Saturday

Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is like going to a casino. If you catch some luck at the slots, or have a royal flush fall your way in poker, or even score an amazing blackjack run—your next trip to the craps table will knock you flat. There is no hardest part of writing a novel; it depends entirely on an individual’s perseverance and, most of the time, luck. This is why writing groups and workshops are so popular; it’s easier to share the pain.

You probably hear the phrase ‘You know, I’m thinking of writing a book’ occasionally. But the hardest thing for many people is to overcome self-doubt and start. No matter where you are, you have the essentials of beginning a novel; many websites have tutorials on the subject, and books written on it can be found at your public library. It’s like parenting; you might feel prepared, but as soon as you begin to tentatively type or handwrite the actual words, you realize how hard it is to not flush anything you write down the nearest toilet. Among writers—not just novelists—that hateful inner voice is known as The Critic, and for the first draft you should shut him off and just focus on pouring your ideas onto paper.

A first draft should be finished as quickly as possible to avoid The Middle Lull, a human-borne computer virus that will probably infect you during the second draft anyway. The typical symptoms include a realization, eighty pages into your first editing binge, that there are far too many holes in the structure; clich├ęd characters; horrible stretches of dialogue; a pathetic villain; and too many swears for you to ever, ever hammer into a decent manuscript. You’ll know you have it when the urge to quit is irresistible. What you don’t know is that you’re going through a perfectly normal first-novel phase, and if you give up now no one will ever stop asking you at dinner parties when you’re publishing that novel. All you can do is focus on the most pressing problems in the story’s structure—the structure, not the actual prose—and attack them until they still read like shit, but are coherent in the bigger picture.

After you’re comfortable with the characters, and the story as a whole, you should take a lunch break because it’s only going to get worse. What you need to do is print out all the chapters and give them a good spanking one at a time, not moving onto the next until every scene, paragraph, and sentence in the one before is good and spanked. I can just imagine your horror at hearing this. Depending on how you write, whether or not you went to a good prep school, and how sharp your grammar skills are under the influence of beer or something worse at 3:45 AM, you might survive this with a smile. Doesn’t it feel good to torture something that deserves it?

The home stretch, however, will likely make you wish you were still blissfully writing the first draft. It involves swallowing your pride—actually, stuffing it down your throat and throwing some weights in after it to impede its swim back up—and letting the comments of your friends, professors, writing workshop members, siblings, and/or mother beat your novel into shape. Since hard work is detrimental to sanity, many take the criticism personally and lose valuable relationships over a comma placement. Whatever you do, don’t do this. Your novel will need to be the best it can possibly be, because next you’ll have to get an agent to represent it, and she will have to get Random House to buy it off you for $150,000.

Thursday

Influences

Above the Influence is an anti-drug ad campaign I've been seeing a lot of lately. It's not that I disagree with their purpose or message. Or that I diss their well-made flash site that has more info on drugs that I ever knew existed, and scares me. Is it that wise to tell minors all about what they're not supposed to have info on? It's like showing exactly how to make airport water-bottle bombs on CNN. No, I'm totally anti-hippie and anti-everything-that-makes-you-stupider-than-you-already-are-which-is-pretty-stupid already--it's their ads that are now stuck in my head like those dancing Ipod people. So I decided to parody one. Hope they never find out, because I'm planning on taking on Ipod Nano and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! next.

The Original

My version

What they're doing right is not limiting the scope to 'don't do the chronic or a big old police officer is going to come a-GET ya'. They deal with issues that affect their target age group and cause anorexia, drunk driving and compulsive bullying, like body image and the need to fit in. It's amazing that people need to be TOLD that influences aren't all illicit substances, and that having stupid buds can screw you up just as bad. It's also weird that, if you look at more of their ads (abovetheinfluence.com for your convenience) it's obvious that they did a focus group on this.

What they probably found out was 83% of 18-and-under losers are interested in the colors red and black (it puts them in mind of skateboards and graffiti!) and one-paragraph summaries of what you're trying to tell them, because they have a 'short attention span' left over from childhood. (These types are part of an Amish sect that denies the existence of Harry Potter.) The point of my parody is their feet are in their mouths, because advertising is an influence on its own, and going to the website is being under the influence of Above The Influence. Funny, huh?

Let's think about how your average Joe is influenced in society. I don't think his opinions of himself count, but throw them in to be on the safe side. Second of all, there's his family--his uncle that inspired him to be a lawyer when he was a kid; his mom who didn't like him reading in his room and always made him do it on the balcony with the mosquitos, which now makes him snap at his girlfriend if she suggests they move to a deck table for the view. That's a primary influence to many people.

Next, non-family influence. Your wedding-crasher pals, the saxophone player boyfriend, or even that kid in the gym who looks at you funny. Whether close or not, influences of people you aren't related to are very different from family ones.

Then, there's superiority, financial situation, gender--all of society's ideas on how you should look or behave. Like you can't stick out your tongue at your boss unless he turns his back. Or how you can't skateboard after 10 if you're a girl. (Get real!)

Now, Average Joe has a whole lot of influences on his shoulders already. But because we want to torture him, let's chuck in his horoscope--is he an analytical Virgo who verbally snaps the neck of whoever spills coffee on his new Armani? Is he a creative Pisces? Is he fated by the movements of planets miles and miles away to have a rotten Monday?

And then, there's Feng Shui. Joe divorced his wife because the angle of his television set to the staircase did not allow the flow of positive chi, or his personal element (metal) clashed with the energy of her garden when he forgot to water the cotton plant while she was on a business trip. The invisible, powerful forces of chi regulate everything that draws breath--can't they leave you alone, for crying out loud?

And those Tibetan fellows who believe in reincarnation insist your spirit is a total cliche! And then there's the Christians who say you're not you, because God is inside all of us. Doesn't that make you feel awkward? He could be bored silly in there. Factor in the subliminal messages you receive from advertising (perhaps I should stop eating 'till I'm as thin as Ms. Photoshop here), television (Save me, Oprah!), your educational and/or professional background, your political inclination, sexual orientation, and all those politically incorrect things relating to minorities and skin color and--you just feel like you can't spend a single minute without being influenced by something.

So you decide to become a total recluse and avoid any type of past, present, or future influences in your life. Psych! You're being influenced already, because the realization that you're under so many influences influenced you to do it!

There's really no escape. What you come to wonder about is when all the influences end and you begin. Who are you, if not the sum of so many influences squashing you from above since you were born? It's worth to mention that if you've gotten this far, you are prime-cut rib eye steak for a shrink. Congratulations.

No, what you realize eventually is that the ingredients that make you up--all those influences--are in fact what make you unique. It's like a safe code, or a randomly generated Sudoku puzzle online. No one else has had exactly the amount of influences in so many different categories as you do. You're not the flour, the butter, the apples, or the honey, but all of them baked you in a pie no one else could be.

But the scary thought is, whoever you are, you're a stamped license plate. That's all that makes you different from everyone else.


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