Archives for the month of: December, 2011
light in the dark by emiliokuffer
light in the dark, a photo by emiliokuffer on Flickr.

It’s hard to write a powerful ending to an already beautiful book. So much has been built up, so much has happened, so much has been said, taught and learned. How do you end something beautiful?

My favorite ending in all of literature is that of A Tale of Two Cities (it’s quite a popular one). The entire book is wonderful, the writing skilled, the story twisting, as all of Charles Dicken’s book do. But, it is not until the final pages that the story and the protagonist, Sydney Carton, take on a supernal feel.

Sydney Carton, a flawed, sloven, selfish alcoholic waits in line for his turn to be beheaded by the guillotine. Not for any crime of his own but to purposely die in the place of the man he most hates, Charles Darnay. Darnay who looks almost identical to Carton but who in every other way is nothing like him. He reminds Sydney Carton of who he could have been. Darnay, a mocking reflection of a failed life who is able to capture the heart of the one person that Sydney Carton loves. I believe to truly appreciate Carton’s sacrifice, you have to read the book. As you follow him through the story you see how imperfect and hateful he is and because of this, the ending is all the more beautiful. He goes to his death for someone he hates, to bless the life of someone he loves.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

I could read the last few pages of this book over and over again and never tire of them.

I love when a hero dies. It is so moving. The ultimate sacrifice. My friends tease me, finding it morbid and incomprehensible. But . . . my standard for a hero is very high. I expect perfection and a willingness to do anything for those a hero loves. And this is why:

John 15: 13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Now let’s examine another story (and examine it as just a story at this pointnothing more) that is connected to that of Sydney Carton’s. The Son of God (much like those in Greek mythology) comes to earth to teach us how to be happy. He is loved and hated. He takes upon Himself all of the pain and sadness of every person who has ever or will ever live, even for those who do not believe in Him, even for those who would revile and abuse Him. He does it because of love. Perfect love. He doesn’t have to, He choses to. And then He rises again, conquerer of death.

Whether you are a believer or not, the story of Jesus Christ, His birth, His life, His death and His resurrection, is amazing. It has depth, heroism and a happy ending.

John 11:25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live

I, for one, am a believer. And He is the standard for all of my heroes. Merry Christmas.

In the end ... by doozzle
In the end …, a photo by doozzle on Flickr.

Until recently I never wrote “serious” reviews for books. I would occasionally write a review, for my own benefit, on Goodreads to remind myself how I felt about a particular book (I have a terrible memory for details.) But I had never posted anything in-depth and certainly nothing on Amazon, actually trying to sell (or disuade people from buying) a product. My opinion, although valuable to me, is simply my emotional reaction. Some people like to believe that their opinion is the final word on any given subject. I actually felt that way when I was a teenager. I truly believed that I had the best taste in music (and believe me, I did not), that it was above reproach, and anyone who disagreed with me was simply wrong. But then I grew up and realized that opinions are how you feel about something. I can’t tell anybody else how they should feel about anything. I can simply state how it makes me feel.

When I decided to write my first book review (with great hesitation) I began thinking about what it would mean, to the author and to myself.

Whether I like a book or not, it is undeniable that a writer somewhere has put effort, time and their hopes into that book. My opinion and feelings about their work may not coincide with what they hoped people would think, but that does not diminish their effort and the fact that other people can love or appreciate their work. It is not my place to try and destroy what they have created.

At the same time, I feel the most comfortable with myself when I am absolutely honest. I have been told that I am sometimes honest to a fault. So, when I attempt to review a book, I cannot in good conscience hide my true feelings. And I wouldn’t want anyone to do that for me either. What someone has to say may hurt, but if they approach their critique from the respectful perspective I explained above, well, they cannot be faulted for the way they feel.

I try to find a balance between acknowledging the writer’s efforts and sharing how I truly feel about a book. Giving respect to myself and the author. My reviews aren’t amazing. Sometimes people find them helpful and I imagine sometimes people don’t. But I am honest and hopefully not destructive.

That first review I wrote was for a book written by somebody I know. For me, it was an ethically difficult predicament to be in. Fortunately, I liked the book and it was well written. But, what if I had not liked it? What if it had been terrible? In this world of self-promotion I’ve noticed a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” trend among writers and bloggers. Dishonesty can extend to everything in your life, even a feigned opinion. I don’t like the idea that writers would read books that they would not normally be interested in and then rate them highly simply with the hope of support and recognition from that author when their time comes. It reeks of cronyism.

It’s wonderful to be supportive of your friends, family, and other writers. It is even entirely possible that people truly do love the works of all of the other writers in their personal and professional networks. But how, as an outsider, can we judge the veracity of a review if the writer is raving about the work of the people in their network while not being so generous with writers outside their association? It makes a reviewer come across as partial and highly suspect.

Admittedly it is a lot of pressure. How do you tell someone you know that you don’t like their book? The secret? Don’t read it to begin with. (But, that’s not really a solution, is it?)

I believe in my writing enough that I don’t want to force it on anyone. That’s just not who I am and I hope to let my work speak for itself. As an aspiring novelist I fear the temptation to fall into the crony trap. So, I write this now as a challenge to myself. I will be the first person to call myself out as a hypocrite if my tune suddenly changes at the first sign of publication.

If you want me to read your work, be forewarned, I vow to myself that I will be honest. But, I promise to be respectful too.

The El on Wabash by Smoothfoote
The El on Wabash, a photo by Smoothfoote on Flickr.

I love Chicago.

Of course I love the city skyline, the museums, Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan; but it’s the less obvious things that have worked their way into my heart.

I love the unique neighborhoods. I love riding the train (which is supposedly called the “L” but I have never actually heard anyone use that term.) I love how I can be surrounded by people but still be completely alone. I love the amazing food (especially Indian) and restaurants. I love the Cubs even though I don’t love baseball. I love that they never win the World Series because of the curse of the billy goat. I love the architecture, not just the well known buildings by the famous architects, but I love that everything is old and brick and unique. I love to think about the people who lived in those same apartment buildings and houses 50, 80, 100 years before. Real people with names and jobs and lives and families who now lay in the beautiful cemeteries that I look out on as I ride the train.

I love that it now seems natural to me that the mail carriers don’t pick up outgoing mail, you actually have to drop letters in the blue boxes on the street corner, and no, don’t try those green boxes (even though they look almost identical to the blue mailboxes) those are for storage. I find it amusing that at a red light people will pull up next to you on the shoulder or in a turn lane and then when the light changes, quickly pull out to cut you off. (These people apparently have somewhere important to be or else they were sick on the day that “wait your turn” was taught in kindergarten.)
I love the alleys which for me have been a never ending source of free, practically new, stuff. I love the graffiti that I can see as I wait on the train platform, writers making their mark, becoming part of the city. I love being able to walk everywhere I need to go. I love that there is a beautiful beach just half a mile from my apartment and the cheerful man who greets me as he does tai chi there every day.

I love that the weather defies the meteorologists daily and in the spring and fall you have to be prepared for every possibility. I love the constant sirens and honking in the summer and the deathly quiet that settles on the city once the thermometer reaches 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I am always amazed by the large potholes that appear overnight in the winter and can swallow half of a car if you’re not careful. I love the camaraderie of complaining about the bitterly cold winter and knowing that unless a person has experienced it firsthand, they have no idea. I love that when a true blizzard hits, the moment it’s over people are digging out and getting on with their lives; the same way people started rebuilding the day after The Fire of 1871. I love that when the very short summer finally arrives that it is so beautiful I can easily forget just how long and cold the winter actually was. I love that Chicago is my home.

Some of these things that I love, they weren’t great at first. They once seemed like inconveniences but now are all part of the charm, the way this life works. I wasn’t born here, I didn’t grow up here, but this city is a part of me now. Chicago feels more like home than anywhere that I have ever lived.

I wanted to write a story about a family who lived in a city but until I came to Chicago, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t really know what a city felt or looked like. Chicago has been my muse. My writing, characters and setting came to life here. Each and every time I walk out my door something inspires me and triggers my imagination.

I am not comparing Chicago to anywhere else. Every life is different and exciting in it’s own way. I’m just saying, this has been my life for the past 3.5 years and I love it.

And I’m going to miss it.

Perfection in a coffee cup; or, the way I like it by Daniel Lestarjette
Perfection in a coffee cup; or, the way I like it, a photo by Daniel Lestarjette on Flickr.

The vacation from writing is over. Actually, it was probably longer than it needed to be. On December 1st, I was going to keep plowing away with my editing but I read a Post-NaNoWriMo pep talk that compared my 50,000 word feat to a marathon and said I needed a break. I took the advice to heart and let the laziness ensue. But, just like taking time off from running, the longer I went without it, the harder it was to start again. I missed writing. I missed waking up each morning, excited to write or dreading it. I missed that purpose and that sense of accomplishment.

And if I’m being honest, fear, was holding me back. I am terrified of editing my manuscript. Simply because 146,068 words is extremely daunting. It’s a lot of material and I don’t know where to start.

Then I discovered Scrivener. It is a book writing software and it is simply amazing. It’s making my editing seamless and almost easy. I am in love. It took me 3 hours to do the basic tutorial but when I was finished, I just sat staring at my computer wondering why nobody told me about this software before. I’m not trying to sell it, if you’re curious, go check out the website. I am just that proud pet owner showing you the weird pictures of my dog dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween. You may not want to see my pictures, but I’m going to show you anyway.

These are my 3 favorite features of Scrivener. (Although there are many more amazing ones.)

1. Easy Organization: Imagine writing a novel in Word, or Googledocs, Pages or whatever word processing software you use. Sometimes you skip around, it starts getting longer (imagine you’re working with a 500+ page book) and you have to start using the “Find” feature to jump to places where you want to write. Things get lost. Things get out of order. You begin to forget to connect parts of your story because they are buried. Scrivener allows me to divide my book up into folders and documents which can be visually organized as an outline however I want: Books, Parts, Chapters, Scenes within chapters. All I need to do to go to those chapters is click on the folder in the bar off to the left. In addition, each of these folders and files can be visually seen as index cards on a virtual cork board where I can add notes describing the scene or can leave a watermark with the status (First Draft, Needs work, Finished, etc.).

2. Notes, Research, and References: Along with the organization you can attach files, pictures, url links, videos and references to the documents. Sometimes I gather visual cues to get my mind in the right place to write a certain scene. I can click on that index card or file and see those pictures. Or I can read off to the side notes I’ve left myself about what needs to be worked on or find links to references and background research that I’ve collected. Because I am writing a trilogy, this ability to leave myself notes is vital because I can remind myself about clues that I need to leave. And overall it just makes my editing better because I can taunt myself into producing a better novel through rude messages about poor writing, inconsistencies in my characters and holes in my plot.

1. Snapshots: This may very well be my favorite feature. Before I change anything when editing a scene or a chapter, I can take a “snapshot” which just means that the program saves my original document and puts a time stamp on it and the new, edited document becomes is a completely separate file. If I decide I don’t really like the changes I made, I can go back to the original document or I can pull up both documents at the same time to compare them, Scrivener shows me, through colored text and lines crossing through words, what it was that I added or took out. It’s brilliant.

[FYI: Scrivener was originally written for Mac and that’s the version I use.  The Windows version might be a little different.]

So now that I have the tools to edit, I need the goal. And here it is.

I will have a 100,000 word second draft completed by February 1st. And then I’ll pass it on for peer review.

In the meantime, I’ll post another excerpt from my book as soon as I have something decent edited.

The end by Alexandre Moreau | Photography
The end, a photo by Alexandre Moreau | Photography on Flickr.

The other night I found myself lamenting that it had been so long since I’d worked on my book. Moments later, when I was calculating just how long it had been, I realized that the date was December 1st, meaning it had only been one day since NaNoWriMo ended and I declared myself a winner.

Writing is no longer in my heart. It’s in my blood. A necessity approaching eating and sleeping. I thought when I posted The Doldrums that I was just days away from a month long vacation from writing. A well needed reprieve. But simply the act of putting my feelings and frustrations into words and posting it on this blog revived me and I found myself wanting to write even more.

NaNoWriMo enabled me to write the ever elusive words “THE END” on my first novel but it also taught me a few other things about myself and writing along the way.

1. Goals need a finish line: I’ve never been fond of goals. I am an all or nothing kind of person. If I want to do something, I am determined to do it. If I don’t want to do something, even if it’s a worthy goal, I don’t even try. But NaNoWriMo opened up my eyes to the value of well-defined goals. You may not be exactly where you want to be when you finish, but you’re closer than not starting at all. I have been working on my novels (I’m already 60,000 words into the second one) for over 4 years. I’d always planned on finishing, someday, but I had never actually envisioned the finish line. In my last week of NaNoWriMo I was forced to do that. I had to sit down and think there has to be an end to this. I’m beginning to wonder if I ever would have gotten there if I wasn’t forced into it. If you’re a writer, set well-defined goals.

2. Blogging and practice make perfect: Starting a blog while trying to write a novel in 30 days is very near insanity. Until I started blogging I didn’t understand that blogging itself can be a very serious form of writing. It’s intense and it takes time. Time that could be spent getting my word count. But, there were two benefits. I was publicly accountable to everyone reading my blog and that accountability motivated me on the bad days. (Failure is not an option, although it should be, see above point.) And, as I’ve mentioned, one of my posts pulled me out of a slump. Writing in any form begets more, and hopefully better, writing.

3. Perfectionists and first drafts don’t dance well together: I am a recovering perfectionist. It is something that I will struggle with my entire life. I began to fight it when I realized perfectionists can never be happy because they will never be perfect. When I started writing years ago I was naive. I wanted to write my manuscript perfectly the first time. When I wrote “THE END” I was absolutely certain that it would be my one and only draft. But, that’s arrogant and limiting. Critique and input from other people doesn’t make your work any less valuable, it just allows you to pull more from yourself. NaNoWriMo lends itself to fast, not necessarily good, writing. It’s about filling the page and ignoring the inner editor. My manuscript is a mess. Plot holes. Weak characters. Ridiculous scenes. My new adventure is tearing that manuscript to shreds and making it even better.

4. Failure is an option and an opportunity: I recently read blog posts by two people, here and here, who participated in NaNoWriMo and didn’t “win.” Neither of them is a “loser.” On the contrary, they are both moving forward with lessons learned, ideas, and novels in the works. I recognize that it is a very distinct possibility that I would have lost NaNoWriMo too, if I hadn’t cheated.  Oh, the lessons I could have learned from that!

Writing is a sleep depriving, heart racing, frustration inducing and euphoric journey and I hope that I never find “THE END.”

A new well-defined goal will be coming soon, so stay tuned.