By the time you read this, I will either be on the way, or actually at, the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver. It is just north of Civic Center, at the Sheraton. I lived in the Denver area for 17 years, and liked it pretty well. Raised a family there, and two out of three of them still live there. One near downtown, one just outside the City and County. Really, just outside. You could maybe throw a rock into Denver. So it’s a dual-purpose trip.
No writing advice this week, but I suppose that it would be good of me to share whatever new and exciting information I’ve gained with all six or so of you readers when I come back, so that’s what I’ll do next week. This week, I’m too busy with getting ready for the conference, plus preparing for some major interior renovation and relocation in our home, to say anything useful about writing. Except that you should do it. Remember, you haven’t failed until you quit. Nobody wanted to sign the Beatles. Casablanca didn’t find any takers in Hollywood a few years ago. You know the drill. Keep on keeping on!
Everything has its limits. Probably even human stupidity, Professor Einstein. There is no perpetual motion machine. Even if you fall off of a cliff, you won’t go faster than 120 miles-per-hour before you splat. This blog is limited, because in maybe five to ten years, I’ll probably move away from Las Vegas. Can’t call it “Live from Las Vegas” if I’m writing it in Bordeaux, can I? But what about your writing? Does it have limits?
Well, of course it does. You can only sit and push keys for so long before you either go insane or pass out. And you can only write the stories you make up, which is probably just as well, as Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn have already been done pretty well. But what about some of the other limits you put on yourself? Genre, for instance. Are you absolutely committed to only writing one type of literature? And why is that? Seriously, you need to answer that question, because you might have the next great gothic novel churning around inside your mind and not even know it, because you only write contemporary romance. Are you, that is, limiting yourself without any good reason?
I know that James Patterson is a weird person to use as an example. And, yes, he provides outlines to ghost writers, and stuff like that. I know. But he writes in multiple genres. He has a series of chapter books about Middle School that are both funny and informative. This is in addition to his usual stuff. Is Patterson successful because he doesn’t limit himself? Hell, I don’t know, but it’s worth considering. Closer to home, maybe, consider Edgar Allen Poe. He wrote classic horror. But some of his stories, such as The Gold Bug and The Purloined Letter, are actually pretty funny. Even The Murders on the Rue Morgue, horrible enough on its face, has a bit of a forehead-slapping twist at the end.
I tried a thriller. Bought a how-to book, outlined a novel, drafted a lot of it. Then I started it anew as a chapter book. So, maybe I’m wrong? Or maybe not, again, I don’t know. But if the worse thing that happens is that you end up with a new idea for your usual genre, might it not be worth it to try something new? If only for the exercise?
Everything has limits, but it’s often a good idea to push on them a bit, don’t you think?
Yesterday was a holiday, so I took the day off. Also yesterday I published the following on Facebook:
It amazes me that we, as a nation, have gotten away with the incredible nerve shown 242 years ago, and continue to do so! I think that those poor, overheated souls in Philly would be absolutely amazed to see what the place has become!
I meant that to be optimistic. After all, we are a nation where weight loss is a major industry. Think about that: if your biggest problem is that you’re too fat, you’re doing okay, you know? I also saw a post of a list of various milestones of progress for the United States, which said in each case that conservatives had opposed it, but that liberals had won. This, I believe, is probably true. Over the long haul, politics is cyclical, with waves of conservativism and liberalism alternating, and, amazingly, reasonably predictable patterns of zeitgeist. This means that those patterns can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty, even if the exact timing varies from cycle to cycle. One cycle, by the way, runs roughly eighty years. Roughly. Put all that together, and count decades, and it won’t be long, it seems, before there is quite the overwhelming wave of progressivism in America. Because that’s what’s due up next.
One of the comments that post received was of a sad emoji. I don’t see anything sad in that post, and in fact I am quite upbeat about the next ten years. In the end. It is going to be difficult. People may die. But, in the end, the liberals will win again, because that’s how the cycle goes. Every. Single. Time.
So, what does all of this political rambling have to do with writing? Are you pessimistic about your work? Do you imagine yourself dying completely unpublished, forgotten by the entire literary world? Alone? Sad? Deprived of companionship other than a few insects who live on the crumbs of gruel you spill during your daily meagre meal? You know you do. But, so did Hemmingway. So did Twain. So did Shakespeare. So did Bob Freaking Dylan, to name a recent Nobel laureate. But the truth is, if you persevere, and continue to learn from your mistakes, you will not die in that way at all (probably — I have to hedge my bet just a little here.) There is, not liberalism, not progressivism, nothing political at all, but a successful career publishing your books(!) at the other end of what is, for certain, a struggle. That is what all of this political rambling has to do with writing!
There’s an old philosophical division (really) about whether it is “as above, so below,” or “as below, so above.” It provides quite the schism between Eastern and Western traditions of religious belief. Politically, it results in top-down or bottom-up power distribution. (Don’t strain this metaphor too far, or you’ll hurt something.) In writing, this amounts to whether your writing will reflect the current zeitgeist, or contribute to developing the next one. It actually makes no difference to sales, unless it does. In the end, it’s up to you which you choose to believe. But, as I like to say about many things, you can laugh at it or you can cry about it, and laughing feels a lot better!
Okay, that was taken inside the Flavian Amphitheatre. Happy now?
I’ve been driving with Lyft since last July. Today I took my first drive with Uber. Long story, another time. Point being that the result of driving for each is the same as the result of driving for the other, even though they are different. Lyft has a reputation for paying better. From what I saw today, that’s true. Uber has a reputation for providing more rides. So far, that is also true. In the end, though, I made about the same amount of money driving for Uber as I generally do driving for Lyft.
Here comes the metaphor, so beware. Some people write a whole lot at one time. Some people write in short bursts. The finished product, however, doesn’t give any hint as to what technique went into writing it. That’s why people can say stuff like, “I think I’ll write a book when I retire, because it will be easy.” Riiiiight. But, they can’t see the process that goes into creating a work of art, they can only judge the finished product.
For my driving, I plan to start my days with Lyft, because, hey, they pay more. In case of a slack morning (which does happen with Lyft) I’ll switch to Uber, because, hey, they provide a chance to make some money.
Am I saying that you should combine writing long bits with writing bunches of short bits? No, I’m saying that you should write however you’re able to write, and get that first draft done, because the real fun (it is, trust me) comes in polishing that puppy into something wonderful.
The picture is from Ireland because so is the fellow I just read about (and I can’t find the article to use his name here) who has won a prize after publishing a one-sentence novel. It isn’t a short novel, as you might think. It’s just that there is only one sentence in it. For sure he’s Irish, and not German? Anyway, this is an illustration of my point for this week, which follows directly.
One of my favorite quotes, and my favorite from Picasso, is “You must learn the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” He said that in Spanish, but the meaning carries over nicely. And he’s right: there is a good reason that The Elements of Style by Skrunk and White is the #1 recommended book on any “Books About How to Write” list. You gotta know them rules, bub! But, once you know them well, you don’t have to follow them! A one-sentence novel sure as heck doesn’t. Remember that format from school, the one where you write an introduction, a body, and a conclusion? Yeah, well, that ain’t gonna happen in one sentence, is it? But, he sold the thing, and he won an award for it. Those Irish, huh?
Another famous Irish author who ignored every rule he could think of (seemingly) is James Joyce. Oddly, I don’t find his Ulysses difficult to understand. There are long passages that are basically the thoughts of the principle, but that’s easy enough to follow. Heck, his thoughts are tame, compared to some of mine. But, I digress. Joyce actually, of course, broke those rules like an artist, which is to say, deliberately, and to excellent effect. Without a complete grounding in the Strunk and White stuff, a long run-on sentence is just a mess. Ask anyone who has tried to read one. Or, tried to write one before they knew the rules as well as did James Joyce. Joyce is deservedly praised for being a great writer. I’ll bet he didn’t thumb his nose at the rules when he was in whatever passed for middle school in those days. He knew them well, and he ignored them properly.
And that, readers, is my pedantic rantlet for this week. Stay in touch — you never know what somebody with Irish ancestry will come up with next!
If you’re ever in Lisbon, be sure to check out the Oceanarium. Very cool. Quick aside: we’ve decided not to move there, because we like the people too much. All the retirees are making things more expensive and difficult, and we don’t want to contribute to that effect. So.
Before we left on our European vacation in April I wrote a chapter of a chapter book. It’s about some kids who solve a crime involving a president who fakes his own death, kidnapped FBI agents, lies, deceit, and general good fun. Two days ago (as of this posting) I wrote the next chapter. Whew! That was a long time away from my young friends. I was afraid that I wouldn’t like them (or they like me, whichever) any more, but, by cracky, all was well. Because.
Because, silly, I left notes to myself about what was happening, so I wouldn’t be lost when I got back to the story. Granted, it took five weeks longer than I thought it would to get back to it, but that only made my notes all the more important. I guess I’m not a “pantser,” because I always like to know where my friends on the pages are headed. Way before they figure it out, for sure. Which is why I write notes to myself in the first place.
I almost said “take notes,” but changed my mind. Still, “taking notes” on what’s in my head at a given time does describe the process. So, maybe if you need help documenting your creations, you can think of it as taking classroom notes in the school of Your Story! Heck, if it works for me, with my mind like a steel sieve, for you it should be a cinch!
Not a single organism on this planet ever does anything without a goal in mind. If you aren’t reaching your goals, maybe you set them unrealistically high. Or maybe you aren’t a strong/fast/smart/handsome as you thought you were. Or, maybe they’re not really your goals.
In writing, plenty of people will say that they want to write a best seller. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict that result, nor anything you can do to guarantee it. Which makes “write a best seller” a false goal, because you can’t control enough of the process to ensure success. Some people state goals such as “I’m going to write 20,000 words per week each and every week this year.” And then they fall way short of doing that. This is probably an example of an overly ambitious goal, but also, I suspect, it is simply not what most writers really want to do. 20,000 words per week? Almost 3,000 per day? Really? You want to sit on your butt and scribble, key, or dictate for all of the hours it will take to pull that off?
You know what? Creative people don’t respond to that sort of situation very well. If you’re creative, you probably have a desk that would drive Miss Jones (or whatever your English teacher’s name was) crazy! You can probably find whatever it is you need in a few seconds, but anyone else would be well advised to simply leave the room. Am I right? And your time is the same. It’s messy. Heck, you may write 30,000 words a day. Once. And never again. And you may go thirty days without so much as a thousand words. Not too often, but it will happen. Because your real goal is probably what you perceive as the “lifestyle” of an author, meaning that you get up when you want to, write what you want when you want to, eat lunch when your stomach growls, and submit your completed manuscripts to grateful (you pick) agents/publishers/readers. I’m right again, aren’t I?
If that last paragraph describes your “real” goals, take heart! The problems with that set of goals are simply that, in order to get to that point, you have to write a lot, take a lot of criticism, and become your own best marketing department. You can do that first thing, right? And you can learn to accept and give useful criticism, heck, anybody can. That third one? Well, might be more problematic, but bigger word nerds than you have done it, because marketing is a teachable/learnable skill. There are entire departments dedicated to marketing in business schools all across the country.
In other words, that goal, even though it sounds like the fuzziest and wimpiest of the three I’ve offered above, is the most realistic. Because that’s the sort of goal a creative person can get behind, and stick to. Don’t delay! Start working toward your goals today! Can’t wait to see you on Ellen!
BONUS THIS WEEK! I am, unlike many writers, supremely confident and always sure of myself. (I also sell bridges – write for details.) If you are not so fortunate, you will probably enjoy this post on Writer Unboxed.
For Steinbeck, the week of 13 June 1938 started “unpropitiously.” He was suffering from a hangover and a sense of foreboding, the latter no doubt a response to the pledge he had made to keep a dail…
The picture above was taken a few meters short of the Westernmost Point on the European Continent, an official designation for, uh, that. I took the picture because it could easily be somewhere in California. A West Coast thing, maybe? Look nearby on this blog and you’ll see postings about the trip my wife and I recently took to Ireland and Portugal. The scene above is in Portugal, the place is called Cabo da Roca (Cape of the Rock) and it really is as far west at Europe goes. Hey, maybe an adventure starring Vasco da Gama as a ten-year-old boy standing here, gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean, wondering what adventure awaited out there? I doubt that he ever did that, but you know, he might’ve, right?
Everywhere I’ve travelled I have come across inspiration either for stories directly, or inspiration to follow themes (go Vasco, go!) that may lead to stories. Travel, they say (all of them, trust me) is broadening. I learned some fascinating (and broadening) history of both Portugal and Ireland on this trip. (More details are available in other posts.) You don’t necessarily need to go to Portugal to be inspired, but getting the heck out of your daily routine is a good way to start looking for inspiration. The real Vasco da Gama didn’t stay home, after all. He sailed beyond the known world in small wooden ships, and made himself and Portugal a fortune in the process. He was inspired to find new lands. I’m inspired to develop newer and better lies with which to entertain people. It works, both ways.
Good old Vasco; Vasco and me, we’re as tight as this!