Category Archives: Writing

My Mid-Life Crisis, Writer Style

All my life I’ve dreamed of being a writer, even during periods when I felt that dream would have to wait. For the last four years, I’ve been writing at every opportunity and as a result I churned out three manuscripts in fairly rapid succession. But endings are hard and editing is harder; nothing was really finished.

Then I turned 40. It hit me harder than I expected, and since my birthday last year I’ve felt this increasing pressure, as if I’m on overdrive. I have to finish, not just something, but everything, and I have to do it now.

Because of our itinerant lifestyle, I don’t have a career.  I sometimes worry that if I were hit by a bus tomorrow I would have nothing to show for all these years spent packing and unpacking and chasing after kids in four different countries (so far.) Part-time office worker and mother may both be meaningful occupations in their own right, but they don’t offer much in the way of external validation.

Maybe I shouldn’t need it, but as a kid I was ambitious, I won spelling bees and had rows of trophies and expected to do big things. The big things have not materialized, but at least I’ve managed to write. And lately I’ve been farming drafts out to beta readers, paying teenage girls to read my YA novel and provide feedback, really trying to get to some achievable endpoint where I can point to what I’ve written and say, yes, I did that.

Among the JoyfulAnd so, in a fit of madness, I took the final step and self-published two of the three books on Amazon using CreateSpace (with the third soon to follow.) It felt like now or never. We are moving again this summer, and the next year will be crazy. Once moving day approaches, it will probably be 2015 before I can settle into a truly consistent writing routine again (in Istanbul! But that’s a blog post for another day.)

My books are not the literary masterpieces I might once have dreamed of writing, I will acknowledge that up front. What I’ve come to realize is that writing is fun when I love what I’m writing, and in my case that means high-concept science fiction. I like people with unusual powers, near future dystopias (or utopias, depending on your perspective), variations on the end of the world. If I’m going to live with a book long enough to finish it, I have to really enjoy it, and this is what I enjoy.

The Waking World

On some level, I’m concerned that self-publishing these books, revealing this side of myself to my friends and acquaintances, is the literary equivalent of a mid-life crisis. Am I the old guy behind the wheel of a Porsche Cayenne with a woman half his age? At least now I think I know how that guy feels. Even if I am slightly ridiculous, even if I end up looking like a fool: right now, I feel alive.

Writing More, Reading Less

It’s not always the case that when I’m writing more, my reading drops off a cliff, but it does happen. Right now I’m at the very beginning of what I hope will be a novel-worthy story and I can’t easily step back and focus on any other fictional worlds during my limited available writing hours.

Happier at HomeIn theory I’m reading Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. Unfortunately, I can only read for a few brief pages before something annoys me and I put the book down. It reminds me of Eat, Pray, Love in the sense that, while I would probably be delighted to chat with the author in real life, being in her head is exhausting. I’m just too different in my approach to life and happiness. Occasionally something will resonate–I like the idea of creating little shrines of meaningful decorative objects around your home–but mostly I cringe.

The funny thing is, I am sure that Gretchen Rubin would want me to stop reading the book; after all, it’s not contributing to my happiness. On the other hand, one of her Splendid Truths is that happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy, i.e. short term pain can lead to longer term happiness. Unfortunately, just as she advises herself to “Be Gretchen,” I have little choice but to “Be Erin.” And that means reading the book to the very last page even if it kills me.

What is the WhatAt night, I’ve just started reading What Is the What by Dave Eggers, a fictionalized but essentially true account of a child’s struggle to survive in war torn Sudan and his subsequent immigration to the U.S. My sister asked me to read this book with her so we could discuss it, a mini-book club of two, so how could I refuse? The story is immediately gripping and really, really brutal. I’m reading just a bit at a time after the kids fall asleep, but it’s going to take me a while. It’s just too painful to read quickly.

And finally, I summoned the willpower to crack open the uncorrected proof of my first “novel” and start marking it up. It’s liberating to just slash and scribble and make notes in the margins, and as usual, the writing isn’t as bad as I feared (although I question my ability to be objective; somehow I simultaneously believe it is absolutely worthless drivel and almost somewhat slightly entertaining.)

The LuminariesI’m sure balance will be restored to my reading soon. For one thing, I have to finish The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s massive Booker Prize-winning tome, in time for book club the first week of February. In the meantime, I’m going to write without worrying too much about whether it’s any good, whether it serves any purpose, whether it is the most sensible and justifiable use of my time. Right now it’s really the only thing I want to do.

New Year’s Resolutions (Better Late Than Never)

Have a Fun!

Happy New Year! Have a Fun!

New Year’s Day is a terrible time to implement any new year’s resolutions, at least for me. The kids are still home from school, and the temptation to laze around eating Christmas goodies and watching old movies is strong. Not the ideal context for self-improvement. In previous years, I opted for ridiculous resolutions like “watch more TV” or “drink more beer,” setting the bar as low as possible.

This year, however, I decided to take the whole resolution thing seriously and wait until January 6, when school was officially back in session, before attempting any self-improvement. As luck would have it, I came down with a nasty cold over the weekend and spent most of January 6 on the couch watching the first season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD instead. (I’m not complaining, by the way: I love that show.)

But this morning I woke up feeling 100% better, sent the kids off on the school bus and knew: today was the day. So, in no particular order, here are my new year’s resolutions for (the rest of) 2014.

  • Buy No Physical Books
    On LookingBelieve it or not, this will be by far the hardest resolution for me to keep. But keep it I must. We are leaving India at the end of the summer and most of our belongings will go into temporary storage while we spend a year in Washington, D.C. I have so many unread books, and so little time left, it would be completely insane to buy any more. So, for the record, my last book purchase for 2014 is On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz. I had read it about it on the Brainpickings best of 2013 list, and couldn’t resist buying it when I spotted it randomly on the shelf at a local bookstore.
  • Write Every Day
    When it’s going well, writing feels so incredibly easy. And then, for whatever reason, I go a few days (or, gulp, weeks) without putting fingers to keyboard and it suddenly becomes incredibly hard. As in, I can’t bear to even look at what I’ve already written in order to finish it. And I can’t start anything new because the burden of three manuscripts in various stages of completion hang over my head like cartoon pianos. (See, that’s a terrible simile! Just awful!) Anyway, the only way to get back into the flow is to write, every day, until it’s fun again. So that’s what I’m going to do.
  • Exercise Every Day
    Sure, everyone puts this on their list, but I made this my goal several months ago and apart from various derailments due to vacation, illness, etc. I’ve kept to it fairly well. I found an exercise DVD that’s fun and not boring. I read somewhere that daily exercise was the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant, and I certainly have felt more energetic because of it. That’s a half hour a day well spent. I’ve also come to realize that having a clearly established routine is essential. Including exercise and writing as equally important parts of my daily schedule makes it easier to keep up with both.

That’s it. Three resolutions. Not to sound too Oprah, but I’m hoping to arrive at our next destination as my best possible self, with toned muscles, a finished novel and empty bookshelves just waiting to be filled.

Happy New Year!

 

To Nano or not to Nano, that is the question…

Woohoo!

Woohoo!

November is almost here and you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month! I have participated in NaNoWriMo for the past few years, and managed to conjure up 50,000 words within the thirty-day deadline three times. I have accomplished this mainly by informing the kids they are on their own, neglecting all responsibilities not absolutely essential to the continued functioning of our household, and drinking approximately three times as much coffee as usual (i.e., a lot. Possibly too much.)

This year I am faced with an unprecedented dilemma. In the past I rarely had time to focus on writing, and cherished NaNoWriMo as a break from the routine, a way to carve out writing time otherwise unavailable to me. Since my youngest child started kindergarten, though, I’ve been writing almost every day. I have 200+ pages of a YA novel on my hard drive and I’ve been pushing hard to get it done before October 31. Partly just to GET IT DONE, but also because I would love to join in on the Nano fun starting November 1.

On the one hand, it might do me good to set my current manuscript aside and clear my head for a month. I could return to it with a critical eye and a relentless editorial scalpel. But there’s another part of me that feels like the clock is ticking relentlessly over my shoulder. I have a finished manuscript that I’d like to tinker with, maybe even try to self-publish. I have a second manuscript that needs a complete re-write. Both of these manuscripts started life as Nano novels. My current work-in-progress is the exception, a story I started on my own time and one that might turn into something someone somewhere would actually like to read–if and only if I finish it, edit it, etc.

So, to Nano or not to Nano? Should I spend that time pragmatically editing instead of starting from scratch on some idea I don’t even have yet? The truth is, I’d love to do that, because writing is so much easier than editing! I could write all day if I never had to look at it again!

For the next week, I’ll plug away at my work-in-progress and put all thoughts of cheating with other novels out of my head. I’m postponing any further decisions until midnight, October 31st. To be continued…

 

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My NaNoWriMo CreateSpace Experience

The Waking World For the past six years, off and on, I have attempted to complete the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Three times I succeeded; the first time the result was so awful I don’t even remember what I did with it. The second time also produced a giant mess, but a mess I kept returning to at random intervals to try to fix. The third time I wrote something I actually hoped could be made better.

As a reward for successfully jumping the 50K word hurdle, CreateSpace–Amazon’s self-publishing arm–offers winners five free copies of their book. I always wondered how they could afford that. Now, after having claimed my five copies, I understand.

With a month left before the CreateSpace offer expired, I decided to tackle that final, ultimate, no-holds-barred edit on my 2010 NaNo novel (aka the giant mess.) I had already whittled the thing down from an ungainly behemoth to a lengthy meander. Reading through it again only made me cringe a few times, and whenever I cringed I cut whatever it was out. That helped. It still wasn’t War and Peace, but it clearly never would be. The terrible, indefensible word satisficing comes to mind, but I was on a deadline.

So I ventured onto the CreateSpace site and looked around. Hours and hours and hours later, after downloading a template, pasting my document in, formatting, reformatting, and saving the whole thing as a PDF, I finally uploaded a document that the CreateSpace site would accept.

I already had a cover that I’d designed for fun in Picasa. Getting it to fit into the appropriate online template was also a challenge, but after playing with it for a while it looked okay to me. I submitted the whole package and waited to hear whether it was acceptable. Once my uploaded novel passed the 24-hour review process, I was ready to order a proof. To be clear, the “five free books” does not cover the proof. I already knew this, so I was fine with it, but I can see where it could come as a surprise to the unsuspecting. It was around $5 plus shipping.

Of course, if you’re serious about publishing your novel you’re going to want to see that uncorrected proof. I was conducting this whole exercise as an experiment, research for when I really want to publish something. Once I saw the actual book, though, held it in my hands and flipped through the pages, something bizarre happened. I started to wonder if maybe the book was good enough after all. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe someone would want to buy this, right? This despite the fact that I knew what it contained. It’s intoxicating.

I have to wonder how many people did all the work required to get those five free copies (plus shipping), how many paid for the formatting and cover design assistance offered on the site, how many ultimately decided to go ahead and publish since they’d gotten this far. For me, I found the whole experience educational. Who knew that Word Style Sets were so useful? That a gutter is an actual type of margin. That Verdana looks so blah on the printed page.

The Waking WorldI also learned that procrastination has its price. I received my uncorrected proof in time to make changes, but if I actually made the changes, the book would go through the same review process again–new 24-hour wait, new proof. The clock is ticking and I simply don’t have time for that. So I plugged in my promotional code, ordered my books, and my five free copies will look like what they are: a half-baked experiment. A lesson learned for next time. And in the meantime, my mom is  going to get her very own signed copy of my never-to-be-published novel. Who knows, maybe if I make it big some day, she can sell it on eBay.