The Big Four-Oh Whatever

The last two weeks been the week before and the week after my birthday (August 7th) where I been in deep thought—very dangerous but the planet didn’t explode—trying to answer the one essential question in life: What does the big four-oh really mean?

The answer: Not a whole lot.

Physically, I don’t feel all that different.  Still working out at the gym and eating less to lose weight (lost ten pounds over the last month).  I have  a compulsive desire to remain clean shaven.  I’m now shaving every day since shaving every other day wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I still miss my Amish beard from a few years ago.  Emotionally, I’m still melancholy as usual when contemplating my past and my future.  All of which is tied to my work as a writer rather than growing older.

The rough draft of my first novel is on ice until I start editing in October.  The rough draft of my second novel is floundering at the one-third mark (middles are so exciting), and may be abandon when the time comes.  Other projects are dying on the back burner.  Being unemployed for six months is creating a lot of uncertainty with some days being like this or like that, and that’s affecting my ability to write.  (No, it’s not writer’s block; I can still write myself out of a paper bag if I can find the cattle prod.)  If I was writing full time, I would be doing a very poor job indeed.

The worst part is all my short stories and poems (40 pieces) are still circulating in the slush piles, and I’m on pins-and-needles waiting for a response.  August can be a cruel month for waiting for something—anything—to arrive by mail or email.  Everyone in the publishing world is on vacation.

The next year will require a lot of hard work as I finish two novels and a short story collection before I look for an agent.  When that happens, I’ll be working on my third novel and waiting for an agent to tell me that I won the publishers sweepstakes.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

Summer 2009 Reading List

Spent birthday money that I didn’t have yet and still might not get next week at Borders a few days ago.  A combination of factors made me splurge the last few precious dollars that I have.  First and foremost, nearly six months of unemployment had exhausted my stack of unread fiction that all I had left was a stack of unread non-fiction.  Second, I had five Borders Buck and a 30% off coupon for this month.  Third, spending $50 USD will earn another five Borders Buck for next month.  I managed to save $10 USD and picked up a half-dozen books.

I normally don’t shop in a bookstore unless I have the right financial incentives to buy locally over ordering through Amazon.  While browsing through Borders and recalling what books I had stashed away in my Amazon shopping cart, I actually found more books that weren’t there than the ones that I did find.  Seems like the entire midlist of books has been thinned out to a bare minimum.  A friend told me that the CD/DVD selection at the San Francisco store was nonexistent.  Worse, the Santa Row store is doing another reorganization to make sure you can’t find anything even if they did have it.

The redeeming grace was one of the clerks noticing that I had a stack of books in one hand and reading the first page of a book in the other hand, who brought over a shopping bag for me to throw everything in.  Seriously, I only intended to get a Harry Potterbook when I went into the store.  If I buy a half-dozen or more books at a time, I usually order through Amazon to take advantage of the four-for-three promo and free shipping.

Here’s the summer reading list.

  • “Blue Diablo (Corine Solomon, Book 1)” by Ann Aguirre
  • “Inferno (Star Wars, Legacy of The Force, Book 6)” by Troy Denning
  • “Original Sin (Adam Dalgliesh)” by PD James
  • “A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time, Book 7)” by Robert Jordan
  • “The Secret of The Old Clock / The Hidden Staircase (Nancy Drew)” by Carolyn Keene
  • “Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix (Book 5)” by JK Rowling

The common thread that ties all these books together is my own writings; the rough draft of my second novel that I’m composing now, and my first novel that I’m planning to edit in October.  I want to read a wide variety of different stories and writing styles to create a magical brew to incorporate into my own work.  This stack should keep me entertain for another month or two.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

Collecting The Vampire Novella

June was a busy month for me as a writer. I had finished the rough draft of my first novel in the first half of the month. I finished my vampire novella after two years of on-and-off work, wrote four new short stories, and tossed everything into a short story collection at the second half of the month.

The vampire novella was my first attempt to write something longer than 3,000 words. I struggled for the first year to make the story coherent but it didn’t go anywhere. Before I started writing my first novel, I made a serious effort to get the novella into shape with the eighth draft coming in at ~120 pages and ~23,000 words. After spending a year writing 665 pages and 120,495 for my first novel that I wrote straight through without looking back (my first reader confirmed that the rough draft is a sprawling mess), I knew how to finish editing the novella.

For a marathon two weeks, I edited two more drafts. The tenth draft came in at 97 pages and 20,000 words. I had to trimmed back to reach that particular word count. There are approximately a half dozen print publications where I can submit a story of that length. If those markets won’t accept the story, then I will find an ebook publisher since that length is a popular size. (I’m still somewhat old fashioned about wanting to physically handle the manuscript and see my work in print.) I learned more about editing in the last two weeks then I have in the last three years.

With the completion of the novella, my short story collection was also completed since the novella represents second half of the book. Since I had time to kill between finishing this and starting the rough draft of my second novel, I had a creative burst to write four more stories of various lengths over the weekend. The collection has 27 short stories and one novella (251 pages and 47,550 words), representing three years of hard work.

A short story collection is like the bastard child of the publishing industry. If a bestselling author has a collection, no problem. But if a new author is trying to shop a collection, forget about it. That’s probably because the graduates of the literary writing programs are too busy shopping around their collection while floundering around to write their first novel. Since I didn’t graduate from a writing program, I’m not morally obligated to flog my collection around the marketplace. With only three stories published or slated for publication, I want to get more of my stories published first before the collection is published.

The purpose of my collection is to define a writing milestone I can look back on, and something I can give to an agent if I get contacted before I go agent hunting next year with my finished first and second novels.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

Review – A Drifting Life

A new graphic novel by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, “A Drifting Life,” is a semi-fictional autobiography of the post-World War 2 Japanese manga scene, and perhaps the thickest (856 pages) I have ever read. Bracketed between the end of World War II in 1945 and the Peace Treaty in 1960, this story is about Hiroshi Katsumi learning to become a manga artist, his early work in the magazine contests, working for a single publisher with shady business practices, working with other artists and multiple publishers as a collective of independent artists, misadventures with women, and a political awakening that redefines a young man. At times brutally honest, startling and revealing about the human condition, this book is a masterpiece.

Most artists internalized their fears regarding their work. Although Hiroshi has his doubts from time to time, all his fears were externalized by his older brother, Okimasa. They both aspired to be manga artists but the younger brother was more prolific and constantly refining his work more than his older brother, creating a tension between the two that range from mild verbal sparring to outright abuse. Hiroshi is constantly escaping to get away from his older brother by being a substitute basketball player at high school, working on his manga at his aunt’s place under the roar of American bombers flying out of the airport, or watching what would later become classic movies from America (Shane, Snow White, and Dumbo) and Japan (Seven Samurai and Godzilla) that would influenced his work. He later moves to Tokyo to live with other manga artists and find better business opportunities.

What I admired the most about Hiroshi is his willingness to keep working from project to project to create a critical body of work that enabled him to advance to the next level of his career. We see a steady progression from shorter lengths (four-panel on postcards) to telling longer stories (32-pages) to creating full-length books (128-pages), struggling and mastering each level along the way. He experimented with different techniques for storytelling and visual presentations from classic literature, hard-boiled detective mysteries, and movies to keep the stories fresh and interesting, and learned how to manage the business side with different artists, projects, and publishers. Being an artist is hard work. This book that took ten years to make clearly demonstrates that.

If you’re an aspiring manga artist or writer, and want to know how to successfully manage your career, this book is a must read.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

Then Suddenly The Book Is Done

I spent all day yesterday entering the remaining hand written pages of my finished rough draft for my first novel into the computer. A second chance to clean up some passages, straighten out a few dead ends, add notes for the next draft, and discover what some of my minor characters been holding back from me.

The finished manuscript weighed in as a heavyweight at 665-page (double spaced) and 120,495 words. I printed out the remaining pages for my first reader and my reading copy (which should be the editing copy), and the whole thing as a short version (single-spaced printed on both side that should be the reading copy). After glancing at the earlier chapters and cringing from the horrible writing, I packed everything away to forget about this story for the next three months.

After all that I have done for the last year, I felt empty inside. I didn’t want to write today’s blog post or finish writing a new short story. I didn’t want to watch the new Top Chef Masters that aired this week. I didn’t want to do any kind of writing at all this weekend.

I pulled “Journal Of A Novel: The East of Eden Letters” by John Steinbeck from my bookshelf. I read about 80% of this book in 2007 when I was still playing around with the idea of writing a novel, and lost interest because I decided not to write a novel at the time. I finished reading this book last night, and found my answer to my emptiness in Steinbeck’s own words: “Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death.”

I am in mourning. I am mourning for my finished rough draft. I am mourning with the knowledge that I must leave my story in a box for three months to have the emotional clarity for editing the next draft. I am mourning when everything suddenly got so good.

Never mind that I found the heart and soul of my story in the next-to-last paragraph of the last chapter that ties a significant minor character to a point of view (POV) character in a meaningful way. Or that an underdeveloped minor character made a major confession in the Epilogue that reveals not only the true nature of his character, but this also ties the various plot lines in a way that stuns the other characters, and that the minor character who is deeply impacted by all this declares her forgiveness for him. Or distilling the entire story into a single paragraph in a query letter that I’m a year away from sending out to agents and/or publishers reveals that I have written a coming of age story.

All that waits for the next draft. Until then I must mourn for now and move on.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

One Year, One Week & 700 Pages Later

One year, one week, and 700 pages later, the rough draft of my first novel is finished. I was crying when I wrote the final scene. When I started out so long ago to write a novel based on my misadventures as a video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) for six years, I had the first chapter in hand, a broad outline divided into seven parts with seven chapters each, and the final scene in mind. Between the first and last chapters, the middle turned out to be a journey not only for my characters but for myself as a writer.

The rough draft was a sprawling mess. I wrote only the events concerning the main viewpoint characters, leaving out the secondary storylines and minor characters. My inspiration was the “Genshiken” manga series by Shimoku Kio, where a group of college students are bound together by their love of anime/cosplay/manga/video games (the Japanese slang term is otaku) and their relationships with each other in their club room. (Video game testers are not that much different when working 80 hours a week in the same room.) There’s no overriding story arc because each story was serialized in a magazine before being published in book form; when read together in all nine volumes, a common story emerges. The novels I enjoy the most are often a series of little stories woven together into one fabric.

Two-thirds of the draft was composed behind the steering wheel of my car while taking my hour-long lunch breaks at work. I wrote one to five pages a day for five days a week during that time. When I got laid off from work four months ago, I had to readjust to writing in my home office. Using the typewriter and scanning my pages into the computer, my page count was two to eight pages a day and my chapters went from 16 pages to ten pages (those longer chapters will probably split up in the next draft). I wrote 38 pages in longhand during the past weekend’s writing marathon to finish the rough draft. Writing a few pages a day really does add up in time.

Now that’s the rough draft is done, what’s next?

I still have 75 pages of handwritten and typed manuscript to enter into the e-file, print out the last pages for my first reader and my own reading copy (orange paper to discourage editing with a red pen), pack everything away, and forget about this story for the next three months. When September 6th comes around, I’ll read the whole thing, make notes, tear it apart to create a detailed outline, and write a new draft. I’m planning to write two drafts in the next year before I start looking for an agent.

Meanwhile, I still have 20 short stories circulating in the slush piles, a new political short story to finish writing, a vampire novella to edit before finishing my short story collection, and developing the outlines for my next two novels that will be 400 pages each. When I’m editing a new draft of my first novel, I’ll be writing the rough draft for either my second or third novel. Being a busy writer means keeping the pipeline full.

In the final words of my viewpoint characters: “What a year!”

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

Chasing The MacGuffin

I had a pleasant surprise this afternoon when I received an email from a magazine editor informing me that my short story, “The World’s Best Coffee,” got accepted for publication in The MacGuffin (Fall 2009).

The hard part was restraining myself from stripping down to my undies and run around the neighborhood like Homer Simpson. Something my brother did one year when he got drunk from ten tequila shots on his birthday, and, being the president of the homeowner association, the neighbors recognized him in his undies, and he hid in the hallway closet when the cops showed up. After the euphoria wore off, I started looking at the details of this submission.

With two dozen short stories written during the last three years circulating in the slush piles, it’s difficult to remember what’s what and where’s where. After reviewing the story and checking the submission tracking spreadsheet, I realized something that I didn’t know until today: I wrote a MacGuffin story that I submitted to a magazine that specializes in MacGuffin stories.

Well, d’oh!

A MacGuffin is the object in a mystery story that everyone wants but isn’t what everything thinks it is. “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett is a classic example. My short story about a cup of coffee stolen by a guy being chased by the woman who ordered the coffee throughout the shopping center, and, after drinking the coffee, he discovers that the woman has his wallet that fallen out at the coffee shop. When the woman hands over the wallet to the police officer and she sees the man, she points him out as the owner of the wallet and the creep who stole her coffee.

In short, the story was never really about the coffee.

This short story was like many of the short stories that I have written was inspired by a real life situation. I had ordered a medium mocha with whip cream at Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Santana Row one weekend morning. After waiting a few minutes, my order was ready. A guy stepped in front of me, picked up my mocha, and ran out the door before anyone could react. There’s nothing you can do about a stolen coffee in a crowded store and shopping center. Who in their right mind would file a police report over a stolen cup of coffee? After the store made another cup of mocha for me, I started thinking about the obvious question that came to my writer’s mind: “What would happen if someone did follow the guy out the store in pursuit of the stolen coffee?”

The basic scenario came together when I went over to the bookstore to look around while drinking my replacement mocha. I wrote out the basic scenario on a notepad when I got back to the car. The notepad later became a 1,000-word short story. The Macguffin was the fifth magazine where I submitted the story. I ended up writing the perfect story for the perfect magazine without ever thinking about either one.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

When East Shot West

I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation, where the civil defense sirens went off every Friday morning and everyone ducked underneath their desks at school.  The Cold War was a simpler time.  You knew which of the world governments was either black or white, and only the spies worked in the gray.  Unlike today’s War on Terror where civilians and terrorists are either black or white, and the world governments work in the gray.

The New York Times wrote about a West German police officer being paid by the East German secret police when he shot and killed a protester in 1967 that set off the protest movement that would transform the West Germany government into a better democracy.  There’s no evidence that the shooting was ordered by the East German government or that the police officer was an agent provocateur hired to disrupt the West German government from the inside.  The officer was acquitted of murder and rejoined the police force a year after the shooting.  The 81-year-old former police officer still insist today that the protester’s death was an accident and being paid by a rival spy agency doesn’t change anything.

Because what happened between the two German states during the Cold War has no practical meaning to most Americans, the article asked American readers to consider what the Kent State protest shooting or the JFK assassination would be if paid for by the Soviet Union or an Eastern block country, turning a stupid and tragic incident into something more sinister.

“It makes a hell of a difference whether John F. Kennedy was killed by just a loose cannon running around or a Secret Service agent working for the East,” said Stefan Aust, the former editor in chief of the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “I would never, never, ever have thought that this could be true.”

As a writer who wrote a post-Cold War short story, “The Uninvited Spook,” with a deep passion for cyncism and irony, I find the moral implications of this situation very intriguing.  A subtle reminder that not everything appears to be what it is supposed to be.  We are still finding out what really did happen in the Cold War a half-century ago, and who knows what we will find out about the War on Terror when the time comes.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

500 Pages!

When I finished chapter 35 of my first novel this week, I fell shy of hitting the magic 90,000 words / 500 pages mark. (My chapters have gotten shorter since I switched from writing in longhand to using a typewriter.) Ten months after I started writing the rough draft, I still have 200 pages to write over the next two months before I’m done. The ending is now in sight for this long journey to come so far.

What will happen after the rough draft gets done? Nothing.

I will forget everything about my first novel by hiding the reading copy (double spaced pages printed on orange paper to discourage editing with a red pen), taking down the sticky notes from the brainstorming poster board, and working on other projects for the next three months. When that time passes, I will spend a month evaluating the rough draft, going through all the notebooks, and putting together a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. I’ll spend the next four months creating the first draft from scratch, take a one month break, and spend another four months polishing the second draft. I should have a finished manuscript to shop around in summer 2010.

I’m looking forward to the three-month break. I just finished the vampire novella that I spent two years working on that needs polishing. When I’m done with that, I’ll drop the novella into my short story collection and shop that around. I still got two dozen short stories I’m flogging around in the slush piles. I’ll be outlining my second novel while editing my first novel.

When I decided three years ago to get serious about being a writer, I thought things would get easier after a while like the Sprint commercial that’s being shown at the movie theaters: a writer gets a phone call from his agent that a deal went through, Hollywood producers transforms his story into something else, and he gives approval over the cellphone while holding hands with his girlfriend at the car dealership. Although that commercial is about how one phone call can ruin a good thing at the movies, I got ticked off since my writing life is nothing like that. I’m still waiting for the girlfriend at the car dealership thing to happen.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.