Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Update

Last night I passed the 19,000 word count on my novel, which means I’m 6,000 words behind my goal for this point, and I’d have to write more than 2,000 words a day to reach 30,000 before Wednesday. In Nanowrimo days, that wouldn’t worry me, but my credo on this book has been “don’t write crap” so the writing is taking a lot longer. In past Novembers I perfected the art of tv watcher writing – cramming 250-500 word jolts into commercial breaks while I watched my favorite shows. Obviously, I didn’t put a lot of concentration into that writing, but it meant I could easily pound out 1,000 words in a half hour, including bathroom breaks. Provided I knew what I wanted to say, this was pretty effective. But, with this book, where I’m figuring out the story as I go, the tv would be too distracting. This month it’s taking me at least an hour to get a 1,000 word chunk written.

I’m also starting to run out of clear story ideas, which is making it tough to keep going.
E. L. Doctorow famously compared writing to driving a car at night where “you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Well, last weekend I had a minor crisis when my headlights burned out. Saturday through Monday, the most I did was pad prior chapters and work on segues. There’s definitely work to be done in those sections, but I had hoped to have the major scaffolding for the book completed by the time I start my class in October, so plot and tone are where I want the majority of the first 30,000 words to go.

The hardest part for me in writing something so large continues to be maintaining the same point of view and mood over a long enough period of time to write the thing. I might spend an hour or 90 minutes a day writing a chapter for the book, but I need to spend 10 or 12 hours in that frame of mind beforehand in order to have ideas to write about. If I spend my subway time reading someone else’s fiction or a story about a celebrity, when I sit down to write, it’s going to sound like that. Probably the most common advice a writer receives is “write what you know”. For a short piece this generally means, “write about whatever’s bothering you right now”. But for a longer work it turns into “keep bothering yourself with whatever you’re writing about”. And before you Devil’s Advocates chime in -- don’t get me wrong, I do see the value in adding some new surprising elements if things start to get stale. Sometimes looking at my characters from a new angle can invigorate a story. But, in general for me that works best in the second draft or very late in the first. Too much distraction in the first draft just makes me want to scrap it and go write something else instead.

Tuesday and yesterday, I pulled myself out of the magazines and DFW tributes (I love Infinite Jest but my book is 1 million miles away from that style of writing) and started constructing the environment I need to stay focused on this book. To stay in a sci-fi frame of mind, I spend my 20 minute morning walk listening to science podcasts – WNYC’s Radiolab, NPR’s Science Friday, and science related TED talks. On the train and before bed I’m reading almost exclusively Ray Kurzweil books. (Last week I finished “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and I’ve now moved on to “The Singularity is Near.”) I’m trying to read slowly, because Kurzweil’s tone is so close to what I want to capture in my book – a kind of controlled optimism for the future -- appreciating the dangers that advanced computer and biotechnology pose, but embracing the inevitability of progress and focusing on the tremendous benefits that are possible. Getting dangerously close to talking about plot points here, but – the future in my book isn’t a dystopia, and I want to stay as far as possible from any science-run-amok, power-mad scientist clich├ęs. So I’m drinking the Tang (=kool-aid for scientists) and reveling in technology.

On a sidenote -- did you know ants recognize dead ants entirely by the chemicals they emit? According to E. O. Wilson if you rub the dead ant smell on a live ant, the other ants come and cart him off to the dead ant pile. No amount of wiggling or antly protestations will convince them he’s still alive. (Let the Monty Python jokes commence.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remembering Grandpa

I'm back in Boston now, after a difficult week in which my Grandpa suffered a heart attack, and sadly passed away. My Grandpa Sampsell was a wonderful Grandad and also a great writer. He was an inspiration to me, taking up writing late in life and having his nonfiction stories published in a variety of magazines as well as winning local literary awards in Kalamazoo.

Here is a piece that appeared in Good Old Days magazine about Dido, a recurring character in Grandpa's stories. A testament to the powers of language and technology -- even though my Grandpa is gone now, thanks to him a scrappy little dog lives on.

Monday, September 15, 2008


This week I'm in Michigan unexpectedly, and have a chance to check out my family's new puppy and kitty.

Here's a few snaps of my younger brother playing with Wallace, the terrier-mix:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Book Update - 8,427 words

One more quick post tonight before I hit the hay. An update on Book #3:

Things are going well so far on my nanowrimo-lite schedule. I’m aiming for a total of 30,000 words by the end of September, so on average 1,000 words per day. I’m up to 8,427 words now (I skipped a few days – including today) and am just wrapping up Chapter 4. I wrote a few bad beginnings before I found the one that “took”, but now I’m pretty happy with the way the story’s going. My characters have motivation, my story has conflict, it’s working! I’ll check back in in another week or so with any developments.

Also, I haven’t mentioned this on the blog before, but in October I’m taking a class called “Continuing Novel” at Grub Street. This will be my first writing workshop so I’m excited to give it a shot, but it’s also pretty scary to think that in a month I’ll be showing other people the book. For now the intimidation factor is keeping me focused on writing it, which is the important thing. Onward and upward!

Greg's Work Table

Work spaces come in all shapes and sizes. I named this journal my "big wood table", but Greg's new project requires a long cloth table.
Check it out --

Ta da! "T" Shirts!

Wednesday Reading - The Age of Spiritual Machines

You may have noticed the last couple Fridays I haven’t posted a weekend book recommendation. It turns out Fridays are just too hectic for me to do a regular post, so starting this week I’m switching the weekly book post to Wednesdays.

This week I’m starting the Wednesday recommendation with Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines.” I’ve actually been reading this book for the last two and a half weeks, which is a lot of time for me to spend on one book. Between commute time, stationary bike time, and pre-bed reading, I spend an average of 2 hours every day reading. I have to believe our reliable public transportation system is a big part of the reason Bostonians are so well read, but … that’s a discussion for another time.

Anyway, the reason Spiritual Machines is taking me so long to read is that I’m literally re-reading every line twice. This book completely blew my mind. I have a hard time classifying Kurzweil. I guess the best term, which I’ve seen several times, is “Futurist”– he focuses mainly on the future of technology and the human race. But this is not to be confused with the early 20th century futurist painters, who embraced violence and anarchy.

The Age of Spiritual Machines was written in 1999, which means Kurzweil’s ideas have had a little time to age. Some of his predictions were surprisingly accurate -- the ubiquity of cell phones, video conferencing, etc – and some were not so – like cochlear implants being used to enhance everyone’s hearing and telephones being able to translate between two different languages.

I think the biggest idea he gets right is that as technology becomes more integrated into the world around us, it becomes integrated into our brains too. The kinds of things that used to be intelligent – memorizing facts and figures – isn’t intelligent anymore, because finding a specific answer to a question is as easy as looking it up online on your phone. Creativity is intelligence for humans now, but the expense is we rely on technology to fill in the knowledge gaps. Eventually, when machines are able to think creatively and make new connections, humanity will enter a new era of intelligence.

The biggest failure of the book -- I think Kurzweil fails to take into account the other forces at work besides evolution. He predicted a steady rise in the stock market from 1999 to 2099. And, he expected the US to be the reigning superpower of the world forever, with the rest of the world foregoing wars to compete with us economically. (although he did predict a rise in terrorism and fears of bioterrorism).

Is it really possible to predict what the world will be like 100 years in the future? Maybe not – there are so many variables. But Kurzweil makes some convincing arguments. If nothing else it’s worth reading so you can look back in 2099 and see what he got right and what he got wrong.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Arts & Crafts

Happy Labor Day Everyone!

Although this is traditionally a holiday I plan some sort of travel over, this year finances dictated I hang around a little closer to home. Instead, I've been working on my new novel, catching up on Netflix, and doing some scrapbooking.

I made a few changes to my scrapbook, going back to include some holidays and events I'd skipped over before and inserting season markers to give the book a better sense of chronology. The season marker pages are pretty plain, but set the tone for the pages that follow. For example, I used a spooky silouette of a graveyard over an orange background for the Fall page, and glittery flower designs in bright colors for summer.

And, of course, I added our recent trip to the midwest including my Mom's birthday extravaganza and our trip to Shipshewanna. Here are some pics, what do you think?