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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Festivals, Festivals and More Festivals

You can hardly turn around in Southern California these days without stumbling across a Festival. It seems that we're all eager to begin enjoying the spring weather. Last weekend had the Coachella Music Festival and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, both which were estimated to attract between 140,000 and 160,000 attendees. It's exciting to hear that many people interested in books and reading.

A much lesser known festival, in a town that I'm rather fond of is beginning tomorrow and carrying on through the weekend. It's the Ojai Storytelling Festival. Ojai is a pretty little town, just an hour north of Los Angeles in Ventura County. It sits in a bowl of low mountains that turn pink at sunset. The majority of its cute shops line one short block, but great hikes are everywhere. If you get up in the mountains you can take in gorgeous views of the Ojai valley, with its orange groves and white wood-fenced farms. It's very hot in the summertime, but this time of year should be perfect.

The Ojai Storytelling Festival is a great event for families, but there is an adults only event on Saturday night. Let me know if you end up attending!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Reading Like the Tortoise Instead of the Hare (How Aesop is to Blame For My Slow Reading)

I am an exceptionally slow reader. If I read an entire five page chapter in a thirty minute sitting, I'm pretty pleased with myself. As a lover of literature, this leisurely tortoise stroll of a pace does not make for very effective use of my time. I'm forced to look on in green jealousy as other hare-like readers go jogging by me, juggling multiple books like taunting retired circus clowns.

Of course, there is something to be said for my current tortoise style approach. I will eventually complete every book I pick up, and when I'm reading I'm entirely devoted to that one story, that one author, that one tone - but how many other books do I simply not have time for as a result? This plagues me. I will always feel inadequate when I compare myself to other "well-read" brethren.

I blame Aesop and his silly fable. Slow and steady does not always win the race. However, in thinking about my reading pace, I've boiled it down to a few key contributing factors:

1.) Distractions - You can't deny it. There are a lot of distractions in this modern world, like the easily accessible internet, my ringing cell phone, and the conversation at my favorite coffee place that is just a little too loud. Distractions mean that I'm often reading the same paragraph or sentence over and over. It's a real pace killer.

2.) Time Commitment - At best, I have only an hour and a half of real reading time carved out of every day - an hour of which is on my lunch hour which is sometimes shared with a companion instead of reading or involves many distractions (see above). With all the things I want to accomplish post work, including cooking dinner, exercising, catching up on phone calls, there isn't very much time left in the day for reading.

3.) Narcolepsy - The last thing I do before I go to sleep every night is read in bed. Which means that when I read, I tend to get sleepy. It's a Pavlovian response. I open the book, read a few paragraphs and start to nod off. If the book is exceptionally good, it will keep me awake, but when Neal Stephenson is in a marathon paragraph description of Baroque Paris, I'm usually not getting very far.

I've heard from a lot of people that if you cut out television watching you have more time to read. I'm going to do something different. I'm cutting out my commute.

You read it here folks. No more sitting in traffic. I pledge to commute at least three times a week on the bus, thus allowing me at least an hour a day more to read, giving the environment a break, and my pocketbook a break from gas purchasing. After all, I'd rather my commuter dollars go to the Los Angeles public transportation budget than Exxon Mobile.

This is my pledge. This is my experiment. Look out fellow readers, I'm about to speed past you on the bus!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Textual Inspiration #5 & DailyLit Follow-Up

If you may recall from this post, I am testing out the site DailyLit, a website that sends daily portions of books to subscribers' inboxes. I chose Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Perhaps not the wisest choice, however, I'd never read it before, and it being an American classic, it felt important to tuck it under my belt.

I confess to being only on portion number eight of 260. It's gonna be a long read. However, very early on, this passage struck me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I have bolded my favorite phrase. It's the first paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Passing on Passover

Tell your children of it and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

As it turns out, I'm Jewish. This past Saturday night marked the beginning of my favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar: Passover. One of the primary reasons that I love Passover is that it is a holiday centered around storytelling.

On the first night of Passover each year, Jews gather to have a ceremonial feast called a seder, during which a story is retold, taken largely from the section of the bible called Exodus. It is a story of liberation, beginning with the Jews living as slaves in the land of Egypt and ends with their dangerous late night escape to freedom.

Particular importance is placed on telling the story as if it were experienced first hand ourselves, reliving the pain and bitterness of slavery, and the joy of redemption. We tell the story as if it happened to us. This is about when I was a slave in Egypt. Personalizing the story makes us appreciative of the freedom we enjoy, and grateful to our ancestors who came before us.

As Jews have survived persecution through the years, storytelling has only increased in importance. Memories of the Nazi holocaust are carefully recorded and repeated with the hope that passing it on to each generation will keep us from allowing history to repeat itself.

While storytelling in this way is not unique to Judaism, it is worthy of our attention, especially as writers. Oral traditions - stories passed on from generation to generation - are really how writing began.

What's beautiful about traditional storytelling, like the story of Passover, is that it reminds us of and connects us to who we once were. Whether that's in the context of a religion, a country, or even a family. Telling stories of our past reminds us that we are all a part of an ongoing story.

The quote I began the post with is written on the opening page of my grandfather's memoir, his self-published life story about his childhood in a Polish shtetl, fleeing the Nazi holocaust, being imprisoned in Russia, his marriage to my grandmother, their journey to Israel, and eventually settling in the United States. In many ways, this story that he has told, and preserved, is the beginning of my story. In many ways, his story is my story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Trash Fiction vs. Short Fiction Demolition Derby

I've been doing a lot of what I call trash fiction writing: working on writing projects that have no particular future, at a low level of difficulty that require a lot of time and concentration but do not challenge my skill, language mastery, or general intelligence.

I go back and forth in my thinking over whether this is a problem. Yes, it's good to turn out material, even if it's not elevated, and even when you're writing something off hand, at least you're writing something and honing your craft. On the other hand, trash fiction writing is wheel spinning.

So in order to get back in touch with the literary me, the me that is inspired by language and story telling, I did a little memory lane search. I decided to see if an old writing professor, one who taught me quite a bit, had a blog. I took Rob Roberge's short fiction class at UCLA Extension last year; From his website I found a link to one of his short stories that was published in ZYZZYVA which happens to be one of my favorite literary journals, and one of my big time writing goals.

After all the trash fiction I've been writing, reading Rob's story felt like getting hit on the head with one of Wile E. Coyote's anvils. Enough trash fiction. This short fiction makes my heart lurch and my stomach clench in all the best ways. This is what I want to write.

So please enjoy Swiss Engineering by Rob Roberge. It's well worthy of the ten minutes it will take you to read it. It begins like this:
I enter Skip's Volvo into the Crawford Raceway's Saturday Night Amateur Demolition Derby. I'm dizzy from the heat and the fact that I've had maybe five hours sleep in the last five days.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Exploring Your Inner Semicolon

Grammar is not my forte. I remember learning sentence analysis back in junior high; we had these tiny little text books that were a quarter of the size (size not length) of all the other text books, the implication being that grammar just wasn't important, especially when compared to the American history tomes we dragged around in our backpacks. So my writing style, as you can see demonstrated in the previous sentence, has evolved into a mess of commas and hanging phrases driven mostly by an assessment of whether something sounds right.

It was with pleasure and amusement that I stumbled across this article a couple months ago in the New York Times devoted to the semicolon, inspired by a recent use of the mysterious punctuation in a transit system public service advertisement. For a grammar challenged writer, the semicolon has always seemed to me like a vague shadowy tool. What exactly is the semicolon for and why would I ever need it? The linked article actually provides a rather clear explanation:
Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.
Semicolon sightings are rare for me indeed. When I spot one in a text, I find myself compelled to roll back and forth over the sentence, trying to ascertain exactly what compelled the writer to use it. When I've seen one in the prose of a fellow writer, I've thought to myself, "he must be a genius!" Because it must take exceptional confidence in oneself to utilize this strange half-breed tool, the semicolon.

At the website for Purdue University's Online Writing Lab I found this page about the comma vs. semicolon. At the bottom, they provide links to two short comma vs. semicolon quizzes that you can take and score. After getting 100% on each quiz, I am emboldened with more confidence in my semicolon usage.

What I still haven't found an answer for is why? Why use a semicolon? What emotional elements or prose context for your sentences would indicate that you need a half stop instead of a full stop? Until I find an answer to that question for myself, or within my prose, I will continue to throw my commas around willy nilly and bring all sentences to full stops, reserving the semicolon for winking emoticons. ; - )

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reading for the Time Impaired

Not too long ago, I posted about the evolving way that literature is being consumed, and how that affects us as writers. All of the comments on that post, including a recent one that has me revisiting the topic, acknowledged that as a culture we seem to be moving towards consuming our entertainment in short bursts.

Well, apparently, we're not the only people who think so. Established about a year ago, DailyLit is a website that allows subscribers to receive daily portions of books in their e-mail inbox or RSS. In this way, reading some of those classic monstrosities that have always been intimidating (I'm looking at you War and Peace) suddenly seem not so scary.

Classic works in the public domain are offered free of charge, but now with over 100,000 users (Newsweek), DailyLit is charging for new releases offered in the same way. Unlike what we were talking about, the novel is written in the usual format, only it's parceled for consumption. Think how successful a novel could be if it were specifically written to be consumed at this pace, with hanging moments and well planned drama. See, we're wrapping back around to Charles Dickens, and the serial.

This idea appeals to me in some sense. I'm at my desk/computer for 80% of my day it seems, so why not have that bit available to read while I'm taking a break from my work, or waiting for something to upload? On the other hand, I'm still not sold on reading without having that book in my hand, or being able to curl up with it in bed.

So, in order to form an educated opinion on the site, I will be selecting a free classic to subscribe to, and I will see how I like the service. At the moment, I'm choosing between Moby Dick (260 parts) and A Tale of Two Cities (170 parts), both classics that I have not read.

As always, I will keep you updated with my progress. I hope if any of you decide to try it out, you'll let me know how it goes.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Textual Inspiration #4

In honor of the recent announcement that Bob Dylan has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, please enjoy this special music edition of textual inspiration:

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
She came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I'll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost
I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed.
Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love.
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Shelter from the Storm from Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Little Bit of Housekeeping

You may have noticed the shiny new masthead that went up late last night. In my on-going efforts to make this blog more like my blog and less like a blogger template, I'll be tweaking things here and there, adding various items, and shifting things around. My HTML knowledge is limited (read that as non-existent) but I'm not too shabby at googling.

If you ever have a suggestion, or strong feelings about a change I've made, feel free to just drop it in whatever comment box is handy.

Hope the new masthead is more inspiring than the last!

How to Write a Killer Synopsis - Part 1

A writer friend was recently faced with the terrifying task of writing a synopsis of his novel to submit to a potential agent. Part of the reason why writing a synopsis is often so daunting for writers is because there is no singular standard for a synopsis; no set amount of pages; no consensus on style; no set word count to page length ratio. No, you just have to wing it, or follow whatever guidelines are provided by the person who requested the synopsis.

But the real challenge of writing a synopsis is trying to shrink everything you're attempting to do in your novel - all of the brilliant themes, character backstory, and complicated plot twists - into just a page or two of entertaining dramatic summary.

Before I jump in and start trying to tell you how to write your synopsis, let me briefly run down my qualifications. You may or may not be aware, but the person who is likely to read your synopsis first, the first hurdle to get an agent's attention, is going to be the assistant. For six years, that person was me. For four years I opened the query letters on an agent's desk in the New York publishing industry (both fiction and nonfiction), and for two years I did the same on a motion picture literary agent's desk in Hollywood (directors and screenwriters). So I know what worked for me, and subsequently what worked for the agents.


When I began working on this post I did some cursory google searching to see what other guidance was out there, and I came across this article by Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc which I think makes an excellent suggestion right up front. Before you begin writing your synopsis write a single sentence that describes your book. In reference to a screenplay, this is called a "logline."

This idea should not scare you. Yes, you have an enormous book with lots of themes, a big complex plot, and kitchen sink full of characters. However, you should still be able to boil it down to one singular idea. Sometimes that idea will be plot oriented, and sometimes that idea might be theme oriented.

Try this exercise: think up a story that you are very familiar with and try to describe it in one sentence.
A young hobbit joins up with his friends to make a difficult journey to destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of the dark lord who pursues him.

A young hobbit learns the meaning of true fellowship as he and a band of friends make a dangerous journey to save their home from the clutches of a dark lord.

A dark lord is gathering power, threatening the whole of Middle Earth, and it is up to one small hobbit and his fellowship of friends to carry the key to the dark lord's power, a ring, to its destruction.
As you can see, there are many different ways to approach this challenge, but at this point you may be asking yourself, why waste the time?

Because knowing what your book is about in one concise sentence will help you write your synopsis the same way that a thesis statement helps you write an essay. As you write you can refer to that logline to ensure that everything you are including in the synopsis is in support of that one main idea. Have too many plot points and ideas and are unsure of what can be considered extraneous? You simply need to ask yourself, is what I'm writing supporting the logline? Is this detail necessary to tell the story I promised in that one sentence?

So take some time to think about it, and write that single sentence that captures everything you're trying to do with your novel. A complete synopsis won't be that far behind.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Weekend Wrap-Up

Well... the weekend was not as productive as I had hoped. Friday's post has left me in a position to put into very strong words what happens when I don't carve out the time to work on my writing: I did not further my writing career over the weekend.

Friday's playful list has become Monday's difficult lesson - I must set aside specific time to work on my writing. Even when the tax man must be paid, social events must be attended, errands must be run, and relaxation feels like necessity. Just because there's no time card to punch, doesn't mean I shouldn't take writing as seriously as work. It deserves that attention.

So last weekend's list becomes this week's list, and I am even more determined to work on more than one item. Tax man, be damned!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Because Every Blog Needs an Occasional List

Top Five Things to do This Weekend to Further My Writing Career

1. Submit short story, California Five Cent Redemption.

2. Finish tweaking Father Leo, current short story in progress.

3. Submit Father Leo.

4. Review failed screenplay and scavenge it for parts.

5. Begin brainstorming novel.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Pile

I think most people have heard the famous saying from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross "A. B. C. - Always Be Closing." I take the same approach to reading - minus the cursing, the testosterone and the gold watch. I say, A. B. R. - Always Be READING.

If you want to be a writer you have to read. Read everything. Read best sellers to see what's working in the literary marketplace. Read prize winners to see what critics like. Read classics to see what will stand the test of time. Read. Read. Read.

Unfortunately for me, I am a slow reader. Because of that, I rarely read the same author more than once, no matter how much I loved their book, so that I can experience different styles and voices and learn different things. I generally go back and forth between what I consider "work reading" and "pleasure reading." Some of my favorite books have been slow paced, dense, or otherwise very difficult to get through, requiring patience and effort. But more often than not, the pay-off when I reach the end of those books makes it well worth my investment. However, I generally need to recover by reading something light.

I'm just finishing a rather consumable mystery at the moment and need to select a new book from my growing pile of to-reads. So I'm opening it up to a vote. Here are the options:

1. Watership Down by Richard Adams
2. Wicked by Gregory Maguire

3. Underworld by Don DeLillo
4. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

5. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
6. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

I certainly have more in my to-read stack, but these are the ones that I currently have in my possession without a trip to the book store (there might be more actually, but these jump to mind without re-organizing my book shelf).

So if you have an opinion about what should be next up, please vote in the comments. I'll be sure to tell you what I think when I've finished reading!