Archive for March, 2012

When Browsing Becomes A Waste of Time

I’ve touched on this before in a post on the loss of the brick and mortar bookstore.

I’m forgetting how to browse, forgetting I need to browse, and I’m feeling guilty when I do. It seems a waste of time (and sometimes money) because most of the time, I find nothing. Of course, when I browse, I’m not looking for anything in particular anyway, so I should not feel disappointed, should I?

When shopping, whether for books, music, or clothes, I have two possible frames of mind. Frame number one: I know what I want, and just need to find it. For instance, a book. I may have a choice between pb, hc, or ebook, but that’s all the thinking I need to do. Type on the title; click when it comes up. Ditto with music. If I absolutely need something specific in the way of clothes, I’ll hunt for it at a large chain like Nordstrom, either online or in person. (Sometimes I’ll look online, then go pick it up in person.)

The second frame of mind is the browse, and that’s when I just want to see what’s out there. I will browse for clothes at a cut-price place like Stein Mart. I don’t go there for something specific, like a basic dressy tee shirt in taupe, because 90% of their stuff is actually kind of weird. There’s a reason it’s 50% or 80% off. It’s a weird color, or has an annoying ruffle detail, or is cut oddly in such a way as to flatter no living human. They aren’t going to have what you’re looking for, in other words, but they might have something in the 10% not-weird stash that you like, and that fits, and that is a great buy. Just as often however, I leave empty-handed.

Browsing music is easier than it has ever been. With iTunes, Apple nailed this one. Genius it isn’t; maybe they should call it Above Average, but still, I can easily spend forty-five minutes (my optimal browsing time) clicking around from here to there. Whether I buy anything or not, I’ve had fun, and I’ve learned something. And, unlike in my youth, I no longer have radio stations or record companies choking off my choices. On the contrary, public radio, of all things, is a tremendous source for finding new music–KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and NPR’s All Songs Considered are two of my favorites.

I’ve already gone over the loss of bookstores, and how that’s choked off my book browsing activity. iBooks chokes me in a way that iTunes does not. Their “browse” section leaves off most of what they have. They seem only to feature bestsellers, most of which don’t interest me and anyway, I already know about them. Their treatment of speculative fiction is abysmal, though no worse, I suppose, than my local Barnes and Noble. I discovered a “Sci-Fi and Fantasy under $6.99” button though, and that is actually a good place to find the mid-list titles, including interesting self-published selections.

Nonetheless, technology is driving me toward the non-browsing mode of shopping, and instead to go to the reviews, the recommended reading lists, and the like. I have read that most books are sold by word-of-mouth; my trouble is that few of my friends and loved ones read what I like to read. I need to expand my word-of-mouth to word-of-screen. I just haven’t gotten quite into the swing of things yet.

This post feels like a ramble (like a browse of thoughts?) and I feel the need to move on.

I hope I don’t lose the ability to browse, as I’ve had some great discoveries in the process. It’s a wonderful state of being–passive, yet alert. Meditative, humbly open the Universe’s offerings. I emerged calmer and somehow wiser, and sometimes with a fabulous prize of something new and unexpected.


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Banging the Drum All Day (Not)

The details are clear, but everything else–exactly where or when this happened–is fuzzy.

My husband, daughter, and I were on some sort of road trip, perhaps taking her to college (?) or on a ski trip (?). We were leaving a large sporting goods store (?). They had a blaring loudspeaker system, which was playing the 1983 Todd Rudgren song, “Bang the Drum All Day.” You know the one:

I don’t want to work

I want to bang on the drum all day

I don’t want to play

I just want to bang on the drum all day

My daughter said, “That’s a stupid song.”

My husband said, “It is a stupid song.”

I said, “I’ve always liked it.”

I was hit with a barrage of incredulity. “Why?!!?” they asked/shouted in unison. “It’s stupid!”

I explained it to them, as I will now explain it to you.

This song is played as an anti-work song, even played, I understand as a taunt by conservative pundits against unions and others they consider to be lazy. But the song is not celebrating sloth. Look at the third line. Not only does he not want to work, he does not want to play either! He only wants to practice his art, which happens to be playing the drum.

I don’t have to approve of his lifestyle or even agree that drumming is an art form, you understand, but the narrator of this song certainly does, and that is the basis upon which I approach it. This is a song about art, not about goofing off.

When it first came out, I was still working a job in a field that bored me. I wanted only to be a full-time writer. A famous writer. A rich and famous writer. This song, widely played in those days, ran through my head. I hummed it off and on all day long. I no longer wanted to work at my boring job of course, but I noticed something else: that when I reached a sweet spot in the writing of a story, I didn’t want to play either. I didn’t want to go hang out with friends, shop, or party. I only wanted to bang on my drum. I only wanted to keep writing, like the song says.

I go through several phases in the process of creating a story. I begin with an idea, usually just a situation, a short scene perhaps lasting only a few seconds. A “what if?”. This is giddy stuff, as several related ideas spring up as well, and I anxiously scribble them down. This is a Bang The Drum All Day phase.

The giddy beginning is followed by the task of actually putting the story on paper. By this time, I have a solid beginning, and possibly know the ending. Not always. The middle is still total mush. This part is hard to get through, as I have shared in the previous post. At this point, I am infinitely distractible, and am more than willing to go hang out, go do laundry, solve your family crisis, and even take a paying job in order to escape the creative mess I’ve made. It is not “banging the drum all day.” It is horrifying, because at this point, the work is so bad.

Then, working patiently, sometimes interminably slowly, I resolve the mess. This part is about as much fun as prepping for a colonoscopy. This goes on and on, but suddenly, I reach a point. Suddenly, I see how it can all make sense. It’s time to bang on the drum all day. Except, of course, I don’t get to. No one does. We’ve all our other stuff to do.

That’s where I’m at now with my novel, happily anticipating my writing time each day. I don’t always wait for writing time. Characters pop up throughout my day to talk to me and advise me on details of plot and setting. And yeah, some of my ability to concentrate on ordinary activities is compromised. I’m kind of a space cadet, losing my sunglasses, my keys, my shoes, and not sure where I left my car.

On the plus side, I’m way more pleasant and fun to be around.

I always wanted to write, and I still do. The rich and famous part has faded for me, though, in more ways than one. The odds of winning that kind of lottery fade with passing time–my personal time as well as the world’s. Even many award-winning, critically acclaimed writers can’t make a living these days. And fame…particularly the sort where people on the street recognize you…seems like no fun at all for an introvert like me anyway.

What I’m left with is the writing, and the relatively small group of people who will read it and enjoy it. I do want to get my novel published; I do want to be out there. I do want some money for my effort, as much as I can get. I can work toward the fame and money, but I can’t control that end of it. All I can control is the work itself, and for now, that is pure joy.


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I Think I’ve Finally Gone and Done It

More accurately, I’ve almost finally gone and done it. Specifically, I’ve completed an almost-readable draft of a novel. This is something I have wanted to do since my mid-twenties, and seriously began to try to do in my thirties. Do the math, but I’m kind of old to be a first novelist, although not the oldest, to be sure.

So, why did it take so long? There was nothing external to overcome, no life problems that any other writer might face. No, the problem was in me–let’s call it a partial writer’s block–but that is a simple term for a rather complex process.

My big hang-up was the plot. I couldn’t seem to make one, not 60-80,000 words worth. Short stories? Sure. As long as it’s short enough that I don’t have to outline.

At novel length, you get into the details. Novel length allows for subplots, all of which affect all the other main and subplots. It can feel overwhelming. Characters have a lot of time to develop. I cannot seem to develop them in an outline. I can’t get to know them well enough without making them play the entire scene.

An outline happens at a distance from me. Conversations are muffled…more than that, I can’t hear them at all; it’s as if I’m being forced to lip-read. The setting is like a 1950’s B movie; the scenery is obviously a sheet hanging behind the actors, and the spaceship is just as obviously a cardboard model being dangled by a string. An outline should be like a map, a scaled-down representation of reality, the reality being the novel. The main guideposts–highways, rivers, cities, and towns–are left in, and the small and unimportant  things are left out, but you can get from point A to point B, from the beginning to the end.

I tend to get confused as to what is important, and what is not. I make bad plot maps. I set off on my journey with my characters, and halfway through, we are totally lost. I have no idea why I began this in the first place. The outline seems stupid, I can muster no feeling for it. I have tried force-marching my characters along anyway, but have ended with something I hate, that makes no sense, that is unreadable, that feels utterly generic.

I need to see my characters in action in order for them to pop into full dimensional color and sound. This means I usually undergo a series of drafts in which my characters say pointless, flat stuff, and walk into walls. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a mess of unmotivated actions and idiot dialogue. In a short story this is okay. I throw the mess down on a table and look at it, as a whole. You can do that with thirty pages, pretty easily. No matter how bad it is, no matter how hopeless it seems, I can, usually, find some part or parts in the crippled narrative that rings true, that bears some relation to my original inspiration. I keep that, and throw away the rest. At that point, I’ll have a revelation or two regarding characters, plot, and often in particular, the ending. I then rewrite it, and throw away less the next time. The third draft is usually readable; the fifth, submittable for publication.

Doing the same at novel length is daunting, because I can’t keep all the people, places, and events in my head the way I can a short story length. Yes, I know novelists keep big massive files for all the details. I’ve tried that. But I can’t decide the details of my universe until I’ve actually written it. It starts to come out all false. Everything a writer is supposed to do to finish that crucial draft–make an outline, keep copious notes–I cannot seem to do.

But this time, I finished the draft. How?

My tale is science fiction, set about eighty years in the future, in an artificial habitat near the moon. That much I came up with about sixteen years ago. That, for the most part, was where it stopped. About five years ago, I realized the habitat, although quite large, created a “closed room” situation, which suggested, strongly, that my tale should take the form of a murder mystery.

I enjoy mysteries, and I’ve read enough of them to know the formula. Oh, I couldn’t stand up and give a chalkboard lecture on the subject, but I realized it was a form I knew intuitively. To be certain, I pulled a few mysteries off my shelf to deconstruct. I could not bring myself to write an outline of my story, but I did write a twenty page synopsis. Even that was horrible, because although I knew the relationships between the main characters (and therefore discovered pretty quickly who the murderer had to be), I did not know (for instance) the cause or means of death. It was enough, however, to start writing.

My first draft (although that is a generous term for it) was about two hundred pages. My second, still not readable, was three hundred-ish. My third, the almost readable one just completed, is four hundred. The final third still doesn’t make much sense, but it gets me where I’m going.

I wonder if it’s a variation of dyslexia, this inability of mine to deal with outlines. I don’t like pie charts or spreadsheets much either. I react to them the way some people react to spiders. I recoil and cover my mouth. My heart starts to race. I have an urge to flee.

It is possible getting through plotting a novel once will allow me to get through it in the future. I hope so, as I have a short list of novel ideas I’d like to try. Or it may be the key is merely accepting my process. Perhaps, the more I try to use the dreaded outline, the more trouble I’ll cause myself. Perhaps I need to trust my own method.


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