Monday, August 29, 2011

5 Things I Learned About Writing by Building a Tree House

Although the tree house is not completely finished, it is nearly complete, and I learned a few things while completely out of my element during the last phases of construction.

1. You don’t have to have a precise plan.

When you start a project, you don’t need an exact plan, as long as you have a rough idea of what you think the final product should look like at the end.

Our tree house plan was sketched out on 2 pieces of graph paper on the first morning of construction and provided all of the necessary info to complete the project.

If you are stuck on a writing project: Get a sheet of paper, even a plain piece of paper, and set a timer for 15 minutes and write down everything you can think of about the project. Feel free to MindMap the idea, cut and paste words and pictures from other sources, ask questions, etc.  Add more pages if necessary. Use this as the basis of your project.

2. You don’t have to take on a big project alone.

My cre
It is always good to have a crew to help you out. Whether it is writing buddy that you can bounce ideas off of, a group of reliable peers to critique your writing, or a good editor to help perfect your prose toward the end of the project, you don’t have to bear the entire burden of the project alone. So hook up with a group of writers either locally or online, but preferably nearby so you can get some needed social time with other word lovers.

3. The right tools make all of the difference in the world. 

Even when writing it is important to know what tools you need and how to use them properly. Word choice, grammar, and when you must follow and break the rules are critical to getting a project done.

Knowing how to use the thesaurus, your word processor, research tools and methods, and grammar resources are almost as important as the writing process itself. So invest in the best tools your money can buy and learn how to use them.

4. You can get a lot done in a hurry if you have a goal. 

Two days from wobbly deck to framed, walled and roofed tree house. They were 8 to 9 hour days, but consistent effort got us there. If you find a gap of time, whether it is 15 minutes, a couple of hours, or a couple of days, focus all of your effort on getting as much as you can done in that amount of time. 

Working fast can give you the push and momentum to keep going, even when you hit a difficult spot.

5.  Seek advice from experts.  

My Dad is a mechanical genius.  He can fix, build, renovate or refurbish anything. He taught people how to run and repair heavy equipment (cranes, bulldozers, graders, etc.) for over 30 years. He dug a pond in our backyard, built a barn, deck, and transformed a cinder block basement into a family room and bedroom. He has built gazebos and go carts, clocks, cedar chests and entertainment centers. There is nothing he cannot do with his hands.

Unfortunately, his genius apparently has skipped a generation. I am barely qualified to shop for myself at Home Depot. Any project I take on takes forever to finish, with many trips back and forth to the hardware store, with a lot of trial and error in between, to get a job done.
Picture of a man not qualified to shop
for himself at Home Depot
It is OK to seek the counsel of those who are more knowledgeable and experienced than you.

It often saves a lot of time and wasted effort.  Most people are flattered and pleased when you come to them seeking advice and generous with their expertise. So seek out mentors and experts to help you along in your journey. People often forget that writing is, at heart, a collaborative art, where one writer’s work often builds upon or borrows from many other writers.

My Dad gave up two entire days to help me make a dream for my kids come true. I don’t think that they believed that I’d ever get the tree house done, and without his help it probably never would have happened. I can never thank him enough for this gift. Thank you Dad!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Weekly Word Count – August 15th through August 21st 2011

I know I sound like a broken record, but this week I have a good excuse for the lack of output.  I built a TREE HOUSE

Actually, I didn’t build it, I just helped. My Dad visited for a couple of days and created a plan out of my vague idea of what I wanted for the kids.  The first thing we had to do was “fix-up” phase one of the plan, which was the deck that took me all of last summer to build.  A pretty good effort according to my Dad, who is a certified expert in such things, except for the fact that it needed to be reinforced in order to make it safer.  Then once he figured out all of the angles for the construction so it would have a sloped roof, we constructed the frame of the house. 

So day one of the process consisted of, looking at the deck, figuring out how large the tree house was going to be (5’ by 7’), what design we wanted (doors, windows, type of roof) and then creating a shopping list.

Then it was off to Menard's where we purchased 40 2x4x8’s, 10 sheets of plywood, one roll of roofing material, 3 additional 4x4x8’s to reinforce the deck, some aluminum screen, door hinges and hardware and we were ready to roll.  By noon we had everything that we needed and began construction.

DSC_0148As Dad and I reinforced the deck, the boys unloaded the lumber out of the van.  One the deck was properly reinforced, we began cutting and constructing the sides of the house on the ground.  It is amazing how easy a construction project can be when you have the right tools.  With my dad’s saw and nail gun, the sides were assembled and good to go by 7pm on the first day.

DSC_0169On Day 2, we lifted the walls up onto the deck, clamped them together, nailed them in place and then began cutting the plywood sides for the house. While this was going on, I laid the roof beams in place and settled the plywood for the roof in place. This was completed by lunchtime.

After a quick lunch of Nick’s Pizza and sweet corn from Neely’s farm I worked on nailing the plywood for the room in place while Dad and Ben marked and cut out the door for the house.  Once I had the first part of the roof in place, I was “trapped” on the roof while screwing the entire roof down tight from on top.  While Dad and Leah cut out the windows for the house, I nailed the rolled roofing into place on the roof.  A very hot job.

DSC_0216And by 5pm, all that is left to do is painting and putting the screens for the door and windows in place.  I am amazed what a difference that 2 days can make.

In addition almost another day was sucked up by taking Addie to Cincinnati for an appointment with a specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.  Figure in the 2 hour drive each way, the 2 hours for the appointment itself, and then (of course) lunch at a Chinese restaurant afterwards and the day is pretty much shot.

What does this have to do with the Weekly Word Count? Not a lot, other than giving me a tale to tell to pad the word count at the end of the week with some nifty pictures to boot, and a couple of lessons about the project  that can be translated over from the construction realm to writing.  Word Count for the Week: 1,789.

I’m not going to bother breaking it down for you… Next week will be better I promise. Next Week: Lessons I Learned About Writing from Building a Tree House!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – Round 1: Set the Right Pace

DSC_0087Pacing is a challenge for any modern day fiction writer.  It seems like our literature now reflects our frenetic-paced lives. The story has to burst from the gate and leap into a story immediately, while not confusing the reader with too little information or boring the reader with too much.  Pacing is a difficult balance to maintain throughout an entire story, but in the first five pages it is like walking on a high wire without a net or a clown to break your fall.  You need to engage the reader and hook him/her into the story with a bit of mystery, but not too much mystery or you lose the reader’s attention.

Which of your favorite stories or novels have fantastic beginnings? Who are the authors that are the masters of stringing the reader along keeping them up way too late reading? Post them in the comments below.

Vicious Spring – Hollis Hampton Jones (2003)

First of all there is a great cover quote from Jay McInerney: “Fast, nasty, shocking and strangely touching. It knocked me out.”  This coming from author of the granddaddy of all party books: Bright Lights, Big City. The back cover and the first five pages reveal a narrator who does drugs because she's bored, has a boyfriend in his 30’s who works at a strip club, and she becomes a lap dancer. The first five pages include drugs, suggestions of sex, senseless vandalism and the fire alarm sprinklers going off inside school. It has interesting narrative voice and an intriguing first-person point of view that I want to read more about. On to the next round.

Love Invents Us – Amy Bloom (1997)

The back cover promises realistic characters and interesting situations. The first part of the book is about Elizabeth, an elementary school-aged girl who is modeling first with store owner. She, as the narrator, does not seem to be bothered by this action, although it feels a little creepy. He doesn't seem to molest her in any way, but you wonder what may happen later. Elizabeth seems to be starving for attention and love.  The narrative voice is not that interesting in the beginning, and even though I want to see where the story might go, I’m afraid it will be somewhere very sad and ugly.  I'm not sure that I’m up for this type of tale right now. This one is eliminated.

The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter (2000)

This one is weird because the narrator’s name is Charles Baxter which happens to be the name of the author. This one has a very slow start, talking about optical floaters that look like cogs in the machine in about of insomnia. This book is a National Book Award finalist, so I suppose I should give it more time, but there are a lot of books in this tournament and if I am honest with myself, the book doesn’t engage me enough to compel me to keep reading, so I am eliminating this one.

The Sweet Hereafter – Russell Banks (1991)

This book has many favorable blurbs, and of course, was an award-winning movie, which I haven't seen. Russell Banks has a very good reputation and the back cover copy promises a morality play that addresses one of life's most agonizing questions: When the worst thing happens, who could you blame? The first five pages are told from the point of view of what I think is a bus driver, who has hit something. This has happened in the past, and suggests, or at least makes me think, that a child was hit. This novel seems to start off a little slow, but I think I want some more time to read this to see if it can recover from the slow start by reading an additional 20 pages or so. But again, there are many tough choices ahead of me to cut this list down to 32, so I'll list this as a maybe for now.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
  • Strawberry Tattoo -- Lauren Henderson (1999)
  • Lying Awake -- Mark Salzman  (2000)
  • The Feast of Love -- Charles Baxter (2000)
  • Love Invents Us -- Amy Bloom (1997)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Weekly Word Count –August 8th through August 14th 2011

**NOTE: Sorry for the delay on last week's Weekly Word Count. I had it written, just forgot to post it (along with several other blog posts last week) so today you are getting 2 for 1!**

Week 2 of being free from my day job has been a bit of a transition.  A simple post on Facebook asking for freelance assignments generated a lot of help from my friends, acquaintances and former students. They forwarded job postings, leads on good companies to consider, and even a couple of possible future assignments.  All this being said, I am disappointed with my output again last week: a mere 2,754 words. 

My best day was Friday with 1,579 words, 1,205 of which were a white paper draft for a client.  I wrote no new content for the blogs last week, only tweaked a couple of articles that were already waiting to be posted.  Another 329 words were devoted to my “business plan” which is more of an all-encompassing task list of the things I need to do to make this writing biz happen. This is good for helping me think on paper about all of the things that need to be done and roughly in what order.  The rest of the words were strictly job search related. In other words, very little creative output at all.  The days sort of blended together with my mood swerving from cool confidence to stomach sinking panic. Depending on the day and the content of my email inbox.

I realized that I still have a lot of things to do. I needed to gather writing samples from all of my recent writing projects for an online portfolio, which has become a bit of a problem since some of my writing samples were still on 3.5” diskettes, and none of the three old computers I had with floppy drives were functioning. Enter eBay and $12.99 for a new USB floppy drive delivered on Monday, and I was sifting through a massive data jungle filled with my obsessive need to back up everything repeatedly, but never seeming to overwrite older files.  I’ve now located a couple of dozen files which might serve as possible writing samples. I’m trying to gather a variety of different documents to show off the scope of my writing talent.

I also needed to install WordPress onto my primary website which was challenging to sift through all of the data transfer and behind the scenes set up with the web hosting service, but it is done, Now all I have to do is configure and launch it when I’m ready. Which will hopefully be next week.

Then over the weekend I forced myself to get out of my office and head down to the local coffee shop for our monthly writers group meeting and spent the rest of the weekend with family… So two of my (traditionally) most productive days were completely empty of words which also dragged the count down.

I don’t know what this really says about me or my situation other than reinforcing that there is NEVER a perfect time to write. Even if you have a lot of time, life tends to find ways to seep into it and leach a little of it away.

This week is a new week and there is a lot planned for it, so I’m definitely going to need to manage it well and get stuff done whenever I can.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – Boldly Go Where You Have Never Gone Before

A good writer can immerse you in a world that you have no knowledge of and make you believe in it. Every detail. Every aspect of it. In this edition’s Reading Elimination Tournament entries, all four authors do this: Elwood Reid, takes us into the realm of Big-Ten college football as an elite athlete. Mark Saltzman takes us into a Carmelite monastery outside of Los Angeles to see life through the eyes of a nun. Paul Hoover travels through time back to the late 1960’s to experience home life through the point of view of a conscientious objector in small town Illinois. Finally, A.M Homes (a woman, for those of you who are not familiar with her) leaps into the body of a nervous, insecure teenage boy about to experience drastic changes in his life.

DSC_0091As a reader, the writer has to make me trust that you know what you are talking about. You have to set up scenes with specific details, riveting dialog, and engaging events that the average reader can relate to and believe possible. And the writer has to make it interesting, or at least interesting enough to keep the reader turning pages.

The first five pages should establish what the world of the book is about. Where are we? When are we? Who are we? What are we going to learn about this subject that we may or may not know about? If we know about it, is it true? If we don’t know about it, is it interesting? What are the rules of this world? Are there conflicts already brewing? The first five pages are critical for setting the expectations for the reader.

If I Don't Six – Elwood Reid (1998)

This story feels like a realistic tale about an interesting situation; the life of the elite collegiate athlete. The protagonist is a jock, one who is self-aware enough to reveal interesting insights which go beyond the surface. It grabs my attention and holds it. The protagonist is also from Cleveland, so Ohio plays a prominent role within the story, and is another reason the story interests me. The author manages to define other characters through vivid actions and insights revealed with the dialogue. This is very well done and goes on to the next round.

Saigon, Illinois – Paul Hoover (1988)

This book is set in the late 1960s it starts off with the main character Holder, setting up his appeal as a conscientious objector to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. You can tell from the interactions between the draft board and Holder that he is a one of those clever and somewhat funny characters that you would like to learn more about. He seems to be in the midst of much of the conflict that occurs during that era. I like the character enough that I might want to move this on to the next round, but it is on the borderline. So it’s going into the maybe pile for now, but I’m leaning toward passing it to the next round.

Jack – A. M. Homes (1989)

This book starts in the middle of a driving lesson with a nervous teenage narrator in the driver’s seat. I like the observations of the narrator when dad takes over behind the wheel. Jack’s description comparing how his dad does the things that an experienced driver does without thinking, and the labor-intensive thought process of a beginning driver is great and true-to-life is brilliant. The character is likable and his observations interesting. Homes does a good job of presenting the teenage mind. I'm going to put this one on the maybe pile, but I'm leaning toward sending it to the next round.

Lying Awake – Mark Salzman (2000)

This one has an interesting premise; a nun has spiritual enlightenment, but also dangerous headaches which may require medical intervention. Are the two related? This is another book that starts out slow, describing the details of life in a convent. The structure is interesting, short paragraphs broken up with lines of prayer in between. The problem is that little is revealed about the character, we don’t even know her name yet, just the details of daily life of a Carmelite nun. There is not a hint of conflict within these pages either. The back cover promises that it is coming, but I don’t think that interesting description is enough to overcome the lack of character definition or conflict. I’m eliminating this one.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
  • Strawberry Tattoo -- Lauren Henderson (1999)
  • Lying Awake -- Mark Salzman  (2000)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Weekly Word Count – August 1st through 7th, 2011

Okay this week's total 4264 words. Probably not as high as I would've liked, but okay considering the circumstances. The first thing to understand is that I lost my job on Monday so I was a bit busy wrapping up my work life at the company I’ve worked at for the last 10 years: Packing up my desk, turning in my laptop, processing paperwork, and saying goodbye to friends and co-workers who have been such a big part of my life for so long. It is hard to process when it happens to you, even if in your heart you believe that this is a good thing.

Think Different Wordle
Courtesy of Ian Aberle via Flickr
Luckily, I have some freelance work lined up and about half of those words written this week were devoted to working on a client project. The rest of the words were for the blogs and a little on updating my LinkedIn profile.

Losing your job is never a good thing but it does force you to make changes, and to be honest I was unhappy there for a very long time. I've always had this dream in the back of my head of making my own living as a freelance writer, and maybe this is the opportunity to do just that. I've been slowly preparing for this day for some time, buying equipment, software, office supplies, and trying to line up clients for possible future business, but it is difficult to work on any freelance projects when you have a full-time job. I'm not sure what the future holds, but I'm optimistic this change will be for the better.

For anyone who has the dream of having enough time to write that novel, that book or that screenplay, I now have it and I plan on exploiting it to the fullest.

This afternoon I have been reorganizing my office and beginning to assemble the research material for my next book: Creative Thinking for Creative Writers. I plan on beginning a draft or an outline by the end of the week. I have to fight through the nervousness and the temptation to spend all my time looking for a new full-time position because I know that this is not what I want, but I need to be realistic, and make sure that secondary parachute is packed and ready to go just in case of emergency.

So if you know of anyone who needs a good freelance writer with lots of technical and business experience, please let me know and stay tuned for more details about the journey. Thank you.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – The Power of the First Sentence

DSC_0092Never underestimate the power of the first sentence of a novel. That sentence sets the tone. That sentence is the first lure on your line to hook the reader.  Just as the first five pages are critical, the first sentence is the most important words within those first five pages. For example, the first line from Salem Falls:

“Several miles into his journey, Jack St. Bride decided to give up his former life.”
A character making a declaration, but characters making declarations always leads to conflict.  Stating something shocking such as the first line from The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint:
“If I tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years-old the mailman ran over my head." 
This creates an image that is vivid and horrifying, but as the reader, you want to know what happened next.  You NEED to know. So you keep on reading. That is the ideal first sentence.

A Firing Offense – George P. Pelecanos (1992)

This book establishes the setting on page 1 and the description is excellent. The narrator Nick Stephanos is an advertising director with an attitude who immediately gets into a conflict with his stuffed shirt boss. Good discussion and good dialogue in the first five pages carries this to the next round. Even though it is a mystery and we have yet to see any evidence of a crime, it doesn't matter. The strength of description and interesting narrator make this work and compels you to keep reading.

Salem Falls – Jodi Picoult (2001)

This book is by one of my current favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. The back cover copy promises conflict, and a modern-day witch-hunt for a stranger looking to bury his past, and the typical Jodi Picoult plot which dwells not in black and white but in shades of gray. The first five pages introduce Jack, who has just been released from prison. The other major character, Addie, is dealing with the arrest of her alcoholic father. Both are nice quick scenes, have good dialogue, and suggest the conflict to come. This one goes the next round.

The Silence – Jim Krause (2004)

The back cover promises a series of catastrophic natural events which throws the world into mass panic and a virtual silence. Communication systems and computer technologies are devastated. Law and order have all but vanished as domestic terrorism and vigilante justice battle to control the terrified population. The first five pages introduce three of the four major characters in the book and hints at the conflict about to ensue. It seems to be starting slow, but I will give it a benefit of the doubt. The writer might just need a little more time to develop his premise. I want to read more so this one moves on to the next round.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint – Brady Udall (2001)

As mentioned in the opening paragraph above, a good way to start a book is with a sentence that either shocks or provokes you to keep reading to find out more. This book paints an image of a highly dysfunctional family and yet has good description that helps you see the world where the protagonist lives. It has a first-person point of view and I want to know more about the character. I’m passing this one on to round two.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Weekly Word Count: Summary of July 2011

Does anyone else do this?  Last month, I moved away from my model of tracking the amount of time I spent writing (in 15-minute increments of course) to tracking actual word count.  I had the optimistic goal of writing 30,000 words (a little under 1000 words or 4 double-spaced typed pages a day).  I considered these words to be “raw output” for blog entries, freelance work and my creative projects.
Word Wall: End of the Year
Courtesy of cinderellasg via Flickr

I thought, hmm 1000 words of raw output shouldn’t be hard at all.  Using Dragon Naturally Speaking some of the time, I should be able to crank out that much and still have time for editing some of the raw words into content… Right?  Wrong.  Most days I generated between 300 and 500 words. July’s grand total: 13,026 words, for a daily average of about 434 words, or a little under half of my goal.

I found that I had hit good word count numbers during the early part of the month, getting more than 1300 words for several days.  It really wasn’t that hard.  The problem was that the rough output was not publishable, especially the words generated by using Dragon Naturally Speaking.  The program worked well, but in the situations where it didn’t work, it created errors that would be embarrassing if it was sent out there.  Dragon is working out to be a decent tool, but it does require careful editing, because it does manage to enter the wrong word occasionally and those wrong words are not going to be caught by the spell check.

Later in the month, a lot of rewriting of the raw output reduced the daily word count significantly.  I also had some freelance work that didn’t help me boost the numbers since it required a lot of editing and several revisions.

This month I’m changing the approach a little and not only tracking the daily word count, but the number of words generated for each of my writing projects.  I am planning to go well beyond last month’s 30,000 word goal (for reasons to be explained next week) and I’ll try to keep track of what I manage to achieve in 15 minute. I’ll post a summary every Monday so you can see my progress. So until next Monday… keep on writing!