Saturday, January 21, 2012

"If I were cut out to be writer, writing wouldn't be so hard. It would just come naturally."

I wrote those words in my journal back in high school. At that time, I was struggling with writing and deciding what major to choose in college. I knew I loved writing, English was my best subject in school. But I wasn't sure if there was a career in it for me. (That's still to be determined.)
Back then, I think I had an image in my mind of a writer. I imagined all well-known or published authors must write full-time and couldn't fathom that a writer wouldn't be able to support himself on writing alone after having a book published. I imagined a writer might wake up at one's leisure each morning, sit down at the desk and write beautiful prose for a few hours, break for lunch, then effortlessly write some more. Each day would continue in the same manner until a novel was written and completed. At which point the writer would pop it into an envelope, send it to their agent then sit back and wait for inspiration to strike again.
I can look back now at those words in my journal and laugh. I now know that writing isn't easy. In fact, if you're not terrified of it at least part of the time then you're probably not doing it right.
In her book Writing Down the Bones, (more on that later) Natalie Goldberg says, "If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing."
Don't let the expectation of greatness stop you from writing. Not everything we write is going to be good enough for publication. All writers struggle. Even nobel prize winning and best selling writers doubt themselves. What separates writers from wanna-be writers, is that writers keep writing. Despite all their self-doubts, despite their busy lives pulling them to do everything but write.
Stephen King said, "Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." So write anyway. Even if you feel like all you're doing is shoveling shit, shovel on.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sisters - Danielle Steel

A few months ago, I read my first Stephen King book. Danielle Steel, like Stephen King, can be found in any and every library, garage sale and bookstore - both new and used. She's written countless books since publishing her first in 1972, churning them out at the rate of several per year. According to Wikipedia she's the eighth best selling writer of all time, and is currently the bestselling author alive.

Of the dozens of books Danielle Steel has published, I'd never read any of her books. I think there's something to be learned from every book we read and I was curious to learn the secret to her success.  In a quest to read everything I can get my hands on, I decided next, I'd read Danielle Steel. I didn't realize what a challenge I was in for.

Going into it, I knew her books were characterized as formulaic with over-the-top characters. But I also knew Steel tackled tough topics and thought it'd be worth the read.

For starters, it took me a while to settle on a book I was willing to invest my time to read. After reading summaries and (terrible) reviews online, I finally settled on Sisters, a book about four sisters who come together to deal with a family tragedy.

With an open mind, I began reading hoping for a quick, entertaining read. The first thing I notice is that all of Danielle Steel's characters are flawless: "All the women in the family were knockouts." Reading about the traits of these perfect characters got tiring quickly. But after the sisters and their drastically different lives were laboriously summarized and introduced, and once I was able to keep the sisters straight- the constantly changing perspective made this somewhat difficult - I was interested in the plot and seeing where it would go next. So I plodded through, overlooking flat characters and dialogue. I felt, beneath all that, there was a good story.

But the more I came across bland descriptions - "The relationship was going really well." -  phrases that overstated the obvious - "The two sisters lived in totally different worlds." - and painful repetition: "But for the next year, they all had to be good sports and pitch in to help Annie make the transition to the enormous challenges facing her. Challenges that were huge." (Wow, you mean the challenges were both enormous and huge??) the harder it became to keep reading.

About halfway through the book, Steel's repetition became too much to bear. The final straw came when exact lines of dialogue were stated, then repeated only a few pages later. At first, I assumed it was a Kindle glitch. By the third and fourth time, I knew the mistake was not technological, but editorial. I was too frustrated to keep reading. That's when I put the book down and never picked it back up.

I was disappointed  - I hate to not finish a book. But I couldn't get past Steel's blatant disregard of the old adage in writing, "Don't tell, but show" to stay interested in the story. So my attempt to read Danielle Steel was unsuccessful. Perhaps I picked a bad book for my first Danielle Steel read. I've heard her earlier works are better, though I don't think I will ever take the time to find out.

My next quest will be to read some other modern well known authors, Dean Koontz, John Grisham and James Patterson.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Diane McCue, Eastman Kodak

A few weeks ago I met with Diane McCue, who worked her way up to become one of the highest ranking women at Eastman Kodak. Her leadership and her role in a male-dominated company are inspiring.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What I'm (Not) Writing

Two months ago, I finished the first draft of my novel. After participating in a writing marathon known as National Novel Writing Month, my creative juices were drained. I needed a break from my novel and I needed a break from writing in general. I planned to pick up my novel in a few weeks to look at it with a fresh set of eyes.

I slept in. I watched prime time television again. I cleaned the house and spent time with friends I'd neglected in the month of November. I didn't write.

And I'm still not writing. I thought I'd take some time to free write and explore other ideas - I haven't done that either. The longer I've stayed away, the harder it is to bring myself back. Fear has set in. A voice in the back of my head started telling me, "Your novel's not really any good! And when you reread it you're going to realize what a terrible writer you really are!"

I've been afraid to look back at my work - afraid that I'll see it's not as good as I thought it was while I was writing it, that it's not cut out for publication. I'm afraid that I'll get the urge to rewrite the entire thing from start to finish (while that's not entirely a bad thing, I can never complete a story because I can't seem to stop rewriting!) I'm afraid that after years of trying to tell this story and developing these characters, I'll see that it's not worth pursuing any longer.

I have a fear of the unknown - I've never made it this far in the novel-writing process. I've never completed a draft and gotten to the down and dirty editing and rewriting phase. No more writing to see where it will take me, no more aimlessly exploring characters and writing scenes or lines of dialogue I know I'll cut later. Now every word counts.

I could lock my draft up in a drawer, never to be looked at again. I could let my fear get in the way of my dream of finishing a novel and potentially getting published. Or I could push through it, start revising and grow as a writer in the process.

Nike said it best: Just Do It.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Books for Writers: Stephen King's On Writing

I was told that, as a writer, I HAD to read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
I heard time and time again that this was a must-read, that writers read this book like its their bible. But I had already found my writing bible (or Bibles I should say) Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird of course The Elements of Style.

Bear in mind this book is a memoir, so the first half of the book is about Stephen King's life: his childhood as a poor kid with a lot of health problems, and his struggles with alcoholism. While I enjoyed reading about how his first book, Carrie came to be published, I otherwise found this section of the memoir to be rather uninteresting and somewhat irrelevant though King says in the postscript, this section is his attempt to "show some of the incidents and life-situations which made me into the sort of writer I turned out to be." Fair enough I suppose.

The second half of On Writing is more of what I was looking for: reflections and advice on the craft on of writing. King offers a lot of technical writing advice, most notably: The adverb is not your friend. King says: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." King also gives advice about dialogue and avoiding the passive tense but he also admits, "You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I'm just another ordinary sinner."

My first time through his memoir, it made me feel like an inept writer, coming nowhere close to his daily goal of ten pages (that amounts to 2,000 words a day, 180,000 words over a three-month span, what he calls a goodish length for a book.) No wonder the guy has an entire shelf of books at any given bookstore or library. I found myself resenting his full-time writing life and his daily walks during stays at his summer house in Maine. Sometimes it just came across like writing isn't ever a struggle, that it comes so easily to him. (Maybe I need to go back and read Anne Lamott's chapter on jealousy...)

Perhaps this book will be more appreciated by Stephen King fans, looking to learn more about his life and behind the scenes writing. Still, while King's book on the craft isn't my favorite, he offers plenty of good advice and even includes a corrected story, a book list, and a writing assignment.

King reminds us what I believe to be the foundation for any writer: "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wish List for 2012

Looking back on some of the books I read in 2011, I think I read across a variety of genres. I enjoy literary fiction but also read a lot of mainstream fiction and items off the bestsellers list. I like to mix in lighthearted and inspirational stories with some more serious reading. I also try to throw a classic or two in there for good measure.

I'm not sure how many books I average in a year, but I think I'd like to make it my goal to read at least two to three a month, an easily achievable goal which would bring me to 24-36 this year.

Here are a few books that are on my wish list to read this year:

War Horse - Michael Morpurgo

This will be the first book I read in 2012 - I've already downloaded it onto my Kindle. I've heard it's a great read. It's unique because the story is narrated by the horse, Joey, and I'm interested to see how that's done.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

I've heard lots of things about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both good and bad. It comes to a point where I have to give in to the hype and check it out for myself. I'd like to give this book a try, and perhaps move on to read the other books in the series.

11/22/63 - Stephen King

While I'm not a Stephen King fan, this concept of this book intrigues me. A mix of fantasy and historical fiction, the main character travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

Another book I've heard a lot about and would like to check out for myself.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm not going to lie, I didn't even know this was a book. I'd only seen the previews for the movie. But it sounds like a touching story. I've read a few reviews and it seems this book is better purchased as paperback due to the author's illustrations. So this is one I will not be getting on my Kindle.