Friday, October 30, 2009

I Want to Burn You to the Ground

And this isn't even about The City of Windsor!

No, really, I swear. (Plus, you know, the city won't burn too well once it collapses into the Detroit River)

Here, a clue on the real topic:

Some of the genre/Lit talk over at Nathan Bransford's got me thinking, as a lot of people mentioned what they want out of a book they read, whether escape, entertainment or enlightenment. Which in turn made me flip that idea around and wonder about what it is I want my own writing to do to a reader?

Not easy, really, as the answer is likely variable. I don't want the same thing from everything I write. I mean, sometimes I just want to get a laugh. And entertaining is good... but in the end I want the reader to feel something, to experience something outside themself. And yet maybe even more than that... I suppose my deepest ambition is to write something searing. I want to pry a situation open and let out the pent up heat. I want the reader to feel their skin parch. No answers offered... only questions, only the heat of an almost ungraspable experience.

I think that's what I want. That something I write (someday) will burn you to the ground.

So, after kicking off the ashes, what is it that you want for your readers? No wrong answers! I mean, that's even better than fill-in-the-blank. Hell, it's even better than multiple choice. (Thank you, psychology department, for always having easy exams. Oh a, b, c, d and sometimes e, I love you so)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book to Book (to Book)

I've been thinking lately about my fickleness as a reader, and was wondering if it was just me. I think I'm a moody sort of reader... what I want can change from month to month, week to week, even hour to hour.

One of the reasons I like having a large amount of books (and boy do I have lots...) is because of this fickleness. It's hard to know in advance what I'll want to read, as my mood will shift. Even during one day... I'll know I'm nearing the end of one book, and I think I know what I want to read next, but when I get to that point and pick up the expected book... suddenly the impetus is not there and I'm in the mood for something else.

Which in turn makes me wonder if there's any meaning in my choices, any pattern in the arrangement of books I read. Do they connect? And, if so, how? What makes me pick a particular book off the shelf at a particular time? Is it related at all to the previous book I read, or to something else in my life? Things are complex, so I want something simple... things are dull so I want something complex...?

So I'll turn that question on you: what makes you pick a particular book at a particular time? Do you have a list and an order well in advance? Is it moody, like me, or a random grab? Do you buy and read one at a time and then buy another?

Help me out here. It may even help me with a blogging idea...

(gotta love those suspenseful endings, eh?)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I for Inklings

So I was interviewed on the news last night, tweaking The City of Windsor, my dastardly arch nemesis. ZING! I carved a great I for Inklings upon the villain's chest with my rapier wit.

Okay, I didn't actually see the interview, so I may have actually looked like a doofus. And sounded worse. Though I refuse to admit that I was bested by The City of Windsor!

But the interesting thing was really doing the interview. I actually found myself analyzing how I talked even as I did it. It was a little odd... a little meta-narrative running through my head, critiquing and planning even as I spoke. A little bit out-of-body, if you know what I mean. I found myself thinking about word choice and sentence structure, about the rhythm of the language. Almost like writing dialogue... what would this character say? What's the best way to convey the mood?

Except, you know, the character was me. Standing in front of a camera. So... rapier wit? Or doofus? I'm not sure I want to know. But it was interesting from a writer's standpoint, a sort of self-conscious understanding of my own speech in progress.

Makes me think about times when real life and the writing life bleed together. We have odd brains, we writers. Has that ever happened to you? Where the writer in you has superimposed itself over the normal you? That is, if there is such a thing as a writing you and a real you... WhoooOOOoooOOOooo... WhoooOOOoooOOOooo...

(Halloween is coming, you know. Sound effects are needed)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Opportunities and Turkeys. And Ducks.

So, it's Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. We Canucks like to get a jump on things. Why wait until November for a holiday when we can just have two in October? Plus November is dreary. And I was born in October.

I swear there's some applicable logic in there somewhere.

So, a time to give thanks... and I thought, coming off the last post, that I should give thanks for my opportunities. So many of them... First, of course, is the family I came from, a wonderful little crew in a house full of books. A family that valued books and knowledge and education. My mother's father was a doctor, and my father's parents were a teacher (his mother) and a principal (his father). My mother is a nurse (who once taught nursing) and my father was a history professor (and published historian). So, books and education... a wonderful opportunity, and one that shows up as much in attitude and obsession as anywhere else.

My parents supported me, too, in what I wanted to do, and paid for much of my education. Two degrees in Creative Writing, another wonderful if perhaps impractical opportunity. But it's what I loved and they supported that.

And, of course, my wife, who is always there for me and always supports my writing ambitions. First reader, fellow writer, she makes everything possible. She understands what writing means to me, and that is no little thing. She permits me my obsession!

So, I have been blessed with many opportunities on this odd path. And I'm guessing it's good to sometimes stop and reflect on those opportunities, and be thankful for them. While eating my turkey this weekend I'll try to keep those things in mind.

Okay, yes, I'm actually making a duck. Duck is good. And if I burn it, um, it's your fault. Yes. Yours. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Anyone else have writing opportunities they're thankful for?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

10,000 Hours Under the Sea

One of the things I find inspiring about ol' Snoopy is his perseverence. He may not be the best writer in the world, but he sticks to it. He puts in his hours. Even rejection and criticism can't keep him down...

He's always back on top of his doghouse typing "It was a dark and stormy night..." There's something to be said for that. I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, a book about success, and his 10,000 hour theory struck home with me. That is, for most things it usually takes about 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to achieve true mastery. Music, sports, art... 10,000 hours.

Now that's a daunting number in many ways, a whole ocean of hours weighing on your head. Start doing a little math... if you write an hour a day (which is great!) for a year you will end up with 365 hours of purposeful practice. And suddenly you see how daunting that number of 10,000 hours really is. Do that hour a day schedule for ten years... and you'll be a third of the way to true mastery. That's... a lot of work.

And yet there's something freeing about it, too. There are no limitations, with the exception that you will get out only as much as you put in. You need some talent... but success will be determined by how far and how hard you push that talent.

The trick, of course, is persevering and finding that time. Life intrudes... which means we have to take advantage of our opportunities. And that's really one of Gladwell's key points... it's often our opportunities that define our success, but only if we take advantage of them. Opportunity is not enough... nor is drive and effort. But opportunity combined with drive is a path to success. Bill Gates, for example, had a truly unique series of opportunities presented to him, a one in a million sort of series. His success was determined by those opportunities... and by how he exploited them. In a sense, his opportunity was really a chance to acquire those 10,000 hours of mastery before anyone else and at just the right time. Fortuitous. But only because he took advantage of what was presented to him.

I think this holds true for writing. I have a BA and a Masters degree in Creative Writing, and the process of acquiring these allowed me an opportunity to see a lot of different writers up close. I got to see how they worked. And by the end of that experience I had pretty clear ideas on which of those people had a chance and which of those didn't, and these were based not on raw talent but on how much the writers worked, how much they put into their writing. One of the girls in my MA class had the least amount of raw talent among the students, but she had a chance... because she would outwork the others. Who improved the most over those two years? You guessed it. Now, of the ones who didn't apply themselves, well, a few might at some point be struck by an epiphany, by the necessity of work, and apply themselves. But not many, I think. Gladwell, I'm sure, would note missed oppportunities, missed hours of practice. But the girl who worked... she was giving herself a chance. She took an opportunity and ran with it.

The only one who wrote more than her, in that class, was me. I'm thankful for this now, because I can see Grad School for what it was: an opportunity. Not because it would sprinkle me with the Magic Pixie Dust of Talent, or that the credentials would open doors for me... but simply because it was an opportunity to focus on writing. Two years with writing as my primary focus... and that held true for every writer in the class but few of them took full advantage of it. It's easier to drink beer and throw a few pages together to meet a deadline than it is to write four or five hours a day. And how many would have written nothing at all without the deadlines?

So that M.A. program was an opportunity, a chance to work toward those 10,000 hours. I took advantage of it, and am thankful I had that chance.

But that isn't always easy. We're not always presented with such opportunities. Working a day job, taking care of children, friends, family, housework... opportunities can be difficult to find. You have to root out those little opportunities... and then exploit them.

So... perseverence. What helps you get up on that doghouse each day? What helps you put in those hours? What helps you come back to the next story in the face of rejection or criticism (or the Red Baron shooting down your plane)? What pushes you to keep looking for those opportunities to write?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nuclear Powered Writers... Or Maybe Some (Environmentally Friendly) Hybrid Writers?

Something I rarely hear writers talk about: writing takes a lot of energy.

Is it just me, or is this something you don't hear much about either?

And I don't just mean physically, though it can be a little draining to hunch over a keyboard for hours on end. But I've done lots of things that were physcially more demanding. Here, though, the sort of energy I'm thinking about is really the mental and emotional sort. Writing sucks up this energy more than most things, I think.

It requires a lot just to start writing, to create something, to face that blank page. I think of it as a sort of metaphysical momentum - stories need a certain amount of energy to force themselves through you onto the page.

It takes energy to start something, to continue it, to finish it. It's a personal sort of energy, a well that endlessly varies in depth. Sometimes you have a lot, sometimes less so. Part of it, I think, is the simple act of creation. Nothing comes from nothing. Every idea needs a spark of energy to drive it, to allow it to fulfill itself. But more than that there's an investment... you put some of yourself in a story, something to make it real. It takes energy to invest yourself in a character, to see through their eyes and feel what they feel. And feeling what they feel... it's not unlike feeling a shadow of the real thing, an emotional ghost that haunts you and eats up a bit of your own life.

It's rare to have an endless capacity to write. Sometimes, oh so rarely, you might have the capacity to write for a day, ignorant of hunger and thirst. Usually it will be for a few hours, or a single one. Perhaps only minutes. Or perhaps it's just a second or two before your fingers are tired and the words start limping.

There's something draining about writing... and some of this mental and emotional energy is used for other things, and used up by them. How do you navigate that?

I've started a revision that's been requested of me, and yet I have a lot of drains going on right now. Certain things, whether good or bad, pull the energy out of you, always demanding a little more. So if you had an umpteenth revision on a book to do, and were low on that necessary energy, what would you do? What are some of the things that get you jazzed for writing, that help re-stock that strange well of Liquid Muse? Nuclear power, or clean hybrid energy, or solar... heck, I'd take some dirty coal energy right now and screw the environment. (Not really, though, with the coal, unless it's for a barbecue...)


I need some of this...