1 August 2009 - 10:34Another Summer Update - A Happy, If Confused, Writer

I’m getting sloppy.  But it’s a happy sloppy.

I’ve been writing my eyes out all summer, which makes me deliriously happy.  (Sometimes quite literally so, as I find myself working until very very late.)  I haven’t written as much fiction as I would like, but I have been working on lots of articles, blogs and whatnot.

Web publishing is bringing together all the things I’ve loved in my life: design, illustration, food, cats, fiction and movies, and answering questions.  (”Answering questions” is more or less what I do in my day job all day long.)  I’ve been recreating my childhood - writing stories, illustrating them, creating cool layouts.

But I’ve also spread myself pretty thin among many many different efforts.  Which is why I’m getting sloppy.  So I ask you to be indulgent if you take a quick peek at some of my newest efforts:

Mick and Casey Mystery Stories is going to be my first foray into online publishing.  Right now I’ve got the basic design, a rambling blog post, and a couple of reprint stories up.  I figure the actual go live date will be September 1, but people seem to be finding it already, so I might as well mention it here.  I have an interesting business plan for this site, but it will take a long time to roll it out, so I’ll probably post about all of that here.

Catnip Time is just a silly page for my cats.  They have always been the most popular part of my personal website, so I decided to give them their own commercial “microsite”.  I am undecided as to whether I should let them have a blog.  (They can be obnoxious, and they make me do the actual typing, so it takes a lot of time.)

Dim Sum Primer.  What can I say?  I’m a food geek.  This is actually my THIRD food blog, but I get so many hits from all over the world on the dim sum primer posts on my local restaurant blog that I figure I need to set this one up for the good of human kind.  Plus I figure one day I’ll sell flashcards or something, probably in conjunction with my Reading Chinese Menus blog.

There are other projects, too. (Did I mention I was spreading myself too thin?)  My goal is to get all this stuff set up so that in the fall I will be relaxed and ready to shift more seriously to fiction and screenplays, and maybe do more work on illustration.  (The day job has gotten significantly better, and actually will work WITH many of my efforts now rather than against them.)

No Comments | Tags: marketing, productivity

4 March 2009 - 11:09Feedback Addiction

Feedback is one of those powerful things that can be motivating or debilitating.  You don’t always want actual judgement or criticism, but just some kind of marker, some kind of progress….

And that’s why blogging can be addictive.  If you put a hit counter on a blog, you can see every time somebody hits your blog.  You can often see what pages get hit and sometimes the referring link.  You make a post, and you see your hits go up.  So you think “oh, cool!” and you make another post, and check your stats again.

And this is why my eHow experiment seems to be working for me.  I see hits come in, I see pennies add up, and I feel good and I write more.  Nothing succeeds like success.

I used to feel the same way about rejection slips.  I’d get a rejection slip, and I’d feel like I’d made a point toward publication. (Among fiction writers, it is commonly held that you need to acquire 100 rejections to get published.)  When a story comes back from an editor, you have something to do toward getting published… you pop it in another envelope and sent it right back out. And if you want to mail more manuscripts, you have to write more.  When you get a story accepted, well, you need to replace it in the rotation. Write more!

I guess with screenwriting, you get that a little with phone calls made, email queries sent out.  But longer works, such as screenplays and novels don’t have that direct connect with the feedback, the way short stories and blog posts do.  There is no tit-for-tat feedback on each few pages written.

But I got a lot of long works written while I was writing short stories, so I think that maybe it’s a good thing to write short stuff for feedback to keep you going on the longer works.  (I have found some old novels waking up as I write these articles for eHow.  Old LONG novels.  What’s up with that?)

So here’s hoping for both funding AND creativity for the summer’s fellowship from my current article writing.

A few writer-oriented eHow articles:

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13 February 2009 - 20:26Wisdom from the Pen

A few months ago I was listening to NPR, and they were doing a story on some brilliant and powerful Latino gang in Los Angeles.  The thing that they singled out as a major factor in this gang’s success is that the leaders were lifers — in prison for life, but also dedicated “careerists” who devoted themselves to the gang.

One thing they did was when in solitary confinement, they had to come up with 1000, that’s ONE THOUSAND, ideas a day.  Every day.

Talk about your mental discipline! These guys have turned prison into a top think tank.

Of course, a writer I know who has a family to take care of said something like “Oh, yeah, well that’s easy when you don’t have to change diapers and clean house and run to the day job, and fill out taxes…”

Maybe we need to put ourselves in solitary once in a while.  And I don’t mean like the self-funded fellowship I’m saving up for. I don’t mean for writing.  I mean for THINKING.  For brainstorming.   That’s one of the bits of wisdom world leaders were overheard giving to Obama when he travelled overseas before the election.  “Schedule time just to think.”

Fortunately, that’s something that’s a part of the job when doing something like writing the tiny articles I’ve been doing.  It’s also one of the things that those pulp writers learned, having churn out story after story.  Donald Westlake was ingenious because he had trained his brain to stretch the limits on new ideas.

A few more of my eHow articles:

No Comments | Tags: Craft, productivity

7 February 2009 - 11:19Starting Again

As I may have mentioned, my life went to hell for a while.  Life does that.  If you are a working writer whose survival depends on writing, things like this can sometimes shift you into a higher gear.  But when everything is on spec, and you are just building your contacts and your portfolio of work, it can stop you dead.  Because when life goes to hell, especially if the situation is even vaguely threatening, your brain is hard-wired to concentrate on SURVIVAL.

But now I’ve got a big distraction out of my way, and I’m working on the restart.  I’ve decided that I really am going to start over.  I’m going to take some courses at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, among other things.

But first I’ve got to fund my own fellowship.  So my concentration for spring is going to be money money money.  I also need something that I missed in learning my craft the first time around.  Pulp.

My first writing hero, Donald Westlake, died recently.  I remember reading interviews with him in which he talked about sweating over a typewriter at half penny a word, writing for the pulps to support his family.  And the same turned out to be true for many of my favorite writers, over and over again. They started in journalism, they started in pulps.  Sometimes those first writing jobs had very little to do with what they were later great at — but the crappy writing job gave them strengths and skills that you can’t get any other way.  Other than sweating it out for a half penny here and half penny there.

So for the next few months, my spare energy is going to go into writing little how to articles for eHow.com.   I don’t expect to get much money out of it, but I do expect to revive my concentration and discipline.  And what money I do get can help fund my fellowship.

More about what I expect to get out of writing articles next time.  For now I’ll just post a link to a couple of my first eHow articles:

See ya in the funny papers…..

No Comments | Tags: money, productivity

10 January 2009 - 13:34Goal for 2009? Roll My Own Fellowship

I have been in hibernation for a while.  No writing, no reading, no posting, just dealing with a really draining situation at the Day Job, which I believe I have now put behind me.  More or less.  I hope.

One thing I have realized, as I found myself drowning in crap, is that to get a fellowship (you know, that big goal I talked about last year?  Winning a Nicholl Fellowship?) you pretty much have to already have a fellowship. That is, you need the time and mindspace to really concentrate on your writing.  And a week or two ain’t gonna do it.

Due to the fact that I am very good at managing my money, and that I live very frugally in a state that has been depressed for so long that the cost of living is minimal, and because I’ve been lucky, I should be able to swing an unpaid leave over the summer.  (That’s the advantage of working in education. Most colleges are more than willing to forego your services over summer. It’s also a disadvantage of working in education.)

But even before summer comes along, my work life has improved to the point that I can resume my writing-related activities now.  And I intend to do so.

One way to get your productivity up is to post your progress publicly.  This is the theory behind Novel Dares and things like NaNoWriMo.  So expect me to post more often for a while.  Not only goals and updates, but postings about process and about financial matters and about whipping life into shape so you can get on with the story.

No Comments | Tags: Blog Business, productivity

9 July 2008 - 21:58Boulders, Sand and Jokes

A wise teacher once set a bucket and three boxes before his students.  He opened the first box, and pulled out some very large stones (or “boulders” as they call them in Zen Koan speak, although my idea of a boulder wouldn’t fit in a bucket).  He piled the rocks into the bucket until he couldn’t fit any more in.

“Is this bucket full?” he asked his students.

“You can’t fit any more stones in it, so yes, it’s full,” said the students.

So the teacher opened the second box and scooped out handfuls of pebbles. He dumped them into the bucket and shook the bucket so they would trickle down between the stones.

“Is the bucket full?” he asked again.  And again the students said “ah, yes, NOW it’s full.  You can’t get any more pebbles into it either.”

So the teacher opened the third box and he started scooping sand into the bucket, and the sand trickled down between the pebbles.

“Full now?”

The students hesitated, but seeing that he only had three boxes, they said “yes, it is now full.”

“You’re right,” said the teacher, and he dumped the bucket out.

This time he filled the bucket first with sand, all the way to the top.

“Is it full now?”

“No?” said the students.

“Can you fit any rocks or pebbles into it now that it is full of sand?”

“No,” agreed the students.  “It is too full of sand.”

And here’s where the teacher lectured them about how they should identify the most important things and make sure there is room for them FIRST, then let the unimportant things trickle in later.

I tell you this story because Complications Ensue just posted an excellent tip about comedy writing that really fits some of my philosophy of writing:  Always start with the best, coolest, most intense, most exciting, most important elements of your story.  They are your boulders.  Sand can trickle in later.

No Comments | Tags: Craft, productivity

8 May 2008 - 10:06Making Choices

I got a new script off to the Nicholl, but unfortunately, I didn’t get a rewrite of an older one.  (That script has had two near misses in past years, and I finally figured out how to fix that slow spot in the second act.  But alas, I did not have time.)

Now the goal is to get on to next year’s Nicholl.  I think (and I may be optimistic here) that I can get three more scripts done by next year’s deadline, even with all the kerfuffle that continues in my life.  So….

Of the seven active projects I have lined up, which do I do next?

I weighed them by various factors - how far along they are, how much fun they would be  (and therefore easy to get into), how much Nicholl-esque prestige they could generate….

And then I went to a random choice generator on the web, and typed them all in, and it picked one.

Luckily, it picked the one I thought was best.  Maybe not my best Nicholl prospect, but something I’ve already done a lot of work on, and should be fast to write.  (Plus, though it is not big and commercial, it is very small, contained and cheap to produce.)

A friend of mine always recommends flipping a coin or using a magic eight-ball to make decisions.  She points out that as soon as you see the result, you know the real answer — even if the coin flip is wrong.  You either say “That’s right!” or you say “Uhhh…..Let’s try two out of three.”  By your own reaction, you know the real answer.

Check out the random choice generator here.

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21 March 2008 - 19:28The Pancake God (or what to write first)

Listening to a podcast the other day. (On The Page — a good talk show style screenwriting show, available on iTunes.) A listener wrote in to ask an important question. He has a passion project that he’d like to write, but he’s a complete beginner and doesn’t want to screw it up. He seemed intimidated by it. He asked if he should maybe write something else to learn his craft first.

I was surprised when the hosts of the show said, “NO! Write the passion project.” Which is not bad advice. What surprised me was their reasons: a beginner shouldn’t waste time trying to write something more commercial because it will be out of date by the time it is done anyway. I realized they were making an “insider leap”. Instead of listening to the question, they imagined their own most common reason to put aside a passion project - that’s when your agent tells you to write something easier to sell.

But this guy didn’t ask about easier to sell. He asked about whether he should do something easier to WRITE. And by golly, there are kinds of stories that are easier to write. Unfortunately, those kinds of stories are are most certainly not easier to sell, which could be why the hosts didn’t think of it. Pretty much everything easy has already been done. (Which is a clue to what it is….)

Write a cliché.

Go ahead. Don’t be scared. Sit down and figure out what formula-type story is your worst guilty pleasure, and write one of those. Just pure trash, but something that’s fun. It can be a cheezy romance, or a bloody horror, or a 1940s tough guy adventure. Go ahead and write something that no one in their right mind would produce today.

My first novel was a swashbuckler. My first screenplay was a western. (And not one of your gritty realistic nouvelle westerns either. Straight old-fashioned Gunsmoke type.) I learned a heck of a lot writing both of them. And here’s the kicker — even though neither of them have been published or produced, they have both got much more attention than a first work ever should have got. (The western got me a “just missed the quarters” note in the Nicholl a couple of years ago.)

Why? Because they were fun. By not bogging myself down in difficult writing chores, I could concentrate on figuring out what was appealing about the genres and the ideas involved, and I could work on THAT.

Nobody’s first script is going to be great. It’s always awkward and misconceived, and really hard to fix. It’s like making pancakes. The first one is misshapen, and the pan was either too cold or two hot. We always called those the “sacrifice to the pancake god” and tossed it to the dog. (The dog, Molly, was high priestess to the pancake god.)

So, while you certainly can work on your passion project while you are learning your craft, it is perfectly reasonable to do a project or two as sacrifices to the pancake god.

No Comments | Tags: Craft, podcasts, productivity

21 January 2008 - 22:28Winning a Nicholl, and Script Frenzy

I work at a college. It’s rewarding, flexible, reasonably-paid part-time work that is ideal for a writer’s day job. (Except when the entire college goes all dysfunctional for several years, and one gets involved in battles with Psycho-Bosses, Sneaky Sidekicks, and Back-stabbing Co-workers. Think “Dilbert” meets “24.”) And, you know, it’s seasonal. With seasons that change radically from month to month. The Beginning of the Semester Rush has completely flooded me.

So I’m a couple of weeks behind on my goal of winning a Nicholl. (140 weeks to go.)

This is also why I haven’t started posting much here.

But I’m still on track to have at least one new script ready well before the deadline. My plan is this: get the script roughed in before Spring Break in early March. During Spring Break I hope to set the current script aside and do a serious planning session on the next one. Then a couple of weeks rewriting, and then, End Of Semester Panic Season willing, I hope to do another script for Script Frenzy in April.

Script Frenzy is a kind of “writer’s dare” where everybody tries to write a complete script during the month of April. (It’s from the same people who run NaNoWriMo - the yearly effort to write most of a novel during the month of November.)

Since the Nicholl deadline is the first of May, this may not be soon enough to actually have a second script ready in time, but you never know. (And the Austin Film Festival deadline is a couple of weeks later.)

In the meantime, I’m shutting down the Synopsis Service until May, so I can concentrate on writing. Also, I’ve got to rethink the movie breakdowns I planned to post here. While I have been learning a lot, they are really BORING when it comes to writing them up and reading them, so I have to rethink how to use them better. I’ll probably start with a “lessons learned” approach.

No Comments | Tags: contests, productivity

23 December 2007 - 14:13Book Review: The Dip - when to stick and when to quit

“Being best in the world is seriously underrated.” - Seth Godin

Seth Godin isn’t a writing guru, but rather a marketing, business and entrepreneurship guru. He has a lot of interesting things to say about the future, and especially about things that writers should be thinking about. What are distribution channels going to look like in the future, how to wisely market oneself, how to win out in a very competitive world. You can visit his blog by clicking here.

He’s published a lot of books — mostly collections of essays — but his most quietly important book is “The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)” This is a critical book for most writers.

Most of us take a look at the odds and know that there is very little chance of making it in the business. And that leaves us with a temptation to look at this business as a gamble. But it isn’t. It’s just a really hard business to break into, and it has a really big dip you have to get through to get there. And it isn’t just persistance that will get you there. You’ve got to become Best In The World.

And to become best in the world, you have to quit the things that you _won’t_ be best in the world at. (Godin goes back and forth on this — certainly there are things that are “due paying” that get you to best in the world at something else, but you have to be careful to keep your eyes on the prize, and not let it sidetrack you. Here’s an interesting blog post on getting sidetracked in a Hollywood career at Genius Types — “Directors direct and Writers write.” )

Some of us do need to quit. There are certainly a lot of writers out there who won’t make it. This book can be discouraging, at least if your strategy has been to close your eyes and shake the dice. Forget that. The dice are loaded. This business has a huge “dip” — the hard part that makes most people quit. Is getting to the other side worth it for you? This book helps you figure that out, and it is ultimately encouraging.

See the dip is a measure of how worthy the goal is. The dip, he says, is the reason you’re here.

No Comments | Tags: productivity