Monthly Archives: August 2014

So, You Want to Write?

   Recently, I had a discussion with an acquaintance who was curious about my writing methods. Among other questions he asked were these:

  • How long did it take for me to write my two published books?
  • Did I have a thorough outline of my books or the separate stories in them before I started writing?
  • Did I write every day?

   These are common ,if naïve, questions of the sort writers get all the time. In my case, the answers were, respectively: years, no, and no.

   During the course of our chat, he volunteered that he’d really like to write a book but probably never would because he isn’t a very skillful writer and because he has a lot of imaginative ideas that mostly come to him in dreams which he cannot clearly remember shortly after he wakes up. (I recommend keeping a pad and pencil at the bedside.)

   I’m a self-published author with low volume sales, so I suppose I could be criticized for daring to give personal advice to an aspiring writer, but the fact has never stopped me in the past, and so I did provide some counsel. First, I told him that the length of time it takes to write a book is variable. In my own case, it was several years for each of the two books (Zendoscopy and Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe) partly because I was working as a physician and only writing in my spare time, and partly because the books contain separate, discrete stories or episodes written at different times and then anthologized. In the case of Zendoscopy, the connected episodes were initially written to be freestanding short stories but then re-written as my concept for the book later developed.

   Some writers cover walls with detailed plot outlines indicating linkages between the elements of their stories and providing continuity and overall coherence. I tend to be another kind of writer. I rarely know where any given tale will lead when I write its first sentence. Once begun, however, I watch it evolve as I write it. And although I may have some vague idea of where I’m going, it’s rarely fixed and immutable. Of course, there are exceptions.

   Two examples from Zendoscopy illustrate these usual and occasional modes: In “Icarus Alt and the Swan Dive of Death”, I did, in fact, know precisely how the story would evolve before I wrote a single word of it but, more typically for me, in “Effie Mae Does Me a Second Favor”, I didn’t have the barest clue of what it was really about until I typed the last period.

   In other words, occasionally I know where a story is headed, but mostly I don’t. Suffice it to say that there aren’t any rules, and when I don’t know where I’m going, I just keep writing and allow myself to be surprised.

   As for the question about writing every day, I pretty much do write something on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s just a single sentence with an idea. Sometimes it’s a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. Sometimes it’s part of a short story or an essay. And sometimes it’s an article for this blog. For the record, e-mail doesn’t count unless I’m being really creative.

   The more one writes, the better one becomes at doing it, so even if one only writes a single sentence every day, it’s worth doing to develop both discipline and syntactical skill. I’d also urge anyone (you!) who wants to write to read as much as possible. There’s nothing quite like seeing how other writers use language to help you in developing your own personal style and voice. And when you’re banging out text on your word processor, be sure to use spell check and be comfortable enough with English grammar so that when you break the rules, you do it intentionally. If you really need help with grammar, you can use the grammar checking utility in your word processing program, although I’ve found that it isn’t always correct in its suggestions for change. Much like the GPS system in my car, which if followed too slavishly, can lead me right into a large body of cold water.

   Finally, and most of all, if you want to write, start writing! From experience, I can tell you that it’s addictive. Once you start, you may not be able to stop.

Today’s annoyance: People who don’t know the difference between insure and ensure.

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On Writing What You Know

Traditional advice to new writers is to “write what you know”. This is sometimes much easier said than done. For instance, if you’re set on writing the Great American Novel, and if that novel is going to be about living with polar bears in barren arctic wastes, knowing nothing about polar bears or the arctic may prove somewhat of a hindrance.

In my own case, there are several things I know a lot about: medicine (I’m a retired physician), amateur radio (I’m a long time “ham” radio operator), radio controlled model airplanes, computers, playing the guitar… In other words, I know a lot about stuff that, perhaps other than medicine, doesn’t lend itself very well to writing the GAN. And medicine has, in a manner of speaking, been done to death in novels. Everything from Love Story to The Andromeda Strain. It’s hard to be original these days.

So, what’s the writer to do? Should the polar bear be a guitar player in a rock band? Probably not, but working what you know into your plot in some basic way can often be useful.

In my book, Zendoscopy, I tell the story of Sherman, a square peg sort of kid whose character is somewhat elaborated upon by showing his involvement in ham radio, something I know about. I also used ham radio in my story, Spacebraid, the anchor story in Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe. Neither story is about ham radio, but using it as a device to illustrate character or upon which to hang a plot turn was very useful.

Overall, as a generalist by nature (some would say dilettante), I know a little about a lot more than a lot about a little, except in a few areas. Those few areas in which I do have pretty deep knowledge mostly (except for medicine) don’t lend themselves to anchoring a whole novel, but as a generalist, I find strength in writing about broader issues. Thus, the coming of age story in Zendoscopy, or the ecologic catastrophe in Spacebraid. In other words, I took my general world view and knowledge, hung the plot on it, and then spiced it up with the smaller specifics about which I know a lot and which would likely ring true to the reader.

Having said this, I would add that there’s nothing wrong with writing about just what you know, as long as you are targeting it for a similarly oriented audience. So, I’ve written about radio controlled aircraft for a modeling magazine targeted to people who fly radio controlled airplanes. And I’ve written about ham radio for publications aimed at amateur radio operators. But those pieces were not novels.

So, what’s the bottom line? It’s that if you’re writing a novel, after settling on your overall plot, there’s every reason to sprinkle it with what you know to add color and depth to your characterizations or unexpected twists in the story line. Of course, unless you’re writing fantasy, keep it believable. You may not get far if your gritty detective story has a scene with a polar bear playing “Light My Fire” on a ukulele in Maui.

Book Review: The Passage Trilogy’s First Two Books

   The Passage and The Twelve are the first two books of a planned trilogy by Justin Cronin, a prior winner of the Hemingway/PEN, Whiting, and Stephen Crane awards. The third book of the trilogy has yet to appear, but has been variously announced for late 2014 or sometime in 2015.

   I can’t remember who first recommended The Passage to me, and it took quite awhile – more than a year, I think – before I finally began to read it, but once I did, I was immediately sucked (yes, sucked) into the apocalyptic world and multilayered story created by Cronin.

   Let me begin by saying that, if you think you’ve had enough of vampire stories in recent years, you probably haven’t read The Passage and The Twelve. The plot has nothing to do with Transylvanian castles, swooning maidens with fang bites to the neck, the need for native soil, or lush romantic views of New Orleans. No, this is something completely different.

   What Cronin has concocted is a nightmare of Frankensteinian proportions in which, in the military’s attempt to create a race of disease-resistant, superhuman warriors, things go wrong, the monsters becoming more than anyone could have anticipated. Grossly physically altered humans, vampiric in their need for blood and indiscriminate in the swath of destruction they create while killing or “taking up” most of the rest of humanity, the world, or at least, what we are shown of the United States, is completely devastated. Except (of course), for some hardy survivors. And thus the stage is set for a quest as a band of brave survivors sets out to try to destroy the rapacious predators that humans have created.

   Okay, now, I get it. You’re thinking, I really don’t need this. It sounds just awful. But the truth is, it isn’t. It’s terrific, with minutely detailed character descriptions and an emphasis upon what it is to be human, to be connected to others, to have a common purpose, and to pursue it with great dedication. This is a book not really about monsters. It is about people and about purpose and love. At almost 800 pages, it is also very long, and it ends with the setup for the second book, The Twelve.

   If the first book concludes with the heroes’ mission still in its early phase, the second book takes us much farther along and into the lives of survivors not acknowledged in The Passage. It is a world in which those who could rise within the vacuum to seize power and abuse it have clearly done so, and it is up to our band of friends both to liberate those oppressed by humans as well as to chase after the monsters. At its conclusion, we are prepared for the not yet released final book of the trilogy, City of Mirrors, in which the ultimate battle will surely take place.

   In this review, I’ve purposely not described any of the characters in the stories, for to do so would greatly diminish the pleasure the reader will have upon meeting such completely delineated individuals. Beyond that, to describe or even hint at what happens to several of them would give away much of what makes the saga so interesting since, again, the two books are far more about the people than about the (shudder) vampiric creatures.

   Upon finishing The Twelve, I was disappointed over the delay in appearance of City of Mirrors. I can assure you, however, that I’ll be reading it as soon as it’s released.

Assessment: Highly recommended

 

Reminder: Don’t forget my two books:  Zendoscopy and Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, both available online in softcover and e-book (Kindle) format.

Not Lost in America

   We’ve just returned from a three week odyssey – ROAD TRIP!!! Remember that movie, Lost in America? Yeah, “Just like Easy Rider.” Well, except that we didn’t do it on motorcycles but in an Acura ILX. We were going to take the SUV, but 50 feet from the driveway as we were heading out, the air conditioner failed, and we were not going to drive across the country in the middle of the summer without air conditioning.

   Now, this wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that a) I’d had the SUV in for $1100 in maintenance three days before we were to leave and, b) the car was loaded to the gunwales with not only our baggage for three weeks, but my travel guitar, boxes of stored stuff we were going to deliver to our kids in the Midwest, and even a child’s rocking chair. Successfully transferring all that stuff into the ILX was a miracle achievable only by my wife. I’d probably never have gotten it all in on my own. Of course, her tolerance for smushing is greater than mine.

   Anyway, after the initial setback, we were on our way. I’m not going to describe the trip in detail, although it was lots of fun: 5600 miles in three weeks, visits with the kids and grandkid, and lots of sightseeing both on and near I-40 (Route 66), I-80, and Nevada 50 (the loneliest road in America). How many people have been to the Cadillac Ranch? Carhenge? (You can Google them.) Other sights: The Devil’s Postpile National Monument near Mammoth, ancient bristlecone pines near Big Pine, Scott’s Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock in Nebraska, the Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, Palo Duro State Park near Amarillo, TX, Taliesin (for all you Frank Lloyd Wright fans), and more.

   But that’s not what this blog entry is really about. No, it’s actually about the two Americas that we experienced as we traveled (and have noted on prior travels), one being the Northeast and West coastal areas and large cities of America, and the other being much of the South and, specifically on this trip, all the more sparsely populated interior areas that we traversed. In our severely polarized country, the cultural dividing line is abundantly clear.

   Being West Coast liberals, we were struck by much of what we saw in the country’s interior: a culture of religion, guns, tobacco use, poor diet and obesity, and overwhelming Republicanism. As for the Jesus stuff, smoking and obesity, I can only wonder over how so many people can be either oblivious to, or ignorant of, science, medicine, and nutrition in the 21st century.

   The Republican political affiliation is easier to understand, however. These are people who don’t face the concerns of those living in the larger urban centers, whose lives often revolve heavily around high school sports and other local events, whose daily exposure is to an America that does not mirror the reality of the larger country and world. Living in a cocoon and thus prey to the manipulations of equally ignorant but power-hungry Republican politicians, it’s no wonder they vote the way they do. Except…that these people aren’t really stupid. So why do they so often vote in a way that’s counter to their best interests? Many of them would benefit greatly from universal health care (and “Obamacare”) including readily available family planning services, food stamps, a livable minimum wage, the Women’s, Infants’, and Children’s (WIC) program, among others, and yet they support politicians who consistently oppose such programs. And why, in the face of unacceptable levels of firearms related deaths, do they oppose background checks and support the NRA?

   One is led to ask, what’s wrong with these people?

   I don’t have the answers to all these concerns. I only know that the severe polarization we face today isn’t healthy for the nation. The reflection of this, aided and abetted by the demagogues of Congress, is a society headed for third world status. Unless contemporary Republicanism can find a way to rise above its philosophical dependency upon the maintenance of a sheep-like underclass that is willing to support it despite self-inflicted harm by doing so, things are going to get much worse. Eventually, anger and frustration boil over, and no one needs to be told what can happen then.

   But, oh, apart from the foregoing, our trip was wonderful.

And Now for Something Completely Different

And now for something completely different. Well, sort of, but it’s a stretch from my usual writing about writing.

I’m about to make an admission. Maybe not a manly one, but I’m old enough that I can suffer the slings, arrows, and jibes that just about anyone might aim at me. So, here it is: I love musical theatre.

My love for musicals began in 1957, when my parents took me, an 11 year old boy, to my first Broadway show, L’il Abner. I loved everything about it: the staging, the comedy, the music, and most of all, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae (no further comment necessary). Two days later, I saw The Most Happy Fella. Thus was my love for musicals ignited, and the flame has burned brightly ever since.

Why mention (admit?) this? Because musicals, like novels, short stories, and articles, are written. And just as for these other works, some musical shows are written brilliantly, the music, lyrics, and spoken dialogue meshing perfectly. A few examples: the aforementioned L’il Abner, Carousel, West Side Story, 42nd Street, The Scottsboro Boys, Chicago, Pippin, Little Shop of Horrors, et al.

Others, less than perfect, nevertheless succeed despite their flaws. Take Miss Saigon, which has wonderful music and at least some very well written lyrics, but also some that are awkward and even trite. Still, the show overcomes its flaws on the strength of its story (a modern updating of Madame Butterfly), its emotionality, and the beauty of its music. The Phantom of the Opera offers another example of a wildly successful show that succeeds more because of its elaborate staging and lushly romantic plot than because of its unremarkable writing set to some admittedly catchy, if occasionally largely indistinguishable melodies. I will never understand why Cats has been so successful.

On the other hand, there are the flops. Does anyone really remember, or want to remember, Aspects of Love?

So, what’s the point of all this? It’s that writing a successful musical is a terribly difficult thing to do, and the skill and creativity involved in doing so are grossly underappreciated. Too many people dismiss musical theatre as trivial when, in fact, like jazz, it is a truly American, highly complex art form that deserves much more respect than it gets. I love musicals and, if you don’t, perhaps you should take another look. And listen. Maybe you’ll find love, much as I once did with Daisy Mae.