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Creative Process, Editing, Nanowrimo, Publishing, Uncategorized, Writing

“This Might Suck”: My Interview with Dr. Adam Booker

One question I see posted in a lot in writer forums, but especially during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is: how do I keep going when I know this is terrible? I know I struggle with this question constantly in the drafting phase, and it made me think of my brother, Dr. Adam Booker, and his work as a professional jazz musician. Adam and I grew up surrounded by jazz musicians, and we learned at a very early age that no matter what, no matter how godawful something might be, you can’t stop in a middle of a song if things aren’t going well. The show must go on, as they say, and it’s a principle I’ve applied to my writing. Keep going, keep moving forward no matter what. This is nice in theory, but how does this actually work in practice?

I sat down with my brother this week for an interview because I wanted to ask him about the creative processes he uses in delivering a jazz solo. I’ve provided the full interview at the end of this post, but in case you don’t have an hour to burn (because you should be writing!), I’ll run through the best parts.

As my brother explains, a jazz song allows for a section, generally within the middle, for a solo. This is where a musician steps forward and plays…well? Whatever they want, but with some stipulations. In the first sentence of his syllabus, Adam explains that improvisation is not “just making stuff up as you go along,” but it entails taking “harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic material and reworking it.” This is a lot like writing where we take the basic building blocks of language (nouns, verbs, subjects, predicates, etc.) and try to say something new and fresh. Adam contends, though, that he’s not necessarily as concerned with saying something new, but saying something cogent. To me, this was a good point about writing because I know when I started my first draft, I wrote all sorts of bizarre, chunky, clunky word vomit in an effort to say something “different” when I really should have been focusing on clear storytelling. In fact, the fundamental feedback for my novel I had to take forward for my R&R was that I needed to cut down on the purple prose. Too many notes, as it were. And when I slashed and burned the adjectives, a much clearer story and voice came through the pages.

But for Adam, a part of finding that clarity in his solo work involved literally transcribing dozens of solos by famous bass artists such as Charles Mingus. By doing this, he understood not just the technical choices these artists made, but the artistic choices as well. He talks about, too, the importance of mentorship in his early years in San Antonio with the band Small World who allowed him to take the stage…and fall flat on his face. Today, so many young people are afraid to experiment and take risks, but this is the only way to figure out what works.

A highlight of the interview for me comes at 18:20 where Adam discusses what goes through his mind during a solo. There’s a pretty funny moment here where he discusses thinking about Star Wars during a solo, but what he gets at is very important. In a solo, he’s not trying to tell the whole Star Wars saga, but to describe a moment between Han and Leia or how an Ewok smells. He says as artists, we need to draw from those elemental things: the color of his wife’s eyes, his dog running around the house. He states, “If you spend too much time trying to tell the whole story, you’re going to lose your audience.” I think this is a wonderful point for authors in the drafting process. Writing a novel can feel so overwhelming, so in those moments of complete overload, it’s good to, as Adam states, “focus in on that one thing and dive in.”

But what do we do when you start out saying, “I’m going to perform a solo about my wife’s eyes,” and it is just not working? He says we then rely on hard work and technique. “We can’t rely on emotions all the time,” he says, and while sometimes we might experience that flash of brilliance where the muse takes over our bodies and everything is perfect, “most of the time it’s technique.” To me, this is a key point in the interview. I think when writers sit down to write, we want that heady, feverish feeling where everything falls into place and we find that elusive and poetic voice we’ve been searching for, but this expectation isn’t sustainable for a novelist. For me, most nights are just putting the words down on the page, throwing down cliche dialogue and derivative plots–not because I’m a terrible writer, but because I need things to fall back on in my drafts in order to move forward. When I get stuck, I ask myself, “What would JK Rowling do?” Which is basically asking, “What story fundamentals have worked in the past? What’s going to float me while I draft this novel and figure out what I actually want to say?” I spent a great deal of last year editing out a plot point that felt vaguely familiar to a bestselling novel, and I’m not ashamed of that.  It was a tried and true story line that I could rely on until I developed something different, and I did! I see a lot of writers quit in the middle of NaNo because they think, “This sounds too much like Twilight” or “this sounds too much like The Hunger Games.” For one, good on you for recognizing the funny ways our subconscious works. And two, who cares? Keep going. I can almost guarantee that in your later drafts, you’re going to edit that out and come up with something really genuine and original.

Which I think brings us to another good point Adam made: “If you are practicing and it sounds good, you have ceased practicing…you are no longer working on anything.” I know for myself, when I first started NaNo, I was shocked at how horribly bad my writing was. As someone who studied literature, I assumed that I would have no problem composing gorgeous prose. Wrong. WRONG. But the point is, it’s supposed to be terrible. If your writing isn’t terrible, you’re probably not pushing yourself creatively (or you’re delusional). As Adam discusses in the interview, the idea of the “artistic genius” is an expectation that non-artists place on us. And so when we struggle, we think there’s something wrong with us, that maybe we’re not cut out for this. But any real musician or writer who has worked professionally in their field knows that to put out an album or write a novel is  a shit ton of work and it doesn’t come easy. It is a struggle from beginning to end. A worthwhile, exhilarating, inspiring struggle. But a struggle, nonetheless.

For me the high point of the interview comes at 39:00 where we discuss our doubts and insecurities in the creative process. For Adam, he’s had to cultivate a “general acceptance that it isn’t always going to be perfect.” He feels it’s important for artists to recognize “things are what they are.” When he walks onto the bandstand, he has to accept that “this might suck” and be absolutely okay with that. I feel like too often we turn away from creative endeavors at the first sign of sucknitude, and that for many of us, we can’t arrive at a place where we can accept that something might be unsuccessful. When I started my NaNo novel in 2013, I was at a low point in my career and felt I had nothing else to lose. All my hopes of a tenure-track job had been dashed because of budget cuts, and I thought…”Why not write a novel? It might suck. It probably will suck. But it could be fun.” Fast forward two years later…in any case, I think the acceptance that “this might suck” was key for me and it seems to be for my brother as well.

At the end of the interview, I ask Adam what advice he would give to the first-time NaNo writer stuck in the middle of a story and not sure of where to go next. He said point blank, “Keep going or quit.” While it may not be the raucous cheer leading ra-ra we like to hear, I think it’s truly what is fundamental for being a successful artist in any field. I’m not the most talented writer I know, but I’m the writer who keeps going no matter what, no matter how bad things get. Adam stresses fundamentals and says, “Think about what you can write in one minute, maybe jump to another scene, and don’t kick yourself for being stuck.” He discusses too how important it is to figure out what works well for you, what routine is going to help you get the most out of your creativity. But the point is, keep going.

Keep going NaNos!

You can find the whole interview below, but before you do…

Check out Adam Bookers’ debut CD Unravaled Rival at www.shiftingparadigmrecords.com

It’s also available on itunes!

adam cover

And check out his website for news and upcoming events.

Full Interview:

Beyonce, Editing, Feminism, Motherhood, Nanowrimo, Writing

I Woke Up Like This: On Not Paying the “Pretty Rent” as a Woman Writer

I once heard that the best thing that ever happened to novelist George Eliot’s writing was her choosing to live with philosopher George Lewes, a married man unable to divorce his estranged wife. By following this unconventional path, George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) banned herself from polite society, but freed her social schedule up enormously. I recall hearing similar things about women and hypochondria in the 19th century. “Illness” freed women writers, such as Emily Dickinson, to pursue their literary passions in peace. Devoid of the lengthy toilettes and endless calls required of the nineteenth-century female bourgeoisie, these women could hang out in their dressing gowns (our modern equivalent of yoga pants) and write to their hearts’ content.

There’s a meme that I’ve seen posted on facebook a few times, and it really hit home for me this week. It’s from Erin McKean, and she states, “You don’t owe prettiness to anyone…Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” In other words, we don’t owe it to the world to look good, and we are not required by any law in the universe to spend an ounce of time, money, or energy on this elusive concept called “pretty.”

Now I know what you’re doing right now. You’re eyes are drifting over to that profile pic with my hair all curled and my makeup done just right. I won’t deny it. I love pretty things: dresses, makeup, sparkly tiaras. I find a great deal of joy in dressing up and looking nice, but the thing is, I don’t love it more than writing.

When I taught at a brick and mortar campus, I was required to dress up every day, but now that I teach online, all bets (and heels) are off. One of the bonuses of working at home is that I can wear sweats 24/7 without impunity, and with the daily beauty rituals gone, I get to spend a lot more time writing. So much more time writing!

But the “pretty rent” was hard for me to give up in the beginning. In our culture, the shlumpy yoga pant wearing mom has been a huge butt of a walking joke for talk show and “what to wear” hosts. I’ve seen episodes of Oprah where she’ll reel some “secret footage” with the mom coming out of a car dressed in sweats and the whole audience will groan. Oh, you terrible woman and your comfortable lounge wear! How dare you not put on real pants! For months, when I opted to wear pajamas to drop my kids off at school, I heard the shrill voice of one of those fashion hosts in the back of my mind. “Oh, she’s really let herself go.” I still put my hoodie up when I drop off my preschooler (as if no one recognizes me at this point, haha!).

But the thing is, no one would look twice at my husband if he showed up to drop off the kids in sweats and a messy bun with no makeup (he doesn’t wear makeup, btw. Just making a point here). And that’s what George Eliot and Emily Dickenson knew way back when. Insane beauty rituals cut into artistic productivity. As a writer, “pretty rent” has a huge price. I often stay up late to write and edit, so that’s why getting up and making myself look respectable feels like a lot more trouble than it’s worth. I also have a very brief window in the afternoon to write before I pick up the kids and the domestic grind begins all over again. A 20 minute shower may not mean a lot to most people, but I can write 700 words in 20 minutes. Add that up over five days and that’s a whole lot of words. It matters.

When I started writing seriously two years ago during NaNoWriMo, I had to say no to a lot of things. Over the course of that month, I came to understand how much of my life was consumed with pleasing others and this included making sure I paid my “pretty rent.” I’m out of that slum now. Maybe a secret camera will catch me one day un-showered in a hoodie and yoga pants and all that live studio audience will see is a sad, worn-out mom who’s lost her fashion sense.

But when I see myself, I see…well, a worn-out mom, yes. But I also see a woman who met her word count goals and is well on her way to becoming a NYT bestselling novelist.

Editing, Nanowrimo, Writing

10 Things I Wish I Had Known Before NaNoWriMo

When I started NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) on November 1st, 2013, I had no earthly idea what I was doing. Burnt out from finishing my PhD and working the adjunct labor circuit, I thought the month of November would give me a nice respite, a “break,” from the grind of academic output. Write a novel, they said…it will be fun, they said. And it was fun. It IS fun. NaNo was truly one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. But when the dust settled and I finished my first novel, there were so many things I wish I had known about writing, the writing community, and the conditions for writing. So I’ve collected here ten things I wish I knew before NaNoWriMo. Bear in mind, this advice might not pertain to you or to anyone else’s writing process or experience. I’m not the one writing that Donald Trump/Jabba the Hutt erotica thriller (and maybe you shouldn’t be either). But I do hope my experience helps in some way.

  1. Your Character Needs a Goal. When I first started my novel, I had nothing but a character and an image in my head. After several revisions, I came to understand my protagonist’s goals and through that understanding, my plot sparked to life. It wasn’t enough for my character to wander through this clever world I had created. That was boring. She needed to want something. She needed something to fight for. Now, whenever I start a new book, I think very carefully about what my character needs on a macro and micro level, and I consider her material needs (maybe it’s to get her family’s land back or find her mother’s killer) and also her emotional needs (to liberate herself from her overbearing father or to be at peace with who she is). While sometimes the character’s goals change or deepen over the course of a draft, I would never start a new project without this essential component.
  2. Your Character Needs a Conflict. Ok, so your character wants something, but if you make it easy for your character to obtain that goal, it’s, well, boring. If everything comes simply for your protagonist, there’s no point in telling that story. Who or what is standing in your hero’s way? What is keeping her from getting what she wants? You need a baddie. Even if that baddie is the demons of your character’s past or her drug addiction, it has to keep her from what she wants.
  3. Your Character Needs Something at Stake. When I taught comp and students would ask me how to conclude their essays, I would always say, “Try to answer the ‘so what?’ question.” Why should we end the death penalty or legalize marijuana? So what? What’s at stake? This is a question I try to answer for every new project. So what if my character never finds her mother’s killer? What’s at stake for her? What’s going to happen to my main character if she doesn’t achieve her goal? And most importantly, why should my readers care? There was a time, not too long ago, when buying a book, a $12 book, was a major financial sacrifice for me. There was nothing worse than throwing down that cash and then finding myself in the middle of a book and just…not caring. Readers crave emotional connection. It’s why people like me with vulnerability issues read in the first place! We want to feel something in those 300 pages.
  4. Get Rid of “To Be” Verbs and Passive Voice. Excuse me while I get technical for a minute, but I’m going to save you a lot of time later. Now, we’ve all heard the importance of active voice, how it’s vital to write the boy hit the ball (active voice) and not the ball was hit by the boy (passive). But man, was I surprised when a much more seasoned beta reader looked at my first chapter and highlighted what felt like a hundred “to be” verbs (am, are, is, be, been, being, were, was). These words are the devil! They are empty and useless. One or two on a page isn’t the worst, but do yourself a favor. Write a few pages of your NaNo project today. I won’t tell anyone you cheated. Just write like no one’s watching. Write what you feel. Let the words pour out of you. Then go back and highlight your to be verbs. Practice changing your sentences around to get those little demons out of there. It will take a while to get the hang of it, but you will save yourself and your future betas a lot of grief down the road.
  5. Cut out the Filtering. What is filtering? Filtering happens when we create a barrier between the reader and what the character is feeling, tasting, seeing, hearing, etc.

    Examples of Filtering:
    I saw the boy ran down the stairs, and I heard his footsteps pounding on the pavement.

    You’re thinking to yourself, what a horrible sentence! Why would anyone write that? I have no idea. I’m currently editing a draft of a book I wrote in early 2014, and I ask myself that question about filtering all the time. Generally, filtering requires an easy fix.

    No Filtering:
    The boy ran down the stairs, his footsteps pounding on the pavement.But sometimes filtering can sneak in there when you’ve had a few extra glasses of wine and your prose starts to get purple-y.

    I felt his velvet skin across mine. (I write romance, okay?)

    But you can also say,

    His velvet skin moved across mine.

    (New blog post idea, “Why You Should Never Write ‘Velvet Skin Ever.’ Like, Just Don’t Do It.”).

  6. Learn How to Use Dialogue Tags. So this is very embarrassing for me to admit. I have a PhD in Literature, which means I’ve read A SHIT TON of books (that’s an actual academic benchmark, BTW). I’ve read ALL the books, from Chaucer to Toni Morrison, but OMFG I never noticed how writers do dialogue tags. I had a very polite beta reader point out to me how I didn’t have to use “said” after every freaking line of dialogue. So embarrassing, guys! But if you haven’t started NaNo yet, this is definitely something to practice.

    So instead of…

    “You’re such a moron,” Jenna said. “How could you not know how to use dialogue tags effectively?”

    Try…
    “You’re such a moron.” Jenna sighed and walked over to Colleen’s bookshelf, her hands dancing over the spines of   500 years of great literature. “How could you not know how to use dialogue tags effectively?”

    (Just kidding, Jenna, my beta reader, who also designed this fabulous website, would never call me a moron. She’s super nice).If you’re new to this approach, definitely check out The Emotion Thesaurus. It will help keep your characters moving around and behaving like real people as they’re talking to each other. And also, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in one or two “saids” now and again. But definitely don’t overdo it like I did.

  7. Find Your Writing Tribe. Are you on twitter? Facebook? Have you joined the NaNo forums? Have you gone to a local NaNo meetup? No? Are you crazy? In our culture we love to romanticize the myth of the lone artist, but that is such bullshit. Yes, writing is a solo art, but as much as I love my “me time” with my words and imaginary friends, I have found that I need my writing community. I need them for support, for understanding, for ideas and advice. I need them to help talk me off a ledge when I’m ready to hit Ctrl+A and delete everything, and I need them to celebrate my word count goals and accomplishments.

    Example:
    Me: Hey, honey! I wrote 1K words today!
    Husband: That’s great, what’s for dinner?

    Me: Hey, writing community, I wrote 1K words today!
    Writing Community: OMFG THAT’S GREAT! YOU’RE AMAZING! YOU’RE THE NEXT JK ROWLING! YOU’RE FUCKING KILLING IT! WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

    Don’t get me wrong, my husband is the most supportive partner I could ever ask for in life. He’s my biggest fan and champion, but he’s not a writer. He can’t understand what it takes sometimes to write those 1K words. You will need people around you who are going through something similar and can offer you encouragement even in your darkest hours.

  8. Write in Sprints! What are sprints? Sprints are short increments of time where you find a writing partner and you race to write as many words as you can. Whoever has the most words at the end, wins. But everyone wins because you’re writing! Get it? My writing partners and I tend to write in 20 minute sprints. Sprints are great for people who suffer from a slight social media addiction (me) or have very tight schedules (also me). I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I wrote my last two novels in 20 minute sprints. When I first started sprinting, I could write about 200 words in 20 minutes. Now, after two years, I average about 400-700 depending on the scene. No matter how much you write, all those words will definitely add up.
  9. Set Up a Writing Schedule and Stick to It. When I first started NaNo, I generally wrote during my lunch break and after my kids went to bed. After a week of frustrations, I realized how much I allowed the world eat away at my very meager personal time. I had to make sure I closed my door to my office during lunch lest a chatty colleague wandered by, and I had to be very strict with my husband about making sure he stuck to the bedtime routine. I still am very militant about writing time, but that’s what it takes. And this brings me to my final piece of advice…
  10. Communicate to Your Family and Friends about What You’re Doing and Why You’re Doing It. Starting a novel was by far the bravest thing I’ve ever done, primarily because I felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about it. I already had a career, and writing romance felt silly. Childish. I didn’t tell a lot of people at first, or if I did, I made a lot of self-deprecating comments about it. In other words, I didn’t take myself seriously. I, Colleen Halverson, am giving you permission to take yourself and your writing seriously. If you have a story inside you, that is special. That is meaningful. It is worth honoring. Tell your friends and family what you’re undertaking. Explain to them what kinds of sacrifices it might mean for you and for them. Explain your needs in very specific terms. For me, it meant my husband taking on a few extra chores and minding the kids on weekends so I could write (see, I told you he’s supportive!). Most importantly, tell them what it means to you to try at NaNo, to give your story everything you have in order to put it out into the world. Explain to them how accomplished you’ll feel even if you only make part way to your goal. When I started NaNo, I could never have imagined that one day Entangled would pick up my story for publication. It still seems impossible, but the NaNo tagline resonated with something deep inside me: “Because the World Needs Your Novel.” The world needs your novel, too. This is your chance. Take it.