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Discussing The Firm

One of the pieces of advice that is often cast at developing creative people (I’ve mostly read it as directed at writers, but I imagine it’s a universal-ish sort of thing) it to latch onto a work that resonates, and study it. Back in the days of vinyl, before stereo overdubs and hyperactive mixing, that’s how musicians would cut their teeth — buckle on headphones and replay songs over and over, figuring out a lick or bass groove a few seconds at a time, tearing it apart, learning from it, incorporating it into themselves until they learned what they needed, leveling up in musicianship (especially if the parts were tricky… have you tried picking out what McCartney does on some of the Beatles tracks? Lady Madonna, for instance.).

In the writing arena, anyone that’s attempted NaNoWriMo at least once has probably heard the advice. Hell, Chris Baty includes it in his book No Plot, No Problem. Have a model novel.

Without putting to fine a point on it, I went into figuring out my thesis novel with John Grisham’s The Firm as an undercurrent, the paranoia and underdog calling shoved into a situation where they are in jeopardy. Okay, so just about any thriller could fit the bill, but The Firm was what came to mind. Here’s the catch. I hadn’t read the book, at least, not completely, only seen the movie. (I started it about 15 years ago, I had a movie tie-in paperback, and made it 75-100 pages. Things didn’t click at the time, either the class schedule or work… I got distracted, then loaned it out from whence it never returned.) While in the middle of drafting the project, I knew I would need to take on the source, but I didn’t want to do so while still trying to figure out the story, my story, and having the first draft get derailed. I’ll read it, I told myself, after finishing the first draft.

The (very rough) first draft was finished back in September. After finishing the other classes for the semester, I dug in, reading for both story and execution. I’m still mulling over some of my observations (after finishing the book the other day), and how they might be able to be applied to my project (like stylistic things…hello, re-evaluating dialogue tags) but also making me question part of my structure (I’m using third, and the entire first draft is only from the over protagonist’s shoulder…now I’m wondering about adding some scenes from other POVs, and if so, whose?)

Which is to say, the study part is only just beginning. I was a little surprised by the reading, and found myself thinking about attacking my copy with post-its to mark scenes NOT from Mitch’s POV. I imagine that the paperback copy I have now will take it’s fair share of beatings over the next six months or so, until I get to a point where my manuscript sails with a bit of punch.

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First Draft… an Update

Still Drafty…

An update on how things are going with the MFA… The “semester” class officially started last Monday. Too early to call, or make any firm comments, but I’m already working on reading the second (of about 7) books that will be discussed during the semester (I’ll post the reading list, and some of my opinions, later).

The more important thing, though, is the Work in Progress. The Thesis Project. The novel.

The way the program is built, there are six residencies (held in January & June each year). The idea is that for the first four, the novel is drafted (for a mystery: about 100 pages per semester), then revised and refined over the last year. Each semester is broken down into four “Writer’s Deadlines” – each a month apart (starting with the first, 1 month after the Residency ends). In theory, the first three deadlines could see the raw pages, with the fourth being a revision of all those pages.

We just passed the 2nd deadline, and I am sitting at about 50 pages. My goal is to still hit (if not exceed) the 100 page mark by this time next month. With Viable Paradise landing not too long after the next deadline, I need to make sure I stay on track so I can spend some time with editing while on the flights and during layovers – in addition to adding new pages.

Just so you know.

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Application Process: Step 1 – Why?

You’ve decided to seek out higher education, something beyond the undergraduate degree. Congratulations! But ask yourself why. Best to ask the question of yourself now, so you can have your answers rehearsed when other people start asking. Odds are, you will have to come up with some kind of “Statement of Purpose” (hereafter referred to as SoP) as part of your application process, and the “why” plays a pretty big role in the emotional content. It can be a hard thing to articulate with eloquence, and could require some soul-searching if you’ve not been planning on this degree since you were five.  Even if you have been, admissions folks will still ask, “why?”

Understand that any examples I give through this series of posts are based on my experiences, and to help with the examples, here’s a little about me: I graduated from high school in the first half of the 90’s, and was hell-bent on a computer science degree. Then I met Calculus. And Linear Algebra. While Theory and I were on pretty good speaking terms, and I would nod and chat with Coding and Debugging at a party, Calculus and Linear Algebra were the bouncers at the bar that only let in the hot girls on a Saturday night. But I also fell into this writing thing, after several years through middle and high school wondering “what if…?”, playing lots of games, reading lots of books, and tossing story ideas around with a friend of mine. Things clicked, and I graduated with a BA in English… (long before there was a catchy song about it!) as well as almost getting a commission into the USAF. (I was three months from my commission, and sidelined due to a brief medical issue – at the time it earned the tag “non-deployable,” which is the nice way of saying, “Thanks for playing.” But I completed all four years of the ROTC program, and some other training besides.)

Then I went to work. In retail doing clerical work. I also lucked into a part-time job teaching basic English/grammar a few nights a week at a local community college. Because, really, what else DO you do with a BA in English? A few months out, I was hating what I was doing at the office job, making not-much-more than minimum wage, and in a organization & position that was pretty much capped. So I went back to school, and earned a BA Hospitality Management. My main reason for the second BA? I didn’t feel I was ready for graduate school.

Skip ahead a few years, and through two management runs in different food service organizations, easily pulling 12-16 hour days (one year, I maybe had a total five days off). I was ready for a change, and kept thinking about writing, a luxury those long hours had not accommodated very well. I opted out of food service into another clerical position – this one with benefits – with the intention of tackling graduate school.

My “why?” To get back into writing, and thinking about writing, and to reconnect with that part of my brain that last acted on crafting stories almost ten years before.

Now, I tell you all of that to tell you this: your “why” will change, or it might not be what you first think. When I started my MA program in 2008, I thought it was to restart my writing – which at the time, it was. But through applying to MFA and PhD programs, where my first response to “why” was: “To teach” and the unofficially universal answer “Focused time to write,” I had to look further… what did I hope to gain? What could a degree program offer that I had to seek it out? For me, it became an issue of having a peer group. A community of (somewhat) like minded people, interested in creating something, and encouraging others to make their something even better. An idealist notion, sure, but that’s what I think is the core of “why” – what I hope to get out of a program. Yes, I would like to teach, something I learned from that community college gig, but it’s living inside a writing community (and, transversely, learning how to encourage and nurture others in that community) that is still the driving seed.

So, why go for the degree? What is it that makes your particular subject speak to you? Why are you passionate about it? What do you hope to get out of seeking higher education?

Take your time to think about it… it took me close to a month before I really understood my position. But knowing is the first step in making the SoP infinitely easier to write.


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A Series on the Process of Applications

When I embarked on the journey of applying to the MFA/PhD programs, I did a lot of internet searches… a lot. There are a lot of things to consider, and a lot of things that will have to be prepared before submitting the applications that it can be quite overwhelming for someone who’s just getting started. Along the way, I came up with a book idea, which I will be starting here shortly, after a little background.

Two of the schools that I have officially applied to are in Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow). A third, which was almost applied to, is the University of Manchester (you guessed it, home of the United, for those Beckham fans out there). Since I would be an international student – something I was interested in doing as an undergraduate but was unable to pursue for other academic reasons – I would have a lot to learn through cultural experiences, conversational and slang differences, and just the differences in University life and structure. Which was the genesis of this idea that I am getting to. In my head, the idea has the working title: “The English to English Dictionary: One Man’s Views on the Pursuit of Higher Education on Both Sides of the Pond”… or something like that.

However, the chances of the full project reaching development will all depend on how the admissions offers stand once the dust has settled.

But as I kicked the idea around some more, I realized that an important first part of the book would be a discussion of the application process: some of the whys, hows and whats that might be encountered on the application trail.

Sure, there’s other sites out there, but some of them were damn hard to find as I was looking, and others were quite easy. Few of them really addressed things in a concise way that really resonated or led to my understanding of the required documents. And none of them were written by me so here we are.

You will see a few of these pop up over the next few weeks, followed by more information on the actual applications as they become available. WHo knows, maybe some of these will end up on a bookshelf one day? But in the meantime, if someone can find my thoughts on the process helpful, then woot!

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On "Hills Like White Elephants"

[started on 6 Jan 2010, finished much later…]

There’s a story I’ve been kicking around for a while, and I attempted to wrestle it from an idea to a written page. When I originally came up with the idea for this post, it was still early in the conceptualizing period, before I started actually drafting.

Without telling too much, the stylistic kernal of the story that I’m aiming for is a scene between two people, but keeping their identities vague, allowing it to be read from different perspectives. The model story that I’m trying to play off of is “Hills Like White Elephants.” I was not a huge fan of the story when I was first introduced to it (in High School, I think), and I’m still not a huge fan of the content [focal issue] of the story, but I can appreciate the style/way it’s written…

My efforts, sadly, kept floundering… some of the dialogue lines didn’t feel right, so I have currently reshelved the idea. I’m not abandoning it, I’m just letting it brew a little longer…

In the mean time, after shelving this story, I hopped onto another one that’s been brewing (for at least a year, I think), and knocked it out for my first story of the semester. It went over well, settinga high bar for me to continue with on the next stories… And by the feedback/grading, I think it’s pretty close to being able to be sent out for submisisons…

We shall see…

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Another NaNo has come and gone, and while I fell far short of the event’s 50k goal, I fell closer to it this year than I have in my past attempts, so I have at least fallen forward. To this end, that now gives me two that are somewhere in the middling throes of a first draft.

And this year’s project has some more latent potential that I found as I was typing up several pages earlier this week – scenes that are suggested but had been skipped while in the moment – and several other shorter scenes that are on the boiler-plate, waiting for me to continue.

The fun part is that I intend on continuing with both projects (the one I have been writing for class, and the one that I put on hold for the class) over the next few months, and hope to have two completed 1st drafts in time for summer.

Then, between editing those two, I plan to start working on the thesis in earnest (using some of the time this spring to do some planning as well… more on that later…)

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Back from the Mountaintop…

MC and I went to her grandparents’ place in Pennsylvania to take advantage of the long weekend (and we took an extra day off to make it longer!)… and the house is on top of a (smallish) mountain. The Appalachain Trail runs near their place (less than 1/2 mile from it, actually), and it’s quite a nice, quiet place.

And there were some alterior motives with the trip, as well… When I was first taken up there, almost two years ago (a sort of “meet the grandparents” before MC and I officially started dating), along with another of MC’s friends (Melissa), we (Melissa and I) were force-fed some of the history of the area by the grandparents… it’s not a bad thing, as people are always inclined to want to brag or show off some of the landmarks or features of the area, especially if there is some sort of personal connection.

In this particular case, it involves a now-lost luxury hotel (burned to the ground in 1967-ish) that opened for business in 1891. Being a hotel person in a past life (I do have a management degree for just such an occupation), it was something that intrigued me – and as a writer, it’s been something that’s stuck with me. Fueled by some ideas that popped up during my “Research” class, part of my plans for the trip were to gather some research information and ideas from the (now) grandparents-in-law. While I didn’t get as much as I would have liked (abundance of information, not enough time to make notes or get a lot of pictures of other locations – not from lack of resources), I have enough to start some serious story-boarding for a project (including a time-stamp for circa early 1940s to accurately use the sights/locations that I am thinking about blending into the story)…

I’ve got a couple of things bouncing around, that I hope to make some distinct progress on over the summer (to prepare for my class next fall). If things go well this summer, I would like to be well into a couple of works (near 30k words), to be well positioned to take advantage of the semester for workshopping and improving the project of choice.

To the drafting table!

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The Swing of Things…

It’s now February, and the semester is officially in high gear. My project for tonight’s class is pretty much done (I just realized that I forgot the book for tonight – doh!), and I have finished most of the reading for tomorrow night’s class. After the first class, I knew this was going to be one of my tougher semesters, just based on the required readings for class.

Throw “life plans” into that mix, and it creates a whole lot of fun… My “fun” reading has slowed to a crawl (good thing I’m reading a short story collection… makes those sparse reading moments get a bigger payoff), and the writing has slowed (at the moment) more than the reading.

I am looking forward, though, to the “researched” writing project for the semester… and I am slow-brewing the idea, thinking about what angle I want to take in telling the story.

I am nervous, though, with all of the ideas that I have in various stages of slow-brewing, that I may be choking myself off. I’ve had a couple of other people that have mentioned that, recently, as well. MC may have finally won me over on a couple of points – namely a rearranging of how I have my desk set up.

My February work will focus on that rearrangement, and fleshing out the project list – setting myself up to focus on one – just one – non-academic project, in an effort to break through my own personal word count/page count ceiling. At the same time, I will be making notes for this year’s Script Frenzy, where I am supposed to be one of the local moderators (Municipal Liasons). The writing itself won’t be until April, but I can get a lot of background ideas put together (character sketches that have been bugging me, etc.).

It’s boiling down to personal accountability, and time/priority management – juggling the professional and personal in a completely different way than I have had to before, and trying to figure out the ways that I work best…

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Works in Progress…

I was thinking about my plans for the year, in terms of the Resolutions (past and present years), and started listing some of the projects I want to work on. The conclusion that I came to (initially triggered by spending a lot of time yesterday afternoon looking at Stephen King’s recently revamped site), is that I want to try something a little different. I don’t write know how I made the connection – maybe it was also the fact that I was thinking about my class tonight… the “Research for Writers”.

Sue Grafton compiles a file for each book she is working on – adding her research notes, thought processes, etc. A production journal, of sorts. I know this because she mentions it on her website. And I have gotten a little restless with some of my “older” habits. Creating a short story is not too difficult – in the context of it relying on only a couple of tension points, or addressing only one or two events. My attempts at writing a novel, though, have fallen apart for one of two reasons. Either I’ve outlined it well, and I’ve lost interest by the time the outline is done – especially true for a trilogy that I planned out (eight years ago), or I go into it with an idea, and try to make it all up as I go.

I am going to try an outline approach… working on some character sketches, and do some “brainstorming/free association” plotting, to explore the ideas. I’m going to go way back to my sixth grade English classes, and Elementary school classes, where we were encouraged to brainstorm and think about something for a little bit, plotting out the events.

I am going to spend most of the rest of January working from this angle on a couple of projects – both stories and scripts – before jumping (too far) into the other creative maelstrom that I want to pursue. Stephen King (in his FAQ) mentions, “As long as I’m a couple ideas ahead, I’m fine.” With the list of projects that I put together last night, I think I’ll have more than enough to keep my busy for the year, and well into the next.

I just need to finish them, so I can shop them around.

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I am trying my hand at NaNaWriMo again… I am trying a Gaiman-esque approach this year, and hand writing (in a journal, with a fountain pen), to see if I can disconnect the internal editor, and just put words on the page. I do realize that I will need to go back and type the whole things up (so I can track the word count), but it’s trying something different for me…

And the whole point in NaNo is to get a book out… it doesn’t matter if it’s a good book, as long as it is a book… Maybe when I knock this out (and, it is on my list of things for this quarter) I will have cleared through some wall or barrier, which should make things easier to get through in the future. (Yes, each book would be different, and have their own timeline to create, but finishing one book means that others can be finished as well, so the “Spectre of Non-Completion” can be exorcised, and sent for coffee and doughnuts when the internal editor gets cranky.)

I managed to write a chapter the other night (about 13 full pages, in a 5×7 journal)… the idea for chapter 2 is hanging around, probably having a beer and smoking a joint in order to avoid being put on the page…

But that’s okay, because I’ve been trying to hammer out a story for class [that is supposed to be turned in on Tuesday]… At the moment, that is more important (and easier to generate while at work)….

So…. right… back to the trench…

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