Monday, May 27, 2013

So Many Words, So Little Time

Stephen King – one of my favorite writers of all time, at least until he abandoned the horror genre in favor of more literary and sci-fi fare – gave an interview to Parade magazine this weekend. He told the Sunday freebie that he wrote 1500 words a day. He didn’t say how long it took him to write those words, or whether that was every day or just weekdays minus holidays, but knowing King’s output, I’d imagine it’s every freaking day of the week.

King has worked hard and built a career to envy. He can write whatever he wants. He can live wherever he wants. He can play in a rock band with other writers. His kids are writers, too. He can write TV shows if he wants, or movies, or novellas, and his work gets gobbled up like those past-eating dinosaurs in The Langoliers.

He was also the victim of my one-and-only act of literary plagiarism, committed when I was 12. My mother had signed me up for a summer writing workshop, held in the living room of a local author, and had demanded that I write something to give to the woman. Not as prolific at writing on demand as I am now, I cobbled together a short story based heavily on a character’s dream in King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot. I changed things around, but it was still King’s idea, and when I told the instructor that King was my favorite author and she proceeded to devour his books like Cujo terrorizing the woods of Maine, I spent every session in dread that she would confront me over my theft. She never did, but obviously the guilt still haunts like Sara Tidwell.

My desire to be Stephen King has waned little since. I even have a vampire novel (based on my vampire screenplay) whose mythology was largely inspired by ‘Salem’s Lot and is only a draft or two away from a self-published birth.

However, I am a long, long way from 1500 words a day. What could I accomplish with that much output? I currently force myself to cough up 5000 words a week – 1250 a day, with Fridays off. I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel (the vampire novel clocks in at 30K, meaning I have to double it before I can even consider uploading it somewhere.)

There have been days when the writing just flows, when I go over the 1250 without even trying, when my characters speak to me and the plot points hit their targets without effort. But most days I want to pull out my eyelashes. Scenes feel flat, dialogue goes on way too long, and transitions are obvious and clunky. Those days, the writing is just torture and I have to drag myself across the 1250 finish line.

And then when I finally hit “the end,” I know what’s waiting for me. My first drafts aren’t structural marvels of graceful plotting and character growth. They’re way too long; they have subplots that add nothing to the main plot; they have scenes just for laughs that lead nowhere. I know writing is rewriting; for me, it’s also amputation. Followed by transplant.

Several years ago, King wrote a memoir/writing book in which he shared an edited section of one of his published works. The editing was all in the writing. A few adverbs exorcised; some sentences reworked or cut altogether and he was good to go. The plot and characters, it seemed, were all there in the first draft. All he needed to do was polish the writing.

Is there a trick to meeting a word count when the work isn’t flowing? Is there a magic formula when it comes to constructing plot and creating character, one that enables a writer to get them right the first time? If so, I haven’t figured it out.

As is typical for me when I can see “the end” from my current word count, my head is filled with stories. Not the story I’m working on, of course, but the story I want to write next. There’s a mystery. There’s another mystery. There’s the YA I was working on last summer and the YA that sprung up in my head last week. And another women’s fiction novel. After all, I’ve written two already (counting my current WIP). And with romance being the best-selling genre, shouldn’t I try my hand at one of those as well?

The only way I’ll be able to write all the stories I want to tell is if I buckle down to a 1500-word a day requirement. Of course, Stephen King doesn’t have to work as hard to do his own sales and marketing as we indie writers do. Maybe if he did, he’d cut down his word count a little. Say, to 1250 words a day, four days a week.

I still wish I were Stephen King.

Monday, May 20, 2013

TV: From a Vast Wasteland to Another Cultural Obligation

I’m avoiding my DVR.

My DVR currently holds 20 hours of TV, including the last several episodes of critically acclaimed shows like Bates Motel and Hannibal. To watch 20 hours of TV takes about… 20 hours. In other words, an entire part-time job for the week. And that doesn’t count upcoming TV for this week; the season finales of Bates Motel, Nashville and my daily dose of General Hospital.

TV used to be a way to simply veg out after a long day, and I suppose to those whose diets include heavy doses of reality fare, it’s still that way. But now that we’re in the second Golden Age of Television, where every new Showtime or AMC or FX show is not only a major commentary on past and current political and social constructs, TV is no longer a relaxation tool. It’s the visual equivalent of a college-level English class.

Here’s a short list (in no particular order) of the impactful shows that thoughtful Americans are supposed to be following: The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, Homefront, Veep, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Bates Motel, The Following, The Americans, Game of Thrones, the Good Wife, Nashville, Hannibal, Scandal, The Killing, Top of the Lake, Rectify. You know these shows are important because not only do they get reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, but their writers and actors are featured in the New York Times, Time magazine, and the New Yorker. And please note that this list contains only the impactful shows. If you want to keep up with what the chattering classes are watching, there’s no time for Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, or any reality show. Yes, even the Bachelor.

Once upon a time, there were only three channels (four if you count PBS, but most people didn’t), and TV took a break in the summer. Now there are hundreds of TV channels, Hulu, and Netflix is streaming original content. Add Arrested Development to the list above when its second life premieres. And if there’s any show you didn’t get around to watching during its first incarnation, Netflix will helpfully stream all seven seasons so you can “binge-watch.” Yes, it’s not enough just to watch one episode a week if you’re watching on Netflix. You have to take a weekend and watch one after the other till your eyes bleed and your bladder throbs.

First world problems, indeed.

There are now so many choices, and the choices are so good and so important and so high-brow, that good TV has now become another obligation, like closely tracking political news and following obscure but fabulous people on Twitter. I know I should be watching Downton Abbey, but by this point I have like three seasons to catch up on, and no matter how wonderful it apparently is, and hearing the spoilers doesn’t hurt because I have no idea who these people are, watching Downton Abbey has all the appeal of re-reading Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

Maybe instead of watching a mini-marathon of Bates Motel episodes to prepare for tonight’s season finale, I should just turn on my Kindle and pick a good book instead.

Oh my god, I have thirteen new books on my Kindle…

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Mother's Day Hangover

With yesterday being Mother’s Day, a lot of blogs and twitter feeds I follow were bursting with stories about cute-but-screaming babies, cute-but-messy toddlers, cute-but-bratty grade schoolers. There are a lot of Mommy blogs out there, and they are mostly funny and the kids are adorable, but it does seem like “Mommy” now means a woman who has children under the age of 13 or so. There’s not a whole lot of talk out in the blogosphere about kids with raging acne or who are failing physics or who make Sue Heck look like Homecoming Queen by comparison. Maybe it’s because outlets like Facebook have taught us that social media is used solely for the purpose of bragging about our children, and since they aren’t so adorable at 15 and perhaps aren’t getting straight A’s or quarterbacking the state champion football team, parents of teenagers keep quiet unless there’s bragging rights to be claimed. Or maybe it’s because that phrase “little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems” has never been more true, and we’re all terrified that our children – only a few years away from legal adulthood – are making huge mistakes that will doom them to living out life in our basements, juggling jobs as waiters and Wal-Mart cashiers, their fancy college degrees gathering dust in the corner.

Unemployment rates can be parsed however you want, but the fact remains that new college graduates are mostly working at jobs that do not require a college education. The fact also remains that once a college graduate has stepped onto the Wal-Mart trajectory, the changes of stepping back off and onto a professional track grow harder and harder as time goes by. So while our kids kill themselves to get into good colleges and we kill ourselves trying to pay for them and save for retirement at the same time, that college degree is no longer the guarantee it was once, a ticket to a middle-class life.

For parents who are my age, it’s doubly frustrating because it’s such a different situation than what we dealt with. My parents were gracious enough to be born a few years before the baby boomers, and, as such, we Generation X parents were a baby-bust echo. There were plenty of college seats to go around. Kids who didn’t work hard in high school were assumed to be underachievers whose needs simply weren’t being met, rather than lazy-asses who couldn’t be bothered to crack a book. The University of Maryland, College Park would admit just about anyone who got over 1000 on the SATs.

As for jobs after college, nearly everyone I graduated with had a professional position within a few months. Granted, I believe things were a bit more challenging for the women I went to school with – there was still a lot of talk about needing to start somewhere as a secretary first; talk I’m pretty sure the male graduates didn’t hear – but I had my own business cards less than six months after graduating, and while the workforce was an up-and-down place, especially after I had a baby, there was never any time where I felt that I’d made a mistake that was going to doom me for life. Having earned that degree put me on a completely different path than those who don’t, and every time I log onto Facebook and check the statuses of the people I went to school with, there’s a bright red line separating those of us who had college degrees four years after we graduated high school, and those of us who did not.

Today’s young adults cannot say the same. And that’s why the “big kid/big problem” looms so ominously. Never before has each misstep made by a teenager seemed so consequential. Twenty years ago, if a kid overslept and missed an interview for an internship, it was no big deal. Today, it seems that each opportunity is so rare and so important, oversleeping or a flat tire or a just plain bad interview will ensure that the kid spends the rest of his life in your basement, working at McDonald’s and giving you some illegitimate grandchildren.

Sociologists say that this generation of young adults, currently in college and freshly graduated, is the first one who will not do better than their parents. Is there anything more ironic? My generation of parents is the helicopter parent generation. We quit our jobs to make sure someone was available to drive them to soccer practice; we argued with their math teachers over how homework was graded; we hired tutors to help them write college essays and we gave them a pass on the after-school jobs we were required to take so they could play sports or volunteer or do something that looked better on their college applications than scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. And now it seems that all this helicoptering has been for naught; that in fact it may have boomeranged right back on us just like our children have, by teaching them that a door is too hard to open if we are not there to open it for them.

My parents were not helicopter parents; they had their own lives and pretty much left me alone to figure out mine. But in one respect, my father was a better helicopter parent than I’ve been so far. I ended up majoring in his profession, and he got me my first job out of college. That job led to my second, which led to my third, which ended up with me having an impressive career until my husband’s winner-take-all position led me to chose between my own job and my child. Because of that, I am not in a position to help him get his first job, even though he’s interested in similar work. If I had stayed, rather than quitting in order to take better care of him, I’d be in a much better position to help him secure that all-important first job. Instead, all I can do is offer ideas and nag.

I don’t know whether it’s the helicopter parenting that made our kids unable to get a professional job out of college (I hear horror stories sometimes about parents accompanying their kids to job interviews or calling their kids’ bosses) or it’s just a bad economy in which companies aren’t hiring because they don’t have to – their exempt workers are putting in 60-hour weeks and Republicans are kindly working to abolish overtime for those who are non-exempt. But the result is the same – college graduates who can’t get a job better than working reception at the local gym; taking out huge loans for a graduate-level degree that won’t guarantee a job either… and the government accepting that this is the new normal by requiring health insurance companies to keep “kids” on their parents’ policies till they are 26. When I was 26, I was married, had a full-time professional job, a house and a baby.

The irony of Mother’s Day is that it’s the one day where Mom is supposed to be pampered, in recognition of the 364 other days of the year when she’s busting her butt taking care of other people. We do this as an investment in the future – we work for our kids so they’ll be hard-working, successful, professional adults who’ll someday give us grandchildren to coo over and babysit occasionally. But now the future looks disturbingly like the present, except that instead of cute 7-year-olds watching TV on the couch, it’ll be not-so-cute 27-year-olds who are there, waiting for dinner while they play their videogames, wondering what happened to the 17-year-old who graduated high school with honors and matriculated to the college of his dreams. As for the parents, the “Mother’s Day Hangover” could last just as long as active motherho

Monday, May 6, 2013

What Good Writers Can Learn From Bad Writing

Before we are writers, we are readers. From our earliest days in school, the written word is an important part of the curriculum. In kindergarten we start with classics such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” As grade school continues, we are taught to write paragraphs that start with a topic sentence, include two-to-three supporting sentences, and then finish with the concluding sentence. At the same time, we are taught books that have won prestigious awards. When I was in school in the 1970s, it was “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Up a Road Slowly,” “My Side of the Mountain.” My son, in grade school in the 2000s, read books like “The View from Saturday,” “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” Both of us, in high school, read some of the same books despite the 25 year age difference between us: “Lord of the Flies,” “The Great Gatsby.” The writing instruction expands to research papers – we are taught to create a thesis, cite research to support our arguments, and write a compelling conclusion. Many of these papers are written about these books, talking about the symbolism of certain blinking lights or talking pig heads. We are taught to dissect the language, the metaphors, the overall meaning of these great books.

Yet, what these books do not teach us is how to be a great writer – or even a good one. Most K-12 English classes have their students write essays. Maybe there’s an occasional short story, but the concentration is more on understanding what makes a great book great – not how to create a great book yourself. In college, only students who major in English or creative writing might have the opportunity to take such classes.

As an adult, I read many books on fiction and took lots of classes in order to make myself a better writer. These classes rarely use passages from great books; rather, there’s a lot of generalized instruction on how to build a character or establish a setting. Some of these books might also offer suggestions on traps to avoid, but without being exposed to them (Hemingway, for instance, didn’t have such problems), how does a writer know what they look like?

I’ve spent the past year reviewing books for, many of which had been self-published. While several of these books had problems so deep that the site ended up not publishing the review, reading these books was as much an education for me as the classics. A book on writing fiction may advise the writer to avoid episodic storytelling, for example, but until I read a novel that was a series of minor adventures rather than one all-encompassing story, I didn’t realize how that type of storytelling affected pacing and minimized the impact of the climax and conclusion.

Writers can learn just as much from bad writing as they can from good writing. Seeing other people’s mistakes in action is the best way to see exactly what those mistakes look like, and the best way to avoid making these mistakes yourself.

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to read books lacking conflict, overloaded with back story, featuring protagonists who were absolutely flawless, uneven tone, and unrealistic love interests. I consider myself lucky because seeing (or reading) these problems in action illustrated them for me in a way that just reading about them on a check list cannot do.

Does this guarantee I won’t make the same mistakes in my writing? Of course not. Does it guarantee that I won’t make different, perhaps even exotic errors with my current WIP? Absolutely not. No books are flawless, and the writing process is fundamentally different than the reading and editing processes. But I do think that having read such books make me more aware from the beginning of how these mistakes play out, and what to avoid from a plot and character standpoint.

So the next time you check out an interesting book only to discover loads of bad reviews, consider downloading it anyway. Reading it may not be all that entertaining, but it could be instructive.