Piling On

To-read pile


Underlining, marginalia, folding back the pages in books is one of life’s little pleasures. Still seems taboo, even all of these years out of school. I mark up most non-fiction books with underlines, asterisks and notes. This feels right in the moment and helps to solidify concepts or lessons from the book. Interacting with the words, rather than just reading them, is the first step in understanding the material.

Over the years, I became comfortable with mark-up and honing in on important passages. However, while marking up a book last year, I realized I didn’t have practice or method for internalizing whatever I underlined/circled/got-so-excited-about-I-jotted-notes-in-the-margins. I needed to review the text and the lessons.

Thinking Fast and Slow markup

Hence, the read-again shelf was born; books with important ideas I need to revisit. I’ve read about other people’s methods: Ryan Holiday’s and Dave Perrell’s come to mind.

In theory, I open a book again in front of my computer, two or three weeks after finishing. I’d scan for the underlines and file the lessons/takeaways/etc. in Evernote under Book Notes. And add a new action or reminder to my daily schedule.

Marcus A markup

There is a strong resistance to starting. It seems like hard work, not nearly as fun as just reading. And the pile isn’t big, maybe seven or eight books. Some of them disappointed me, like Stillness or The Second Mountain, so there can’t be that much information to transcribe. In fact, it may be the opposite; I got mad at the authors while reading and mostly disagree with their ideas.

Piles of Books

Pile o' books
To-Read Pile

I love books.  Buying them, holding them, cracking their spines.  New and unread books have a special spot on my bookshelf.  

I remember when buying books was a chore.  One option was the local library, with a limited selection but no penalty if you didn’t enjoy a book.  The local bookstores, Waldenbooks and BDalton, had a better selection, but the stakes were higher.  I felt obliged to finish any book from retailers.  Now, both of those barriers are gone with Amazon Prime, my Wishlist and cheap used books.  Books cost the same as when I was a kid, but my pockets are deeper. 

When my mood is high, the to-read pile is thrilling.  Who knows what new knowledge or story or character awaits?  Or the warm embrace of a great story?  As an amateur writer, every story is a learning opportunity.

When my mood is low, though, the pile mocks me.  So much work to do.  And the pile gets bigger, quicker.  Coming into December, the pile got too big; it can only (as per my rules) get as high as a one bookshelf, about sixteen inches.  I resolved, not for the first time, to stop ordering new books until this pile reduced to only two or three books.  Then, my wife needed gifts for me.  Nothing easier than ordering books off of the wish list.  After that, a good friend recommended this book, and I purchased it right away.  Finally, the founder of my company sent out his annual gift (always a book)…which looks interesting but is roughly a million pages and made the pile dangerously high.

So, once again, I have a moratorium on ordering new books.  I think four or five remaining is the perfect time to re-stock.  The balance of books on the pile is off, though…the mix of fiction and non-fiction.  I try to have one of each going at once.  Right now, I am reading Neverwhere and a book on Creative Space.  Next, a book of short stories and a book on technology or trees.  But the remaining books on the pile skew heavily toward non-fiction.  

The best hedge is to re-read fiction.  I started at night, re-reading Cheever’s short stories.  I recently did the same with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.  Reading fiction a second time allows me to see what the author is doing, more of the mechanics of what they are writing.  And lets me keep the 1:1 reading ratio.

Crystal Grove Redux

Highlands Bridge View
Highlands Bridge View

I wrote Crystal Grove in the spring of 2020, during the most restrictive part of the lockdown in the US. In my sunroom, I watched the first morning rays catch and disperse in crystals dangling from trees. It got me thinking about a family with crystals hanging in their yard. One of my quarantine habits was an evening walk around the neighborhood, and toward the end of that walk I’d pass a ramshackle house with a large yard, complete with an old doghouse slowly collapsing in their backyard.

These two ideas formed the skeleton of a story. An evil house that rattles the crystals, or something like that. My wife’s quarantine hobby is getting deeper into Reiki. So the idea progressed to a dark, Reiki power effecting women in the neighborhood. Write what you know.

I finished about forty-five thousand words back in September. It needed editing before I could share it with anyone. But I didn’t want to work with it… it seemed broken. This nameless issue I had with the piece hung over me, and blocked me from moving forward with any writing projects.

Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman showed me what was wrong. First, I didn’t even know what genre the story was; it wasn’t horror or magic, nor realistic narrative either. So what was it? Gaiman’s work is the closest comparison—magical realism. Not magical, with ancient characters based on myths and old stories, something more mystical. And, while reading Ocean, I figured out what else the quarantine had injected into my story.

My piece was depressing. I tried to make it realistic, a husband and wife arguing and mis-communicating and yelling at their kids. And then coming together to solve the problem. But, instead, it read like the husband and wife were angry and hated their kids and each other. Misery jumped off the page.

I wasn’t upset or mad at my family during the early days of COVID-19. But the fear, bitterness, and general unhappiness of the moment seeped into the piece, a glimpse into an unhappy home, rather than a peek into the life of a regular suburban family.

So I started a rewrite. And it feels much better. I went for a lighter feel and didn’t worry about realism. It’s a far cry from what Gaiman can do with his prose, to create that magical feel, but his influence pulled me out of the darkness.

Slogging Through Sentences

Morning Tea

My reading about writing continues. Like many budding writers, reading about writing is easier than actually, you know, writing. For inspiration, I picked up the Chuck Palahniuk book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and Several short sentences about writing. The Palahiuk book was a dud and the Editing book useful. I’m working through Short Sentences.

Basically, it’s a collection of sentences clustered around different elements of writing. Each sentence ends with a line break. I can’t follow every thought and intention, but it reads well.

A few things stick out. About 1/3 of the way in, Klinkenborg introduces grammar and the structure of sentences. First, he knocks down one of my previously held beliefs:

“Many people assume there’s an inherent conflict between creativity and a critical, analytic awareness of the medium you work in.

They assume that the creative artist works unconsciously And that knowing too much about matters like grammar and syntax diminishes or blunts creativity.

This is nonsense.”

Whoops. I’m in this camp. A quick reading of this site uncovers subtle grammatical flaws. Not so much spelling, but 102 level grammar. And I agreed with the “writing has some magic and flow so you don’t need to be an expert in grammar,” schtick.

I went to an excellent school system and took honors and AP English classes. I don’t remember spending much time on Grammar (with a capital G). A lot of time reading and writing analysis and looking for the deep meaning in stories, but very little time talking about the mechanics of language. Or, as Klinkenborg explains, the creation and editing of sentences.

“But you do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs…active and passive construction…relation between a pronoun and its antecedent…verb tenses…nature of participles and their role as modifiers…subtleties of prepositions—the hardest part of speech….”

I had to look up a few of these terms. I was introduced to them in sixth grade, but didn’t learn the real mechanics…I was an avid reader, and instinctively knew a wrong sentence without knowing the correct grammatical label.

So maybe I’m like a musician who never studied, can’t read sheet music, but still shreds on the guitar?

“The names of the kinds of words, their relation to each other. and their functions.

Like a painter’s knowledge of color and the laws of perspective,

A jazz musician’s knowledge of chord structures and his instrument.”

Whoops. So much work to do.

How I Get Lyrical

Dylan Thoma
Poetry Books

The last time I read poetry was in high school. The lessons were dry and focused on the mechanics of the poem. I only remember one piece, Woodstock by Joanie Mitchell (and only because it the famous CSN&Y song). And that was my total interaction with poetry.
Fast forward to now, Creating Short Fiction includes an entire section on writing lyrically. Knight, the author, recommends understanding poetry to improve the quality of prose. At his suggestion, I read The Poets Handbook. It didn’t resonate. The only nugget I pulled out was a better understanding of the rhythm or cadence of a phrase. Like iambic pentameter, with the words building up then down.
I read about Bob Dylan and his admiration of Dylan Thomas. I knew of Thomas, but wasn’t familiar with his work. Or so I thought; his most famous piece is “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night”. This poem captures me. And I finally see how structure, meter, repetition, and carefully chosen words work together to create such a powerful piece.

From Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Beautiful, haunting. The repetition and usage of “Do not go gentle into that good night. /Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” lends the piece so much power, so much force. There are only 19 lines, and Thomas uses these two lines 8 times. This is a villanelle which requires the repetition of two lines throughout the piece. Their meaning changes through the poem, starting philosophically and ending literally.
This is a nice poem to read, but it should be heard. Poetry is meant to be listened to out loud. Check it out here. Stunning.
Thomas wrote this poem for his father as he was dying; it was not a hypothetical exercise. The emotion seeps out of every line.

The Magic of Smell

Fire!
Catskills Campfire

At Hugh’s suggestion, I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. I often think of his passages and their vivid scenes while struggling to set a scene. Here, Mitchell is describing Jacob, a clerk for the Dutch East India Trading Company, working in a warehouse, nursing a hangover.

“The cogs and levers of time swell and buckle in the heat. In the stewed gloom, Jacob hears, almost, the sugar in its crates hissing into fused lumps… The clerk drains his cup of green tea. The bitter dregs make him wince and amplify his headache but sharpen his wits…

On a bed of clove crates and hempen sacking, Hanzaburo lies asleep.

Mucus from his nostrils to his rocky Adam’s apple.”

The reader can picture the warehouse (without physical description!!), the young protagonist working through a rough morning. We can sense the space with the sensations of stagnant heat and sounds. Mitchell’s use of sound, both to describe lumping sugar and the throaty noise of unhealthy sleep, perfectly sets the stage. Short sentences add precise detail to the scene.

Later, this:

“Placing his nostrils over the thin gap between the book’s spine and binding, Jacob inhales the damp aroma of the Domburg parsonage. The smell evokes Sundays when the villagers battled January gales up the cobbled high street…”

We breathe in the smell of old books and older memories. So smooth, so easy.

New Writing Partners

Kittens!
Kittens

Our old cat, Shadow, spends her days sleeping on a heating pad in our living room. She’s nineteen, ancient for a cat; her sister passed away last year. Shadow takes a daily constitutional up and down the stairs, a few trips to the litter and food boxes, makes odd yelping noises, and sleeps.

Salem and Cinders are complete opposites. They appeared a few days ago, fresh from the local rescue, both eleven weeks old. Cinders, the smaller all-black female is the adventurous one. Chasing laser pointers, strings and toes is her bit. Cinders, the larger male “brother” (they’re not related, but sheltered together), is the follower. He jumps at the slightest noise and follows Salem’s lead.

We set them up in our sunroom where I do my morning writing. They are non stop in the morning, each step and piece of furniture new and worthy of exploration. Cinders chases Salem, but Salem wins their wrestling match. They crouch like tigers from National Geographic videos, stalk, then pounce. They are brave fighters… unless they hear a loud noise, or the wind shifts, or a new person enters the room. Then they run under the couch for cover. Salem peeks her head out first to asses the situation; only after she gives the all-clear will Ciders follow.

Salem
Salem

In our three days together, Salem has worked out how to jump and meow. And nibble at my toes as I write. She’s doing it right now.

They aren’t helping my productivity; I haven’t written more than a few words for my story in the last few days. But they have brought a real energy back into the house, a house that seemed so stale, caught in the endless loop of semi-quarantine life. Everything the kittens try is new, exciting, fresh, full of energy, an endless parade of mistakes, exploration, running full gas. Jumping and missing their target. Belly crawling to re-attack the other one.

Cinders
Cinders

I’m not a cat or pet person. I never had pets growing up, nor did any of my friends. And the smell of cat food and litter is still repulsive. But their energy feels like a shot of adrenaline, reasons to get off the couch, be together in a room, share observations about the little tigers stalking and chasing prey on the savanna.

We’re keeping the kittens from the old cat for now, locking them in a separate room. Shadow knows another animal is around, but isn’t inclined to investigate. We don’t know how she will react; we suspect she won’t be amused. I wonder, though, if their kitten magic could rub off. We’ll find out over the next few weeks.

Flow Music

Mont St. Michel

When I write in the morning, I only listen to the sounds of the backyard; birds calling to each other, squirrels clacking over the roof of the sunroom, the distant sound of a train horn. When I want to concentrate, later, I need music.


When I read, the “Classical Studying” channel on Amazon Music works. Familiar songs, well-known classical arrangements with occasional treatments of pop songs. Keeps the background thread in my head mildly entertained.
While writing, I need to engage my monkey mind. The music needs to be a familiar and a little spacey. I’ve heard interviews with authors who listen to the same music every time they write, sometimes creating a playlist per book.


I have two favorites:

The Bends



The Bends, Radiohead. One of my favorite albums of all time, by a band that re-invented itself many times. I have great mixes of their music, but playing The Bends straight through just works. A dreamy, keyboard-heavy sound carries through the songs, reaching a peak in “Black Star”. I used to listen to this while programming for hours each day. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times.

Come With Us


Come With Us, Chemical Brothers. This one is harder to explain. Same backstory; I used to listen to while programming years ago. There are parts of the album where sound will flow from one headphone to another, and stimulates something. Entire songs just fade into the background, consumed unconsciously. And that is the magic of this album.

Current Work Update: Part 2

Corner

Crystal Grove is a novella, 2-3x longer than my earlier efforts. Those first stories had one principal character and told in third-person limited. Crystal Grove (CG) has three major characters in a tight arc around each other, also told in third-person limited. There are nine chapters per act, one with each character as narrator. This seemed like a good idea in the planning phase, but I see some issues. Each character doesn’t have the same input into the story; certain chapters are weaker, plot wise, than others. And the timing is tricky. Without planning it this way, the characters hand the story off to each other in actual time. So, Maeve talks to Ken for a chapter, then the next chapter starts with Ken’s thoughts on the conversation. This works most of the time… unless it doesn’t.


Both of the above issues, the rotating narrator and the timeline, speak to the same core concern: consistency. I was unaware it was something writers strove for until reading about it at hughhowey.com. He, and now that I notice it, a lot of authors try to be very consistent with switching narrators and chapter length. And paragraph length, how the text looks on the page and a ton of other micro considerations. I’m not sure where I will land; I want to be consistent but not at the sake of good content. And plenty of books have inconsistent chapter lengths. I’m using consistency as a learning tool and something to strive for, but won’t kill myself to achieve.


As I write this, in mid-August 2020, I’m a few chapters away from finishing the first draft. My rule, to date, has been a minimum of 500 words each morning. This goal worked when I was commuting and had to be in the office, but I should have increased it during the quarantine. And been more open to writing later in the day. With a few more words per day, and a rough goal of 1500 words/chapter, I should be complete with a horrible, unreadable first draft in nine-ish days. Which would lead to the following schedule: keep up with the morning writing. Edit 4-5 times per week. This edit, done later in the day, is a “easy” pass at tighter writing. Ignoring plot, consistency, etc., just looking for quick corrections to my most basic writing issues. This way, when I read and edit the acts, I can focus more on the important issues. Then the real fun begins.

Current Work Update

Writing at the Cabin
Writing at the Cabin

This post is a follow-up to my thoughts and struggles with the writing process, found here.
 
I’m working on a longer piece, titled “Crystal Grove,” — a story about a family in Middletown, NJ that finds and struggles against a force in their new neighborhood.  This will be my longest piece so far; it will either be a novella or short novel in the 50,000 word range.  I’d like to self-publish Crystal Grove, following the well-worn path of offering the first book/act gratis, and charging a low $1.99 for each of the following books.
The inspiration for this work were crystals my wife hung in our backyard in April.  She is studying Reiki; crystals are part of the practice.  Hanging them outside allows them to capture energy from the sun.  My writing room faces the small patch of trees they hung from, so I’d watch them shimmer and glow in the sun each morning.  They seemed especially vibrant in the spring sun, before any leaves sprouted.  I enjoyed watching them capture and reflect the light, and played with an idea about how they would react to the opposite of sunlight, some negative energy.  And I went from there.


While working on my previous short stories, I found I needed to outline.  I previously used a scaled-down version of an online template for Unfair Advantage and went back to it to outline this story.  It was more challenging than expected; basically, I had a vague idea what would happen in each act, but not a firm sense of how the story ends.  I outlined the first book and followed it with my daily morning writing, but the writing lacked cohesion and urgency because I didn’t know where we were ultimately going.  Luckily, I remembered reading (or hearing on a podcast) that one “trick” is to write the ending scene (or, in this case, set of scenes) first.  I did that last week, while on our family Covid 19-summer-vacation to a cabin in the Catskills; now I know how the story ends.  New rule: I have to know how these stories end before I write them.  Else, they just wander.


Another discovery was I don’t find it helpful to add a lot of detail to the outline.  My outline for the first book was ten rows deep and nine columns wide… which seems nice, but I never referred or edited the outline.  For Act 2, I put basic scene information on stickies and arranged them in order.  I already knew how the act ends, so this was straightforward.  When I write these scenes, I lay out the beats to start.