Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Balancing Act

To balance. The world requires an involvement in it—an involvement that I sometimes feel I champion more than other writers—but there are moments when the activities and challenges of the world seem to be nothing more that roadblocks to achieving creative ends.

I am a college student, as aforementioned in other posts, and I love it. I love learning, I love the work that is doled out, I love the discussions I have in and outside of the classroom, but (and this but can be a large but at times) I feel like it is a bit like walking backwards. It feels like a large moment of inactivity, for the things discussed in classes are often topics discussed with the same amount of depth amongst my philosophical and author-status friends. Not to mention that those whom I have talked with who have graduated with their bachelor’s degree in recent times do not have a job, and not just don’t have a job in their field of study, but they cannot even find a position working as a cashier at the local Walmart.

All of this emptiness and then college studies also manage to interfere with creative endeavors. These are the arguments against higher education, but there are so many more for it, and, for this purpose, I still support it. Which then allows for the entrance of the question: how does one find a balance between the academic and the creative?

This is a question that I will not purport to have the answer to, but I will refer unabashedly to my own experience (this is a blog after all, isn’t it supposed to be self-indulgent?).

Endless homework stacked on top of actual work with social activities slid into the empty spaces leaves little room for sitting and staring at a blank page for several minutes until an idea finally strikes. This is the real issue that must be conquered. There is always a short ten or twenty minutes that any person can find in a day that are not scheduled, it is learning how to utilize that time. So, I don’t have several minutes to just sit and stare at a blank screen, that must mean I have to approach a piece of paper or a computer screen with the objective to write, and then do so without further hesitation.

There is something organic, I feel, that comes from those words that one forces to spill out onto a page in a moment of immediacy. Sometimes thinking over a sentence or short story concept or scene can actually cripple what might have initially flowed onto the page if the writing had never been inhibited. I think of Franz Kafka and his mode of writing. The Trial was his favorite piece of writing that he created, and he wrote that in one sitting. Not that a piece of writing should be left alone once written—God forbid!—one should always return and edit, but the action should be natural, and that natural action is enabled by a sudden ebullition of words.

So how do I balance my artistic endeavors with the stress of an overly-full academic schedule? I use it as an opportunity to force myself to write in those spare moments, to, in the words of Jack London, go after inspiration with a stick. After all, if working in the in between hours was good enough for Franz Kafka it’s good enough for me.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Genre Writing

There is something that has always confused me about being a writer. In my interactions with fellow writers and with my reading of countless authors, I have found that usually a single author sticks to a single genre. There are writers of romance, writers of literary fiction, writers of horrors and thrillers, writers of science fiction, and, the most infamous of all, writers of fantasy. What happens to a guy like me who has written books that fall under every single one of those categories?

I feel like an abandoned child as I make my way through writing groups and online forums. How are these people able to remain in one genre? Is there something wrong with me? Do I suffer from some strange form of genre ADD? Or is it something different?

It is always a strange experience to have people ask what kind of books I write. To answer this question usually takes more time for me than the usual writer. But I also think it is strange to ask another writer what they write and have an immediate response. Not only will the response be immediate, but sometimes the answer is super specific, such as “fan-fictions dealing with the world in such-a-such anime world.” How can the mind be so limited and so drawn in?

Now I think I should admit that I feel I have finally come to rest in a single genre for the most part: literary fiction. But I do not intend to keep all of my future efforts attached to this single genre. There is a particularly intriguing fantasy that I have sitting in my “unfinished” folder that I would really like to put together one day. I also wrote a thriller just last year and the other book I wrote last year is half romance. Science has always been a major part of my life so I’d like to try my hand at a science fiction at one point. Does all of this mean that there is something wrong with me?

I would like to propose something, and I know that this might irk half of the writing world, but I think not being able to write within a single genre is actually an indicator of an open mind and a powerful mind. Just as when we hold certain prejudices in the world and we are considered closed minded I think the same applies when we are incapable to write in forms outside of the initial genre we tried. Embrace the strange and the different. Push your limits. I plan on taking up my own challenge this year and finishing that fantasy. It will take more work and more planning then I have put into a single novel for a while, but it will stretch me, it will make my brain muscles sore, and I am a great proponent of the phrase “no pain, no gain.”

I encourage my fellow writers to join me in this challenge. And I say to you, “happy writing.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I Really Wonder How I Do It

Sometimes I really wonder how I do it. Writing that is. I put off finishing this short story I worked on today for over a year. A little while ago I decided it would be a good idea to put up a collection of short romances because I know that there are several of my friends who want to read them. It was at that point that I became bent on not even opening the document of this incomplete short story that I decided would be the namesake for the collection. Finally, on Monday, I told myself that I only had a week left of not being in school, so it was time to put my nose to the grindstone.

I opened the document and read through it, doing some minor editing, and then I reached the end of what had already been written. There was a sentence sitting there that had not been completed for over a year. How does anyone leave a sentence incomplete for over a year? I have read what I had written of this story to several friends, and yet I’ve left that sentence incomplete. Well, I decided it was time for it to be completed, so I did it… and then I lost motivation. I kept the document open, but decided to just peruse some other things while I waited for inspiration. Inspiration never came.

And so today arrives. I’m running out of time, and so I tell myself that I’m going to sit down and write it, just finish that monster off and be done with it! Well… The morning comes and goes, and then twelve o’ clock, and then one. But by the time two has nearly arrived I have at least gotten out my laptop. This ends up being a very small victory. The next hour I spend playing the dumb little games that come pre-installed. Four hands of hearts anyone? And heck, why not a few hands of Solitaire and Free Cell while I’m at it? What’s a few minutes, right? Well, it wasn’t a few minutes, it was a full hour.

Finally I make myself start writing at five minutes after three. Unfortunately I only last a couple hours before I get distracted by a little girl who is being babysat by my sister. There goes the next two hours. Finally I make myself sit down. I have somewhere to be by eight, and the designer of my covers (B. Peck, she is amazing! Don’t believe me, check out the cover art for Let Them Come) wants to have at least a copy of the rough manuscripts that I’ll be including to help her develop some ideas for the cover. Somehow I did it. In between being pestered by the cute little girl and taking a break for dinner I managed to finish the rough draft of the story and get it and the other manuscripts of my short romances sent off to my cover designer.

Being responsible to yourself… like I said in my post “On Writing Novels,” it is the most important thing you can do. But I still get confused when I sit back and look at any completed project and realize I have written that total of six, twenty, fifty, one-hundred and fifty pages. How can a person who is such a Nincompoop pull that off? But somehow I manage, and I still have no idea how I do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On Writing Novels

I hear lots of different responses when I mention that I’ve written a novel, even more when I say that I’ve written a total of twelve.

“How did you do that?” “Wow! That must have been really hard.” “I wish I could write a novel.”

My favorite is when someone responds by saying, “Yeah, I’m going to write a story myself one day.”

So then the question is: how have I done it, how has it not entirely devoured my life, and why am I not the person who is just sitting back claiming that someday I will make the attempt? There is one simple answer in response to all of this: I write. But I think that it can be broken down a bit further as well, and so my goal now is to delineate it into to three key elements that can be applied by any person who wants to take that next step and enter the ranks of the novelists.

#1 Be Responsible to Yourself

This is a key element to any personal project that you might have. It is impossible to get anywhere if you are not willing to be held responsible to one person, and one person only, yourself.

Admittedly, for many aspects of my life, I am horrible at holding myself accountable to this single person. There are times when my room will go months without being cleaned because I just can’t find the motivation to hold myself responsible for it, I let the excuses of being tired and busy pass. For the greater portion of my schooling career I would let myself get by with the excuses that I was a genius, I could not study and not do homework and still pass with B’s, so why do the extra work, it would just hurt my brain.

Strangely enough it was during such a time of being unwilling to hold myself responsible for anything that I came across the beautiful art of novel writing in the form of a challenge, NaNoWriMo, something that I know many writers in the world are already familiar with. I guess I must have been subconsciously fed-up with myself for not being faithful to anything, and so I saw this as an opportunity to do something and do it all the way.

I can see that now in retrospect the entire endeavor was particularly strange for me to take on. I had not written much since I had tried writing a story that I never completed back in fifth grade. I had made the resolution that English was my least favorite subject (and here I am majoring in English, I can only imagine the kind of reaction that would have been evinced from that thirteen year old if I could go back in time and tell him just what he would be doing with his life). And, as aforementioned, I was unwilling to put any true effort into anything.

Now that unmotivated, uncultured, writing-hating, thirteen-year-old boy managed to write 50,000 words in the month of November, and also to keep a B average in all of his honors, high school classes. Not only that, but by the end of December he had added the last ten thousand words or so to his manuscript so that he had his first finished novel. How did that boy do that? He learned that he could be responsible to one person, himself, and that if he was, he could do anything… or at least write a novel.

#2 Read

This is something every writer who has ever picked up a book on writing, who has been to a writing club and/or conference, or who even just perused writing forums has heard repetitively, and there’s probably a reason why. For some reason though, my young-writer self didn’t understand why he should read when he could write stories. I was a voracious reader up until the point I entered high school, which queerly enough corresponded with the time that I started writing.

During the time period in which I wrote my first three novels I fell victim to the rather perverse reasoning that there was no point in reading if you could write stories yourself. It was after I wrote my third novel (which just so happens to be the recently published, and severely edited, Let Them Come) that I began to think there was something to the suggestion to read all the time after all.

Nowadays I go a bit further than the usual recommendation to read: I say read the best literature that you can get your hands on, go back to the early writing, understand where the art of writing came from. I have probably taken this a bit too far myself recently. In the past two years or so I have only read three or four books written after the 1930’s—that is compared to a total over fifty. One thing about this experiment is that it has improved my writing by leaps and bounds. My characters are several layers deeper; I have forgone a lot of my own prejudice as I’ve seen how it affects the older literature that was written in a time when such things were accepted.

So I recommend reading, and even if you are not a fan of the classics I at least encourage every writer to read at a rate of five to one, five modern works to one classic (the best ones to read are written before the turn of the century). Trust me; it will elevate your writing beyond your greatest expectations. (Charles Dickens reference anyone?)

#3 Write

Yes, we are back to that one essential that I mentioned at the very beginning, but it deserves repetition. If anyone is to ever call him/herself a writer he/she must write, and not just once a year, but consistently. A novelist has to take it a step further—a novelist should be writing novels consistently. I’m a sprinter when it comes to novelling: I have to give myself a short span of time to complete a project or else I’ll never get it done. But even then I don’t limit my novel writing just to NaNoWriMo, which would be an easy thing to do, but I throw in a seventy-two hour novel in the middle of the year. Even with all of that writing I still feel like I need to do more, so I write short stories all the time throughout the rest of the year.

The brain is not just a single muscle, it is a group of them, and just like when you try to use a muscle group in your body that you never use you end up only being able to do half of what you were expecting and lying in bed sore for the next two days, so if you become lazy with writing you will try and sit down to a big project, such as a novel, and will only be able to get half way through it, and you’ll want to avoid it for the next several months.

There you go, three simple keys: Be Responsible to Yourself, Read, and Write. If any person applies these three keys then he/she can write a novel. Take it from a guy who has written twelve, and already has a thirteenth brewing in the back of his mind.

Good luck, and happy writing.

Friday, January 4, 2013

You Know You're a Writer When...

I just published Let Them Come, so I’m feeling like a bit of self-indulgent, writerly-like ranting. So I’m going to mention a few of the things in my own life that I feel designate me as a writer under the title of “You Know You’re a Writer When…”

#1 Everything People Say Remind You of Something in Your Novel

This happens to me way too often. It can happen with any subject whatsoever. If someone happens to mention something they like or dislike it will remind me of a particular character that liked or disliked the same thing, and then I will have to mention how Character A liked such and such because of such and such feelings.

There are also the times when I’ll be having a philosophical discussion with a friend and she will mention one thing that just happens to be a theme in one of my novels. The next thing I know I’ve gone off on a five minute rant about how the angst of one character plays against the constraints of society to bring out the recognition of the one issue my friend just mentioned in passing.

The absolute worst situation is probably when I’m sitting down and the person I’m talking with is trying to get some input on the project he/she is currently working on, and then every time he/she mentions an obstacle he/she is facing in the writing I go off on how I also faced that issue in Novel B. And the next thing I know I’ve delineated the entire plot of my novel without giving any help whatsoever. This is a particular mistake I try my hardest not to make. It is good to hear examples from other people as to how they overcame one problem or another, but it’s not necessary to hear the complete plot of their stories interwoven with the advice.

#2 Free-Time is Work-Time

For some reason all of my fellow college students reach the break-period and don’t want to have anything to do with the scholarly. They don’t want to have to read classic literature, do research, or (most dreadful of all) write a single word if they can find anyway to avoid it. In contrast I look forward to breaks for those exact same reasons. As a writer I use my break time to read pieces of great literature in order to try and glean some help in honing my craft, I do research for my latest project, and I write like there’s no tomorrow.

The particular genre of my writing doesn’t particularly matter. Perhaps it is a few scenes in a novel, or some short stories/flash fiction, then there are the blog posts, and occasionally I am even taken by a whim to write an essay (philosophical or literary criticism).

The more… impressive? Perhaps I’ll say ludicrous, thing is that this obsession with what some might deem as “work” does not just apply to free-time found during the breaks. If I find a free time at any moment—even if it’s while I’m going to school full-time, working part-time, and weeping in between times—I will sit down and snag a few minutes to indulge in one of these pursuits, and quite often my first choice is writing.

#3 The Completion of a Project is Holiday Worthy

Ever finish that one big project you have spent countless hours on and then have leaned back in your chair beaming at it while wondering why the whole world isn’t lit up with fireworks and blasting epic music? I know I have. I’ll even get up and jump up and down or run around my house and wonder why everyone is looking at me like I’m crazy.

The average person, or I suppose “non-writer” might be more appropriate (some of those average people might take offense to being referred to as average), doesn’t understand that a writer’s life is built upon crossing the next finish line. The completion of a flash-fiction deserves uninterrupted nap time. A short story deserves the reward of getting taken out for lunch. And then there is the novel, the king of kings! This project has to be separated into even smaller finish lines. The completion of the first draft means drinks, going out for dinner, and a day for recuperation. Then there is the completion of the read through… after that you need a nap. Finally the final draft rolls around and there should be ninjas bowing down at your feet, a feast spread out in front of you, and a band playing as you walk down the street. Unfortunately the ninjas, chefs, and band members never seem to get the memo. (If anyone ever has managed to get any of these people to recognize the occasion, please share)

But at the end of the day, and at the end of the project, none of the show of it all really matters. You’ve completed your writing project, and as a writer that means that anything is possible.

Thank you for humoring me with that bit of self-indulgence, now I would like to take a moment to clarify why I’ve titled my blog “A Nincompoop.” Just so that I don’t leave anyone feeling too confused.

Anton Chekhov is one of my favorite writers: his short stories and plays are to die for! One of the short stories he wrote ( or rather more of a flash-fiction) was entitled… you guessed it! “A Nincompoop” Now this story is about a governess who is cheated by her boss for her pay because she is unwilling to stand up for herself. As a writer I feel that often times I undervalue myself and my work and don’t stand up for it the way I should. I also think that writing is a learning process that is always continuous, and if you are doing it right and learning all the time you will often have those moments where you read something you wrote and think, “My goodness! I am such a Nincompoop!”