Friends, readers, country-persons, lend me your (virtual) ears…and eyes! This coming Wednesday, Sept. 14th @ 7PM EST, I have a virtual book event hosted by Cambridge Common Writers, and you should check it out. I’ll be reading from my debut novel, Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze, and talking to some writing friends about the stories behind the story.
Go to bit.ly/BlowinMyMind to register. Registration is FREE and easy, and since the event is virtual, you can watch in your sweatpants!
I’ve been furiously editing my debut novel for publication this summer, and let me tell you, it’s a journey. Fraught with peaks and valleys, confirmations and surprises, tears and (near) laughter.
It’s also a supreme brain challenge, applying the editing skills you know you have to the words that you created, trying to erase the proximal distance between your analytical and creative brains so you can edit with clear-eyed clarity and polish your scenes and sentences to a spit shine.
I long ago developed a stomach for editing. They say to “kill your darlings” when you edit. No problem. What weapon shall I use? The machete? The butter knife? The rocket launcher? I’ve got them all and I’m not afraid to use them. Years ago, I wrote a very long (still unpublished) novel about a tennis player, and after a long walk during which I came to the conclusion that one of my sub-plots was totally not working, I sat back down at my desk and casually cut 200 pages from an 800 page manuscript.
Trimming excess fat, re-working scenes, saying goodbye to fluff. I can do that. It’s the blind spots that are starting to keep me up at night. The stuff I can’t see. The revelations that no amount of walks will unearth. Because I can only edit out the crap that I can identify as such. And before you bring it up, I’m not trying to do this alone. My publisher’s developmental editor has been through the manuscript, as have writing colleagues who know their stuff. Other eyes are deeply involved. But there are things that none of us can see with our bare eyes. I’m sure of it. And that knowledge is starting to make me a little crazy.
Luckily, our good friends who make word processing programs have invented tools to help uncover some of the crap you, and other knowledgeable, well-intentioned people can’t always find. I’m starting to believe that Control-F was invented for just such moments.
If you’re unfamiliar, which you probably aren’t, but just in case, Control-F is a word processing tool that allows you to search and find a word or phrase within a document without having to scroll through pages and pages trying to remember where it is. If you’ve never used it, I invite you to open up a document this very moment and try it out. Pick a word. A phrase. An image. Something you know is in there and type it into the Control-F box and watch your document magically race to that very spot. It’s truly amazing. It’s an especially helpful tool for those of us who write book length works where it can be very difficult to find what you’re looking for, no matter how well you think you know your book.
The other day, I was reading my book for the four hundredth time and I thought to myself, “man, is it me or is the word ‘like’ is in here a lot?” My book is 1st person YA, so on some level, it makes sense there would be an extra like or two, but still, I was feeling that from dialogue to similes, ‘like’ was everywhere. So, I typed “like” into the Control-F box. Then held my breath.
# of uses of the word “like” in my 70,000 word manuscript? 597. That’s less than 1% but still! The word was literally everywhere I looked. After my initial shock and terror subsided, I found myself incredibly grateful, wishing I could buy the creators of Control-F a drink or six. They’d helped me notice what was staring me in the face but I still couldn’t see.
I edited those pesky uses of “like” down to less than 400, and genuinely think I improved the manuscript in a very short amount of time.
Then, fearing I had a similar problem, I did Control-F for the word “just” and did the same thing.
As I was reading, I’d also noticed a proliferation of metaphors and similes involving birds in there so I did Control-F for “bird” and trimmed. Similarly, I’d noticed the same thing with puzzle-themed metaphors. Took care of that. Who’s next?
My teenage protagonist’s parents feature prominently, so there are approximately a billion instances of “mom” and “dad” in the book, but those words are either capitalized or not depending on the situation. Had I deployed the correct usage every time? I think you know what happened next.
I guess my point is that editing a manuscript takes you to some strange places, comes in a variety of forms, and that technology can occasionally be a useful friend along the way.
I love some good goal setting just as much as the next guy. After all, setting goals + achieving goals = happier self. And who doesn’t want to be happier? But I’ve also developed a bit of an algorithm for my own goals, whether they be for my writing life or just my life in general.
I believe in setting goals that are ambitious, but still attainable. Ambitious so that I’m properly motivated and know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Attainable so that I have something to celebrate because celebrating feels good and is a really important part of the process. Most goal setting happens privately, and when it’s just you and you, small victories really matter. In the age of social media, it feels like everything is for public consumption, but deep down, most of us still know that we have to make ourselves happy first.
Now, I know that the notion of attainability sort of flies in the face of all the “yay-me!” feelings that are supposed to accompany goal setting in the greeting-card sense of the phrase. We’re always telling ourselves to “dream big” and “be our best selves.” To “reach for the stars” and be “the person we were always born to be.” But you show me a person who spends a little too much time dreaming big and reaching for the stars and I’ll show you a person who regularly doesn’t meet his goals and doesn’t get to celebrate success as often as he’d like.
Let’s get specific. At the top of this page, you’ll see a picture. Now, I’m not in this picture, but what you’re looking at is me celebrating successfully meeting a goal in about the least sexy way possible: by writing numbers on a page, and then writing more numbers beneath those numbers, and then more numbers beneath those. That’s my daily word count for last week.
I was off for a week over the holiday, and I knew I wanted to make some progress on my novel-in-progress, which I’d been struggling to make traction with as of late. But when you’ve got children dominating your life and schedule, Christmas to plan, not to mention food to eat and classic films to watch, days full of free time–the thing we all want more of–can whisk by in surprisingly brisk fashion.
I needed a goal. So, I set one. I decided that during break I would try to write 1,000 words a day. Now, I tend to write fast, and so 1,000 words doesn’t feel like an overly-huge haul, but I also knew that I’d be more likely to reach my daily goal if I set it for an attainable quantity. If I’m properly focused, I can usually write 1,000 story words in 2-3 hours. However, to reach this goal, I knew I’d have to wake up early and get my pages in before the family was up and the day swept me away so that I could properly focus. I’d have to skip morning time chatting with my wife and reading the Beatles biography I’ve been working my way through. I’d have to sacrifice. And sacrifice takes ambition. As does consistency, which was part of my goal. 1,000 words a day, every day. No excuses.
And that un-sexy photo at the top of the page? It’s proof. It’s my reward for a job well done. The first two days waking up at 6:30 when I wanted to sleep in kind of sucked. But with each passing day, I wrote down my current word count before getting to work, and as the numbers grew, I felt successful knowing I’d not only reached the prior day’s goal, I was proving to myself that I could reach today’s as well. And tomorrow’s. With each day, getting up early and getting my pages in felt just a little bit easier, and a little more satisfying.
It’s easy to get romantic about writing, especially fiction. But the dirty little secret is that writing, almost more than anything, is about showing up. And then showing up again. And again. You could write for twelve hours straight and bang out 7,500 words in a marathon Kerouac-style session, but you’re more likely to do it in small chunks. A little bit each day adds up to a lot.
This year, let’s practice ambitious attainability. Let me know how it goes. Very un-sexy pictures of celebration highly encouraged.
Since my publisher, Deep Hearts YA, does not do much with audiobooks just yet, one of the tasks I’ve given myself in anticipation of my debut novel coming out next year is independently producing an audiobook of my book to accompany the paperback and e-book release. Why? Mostly because I love audiobooks. Secondly, because it sounded like fun. I know, I know. My version of fun isn’t exactly normal. But I’ve hosted my own podcast, know a little bit about recording and editing quality audio. How hard could it be?
The truth is that before I even got going, I confronted a serious problem. Who would narrate it? Initially, I had planned to narrate it myself. I have a background in acting and teaching and podcasting, which means I trusted myself to deliver a solid performance, and hey, I’m on a budget here. But when I mentioned this plan to my wife, she scrunched up her face in that way she does, the one that lets me know I’m a complete idiot.
You see, I’m a middle aged guy, and my protagonist is, well, not. In fact, my protagonist is a 15-year old girl. My wife gently explained that audiences would probably warm more to the story if the voice narrating the story was closer to that of its main character. She also pointed out that this was especially important given that the novel is in 1st person. But…But…But…
I had some serious Buts because this flew in the face of my plan, and my budget, and my selfish desire to read it myself. And, after all, how the hell do you find someone great to narrate an audiobook?
While I have some additional feelings on the topic of whether a narrator’s gender needs to always match up with that of a main character, my wife was right on this one. She usually is.
So, I thought about it: who do I know that could do this? I sent some emails to local theater organizations. I asked friends. I thought some more. I sent some more emails. Not surprisingly, not much came of this. So, I did what any sensible person would do. I quietly panicked.
And then I discovered ACX, which, as many people know is Amazon’s giant portal for authors and narrators to produce and publish audiobooks. It’s a place where narrators can post samples of themselves and where authors can discover the perfect narrator. I filtered for “YA” and “female” and no fewer that a billion or so narrators and their samples came up. I began clicking and listening. Clicking and listening. Some were fine. Some were not so fine. Some were excellent. Some were professional. Some were decidedly not professional. Some were clearly recorded on a quality microphone. Some seemed accidentally recorded by a phone’s voice memo function. I just kept listening, not quite sure what I was looking for, but hoping that I would know it when I heard it.
And then I heard H’s voice. Everything about her delivery and timbre, her ability to sound vulnerable and real, felt like it would fit perfectly with Rainey, my main character.
From there, things clicked together with a kind of serendipity that is truly unusual. I reached out to H, told her about my project, sent her some sample pages, and asked if she was interested in doing an audition. She was.
A few weeks later, she sent her audition through, and I got goosebumps when I listened to it again and again while walking around my neighborhood with a goofy smile on my face.
I’m happy to report this story has a happy ending, and that I’ve found my narrator. You’re going to love her.
If you’re reading this, then thanks for sticking around. I know it’s been a while. Perhaps you thought I would never post again. Perhaps you never noticed I stopped posting in the first place. Perhaps you’ve missed me terribly. Any of those reactions are fine. I love you just the way you are.
I’m posting something new because I have some news to share. Some good news, which doesn’t come around too often.
A novel I wrote is being published. Next year. As in, summer 2022. I know that’s far away.
Why share this news? Because I’m excited, and I thought you might be too. The truth is that I’m doing holy-shit back flips on the regular, but I’m trying to play it cool so I don’t embarrass myself or freak you out.
Over the next year, I’ll be editing my book for publication, collaborating with a friend on cover design, overhauling this website to be more professional, producing an audio book, and designing and attending my own book launch boot camp.
I plan to post occasional updates here to document the process. Because it’s not everyday you publish your first book and I want to soak up every minute.
An Open Letter to the Hotel Pool Lifeguard in Montreal who Suffered From the Delusion That She was on Baywatch While I was There Swimming With my Kids and Not Doing Anything Wrong and in No Danger of any Kind:
First off, and I’m not just being hyperbolic, I’ve never seen a lifeguard at a hotel pool in my life.
Second off, we were here last night and the lifeguard then was so hands off and on-her-phone-the-whole-time, that I honestly thought she just liked the sweeping view the penthouse floor afforded of the Montreal skyline or was maybe hiding from her annoying family or dealing with a text-based spat with her boyfriend. It wasn’t until my sons and I were toweling off and slipping on our shoes and I was reflecting on how weird it was that this girl had been sitting there playing on her phone for over an hour that it occurred to me: she’s a lifeguard. This small hotel pool has a lifeguard. This small hotel pool has a lifeguard? She was so non-lifeguardish, and rightfully so–hell, it was just me and my two sons in the pool–that I felt bad for her afterward, wondering what they paid her to sit there all day while moms and dads brought their kids up to the pool to swim, and hoping that they threw in the free continental breakfast to make it worth her while.
Third off–this is not Baywatch. Okay, I know you’re a lifeguard, and therefore you are actively being paid to guard lives, which means you should be on your game and ready to intervene if and when a life needs to be saved, but let me break this down for you. Your hotel’s pool is like 20×20. The deep end claims to be 7 feet, though was more like 5 1/2 because I am under six feet and could stand up flat-footed and have my entire head out of the water. Same goes for the shallow end, which claims to be 4 feet, but is not. I am here with my two sons, and am actively swimming with them. I am a visibly capable swimmer. As is my eldest son. There is another family here with three small children, but both parents are present and they are both in the water, and no more than three feet from their children at any given time. And yet, you feel the need to walk the perimeter and glare down at us like you’re huffing the fence line at Guantanamo, ready to shoot the first thing that moves. There were moments when my youngest son Leo climbed onto my back for a “dolphin ride” and I could feel you walking over in your creepy slow-motion footsteps and hovering over us, your arms interlaced behind your back, that I was sure I was doing something horribly wrong. Had I kidnapped these children? Had one of them hit his head and was bleeding out into the chlorine and I hadn’t noticed? Was I a horrible parent? Oh, no. Wait a second. That’s right. We’re in a tiny fucking hotel pool and I’m swimming with my kids.
I have to wonder, which of you–the night before hands-off life guard, or you–was better living up to the job description outlined for you? Because your approaches to the job couldn’t be more different. I picture the lifeguard interview process, candidates being grilled like Jason Bourne before they throw that bag over his head and water board him to test his allegiance in The Bourne Ultimatum. What are you willing to sacrifice to keep these guests safe, even though they are in no apparent danger, nor will they be?
“Do you swear to protect and serve the guests of the Residence Inn Marriott even though they don’t need protecting?”
“Don’t swear unless you mean it soldier!!” (slap across the face)
“I mean it!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…wait, what’s the pay again? Seven-fifty an hour?”
“Let’s not mince details soldier!” (slap across the face)
“Wait…how deep is the pool? Under six feet?”
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps you suffered a mis-hap earlier in life, or a water-based tragedy and you’re committed to making sure that never happens again. If that’s the case, you’re the best, and I take all this back.
Perhaps you’re bored and lonely in your personal life, and so goose-stepping across the wet tile and gesturing with your index finger at the too-large splash my son has just made playing Marco Polo, helps fill in the gaping hole in some way.
Perhaps this is your small contribution to making the world just a tiny bit better.
Either way, lady, you’re freaking me out. I’m here swimming with my kids. If one of them starts to drown, please feel free to jump in and save them. But since that’s not going to happen, fuck protocol and let’s see that cannonball, eh?
**PS…this is my second recent post which would seem to disparage Canada, Canadiens, and Montreal specifically. Let me just say for the record that I love Canada, Canadiens, and Montreal in particular. But c’mon, we bloggers have to use the material life throws as us!
When I was seventeen and dreamed big ballerina dreams, I also revered Aerosmith. I sat on the window ledge of Pacific Northwest Ballet memorizing Steven Tyler’s lyrics with my friend Jenna Butala. Crystals dangled from our necks. Names of boys like Santo vibrated against our lips, as we threw our buns back. Joe Perry jammed inside our Walkmans.
We had no body fat, and we could do splits against the walls and turn thirty two times on the tips of our toes whenever the urge compelled us. Frat boys begged to take us to concerts at the Space Needle, while random men on roller skates at Lake Washington flew down onto their knees asking us to marry them.
“Dream on,” we yelled at the top of our lungs and laughed as we strolled away in our cut-offs, never looking back at the men’s faces.
Took my lady to see The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at our beloved local theater, The Flynn, the other night. We sat front row in the balcony and watched Wynton and the cats do their thing, and as always, the experience was pure bliss. I was a little tired that night, and in truth, gave my sweatpants an extra look before pulling on my boots and coat to brave the sub-zero January. As usual, though, there is no substitute for live music, jazz in particular. Jazz is one of the few constants in my life, a continued source of pleasure and inspiration that mostly feeds a private place in my soul, a little garden that always prospers and always has plenty of sunshine and rain. It’s been that way for many many years and Wynton has long been a hero of mine, both for his musical genius and for his advocacy for the arts and arts education. And for how damn cool he is. I’ve seen Wynton seven or eight times over the years, though haven’t seen the orchestra since college, and their precision was astounding. When you hear a group of men playing so together, it’s easy to take for granted what they’re achieving because the music, and the individual contributions necessary to make it, are so seamless, so empathetic. This is the essence of big band jazz. And when it’s working best, you barely notice it.
Here’s a few clips of Wynton for your Monday morning. This one is a nice interview with Wynton and Paul Simon that’s about Simon’s contribution to American music, but it’s cool to see them together. The second, below, is Wynton’s quartet with Frank O’Connor and Frank Vignola sitting in on Sweet Georgia Brown.
And a third of the orchestra doing Chick Corea’s “Wigwam.” Enjoy. Have a banner week.
I was at the post office the other day. The line was painfully long, crawling in fact. All I needed was stamps. I was kicking myself for not having ordered them online ahead of time and saved myself the torture. It was a week before Christmas and all around me people had holiday packages stacked up to their chins, or resting on the counter before them. We were all miserable waiting.
Standing there, I began to imagine that a gunman was about to walk in and begin shooting at us. And when he did, I wondered, what would I do? There was a frail old woman just to my left, her hair a sculpted frozen wave, a Certs jogging around in her mouth, appearing sporadically between her ruby lips. Would I help her first? Pull her down behind the island? Throw my body in front of hers? Or would I knock her out of the way and hurl myself over the counter to escape the rapid spray of automatic weapon fire as it peppered the plywood and people started screaming?
I wasn’t imagining this is the typical day dreamy way you do, when silly thoughts come into your head. When you see your reflection and pretend you kind of look like Harrison Ford, or wonder if it’s too late to become an astronaut. For a few seconds, I full on expected it to happen. Right there in my local post office, it seemed entirely plausible.
A few nights ago, I took my wife out to dinner and a movie. We ate like royalty, then saw “Silver Linings Playbook,” which is great, by the way. Same thing happened as at the post office. The theater was crowded. Packed nearly to capacity. And as the movie began playing, the thought came to me again: what will happen when one of these people stands up with an automatic weapon and starts shooting at all of us? Will I be able to protect my wife? Myself? What will it sound like? Feel like? Will I ever make it home to see my children? How many of us will die before he either shoots himself or someone takes him down?
This is dark terrain, I know.
But that most recent shooting at Sandy Hook is pinballing around in my subconscious and I can’t seem to make it stop.