Via Clarion classmate Mart, I spotted this post about Amtrak’s Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers.

One of my most productive days ever was on board an Amtrak train from Chicago to Champaign. I think I wrote four Wise Bread posts (including this one in praise of Amtrak), as well as getting some fiction writing done.

Related to that, I have been meaning for a while to link to this post about using cruise ships as workspaces. The cruise ships don’t offer free travel for writers, but the repositioning cruises are relatively cheap (because they tend to be dull—long days of crossing the open ocean–and because you end up on the other side of the world and end up having to fly back home), so you can do it yourself.

I’m always intrigued by ideas like this (such as rolling my own coworking spaces locally) because writing can so easily turn into day after day of solitary sameness. In fact, though, my desk in my study is a great place to get work done.

Speaking of which: progress on the novel continues apace. I’m averaging 1000 words a day, and it does not seem like a strain to do so. (Whereas trying to average 1667 words a day for NaNoWriMo did feel like a strain. Maybe I’ve found my sweet spot.)

I first encountered Andrew Leonard when Steve pointed me to the column “How the World Works” at Salon.com. Filled with keen observations about globalization, right at the moment when globalization was changing everything, Steve spotted it as being just the sort of thing I was interested in at the time.

The column wrapped up a while ago—globalization is just how things are now—but I’ve kept up with Leonard’s writing, so today I spotted his latest essay, The astonishing power of Richard Powers.

I’ve been aware of Power’s novels for a long time, because he was a local sf writer, sort of, on the faculty at the University of Illinois. (I gather he just last year took a position at Stanford.)

His work is only sort of sf; it’s more literary than genre. It’s very well-regarded, but my few attempts to read it were unsuccessful: it seemed deliberately opaque. I grasped that the stylistic choices were intended to make the book’s form echo the book’s intent, but in my couple of experiments, they didn’t work for me.

This essay, though, almost convinces me to give more of his books a try. Certainly I’ll take a look at his latest, Orfeo.

But the essay is interesting beyond that. Despite having followed Leonard’s work at Salon for years, I was completely unaware that his father was “the youngest editor in chief in the history of the New York Times Book Review.”

I found in the younger Leonard’s experiences an echo of my own—choosing to be a writer when my father is one of the best writers I know.

A great essay. Long, but well worth reading.

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.

clarion-2001-poster-framedAll the writers who taught at my Clarion did readings at the Archives Book Shop, a local bookstore in East Lansing. To advertise the readings, the Clarion office folks printed up a poster with the names and dates. And, as one of our little perks, we each got a copy signed by all the writers (and by our special guest editor).

I’ve had this poster for more than 10 years now. I always meant to get it framed so I could hang it up, but it was one of many things that I kept not getting around to. But for some reason, this past week it suddenly seemed to be the thing to get around to next, so I did. I measured the poster, went to a local shop that sells ready-made frames in standard sizes, and picked up a frame the right size. It was just what I wanted (simple, black, wood frame), but instead of a proper hanging wire, had some crappy metal bracket for hanging the picture, so I also had to buy a kit with some screw eyes and picture hanging wire, but that was cheap.

It still took a couple of days to get it all put together—picture in frame, screw eyes in frame, wire strung between screw eyes—but now it’s done.

I’m pretty pleased. Maybe having it up will help inspire me to keep at my fiction.

Click through for a picture big enough to read all the details.

Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion meeting in 2002.
Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion in 2002.

I just learned that Clarion classmate Genevieve Kierans died earlier this month.

It was great to have her in the circle at Clarion. Nobody was nicer or happier than Genevieve, and her critiques were always gentle and often incisive and useful—and often different from what everyone else had to say. It was nice to know that she was somewhere ahead in the circle, when you started getting a lot of “ditto what the last three guys said.”

She’d already had ALS back in 2001, and wrote a number of stories that drew on her experiences with disability. Where she excelled, though, was in telling the story of a callow youth growing into being an adult. Each one of those stories left me with a “How does she do that?” feeling, and I’ve more than once gone back to reread one, trying to tweeze apart the structure of that particular character arc.

I’m sorry not have had the chance to read more such stories.

In an excellent post trying to provide a model for the current e-book market in historical terms, Bruce McFarling suggests that e-books have currently re-invented the dime novel: a publishing unit of a single story, typically of the length that we in the sf world would call a novella (17,500 to 40,000 words). He goes on to suggest that what we need is to reinvent the successor to the dime novel: the pulps.

Tobias Buckell takes issue with this, but I think he’s missed the point. The key feature of the pulps (and McFarling does say this, although he mixes in other issues as well) is not that pulps ran serials. What pulps had was an editor, who provided additional content that fit in well with the anchor story.

The anchor story of a pulp magazine was typically a novella length work very similar to what might have appeared in a dime novel. It was usually by a big-name writer—someone whose name on the cover would drive newsstand sales. And if that’s all it had, it would basically just be a dime novel. But an issue of a pulp had more.

Along with the anchor story, the editor would run three to six short stories, some of which would be by writers who were not big names. They would be the sort of stories that, in today’s e-book market, would sell in single-digit quantities, unless someone with some stature recommended them—which is what the pulp editor was doing by putting them in a magazine with an anchor story. The editor was telling his readers, “Hey—if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably some of these sorts of things too.”

This was a huge change and a big win for everybody. It meant that new writers had a much better shot at reaching new readers. It also meant that readers had a chance to find new writers whose work they would like. And it did those things at very low cost. The reader paid nothing extra (an issue of a pulp also cost a dime), they got their anchor story, and they got a few extra short stories essentially for free. The extra content was also pretty cheap for the magazine, as the editor didn’t have to pay nearly as much for the short stories by the new writers as he did for the novella by the big-name writer, and each extra name on the cover had some chance of attracting some additional newsstand sales, as those writers made their way from being new to being big names in their own right.

This won’t be easy. One problem is that e-books don’t make as good a format to provide this extra content. It’s very different from a magazine where you can quickly turn to and then read the anchor story you bought it for—and then have the issue as a physical object setting around for a while, giving you any number of chances to pick it up and give some of those other stories  a try.

Maybe if the anchor story is right up front, where the buyer doesn’t have to skip over anything to get to it, then extra stories right after it have a shot at getting read. (Doing it the other way around seems like a terrible idea—does anybody skip over stuff in an e-book and then go back later and read it?)

Of course Toby is right that we don’t need something to be “like” historical forms—they already exist. The e-book is its own thing and people will find their uses for it. But I hope that McFarling’s larger point is well taken by all the smart people working on writing, editing, designing, publishing, and selling e-books. A way to create for e-books something like the value-add that pulps created when they published a longer work by a big-name author together with a few shorter works by new writers that readers would probably like would be a huge win for everybody: readers find new writers that they like (cheap or even for free), writers find new readers—and they (and editors) get paid.

By the way, I discovered along the way to writing this that Stanford has an extensive collection of dime novels available as pdfs.

I just discovered another Champaign-Urbana area writers group for writers of speculative fiction, calling themselves All Writes Reserved. How did I not know this? In any case, it’s great to know that there’s another group of serious writers of speculative fiction in town.

Anyway, I’ve added five blogs to my feed reader—the individual blogs of the group’s members, plus that group blog, which I also added to the list of local writers groups on my Incognitos Writers Group page.

I’ll also try and get in touch with them and raise the possibility that we might do an occasional joint critique session or something. (Getting in touch with a group of people on the net is not as easy as it used to be, now that so many people insist on trying to hide their email address in a futile effort to stave off spammers. And, practicing what I preach, my email address is right there on my Contact page.)

I’m a student of daily routines. I like to imagine that I’m looking for good models for my own behavior, but that’s only true in an oblique way. By now I understand pretty well the structure of a productive routine; no new routine will be enough better than the routines I’ve already studied to justify the effort of examining them. The value in studying daily routines, for me, is as a reminder to follow my own routine.

For a while there was a great blog called Daily Routines that was very nearly pornography for this inclination of mine to ponder new models. It was there that I found the daily routine for Charles Darwin, which is probably the best model I’ve found so far.

And it is in part because of its similarity to Darwin’s model, that the daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna caught my eye:

At the second hour [after waking] he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud….

Then he sits down, and there is more reading aloud or more talk for preference; afterwards he enters his carriage [for more private conversation].

After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then he again resumes his seat or betakes himself to his room and his pen. For he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness, and wonderful humour, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm.

When he is told that the bathing hour has come—which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer—he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind.

Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.

After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer.

Then dinner is served…. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it is kept up with such good humour and charm.

The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom.

– (From a public-domain translation of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Of course, Spurinna was retired, so one writing session of just an hour or two is probably enough for him. His work when he was younger was as a magistrate and governor, and so probably took place in those conversation sessions that are now just for pleasure.

I think there’s a lot to emulate there. Three walks per day adding up to five miles seems just about right—as long as you include another hour or two of vigorous sport. Of course, he’s in his late seventies. Us younger folk should probably get in a little more than that.

One of my fellow Wise Bread writers, Nora Dunn, has been posting some of the financial details of her travel-heavy lifestyle, including this post on her 2011 Income. (It’s got a link to her earlier post on her 2011 spending, and promises a forthcoming post on why she chooses to earn this much money and not more.)

It’s pretty interesting for anyone who’s thinking about the sort of issues that I write about in my Wise Bread articles—how and why to spend less, and how and why to earn the money to support that frugal lifestyle (and not some other lifestyle).

I use a trick for getting into flow state.

Anybody who does creative work knows about flow state, where your surroundings vanish and for a timeless period you’re creating whatever is you create. If you’re a writer, the words just, well, flow.

Many writers have some sort of process for achieving flow state, such as a pre-writing ritual, or a specific place or specific set of tools that they reserve for their creative work.

I’ve seen working writers mock these techniques—making fun of the writer who needs the right kind of tea in the right special cup and the right ink in the right fountain pen before they can write. And I do see the mocking potential. But I find having such a process is highly effective in speeding the process of getting into flow state.

The key here is speeding. If your pre-writing ritual takes twenty minutes, it’s not likely to be faster than just starting to write. (Which is, after all, the only essential step.)

But some very short ritual, or some special place or object, if you start using it when you’re working, will become associated with entering flow state. And once it has become associated, just following it or having it or using it makes it easier and quicker to enter flow state.

In my case, it’s a vest that Jackie made me. I reserve it just for fiction writing. Having written a lot of fiction wearing that vest, just putting it on puts me in the frame of mind that I’m going to write fiction.

I can write without it. I probably write more without it than I do with it. But especially when I have only a short period of time to write, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to put my vest on when I sit down to write.

[Update: I just remembered that I’ve mentioned my writing vest before, in my Clarion journal, in reference to Steven Barnes talking about learning to enter flow state.]