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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


It’s been said that writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Lately, I’ve been trying not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of my task. There are so many factors to consider, it’s easy to get paralyzed and not want to do anything. For the past month, I’ve just been writing, unencumbered by my inner editor, paying no heed to whether my characters are paper-thin or my plot twists are clichĂ©. It’s been a great exercise. A month later, I’ve essentially completed a rough draft (or more like an outline) of my story. The draft is about 50,000 words, and if I went back and added more descriptions, dialogue, backstory, and a few sub-plots, I would have the makings of a novel.

Now that I’ve gotten to this point, however, I’m forced to ask the dangerous questions: does my plot actually work? does it have enough suspense to keep the reader hooked? do I even know how to write effective dialogue? But most of all, I find myself asking if my characters are interesting enough for a reader to want to spend hours of his precious time with them. Forcing me to consider these questions has led me to decide to kill one of my main characters. Not kill as in kill her in a plot twist; I removed her completely, taking about quarter of my draft with her. It was painful, but necessary. I expected this might happen, and it was the reason I didn’t spend any time polishing the prose I knew I could cut at any time.

I am not alone in worrying about my characters. Many of the books on writing fiction say that nothing’s as important as developing believable, complex, multi-dimensional characters. Indeed, when I solicited blog topic ideas, most of you asked about my characters: how do you pick names, personalities and characteristics? do you base them on real people? how do you write about something or someone you know nothing about?

To answer your questions: I’m not sure yet. I’m still working out my process, and I’m learning a lot. I just finished The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, and it has some useful exercises on developing characters. It forces you to ask yourself questions I hadn’t even thought of, such as: what are the discrepancies between how your character views herself and how others view her?

A word on character names. I still haven’t decided on most of them. I am fairly certain about the name of my protagonist. I came up with his name by looking at names of lead characters in other books, and by perusing popular baby names on the social security website. But most of my other characters’ names I decided I’d fill in later. Turns out this wasn’t a great strategy either. In the days before computers, when you couldn’t just do a “find-replace-all” and change your character name with the click of a mouse, I imagine you’d have to be more certain of a character’s name before you got too far into the book. But with this modern word-processing feature, I’ve created my own problems. For example, one of my characters is a doctor for whom I haven’t thought of a good name, so I’ve been calling him “Dr. Chango” (change-o). Later, when I think of a suitable name, I plan to go back and change all the “Chango’s.” The problem is, now that I’ve spent so much time with this character and written his name so many times, I can’t think of him as anyone but Dr. Chango.

When you do decide on a name, you want it to be interesting enough that it will resonate with readers, but not so extreme that it sounds like a porn star name. I recently tried to get through one of Stuart Woods’s “Stone Barrington” novels, but couldn’t get past the absurd main character. “Stone” is exactly who you’d expect him to be: stoic, handsome, rich, well-educated, single, etc. But someone must enjoy spending time with him, as most of Woods’s books are bestsellers.

If the character is unique enough, the author can get away with an extreme name. Take Hannibal Lecter. We simply can’t imagine him being named anything but Hannibal Lecter. He’s such a unique and complex character that we allow the name. Speaking of complexity, Lecter is a perfect example of a multi-layered character. He has done unspeakable things, but we still respect him and even sympathize with him; this brilliant creature locked away in a cage. In fact, we almost can’t help but like the guy. At least until those horrendous Hannibal sequels came out.

Giving a reader conflicting feelings about a character is one of the most difficult things to pull off, and one of the most powerful. I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, the author of House of Sand and Fog. He said that many readers told him, I loved your book but I hated everyone in it. In that book, the two main characters make one bad decision after another -- you just want to reach through the page and shake them. But that’s what makes the characters real; that’s what keeps you reading.

Speaking of House of Sand and Fog—and I know I’m rambling now – Dubus pulls off something many beginning writer’s can’t: he creates believable charters who are nothing like him. It’s safe to say that he had to learn all the subtleties of an immigrant Iranian family through research.

In contrast, take Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep. While Prep is a wonderful book, it’s not hard to imagine Sittenfeld, who attended a similar prep school, as the main character.

Even with characters as unique as Hannibal Lecter or Dubus’s Iranian colonel, the author always draws parts of the characters from himself and people he knows (to answer another question I often get). It’s unavoidable. You just twist the facts enough so it’s not too obvious -- and so you don’t get sued.

So, for the next few weeks, while I still plan on writing a little every day, I’m going to work more on character development.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough. I need to go work on developing my lead character, Brawn Colinfield -- a tall, white dude with movie-star good looks who used to work at a biotech company.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A writer's best friend, part II: Hannah

42,000 words. I did more reading last week than writing. I also thought a lot about my plot. I'm having difficulty coming up with a plausible way for two of my point-of-view characters to come together. Some writing books suggest that if you're having trouble with a character, just kill him or her. That will solve your pesky problem -- and generate a new plot twist. But I'm not ready to sacrifice this person just yet.

Thanks for all the great topic suggestions. I'll write about some of them over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I thought I'd give an update on everyone's favorite topic, Chester.

The only thing that could stand between Chester and his tennis ball is our cat, Hannah. Hannah spends her entire existence tracking the warm rectangle of light on the carpet as the sun moves, window to window, throughout the day. Save for her inexplicable bursts of energy from 4:00 to 4:11 a.m. daily, she only gets up to move to a new sun spot or to alert me when her food bowl is empty.

It's a nice life. Still, Hannah is very, very angry. And Chester is deathly afraid of her.

Hannah kept stealing Chester's bed, leaving him to spend the night on the cold hardwood floor, which is bad for his hips. So, we got Hannah her own cat-sized bed. Here is the result: