Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I'm Participating in NaNoWriMo 2011

Being the cynical cuss that I am, I generally look askance at online group activities such as National Novel Writing Month. I mean, c'mon. Who honestly thinks they can write a publishable 50,000-word novel in 30 days? I'm not some precious urban hipster who has the time to don his pork pie hat and clear-lensed horn-rimmed glasses and spend the day noodling around on his Apple Air at the local Starbucks. I'm a writing professional, man!

But I've had a change of heart this year, and I've signed up for NaNoWriMo (*shudder*), as it's known. Why?

1. Whatever I produce will most likely not be 50,000 words long or a novel or publishable. And I'm cool with that.
I'm trying to get over worrying about what kind of writer I'm "supposed" to be and instead just explore what kind of writer I actually am. I know -- how Zen of me. But I can see the value of charging through a first draft, letting the proverbial chips fall where they may, not stressing about where I'm heading but going as far as I can as fast as I can. Even if I only complete 5,000 words, that's more than I've got right now.

And if I do succeed in finishing a real manuscript at some unspecified point in time and I'm sufficiently pleased with it to send it off into the world, it will be published, even if only on the Kindle or the iPad or whatever device the cool kids are using in the future.

2. NaNoWriMo has a better track record than I do.
Number of years NaNoWriMo has been in business = 12
Number of novels I've produced in the past 12 years = 0

3. I have a workable idea for a short book.
What I have in mind isn't particularly innovative or grandiose. But it's intriguing and unusual and fits within the parameters of existing marketing categories. It's not like I'm striving to one-up Nabokov's "Pale Fire" over four consecutive weekends. Gotta have perspective.

4. I want to have some fun.
 Remember what it was like to roll a fresh sheet of 20-pound stock into a vibrating electric typewriter and let your imagination run free while your stubby little sausage-fingers struggled to keep up, so intense was the outpouring of sprightly prose? Yeah, neither do I. But there have been plenty of times when I've enjoyed the creative process, from the grubby mechanics of grammar to the endorphin high of watching plot points snap together with a satisfying 'Snik!' And I want some more of that, please.

5. The world could use a novel entitled "Squidface."
Need I say more?

So there you go, boys and girls, my plan for the month of November. It's not perfect. The month is short already, Thanksgiving is in there somewhere and I've got a kid applying to colleges right now. Whee!

But each day, I'll endeavor to post on Twitter and Facebook links to sites that I'm finding particularly inspirational or germane to the task at hand. You can follow along and imagine what I'm constructing, as well as read enticing synopses and excerpts (one hopes). I'll also post my running word-count, so that you can cheer/jeer as you see fit. Carpe deum. Que sera, sera. And all that.

Happy (*grits teeth*) NaNoWriMo!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Book Critics

I used to write a lot of fiction. I didn't publish a lot of fiction, but I wrote it. I even finished a horror novel in the late 1980s, one about voudoun in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's right, I was 20 years ahead of the Shambling Dead Curve, all you zombies-come-lately!

Too bad the novel wasn't very good. A couple editors and a handful of agents looked at it and politely passed. They knew what they were doing.

And then a funny thing happened. I started writing lots of book reviews and other non-fiction pieces and got paid for every single one of them. This was on top of my 9-to-5 job as a marketing copywriter, where I wrote in-paper ads, sales collateral and TV and radio spots, plus edited a weekly automotive section.

Then I had kids. The fiction output dwindled down to nothing and finally dried up entirely.

Correlation is not causality.

There are plenty of writers out there who manage to raise a family, work a day job and produce a steady tide of novels and short stories. I guess I just ain't one of them. This used to cause me a fair amount of distress, but not so much anymore.

I've come to the conclusion that the biggest drag on my fiction writing isn't the kids, isn't the day job, isn't the crippling ironies of a godless universe. It's just that, as I've become more confident in my critical abilities, I've become less sure of my talent as a storyteller.

Thanks to a quarter-century of reviewing, I now have a better grasp of what it takes to produce a good book or story. And how much more it takes to be noticed for having published said piece of fiction. I sit amid piles and piles of ARCs and finished books and know that I won't crack the spines of ten percent of them. And they aren't even a tenth of the other unread books stacked in the basement.

The book critic that lives in my own head asks, "Who the hell are you to think about writing  a novel? Do you know how much work that takes? Do you really think you have the chops for it? And if you do publish anything, why do you think anyone would notice?"

I'm making more of an effort these days to shut that guy up. He's become a bore, even to me. In recent months, I've completed a short story and a one-act play.

It's a start. I've got plans for more projects.

The great thing about the web is that there is such an abundance of good advice about storytelling to be found on it, if you know where to look. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and fiction in general, you should check out Making Light. It's always worth a look and often features truly invaluable advice, such as this four-item formula for turning story into fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- Sondheim & Co.

My son is currently performing in a youth theater production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical, "Merrily We Roll Along." Parental pride aside, it's a first-rate show, with strong leads, a lively ensemble and a truly excellent orchestra. See it, if you live in the East Bay and have a spare couple of hours. Tickets are available through Brown Bag Tickets.

The real point of this post, however, is to spotlight one of my favorite books about Sondheim in particular and musical theater in general. The second edition of Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co.," published in 1986, follows the career of the legendary composer/lyricist from "By George," the school musical he wrote with two classmates, through the first steps toward "Into the Woods." It's smart and thorough and dishy, written by an insightful show-biz insider. Zadan began his career as an investigative reporter but served as Director of Theater Projects for Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and co-produced "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute" on Broadway. He also co-produced the original film version of "Footloose." He knows what he's talking about.

"Sondheim & Co." has plenty of anecdotes about "Company," "West Side Story," "Follies" and so on, but it's unusual in that, in addition to the usual chronological account of successes and failures, it also contains chapters on the aspects of professional musical theater that are sometimes overlooked. Zadan details how casting, musical direction, orchestration and poster art each add to or detract from a production as a whole. It's easy to think that a show is only about its songs and libretto, but Zadan expertly punctures that myth.

The book's chapter about "Merrily We Roll Along" is a good case in point. It's a sobering account of how even seasoned professionals like Sondheim, Furth and director Harold Prince can persist in making one mistake after another and ruin what looks like a sure thing. "Merrily" ran only 16 performances in its original Broadway production. Audiences and critics hated the costumes, the scenery, the dancing, the eager-yet-unseasoned cast, the modular score and the way the plot moves in reverse. Zadan methodically recounts how every wrong turn was made.

"Merrily" has been significantly revised since 1981. Even if there probably aren't many people out there who rank it as their favorite Sondheim musical, the score is lovely and clever and the story can be quite affecting in the right hands. (See above.)

Either edition of "Sondheim & Co." is hard to find these days, but copies are well worth hunting down. I wish Zadan would take time out from his big-shot Hollywood producer duties and produce a third edition bringing Sondheim enthusiasts up to date with "Bounce."

One caveat about the second edition: my hardcover copy seems to have been bound with sparrow spit or something. It lasted only one gentle reading before splitting into 200 individual sheets. I plan to keep it no matter what, but it's insanely difficult to browse through.