Sunday, July 26, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto #7 - Raise All Boats!

There's an aphorism that's generally attributed to JFK that goes, "A rising tide lifts all boats."  When Kennedy said this, he was referring to the economy...zzzzzzzzz.

(I haven't had that much hair in twenty years.)
Sorry, I must've dozed off there for a second.  Economics talk does that to me.

I like to use this phrase when I think of one of the great productivity killers in writing--jealousy.

I'll be blunt--plenty of writers are hate-worthy.  Some you try to talk to at a conference who only give you a weird look before walking away.  Some can only talk about themselves and love to recap their success.  Some sell a lot of books that you think are terrible.  Some have their books made into movies that you don't think should be put on the big screen.  [Insert your own here.  I know you have one.]

I'm guilty of thinking writers who do those things are assholes for all of those reasons and more.  In fact, for years I've wasted plenty of energy and writing time by having silent arguments in my head with these writers.  I've made dinner or laid in bed or walked at night  putting them in my place with my witty and cutting put-downs.  I've won arguments against them that make their fans burn their books and blow up their car.  I was the Clarence Darrow of imaginary arguments with writers I was jealous of.  It's really, really embarrassing, but true.

But here's the thing I finally came to realize--This is all a me problem, not a them problem.  I can't tell you the moment I stopped this energy-sapping babyish behavior.  I do know, however, I finally got sick of it and realized the complaining and jealousy was only hurting me.  My brainpower was going to these stupid silent arguments and I'll-show-you! fist-shaking proclamations instead of to my creativity and writing time.  I wasn't getting any better as a writer; I was getting better at being a jealous idiot, and it was drowning me like this:

(This should have been the last image of Leo in Titanic.)
So I shutdown being jealous.  It wasn't easy, and it took some time, but I did it for the most part.  A lot of the ways I knocked it off was with logic--It wasn't helping me advance at all; Writing isn't a competition; It's unhealthy--but sometimes I did some practical things as well.  Here are two specific tools I used to stop being jealous:

1.  I "Unfollowed" the people I was jealous of.
If I was getting angry every time I read a post by certain writers, I stopped following them on social media.  I mean, the goal is not to be angry, so why feed it?  Those writers are just out of sight, out of mind.  (Also the name of a great Wilco song, by the way.)  Try this, it really does work.

2.  I raged against the world for five minutes, then got back to my real work.
  Sometimes I would type out my pissiness, other times I'd put on a few songs that make me rage nicely (Fucked Up's "The Other Shoe" or Rage Against the Machine's cover of "How I Could Just Kill a Man" works well if you need a suggestion), wallow it in my anger for a bit, then put my exhausted self to work.  This is pretty healthy, I'm told now after the fact.

Look, some people need to have the attitude of "it's me against the world" as motivation to write.  If that works for you, cool.  It doesn't for me.  What does work for me though is being the rising tide--supporting writers as much as I can.  Not to go all socialist on you, but all writers benefit when other writers are successful.  The more people who are buying books and seeing movies based on books will only make publishers want to buy more books and be able to buy more books.  And that's the goal, right?  To sell books?  So support as many writers as you can.  As Chuck Wendig said at one point somewhere on his fantastic blog: Don't be an anchor.

Here are ways I've learned to be a rising tide:
1. Interview authors and review their books.
This is what I've come to love most about this blog--the interaction with authors about their work, their process, and whatever else we chat about.  Maybe I'm naive, but I like to think it's not only helping them sell a few additional books, but also motivating them forward.

2.  Buy books!
Because I have four kids, I can't Scrooge McDuck-it and swim in gold coins, but when an author I like or know puts a book out, I buy that sucker.  In fact, I pre-order them when I can because that helps.  (This is a subject for another day.)  And if I get the opportunity to read an arc copy, I still buy the book when it comes out.  Every sale helps.

(For some reason this room reminds me of the opening scene in Paolo Bacigalupi's amazing novel Ship Breaker.)
3.  See movies based on YA novels.
It's simple--studios will only continue to make movies from YA novels if people are seeing movies based on YA novels.  The chances of DON'T GET CAUGHT being made into a movie are so small that if I used a font to illustrate the odds you'd need an electron microscope to read it, but having other YA novels succeed in the theater definitely helps my chances.

4.  Review and recommend online!
Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter--when I read something I like, I let everyone know about it.

5. Be helpful when possible.
It doesn't happen often, and maybe it'll happen a little more regularly when DGC comes out, but on occasion I get an email from another writer or aspiring writer asking for advice or just wanting to connect.  When I get these emails I try to answer them as quickly as possible because I've sent emails like this before, and was always so grateful to get a response.  Hell, I have a whole list of authors who's books I'll buy until their finished writing because they've been helpful to me.

So look, I'm not telling you all of this so you drive to my house to pat me on the back or give me a cookie (although cookies are always welcome).  And I'll be honest, a part of me also does these things in hopes someone will return the favor someday.  But ultimately the real reason for this is because I just know there are writers out there who struggle with the jealousy thing, and as someone who's dealt with it, I thought I'd share.  I'll admit there are days I still get jealous about other writers, especially when I read something so good I want to bloody their nose (good naturally, of course), but I have it under control much better these days.

To wrap it up, here's a visual to copy and paste to your desktop or show to your local tattoo artist to keep you focused:

(I'm not sure what that tiny, tiny font at the bottom says.  I sure hope it doesn't say
"Brought to you by the American Nazi party" or something like that.  That would be bad.)
Immediate Homework:  If you have any tools you've used to quash jealousy of other writers or ways you recommend being a part of the rising tide, I'd love to hear them.  Comment below!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto - Entry #6 - Need Characterization Help? Watch The Breakfast Club

Everything I learned about characterization and introducing characters I learned from this three and a half clip, the opening of The Breakfast Club.  In fact, start the clip at 1:07 and end it at 2:48.  It's a masterclass in a little over a minute and a half.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-KArgdek5o

(I've lorded over Saturday School students before, but I was never stupid enough to leave them unattended in a library.
Just sayin'.)
I mean, look at what you get in that clip:

Claire's first line--"I can't believe you can't get me out of this."
Brian's resigned sigh when his mom says, "Well mister, you find a way to study!"
Andrew's big lunch bag, and being told no school will give a scholarship to a "discipline case."
Bender barely stepping out of the way of the car, but not breaking stride.
Allison bending over to say something to her parents, but the car pulls off instead.

Add in what the characters are wearing and you know those characters--their attitudes, their family situations, their status--in the first two minutes of the film.  That's damn impressive.  Yes, John Hughes has the benefit of film being a visual medium, but there's nothing in that scene that couldn't be described in a novel very, very quickly.

How do I relate this to my writing, specifically?  Well, when I introduce a character, I make sure whatever they're doing in that scene, what they're wearing, and what they say shows a lot about them.  In the opening scene of DON'T GET CAUGHT I introduce my five characters (Yes, five in The Breakfast Club, five in DGC--it's no coincidence) using a lot of what you see in the clip.  Max, the main character, acts nervous; Ellie is overly enthusiastic; Wheeler jokes around and says inappropriate things; Malone is skeptical and a tough ass; and Adleta mostly mumbles and looks threatening.  Sure, there are levels to these characters that are revealed in the novel, just like is done in TBC, but you have an honest and helpful first impression, which is vital.

Immediate Homework: Go look at the first appearance of your main character in your current work-in-progress.  Does how the character looks and what the character says and does say anything about them?  And, probably most importantly, do you show these qualities without telling the reader about them?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto - Entry #5 - Finding Time to Write

When people hear I sold a novel, their first response (at least the one after, "You?!?!") is--"How do you have the time to write?"  Sometimes this also comes in the form of a statement like, "I've always wanted to write, but I don't have the time."  Either way, the message is the same--writing takes time, and people don't have a lot of it.  I know I don't.

Exactly.
For those of you who don't know, I teach English full-time which means a lot of prep time and grading, plus I have four children, which means the time suck of practices, games, chauffeuring, checking homework, and all of the cool things you want to do with the kids so you're a good parent and not guilt-ridden.  Throw in there my household responsibilities and wanting to, you know, spend time with my wife, and writing time is limited.
The Crime Spree--the best reason ever not to write.
A lot of books and sites will tell you that if you're serious about writing, you'll find the time to do it.  I don't disagree with that.  But unless you're given ways to find the time, that advice is sort of like telling someone to get better at something by practicing more, but without giving specific tools and methods on how to practice.  So let's talk nuts and bolts.

The 1 Trick that Saved My Sanity and My Writing Life: Set a daily word count and stick to it.
This simple trick saved my writing life.  Because if looked at my daily schedule and tried to find an hour or two to write, I wouldn't be able to find it.  Besides, you know what it's like--you sit down to write, check your email, read the news, and "oh, wait, I should see what happened on Can This Dopey Guy Ever Find True Love? last night" (the answer is no), and "Oh my god!, a video of a cat in a viking helmet head-butting a guy in the crotch!  Squee!"  And now it's been an hour and you haven't gotten squat written.  But, a daily word count keeps you in that chair until you're finished.  I've set a 500 word a day minimum, and pretty much stick to it.  That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up quickly, and I still keep up with grading and have plenty of time to spend with my family.  Sometimes I can knock out 500 words in an hour--yes, I'm sloooow--and sometimes it may take me two hours (darn you crotch-smash videos!)   But when I hit that 500, I know I can quit if I want to, and I've done good work for the day.  I suggesting picking a word count that pushes you some, but doesn't stress you out.

The trick to hitting your word count is grabbing minutes to write when they present themselves.  Sometimes you get lucky and you might get an entire uninterrupted hour.  Realistically though, you're getting 15 minutes here or there.  And when those times arrive, you have to use them.

10 Moments I Steal Writing Time During the Day 
1. When I arrive at work before my contract day starts.
I'm a better morning writer, and can usually knock out a hundred or so good words in the twenty minutes I have before the first student arrives.  Once he or she shows up though, I go into teacher mode.

2. When my  contract day is done, but before I leave for home.
I have to pick up my kids at the sitter and meet them at the bus, but I have about ten minutes before I have to leave to do that.  So I write if I can.

3.  Early weekend mornings before the family wakes up.
I can sleep when I'm dead.

4. During my kids' various sporting practices and club meetings.
I don't write during their actual games or performances, but like Allen Iverson said, it's practice.

5. While I'm making dinner.
Table set and food in the oven for twenty minutes?  Write.

6.  In the car on the way to work and on the way home.
Bless the iPhone microphone.  Lines and ideas will pop into my head while driving and I'll dictate them into my phone.  I have one friend who writes on his phone on the train into work each day.

7.  While kids are at the park.
Yeah, I sit on the bench and write.  But I get up and chase them around, too.

8.  During the kids' bath time.  
My wife and I swap nights we give the kids baths.  When it's my night off, I'll write.

9.  After the kids go to bed.
This is hard since I'm usually tired, but I'm only shooting for 500 words, and can muscle it out.

10.  In the bathroom.
Writing isn't pretty.

No, this sort of bathroom writing doesn't count.

4 Ways to Optimize Your Writing Time
1. Get the Freedom app.
If you find yourself constantly checking your email or the ballgame scores or your Twitter feed, then Freedom is for you.  For $10 it shuts down the internet while you're writing.  If you're a phone addict, put it in another part of the house, lock it in your car, or give it to a trustworthy-looking stranger passing by.  Just make sure it isn't within reach.  Oh, and put it on mute!

2. Outlining your chapters before you start them.
This has helped me immensely.  At the top of every new chapter, I list, in order, the events of that chapter as I see them.  It's not a very in-depth outline, but it let's me know where I'm headed, and cuts back on time staring off into space wondering what comes next.

3. Don't overthink early drafts.
I'm 100% guilty of this.  Instead of building momentum and fighting through a first draft to get the plot down, I labor over single words or how to describe something and suddenly I've lost ten minutes.  Screw that.  Power forward!

4. Research later.
When I'm drafting, I can easily get caught up in researching items I need to nail down for the novel.  With DON'T GET CAUGHT it was things like: How fast can someone scale a 50 foot rock wall?  What do you call a device that can copy the data on someone's cell phone?  How quickly does ipecac work?  This is part of the writing process, sure, but during drafting it's a momentum killer.  Leave a placeholder, and do research like this when you're finished with your daily word count.  Or at work.  Heh.

Immediate Homework Assignment:
Write down five times during the day you get a chance to breathe for a couple of minutes.  Those are five times you can write to get your word count in today.  (Sorry, "I literally have no time to write" is a cop out.  Do you go to the bathroom?  Good.  That's a couple of minutes right there.)