Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nose Kisses

My wife asked me recently what my New Year's Resolutions for this year would be. I thought for a moment, then I said, "My resolution is to make no New Year's resolutions." She laughed and answered, "Why did I know you would say that?"

But what does it mean when your list of New Year's Resolutions is the same year after year? At what point does it cross over from being a list of hopeful resolutions to being a list of missed opportunities? Who needs to start off a year like that?

Still, I'll say this: I can't wait to close the door on 2008. I'm sick of the headlines. I'm battered by the worry and heartache that has settled into some households as they watch their carefully tended finances blown apart. I'm frustrated by teenagers and their half-formed brains. And I'm exhausted by the endless struggle to stay upright and pushing ahead in the face of mammoth uncertainty. I would like to be clever, but here is the simple truth: I'm staggering across the finish line this year.

And yet ... just as I was typing this, my 3-year-old ran into the room with his plastic camera. 

"I want to take a picture of your cute face while you're typing on the computer," he said. 

So I grinned and he said "Click!"

Then I kissed his nose and he said, "Did you just kiss my nose?" 

Then he kissed my nose.

So maybe I take it back. Maybe I will make a resolution this year: more nose kisses.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Hunger Games ... Read This Book!

Ah, how nice. I've been slogging my way through a certain Victorian social novel the last few months. I'm not one to shy away from "hard" books, but I've got to admit this thing is killing me. I happen to love the author, and another of his books ranks second among my all-time favorite books. This one? Not so much. (Ten points if you can figure out the book from these hints ... ready, set, go!)

So imagine my relief when I got my hands on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I'm not going to bother reviewing the book here. If you want a review, it's been written up in both the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, as well a starred Kirkus Review and a billion other places. They say it is The Next Big Thing.

And, boy oh boy, did I like it. I burned through it. It's compulsively readable. The pacing is just impeccable. It's YA, more on the adult side than the young side, and this book features all of the qualities I want to see in good YA lit. It's spare and slick, the characters are refreshingly three-dimensional (when they're not trying to kill each other), and buried way down in all that action there is an allegory that directly speaks to the world we're raising our children in.

I read a lot of MG and YA ... I think it's a good idea to know what's going on in the genre you're trying to sell into. And this is the best YA book I've read since the end of a Certain Series That Shall Not Be Named. We all know how the book industry is going to hell in a handbasket, so if you know any kids at all and you're looking to buy them something (pssst, Christmas is coming!), kill a tree and save our industry. 

Buy The Hunger Games.

Friday, December 19, 2008

So. Not. Feeling. It.

Here it is. 10 a.m. I'm still futzing around. I just spent 45 minutes reading a string of blog comments on a blog I don't even like. Then I wondered for a few moments what the rabid right wing thought of the auto bailout package (not happy, in case you were wondering). And now here I am, blogging.

Today is the Friday before Christmas, and I am not feeling this at all. I don't wanna write today. I don't wanna chase down interviews. I don't wanna work on a revision for a novel that's to go out on submission in January. I don't wanna do anything other than read a little, plan a few meals, maybe buy a gift. 

I just don't wanna be a writer today.

This is a problem, because I really and truly don't have a choice. First off, I have to write to eat. It's a simple exchange. Words equal food. Food equals life. Life is good. Second, I have very definite things I want to accomplish over the coming weeks, months and year. I have a little post-it stuck above my computer that admonishes me to write a certain kind of book (dripping with awesomeness) by a certain birthday (forty). Third, and at least for today most importantly, I have editors who are expecting me to hit deadlines ... which takes me back to point one about writing and food.

I never had much use for the art-house approach to writing. I'm a butt-in-chair, grind-it-out kind of guy. When I'm writing fiction, it's 1,000 words a day, every day, seven days a week. And when I'm on deadline, I'm pretty sure my editors don't much care if I feel the urge to don a beret, smoke brown cigarettes and discuss Sartre. They just want the words, greedy monkeys that they are.

No, I'm much more from the brick-layer school of writing. To me, it's a trade. Like any other trade, some days you're feeling it. Some days you're not. But you've got to do it either way because ... well, because the only way to achieve any success as a writer is to actually write. So there it is. 

Now I'm off to grind out as many words as my poor fingers can muster ... Wish me luck. And good luck to you, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Essential Reading

Pretty much every day starts the same for me. I wake up, log on and read the Washington Post's front page. I like to know what kind of day I'm looking at. From there, it's a quick stroll through the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Slate, the Politico, and then onto a few blogs. Then I go make breakfast.

At night, it's novel time. I read pretty much every night. I've been working my way through Bleak House lately, but it's been interrupted by Lao Tzu, The Hunger Games, and even some Roald Dahl. 

As a reader, this is my essential reading. As a writer, I'm always wondering how people pick their essential reading. This is an important question, especially in an age when certain kinds of reading (novels, mainly) have been losing cultural relevance. This kind of sucks for those of us who write novels--no matter how we publish them, if at all--but there is an opportunity buried in this challenge somewhere. The writer who can figure out how to become essential reading is woven into the moment. 

Obviously, there's no answer to this. It can't be planned. But what do you think? What makes a novelist essential?


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chicken Feet

So I'm in the grocery store the other day, and I noticed something strange: next to the chicken hearts, there was a whole rack of chicken feet. I showed them to my wife, who made a blech face and told me to quit fooling around in the poultry case.

I was curious, though. I'm at least a moderately serious home cook, but I was stumped by the chicken feet. What do people do with chicken feet? There didn't look to be hardly any meat on them on at all, and they're not even a little pretty. Can you fry the little buggers? Make soup with them? 

But it got me thinking. I live in a very ethnically diverse, semi-urbanized area. The Brazilians who live all around me love the grilled chickens hearts, and I'm guessing the chicken feet are Caribbean or at least South American. And then I started thinking about all the mysterious homes in my immediate neighborhood, places were someone can show up with a package of chicken feet and it doesn't even raise an eyebrow. What's going on behind all those doors? How do these people live? Besides shopping at my grocery store, where do they eat? Where do they worship? Dance and sing? Hang out? What do they read? How do they experience living in my neighborhood, with its mix of rich and poor, urban and suburban, ethnic markets and Starbucks?

I've always been an intensely curious person, which I think makes my job easier. I'm working on an 3,000-word article right now on avocados. Sounds awful, I know, but the truth is I'm actually kind of curious about avocados. Lord knows, I love the pulpy little guys, and I know my neighbor grows enormous avocados. There must be a story there. I'm going to try to find it.

And that's really what writing is about to me: there are so many amazing stories out there, and each one matters to the people involved in it. For a lot of people, writing is strictly about themselves. And I guess that's fine. I mean, it certainly worked for Elizabeth Gilbert, who produced a whole love letter to herself and sold ten gazillion copies of it. But for me, writing has always been about digging in someone else's garden. I can't tell you how exciting it is when I'm in the middle of an interview and I realize there's a good story there.

In fact, this has been a problem ... for anyone who knows me, you'll know it's been a challenge for me to open up on paper. I was trained to be a conduit for other people, to keep myself hidden. This doesn't work in fiction. But that's a different post.

For now, I'm still wondering about the chicken feet. And no doubt, at some point in the near future, I'll look it up. And if it sounds good, you can bet we'll be eating chicken-feet-whatever around here one night ... 

Monday, December 15, 2008

You Suck VanZile

I used to write this newspaper column in college. It wasn't very good, and I wasn't a very good newspaper columnist. But it had its moments ... and this was one of them. The administration at my college was considering banning kegs for students at tailgates. Naturally, I was outraged. So I wrote a column about how students should protest by, um, overindulging and leaving a gastrointestinal deposit on the administration building's steps. Yes, I know it was juvenile and stupid, but here's the good part. I was walking down a street after it got published and I passed a house full of guys. You know, like ten guys hanging out on the front porch with a keg. One of them saw me on the street and yelled, "DUDE! It's ... that GUY! That guy from the paper! Are you really that guy!" 

Indeed, I was. 

"C'mon, man," he said. "You've gotta do a keg stand with us!"

So I did. 

Keep in mind, it was early afternoon and I was on my way to work or something. But this was a unique moment ... the first time I'd ever been recognized for my writing alone, just from a picture. And I admit it: it RULED. I happily did my keg stand, I signed copy of the newspaper, and I went on my way. 

Not one to let lessons escape me, I did learn something from those drunken frat boys: judgment can be nice, and at least in the beginning, we should cling to those moments. 

Here's my thinking: any piker worth a bucket of spit in this business can withstand gales of rejection, but can you withstand judgment? And I mean the ugly kind ... the public, brutal, snarky and personal kind? As in, "You suck VanZile."

Back to another memory ... I was in eighth grade. It was a big dance, and breakdancing was big at the time. So I practiced my worm and my spinning at home on the wood floor for weeks and weeks. The night of the dance, I decided to bust out my very own rockin' moves. A circle was formed. Jason B., the school's acknowledged best dancer, did his robot and popping thing. And then I went into the circle of light. Truthfully, I thought I was killing. My worm was sharp. I spun like a top. And then, out of the blackness, a flat voice reached me: "You suck VanZile."


So I got up and slunk from the circle, never to worm again.

And this is what publishing is like. If you can take that -- and come back for more -- then I think you've got a chance in this business. 

Set that Book Down!

So how long should you give a new book before you set it down? I gave Gravity's Rainbow more than 700 pages ... actually finished the dang thing before I admitted that reading it was like singing while submerged in a bath of gelatin. Other books, I've tried a few times, pushed on for a while, then set them down. And I hate setting books down. It feels like I'm somehow letting the universe down.

This is an important question because editors and agents are PAID to set books down. Their job is to read only long enough for the switch to flip. Then they can set it down without guilt or remorse and move on. 

For me, the key difference between a book I finish and a book I set down is purely voice. I can slog through ridiculous plots and bad characters if I just love the voice. On the contrary, if I hate the voice, the most well-researched plot won't matter at all. I try hard not to invite bad voices into my head.

This voice question is always an issue. I think you can develop all kinds of skills as a writer -- you can improve your grammar, your plots, your structure. But you just can't fake a voice. I'm sorry. You can't. Don't try, because it's only painful. And, really, this is a pretty quick calculation. I can usually tell within about 5 pages if I like this author's voice, sometimes much faster. If Gravity's Rainbow wasn't so much fun on the page, I would have run screaming from the room. But it was fun, and funny, and mordant, and smart and weird. So even if I KNEW I wasn't "getting it," I kept reading it because Pynchon's wicked awesome on paper.

I've heard before that you can develop voice by mimicking other writers (not just reading them, because that's not going deep enough). I realize now that I did this a lot when I was a kid. My first stories in grade school were about an extraterrestrial dragonfly from a planet called ... Narnia. Then there were years of J.R.R. Tolkein, and then Hemingway and on and on. So did this help create a voice, or would I write the same either way? I often wonder, if you were writing in Sanskrit or Arab or Kalahari, would you have the same voice? Or is voice impossible to divorce from language? 

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I will always believe that voice is the difference between a great writer and everyone else ...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Test of the Emergent Broadcast System

If you happen across this entry, I'm asking you to forgive a lot. First, forgive the lousy camera work. Second, forgive the lousy audio. And finally, forgive the palsy that seemed to affect my hand while I taped this. But I'm just testing to see if I can embed video on the blog (and I got a new camera to play with). This is my youngest son (in the green stripy shirt) at his Christmas pageant ... And ain't he cute (in real life, he's usually in much better focus).

Friday, December 12, 2008

When Grandpa's a Quack ...

Raise your hand if you believe books are forever ...

Sigh. I wish I was among you.

Everyone knows the publishing industry is in a recession. Big deal, right? So is everything else. It'll recover.

Perhaps. But my guess is we're at the leading edge of the end of books. If you don't believe me, look at newspapers already. At one time, believe it or not, EVERYONE read the newspaper. Today, people have voted with their mice and clearly indicated they prefer to get their news online and over the TV. Does anyone really believe in 500 years, we'll still be cutting down trees, processing them into paper, printing on them with ink, and then shipping these heavy packages all over the world, only to sell less than 50% of them?

So. A moment of mourning for the end of the Age of Gutenberg.

But there is a hugely bright side to all this. Storytelling will never die. Quite the opposite. I think it will flourish as we gain the means to tell ever more complex, ever more realistic and ever more interactive stories. Moreover, I don't think reading will ever die. Studies have shown the human brain is particularly suited to read and learn from words.

So the "book" of the future will likely resemble the Internet now, except it will be content rich and, most importantly, an open world. Imagine if your readers could start a journey and decide at any point to hop POV from one character to another, but all within the context of the same story. Imagine if you could hurtle toward your conclusion from 10 different places instead of one. Imagine if you could embed mini-stories within the larger context of the world and the main story.

In a way, this is already possible—and anyone who's ever been blown away by Grand Theft Auto knows what I'm talking about. Video games are incredible story devices. You don't just run around shooting stuff (although that's mighty fun), you LIVE IT. And in the open platform games, you can go anywhere, do anything, within the context of the created world.

And it's working! If I'm not mistaken, the video game industry is almost as large, if not larger, than the movie industry itself. It could fit all of print publishing in one joystick.

I used to resist this line of thinking. You know. I grew up on books. I love them. Some of my best memories as a child are reading. But as I learned more about the publishing industry, and watching what's happening now, it became clear it was a ridiculous and unsustainable business model. What kind of industry BEGS its distribution channels to overorder and then return half of its product?

So I'll always have books around. Sure. And my kids probably will, too. And their kids will probably think Grandpa is quaint for collecting those printy thingies. And their kids will probably think Great Grandpa is a quack. But when it comes to being a writer, I'm looking forward to the possibilities ...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I'm not what they call an early adopter. I still don't have a cell phone or a wireless connection. I have no idea how to Twitter, and honestly, it wasn't until this year that I started thinking online publishing was worth a damn. So this blog thing ... well, here's the deal: I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor. I work from a desk in my bedroom. My commute to work is literally less than three feet. On bad days, I might still be in my boxers at 6 p.m., unshowered, unshaved. And I tell you, it can be powerfully isolating.

But I'm not starting this blog today to talk about my fungal work habits. Instead, I'm beginning where pretty much everybody begins in this business ... rejection.

You see that lady up there? When I started out, I was pretty sure someone like her worked at every publishing company in the world. She was called the Rejector, and her job was to reject me. Over and over. Again and again. I used to keep a box of her rejections under my bed. I saved every single one. I figured it was for record-keeping or some such nonsense.

One day, I realized these hundreds of rejections had achieved a kind of negative critical mass. They had a dangerous, metastasizing energy of their own. So I dragged the box out and I burned them all.

Now, years later, I don't keep rejections. Shoot, I barely keep records at all. I just keep sending it out there, idea after idea, hope upon hope. I toss the rejections with barely a glance. I write the successes. I think this is the way it has to be to survive as a writer -- and maybe to survive at all.

Later, I would become the Rejector myself, leafing through thousands of resumes and writing samples, rapidly dashing hopes, casually filling up boxes under other peoples' beds. I wish I could say I always kept compassion at hand, that I always remembered how hard it is to break into this business. But that wouldn't be true. Most of the time, I was rushed, behind deadline and desperately hoping to find that spark of talent, that bit of expertise that could bail me out.

This, too, helped me understand the process. It's almost never about what you are -- it's what you aren't that matters. And this can be changed ...