Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Feng Shui of Writing

I wrote my first novel in college, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto near York University in 1993.  It was a very small place,  440 square feet with faux parquet floors, on the 17th floor of a 26 story building, about 3 blocks from one of the most notorious intersections in Canada – the corners of Jane and Finch.  This was a place you didn’t walk around alone a night, male or female, and when I was alone, late at night after a night of partying on campus, I usually ran.  Jane and Finch was the address for a small shopping center nicknamed Murder Mall.  I kid you not.  It was a scary freaking place at times.

In that tiny little apartment, in a crappy chair my father bought for five bucks from a bank being remodeled, I wrote that first book “To Cage the Eagle”.  I wrote pretty much every day, and the words just flowed to the tune of about 170000 words by the time I was done.  Actually, I finished the book in a townhouse in Waterloo, Ontario where I was working during the summer, but that first apartment was where I built a writing cocoon that I have yet to be able to duplicate.

To my left, I had heavy drapes over a glass wall that looked east to another apartment block.  If I opened the curtains just a bit, and leaned back in my chair, I could almost see downtown Toronto.  If I was brave, I could step out on to the 3 foot wide balcony, and get a better view, but that was taking your life into your hands.  More than once there was gunfire in my neighborhood, and standing out on the balcony was just asking to be target practice for someone.  The night the Blue Jays won the world series in 1993 was like a wedding celebration in Beruit.

I had a stereo at that point with my first CD player, and the sound was crisp and solid, and I alternated whatever matched the mood of what I was writing.  I wrote a chase scene to CCR’s “Fortunate Son”, and wrote the aftermath of a military battle to Dire Strait’s “Brothers in Arms”.  Most of my writing was done to Bon Jovi, Enya, Dire Straits and Beethoven.  Hey, I had, and still do have, very eclectic tastes in music.

I had an afghan that I used to wrap around my legs, and a huge root beer mug full of hot tea that I constantly refilled as I wrote late into the night.  I made sure all my studying was done before I sat down to write, or I would have never gotten it done.  I’m just guessing, but I’d bet I routinely wrote a couple of thousand words a night, and sometimes, as many as four or five thousand.  I’d force myself to bed at 3:00 AM, exhausted and my mind still churning.  These were the days I could survive on 3 hours of sleep, and I routinely did just that.

What I remember most about that place was the way my banker’s lamp, perched high on the hutch over the desk, created a cave of light, barely illuminating anything more than 10 feet from my chair.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  I had a small, 13 inch TV with crappy reception, but I never turned it on.  I had stacks of books everywhere, and a bike up against the wall to the right of the desk.  But those all just disappeared into the darkness.  It was me, the blue screen of the computer, maybe some research material, and the story. 

When I left college, and started working, I brought all that stuff with me, wherever I went, and set everything back up exactly as I had it, but it was never the same.  I worked long hours.  I had a car that made it easier to find places to go at night.  I watched more TV.  I lost touch with the stories in me.

I wrote, every once in a while, from 1994-2008.  14 years of 25 page starts, and then distraction.  Writing was suddenly too hard, and life was too busy.  I was out in the real world, building my career, making money, and doing all the things I couldn’t do when I was just a poor student in North York.  I had a few stories in my head, and I thought, hey, with just a little effort, I could sell my first novel and be a millionaire like Tom Clancy.  Writing was my fallback career if this computer thing didn’t work out.  And besides, I just couldn’t find a place that felt as right as that little apartment in Toronto.  I had to have a place like that back before I could write again, didn’t I?

Fast-forward to 2008, and replace the quiet isolation of the 17th floor, with a commuter train running at 60 mph with fifty people sitting around chatting and snoring and clearing their throats and bumping my arms.  And it seems like that is the only place I can write now.  The evenings are suddenly too short, and the mood isn’t right, and there’s something on TV I just have to watch, and the kids won’t go to bed, and I have to log on to work.

I still have the lamp, the afghan, the music and the mug.  The chair is gone, as is the stereo, and the desk has been replaced.  But the ideas for the stories are there, and I know more about writing well than I ever did before.  I’m not exactly sure which story is next, but something is coming.  I feel the need to write.

And as soon as I get over this cold or flu or whatever it is that has had me bed ridden for the past 24 hours, and as soon as the Olympics are over, and TV sweeps week is done, I’ll get back to writing at home, and not just on the train.  Right?


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Random Stuff

A few happenings and goings on…

Lisa and I have been slowly working our way through episodes of Season 1 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’.  Pretty funny stuff.  Sheldon is hilarious.  I try not to watch too much TV these days, but sometimes you need half an hour of funny, and these guys bring it.

I’ve also been watching a British series called ‘The IT Crowd’ via Netflix on Demand.  Also very funny.  Especially the first two episodes.

We’ve watched a bit of the Winter Olympics, but since Prime Time for NBC is 8-11 and I go to bed at 9:30, I don’t get to see much.  I try to catch stuff on-line once in a while, but it’s hit and miss.  NBC’s coverage has been horrible, and as I’ve said many times on Facebook, it sucks Donkey Balls.

The kids are doing well, though their annoying habit of not listening to us is getting really old, especially around bed time.  They just don’t get that it is not okay for them to watch TV at the top of the stairs every night.  Friday night, I was going to watch the movie ‘District 9’, but one of the previews was for a horror film, and Lorelai saw a scene that was pretty scary, and for a while there, I thought we were in for a really long night.

We spent the weekend doing yard work, and have the gardens ready to go for the year, with the exception of the kid’s garden, which just needs a little more dirt.  I don’t think their vegetables are going to grow much this year, since peas and beans aren’t resistant to the Tonka Bulldozer fungus, but we’ll give it a try and see how it goes.

I’m currently reading ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest, who I met at last year’s Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference.  I like the book, though the beginning was a little… forced. She had to cover a lot of back story in a short amount of time.  I know how that goes.  The middle is pretty good and makes me want to keep reading.  It’s my first foray into the genre of SteamPunk and Zombies.  I don’t think zombies will make many appearances in my books, but you never know.

On the writing side of the house, my break from writing (to read and do some other things), is quickly coming to an end.  I was planning on working a whole other book, separate from the Jake Clarke series, but I’ve been forcing myself to try to figure out the plot for the next book in the JC Series, which eventually turned into the next 2 books, thanks to a suggestion by my wife.  I’ve had the 3rd book figured out of a few days, but the 4th was giving me headaches, until this morning, when I finally hit on a plot that made the hair on my neck stand up.  That’s usually the sign for me that' I’m onto something.  So with a little more refining over the next couple of days, and I’ll have the general outline.  Then I’ll dive a little deeper to make sure there aren’t any major holes, and break the plot for each into acts.  Once I know where each act is going, it’s time to write.  Hopefully this approach minimizes the full scale re-writes that have plagued the first two books.  We’ll see.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Heavy Reading – Stephen King, ‘Under the Dome’

I always keep a book with me when I am riding the train, in case the battery on my laptop dies, or I am uninspired that day, or I just need a break from writing.  Sometimes I have required reading for work, a tech magazine, or some new tome to do with software development.  These development books are rarely less than 400 pages, and usually closer to 800.  I make every effort to read them as quickly as possible so I don’t have to lug them back and forth to work.  I set a page count to read on each trip, and will usually stop writing all together while I am reading them, otherwise it’d take me months to get through them, and no one wants to lug that kind of weight around that long.  By the end of the book, I am usually page skimming, but that’s okay, I’m just trying to find the good stuff.

Rarely do I find a novel where I need to use the approach that I have to read it fast to get it out of my backpack.  I can honestly say I’ve never had a novel I refused to bring on the train with me at all.  That was until I got my secret Santa present at Christmas:  Stephen King’s latest, “Under The Dome”.  This behemoth ran 1074 pages.  By my count, at about 315 words per page, and 1050 of actual writing (there were a lot of section breaks) that’s about 330,000 words.  That’s 190,000 words longer than my first version of ‘Nowhere Home’ that was rejected because it was too long.

‘Under the Dome’ stayed at home, and I read it at night and on the weekends, and I got a different book (actually several different books) for reading on the train while I slowly worked my way through it.

So how  was it?  Good.  No buts about it.  It’s a damn good book.  I hated the antagonist, cheered on the protagonists, and empathized with the supporting characters.  There were times where I told my wife I just wanted to reach into the pages and strangle the antagonist.  That’s how a book should make you feel.

Did the size of the book detract from the enjoyment?  Maybe a little bit, but after reading King’s ‘Dark Tower’ Series, I’ve changed my approach to reading fiction.  I don’t read to get done.  I read to relax and to hear a good story.  And this is a great story.  It’s memorable, and perhaps the size actually made me enjoy it more, because I knew I was going to be invested in it, and I wasn’t going to read it all on a Sunday afternoon, and have forgotten about it by the next morning.

If you have the time, I recommend this book.  Turn the TV off, curl up by the fire, or out on the deck under a heavy blanket, and read for an hour.  Then repeat that for a couple of weeks.  But don’t treat it like a race.  Just enjoy it.

Part of me hopes that I can someday write a book like ‘Under The Dome’, with a huge cast of characters, great dialog, and a ‘faster and faster’ pace.  But part of me is utterly intimidated by it, and there are few writers who can do it.  King is one of them, and ‘Under The Dome’ is a great book, and not a bad workout as well.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Writer’s Block

I’ve spent a lot of time editing the last few months, and have done little new writing.  I’ve been trying to get the two completed books knocked into shape so I can turn them over to an agent (if I ever find one), and get on with my writing life.

I’ve gotten some feedback on the first book from a couple of different people over the last month or so, and while it’s moving in a positive direction, there still seems to need to be more work done on the first few chapters.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix what needs to be changed, but I’m edited out at this point, tired of looking at the same book and the same characters for the last 18 months, and ready to get onto something new.

So, this morning, armed with all the lessons learned from the past two books, and all the reading I’ve done about writing, plots, planning, style and themes, I sat down and tried to write a synopsis for my next story.

And I drew a blank.  Not a complete blank.  I have scenes in my head for at least four different stories.  I have characters in my head. I just don’t have a plot in my head.  I can’t figure out what the conflict is, and where to put people to push them somewhere else.  And that’s what I need in order to start.  Otherwise, I don’t know where the story is going.  I’ve been down that road before, many times, and I end up with forty to seventy five pages of a story that goes nowhere.  A writing exercise, maybe, but a bad exercise, like lifting with your back instead of your legs.  Your writing gets injured like that, stuck in dead end books, and gradually your love of writing dies a slow death under the weight of half finished failure.

I feel the need to get my ideas organized.  The software architect in me says I can write some pretty cool WPF application with a SQL Server backend where I can input my story ideas, plot, characters and scenes, and in no time, I’ll be back to writing, inspired by  the organization and brain dump.  But the realist in me knows that I will end up with software that is barely what I want, (“Look at what I drew Daddy” - “That’s a great turtle, son” -- “It’s not a turtle, it’s you, daddy”)  and have burned dozens of hours when I could have been writing, reading or doing something else valuable.  

So I’ll spend a little time out on the internets tonight, Binging (not binge ing – bing ing) and Googling for something that already does what I want, and will end up using Word or Excel.  Or maybe a whiteboard with post its… it I can keep everything out of the reach of the kids.

Oh yeah, I need to find something to take this fucking glare off this Acer 1420p-iece of crap.  This is the first day since I got this thing that the sun has been up / out on the train ride home, and it’s almost impossible to see the screen. Arg.