Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Leaf Blower's Guide to Stripping and Steroids

I've hit 35,000 words. I like the sound of that. It has the mouth-feel of a landmark; the cruising altitude for an airliner. But don't get too excited: I'm about a third of the way through my first draft and I'm starting to rethink my strategy. While the just-vomit-on-the-page method has helped me develop my story and blaze forward unselfconsciously, lately I find myself wondering if I've developed my characters well enough to know what they'll do next. I'd also planned to eschew any serious research until I'd completed my first draft, but I've found that some technical stuff (FDA procedures, symptoms and treatment of the disease I'm highlighting, etc.) is integral to my plot. So, I think I may pause for a bit and spend some more time developing my characters and researching.

Or course, it could just be that I'm spending a week in sunny Fresno, and I've found that hot weather pretty much kills the drive to write, or to do anything else. No wonder San Francisco is such a productive city.

People always ask me, what are you going to blog about this week? Actually, they don't -- but I wish they would. Blogging ideas hit me at odd times; usually when I have nothing to write them down on. The other day I was running and had an epiphany that I could write a whole post about those people who jog in place at stoplights to keep their heart rates up. But by the time I got back home I'd forgotten why that was so funny.

Some writers have gone to extremes to drum up material. Diablo Cody is the darling du jour of Hollywood who won an academy award for her first screenplay Juno. Everyone assumes she's a stripper-turned-writer, but it's even more interesting than that: she was a writer who started stripping so she'd have something to write about. She was blogging about the banalities of her office job, and no one was listening. So she became a stripper and wrote a blog about it. That blog, called The Pussy Ranch (only a smidgen more intriguing than The Leafblower), drew a huge following. Next came a memoir, then a screenplay. Now she's writing a series for Steven Spielberg. See where blogging can take you? And don't bother looking for The Pussy Ranch -- it's been taken down.

In a similar vein, here's an excellent article about a writer who takes steroids to lend some verisimilitude to his novel -- about a boxer who takes steroids.

Guys can especially relate to this article; nearly every guy I know wonders what would really happen if a "normal guy" took steroids. After his ordeal, the writer says he would never do it again, but boy did he gain some writing material -- not to mention an article in Esquire.

This week I thought I'd solicit suggestions for blogging topics. Send me some ideas and I'll pick one to write about in the next few weeks. This blog is first and foremost about writing my book, but I'll write about other topics from time to time.

Please post your suggestions in the comments. You can also give me ideas via email or phone. This is really just a hedge against my embarrassment when no one responds. I can always say I got so many great suggestions offline and I had to narrow it down to the best one.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Time is Not On Our Side

25,000 words and counting. I'm starting to flush out my plot, and for the most part, I like where it's going.

About six weeks ago, when I started this adventure, I emailed the author of one of the writing books I'd read. This author is a big fan of fresh metaphors, and I sent him one of my favorites, from Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. The author responded right away, thanked me, and said that my trope sailed right into his list of select metaphors. He then sent me a few more of his favorites. He even included his phone number and address. I was elated: a real best-selling author, connecting with me in this way! When I responded back to him, I dropped the punch line: "I just quit my job at a biotech firm; I'm going to attempt to write a novel. I'm giving myself a year." Then, lest he think I'm all about the big P, I added: "I'm trying to focus more on the learning experience than on the end game of getting the book published."
When the author responded, he copied part of my own email back to me: "I'm trying to focus more on the learning experience than on the end game of getting the book published." Below it, he added, "wise strategy -- and good luck at it."
Now, the author may have just been giving me genuine encouragement, complimenting me on my strategy, and trying not to set me up for inevitable future disappointment. But, even through email, I sensed there was something more. I'd overplayed my hand somehow. This man has written and taught writing his whole life, and he's seen this more times than he can count. I had crossed some invisible line with him; I'd joined that camp of people whom real authors probably detest most: those who think, if only I had the time, I, too, could write the next Catcher in the Rye.
Now, many weeks later, I understand a little better. Before I started my year "off," I envisioned all these things I would do in addition to writing a novel. After all, I'd have plenty of time to whip out my masterpiece. I was also going to mountain-bike; write songs; travel; finally become fluent in Spanish; paint my coffee table; organize my sock drawer; file my guitar tabalature alphabetically in a user-friendly binder.
I haven't done any of these things.

My friends have joined in on this illusion of unlimited time. Whenever we're planning a group event, I hear, "Brian, since you have the time, can you... call the venue... buy the food... pick everyone up, etc. The other day, a friend called me so I could give him directions to the nearest Target. He was on the road and knew I'd be home, in front of a computer, with absolutely nothing to do.
Friends, I assure you: If you quit your job, your laundry will still be not-quite-done, your drawers still waiting to be cleaned out. You won't go to the gym more than you did before; you aren't going to take salsa lessons or learn to sail.

I've come to realize it's not about time, it's about priorities. Quitting my job and giving myself a defined period in which to write a novel has forced me to make writing my priority.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Don't Bring Me Down...

A quick update: I'm on track. I wrote my 12,000 words last week. Of course, in a hurry to hit my quota before I left for the weekend, I wrote some pretty god-awful sections. But at least I'm formulating my basic story. If my book were a bear sculpture being carved out of a log, I'd be at the chainsaw stage; no use pulling out the chisel or sandpaper to finish a piece I might saw off entirely.

Last week, I found that listening to music can help when my writing is stuck. Fast, lyric-less music that is congruous and repetitive, such as techno, seems to work best to speed up my writing. When I'm agitated and want to calm down and block out the world, I put on noise-canceling headphones and listen to something like Enya. I considered putting on classical music, as I pictured other writers doing, but it seemed too stuffy and contrived. Besides, I don't have any classical music in my library.

I got to thinking about which songs would be the worst to listen to while writing, and I started forming a list in my head. I stuck with classic rock because I know a fair amount about it, and I had to narrow it down somehow; if I went modern, I'd have too much material -- I'd be here all week. Here is my list of the top ten worst classic rock songs to write to:

10. The Joker, Steve Miller. This song gets me thinking that maybe pompatus is a real word and I should be using it in my manuscript.

9. Witchy Woman, The Eagles. When that horrific howling comes on, how can you not stop writing and break your speakers?

8. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen. I challenge you to write even one word during that Galileo figaro-magnifico-part.

7. Aqualung, Jethro Tull. This lurid, discordant mess (sitting on a park bench, eying little girls with bad intent) is like writers' kryptonite.

6. The Boys are Back in Town, Thin Lizzy. Wikipedia notes that this is number 499 of the 500 best songs of all time. I wonder what number 500 was.

5. Come on Eileen, Dexy's Midnight Runners. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, they speed up the maddening chorus at the end.

4. Rock and Roll, Led Zeppelin. I never liked this song, but now it just makes me think of those Cadillac commercials and I feel sad.

3. Movin' Out, Billy Joel. This is the one that goes, "heart attack-ack ack ack ack." Need I say more?

2. Don't Bring Me Down, Electric Light Orchestra (Don't bring me down.... Bruuuuuuuuuuce!) Wikipedia solves the mystery of that elusive last word in the chorus. Please click on this link if for nothing else than to see the album cover picture.

1. Smooth, Santana featuring Rob Thomas. OK, so this isn't classic rock, but it features a classic rock guy in one of the most overplayed torture devices of all time. It launched what was the worst musical experiment in history until it was eclipsed later that year by Garth Brook's creepy alter-ego, Chris Gaines.

I'm sure there are many more songs I haven't thought of. Feel free to add to the list via comments.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A writer's best friend

Deadlines are good. Quotas are our friends.

Last week, I set a deadline and daily and weekly word quotas and announced it to everyone, so it'd keep me on track. Already, I'm thinking of excuses why I can't meet it this week. I'm going camping Friday through Sunday, so that means I have to write 12,000 words in four days. But I threw it out there, so I feel obligated.

So far, it's working. I wrote my 3,000 words yesterday. But today, I'm already stalling. I read other writers' blogs (here's a good one: J.A. Konrath's A Newbie's Guide to Publishing); I spent twenty minutes finding just the right picture of leaves to paste onto my blog. Become unemployed and you, too, will have the time to find just the right picture of leaves!

So this is the week I officially started my draft. It's also the week I officially started talking to a dog.

Chester is a sleek, undersized black lab with two bum hips. He loves two things in this world: his mother (as my girlfriend Amy affectionately calls herself) and green tennis balls. This love is not equal. If Amy were being savaged by a bear, and there was a ball in sight, I firmly believe Chester would not bark or run; he would calmly push the ball at Amy's (now flailing) feet and backup expectantly, waiting for her to stop playing with the bear and throw the ball already.

As the stay-at-home dad, I spend a lot of time with Chester, and he has taken quite a liking to me. Not green-tennis-ball-like, but enough that he follows me all over the apartment. When I'm writing in the office, he lays patiently at my feet, waiting for me to quit and take him to the park.

I used to talk to people all day long. That was my job. Now, alone in my office, when I feel the urge to talk, Chester is the only one there.

Sometimes Chester is sleeping and he doesn't want to talk. But he looks so peaceful and content laying there that I can't resist.

I whisper "Chester." his head jolts up, eyes expectant. Seeing that I have nothing more, he settles back down.

I whisper again, "Chester." He lifts up, flops back down.

Then I wonder if he really knows his name. I say:

"Blister." Same response.

"Plaster." Head lift, but a muted reaction.

"Molester." Same head lift, but his eyes look shameful.

"Marshmallow." Ear flip, no head action.

"Amoeba." Eyelid raise, almost imperceptible. Clearly annoyed.

"Tree." Nothing.

"Chester." Still nothing. He'll show me.

We'll see about that...

"Park." He jerks his head up.

"Ball." He jumps to his feet.

Now I've done it. I needed a break anyway.