Monthly Archives: February 2014

How to find time to write a novel?

by on

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
- Ray Bradbury
 

Damn, Mr. Bradbury. 20,000 days? That’s only 54 years. I need far more time. I’ll just be getting started!

You want to write a novel too? You haven’t started yet?

You have some great ideas though?

You read that one book by that one author you liked and you totally think you can do the same thing? The main characters, like totally reminded you of you and your best friend? You could totally write a story like that! It’s like, so much like your own life!

That’s wonderful. I’m sure you’ll get around to writing a novel just like that someday. I know you have some fantastic ideas.

You just don’t know where to find the time. You have school of course, and that takes up so many hours.

And what about you? You work endless shifts at your job, always putting in overtime. I understand. Maybe you can start writing after that.

Then there’s you, of course. You have children to raise, obviously. You have to get them breakfast, and go shopping, and dress them, and make them lunch, and take them to their practice in the afternoons. Where can you find time? Maybe you can start writing after they go to bed.

Writing doesn’t seem that hard. You wrote fabulous essays in school.

There’s that amazing new show on television! Did you watch it last week? Oh, my god, it’s so good! Maybe you can start writing after you catch the latest episode.

And how about that cool game app on your smartphone everyone is playing this month? Did you collect all the stupid candy or birds or jewels or coins or whatever the fuck you are commanded to do? Maybe you can start writing after you play that for a little while.

Writing is really easy, after all. Look at all the terrible books that get published.

You could start writing that novel this Friday night, but your friends called and they want to go out drinking. You can’t turn them down. Have to get your drink on! Woohoo! Party! You’re only young once! Besides, a writer needs life experiences, right? So you have to go be sociable with your friends. Live a little! Maybe you can start writing after you get home. If you’re not too wasted. LOL

Oh, and that new movie is opening this weekend! Did you catch the trailer? The one with your favorite actor in it! He’s so cool. All his movies are always so awesome. You have to check that out on Saturday. Maybe you can start writing when you get home.

Writing a novel shouldn’t be that tough for you. Your friends always say you’re so creative.

You really do love to read. Writers who are worth anything always read a lot. Right? The newest book in the latest young adult sorcery vampire dystopian series with that strong female lead character is out! Have to read that tonight before you go to bed. Too bad. You could have started writing your novel then. Maybe you can start after you’ve read a few chapters of The Harry Twilight Games.

Did you start messing around on the Internet again? How long did you spend on your social networking site today? Did you see those new posts from your friends’ vacation? That’s really important to spend time doing that. Did you make sure to click likes on those political rants? Your friends are just so tuned in to the social consciousness! Well, maybe you can start writing once you sign off the computer.

Writing a novel can’t take too long anyway. Right? You’ve heard some people write them in a month. Isn’t there that challenge every November where people churn out 50,000 word novellas they pretend are novels?

Well, once you hop off the Internet, maybe you’ll check out that videogame upgrade. You can start writing right after that.

Did you see what was on the news today? Can you believe what those crazy people in the Middle East and Asia are doing? How about the way that girl was dressed at the MTV Awards? Hey, that gives you some story ideas! Maybe you can start writing them down when the news is over.

That weekend trip you have planned next month with your boyfriend or girlfriend sure will be dreamy. You can’t wait. Maybe you can start writing when you get to that cute little bed and breakfast.

Anybody can write. You know you have the talent. You have such great ideas. You just can’t possibly find the time.

But you sure hope to get started soon.

Good luck.

The reason you will never be a writer is because you think you have all the time in the world.

For those of us who are writers…

54 years contain barely enough hours to begin.
 
“I’ve always been aware of posterity. Many, many, many, many years ago, I got a t-shirt when I was single that said, ‘Not tonight, dear – I’m on a deadline.’ And you stop to think about how many movies you didn’t go to, or how many times you didn’t get laid, or how many times you had to punk out on going out to a good dinner with somebody, or you missed seeing a concert you wanted to, because you were busy writing and you had to finish the story. As Von Kleist said, ‘I write only because I cannot stop.’ I keep writing because I cannot stop.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

BOOK REVIEW: “The Stone & The Flute” by Hans Bemmann

by on

“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann was a humbling book to read. When I first read it back in high school, I wrote a review for it in the newsletter of our science fiction and fantasy club. The one thing I vividly remember stating in that review was that the mark of a great book is one that can make you laugh out loud and cry tears onto the pages. Since I was only in high school, I hadn’t read many books with the power to do that. The Stone and The Flute made me weep and laugh aloud on multiple occasions.

I still believe that to chuckle and shed a tear is the barometer of a great story. There are good stories that don’t touch your emotions in that way. But great stories? All great stories take you through that range of feelings. Any book that can make you feel such joy that you are laughing out loud and such sorrow that you actually sob, is awe inspiring. Not many novels have that kind of power in them, to run through a full spectrum of human emotions.

Author Hans Bemmann was 60 years old when he wrote The Stone and The Flute and it shows in his writing. I don’t think a 20 or 30 or 40 year old author would be capable of writing something like this. When I read the book as a teenager, I was already on my way to being a writer. What I read in The Stone and The Flute was both humbling and inspiring. Humbling because I knew at my age, I couldn’t possibly write a book that came close to approaching this. Inspiring because it made me realize how much I had to learn and that maybe in 50 years, I’d be able to create something that wondrous and magical. His achievement is even more amazing when you consider that he only wrote 7 novels in his lifetime and he had only written one novel before this. The Stone and The Flute was only his sophomore effort!

When we’re children and teenagers, we often think we’re totally awesome. We can do anything. We can do things just as good as any adult. We feel absolutely confident and sure of ourselves. The Stone and The Flute was the first time in my life that my arrogance over writing was schooled and given a smackdown. The Stone and The Flute was the first time I read something where I truly realized I was incapable of creating something that good. And I wouldn’t learn how to become that good in one year or 5 years or 10 years. I realized this book was the culmination of a writer who had been honing his craft for decades and I had nothing on him.

The main character of The Stone and The Flute is a young boy named Listener and the novel begins with his birth and ends with his death. Now, I apologize if you feel that revelation is a spoiler. I don’t see it as one. Revealing that the book spans the entire lifetime of a character is, to me, a wonderful selling point. After all, this is the only story I have never discovered in my entire life with the ambition to attempt such an audacious undertaking as spanning an entire lifetime. How many characters have you ever read about where you get to watch the whole of their lifetime? I’ve never seen any short story or novel try such a thing before. Thus, moreso than any other book I know, you come to really feel for the character of Listener. By the time you reach the end of the book, you feel you have known Listener longer than anyone else you ever met. He becomes your oldest friend. From his innocence of childhood, to his insolence of being a teenager, to his adventures as an adult, to his dignified journey into old age, you are by his side. You are a witness to all of his life.

The tone of the book is magnificent. It has the pace and demeanor of a Grimm’s Faerie Tale but it’s over 800 pages long! Now, I don’t know if you ever sat down and actually read any of the Grimm’s Faerie Tales, but to have a story of this length and magnitude maintain such a storybook resonance is utterly spellbinding. Here’s the first few paragraphs:
 

Once upon a time a boy was born in Fraglund, and this is his strange story. His father was a mighty man whom folk called the Great Roarer: he was tall and burly, and liked to wear his shirt open on his hairy chest. His was a tempestuous nature. One moment, he would fly into a terrible rage, the next he would be shaking with loud laughter. Yet he was known as a just man, and so the people of Fraglund had asked him to come from far away to be judge over them in that part of the country.

Now when the Great Roarer came to Fraglund to take up his duties, he brought his wife with him, a quiet woman who kept so much out of the public eye that at first many thought she was not wedded to him. She was said to be the daughter of the Gentle Fluter, of whose arts they had heard in Fraglund, although he lived very far away, beyond the great forest of Barlebogue. Folk said his fluting was so sweet that even the birds would fall still to listen to him, and so soothing to the spirit that many a man’s quarrel had been settled by the notes of his flute alone.
 

Such a splendid beginning. And the book maintains that storybook atmosphere for all 855 pages. Beginning to end.

Listener is unlike any other fictional character I have seen because he is portrayed so realistically. He isn’t always heroic. He is occasionally downright villainous. Yet deep inside, he means well and does come to repent for his wrongs. In other words, he’s a lot like you. that is ultimately what is so profound about this story. The journey is a metaphor into your own life, and no matter what your age when you read this book, you will at some point experience the story at the same age as Listener. Because of that, he becomes relatable to everyone. We easily see our own past and present and future in his life and it makes us all the more cognizant of how important our past and future decisions shall prove to become.

As an American, I’m not sure what the world of books and literature is like in other English speaking countries like England and Australia. However, I presume that most of us are exposed to similar books. Maybe I’m wrong, but I tend to imagine that bestselling authors in America and England are, for the most part, the same batches people. I know in America, we don’t often have the chance to read great books and novels from other cultures. The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann was originally written in German and translated into English by Anthea Bell. It may be, in fact I’m almost certain it is, the only book I’ve ever read that was not authored by someone who natively speaks English. Not only was this a wonderful story, but it also made me realize what a shame it is that all people all over the world miss out on storytelling which never gets translated into our native tongues. How many great stories are out there in French and German and Japanese and Russian and Spanish that I will never get to read in my lifetime? Authors we will never hear about. Books we will never know existed.

One of the greatest things about language is the ability to articulate the commonality of the human condition. The most memorable sentences we ever read tend to be the ones which eloquently express those intimate life experiences that we think no one else ever goes through. We come across a sentence in a book and we say, “Oh, my gosh! This person thinks that everytime they step into the shower!? I do that too!” That is the commonality of the human condition. That’s one of the most inspiring and uplifting things to encounter in writing. That serendipity of realizing we relate to each other as people in ways we never expected. And to think, all those books, from all those cultures, written in languages that will never be translated, how much we are missing. How many beautiful stories we will never have the chance to share.

But, thanks to Anthea Bell, The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann is not one of those stories. This glorious German masterpiece is a story that the entire English-speaking world can enjoy. That is reason enough to read this story. Read a copy of The Stone and The Flute and expose yourself to a viewpoint from another culture and see the beauty of a lifetime through the eyes of another world.

How does writing evolve in various drafts?

by on

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them – words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”
- Stephen King
 

For years, I’ve been wanting to do a piece like this! I’ve always wanted to take an example of my writing and show how it evolves over time. Save multiple drafts of a chapter or a paragraph and use it to illustrate my own creative process of reworking and editing something. Now, I’ve finally done it. So, this is a little story about the evolutionary process of my writing. This shows how you write something that’s pretty good, but you know it can be better. When you struggle to tweak your writing and get it just right, so the punch is a little stronger.

Sometimes, writing flows so easily. You just get on a roll and you fly through scenes and dialog and it’s beautiful. You don’t even feel like you’re doing anything. You’re just along for the ride! You’re like the conductor of a great symphony. Like the director of an epic motion picture. All you’re doing is keeping things organized, all the characters in front of you are the ones doing all the work.

Other times, discovering the overall arc and tone is a grind. It’s a struggle. That’s when you start to question if you’re listening properly. Are you on the right path? Are you paying attention to what your characters are telling you? Maybe you’re not following what the story is trying to say. Or, worse yet, maybe you’re not the one meant to tell it. Writing is always joyous, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy; even the greatest of passionate love affairs demand a diligent effort.

Finally, after all the symphonic themes of the overall masterpiece have been composed, you also have the smallest of notes in the form of single paragraphs. Lone sentences that you just need to get perfect.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about my novel The Gothic Rainbow and I wanted to have a very powerful ending to a paragraph describing the book. I just couldn’t seem to find the last sentence. But I finally remembered what I’ve always wanted to do, about showing the evolution of the writing process, so I saved every draft. Each version I wrote, no matter how small the change, I kept them all. Here is what that last paragraph said:

Fans of The Vampire Noctuaries are not most people. The Vampire Noctuaries fans appreciate the story because it speaks to them; the weirdos, the freaks, the outcasts, the loners. They are the readers with whom it resonates the most. The heart and soul of The Vampire Noctuaries is a story about the kind of pain you felt the night of your first heartbreak. This isn’t for the kids who get bullied, it’s for the ones who are invisible. This isn’t for the kids who cut themselves, it’s for the ones who know what the barrel tastes like. This isn’t for the kids who want someone to talk to, it’s for the ones who have never spoken of what happened that night. This is for the kids who punch holes in the wall while Ministry is blaring “Stigmata” at a volume that risks shattering the fishtank. Teen angst is for sissies. This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black, and a rage turning it into ash.

That was good, but I felt it could be better. I liked the whole thing. Except the last sentence. It had a great build up. But the last sentence was merely an awkward smack to the face. I wanted it to be a confident kick in the chest.

I rewrote the last sentence nearly 20 times.

The first version wasn’t very good. I knew it could be improved:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, and a rage turning it into ash.

I liked that. The visual of “black sludge” was better than “black”. Still needed work though:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, and a firestorm of rage turning molten sludge into ash.

I liked the addition of “firestorm” – that was a good word. I liked “molten sludge” too, but using “sludge” twice in a single sentence wasn’t working:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so blazing turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns the molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns the molten sludge to ash.

Those subtle changes are important – “into” becomes “to” while “and” becomes “with” and I played with “hot” and “blazing” but none of that was quite right either:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns your flesh to ash.

Ah, yes. We’re getting closer. “Scorches” is a good word. Let’s try using that in place of “turns”:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your flesh to ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

Wait. Wait. Wait. The visual isn’t “black sludge” it’s supposed to be more precise; “sewage”. Now we’re really close:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

That sounds great, but “firestorm” and “hot” and “scorches” all in a single sentence feel redundant. What else could I do with one of those words? How about mixing up the meaning of the words? The words “hot” and “scorches” both cover the sense of touch. What if I use some poetic license and replace “hot” with a auditory adjective to modify the tactile visual?
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to ash.

That’s it! Logically, “so deafening, it scorches your very flesh” doesn’t make sense. But as poetry it is easily understood. Finally, the word “ash” isn’t correct. Not working for me. That word has been in every iteration, but it just feels wrong. What should it be?
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to cinders.

Yes!

That is it.

Perfect.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to cinders.

That’s beautiful. Compare that to the original:

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black, and a rage turning it into ash.

That sentence was passable, but now it sounds pretty weak.

Finally! Closer and closer, one word at a time, until I found each word that happened to be wrong. The evolution was slow going, but in the end, the sentence became far more clear and sensible.

Obviously, you don’t always need to write flowery poetic prose.

His face was graven and the shadows made it seem as if deep bags were dusted beneath his eyes, when he said, “You need to sit down for this.”

Do you really need that all the time?

He said, “You need to sit down for this.”

Sometimes, that’s all you need. Keep it simple.

Writing is very much like music. Things do not ride at a crescendo the whole time. Sometimes, you need to bring it down. Make it quiet. Keep it soft. Gentle.

Imagine if a movie score was epic and sweeping and loud for an entire film. That wouldn’t make any sense, would it? What if the adventurous theme of James Bond or Indiana Jones was playing during every second of the movie? That would have been terrible! In movies, the music must fit with the emotional tone of the story. In novels, the words must fit with the emotional tone of the story.

I wanted the tone of my paragraph to rise and rise, but at the end, it couldn’t burst into a crescendo. It had to drop back down, then burst. That’s why I made the final sentence so long. You notice preceding sentences had been far shorter. Punchy. Brisk. Crisp. You think the pace is going to quicken. Instead, it resets with a nice roundhouse to your ribs. That sticks.

And you know what? Maybe you disagree. While I’m waxing philosophical in my approach, you might come up with your own pretentious analysis to contradict me. Hey, that’s fine. Whatever. I’m just pointing out there’s a method to my madness. I do what I do for a carefully calculated reason. It’s not just random. It’s not done without thought. This is carefully constructed. Orchestrated. While you may disagree with my methods, you can recognize a method is evident.

Obviously, I don’t do this all the time. I don’t spend the effort to rewrite every single sentence in a story or an essay a dozen times. However, there are moments when it’s important to tweak something and get it just right. As I said at the beginning, this is a small example of something I have always wanted to illustrate. So, I hope you found it entertaining and it gives you a little insight into what the writing process is like for me. I can’t speak for other authors. Maybe I’m the only one who rewrites a sentence with that kind of obsessive compulsive fervor. Maybe all writers do that. I don’t know. But regardless if I’m alone in my idiosyncrasies, or if this is an idiocy from which all authors suffer, at least you now have a better understanding of why we sometimes spend a week trying to finish one page.

The exact words we use are of vital importance. As Mark Twain so famously said, “The difference between the ‘right word’ and the ‘almost-right word’ is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

“Be proud of your mistakes. Well, proud may not be exactly the right word, but respect them, treasure them, be kind to them, learn from them. And, more than that, and more important than that, make them. Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong.”
- Neil Gaiman