Writer’s Deadlines Part IV: Lists Not Only Allow Us to Foretell the Future But Track Our Progress From Past to Present


By Your Salonniere

Lists, we can drown ourselves with well-intentioned lists. Some of us may get carried away enough to make lists out of lists, where each item slowly becomes a link to a never ending chain that may shackle us.  Lists can stifle spontaneity and keep us from living in the present.

The benefit of lists though is that they make the process as transparent as possible, and transparency often serves like the spool of thread Ariadne urged Theseus to take with him as he wound his way through the labyrinth. Lists allow us not only to foretell the future but track our progress from past to present. For many of us, lists are the rungs on a ladder that help us pull ourselves out of the swamps of daydreams or mental malaise.

In a New York Times article, “A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness” John Tierney covers the work of Martin Seligman, who writes on the malaise that all of us find ourselves mucking through regularly:

To avoid that sort of malaise, Dr. Seligman recommends looking at the basic elements of well-being, identifying which ones matter most to you, setting goals and monitoring progress. Simply keeping track of how much time you spend time each daily pursuing each goal can make a difference, he says, because it’s easy to see discrepancies between your goals and what you do.

You might also start to question some of your goals and activities, the way that Dr. Seligman occasionally wonders why he spends so much time playing bridge. It’s brought him some clear achievements — including a second-place finish in the North American pairs championship — but he doesn’t pretend that bridge provides any meaning in life. He says he plays for another element of well-being, the feeling of engagement. “I go into flow playing bridge,” he writes, “but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die.”

The most empowering element of lists is they show us we always have choices. Lists demonstrate that we can prioritize how we want to live our life and how we want to spend most of our time. In the Career Advice Column from Inside Higher Education Chronicle, June 28, 2010, Kerry Ann Rockquemore advises support for summer writers who finally have some open space and time to finish their literary pursuits:

Error 5: The tasks you have set out are too complex. Take a piece of paper and pencil and map out whatever it is you need to do. When I feel overwhelmed by a big task, I write the big-overwhelming-thing on the right side of the paper and a stick figure (me) on the left side. Then I work my way backwards from the overwhelming thing to myself by asking: What are the steps that need to be accomplished to complete this? I keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until I’ve reached the tasks I can do today. It will also help you to uncover if there are aspects of a project that you don’t know how to do, so you can pinpoint areas where you will need to seek assistance.

Error 6: You can’t remember what you have to do. Make a list. Get all of the things you need to do out of your head and onto a piece of paper in one place. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, electronic, or synced with some gadget or gizmo. A note card, post-it note, or your paper planner will do fine to capture all of your to-do tasks. Start the week with a 30 minute planning meeting where you determine what needs to be done for the week and place each of those items in a specific time block in your calendar. If they don’t all fit (and they won’t), then figure it out how to delegate, delete, or renegotiate the deadlines on the least important items.

The bottom line is do it now, or it will never get done, and the best way to tackle our projects is to break them up into bite-sized tasks, which is exactly what lists do for us. They show us the itty-bitty, step-by-step climb that we assign ourselves. That climb is steep, but its not as if it hasn’t been trekked before, and those who achieve simply put one foot in front of the other, moving inch by inch. Lists shouldn’t be reserved just for New Year’s Eve Resolutions, but we should revisit where we are, reflect on where we’ve been, and revel in where we want to go next with each turn of the season and every milestone met.

Do you have any surefire strategies of using lists to get your writerly tasks accomplished? Let us know what ways and means work best for you.

New Additions to the Literary Lexicon

Automatism B by Robert Motherwell from Yale Digital Commons

automatic writing- the act of writing through trance when the writer serves as medium for otherworldly spirits. William Butler Yeats’ wife, George Hyde Lees claimed to be possessed by automatic writing. Also defined in The Guardian’s “John Gray on humanity’s quest for immortality” published January 8, 2011, where Gray defines automatic writing as “texts produced without conscious awareness in which another mind seems to be guiding the pen, which became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss and secret love.”

bricoleur and bricolage – from French meaning fiddler or tinkler, often referring to visual arts; to construct from various items and resources available at hand. Claude Leví-Strauss made this idea popular in cultural criticism and Miguel Syjuco described his writing process for Ilustrado as a bricolage, which would make him a bricoleur, meaning one who practices the art of bricolage.

concord fictions - a term coined by critic Frank Kermode, in his The Sense of an Ending, 1967, and explained by Wolfgang Iser in his “The Significance of Fictionalizing” in Anthropoetics III no. 2 (Fall 1997/Winter 1998) published by UC Irvine: “This is the point at which literary fictions diverge from the fictions of our ordinary world. The latter are assumptions, hypotheses, presuppositions and, more often than not, the basis of world views, and may be said to complement reality. Frank Kermode calls them “concord fictions”(13) because they close off something which by its very nature is open.”

docu-fiction – the filmic relative to literary journalism, this is a neologism referring to the cinematographic mix of documentary and fiction.

negative education- from Virginia Woolf’s essay “Two Women” in Moments of Being and Other Essays: “that which decrees not what you may do but what you may not do, that cramped and stifled.” In reference to Miss Emily Davies and Lady Stephens, Woolf writes of them, ‘Do they go to school? No. Do they have governesses at home? No. They have lessons and get on as they can.’ But if their positive education had stopped at a little Latin, a little history, a little housework, it would not so much have mattered”

Embrace the Robot: Making the Technology Work for You

Prometheus brought us fire and paid for it. Arguably, he was one of the first techno geeks, and, like him we all pay a price for progress, but I’m pretty sure if Prometheus had to choose between his innards plucked out of him for eternity or staying at home twiddling his thumbs in the dark, my guess would be he’d do it all over again.

So we steal fire everyday, whether we text our family, switch on our Kindle, or sit down for another round of Dr. Who on the telly. Sure, we’ll hem and haw about how these gadgets corrode our culture–whatever that is–or stunt intellectual growth, but technology is here to stay, so we might as well embrace the robot and use these tools to our advantage.

Aside from the traditional modes of technology, such as Twitter and Facebook, here are some of the latest advancements writers would be wise to nab for their own work and pleasure:

For Tooting Your Horn

  • Foursquare- a collaborative website that lets users check into places and explore their cities. Excellent for drumming up publicity on special events or drawing attention to literary venues such as independent bookstores and libraries, assuming they’re still open.
  • Instagram-touch up photos and share them instantly. Great for event sharing or banging the drum for visual publicity.
  • WordPress and Blogger- Miraculously easy to use blogs. They work like a dream with some sophisticated templates that are easy on the eye and pocket. Most are free, but you can always upgrade–its a god-given right.

For Reading

  • Bibliotastic- self-described on their website, “free e-books, free to publish, free to download.”
  • Readability – readers can strip bare web articles and free digital text from photos and ads. Power to the readers! *Though there is a small fee for use of this.
  • Web Scribbler- Remember how your composition teacher tasked you to highlight and annotate your textbooks? This little number allows users to literally write on their chosen websites. More power to readers!
  • InstaPaper- Like Google Reader, this site allows you to bookmark other sites and articles you want to read for later.
  • The New York Times recently covered some of these reader apps in their article “Apps Alter Reading on the Web” by Jenna Wortham published on January 31, 2011: “A wave of applications, including Pulse, Flipboard and My Taptu, are responding to changes in how people prefer to read on the Web, putting articles and blog posts into cleaner or more attractive visual displays. “
  • Push Pop Press- Coming out with sizzling hot new interactive text from Al Gore, Our Choice, this new publishing press is smoking.

For Writing

  • Scrivener- Onto the good stuff now, and we mean really, good. Scrivener is a writer’s dream, organizing everything and almost anything you can think of into a comprehensive binder for any project. You pay a one-time well worth it fee of $45, and you will be converted to a new found and empowering digital faith.
  • Leechblock- When will power isn’t enough, you can turn to Leechblock, an add-on from Firefox, which cuts off your access to any given website for certain periods at a time, so you don’t feel compelled to shop online or check your frenemies’ status updates on Facebook when you really should be revising your third draft.
  • Freedom – For the shamelessly weak, this one prohibits any and all use of the Internet. No Pandora, no using the excuse of researching Wikipedia for that tidbit of info. Purely distraction free to really and truly finish revising that third draft, so get to work!

For becoming a social entrepreneur

  • Kickstarter- “a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers…”
  • RocketHub- Like Kickstarter, this site serves as your “creative launchpad.” They’re motto: “Welcome to the crowdfunding revolution.”

These are just a few of the latest ways to write, read, and connect virtually. We’ve just pushed off into the digital frontier, and our exploring has only begun. Share some of your own tech savvy ways. What are you favorite apps, sites, and software to rev your literary and artistic engines? We’d love to hear from you.

Music Review: Kate Bush’s “Director’s Cut”

Kate Bush, looking positively mad, reworks her classic songs for "Director's Cut."

by Rio Liang

I will resort to desperate means to get an early hold of anything by Kate Bush. Thankfully, NPR has precluded any brash relocations to the UK or any (god forbid) illegal downloading on my part by posting online the entirety of “Director’s Cut” (which is set to be released on American shores on May 23, a full week after its UK release). After listening numerous times already to the album’s eleven reworked tracks from “The Sensual World” and “The Red Shoes,” half of me is awash in elation over hearing Kate’s beautifully mad voice for the first time since her glistening two-disc masterpiece from 2005, “Aerial” (her 2008 theme song for “The Golden Compass” soundtrack, “Lyra,” just doesn’t count for me), while the other half is left wondering what the hell she’s done to most of the songs. Initial bafflements however are part-and-parcel with Kate Bush–she is an artist who fares supremely well on repeated listenings. (Case in point:  It took me several playthroughs to “get” “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love,” both now required listening in my household).

“Director’s Cut” supplies certain felicities, including that of the title track from “The Sensual World,” now retitled “Flower of the Mountain.” It’s a curious marvel, listening to the song as Bush had originally intended it, with snippets of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” now in place of Bush’s (in hindsight still brilliant) alternate lyrics. But as successful and welcome as some of the album’s reconstructions are, some songs have come out of the reworking process as if they’ve undergone rather extreme cosmetic surgery with only jarringly passing resemblances to their former selves. “Rubberband Girl” in particular now sounds like it’s been sung underwater. “Deeper Understanding” has been “updated” with a distractingly autotuned chorus sung by Bush’s twelve-year-old, now lacking the relative cleanness of message and glorious warbling of the Trio Bulgarka of the original.

Kate Bush

The almost-screaming intensity of many of her tracks, especially from “The Red Shoes,” come across here as diluted. Bush’s voice has of course aged and grown deeper–not something to be faulted per se; in fact, the new depths of her voice had added a certain poignancy to her last album, “Aerial.” But “Aerial” was new material at the time with no particular calls for comparison to her older works. The last time she had re-recorded one of her classics, “Wuthering Heights” (for her greatest hits album, “The Whole Story”) it had unfortunately thrown a spotlight on the smoking-induced degradation of her voice. With her current album, which by its nature begs comparison with the originals, there’s very evidently no more coming in hurricanes, as it were, from Kate. “Director’s Cut” skirts the highs of songs like “Song of Solomon,” their absence glaring. But one thing you learn through hearing this album is that Bush has accepted her voice, bafflingly but rather admirably throwing her cares about her voice to the air. (That’s not to say Bush doesn’t at times soar, as she still does in, for example, “Top of the City,” one of the particularly higher-pitched tracks I had raised an eyebrow to upon learning of its inclusion in this album).

On the other hand, some songs have benefited from some toning down. For example, the original “Moments of Pleasure” now seems in hindsight too much with its former string arrangement. I do love the height she gains in the original when she comes across the line “Just being alive / It can really hurt.” But in the “Director’s Cut” version, which is stripped bare to just piano and voice, that once loud chorus is now replaced by the plaintive hum of a choir, providing something more subtly beautiful. What was once a big, big moment is now a small and somewhat ruminative moment of pause. The same applies to “This Woman’s Work,” which now is imbued with so much more haunting grace. There’s a better fitting sadness to it now more akin to “A Coral Room” from “Aerial.”

Fish people and Kate in knight's armor...what's unusual about that?

Jokes about piracy aside, Kate Bush’s “Director’s Cut” is a must-have for die-hard fans, and I intend to buy it, and not digitally either. There’s something about the presentation of the physical album that I’m sure will supplement and enhance the listening experience, just as it had for the sonically novelistic “A Sky of Honey” side of “Aerial,” whose liner notes provided some context to the narrative progression of the songs as a whole. But ultimately as much as I admire anything Kate Bush creates, I prefer her artistry when it’s forward-moving, devoted to newer works than returning to older ones. (If left to keep revising her older works, who knows what she’ll redo next; a reworking of “The Line, The Cross, and The Curve?”). In the meantime, “Director’s Cut” serves as a nice stopgap (for which I am still humbly grateful) till her next album of new songs. Kate, please keep it coming.

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Cruzando Fronteras / Crossing Borders: Saturday, May 21, 4:15pm & A new short story published by Tony Robles from Vice Versa

Cruzando Fronteras / Crossing Borders
Poesía contemporánea del Área de la Bahía de San Francisco
Contemporary Poetry in Spanish from the SF Bay Area
(possibly with projected supertitles in English)

first in a series of readings

Saturday, May 21, 2011
4:15 pm
Koret Auditorium
San Francisco Main Public Library


Reina del Prado
Lourdes Figueroa
Edwin Agustín Lozada
Alejandro Murguía
Vicki Vértiz
Norman Zelaya

presented by
The International Center of the SF Main Library
Carayan Press


Tony Robles’ work is again featured at Vice Versa. Here’s an excerpt of the piece, “Scales”:

“Scales” by Tony Robles

When I was a kid I was told that I could read the story of my people in the scales of a fish. I would go to the fish markets in Chinatown and in my neighborhood with Grandma. The trees lining the sidewalks swayed and seemed to bow—her colorful kerchief prompting a sort of recognition and respect. Grandma knew a fish by its eyes. In its eyes you can see your grandmother and grandfather. Grandma wore big dark sunglasses as she navigated past dry cleaners, florists, pastry shops, restaurants, and barber shops; the faces inside the windows offering a smile, wave, or nod of acknowledgment. Sometimes they’d come outside. “Is that your grandson?” they’d ask. “He’s so big now.” I didn’t recognize some of the faces, but they knew me. Then they’d speak Filipino and laugh in Filipino too.

Read entire piece here.

Considering Chapters and Scenes, Part I: Thinking in words instead of page count is like learning to speak and live in a foreign country

Yale Library relief where words are sacred and part of the architecture to life

By Your Salonniere

In a past conversation about the arduous task of novel-writing, the talented writer Mary Volmer firmly emphasized the importance of thinking not in pages but in word count. Most beginning writers tend to measure their work by double-spaced, one-inch margin, single sheets, which proves counter-productive and misleading. Word count determines the true size of a work, and word count is what makes a scene long and drawn out or taut and fast-paced.

After attending Mills College Pitchfest 2011 one of the agents urged me to share with the world the true standard word count that most agents and editors are looking for since I had come in with the notion that somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 was the target for novels. I was set straight. 80,000 to 95,000 is the true mark emerging novelists want to hit. Thinking in words instead of page count is like learning to speak and live in a foreign culture. You start seeing your plot line, your chapters and scenes in a completely different light, and, most effectively, start sensing the pace of how your story runs.

Once you start speaking, thinking, and acting on word counts, this currency forces you to determine when to contract and when to expand, which is essentially the rhythmic breathing of a novel. So imagine the length of chapter that runs 3,000 words as opposed to 8,000. Is your chapter a morsel, merely an appetizer to incite hunger, or do you want your reader to gorge and laze about with specific characters in a certain setting?

Figure out how many chapters are needed to tell your story and how to break up that 95,000 word count. In this sense, think of chapters as running laps around a stadium. You’ll need to consider your audience’s pacing. When can you get away with long stretches? When will a reader need a break and feel like they’re turning a corner?

If you’re story is told from multiple points of views, consider, also, which part of the story is best told by which character. How much do they know? What kind of information do they have access to? What kind of information are they not privy to, and how does their ignorance amp up the tension? This inaccessibility can also propel the story forward because you’ll keep the reader guessing.

While we’re on the subject of chapter-making, in revision and in drafting we should keep in mind that a chapter can start at any time and place whether its the very first chapter or the tenth. No scene or chapter needs to be chronological even though there is a physical sequence to a book. Nothing need be chronological. Readers are much smarter than we give them credit for, even young readers. Make them work for our story.

How do you strategize word count when drafting or revising your piece? More on the currency of words is forthcoming, so check back at the salon, and weigh in.

Review: Mike Mills’s “Beginners” (2010)

A dog (Cosmo) and his new owner (Ewan McGregor) both looking for love amid death in Mike Mills's "Beginners."

by Rio Liang

After the death of his recently out-of-the closet father Hal (Christopher Plummer), thirty-eight-year-old graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) must shake a commitment phobia learned from his parents, lest it doom a budding relationship with his newest love, Anna (Melanie Laurent, who at times reminded me of Marlee Matlin and Nastassja Kinski). This deceptively simple premise could have easily gone the way of cliche, but Mike Mills’s “Beginners” hardly goes a beat without some fresh take on an old idea. I saw the film at a Los Angeles Times Book Festival screening this past weekend, and was, along with the rest of the audience, charmed by its incessant cleverness. I rather liken it to a browser constantly refreshing itself, except each reload (or “reintroduction,” as it were) brings back the page in some refreshingly askew way.

A device I initially found too quirky but whose meaning felicitously manifested itself through the course of the film is Oliver’s constant use of “This is…” (such as “This is the dining room where people come and eat sometimes” or “This is the president” or “This is what happy people look like”). It is of course a means of introduction, which is fitting given that the movie’s title after all is “Beginners.” It’s a motif ingeniously spread throughout the film, i.e. when Oliver introduces his newly adopted Jack Russell terrier (inherited from his father) to his apartment, when young Oliver and his mother are viewing artwork at the museum, Hal’s schooling Oliver on symbols of gay pride, and Anna introducing her New York apartment to Oliver over the phone. In an aimless pomo work, this narrative device could have been throw-away, mere flash. But here, the constant introductions serve as meaningful reminders for Oliver to reintroduce himself to life and love. In Mike Mills’s charmingly hopeful film, the ending of the story is really just a beginning.

Actress Melanie Laurent with writer/director Mike Mills

The story is in many ways about life and death, and not just the literal kind. There are pretend shootings and pretend deaths (a game between young Oliver and his mother that he later plays with Anna), just like the pretend relationships in the film. Fittingly, the film starts with both an obituary and a personal ad. The former is written by Oliver after his father’s passing, and the latter is an artifact left behind by Hal evidencing that he didn’t give up on love. Hal’s death is in a way nothing in comparison to the “death” his entire married life had been. A sham, the marriage was built on a doomed premise that his wife could change one immutable aspect of Hal’s build:  his homosexuality. Ironically, Hal’s marriage, which would provide Oliver the template for sabotaging his own relationships, had as its foundation the couple trying genuinely (though naively) to make it work. But in such a case it was just not possible. Thankfully, no such impossibility presents itself as a stumbling block for Oliver’s love life. The son, improving upon the faults of the father (who had a late but still meaningful attempt at finally experiencing true love), has a clearer path towards happiness and love, should he accept it. The film gently nudges him on this path.

“Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, is set for wide release June 3, 2011.

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