2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. My stats are like completely unimpressive, but that’s not shocking for an unknown genre short story writer.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Agents and House Fires and Such

As a general update, Tuesday, December 10, 2013 was a freaking crazy day:

At 11:00am, I receive an email from Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass agency offering to represent my novel. My first agent! This is something I’ve worked for years (decades) toward, a major milestone in my writing career. And she’s a great agent and a great person too. So exciting!

And then, at 5:00pm, my house burns down.

Everyone is fine, even the cats, and doing well. We have insurance, and likely will be fine. And we are holding up really well. The fire was so incredibly hungry and swift, 5 minutes either way on the timing of the fire (or, worse, if it had happened overnight) someone would be dead. From first smoke to inferno was just a couple of minutes. Six fire trucks worked for an hour to put it out, and two ambulances and just about every cop in the city were on site. We are very lucky.

The rest of it is just stuff: furniture, clothing, books, DVDs. It’s hard to get upset about that when things could’ve gone so wrong. 

Jennifer Jackson, who now represents me literarily, has a post about it here. 

Yes, we are sad about a lot of things: pictures, letters, and keepsakes, mostly. We also had my  mom’s collectibles (a vast collections of collections, uncountable reams of autographs from any science fiction movie or TV show you can imagine, rare science fiction memorabilia, records, stamps, boots, etc.), and the insurance will not come close to reimbursing us for that.

But, really, we’re looking at it as a new beginning, a chance to rise from the ashes (see what I did there?) better and stronger than ever.  

It’s strange, we’ve both had problems with depression in the past, but as long as we keep smiling and marching forward and looking for the positives in the situation, it doesn’t seem to drag us down.

Maybe that’s the real secret to happiness, huh? It couldn’t be THAT easy, could it?

Still, there are a lot of things up in the air. We’ve never been through this process before (and hopefully we never will go through it again!), so the sheer weight of the unknown is a stressor, a weight on the back, all by itself. But we are filled with hope rather than fear, and that is the important thing!

A lot of people out there feel compelled to help us because it’s such a terrifying story. Because death was close at hand. We think we will be fine, and we are not asking for help, but if you feel compelled to aid us for some reason, don’t buy us blankets or crackers or juice (please don’t!).

If we end up needing help, it will be for unexpected things, housing overruns, or build overruns near the end of the recovery process, months and months from now. 

Our YouCaring site is the best way to chip in.

And since I know everyone is curious to see what fire damage looks like, here is my shelf full of esoteric books on Kung Fu, Taiji, Qigong, and Languages (everything from Sumerian to Chinese to Sanskrit to Lakota Sioux Sign Language to Latin to Cherokee, and many in between).

 

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Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Practicing Compressed Description

Deliberate Practice is the path to mastery: breaking down an art, sport, or craft into individual skills and training each of those skills independently.

Continuing on my Deliberate Practice Drills for Fiction Writing series, I present a drill designed to help focus descriptive powers.

Set a five minute timer (or if you’re really fast, two minutes). Look around, pick and object, describe it:

  1. Capture the look of it as fast as you can
  2. If you have to, instead of describing the whole object, focus on one detail
  3. Stories are emotional journeys; every object in fiction should have some emotional impact on the reader, so try to realize some emotional truth, shade the description with an emotive tone, or even personify the object.
  4. Keep it short, one sentence to one paragraph, and definitely no more than three paragraphs even for the most complex scene.
  5. Repeat this at least 3-5 times in one session.

Tips

  • This is not about writing a story. You do not need characters, setting, pr any sort of plot… Unless you WANT them 😉 Be true to the paragraph. Don’t hold yourself back.
  • If you get done in time, feel free to go back and tweak it a little. Play with the words. But move on when the timer goes off.
  • It doesn’t have to be good. This is about practice, about learning. About developing skill. My example below I am torn about: Is it good? I don’t know. It is as good as I can get it within the confines of the time limit, but that is all.

Example

He sits at his desk and stares hopelessly at the mousepad. The mousepad is him. Worn, faded, bulging in the middle. He remembers it once bore a Picasso sketch of a bull charging, but every trace of it is gone, worn away by time and stress like the man’s hair.

Advanced Tip

Instead of just doing objects, try doing the whole room or a person.

More to come!

Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Shading Emotion in Sentences

I said before that I had several Deliberate Practice Drills to share. Well, actually, I’m always coming up with more, so could theoretically post these forever. Here’s one I used the other day, trying to increase control and precision in the emotional content of my sentences:

1) Write a very short, very rudimentary Core Sentence, like, “He was happy,” or even, “She ran.” Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object is best.
2) Write at least ten variations of this Core Sentence. Each variation must contain the Subject, Verb, and (if there is one) Object of the Core Sentence. Remember, the goal of this exercise is EMOTIONAL content.

Tips:
A) Focus on conveying emotion, especially changes in emotion and subtle shifts in tone. Remember, a story is an emotional journey.
B) Try to keep adjectives and -ly adverb use low. I don’t believe in purging them all, rather I suggest you treat them as your most precious jewels. Save them. Be spare with them. Overusing them just makes your writing gaudy, just as a necklace of huge diamonds, sapphires, and pearls jammed together without though would be gaudy. Rather, string them onto the line of the sentence — really, onto the line of the paragraph — only when they really make it shine.

Example exercise:

Core Sentence: “He was happy.”

  • He thought he was happy.
  • Then, one day, there came a moment where he thought he was happy.
  • For a moment, he thought he was happy.
  • Before the influenza took her, he thought he was happy.
  • Even while she was dead, she wondered if he was happy.
  • She wondered if he was really happy.
  • Was he happy? She wondered.
  • Sure, he was happy.
  • She was happy about being dead, and he was happy for her.
  • She seemed happy, and he told himself he was happy about it.
  • He was happy until night came.
  • He was happy until night came because with the night came the darkness, and with the darkness came the loneliness, and with the loneliness came the rusted, serrated edge of his soul scraping at his heart.
  • Etc.

The goal of this exercise is to drive yourself further and further toward precision, either by subtly changing the emotional tone and meaning of the sentence (ex – “He thought he was happy.”, which contains doubt, regret, perhaps a hint of willful self-delusion), or by expanding on the core sentence (the last example above).

And this is just a simple, passive sentence.

A final tip:
Don’t hold back on these sentences. Turn off your inner editor. What I mean by that is don’t be shy about trying something new, whether subtle, bold, or bombastic. Learning is about failing, and this is where you fail, safely. I’m not sure if the last example above, about the night, is good or absolutely horrible, and I’ll be honest — it doesn’t matter. I wrote it, I pushed myself in a new direction, and that will eventually make me a stronger writer. Also, my sentences are repetitive, some of them tiny or negligibly different from the ones before. That’s natural, especially at the beginning, when you are warming up, but even that is useful — sometimes a subtle, almost invisible shift in tone is exactly what you need.

More to come!

The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing

If you know me, you probably know how many hobbies I have, how many things I am trying to not just be good at, but MASTER: seven different styles of Kung Fu, Fiction Writing, several different languages, sword fighting, being a good parent, etc.

Despite apparently being spread thin, I am damn good at all of them: I’ve got 28 medals in Kung Fu from various national and international tournaments, I’m an excellent sword fighter, I’ve got published short stories and am >this< close to having a major agent for my novel. What I have not mastered, I am slowly mastering.

And how do I do it? A little something called DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Deliberate Practice was first discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you’ve ever heard the “10,000 hours rule”, that mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice it comes from this book. But people get that wrong all the time — it’s not 10,000 hours of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

If you read “Outliers”, and I have, he talks at length about the difference between just practice and Deliberate Practice, and even theorizes that Professional Athletes are actually “geniuses”, geniuses at physical activity because of their constant Deliberate Practice, and that our culture could have geniuses in science or arts or writing or whatever just as easily, but, since we don’t monetarily incentivize those activities the way we do sports with multimillion dollar contracts, and since there are no training regimens designed for them, geniuses occur in mental fields much less often than in physical ones.

“So,” I hear you say, “If I want to be writing geniuses we need to do some Deliberate Practice, right?” Wrong. You need to do A LOT of deliberate practice.

“Fine,” you say, “I’ll write. A lot. And read. A lot. Problem solved.”

Wrong again. But don’t be discouraged, this is a common misunderstanding, made by people who are invested in the deliberate practice movement. An example:

Author Justine Musk has a very cogent article defining Deliberate Practice, here. It’s a really good summary. I recommend it. BUT… She then goes on to post her recommendations for Deliberate Practice, here… And they are pretty much what you came up with alone.

It’s almost surreal: if you read her practice recommenations and then you read the description of Deliberate Practice in “Outliers,” or even the definition she herself provides, her exercises don’t match up with the book. Why? Because here is the key piece of information she’s forgetting:

Engaging in Deliberate Practice is BASICALLY THE SAME THING as doing a drill in sports.

In sports, the smaller the drill, the more focused it is on ONE TINY PIECE of the mastery puzzle, the more effective it is when repeated. People training to be pro tennis stars spend hours and hours perfecting the JUMP on the serve. Not the swing, just the jump. They train the swing SEPARATELY and alone. They also spend hours and hours practicing their back hand at the net. Just the back hand. Quarterbacks in American football practice their snap, practice then throwing the ball through a tire, practice dodging linebackers. Hockey players practice puck handling skills, physical agility skills, shooting accuracy drills, and even a skill as small as getting back onto their feet as soon as they fall down on the ice (they fall down a lot!).

This is what Musk has missed — breaking the craft of writing (or, if you will, the “sport” of writing”) down into its tiniest components, so that each component can be consciously mastered and then folded back into the primary skillset.

You’re probably thinking: “Okay. That makes sense. But how do I do it? How do I apply Deliberate Practice to fiction writing?”

You design and complete drills. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. Repetition repetition repetition. And then you write stories, and you try to bring what you have learned to bear.

“But what drills? How do I design them? I’m confused!”

Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I have a lot of drills I already use that have worked for me, and I’ll share them. For each one, try it every other day for a week, and if you don’t like it, if you’re not learning anything or feeling mentally stronger, dump it and move on.

“But you mentioned designing my own drills too. That sounds scary!”

It’s not. Once you’ve got your feet under you, once you’ve been drilling and writing for a while, and you know what YOUR writing weaknesses are, think about what sort of drills you can do to make yourself stronger. Then try it, and share!

Other Deliberate Practice posts:

Finding Your Voice in Writing (or How to Develop 2 or 3 Voices of Your Own)

“…and remember to believe in magic or I’ll kill you!” – The Magic Bunny

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer. 

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.


We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.amazon.com/Teddy-Bears-Tea-Parties-Horror-ebook/dp/B005H5AI5U ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!

Novels, Old and New – and Doubts

I’ve been plugging away at my novels, up to 16k words on the new novel, a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-style adventure that uses Tai Chi Chu’an (Taijiquan) as a central element.

I’ve also been getting a reader to plow through my Great Depression-Era Range War/Western novel; when feedback is in from that, I will send it to an agent.

Writing-wise I am consistently, if slowly, scrimshawing out words. Submission- and agent-wise I am in the doldrums, drifting about the ocean sails-up with no wind in sight.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a writer without self-doubt gnawing at his/her bones. The current, devouring ones for me:

1) If I sell both books, can I really get away with jumping genres so wildly?

2) I don’t seem to write as cleanly or as muscularly as I used to. Will I ever be as skilled again with words?

3) The current novel looks like it will be huge, and the themes are very scattered. Am I skilled enough to pull it off? Will I have to go back and do a rewrite, mid-draft, to keep making forward progress?

4) Will I ever successfully write a sequel to anything?

Evil plans and machinations

So… I have been implementing my newfound plot skills. I am about 13k into a new novel, and the one thing I have learned is this: Don’t be married to the outline.

For me, outline-wise, first thought = worst thought. I almost always come up with something better when I get to that point in the novel. But just to get there, it really helps to have a structure. Even if I know I’m going to throw it away.

So, yes… I’ve been coming up with evil plots to inflict upon my characters, and, when it comes time to pull the trigger, I find an even eviller one. And I think that’s the way it should be.

Wello Horld: Life Trifecta!

Hey, I’m back, kind of . It remains to be seen if this is a repeatable thing or not, but here’s what’s up with me. As of today:

Trifecta!
1) Martial Arts: I did the Yang Taijiquan 88 Long Form for the first time in forever. Felt good!

2) Writing: I wrote a 1,200 word flash piece, beginning to end. It’s a Sci Fi piece, and I normally don’t do techie stuff. But we shall see if it works or not.

3) Hot Hobby of the Month: Ancient Greek – Did 5 exercises in my Ancient Greek book.

Rock on! 🙂

Fragility and the Brittle Will

There is something about loss that makes you fragile, easily cracked, breakable. Like your skin has been spun from a thin porcelain shell, and if grips your hand or arm too hard their fingers will punch through into the hollowness — the vast and bitter void — beneath.

I went to see the movie Argo the other day, and event the trailer for Lincoln made me tear up. When we got to the voice over by President Carter at the end, I broke up. I think things like this are to be expected, but I wish I was stronger. I wish that I had the willpower to be as I was before, to hit all my goals for the day like I used to, to write and exercise and practice Chinese, but I am just not there yet.

I don’t think it’s something that can be forced, either. My writing, for instance, is much weaker right now than it is, normally. I know it; I can see it in my diary entries. I just can’t FIX it. And I’m getting better, it’s just SLOW.

I told one of my friends recently that loss is like getting hit in the brain with a hammer. You have to wait for the blood to clot and the structure to heal before you can think again. There was one point where I literally felt so stupid that I thought would start drooling on myself (I think I did, actually), but that is long past now.

Just today, I played cards at lunch and was smart and sharp and clear for the first time since Mom died. I think this is a sign of things turning the corner, of my feet being back under me. But anything, even the slightest breeze, can break me.

I will have to be careful what movies I watch for a while. Anything more serious than Wreck-It Ralph I will have to pass on.