More Odds and Sods

Born To Tri

I completed the first draft of Unfair Advantage 2. I wanted then work on smaller contests, namely this Irish one. Sadly, all the stories fizzled. I’ve attempted multiple stories but nothing stuck. With the Irish flash fiction, I keep coming up with either vignettes or pieces that are literary for the (contest) theme of Time. They specifically reference how Time can fit in any genre. Genre, exactly the thing I’m looking for, and all I can do is generate these slices that seem like they came out of an MFA program. Which is a tremendous shame… I would really love to have a good idea and iterate on the 500 words. So much of my reluctance to edit is the size of what I work on… even 3k words seem like a tough edit. 500 words is perfect for cutting everything that doesn’t directly contribute to the story, working each to sound lyrical. I just need that spark!

And if I could find that story idea, I’ll incorporate the ideas on editing from George Saunders and the amazing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’ll do a series of posts specifically on this book, but he counsel on editing is fantastic. Keep reading and working on your story over weeks and months. Remove anything that doesn’t move the story forward or display something important about the characters. It’s the repeated process of editing and considering, re-reading and changing that creates something worthwhile. And he doesn’t prescribe rules or a list of don’ts. This advice struck a chord; dozens of micro-edits over time allow a writer to create a voice. Compare this with other books on editing and their rigid rules. More on Saunders later.

This leaves me in a tough spot with the normal backlog of pieces to edit and nothing solid to work on for my daily 500 words. In theory, I’d love to have a set of drills or practice items to work on, then spend the rest of my morning writing time on editing and re-reading. I’ll keep looking.

Odds and Sods

Odds and Sods
Odds and Sods

No post last week while I was away with friends in West Palm Beach. I was curious how travel and a change in routine would effect my writing, mindset and creativity. I enjoyed the change and had a good time, but it wasn’t conducive to writing… sharing a hotel room, group schedules, etc. My current WIP (Unfair Advantage 2, more on this below) is set in Palm Beach and I hoped to catch some inspiration. But nothing really caught my eye… the only thing I noticed was how weird the denizens of one of the richest places in America are, with the conspicuous consumption and plastic surgery.

A few rejections from journals rolled in, including one for The Valley, my story about a prepper family living in post-apocalyptic Hudson Valley. I wrote it with New Maps in mind, but they had rejected it as too slow (ironic because I wrote it that way for them. Live and learn). I tried to incorporate the editor’s feedback about speeding the story, but struggled. There aren’t many options for an over 8k piece, which (as I know now) is a gray area and tough to publish. I’ll try a few more spots, then either make the revisions the editor asked for or publish it here instead.

I also got tough feedback on another post-apocalyptic story (Mags Hotel) about Mags who is taken to a hotel and tries to decide between a chance at her old life or a new one. I loved writing it and needed a few weeks to sit on the feedback. The story emerged from a writing prompt (your character wakes up in a strange place….). Unfortunately, this is a beginner’s trope (link to trope). Good to know! Now I need to jump straight into the action. The editor also said I was too simple/basic when providing information about the background and situation, and starting in res can help… although I can picture some of my readers getting confused without the exposition. But I asked for professional feedback and I will try to improve the piece.

My current WIP is Unfair Advantage 2. I finished the first pass, and it also clocks in with an unwieldy word count, north of 15k. I enjoyed returning to Eileen (link) and writing the piece. I can’t imagine trying to get it published anywhere other than here on, though. The first edition struggled to find a home, and this second part assumes the reader is familiar with the first. But this obstacle, used correctly, should be an opportunity. If I publish it here, I will need to format and present UA 2 correctly. Maybe provide blurbs here and link to a properly formatted pdf which should be a great learning opportunity.

Woke Up This Morning : A Study in Creative Control

Sopranos House
Sopranos House

My wife and I watched the disappointing The Many Saints of Newark. After finishing the movie, HBO rolled directly into Season 1 of The Sopranos. We only intended to watch a few minutes but were hooked from the opening song. Like most good New Jerseyans, we had faithfully watched The Sopranos while it aired. I enjoyed it but hadn’t given it much thought since 2007. Watching it again, one or two episodes a night spread out over two months, was amazing. We had forgotten entire characters and plots; it was better than watching it for the first time (more evidence that I should re-read/ re-watch more).

For Christmas, my wife gifted me Woke Up This Morning. Two actors from The Sopranos, Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltsasnti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), highlight the best parts of their binge-watching podcast. Fun read and the perfect companion to re-watch the show. I heard the authors and their guests (mostly other characters from the show) speaking in their voice while reading. Not only was it an interesting read, but there were takeaways for the creative process.

The first lesson is the structure, rules and formula for seasons and episodes. I don’t know how standard this was in the industry, but David Chase (creator and show-runner) created the narrative arc for Tony Soprano and his crew each season. Individual writers wrote each episode. They followed a formula: three plots (A, B and C). A was the main plot and was broken down into 18 beats; B got fewer beats and C less. Chase’s team created magic within the narrow confines of that structure. An interesting way to engage with the characters and offer consistency and a shared vision.

Each script went through multiple reviews. The entire team of writers provided notes and discussed the script. The authors (especially Imperioili, who wrote a few scripts and was in the writer’s room for Season 5) and their writer-guests implied these rooms could be brutal. But this gets back to one of my themes, immediate feedback that may have elevated the writing in real time. Woke Up This Morning also references how long and hard the sprints were to make deadlines… another example of guardrails (set timelines), intensity, and focus.

The attention to detail was eye-opening. There had meetings regarding tone, costumes, sets… attended by the writers and directors and the people in charge of implementation (wardrobe people, etc.). They read the script and discuss the little details.

David Chase maintained a shocking level of control throughout the entire process. He not only created, well, everything and the arc to entire seasons, but he was in the writer’s room, oversaw staffing (especially for writers) and had final edit . From a distance, it’s a stunning combination of individual control and vision while working in the brilliance of so many other contributors. I can’t think of any other examples where someone can keep so much influence, yet benefit from other contributors.

The same themes appear; guardrails, structure, deadlines, feedback from peers, attention to detail and fanatical control.

Get Back: Study in the Creative Process : Pt 2

Early Beatles. United Press International, photographer unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

read part 1

Most of the film is the four Beatles facing each other with their instruments. It was a constant feedback loop, in real-time. When Paul doesn’t like how Ringo fills a gap, he says so, and the change is immediate. Same with the words; John or Paul pull Mal (their longtime road manager) over and they constantly re-work the lyrics. Contrast this with how I have always experienced feedback. At work, feedback is given (on code, on projects, on presentations) after a submission; the opposite of real-time. Same with writing; I struggle to find avenues for real, helpful feedback, and when I do, it is weeks or months after its creation. I wonder if workshops or retreats are the natural equivalent… part of the experience is writing something and presenting it the same day. Curious about how tightening that loop effects the work. Also, how much of the magic here is because of their physical proximity? Hard to envision this level of collaboration and feedback, and camaraderie happening over Zoom.

If the Beatles weren’t working on new songs, they filled time by playing covers. I can’t find any references to support this, but assumedly most of the covers were songs they played in Hamburg. One of them would rip into a tune and the other three would follow. It looks like they’re just having fun or blowing off steam, but it’s practice disguised as play. The musicianship of the band is stunning, honed from literally years of playing as a bar band in Hamburg as teens. See the 10,000 hour rule. And they never (at least not as edited) warm up with scales or anything else. They use these songs to unwind and practice playing as a band.

As usual, I’m looking for takeaways. The biggest is the importance of collaborators and peers to give honest and timely feedback. Another is to embrace obstacles, rather than looking at them as blockers. Should my inability to get past traditional gatekeepers truly stop me from publishing my work? Or do I need to figure out ways to get around this restriction. Interesting. And maybe the biggest takeaway is the obvious and incredible magic of tea and marmalade to the creative process.

Get Back: Study in the Creative Process

Unrelated Beatles Book

I’ve watched the Beatles documentary “Get Back” twice since they released it in November 2021. The first time was as an awe-struck fan. The Beatles were long disbanded by the time I was born, so to see them as young men, collaborating on iconic songs was amazing. Watching Paul McCartney come up with the riff for Get Back in two minutes blew my mind. On the second watching, I could pick up on some elements that made their process worth studying.

Random observations:

  • They are all incredible musicians, jumping between instruments, picking up riffs and chords on the fly. I don’t think Paul plays a wrong note in six hours.
  • The technology used to make the film was almost invisible; it was only noticeable when they overlaid conversation over scenes where the talking didn’t match.
  • George Martin, so important on the earlier records, seems useless.
  • Outsiders influenced George Harrison (Clapton, The Band, etc.) while John Lennon and McCartney were more self-contained and unconcerned about other bands. They pull from rock and roll songs from their youth.
  • The editing was fantastic until the concert; Peter Jackson, the director, stuck with how the original film showed the concert, interspersed with crowd reactions. Just show the Beatles playing, please. Leave the crowd’s reaction for the closing credits.

One of the jarring items from the documentary was how many obstacles the group had to overcome. The original space had terrible acoustics. When they moved to Apple studios, the space wasn’t ready. The technology (4-tracks, etc.) was dated and not ready for them when they arrived. They had a tight deadline, because of a movie Ringo Starr was scheduled to shoot and another engagement Glyn Johns the producer had (a study in priorities and perspective… Ringo’s movie was lost to time and who is this other band Glyn needs to get to over the Beatles). And the entire goal of the session and the original documentary were hazy. The big takeaway here, though, is these issues didn’t hinder the process. If they had a pristine, perfect space, the best technology and months and months of open time… do these songs come out the same way? Not a chance. It’s the guardrails that drive so much creativity. I remember when I was a teenager listening to Howard Stern. He had Siskel and Ebert on the show and they begged him to make a documentary of the show. During their discussion, Howard complained he couldn’t do the show he wanted, and both Siskel and Ebert told him it was the blockers, the restrictions imposed by the FCC and the local radio stations that made the process amazing. The same holds true here.

Another obstacle was the lack of leadership. Their old manager, Mr. Brian Epstein, had passed away, and they didn’t have a replacement. Paul steps up and fills this void; he’s the one pushing the work agenda and the most aggressive with ideas for songs. But no one elected him or agreed he was their leader. He just stepped up. Most Beatles histories cite John as the leader and inspiration of the earlier albums, with Paul taking on this role in the later work. This really caught my attention; as someone who works in a traditional workplace with a defined hierarchy, it’s interesting to watch “work” happen without a defined leader. Yes, this causes friction, especially with George leaving the band for a few days, but they still get their work done.

read part 2

A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2

My copy
My copy of the War of Art

read Part 1

The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

A Second Look: The War of Art

The Grand Tetons

The first book in the Second Look (!) series is The War or Art, by Steven Pressfield. I initially read this in late 2017, a couple of years before I actually set an intention to write. It is part of the canon recommended by people that pursued their own creative, non-standard paths, like Ferris, Holiday, Roll, etc. The War of Art is also part of the set of recommended books for new writers, alongside Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and Stephen King’s On Writing.

I didn’t have a practice or a goal or the tens of thousands of words behind me during my first read. Many of the ideas and habits in this book made their way into my daily routine and how I approach writing. Do work every day. Treat the work seriously. Don’t worry if the work is terrible. Don’t self-edit while creating. Master technique. Finish what you start. I don’t think I gained them straight from the text; this advice went mainstream and if oft repeated. But The War of Art is the source text. And his main thesis is Resistance and its many forms; naming and describing Resistance is the core of the book.

The ideas that stood out in the second read were more subtle. The first is around feedback. Specifically (Pressfield contrasts how amateurs and professionals differ), the amateur does not expose themself to real world feedback. “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” (Pressfield, p. 71). How many times, on this website, have I bemoaned the lack of feedback and criticism for my writing? This part, or lack of part, of my writing is amateur. I need to get my writing out there and elicit more feedback, both from editors/gatekeepers (more than just “Thanks for submitting, your piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” etc.) and regular readers. I used to rely on Scibophile for feedback, but it was inconsistent and required so much peer review I had to abandon the platform. Posting more work here will get readers, but not the desired feedback and criticism. Reading this again served as a glorious reminder.

The War of Art has three sections, Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance, The Higher Realm. On my first read, I just skimmed the last part.
“The next few chapters are going to be about the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” (Pressfield, 106) Yes! At least it did the first time. So I missed Pressfield’s idea that stories and characters and stories are out there, in the ether… or with the angels and muses. I’m not a spiritual or mystical person, but this grabbed me. It is reassuring and hopeful that the primary job of an artist is to open themselves to the world. Not to rely on voodoo for inspiration, but sit every day, get yourself in a consistent habit of preparing and opening up, and a professional will tap into that energy, muse, whatever. And, if they have done the work on their craft, they can take whatever they receive and turn it into art. “…it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it…It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear.” (Pressfield, p 117)

(part 2 coming soon)

A Second Look: New Series

Ye Olde Shelves

When I finish a book, I cross it off the list and put it on the shelf. Maybe I’ll take notes on non-fiction books with actionable content. I’ve noticed readers and authors I admire re-read both fiction and non-fiction books.

I’ve re-read selected books, like most of the titles in my first series, Books that Changed My Life. I read the Pragmatic Programmer, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Meditations many times. But not as a conscious practice.

For this series, I will re-visit interesting books from my shelves. These won’t be book reviews; in-depth reviews of these books are everywhere. I’ll focus on what hits differently and why.

Gentleman Writer

Kitchen bookshelf from a summer cabin.

I’m not a professional writer. To date, I’ve made less than $100 dollars from my work. While I have a consistent practice, I spend less than 1 hour a day writing, editing or submitting stories. Conversely, I spend 8-10 hours a day working my actual profession.

When I started in technology in the late 1990s, I knew nothing about the craft of writing code, the private workplace (my first job was as a health inspector for a local NJ government), or the industry. I spent hours a day hammering away at code and learning the technology. I read at least 1-2 tech books a month, subscribed to multiple industry magazines (actual paper magazines), free conferences and talked shop with my coworkers. I immersed myself in the profession.

I haven’t done the same for writing. My focus has been on the actual craft… the most important part, of course. But I’ve ignored entire swaths of the process. How and why certain pieces and authors get published. How the industry works. What is the current field of play for publishing in magazines, publishing a book via traditional means, or publishing independently?

Hugh Howey, one of my mentors in writing, speaks to this directly.

One of my stated goals is to have more people read my work. But I don’t understand the criteria and motivations of the traditional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, agents). And I haven’t done the work to grok how independent publishing works or promoted this website. Nor created a writing network, like my coworkers when I started in technology.

Logically, I know I need to expand my knowledge and experience of the industry. I wanted to find my authentic voice and have more published work before focusing on the business of writing (see chicken and egg). Another part wants to treat writing as a serious hobby, much the same way I used to treat triathlons. The concept of a “Gentleman Writer”, in the same vein as the Gentleman Farmer, is lodged in my head. Finally, I use it as an excuse… if I don’t understand what readers and publishers and the industry wants and how they work, I’ll just write what I want, and maybe an audience will magically appear.