Writerly patience?

Everybody seems to be in a hurry to do everything these days (me included). And I watching-the-clockcertainly don’t want to add fuel to the self vs. traditional publishing debate. (I’ve done one and plan to do both in the future). However…

I do think the proliferation of self-publishing has caused a LOT of writers (certainly not all) to skip a few really, super important steps. Namely…

a) Critique–lots and lots of critique from peers. There should be numerous sets of eyeballs on our work–other writers, readers, family, friends, editors, then more and more writers. This is not a one-time thing. It takes several rounds of critique for any story to graduate to…

b) Editing. Macro edits, micro edits, story edits, content edits, line edits. Not all writers make great editors. Again, this is not a singular event, but more like a long series of waves. Some will be pleasant, warm and swirly and ticklish. And a few of them should knock us on our writerly butts. All of them should propel the work forward.

Along with patience, plan on heavy doses of discipline, time, and some very hard work. Traditional publishing forces these issues. The self-publisher must force him or herself. In my estimation, the disciplined writer takes the time to vet his/her work, regardless of how or when it gets published.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

9780316204262_p0_v2_s260x420This is not a real question. It’s a newish novel by Maria Semple. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s mostly original, comprised of emails and letters, as well as traditional prose.

Some will say it’s not very believable. But I would argue that Semple had me believing every oddball premise and eccentric detail of this family’s life.

From the inside flap: “…an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are. It is also a riotous satire of privilege and an unsentimental but powerful story of a daughter’s unflinching love for her imperfect mother.”

A darn good read, this one.

Other really good books I’ve finished recently…

David & Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

I Wear The Black Hat – Chuck Klosterman

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

A Light Between Oceans – ML Stedmanbooks_old

The China Study and Whole – both by T. Colin Campbell

The Dinner – Herman Koch

The Freedom of Self-Forgiveness – Tim Keller

Father & Son – Larry Brown

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Salt Sugar Fat – Michael Moss

Sweet Tooth – Ian Mcewan

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

We Live In Water – Jess Walter

The Memory of Running – Ron Mclarty

The One Thing – Gary Keller

So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

The Practicing Mind – Thomas M. Sterner

What They Don’t Know

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courtesy of Aubrey Snyder

All of my kids are creative. Three of the four are creative in traditional ways people think about things…art, music, drama, dance, etc. (The other one is a stud football player, which obviously requires plenty of creativity!).

I could brag on their many accomplishments, but you’d likely click away from here, thinking: “Great more cyber home movies.” So you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that they come up with some truly amazing stuff…well beyond their years.

But here’s the point: they don’t know any better.

And because they don’t think it’s odd or unique or weird that they write novels, storyboard movies, spend countless hours attending to minute details of a single drawing (right), choreographing musicals, or writing elaborate soundtrack music…they don’t have to fall prey to expectations.

(Also see Luke’s first foray into claymation HERE)

They’re not worried if what they create is “good enough.” Or if it will ever “get published.” Or if they’ll ever “make it.” They simply create. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s the personification of childlike wonder.

And it’s something I think most creative adults should aspire to. I know I do.

For The Love Of The Game

“I’m too old for this.”58417156_df282af5f1 - Version 2

That is my primary thought on Sunday nights as I run up and down the brilliant hardwood of a local middle school. It’s a pure thought, earnest and true.

(A few secondary thoughts include: “Four more points and we can stop for water,” “Miss it, miss it, miss it…” and “I am so going to die our here.”)

The fact is, I have retired from pickup basketball twice already because of repeated ankle injuries. And someday soon the ability to walk normally and with minimal pain will again trump my desire to steal passes, knock down three-pointers, and/or congratulate other sweaty, middle-aged men for winning a game that no one will remember five minutes after the final basket.

My last foray less than a week ago netted me a lumpy cut under my left eye, a severe leg cramp, a re-injury of my oft-re-injured left ankle, and losing the series 3 games to 2.

Still, every week I strap on the ankle braces and lace up the high-tops, drive 30 minutes with my oldest son, perform a few half-hearted stretches, and run around like a teenager maniacally bent on coercing the orange sphere up and over the iron rim, then back down through its nylon skirt.

I literally suffer for this privilege. It makes no logical sense. But my buddies and me all show up and do it anyway.

And it’s a lot like writing or painting or other solitary art forms. Writing takes time and energy and resources. Eventually it takes a toll. I’ll spend hours crafting a piece of flash fiction only to have it either a) sit in obscurity on my hard drive, b) have it rejected by some overworked multitasking “editor” in another part of the country (happened twice this week!), or c) have it “published” somewhere…which basically means it will sit in obscurity somewhere other than my hard drive.

No NBA scouts will show up one Sunday and offer me a contract. Likewise, most everything I write will earn me a single red cent or even a handful of attaboys. But I’ll keep showing up as long as my mind and body will allow.

It must be the love of the game. Or maybe it’s insanity. Or maybe there’s very little difference between the two?

The F-Word

The dreaded F-word. Yes, that one. That overused, multi-functioning swear word that garners R-ratings from the Motion Picture Association.3194950746_957fa0a962

A couple of housekeeping things here at the outset.

1- I’m not going to type the actual word in this post

2- This will not be a prudish rant based on morality. I don’t particularly like that word, never say it out loud, and if I’ve ever typed it on behalf of some character of mine, chances are I have eventually edited it out.

That said, I have recently been offended by the F-word. More specifically, its overuse in books and movies.

Case in point, I recently finished a deliciously good novel by Peter Heller called The Dog Stars. It’s a literary take on a post-apocalyptic America, similar to McCarthy’s The Road. The prose is Hemingway-esque, sparse, to the point, beautifully rendered. However, the F-word appears every couple of pages or so, typically in bunches. And it’s starting to annoy me.

Other than articles, conjunctions, names, and a few other proper nouns, NOTHING bugs me more in prose than repeated words. The more stark or uncommon the word, the greater impact it has when used…once. Repeating such words dilutes them of their power. And no words are exempt, not even the ostensibly hip and cool swear word du jour.

You see this in movies all the time. The F-word is still THE word that ostensibly carries the most punch, even with its fifty-seven different meanings. But after we hear it three or four times, we start to tune it out. The punch loses its power. It just becomes an irritation. Once it’s out there, there’s no mystery or nuance left. The only way to milk the language for more intensity is to just say the same nasty word louder. And as much as I hate to sound like my grandmother, it comes off as an abject lack of creativity and makes the characters saying it all the time sound a bit daft.

Some will argue that, “That’s just how people talk today.”

First, I would agree that, indeed they do. Then I would argue that transcribing actual language from actual everyday people is one of the worst things a write can do. If you need proof, simply take your laptop to your local Starbucks and type actual conversations, word-for-painstaking-word. Leave all the pauses and um’s and repeated words. Then put that in a story and see how well it works. That is exactly how people talk. And it has no place in literature. The trick with dialog and/or internal monologue is to make it sound natural while delivering the words in interesting and artistic ways. It’s sleight-of-hand. And it’s one of the hardest things for most writers to do well.

Again, this is not a call for syrupy sweet language in books and movies. If you insist on deploying the F-word, have your grandmother say it. Or the choir director. Or an eight year old. Or the family pet. But only have them say it once.

And like every other word or phrase in your story, it had better serve the story in some meaningful way. If it doesn’t characterize or move the story forward, it doesn’t belong, regardless of its profane impact.

Flash Fiction

According to Wikipedia: Flash fiction is a style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category.

This brand of storytelling is not for everyone. The author must get to the point of all those writerly devices (plot, character, story, etc.) in a hurry.

And it’s all very subjective too. Either it works or it doesn’t. And beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. The good news is that the investment of time it takes to read a piece of flash fiction is relatively low compared to the potential payoff of the experience.

Most of my flash fiction has been inspired by story prompts, supplied by an online community called Storypraxis. Some of the better ones are collected HERE on this website. They vary in style and substance and tone, so hopping around is encouraged.

If you’re so inclined, go have a look. Even better, take the title of the piece, or perhaps a particular phrase or character or description, and use that to write your own story. Even better than that would be to post your story in the comments section. And best of all, you could skip all this story business and just send me a check for a thousand dollars!

Weekend Update

Occasionally, I plan to list a few books, movies, records, articles, blogs, overheard conversations, or just whatever else may have popped into my head over the course of a week or so.

These may include (but will not be limited to) actual reviews, recommendations, weird musings, and/or the occasional dumb joke.

So here goes:

Defending Jacob by William Landay (Audiobook)
I would call this a literary thriller. If you take the best story elements from Grisham, Martini, et al, then apply generous amounts of elegant technique, this is what you get. The comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird may be a bit lofty. But I get why they’re made. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Blue Like Jazz – (DVD)
I really liked this movie a lot. I do wish I’d been able to see it before I’d heard ANY opinions about it though. Even better, I wish I had seen it without the knowledge that Don Miller wrote it and Steve Taylor directed it. I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it any more or any less, but I’m certain a little more ignorance on my part would have helped keep my mind in neutral during the film.

Standup Comedian by Demetri Martin
The ONLY thing working against this album is my own rampant expectations! In a word, Martin is brilliant (and not just brilliantly funny, he’s like a bona fide genius). His comedy is from the Steven Wright lineage. Martin delivers heady one-liners that might “take a second,” rather than full blown jokes with traditional setups and punch lines.

I did finish Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead and liked it well enough. It’s a dense read and takes a little long to get to the heart of things. Not sure who else I would recommend this book too. It’s historical fiction (Civil War), rather bleak, sometimes depressing, other times horrific.

I started, then stopped Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. He’s so good, and I like his stuff so much, that I wanted to make sure the book had my full attention. Although I liked what I read, I kept finding myself confused (I’m pretty certain it’s me, not Chabon). So I’m shelving it until I have time to reader in longer bursts.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings – I’m about halfway through and am really enjoying it. I will admit that I like the premise and the writing more than the characters and/or the way the story has developed thus far. But as far as contemporary-literary-fiction-with-a-humorous-bent, I think it’s going to be a darn good one.

1922 by Stephen King (audio, novella) – This was a bit of a downer for me. King is obviously an amazing writer. I began championing his literary cause when I was in high school. The man certainly knows his way around a paragraph. But my tastes have changed over time. The story and the writing were fine. But the gore and the haunting and all the silly rats just got a bit tedious for me.

The blog of the week for me would have to go to Mike Duran’s DeCompose. He’s a really smart, really talented, and really nice guy. He likes to ask hard questions and stir the pot to make people think. And that’s a good thing.

My Best Writing Story

The book in question is the yellow one on the bottom, aka “Fink”

Once upon a time I was at a book signing in Michigan, hanging with the inimitable Rob Stennett. He and I had been relegated to the book signing equivalent of the kiddie-table–which simply means all the multi-published, big-time, somewhat famous authors with actual fans congregated around the main table. The closer to this central hub you were located, the more published, big-time, and/or famous you were. Rob and I were seated in the next zip code.

Anyhow, this very nice lady made eventually made her way to the end of the line and began saying, “Snyder, Snyder, which one is Snyder?”

I believe Rob and I had the same idea–that we would pretend he was me and see if we could make things a bit more interesting. But thankfully, we behaved.

Then the very nice lady then began to tell me a story. What has become one of my all-time faves.

To paraphrase, she indicated that her son had allowed life and circumstances and a lack of confidence to stunt his emotional growth. He had dropped out of college and was settling for dead end jobs. I’m guessing this resulted in a lot of spare time. So his mom decided to give him a copy of my first novel to help fill it. She said that he loved the story, couldn’t put it down. She went on to say that he was so inspired by it, that he began to read more widely and more often. This newfound love of reading led him to re-enroll in college and get his life back on track.

I felt like Costanza, tempted to leave on a high note.

It really is hard for me to retell this story without getting choked up. I know that sounds sappy. I realize it would be much more dramatic if the son–the real hero of the story–started out on death row, or was at least dealing crack in dark alleys before his newfound love for literature culminated in a college scholarship and eventually being short-listed for a Pulitzer.

It was his reading, perhaps even his writing, that led to the change. My writing was simply the spark.

Still, I can’t really explain how humbling it is that something I conjured up and scribbled down may have actually helped change a life.

So what about you? Inspired anyone lately, intentional or not? Been inspired? Have a writing story of your own you’d like to share?

The Only 2 Questions

According to the inimitable Steve Almond, the only two questions readers care about are these:

1. Who do I care about?

2. What do they care about?

“It doesn’t especially matter what your heroine cares about. as long as she cares a lot. Love and death are the usual suspects, but a great novel just might arise from a nun’s thwarted effort to remove dental floss from between her teeth (to borrow an example from Kurt Vonnegut). As long as her passion places her in peril, you’re in business.”

Sure, style matters. As does voice and technique and talent and all sorts of other writerly stuff.

But I think there’s a boatload of wisdom in Almond’s distillation.

So, what do you think?

Interviewing Naked

My PR lady emailed and said that an east coast radio station wanted to have me back on air to talk about my third novel. This was particularly cool because I remembered the guy doing the interview had actually read my other novels prior to asking me questions about them on air.

We agreed on the time and date and I put it on my calendar.

The fateful morning arrived and I double-checked my email to make sure I had the time right. I did, but my very nice PR lady had forgotten to factor in the time zone difference.

That’s not me. Nor is it my shower.

So…I was just finishing up my shower when I heard my cell phone vibrating on the sink. I hurried out of the mist and checked the number. The unfamiliar area code sure seemed east coasty.

I debated for a second, but it’s not like they were going to call back at a more convenient time. So I answered it…au naturel.

At some point I think I did wrap myself in a towel. But for the most part, I spent the next five to ten minutes talking to thousands of people in the nude.

The takeaway here?

Conventional wisdom claims that if you’re nervous about talking in front of a crowd, you should picture your audience naked. I can now tell you from personal experience that having them picture you naked works too.

What about you? Any embarrassing situations you’d like to share? (For today at least, clothing is optional…)