Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Typewriters and the Movies

A few days ago, Aliya discussed the history of her typewriter, which she may or may not cart along with her after the Apocalypse. Shortly thereafter, Ryan David Jahn posted a discussion of the effects of typing on the composition process. In honor of what seems to have become Typewriter Month, I thought I'd add a few words of my own.

I haven't had a typewriter in ages. If I had one, my daily consumption of Wite-Out would run into the gallons.

Nonetheless, typewriters are very cool because they are so cinematic. Or, at any rate, they are more cinematic than anything else writers do (apart from getting druink and falling over at parties). Movie directors still invariably have writers banging away on typewriters. You can 1) zoom in close on each letter as it embosses onto the paper; 2) amplify the hammering sounds; 3) have the loose sheets of the manuscript fly away--out the window, or under a car, or into a pond. (This latter movie cliche was used as recently as Love Actually.)

What we do is about the dullest thing in the world to film, which is why they usually show the writer sitting down to write and then cut to the writer sitting back and wiping sweat from the forehead, a stack of finished manuscript pages beside the typewriter. Very seldom so they do more because, well, a story about someone making up a story turns out to be a bit dull.

Two movies have fine openings with the writer working at the typewriter. The first is Romancing the Stone, which opens in the romance-novel ending being written by Kathleen Turner's character, complete with her cheesy prose as voice-over. The scene then cuts to her teary-eyed face at her typewriter, as she says, "Oh, God, that's good...The...End."

The other, and my favorite, is the beginning of Throw Momma From the Train. The movie opens close in on the page as the typewriter stamps out "T...h...e... ...n...i...g..h...t... ...w...a...s..." and then switches to the face of Billy Crystal's character, who for almost the rest of the film is stuck on his novel's opening line, "The night was..." For the next few minutes of screen time, Crystal moves in and out of the frame (which stays fixed on his typewriter), doing all those things writers do, and a few I've never thought of, when we are stuck and pretending we are working. Nice scene.

No typewriter for me, though. I probably delete twenty words for every one I write and keep. Typewriters may be more cinematic, but if you're anything like me, avoiding typewriters keeps innumerable acres of trees thriving.

Though I have to admit that it would sometimes be satisfying to crumple up what I had just written and hurl it into the trash. Not only is that cinematic, but cathartic as well.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Some Good News in Publishing (for a change)

I'm a writer.

That first sentence wasn't a complaint. Or not much of one. After all, worse things could happen to a person than being a writer. You could be, for example, an actor, where the odds are even worse, the pay inequity between the top and the bottom even wider, and the rejections far more personal (and usually delivered to your face).

So I count myself lucky. And I'm even luckier than it might seem: I'm a novelist. I could have been born a short-story writer. Oh, I know the advantages of writing shorts. Your head isn't buried in the same damn thing for months or even years. Each individual rejection means less. You can explore ideas that are interesting but not plottable enough for a longer form. You can play with style, perspective, or narrative form in a way that might be annoying, cloying, or just plain too precious at book length. You can take strange risks.

But where do you sell short stories nowadays? Especially if you are thinking you ought to be paid...? There are many places to publish short stories on the web--if you want to give them away--but the classic outlets for short stories, the magazines, have progressively published less fiction.

There were loud cries of dismay a few years back when The Atlantic--which, along with The New Yorker and Playboy, were the flagships of non-academic short fiction in the US--announced it would no longer be publishing short stories on a monthly basis, but would instead convert to putting out an annual Fiction Issue.

Well, after that long preamble, here's the good news. Although The Atlantic has not decided to expand the fiction content of it's monthly issues, it has decided to publish short stories on the Amazon Kindle, beginning with one from Christopher Buckley and another from Edna O'Brien.

As the article mentions, this opens up some interesting possibilities. In effect, stories will now be published on a a stand-alone basis, without the associated content of a magazine, but with the imprimatur of the Atlantic's editorial staff. And the Kindle is a more flexible medium than print; it can just as easily handle short-shorts or stories that would have been too long for magazines, but too short for publication as a book. This development even offers some hope for the novella--arguably the most perfect of fiction forms, but one that has never really been able to find a market in the world of print.

Some things about Kindle make me nervous in a sci-fi paranoia way (I'll post again on that later). But The Atlantic's move strikes me as cause for celebration. I don't like short stories, but I do enjoy reading them, and am happy to see someone giving writers some incentive to produce them.

Not that short-story writers seem to need any encouragement. The supply of short stories seems to have no relationship to whether or not anyone is buying them (or even reading them). The short-story coat of arms ought to read Ars Gratia Artis...except for the fact that MGM Studios already uses that as their motto.

Even if deciding to remake the movie Fame calls into question their devotion to that principle. After visiting a brothel that catered to, umm, specialized tastes, Voltaire famously observed that "Once is philosophy, twice is perversion." Well, sometimes even once isn't philosophy. Or Art.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blockbusters versus The Long Tail

You may have missed reading Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, but you have certainly heard its main thesis summarized: The development of netcentric distribution means consumers have access to ever-greater variety than what is on offer in stores, and suggests that a massive total demand exists out in the niche markets. Anderson believed the future of profits in retail and media existed out in that long tail rather than at the crest of the wave of wildly popular items.

I enjoyed The Long Tail, and hoped that it indeed predicted the shape of the future. Recent history suggests that Anderson may have missed a few important points, and an article in the November 28th issue of The Economist discusses The Tail versus The Blockbuster.

What appears to be losing out is the midlist. We now have many more books selling a handful of copies, and many more small, low-budget indie films. But blockbusters are faring better than ever. It's the middle that is dropping into oblivion*. The Economist notes that the traditional bookshop, which has always carried the bestsellers as well as a good helping of the midlist, is under attack at both ends: Amazon can do better at covering the full range of books, right down to the obscure and self-published, while competition on the bestsellers comes as much from supermarkets and discount department stores as from the web.

Something I had never considered is what a different audience blockbusters reach. The article notes that a study at the Wharton Business School has found that on Netflix the customer reviews of blockbusters--even blockbusters that are generally deemed by the movie community to be irredeemable garbage--get better ratings from their viewers than more obscure films. Why? The Economist puts it so nicely that I won't attempt to paraphrase:

...William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type...A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel. for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

(The article goes on to make many other interesting points about distribution channels, word-of-mouth, piggybacking, and cross-merchandizing, but most of these points are more applicable to movies and television than to novels. It's worth a read in its entirety: here's the link again.)

Now, I may be chided for not realizing the obvious long before now, but this was news to me: Success in terms of number of copies sold inherently means that your book has been bought largely by people who don't read much. (In the case of JK Rowling, it may even mean that your book converted millions of non-readers into readers--but I suspect that can only occur write Young Adult fiction.) I'd conceived of the bestseller as a phenomenon where, through some magical process, readers of diverse tastes converged on a single title that had appeal across genre and style boundaries. Surely those people may be included as the readers of a bestseller. But the majority of readers of a bestseller are actually people we would class as non-readers.

Note that I said "readers of a bestseller." There are also those bestsellers that are more sold than read (Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient after the release of the film, Julia Glass's Three Junes, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf). But that's another post entirely.

*James Michener famously commented that America was a country where a novelist could make a fortune, but not a living. He should see it today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Did Walter Tevis Do It?

Walter Tevis was one of my favorite novelists, and I like both his science fiction and his mainstream novels equally well.

He wasn't a prolific writer; when his first two books (The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth) made his name and gained him a professorship, he proceded to spend most of the next couple of decades in an alcoholic haze, not writing (although his students remember him as a briliant teacher). In the late 1970s he resigned his teaching job and went back to novel writing full time, producing four novels in four years (Mockingbird, The Steps of the Sun, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money) before dying of lung cancer.

Tevis classed himself as a second-rank novelist (and most critics agreed), but I think he has been undervalued; his books draw me back again and again, and I discover new pleasures in them each time I read them.

But his mainstream novels--The Hustler, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money--mystify me from a craft point of view. All three novels are center around games (billiards, chess, and nine-ball pool, respectively), and manage to be absorbing even if you aren't an aficianado of the games. Indeed, they work even if you can't even follow the descriptions of the games.

Now, the games aren't the only stakes in these novels. These are stories about people who undermine themselves, stories about weakness, about character. Hemingway's reification of "grace under pressure" isn't the challenge here. The protagonists in Tevis' novels aren't so much characters who are bad losers as people who can't succeed to their full potential because they are bad winners. They are most likely to crumble when they are scoring major victories.

I understand that part of the stories. What seems magical to me is that Tevis keeps readers mesmerized by the games themselves. Of course, we have to care about the characters to care about the outcome of the games, I understand that part; but I don't comprehend how he manages to inject the tension into the description of a game.

A game seems too simple, too fully in the author's hands. The character dribbles down the court, spins, throws for the basket--it glances off the rim and flies high in the air or maybe The character dribbles down the court, an opposing player blocks him, he stumbles, and, at the last second, in desperation, takes a wild shot that arcs through the air and dops neatly through the basket...It's transparently in the author's power to do both with equal conviction and equal probability.

In the emotional tangle of a relationship, or the plot tangle of a good thriller, certain events seem plausible and certain events are simply ruled out, but in a game this is less the case; whether a ball rolls into a pocket or bounces back has a huge effect, but it isn't really determined by a large number of forces the writer has built up. In short, the writer can do whatever the writer damn well pleases, and the reader knows that, and therefore the outcome is arbitrary.

Yet Tevis holds me transfixed while he describes someone running a series of bank shots or fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of a chess opponent. I can't figure out how he does it.

When he was asked how he did his amazing onstage leaps, Nijinsky said something like, "I jump up, I remain in the air for a time, and then I come down."

I understand those words. But that doesn't mean I can do it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Names, Surnames/His Names, Her Names

I believe that most writers contemplate character names more than they care to admit. They're the one tag we hang on a character that really sticks. The reader might forget that Dirk's eyes are blue, or that Caroline chews the inside corner of her mouth when she is about to say something important; but if the reader forgets whom you mean when you say "Dirk" or "Caroline", we may as well pack up and go home, because the poor reader won't be able to follow the story.

I don't feel that we really invent our characters. Mine sort of manifest, sometimes whole and finished from the outset, sometimes beginning as ghosts and becoming more material as I watch them. The process is more like God, Adam, and the Naming of the Animals: We don't actually create the characters, but we do get to name them as they are paraded before us. It's our little bit. The rest of the time, all we can do is follow them around, scribbing down what they do.

(Nabokov, of course, violently disagreed, stating that all his characters were entirely invented de novo by him with full conscious forethought, and that they were his "galley slaves" who would do whatever he demanded of them. I find this exceedingly unlikely. But, then, I also don't believe that Nabokov truly composed every sentence on its own index card and only later puzzled out how to order these perfect sentences into a perfect narrative. My take is that Vlad liked to test the credibility of interviewers.)

There are certain unstated rules about how we use character names in narrative. In the mouths of other characters, of course, character Jeremy Brooks may be anything from "Jeremy" to "Brooks" to "Jer" to "Snooky-Ookums," but the narrative voice has to settle on something and stay consistent. (Unless, of course, the narrative voice is deeply in rotating POV, in which case Jeremy's naming will change depending on whose POV is invoked.)

True, when you first introduce the the character, you may call him "Jeremy Brooks" in full. If the narrative voice continues to call him "Jeremy Brooks," though, it will have a strong distancing effect on the narrative, keeping us at armslength. (Even more distancing are pseudo-pronoun constructions, where the narrative voice refers to a major character as "the dapper detective" or "the burly prizefighter." Tossing in titles as part of the name, such as "Mrs. Carruthers" or "Professor Smythe" has the same distancing effect, assigning a role and often pushing the character toward caricature or stereotype )

Jumping back and forth, calling our character "Jeremy" at one moment and "Brooks" at another, serves only to make the reader's work more difficult. Do this with very many of your characters and it will seem to the reader that the number of players is multiplying out of control, and three people in a scene can feel like like a throng.

For some reason, using first names in the narrative increases the degree of intimacy and tends to soften the character. Jeremy leaned forward or Jeremy wondered is automatically closer and more kindly disposed than Brooks leaned forward or Brooks wondered. I'm not sure why this should be the case. To some extent it may come from formal manners, where traditionally we must be at a certain level of intimacy with someone before we call them by their first name. But the use of first names also automatically connotes diminutization in the backs of our minds; anyone is allowed, and even expected, to call a child by their first name, even upon first acquaintance.

And this, alas, leads us into linguistic politics, and, even worse, linguistic sexual politics. With Jeremy Brooks, we can choose from the outset that he will be "Jeremy" in the narrative (and, ceteris paribus, closer and more vulnerable) or be "Brooks" (and therefore slightly more distant and also tougher). This is only a nuance, and a thousand things we do in the writing beyond the choice of narrative naming will affect our closeness to, and perception of, Jeremy Brooks; but it is one of our earliest and most permanent choices (and probably says something about how our subconscious feels about the character at the outset). But if the major character in question is, say, "Elaine Carver"...

Well, sorry. She's going to be "Elaine." Refer to her in the narration as "Carver," and you don't just toughen and distance her, you start changing her gender. Reference by surname connotes maleness in our reading and writing conventions--and, for that matter, in most of our conversational style. Women will sometimes refer to other women by surnames, especially in direct address or when the context is chummy, but it's usually kept with a circle of girl-chums. (I had to ponder this problem in Shock and Awe, where Carla Smukowski is, in fact, pretty tough, and, being surrounded by military folk, is often referred to in dialogue as "Smukowski." But she has to be "Carla" in the narrative. [And "Carla" itself is of course a feminization of a masculine name.])

Is this because the language inherently speaks down to women? Is this a way of ensuring that women remain forever girls? Is it tied up with feudalism, where the master of the estate is referred to by the name of his property (his wife being one of those properties)? (This latter aspect lingers on in the fact that, formally speaking, there is such a person as "Michelle Obama," but no such person as "Mrs. Michelle Obama;" she is, properly, "Mrs. Barack Obama.")

I suppose it's a mix of all the above. But if you expect me to take a stand against this convention of our language, don't look for it to happen in my fiction. It's hard enough to keep the tissue of the dream intact without constantly having the reader struggle to keep in mind that the character I keep calling "Carver" is a woman.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Comments from Stephen Kelner

A while back I chatted about Stephen P. Kelner's Motivate Your Writing! (Two posts: here and here.) He dropped through the comment trail, and I thought what he had to say was entertaining enough to share. So, without further commentary from me:

Hi, folks --

happened to Google myself (probably a side effect of too much Power motive) and found a recent reference to my several-year-old book, which was a nice surprise. Thanks for the shout-out, David, and a pretty pithy summary of the motives, too. For the record, it was a working title (exclamation point and all), and my editor kept it. I expected him to change it, to be honest. Who am I to question?

Just FYI, the standard deviation -- average variation around the mean -- for Activity Inhibition is 0.25, which means anyone with 18 is beyond the beyond as far as the ability to channel or manage their motives, even if you are teddibly British. (I've had opportunities to work with a lot of Brits over the years, and having 18 would still qualify you by a mammoth margin, I think.)

One reason I wrote this, David, was because even experienced award-winning writers get stuck sometimes, and because motives are nonconscious, they may not know what to do about it or why it happened. (It's all in the book, as you know.) One writer who was already pretty productive told me she got more so after I advised her on her motives, so that's not bad either. (She tweaked her writing group practices.)

By the way, I finally broke academic habit and started referring to the Power motive as the Influence motive, which is much more neutral. All three names really suck, and David McClelland, the genius who really made this research live, used to complain about that all the time. Such is academia.

Steve Kelner (still on LiveJournal, LinkedIn)

Thanks, Steve.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Explosive Radiating Growth

No, I'm not talking about nuclear bombs. Explosive radiating growth refers to the sudden appearance of species at certain periods in the fossil record (we mammals did this once the dinosaurs were kind enough to disappear).

I was sitting here contemplating the rows (now two shelves) of Macmillan New Writing books and contemplating how the format has changed.

Back when Mike Barnard and the gang were considering launching the imprint, there was some consideration of putting them out in a highly standardized form, with the covers differing only in the title. Arguments in favor were lower costs, and a uniformity that would let both the publishing world and the public know there was a new kid on the block.

The idea about identical covers was scrapped (thankfully), but a very specific format was adopted—black spine with white title lettering (though the author’s name varied in color) in what I believe is known as “B” format height and width. The MNW logo began as black on white and switched to white on black for the 15th book, Matt’s The Secret War. (It jumped back to black on white once for Shock and Awe, probably by mistake, but possibly for reasons having to do with Freemasonry and the Illuminati.)

The design stayed basically the same for the first 38 books. Okay, they used a cursive font and (gasp!) a colored font on the spine title of Ann’s A Personal History of Rachel DuPree, and on Gavin Smith’s Dogfellow’s Ghost they introduced the new MNW logo. But they remained black-spined B-format books, all in a neat little row.

Until the 39th in the series, however. Matt’s Hoard of Mhorrer jumped up in height and width, and though it kept a black spine, the spine sported a pair of baleful red eyes and a calligraphed title in scarlet.

Since then, there is no telling what will happen. Doug's Thin Blue Smoke and Terri Wiltshire's Carry Me Home are both the same whopping size as Hoard of Mhorrer, and drop the traditional black spine, wrapping the cover color all around the dustjacket. (Truth is, they might have done that with Matt’s book, too. Since the cover itself is black, it’s hard to tell if it has a black spine.)

Len’s Very Persistent Illusion, sandwiched in between Smoke and Carry Me Home, reverts to Standard MNW Format (though they did go a bit wild and put a box around the title and author’s name on the spine). But Illusion might be the last we see of that format.

Indeed, there haven’t been two books in a row with the same design concept since Hoard of Mhorrer broke the mold. (Come to think of it, it was Matt’s first book where they decided to change the logo. Matt must have a mutagenic effect.) James McCreet's The Incendiary’s Trail is unusually tall and thin. Maggie's Beachcombing is the first paperback original; Faye's Trades of the Flesh is a paperback original, but a different size from Beachcombing, and Ryan's Acts of Violence is back to something like B format but is a laminated hardcover.

I’m neither approving nor condemning these changes, just noticing. If you line up all the MNW books in publication order, it is a smooth file of soldiers, differing only in girth, until you reach the last eight titles. Those eight look like—well, like the most of the rest of the bookshelves in my house.

I suppose it's very much like what one would get by lining up all the books of any other imprint by publication date (an exercise I’ve never undertaken). I guess this, plus moving out of the one-per-month mode, are the best signs that MNW is now an established imprint--with different methods than the mainstream, perhaps, but without a need to pointedly establish an identity through idiosyncratic dressing habits.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now, tell the truth: Can you type?

Since Shock and Awe is now available in many Barnes and Noble bookstores, some of the students in a novel-writing class at a local college (a class I once attended, I might add) organized a signing. It was great fun; the Q&A went on for a good hour, no doubt throwing the class quite off schedule.

At one point someone asked how fast I write, and I replied that my average was a page per minute. But, then, I added, my typing skills are limited to four digits (left index, right index, right middle, and the left thumb for the space bar).

The professor then surprised us by announcing that he was limited to two index fingers ("Like a chimp with a typewriter.") He has knocked out roughly forty books this way since the 1970s, and he claims he averages 65 word a minute--"Too fast to be able to afford to learn to do it right."

I was thinking about this because a while back Alis Hawkins had a post on her blog that mentioned:

I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.

That, coupled with the fact that my handwriting looks ridiculous, is one of the reasons I compose onscreen--the need to transcribe it would be incredibly painful. Putting words down out of my head isn't so bad, but I find transcription, even of my own words, to be tedious and headache-inducing. (Apparently JRR Tolkein wrote all of his manuscripts in long-hand, and then, after massive rewrites and revisions, typed them up himself. He claims that the books were long in coming because he couldn't afford to pay for "typing by the ten-fingered.")

The how-do-you-compose is probably the question writers get asked most frequently. (In moveis, of course, they compose on actual typewriters, because the hammering is so much more cinematic.) But the question that is left often asked is, can you, in fact, really type? With all ten fingers? (I've met several now who can't.)

Well, can you?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Good Books and Rereadable Books

I'm a big rereader, and there are books I return to again and again.

I won't try to sort out why I'm this way, as I don't know, and sorting it out might confront me with some unflattering truths. (Such as the fact that I have the emotional make-up of a five-year-old, and want to hear the same story over and over.)

But what puzzles me is that there are books I greatly enjoyed and admired that I feel no urge to revisit. Most of the Pynchon canon, for example. Ditto Jean Rhys. Much of Nabokov (although I expect to reread Lolita and some of the short stories a few more times before I go to that great library in they sky). I'm reading At Swim-Two-Birds right now, and having a great time, but despite that I doubt that it will land on my To Read stack again.

You might be tempted to remark that of course these are literary fiction, and therefore challenging rather than comforting, or some similar bit of reasoning. Nope, that's not it. I find much of Evelyn Waugh, and Robertson Davies, and John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, and several others, to call to be reread. Heck, I even want to revisit John Hawkes at times, and he's just plain difficult. (And Gatsby and Sun Also Rises get reread, but that goes without saying; and, in any case, both of them are easy reading as well as instruction manuals on craft.)

It isn't a literary thing. I once cheerfully read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, but doubt I'll take them off the shelf again. Yet I've plowed through O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels more times than I care to admit. And, sure, O'Brian is a far greater writer--one you can read for the sheer joy of his prose--but that's not the key. I've also read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy a few times, and expect to read it again...even though no one would ever mistake Asimov for a master of prose, and even though his characters are largely interchangeable, not only within a given novel, but between completely different books.

I think Alan Furst is brilliant, but I can't imagine I'd reread his novels. Some of James Ellroy, on the other hand, calls out for multiple perusals. Chandler, I want to reread. Hammett, not so much. How come? Dunno.

There's a third category here, too: Books I reread because I foolishly read them too young the first time around. In the last few years, this has included Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was absorbed in them when I read them in my youth, but they were beyond me in many ways. Having reread them, I might or might not reread them again. Depends on how long I live, I suppose.

Come to think of it, there's a fourth category, nostalgia books. Here I'd place Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Possibly Poe. (And possibly not. Poe is confusing. When you're young you think he's marvelous because he's so shocking, morbid, and gloomy. Get a little older, and the excesses of the language seem a bit silly. Get older yet, and you see that those excesses were carefully crafted, and that they author is winking at you from between the lines. I veer from thinking I've outgrown him to thinking I'm finally catching up with him, and expect a few more of these cycles over the coming decades.) These books are like visiting the old neighborhood, and it's hard not to be comforted by them.

I'm glad I don't have to try to justify my preferences under cross-examination, because many of the books I value are books I don't care to read again, and some of the books I choose to reread don't have clear and obvious virtues. When it comes down to it, I have no idea why I read what I read in the first place, much less a second time around.

No wonder the publishers and booksellers are always nervous. If I'm any kind of example of the public, they have good reason to wonder what the hell people could be thinking.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 2)

Now that we know statistics show that writers are megalomaniacs, we might wonder why we aren’t out leading the French Army against Russia, or at least dressing up in cone-pointed bras and vogueing on stage with Madonna. Kelner has an answer for this, too, though it requires some background.

There is a psychological tool called a Picture Story Explanation. (Those with good memories may recall Malcolm McDowell’s Alex being shown short versions of these in his hospital bed in the penultimate scenes of the movie A Clockwork Orange.) PSEs display an ambiguous situation and then ask the subject to tell—or write down—a story to explain what is happening. There are long and short versions; five minutes of writing and thirty minutes of writing are common.

PSEs are used to measure all manner of things. One of them is “activity inhibition,” sometimes simply called “socialization.” The simplest way to measure this is to merely search for the occurrence of the word “not” in the narrative of the PSE (including the “n’t” suffix).

Thirty-minute PSEs average 450 words. An average American will use 1.75 “nots” in those 450 words. If an American uses more, then he or she is well-socialized; that is, they are able to channel and control their basic motivations. Someone well-socialized may want to compel others to act in certain ways, but they are more likely to do this by exhortations than by fisticuffs.

While an American is well-socialized at a mere two “nots,” however, our British cousins aren’t considered well behaved unless they include at least four “nots” in every 450 words. (At the risk of perpetuating the mirror-reflection stereotypes of the inhibited Brit, researchers have found that among the French, Italians, and Spanish, even one “not” is considered massively socialized. Ah, those hot-blooded Mediterranean types.)

As enjoyable as it is to have our prejudices reinforced, that wasn’t the point of this discussion. Let’s recap those cultural differences. To be considered significantly inhibited, people display the following “not” frequency:

French, Italians, Spanish: 1 or more
Americans: 2 or more
British: 4 or more

The average for published writers in Kelner’s survey is 18. Should I spell that out? E-i-g-h-t-e-e-n. Twice nine, three times six. A whole buncha nots.

Kelner quotes psychologist David McClelland: “When a typical person gets mad at you, he hits you. When a mystery writer gets mad at you, he takes a year to write a novel killing you off.”

So, as a group we writers are all so power-mad as to be dangerous; but luckily for the safety of our streets, we’re all so inhibited that this drive all gets channeled into furious scribbling.

I’m afraid I’m giving a distorted impression of Kelner’s book, since I’m dwelling on the parts that interested me the most. In fact, Kelner’s book is about how to motivate yourself to write—not a problem that most of the visitors to this blog probably have.

Confused, frustrated, even sometimes blocked, we might well be at times; but I don’t think most of us have trouble finding the motivation for writing. Finding a way to channel that impulse elsewhere might be a more useful self-help book for many of us.

At any rate, if you want to write but don’t seem to be motivated to write but still want to write anyway, whatever the heck that means, this book might help you.

My advice, though: If you don't want to write, fer heaven's sakes don't write. For some it's a pleasure, for others an affliction, and for many it's both. But what it definitely isn't, is a duty.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 1)

This is an unusual book, which I came across in a spirited discussion on a writer’s forum. From the title one might assume that it is about the problem of character motivation, but, no: This book purports to explain why writers write.

Now, I’ve always wondered why writers write, though secretly I’ve always assumed it was because they couldn’t dance. Here was my chance to find out for sure.

As it turns out, while the book examines the motivations for writing, the thrust of this treatise is describing how to motivate yourself to write. Now, that’s baffling. If you don’t want to write, then cry hallelujah and go do something else. I can see why someone who doesn’t want to exercise might want a book on how to motivate yourself to exercise, or why a student who doesn’t want to buckle down and study would want a book on how to become studious, but if breathing is the least optional of human activities then surely writing is at the polar opposite end of that continuum. Many people have not written and have apparently suffered no ill effects, while many who have in fact written have suffered greatly.

Lawrence Block once said, as an illustration of nutty thinking, that many writers were afraid to stop writing because they might discover that they liked not writing and then they’d stop writing even though they didn’t want to. Well, I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. If I really don’t want to do something, I start casting about for a way to avoid it, not for ways to make myself do it.

Even though I clearly am not the target demographic for this book, I admit that it’s damned interesting material. The author is a motivational psychologist, and the leaders of his field have broken down human motivations beyond the basics (hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) into three main categories: Affiliation, Achievement, and Power. Beyond getting wined, dined, and laid, the reason we persist in any activity is supposedly one of those three motivators. Now, I think these could be better named, but that’s academia for you. Here’s what these are all about:

Affiliation. This means maintaining or extending relationships with others in your life. If you write for affiliative reasons, then you do it to please friends or relatives and to cement existing bonds. What close associates think of your work is vitally important to you, more important than what a wider public thinks of your work; more important, in fact, than your assessment of the intrinsic worth of the work.

Achievement. This one is particularly poorly named. “Achievement” is not necessarily a matter of recognition or awards; it can be nothing more than being motivated by a desire to accomplish certain artistic tasks to one’s own standards of excellence. Better terms might be “craftsmanship,” or “originality,” or “mastery.” Achievement can be satisfied in many ways depending on your own goal; the goal might be writing a story that rivals Joyce’s The Dead, or might it be writing a comprehensible novel without ever using the letter “k.” It might or might not matter whether your friends or relatives like it, and it might not matter if it is published; the only criterion is whether or not you met your stated goal as you perceive it.

Power. Again, a bad name. “Power” in motivational psychology apparently refers to “influence” or “having an impact.” Having power means that you can affect others—either convert them to your way of thinking, or open up new vistas for them, or, hell, just make them laugh or cry.

Motivational psychologists have studied people and developed profiles of the extent to which individuals are driven by these three poorly named factors. The author has also conducted such interviews with published writers. Care to guess which factors predominate?

Published writers rank far below the average on Affliation*. They might care what Mom or Uncle Bob think, but not as much as most people, and when it comes to friends, I guess writers figure that if their friends don’t like their writing, it’s time for a new set of friends.

You’d think writers would be high on Achievement*. Writing is one of the most painstaking of crafts, and every story or novel must succeed in its own framework. The archetype of the novelist is someone obsessively scribbling away in a garret, sure of his or her genius—possibly grumbling about being misunderstood, or possibly serene in the knowledge that their masterpiece will be recognized as a major work of art. Sorry. Published writers rank far lower on this measure of motivation than normal, nonwriting folk. (Note the caveat that these are published writers. The confident genius in the garret may be a perfect description of the average unpublished writer.)

Sorry to be the bearer of this tiding, but where published writers’ motivational energy is high is in Power*. Yep. We’re power-hungry nutjobs, driven by this mad lust to a far greater extent than Joe Citizen. “Power” isn’t a particularly popular word with delicate flowers like us, but there it is.

A friend of mine attended graduate school in psychology. On the opening day of a class in communication theory, the professor said that he wanted to start with a statement that he considered self-evident, but that many students would take issue with: The purpose of communication is to effect a change in another person.

The statement caused a slow but increasing uproar. Why, that isn’t communication—that’s manipulation! I don’t communicate in an attempt to change anyone—I’m just sharing! I’m not trying to affect anyone else—I just want them to understand me! And so on, ad, I gather, relatively infinitum.

That’s us, I’m afraid. People might write for any number of reasons, but those who go through the trouble to publish their writing want to effect a change in the readers. The goal might be as big as changing the reader’s mind about some social issue, or as small as changing the reader’s mood.

We’re power-mad. How about that?

More on this topic in the next post.
*If you’d like the hard numbers, published writers scored in the 20th percentile on Achievement and the 18th percentile on Affiliation, meaning that about 80 percent of the population is more driven by Achievement and Affiliation. On the other hand, published writers scored in the 88th percentile on Power…

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hi From the Chelsea Hotel

I first heard of the Chelsea Hotel—which, incidentally, is actually named the Hotel Chelsea) back in the late 1960s, when Arthur C. Clarke related an anecdote in an essay about UFOs. The thrust of his argument was that most UFO sightings are easily explained by a thoughtful observer, but that a few remain a puzzlement.

He said that when he was staying in the Chelsea Hotel, simultaneously writing the novel 2001 and working with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for the movie, that one evening he and Kubrick got together. At one point, a bright object appeared in the sky, came closer and closer, and then remained hovering, seemingly gazing in the hotel window. Both of the men were a little punch-drunk from hammering away at the rather transcendental script, and for a time they both felt certain that alien powers had been alerted to the 2001 storyline, and were descending to stop them from relating a tale that was too close to the truth.

Eventually the light retreated, but Clarke, even with his wide astrophysical and aeronautical contacts, was never able to glean any clue as to what they had seen that night.

I was so enamored of Clarke in my early teenage days that the Chelsea was forever branded into my memory. Imagine—the kind of hotel where the world’s greatest sci-fi writer elected to stay! (Of course, in my estimation his masterpiece was Childhood’s End, not 2001, but still…) I pictured it as a shiny, austere, modernistic sort of building, perhaps similar to the set in 2001 where Dave, having passed through the monolith, finds himself in a sterile environment where he passes through old age, death, and eventual rebirth as the StarChild.

It wasn’t too long before I discovered I was wrong about the Chelsea. It started showing up in songs (notably Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 and Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning), and then in things I read. Not all of these were positive, mind you. The hotel is perhaps best known to many as the site where Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death, but it has witnessed many other passings, some far more august: Dylan Thomas wrote his last poems there before dying there of alcohol poisoning, and Thomas Wolfe spent his last, anguished days as a permanent resident. Many stories and books were written there, although it’s hard to see how the writers were able to concentrate with the racket from all the musicians who stayed there. (Dylan Thomas’ namesake Bob Dylan composed the double album Blonde on Blonde at the Chelsea.) So, while it was indeed Clarke’s choice of residence in NYC, it was more bohemian than futuristic. (n.b. Back in those days I was also unaware that Clarke was gay. That might have made me suspect a higher degree of incipient bohemianism, even if his author photos suggested he would be best suited for a job as an accountant with a 1950s aerospace firm.*)

I've been to New York City before, but the choice of where to stay has never been up to me. So, that’s where I’ve been for the last few days—at the Hotel Chelsea. And I’m happy to report that it is neither vastly expensive nor wholly gentrified; it’s still a bit funky, rather low-key, and cheap by Manhattan standards. Nice location, too—just south of Madison Square Gardens, just north of Greenwich Village and Soho, just northeast of Union Square (which has my novel stocked in the local Barnes and Noble), and convenient to, well, Chelsea. (n.b. Yes, the Chelsea district is named after the district in London. NY’s Soho district, however, is a syllabic acronym invented by real estate agents to mean SOuth of HOuston Street, which New Yorkers insist on pronouncing as “Howston Street.” [Tribeca, TRIangle BElow CAnal Street, is carrying this idea to a silly extreme.])

Could I feel the ghosts of artists past lingering in the building? Sure. But it’s pretty easy, given that the lobby and hallways are decked out with examples of eclectic art, much of it, one suspects, rendered up by previous residents in lieu of cash payments.

It’s easy to imagine working there. The rooms aren’t elegant—in fact, far from it—but they are relatively spacious, and designed for long-term occupancy; the desks are designed for workspace rather than fiddly little plastic signs and piles of brochures. And the clientele still seems to be composed of artists or poseurs. (If you can give me a way to distinguish between the two, I’ll be grateful.)

We had time to fool about on this trip, and even to catch Jude Law doing an astonishing, and highly idiosyncratic Hamlet on Broadway. (Who knew he was that good?) We also had plenty of Walkabout time, and traipsed all over the island, and not only across the Brooklyn Bridge, but back across the less-revered Manhattan Bridge. (Though I believe it is the even-longer Washington Bridge that Parker trudges across in the opening to Point Blank. We only drove across that one.)

Nonetheless, the best part of the trip for me was the Chelsea. I can’t really imagine living in NYC…but I could imagine living at the Chelsea for a while.


*Arthur C Clarke was never an accountant at an aerospace firm. He was, however, one of the inventors of radar; and, though he never even considered applying for a patent, he outlined the operating principles for the communication satellites that now encircle the globe.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wild Kingdom, Huntington Beach Style

I guess we'd be living in suburbia but for the fact that the nearest real urbia is quite a drive. Huntington Beach used to be an isolated little beach town, but it's now surrounded by Orange County sprawl.

Despite that, there's still a bit of wildlife. The Bolsa Chica wetlands and the marshes surrounding Anaheim Bay both abut the city, and there are strange pockets of ponds scattered along the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers, as well as dozens of channelized creeks that were formed when much of land around the town was origiannly drained. There are also de facto greenbelts along the edge of some or our mesas, owing to the fact that the grade was simply too steep to stuff in more houses.

So there's wildlife aplenty around the wetlands--herons, kingfishers, ospreys, skimmers, assorted raptors, and the two remaining nesting sites for the endangered least tern. The wetlands also have raccoons, coyotes, fox, and even the occasional cougar. But although we don't live next to a marsh, our back yard can get pretty darned busy.

I've already mentioned our accidental pet crows. We also have two bullfrogs in the back yard, the result of buying a trio of tadpoles to eat up the algae in our pond. Who knew they would grow to adulthood and begin serenading us, like a pair of libidinous foghorns, on summer nights? We've also had our share of possums, who are innocuous, but not terribly good company; after all, what do you say to someone whose reaction to anything new is to freeze? (Makes it easy to snap their photos, though...)

Like most cities in Southern California, we also have raccoons wander through every so often. But recently one of them has done more than wander through. He has set up housekeeping in our back yard.

He (or she) is a young adolescent, obviously only recently seperated from his mother. We first saw him stealing food we had put out for the crows. Not unusual behavior, except for the fact that he was placidly muching away in broad daylight.

At first we thought this was raw courage, but we have come to understand that it is a deliberate strategy. The night belongs to a gang of larger raccoons who maraude the neighborhood, and he isn't part of that gang. By creeping out in the day, he has a whole new ecological niche to exploit (although he has to put up with almost incessant scolding from the crows. Come twilight, her retires to a nest in the line of Italian cypresses that lines one side of our property.

He isn't fearless by any means, but he is surprisingly unafraid of us. One of our beach towels went missing; when we were sitting outside one afternoon, we saw him up on the deck wrestling with it and dragging it about. When he saw us watching him, he gave as a what-are-you-looking-at glance, and went back to killing the terrycloth.

He also stole one of Pamela's rubber sandals, though he was good enough to bring it back a few days later (somewhat chewed up).

Since he seemed desperate for entertainment, as a joke when we were at the market we bought him a couple of squeaking rubber dog toys and left them outside for him. We had no idea what a hit they would be. He absconded with them immediately, and seems to keep them hidden up in the trees. In the afternoons, and sometimes late at night, we can hear the trees going squeak! squeak! squeak! (God only knows what the neighbors think.) He also seems to use the toys as a novel form of defense; when the gang of bigger raccoons comes through at night and tries to chase him off, we can hear him snarl and whine, alternating with vicious chomps on the squeaky toys. It seems to baffle the opposition; at any rate, he's still here.

He's cute isn't he? Yeah, yeah, I know the rules: never get attached to a wild animal. It will end in tears.

But, then, doesn't everything, eventually?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hey, Look--I'm in Bookshops in the US!

I received a very surprsing e-mail from my friend Vickie yesterday. It began, "I recently (as of today) bought your book 'Shock and Awe' at Barnes and Noble...It was so cool. I was looking for John Irving's 'The World According to Garp'; wasn't there but as I scanned the shelf, your book popped out at me. I was giddy to say the least; it had finally come to America."

This seemed unlikely to me, but I figured perhaps someone had special-ordered it and then failed to pick it up. So I went online. Vickie lives near Fashion Island, so I checked that inventory at that store. Yep. In stock. Also in stock in Bella Terra and South Coast Plaza, the other two Barnes and Noble locations near my house.

So I drove up to Bella Terra to check. Sure enough--three copies, face out if you can believe it, stuffed between John Irving and Susan Isaacs (two writers I adore). And in the Fiction/Literature section instead of off in Mystery/Thriller (not sure if that's a good thing or not...). Here's a snap:

I was astonished. So I started trying to reason it out. Perhaps an enthusiastic friend had talked the superstores in my neighborhood into ordering the book. So when I got home, I checked inventory for three stores in Oakland. Ah, just as I suspected; no copies.

But I decided to see how far my secret friend had gone, so I did a broader search around my own zip code. Orange, Long Beach, Irvine, Spectrum, Tustin, Fullerton, Carson...in stock in every store. Then Laguna Hills--nope. But Aliso Viejo, yes. Puente Hills, no, Del Amo, yes, Chino Hills, no, West Covina, Corona, Manhattan Beach, Glendora, yes yes yes yes, but Montclair, no, Tyler Galleria, no, but Pasadena yes...

Well, you get the picture. This was clearly beyond anything that a local pal had arranged. Did B&N somehow decide to do a big trial run of the book in Southern California for some obscure reason?

So I did a wider search in the Bay Area. And although it wasn't as plentiful as in SoCal, some of the stores stocked it. Ditto Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, New York, Miami, Boston, San Diego...

Crazed with success, I ventured into the middle of the country. That was, it turned out, a big mistake. Chicago? Nope. Wichita? Get real. St Louis? Ha ha hahahaha. Kansas City? Nada. And not a single copy to be found anywhere in Texas, not even in the People's Republic of Austin.

I guess it's just a bicoastal sort of book.

I don't know how this happened, but I'm pretty damned pleased to be on the shelves in dozens of Barnes and Nobles and B. Daltons around the USA. (Now pray that the books actually sell.)

I'm also on the shelf at the world's best bookstore, Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon.

But when I check the inventory at Borders, alas, they tell me, "This book is available online but is not carried in our stores." Sheesh. And after Borders was so nice to me in the UK...

Much as I like visiting England, it's nice to finally see myself on the shelves of neighborhood stores 'round here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones...

...but words can make my head explode.

More and more often I encounter sentences that hurt me. It isn't a problem of poor grammar--though that can play a role. It isn't that the intention of the sentence is dumb, though the dumbness coefficient can be a factor. The kind of sentence that hurts me is one that is slightly off-kilter and makes me stop and think about what exactly what is wrong with it and ponder on what sort of person could say it without making their own head throb.

A simple example. There is a church not too far away that puts up "clever" things on a sign out in front. The most recent one proclaimed, "God opens doors no one can shut."

If the goal was to make me think, it succeeded. My first thought was, "Huh?" and that ought to have been enough. But the statement is the kind that nags at me because it lacks both symmetry and focus. If it were, "God opens doors no one else can open," I'd be fine with it. It's banal, but it has a clear message.

I guess I'd even be happy with, "Once God opens a door, no one can close it again," which is what I think the framer of the sentence meant, though it leaves me wondering if God can close a door God has opened. It would be pretty inconvenient in the Celestial Mansion otherwise. I mean, how would He let the dog out without the door remaining stuck open forever? Perhaps God has servants, and they can both open and close doors, so long as God stays away from the the doorknob. Presumably God has to be careful not to absentmindedly pop open the door for the mail guy, or the whole thing is ruined--nobody can shut it again, and there's nothing for it but to board up the gap with plywood and use the sliding glass doors out on the patio to enter and leave.

But the statement calls for a deeper metaphysical examination. If no one can shut it, how did the door get closed in the first place? I've hung a few doors, and I can assure you that they don't start off shut. You have to get things all lined up, and the pins hammered down, before you can do anything with them at all.

I can't believe that these are the thoughts the pastor wanted to evoke when the decision was taken to tell everyone driving down Baker Street in Costa Mesa that "God opens doors no one can shut."

Here's another, more screwed-up example--and I wanr you in advance that this one can cause lasting neuralgia. Until very recently, there were large signs in baggage claim at Honolulu International Airport which informed us that "Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be." Let's say that again:

"Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be."

Not only is that grammatically inscrutable, it appears to be asserting something utterly bizzare: Because that looks like my bag, it might not be my bag. The reason it might be somebody else's bag is because it looks like mine. So does it follow that bags that don't look like mine probably are mine? Is there an equally problematic corollary that states "Just because a bag doesn't look like yours, it might be" or, with somewhat better agreement between the parts of the sentence, "Don't assume a bag isn't yours just because it doesn't look like your bag"?

Why not just post a sign that says "Many bags mutate during transit. Assume nothing, trust no one."?

I don't see why they couldn't say something more straightforward, like "Many bags look alike. Please check luggage tags carefully." They might have considered a few alternatives before they had dozens of large expensive signs manufactured.

This problem of agreement between parts of a sentence not only stops me dead, it can hit me with real, physical force. The kind of yoga I practice (Bikram Yoga) was taught to all of the instructors by the originator of the system, who speaks English as a second language, and many of them tend to parrot his precise locutions. I can forgive being told to do something "with your exactly forehead," or even with "your both arms"; indeed, it's sort of charming.

But in one of the most strenuous of the balancing postures, Standing Bow (dandayamana dhanurasana), they occasionally encourage us by asserting, "The harder you kick, you can stay in this posture forever!"

The clause that prefaces this sentence demands agreement or contrast. I guess the original sentence was probably something like "The harder you kick, the easier it is to stay in this posture. Kick hard enough, and you can stay there forever!" But the way they actually say it, leaving the "harder" seeking a comparison word in the next part of the sentence, is enough that it sometimes knocks me right out of the pose. One of these days I'm going to fall down and injure myself, all because of that lonely "harder."

I'm not one of those Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. I can survive and thrive in a world filled with unneeded apostrophes ("Apply now for Summer Job's!") or quotation marks for emphasis where they really imply sarcasm ('Try our "delicious" food!'). But ill-conceived sentences scar the actual tissue of my brain.

To show how permanent the damage is, I'll leave you with one more, which I first saw in a menu at a Zippy's restaurant in Hawaii...back in 1979. Beneath a picture of an unusually extragant ice-cream sundae was a description that began "An illusion of grandeur!"

That's a true gem. In fact, that's screwed up in too many ways to discuss. And in only four words.

Come to think of it, even though I promised that would be the last one, now that I'm off on Hawaii, I can't resist mentioning the sign at the University of Hawaii Computing Center that warned "No smoking, beverages, food, and pets." If there is anywhere on earth that ought to know the difference between AND and OR, it is a university computer center. "IF (Huge) AND (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" is standard computer logic, "IF (Huge) OR (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" will tell you that you have an elephant when you are looking at a mouse.

I was often tempted to stroll in the door with a lit cigarette, a Coke, and a dog. According to the sign, I wouldn't be breaking the rule.

But I knew how this would be received. Some surly computer center employee would have tossed me out, and when I explained the literal meaning of their sign, they would have snarled that I could understand what they had meant.

Well, you know what? The fact that people can probably puzzle out what was meant ain't enough.

God can answer questions no one can ask.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Writer's Geography, II

Life at Hollywood studios disagreed with many fine writers, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. The studio heads wanted their writers to work in offices at the studios, where the passing producers could hear the typewriters banging away as a song of productivity. Neither of these folks were inclined to produce on schedules, nor to hammer at the keyboard unless they had something to say.

Legend has it that Faulkner once found himself blocked, and finally asked if they would allow him to work at home. Since having Faulkner wokring for the studio was a matter of prestige, they reluctantly agreed.

One day director Howard Hawks needed him. After a series of frantic phone calls, they finally reached him at home--back in Oxford, Mississippi.*

Some writers, like Faulkner, seem to be rooted in a place, and need to be there to work at their best. Others are stimulated by places, but can write about them from a distance; think of Flannery O'Connor scribbling away about the South while ensconced in snowy Iowa, Wodehouse nattering on about Jeeves and Wooster from New York and Paris, or Willa Cather telling tales of the prairie from her apartment in Greenwich Village.

I find that new or unusual places generate ideas and enthusiasms, but if there's any linkage between where I live when doing the actual writing and the quality of that writing, I haven't found it. In fact, I seem to write best in featureless environments with minimal input. If I'm placing a scene in, say, Santa Barbara, California, then doing my writing in Santa Barbara only complicates matters by giving me extraneous details. The truth is, the Santa Barbara in which my story is set is not the Santa Barbara of the real world, but the Santa Barbara of my mind, and I have to believe that the concrete details my mind has stored up as representing Santa Barbara will be the best for evoking Santa Barbara in the mind of a reader.

At home, one of my desks faces a wall, and the other faces a window with the shade and curtains drawn. Much of my writing has been done in hotel rooms--the more generic, the better. I need to be looking inside my head, not around at the world.

Georges Simenon had the same approach, but to a more pronounced degree. To write his novels, he came up with a sketchy outline; visited his doctor to be pronounced healthy enough to tackle a novel; and then booked himself into a random hotel room where he proceeded to hammer out the book in anywhere from one to four weeks. (The fiery pace--and his concern about whether or not his health could sustain it--was at least partly owing to the steady use of amphetamines during these writing jags; his speed was at least partly due to, well, speed.)

I'm not sure it matters where on the globe I reside while doing my scribbling. In many cases, there seem to be advantages to being in a place unlike the one where the novel is set. This shouldn't be too astonishing; after all, writers set their stories in other time periods, in worlds that don't exist, or on undiscovered planets. It would be inconvenient if they needed to be in those environments to do their work.

But that's just me. There are writers who can't work well unless they are immersed in the bustle of Manhattan, and others who can't work well unless they are shut up in some hut in the Great White North. Some, if they are writing about modern Rome, need Rome right outside their doorstep so they can dash out and examine the cobblestones so as to better describe their shape and texture; others do best at describing Rome from afar.

Do you have a best environment for writing? Does it matter where you live?

Do you write well in hotel rooms?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Writer's Geography, I

Over the weekend, we drove a visiting friend up to San Luis Obispo. It was a disastrous drive--indeed, nearly it nearly became a fatal drive when we blew a tire at high speed in the fast lane of Interstate 5 in a section where ongoing construction had eliminated both of the road shoulders in favor of waist-high concrete barriers. But I digress.

While we were making our painfully slow way to San Luis Obispo--known as SLO to the locals, possibly becasue it can take so damn long to get there--we began discussing the virtues and drawbacks of the town. By the standards of Coastal California, SLO is relatively isolated; it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which means it's about 200 miles from either of them. It's a charming little town of about 40,000, with a good-sized university located on the outskirts and a decent beach not too far away. Much of the old-town section has been preserved or renovated, and it's a great walking-around town, with good restaurants, laid-back neighborhoods, and eclectic shops. It's smack in the middle of Central Coast Wine Country, so the supplies of big, fat, loud reds (Zinfandels, Syrahs, and Petite Sirahs in particular) are plentiful. (My palate isn't subtle, so I say big, fat, and loud by the way of compliment.)

A nice place. Would I want to live there? I'm not sure. It's a long, long way to any major symphony orchestra, and I wouldn't count on Death Cab for Cutie* or King Crimson swinging through town on tour, either. The movie theatres aren't exactly cutting edge, and the university is better known for agriculture and engineering than for the arts. And, although the restaurants are wonderful, it wouldn't be long before a resident exhausted all they had to offer.

It's the kind of town I think many writers imagine settling in--quiet, civilized, walkable. But it ain't Manhattan.

This got me thinking about the whole issue of the fantasy of the writer's life. One of the key elements of this fantasy is that, if you were supporting yourself well from your writing (I'm not), you could in principle live anywhere on the globe. This might mean retreating to a rural town with a hermit's writing hut out back of the cottage, ala JD Salinger, or staying in the metropolis to write in the mornings and emerge as man-about town in the evenings, like Noel Coward. As soon as they had the means, some writers--Somerset Maugham and Patrick O'Brian come to mind--immediately headed for the South of France, while others, like Stephen King and John Grisham, haven't budged from their native haunts (Maine and Mississippi, respectively).

Where would I live if there were no constraints? Heck if I know. I like seclusion, so way off in the country has an appeal. I like human-sized, walkable towns, so a small city might be nice. But I'm a sucker for cultural amenities, and I like having grocers nearby that can supply, say, seitan, natto, and garam masala.

In other words, my perfect fantasy city doesn't exist. This presents no real problem, since I'm not in a position to move there anyway, but says something (probably something unflattering) about the way my mind works. Or fails to.

Where would you live if making a living weren't an issue? Are your fantasies as confused as mine?

I'm not asking, mind you, where as a writer you ought to live. We'll get on to that in the next post. I'm asking about your fantasy.

*Factoid: It's reasonably well known that the band "Death Cab for Cutie" takes its name from the title (and chorus) of a Bonzo Dog Band song. Less known is the origin of that song title itself, which was inspired by the title of a story in a trashy American true-detective magazine from the early 1960s.

The Bonzos planned on doing a second song based on the title of another story in that same issue, but unfortunately Stanshall and Innes never got around to it. Too bad: the title was "It Was a Lovely Party Until Someone Found a Hammer." One can only imagine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Famous Dictators and the Cave Of Caerbannog

BROTHER MAYNARD: It reads, 'Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Aramathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of...uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: '... the Castle of uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: He must have died while carving it.

SIR LAUNCELOT: Oh, come on!

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, that's what it says.

KING ARTHUR: Look, if he was dying, he wouldn't bother to carve 'uuggggh'. He'd just say it.

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, it's what's carved in the rock.

SIR GALAHAD: Perhaps he was dictating.

KING ARTHUR: Oh, shut up.


But with all due respect to the King, perhaps he was. It's not unknown. Henry James dictated much of his later work, as did Joeseph Conrad; and Mark Twain dictated his memoirs and other minor pieces.

The topic comes up because, as the result of Repetitive Stress Injury, the estimable MFW Curran is using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his work-in-progress.

Now, talking a book into existence has always seemed like a great idea to me--and has also seemed impossible for someone constituted like mine own self. I mean, the way I talk and the way I write are certainly somehow related, but so are Conrad Hilton and Paris Hilton. That doesn't mean anybody would confuse the two.

On the other hand, Tim Stretton pointed out that Jack Vance used speech-recognition software for his later novels, and that there is no discernible change in Vance's inimitable style (and Mr. Stretton, who is something of a Vance scholar, would know).

I do my thinking on the page; the page reflects my sentences back to me, and my intent and the sentences continue to interact until I get at least within shouting distance of something that satisfies me. Dictating has always seemed impossible because my words would be spilling out into the ether, and would only be retreived to be scrutinized (and mumbled over and over under my breath) well after their utterance.

But then I realized that dictation, in the classic sense, and speech recognition are not really the same thing. Dictation is speaking to a person or a recording device without any immediate feedback. Speech recognition software, on the other hand, spills your words onto the computer screen. Dictation is impromptu composition, while speech recognition might be thought of as typing carried out by other means.

Dictating seems to me an impossible form of composition, but I can begin to imagine composing by speaking and seeing my words appear on a screen--though Matt's posts on the topic make it apparent that there can be many frustrations (many flocking frustrations) built into the process. And with the endless in-process revision I do as I write, I shudder to think what it would look like as I tried a sentence first this way, then that way, then upside-down and in reverse...

For the moment, I'll continue to write in my standard hunched-over, gnarled-shouldered, sweaty-tense fashion--but it's nice to know there are viable alternatives.

Alternatives that don't result in ...uuggggggh...being carved into stone simply because I said it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Imagination Is Powerful--An Average of 13.5% More Powerful

Okay, we're fond of talking about the profound power of imagination, how daydreaming can lead to great things, et cetera, but when pressed for concrete examples we are liable to come up a little short.

I'm not sure how I missed this one back in 2001, but here's a solid, blissfully mundane example at last, and an odd one at that. At a Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic reported that people can increase their strength by visualizing themselves exercising.

The initial experiment was done with people visualizing moving a muscle in their little finger (sounds like the opening for a joke of some sort, doesn't it?), but they've moved on to bigger and better things. Volunteers were asked to spend a little time five times a week visualizing flexing their bicep muscles as hard as possible. The subjects wore electrodes during the visualization to ensure that they weren't unconsciously flexing their muscles while visualizing; the goal was to have it be a purely mental phenomenon.

The strength of the subjects' biceps was measured every two weeks. After a few weeks of purely mental exercising, the visualization volunteers had increased their strength an average of 13.5%--and they kept that increased strength for three months after they stopped the visualization exercise.

This has obvious medical applications for people too enfeebled to exercise, or for people who are constrained in their movements by temporary restraints like casts or stitches. Whether or not you can also get aerobic benefits by going for a mental run hasn't been determined. ("Shhh! Stop rolling around in the bed! I'm running a marathon!")

It's a bit of a leap from stronger biceps to better novels, but I suppose it can't hurt to picture how brilliant your next book is going to be, can it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do You Need (Or Even Want) An Agent?

(More to the point, do I?)

Frances Garrood raised this question over on the MNW blog. Frances has two fine novels to her credit, and, of course, "two" is the magic number for the Macmillan New Writing imprint, the number beyond which you must move to another imprint within the Pan Macmillan family. On the other hand, if you make that move, it's expected that your editor will go along with you, so the net change may not be all that great.

Back in the golden age of publishing (back when all editors were Maxwell Perkins and all authors were Hemingways, Wolfes, Fitzgeralds, or similar cultural icons; back when 'advances' were just that--a way to keep a writer fed and out of the rain while they finished their latest opus), an author's primary relationship was typically with their editor, and there were many cases of author's moving with their editors, not only between imprints, but from one publishing house to another. Editors nurtured their writers, acting as guide, confessor, friend, drinking buddy, banker, and, I gather, sometimes even doing a spot of editing on the side.

That's the legend (and, like the Arthurian legends, it's more fun to enjoy it without looking too closely into the specifics). Certainly editors dominated the literary landscape and agents played only a minor role. For those of us who have worked with a good editor, this would seem to be the logical state of affairs; after all, if an editor is doing their job, the editor has the most intimate relationship with a novel of anyone excepting the writer.

So, if you're lucky enough to be published at a house where you have an ongoing relationship with a good editor, do you really need an agent?

I'd answer with a definitive maybe yes, maybe no.

When do I think an agent would be useful to someone who has a good editor? Under any of the following circumstances, an agent might be in order even if you're already happily published:

1. You wear many writerly masks. Editors have many jobs beyond gently pointing out our more egregious blunders. One of them, crass as it may sound, is to develop writers as saleable commodities for their publishing houses. Sure, Iain Banks may be able to maintain an identity in two unrelated genres, but I'd bet no editor encouraged him to "branch out" into a wholly new identity. (Ken Follett has said that be received stiff resistance from everyone in publishing when he decided to switch away from his thrillers and write his first historical novel. Hardly surprising.) An editor needs to convince a house to publish a book in the first place, and then needs to cultivate that writer’s success (if any) by building their brand. Encouraging a writer of, say, military fiction to try their hand at a Harlequin romance doesn’t really make much sense for the house, the editor’s career, or most probably for the writer’s career.

Now, to be fair, no agent is likely to greet a writer’s desire to adopt a second genre with cheers of encouragement—unless the writer’s career in their first genre is flagging. But the agent is more likely to be able to go along (perhaps quite grudgingly) with the writer’s mulish, wrong-headed determination, because the agent is in a position to select from all the possible houses and imprints in the wide world to place the book (possibly under a pseudonym); the editor has no such luxury.

So, if you’re foolish enough to have novels in more than one genre, you most likely will need to seek an agent.

2. You have a novel you believe in that has been rejected. If your editor has said no to a book, that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be published. It might mean that the editor can’t convince the house of its commercial prospects; it might mean that it doesn’t fit with the way they hope to build you as an author; it might mean that the editor is simply wrong about the book. The why of it doesn’t matter. You have three options open to you: a) Forget about it; b) Get an agent to shop it elsewhere; or, c) Send it over the transom to another publisher.

Forgetting about a book you think deserves a chance is an uncomfortable decision to live with. Tossing it over the transom is fine, but there aren’t many publishers who are open to unagented submissions. If you believe in the book, getting an agent is probably the best course.

3. You need more guidance. The MNW crowd is lucky in that Will Atkins is a flexible, generous editor who is willing to kick around ideas and even offer advice about what you might try next, but he still has to view matters from the perspective of what is possible within the (admittedly large) Pan Mac empire. An agent can take a broader view of your career…if you are so lucky as to acquire an agent whose perspective harmonizes with your own. (Good luck on that.)

4. You just want someone else to talk to. Hey, it’s a lonely business.

5. You want to be able to drop the phrase, “I was talking to my agent the other day…” into conversations. In Southern California, this hints at a connection to the movies and makes you seem more glamorous. In other parts of the country, however, people will probably assume you are talking about your insurance agent.

Note that I prefaced this with “even if you're already happily published.” If you aren’t happy with your publisher, or you feel you could get a far better deal that you are receiving, then you probably need an agent--if nothing else, as a reality check..

In my case, if I wrote only thrillers, I’d be only too happy to avoid the process of seeking representation; so far I’m an instance of Case #1, above—though, living here in the Belly of the Beast as I do, #5 has some appeal.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some perfectly good reasons. Feel free to supply them.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Defeated by spam...

Okay, I thought that turning on comment moderation might discourage all the Chinese-language spam. I was wrong. Either it is sent out by automated programs, or it is sent out by someone who never checks to see if their comments get posted, or it is sent by someone who relishes the fact that I have to log on to Blogger just to say, "No, don't publish this."

So, from now on it's no comment moderation. But you will have to type in one of those verification words to post comments.

Oh, well. As many have noted, sometimes the verification words are fun.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maria Tatar (my favorite books on writing)

Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters isn't precisely a book on writing. Subtitled The Power of Stories in Childhood, it is actually a wide-ranging examination of how children interact fiction, beginning with the bedtime stories that are read to them, and then moving on to the active phase, where they begin to seek out books to read to themselves.

Some may find the title "Enchanted Hunters" a bit creepy in this this connection, since it is lifted from Lolita. There is a hotel by that name in Lolita, as well as a play by that name, and Humbert Humbert uses the phrase to characterize himself. Maria Tatar is deliberately rehabilitating the phrase, since she thinks it is more aptly applied to young readers exploring the world of books than to pedophilia; but it is still an unusual choice.

The discussion of the changing roles of "bedtime stories"--which transformed from an ancient fireside tradition for whole families into stories intended to enthrall children, and has finally morphed in recent years into stories specifically designed to put children to sleep as quickly as possible--is engaging and thought-provoking. Tatar also has fine discussions on the roles of fear and horror, on the kinds of children who become habitual readers (and often writers), and on the ways where fiction can fuse escapism with facing life's problems; indeed, with facing problems that go beyond one's direct life experience.

For writers, however, the most interesting parts of this book focus on how children's literature works, and Tatar raises two points I'd never pondered before with respect to writing for children and young adults.

The concrete versus the abstract. As writers, we've all been told to focus on the specific, the Chekhovian ideal of the telling detail, and to avoid speaking in generalizations and superlatives. After all, saying that someone is possessed of "radiant beauty" doesn't really say much, does it?

On the contrary. In works for children and young adults, abstractions for positive qualities flourish, and even seem to be more effective than the concrete. As Tatar says in discussing one of Perrault's fairy tales, Donkeyskin: "There is the stereotypical proliferation of abstract adjectives: 'elegant,' 'magnificent,' 'lovely,' 'beautiful,' 'fine,' 'fresh,' 'warm,' 'wise,' 'modest'--attributes that leave a good deal of room for the imagination. It is, in fact, not very easy to spell out what Perrault wanted us to see, for there are few practical instructions for visualizing the princess. Donkeyskin's dress of gold and diamonds dazzles, and that diaphanous state of illumination, I would argue, allows the author to shine beams on her many abstract virtues to produce astonishing effects. The light of the dress ignites our imagination, urging us to fill in the blanks and to participate in the process of creating Donkeyskin's superlative inner and outer beauty...Luminosity, glitter, and sparkle enable the mind to picture persons and things despite and because of a lack of specificity."

Though Tatar doesn't discuss the issue, I think the reason this works so well with young readers is twofold. First, it allows them to impose their own concepts of beauty, warmth, or wisdom rather than dealing with specific examples which they might not, in fact, find beautiful, warm, or wise. Second, it doesn't demand the construction of subtext, a skill that develops only as readers become more mature. A "good" writer for adults throws out concrete details, specific bits of action and dialogue, and the odd metaphor or simile, and expects the readers to put it all together and summon up an understanding of character and motivation. Show, don't tell, isn't necessarily the most effective prescription for readers who have not yet developed this skill at synthesis.

I think this lack of synthetic ability and limited grasp of subtext is the reason that adverbs proliferate in the dialogue tags of young-adult novels. The Harry Potter novels contain an endless torrent of adverbial dialogue tags (some of them unintentionally hilarious, such as Harry ejaculated), but these help young readers understand immediately what the character is feeling, without demanding they stop and try to puzzle it out.

After showing that abstractions work so well for young readers, however, Tatar goes on to make a striking point: Abstractions work well for positive qualities, but for the dark, dangerous, and horrific, the more concrete, the better. As the author puts it, "Evil has many different faces, and its devlish manifestations are often in the gory details. We do not need many cues to imagine beauty and its spiritual uplift, but our minds seem to hanker for clear instructions when it comes to imagining the materiality of violence and horror. Writers of childrens books do not fail to deliver...Descriptions of beauty often have embedded in them an astonished observer contemplating the sights. Horror, by contrast, compels observers to both look and look away."

In books for children and young adults, there is a time to show and a time to tell, and which is more appropriate seems to depend on whether one is describing light or darkness.

Learning the protean power of words. At the same time that children are learning that letters on a page can tell a clear and enthralling story, they are also discovering that words can be slippery, ambiguous tools, prone to twisting in your hand just when you think you've grasped them.

Tatar points out that many treasured stories, such as The Wizard of Oz ("There's no place like home!") and The Secret Garden ("The Magic is in me! The Magic is making me strong!") teach that words are powerful, life-transforming things.

At the same time, however, some of the books best loved by the more skillful young readers, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice books, or Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, revel in the plasticity of language, using it to confuse, to baffle, or to 'prove' nonsensical propositions. To those who have mastered the art of reading, this provides a new level of delight; but one can only imagine how frustrating such books must be for those children who read laboriously, struggling to piece together a storyline when often the intent of the writer is not to transfer plot developments but instead to play with the nature of language itself. Although Tatar doesn't discuss it, to my mind this must be the point at which lifelong readers become fully committed, and the less skilled drift away.

In focusing here on implications for writers, I haven't attempted to do justice to Maria Tatar's fine book; it goes far beyond the issues I have cited here. Her analyses of particular books are fascinating (who would have thought someone could write page after absorbing page on how Goodnight, Moon works?), and her overview of how the tone and goals of books for children have changed since the 18th century is absorbing. If you're interested in children's literature, I can't imagine a more enjoyable book.

Well, okay--I can't imagine a more enjoyable nonfiction book.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moderation in Some, But Not All, Things

I'm turning on comment moderation so I can decrease the amount of Chinese-language spam appearing in the Comment trail.

I've been reluctant to do this, but the Chinese spam is relentless and it's no longer amusing. In addition, it links to utterly boring sites; the most recent, to take a single example, appears to be a dermatology clinic. This isn't one of those dermatology sites that shows truly horrendous skin conditions that make you want to take bleach to your computer screen afterwards (and possibly rub bleach into your eyes just to be safe). No, this is a site that shows a lot of slight blemishes that are somewhat ameliorated by a combination of treatment and Photoshop.

I suppose a Chinese Certified Public Accountant webpage would be more more boring, but only slightly. I never thought anything could make me view penis-enlargement techniques, Canadian pharmaceuticals, and fake Rolex offers as a sort of golden age, but these folks have managed.

So, my apologies: there will now be a delay between the time you post your comments and when they appear on the blog. And, just so I don't get confused and delete your legitimate comments by accident, I urge you to avoid making your comments in Chinese ideograms. (If you can't resist making your comments in Chinese, please use Pinyin.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walking, Standing, Writing

Okay, have you heard about all the research that shows that sitting down for hours at a time is bad for you? If you haven't, then let me summarize:

1) Sitting lowers the activity of various lipase enzymes involved in breaking down fat.

2) Lowering lipase enzymes has profound metabolic consequences including lowering levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, upping the bad kinds, knocking liver and pancreatic enzymes out of whack, and a bunch of other things you don't want to hear about.

3) It isn't simply that sitting implies a sedentary lifestyle. Sitting for hours makes changes than even an hour of vigorous daily exercise can't counter.

4) It isn't just about the exercise; simply standing instead of sitting makes a huge difference.

Hmm. A bit of a problem for us writerly types, isn't it?

But, then, Hemingway wrote standing up (supposedly because of a back problem). Thomas Wolfe also wrote standing up, though he never said why; Wolfe was six-foot-six, so he often found it convenient to compose using the top of a refrigerator as a desk.

Looking into it, I find that Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill also wrote standing, and that Philip Roth continues to do so today. In fact, in the nineteenth century, "standing desks" were quite common, and Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll both composed while standing. (I'm sure Faye Booth could have told me all that, and probably even has vintage postcards showing what a standing desk looks like. No good Victorian home should be without one.)

Somehow standing and writing seems more compatible with scratching along with a pen or pencil than with tapping at a keyboard, but I'm assured by what I read here and there that standing and whacking at a keyboard is easy once you get used to it. Those folks who check you in at the airlines do it all day long.

Certainly I'm capable of thinking about writing while on my feet. After all, I get my best thinking about stories done while I'm out walking, and a good walk is usually my first remedy when I get stuck. There have been quite a few times where I vaguely wished I had a voice recorder with me, as sometimes the words start coming while I'm out walking, and I have to rush home like someone with a bladder problem. (Alas, when confronted with an actual voice recorder, the words in my head vanish. There's something about my writing process that requires seeing the words going down on the page--even if that page is in fact a computer screen.)

So I plan to try writing while standing and see how that works. For the moment, the arrangements will consist of a box stacked on top of my existing desktop. I'm also advised that it's useful to have something to prop up first one foot and then the other, sort of like a bar rail. I gather the Victorians had some sort of stools to lean back against as well, though I'm not quite sure how those looked or worked.

There are a surprising number of people out there now who are working all day while standing on treadmills moving at about a mile per hour. (By 'a surprising number' I don't mean many thousands. The fact that there's more than, say, three people doing this came as a surprise to me.) I am assured by enthusiasts of this technology that you adapt rapidly, and your mind is more active, alert, and less distractable. I have a hard time imagining myself typing while walking, especially while writing fiction; as it is, I already have a tendency to forget to breathe. Stumping along on a treadmill while trying to work strikes me as fraught with comedy potential.

Nonetheless, there are whole companies out there now devoted to treadmill desks--here's a video of one of the inventors. Even he admits that writing is better done sitting down, but not everyone agrees; one YA writer now works while on a treadmill desk.

I'm not ready to head down that road yet. Nor am I ready to buy the $3,800 "English Bamboo and Lacquer Standing Desk c1880" offered by One of a Kind Antiques of Essex, Connecticut--not only because I don't have $3,800 to spend on such an experiment, but also because the concept of "English Bamboo" makes my head hurt. No, for the moment I'll just use that plastic carton atop my desk and see how that goes.

And if that doesn't seem to work, maybe I'll subscribe to the approach favored by Marcel Proust, Mark Twain, and Woody Allen. They all wrote in bed.