Monthly Archives: October 2011

Coffee Shops and the Inner Child

There are days when I cannot bear to write at home. Part of the problem is that I am, during the day, a telecommuter. My home is my office is my writing studio is my home. When I sit down to write, I have usually just finished a day of work. I’m still chewing the last bite of dinner and my inner dialog is going something like this:

Inner Child: “I’m tired. Nobody cares if we write every day. They won’t know anyway. Why not take a day off and watch some television or read that new story from Josh Lanyon?”

Adult: “You’re always tired after work. Once that pizza kicks in, we’ll be fine.”

Inner Child: “I don’t even know what’s supposed to happen next.”

Adult: “That’s never stopped us before.”

Inner Child: “I want something sweet. Put something in our mouth.”

Adult: “Oh, for God’s sake!”

Inner Child: “I’ve heard there are other people in the world. Let’s go find them. Maybe they’ll worship us.”

This is the point at which I stuff my computer into a pack and walk to one of the local coffee shops. The change of location relieves my stir-craziness. An herbal tea or non-fat latte pacifies the inner cookie monster. People watching stimulates my imagination. I can write. The terror of the blank page passes.

There used to be six coffee shops within walking distance of my home: two from a national chain, two from regional chains, one from a Philadelphia chain, and one independent. All but one offered free internet access. The independent, Crossroads, is a lovely converted former shoe store with a two-story atrium, skylights, a narrow mezzanine, and dark hardwood shelving. I have written many thousands of words there. Unfortunately, two of the local shops have closed in the past few months.

Times are hard. The remaining shops are filled with people working on their computers like me, a cup at hand to show they’ve paid their rent. I am careful to purchase something every few hours. I resent the people who stay all day after purchasing a single tall coffee. They’re the same ones who pull out bananas and yogurt they haven’t purchased from the shop at lunch time. (I’ve never actually seen anyone thrown out for this inconsiderate behavior, but I’d not blame the business owner who did.) I know that money is an issue for many of the students and job-seekers I see in the coffee shops, but coffee shops are businesses. They have leases and employees to pay. That free internet service isn’t free. I worry that more shops will close if too many people take unfair advantage.

Pardon me, I have to get another latte. I’m not ready to go home yet.


Typewriters, Minicomputers and other Writing Tools

When I was younger, I used to wonder how a writer could maintain the commitment and energy necessary long enough to write a novel. Perhaps part of the problem was that I was daunted by the mechanics of typing and retyping a manuscript of novel length. Typing was the only class for which I ever received a D grade. (Fortunately, the college admissions officers at Grinnell College were able to look past that failing.)

I went to college at the cusp of the great change from typewriting to word processing. In my first year, I used a German-manufactured Olympia manual typewriter, of the pre-plastic epoch. (Never was there a more beautiful product of the machining art: the return lever, paper guides, and myriad of small metal parts were finely made, only as heavy as they needed to be, and jewel-like in their finish. The Royal and Underwood machines of its day were boat anchors in comparison.) I still have that typewriter, having a strange attachment to it, despite the still-vivid pain of retyping whole pages to correct errors that it evokes—along with the smell of whiteout.

In my second year of college, I used a Brother electronic typewriter with a small LED display that allowed me to correct mistakes before they were committed to paper—if I caught them in time. It was a great advance in technology, but an utterly mundane device, and it has long since disappeared from my life.

Around my junior year, perhaps inspired by that ability to correct errors which the Brother taught me to appreciate, I learned to use the college’s Digital PDP 11/70 minicomputer for writing my papers. This was not WYSIWYG word processing. The PDP 11/70 and industrial-sized shared printers produced high quality printed output, but you composed plain text with embedded dot (.) codes to control the formatting and fonts. I still think that process, which separated composition from formatting, was less distracting than using the menus and graphical controls of a modern word processor. One effect of writing on the computer was that I produced more text—much of it in the form of bad poetry composed in the college’s computer labs. (I would claim the sterile environment as an excuse for the quality of the poetry, but I suspect youth and inexperience had more to do with it.) In any case, my computer age had begun.

Since then, I have used WordStar, WordPerfect, MS Word, and innumerable other software packages for writing. None stand out as contributing particularly to the quality or joy of my writing experience. All have proved equally capable of distracting me from the text with frustrating formatting concerns. The software I use for writing fiction now—Scrivener—is designed for writers. It helps to keep my mind where it should be, in the heads of my characters. Interestingly, it has a full screen, text-only mode, that looks rather like I could be using one of the dumb terminals of that old Digital minicomputer. Like that old system, it separates the process of composition from the process of formatting. It has a compile function which, once configured properly, produces a properly formatted manuscript or e-book file with the press of a button.

Thus, my writing process has come full circle. I’m still a terrible typist, but my software once again helps me to focus on what’s important. Maybe because I no longer suffer from youthful impatience to reach my destination, I’m also finding it easy to enjoy the long journey of novel writing.

Choosing a Point of View

I didn’t plan to write Fly Up into the Night Air. In fact, I didn’t plan to write anything. I woke up one morning with some characters in my head. They were talking to one another, and what they had to say was intriguing. (The inspiration for this anomaly was probably the Lois McMaster Bujold novel I finished the night before, so thank you, Lois, I’ll always be grateful.) Their situation was interesting enough that I went downstairs and wrote a couple of pages of notes. Then I started writing a story. I didn’t know it would be a novel. I didn’t know where the story would lead me. But the writing was fun, so I continued writing after work every day. Two months and two days later, I had the first draft of what would eventually, after a lot of work, become Fly Up into the Night Air.

I had no illusions that what I’d written was great literature or even good enough to want to share with anyone. It was fun, it was a little different from anything I’d read before, having elements of a police procedural, a courtroom drama, and romance set in a fantasy world. The story spoke to me, but I knew that it needed a lot of work. So bought books on writing, joined a local writers group, attended a bunch of workshops, and started attending a critiquing group, all with the goal of learning more of the craft of writing. One of the things I learned about was point of view (POV).

I had learned about first, second, third, and omniscient points of view in high school and college. But not having tried to write fiction before, I’d never really thought about them from a writer’s perspective. So while I’d known that I was writing third person close, I hadn’t really thought about why I’d chosen that POV. Moreover, my choices regarding the POV character for each scene were entirely intuitive. As I edited my story, I found I’d occasionally switched the POV character in the middle of a scene. Few writers can get away with that no-no without confusing the reader. I’m not one of them. I fixed those problems.

By the time I got to writing my second novel, The Door Behind Us, and while I was still editing Fly Up into the Night Air, I started to consciously ask myself what character’s perspective would best serve the story in each scene. The choice of POV character is a useful tool for generating tension or suspense. By moving the POV character away from the protagonist of the story, I found I could conceal information or delay its release, or I could present the perspective of an unreliable character. What fun! Now I always choose the point of view character for best effect. I may not always get it right—especially in the first draft—but the choice of the POV character has become a favorite tool in my editing toolbox.

The Origin of a Title

For six months or so, while I’ve worked on novels three and four, I’ve been thinking that I need a better title for number two. My second novel is currently in its final rounds of editing. I hope to release it sometime in the next few months. Since I started the story, I’ve known that the working title, while meaningful to me, would likely confuse readers. But every time I’ve tried to sit down and think long enough to come up with something more suitable, I’ve gotten distracted by more pressing concerns.

I’ve heard some writers say that, for them, the first step in writing a new book is coming up with the title. From the title, all else follows. (For me, stories start with a character or set of characters talking. Yep, voices in my head. Snicker if you will, I can’t hear you.) My experience with titles has been a little different. All my titles have come from some line or concept in the finished or nearly finished book. It seems that until the story has become crystal clear, ideas for the title just don’t start congealing in my brain.

This time, I never did find the time to sit down and think. Instead, my unconscious did the job, and I woke up a few days ago with the words suspended like a string of Christmas tree lights in my waking mind: The Door Behind Us. It’s evocative without giving anything away. It feels intimate, and it tips off the reader that events of the past will play an important role in determining the future. I like it.

What do you think? Would it attract your attention in the book store?

Fly Up into the Night Air

It’s a big week for me. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the completion of various approval processes so I could make my big announcement. Barnes & Noble came through last night, so here it is: the e-book release of my first novel, Fly Up into the Night Air, is now available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Apple and other distributors are on the way. (I’ll post links when they’re available.) The novel falls roughly into the fantasy genre, although it contains elements of romance and even courtroom drama as well. All together, it’s pretty lighthearted. I certainly had fun writing it. It’s the first in a series I’m calling Canny Tales. There’s a full description on my Publications page.

My decision to go the indie route and publish the work myself, in e-book form, comes out of my concerns about legacy publishers and the way they are currently marketing e-books. To my mind, rapidly growing e-books sales, the popularity of e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook, sales of smartphones and tablet computers (which make great reading devices), all provide a clear indication of the what the future holds. E-books are going to become the primary format for popular fiction. Moreover, it’s going to happen faster than most people think. Marketing folks with access to sales figures from Barnes & Noble are predicting that the book store will sell more e-books than paper books in 2013. That’s only a year and a quarter away. Yet most of the big six publishers are still treating e-books like a pesky inconvenience they’d like to make go away. Their pricing models encourage print sales at the expense of e-book sales. I’ll admit, I also find the prospect of keeping around 70 percent of the purchase price much more appealing than keeping about 17 percent, assuming I could find an agent and publisher willing to work with me (as calculated by Barry Eiser and Joe Konrath). Which brings me to my last point: I work. Full time. In addition, I try to write every night. I find the prospect of writing query letters, synopses, and marketing blurbs for agents and editors a whole lot less fun than writing novels. If I’m going to have to market my books, I’d rather use social media such as this blog to communicate directly with my readers. Time–and my sales figures–will tell whether I have chosen appropriately where to spend my time.

Here’s hoping you’ll enjoy reading Fly Up into the Night Air as much as I enjoyed writing it.