Leave your garret and come to my party

Nighttime on the road. Photo credit: Harrison Kalman

Being a writer can be hard sometimes. All alone in your garret, scribbling away. Not to mention the often depressing news about how hard it is to make a living in this business.

That’s why I’m having a party. I can’t take credit for this idea. Over the years, I’ve so enjoyed the drop-and-hop events hosted on Susie Lindau’s Wild Ride blog that I decided to steal her idea. (Thank you, Susie!)

Your invitation

Here’s how it works:

  • If you’re a published author, comment below with a link to your book’s marketing page, whether on your web site or an online retailer. Try to be succinct. Hook us with a few sentences.
  • If you’re an aspiring author with a blog, comment with a link to a post that makes you proud. Brevity will serve you well, too.
  • If you’re a humble reader (we love you!), comment with a link to your favorite summer reading material so far—book, article, someone else’s blog, etc.

Note that all the bullet points above mention ONE LINK. I’ll steal another idea from Susie: one link only please, or you’re disqualified!

I hope we’ll end up with a rollicking party and lots of new ideas for reading material. Invite your friends!

Resources on mental health

At the back of What Remains Unsaid I included a short discussion on mental illness/mental health issues with statistics and resources. If you’ve read the book, you know that mental illness plays a role in the lives of many of the characters. I’ve now added a resources page to my web site so readers can easily navigate to some of the many sources of support and information available online. You can find them here.

The summer of free books continues

Don’t forget to enter my Goodreads giveaway for one of five signed copies of What Remains Unsaid. (U.S. only, through August 8.)

In person

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, I hope you can come to the reading by local authors at The Main Gallery in Redwood City on July 26. I’ll be there reading from What Remains Unsaid.

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How to write a novel

This is NOT how I write. But you get the idea.

No, I don’t recommend cigarettes and booze.

Certainly, this is more difficult than writing an essay. You will envy those youthful writers who not only did it in their twenties (or earlier) but got published—and famous. To keep from becoming too discouraged, you’ll have to look for writing icons who didn’t blossom until later in life.

Now that the envy is under control, on to the practical.

First, it seems obvious that you must begin with an idea. But this assumption isn’t so apparent as you might think. There are as many ways to begin a book as there are Myers Briggs personality types (sixteen, in case you’re wondering). You could begin with an idea, but you could equally well begin with an image, a character, or a setting, or in a dozen other different ways.

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Carry it home with you

Less than a week has passed since I returned from the Sonoma County Writers Camp, organized by two amazing writing teachers—Ellen Sussman and Elizabeth Stark—with an appearance by Angie Powers and panels of writers and agents. It was held at an equally mind-blowing location: The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Occidental, California.

While there, in the company of 23 other mostly fiction writers, I got down to business. Lots of writing, workshops, exercises, lively discussions, and information. I’ll save those for another post. Here I want to share a bit of the magic, in the form of daily writing, and my plans for bringing the magic home.

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Doggy essence hinders novel’s progress

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Nature trumps nurture. [Insert cliche of your choice here.] You get the idea: it’s difficult if not impossible to change your beliefs, attitudes, temperament, essence, and—most significantly—your actions.

That doesn’t stop humans from trying. Billions go into self-help and self-improvement every year. Many of these dollars produce no tangible results. (Jessica Lamb Shapiro wrote about America’s self-help culture in her 2014 book Promise Land.)

Grumpy Cat Learning

I’ve never been big on self-help, at least not on the kind that requires adhering to a plan, attending a workshop, or purchasing a book. But recently, struggling to overcome my Pantser nature as a writer, I found myself casting about for a rescue line.

Over the last year I’ve written myself to the murky middle of a novel. I have a premise, characters, and about half a book’s worth of fairly well organized chapters that actually move the plot along.

The problem is: I don’t know where I’m going.

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Ask me anything (really)

Goodreads authors can now enable the “Ask the Author” feature, allowing readers to submit questions to their favorite (or maybe no-so-favorite) writers.

When I heard about this, the acronym “AMA” came to mind. AMA is Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” open question forum where everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to President Obama can answer questions of all kinds.

When I started thinking about Reddit, I started thinking about Aaron Swartz, the prodigy/tech genius/hacker/activist/lead developer of Reddit who took his own life at age 26 in January, 2013.

The fact that it took me only two conceptual leaps to arrive at this place may be partially due to recently hearing an interview with Brian Knappenberger, the director of a new film about Aaron’s life, “The Internet’s Own Boy.”

And I may have gotten there so fast because I too have a boy, a boy who is now just a decade younger than Aaron got to be and only a couple of years shy of Aaron’s age when he helped build Reddit. My boy, too, is at home on the Internet. He has a different set of interests and skills, but reading Aaron’s parents’ reflections about their son after his death gave me chills.

Having arrived at this place of sober contemplation, the idea of readers asking authors questions on Goodreads seemed suddenly lacking in gravitas.

But of course it’s not, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Sure, readers will ask their share of silly questions, like what authors eat for breakfast or whether they write in their bathrobes.* But the potential is there to engage at deeper levels.

SlippersThe things I write about—searching for meaning in life, how we find the will to live in the face of the vastness of the universe, making meaningful connections with other human beings—go to the core of what it means to live and breathe on this earth. Questions asked of an author have the potential to matter as much as any others.

So go ahead: ask me anything—below, on Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook—wherever suits your fancy. I’ll do my best to do justice to your questions.

*Toast and tea. Bathrobe: no; slippers: yes.

Another way to stay in touch

If you’d like to hear about what I’m working on before the world at large and get advance information on upcoming publications, just sign up here.

Where do your stories live?

As a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my family not for a thing but for an experience.

“Let’s get together once a week and read a book aloud.”

Lady readingWith much grumbling—and some one-upsmanship involving my 16-year-old proving how much more mature he is than his 13-year-old brother by being more agreeable—the three men in my life concurred.

I loaded the book I’d like to start with, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation, onto my Kindle. But as of today, nearly a month later, we have yet to engage in a single reading session. We almost pulled it off a few weeks ago, but Older Son informed me at the last minute that he was committed to walk his friend’s dog.

Honest misunderstanding… or passive-aggressive avoidance?

Either way, I’ve been thinking lately about the different ways we tell and listen to stories. Stories are everywhere: in TV dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Orange Is the New Black. They’re in video games like Outlast and even Minecraft. They’re in 140-character conversations among friends and strangers. They’re in words spilled across a cafe table between near strangers who seem to share an outlook on life.

I’ve written before about the place of long-form fiction in this new world of stories. The arguments seem ceaseless about whether “the novel” is dead. All that hand-wringing used to worry me. What if I am a dinosaur, a dying breed, the last gasp of a civilization unraveling as a result of its addiction to brevity and technology?

Recently, though, I’ve concluded that I don’t care whether the novel is dead or dying, because storytelling is alive and well. It’s like that old business trope about the railroads being superseded by the automobile because the rail companies thought they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. If writers think of themselves as only about words on paper, then their work will be superseded by newly emerging art forms. But if we define ourselves as storytellers, we’ll endure no matter what the medium.

The impetus to share personal journeys, to shape the events of life into a comprehensible narrative, to turn tragedy into anecdote, to understand ourselves by speaking the truth of what we have experienced—these elements of story will only be extinguished with the last breath of human civilization.

This tension between old and new means of expression is part of the theme of my new work, which I am—somewhat ironically—conceiving of as a novel. Consider it the last gasp of a dying dinosaur.

Where do you get your story fix? Take the poll or leave a comment.

Laborious day reflections

I consider myself lucky…
… not to be working in a coal mine or on an assembly line or at any of hundreds of other dangerous and cripplingly repetitive jobs
… to have a writing-related job that supports my not-quite-profession of being a fiction writer
… not to have to punch a time clock (though perhaps I’d be more productive if I did).

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this Labor Day, I recognize my own good fortune and salute the millions of workers who put in a long day’s labor for too little pay, only to go home exhausted—or, worse, on to a second job to try to hold their lives together. And I pay tribute to the labor organizers who fought for, among other things, the right of workers to paid time off—including three-day weekends. 

Looked at from this perspective, a writer has little to complain about. From the outside, writing seems romantic and enticing, and yes, there are moments of romance and some enticements. But like electricians, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and chefs, writers engage in the hidden humdrum of their profession far more than in the glamor. For every hour spent reading before an audience, the writer spends hundreds of hours alone, writing, editing, revising, doubting, and writing some more. And that’s not even counting the marketing part of the job.

Writing is, like most other jobs, WORK.

For me, the most painful part of the work of writing is the initial extrusion of the story onto the page. That’s what it feels like—extrusion. Merriam-Webster defines the root word, “extrude,” as “to force, press, or push out.” Something stirs inside me: an idea, a sensation, a feeling, a hope. I stare at the computer screen. My fingers rest on the keyboard. I listen to the rising and falling hum of my computer’s fan. I push out one word and then the next.

Extrusion process 1

The extrusion process (Public domain; Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Occasionally, I hit a rhythm that makes this process, writing, feel almost pleasurable, like getting to the third or fourth mile into a five-mile run when endorphins take over. Mostly, though, it’s like a jog in the cold rain early in the morning. You know you should do it, but most of the pleasure comes afterwards, as a result of being done.

New Yorker essay by John McPhee called “Draft No. 4” describes the work of writing in words more eloquent than mine. For a further peek inside the writing life, see the Brain Pickings article on the daily routines of well-known writers.

Who gives a crap?

But, as writers, should we share our work struggles with readers? Conventional wisdom says readers care nothing about the travails that produced the book. After all, a diner in a restaurant doesn’t give a damn that the chef had to get up at four in the morning to make it to the farmer’s market to select the ingredients for the day’s menu or that the pâtissier ruined an entire batch of custard because the eggs failed to emulsify. The diner just wants a tasty meal, artfully presented and graciously served.

I think the answer to the to-share-or-not-to-share question depends on the writer’s audience. The thriller junkie or murder-mystery buff might not care what labors produce their favorite books any more than the casual diner cares how the restaurant kitchen works. But if your readers are students of the world, people with a curiosity that goes beyond finding out what happens on the next page—if they are the literary equivalent of foodies—then by all means, throw back the curtain and reveal the machinations that take place to put a well-crafted page before them.

What are the hidden parts of your job? What do you wish you knew about how writers work—or do you prefer blissful ignorance?