Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Online Writing Class

Sometimes, I’ve found, it takes just a single word or a picture to jump start the writing. A couple of connections, a spark, and BAM, the engine starts and I’m on my way. I knew that about myself somewhere in the deep ravine that doubles for my mind, but never really understood the concept until enrolling in an online writing class. And not just any writing class, either. I am a proud Wayward Writer and a member of the Literary Kitchen.

The class format runs like this. Each of the eight weeks during a session, our mentor Ariel Gore issues a short and a long assignment. The short is called a Quick Write. She offers a prompt like a word or phrase or photo, then we write for eight minutes, polish another minute then submit. I confess that I kept to the letter of the law the first couple of times and the results sucked. I let the time factor get to me and I could get out of my own way. What to do?

I noticed that a couple of submissions from the vets ran a little longer than might be expected for eight minutes. Example. One had a word count of 796 words. Even just straight typing, that’s a touch under 100 wpm. I couldn’t type 100 wpm for a lottery win. So I forgot about the time, totally. If it took an hour, it just took an hour. I’ve found, though that I can usually accomplish the mission in fifteen minutes with a three or four minute cleanup. Anything over fifteen, and I admit to the group that I cheated. This is not news, either. I told everyone in a conference call what I did.

The results have been startling. I’ve managed to be funny and powerful and poignant and insightful all in that fifteen minute time frame. Some of those writings have been better than things I’ve agonized weeks over. Some of the group, Ariel included, actually prefer my quick writes (particularly when it pertains to my boyhood) to my fiction. I confess I do, too sometimes. Going back and reading them, I’m astounded by how strong those experiences were. At the time they didn’t loom as large as now, probably because I was going through them.

They’ve made me a much better writer. Without question.

The long assignments I use for Catch a Falling Star or my short stories. I always get useful feedback.

The process of finding the class started in the Southlake branch of Barnes and Noble, the reference section, writing in particular. I saw the spine of a book with a long title, then ulled it off the shelf to see. How To Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, by Ariel Gore.

I laughed. Opened the book and read a couple of pages. Bought it. Took it home. Read it from cover to cover. It touched me someway, somehow. I laughed. I cried. I learned. Because this book is unlike any I’ve ever read on the subject, more than 100 cover to cover over 30 years and parts of countless others. My particular favorite sections are when Rising Lit Star asks Magnificent Meteor. I won’t summarize the book here because you might want to read it someday, and I don’t want to take away any of the joy you might get from reading it yourself.

From there, I checked out Ariel’s website, saw the class listed, e-mailed her asking for a little more info. She e-mailed me back quickly with the info and I signed up.

That was one year ago.

I spoke last week of The Writerie, the writers group I belong to? This class is important to me as well. I’ve made some friends I’ll probably never meet face to face, and received wonderful critique. Notice I said, critique, not criticism.

And all of it started with a prompt. Seeing the book on the shelf. Buying the book. Reading the book. Joining the class. “Choose one of the following pictures and write a story around it.” That particular prompt generated one of the best stories I’ve written. I’m entering it into a contest this weekend (later today).

I didn’t intend this to be a testimonial for The Literary Kitchen, but I suppose it is. Or maybe just a reminder that generating kickass ideas is so easy its difficult. The Literary Kitchen takes away the difficulty. And I’m most grateful.

To Ariel: When I do become famous, I will tell The New York Times that you’re a genius.

Okay, I weighed 273 as of last Sunday, a total of 12 pounds down since August 1st. So far, so good.

My writing goals this week are to submit two of my short stories, and to pass page 125 in Lucky Thirteen of Catch a Falling Star.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writers Groups

To writers group or not to writers group, that is the question. I have my answer. Yes, but ...

Large writers groups are, in my view, to be avoided at all costs unless ...

To join a writers group is a personal choice. Steve Berry has been with the same writers group of four since he started writing seriously, and, even after becoming an international bestseller, stays with the same group under the philosophy, “Dance with the date who took you.”

I like that philosophy.

Stephen King, on the other hand, doesn’t belong to a group, but has a number of people he trusts to look at his work when he decides to open the office door. His wife is the number one person in that bunch. His “ideal reader.”

I like that philosophy as well.

I’m using both, and it is working for me.

My initial exposure to writers groups came when I joined one of the largest in the country. Its leanest times during my tenure boasted a membership of forty, its strongest, just a shade under a hundred. The advantages seem obvious, particularly when a number of those writers are published several times over. I confess that I goo-goo eyed a lot of those folks, and I got a lot out of it. I learned a lot about the industry, at least from their point of view.

The disadvantage is the same, a lot of different perspectives. For the most part, people in the group wanted you to do well. Others not so much. Many offered critique. Some offered outright criticism with smiles on their faces. Having been on the board of this group, I was privy to a number of conversations, and one that made my jaw drop was how one of these fine and lovely folks bragged about how his comments drove away a new member of the group.

“Hey, if they can’t take the heat, they need to get out of the kitchen.”

I’ll buy that, but there is the natural heat of the kitchen, and then there is arson. And this “gentleman” and a couple of others were pyromaniacs. After having driven home, delicate confidence totally shot a few times, I started to see what was happening and ignored most of their criticism. I don’t believe in stealing someone’s dream. The industry itself will determine whether someone should or should not be published. It doesn’t need any help.

I may have mentioned this in previous blogs, but I believe very much in critique and not at all in criticism when it comes to writers groups.

Critique is when you say, “This isn’t working and here’s how to fix it.” An example would be, “Your lead character isn’t sympathetic early on. You can give him a lot of sympathy by giving him a dog and show him petting it.”

Criticism is when you say, “I don’t like your main character. I’d never buy a book about a guy like that.”

Thank you for sharing.

Chances are high that both types are available in large groups. Ultimately, there will be five or six you really connect with.

Now, the ideal group is the one I currently belong to, big surprise. We are five who connected. We call ourselves The Writerie, and consist of Kat Goldring, author of the delightful Willi Gallagher mysteries (see the cover above), Glenna, Shirley, Jane and myself. We have the advantages of the larger group in that we all have knowledge we can share with the others, but without the meanness of the large group. We’re supportive, and believe strongly in critique, not criticism.

Criticism comes when the book is published.

We meet twice a month and read our work-in-progress to each other. And trust me on this. When I’m on the bestseller list, I’ll still be making my twice monthly sessions to The Writerie. These folks are SOOOO good to me and SOOOO supportive of me, that if I don’t get published it will be my fault. I hope I’m that way for them. I certainly want each of them to be on the bestseller list.

I’ll be talking more of these wonderful writers later on and at various times. Add to that my amazing friend Dawn, a brilliant writer I also want to see on the bestseller list. She has her own group and lives in Edmonton, but the two of us routinely swap pages and tell each other when we’re brilliant and why, and when we’re not-so-brilliant and what we can do to make it better. In other words, critique.

I’m also a big fan of the RIGHT online writing class. More on that next week. :-)

I’m now 85 pages into luck draft 13 of Catch a Falling Star. And I’m looking to make a lot more progress this week.

Thanks for the indulgence last entry. I do appreciate it. So here’s the update. On August 1st, I weighed 285. On the 8th, I 280. On the 15th, 276. So much for the water weight. Now is when it gets tough. I have to stay focused.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Journey into the Personal

When I started this blog, my intention was to stay focused exclusively on my journey toward publication. In essence, the writing, the submissions, the rejections, and, ultimately, the acceptances. The goal, then, was to stay clear of the personal except to the extent that it had to do with the world of writing.

Oh, I intended to drop emotion on the page, if I could. To celebrate and/or cry at the results of the process itself, but not the life things that affect the writer ... me. No one wants to read a writer’s angst bullshit splattered all over the page or screen, unless it’s in the form of a well-told tale. I suspect that Stephen King’s Misery came about that way.

So, doing this blog the way I originally intended would have been phony at worst, incomplete at best.

Ultimately, though, one cannot have the journey without the ancillary creeping in like bitter into tea. Be that as it may, I’m going to TRY to make this a little more like chocolate into milk, but either way, here goes.

When I left for Fiji in March 2008, I weighed in at a svelte 185 pounds, a workable twenty pounds overweight for my height. I felt good. My famous (or infamous) aloha shirts hung down past my hips as they should to allow those trade winds to slip underneath. I swam an hour solid three times a week. The pictures of me on this site were taken during that trip, including the one above.

On August 1st, 2010, two weeks ago today, I tipped the scale at 285 pounds, the most I’ve ever weighed in my life, at the age of fifty-two, an age where many healthy folks suffer heart attacks and strokes.

One hundred pounds gained. Holy shit!

No aloha shirts. None fit. No self-respect either. And heart flutterings that have since gone away, but not forgotten. Then I understood, perhaps for the first time, a Benjamin Franklin quote, “Nine men in ten are would be suicides.”

So, while I would love to be compared with Hemingway, I don’t want it to go THAT far. Then several circumstances occurred within the last few weeks that tipped the balance a little. Okay. Tipped the balance a LOT.

First, I had a customer ask me on the phone at work if I was okay. She said I was breathing heavily and wheezing. I THOUGHT I was breathing normally. But how could I have been at 285 pounds.

Second, I read about the death in April of the father of two of my childhood friends, David and Bobby Tamura ( he goes by Bob, now, from what I read). I always held Mr. Tamura in the highest regard and respect. When I would become lazy, or otherwise annoy him, he would laugh, shake his head and say something on the order of, “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky. What am I going to do with you?” When I saw his obit picture, I heard him say it again, as he last did in person nearly thirty-five years ago. He died having been the first person to whom the U. S. Judo Federation ever awarded the rank of Ku-dan, or ninth dan. Only 15 people in the history of the sport have ever been awarded the tenth dan.

Third, last Sunday evening I had a long phone chat with my friend Cathy Rosczewski. Well, it started as a conversation and ended as a Rocky monologue about how I’d never attract a woman in my life blah, blah, blah. I exhaled self-pity. And I hate self-pity. Just abhor it. And I wasn’t even drunk. I’m so sorry to have spewed that kind of bile all over her, and she was so patient in hearing me out, yet again. I’ll have to apologize to her and thank her in the same breath.

I will when I have the courage.

But she did mention, yet again, that I lacked confidence in myself, and I took us around the mulberry bush, yet again, by saying that you had to experience success to have confidence, blah, blah, blah. And, truth-be-told I’m probably never going to have confidence in myself as a man. I can accept that. But I sure-as-hell can have confidence in myself as a person and as a writer.

Make book on it.

And that’s where I start. I can lose the weight. I’ve done it before. Hell, I’ve lost thousands of pounds over the decades. I’ve even been able to keep it off for years at a time. The problem this time is that I lack focus and accountability. That happens when you get older.

So, here’s the deal.

I’m giving myself one year from August 1st to lose one hundred pounds. That’s about two pounds a week, well into the safe zone for weight loss. The focus will come from my conviction that if I haven’t fallen into the safe zone, I’ll resort to surgery. Plain and simple. The accountability is that while I’m writing about character and story and submissions and how far along I am on lucky draft thirteen of Catch a Falling Star, you will see notations on my weight loss progress. A paragraph here and there. Not huge entries. I hope this is the last time I devote a weeks blog to this. But it will be there in the shadows.

In the past, I’ve used a lot of things to motivate me to lose the excess weight, everything from puppy love to acting. So, this time I’m choosing threat of surgery (cutting me open like a cod fish), and weekly blog entries (stripping myself naked). I don’t want to use the ultimate one. At least not yet. But I hinted at it earlier, so I’ll mention it here.

I want to live, and I’m killing myself.

There. I said it. Not easily. I’m going to have to dry off the desk and my shirt when I’ve posted this, but folks, I've been killing myself for more than ten years. Slowly, sometimes painfully, sometimes with a smile on my face, but I’ve been doing it. It’s time to face the fact that my mother and sister are dead, and I have to keep walking down the road.

I want to keep walking down the road.

I crave the adventures, not just in the stories I tell, but in life. So, I may be asking those of you who read this for a little help from time to time. And from others, too. I would be most grateful. And I promise always to reciprocate.

There it is. My heart on a plate.

Please tread gently.

By the way, I wrote a pretty decent 2,500 word short story this week about a family who, once upon a time, had it a whole lot worse than I’ve had it.

I am pretty lucky all things considered. And I learned something else, too, this week. Right now, actually. I can seriously bust pages when I want. I cranked out the first draft of the short story in a day. This blog entry will run just over twelve hundred words, and I wrote it in less than an hour and fifteen minutes. That includes thinking time.

As always, thanks for reading. I’ll let you know next week how I did.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

To Outline or Not to Outline

The jury is still out, but I think I’m a convert to the yes side of a controversial technique in writing ... outlining. For years, I listened to the battle between John Saul and Terry Brooks (pictured) at the Maui Writers Conference. The one (Terry) touting the inherent story organizational qualities of the outlining, bringing the story step by step to the climax, while the other (John) swore to the surprise quality of spontaneous writing. “If I don’t know what’s going to happen, neither will the reader.”

Neither guarantees a great read if the story sucks, though. Both admitted that. And, as an aside, I’m missing those battles every year even though I thought they were petty at the time. Amazing the difference between petty and fun given the salve of time. Whew. I don’t know what happened to MWC, but what a good thing it was, and now it’s no more.

I remember Terry saying in his T-shirt, shorts and sandals. “Try my way. Just once. If you like it, keep it. If not, no harm done.”

So, as you wonderful followers of my blog already know, I have been outlining my novel Catch a Falling Star these two weeks and have loved the result. For the first time in twelve drafts, I can see the forest of my novel, the overall layout rather than walking from one tree to the next to the next, unable to peruse the whole of it. Wow! But even though draft thirteen is outlined, I’ve given myself permission to revise it as the story steams down the railroad track. Who knows, the characters may want to take me in a totally different direction. If so, I’ll stop there and revise. I love the old folk song “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” but I don’t want it to be my novel.

Damn, I really think this might work.

My next statement is going to sound like I’m straddling a fence, and maybe so, but my gut is telling me, ultimately, to use both. Just plow through draft one as John Saul would, putting the sweat and guts and tears and laughter on the page. Then, go back and analytically organize the story ala Terry Brooks. The Saul/Brooks method, I’ll call it. Gotta love it. Hey, I enjoy both of their stories. Both have sold millions. I can’t, in truth, disagree with either with credibility, but I can employ both. And am.

I’m one with the outlining process now. A single 3 x 5 index card per scene, and a flow chart of the entire novel. I’m stylin’. :-) Simpatico with the process. I can see the whole thing like I was in a helicoptor flying over Black Rock (Kaanapali beach on Maui). The prologue flowed pretty easily, as did chapters one and two. Chapter three is a little more difficult because I’m bringing back an event from later in the novel to the front ... thanks, Bonnie. But it’s coming together well. I’ll finish that today and move on painlessly to chapter four.

Obviously it’s too late on this one to do a single draft. Unless one could argue that I’ve done a dozen single drafts. But I sure can finish this one and polish it and start sending it out, then on to my NEXT NOVEL. And I’m looking forward to that day. More than you can know. I’d fallen into what Steve Berry (with whom I studied) said was the state where you hate your novel, you see.

And I was so there.

But with this outline, I’m back to looking forward to being with my characters again. Catch a Falling Star is a rite of passage for four people and I have to get them through, just as the actor Edward G. Robinson once said that he gave each character he played everything he had because he “owed them that.” And I owe it to them. I gave them life. And I need to give them every chance to live their lives between the covers of a book.

Every chance.

Oh, yes. I’m a convert to the outline while still a believer in spontaneously spilling everything on the page. And so I’m on to finishing chapter three then four and onward. I really am looking forward to continuing this afternoon. I’m jazzed. Six weeks? Maybe less?

And then ...?

My next lead character will come from one of two prospective novels, and will be named Miranda or Laura. I’m leaning toward Miranda. But I think they both ROCK! I can’t wait to spend time with both.

I’ll let you know next week how I did. And thanks for all of your comments. I appreciate each of them.