Monthly Archives: January 2012

Spinning Plates or Spinning Wheels?

Over on Writer Unboxed, Kristan Hoffman blogged a couple of weeks ago about the challenges writers face in juggling not only the many elements of a novel, but in balancing personal responsibilities and their writing careers. Here is Kristan’s post. It was a thoughtful post and it resonated with me.

As I chugged toward the finish of my first draft of my work-in-progress, entitled, Life of the Party–A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media, I got an email this week from my graphic designer. The cover art for my first novel, Small Change, was ready. There was nothing stopping me from uploading the manuscript through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. I would soon be a published novelist. Not so fast. After seven rounds of line edits, there were still nagging doubts. I didn’t see any major problems, but there were scenes that weren’t as strong as they could be and characters that needed some polishing. I decided to do some “tweaks.” I’m still at it with no end in sight.

Writers can identify with the desire to make their work perfect. A novel is never really “done.” The writer simply reaches a point where he has to let go. So there I was. Kristan used the image of juggling scarfs in her Writer Unboxed post. What comes to mind for me is the Radiohead song, Like Spinning Plates, from the band’s 2001 CD, Amnesiac.

Anybody old enough to remember The Ed Sullivan Show will recall the spinning plates act (where did Ed find these acts?). This guy would line up a series of poles secured to a table and then spin plates positioned on top of the poles. The idea was to get the plates spinning fast. The trouble was, the plates would slow down. To keep them from falling, the guy would run back and spin them again. I feel like that guy right now. I’m itching to get back to my WIP, but I have to focus on my novel, and my marketing plan, and my launch. And, then there’s my family and my job. Spinning plates? Sometimes it feels like I’m spinning my wheels.

Kristan said it well in her post. She urged writers to  start slow with the juggling act.  Don’t add too many things at once, focus on what’s important to you, and accept the fact that at some point you will drop something. Even if it’s a plate, those can be replaced. Too many tasks result in spinning one’s wheels or crashing plates if you prefer.

Right now my sole focus is on my novel. Oh yes, and the need to maintain my blog, and follow other blogs, and read the latest novel. As Thom Yorke would say, “And this just feels like spinning plates.”

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks and priorities associated with your writing career? How do you manage these multiple priorities?




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The Story Behind the Story: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Often, the story behind how a writer develops a novel from idea to finished product proves as interesting as the story itself. As writers, we are eager to learn how writers approach the craft. A great case study is the story behind Arthur Golden’s brilliant 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Memoirs of Geisha is a first-person account of the life of a geisha in Kyoto, Japan, beginning before World War II and continuing after the war.

Golden, who studied Japanese language and culture, came up with the idea for the story while he was working in Tokyo. He met a young man whose father was a successful businessman and whose mother was a geisha. “After returning to the U.S., I began work on a novel in which I tried to imagine this young man’s childhood,” he said in an interview with BookBrowse. “Gradually I found myself more interested in the life of the mother than the son and made up my mind to write a novel about a geisha.”

He conducted exhaustive research on the topic and drafted an 800-page manuscript. While he was preparing to revise his draft, Golden’s grandmother offered to introduce him to a retired Kyoto geisha. The woman took Golden on an insider’s tour of the geisha district of Gion on Kyoto and arranged for him to observe and photograph the daily ritual of the geisha being dressed in her kimono. She spent time with him explaining the life of the geisha.

After his interview with the geisha in Kyoto, Golden threw out his entire 800-page manuscript and started over. He wrote a 750-page draft in the third person. Agents were interested, but begged off after reading the draft. “I didn’t think the writing itself had scared them away,” Golden said in the interview. “And the subject matter is so fascinating–or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I’d failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I’d done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator. So you see, I’d ended up writing a dry book precisely because of my concerns about crossing four cultural divides.”

So Golden found himself having to begin again after completing two lengthy drafts. By this time, keep in mind Golden had already invested six years in this novel. He made the important decision to tell the story from a first person point-of-view. However, he also decided to add a translator, who is identified in the beginning of the book. Golden explained the role of the translator in the BookBrowse interview:

“In writing a novel from the perspective of a geisha, I faced a number of problems. To begin with, how would Americans understand what she was talking about? Even fundamental issues like the manner of wearing a kimono or makeup couldn’t be taken for granted if the audience wasn’t Japanese. When I’d written the novel in third person, the narrator had had the freedom to step away from the story for a moment to explain things whenever necessary. But it would never occur to Sayuri to explain things–that is, it wouldn’t occur to her unless her audience was not Japanese. This is the role of the translator’s preface, to establish that she has come to live in New York and will be telling her story for the benefit of an American audience. That’s also the principle reason why the novel had to end with her coming to New York. It took me a number of tries to find a believable way of getting her there.”

Here is the entire interview with Arthur Golden.

What lessons can writers take away from Golden’s experiences? First, research is important. Golden took the time to research a tradition in Japan that is very much a closed society. Secondly, even the best research will not necessarily produce a credible narrative voice. It wasn’t until Golden made the crucial decision to change from third-person to first-person narrative that he discovered the true voice of the geisha. Third, writers should stick with projects they believe in. It took Golden 15 years from inception to publication of his novel.

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorite novels. It takes awhile for the story to develop, but it is a fascinating, well-crafted novel that teaches the reader much not only about the culture of the geisha, but about the human condition.

Golden received a degree from Harvard College in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980 he earned his M.A. degree in Japanese history from Columbia University. Following a summer at Beijing University, he worked in Tokyo, and, after returning to the United States, earned an M.A. in English from Boston University.

Have you faced challenges similar to these in drafting your novel or work-in-progress? How did you address them? 


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Navigating Moby Dick

I finally decided to read Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel, Moby Dick and it’s been a leviathan struggle, as the author might have said. Perhaps it’s the long sentences that fill several Kindle screens. Perhaps it’s the liberal use of seafaring terms. When it comes to things nautical, I don’t know my aft from my elbow. Perhaps it’s the ever-shifting narrative forms, point-of view perspectives, or tangents Melville pursues. Whatever it is, Moby Dick has been a whale of a challenge and I’m only one-third of the way through the epic tale.

This isn’t to suggest this book doesn’t deserve its place as a classic of American literature. There are moments when Melville’s writing blows me away. Melville describes the tormented Captain Ahab as “a man divided, seared, and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him.” That’s powerful stuff. At other times, it reads like a whaling manual.

Melville does a lot of setting the scene for the epic battle between the whalers and Moby Dick. He devotes an entire chapter to the ominous nature of the color white. Another chapter outlines the three classifications of whales, reading at times like a zoology textbook. There is a chapter that describes the wealthy community (at the time) of New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Another chapter is written in playwright style. Captain Ahab, the character around whom the story revolves, doesn’t make his first appearance until Chapter 28.

The sentences are excruciating in their length. Consider this whale of a sentence that begins Chapter 45.The Affidavit:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affairs.

In case you’re counting, that sentence weighs in at 105 words. What would an agent say about that one? The reader must endure such prose because the book has so much to offer. At least that’s what I’ve read in various reviews. It tackles issues of immense import: religion and morality, social status, sin and redemption, and one of humankind’s fatal flaws: the desire for revenge. Consider lines like this: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue , if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Or this: “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

There are few novels that work on so many levels or have been subject to as much interpretation as Moby Dick. Some critics saw it as a commentary on slavery; others suggested Melville was attacking the mood of disillusionment in the middle of the 19th Century. Others viewed it is a critique on man’s vanity. One critic even suggested the mighty sperm whale represented the Catholic Church. Or, the story can be taken at face value as an epic tale of man against nature.

As for me, I will struggle on and reserve judgment until I reach the end.

What is your opinion of Moby Dick? Have you ever read a novel you had to struggle to finish? Was it worth it?


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Developing a Written Outline–Part II

The previous post discussed why writers should prepare written outlines for their novels. Let’s look now at what an outline should include. Writers differ on the length and scope of an outline, but it should include these elements:

  • Title of the novel.
  • Premise or idea behind the story. This doesn’t have to be detailed. It could be one sentence. For example, the premise for the Harry Potter series could be this: an orphaned boy escapes from a cruel childhood to discover he is a celebrated wizard who must take on a powerful evil wizard.
  • A list of the characters. For the main character, the writer should identify her strengths, weaknesses goals and motivations. The characters should include those who will help the main character and those who will try to stop her.
  • Identification of the main character’s goal, quest or dream and the obstacles in the way.
  • A sequence of major events in the story, which should have conflict and tension.
  • A climax to the story, followed by resolution.
  • A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends.

Common types of outlines include:

  • Chapter outline—a few sentences or paragraphs on each chapter
  • Scene outline—short descriptions of each scene.
  • Narrative outline—an account of what happens in the book.
  • Index card outline—writing scenes or scene ideas on index cards

Outlines can be short or detailed. A writer colleague of mine uses a device called a “structure table,” a grid with columns and rows. Such a table could be organized in a grid with these columns:


Some writers organize tables where one of the columns is Motivation. Some create storyboards and some authors write scenes on color-coded index cards. Some write a long narrative describing all the action in the present tense.

Mystery writer JA Konrath writes long outlines. “My outlines are very detailed,” he wrote in A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. “They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

“I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two,” he wrote.

Konrath estimates it takes him a solid week of eight-hour days to produce a 40-page outline. “But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all the hard stuff out of the way.”

James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, discusses a variety of plotting systems, ultimately concluding writers must choose the system that works best for them. He cautions, however, “If certain foundational elements are missing, the story is going to sag. You can avoid major problems by some focused thinking about your story before you write.”

As I mentioned, I am more of a “pantser,” but I have used an outline for each of my novels. My outline for Small Change became moot when I made the main character 14 years old instead of 10 at the start of the book. That’s the beauty of writing. You need to have the flexibility to change your mind when something’s not working. If I were to rewrite my original outline it might start out like this:

Chapter 1

Introduce John Sykowksi, the main character, and his family at the lakeside resort in Wisconsin where they spend a week each summer. In the opening scene, John, who is 14 years old, is uncomfortable when their neighbor, Mrs. Crandale, asks him to rub suntan lotion on her back. [This foreshadows the most dramatic scene in the first half of the novel]

So what’s the correct answer regarding outlining? There is none. Whatever system works for you is what you should use.

Here are some good resources on outlining:

Paperback writer

Creative Penn

Snowflake method-Randy Ingermanson

Larry Brooks discussion on outlining

What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?


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Developing a Written Outline-Part I

Most novelists fall within two categories on the topic of developing a written outline: plotter or pantser. Plotters prepare outlines that could range from a synopsis or overview of the book to a detailed scene-by-scene list. Some do both. Pantsers, as the term suggests, fly by the seat of their pants. They believe too much advance planning kills creativity and stymies the wonderful discoveries writers make during the writing process.

Regardless of where you fall on the plotter-pantser spectrum, there is some merit in preparing a written outline. Outlining is a complex topic. I will break this topic into two posts. This post will cover “why” to prepare an outline and the second post will discuss “how” to do it.

An outline is simply a written plan for your story. Think of it as your roadmap. You wouldn’t hop in the car and drive to a place you’ve never visited without obtaining a set of directions. Think of your outline as your directions to help you reach your destination—a finished novel.

A solid written outline:
liForces the writer to think through the events of the story with a goal of creating a cohesive plot and structure./li
liKeeps the writer focused on the larger issues of theme and story progression/li
liPrevents the writer from going down blind alleys or off on tangents that don’t relate to the story./li
liIdentifies gaps and weaknesses in the story that the writer must address before sitting down to write./li
liTells the writer whether there is enough structure behind the story to sustain a novel./li
liReduces the amount of time the writer will later spend editing the story./li
liAllows the writer to identify the relationship among the characters, their development, how they will interact, and their strengths and weaknesses./li
The most important reason to outline, in my opinion, is that it provides the foundation on which your story is built. Without a solid foundation, your story will collapse.

Many experts don’t believe in written outlines. Stephen King, in his book, ema title=On Writing href= Writing/a, /emwrote he does not believe in outlines, preferring to discover the story as he writes it. “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story,” he wrote. “Some of the ideas which have produced these books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau.”

I am more of a “pantser,” but experience has taught me the value of a written outline. Before I start writing, I prepare a barebones outline with about a dozen milestone plot developments. These don’t always follow the classic story arc: describe protagonist in her world, make her goal clear, create an inciting incident, throw in a complication, increase the stakes through rising action, build to the climax and resolve the main character’s dilemma. My outlines tend to follow the major events of the story. I know writers who prepare detailed outlines that go on for many pages. I’ve seen outlining methods that go on for many pages. Next, I will describe some of the outlining techniques available.

strongDo you believe in written outlines? Are you a plotter or a pantser?/strong


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Book Review: “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach

In Chad Harbach’s outstanding debut novel, The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander is a college baseball star who plays one of the most important positions in the game: shortstop. His Bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, a sort of Zen baseball guidebook penned by his idol, the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, a cross between Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The book is filled with such wisdom as this:

26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.

59. To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.

And then there are these passages:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

The plot of Harbach’s novel turns on a single error, an errant throw that plunges poor Henry into a state of “paralysis by analysis.” Henry is about to tie Aparicio’s NCAA record for consecutive errorless games. Late in the game, Henry uncorks a wild throw that strikes teammate Owen Dunne, who is reading a book in the dugout, in the face. Dunne is hospitalized and Skrimshander becomes unglued.

At the heart of Harbach’s story is the concept of human error, not the kind that occur on the baseball diamond. Henry has trained his body to act like a machine, a “thoughtless being,” but it is his thoughts and doubts that haunt him. He loses his ability to throw the ball accurately, an affliction known as Steve Blass Disease, after the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. It is a malady that has struck a number of elite athletes, including Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel, Mackey Sasser and Dontrelle Willis.

But Henry isn’t the only character who suffers from self-doubt. The five major characters all find themselves at a crossroads of some type.

Henry is the star player for Westish College, a Division III school located in northern Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Henry’s mentor is Mike Schwartz, the captain and firebrand leader of the club. Schwartz discovered Skrimshander two summers earlier during an American Legion tournament and took him under his wing, arranging for a scholarship at Westish.

Dunne, who introduced himself to Skrimshander as his  “gay mulatto roommate” is a precocious young man possessed of an inner calm that earned him the nickname “Buddha” from his teammates.

While Henry struggles in the field, the college president Guert Affenlight, becomes obsessed with Dunne. The college president embarks on a risky affair with the student. Complicating matters, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, returns from a disastrous marriage and moves into the president’s apartment. Pella becomes involved with Schwartz, who is having trouble coming to grips with the end of his baseball career. Schwartz is also turned down by several elite law schools, leaving his future in doubt.

Henry has no life outside of baseball. Unless he can figure out what’s causing his throwing errors, he will lose his chance to be drafted by a major league team. Guert finds himself at the age of 60 attracted to a young man, knowing he is risking everything for love. Pella is adrift and finds in Schwartz a person who is everything her aloof husband is not.

The errors in this book center on the individual’s basic fallibility, the frailties of human emotion that drive people and overrule rational thought.

While Harbach is an excellent writer, there were a few flaws. Owen gets hit in the face by Henry’s throw because he is reading a book in the dugout. As a young sportswriter in college, I covered college teams and American Legion teams. I’ve never seen a coach who would allow a player to read a book in the dugout. I also found the ghastly event that takes place near the end of the novel (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it), completely unbelievable. Also the way Guert’s crisis is resolved (again, I won’t spoil it) I found to be an author contrivance.

These are minor “nits.” On the whole, The Art of Fielding was an absorbing novel about characters that are all-too-human. Harbach’s manuscript triggered a bidding war among publishing houses and one can see why. He is a self-assured writer who has developed a poignant story based on sharply drawn characters and a multi-dimensional plot.

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