No Place for Ego

The ego gets a bad wrap. Most people associate it with arrogance, self-centeredness, and myriad other bad personality traits, but the reality is much different. Everyone has an ego – an innate sense of self-esteem or importance. I could argue that the ego is the foundation upon which self-preservation rests, the backbone of our primordial “fight or flight” instincts. In other words the ego keeps us going in the face of threats to our existence. On a less dramatic scale, the ego gives us the stamina to move forward despite feedback that suggests we’re wasting our time. That could be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but for a writer it is a necessary condition of employment.

Like many matters of art, writing is judged based on personal tastes, which are formed through a complex mix of experience and emotion throughout life. If I put two people in front of a classical painting in the middle of the Louvre and ask their opinion of the piece, I’ll likely get two starkly different opinions. Some paintings, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, are universally loved and admired (However, I bet I could find many people who hate it), but many others are subjected to the partial perspectives of the viewer or reader as it may be. While some opinions may carry the weight of an “expert,” no opinion on the matter of taste in art is necessarily more valid than another, but opinions are as varied as the people who provide them.

To take this example a bit further, I present my wife and me, both of whom are avid readers but have very different tastes in what is considered good in terms of books. We have enjoyed some books together, but my wife didn’t enjoy one of my most favorite books, Shantaram. Despite the fact that we share many similar likes and dislikes, we’re often on opposite sides of the reader spectrum. I prefer books in the literary genre with expansive, flowing prose, but many readers would find these stories dull and slow-moving. This doesn’t mean one genre is better than another; it’s a matter of taste, which is as varied as those who read the stories.

Understanding this reality is important for a writer. It’s no accident that many writers (or artists, in general) throughout history have been prone to neurotic or odd behavior (Think: Van Gogh, Dali, etc.). The slings and arrows of opinions can be quite difficult to absorb even if you understand this fact of life. What garners praise from one reader may prompt kvetching from another. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Does every opinion warrant a change? Does every piece of feedback that is negative mean that the writer has failed?

To some extent, yes. The point of writing is to communicate effectively whether for pleasure or informative purposes. If the reader experiences little or no pleasure or is not informed, then the writer has failed, at least with that particular reader, but any writer who seeks to assuage every reader’s sense of satisfaction will never write because such a a feat is impossible. Even great classics of literature have their detractors. Such is the case for every other writer.

Given the flurry of opinion, it’s hard to stay focused. Writer’s have to pick and choose what feedback requires action, and that’s not always straightforward. I do know that no one becomes a writer to boost their ego. If anything, the ego is the only thing that keeps us going if only because it’s a flickering flame in a rainstorm that just happens to stay lit long enough until the next story is finished.

Where To Next?

This past weekend I ran a half marathon. My goal during the race was to keep as consistent a pace as possible without falling off in the latter stages of the race, which I’m prone to do. One of the course guides rode near me on a bike the entire time and he would periodically call out my pace to me. Almost without fail, he’d report that I was running the same pace whether I was on a straightaway or on an incline. In the few instances where he told me I was falling off, I’d shake myself out of my racing trance and kick it into another gear. Having someone monitor me like that and give me a shot in the arm when I needed it helped me perform better than I probably would have otherwise. It felt like I had an impromptu coach by my side. I thanked him (breathlessly, of course) when he peeled off near the finish line and let me cut through the crowd by myself. I came to a stop on the other side of the tape and bent over to catch my breath. After I grabbed some water, I ambled over to a bench and took a well-deserved break.

It’s no shock to anyone who knows me that I often find parallels between running and writing – after all both of these activities suck up most of the little free time I have. After attending The Fifth Semester a few weeks ago and getting some good advice and guidance from the coaches there, I feel like they’ve helped me stay on pace, at least with my current project, but much like that race this weekend, I’m hunched over sucking wind in need of a break after making my first submission to my coach. As I mentioned in my last post, the rewrite of many parts of my novel took much longer than I had expected. I’m not sure I was “on pace” the whole time, but I did cross the finish line for that particular race.

Having a coach does help. External feedback helps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own little world in a race or in writing, so having someone tell me when I’m drifting off pace helps me pull it back together. A few years ago, I worked with a wonderful editor, Kathy Williams, at Strategic Finance magazine when I was doing a series of articles for them. ¬†She was very good at her job, and she made my writing infinitely better, especially since the writing was technical and dry. Despite the topic, she made my articles pop off the page. She seemed to know where to add and subtract, and her suggestions were usually spot on. I loved working with her and often wished she worked with fiction writers. A good editor or coach can make or break a piece because many writers can’t see the forest for the trees, myself included.

This morning, I can still feel the residual soreness from the race this past weekend. I can also feel the doldrums between projects settling in. I’m in the process of re-reading Into the Caldera (the editing never stops!), but I’m also laying the foundation for my next project. I’ve decided to tackle one of my more recent ideas titled Pine Mountain. I posted the opening chapter here a while back. The story about a man who loses everything and returns to his hometown to put his life back together puts me back in the literary genre, and it has many interesting plot points that I cannot wait to explore. As usual, I kind of have a sense of where this story is going, but I won’t know for sure until I start writing. I’m at that stage of writing where I’m standing at the start line and I realize that I have a long distance to run and it feels a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m eager to get started on what’s next after recovering for a bit.

(Re)Write

At first glance a writer’s life seems idyllic. Work often involves a comfortable chair and a steady stream of coffee nearby. The commute is to-die-for since it usually involves a small number of steps from bed to said chair (no more sitting in pointless traffic!). The dress code can range from comfortable to embarrassing and no one will report you to HR (although your spouse and/or kids may complain). Also, I’m certain that if I were a full-time writer that the after-lunch nap would be an acceptable practice. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

However, like everything else in life, it’s not that simple, and I’m convinced that the word idyllic is an adjective much like unicorn is a noun in that it describes something that does not exist (sorry, if I’ve burst your bubble about unicorns). While I can sit and write for hours with nary a pause, writing something that is cogent and delightful is a different story (no pun intended). Writing is hard. Of course, if it were easy everyone would have a best seller in bookstores on Amazon.

I just finished my umpteenth draft of Into the Caldera. If you’ve been following this blog (you can be forgiven if you’ve fallen asleep and missed a few, okay, a lot of posts), you may remember that I started this novel with gusto back in July of last year. I pounded out the first draft in under three months and then started the editing process, which took me through more loops than a game of Candyland. I eventually ended up at my recent writing boot camp with a novel that still needed more work despite months of effort on my part. Quite frankly, I was tired of it and longed to work on another idea that had me excited (I’m always excited about the next idea; the current one – not so much).

By the end of the long weekend at the boot camp, The Fifth Semester, one of the instructors, Ann Garvin, had breathed new life into my novel. She proposed a couple of ideas that really invigorated the story and got me excited about the project again. I began writing, or I should say, rewriting in earnest that weekend. I thought her suggestions were just what the novel needed to finally come to a finish. On the surface, these ideas seemed easy to implement, but the reality was quite different.

A novel, like any complicated object, is built in layers. The layers themselves may be simple, but when the whole is put together with all of the connections, the finished piece is complex and intertwined. Removing one simple part or idea is like trying to remove one thread from an intricately woven sweater. There were only two ideas in the story that I wanted to change based on Ann’s suggestions, but those changes impacted other parts of the story that then had to be changed to make the book coherent. Like any book, I had a good amount of foreshadowing of future events and references to past events in the narrative, so when I completely changed some things that happened, I had to go back and adjust the references or, in some cases, completely remove them.

Once I changed the story elements, the dominoes fell and I found myself stuck in an endless loop of rewrites. I’d read and re-read the story only to find yet another reference that was incorrect or made no sense. At one point, I wondered if it made more sense just to start over, but once you invest your life in a 70-thousand word story, it’s hard to trash the whole thing. I kept writing and rewriting until I thought I had a coherent draft ready to send to Ann. After much work, I finally sent her the draft on August 16th, which was more than a few weeks past when I had hoped to send it to her.

I’m sure she’ll find things that my tired mind overlooked. I’m sure I will, too. I’m re-reading the story again purely from a reader’s perspective to see how it flows. The changes I made were major in that they change the tone of the story dramatically. I basically took a sharp turn on the novel with my rewrites, but I think it makes it a better story. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many more rewrites in my future with this story. The writer’s life isn’t so idyllic after all.

Sleep

My wristband buzzes me awake, not in a shocking, sudden way, but in a persistent low-frequency hum. I tap it without looking to turn it off and stare into the space of my bedroom as my eyes and my mind adjust to being awake. A quiet solitude fills my house at this hour, an ungodly one to most.

My wife sleeps next to me, still in her slumber. She lays on her left side cuddled up on her side of the bed. The warmth of our bed beckons me to stay, but I know I have to start my day. Now. Before I leave the comfort of this space, I roll over next to her and wrap my arms around her, this beautiful woman. In the ambient light, I can make out the curves of her body, the hallmark of her attractiveness. I gently move my hand along her side and kiss her on her back. She doesn’t stir. I don’t want to wake her; I just want to leave this one token of my love for her.

The day ahead calls like a screaming baby in the middle of the night. I pull away from my wife and leave her to sleep for another hour or two. I move in the dark to avoid waking her, slipping out of the bedroom and down the stairs to start my day. The day awaits impatiently, and I jump on the fast-moving treadmill that thrusts me through the long, stress-laden hours that I barely remember when all is said and done.

The day starts with perfect clarity in those predawn hours. My mind is sharp and alive with intriguing thoughts. My creativity bursts at the seams, like a genie rattling around in a bottle that could explode. In these precious few hours when I can think of things that really interest me, I let these thoughts roam free until I have to herd them all into a corner of my mind and begin the march toward the tiresome routine I have followed for more than two decades.

Tiresome. That’s a word that captures the essence of what becomes of me as the day zips by like a meteor ripping through the night sky. The sharp-edged rock of my day gets worn down by the incessant waves of never-ending demands and imagined pressures until it is worn smooth and benign.

I limp home joining a depressing chorus of zoned-out office workers on the train. I escape into my book for the train ride, my final escape from the harrowing day. Sleep calls for me in the slow-motion dance before bedtime. The weight of the day is no longer bearable by the time I return to my bed next to my wife.

Once again in the darkness of our bedroom, my body collapses into the mattress. My mind suddenly finds a spark before I push all thoughts aside to get some much-needed sleep. My wife, in her favorite position on her left side, slowly drifts off to sleep. I push myself next to her and wrap my arms around her listening to the soothing rhythm of her breathing as she finds sleep, a rhythm I know so well. It is here in the darkness next to the woman I love more than anything that I finally see the day for what it is, another opportunity to be alive and to love this woman. I kiss her on the back again before I too succumb to sleep.

I See Stories

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the diminutive protagonist eerily proclaims that he “sees dead people” to a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis, which foreshadows the plot twist to come. While the memorable, oft-quoted line has persisted in pop culture both as a source of spookiness and parody, it captures the “sixth” sense the boy possesses. I, too, have a sixth sense, but it’s not one worthy of a movie starring Bruce Willis or anyone really (seriously, why waste the time?).

I see stories. Everywhere. I spent the past four days at The Fifth Semester writer’s program taught by Ann Garvin and Erin Celello where I roomed with eight other writers looking to take our writing (and our publishing hopes) to the next level, so I was in a great writing mood this weekend. Each morning, I got up at my usual time and trekked down to the nearest Starbucks to get that heavenly concoction that allows me to function on a daily basis. As I sat there, downing my Venti latte, I watched the comings and goings (or in some cases stayings) of those around me.

Despite being in the area for only a short period of time, I began to feel like a regular at that Starbucks (this is a common thing for me when it comes to Starbucks). On the first morning, I noticed an elderly lady sitting huddled near a window at the front of the shop. She had a cup of coffee on her table but I didn’t see her take a sip suggesting she had finished her drink a while ago. She remained frozen in place looking out the window anxiously as if she were waiting for someone whom she knew would never come. She wore large, smudged glasses, from her profile, I could see she bore the weathered look of someone who had lived a hard life.

At first, I thought she was homeless and had come into the coffeehouse to rest, but she was better dressed than the typical homeless person; although, she did wear a rumpled overcoat on a warm morning. As I sat there observing the world around me, my attention returned to the old woman again and again.

At one point, an older man, regal with a well-kept, silver beard, appeared in the door way and ambled over to the woman’s table. He sat across from her and folded his hands in front of him on the table as if he were contemplating what to say or listening carefully to what she said except she didn’t say anything as far as I could tell. She continued to stare out the window ignoring his presence, but the man didn’t seem to mind. His face remained expressionless, stoic. He sat there for a long while before he stood up again and walked out the door. I watched him walk around the outside of the shop toward a bus stop and disappear from my sight. The woman didn’t budge.

When I finished my coffee, I walked outside and turned toward the bus stop and there sat the old man leaning back on the bench inside the glass canopy on the corner of the street smoking a cigarette. He didn’t notice me as I walked by, but I could tell he wasn’t waiting for the bus; he was simply sitting there while he smoked his cigarette. Up close, I could see the ratty edges of his pants, the stains on his well-worn jacket, and the tears in his sagging, button-up shirt. A scent of sweat and pungent body odor filled my nostrils as I passed by him.

The next morning felt like deja vu. I walked to the Starbucks at about the same time, and there sat the old woman alone in the exact same spot and huddled in the same position against the window as if the shop were so crowded that she had been pushed against the glass. I wondered if she had even left the store, but the coffeehouse did close at some point the previous night, so she had to leave. I purchased my coffee and a muffin (the damn muffins are like crack) and sat down in the same seat as I had the day before – yes, I was mimicking the old woman in a way. After a while, the old man appeared in the door again and went to her table. He sat there in front of her and said nothing as far as I could tell. He leaned back in the chair and kept his eyes on her. Once again, the woman did not appear to respond to him.

By this point, I was beyond curious about the couple. I started to create a story around them to explain why they seemed so close yet so far away from each other. I wanted to explore why the woman persisted in an almost-catatonic state despite all of the activity around her. Why did she simply ignore the man? The ideas floated around in my head and as I went about my day at the writer’s program, I couldn’t help but wander off to the world I was creating about the elderly couple at the Starbucks. I see stories. You may see their story here soon. Stay tuned.

Five Years In

I took last week off from writing, one of several one-week sabbaticals I take during the course of the year. It helps clear my mind and gives me a creative reboot. Since writing is not my primary job and I’m not working on any contract at the moment, I can afford to be somewhat whimsical with my schedule. After all, it is summer, and I’d rather be outside than sitting in my familiar chair pounding away on my keyboard.

While I was outside enjoying the weather, a milestone quietly passed. On July 1, 2012, I began my quest to become a published author. It was then that I first sat down in my chair in the wee hours of a weekday morning and began my daily habit of spending an hour writing. After many years of randomly creating and then abandoning stories like candy wrappers in a post-Halloween binge, I had finally committed myself to some sort of plan – a plan to become a better writer and complete what I started. Here I am five years later, and I’m still going strong.

Over the course of those five years, I’ve written seven novels. While all but one sit in the proverbial desk drawer, each of them is finished in the sense that I have completed at least two drafts, sometimes more. Each has taught me something new about writing because the mistakes I made in them became glaringly obvious as I reviewed them and had others review them. Protagonist is too weak, point-of-view shifts too much, and too much backstory are some examples of the problems I uncovered in my storytelling as a result of writing these novels. The feedback has been invaluable, and with each critical assessment, I tackle the next novel with more knowledge than I had before. That growth is imperative if I ever hope to become a published author.

Many writers tell aspiring authors to “just write,” and that I have done, but I have also worked to hone my craft by reading novels and observing what established writers do. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You notice things that may go unheeded by those simply interested in a good book. For example, I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel that slowly reveals an intriguing subplot as the novel progresses. Arvin’s use of the subplot is unique and has me thinking that I can use such a convention in one of the story ideas I have. Stephen King will tell you that you can’t write if you don’t read, and he’s right. Reading is studying your craft.

Reading isn’t the only thing I’ve done to improve. I’ve attended conferences to meet writers and agents and get their feedback on the work I’ve done. This, too, has been tremendously helpful. Steven James’ and Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Intensive was one of the best four-day weekends I’ve spent in learning mode. The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association has also provided endless resources to help me get better. The only complaint I have is that I don’t have enough time to consume everything I’d like to learn. I spend my daily hour writing, and anything beyond that, including learning, is gravy.

Later this week, I will take the next step in the learning part of my journey. I’m attending the first session of The Fifth Semester in Chicago where I’ll spend time with Dr. Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, two experienced authors and teachers. They put on what amounts to a MFA (Master of Fine Arts) boot camp twice per year that starts in Chicago and finishes in New York six months later. This intensive study and feedback session helps authors get on the track to publication. Of course, there are no guarantees, but the learning experience, like the others I have undertaken, should help me take it up a notch, and that can only mean good things when it comes to writing. I’ll share more after the first session.

The Beauty of the Literary Genre

I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel about a rather aimless engineer who falls into a job reconstructing car accidents for insurance companies and lawyers as they battle it out in court over fault and blame. The topic itself sounds rather dull, but the novel is really about the interaction between the main character and the other two primary characters in the story, not the job. Thankfully. The novel unfolds slowly with the main character, Ellis, working a new accident scene with his boss, Boggs. Later, Arvin amps up the intrigue by introducing Heather, Boggs wife, and the sad story of Ellis’ half brother. These elements all combine to create an interesting, if not typical, literary novel.

Unlike its brethren and better-selling genres such as romance and thrillers, literary novels are the slow boil of the writing world. They can seem particularly aimless at first blush because they take time to build to the plot, and they can often feel like a Seinfeld episode in the beginning because they appear to be about nothing, but to me, especially since I write in the genre myself, they are the most rewarding novels. That slow boil usually reveals a rich story full of interesting characters, some that become so real to me that I often feel like we’re old friends.

Most of my favorite novels are literary ones because I enjoy stepping into the lives of the characters and getting to know them at a higher level than I do when I read other genres. For thrillers, the plot usually drives the story, and it’s rare that I get to know the characters on the same level I would in a literary novel. There are some exceptions such as Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series. Likewise, science fiction, another favorite of mine, typically focuses on the world building rather than the characters. Thrillers and science fiction novels are certainly enjoyable, but neither quenches my thirst for character development like the literary genre.

Despite my affinity for the genre, I realize that it’s not for everyone. Most readers prefer the fast pace of a thriller or other elements of a story that are prototypical of other genres. I don’t know the exact numbers, but literary lingers on the low end of the reader interest spectrum despite the fact that most classics are literary and most of us had to read them in school. It almost seems like a lost art, but I’d take a literary novel any day over any other genre because watching the characters develop in that slow boil is one of the most rewarding things for me as a reader. Now, excuse me while I go see what Ellis is up to.