Summer Reading: ‘The Girls’ and ‘The Disaster Artist’

In between writing, my summer reading is moving along. I do find that reading in turn helps the writing. My sentences form more easily when I’m stuck on a passage than when I’m not reading on the side, and I get inspiration for how stories can be told — or how I can choose not to tell them.

I don’t just read so I can write, though. Reading is fun. I like moving through stories and being in another world while I ride the metro or exercise. There are so many stories to tell, and I want to read as many as I can.

Last week, I finished The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s a story of a young girl who finds solace from her troubled parents and crumbling friendships by spending time with a cult that’s reminiscent of the Manson family. Reading it was an interesting experience, because it was a book I couldn’t say was wonderful or even great, but it’s stuck with me in ways that better books have not. I find myself considering it as both a story and a piece. There were lines that when they fell flat, they fell hard; but when they struck, they struck like lightning. It was also a good story, albeit larger than I think the pages, the publisher, or perhaps Cline allowed it to be in its final draft. I recommend it, though I’d tell people reading it to be aware that they may be confused as to why they want to keep reading it. I recommend they do, though; and that they finish. I look forward to Cline’s next book.

Now, I’m rereading The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. The book is a memoir about the greatest bad film ever made, The Room. The Room is one of my favorite cult films — I used to go to midnight screenings regularly, and even cosplayed as Chris-R a few times. The book tells two stories: one of filming The Room, and one of young actor Greg Sestero’s budding friendship with an odd man named Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau is, of course, the writer, director, and star of The Room. It’s an excellent book, especially if you love The Room, but also if you’re a fan of cinema, cult cinema, or stories of odd yet persistent friendships. Sestero could’ve easily made the book an insulting tell-all, or treated everything like a joke. And he makes no bones about the fact that the movie was bad and that Wiseau had oddities that were neither quirky nor charming. But, he also writes as Tommy’s friend, and humanizes both the production and the man behind it, both of which are treated by the film community at large as just a bad film and just an odd character, respectively.

What are you reading? I’m always looking for recommendations to add to my always-growing list of what to read next.

Progress Report: Short Stories on the Way!

It’s been a hot and busy week. The humidity makes me want to sit inside with the AC, listen to music, and type all day. Good thing a writing hobby is conducive to all those things!

The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales is getting all the closer to publication. Right now it’s getting formatted, and there are pieces being added that make the collection feel so much more real than it did in Microsoft Word, like a table of contents and a title page. Check out the illustration that will go on the title page:

The Crow's Gift and Other Tales. Art by Doug Puller
Art by Doug Puller

Like the cover for The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, the artwork was done by artist and friend Doug Puller. You’ll also see his work on the covers for Please Give and All the Pieces Coming Together in the coming weeks.

On that note, I’m excited to announce that All the Pieces Coming Together will be released as a standalone short story. I anticipate having it ready by the beginning of August. You’ll be the first to know when it’s available. I look forward to sharing it, and hope you all enjoy it!

Have a good weekend, everyone. Stay cool — and if writing, stay productive!

All the World’s a Writing Space

Like many writers, I prefer to sequester myself in a room and write alone. It’s the best way to punch out a longer passage and really gather my thoughts. It’s also useful if I want to do the odder aspects of working through the writing process, like talking out the dialogue or acting out the motions. My one-woman performances of my stories are something to behold.

Some say that writing alone is the only way to write, or at least, the only way to write well. It’s preferred, for sure. I also think it’s unrealistic, especially when so many of us write on the side. As such, I think the emphasis on writing alone limits potential writers from getting into the craft. If we emphasize solitude and writing nooks, the fabled desk lit only by sunlight as the author hides from the world she writes about, we’re only giving her one way to write. I think that’s a disservice.

There are many times throughout the day that the story I’m working on pricks at my fingertips. I have access to my spare bedroom where I type on the bed because the desk is full writing corner during few of those times. When I was first starting to write, I’d make myself wait until I could both be alone and be alone for a solid chunk of time. I thought that’d be best for me and for the work, since that’s what others encouraged.

In waiting for the best space to write, though, I found my stress increasing. I’d try to remember things for later, along with everything else I had to think about throughout the day. I’d finally get to my writing corner, and I’d be juggling everything and trying to decide what to write down first, and how to get it down during my Designated Writing Time. This didn’t seem like the productive hour(s) of seclusion that was deemed best for writing — especially on the days where I just didn’t have that chunk of several hours.

I did, however, have minutes — pieces of time here and there that could be filled with smaller bursts of writing. So, I began to write in bursts. A free moment between work tasks, riding the train on my commute, waiting in line at Starbucks, flying on a plane surrounded by passengers — if I had a moment, and I had something to write, I’d write it. If I ran out of time to finish the passage, I’d either stop or leave myself a bracket note. It wasn’t the ideal of having a carved set of time in a carved piece of space, but then again, I think any moment where one can write is an ideal one. I think it’d be a better service to writers, especially writers today, if we emphasized that over finding the perfect time and space.

I’m not saying one should never write alone, or never try to find time to write alone. One absolutely should — and, if living with someone else, asking for that time alone is healthy and should be encouraged. But writing alone isn’t the only way, and may not necessarily be the best way. At the end of the day, the best way to write is to write. It’s about it happening at all, not where or for how long.

Outlining: A Necessary Evil

I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?

Well …

Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.

Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.

When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.

And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.

When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.

Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.

How do you outline, if at all?

Summer Writing+Reading

Today is supposed to be the hottest day of the week (and possibly the season) in the D.C. area. It’s always hot here in the summer, but having grown up in the southern Mid-Atlantic, I don’t really heed my fellow locals’ complaints about the purported oppressive heat of July and August. In North Carolina, you could barely go outside between 12 and 5 PM; and don’t get me started on the 24 hours we spent in Savannah in August one summer. I do concede that it’s easy to scoff at heat complaints while I sit in an air-conditioned room in a sundress.

Though I’ve been out of school for years, I still like taking part in summer reading. My local library has a summer reading program for all ages, and you can log your books and win prizes. Adults get the grand prize when they read six books in the designated time. Last summer, I completed and exceeded that by the beginning of July. This summer … I logged my fourth book yesterday.

My reading is still slow thanks to writing, but things like the summer reading challenge keep my bookworm fed. I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which was excellent. Now I’m reading The Girls by Emily Cline.

I’m also still writing away. Most of my focus has been on what is steadily becoming my second novel. I’m at 47,000+ words — a few days’ work away from a NaNoWriMo length! It’s still scattershot, and the plot is still coming together, but I’m both pleased and surprised at how it’s formed over the past several weeks — especially when for months, I didn’t think I had enough material for this story to turn into a novel. We’ll see where it goes!

What are you reading or writing this summer?

Writing Piece by Piece

Yesterday on Twitter, I was reminded of a good piece of writing advice:

The advice above, from Richard Rhodes, was a sentence that rang in my head last winter. I’ve been writing off and on for years, usually in ebbs and flows. In later years, that writing became fragments. I finished two short stories in college, but usually, if I picked up a pen in my twenties (or, let’s be real, tapped on a keyboard), it was always to write beginnings of stories or chapters that never became novels.

A lot of the work left unfinished was due to time, but a lot of it was also due to insecurity. I didn’t think I could write something if I didn’t have a clear, direct story in mind from beginning to end. And the times I had that, I found the story growing beyond my set outline’s control once I started typing. The forms these words took scared me, as they were going beyond what I’d planned in terms of thought and time to create. I set the pen aside (read: minimized the Word document and surfed the Internet).

Still, the desire to write never really left. I started doing daily writing about whatever crossed my mind, just to get something down. This was good practice, but I mostly wrote random thoughts about my day; and soon, I ran out of topics. I did a little story writing during that time, but once again, they stayed resigned to either outlines or something started but not finished.

Last winter, in 2016, I came across the quote at the top, about how a page a day would produce a book in one year. It was a simple thought, one so simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. I thought of some of the stories I’d wanted to write, and written notes for over the years. Maybe I could write a page a day, a simple minimum, and see where those pages went.

A year and some change later, I came across that quote again, in the tweet I posted above. Since then, I’ve written a book. And eight short stories. And have both a novella and another novel in the works. I work on them every day, aiming for a page, but often going further. Even when I have to make myself type one sentence just to say I’ve written, I do it. Because each piece written is another step towards a whole story.

As they say: Keep Writing. Your story will form itself. Your words will find their place in a story. And any time spent forming that story is time both well-spent and, one day at a time, will be rewarded — be it a page, a paragraph, or a line. As the full quote goes:

If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year. ~Richard Rhodes

Adding to the Binder

You may recall my Professional Clear Plastic Binder o’ Rejection. It sat stagnant after my first entry, even though I had a few stories out in the world, waiting to be turned down.

Well, the wait is over! I received three more rejections over the past two weeks — one from the same journal that made my first binder entry, one from a contest, and one from a different journal entirely. The collection is growing!

I swear I’m not being sarcastic. Yes, I type with my tongue in my cheek; but I’m also not typing with bitterness or anger. Rejection is part of the process, and getting a rejection letter means I tried putting my work out there, out for someone to read it. Yes, someone to read it and turn it down, but that’s better than no one reading it at all.

To anyone reading who’s afraid to submit your work for fear of rejection, I encourage you to face that fear and hit Submit. The worst that’ll happen is negligence, like the story I submitted almost four months ago and has remained unopened by the journal I sent it to (Submittable, which many journals use now for submissions, lets you see whether it was just received or if it’s in progress/being read); and even that’s not so bad.

At best, your work will be accepted!

But at somewhere between worst and best, it will probably be rejected, at least the first few times. That’s okay, that’s part of the process, and the rejection won’t be laden with insults or tell you to quit writing forever. Three submissions have been sent back to me with assertions they enjoyed reading each story, notes on the volume of submissions, a polite decline (usually in the form of “It wasn’t right for this journal”), and requests to send more work in the future. That’s it. No pain at all — just a drive to try, try again.

Keep writing, and keep submitting. Remember: every author you love was rejected at some point. Every single one. Getting rejected puts you in good company.

Now, I’m off to print another letter for the binder.