Thursday, January 31, 2013

Writing My First Novelette & Google Auto-Complete as Story Prompt

I see now what Jay Lake is talking about when he says writing a short story a week will teach you about scaling. All I can say is that it's going to take me a while to get that down.

January's Week Three story ballooned into novelette (with the working title of Izzy Crow).  I just completed the draft yesterday and true to my Order v. Chaos theory, this draft is a glorious MESS! It's currently at 14,000 words with close to 3,000 words in the trash bin (I decided not to count shearing off and dumping my extraneous flailings-about as revising).

I'm spending today attempting* to draft a couple flash pieces. I don't know if I'll come up with much as I'm pretty spent, but I'll be writing and I'll keep W1S1 obligation on track for January. I think it's going to take a few months to get this write-a-story-a-week thing up and running smoothly. I'm surprisingly okay with that. Despite my shaky start in terms of meeting the letter of my goals, I think I've met the spirit of them. I have written more regularly and produced a greater volume of words than I did in any single month last year. Instead of struggling to write a thousand words a day, most days I wrote at least 1K words and even had a couple 2K days!

I'm hoping that this new velocity will produce, if not cohesion, then more passion in my stories. I'll know more after I give Izzy Crow a read through this weekend. Next week I'll start revising. I will be very interested in the difference in the word count between this draft and the first revision.

Inspired by Cheezburger's Auto-Complete Writes a Poem, I decided to let Google auto-complete prompt me. If you want to try it just type in a pronoun and the first letter of any "be" verb. I wanted to write in third person, here's what I got with "she" and "he." Fun!

Here's and example what I got with one:

That Guy

He who arrived two hours after the party started.
He who never answered the invitation because he never received one, but his old college roommate did.
He who is always hungry for meaning, which is not to be confused with mere  information.
He who corners you between the buffet table and the wall for forty-five minutes, but never tells you his name. He must consider that “information.”
He who tells you, more than once, that he would normally never attend a party whose hosts are so cruelly uninformed as to serve overpriced eggs torn from the bellies of the magnificent fish that swim in streams or are raised in aquaculture or are freakishly enlarged due to genetic modification or hormones or maybe all of the above.
He who tells you about the cabin he lived in after he graduated. It belonged to his grandma, though the land belongs to the county now.
He who spent the winter writing truth after truth about the degradation of our culture in a pile of spiral notebooks.
He who would have everyone believe that the cabin is as pristine as the unmarred wilderness that embraces it. But you have been in a few cabins yourself, and looked out at the wind driving the rain through the slender gaps between each gray plank of aging wood.
He who huddled on the bed, blank notebooks at his feet, wrapped in an ancient blanket so thoroughly eaten by moths that the holes resemble a spray of buck-shot. While he talks, you remember the marred roadside signs that still say Yield despite the paint that has been torn away.
He who will not yield, but will instead hike out of the valley, watched silently by bobcat and snake, harangued by jay and squirrel.
He who returns to the city and begs a spot on your friend's couch.
He who sleeps quiet as a mouse and turned discretely toward the cushions until the roommate’s wife and new baby wake him, she singing softly to it until the two of them fall asleep again in the rocking chair that has been moved into the kitchen.
He who when he cannot sleep, slips out into the slick-paved night where he discovers an all-night coffee house filled with fantastic and impossible animal heads mounted on the wall.
He who is seriously considering a career in papier-mâché, because art is art, right?
He who stays until all of the guests have left including his old college roommate.
He who does not have cab fare.
He who ate all the caviar.

*The novelette was supposed to be a flash story. It grew out of a prompt from Storymatic (more about that nifty little item in another post). The cards I drew were: a pig, plastic flowers, and royalty.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Story Puzzle

Mutual Support by George W. Hart
Hart's sculpture is based on what he calls a puzzle design. Each piece is made of an identical windmill shape. See it here. He notes, with no apparent irony, that assembling this puzzle-sculpture was "harder than it looks." Holy crap, I would say that it's exactly as hard as it looks!
"The story comes together as we discover or invent all of the pieces that we need."  
So says David Farland in his Daily Kick in the Pants post where he talks about story as puzzle. He explains that story ideas are better thought of a pieces of a puzzle, and that assembling a story has less to do with letting your imagination run amok and more to do with channeling it.

Then I read Stephen Pressfield's excellent post about why one of my favorite movies is such an enduring classic. He talks about making sure the stakes in your story align with the overall theme.

"Robert Towne’s Chinatown is about secrecy. It’s about things seeming to be one thing on the surface—and turning out to be completely different underneath. Chinatown is about duplicity and deception. Therefore the stakes and jeopardy must be about secrets. Their drama must be played out on a landscape of deception."

I have to admit that I'm not a big puzzle person. When I think of them, I usually think of "doing" or even "working" them. At least until a few years ago. When my oldest daughter was just beginning to get chatty in that learning-to-talk way, she would tell me that she wanted to "play" her puzzles. And we would sit together and assemble, for the nth time, one of her puzzles, the universe or the whimsical painting of Greek gods and monsters or the miniature landscape filled with anthropomorphized vegetables.

The problem solving and assembly wasn't work to her, but play. Of course the joy of playing puzzles is seeing the big picture slowly come together as you find each individual component and lock it into place. When you can fit things together to reveal a bigger picture, that's what people talk about when they say a work of art is more than the sum of it's parts.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Order vs. Chaos: Writing a Story a Week

Check out more Order vs. Chaos pictures here!
Order vs. Chaos, the Yin and Yang of creative life. I've always come down on the order side of things. I like revising  at least as much as writing. Around the house I'm a neatnick, which is just another expression of my compulsive need for order and routine. While my family may think my pick-your-shoes-up-and-make-your-beds habits extreme, in the context of previous generations, my standards are pretty lax. I don't wash the inside of the kitchen cupboards like grandma did, nor do I annually take down the curtains and drapes and wash them, and all the windows inside and out, like my mom.
Things have to be in order for me to concentrate.
Here's a story that sums up my family's housekeeping ethos: One day my grandma was visiting my mom and dad (she lived next door). She said she wasn't feeling well and walked across the lawn to her house. When mom checked on her a couple hours later she could see that the house had been cleaned top to bottom.

"I thought you said you weren't feeling well, why did you wear your self out cleaning the house?" my mom asked.
Grandma's answer: "A clean house rests me."

I know exactly what my grandma means by that. But when I'm writing, over and over I get the lesson that I must allow a mess. I know this, but that doesn't make it any easier. The only way to become okay with this is to practice making a mess. That's the biggest lesson so far from my story a week project.

Having a one week deadline, not just this week but every week, made me realize just how much I was revising during the first draft and how it can really screw up the CHAOTIC FLOW of the work. I can see now that whenever I hit a tough spot, I slip into revising as an avoidance measure. You know, I'll just tidy up a couple of these paragraphs or move some things around. Pretty soon all my writing time is gone, and I haven't moved the story forward from where it was the day before. Now, whenever I catch myself reading around and tidying up, I put my cursor back at the bottom of the page and force myself to work on the next scene, or any unwritten scene.

I've written two stories (not finished but ready-for-revision drafts) this month. This week I'm working on my third. Something that was supposed to be a flash story, but is looking like it will come in at about 3,000 words. Today it's still a mess, but that's okay.
Laundry's folded, let's get to work.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Making New Year's Resolutions means that you want to make a change. One look at the Self-Help shelves in any book store and it's clear that everyone loves the IDEA of change, but real, meaningful change; we don't love so much. Because real, meaningful change is hard, and being creatures of habit, we resist it for all we're worth. Luckily, it's January and that means that there's lots of how to stick to your resolutions advice floating around the Internet.

I found a couple things that seemed worth a try. First, James Clear's post about identity-based habits talks about how important it is to change from the inside out. Every aspiring writer has heard that they should start thinking of themselves as a writer and calling themselves a writer. That's all well and good but Clear's advice adds a level of concreteness that makes all the difference.

After reading his example, here are my examples:

I'm the kind of person who writes 1,000 words a day
I'm the kind of person who finishes a story a week

If I keep doing this, then being the kind of person who sells stories will follow.

"When you want to become better at something, proving your identity to yourself is far more important than getting amazing results."

He stresses that you prove your identity to yourself with SMALL wins. Baby steps here, people. I think of it as, first overlaying your new identity onto yourself, then encouraging yourself to GROW into that person.

The small wins are important because of the need for PERSISTENCE. And, to help with that Lifehacker posted an article about Seinfeld's productivity secret AKA: Don't Break the Chain

Of course there's an app for that and I've tried it before, but this is just thekind of thing that works better analog. Actually making big red Xs on a paper calender is surprisingly satisfying. Here's mind so far:
My daily minimum is to write 250 words on that week's story. Once I write that, I can put an X on the day. If I write 1,000 words I'm adding a gold star. I have two gold stars on last Saturday because I wrote over 2,000 words that day. Who doesn't love getting a gold star? Again, very satisfying. 

So my first full week is nearly over an my first story of the "a story a week" in 2013 is nearly drafted. Win!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Story a Week in 2013

Not every story will be a butterfly, so write more stories!
I have my ongoing writing goals and a queue of story ideas waiting to be written so I was debating wheather to come up actual resolutions this year. But the fact is, I kinda like making resolutions, even if only 10% stick, I figure I'm still in the black. Then I read Chuck Wendig's post pooh poohing the anti-New Year's resolutioners:
"This is of course the time of the year when frowny-faced naysayers tell you your resolutions are stupid and why are you waiting till today to make them and keep them, as if your today must conform to their today, as if your decision to evolve or change or Do Something is somehow offensive to them. It’s the same cynical thing you hear at Valentine’s Day — “I don’t need a day to buy flowers for my wife,” they say, which is true, but of course they probably don’t buy flowers for their wives on any other day anyway."
And that sealed it!

Not only am I going to make resolutions. I'll tell you about them so that you, fair reader, can hold me accountable. First, be sure to read the rest of Wendig's short, inspiring rant here.

Then on New Year's day, I stumbled upon Jay Lake's great essay where he gives his own four rules of writing:

1) Write a story every week.
2) Finish everything you start.
3) Don't self-critique while you're writing
4) Work on one thing at a time.

I think I'm ready to step up my game to produce a story a week, so I've decided to participate in Write 1 Sub 1 This year.

I am modifying this challenge since while I think writing a story a week is achievable, I agree with Lake that not all those stories will be keepers. So, I am resolving to write (i.e. finish) one story a week and to submit two stories per month allowing for a 50% success/failure rate. It will just about double my submission numbers which were closer to one per month last year. I like how Lake looks at his stories as inventory with the point being that you want lots of inventory.

I'm going to keep up with my daily freewriting with a timed piece of true free writing and a timed piece that is a story exercise from one my my many prompt books, games, apps, etc. This represents about 20 - 40 minutes of warm up activity - what any good athlete or musician puts in.

I will still be blogging every Thursday and might even post a flash story or three.