Monday, April 14, 2014

Sorry? Excel is a whatnow?

I came across a blog through my agent’s blog that's full of all sorts of goodies for writers. One of my favourite posts is about the process and — for lack of a better word — technique of revision. Check it out here.

The blogger, author Laurie Halse Anderson, and I have a very similar approach to revising, save for one area: the actual "roadmap" itself. While she prefers using large sheets of paper to outline her roadmap, I find an Excel spreadsheet to be most effective. Aside from being an organizational lifesaver, a digital spreadsheet is portable. Woo hoo! I just email it to my iPhone and I can refer to my roadmap wherever I go. (It came in very handy this morning when I was trapped on the subway for half an hour. The power was off and transit supervisors were searching the tracks for a dead body, but I was revising on the go, so who cares?)

I don’t think I’ve used Excel as it’s meant to be used more than a dozen times. I remember my husband casually mentioning that it's just a big calculator a while back, and I was all “Get the fu%$ out!” And now that I've discovered Excel art (see Mega Man above), it's safe to say that I'm going to be moving farther and father away from the software's raison d'ĂȘtre.

I don't do anything fancy on my spreadsheet roadmap. I just break my book down into scenes, making note of the most important events. I also use colour coding, which helps me with stuff like this:

1. Pacing my story
My book has a bit of a magical realism bent to it, but I don't want to overdo it and annoy my readers. To ensure that doesn't happen, I colour those moments orange. This way, I can easily see if there’s too much "magic" in any particular section.

2. Organizing locations
I like to keep my characters on the move. For example, my main character’s apartment is assigned the colour blue. Too much blue clotted together on the spreadsheet? Scenes will need to be shuffled to keep things interesting.

3. Periphery characters
I want to spread these guys around and colour coding helps me do that. For example, I’ve assigned Steve red and Margaret yellow. That way I have an instant visual map. Too much red in one area? Again, that’s a sign that scenes need to be shuffled. You get the drift. Now here's some more Excel art for you, you clever drift-getter you!


Monday, April 7, 2014

I still want my $100 back, Phil.

I went to a postural cleanse workshop* on the weekend and the guy running the show, Phil, kept talking about mantras. At first I was all like, "I paid you $100 to tell me how to stand up straight, Phil! Can you shut up about mantras already?" When I calmed down I realized there was probably something to all this mantra stuff since Phil has a spine as straight as a rod and could stand in the same position, without fidgeting, for a week if he were so inclined.

Later that night, as I slouched in front of The New York Times, I came upon a book review by Scott Sandage. And get this! I found my mantra! It has jack to do with my dreams of standing tall like a ballet dancer but everything to do with finding a modicum of pride in the ego-burning existence that is a writer's life:
"'Managing the gap between vision and work, which often looks to others like being swallowed by failure, is a lifelong process.' Failure is ever present in the unending drift towards mastery."
- from a review of The Rise (Sarah Lewis)  
All together now: "Failure is ever present in the unending drift towards mastery." Ahummmmm.

It's probably too long to be an actual mantra, but because I'm more crusty than new-agey, it's as close as I'm going to get. So thanks Phil -- you sort of helped me find my sort-of mantra. But I still want my $100 back.


*Some of my crusty takeaways from the workshop include:
1) Don't sit, like ever.
2) Be a nerd and buy a standing-desk.
3) If you have to sit, even though you should never ever ever sit, move your ass every 20 minutes. Also, don't even think about crossing your legs.
4) Move to Taipei for a year and find an old man who will teach you old-school qigong. (Only one move, though.)
5) Get an earthing mat and be prepared to alienate yourself from your electrician father-in-law.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writerly stuff I like right now (that you may like, too)

WATCH: Authors Anonymous
My writer friend and I rented this movie from iTunes last night and, when we weren't nodding our heads and sighing at how true it rang, we were roaring with laughter. It's not exactly Oscar-worthy stuff, okay, so keep your expectations in check. But if you're an aspiring fiction author -- especially if you've ever been part of a writers' group -- you will enjoy this movie, I promise. (I know; I can't believe it either!)

READ: "Found In Translation"
While I normally abhor any reference to a film made by Sofia Wake-Me-Up-When-It's-Ovah Coppola, this article by Michael Cunningham is an exception. Here's a sample:

"Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire."

EAT: Chia Pudding
If you're like most writers I know, emotional eating -- especially sugar -- is an issue. Whether you use ice cream to soothe yourself post rejection or reward yourself with Swedish Berries for a completed chapter, too much bad food is happening to good writers. I've recently come across this recipe that has helped me kick my sweet tooth not just to the curb, but down a flight of stairs and through a pane of Venetian glass. I opt out of the sweeteners and add two tablespoons of low-fat coconut milk and some cinnamon for flavour. Writerly bonus!: Its strangely gooey consistency makes it tough to spill, so it's an ideal snack to munch on by your laptop.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Write the words

You know those enormous pieces of paper that primary school teachers and motivational speakers use? Around 25 x 30.5 inches, usually resting on an easel that is perpetually on the verge of being tipped over by an 8-year-old math nerd or a super fan who rushes the stage? I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to respect and obey whatever is written on those large sheets. As though if something is that big, it must be important.

My friend Yvanna, who’s a teacher, sent me a little gem the other day and it was written on one of those all-knowing sheets. She found it in a fellow teacher’s classroom, snapped a photo and sent it my way. I found its wisdom to be so simple and inspiring that I thought you’d like it too.

Then I thought it would be a useful exercise to think like a 1st-grader and apply these tips to my second novel, which is currently in progress.

1) Name
I hate the name of my story. Hate! Hate! I called it “It’s Safer Underground” because I was a stupid-head. But I don’t wanna be a stupid-head and so I will change it.

2) Think
Thinking is the funnest part of writing! I get so excited when I think up new ideas that I almost pee!

3) Picture
I am writing a big-kid book, which means no pictures. But I can still draw the scene inside of my head! And if I take my time, and am real careful, the picture will turn out as handsome as Justin Bieber. xoxoxoxo

4) Write the words
It’s so hard to write the words. It’s the most hardest part. But I have to write them or there will be no story. Duh!

5. Share your story with the teacher
I don’t like sharing, but I will do it. Mostly because I want other people to share back with me.

What about you? Ever get an inspiring writing tip from a surprising place? 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Malus Capillus

I was in one of those moods. You know what I'm talking about. When you're down in the dumps and you walk into the salon and proclaim "I need a change!" The stylist shouts back "Highlights!" because that's what she's always shouting at you. Normally you change your mind and take it back. ("Err... maybe just a trim.") But not this time. This time you say yes to highlights.  "Let's do this!" you cry out -- as though you're on a mission, as though these highlights will change your whole goddam life!

Needless to say, my hair did not live up to my expectations, and now I'm left looking like some asshole at Sbarro baptized me with spaghetti. Not only that, but my 'do is so damaged by the chemicals that it's crispy as cattle hay. It makes a sound, people. Do you understand what I'm saying? Hair should not dispense sound.

But I won’t let bad hair get me down — oh no — because I’m working on novel number two again. 

I have mixed feelings about this, but “happy” is definitely one of them. It’s early stages, just so you know, and I’m still wary of getting back into this whole writing thing. But I’m feeling inspired and thinking creatively, which is nice. It’s kind of fun living life as a writer sometimes. Despite all the rejection and the endless waiting, at least being a writer gives you a reason to look at the minutiae of the world and think that it all matters, that it’s worth noting and developing and investigating — or at least worth pulling out your headphones to pay attention to.

You may think that writers are bitter cynics, but there’s an optimism in the “noticing” part of writing, and hope. Which is great, because you sure as hell can't find either at the hair salon.

What a natural look! 

Straw or hair? Hmm. Tough one.
Maybe ask the opinion of a passing cow?

Friday, March 7, 2014

"I saved Latin. What did you ever do?"

Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel is coming to a theatre near you.
If you aren't excited, then I'm sorry, but we can never be friends.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The literary sausage

It's been 71 days since I've written a word of fiction. I know this to be true because my laptop keeps begging for a backup, ticking down the days with every pop up. "IT'S BEEN 71 DAYS SINCE YOUR LAST BACKUP.... DON'T YOU LOVE ME ANYMORE?"

I haven’t plugged my neglected Mac into my external hard drive because I haven’t had a reason to. Because I haven’t produced any documents worthy of my patented quadruple-save. 

As I’ve blogged about here 117,000 times already, I was burnt out by my first novel, and still am in many ways. And while I miss feeling creative and productive, I’m not sure I want to dive back in to writing yet. I feel like I’m gambling with my sanity by hacking away at my stories. Making up characters and worlds and drama, and facing rejection constantly -- sane people don't do such things. At least not without some sort of positive reinforcement or payoff. And besides that, writing fiction is incredibly hard. Every. Word. Counts. Did you know that? I used to, but during my "time off," I somehow managed to forget. 

This morning, though, something shifted in me and I decided to break the spell I've been under. So I wrote something. And it took me an hour and a half, there or abouts. More, factoring in my lunch-hour revising. And you know what I ended up with? Just a couple little lines. Here, see for yourself:
This is me: sitting pretty like she told me to, my knees locked, ankles crossed. I'm fixing my eyes on where I came from, my mother’s tummy, and then up at the rest of her. She looms over me, scratching her lotto ticket, that silver junk falling on my forehead like rain. Rain is lucky, she says, when I whine and shake it off. Your daddy used to make rain, you know. The wettest, warmest rain there ever was.
Granted that's a better investment of my time than say The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But it's not just the time that got invested that's the issue; it's the mental and emotional energy.

To give you an example, let's dissect the text above, shall we? Let’s delve deep into my brain and pull out all the uncertainty and work and fretting -- AKA insanity -- that goes into writing something as short as that wee chunk. You ready to see how the sausage gets made? You sure? It’s pretty horrifying. But if you insist…

Should this be in first person or third? Present or past tense? I know all the “experts” say that present tense is more interesting to read, more action-oriented, but I personally prefer past tense. Hmmm… Hmmm…. Back to that later. What about the whole “rain” thing? Kind of a cliche, isn't it? When I read the word I picture every bad movie ever made with some heart-throb experiencing a major life event in the middle of downpour, his arms spread wide, mouth open, drinking it all in, his soul being cleansed. And what is that stuff on scratch and win tickets called anyways? "Latex" is the best description I can find on Google. What did writers do before Google? Am I copping out by using Google all the time for research? What would a real writer do? Call someone at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation? Does that mean I'm not a real writer? Oh God, and then there's the word "loom." Let’s pretend -- just for a moment -- that that word doesn't suck, okay? Now here's my real problem: a little kid wouldn’t think "loom." Unless…. Maybe she’s a really smart kid? Like, gifted smart? Yeah. Yeah! That’s it! She’s a gifted child with the vocabulary of a graduate student in English and the easy wisdom of Maya Angelou! And what about the word "lotto"? I really want to write "scratch and win" but I can't think of a better word than "scratching" -- which comes directly before -- and that would be so repetitive...
I warned you. You never watch the sausage being made. Even if it's vegan.