Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Four Loves by C S Lewis

Rereading The Four Loves by C S Lewis reinforces my commitment to not reread the Christian books I so dearly loved twenty years ago. Once on my top ten list, if not in the top five, upon rereading it I found myself looking at it with a critical eye, appreciating more the rhetorical style and tone rather than the content. I think this was a protective response to keep me removed from the content which, for the most part, was predictable and familiar. When he argues on page 71 that the affection lost between brethren because one outgrows the other is more painful than the infidelity of a spouse, I actually stopped to see if he had already married Joy Gresham or not. He had so I can only assume that he was so confident of her fidelity that he could make such a bold statement. To suggest that any betrayal is more or less painful than another is to speak out of personal ignorance of that kind of pain. Then I reached page 93 and nearly closed the book unfinished. I only persevered because I had remembered that last section was my favorite when I had first read the text ages ago. But the terms “abnormal Eros,” “contamination,” and “pansies” echoed for me throughout the rest of the text reminding me of everything that broke my heart before. I feel like I have lost a friend as a result of rereading this book. Or, rather, I feel that I have peeked inside my friend’s closet and recognized the things I disliked most about myself and, in rejecting that judgmental and self-righteous reflection, I am having to turn away from a once dear friend. No. What I feel is that I am seeing my friend for the first time, a reflection of who I was, and recognizing that I have moved into a different place. It is a sadness, yes. But there is endless and infinite peace. Still, it all begs the question—Will I ever reread Julian of Norwich? To lose her would truly break my heart.

My Incredibly Wonderful Miserable Life by Adam Nimoy

Please note: I use the term "trekkie" throughout this review because this is the term used by Nimoy and I am not going to get into the whole trekkie/trekker debate.
My Incredibly Wonderful Miserable Life by Adam Nimoy is a memoir by the son of Leonard Nimoy. What it is is not what some people might want. It is not some expose meant to trash his iconic father. It is not an exploration of the behind the scenes at the Enterprise. It is not even a linear memoir that goes begins in the present, moves back to the past and then moves slowly through to the present. Instead, Nimoy (not Leonard!) shares his life’s experience in a stream-of-consciousness conversational tone that occasionally comes across as clumsy and emotionally feels redundant. The stories of conflicts with his adolescent children start sounding the same, although the details change. The reconciliations also take on a haze of familiarity. Any parent who has survived the teenaged years will recognize the manic experience of going from beloved to bestial in the flash of a single sentence. For those who are still in the midst of the experience, there may be a nagging doubt—Did Nimoy kidnap my children to write his memoir? Because the story is not told in the typically linear memoir fashion, there is some repetition, the kind of black hole lapses that keep Trekkies debating the worm hole incongruities disjointed the Star Trek story lines in those parallel realities and leaps in time of episodes past. From the very beginning, Nimoy makes it clear that this memoir is about him, his addiction, his life, and although his father’s presence cannot be avoided, this is not a memoir about being Leonard Nimoy’s son. Trekkies will still read this memoir, perhaps be not disappointed in spite of the lack of any inside dirt that would make the typical geek shudder with ecstasy. Instead, what Nimoy has written is a sweet memoir of his own struggle with failure. The guilt he feels over leaving his family is evident even in the parts of the memoir which are not focusing on the emotional manipulation that comes part-and-parcel with adolescence. When his children ask him “Why can’t you come home?” he is as unable to come up with an answer to that question as to the one he asks himself: How did I get here? Where the memoir begins to lose me is that I find myself yet again reading about some thirty something year old trying to grow up. Only he’s actually forty something, and while it is interesting to read a coming-of-age story of a teenager or even a young adult, I am beginning to wonder if anyone ever grows up. Or maybe the problem is that the ones who have already grown up are too busy living their lives to waste time writing about how they are trying to grow up. Nimoy does not give into exploiting himself or his loved ones by offering salacious details. Instead, he gives us a heartbreaking look at the challenges of divorce as he tries to balance meeting his personal needs through the emotional manipulation of guilt, personal history, and adolescent angst. That he does it all sober is a testament to his commitment.

Okay. So let’s face it. Everyone reading this realizes I’m a bit of a geek and I probably have some Star Trek glamour that I have not addressed in this review so here it is, the bit of Nimoy experience I hoped beyond hope Adam Nimoy would discuss. His father once appeared in Equus which received very positive reviews in the New York Times. I remember the furor over the nudity of this drama and how the review made it clear that the nudity was not gratuitous, pivotal to the plot, etc. I remember this and that Nimoy (Leonard, not Adam) received excellent reviews. With all the time traveling back and forth throughout the memoir, I was curious to see if Nimoy (Adamn, not Leonard) would ever address his father’s performance in this drama. The answer? Yes. He does. YES!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Snowflake Method

Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. That's just life. If it were easy, we'd all be writing best-selling, prize-winning fiction. Frankly, there are a thousand different people out there who can tell you how to write a novel. There are a thousand different methods. The best one for you is the one that works for you.

In this article, I'd like to share with you what works for me. I've published six novels and won about a dozen awards for my writing. I teach the craft of writing fiction at writing conferences all the time. One of my most popular lectures is this one: How to write a novel using what I call the "Snowflake Method." This page is the most popular one on my web site, and gets hundreds of page views per day, so you can guess that a lot of people find it useful. But you may not, and that's fine by me. Look it over, decide what might work for you, and ignore the rest! If it makes you puke, I won't be insulted. Different writers are different. If my methods get you rolling, I'll be happy. I'll make the best case I can for my way of organizing things, but you are the final judge of what works best for you. Have fun . . . write your novel!

The Importance of Design

Good fiction doesn't just happen, it is designed. You can do the design work before or after you write your novel. I've done it both ways and I strongly believe that doing it first is quicker and leads to a better result. Design is hard work, so it's important to find a guiding principle early on. This article will give you a powerful metaphor to guide your design. Our fundamental question is this: How do you design a novel? For a number of years, I was a software architect designing large software projects. I write novels the same way I write software, using the "snowflake metaphor". OK, what's the snowflake metaphor? Before you go further, take a look at this cool web site. At the top of the page, you'll see a cute pattern known as a snowflake fractal. Don't tell anyone, but this is an important mathematical object that's been widely studied. For our purposes, it's just a cool sketch of a snowflake. If you scroll down that same web page a little, you'll see a box with a large triangle in it and arrows underneath. If you press the right-arrow button repeatedly, you'll see the steps used to create the snowflake. It doesn't look much like a snowflake at first, but after a few steps, it starts looking more and more like one, until it's done. The first few steps look like this: I claim that that's how you design a novel -- you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can't teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity -- getting it organized into a well-structured novel. That's what I'd like to teach you here.

If you're like most people, you spend a long time thinking about your novel before you ever start writing. You may do some research. You daydream about how the story's going to work. You brainstorm. You start hearing the voices of different characters. You think about what the book's about -- the Deep Theme. This is an essential part of every book which I call "composting". It's an informal process and every writer does it differently. I'm going to assume that you know how to compost your story ideas and that you have already got a novel well-composted in your mind and that you're ready to sit down and start writing that novel.

The Ten Steps of Design
But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story -- holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document. And you need to produce it using a process that doesn't kill your desire to actually write the story. Here is my ten-step process for writing a design document. I use this process for writing my novels, and I hope it will help you. Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture. When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It's the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can! Some hints on what makes a good sentence:

• Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words. • No character names, please! Better to say "a handicapped trapeze artist" than "Jane Doe". • Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win. • Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form.
Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as "three disasters plus an ending". Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. I don't know if this is the ideal structure, it's just my personal taste. If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist's attempts to "fix things". Things just get worse and worse. You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. If this sounds suspiciously like back-cover copy, it's because . . . that's what it is and that's where it's going to appear someday. Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:
• The character's name • A one-sentence summary of the character's storyline • The character's motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?) • The character's goal (what does he/she want concretely?) • The character's conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?) • The character's epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change? • A one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline

An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good--it means your characters are teaching you things about your story. It's always okay at any stage of the design process to go back and revise earlier stages. In fact, it's not just okay--it's inevitable. And it's good. Any revisions you make now are revisions you won't need to make later on to a clunky 400 page manuscript. Another important point: It doesn't have to be perfect. The purpose of each step in the design process is to advance you to the next step. Keep your forward momentum! You can always come back later and fix it when you understand the story better. You will do this too, unless you're a lot smarter than I am. Step 4) By this stage, you should have a good idea of the large-scale structure of your novel, and you have only spent a day or two. Well, truthfully, you may have spent as much as a week, but it doesn't matter. If the story is broken, you know it now, rather than after investing 500 hours in a rambling first draft. So now just keep growing the story. Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends. This is a lot of fun, and at the end of the exercise, you have a pretty decent one-page skeleton of your novel. It's okay if you can't get it all onto one single-spaced page. What matters is that you are growing the ideas that will go into your story. You are expanding the conflict. You should now have a synopsis suitable for a proposal, although there is a better alternative for proposals . . . Step 5) Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These "character synopses" should tell the story from the point of view of each character. As always, feel free to cycle back to the earlier steps and make revisions as you learn cool stuff about your characters. I usually enjoy this step the most and lately, I have been putting the resulting "character synopses" into my proposals instead of a plot-based synopsis. Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction. Step 6) By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now take a week and expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page. This is a lot of fun, because you are figuring out the high-level logic of the story and making strategic decisions. Here, you will definitely want to cycle back and fix things in the earlier steps as you gain insight into the story and new ideas whack you in the face. Step 7) Take another week and expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. The standard stuff such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel? This is an expansion of your work in step (3), and it will teach you a lot about your characters. You will probably go back and revise steps (1-6) as your characters become "real" to you and begin making petulant demands on the story. This is good -- great fiction is character-driven. Take as much time as you need to do this, because you're just saving time downstream. When you have finished this process, (and it may take a full month of solid effort to get here), you are ready to write a proposal and sell this novel. Do so. Step 8) You may or may not take a hiatus here, waiting for the book to sell. At some point, you've got to actually write the novel. Before you do that, there are a couple of things you can do to make that traumatic first draft easier. The first thing to do is to take that four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes that you'll need to turn the story into a novel. And the easiest way to make that list is . . . with a spreadsheet. For some reason, this is scary to a lot of writers. Oh the horror. Deal with it. You learned to use a word-processor. Spreadsheets are easier. You need to make a list of scenes, and spreadsheets were invented for making lists. If you need some tutoring, buy a book. There are a thousand out there, and one of them will work for you. It should take you less than a day to learn the itty bit you need. It'll be the most valuable day you ever spent. Do it. Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline. Make just one line for each scene. In one column, list the POV character. In another (wide) column, tell what happens. If you want to get fancy, add more columns that tell you how many pages you expect to write for the scene. A spreadsheet is ideal, because you can see the whole storyline at a glance, and it's easy to move scenes around to reorder things. My spreadsheets usually wind up being over 100 lines long, one line for each scene of the novel. As I develop the story, I make new versions of my story spreadsheet. This is incredibly valuable for analyzing a story. It can take a week to make a good spreadsheet. When you are done, you can add a new column for chapter numbers and assign a chapter to each scene. Step 9) (Optional. I don't do this step anymore.) Switch back to your word processor and begin writing a narrative description of the story. Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the essential conflict of that scene. If there's no conflict, you'll know it here and you should either add conflict or scrub the scene. I used to write either one or two pages per chapter, and I started each chapter on a new page. Then I just printed it all out and put it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily swap chapters around later or revise chapters without messing up the others. This process usually took me a week and the end result was a massive 50-page printed document that I would revise in red ink as I wrote the first draft. All my good ideas when I wake up in the morning got hand-written in the margins of this document. This, by the way, is a rather painless way of writing that dreaded detailed synopsis that all writers seem to hate. But it's actually fun to develop, if you have done steps (1) through (8) first. When I did this step, I never showed this synopsis to anyone, least of all to an editor -- it was for me alone. I liked to think of it as the prototype first draft. Imagine writing a first draft in a week! Yes, you can do it and it's well worth the time. But I'll be honest, I don't feel like I need this step anymore, so I don't do it now. Step 10) At this point, just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel. You will be astounded at how fast the story flies out of your fingers at this stage. I have seen writers triple their writing speed overnight, while producing better quality first drafts than they usually produce on a third draft. You might think that all the creativity is chewed out of the story by this time. Well, no, not unless you overdid your analysis when you wrote your Snowflake. This is supposed to be the fun part, because there are many small-scale logic problems to work out here. How does Hero get out of that tree surrounded by alligators and rescue Heroine who's in the burning rowboat? This is the time to figure it out! But it's fun because you already know that the large-scale structure of the novel works. So you only have to solve a limited set of problems, and so you can write relatively fast. This stage is incredibly fun and exciting. I have heard many writers complain about how hard the first draft is. Invariably, they are seat-of-the-pants writers who have no clue what's coming next. Good grief! Life is too short to write like that! There is no reason to spend 500 hours writing a wandering first draft of your novel when you can write a solid one in 150. Counting the 100 hours it takes to do the design documents, you come out way ahead in time. (I'll note that many seat-of-the-pants writers shriek at the thought of doing a Snowflake document. That's fine. Different people are different. I suspect you know already whether the Snowflake is something that's going to work for you or not. Even if it does work for you, I'd encourage you to improvise on it. May a thousand different Snowflake methods bloom!) There is not just one solution to the problem of how to write a novel, there are many. Use the one that works for you. About midway through a first draft, I usually take a breather and fix all the broken parts of my design documents. Yes, the design documents are not perfect! That's okay! The design documents are not fixed in concrete, they are a living set of documents that grows as you develop your novel. If you are doing your job right, at the end of the first draft you will laugh at what an amateurish piece of junk your design documents were. And you'll be thrilled at how deep your story has become. That's All! That's the Snowflake Method. It works for me and for many of my writer friends who have tried it. I've lost track of how many people around the world who have emailed me to say that the Snowflake helped them get their novel on track. So it works for a lot of people. I hope it works for you.
Ways To Use The Snowflake
Are you struggling right now with a horrible first draft of your novel that just seems hopeless? Take an hour and summarize your story in one sentence. Does that clarify things? You've just completed step (1) of the Snowflake, and it only took an hour. Why not try the next few steps of the Snowflake and see if your story doesn't suddenly start coming to life? What have you got to lose, except a horrible first draft that you already hate? Are you a seat-of-the-pants writer who finally finished your novel, but now you're staring at an enormous pile of manuscript that desperately needs rewriting? Take heart! Your novel's done, isn't it? You've done something many writers only dream about. Now imagine a big-shot editor bumps into you in the elevator and asks what your novel's about. In fifteen words or less, what would you say? Take your time! This is a thought game. What would you say? If you can come up with an answer in the next hour . . . you've just completed Step 1 of the Snowflake! Do you think some of the other steps might help you put some order into that manuscript? Give it a shot. What have you got to lose? Have you just got a nightmarishly long letter from your editor detailing all the things that are wrong with your novel? Are you wondering how you can possibly make all the changes before your impossible deadline? It's never too late to do the Snowflake. How about if you take a week and drill through all the steps right now? It'll clarify things wonderfully, and then you'll have a plan for executing all those revisions. I bet you'll get it done in record time. And I bet the book will come out better than you imagined. If the Snowflake Method works for you, I'd like to hear from you. You can reach me through the contact page on my web-site. Acknowledgments: I thank my many friends on the Chi Libris list and especially Janelle Schneider for a large number of discussions on the Snowflake and much else.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Feel Giddy, Oh So Giddy

When Rob and I brought Snowdoll into our home, we did not know the exact date of her birth but we knew it was sometime during the second week of September soooo . . . we decided that today, September 11, would be her birthday. This way we would have something positive to give today, this remarkable and historical date, something wonderful.
And then Tipsy's new parents contacted us, saying that they will be going out of town and would we mind watching her for five days. Would we mind??? Of course not!!! I am so excited I had puppy dreams full of playfulness and fun.
So no doubt, we will have puppy pictures uploaded soon. Here is the first picture we have of Snowdoll.

And here is another picture of Snowdoll and a little story to share about her in celebration of her birthday!!!

Every night I have been spreading out a blanket on the floor. I would climb into bed and, a little later, be joined by Rob. That’s when I would notice that the blanket, rather than being spread out was now tucked into the corner.

Me: Why do you keep shoving the blanket into the corner? Rob: I didn’t do it. Me: I’m trying to spread it out so both Romanov and Snowdoll can lie down on it. Rob: But I didn’t do it. Me: The who did? Rob: Probably Snowdoll. Me: (scoffing) Give me a break. Why would she do that?

The other night, Rob had a gig and I went to bed alone. When I got up to turn off the light, this is what I saw in the corner. With Rob not here to blame, I guess I have to admit that Snowdoll is the culprit. (BTW, I tried to take a picture of Romanov but I couldn’t get a decent angle without distracting him and possibly causing him to move so here’s an old pic of his lying down because I think he looks so cute when he’s asleep. Okay. I think he looks cute when he’s awake too. I may as well admit it.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Denying the Holocaust by Deborah Lipstadt

Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory by Deborah Lipstadt is one of those books I avoid reading but want to read. I avoid reading the book because I know it will leave me feeling angry and frustrated. I want to read it because there are some things about which we should be angry. When I closed the book I was just tired, exhausted, and grateful. Grateful I had not read it at a different time in my emotional life. Grateful to Lipstadt for her conviction and clarity in wanting to communicate her position. There are those who deny the Holocaust, who claim that there was no organized genocide of the Jewish community in Germany and the nations that Germany invaded during World War II. I was not ignorant of this. What I did not understand is how anyone could choose to be so willfully ignorant of the truth. Lipstadt presents both the ludicrous assumptions these people make as well as the more insidious manipulation of the truth. Ultimately, they win because most people are unable or unwilling to verify the information. Nobody has the time to look up each and every reference to confirm that quotes are not taken out of context. Most people probably wouldn’t have access or even be able to read the primary resources if they cared to so. Lipstadt contends that there is no room for debate. By debating with those who would deny the Holocaust, academia, the media, et al give the argument a legitimacy it does not merit. One does not debate the reality of history. One revises the interpretation of history. In other words, how and why the Holocaust occurred may be open to interpretation but that it happened is not. Period. End of story. There is no justification, therefore, for college newspapers to allow Holocaust deniers to receive a forum through either an op ed piece or paid advertising. In defending the first amendment rights of free speech, they ignore the right of free assembly. When I opened the book, I was rather on the fence. I did not appreciate the purpose of debating with these people and after reading the book I realize that what I could not define is that, as Lipstadt argues, to do so allows these people a forum they simply do not deserve. Our Constitution allows them to assemble and discuss their beliefs. It also allows them to print and disseminate their beliefs. It also allows me to say I am not interested and too narrow minded to discuss it with anyone. If you want to debate it, go ahead. I prefer to discuss reality, to debate the merits of dog ownership over cat ownership and what’s a fashion statement versus what’s merely a fad. I want to debate something that matters—because debating whether or not The Diary of Anne Frank is a legitimate document, worthy of discussion, is not debatable. It is both legitimate and worthy. No explanation necessary.