there I go; turn the page

A week ago I was at Fraley’s birthday dinner at the Burren, right up the block, and another attendee mentioned his attempts to sell a book. I had just given Fraley a copy of Joel’s book, Your Religion is False (hilarious, I assure you), and used it as a conversation piece: how Joel had gone to LightningSource for print-on-demand publishing; how he’d marketed to other humorous/secular blogs; how he’d used his own blog as a point of audience contact, etc. Since the other attendee was trying to sell a non-fiction book with a narrow niche in its own right, I suggested he might try a similar path. He took copious notes.

This conversation, along with some recent reading I’ve been doing (more on that in a later post), got me thinking about publishing again. Self-published non-fiction is easier to market than self-published fiction. Non-fiction audiences congregate in easy niches (rock climbers, quilting enthusiasts, frequent travelers, etc): just find the popular blogs and offer them review copies. But fiction crosses broader channels. It doesn’t help that the fiction niches which are easiest to identify – sexy vampire novels, historical romance, conspiracy theories turned into prose – are also flooded with crap. Compare the Fiction and Non-Fiction sections of your average bookstore: one market is saturated, the other isn’t.

Those hurdles aside, the following things are still true: it has never been easier for a writer to publish and market his own work than it is today, and breaking into the traditional publishing market is really hard. An editor (or an agent who sells to editors) might turn down a manuscript for any number of reasons: it doesn’t fit their current publishing schedule; they think the market has no taste for the subject matter; they can’t afford to give the book the push it would need to be profitable; the book’s just garbage. Of those, self-publishing can help bridge the first three hurdles and is no good on the fourth. Part of the reason I’m going to Muse and the Marketplace this weekend is in the wild, unreasonable hope that an agent or editor, having read the first twenty pages of Eminence, will decide yes, this is saleable and we want to buy it. This will render all my speculation about self-publishing moot, for a time. But a larger reason is also just for feedback: just to hear if pros think the manuscript is any good at all. If it is, there’s that fourth obstacle overcome.

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this home is more than bricks and mortar

I woke up tight on Thursday.

I’ve been reading some books on writing, which may not be the best idea. Reading about how to approach the writing process right after you’ve finished a first draft creates as much neurosis as progress. Oh, hell, THAT’S how much I should be cutting out? Plus, while King (On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft) and Lamott (Bird by Bird) have been inspirational, there are notable chunks of their advice that I find laughable. Which is a fine pedestal to sit on, the unpublished novelist looking down his nose at one of the most prolific, profitable and vivid writers of the last century, but that’s how I roll.

So while my new contacts bug me and the Red Line stops and starts due to delays at Charles/MGH and I fret over the logistical nightmares of the two different shows I’m planning in April, I’m reading the following by Anne Lamott:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on you own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and you memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.

And as positive as that is, all I can think is oh, whatever, hippie.

The train emerges from the underground, crossing the Longfellow Bridge. It screeches to a halt midway across. I look up.

boston-skyline

I take this route to work every day. It’s always an interesting view, but it’s rarely striking. Something about the two bright tones, blue over white, caught me while we stopped. I closed the book on Lamott. Getting up out of my seat, I crossed to a window and snapped the picture you see above.

At the office, I mixed myself a cup of hot cocoa. This is an easy ritual: you pour seven ounces of skim milk into a mug. Heat it in the microwave for ninety seconds. Lift it out by the handle, not the mug; you curl two fingers around the ring and base it against your third finger. Set the mug on the counter, open a packet of cocoa mix and pour it in. Take three coffee stirrers and fan them so they form a sort of whisk. Mix the cocoa with a brisk, steady motion.

I let the cocoa cool while I got breakfast from downstairs: two eggs, two bacon. The eggs were about what I expect from cafeteria eggs: a little dry but otherwise filling. But the bacon was perfect. It crunched at the edges, releasing little jags of caramel, and the center melted with fat.

So: the Boston skyline, hot cocoa and bacon. Okay then.

now every chain has got a weak link

I watched Sneakers again on Saturday, out of a desire to learn more about screenwriting.

(In unrelated news, how great is the Internet? Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have learned how to write or format a screenplay without schlepping to the public library, checking out one of their four dog-eared books on screenwriting – which would itself be eight to ten years out of date – and then taking copious notes. Today, I Google “three act screenplay structure” and I’m up and running. Now all I need is a lucrative license, a bankable star and extensive contacts within Hollywood)

Though the rise of indie auteurs have given it a shake, the three-act screenplay structure is still the most recognized language of movie storytelling. Act One (the first quarter) introduces The Hero and The Problem and compels the Hero to address the Problem. Act Two (the middle half) throws obstacles at the Hero, bringing him to a low point roughly midway through. Some revelation helps him climb back up to the final confrontation. That’s Act Three (the last quarter), where the Hero engages and overcomes the Problem in a momentous climax.

Understanding that’s easy. Seeing it in practice is difficult.

Let’s use Sneakers as an example (warning – COPIOUS SPOILERS to follow):

  • Act One: This gave me the most trouble. Sneakers is a job movie: Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of sneaks are hired to retrieve a MacGuffin from mathematician Gunther Janek (Logue). If the end of Act One is when the Hero decides to tackle the Problem, then Act One ends at about the 19:00 mark, when Bishop convinces his team to take the job. Right?

    I don’t know. Act One doesn’t just set our Hero on the path; it also bars the gate behind him. Working for the (supposed) NSA is a big step for these guys, but it doesn’t feel momentous. Our heroes aren’t really locked onto their path until they discover that Janek’s been murdered and walk away from the hand-off with their employers. But that would make Act One forty minutes long – roughly 1/3 of the movie’s entire running time. That’s atypical, but not impossible.

    Job movies are tricky. If the movie starts with our heroes hired to do something they do every day – assassinate a politician, rob a bank, drive a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco – then there’s nothing really compelling there. Does Act One end when the first complication is introduced? The twist that makes it clear that this job won’t be like all the others?

    So I’m going to compromise: Act One ends when Bishop convinces Liz to take him to Janek’s lecture. Though he’s agreed to take the job a while ago, it’s not until this point that The Team is assembled (even though Liz protests she’s not part of The Team). We now have every player we’ll need to accomplish the mission and overcome the Problem. This happens at roughly the 25-minute mark.

  • 17-Minute Mark: One of the sites I read on screenplay structure observed that whatever’s happening at the 17-minute mark usually speaks to what the Hero needs to change, personally, in order to overcome the Problem. This is because the subplot (the Hero’s personal development) alternates with the main plot (overcoming the Problem), and the main plot has to come first to whet our appetites. So the first chance we get to breathe is roughly halfway through Act One: the 17-minute mark.

    I don’t know how universal this is. But the author gave the example of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (one of the top 10 adventure movies of the 80s). Young Indy is being shushed by his father at the 17-minute mark and is having the Cross of Coronado taken back by the thieves he rescued it from. Indy’s stilted relationship with his father is the personal obstacle he has to overcome throughout the movie.

    In Sneakers, Bishop is revealing his past – the outstanding warrant under his original name – to the team at the 17-minute mark. Sneakers is about trust. While this isn’t shocking for a movie about cryptography, every character we sympathize with grows when they learn to trust the folks around them. Bishop rebounds from his Act Two crisis (q.v.) by apologizing to Liz for not trusting her. Crease (Poitier) distracts the guards holding him at gunpoint by finally opening up about why he left the C.I.A. (“my … temper.”). Whistler (Strathairn) saves Bishop, Liz and Carl by trusting Bishop to navigate him through a parking lot.

  • Act Two: The bulk of the running time. Our heroes surveill Janek, break into his office and acquire the MacGuffin. Then, complications begin arising.

    First, the MacGuffin is much more powerful – and therefore dangerous to them – than they realized. “There isn’t a government on the planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing,” Crease observes. This also leads to a crisis of trust between Bishop and Liz.

    Second, it turns out that the people who hired Bishop and his spooks aren’t who they claimed to be. This leads the team to start acting out of desperation, not careful planning – “I’m going to a concert,” Bishop explains, loading a revolver. Our Heroes’ actions become more frantic and tense.

  • Midpoint: The mastermind behind all these schemes is Bishop’s old college buddy, Cosmo (Kingsley). Cosmo offers Bishop a chance to join him, which Bishop rejects flippantly. As a result, Cosmo ruins Bishop’s life with a few keystrokes, implicating him in the murder of a Russian consular officer. This is the Act Two midpoint – at almost exactly one hour in. It’s the low point for our Hero. He’s lost the MacGuffin, he’s been beat up, his friend from the Russian embasssy is dead and his alias is compromised.

    Our Hero spends the rest of Act Two climbing back toward the top. He and the rest of the gang make incremental gains throughout the Act: reaching out to the NSA, learning where the goons took Bishop, surveilling Playtronics headquarters, setting Liz up on the blind date, etc.

  • Act Three: Infiltrating Playtronics to retrieve the MacGuffin. We have about 30 minutes left in the film at this point. From here on out, the tension never ramps down. The Heroes can overcome obstacles, but they can never feel truly safe until they get out and home free.

Is that a fair summation? Did I miss anything? Am I doing this right? I know I have some more experienced movie pros in my readership; help me out, guys.

all you had to do was give humpty a chance

Three months, three weeks. Good enough for government work.

I need fact checkers and critical eyes now, people who know about law and journalism and Boston and are willing to tackle 60,000 words of almost-clever prose. I have nothing to offer you but gratitude.

someone to hear your prayers, someone to care

Oh, hey, it’s my 500th post. Wave hello.

In addition to watching surreal TV and a variety of war movies, I’ve also been reading. Specifically: a steady diet of thrillers.

Lee Child: a retired British TV producer who turned his hand to the novel, his first book, Killing Floor, introduced the character of Jack Reacher. A discharged Military Policeman from the U.S. Army with a 50″ chest, he wanders the country with no fixed address and no permanent ties. He stumbles into trouble and cons, plans, cheats or brawls his way out of it every time.

I’ve read two books of Child’s: Persuader and One Shot. They’re formulaic but that doesn’t detract from their allure. Reacher may have the unreasonable martial prowess of all action movie stars – in One Shot he takes on five guys at once and kills a man by bear hug – but he doesn’t rely on it. Most of his mysteries he solves by outsmarting someone, or at least knowing a little more about the world. Jason Bourne meets Hercule Poirot.

Overthinking It has weaned me off the phrase “guilty pleasure,” which I would normally use to describe Child’s novels. Instead, I’ll say they speak to only one emotion: the laugh of triumph over a defeated foe. Fun beach and airport material.

Harlan Coben: I started reading thrillers on the advice of an agent and an editor, in order to improve my own writing. In that regard Coben’s writing has been the most instructional. Every novel of his I’ve read opens with a first paragraph that hooks me, strings it out to a first chapter that keeps me going, then turns it into a first half that carries me until the plot twist.

His stuff isn’t perfect, granted. The most interesting character in each novel is never the protagonist. The plot twists are predictable only in that they’re always the one thing that would turn the story most on its head at that moment (she’s not really dead!, etc). But his writing grips you and drags you into the heart of the action. It may be a formula, but so is Coca-Cola.

I’ve read Gone for Good and No Second Chance, and I may yet read more.

# # #

Why is the thriller genre so easy for me to read?

As I speculated earlier, thrillers tap into the lust for revenge we all have: the joy of a brutality sanctioned by polite society.

I think it speaks to that fundamental animal rage which all of us – who share more than 95% of our DNA with animals – carry. The “laugh in triumph over a defeated foe” that Orwell talks about: the brutal, pre-rational appeal of nationalism. We want to kill, and we want our killing to be sanctioned by a moral code. He hurt my family, therefore it’s okay if I cut off his fingers. He killed my wife, so it’s all right if I slaughter everyone he knows and burn his house to the ground. No impartial jury or outside observer would think that’s a proportional or fair response – but come on! I’m the Good Guy, so my savagery makes me driven. They’re the Bad Guys; their savagery makes them subhuman.

But ultimately, in stories like that, the tissue-thin distinction between Good Guys and Bad Guys suggests more than it divides. We don’t cheer the Good Guy because he did the right thing by stabbing the Bad Guy in the top of the skull. We cheer the Good Guy because he totally fucking killed that dude! Did you see that? We identify with him because he has his reasons – they took my job, they hurt my family, whatever – but that’s secondary. The chaotic, reptilian roar of victory after bashing someone’s neck seals the deal.

when you laugh and run free with the thought, pull the line in and try to see what you caught

When I’m not reading books or watching movies about Hating America by America Haters that promise to teach me How to Hate America Better*, I’m getting some writing done.

In an ideal week, I stick to the following:

  • Write one hour a night, two nights a week. This produces between 1500-2000 words each night.
  • Write one or two nights a week, 1000 words each time. I can usually bang this out in 40 minutes.
I do this as many nights as I need to to produce 5000 words a week. If I gave up jiu-jitsu, a job with health insurance and a social life** I could probably do more. But I think this is a fair pace.

My initial goal was to write a 60,000-word manuscript. I just wrote my 20,000th word tonight, though, and the story feels, at most, a quarter done. So I may clock in at closer to 80,000. Considering I’ll probably need to lop 5000 to 10,000 words off the top to make it saleable, that’s a good target to aim for.

As with all my writing projects, this one requires some interesting research and speculation. Asked and answered so far:

  • What sort of court records could a person find just by walking in and asking at a city courthouse?
  • What’s a half-assed but survivable way to disarm someone who’s waving a knife at you and shoving you with his free hand?
  • What sort of clue could someone plausibly find if they only had thirty seconds to ransack an office?
  • If you have injuries that require stitches but are conscious and lucid, will the paramedics immobilize you before carting you off to a hospital?
  • Hell, would they even put you in an ambulance, or would they say, “Drive yourself; you’re fine”?
  • Where would a middling Boston attorney (in practice on his own) take his family on summer vacation?
  • What sort of information would cops withhold from the press about a murder in order to validate a legit confession?
  • What does a photographer for a city paper do most of the day?
  • What’s a survivable but incapacitating form of gunshot wound to the head?
  • What does it taste like when you bite someone’s ear hard enough to tear it?
I came up with answers good enough for a rough draft. But if you have theories of your own, please shout them out.

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* They all begin the same way: “Step 1: Subscribe to The Guardian.” Couldn’t make that up.
** Because heaven forfend I give up this vital weblog.

well yeah, I guess it’s obvious, I also like to write

This post sounded a lot different in its first draft.

This post would have been all about how I want to take part in NaNoWriMo, but I think the concept’s silly*, so I’m going to do my own thing instead. It would have been called MyNoWriMo (get it? because I’m a clever guy. I’ll explain it to you if you want), and it’d be about how I’m writing a novel in the month of October. The post would have closed with an apology for infrequent posts over the next thirty days, but I would be sure you’d understand. Because you’re supportive.

And then I took on two new projects at work. So, with regret, I’m not going to try writing a novel in one month.

I’m going to write a novel in three months.

Sixty thousand words. I already have the entire thing outlined, from beginning to end. I feel better about this one than any project I’ve started in the last few years, because it excites me. The other two novels had exciting parts, but I felt I had to pad the word count out to get to them. Not this one. Cliffhangers left and right. It’s almost a formula. Hell, it is a formula. And I think I have it figured out.

So, again, bear with me if posts grow scarce. I’ll be busy.

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* Briefly: (A) I believe that reliable, professional work comes from a dedication to the practice of writing, not relying on bursts of inspiration and sudden sprints; as such, while I don’t sneer at people who try NaNoWriMo – I applaud all attempts at writing, seriously – I’d be much more impressed by someone who writes five novels over sixty months than one novel in one month; and (B) if you’re going to pick a month to challenge people to write 50,000 words, don’t pick a month which has the busiest American travel holiday in it. That’s just poor planning.