Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 10,000-hour Rule

Ernest Hemingway famously said, "the first draft of anything is shit." If you agree with that -- and I most certainly do -- then you could say that the second draft of anything is "organized shit." I don't mean that in a bad way -- I'm quite happy with my second draft -- it's just that it is far from publishable quality. But at least the story is getting clean and organized. 

I'm making great progress. I didn't write at all the week of Christmas, and by the fifth day I was freaking out about it. So when I got back into town, I worked my ass off for four days straight. It helped that everyone I know was out of town. Now, I'm caught up -- on schedule to complete my second draft by January 15th. And then I'll start on the third.

Meanwhile, I read a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, the influential author of The Tipping Point and Blink -- and owner of really cool hair. I know, I recently berated y'all for reading too many nonfiction books, but I got this one for Christmas and I couldn't put it down. (In a previous post, I referred to Gladwell's New Yorker article, which highlights one of the same concepts as his book).

According to Gladwell, one of the main things that separates extraordinary successful people from others is PRACTICE. Tons of it. He discusses what he calls the 10,000-hour rule; essentially, it takes this many hours of practice -- about ten years of working nearly full-time -- to get really good at something. This holds true even for people we think of as prodigies or geniuses. He gives numerous examples, from Bill Gates to Mozart (Mozart actually developed "late"-- he'd been composing for over ten years before he produced anything good -- he just started really early).

But my favorite example is the music group, The Beatles. Everyone knows the story of how John, Paul, George and Ringo came to the U.S. in 1964 and took the American music scene by storm. But what's interesting is what happened before they landed in America. In 1960, while they were just a struggling high school rock band, a club promoter invited them to play in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, Hamburg didn't have rock-and-roll music clubs -- it had strip clubs. So that's were the Beatles played. The promoters wanted to keep this huge strip show going around the clock, so the group was forced to play up to eight hours a night, seven nights a week.

(sorry... distracted... wondering how I could get someone to pay me to write in a strip club for eight hours a night, seven nights a week...)

By the time they hit it big in 1964, they'd already performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Most bands today don't perform that many times in their entire careers. Factor in offstage practice, and The Beatles had easily hit the 10,000 hour threshold by the time they arrived in America.

I could go on about this topic for hours, but I've got to get back to work. Just 9,027 hours to go...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My second draft is coming along. I'm about 70% done -- and on track to finish by mid-January. The main goal of the second draft is to form my narrative into a cohesive, fluid story. In the third draft, I'll go back and expand some parts, tighten up others, and generally try to make it "good." I think I'm on track to finish this whole project in a year, but it's hard to tell because I've never tried this before.

This holiday week, I'm taking a few days off from the book, so I don't feel much like writing about writing. Since it's Christmas week, what better time to write about... dog poop.

Chester is with me at my parents' house, where there's a lot of space for the dog to run wild. I still clean up after him, but it's nice not to have to clean it up immediately. For those of you who live in a city like San Francisco, you know all about the daily challenges of doggy defecation in an urban environment. Where it's completely normal to walk with a Starbucks in one hand and a steaming bag of poop in the other; to surreptitiously drop a smelly present in your neighbor's trashcan; or to drive with a fresh bag of poop in your car until you can get to a trashcan.

After spending so much time with Chester, I've found that, while a dog's potty habits might seem random and unpredictable to the untrained eye, there is a distinct pattern. And I think I've figured it out. It's something I call the "poop probability (pp)." It's the probability, holding all other relative factors constant, that a dog will poop in a given situation. Here are the results of my research:

pp:  Situation:
.57: on a baseball field
.63: when a menacing dog is nearby, thus prolonging time near said dog
.69: in a crosswalk when the yellow hand is flashing
.73: standing on any grated surface
.79: in front of a police officer
.81: next to a newspaper machine
.87: when there are nearly imperceptible holes in the poop bag
.91: at the beach, in the exact spot where the most sharp twigs congregate
.93: when he's off-leash in a place where dogs aren't allowed
.95: two miles from the nearest trashcan
.97: next to a sign showing a dog pooping with a line through it (though I might subconsciously encourage this one)
.98: in front of the dry cleaner's
.99: next to a baby in a stroller
.992: next to the person holding a clipboard and asking, "would you like to help the homeless today?"
.993: when I'm holding two coffees and two bagels in my hands
.995: when an attractive female is smiling at me and my dog
.997: when I'm hungover
.998: by a crowded bus stop
.99972: when it's an unseasonably warm day and we're next to a sidewalk cafe where people are eating outside -- and I'm out of poop bags

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dog Days of Winter

Over the weekend, I got to see some of my old biotech colleagues. I dare say it made me miss the office a little. Not so much the work, but the people. All the conversation, the laughs -- and the gossip. I'm currently in between writing classes, so I'm feeling that lack of human interaction. It's times like these that I'm glad my black lab, Chester, is here. I've already written about how I feel the need to wake Chester up and talk to him about my writing. Sometimes, if I finish a particularly good paragraph or chapter, I'll grab both sides of his slim face and say, "Chester, did you see that?" Did you see that stroke of genius?" And the confusion in those big brown eyes just about breaks my heart.
He's become accustomed to my weirdness, and he now largely ignores anything I say. But there are still a few words that get a rise out of him. They are, in order of increasing power: walk, park, and ball.

Now, it's an unwritten rule of doggyhood that I don't utter these words unless I plan to follow up on the promise. But in my depraved state, I can't help it: I've developed a case of Doggy Tourette's Syndrome.

Chester's not big on context, so if I say, for instance, "Chester, today I'm going to cook stir-fry in a WOK," it gets a reaction.
Or, "Chester, I have to go PARK my car."
Or, "Which version of the song 'WALK this Way' do you like better, the one with or without Run-DMC?"
And, the worst one of all, for which I should go to straight to hell: "Chester, this writing is so much fun, I'm having a BALL!"

Usually, by this point he's bouncing up and down like he's on a trampoline, and I feel so bad I take him to the park anyway.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

We read too much. We don’t read enough.

The revision process is getting easier -- although I’m still cutting words like mad. With all I've learned, the second time around should go much more smoothly. Yes, there will be a second book – someday. Speaking of what I've learned, I wanted to talk about one challenge I've grappled with this year: too much information. The amount of information and writing instruction out there is overwhelming. I suppose that’s why people go to school: sure, you could learn it all on your own, but sometimes you need someone to whittle the info for you.

I won’t even go into all the non-fiction books on writing. Lately, I’ve stopped reading them altogether because 1) they slow me down and make me doubt myself; and 2) once I’d read a few, I found they all say basically the same things. No, I want to talk about fiction. I still try to read fiction every night for pleasure and relaxation. But since I’m also writing fiction, my writing will inevitably be influenced by what I’m reading. I need to be a little more careful about which books I pick up. So, even though I own dozens of books I haven’t read yet – and I have one of the country's best public libraries in my backyard -- lately I’ve been re-reading books I’ve already read.

These re-reads fall into two categories: 1) books where I loved the prose so much I want to read it again for enjoyment and emulation (Lolita, The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses); and 2) top-notch suspense books which I hope will teach me how to write a great thriller (The Silence of the Lambs, A Simple Plan). By re-reading these books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten more out of them than I would reading a new book -- and it’s still pleasure-reading. Two books with one stone, or something like that.

Now, I haven't really tested this, but I bet the same holds true for all those self-help and business books on our shelves. At my previous job, I attended so many excellent training sessions and was given countless reference materials, but I rarely had time to go back and look at them. What if I’d taken less training, read less, but re-read more and actually learned?

Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek (overall, it’s a pretty ridiculous book, but it has a few gems), talks about going on an “information diet.” When reading non-fiction, or “self-help” books, we could do well to heed Tim’s advice:

Develop the habit of asking yourself, "Will I definitely use
this information for something immediate and important?"
It's not enough to use information for "something"—it needs to be
immediate and important. If "no" on either count, don't consume
it. Information is useless if it is not applied to something
important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to
apply it.

But my favorite tip is to practice what he calls “the art of nonfinishing." I've started to do this more and more this year. Tim sums it up best:

If you are reading an article [or book] that sucks, put it down 
and don't pick it back up. If you go to a movie and it's worse than The
Matrix Revolutions
, get the hell out of there before more neurons
Die … More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times
better than finishing it. Develop the habit of
nonfinishing that
which is boring or unproductive if a boss isn't demanding it.

Now, you don't need to read The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve already summed up the two best points. Go back and re-read one of your favorites.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Right Brain

Maybe it’s the tryptophan-induced malaise, but I feel like the fun part is behind me. Rewriting sucks. Draft #2 has been slow going. I’ve only been at it for a few weeks and already I’ve cut over 100 pages. I didn’t realize how much of what I’d written was redundant, extraneous, or just plain crappy. The cutting, while painful, wasn’t completely unexpected. I’d planned to cut the draft down to a bare bones story of about 250 pages, and then expand it in the right places (dramatic scenes, character development, etc.) to bring it back up to around 350 pages. We’ll see… at the rate I’ve been cutting, I could end up with just a table of contents.

When writing the first draft, if I got stuck, I would write “fix later” and move on. If I came to a point that required extensive research, I would just make something up, add “needs research,” and forge ahead. Now the time has come to fix those things, to do that research, and I don’t want to. I don’t I don’t I don’t.

Before I started this project, I assumed that the research and rewriting and editing would be the easiest parts for me. After all, my education and career have largely focused on the analytical. I’m a data guy, or so I thought. I was more worried that I wouldn’t be able to write creatively for a sustained period. But over the past seven months (can you believe it’s been seven months?) it’s like my right brain has expanded and crowded out my left brain. The creative part has come easy. It’s the other part I want to put off. Now that I’ve finished one rough draft, I don’t want to polish it; I want to get started on a hundred other stories I have in my head.

While the next few months will surely be arduous, I see this revelation as a positive one. If I enjoy the process of writing above all, it means there’s a lot of gas left in the tank: I won’t be limited by subject or a lack of creative ideas. It means I’m in it for the long haul. It means I will always write.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Click on me!

I've spruced up my blog homepage. I added labels, so if you wanted to, say, see all the posts that have to do with Chester, just click on that label. And look to your right... I added a Follow This Blog button. Please click on it and become a follower of The Leaf Blower!

Since I started this blog six months ago, I've been tracking my blog stats using this amazing free program called Google Analytics. It tells you the number of visits, absolute unique visitors, locations, and much, much more.

For example, in the past month, my blog has had 455 visits:
by 163 unique visitors
from 13 countries
and 29 US states

Now it's safe to say that 11 of those countries stumbled upon my blog by accident, but I'm pretty sure there's someone in the UK who reads it fairly regularly. Most unusual countries on the list: Qatar and Oman.

Most of the visitors are from San Francisco, but this month there have been visits from 33 other cities in California.

It also breaks visits down by network location. Usually it's something generic like "Comcast," but there are some networks I recognize. For example, in the past month there were 90 visits from Genentech!

Another interesting breakdown is by Traffic Sources. It shows you how many visits came from search engines and what keywords people typed to find my blog. Some of the keyword searches are by people legitimately looking for my blog (e.g. "Brian Crawford Writing Blog," or "Brian Crawford Leaf Blower") but some of them were clearly looking for something else and stumbled upon my blog instead, and then clicked on it. I'll leave you with a few of the more unusual keyword searches:

ernest hemingway plant a tree
ernest hemingway child molester (?)
who takes steriods
black and white drawing of a park bench (??)
build your own leaf blower
doggy blower
extreme leaf blowing
blower para maverick (???)
scary pic of a man holding a leaf blower
little giant leaf blower
little darlin leaf blower
shocing brasil (????)

Don't forget to become a Follower... everyone's doing it!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Waiting by the Mailbox

My two-week book hiatus is over. I’m happy to get back to my draft, but it was refreshing to work on some other things for a while. One of my main projects during the break was to submit my first piece of writing for publication. I dusted off an old short story, polished it, and submitted it to a few magazines. It will likely be rejected, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the process so when I submit my novel, at least I'll have had a dry run.

Unlike for novels, magazine submissions don't usually require an agent; you can submit directly to the publisher. But the odds are stacked against you. Most magazines get thousands of submissions a year for just a few slots, and they publish less than one-half of one percent of what they receive. And these are the little-known literary magazines. For something like The New Yorker, forget about it.

If your story is accepted, you do get paid, but it's nominal - like 50 bucks. After you factor in materials (postage, envelopes, paper) and labor, you probably make around one cent per hour. And that's if your story sells. Good thing I'm not in this for the money. Still, coming from my last job at a company where we'd get a $1,000 check, a party and a T-shirt every time we accomplished anything, it's quite an adjustment.

The other maddening thing is the speed of the review process. Once you send out your story, you wait. And wait. The magazines’ average response times range from 2-6 months. That's months. This seems unfathomable in the age of sub-10-second blackberry replies and instant updates on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. One publication said it responds to manuscripts in ten months. It takes the FDA ten months to review a 300,000-page new drug application -- and they're a government bureaucracy.

Speaking of the FDA, while researching the publication process I kept thinking the magazines should implement something like the drug industry's Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA). This was the law which allowed the FDA to collect fees from drug manufacturers to fund the new drug approval process. In turn, the FDA is required to complete its reviews within a certain timeframe. In the years after the act was passed, the FDA was able to hire more reviewers, and the average drug approval time dropped from over two years to less than a year.

If magazines charged a reading fee, but guaranteed a personal response to your manuscript in, say, two weeks, I bet writers would jump all over it. Particularly beginning writers like me who are desperate for feedback. The magazines could probably charge 5 or 10 dollars a submission to make it a viable business model, but I'd gladly pay 50 bucks if it meant that in two weeks I'd either know if my story was getting published, or I'd know it was rejected and why. Plus, if there were a fee, writers would be more selective about which pieces they submit and to which magazines. And, with all that revenue coming in, the magazines could pay writers real sums. Maybe I'm onto something here... anyone know anything about running a magazine?

Another archaic part of the process is that, while a few of the magazines accept electronic submissions, the majority still use regular old snail mail. You can't even send via FedEx because many of the addresses are P.O. boxes. But there is an upside. If you send a hardcopy of your manuscript and include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE in the publishing world), you are more likely to get it back with an actual human comment on it (a so-called "good rejection"). Also, there's something supremely satisfying about dropping packets into the mailbox. I felt like I was applying to college again.

The best part is I have a rekindled interest in my bricks-and-mortar mailbox. I get all my bills electronically, and no one writes letters these days, so I used to go weeks without getting a single viable piece of mail. I would check it every few days, only to find a ball of junk mail jammed in there. Not anymore. Now, I'll be excitedly running to my mailbox like Ralphie in The Christmas Story, hoping for that Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring. Because there's always the possibility that behind those Nordstorm catalogues, I'll find a letter from a publisher that says, we want to buy your story, and we loved your writing so much that we were wondering... do you have a novel?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hannah Moosh Babushka Houshmand VanPortfliet, 2000 - 2008

I lost one of my writing buddies last week. Hannah passed away unexpectedly after a short battle with cancer. Amy's friends and I put together a donation and tribute to Hannah with the Animal Cancer Foundation.

You can view Hannah's dedication on the website, or read the text below:

Hannah was as ornery as she was beautiful. You had to work to gain her affection. It took me about six months, but it was worth it. She was my girlfriend Amy's cat, and when I moved in, Hannah made it clear whose house it was.

Our black lab Chester was deathly afraid of her. When Hannah was perched in a doorway, as she often was, Chester wouldn't cross it. We could've dumped a truckload of tennis balls into the kitchen, and Chester would just stand there and whimper.

Hannah was a rescue cat who'd been through a lot. With her fiery personality and toughness, we just assumed she'd live forever. Then we found a host of tumors spanning her breast area. When the tumors were removed and biopsied, we learned that Hannah had an aggressive adenocarcinoma that had spread to her lymphatic system.

The oncologist told us Hannah probably had eight months to live – maybe twice that with chemo. We elected not to put her through chemo, and, in retrospect, we probably should've passed on the surgery as well. It didn't do anything except stress her out.

We only got two more months with Hannah. She passed away on election day. Her breathing got shallow and I took her to the vet. She died there on the vet's table before Amy could come say goodbye.

I'm sorry we didn't have more time with her, and I'm sorry she couldn't wait for Amy. But if you knew Hannah, it's the way you'd expect her to go out. More than anything, she hated being vulnerable. I think she just didn't want Amy to see her that way.

She died her own way, in her dramatic fashion. On my way out of the vet's I saw I'd gotten a parking ticket. I know Hannah was up there having the last laugh.

Even Chester seems to miss her. The first day without Hannah, I watched Chester approach the entrance to the kitchen, where Hannah so often stood guard. At the threshold, he paused and sniffed the air. Then I swear I saw him give a small bow, like someone entering a dojo, before going in. It's still Hannah's house.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Historic Day

Today is an historic day. Yes, there's that little election going on. But it's also the day I completed my first draft!
Six months after starting this odyssey, I've reached my goal of 80,000 words. 
In book format it'd probably be around 325 pages.

Don't get too excited. This draft is ROUGH. I have a ton of work ahead of me. Last week I rewrote and polished ten pages to submit to my writing group, and it took DAYS. But I've at least made an attempt to write each scene. I was going to toil around until Thanksgiving before calling it a draft, but I found myself slipping into rewriting mode, so this is as good a stopping point as any.

Now what?

Now, I ignore it. In order to reread my draft with a fresh perspective, I need to distance myself from it. Some writers put a draft aside for months, even years, before returning to it. I don't have that kind of time, so I'm going to give myself a few weeks. This isn't a vacation. I'm not going to stop writing. During this hiatus, I plan to work on a few short stories and conduct some of the research I neglected while stampeding along on my draft.

To tell you the truth, I was getting kind of sick of my book; I can't wait to work on some other writing pieces.

Now is also a perfect time to thank all the loyal Leafblower readers for your continued support. Your thoughtful comments and words of encouragement mean a lot to me. Special thanks to my family, the Mason family, Chester and Hannah, and to Amy, of course.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad songs

My brother Scott Crawford is a musician, and the other day he was telling me that while he has more free time than ever, lately he can’t seem to write any good songs. Sometimes the whole process seems so overwhelming that he can't even pick up his guitar. I told Scott that I’ve come across this situation many times in my writing. His problem is he's trying to write good songs.

If there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that you should never set out to write something good. It's this line of thinking that kept me from writing fiction for most of my life. In the past, I never set out with the simple goal of finishing a story no matter how bad it was. I always tried to conjure up a great plot, or unique characters, or clever lines, and then I'd quit because it all seemed too damn hard. I used to sit around and say, I want to be a writer, but I can't think of anything interesting to write. I didn’t realize that I should've been penning short stories about a guy who couldn't write, or churning out haiku about dog poop -- whatever. If I'd done that, I'd have hundreds of stories by now. Most of them would be atrocious, sure, but there'd be a few gems in there too. And think of all the practice I would have had.

You have to be willing to write what Anne Lamott calls "really, really shitty first drafts." Write the dumbest story or song you can think of, but write it. Maybe you’ll use parts of it; maybe you’ll use none of it. Maybe you use it just to entertainment your friends at 2:00 a.m. (I'm thinking of a few of Scott's more entertaining songs). But, over time, if you keep at it, you'll come up with enough pieces to craft a decent song. You may decide you like the guitar riff on that stupid song you wrote about your roommate who never does the dishes. Or the intro to that preposterous song about manatees. Or the unusual chord that came to you serendipitously, mid-song, that you'd never have thought of had you just been sitting there cold, trying to think up an unusual chord.

I've played guitar for years, and I've never written a single complete song. I've written lyrics, choruses, hooks and chord progressions, but never a song I'd consider finished. That's because I never gave myself permission to finish a bad song. I always assumed I needed to have the whole idea of a good song in my head before writing it. But this is all wrong.

We need permissions, but we also need boundaries. This is where Scott's excess free time (and mine) can be a hindrance. We all need rules and deadlines. If someone said here's a guitar, you have two weeks to come up with a great song, most of us would be paralyzed. We'd spend two weeks fretting about coming up with a masterpiece and probably give up. But if someone said, you have 30 minutes, write a dumb song about a stapler, we'd probably surprise ourselves. In fact, I have done this exercise many times with my friend Daniel. Now, those songs were usually made up in 30 seconds after consuming large quantities of alcohol around a campfire, but I bet if we'd just written down parts of those ridiculous songs, we'd have enough for an album.

The point is, if you spent 30 minutes a day writing bad songs, you’d end up with a lot of terrible songs, but you’re likely to have several good ones in there as well, or at least parts of good ones. And the best thing is, you're getting practice, learning to improvise, and soon you will be able to sit down and write a decent song off the bat.

I can't praise this tool enough. I use it almost every day. When I have to write a scene and I don't know where to start, I just start writing -- anything. I'll say something like, "this is the scene where the character finds out X… and it makes him angry so he does something about it… what if he did this.” 

I keep my pen moving the whole time (I've been writing a lot by hand these days).

“…and the character is limping from hurting his ankle in the last chapter and when he looks at his ankle he realizes he needs new shoes... but he's poor... now he’s lamenting that he should’ve chosen a new line of work...

and Bam! I'm in the scene and my pen doesn't stop moving for ten pages. Next thing I know I’m in places I didn't know existed and my characters are doing things I didn't expect and certainly couldn't have imagined before I started writing. The scene unfolds, simply because my hand is moving, because my creative self is warmed up, because I’m open to it.

So, if you want to write, whether it's fiction or music, just start writing. Write something ludicrous. Write a song about how much you suck and how you're a loser because you can't write anything good. Beck did just that, and it launched his entire career:

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Late Bloomers

62,000 words. Over 210 pages. It's the longest thing I've ever written by a factor of ten. The Word document takes a while to load it's so big. I feel like I'm in the home stretch of my draft, so I don't want to take too much time to write here. But I wanted to share an inspiring article from The New Yorker (no, I don't usually read that magazine but I'm thinking about getting a subscription to make me look smarter). It was written by Malcolm Gladwell and it's perfect for my present situation:

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30A.M. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le CarrĂ©.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Progress, paralysis

Progress update: I'm at about 55,000 words, or 180 pages of a double-spaced Word document. Now, astute readers may remember that I was hovering around 50K words three months ago. I've cut a lot of words since then. I've killed characters, given up on subplots, and deleted scenes I knew I wouldn't use.

For the past few months, I've been been writing nonstop, but I'm often taking one step forward and two steps back. Overall, since I started this project, I've probably written about 80,000 words and cut 25,000 of them. I didn't delete them permanently; I keep the extra text in a giant scary document called "Things I Might Need Later." But now I have a real 50K words, full of scenes and characters I actually plan to use. And it feels good. 50K words is significant because it's on the threshold between a novella (like Old Man and the Sea) and a bona fide novel. For example, The Catcher and the Rye and The Great Gatsby are each round 50K. And National Novel Writing Month (which starts in November, if you're interested) uses 50K words as its milestone.

Nowadays, the average mainstream paperback is around 100K words. So I want to have a first draft of around 80K, and then expand to around 100K with rewrites. I've finally learned enough to be able to give a realistic projection, so my new goal is to have an official First Draft completed by.... drum roll... Thanksgiving. Then I plan to set the draft aside for a few weeks and work on other stuff -- short stories, research, etc. After the hiatus, I'll come back to the draft with a fresh eye, roll up my sleeves, and start in on the hardest, most important part: rewriting and editing.

My Intro to Fiction class at The Writing Salon has been eye-opening, but I fear it might slow my progress on my draft. Maybe I should've waited until I was on the second draft. By showing me how much I don't know, the class could cause me to think too much -- instead of just writing and writing and writing. The Writing Salon instructor likens a beginning writer to a beginning musician. He says you can't expect, just because you appreciate music, to be able to just pick up an instrument and play. It takes years of learning basic chords, doing drills, and playing other people's songs before you get to the point where it becomes second nature. Only then can you expect to be able to improvise and create your own sound.

All this makes me worry about how much I'm trying to accomplish this year. There's so much to learn. At least being in a class with other beginning students gives me perspective on how hard writing is -- and a cadre of people to share the pain. My first night of class I met a guy named Rob, who has been writing poetry and prose for years. He told me a story that summed it up for me. Recently he had a physician friend, who had never written fiction before, tell him he was going to take two months off and write a novel. Rob told his friend, "that's funny, I was thinking of taking two months off to become a doctor."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Show Don't Tell

Last night I started a new fiction class at the Writing Salon. We discussed the writer's mantra of show-don't-tell, particularly with respect to setting and emotion. Our homework for this week is to go somewhere and just observe for 15 minutes, and then describe the setting and our accompanying emotion -- without actually telling the reader what the setting is or how we are feeling. For example, if you're angry, you'd write about the physical symptoms of anger -- flushed face, clenched jaw -- instead of saying, I was angry. And we were supposed to keep in mind all five senses. I did the exercise today, and I thought I'd share:

The glass security booth is unmanned, so I glide past the booth and into the room, like I belong there. There is no one inside. There are 50 wood-and-steel chairs lined up along the walls, and not one person is sitting in them. There are pizza-sized tables sandwiched between some of the chairs, and on them are magazines – People, Newsweek, Time. The magazines are stacked neatly, and many of them are bright and unwrinkled. Some of the magazines are even fanned evenly across the table, like you’d see in a staged house. A flat-panel TV hangs above the chairs, and Wolf Blitzer is on the screen in HD. The volume is turned up and Wolf’s voice echoes through the vacuous room. Squares of bright colors hang in measured spots along the white walls. Upon closer inspection I see they are magnified pictures of microscopic life: DNA, cells and viruses. The prints are mounted behind heavy pieces of protruding glass, giving the images a 3-D quality.

I sit in one of the chairs against the wall and cross a leg over a knee. It was hot outside but in here it is cool. The air has a filtered quality to it, but not in an artificial way; it’s like being under a grove of trees in Muir Woods. I can hear humming from an air-conditioning system, but I cannot feel any breeze, which is perfect because I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

Above me there are dozens of lights hanging on parallel steel cables, spanning the ceiling in deliberate haphazardness, like you’d see in an architect’s office. A skylight brings in abundant natural light, and I close my eyes and turn my face up to it. There is a warm sensation spreading in my stomach, the kind you get when you slip into a Jacuzzi. When I open my eyes again I lean over and look at the floor. I can see my reflection in the panels of shiny, checkered tile. The floor looks like it should smell of antiseptic or bleach, but there is no smell to the room at all, except for my own sweat, which has now dried on my forehead.

A formidable steel door with a person-length glass window marks the entrance to the rest of the facility. Beside the door, on the wall, is an electronic card reader; and next to that, a hand sanitizer dispenser. Hanging below the sanitizer is a sleek curve of plastic -- to capture any gel that misses the hands. The whole apparatus looks like it was designed by Apple Computer.

Through the glass of the door, I can see multicolored equipment – tubes and gages and tanks -- resting on a gurney. Everything laid out in neat rows. Two women in blue scrubs saunter past the door and out of site. The images beyond the door seem exceptionally sharp, and it occurs to me that my contact lens prescription must be right on.

A voice calls over an intercom, paging a doctor whose name I can’t quite catch.

I pick up a People magazine and flip idly through the pictures of celebrities. My breathing is measured and calm. My heart rate has slowed since I sat down; it seems to have recovered from my walk. The leg I have over my knee is beginning to feel tingly and numb, so I switch legs. My eyelids feel heavy as I sink lower in the chair.

I am jolted by the sound of ragged coughing. Is it a patient, an emergency? No, it’s just the security guard, returning to his post.

I wrote this in the emergency room at UCSF Med Center (No, I'm okay -- I just went there to write). It was not the setting I expected to find nor the emotion I expected to feel.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Big Book Sale

On Friday I went to the Friends of the SF Public Library Annual Big Book Sale at Fort Mason. It was incredible! Every book was under 5 bucks, and most of them were $1-$2. These were no crappy sidewalk throw-aways; they were books you'd buy brand new at full price. It was like winning a thousand dollar shoping spree to Barnes & Noble. The whole thing seemed too good to be true. I could've stayed there a week, I was so excited. I felt like my black lab, Chester, being let loose in a tennis ball factory.

The only downside was that the books were in no particular order other than general categories like "Fiction" or "Writing." So it took a lot of searching, but that was part of the fun. You never knew what treasure you'd find. I only wish I could've gone back on Sunday, when everything that hadn't sold by then was reduced to $1 or less.

They had everything, from cookbooks to genre fiction. I bought 30 books for around $65. I found a bunch of writing books I'd been looking for, including a textbook for which I was about to pay $70 on Amazon. I found a copy for $3. I cringed at seeing some hardcovers that my family or I had spent $25 on, selling for a dollar. The book I blogged about last week, If You Want to Write, I'd bought at a used bookstore for 7 bucks; at Fort Mason there were about 20 copies selling for a dollar. It did make me worry a bit. It's one thing to have 48 copies of The Da Vinci Code lying around, but why were there so many discarded writing books? If one were still writing, it seems like one would want to keep these books around for reference. Do we all give up so easily?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It is only in walks that are a little too long, that one has any new ideas

I just finished the book If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. It's a classic on writing and the creative process, first published in 1938. I'd picked the book up a few times but could never get myself to start it. Although I love classic literature, I try to avoid any how-to books that were written before World War II. And this lady was old. According to her bio, Ueland lived a long and active life, but the picture of her on the book's jacket looks like it was taken after she died. Plus, the summary on the back cover throws out terms things like True Conscience, True Self, and our Center. So forgive me if I didn't think I could get a fresh take on writing from this dated book.

But yes, to save you the suspense: I was wrong about the book. Very wrong. As you'll see, I got a lot out of it.

The book starts by saying that everyone is creative and talented in some way. This sounds hokey but it's true. Whether or not you consider yourself creative now, you no doubt did something creative as a child. You lost yourself and produced something imaginative and original, not worrying all along if it was art or it was good. And, consequently, it was good. Do you think we lose this ability? No, it should only grow.

We don't lose this creative power, but it often gets beaten down early in life by criticism, and by the creeping anxiety over whether one's work is "good." Ueland contends that if you write from your true self and not from the self you think you should be, you cannot help but be original and interesting. Focus not on whether your work sounds like Shakespeare, but on what you see, what you feel -- the picture and depth of the story in your mind. If you can truly see it, you can write it. Let's say you find that your description of a character is cliche and uninteresting. Don't strive to find better words; try instead to conjure a clearer image of the character in your head, and the words will follow. If you've ever kept a journal, you know what I mean. Whenever I look back at one of my travel journals with cold objectivity, as if was written by someone else, I've been pleasantly surprised at some insight, some passionate statement I'd made. And I know that at that point, I was only writing what I wanted to, what burned most incandescently in my mind, an idea that was formed not as I sat down to write, but during another time, a quiet time, while waiting for a train perhaps. These thoughts are always a joy to read, because they are true and truly felt.

So screw those books on what NOT to write (and I've read several of them -- one of them, in fact, was called How Not to Write a Novel). Holding these books in your head while trying to write is like stepping up to a golf tee with a huge water hazard on one side. You're aiming to hit the ball down the fairway, but what you're really focusing on is not hitting the ball into the water. I've lost a lot of balls this way.

The best part of Ueland's book, the part that struck me the hardest, is her theme that the imagination works slowly and quietly, and we have to be idle and open to channel it. The problem is that most of us don't sit still long enough to be creative. Even when we have a spare moment, we fill it with something, whether it's TV or the Internet or drinking or exercise. I'm particularly guilty of this. I can't eat a meal by myself without something to read. If I'm stuck somewhere more than two minutes without a distraction, I get anxious. Can we not just sit idle and take in the scenery? Ueland argues that it is in these quiet times that we form the ideas we'll draw from later -- to create something.

Much of the truly great art comes from people with time to spare. For example, Ueland says that some of the greatest literature was written by prisoners, because "prisoners suffer, think and are alone, so they have very much to say. Their relative yearning and power is shown by the fact that there is much more demand for great literature in prisons than outside. A librarian told me this."

To really observe, to be inspired, we have to be in the present. In our future-focused culture, we have a horrible time being in the present. Again, I am worse than most at this. Even if I am enjoying myself in the present, say, staring out at nature, I have to take myself out of the moment and validate it. I'll send a text message to let someone know I'm enjoying myself: "90 degrees. beach. beer. sucks to be you in the office;" or, "On top of Mt. Tam, no fog. view is amazing."

Another quote I identify with, given my current situation:

"We northerners are too much driven by the idea that in twenty years we will live, not now: because by that time our savings and the accrued interest will make it possible. To live now would be idleness. And because of our fear we have come to think of all idleness as hoggish, not as creative and radiant."

And finally, I could write on this topic forever, but Ueland puts it so well:

"Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong... that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: 'I am not creative.' They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time, lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by somebody else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frightfully sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Race for Hannah

This weekend, Amy and I are running in the Komen Race for the Cure. It's only a 5K, but we're talking about it as if it were a marathon. It's not really about the run itself. Were doing it in honor of, among others, our cat Hannah. She recently underwent surgery to remove a host of tumors spanning her breast area. We haven't gotten the results back, but the vet is fairly certain the tumors are malignant. The surgery was quite extensive, and Hannah was a sad sight in her post-operative state. Consequently, in the past week she has won some newfound affection from me. 

Always the queen of her domain, Hannah hates nothing more than being vulnerable. Hannah the heliophile has spent much of the last week lying in the dark. Hannah of the strident meow actually lost her ability to speak for 48 hours (the best sleep I've had in a year). Hannah of the infamous ennui actually appeared, for the first time, unsure of herself. Chester, of course, took advantage of this moment of vulnerability to prance around Hannah and sniff her butt, something that would've gotten his nose taken off in the past.

Hannah had a plastic cone put around her neck so she couldn't lick her wound or pull at the staples. When she first got home from surgery she wandered around the house bumping into everything -- without whiskers, you see, cats are nearly blind. She quickly adapted to the cone, though, and we soon realized she was exaggerating its effects in order to evoke sympathy. For a while, for example, she pretended like she couldn't reach her food. She kept bumping the cone into her bowl, spilling her food on the floor, and then looking up at us with those pathetic eyes. So we'd take the cone off -- and she'd promptly lick her wound. Later, when she thought no one was looking, she would eat just fine with her cone on. Next, she took to ramming her cone against the side of her cat bed until we'd pick her up, place her on the bed, and pet her. Then she'd miraculously jump the three feet onto our bed.

All these shenanigans give us hope that Hannah will be back in full force in no time. I wasn't really worried, though. She'll live forever, out of shear will, just to spite us all.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Since I last wrote here, I:

Got a knew MacBook computer. I love it. It's like I was using a hammer before and I've just been handed a nail gun; it won't help me create anything better but it will ameliorate the process.

Read three books, two amazing ones (Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joshua Ferris's Then we Came to the End) and a sub-mediocre one (Robin Cook's Critical).

Received feedback on my first 15 pages. I'm reluctant to write too much about my Writing Salon class because some of my classmates may end up reading my blog. But I will say that it was a fantastic experience, and overall the feedback was positive. Of course, we're instructed to focus mainly on the things we like about each others' work. But it was still reassuring to get good feedback on some of the aspects I'd been worried about, such as whether my dialog seemed natural, and whether my characters had distinct voices. It's nice to know that my writing makes sense to outsiders who haven't been living and breathing the story for the past few months. In the writer's head it always makes sense, so it's hard to be objective. It was weird though to hear them talk knowingly about my characters. It was as if people who'd never met my family were talking intimately about my mother. If I ever get published, I assume I'll get used to that.

There was a part of me, I have to admit, as I imagine every beginning writer could, that secretly hoped the teacher would find me after class and whisper, "I couldn't say it in there because it would make the other students jealous, but that was truly brilliant. Your writing made me weep. You're dangerous, Brian. I think you're too good for this class. There's nothing more I can teach you. Please let me show your manuscript to my agent."

When I left the class, I envisioned that scene in Top Gun when Kelly McGillis chases Tom Cruise through the streets of San Diego, he on his motorcycle, she in a convertible sports car, and when she catches him they say:

MAVERICK: Jesus Christ, and you think I'm reckless? When I fly, I'll have you know that my crew and my plane come first.
CHARLIE: Well, I am going to finish my sentence, Lieutenant. My review of your flight performance was right on.
MAVERICK: Is that right?
CHARLIE: That is right, but I held something back. I see some real genius in your flying, Maverick, but I can't say that in there. I was afraid that everyone in the tax trailer would see right through me, and I just don't want anyone to know that I've fallen for you.

Well, maybe not that very last part, but you know what I mean.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


On the back cover of the book on my nightstand, it says, "If you're tired of rejection, this is the book for you." No, it's not a manual on how to pick up chicks; it's Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. The premise of the book is that an agent or editor will make up his mind about a manuscript in the first five pages -- so you'd better make them count. And for an unsolicited book by an unpublished author, he'll usually make up his mind after reading the first five sentences. Professional agents and editors read with the goal of getting through the huge pile of paper on their desks, so they'll look for any reason to dismiss a manuscript. The sooner they find this reason, the better, so they can reject it and move on to their next task.

I'm spending the week in Newport Beach, so I haven't been doing much writing, but as I prepare to submit my first 15 pages to my writing class, I've been thinking about rejection. Here are some of my favorite rejection stories, most of them blatantly lifted from Lukeman's book or from Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections.

Stephen King's first four novels were rejected. When King sent his first manuscript, Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday, sensed he had something, but he still rejected the next three. King stuck with it, and Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm, for $2500. It was called Carrie.

John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 15 publishers and 30 agents. He ultimately published it himself, selling copies out of the trunk of his car.

In 1969, Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Steps, won the National Book Award. Six years later a freelance writer named Chuck Ross, to test the theory that a novel by an unknown writer doesn't have a chance, typed the first 21 pages of Steps and sent them out to four publishers as the work of "Erik Demos." All four rejected the manuscript. Two years later, he typed out the whole book and sent it to more publishers, including the original publisher of the Kosinski book, Random House. Again, all rejected it with unhelpful comments -- Random House used a form letter. Altogether, 14 publishers and 13 literary agents failed to recognize the award-winning book, and rejected it.

John Kennedy Toole wrote a comic novel about life in New Orleans called A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so relentlessly rejected that he killed himself. His mother refused to give up on the book. She sent it out and got it back, rejected, over and over again. At last she enlisted the help of writer Walker Percy, who got it accepted by the Louisiana State University Press. Eleven years after Toole's death, his book was finally published, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Ultimately, it comes down to persistence. As Lukeman writes, the answer to getting published is how much it means in your life. French novelist Jean Genet was forced to write on toilet paper, as that was all he had during his many years in prison. When the guards found and destroyed his life's work, he began again, recreating it from memory. Dostoyevsky spent many years in a prison camp in Siberia, where he wasn't allowed to read anything but the Bible and was not given any writing materials. But he continued to write when he got out, despite the fact that Russian law prohibited a former prisoner to be published. When the czar read Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead -- given to him by friends -- he cried, lifted the ban, and allowed the book to be published. Joseph Conrad, a Polish refugee, taught himself English while working on a ship. Despite the fact that he didn't speak a word of it until he was 20 years old, he became one of the greatest masters of the English language.

These stories give me hope and will surely inspire me to work harder once I get home. In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, the waves are calling.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


When I was younger, I used to draw pictures. Sometimes I’d get so engrossed in what I was drawing that I’d lose an hour, hunched over my desk, nose to the page, eyes spidered with red from not blinking enough. When I was in a drawing, I’d be compartmentalizing, focusing on one detail at a time, and the picture never looked very good. When I finally finished -- usually due to disgust, time constraints, or eye fatigue --I’d put the drawing away and leave the room.

When I’d come back later and look at the same drawing, standing above it, giving it some distance, I was often pleasantly surprised. I had a decent picture there.

With writing, it’s the opposite. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m in the world of the story. I can see it, feel it, smell it. I know what my characters are thinking -- I’ve lived with them you see. I know what’s in their past and I usually know what they’ll do next. With all this floating around, the piece I’m writing seems rich, layered and wonderful. The story’s unfolding at a lighting pace. I don’t want to slow down or go back and fix anything lest I lose momentum. With writing, you’re not confined like in a drawing; you can go anywhere, and you don’t have to stay for long. You never linger in one place long enough to reflect on whether it’s good. It’s a scene in a movie that has already passed, and it must have been good – you’re still watching.

But you pay for this freedom later. When I set my first draft aside and come back to it later, cold, as a reader would, without all the world circling, it doesn’t look better. It looks like shit. Worse, it’s one-dimensional -- a photocopy of shit.

From what I’ve read, this is a normal part of the writing process. You have to go back and add layers upon layers, stepping away each time to assume the role of the reader. And this part is HARD. And it takes FOREVER. I know this because I’ve been doing it for the past week. I started my class at the writing salon, and next class I have to share the first 15 pages of my manuscript with the other students. So I’ve been trying to make my first few chapters presentable.

This will be the first time I’ve shared any of my writing with “the outside.” As nerve-racking as that prospect is, I’m looking forward to getting some feedback. But most of all, I’m thankful for the deadline. Forcing me to finalize those pages has, in turn, forced me to make some decisions about my characters and plot. Completing the beginning, the setup of my whole story, has given me a foundation on which to build the rest of my book. Since I “finalized” those first 15 pages, it opened a floodgate of sorts, and yesterday I wrote more than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shocking, Daring and Extreme

I'm tired of Michael Phelps. There, I said it. He's a robot, just like Bob Costas and the Chinese divers. If you, too, are tired of Phelps, there are other things on TV. Especially if you happen to be home on a weekday.
When you're home sick from work, it's okay to make fun of the shows and ads on daytime TV because you know you're not the audience they're after. You don't need a job, a degree from ITT Tech or an AbSmasher. When an unemployed writer watches daytime TV, however, he's walking a fine line. So I try to avoid it. Of course, in the past few months I've still watched more daytime TV than at any time since college, and I've drawn some conclusions about us as an audience. We don't really want a job or a degree, or even flat abs. What we really want, apparently, is anything that's Shocking, Daring or Extreme. Peruse the daytime listings and you'll see: Most Shocking Videos; Most Daring Police Chases; Most Extreme Acts of Violence.

We also seem to crave anything with Dumbest, Stupidest or Worst in the title. I guess what this kind of TV does is it makes us feel better about ourselves. No matter the reason you're sitting home watching TV at noon on a Tuesday; turn on your TV and there's always someone worse off than you.
Feeling bad because you drank too much over the weekend? Tune in to
Intervention on Monday, and there's a girl inhaling cans of computer duster. Worried about your love life? Watch To Catch a Predator. At least you're not that guy.

When it comes to Shocking, Daring and Extreme, even Animal Planet has gotten into the mix. I leave you now with actual descriptions of my favorite episodes of Animal Planet's
Untamed and Uncut:

  • A diver makes a potentially fatal mistake when he teases a giant Pacific octopus out of its cave.
  • A rodeo bull goes head to head with a cowboy - literally.
  • A zoo visitor gets way too close to the polar bear cage.
  • Fisherman in Louisiana are unpleasantly surprised when a mako shark they'd believed to be dead seeks its revenge.
  • Betsy, a large pet Boa Constrictor, is the life of the party until she decides she's had enough.
  • A mule race in Brazil goes awry.
  • A professional alligator wrestler undergoes an event that might make him rethink his career choice.
  • A black bull doesn't bluff when it charges a promotional poker contest.
  • A deep-sea diving guide makes a mistake when he attempts to kiss a Nurse Shark on the snout.
  • An attempt to rescue a pregnant tiger caught in a tree in India goes terribly wrong.
  • A Monocled Cobra, one of the world's deadliest snakes, shows an exotic animal trainer why it should be handled with care.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Doggy Daycare

I didn't get much writing done last week. This was partly because I spent the week at Amy's family's lake house in Michigan. But I think another reason is I didn't have my muse with me. Chester spent the week in doggy daycare.

People in the bay area are notoriously crazy about their animals, and this fervor is reflected in the amenities at Planet Pooch. There are no cages at Planet Pooch, just 40,000 square feet of climate-controlled indoor and outdoor playspace, equipped with webcams so you can watch your dog from anywhere. There's a pool, and a salon -- yes, a salon -- is opening soon. The dogs are segregated into play areas based on their size and personality. Chester was placed in the "Central Bark" area, which houses "dogs with puppy personalities and with a few grownups to chaperone." There's even a quiet lounge for the elderly dogs. I toured the old dogs' lounge, and I wanted to live there. It features several luxurious couches, a fireplace, and a large flat screen TV. I found out later that the TV is fake, which is somehow even weirder.

There was an assemblage of other dogs up at the lake house, and spending time with other dogs makes you miss your own. I found myself saying things like, Chester's head is not this big and blocky; Chester doesn't get this much slobber on his tennis balls; Chester is such a better swimmer than these dogs. I imagine this is what it's like when people with kids spend time with other people's kids (little Jimmy would never do that, Awh, don't you just miss him to death?).

When it was finally time to pick Chester up from daycare, Amy and I could barely contain our excitement -- and our anxiety. Would he still remember us? Would he be mad at us? He's such a sensitive little soul, did the other dogs take advantage of him? The owner of Planet Pooch, clearly used to this type of hysteria, met us at the door with some well-worn disclaimers: He's going to look skinnier -- they always look skinnier. He's going to sleep for a week when he gets home. That's normal. Again, that's completely normal. No, he was fine all week. No, he didn't seem depressed. I'm sure he's not mad at you. Dogs don't have the same sense of time as humans; he doesn't know how long you were gone. And so on.

Chester was excited to see us, but he was clearly exhausted. He barely moved for the first two days. It makes sense when you think about it. For a dog who spends most of his time alone in the safety of our apartment, going to a week of daycare must be like a person going through a week straight of job interviews -- where some of the interviewers want to kill you, and all of them want to pee on your stuff. I'd sleep for a week, too.

The daycare owner's disclaimers didn't allay our concerns. Every few minutes, Amy would look at Chester and ask me something like, He looks like he's in pain -- do you think they beat him? He has so many more gray whiskers -- do you think he has post-traumatic stress disorder? Look at all the water he's drinking -- do you think the other dogs wouldn't let him drink all week?

Three days later, Chester seems nearly back to his old self. Still, next time I think he'll fly with us.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Origin of The Leaf Blower

I'm posting a day early because I'm not sure if I'll have access tomorrow.

Many of you have asked where the title of my blog comes from. Here's the story: About four years ago, my brother Matt left his office job to go into sales. He sent me an email telling me it was the last one he'd ever send from a cubicle; from then on he'd be working from home or out on the road. I was sitting in my shared office, watching the gardening crew work outside, and I wrote Matt the following note:

Outside my window a squat man is blowing leaves, swirling them into haphazard, amorphous piles. I wonder if he plans to rake the strays between the mounds or if he will simply gather what he can from the center of each pile, and move on. The whole effort seems futile to me, like trying to gather water with a sieve. Even if he manages to gather every last leaf, the leaves will come back, and so then will the man.
But what if he could peer through the tinted glass and catch a glimpse of me, sitting in my climate-controlled office, my ergonomic chair. What would he see? I, too, move things around into piles. And they always come back. For the most part, my piles don't even exist. Not in the tangible world, anyway.

So when you're out on the road in your company car, just remember that you are no longer of the world behind the glass; you are a leaf blower, moving piles around in the tangible world.

Four years later, on my last day of work, I received a large package from Matt. It was a leaf blower.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ernest Hemingway versus Lindsay Lohan

Ernest Hemingway once said that you must do four things to be a man:

  • Plant a tree
  • Fight a bull
  • Write a novel
  • Father a son

I've got some work to do. I've only done one of these things, and I'm not sure if planting a tree when I was eight really counts as a step toward manhood. At least I'm working on a novel. Once the novel gets published, I'm sure everything else will fall into place. Fathering sons and fighting bulls just comes with the territory.

If Hemingway were alive today, I hope he'd add a fifth requirement: secure a high-speed Internet connection. The more I write and research, the more I find myself wondering: how the hell did anyone write a book in the days before the Internet? In those rare moments when I don't have Internet access, I feel like I’m writing in a vacuum -- or working with part of my brain missing. Now, I realize that some research, particularly the in-depth legitimate research of many nonfiction works, still requires libraries and textbooks and personal interviews and such. But I'm talking about the little things that pop up when writing fiction, those quick facts you can find with a few clicks on Google and get right back to your writing.

Let's say, for example, I come up with what I think is a great name for one of my characters. What if I want to know what the name means? How do I know it's not already the name of some other significant literary character? Or it might have negative connotations I haven’t considered, like it's the name of a notorious child molester in Britain; or it means "soggy corn" in Latin. So I Google it. Ten seconds. Problem solved.

Recently, I was trying to write a scene where my characters walk through a forest at the height of fall, the brilliant foliage all around them. I try to conjure up this picture in my head, but I can't. I need some inspiration. In five seconds, I pull up thousands of pictures of fall foliage, and -- boom -- my muse is back. What would've I done in the olden days? Waited until October and traveled to Vermont?

Next, I wanted to see what Sydney, Australia looks like from the sky at night. Three seconds.

Then, I was writing about San Diego and I want to know how big the population is this instant and what the race makeup is, and how the business climate has changed in the past few years and...

How would I have gotten this information in the past? Dust off my ten-year old Encyclopedia Britannica? Write to the local chamber of commerce? I'm not exactly sure what a chamber of commerce is… so I just Googled it. Two seconds. See?

Of course, there's a colossal downside to having unlimited info at your fingertips, and it can throw you off track faster than you can Google the word "downside." More often than not, something like this happens: I go to lookup something, and my iGoogle homepage has a link asking if Lindsay Lohan is really gay, and suddenly this seems like something I should know the answer to, so I click on the link and read the story, and a few clicks later I'm viewing topless photos of Lindsay which may or may not be fakes, and then there's a related video -- there's always a video -- and so I cue up the video but it takes so much time to load that I start worrying my computer is too slow, and how I could solve the problem if I just had one of those new MacBook Pro laptops, and next I'm perusing the Apple website, wondering if it's prudent for a guy who doesn't have any real income to buy a top of the line computer; then all this thinking about money leads me to check my stocks for the fourth time this morning, and I see that one of them has tumbled and I need to know why immediately, so I read four articles about the company. Next thing I know, 45 minutes have passed and I've forgotten what I was looking up in the first place.
At least Hemingway didn't have to deal with that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Other Humans

I’m now 11 weeks into my writing adventure. Eleven weeks is roughly the length of a college academic quarter. I’m convinced I’ve learned more about writing – and the writing lifestyle -- than I ever could in a quarter’s worth of classes. But classes have other humans in them, and lately I’ve become acutely aware of my dearth of human interaction during the weekdays. So I signed up for a class at The Writing Salon. It’s a class full of other people who are trying to write a novel so, if anything, I’ll get to meet other folks who are going through what I’m going through. But the class doesn't start for a month, so until then I’ll have to keep plugging away at my draft and reading how-to books.

I’ve also been looking into co-working. Co-working spaces, according to this NYT article, first appeared in the bay area three years ago. They are a cross between home, work and Internet-equipped cafe. They are based on the realization that while avoiding an office is liberating, it’s also energizing to have a place to go where other people are working -- and not, say, napping. Problem is, all the co-working places in San Francisco are way across town, and adding a lengthy commute to my life sort of contradicts what I’m trying to do here. But I still plan to check out one or two co-working spaces this week.

In the meantime, I’ve been hitting up more libraries and cafes. Speaking of cafes, I’m writing this in Starbucks and I think I just saw Lou Ferrigno. Seriously. The Incredible Hulk just ordered a latte. The magic happens when I leave my apartment.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Feuilleton

Like any aspiring writer, I am always looking for ways to expand my vocabulary. I subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day, where you get a new vocab word delivered to your email inbox every morning.

While a few exceptionally useful words have stuck with me (like schadenfreude), my overall retention rate for these words is probably less than 1%. Reading a vocab word for a few seconds in an email is simply not an effective way to learn. Like anything else, you have to do something with it to learn it.
So, let’s play a game. I’m going to attempt to write a short story using every M-W Word from the entire month of June, in order.

I had a lot of fun with this. You should try it. It adds to the fun if you have no idea where the story’s going to go when you start. Here goes:

Henry couldn't have known it when he woke up, but his alarm clock signaled the beginning of the end, the postlude of his life. He was still hors de combat from the seven martinis he'd downed the night before, and a malaise shrouded him like a spider web. As he stood up, head spinning, he had an overwhelming urge to leave his tawdry apartment as soon as possible. He picked up some pages of a short story he'd been working on. He read the first few lines, then he crumpled the paper and slam-dunked it into the trash. He remembered calling his story a feuilleton when his friends had asked him about it. He cursed himself for his pretentiousness. Who says that? What a prig I am, he thought.

He burst out of his apartment into the San Francisco morning. It was August, so it was characteristically gray and gelid. He turned his collar up against the cold as the N-train arrived, staunch and robotic like some giant cockroach coming out of the mist. He searched his pockets for train fare, but found only a nimiety of ATM receipts and umpteen pieces of lint. He boarded anyway; he just had to hope that in the morass of morning passengers, no one would be checking tickets.

As the train pulled away, he was beginning to feel better. He bird-dogged a tall woman in a business suit, but she just rolled her eyes and buried her face in a newspaper.
Henry searched the faces around him, wondering if any the passengers was an undercover ticket agent. He remembered his bank account balance printed on the ATM slips in his pocket. If he got fined for dodging the fare, he hoped the city accepted corvee. He pictured himself working on the side of the freeway in an orange vest. It didn't seem so bad -- at least he could get away from his computer for a while.
The train came to an abrupt stop, jolting the passengers forward. Henry looked out the window. The street was filled with bicyclists: a churning mass of riders in bright costumes. They were swerving in and out of the cars, chanting and ringing bells. They'd tied up the street with some sort of protest against cars.
San Francisco sure is an exclave of America, he thought.

The train was impuissant against the wall of idling cars, so Henry got off, dodging the horde of angry bicyclists and honking cars like a character in the video game, Frogger.
He considered pointing out to the protesters the irony in that they were holding up the public transportation, too, but he didn't have the fortitude to get into a debate with them. He wasn’t about to jeopardize his physical well-being by speaking up.
So he gave a small solute, an obeisance to the liberal gods of the city, and began threading his way through the cars. But his unflappable mansuetude was meant to be put to the test today. As he neared the sidewalk, a throng of bikers circled around him and tried to deter him from getting off the road. He realized that they were corralling the pedestrians to form a massive car-train-person dam in the middle of downtown. Not usually prone to litotes – he preferred extremes like “atrocious” and “amazing” -- Henry looked up at one of his captors, gestured at the mess around him, and said, "not bad."

But the cyclists had turned their attention elsewhere. Henry heard a deep rumbling noise, and he turned to see the city’s symbol of everything sacrilegious: a raised yellow Hummer was inching up onto the sidewalk to get around the stagnant mass of traffic. As the Hummer lurched onto the sidewalk, an intrepid restaurateur stepped into its path, but then must have thought better of it -- he ducked back through his cafĂ© door before the big truck passed. While the Hummer's driver was conscientious about not hitting other cars, it seemed that the bicyclists were fair game.
If the bike-protesters considered themselves a salve for the environment, the guy in the Hummer was the nocebo, and he was dolling out his bad medicine on a procrustean regimen. Henry watched in horror as the Hummer mowed down an atoll of bikers who’d splayed across the sidewalk in an effort to stop him. All kinds of bicycles, from lowly cruisers to bespoke racing machines, flew into the air around Henry, forming a whirlwind of gnarled steel.

Henry was torn between watching the surreal scene unfold, and getting himself to safety. As he considered this, the Hummer made an abrupt turn and accelerated straight toward him. Henry stood transfixed as the growling yellow machine bore down on him.
He held up his hands and yelled, “Wait, I'm not on either side! I took the train. I like both bikes and cars. I'm neutral, see. I ... took... the…train…”
He tried to think of something profound to say that would stop this man -- a euphuism, maybe; something about a flower stopping a tank -- but his voice trailed off, and suddenly he was calm and sentient, and the scene around him took on a crystalline clarity. Maybe this was the answer to the jog trot of life, he thought. To die for a cause: to make a stand for peace, for neutrality. Maybe this, he thought, just before the huge wheels decimated him, is what I've been waiting for.