Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Perfect Place

When I was in college, I took 18 credits and worked 3 jobs, leaving little to no time for writing. Homework and fiction were done any chance I got: on the train, on lunch hours, at the laundromat or standing in line at the grocery store. Now that I'm out of school and only work two jobs (writer and swim instructor), my schedule is more flexible and my workspace is more ideal.

But the more time I have, the more picky I am about how, where and when I write. Before, I grabbed any free moment, no matter where I was, but now, if my workspace is not ideal, I find myself less productive. When I'm working on the first draft, in that place where I'm imagining and creating, I find myself drawn to the local cafes and diners, someplace that's quiet, but not too quiet. I prefer working on my Alphasmart or handwriting, finding that the words come more freely without the daunting blank screen or the little red squiggly lines from the spell check. When I'm editing, like now, I'm glued to my dining room table with my laptop, a pot of freshly brewed coffee by my side. Reading is done in the comfy black chair in the living room with a bowl of M&M's or trail mix. I write first thing in the morning and read in the afternoon, knowing that I become less productive as the day moves on.

Writing isn't like any other job: it works the creative part of the brain, the imagination, something that most people can't just "turn on". I've heard so many writers say that they "wait for inspiration", but if you want to make a career as a writer, you don't have time to wait. It's not really about forcing yourself to be creative, it's about training yourself to turn it on on a regular basis. To many, my need to write in a certain environment in a certain time of day is just a manifestation of my extreme neurosis or OCD tendencies. But to me, it acts as a trigger, a signal to my brain that it is time to write, time to create.

The big problem I tend to have is what happens when the work conditions aren't ideal. If I need to run an errand in the morning or go into work, I find it difficult to get my writing done later in the day. I have to remind myself that it's mostly psychological, that just because it's later doesn't mean the day is lost. The work still needs to be done. Everyone talks about how good it is to have a writing routine, but seldom do they mention how difficult it is to be effective when the routine is broken. I still sit in front of the computer or head to the cafe down the street, but the words tend to be labored and don't flow like they do when I'm on schedule.

Enough about my neurosis. What about yours? Do you have a chair, a food, a writing utensil that you absolutely "have to have" in order to write effectively? Are the rituals purely psychological or is it true that you write better when everything is just so?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex

That's right, you heard me. No matter what the genre, (well maybe not in children's or young adult novels), there's a good chance two of the characters will, at some point, hook up. The question is, when two characters have sex, do you shut the door or leave it wide open for the world to see?

Barry Eisler addressed this issue in a recent interview:
"Mostly I prefer more of the full monty approach, driven as I am by my enduring inner 14-year-old. But here's the right rule of thumb, I think, at least when your inner 14-year-old isn't calling the shots: does it only matter *that* the characters had sex? Or does it matter *how* they had sex? If the only thing that matters is the fact of the sex itself, showing it is unnecessary and will add nothing to the story. But if the way the characters make love is what matters in the story, then not only should you show it, you actually have to show it, or the story will suffer."

I think he has the right approach. Deciding whether or not to include a sex scene should be like deciding whether or not to include any other scene in the book. You should ask yourself: What is this doing for the overall story? How is it helping push the main plot line forward? Is it necessary?

When I was working on my first book, I kind of dodged the bullet when writing about sex. Mayah wasn't in a relationship, wasn't dating, wasn't too concerned with men. There was no sex to be had. But in Street Walk, the main character is a reformed prostitute and the villain is a former john. Sex scenes are inevitable. And admittedly, despite my inner 14-year-old, they were some of the most difficult scenes to write, let alone read aloud. I will never forget how I blushed reading my opening chapter to the critique group. I kept having to stop, take a sip of water, and apologize before continuing. Not to mention when my 85-year-old grandmother read my first three chapters and I had to warn her about twenty times that they weren't exactly PG material. But like Barry says, "You have to show it or the story will suffer."

If I look to my favorite mysteries and thrillers, most, if not all, of them include some sort of sex, love, or seduction. I attribute that in part to my love of hard-boiled mysteries and my aversion to Cozies, but a lot of it has to do with the characters. Love tends to raise the stakes. Take an author like Elmore Leonard. In almost all of his novels he has the protagonist either going after a girl, in love with the wrong girl, getting screwed over by that girl, etc. Love tends to be blind and makes a person do crazy things, and Leonard utilizes that fact in his books.

As a reader, I can do with or without the sex, it's not that important to me. What I do love in novels is the seduction, the lust, the characters' emotions which drive and often steer their actions. Better yet, I love when the object of desire uses a character's feelings to manipulate those actions. But often times, like when I'm reading romantic suspense, I find the sex scenes jarring, unnecessary. I want to scream at the characters, "Get out of bed! Go find the killer!"
But by sticking with Barry's method, asking if "the way" the characters have sex is necessary to the story, that situation can be avoided. How much to show or not show solely depends on the tone of the book and the type of story you're writing. Put sex in a Cozy and you'll be crucified. Same goes for omitting it in a Romance novel. But in crime fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction, it's more of a gray area. Sometimes you need to shut the door and leave it up to the reader's imagination, other times you have to show the reader everything, let them feel the passion and smell the sweat.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

In Search of Chuck

I am a die-hard Chuck Palahniuk fan. The guy is a genius. He writes the kinds of books I wish I could create. Unfortunately, it seems that thousands of Chicagoans feel the same way. When I heard that he was going to be at the Borders downtown, I anticipated a large turnout and left two hours early, but that still wasn't enough time to beat the traffic. By the time I got there, they weren't letting anyone else into the presentation and the line to get books signed was weaving throughout the store. Frustrated and disappointed, I went to the back of the line and had a seat. I was going to be there for a while.

After finishing the novel I had brought to read, chatting with the weirdo teenagers standing behind me, and perusing the merchandise in the aisle where I was waiting (I happened to be stationed in the Contemporary Christian section and it truly scared me how big the section was), I was beginning to get bored. The reading started at 7pm. It was 10pm and the line had barely moved. Over the loud speaker, the Borders employee announced that Chuck was willing to stay until way after midnight so everyone could get a book signed. While that demonstrated dedication to his fans, I had no intention of standing in line way past midnight, so in an effort to make his night shorter (and mine) I left without getting my book signed and meeting my true literary hero.

Even though it was an ultimately disappointing evening, it was sort of eye opening as well. I have gone to hundreds of signings and author appearances and none had a crowd like this one. First of all, I think I may have been the oldest in the room. Second, I was the most normal looking. Yes, me with the piercings and tattoos felt like a total straight edge. And last, the crowd was rowdier here than any signing I had ever been too, maybe even rowdier than some rock concerts. One guy actually got kicked out for being drunk and had to be escorted out of the store by an elderly Borders manager.
But probably the most surprising thing, was that the crowd disproved many of my stereotypes about the average reader. When I told people at my job, most of whom are around my age, I was going to see Chuck Palahniuk, they responded with blank stares and confused expressions. When I told them that he wrote Fight Club, there was immediate recognition along with the expected, "I love that movie." I always assumed that readers were a minority in my generation, that we are a group which thrives on instant gratification through movies and television. But here were these high school and college age students with stacks of books in hand, willing to wait hours and hours just to meet the author they admire. It was extremely reassuring.
Of course, this is not the norm. Most of the signings I've been to were only attended by a small handful of people. And although every author dreams of being in a situation like Palahniuk, in a way, that is the way I like it. Authors are accessible people. You can see them, talk to them, unlike celebrities in the film and music industries. I can go up to them, shake their hand, and tell them how much I enjoy their writing. Once, I wanted to get Michael Chabon to sign a first edition I bought for Nicole, so I just e-mailed him and he told me to send it over and he'd be happy to sign it. I've met Dennis Lehane at a couple of events and we had a drink and talked about writing. This is a large part of the reason my passion for fiction is so much stronger than my love of movies or music. There is a person behind each word, each page, and after I read a book, I can meet that person face to face and see who it was that told me such a wonderful story.
I have two favorite authors: Chuck Palaniuk and Kurt Vonnegut. I never had the chance to meet Vonnegut. I'm not going to make the same mistake with Chuck. So next time, I'll arrive four hours early and wait with the dyed hair, black make-up wearing freaks. And in a weird, sick way, the wait will be worth it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Speak into the Mic

My cousin (another Columbia kid) had one of his films chosen for the Humboldt Park film festival, so last night the whole family went to the big premiere. It was a small screening room with only a handful of people, but my cousin couldn't have been more excited. And with good reason; his 15 minute film was fantastic. He blew the other shorts out of the water.

During the film, I looked back at him and saw the excitement smeared across his face. Here was his film, being played to a roomful of people (not just family members or classmates), the project he's been working on all semester, finally released to the public. It may not be the Landmark Cinema, but it's a start.

It reminded me of the first time I read in front of an audience. Columbia College was big on having their students read, wanting them to get used to reading aloud in front of an audience. My hands were trembling, my heart was racing, but to have a bunch of people listen to my work, if only for a minute, was truly thrilling.

I know many authors who hate to read their work aloud. I've seen many get in front of that microphone, take one look at the audience and panic. Others, including myself, can't get enough of it. I don't think it's an ego thing. The work sits on my computer, these pieces of fiction that I've worked so hard on creating, and I finally get a chance to share them with the world (or just a group of creative writing students).

But when you're published, whether it's a book or a short story in a literary magazine, chances are, someone is going to want you to read, and if you've never done it before, it can be a nerve-racking thing. My advice? Read wherever and whenever you can. Practice being in front of the microphone. Even if the work is not finished, it can be a highly effective form of critique to read a work in progress in front of an audience. Do they laugh at the right places? Do they seem interested? Are their eyes glazing over?

Don't know where to read? If you're in Chicago, here are a few places to check out:
Twilight Tales - Weekly readings, lots of open mics, mostly crime fiction and dark fantasy
Reading Under the Influence - Monthly reading, must submit in person the previous month, 750 words or less, the perfect combination of drinking, fiction, and trivia. Not to mention great prizes!
Kate The Great's Book Emporium - Frequent readings on various themes, some open mics, but you can submit to be a featured reader.
Tamale Hut Cafe - Readings every second Tuesday of the month, mostly open mics.

Those are the main ones that are on my radar, but please, comment with your favorite places to read, in Chicago or elsewhere.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Choose Your Own Wiki

A friend of mine just launched this super-fun website called, Choose Your Own Wiki. It's like those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, except online and, well, you write it. They have two stories already started and you just add to whatever chapter you want. It gets kind of addicting...

In an effort to beef up their content, the first person to publish 50 meaningful chapters will get their own story start, so get to writing!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Requested Retraction

On behalf of my girlfriend, Nicole, I would like to print a retraction for my post Switching Teams. She says:

"I think you got it a little wrong. I am a VERY loyal reader. I still bought Chabon's book. I still intend to read it. Just b/c I am not happy with his move to the 'other side' as you put it, does not mean I would abandon him!!!! "

She also expressed concern that Michael Chabon would read my blog and think that she was a total bitch. So Chabon, if you're out there, Nicole is not a bitch and is truly your number one fan. In fact, she's taking off work so she can come see you when you appear in Chicago.

And I'm also sure she would like me to say that any author would be lucky to have her as a reader. If you're her favorite author (and she has many) not only will she read every book you've ever written, but even if she doesn't like a few, she'll still pretend that she enjoyed it.

Anything else, honey?

What's in a name?

I've never been good at titles. They just don't come easy to me. Since I've only written a few novels, I haven't found out if practice really does make perfect. When my friend Marcus told me that he needed a new title for his second book, I wanted nothing more than to help him. I sat for few hours, brainstorming, flipping through pages of quotes, scrolling through books on Amazon, but nothing came. The fact is, I liked his original title, even if his publisher didn't, and it was hard for me to think of his book by any other name.

The other day, I had coffee with another writing friend and, as always, I asked him what he was reading. "That Harlan Coben book," he replied, "The Innocent? Innocence? I always forget the names of books!"

So it got me thinking. How important are titles? Publishers seem to think very. But what about readers? Personally, I have never bought a book or picked it off the shelves simply because it had a gripping title. In fact, I've bought quite a few books despite the title because of a review I read or a friend's recommendation. Is it just me? Is the title of a book a real deciding factor for most people?

In his blog, Marcus writes:

"Despite the lesson we're taught in childhood, people do judge books by their covers--and their titles. And why not? First impressions matter. And where a cover design assumes the reader is holding the book, and can flip it over to read blurbs and a summary, a title has to stand on its own. It has to be memorable and suggestive, with the right balance of poetry and punch..."

I agree that a good title resonates long after I read a review or hear it mentioned at a party. Titles like "Please Kill Me" or "Be Cool" draw you in immediately. Others, like "Positively Fifth Street" or "Hairstyles of the Damned" are suggestive, give you a flavor of the book before you even read the back cover. But do they truly make or break the sale? After all, I bought "Welcome to Temptation" and "Faking It" despite the pastel covers and suggestive titles (both excellent reads by the way).

The conclusion I seem to be drawing is that while a bad title doesn't necessarily break a book, a good title can certainly make it, so why not spend time developing the best title possible? And there must be something to it if publishers and booksellers are so concerned about it. However, for newbie novelists such as myself, the top priority should be writing the best book possible. Don't spend so much time dreaming up the most perfect, poetic, resonating title. After all, isn't the publisher going to want to change it anyway?

I'd love to hear people's opinions on this. Are there books out there that you bought just because of the title? Do you even remember titles? When it comes to book buying, what's in a name?