A World Of Distractions

Enough of this and this is how you DON’T finish a manuscript. My wife had to be in central London early Friday. So we drove from Wiltshire to Enfield (the M4 again, but no Sara Bareilles this time) on Thursday night to sleep over at my in-laws.

London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It's not Buffalo.
London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It’s not Buffalo.

I was to spend the day at their house. I had brought along my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (as well as all other required electronics). I thought I’d have a few hours to do some writing quietly.

What on earth was I thinking?

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I Was Having An Argument….

….with myself.

Specifically, yesterday I was working on a scene that sees two characters disagreeing strongly and moving towards an “explosion,” while a third witnesses the rising tension. This morning, I thought on yesterday’s post. I suppose I could now reply to this question:

6. When did you last talk to yourself? When did you last berate yourself to the point of tears?

It wasn’t merely “talk.” As I was writing yesterday, I was often having a real go. It got pretty heated.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid

I do write occasionally while talking out loud – particularly when it comes to stretches of extended dialogue, and especially when there are multiple participants. I find it helps me to listen to how it reads to “the ear” as realistic chatter. Good thing I was alone in this case, as the “last third” of me tried several times to step in and calm the increasingly nasty and confrontational other “two-thirds”:

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Ah, our loving families. That’s only part of the exchange – which is also the first “sneak peek” I will share into the rough draft for the third (as yet unnamed) novel in the series.

By the way, none of the, uh, “three” of me got teary or berated myself.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. ;-)

“Oh, God, not my mother?”

I’ve you’ve ever written about romance and relationships, you know it’s a minefield. We are all full of foibles. For those of us who pen fiction, trying to capture humans in print in order to bring characters of both sexes realistically to life is never simple.

Then there’s caricature. And humo(u)r. Recently, courtesy of Twitter, I came across this:

DameMag

Those questions come from a woman. Therefore, as a man, I tread here lightly. I will say this, though: they are mostly hilarious. A few choice examples:

13. Tell me in which ways I remind you of your mother.

Yep, that’ll frighten off most guys for sure. That’s a keeper. If in need, try that on any man.

14. If you had to murder one of your closest friends in cold blood, which one would you choose?

On the surface, that also seems a winner. But be careful. Before trying to answer, quite a few men might also be thinking, ‘Wow, that clearly deranged mind of hers makes me fancy her even more.’ (Not me, of course. I wouldn’t have thought that.)

15. Who on Earth wears Crocs to a dinner date? In the winter, no less?

This couldn’t be directed at me. I’ve never owned a pair. I thought they were for five year olds?

30. Imagine you slept with my best friend. How was it?

Now, for a man, here’s where marital status matters greatly. Coming at you from a girlfriend, well, that question’s one thing. But if comes at you from your wife…. it has now become MUCH scarier.

32. Share the last time you faked a British accent to sound smarter.

This has to be from an American web site. For has the author actually been to certain, uh, intellectual locales here in the United Kingdom? Or ever even watched EastEnders?

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. That’s enough now. Everyone off the internet. Back to work! :-)

“Ok, friends, so what are we going to do today?”

Ah, you came back. Thank you.

I apologize for having gone somewhat “professorial” yesterday after I’d stumbled over some in U.S. media’s indifference as to why most European countries have anti-hate speech laws in the first place. That tweet wasn’t the only example. Too many seem to expect everyone to understand us – our history, our heritage, what makes us tick – but appear utterly unable to make the modest effort to try to understand anyone else.

Anyway, after I got that out of my system, I forced myself to get down to more writing. I employed my tried and true method. “Ok, friends,” I looked at the screen and asked myself, “so what are we going to do today?”

I’m learning that no matter how much you write, it never gets easier. The creative process each day is much the same. And regardless of all you’d written before, you still feel only as good as your last paragraph.

The only consolation is after two novels with most of the same characters, by the start of the third one you know pretty well who they all are. You could practically have them write their own dialogue. And if you asked them about something currently happening in the real world, you suspect, uh, they’d have an opinion or two:

“What is this show?” she questioned, raising her eyebrows, incredulous.

James sat on the sofa next to her. She handed him the remote. “It looks like a repeat from a few years ago,” he said. “It’s on live late on, uh, Saturday nights.”

“I cannot believe this, the way they are making fun of Arabs,” she observed, appalled at what she was seeing.

James’s grandmother appeared. They wished her good morning as she took a seat.

Revisiting the television program, James continued. “Oh, they blast everything. Some of it is in bad taste for sure. A lot of it isn’t funny also.”

“You would not see that in France,” Isabelle noted seriously. “We must be careful. We have bombs in France for years. Now you here see the World Trade Center.”

By the end, I think I had some good bits fall onto the “page.” (Technically, into Word on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.) I’m still in the early, “skeleton” phase. With Frontiers, last year, I learned you should never, ever, consider “the long road” ahead.

However, I made a terrible mistake mentally in briefly doing precisely that. I’d sat back at one point and considered the finished books – which are sitting on my desk an arm’s reach away. For extra inspiration, I also have a group photo propped up of a bunch of us, and it includes our late friend Kam – in the last photo of her we took together.

The picture was suddenly the opposite of inspirational: it depressed me.

The books themselves were, in their ways, worse. Nearly 200,000 words and over 2 years work were staring back at me.

For a moment, I had a chill.

I put on my Sara Bareilles CD.

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See, I was telling the truth. I wasn’t kidding. I have that CD.

Briefly, I also really wanted to pour myself a drink – which I immediately discounted doing, while alone, before noon!

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A Sprite had to suffice.

I’d also considered taking a nap. (Obscure – or not so obscure, if you watch the program – Mad Men reference.)

I know I wrote something similar on here last year. Another volume to complete. Doing it AGAIN is a daunting task.

While you may have the book outlined, that’s far different than having the full tale completed. What gets you through is never imagining the “entire” project. Instead, it’s a series of tightly focused, small steps.

Slowly, a day at a time, that frightening void you had been staring at begins to fill itself up.

At least, early on, that’s what you must keep telling yourself.

Have a good Friday, wherever you are in world. :-)

On Location: Long Island And The Catskills

It’s finally back here in Britain. Last night, we watched the second episode of Revenge for 2014-2015. (We saw the opener last week.) I’ve written about that escapist show before, although not in this context.

The program does accurately reflect aspects of the incredible wealth (often “weekend wealth”) seen on Suffolk County’s “South Fork” – in east end towns such as Southampton and East Hampton. But when I write of “Long Island” in the novels, it’s about the “middle class” island. In one exchange in Passports between Uncle Bill and Joanne (James’s mother), I decided to slip in this reference to the dramatic difference in lifestyles:

As her brother gave her a long look, Joanne added caustically, “You know, we were always imagining Lake Ronkonkoma as the sublime setting.”

“Really? What? Not East Hampton?” he joked.

“Oh, yeh, us Brookhaven billionaires,” she smirked.

Brookhaven is a large town (that would probably be better described as a “township” – encompassing many hamlets and villages) in central Suffolk that runs the width of the island from north shore to south shore.

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A New Mafia

Thinking on after yesterday’s post about Muslims in France as part of the fabric of society now, and “jihadists” in their midst, I found myself considering the subject from this personal perch. It’s an imperfect comparison to be sure. But I don’t think it’s without important, relevant touch points.

Anyone with an Italian surname (as I have) in the U.S. has faced “the Godfather” reaction from the mass of Americans who have no Italian heritage.

One may reasonably equate terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher killers to Mafia “hitmen” beholden to their “bosses.” Like mob “foot soldiers,” they spring up from among failures in their “community.” They often prey on their own – “protection” rackets, etc. – in doing their masters’ bidding. They make the mass of their law-abiding “community” look bad, and often terrify them, but are also perversely supported by elements within that same victimized “community” itself.

And, again, like the Mafia, their “bosses” have “big dreams” of seeing the world re-ordered to conform to their own agendas and fantasies.

I find nothing entertaining about the Mafia. Yes, The Godfather films are great filmmaking (I’ve never read the books), but I grew up loathing them. I despise the veneer of “romance” and “honor” those movies have thrown over what are in reality murderous thugs who couldn’t run a lemonade stand without beating someone over the head with a brick.

Meaning Al Pacino and Marlon Brando they are most definitely not. They aspired to that. Indeed after The Godfather film was released, mobsters headed to cinemas to try to learn how they were supposed to behave. Seriously.

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It took decades to crush the worst of the Mafia in the U.S. The struggle was often spearheaded by determined Italian-American lawyers (like one Rudolph Giuliani) who had had enough. (The struggle in Italy continues.) But getting the mob under control never could have happened without all manner of lower-level law enforcement and “infiltration” that included, and required the participation of, and support of, ordinary Italian-Americans.

Email To A Younger Self

Dear Rob,

How are things back in 1995? Heh, heh, who am I kidding? I know….

It’s January 2015 now. I’m the older you. I thought I’d write to you and give you a heads up as to how things will go over the next couple of decades.

That girl from France? Nuh, uh. No, you won’t be marrying her. I know she says she loves you, but she also has submerged “worries” you don’t know about yet, but believe me you soon will.

In the longer run, it’ll be fine. Yes, for a while you’ll be sure the world has come to an end, but most everyone thinks that at a time like that. You’ll pick yourself up and brush yourself off. You’ll do college teaching for a few years too, but will fall out of love with that; but, once again, don’t worry.

In a couple of years, you’ll meet another – better – woman, and you’ll end up married and living in England with her. As hard as that is for you to believe. Oh, and she’ll be on at you now and then good-humo(u)redly about that long ago “babe” from across the Channel.

Now, this is very serious, and maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but I feel I have to. Something horrific will happen to the World Trade Center in September 2001. You’ll be in London at the time, in your office at the university where you will then work. Your father will be retired by then, safe at home, and no longer working in lower Manhattan. I won’t discuss the terrible details here. Let’s just move along and stick with you personally.

In years to come, you’ll meet masses of great people you have no clue about in 1995. Several you will come to adore. Sadly you will lose one far before her time, but the idea you might have gone through life without ever having known her…. well, after you meet her you’ll soon find yourself unable to imagine never having known her.

Inevitably, you’ll get a bit grayer, but, hey, you will still have most of your hair. Not bad. You haven’t fallen apart just yet.

Eventually – as tough as this is also to believe – you’ll end up writing novels. Yes, I know you scoff at fiction and love history, but you’ll meld the two. You’ll even base characters on some of the very people you know now (including, of course, Uncle _____, as well as, uh, Mademoiselle…. oh, you know her name), and several who will leave us forever by 2015 (including that woman friend you will make in a few years).

You’ll sort of immortalize them. That’s writing “history” in a way too, isn’t it? Sure it is.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks

Oh, and you love that Compaq Presario. You’re probably wondering on what PC I’m writing you this from twenty years down the road? Well, things have moved on a bit technologically.

America Online? Don’t ask. And I’m not writing this on a PC anyway. It’s called an iPad. And it uses wifi. Oh, and your future novels will be read on a Kindle, as well as printed by Amazon.

Sorry, sorry, I forgot. You have no idea what I’m talking about with those. Never mind. You’ll find out.

By the way, when you leave your final university job a bit over a decade from now, your boss in England will tell you that she’s sure you’re going to do something “really big” eventually.

Well, currently, you’re still working on that. ;-)

All The Best,
The Much Older You. :-)

Watching Our Words

Like so many – perhaps including you – I followed yesterday’s coverage of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris by gunmen apparently claiming to have been avenging the magazine’s caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

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Last night, on France 24, during discussion of the killings, a studio guest wondered at one point if too much criticism of Islam was stoking tension with Muslims in France. Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” came up. (The other day, just before the attack, I saw noted that “Submission” had been “Number 1″ in Kindle book sales in France.) Bloomberg View summarizes the book this way:

It was at least symbolic that the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo was a newly published book, “Submission,” by the French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel’s plot imagines France in 2022 after the election of an Islamist government, which has excluded women from working and opened Islamic schools. The premise is ludicrous (even by 2030, Muslims are projected to make up only 10 percent of the population, and France is among the world’s most determinedly secular countries).

The France 24 guest had made much the same argument about the book being “ludicrous.” (I think he called it “preposterous.”)

Anchor/ presenter Laura Cellier quickly – and quite rightly – replied that the book is fiction. She questioned: Should fiction not be allowed?

Can they both have been right? That there may be “too much criticism,” but that criticism – in all its forms, including via fiction – is going to come everyone’s way in a democracy? Well, yes.

It was – to me anyway, as a writer – eery how the issue had been framed in those terms.

Caricature cartoons, of course, can be hard-hitting stuff – especially if you are on the receiving end. Charlie Hebdo assailed politicians, the religious, most anything, in often the most crass and vulgar manners. In fact, its attacks on Islam have often been relatively “tame” compared to how it has regularly skewed Christianity. For example, this was published last month, and tweeted last night by Paris-resident photojournalist, and Syrian anti-Assad activist (and regular guest on France 24), Emma Suleiman:

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We have all seen what we may support, or treasure, torn apart by critics. Most of us also just take it in stride. We understand it’s called freedom of speech and that it’s a bedrock of our democracy.

Yet we can easily forget not everyone everywhere thinks that way. If you are an author, are you mindful of what you write? Do you ever worry about any possible reaction beyond just a “1 star” Amazon review?

I think on some of the things I’ve touched upon for story purposes – race, religion, immigration, Israel, Palestine, even police brutality, among others – and I do wonder occasionally how some readers might receive them. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or two, and I admit I’ve thought to myself briefly, “Is this such a good idea, writing this?”

I’ve not consciously cut out anything out of “fear.” But I have also been “careful” at times, partly (as I reflect on it now) out of an innate respect that I may actually feel, and which I am perfectly entitled to feel. Moreover, being rude should not be elevated to a virtue that’s beyond criticism either.

There’s a line here, and I can’t say I know where it is. Yet if we ever lose the ability to feel free to speak our minds even in an “offensive” manner (to some), where are we? Somewhere I suspect most of us surely don’t want to find ourselves.

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UPDATE: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, in the Telegraph….

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….is well-worth a read.

For My Eyes Only – For Now

Yesterday, I was writing at one point while listening to the “Gladiator: More Music From The Motion Picture” CD I’d gotten for Christmas (along with, uh, Sara Bareilles – now, there’s a musical contrast):

Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]
Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]

At the outset “More Music’s” inner sleeve notes make clear that what’s heard on the CD are often “first drafts” of music from the film, or music that didn’t make it. So technically it isn’t from the released, final “Motion Picture.” (By the way, if you’ve never seen Gladiator, it is really something else. Superb.) Composer Hans Zimmer writes:

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Musicians can get away with that, whereas a novelist would probably look ridiculous doing something similar.

Every draft I do is dated that one day. The next day is another draft, dated that day, and so on. If I make a subsequent change, I can always go back to an older iteration and re-use something. I never “obliterate” an eclipsed version so it’s lost forever.

I’m continuing in that “approach” with the brand new, third volume’s (very early) manuscript. Doing it that way, I’ve kept hundreds of Word drafts from the two now finished novels. The completed books unsurprisingly often ended up rather different when compared to what was in early drafts.

One example: Names. In Passports, initially “James” and “Béatrice” were known by other names. “James’s” earlier name just didn’t click for me, nor fit within his family scheme I was developing. In fact I now recall “Béatrice” actually had two earlier names. I went for “Béatrice” in the end owing to it having been a common name given to many Frenchwomen born from the 1960s until the mid-1970s. Both new names, to me, worked better in the stories. Now, I can’t imagine them called anything else.

In Frontiers, “Rita” is first mentioned while James’s parents – Jim and Joanne – and grandmother are chatting about his upbringing (while he is safely well out of hearing a continent away):

“Hmm, not high school. They were in junior high. He was fourteen. Ninth grade,” Joanne corrected herself slightly.

“Rita was his first real girlfriend,” Jim turned to Lucy and recalled fondly. “In some class she passed him a note with her phone number. At first, he didn’t want his mother to know.”

“Hiding things from his mother began pretty young with him,” Joanne declared.

She had a different name too, which I changed only about a month before publication. Her previous name was, to me, just too similar to another character’s name. It was as simple as that: I didn’t want any reader confusion.

Understand, though, I won’t reveal here what their earlier names were because I don’t want anyone thinking about any of them, “Hey, Rob, I liked that other name better.” ;-)

Another example. I must have made at least two dozen major changes to the opening chapter of Frontiers. By that I don’t mean stuff here and there. I mean I shredded and re-shredded the entire thing – background, location, happenings, nearly all of it – repeatedly until I was satisfied with it.

I did that because several times after I’d re-read it, I still didn’t like it. “It doesn’t convey what I want,” my shoulders slumped again and again. “And it’s the first chapter!”

I can’t see myself as a writer ever releasing the whole “first draft” of a finished book to show readers “the process.” The “sneak peeks” I had shared into Frontiers over the year were just that – and largely finalized. The final version is THE STORY. Looking back on them now, the earlier drafts, frankly, often make me cringe.

Anne stepped up to him. “Oh, yes, of course.” She added, “You’re turning into a silly old Frenchman. Do me a favor, if you’re looking to make a fool of yourself with a girl fifty years younger than you, at least wait until after I’m dead.”

My books and “papers” will be left first to my wife. I suppose she’d leave them to my niece and nephews. Unless of course Oxford wants them. (Hey, my nephew goes there. ;-) )

What they do with them after I’m gone someday is entirely their call. In that, I suppose I see things a bit like Isabelle’s mother, ripping good-naturedly into Isabelle’s father in Frontiers. What happens after I’m dead, well, happens.

Have a good Tuesday. :-)

Short Attention Span Literature

Over pre-lunch drinks before he headed to London (on the train) on New Year’s Eve (why would he want to spend New Year’s with his aunt and uncle, right?), I had an interesting chat with my 20 year old nephew. An Oxford Classics student, he is so bright he is frighteningly intimidating.

We ended up discussing modern writing and my books. “I sell Kindle books mostly,” I explained. “For some reason, I feel the print versions may ‘read’ better, but they can be ten times as expensive, and I’ve got no control over that. But if there weren’t e-books, I probably wouldn’t sell many books at all, given the price of the paperbacks.”

We also laughed about the evolution from print to e-reader not yet taking hold everywhere. “The Kindle isn’t big yet in the Classics,” he joked.

Free Stock Photo: A young businessman holding a tablet computer
Free Stock Photo: A young businessman holding a tablet computer

We then moved on to how we write today. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – has changed us so much, we agreed.

He suggested they have especially impacted how we follow news. “But no one has any time to reflect anymore,” he added. “Journalists rush to publish online, and sometimes they really get it wrong.”

Definitely. So much is happening in so many places, on so many platforms, shared by so many people who also aren’t officially journalists but are certainly worth reading. It’s great in so many ways – we follow people who are everywhere in the world.

Yet we also struggle to keep up. Our feeds overwhelm us. Tolerance for long passages, much less wading through complicated ones, is apparently becoming less.

Despite all the books out there, even e-books, one suspects many people now don’t really read full novels. That’s not a surprise. We all know even newspapers are not what they once were, although there are still some who do read print papers:

My father-in-law, immersed the other day in Britain's Daily Telegraph. There are still people who read print, day old, news. [Photo by me, 2014.]
My father-in-law, immersed the other day in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. There are still people who read print, day old, news. [Photo by me, 2014.]
In my writing, I said, I try to take into account what may be a “short attention span” among some readers. So I deliberately compose short, tight paragraphs. I aim for no more than about five sentences, tops.

“I’ve noticed that,” my nephew replied, having read my first novel.

“But I also want depth and nuance. It’s a heckuva balancing act. Write too wordily, try to say too much, and you’ll lose your readers,” I related. “It’s a shame, because some things do take more than a few sentences to describe properly. A well-written descriptive paragraph is like a beautiful painting.”

Think about it. Look at so much fiction today. It is – bam! bam! bam! – so quick:

‘I love you!’

‘No, you can’t!’

‘I do!’

‘No!’

Eh, no stealing that. That’s mine. I think it’s gotta be the opening lines to a future prize-winning, best seller. :-)

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UPDATE: By sheer coincidence, clicking over for a “read” a little while ago, I noticed CNN has dramatically changed its web site:

Screen shot of CNN's new web site.
Screen shot of CNN’s new web site.

As I looked around, it appears very blog-like. It reminds me even of some WordPress templates. ;-)

There seems heavy reliance on photos, videos, and short headlines. Yes, you can click through to longer pieces of course. But “reading” in depth seems assumed to be almost something that’s done by only the minority of visitors.