Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Writers Notebook

I mentioned in an earlier post that I carry a notebook with me. It’s one of those cool, little black notebooks called a Moleskine:

As you’ll see if you follow the link to the Moleskine website, they are famous as the sort of notebook that “European artists and intellectuals, from Van Gogh to Henri Matisse, to … Ernest Hemingway” toted around with them.

I don’t actually write anything it—I just carry it around to plop on the table in front of me when I’m sipping my latte in coffee shops so it appears as if I’m the sort of person that would cut off his ear and give it to his girlfriend. Here, by the way, is a picture of van Gogh’s sketchbook:

And speaking of coffee shops—and possibly of nonsequiturs—here’s a shot I took in the Starbucks in the San Francisco neighborhood of Noe Valley:

As it turns out, that particular Starbucks is an important locale in Candy from Strangers, so I took the photo on another of my “walk the scene” excursions for the book.

But back to the notebook—I actually do write in it:

I put a variety of things in it, including snatches of dialog, plot ideas, similes and descriptions of interesting people, places or things. The dialog can be imagined or something I’ve actually overhead. One of my favorite entries is from a real conversation I overheard at Firecracker restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district:

I found out the names of some judges for the Webby Awards.

What for?

To lobby them.

Really? Is that a good idea?

MALE (shrugging)
Since my site is up for most spiritual, I figure it's justified.

Of course, the reason I have the notebook is to draw upon the entries when I’m writing. And if I decide to use an item from the notebook, I put a tick mark beside it so I know I’ve already put it in a novel. You can see tick marks beside two of the three items in the photo above, the first I used in Runoff, which is the novel I’m working on at present, and the second in Candy from Strangers.

Even when I don’t actually use an item, I find thumbing through the notebook can be helpful, especially when I’m suffering from a bit of writer’s block. Somehow, just reading through everything I’ve jotted down can be inspirational and I usually come up with an idea to get me back on track again.

Finding Time to Write

Several years ago, I was signing with C.J. Box at the Mysterious Galaxy table at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and he told me that he heard that only 200 authors actually make their living writing fiction in the United States.

I don’t know where C.J. got his numbers, but I’m inclined to believe him. I once calculated how much I made writing my first book and it came out to something like 12 cents an hour. (Of course, now that Bleak House Books is reissuing The Immortal Game in March, I have a chance to bump that number up a little bit.)

The consequence of my fiction financial straights, of course, is that I must work full time to support myself and my family. My “day gig” is as a software engineering manager, and it keeps me pretty busy. (If you’re interested in a little more color on my full time position, take a gander at this blog entry about a recent Eclipse Foundation meeting. Clicking on the first picture, you can see me talking with my hands in a conversation with PHP co-creator Andi Gutmans while sitting in front of my laptop. And, no, those aren’t beer bottles on the table.)

So how do I find time to write? With difficulty. I write mainly in the early morning before I go into work, and on the weekends. I’m not exactly a morning person, so I was worried when I adopted this scheme that I would find it difficult to “flip the switch” at that time of day and get immediately down to it.

It turned out that it wasn’t as hard as I expected. I do have a clear mind in the morning, and am certainly a great deal fresher than I am when I return home from work—which would have been the other alternative. Also, there’s something about the fixed (and limited) schedule that helps me to avoid dilly-dallying before I start the actual writing.

I don’t necessarily produce a ton of pages during my morning sessions. If I get one, I’m happy—and two is an absolute bonanza. Even through there’s limited output, I think the other advantage of writing most every day is that it keeps your book in the forefront of your mind and you benefit from that continual processing throughout the day. I’ve had some of my best ideas about plot while standing in the shower, driving into work, running on the treadmill, etc., and I doubt they would have come to me if I hadn’t had the recent contact with the novel.

My writing sessions on the weekend are less structured, but I can typically find at least a half day or so to devote to my book. I often end up finishing chapters during the weekend, and I try to start them during that time as well. I find it makes it easier to write in the morning if I’ve got a running start from an extended session over the weekend.

But no matter when you do it, writing is hard work. As Red Smith said, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Writing Process

I wrote an article on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye that will be published by Mystery Scene Magazine in the spring, and one of the things I talk about in the article is Chandler’s writing process: it was interesting and a little bit quirky. He wrote with a typewriter, but typed all his drafts on yellow half sheets of paper so that it would be easier to retype pages when he made revisions.

Loren D. Estleman’s process could probably also be categorized as interesting/quirky. He still uses a manual typewriter, and is an avid collector of and expert on manual typewriters. In fact, I sent him a signed copy of the “Riordan’s Desk” photograph used as the graphic at the top of this blog as a sort of thank you for providing a blurb for my first book, and he was able to identify the make, model and year even though the manufacturer’s name is covered in the photo.

My writing process is probably not as interesting as Chandler’s or Estleman’s (because, frankly, I’ll probably never be as interesting as them period), but it is a little quirky. Since I’m giving a sort of soup-to-nuts description of the creation of my forthcoming book, Candy from Strangers, I thought I’d describe it in this post.

I don’t compose on a manual typewriter, but I don’t use Microsoft Word either. I use an Adobe package called FrameMaker. FrameMaker is a high-end technical writing tool that’s commonly used in the software and other high tech industries to do product manuals. I started using it because I was exposed to it in my full time job as a software engineering manager, and grew to like it because of its power and extra capabilities. I liked it so much, in fact, that I bought the company ...

No, just kidding. I liked it so much that I contacted Adobe and they ended up doing a case study about my writing The Immortal Game with it. (The case study also provided me with a bit of free publicity, so I’ll come back to this when I talk about creative marketing for novels in a later posting.)

FrameMaker runs on Windows and Unix. I currently use the Windows version of the program, but when I wrote The Immortal Game, I actually used one of the early Unix workstations from Sun. I suspect my novel is the first and only to be produced on a Sun Sparc 1, famous for their “pizza box” design.

Here’s a picture of a typical page showing the double-spaced format I use for each chapter:

I put all completed chapters for a first draft in a notebook like this:

At the front of the notebook is a table of contents that I update as I go. I fill in the title and word count for each chapter that I complete—and then I tally up a running total of words for the book to that point. I never have a target word count for a book, so there’s no real point to the tally except to satisfy my curiosity about how many words I’ve written. Here’s what that looks like:

Once I complete a chapter, I send it out to my writers’ group for critique. And when I get the annotated copies back, I file them away in a “banker’s box,” organized by chapter:

Then, when I start the rewriting process, I go chapter-by-chapter pulling the annotated copies from the box to guide me as I work on the rewrite.

I’ll talk more about finding time to write, what I try to accomplish in a single session of writing, writers’ groups and the process of rewriting in later posts, but the foregoing provides a pretty good sketch of the high level process I use to pull together a book.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Notes from a Location

In my last post, I mentioned that San Francisco’s Haight district figures prominently in Candy from Strangers because of the large number of tattoo parlors in the neighborhood, and I shared some of the pictures I took of the parlors as part of my research.

I also take notes when I “walk a scene” before writing about it and I thought it might be interesting to look at the notes from my tour of the Haight.

The notes I take tend to be terse catalogs of the things, people and activities I see on the street as I walk around, and are intended more to jog my memory about what I’ve observed than they are to be complete descriptions that I can copy into the novel.

They also tend to be written on whatever paper is at hand because I don’t like to clutter up my “official” writers notebook (which I will discuss in future post) with lots of detailed notes about locations—and I don’t always plan very well when it comes to securing writing material before I go!

As it happens, the notes I took about the Haight are written on the back and front of a Mollie Stone’s grocery receipt dated 5/20/04, as shown below:

And here’s the bulleted list of things I scribbled down on the receipt as I went around:

  • Tibetan jewelry store
  • Falafel restaurant
  • Head shop
  • Vintage clothing store
  • Camouflage pants made into cut-off shorts
  • The Red Victorian (a movie theater)
  • Natural foods store
  • Skull painted red with mouth open holding business cards (in the reception area for a tattoo parlor)
  • Cases of studs (in another parlor)
  • Import store
  • Military surplus store
  • Mendel's Art Supplies (open since 1968)
  • Music store with guitar and bass in the window
  • Skateboarder going down the sidewalk oblivious of others
  • Club Deluxe (an interesting bar)
  • Giant pair of legs with fishnet stockings in front of boutique (see photo below)
  • Discount fabrics
  • Low partitions; articulated lamps at each station (inside a tattoo parlor)
  • Metallic buzzing of tattoo gun
  • Workers removing a giant skull and cross bones from the front of a store (Anubis)
  • Sign with a pirate tattooing a naked lady (see photo from this post)
  • Magazines for sale in parlor
  • Sandwich sign with pierced heart on one side and skull with candle on top on the other
  • Haight Ashbury free medical clinic
  • Shrines to Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin in staked tree planters covered with plastic
So how much of this local color actually made it into the novel in a recognizable form? A lot of the description of tattoo parlor interiors did, including the rather unique business card holder I found in one of them (the skull mentioned above). I also gave a general description of the sort of businesses one sees along the street, and I ended up dressing an important character from the scene (the owner of one tattoo parlor) in the shorts made from cut-off camouflage pants I saw on one of the local denizens.

The other thing the notes helped me do was hold the general atmosphere of the Haight in my mind as I wrote the scene, which is also very important, even if I didn’t shoehorn all the literal details I captured into the text.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Your San Francisco Tattoo Guide

As my private eye protagonist August Riordan says in Candy from Strangers, “If you want to be tattooed, pierced or otherwise manipulated in San Francisco, you’ll do best to head to one of four parts of town: North Beach, the Mission, the Castro or the Haight.”

Tattoos, piercing and tattoo parlors figure prominently in the book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s my habit to “walk the scene” and get familiar with the locations I include in my novels, often taking photographs and notes to refer to later when I sit down to do the actual writing.

Here is a photograph of a parlor located in San Francisco’s Mission district:

Note the sample tattoo designs displayed on the walls of the parlor. I learned during my research that those samples are referred to in the biz as “flash”.

And here’s one from the Castro:

It seemed to me that piercing was more prominently featured in the signs for the parlors in the Castro, but that may have been an accident of my (unscientific) data sampling.

There weren’t as many parlors in North Beach, so I didn’t bother to take any pictures there. However, the Haight is chock full of them. There are so many, in fact, that I decided to set a key scene involving a tattoo parlor in the neighborhood. Here are some pics of the parlors I found on Haight Street near the famous intersection with Ashbury:

You may wonder if my research into tattoos included getting one myself. The answer is no—I’m too big a chicken—but in the annual “secret Santa” gift exchange we do in my writers group (all gifts given to a writer must relate to something in their work), I was the recipient of many a temporary tattoo and even a temporary nose stud!

Maybe I’ll don the nose stud to get into the mood for book signings on the upcoming Candy tour … or maybe not.