After a bit of a hiatus, I’m doing yet another video blog. This one is for the writers in the house! I’ve written all kinds of stuff (movies, books, tv pilots, articles, reviews, etc.) and these are just some thoughts that have been rattling in my head for a while. Hopefully it’s helpful to some other writer out there!
Writing a novel is a marathon. It takes months, if not years. You have to be in it for the long haul.
You have to train for a marathon. If you want to run a marathon you have to gradually build up to it with shorter runs at first. Gradually, inexorably, you find the skill and endurance to persevere. To keep going.
You have to train for a novel. You have to write, and write, and edit, and rewrite. The long form of storytelling will ruin and exhaust a novice. You’ve got to build up to it.
Too many marathons will ruin you. Your body will fall apart. Joints and bones will give up after repetitive pounding against concrete. You can’t run a marathon all the time. But you don’t have to stop running.
You can sprint.
There is freedom in the sprint – the freedom of laying it all on the line in short bursts. No time for boredom. No time to think of giving up. Just go.
Novelists need to sprint sometimes too. Write a short story. Write a screenplay (which, in comparison to a novel, is a pretty short endeavor). Give yourself time to recover and do something that is joyously brief.
My poor, lonely blog has been neglected for a while. It’s largely because I’ve been focused on finishing my new screenplay, thinking about what I’m going to do with my latest novel, and the usual various tasks that a man in his 30s has to take care of. Ironically, I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to write in the blog.
But, in a way, that’s a good thing because it shows that I’m so absorbed in my work that few outside forces can take me away from it. I’ve had an incredible run of creativity over the last 6 months and I’ve finally produced some stories that were percolating in the back of my mind for years, and others that were totally new ideas I didn’t even know I had in me. It’s fulfilling work, more fulfilling than all of my other accomplishments.
That’s why I keep doing it. It’s lonely, not financially stable, oftentimes frustrating, and sometimes humbling work. But it’s the only thing that really makes me feel alive.
So I keep writing.
I’ve started writing movie scripts. My first one is basically complete, and currently undergoing edits. I’m in that special “gratification” phase between “I’ll never finish” and “everything I wrote is crap and I don’t know why I’m doing this”. Needless to say, I’m enjoying the gratification while it lasts.
But, as a novelist, I have to say I enjoyed writing a full length story in a month. Novels are long, laborious works of love and sweat and pain and joy. But the screenplay thing is quick in comparison, and an exciting process from beginning to end. I am 100% sure that this is because I’ve spent so many years crafting stories in long form. Somebody just starting out in screenwriting would probably find it very challenging. It’s all relative.
For me, screenplays are an outlet for the stories I’ve had in my head for years, but they weren’t quite right for a book. Sometimes I think of stories that are rich in visuals, audio, and sight gags…and it’s quite difficult to pull those off in prose. But with the screenplay I can paint with images, and that’s creatively liberating.
A while ago I stumbled upon an excellent excerpt/article from Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read (Vintage Original). It talks about how the best novels are often very vague about physical descriptions of their characters, leaving the reader’s imagination to subconcsiously fill in the blanks.
From the excerpt:
Good books incite us to imagine — to fill in an author’s suggestions. Without this personalized, co-creative act, you are simply told: This is your Anna.
It really got me thinking about how I describe my own physical characters. I often leave a lot to the imagination and just drop a teeny hint about their appearance every now and then, but I have to say in my current book I was a little more cognizant of how readers “fill in the blanks” after I read this piece.
I’m still working on finishing the first two books in my new science/magic series. Various life events have slowed down the progress, but I’m getting there. It’s happening. Light at the end of the tunnel, finish line ahead, *insert additional completion metaphor*
But some days, the words just don’t come out. One of my favorite writers (me) once said, “Some days the words flow like a mighty river. Some days they’re as slow as molasses.”
I used to struggle in times like that because 99% of the time I really tried to make whatever I wrote worthy of being published, even if it was just written during a draft. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with reaching my daily writing quota if I knew what I wrote was just going to get tossed the next day. I still feel that way most of the time, but I’ve also begun to embrace an idea that helps me get those days when the words just aren’t there…
Sometimes you have to write crap.
There’s one big benefit to writing crap: at least you know what doesn’t work. And another, smaller, benefit is that sometimes that pile of crap you just excreted out of your mind has some valuable seeds in it, and those seeds can grow into beautiful ideas worthy of putting in your finished work.
Various life events have been slowing down my writing and social network posts, but I somehow found a moment to write this here blog post. So, to make the best of the time I have before my mind insists I attend to one of the dozen other pressing matters I have to attend to, I’m going tell you about a scene in the novel I’m currently writing.
I don’t often write love stories, but when I do, I make them complicated. Writers have to speak from their own perspectives, after all, and I’ve never felt that love was a simple thing. It’s a messy affair that isn’t at all like the Disney tales made it out to be. I find myself drawn to stories of love that allllmost worked out, but tragically failed for some reason.
I’m writing such a story now. Two characters are slowly discovering feelings for each other, but circumstances keep them from having a real relationship. They’re two lonely people with an inexplicable attraction for one another, but nothing can come of it. The only thing that eases the pain is the promise of a brighter future when their work is done, and they can finally have the time to be vulnerable. Because that’s what love is about at its core: vulnerability. Chuck Palahniuk wrote, “The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open”, and that’s the problem my characters face. They can’t risk that vulnerability. Not now. Not until they finish saving the world.
Then, maybe, they can find time to love.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t drive. I’ve got nothing personal against cars. I just feel that driving isn’t for me. Although I do make use of Uber/Lyft services to get around Los Angeles in a pinch, most of the time I just ride a bus or a train. I’ve made this work for years with minimal hassle (contrary to popular belief, LA does have a wide range of public transit options if you know how to use them and aren’t in a hurry).
There are many reasons why I ride buses and trains. It’s more economical, better for the environment, and it contributes to my nearly stress-free life. But, as a writer, there are a couple of bigger reasons why I prefer to let someone else do the driving.
The first one is a big one: since I’m not driving I can spend the whole trip reading. This is a huge benefit for me since on any given day I have about a dozen different things to do and finding reading time can be tough. Good writers must be good readers and, although I prefer to get cozy with a book in the comfort of my home, if I’m looking for a new book to read I often read the sample chapters on the bus via my Kindle app. Bus rides can take a while (especially in LA traffic), so it’s an excellent and productive use of my time.
The second reason I think writers in particular should use public transit is this: people watching.
The public transit systems of America’s big cities are like a mish-mash of all sorts of people. Here in LA, I’ve ridden the bus through Beverly Hills with rich housewives carrying their newly purchased Prada bags, and on the very same bus there’s a guy who washes dishes at a local restaurant who just ended his shift. The bus patrons here come in all shapes, ages, races, orientations, and religions. As the bus rolls through each of LA’s many varied neighborhoods, the demographics of the riders shifts accordingly. From the shiny happy people riding to the sun and sand of Santa Monica, to the dirty and desperate dudes in downtown, you’ll see every kind of flavor that LA has to offer. And each person has their own little story. Sometimes I strike up a casual chat with folks, but most of the time I just listen and watch. For a writer, this environment is like a gold mine full of fat shiny nuggets you don’t even have to dig for.
Writing good stories requires an intimate understanding of people, and not just one type of person. A writer’s stories must be filled with rich characters with rich histories and personalities. The best research environment for this, in my opinion, is a city bus on an ordinary day. A bus ride brings the world to you, as you roll down city streets and people from all walks of life hop on, sit down, and become passive passengers on a metal behemoth barreling through the urban landscape.
Now, inevitably when I mention my bus-riding ways someone will bring up their distaste of potentially having to ride with one or more homeless people. I totally understand that. I’ve never had any serious issues with transients on transit, but there have been numerous instances where they created an inconvenience. It’s unpleasant, sure. But it’s life. It’s reality. And these people, living on the lowest rung of the social ladder, can give you a hard and honest view of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. That is also an asset for us writers. We use lies to tell the truth, we use facts to enhance fiction, and we can’t do that completely unless we expose ourselves to the unpleasant parts of life, even if it’s just a little bit.
So if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, I think you should catch the bus sometime. One way or another, it’ll be an experience.
Writing a novel is sometimes tedious, so it helps to have your characters become the most interesting people you know.
I’m going through the next-to-last editing phase of my book and it’s tough. It’s hard to find the focus to write after dealing with all the varied difficulties of life like work, friends, bills, and laundry (yes laundry, it’s easy to forget about it).
Then there’s the writer’s worse enemy: doubt. Doubt that all this effort is even worth anything. It’s easy to start questioning what you’re doing when you sit down and start thinking you’ve got more pressing matters to tend to. That doubt can kill all your creativity.
BUT, none of that matters if the world you are creating is a place you want to spend time in, and that place is filled with the most interesting people you can imagine. In those trying and tedious times spent at the desk, those characters become the best kinds of friends, and guides to fantastical adventures.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I used to write Harry Potter fan fiction.
In fact my first completed novel-length work was my own rendition of HP Book 6. This was years ago, in that long span of time between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince. I really liked Rowling’s writing style and I needed some practice on my writing. I also needed a community that was ready and willing to provide feedback in bunches. Fanfiction was the answer.
Two years is a long time to wait for the next installment of a series you love. So I, like many other writers, filled the time by coming up with my own stories to fill the void. It was entertainment for me, and practice. I picked up where Rowling left off and inserted my own original characters, ideas, histories, and spells – all while attempting to mimic Rowling’s writing style (and writing in someone else’s world isn’t easy). My goal was to write a book that people could actually believe was the sixth book in the series. My dream job at the time was to get a gig writing in the Star Wars expanded universe (yes, I am that huge of a geek) so I figured this would be good practice. Writing for an existing commercial series is essentially just fan fiction you get paid for, after all.
My fanfiction was quite an educational endeavor. The Harry Potter fans are rabid and at times pedantic. They were the best critics I could have had at that point in my nascent writing career. They kept me focused, and for the first time I felt the joy that comes with people enjoying stories I wrote (even if I was playing in someone else’s world).
Now I write my own novels, and I do some freelance writing on the side. But my time as a fanfiction author definitely helped me become the writer I am today, and I think that’s true of many ambitious writers in this day and age. I recall, years after I left fanfiction, that a writer on the site I used to post on got a book deal with a $500,000 advance.
So why am I talking about fanfiction now? There has been a lot of chatter about the recent crazy trend of Twilight fanfiction stories getting major book deals. The Fifty Shades of Gray series started this trend, and now a new series by Sylvain Reynard reportedly earned a SEVEN FIGURE BOOK deal. Both book series started out as Twilight fanfiction and, after necessary tweaks and edits to avoid copyright infringement, became huge bestsellers on their own right. Fanfiction authors, long considered the oddest of the odd writers, are suddenly getting financial validation. I just wish the industry supported something better than those Twilight books -_-