How to Write After Midnight

Ha! You thought I’d open with a clever bon mot about cocaine here, didn’t you? Silly! I’m going to do that later in the post. No, first we need to talk about the best time of day to write. Simple: Any time you can. Of course, if you’re a freelancer like me, some projects require you to grind through successive hours, some can be grazed over a period of days, a paragraph here and a transitional phrase there, and some can be surveyed and then dispatched: I saw the hill of that essay, I saddled up my sentence steed, and I surmounted it, verily!

In that regard, learning how to parcel out your time when you’re working on multiple projects is a valuable skill, and one that will endear you to your clients. It has taken me a while to be able to judge how long it will take me to edit a 200-page book, write a case study or come up with an ad’s headlines, but now I’m much more comfortable about projecting (and meeting) deadlines. Until it’s second nature, it’s a good habit to track how long it takes you to work with a certain type of writing. One good method with new clients is if you’re given something lengthy to write or to edit, work on the assignment for an hour or two to see what it tastes like, and you’ll be better equipped to know when you’ll finish eating. Don’t give them your milestone schedule until you’ve snacked on the copy a bit.

Morning Becomes Electric (Coffeemaker)
Related to how much time you can or must spend on a project is what times are most suitable for for the spending. I’m a morning guy, love to get up early, coffee in bed with a magazine to start the day, and then to the computer before 7. Unless there is something truly pressing, I’ll sift through email, check out the antics of fellow Tribesters on Seth Godin’s Triiibes site, glance at the news, vomit over the news, and then begin work on whatever’s workable.

Now when I say working, I mean working with clients if I have some, or working on essays or magazine/newspaper pieces if I don’t—or a combination when everything’s clicking. I normally have a number of queries out to various editors, and also some just at the note-taking stage. Some of the material that goes into a query is boilerplate (like your writing credentials/clips and your sign-off), so if you know well the core of your proposed article, the meat of the query can be massaged (oooohh!) a bit and then quickly stitched with the boilerplate. It might take as little as 30 minutes to write an article query, so if you find a gap in your day, why not? Of course, it might take 30 months for an editor to answer your query, but we won’t address those sins here.

Back to those morning pages: I write with more focus in the morning, and with renewed focus after the afternoon coffee, but not with any real afternoon sustain. Thus, when my monitor’s eye begins to look as bloodshot as my own, I start to crank down its shade in the waning afternoon hours. Then, I’ll often do the busywork of cleaning out the inbox, boxing with the outbox, and wondering if I need botox. I’ve never been one of those types that can merrily scribble away in the evening hours. I’m both fascinated and horrified by (and middlin’ jealous of) those industrious souls who can bang out another five or six hours of writing after the five o’clock cocktail-hour bell has rung. (Though perhaps my religious adherence to that magic hour is what makes liquid all my after-hours writing resolve?)

In the Midnight Hour (Softly Snoring)
So, how to write after midnight? There is that cocaine that I was talking about earlier. But since that stuff makes me sneeze out automobile parts, I’d rather sleep. The only way I can write after midnight is to let the pinball machine of my brain zing around the bumpers and ping-ping-ping the lights while I snooze. I really have found that if you nest on a writing problem in the sunlight hours, you’ll sometimes find a fresh egg of a writing solution in the morning. Of course, that doesn’t help when you need a gross of eggs to finish a book, but it might help you realize that your main character should be named Zeke and not Arbogast.

(Oh yeah, I do keep a notepad by my bed and indeed I have jumped up to madly scribble an idea a’borning. But so often when I’ve eagerly scanned it in the morning, I see that I’ve inscribed something like “Blizzard muffins not naysayers. Harken Wheaties. Bilge, breathless, truth.”)

Better wait for that morning coffee…

Reaping (And Writing) from Other Writer’s Sowings

Yep. I wrote this whole post with this pencil, and scanned it in, just for you.

I get a daily email from Shelf Awareness (its tagline is “Daily enlightenment for the book trade”) that’s a compendium of publishing/bookstore/author news and literary tidbits of all flavors. One of my favorite sections is called Book Brahmin, where they interview authors, publishers and scruffy roustabouts of the book trade with a series of questions about what books they are currently reading and the like. Since it might be a while before Shelf Awareness gets around to me with their penetrating, nosy literary interrogation, I thought I’d prepare a little something in advance. Here are the things they ask their trembling interlocutors:

On your nightstand now:
I’m a stacker, so there’s always a tower of tomes, some of which I nibble at, some of which I doggedly hike through, and some of which I devour. There’s Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, juicy literary stuff. There’s Monterey Bay and Beyond, kind of like a historical tour guide of points of interest and attractions on California’s central coast. Also, Haunted Baseball, a sort of silly nonfiction work on ghosts and haints frequenting major and minor league stadiums—I’m a sucker for baseball books.

Providing weighty dignity to the mix is The Workshop, Seven Decades of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which is a collection of essays, stories and mismatched oddments from graduates of the country’s most prestigious academic writing program. Great stuff, but at nearly 800 pages, a wrestling match. And my newest (and oldest): Plain Facts: For Young Women on Marijuana, Narcotics, Liquor and Tobacco. It’s a 1938 publication (with chapter titles like “Maybelle the Doper” and “Are Smoking Women Attractive”) that seeks to keep our womanhood pure and simpleheaded. Er, simple hearted. Well, wholesome. (By the way, on that “Smoking Women” issue: smoking women should be extinguished, not excoriated.)

Lastly, the good ol’ Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition. Check it out sometime: you won’t believe how many ding-dang words are in there!

Favorite book when you were a child

I was nutzoid for dinosaur books as a kid, and graduated to baseball books, but one of the books that made an early impression on me for its bookish qualities was The Phantom Tollbooth. The author, Norton Juster, really let readers know just how durn fun it is to play with words, twist ’em, poke ’em and plead with them for mercy.

Your top five authors

One of those answers that might change with the lunch menu, but: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut

Book you’ve faked reading

I was one of those kids who brought paperbacks to school to tuck into my textbook while other classes were going on. Thus, every math book I was ever given, I’ve faked reading. (Two plus two? Don’t even ask.)

Book you’re an evangelist for

Well, books: Plainsong, by Kent Haruf and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Exquisite use of language and pinpoint characterizations. Several of Annie Dillard’s works also invite you to drink in the intoxications of language (and remarkable word-clusterings in a syntactical sense too).

Book you’ve bought for the cover
Probably Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s a graphic novel whose cover displays Ware’s remarkably intricate mastery of perspective and detail in a unique style. The book is beautifully rendered (and terribly sad).

Book that changed your life

There are many (I’m fickle), but one early influence was Hesse’s Siddhartha, which made a spiritual, contemplative life very appealing to a 15-year-old boy, which is something of a miracle. Even now, I admire the rhythms of its simply stated philosophical persuasions.

Favorite line from a book
Again, impossible to pin down, but this one sticks with me: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald’s last line from Gatsby. It’s a lot like Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” in its sense that our selves of the present are indelibly etched by the selves of our past.

Book you most want to read again for the first time
Huck Finn. That book gave me indescribable pleasure when I first read it (and still does, but being a virgin to it again sounds like a tantalizing joy). The richness of the language, the laugh-out-loud characters, the development of Huck and Jim’s bond, the lyrical movement down the river, rich with sensuous detail and meaningful metaphor—wow!

So, now you know. Shelf Awareness, call me anytime. Anybody else, feel free to tell me what’s on your nightstand (or hidden in your nightshirt…).

Shaving Cats with a Fountain Pen

First of all, you have to make sure that the nib of your fountain pen is VERY sharp—cats can be pretty critical of a sloppy shave. If you’re not a pen-based cat shaver yourself, you absolutely must find a specialist—a mere penknife dog-shaver or needle-nose pliers hamster-hair plucker won’t do, no matter if they have the skill basics.

I bring up the specialist notion because I was mulling over a post that my pal Jodi Kaplan put up on her blog about creatives having a niche. Jodi provides a lot of helpful links about how focusing on a business niche can refine your business and concentrate your customer base, the whys of setting up separate sites for separate niches, how to market to a niche and more.

That caused me to reflect that I not only shave cats, dogs and hamsters, but balloon animals too. My trouble is that I truly love the variety of writing a writer can do, and dabble in so many of its forms. This week, for instance, I finished a travel piece that will run in the Los Angeles Times, I am working on a 30-second radio spot for a Philadelphia restaurant, and I wrote a number of website pages of marketing copy for a company promoting its Colorado ranch properties for weddings. Love the travel writing, love radio ads, and marketing piffle for weddings? Well, there are bills to pay.

I’ve spent long years writing user manuals for software, and marketing pieces to flank the documentation. But as the Monty Python skit goes, “I don’t want to own land; I want to sing!” (Translation: I want to write fiction. So I do that too.) One of the reasons my sweetheart angled to meet me, those many years ago, was because she wanted to meet someone who wrote the back-side descriptions for the photographs on pretty notecards. Guilty. And I find the personal essay to be a potent form for persuasion, polemic or poetic meandering, so it’s a genre I return to again and again.

I’ve even been forced by a certain criminal musician/canny marketer/business-maven madman, Joel D Canfield, to write songs. Torment though it be, it was torment sweet. And then there’s the YouTube indulgence—look mom, I can make videos too!

Mr. Twain and Blatherskite
I think there is some danger in the dilution of dilettantism. But my hero, Mark Twain, wrote plays (badly), essays, poems, short stories, novels, advocacy pieces, travel articles, satire, straight journalism, handbills, speeches, jokes—and if you dip your toes into a wide reading pond, you’ll be convinced that he must have sat down and decided to write an entire book of quotations. (Twain had a cat named Blatherskite, but he probably would have procured an outside vendor for the shaving.)

I’ll have to keep mulling over how I can trim my own whiskers. Jodi, I’ll take your post to heart, but I’m not sure I want my travel-writer self to be a website away from my marketing-writer self. I like them all to be on the same page, but damn, it’s crowded.

[Note to self: write synopsis of “Convincing Your Cat to Settle for Monthly Shaving” post.]

How to Tell a Story: Get Corny!

When I recently saw that the antique Disney film Swiss Family Robinson was on the old movie channel I favor, I had to take a peek—after all, at 6 years old, I’d thrilled to its elemental (and elementary) charms at its theatrical release nearly 50 years ago. Thinking I’d only watch for a few minutes, I wanted to see if any of its hoary elements might still provoke a gasp̵—or, more likely, an unintended laugh.

Indeed, though the film is filled with Disney cheese, I gobbled the whole damn thing up, watching entranced from one cornball scene to the next. It struck me that a good story is a good story, even adorned with some fairy-tale frippery. In a nutshell, Swiss Family Robinson is the tale of a family shipwrecked on a small island, having to make a life for themselves amidst deprivation, harsh elements and direct threats.

You just have to go with the fanciful unfolding that the family (still-vibrant parents and three boys of variable ages and temperaments) is able to build a multi-level home in the jungle that would put many avant-garde designers to shame, and are able to fend off a band of murderous pirates with bombs made of coconuts, gravity-tripped logs and pit-trapped tigers—oh my!

Take Characters. Put in Situations. Add Emotions. Stir.
But the tale has what it takes. There is:

Danger and Loss – their boat and their dreams to move to a new country are dashed in a violent shipwreck scene, which they survive, only to wash up on an island populated with all kind of menacing beasts.

Discovery and Development – They work as a team to build their house, learn to scavenge for food, and explore the wilderness.

Desire and Romance – A pirate captive is freed, and he turns out to be a she, longed-for by both the oldest and middle boys, who get into a jealous (and amusing) rivalry.

Threat and Triumph – they are attacked by the pirates, and improbably vanquish them. Rescuers come, and mom and dad and most of the family decide to stay, because the life they’ve created is too good to leave.

All of this is mightily sprinkled with sentiment of the cloyingly Disneyish kind: a frightening depth of blondness in all the characters (well, they are Swiss), syrupy innocence, and some absolute absurdities: the island has pretty much every beast known to man on it, from tigers to elephants to ostriches to monkeys.

Even Cynical Bentleys Filmgoers Still Crave a Good Story
But yet, a 50-year-old movie still worked in my snide head, because the storytelling was still vivid, and it employed those paragons of story architecture: colorful (albeit one-dimensional) characters, conflict and partial resolution, add in colorful subplotting, tension, conflict and partial resolution, tension, all building to a satisfying, if sappy, denouement.

Writers, take notes (and pass the popcorn).

The Perfect Writer’s Martini

The Perfect Writer’s Martini

The perfect writer’s martini is the martini in your hand. I know, a variant of a cheap joke—but that doesn’t mean you should drink cheap martinis. I was always amazed at my parents’ liquor cabinet, because they bought the massive, Costco-sized bottles of broom-closet spirits before Costco ever put its big boxes on the landscape. The first sip ever allowed me of one of their motley martinis put my adolescent gag-reflex to yeoman use. I vowed never to drink such a molotov-cocktail concoction again.

But as most vows are made of pliant fibers, I bent. In the vow-bending, I learned that you can’t make a drinkable martini out of rubbing alcohol and reptile tears, such as my parents’ sad admixtures. Martini recipes are as controversial as health-care legislation, and as a parallel, you must take one side or the other.

I’m not speaking of whether you make a gin martini, of course. A martini is a gin martini. The philistines who advocate a vodka martini had to have been denied mother’s milk, or sunshine in the spring, or a glance at the underwear of a hoped-for love, and that suffered cruelty prompted them later in life to make woeful drinks. A vodka martini is an abomination; a flavored vodka martini is a trollop’s calliope song of tawdriness.

No, the side I’m talking about is whether you must marry, or at least flirt, with vermouth in your mix, adding a liveried footman to the big-chested general of your four-star gin. I say yes. (Though I admire the tale of Winston Churchill, who when once asked how much vermouth he would like in his martini, replied, “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”) Through resolute practice, sustained investigation and teary declarations, I doped out the perfect gin/vermouth ratio to be four to one. This calculation is also revealed by reverse magnetism on the Aurora Borealis and in the unreleased Dead Idea Scrolls of The Da Vinci code (signed edition – fine print).

Good Gin Is Not Sin
Get a good, stout gin, such as Tanqueray or Bombay, or if you’re of a more herbally tantalizing bent, try Junipero from Anchor Distilling. Ally that with a serious vermouth, such as Noilly Prat or Martini and Rossi if you must. (Both liquors should be chilled: gin in freezer; vermouth in fridge.) Ponder whether you want the James Bondian “shaken, not stirred” or the putative gin-bruising of the shaker. For me, it’s a matter of mood. I have both shaker and glass pitcher, and alternate between both. I’ve read of stir fanatics buying a specialty ice for their martinis, and using a specified number of cubes. That is zealotry that has no place in sporting drinking.

When I use the shaker (pulsating the infusion in several short plunges, and then a brief settling), I normally crush a percentage of the cubes so that there’s a few pleasant shards of ice doing the butterfly stroke on the martini’s surface. With the pitcher (stirred for 45 seconds or so in alternating circles), I detect a slightly colder result, though no more crisp (or less bruised) than the shaken. Pour into a nice, chilled martini glass of clear stemware—not one of those gigantic two-hand reservoirs seen in some boorish bars. With the pitcher, you will have to invest in a decent long-handled stirring spoon/wand and a strainer—Oxo makes a nice one.

Olives Dot All Your I’s
I prefer the standard small manzanilla olives with pimentos, though some Teddy Roosevelt-like souls will try those bulbous olives stuffed with jalapeno or even garlic. To me, you should seek your lunch outside of your glass. Three small olives will do, because after all, this is a writer’s martini: the “power of three” in writerly phrasings is acknowledged in literary circles everywhere. And why a writer’s martini at all? Because writers face daily death on the page, a loss of language, a spinning descent into fear and paralysis. A good martini is comfort for the terrors of the void and for poor punctuation.

So, pour and pleasure. It would be nice to have a companion in the room, say Nora Charles, to bat eyes with, but any comely, genial lass or laddie will do. One rule: never before breakfast. Enjoy.

[Bonus: Luis Bunuel’s martini recipe]