What Can I Do About Uncooperative Characters?

writingpicI have an idea for a story.  Well, more accurately, I have a great character and interesting situation for him and I even have an idea of what he should be doing – a story arc.  So with all that clearly laid out, the writing should be a piece of cake, right?  WRONG!  For some reason this kid is not cooperating with me.  I’ve tried writing from the kid’s point of view and writing from a third-person point of view.  I even aged the kid thirty years and tried it via flashback.  Three times now I’ve written over 1000 words, been dreadfully unhappy, and erased the whole thing.

I’m answering a prompt for a short story contest, but the deadline is three weeks away, so I don’t feel any pressure; that’s not the issue.  I am invested in the character and I’d like to make it work, but I’m not sure how.  This hasn’t happened to me before.  In general when I get an idea, I sit down and write it.  Boom.  Done.  That’s it.  I can write more than 1000 words an hour and finished NaNoWriMo before the deadline.  (This is just a comment on volume, not quality – I need a LOT of editing when I write at that pace)  So you can see why I’m stumped here.

My plan going forward is to sit down with a pen and paper and flesh out more details about the character, the supporting cast, the situation and even some of the action.  Perhaps I’ll take out my computer to do it, but sometimes my best thinking is done when I use my hand effectively.  Research has been done about the strong connection between the hand and the brain and that it does not translate to typing and I follow this pattern: writing in my journal is more effective when I think about a story than when I just type.  Lastly on this topic, my NaNoWriMo was the easiest and the best ever this year and I can pinpoint the one reason why: planning.  While I didn’t write at all in October and tried very hard to follow the rules to the letter, I did do a lot of planning.  I had a sketch of each character and an idea of his or her motivation for every scene in the story.  I am going to apply that principle here.  I’m not going to move forward on writing until I have the ideas fully fleshed out.

If anyone out there has a better method, or other advice, I’m open to it.  Please let me know!

A Real Resource For Writers

Gardner bookAgent Rachelle Gardner has kept a blog for quite a while and most of it consists of advice for writers.  She covers topics such as getting an agent, editing issues, understanding your agent, and other topics that are of interest to writers who are interested in publishing their books.  Her newest foray is as an author herself and she has published the first of her series of e-books for writers.  The first one, titled How Do I Decide? Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing is a workbook for authors to decide precisely HOW they want to get their books – their babies – out into the world.  With self-publishing become so dominant in the field and having moved way beyond just vanity presses, the decision is no longer simple.  Gardner’s e-book is a hands-on workbook that forces authors to confront their own styles of not only writing, but also their attitudes about marketing and other issues that first-time writers might not know at the start.  It’s a must-read for people who are getting started.  You can click here to see the book on Amazon. Here’s the text of my Amazon review:

“What I like best about “How Do I Decide?” is that it’s chock-full of resources for authors. It contains checklists and resources that a writer can use to make the all-important decision on whether to self-publish or try to go the traditional route of publication. The writing is clear and the advice is detailed and at times, brutally honest. The book goes through the ins and outs of the traditional publishing process along with the pros and cons involved, and then also goes through the whole process of self-publishing in the same detail. It acknowledges that different writers have different personalities and attitudes towards the business end of the writing process so Gardner encourages self-reflection in these pages so that authors can make a informed decisions about the process of publication with their own needs and desires in mind. This is helpful so that writers can work within their comfort zones on what can potentially be a difficult procedure. As a writer myself looking to make these all-important decisions, Garder’s book was really helpful to me. I’m going to give the book another read and fill out the checklists and such before I make a final choice, which feels very easy to me now. Gardner’s aim is to help authors make the process as painless as possible, and she’s off to a great start with it. I’m looking forward to Gardner’s next endeavor.”

Gardner has a series of four e-books to start, with one of them being on the ins and outs blogging, which will come out soon hopefully.  I will review them as they appear so you can check here to see what’s happening with the books.

Please pass this important info on to your writer friends!

Happiness is a DESK

writingpicTo be filed under “news of the new year,” I am teaching again at Temple University’s Japan (TUJ) campus.  Writing at teaching writing are my passions; they’re the two things that get my blood flowing and can bring me to a boil in seconds.  My husband likes to quote from the movie “The Flamingo Kid” when he says, “In life, there are things that you like doing and there are things that you’re good at.  If God is smiling at you, they’re the same thing.”  Well, God is definitely smiling on me with this one since I often cannot believe someone pays me to do this work that I love, and I get pretty good reviews on it, too.

The road to get to my first class this week was a pretty tough one.  I’m the last adjunct hired in the first-year writing department at TUJ so if a class is going to be canceled due to low enrollment, it’s going to be mine.  I wasn’t able to confirm that my class was running until the night before it was supposed to begin.  Luckily, because of department regulation, I had to write syllabi and plan classes well before the deadline, so I was ready when it started.  I suppose it all could have been for naught if both of my classes had been canceled (only one was canceled), but I am lucky that one is running.  Class planning is never useless though; flexing that academic muscle is good for the brain.

Professors at TUJ do something that no professor would consider in the U.S.: they sit in cubicles, bull-pen style.  There’s no privacy and no privilege that comes with walls and a door.  It’s a very Japanese approach to work, as most offices function this way in the country.  It’s just not something we’re accustomed to as Westerners.  Since coming back to work at TUJ last year, I’ve never had my own cubicle, though.  I either teach on Mon/Wed/Fri or Tues/Thurs and they assign met to a desk that I share with a person teaching the opposite days.  This term, for whatever reason, however, I got my own desk.  I don’t know if someone felt badly that both of my classes didn’t fill or about the late run-notice or something else, but it doesn’t matter.  The point is that I have my own desk.

The desk is nothing special, nor is the chair.  There is a good, usable computer on the desktop with a wireless printer attached.  It is light, and near a window.  It’s at the back of the big room and ensures a small measure of privacy.

Best of all, it’s mine for the semester.  I can work here whenever I like, no matter if it’s a teaching day or not. I can come here and write instead of feeling distracted at home.  I can come to school and be inspired by students and other professors as I go through my projects and make progress.  I will be able to get out of the house and see other people every day if I want to when I go use my desk and computer at school.

I have a number of projects and ideas in the hopper, and I can hardly wait to get started.    It all begins with a desk.  A desk with endless possibilities.

How do you find your muse?  Can an inanimate object help you?

NaNoWriMo is Done – Now What?

As I mentioned, I spent the month of November writing 50,000 words of a novel.  I’m done! Hurrah!  So then what happens, you might ask?

writingpicFirst of all, I have to finish the novel.  I would estimate that it’s about 90% done with first draft.  The last scenes still need to be written.  The challenge is to put down 50,000 words; not finish a book.

It’s after the first draft is done that the hard work really begins.  I have to step back and let it sort of “breathe” for a few weeks.  Then I have to take the fifteen or so assorted scenes that I’ve written and make sure they come together as a cohesive novel.  Then I have to edit.  And edit. And edit.  I will ask others to read the draft after the fourth or so effort.  Those friends will make some serious suggestions and I will do edits five, six and seven on the complete draft.  I  might think it’s ready for outsiders to see by that point.

Then starts the un-fun stuff.  I will then work as more o fa  saleswoman than writer, trying to pitch my book to editors, agents, anyone who will look at it in hopes of publication.  What about the e-book route?  Well, I might go that way also, but that takes research and effort also.

All of this means that I’ve done the fun work of writing and now, if I ever want my book to see the light of day, I have to get right down to the business of being a writer.  The hope is that the hard work will pay off in the end with publication in one form or another at some point in the not-too-distant future.  It hasn’t yet happened for me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe it will happen with one of my novels someday.  I am optimistic about it!

Then I get to do it all over again, because at the end of the day, writing is what I really love to do.  And that, my friends, is what happens when NaNoWriMo is done; just like anything else, we keep on keeping on.


For those of you who don’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month.  Hence the acronym NaNoWriMo.  The challenge, put out by the Office of Letters and Lights (OLL) in California, and undertaken by literally hundreds of thousands of people, is to write 50,000 words in a month.  Yep, 50,000.  In one month.  Just as a point of comparison, a relatively short full novel is approximately 60,000-70,000 words.  The point is to get a jump start on the novel you always meant to write.

This is absolutely something you “win” but you win it for yourself, not for the outside validation.  There’s no guaranteed publication deal or even editing assistance.  Those things come later – much later.  In addition, you keep track of it yourself – there’s no taskmaster whipping you do get it done.

All that being said, the OLL has a great NaNoWriMo website that allows you to keep up with buddies who are also undertaking the challenge and has had some pretty amazing authors come in to write pep talks for the “wrimos”.  There are also meet-ups, so that wrimos in various locations can get together to write.  I get emails daily from the crew writing in Osaka, Japan, where they regularly plan writing-themed events.

The whole thing started in 2000 with 140 writers and now, twelve years later, they are up to more than 250,000 writers.  Somewhere between 13-20 percent of participants cross the finish line and win.

This is my third time in the past four years doing NaNoWriMo.  I’m keeping up a good pace with my word counts and writing pretty much daily.  The first time I did it in 2008, I edited the novel carefully and was able to send it to agents.  I got some great feedback on it – no bites, but great feedback.  I think if I put it through another editing process, it would get even better.  The second time I did it, I finished the novel, but it needs a ton of work.  I touch it up in fits and starts.  I will finish it someday.  And I don’t yet know how this one will end.  I hope I have the wherewithal to not only finish the month successfully, but also to finish the process and see the book through to completion.

One big difference for me this year was planning.  I spent a LOT of time the last two weeks of October planning.  I sketched out each character and wrote a plot outline.  I also gave myself twenty specific tasks to complete over 20 days, figuring about 2000 words apiece, sometimes more, sometimes less.  Doing all of that ahead of time really gave me a jump start.  Following the rules strictly, I never actually wrote even one sentence of the novel until November 1st.  Everything I did prior to that was only planning and only hand-written, in fact.  The planning, however, has made everything so much easier.

So now, for the next two weeks, I expect my blog posts to be a bit shorter and everything else in my life to take a bit of a back seat as I work to finish what I’ve started so nicely.  Goals are good – especially when they’re thought out.  Thank you NaNoWriMo!

A Book to Make You Consider…

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful,  is meant to take you on a journey, both literally and figuratively.  In this memoir, the author himself is on a journey of self-discovery and takes the reader along with him on what turns out to be quite a ride.

Lewis-Kraus paints a picture of himself at the beginning of the book as a person who is rootless and unsure of where he wants to go with his life.  He’s young, he’s flexible, and he has a career, writing, that can take him anywhere in the world.  Beginnings like this, particularly when the author is young (nearing thirty as he writes), have the potential to reek of self-pity and extreme overindulgence.  When I started, I was concerned that it would be like the first fifty or so pages of Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author reveals herself to be selfish and self-indulgent enough to walk away from a marriage to “find herself.”  Throughout Eat, Pray, Love, I was annoyed with the character (so ably played by Julia Roberts in the movie, though – this was a case where the book was better than the move) for neither considering nor mentioning anyone but herself at any point of the journey.  But Lewis-Kraus has taken a completely different approach to the journey novel than Elizabeth Gilbert since his narrative is inclusive, rather than exclusive of others, most notably his family, most of whom he clearly adores.

The book begins with Lewis-Kraus living with his younger brother, Micah, in San Francisco since Micah has a great job and a nice apartment.  He flounders around there for a while, then decides to move to Germany to the art scene in Berlin.  Here the book does get a little indulgent with descriptions of parties, drinking and other incriminating behaviors.  But then everything takes a turn to the left as Lewis-Kraus and his friend decide to take a walking pilgrimage through Spain.  Lewis-Kraus is a master descriptor.  His visions of color, sensation and feeling really come alive.  When he talks about the people he meets on the month-long journey, he introduces them with a finesse and insight that make the people walk right off the page.

After the journey through Spain, Lewis-Kraus spends a bit more time with Micah before trying a different, more difficult type of pilgrimage in Japan on the Island of Shikoku.  This trek is harder both mentally and physically and the tone of the chapters takes on a more menacing feel.  The author isn’t mean, just brutally honest.

Throughout the book, one of Lewis-Kraus’s main struggles is with his relationship with his father, and so for the final pilgrimage of the book, he invites his father to take a trip with him to the Ukraine at the Jewish New Year where annually, a huge group of Orthodox Jewish men from around the world go to purify themselves for the coming year.  His brother goes with them, and the three men learn a lot with and from each other on the trip.

When Lewis-Kraus relays dialogue, the voice is snappy and somewhat theoretical.  In various portions of the book, he lapses into his own thoughts in a very academic  way that shows him to be a thinker as well as a do-er.  He has rational discussions of the idea of expiation of sin. He goes into great detail about the physical and social idea of a community. He explores the social psychologist Wittgenstein along with the famous Lubavitcher Rebbe Nachman as they relate to various parts of his journey – in the physical and emotional realms.  However, just when you think you cannot take a moment more of his theorizing, he puts in a  completely inane comment that relaxes the scenario and lets the reader know that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

A reader doesn’t have to be on an actual journey to appreciate this book. It helps, though, if you can imagine your own life as a personal journey and relate to the idea of self-exploration as a positive trait that exists beyond mere navel-gazing, going toward true discovery.

The end made me cry in a beautiful way.

Enjoy the book.

Time is of the Essence

I have written extensively on the time it takes to be a writer.  But it’s not just time, it’s discipline.  Someone ought to invent “writers’ glue” that sticks writers’ butts in their chairs for a minimum amount of time each day.  Oh yeah, and while they’re at it, the special glue should automatically disconnect the phones and the internet for a few hours.  Any inventors out there?

In the past year I have done an extensive amount of teaching and a lot less writing than in the prior five years.  In fact, beyond my twice-weekly blogs, I barely wrote at all.  But now, with enrollment down in the international schools in Tokyo, including Temple University, I find myself unemployed and with unlimited time to write.  Okay, I have parental responsibilities and a husband who needs my time, too, so the time isn’t unlimited, but it sure does stretch out.  Just like one’s “stuff” expands to fill the available space in a house, so a task seems to expand to fill the available time.

In the past three weeks since being back in Tokyo from my summer holiday, I have spent a lot of time simply staring at a blank computer screen. It takes a lot of time and just plain gumption to put words on a page and make them into a story or a nonfiction piece.  At the moment, I am building my gumption.  It will come.  I promise it will come.  It will just be a slow process to get back in the saddle.  But I’m working on it – I promise!

I Can’t Hear In Email Very Well

The other day, the American School in Japan (ASIJ), where my son is in 8th Grade, sent out an email reminder to ask parents to e-sign a permission slip for the kids to stay after school to go to the high school football game. It’s a K-12 school, and once or twice a semester, the games are played on a Friday night under the lights instead of on Saturday morning, and the PTA makes a night of it with concessions, games for kids, etc.  However, ASIJ is in Chofu, about an hour outside of Central Tokyo, so transportation is always an issue.  It happens to be the night of the middle school dance, and normally because of the distance, dances are held from 4:30-6:30 so the kids take a late bus home. The school was asking middle school parents to sign that they are responsible for their own kids at game-time, after the dance, and will get them home safely.  If the parent isn’t going to be there, he or she has to list who exactly is responsible for the child.  Very American-style safety-conscious.  My mother would be so proud.

Both parents get this particular email.  When it came into my in-box, I ignored it because I knew I had already signed the permission slip for Bailey.  My husband, Marc, forwarded it to me asking, “Did you do this?”

My response, in my mind, was a little snarky: “What do you think?”

Well, I’m generally pretty on top of the Weinstein schedule and work very hard to make sure permission slips and things aren’t lost in flux.  I’m not perfect and I make plenty of mistakes, but I’m very detail oriented and I have a good record.  To me, that was already ticked off the list.  Been there, done that.

That wasn’t how Marc “heard” the message though.  He “heard” me asking his opinion on whether or not Bailey should go to the game and IF we should sign the permission.  “What do you think? (About Bailey doing this event?)

So Marc’s response was: “I thought he was intending to do this, no?”

I was astonished.  He totally misunderstood me, and for a minute, I didn’t understand what he meant, either.  I wrote back: “You loony – you asked if I did this and I asked, what do you think – meaning do you think I did it?  Well of course I already did it!  There was no harm in doing it.  If he changed his mind, he could get on the late bus after the dance.  But I’m sure he wants to stay.  We’ll drive out there to be there before 7.  The dance ends at 6:45, so we should probably be there before that so we’re officially responsible for him.”

That’s when Marc realized the miscommunication: “That’s the problem with email.  When I read it, I heard you asking it as, “do you think we should let him stay” as opposed to, “duh, of course I already did it.”

That’s when I responded, “Yes, hearing is pretty lousy via email, I agree.”

Marc’s response, knowing me very well indeed, “Sounds like a blog post.”


We are lucky, Marc and I, that we have become pretty adept over the years at clearing up miscommunications.  People get in trouble for what they say via email all the time, partly because the recipient can’t hear the intended innuendo, tone of voice, or facial expression.  I’m sure when phones were first invented people had miscommunications all the time.  Now we have a thousand different ways to communicate and just as many ways to MIScommunicate.  People get knots in their knickers about this all the time when a simple, “what do you mean?” type of question would be indicated.  It’s not that hard.  Just tell people that you have trouble hearing them when they email.

We are going to enjoy that football game on Friday!

On Being Done

Tuesday was my last day as a teacher at the International Secondary School.  Last week my son finished grade 7 and my daughter finished grade 4.  My writer’s brain searches for meaning in everything, so I can’t help but wonder what it all means – starting, finishing, seasons, changes – all of it.  But now, after two days of processing,   I don’t think it means all that much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still milestones to mark, boxes to tick off, and occasions to note and celebrate, but maybe certain things do not have to be dwelled upon ad nauseum.  There are millions of books, articles, blog posts and poems written about startings and endings, and everything in between, but maybe it’s okay to just acknowledge the change and simply move on.

I’m saying this because we, as a society, have become fixated on these ideas.  Our kindergarteners graduate, our fifth graders graduate and our eighth graders graduate.  There is pomp and presents at every turn.  Maybe sometimes we have to just relax and move through things quietly.  Maybe sometimes we can stop and reflect quietly without a ticker-tape parade.

In Tokyo the expat community is contracting severely.  Banks are moving operations to other countries, as are various large firms, so many foreigners are moving not home, but to another place in order to keep their jobs.  So this year, not only is the year ending for the international schools, but with so many people moving, things will look very different when school re-opens in the fall.  Those of us staying are mourning the loss of their friends to whom we have been close and secretly wondering if they know something we don’t know.  But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.  I want to let it all slide by me.  There’s nothing I can do about it, so I am avoiding the bigger parties and concentrating on spending one-on-one time with my friends who are leaving.  Normally I feel pretty excited at this time of year as I ready myself and the kids to take our long summer holiday in the U.S. But this year, I just want to quietly mark and pass the time.  I want to wish my friends well in their new lives, and prepare to move forward with my own.

There is something to be said for simple, quiet reflection.  Celebration and the special marking of the passage of time are all good in their place, but this year, I’m all about it the quiet reflection.

How “Words With Friends” is Altering My Brain

I have two friends to blame for getting me into “Words with Friends” (WWF) – the online app I play on my phone.  Both of them thought that since I am a writer, I would be really good at it.  Well, it turns out I suck at it.  I’m better now, but at the start, I was really horrible at it. I could create a sentence of twenty, three-syllable words, punctuate it properly and sing out synonyms for all twenty words, but give me a bunch of letters to place on a board and I was hopeless.  Even though there’s a “shuffle” button at the bottom of the screen, I often still couldn’t “see” the right combination to make up a word.  And as the games progressed, I would have issues with word placement because sometimes I could see a word there in my tile-rack, but I couldn’t figure out how to set it on a crowded board.  Another reason I was losing all the time is that I can’t see how the words work in combination so that I could set the tiles down for the most available points.  “With the letters I can tell you have based on what you’re putting down, you’re missing words and opportunities for points,” one good friend noticed.

And then, after about a month of struggling and losing to various friends left and right, another friend pointed out that it really is a different part of my brain that I need to use.  This particular friend owns a highly successful natural and pro-biotic food company, Zukay Foods, and he jokes that fermenting food for a living improves your WWF skills.  Maybe he’s not that far off, actually.  He has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a graduate degree in marketing – he’s all about strategy and logic (but don’t tell him I admit or even know that about him).  I’m a writer; I’m all about imagination and language.

So now I’m doing a little better at WWF, about six weeks after starting.  It’s not that anyone gave me any tips or that I use a dictionary or cheat-site or anything like that; it’s just that practicing a skill makes you better at it, and I seem to be doing a lot of WWF practicing these days.  Just realizing that it’s not my usual brain-function at work made me change the way I think about the game, which allowed me to open up to other methodology for playing.  It could easily take over my life if I let it.  I love it now!  It makes me laugh when I do something really rare, like get a 75-point word.  I once got a word for 110 points!  It’s utterly ridiculous how much of a kick – nearly a high – I get when I achieve on this game. It’s a game for heaven’s sake!

I am still wondering if the game might make me a better writer in a way because I’m seeing different possibilities for words and words in combination.  That remains to be seen.  But for now, I think I’ll go on playing, bending my brain in different ways and seeing what comes of it.  Let me know if you want to start a game – I’m up for it!