Ironing Shirts & Writing Novels. What’s the Difference?

I bought a new shirt. It came in a box cause that’s how shirt’s are made these days, right?

It didn’t fit. I sent it back. Didn’t even need a box cause that’s how shipping is done these days, right?

I ordered another shirt. It fit great. I liked it. But it was cottony and wrinkly and I couldn’t go out into public looking like a wrinkled grape. Cause that’s how people think these days, right?

But I decided that the only way to iron out these difficulties was to, indeed, pull out my iron. So I plugged it in and heated it up. I pressed one side smooth only to realize I creased the underside because, obviously, I don’t know how to iron properly.

But I tried anyways, and one ironed-out crease led to two more creases which needed ironing out. It could have been frustrating if I would have been paying attention. But I keep looking at my shirt and thinking how nice it will be when it’s finished. Being ironed out. Which I certainly didn’t know how to do.

But being me, that never stopped me, the not knowing how to do something, that is.

So I pressed on.

And little by little my shirt started to look smooth. Those darn little collars were a beast. And around the buttons were a pain. And I still couldn’t figure out how to reach all those little shoulder spots without creating a new crease underneath. I mean, why does the fabric flip on top of each other like an unwieldy plot hole?

I worked and I learned and by the end of the my ironing session, I was satisfied with the end product and placed it aside. Not carefully, mind you. No, that would have been the smart move. I placed it aside in a clump until I realized I created new wrinkles. Clumping does that.

I put it back on the board and fixed those, and, with a stroke of luck and genius, I hung it on a door knob. Brilliant. No more wrinkles.

Later that morning, I put on my shirt. It wasn’t perfect. There were still some visible wrinkles, but I thought I looked good, and I was proud of the effort. I could have just thrown it on right out of the box, but I took my time and did it the right way–the best I knew how. Next time, my ironing will be much better, even if my shirt arrives in a box.

As I reflected on my ironing experience, I thought, isn’t this exactly the same as writing a novel?

Yes, yes, it is because there are only two ways to do things in this world: you either learn through experience how to best to iron-out all those unsightly creases in your plot line, or you just throw it on right out of the box and pretend everything you do is automatically amazing.

Writers, plug in your irons.

Setting: Real or Fictitious?

Choosing a setting for a novel isn’t always an easy task.  A writer friend advised me once to chose a fictitious setting for one of my novels, and she was absolutely right. In that case. The advantages of choosing a fictitious setting are many. Such as:

  1. The writer can make it look and feel however he or she wants.
  2.  There are no preconceived notions in a made-up setting.
  3.  It encourages the reader to use their imaginations much more to create the landscapes and sights and sounds of the locale.
  4. No one can say you got it wrong! Let’s face it, if you use a real location and aren’t really specific about it, mistakes can be made. Readers don’t like to read something incorrect about their hometown. I know, I’ve heard from one before when I misspelled a city’s name. Oops. Yes, embarrassing!

On the flip side, real setting can:

  1. Ground a story in historical details which might be crucial to the point you are trying to make.
  2. Enables the readers to readily identify with a scene. For example, if you put your story in Manhattan, everyone can easily imagine what it looks like even if they haven’t been there.
  3. Readers can be attracted to storylines which take place in their backyard or their home country.

As you might imagine, there’s no right or wrong answer about picking a setting. You just need to determine if a real location will make the story more effective or not.  My novels about Vietnam – The Reach of the Banyan Tree  & Beauty Rising absolutely depend upon the stories taking place in Vietnam. They are strongly mixed with history and real places and people that putting them in a fictitious setting would completely defeat their purpose and water them down to nothing.

However, my novel A Love Story for a Nation is set in an unnamed country. I did this on purpose as the story centers around one man’s struggle for freedom in a country under a dictatorship. These common themes can be seen in many countries around the world and it did not need to be specified. I remember one of my reviewers was confused at first because she couldn’t figure out where the story took place until she commented that it could have taken place anywhere. Yes, that’s the point.

In my other novel Which Half David I was playing a lot off of my southeast Asian experiences in creating a diverse culture that was a mix of many of the places I had lived and visited. So I decided to create a brand new island nation that would be a cross-section of those places. I think it worked well. I’ve seen this also in one of my favorite novels The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It’s setting is the country of Sarkhan which is a mix of Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Sarkhan mimicked the post-WWII Vietnam history but the language and culture of Sarkhan was closer to that of Thailand.

As I’m starting writing my next novel – first two chapters finished – this topic has reared its head again because I still haven’t decided how to set this novel. I think it will end up being set in Malaysia. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.

So, think it through and get it right! Then commit to the setting with all you got.

Writing Collaborations: What’s the Goal?

This weekend, I’ve been collaborating on a short play writing project with one of my students. We have a finished draft on a fun and meaningful script which I plan on using in my new show coming up in April.

It’s been a while since I’ve collaborated with students on a creative writing piece. I used to do it all the time. In fact, these type of collaborations are what kick-started my writing career. I have many students to thank, because they helped me to just write and put my work out there.

This weekend, I’m writing with a student who has never written a play before. She came up with the idea for the play and I helped to formulate it into scenes. We each took different scenes to write and then there’s the process of combining them together, editing, adding new ideas, and the general non-stop revisions which are needed. I’m excited to see the final product of this script.

This endeavor got me thinking: what’s the goal of this type of writing collaboration? A new writer with an experienced writer.

Here’s how I approach it. I, first, want the idea to originate with the new writer. I wanted her to have ownership in the process because I know how I can be: I get an idea and I can’t stop until it’s done. This allows a new writer to catch-up to my overbearingness, so to speak.

The new writers are typically reluctant to edit my work. That’s understandable, but I want to make it clear that there is no hierarchy in this collaboration. There’s only one goal: write a quality piece. That’s it.

That means that I will edit the new writer’s scenes thoroughly. I’ll make additions. Suggestions. Give feedback. Get feedback. And, invariably, the new writer comes back with “yes, yes, yes, that’s so much better. yes.” I’m not a better writer than they are. I just have more experience. I’ve also produced 25 shows. I know visually how the dialogue will look on-stage.  I know what will work, what will sound authentic, and what won’t.

My goal is for the new writer to see my entire process and, hopefully, learn from it. Then they get their name as a co-writer in the playbill which is always fun. And, if they act, which they almost always do, I let them star in their own play if they so choose.

What’s important in the process, at least for me, is not to settle for less quality because a writer is new. I will push them, I will encourage them, I will ruthlessly edit their stuff in order to make the piece better. An okay piece will not be acceptable to me if it can be a great piece, because I’m putting my name on it as well.

I guess what I’m saying is: don’t dumb it down. Keep the standard high.

I had a past school principal who said that the lost practice of kids and parents eating supper together every night has hurt the kids’ development. They need to hear adult conversations. They need to be able to ask questions. Wonder what that word means. It’s one of the ways they grow and learn.

This is exactly how I view writing collaborations with students. I hope my intent is reached with this one.

This is going to be a good play. It’s entitled: “Why Leaves Change Color.”

Do You Have Writing Goals?

There is no better proof of being a writer than writing, and writing, and writing some more. I’ve met a lot of people in my years who have indicated that they wanted to write a book, or they have ideas for a book, or they have written one book, or they have started a hundred books. All of those are good in and of themselves, but for me, being a writer means producing varied works over a long period of time. It’s a daily task whether or not any digital pages have been written. It’s an all-encompassing passion which you cannot escape, literally, ever single day of your life. Writers do not become writers on a whim or because they finally finished their manuscript from high school. Writing requires discipline but writers don’t need to be disciplined to write because it’s a natural out-flow of who they are.

It took me many years to call myself a writer. I’m an author because I’ve published five novels. I’m a playwright because I write plays and have them produced. All of that has made me a writer. I don’t dare attach other adjectives to that moniker. I don’t consider myself a good writer or a great writer or an average writer or a poor writer. I’m simply a writer. Adjectives get attached to writers by critics and readers. I can’t control which adjective a reader attaches to my name, I can only control what I type on my blank screen. That’s it.

So it’s best not to think in terms of whether something is good or bad or just plain silly. In my view, a writer should think in terms of goals, long-term and short-term, and work towards accomplishing those goals. If you do that and put everything you have into your creativity, you’re a success, regardless of the adjectives plopped in front of your name.

When I just started out pursuing writing as something more than a passing whim, I recall telling myself that I wanted to write a novel a year for seven years and then see where I am at that point.  Well, I’m happy to announce that today, during my afternoon writing session, I completed my seventh novel. Seven novels in seven years. This on top of a regular job, family, and a myriad of other writing projects I’ve taken up over the years. I’ve done what I’ve set out to do and that, in fact, feels good. But achieving this goal is not the end by any means. I can’t wait until I hit double digits in novels written. Where will it end? Could I hit 20 novels written by the end of the next 10 years?

Who knows?

You don’t have to meet every goal, but they help you determine if you are actually serious about this writing gig or not.

I am. I have goals which I’m never going to stop shooting for.

What are yours?

Going for a Trilogy

My, the consummate stand-alone novel guy, is going for a trilogy.  I mentioned a while back that I was wading into virgin territory by starting a sequel to my finished yet unpublished novel “A  Man too Old for a Place too Far.” As I’ve been working on the sequel, the stories line just keep ballooning and advancing in unexpected ways. Finally, today, I realized that there is no way I’m going to wrap up this story by the end of the second novel, but a third, yes, can be done. Probably should be done. I don’t want to drag it out indefinitely. I do like closure. That’s why I write standalones.

But in this one, I fleshed out 6 weaving story lines. Does that sound like a lot? Perhaps. But they are all interconnected in unique and fun ways. It will be a pleasure to see how they overlap and tie up in a beautifully satisfying bow at the end of book three. That’s the goal, at least.

And that brings me to outlining. I’ve never outlined before, but with overlapping story lines and three novels, it is starting to feel more nature. I have, at least at this point, figured out the very ending of the trilogy. That’s where I want to go. It could change, of course, but it gives me a clear goal to get to. Now it is just one big puzzle with many moving parts and I have to put the Rubik’s cube back together again. At least this is the cube that I created. I have the playbook. So there!

It’s also a reason why I slowed down the release of Book 1. I want to make sure I have all three books well thought-out before I release the first and regret it later because of a great new idea.

So the first Sasse trilogy is in the mix. It’s a tough genre to describe. Historical fiction, contemporary adventure, time travel, magical realism. And go ahead, throw in a few more.

I asked one of my beta readers of book 1 how he would categorize it. He said that that is a good question, and unfortunately, there were no good answers.

My goal would be to have the trilogy completely written by the end of 2017. First book published by summer’s end with books 2 & 3 coming along in 2018.

Now let’s see what really happens.

Open Submission … (if, if, if …)

I’m currently looking to expand the reach of some of my plays which I admittedly have done very little with over the past couple of years. Researching on-line, I’ve come across some wonderful theatres and festivals who encourage new voices of the stage to submit their work. I’ve very encouraged by all of this.

At the same time, I can’t help but chuckle when I come across some supposed open submissions which have a series of asterisks after it more prominently displayed than Barry Bonds home run totals.

Here are few. Paraphrased.

  • Open Submission! We would love to see your work except we don’t want it to end in death. We have enough death in the world and want to have some feel-good stories.
  • Open Submission! But you must have a permanent residence in northeast Ohio.
  • Open Submission! If you have a literary agent.
  • Open Submission! If you live in New Jersey, Delaware, or Rhode Island.
  • Open Submission! We will not accept scripts which have guns as props.

Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it be better to call it limited submissions?

It just seems strange that the artistic community wants to shape the outcome of an artist’s endeavor – change the ending so the protagonist doesn’t die so I can send a script there – re-write a gun out of a scene so I can send a script there – move to Akron so I can send a a script there.

I just like to write. I let the stories dictate their endings. I let the characters dictate the props. I don’t let location dictate anything.

And I’m okay with that even if some people aren’t.

 

When the ‘Something’ becomes Obvious: A Writing Revelation

Nearly two years ago, as I was meeting with my drama troupe to brainstorm some ideas for out Christmas show, someone said, “Hey, why don’t we do something with the twelve days of Christmas.” I said okay, opened my laptop, started WORD, and named a document “Something of the Twelve Days of Christmas.”

The document was completely empty except for the title.

And so it sat for the past one and half years.

Until yesterday.

I was working on a musical piece for Christmas 2017, yes I work ahead, and when I finished revising some lyrics, I saved the piece and cruised quickly through the document folder. I came across some “unfinished ideas” and I saw the title “Something of the Twelve Days of Christmas.” And as I read that document title, I suddenly know what the ‘something’ was. It was obvious, plain, easy, right within sight. All I had to do was start writing.

I did.

Thirty minutes later I had fleshed out my idea and then today I nearly finished the first draft of this new piece called “The Twelve Days of Christmas Revisited.”

It’s going to be a really funny and fun piece to produce. I just find it strange that for a year and a half I didn’t know what the ‘something’ was, but yet yesterday, it was as plain as a blinking beacon on top of the Eifel Tower.

Why? Why did I know what to write yesterday but I didn’t have a clue what to write a year and a half ago when I was first presented with this idea?

I have no idea.

That’s the mystery of creativity. It rears its head unexpectedly. It cannot be summoned or ordered into the court of creativity. It bursts through the doors as it sees fit, in its own timing, at its own pace, with its own ideas.

I love that.

I don’t always love that. Sometimes I want the inspiration to rest heavily on my shoulders like Milton—a divine light from the heavens revealing its truth—but creativity is the most finicky of hobbies. The only thing a creative person can do is:

  • Attempt when the inspiration hasn’t hit.
  • Write down ideas, even vague ones.
  • Be patient.
  • Press forward with inferior ideas, hoping that one poor idea will lead to one better idea.
  • Wait some more.

If you do that, the ‘something’ will come back around. It will define itself and you’ll be in the position to write or create something meaningful. That’s all you can hope for.

Now get waiting!