Last November, I finished the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo ) challenge successfully with 50,000 words. I knew it was just a start. It was a brain dump – a hazy idea of what could later be sculpted and crafted into a novel.
But what next?
I was a bit lost. Yes, I’ve read a lot over the years, but haphazardly. I didn’t have a great books list. I knew I liked fantastical stories and really resonated with HG Wells, Jules Verne, William Gibson and Kafka. I also love the magic realists Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino. I also just love the wonder of Ray Bradbury, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the characterizations of Dickens. But I felt like I was trying to write a rock song having never heard Elvis. Or a symphony without knowing Beethoven. I didn’t have enough context.
I went to NYU for music and missed out on a lot of the great history and literature courses. I always felt that was a mistake and am thrilled to finally be correcting that. So I began searching for the 10,000 foot view. I usually look for the meta book, the one that will give me the greatest context.
I found a lot about writing mindset and technique which are great. But for historical context, I’ve found nothing quite matches the Great Courses (formerly called the Teaching Company). Thesea are college classes online which you can download to your smartphone or have on DVD, or CD.
So over the last few months, I’ve been inhaling vast quantities of method books, college lectures, historical overviews and source materials. Here’s a partial list of my consumption. I hope you find it helpful.
Story by Robert McKee – the classic. I read it over 10 years ago and recently repurchased as audio book. McKee is an actor and he really brings to life his sage wisdom. Highly recommended.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – I’ve had this in my collection for over 10 years when I was originally creating a libretto for an original opera. That project is still gestating. But what a great book.
The Creative Penn podcast by Joanna Penn – Joanna is an inspiration for all writers. I’ve discovered many great resources on her podcast including Dave Farland – see below.
Greek Tragedy by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver – a little dry at times, but a fast overview.
Some short video clips from great writers like Robert McKee, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Jonathan Safran-Foer, and others. Good for a quick hit of inspiration.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – I like how Larry has made this easier to visualize. You can also see hitpoints in every story, film, novel, whatever, based on his engineering blueprints.
History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective – Professor Gregory S. Aldrete – If I’m going to be creating fantastical fictional worlds, I better know what the real history has been. This course is wonderful and well presented. 48 half hour lectures which you can binge on as you work out or clean the house.
Million Dollar Outlines by Dave Farland. Dave has taught writing to so many successful authors and makes so much sense in this book. I also heard his podcast interview at the Creative Penn. I was so impressed, I enrolled in his online course. See below.
If you have any suggestions to add, I’d be happy add them to the list. Write in the comments below.
And, if you find any of these helpful, some of them contain affiliate links so I receive a small commission. Just so you know.
My head is high above the clouds. The air is cooler up here and there is a gentle breeze from my right. I can see down into the darkness the long string that is tethering me to my body. It goes down, down, down until it disappears into the dusky depths. Somewhere down below is my body seated in lotus pose. Or at least it’s trying to stay in that pose. It seems that lately it’s been easier. The clouds of thoughts drift by below. Far below I can just make out the lights of my ideas rushing past.
Sometimes I drop 10,000 feet in a sudden rush of forgetfulness and I’m in the traffic of my thoughts – loud, brash, stinky with fumes and the accompanying adrenaline rush that goes with it. But today, I’m staying afloat high above. It’s so quiet up here. It’s like the only thing that is here is the gentle wind and a slight whisper of my voice from time to time, checking to see if I’m really here.
Meditation is so strange. It’s like a stopping of time. I think today I’m closest to ever getting it all to stop. Other times I’ve thought I succeeded only to find myself deep in slumber, snoring and dreaming away.
I eat rice every week. It used to be every day. My digestive system seems to just work better with rice. I like all kinds of rice, from wild rice to long grain white and brown to sushi short grain from Japan, to red rice from Northern Thailand to yellow Dominican to soy-sauce and cilantro infused fried rice of Singapore… But most days, Thai jasmine is my favorite.
Every Asian family, and probably Hispanic too, has a large bag of rice somewhere in their kitchen or pantry. It doesn’t make sense to buy these small bags for ridiculous prices when you can get a 25 pound bag that will last your family about 3 to 4 weeks. The main issue is where to store it. In my apartment, it’s rather tight for space, so I bought a decorative brass bell that also conveniently hides a 25 pound bag of rice.
My mom used to make a delicious Korean Bulgogi that I would go and grill on the charcoal fire. I loved being involved in cooking. She would teach me even though I wasn’t doing it, just watching. But, then it was my turn to go and grill it. Luckily, because we all liked it well done, it turned out pretty good: crispy, blackened and burnt – just how we liked it! And mounds and mounds of white rice!
My mom used to make Carolina brand long grain white rice in an old rice cooker. It was white, a Sanyo, medium sized pressure cooker. And for a long time, this was my gold standard. When we ate in Chinatown, I was astounded at the difference in the taste and smell of their rice. My Dad used to say that’s because they don’t wash the rice. He would yell at my Mom not to wash the rice. I never believed him.
In college, I discovered a whole new world of rice. I ate in Dominican restaurants where the rice was salty and yellow with little pigeon peas mixed in. Delicious! Then, I discovered the longer almost bread-like basmati rice.
For awhile I lived in Asia. Some of my local friends called me a “rice bucket,” because I ate 4 to 5 bowls of rice with every meal. Later, I learned that that’s what they called a very lazy person.
While traveling in Vietnam in the early 1990’s, I rode a motorcycle across the rice paddies on the little mud lanes separating the marshy, swampy ponds. Rice was everywhere. It was even drying in heaps along the sides of paved roads and one could drive over it if not too careful.
Sometimes my Mom would cook rice not in the automatic rice cooker, but in a stove-top pot for “extra iron” as she said. This was very strange to me as she wasn’t cooking in an iron pot but a stainless steel one. Perhaps the basic thinking was sound because a cast iron pot is what they would use in ancient Korea.
She would burn the rice deliberately to get a crispy browned layer of rice at the bottom. By pouring some hot water over it, we had rice tea! The scraps of rice, hard and burnt, but so deliciously soothing. It was more like rice soup than tea. Sometimes she would mix in a mixture of roast barley or corn.
Korean comfort food. The equivalent of the Jewish Mom’s chicken soup.
My Dad taught me the Thai way to make rice.
Fill a pot halfway with rice.
Rinse and discard water and any husks, debris r
Refill until water line is one finger knuckle (about an inch) above the rice.
Cover and bring to a boil.
As soon as it boils, reduce heat to lowest simmer and let cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
I taught an Italian retiree the above method. He was ecstatic saying how much everyone loved it.
“There’s something strange about visual literacy. It seems you either have it or you don’t.” Jack was musing again, speaking with that far away look in his eyes, a half-full martini in his hand.
“Is it cultural? I mean is it part of a social DNA that gets passed on from generation to generation building up in the collective unconsciousness? Take the Chinese. They’re one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, with great structure, order and wisdom and yet they have no visual design sense! Go into any Chinatown anywhere and what will you find?”
I looked at him while trying to think of something witty to say.
“I’ll tell you what you’ll find: cacophony, noise, filth! And they way they talk it sounds like they’re cursing at each other.
“Jack I think you’re lumping in a huge population with a smaller…”
“Yes I know what you’re going to say, they’re speaking Cantonese and yes, the northerners have a much more polite language, but seriously, why send over the most illiterate? The chaos even spills over into even the way the language looks! I mean, I don’t speak or read Chinese but I can tell you the vast preponderance of clashing styles makes for just a cloud of clutter! It’s ridiculous. Go to Hong Kong, even better, go to Mongkok which is in the Guiness Book of World Records for being the most densely populated place on earth. It’s like living in Blade Runner. It’s packed with people, rats and signs! The signs are the worst part of it, I felt like I was suffocating the whole time. I had to ask my boyfriend at the time, to just hold my hand to guide me out of there – I couldn’t even open my eyes!
Meanwhile, you go to Japan or Korea and you see an almost opposite attitude. They get it! There’s a reverence for beauty. They understand design! They know what negative space is and heartily embrace it!
I can’t read it either but it’s effect is one of order, hierarchy, respect. It makes the Chinese look like backwards barbarians!”
Some would call Jack a racist, but having known him for a while, I would say he was just an observant guy, someone who could see the stuff behind the curtain. A self-taught typography buff, he now felt he could hold court on the societal benefits of good letter spacing, kerning and emotions of fonts.
I was also used to his near perfect record of having a new cultural epiphany at 5:30 pm, halfway through his second happy hour drink. And now that he was on the museum board, he felt beyond reproach, after-all he was representing these cultures to the world.
There was the sound of glasses clinking and we looked up to see the servant bringing in another round of martinis.
“Thank you Chung, can you please check with the cook on dinner?”
“Yes of course sir.”
The servant was an elderly Chinese gentleman.
“You see, I even had to teach Chung here how to have some eye for design. When he got here, he would put the most hideous outfits together, I just had to send him back! I mean how could I have him serving guests looking like some coolie?”
“Did you know I have some Chinese blood?” Jack said.
“What?” I said surprised.
“Yes, I’m not joking. It was a bit of shock to me at first too. But then I started to think about how it all started to make sense. I too struggled with my fashion sense. I too had this feeling of otherness. My mother, God rest her soul, even told me once how I used to get teased for having “chinky eyes!” I guess I outgrew that.” He laughed.
“But I am proof it is over-comeable. Is that even a word? I’m living proof that one can develop good taste, a judgement for balance and design and “chinkiness.” He giggled.
“So I guess I’m contradicting my earlier statement of either having it or not. But anyway, have another drink. Let’s toast my new appointment shall we?”
I raised my new glass even though my old one still had 3/4 of the drink left.
“To the newest and most wonderful Board member, Jack Carpenter.”
We clinked glasses and I took a sip. Jack practically guzzled half of his.
“Those friggin’ gooks have no idea what they’re in for!” Jack slurred.
“The louder the people, the lower the intelligence.” Frank said it flatly. “If you look around the ghetto, what do you hear?”
We stopped and took in the scene around us. Sirens howling in the distance, rap music blaring out of car windows, children screaming in the park across the street. The sound of the Mister Softee jingle was playing somewhere a few blocks away. There were several young men standing outside the bodega on the corner. There were all talking loudly at once.
“You see what I mean?” Frank nodded in the direction of the bodega.
“They can’t even hear each other and yet their spouting off their inane opinions on absolutely everything and nothing at the same time.”
I shifted uncomfortably.
“Frank, you can’t just make a blanket generalization like that.”
“Why not? Especially when it’s true? I am not saying that everyone in the ghetto is unintelligent. What I’m saying is that the ones who are jabbering away all the time, that’s like a marker.”
“Whatever.” I said biting my tongue.
“C’mon. Let’s take a ride.”
We got into the cruiser. The radio squawked about some robbery uptown, but it was too far from us. We pulled out, Frank at the wheel. He loved to pontificate and drive and I resigned myself to another of my senior partner’s unofficial sermons.
“Listen Wayne. I know you’re one of those feel-good liberals who think that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that the world is a safe place and that everyone is basically good. Am I right?”
He turned to look at me. I kept staring straight ahead and said nothing.
“Well let me tell you, you better wake up and wake up fast. I’ve been on these streets 19 years and it ain’t what you think it is. The world is evil, or rather, there is evil in the world. And everyone is not innocent until proven guilty. We, my partner, are the eyes and ears of the good people and we KNOW who they are, where they are, what they are doing and usually how they’re doing it. The why varies. But it all boils down to this. They’re weak. You here me Wayne? Weak. They’re weak and afraid and out of that fear, they avoid facing the big questions in their lives.”
“But how do you know it’s me?” I asked for the seventeenth time.
“I mean there’s plenty of other writers in this town alone that could spin out your yarn in far less time and in more elegant ways.”
I paused for dramatic effect. That usually works and gets people to see things a bit more my way. It’s much more persuasive, and frankly, dramatic.
But he was having none of it. He looked me up and down with a quizzical, almost comic look, as if he was laughing at me, laughing at me incredulously.
“Simon. You are the one because I have chosen you for your talents, your life path, your experience, the core of your being. Please. Take some time and don’t just give up so easily.” He said it tenderly, kindly.
I rubbed my eyes sleepily and stretched with a big yawn.
“Oh boy. You really don’t give up easily, do you?” I said hoping he would finally acquiese.
“No and neither should you. Now, get writing.”
I reluctantly took my legal pad out of the middle drawer of my desk, placed it in front of me, clicked the ballpoint pen and sat patiently.
“Is this what you want?” I said facetiously.
“Just write what I tell you.”
He spoke at a moderato pace, in a mezzo-piano, occasionally swelling into a mezzo-forte, but never true fortissimo. Not at this point, yet.
His story was good, but who was I to judge? Everything sounded sort of good in the beginning. It’s the endings that kill you! As a hack wannabe fiction writer, I’ve been stopping and starting stories for over a decade, probably longer. And then this guy shows up. You know how they say that if you show up enough, the Universe will conspire along with you? Well, I now know it’s true. I only wish I had some choice about who showed up. This guy is not the guy I wanted to write about! I wanted to write about a young boy, like a middle schooler, like my son, like a 3rd year Harry Potter. Instead I got this pompously dressed gentleman, who happens to be a serial killer with hidden tattoos and bad breath showing up in my writing studio, in my walks, at the gym, in my dreams. Apparently he’s a role model citizen in the community by day, but at night, he changes completely. It’s all due to…what.
He stopped talking and just looks at me, condescension written all over his face.
“You told them about me and you?”
“Well, uh, I didn’t know what else to say. I’ve been scribbling on the page for years and I just thought I would tell them about you and how I didn’t really want you but here you are.”
“You know what sacred means?”
“Uh. Are we getting religious now? Because if we are, I’m atheist and don’t believe in all that. I mean, most modern-day liberal, progressive, middle-of-the-road educated folks don’t believe in that.”
“And yet, here we are…” He let it hang in the air.
“Here we are Simon. You, talking to your ‘imaginary friend'” he did that air quotes thing that I hate so much.
“Your friend whom you don’t like, but are willing to sit for an hour, and another hour, and another, writing down what I’m telling you. You tell me who is a non-believer?” There was another pause.
Man, so dramatic! Oh and I think he has a British upper crust accent too now.
“Sacred…Simon…sacred is this bond we have.” He gestured at me and then himself.
“We are sacred. You are following in the line of your ancestors, all of whom were blessed by the muse, as they say. You just had to get out of your own way.” Another pause.
“Remember 2 years ago when you were writing, or rather, trying to write your magnum opus on…what was his name…George…”
“George Patterson.” I said. He was rubbing it in. I could see it in his eyes now.
“Yes, that pitiful creature. Well, he was meant for another writer, a true artist by the way.”
What a jerk.
“You must understand Simon. You all must understand. The artist doesn’t get to choose. WE get to choose.” He was pointing to himself and gesturing around the room.
“We, the muses, that funny name you gave us, you humans…we get to choose our makers, so to speak.”
“But why me?” I said. This is the 18th time now.
“You are chosen because we are connected. I can see everything about you, your current life, your past life, your dreams, your hopes, but most importantly, I can see your true purpose, and that is to give voice to me. I’ve been waiting a long time Simon and we’re running out of time. If we don’t connect, you and me, I may be unfulfilled forever.” He looked at me intensely with his red-rimmed eyes.
“Or I may need to go with Lydia Davis, you know, that writer who everyone is talking about.”
“What? You would leave me for Lydia Davis?” I was suddenly furious.
“Well, I didn’t want to say it right at the beginning, but yes, you are the first choice, but hey, you know I need to be practical too. What happens if you decided to actually jump off that bridge? You do remember that don’t you?”
I looked at him, astonished.
The shriek of the alarm shredded the rest. I rose sleepily from my desk to shut it. The digital numbers announced 5:30am. Welcome to a new day Simon. I said to myself…and to him, my serial killer who just happened to go out for tea.