to come back to help me write the second draft. But in the meantime, I hope her trip takes her down a peg, and she returns with a right-sized idea of her own importance.

So, the question today is: what would you like to do to your CRITICIZER?  No fate is too terrible but remember, eventually you'll need the bitch or bastard to help you on the next draft.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Okay, I admit it. I missed a day. Yesterday. I worked nine hours on a client's project and after that went to lead the writer's group at Beyond Baroque. That was as much as I could accomplish in one day. In fact, it was more than I could accomplish. I was wiped out and stayed up half the night watching Columbo. Peter Falk was so cute when he was young, despite the rumpled funky suit and raincoat. Raincoat every day. In Los Angeles. Why do we like Columbo? I think it is because he defies expectations. He fools everyone by pretending he's incompetent. It usually isn't too long before the culprit figures out that he or she is being scammed. Still, we love to watch the supposedly underfunded buffoon put one over on the rich murderers.

I read somewhere that there are two ways to do a mystery show. One is like Columbo. You know who did it right from the beginning. The fun part is watching him figure it out. The other kind of mystery is the one where you don't know who did it, and you have to figure it out along with the detective. The question I'm asking today is why do I like Columbo so much when I know from the beginning who the culprit is? This is what I posit as an answer: I think I read and watch things more for character than for story - particularly television. I do love a story, but I think when it comes to TV, it's the characters I return for. The other trick to Columbo is that the writers give him worthy adversaries. It's brain vs. brain, and since Columbo plays such a convincing underdog, we want to see him win. Another tricky thing about Columbo is that every once in a while we end up liking the murderer. It's a great example of a protagonist and antagonist who are well matched, and maybe that's why I like it so much.

So, the question for today is why a story structure like Columbo works and if you don't like it or don't think it works, do feel free to say so. I won't be hurt if you disrespect my beloved Columbo.

And again, I admit that I missed my pages on April 20, 2015, but because we each have a day off a week, I'm getting right back on the horse.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Celebrate Books (Day 4)

Today I went to The LA Times Festival of Books. The panelist who invited me was kind enough to give me a green wristband that allowed me to pretend to be a VIP, so I had the run of the place.
As a community, we can be proud that Los Angeles can attract such a rich collection of authors -- and crazies. I enjoyed the crazies as much as the authors. You can't buy a crystal that's going to center you from an author, and authors dont read your palm -- usually. An author isn't likely to run over your foot with a motorized wheelchair.
So many writers in one place are inspiring. Some of the authors were even making a living with words. I went to one "conversation" (the term used for a panel at the Festival) on publishing where one of the panelists told us that only three hundred writers in the whole country make a living at it. This to a group of aspiring writers. The panelist probably hadn't heard the adage, "Know Thy Audience." It's always best not to make the members of your audience want hang themselves from the nearest tree as soon as they leave the auditorium.
If the crowds at USC mean that the written word is alive and well, then it must be. Maybe next year three hundred and one writers will manage to make a living -- maybe even three hundred and two.
I got my words in after I got home, and I'm encouraging you to do the same. Hit the 3,000 mark today.
Day four and still going strong.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Time of your Life (Day 3)

It may seem obvious, but writing is something that's done in time. What you don't write today might never get written. Writing is done in the moment, a "now" that will never come again. I find this concept both hard conceive of and difficult to describe.

Here's an example: I once started writing a book in which the main character was modeled after my first love. I wrote draft after draft, pondered and played with it. From initial concept to completed draft went on for years. Then, in the middle of one rewrite, the man upon whom the novel was based, died. He was young and he died. The impetus that got me to start the story was gone. The me who worked on the book before my friend's death and the me who worked on the book afterward was a different person. The feelings that sparked the book had changed. Likely, they were no longer even relevant.

One of the reasons I wanted to do the 250 words, twice a day, is because I no longer want to lose strings of potentially valuable moments. I've heard that the Muse doesn't come unless you're there to greet her. I want to be available to her more often. Wouldn't it be sad if the Muse came with a gift of the most beautiful story ever written and you weren't there to receive it.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Having Fun with Flaws (Day 2)

My decision not to take this all too seriously has been a good one. I am writing the most ridiculous stuff and getting a kick out of it. I am letting my imagination run wild. I know that there's a lot of unconscious detritus in my head. How do I know? From my dreams. Things happen in my dreams that I could never think up. Mix up late-night television with an upcoming Bruce Jenner interview and what to you get? An actor who played a priest in MURDER SHE WROTE appearing in my dream as a bisexual transvestite who wants to have an affair with me. Vivid. There must be a lot in the old noggin about which I am unaware, and I will only know what it is by letting myself riff.

I've been reading THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby -- had lunch with my old friend and Johns wife Leslie Lehr yesterday at Back on the Beach - and she recommended chapter 3 for novelists.

Truby talks about weaknesses.

I challenge you to point out some heroic flaws  or weaknesses in literature:

EMMA - Emma is a snob and a control freak.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE Lizzie Bennett is sure shes right and just a little more witty than everyone else.
JANE EYRE - Whats Jane Eyres flaw? She seems spotless and too good to be true.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS - Pips flaw is that he is ashamed of his past and wants to hide it again, snobbery rears its head.
LOLITA - Humbert Humbert is a pedophile seems flawed enough, but theres more.
THE GREAT GATSBY - Gatsby has a flaw, but what about Nick Carroway?
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD - Does Atticus Finch have a flaw?
A ROOM WITH A VIEW -  Lucy is afraid to be natural and admit what and who she truly wants.

LADY CHATTERLYS LOVER - What about all the flaws that come from a person being outside their time or place. Lady Chatterly

Is it a weakness to want passion in  Anna Karenina?

Here are two film examples from Truby:

In Sunset Boulevard Joe Gilliss weakness is that he has a fondness for money and the finer things in life. He is willing to sacrifice artistic and moral integrity for comfort.

In Tootsie Michael is and arrogant and selfish.

Both of these characters  are likable to me anyway and perhaps it is because I want to follow a journey toward redemption. Each man does want to be better than he is even if he doesnt know it at first. Spoiler alert: Gillis ends up dead. (Well, its not really a spoiler alert you find out right at the beginning). Gillis is redeemed when he chooses to break away from comfort in favor of integrity. (Tragedy)

Michael, in Tootsie, is a womanizer, but he learns to literally stand in a womans shoes and his attitude toward women changes. He learns to have a fulfilling relationship.

In these two cases, you could say that the story is embedded in the flaw. If a character has to move from one stance to another, it may make the starting point for the writer more of a trampoline than a plank.

Give me flaws.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We're on the Starting Line

So, here is where the rubber meets the road. It’s our first day. Everyone else in America is worried about taxes, but not us – we are beginning our journey, one that begins like all journeys do --with a single step.

First, because some people have been confused, and that means I probably wasn’t clear – I want to emphasize that we are each writing our own books. This project is not a combined effort. What we get from forming a community is momentum and support. Also, there is no physical location for this project until we are finished. If you want ongoing support in a physical location, I recommend that you attend the free Beyond Baroque Monday evening workshop www.beyondbaroque.org or the Thursday evening classes at Camera Obscura which are four week session advertised on the Santa Monica Cultural Website http://www.smgov.net/Departments/CCS/content.aspx?id=39798.

I hope you have your dedicated notebooks and a pen or pencil. I will be writing on an iPad most of the time using Pages - App. It’s simple, not distracting, and I can figure out what to do with the text later.

I have chosen a character, a name for that character, and a situation. That’s it. That’s all I have. I am not ready to share any of that yet. I think sharing your ideas too early can be like taking a pin to a bubble of inspiration.

I would like to recommend a recreational visit to an inspiring stationary store, a store that caters to the art of writing. You can find my favorite in Westwood, California or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FlaxPentoPaper?fref=ts Ask for Joan or Phil – say I sent you. That will get you welcoming smile. Well, you'd get a welcoming smile anyway, but I encourage you to do it anyway.

There’s another thing: I was thinking about the extent of this undertaking. I don’t want people to quit if they miss a day. Therefore, I think we should each be able to take one day off a week without feeling we have failed the challenge. We're in it for the long haul. If you need a day off each week, take it and know that you are still succeeding with the challenge. I think that will give us all a little breathing room. Very little, but enough to let get our shoulders fall from somewhere up around our ears to a more normal location. (anything to keep us calm and motivated).

I try to provide what I need myself. Structure, support, encouragement, and community. These things will help me. I hope they will help you. It is almost 4:30 and I haven’t done my words yet, but thanks to this, I know I will. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s to a great start. I look forward to hearing how your first day goes.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Midnight at the Oasis

I spoke with someone last night who is thinking of joining the novel challenge, and he had some trepidation. Me too. I'm not crazy about commitment of any sort so when I do commit to something, it means I'm serious. I wanted to write "fairly serious," but strong-armed myself to remove the modifier.

How, then can I make this long process into something I can wrap my head around? The first thing I did was break it into tiny manageable steps. Still, you can't help but see the mountain looming up in front of you. If I wanted to get to the top of the mountain of 80,000 feet and I was worried about it, I'd be much happier if I knew that there was a spa every 10,000 feet where I could rest, get a massage. So, I guess, we must each figure out what our idea of an oasis is.

This is what I can offer: when I reach 10,000 words, I will name a place and time and those in the area who want to join me there can let me know. We can talk about the joys and travails of climbing this mountain together.

We could see this as our version of WILD -- a walk along the Pacific Crest Trail. Just think of how much more comfortable we will be than Cheryl Strayed was. Every time she reached one of those spots where there were other people and food, I breathed a great sigh of relief. And remember how confident she felt when she finally made it? Think of how you’ll feel when you cross that bridge into the land of Completion. I get excited just thinking about it. Strayed’s journey was so all-encompassing. No bathing, rudimentary eating. Something in me craves that kind of tunnel vision. Step. Step. Step.

This is what I'm packing for my first draft trip:

            1. an idea (notice I didn't say good idea)
            2. a dedicated notebook.
            3. an iPad mini

If you have any suggestions about what we should take with us, let me know. 
I want to travel light.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Do we Need a Blueprint to Build this House?

Today, I want to talk about STEALING. Yes, stealing. Always steal from the best and make sure whatever you are "borrowing" is in the public domain.

In my novel THE FAMILY FORTUNE published by William Morrow, I borrowed from Jane Austen as so many have done before and after. The whole thing started as an exercise to see if, through using Jane Austen’s structure and characters, I could learn from her, much like an art students who copies the masters in a museum.

Today, though, I’m a little miffed, because Alexander McCall Smith, the most prolific man in the universe (who created THE NUMBER ONE LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY series and several more – SERIES) found the need to do an updated version of EMMA. Don’t tell me the man ran out of ideas. He writes so much he must have hypergraphia, (and if you’re sensing a little envy there – you got it). Couldn’t Mr. Smith leave these “remakes” for the people who really need them? And then there’s Joanna Trollope, who claims to have descended from the great Anthony Trollope –oh man of the zillion written words. He balanced a lap desk of his own devising on his knee while he took the train all over the country in his work for the postal service. Talk about prolific. Now, his descendant, not content with tales of ordinary domestic woe, has written SENSE & SENSIBILITY, another modern retelling. In both Smith and Trollope’s novels, neither the name of the story nor the names of the characters have been changed. At least my version was like transposing in another key; theirs is like a disco version of Beethoven’s 9th. Can’t they leave the old masters to those of us who truly need them? Of course not and why should they? Their name recognition alone sells books so they could, as the saying goes, put their names on the telephone directory and sell quite a few copies.

My advice: don’t wait until you’re all written out to steal a plot. Do it early and often. I did it to provide myself with a ready-made outline. I’m tempted to do it again, because as we embark on our new projects – and I have an idea of what I want to do – I still worry that I will reach a day when my boat will go still in the water. No breeze anywhere.

This apprehension leads to this: to outline or not to outline. Everyone has something different to say about it, and I think each writer must maneuver into the system that works best for them. That’s why I’m doing this in the first place. I’m still and always seeking a process that works better than the one I used last time. I am at the end of my current novel, and I am confused. I hate being confused. I don’t want to be confused, I have been writing for a while now and when working on a long piece, I always reach a point where I am thoroughly confused (not as much when I steal). Must I accept it? Maybe. But perhaps I can also ameliorate it. My perennial hope. I wish I had a structure, a road-map to get me through this process. It’s what worked before. This time, I have an idea, and I want to explore it. At the moment, I can only see a few feet in front of me. In the words of E.L. Doctorow, “It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Not sure I have the courage to hit the road at night, but I’m willing to try, yet again. Any suggestions, street signs, etc. would be welcome. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I need to finish a novel -- let's do it together, one tiny step at a time.

Unless someone asks me to write a blog, I've been extremely reticent about doing it. I worry about the daily obligation. I worry about any daily obligation. Perhaps that is the reason I want to do this. 

Although I have written and published a novel with William Morrow, I still deplore my work habits. And I'm sick of it. Have I tried the novel writing month? Yes, sort of. That didn't do it for me. Pure speed didn't turn out to be my method. What I hope to employ here is more of a "slow and steady wins the race" model. Not too slow, but very steady. 

And there's another important part of this, and that is that we're going to write not only a draft, but we're going to go through at least one rewrite. Maybe more. Together.

Think of this as you might a modern version of John Steinbeck's JOURNAL OF A NOVEL: the East of Eden Letters. Of  course, I'm no John Steinbeck and would never claim to be. (You'll will find my self-deprecating humor -- I hope, throughout.) I'm always interested in what makes writers tick, and I recommend that book -- as I will likely recommend many others since I am a writing book junky. I'm also addicted to books on organization, but that's not relevant -- yet.

I will be writing about the process, helping to lead whoever wants to go on this journey with me through the sometimes lonely, often labyrinthine process of writing a long piece.

I have been leading the Monday Night Fiction Workshop at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California for three plus years. This year, I instituted the 250 word a day challenge. We were all astounded by the what it did for us, creatively and even psychologically. I did it because that's what I needed for myself. I needed the support of the group to write fresh material every day. Otherwise, I could be contemplating the navel of endless edits of my current work eternally (how do you like that for alliteration?)

So now for the math -- and if I get it wrong -- don't tell me -- okay, tell me. 
80,000 words. We are writing a full novel, not a novella or novelette. After the first draft process, you should have plenty of words and pages to work with. I recommend 500 words a day -- or two sessions of 250 which is so unobtrusive you could do it in the bath, The idea is that the entire process will take less than a year. We'll write the first draft in approximately six months.

We'll start on April 15, 2015. You don't have to do anything to join. No payment. You might want to write comments on this blog. We'll all be interested to see how we all are doing. My role is much the same as it is in class every Monday -- to lead and encourage and offer the few tricks of the trade as we go along.

I am choosing a subject I will pretend not to care too much about because that's how I can make myself do it. If I put too much pressure on myself, I'm toast. And the thing is -- I don't think it matters whether you think you are writing the great American novel or the next piece of pulp that will be devoured on the beach. It's just a belief. You don't know how it will turn out. Use the mindset that will help to get it done. For me, it is to not take myself too seriously. You  may need to believe that the world will cease spinning if your voice is not heard.

Our watchwords: WHATEVER WORKS

Also, don't expect these blog entries to be edited and pondered over. I have other things to do -- like write 500 words a day and clean my tub.