I Want to Be Like Ned

TBTL podcast host Luke Burbank, who is also a frequent panel member on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, was away for two weeks. This was great for me, because the TBTL shows were reruns, and I had only recently begun my role as one of the show’s time bandits.

The final two days were old shows featuring conversations with Stephen Tobolowsky, shows I hadn’t heard before.

You know Tobolowsky if you have ever seen a few movies or a handful of television shows. Chances are good Tobolowsky, a character actor, was in at least one of them. I always enjoyed his work as an actor, but in the last couple of years I learned about his storytelling abilities. Many of the baseball players today grew up wanting to play like Ken Griffey, Jr. Ever since hearing Tobolowsky, I have wanted to tell stories like he does.

After my dad began living in a nursing facility it was a regular thing to go see him on Sundays. Often that meant taking a drive after church and taking a scenic path, giving me the chance to listen to Tobolowsky’s hour-long broadcast on Seattle’s KUOW.

I got into the podcasts months, maybe years, after they started, so I can’t say for sure the following excerpt from his book “The Dangerous Animals Club” came out from the podcasts, but some of the stories I’ve seen in the book were ones I did hear on Sundays.

When I was five, I had an invisible monster that lived alternately in my closet and under my bed in a kind of winter-home/summer-home arrangement. His name was “Eye the Monster.” Eye would come out of hiding when I was alone and we would talk.

I had an up-and-down relationship with Eye. I often appreciated his middle-of-the-night visits. We would talk about school and about girls I had crushes on. You would think that Eye the Monster didn’t care about the opposite sex. But he did. He always argued for patience and honesty. He urged me to be more aggressive with the ladies on square dance day. It was hard advice to take. I was never a player. I thought five years of age was too young to be married. But not Eye. He thought I could be a trailblazer and be married and have children before I was in fourth grade. And this was years before MTV.

My drives are over and so is The Tobolowsky Files. Reviews of the book say his storytelling translates as well in writing as it does on the radio. In just the little bit I read that seems true.

The Book Ahead — Spill Your Guts’ Guts

This is not the final cover version, but it’s probably not far from it.

During 2011 I set about creating a podcast, an experiment of sorts in storytelling for me. It was fun to do, but it was a lot of work and after several months I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it. I needed time to come up with a solid plan that I could eventually discard when inevitably the universe would serve up a much better idea I had never imagined.

Over the past several months I put the podcast on hold, very nearly re-released a novel I wrote years ago, then got serious about how I want to proceed with what for now is a side career.

The mock book cover here will be the first iteration of that solid plan I have in mind. Tentatively titled Spill Your Guts’ Guts, the book will take those podcast episodes and simply put them in a new format. It might read like a transcript sometimes, but it will mostly be a retelling of stories I thought compelling. You’ll get pearls like this:

“Redheaded Mike and I were old enough to know that the finger was an insult and that for some reason it was considered naughty. I yet had no clue about sex. I knew that being naked was not for public events, but I don’t even think I knew that the finger represented something people did most often when they were shy of their clothes. The boldness of the gesture and to be playing a massive trick on an unsuspecting audience of passersby appealed to redheaded Mike and me and so we decided that we would wave it at each car that managed to get within eyesight of our path.”

The audio from last year’s podcasts will also be worked over to some degree.

More importantly, a podcast will return. This time around there will be an overarching theme to the content, a focus that will be pretty much the same each week. I’ll give you more details later.

For now you can go to TheNarrativeArts.com and find three of the podcasts, or go to iTunes and search for “Field of Steve” or “The Narrative Arts” and find more of them. For some reason they are not all there. When they are reformatted the old versions will be removed and replaced.

And now it’s time for me to get back to the task at hand, getting this book ready.

Changing an old friend

That headline could be misinterpreted, I know. No diapers involved, though some might prefer there were.

Over the past couple of months I have been in the process of reworking a book I wrote more than a decade ago. In fact, I finished the first draft in 1994, and that’s the draft I’m working with. That decision was largely one of convenience. I could get that one easily scanned and put into a Word format. As it turns out, that was a fortuitous technicality.

My reworking of the book has come in occasional sprints. I’ll take on several chapters at a time, then set it aside for weeks. I had hoped to have the new version available on digital formats by now. This process is not harder than I thought, just harder than I hoped.

A few things get in the way. In my day job we are almost daily met with the advice to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Reporters can miss deadlines waiting for their stories to be perfect. (Sometimes we miss them because we procrastinate, but that one’s tough to admit.) Most times we have to settle for a story that tells what is the truth, though not always the whole truth. Another source can add context. Sometimes that context plays second fiddle to deadlines.

In reality that should shock no one. We do the best we can to get the best story out there that we can. Right now we certainly don’t have the whole truth on what’s going on with Herman Cain and allegations of sexual harassment. So reporters are forced to go out with what they have. Recently I wrote a blog post about a disagreement over campaign signs. I didn’t know exactly what caused the problem, so I was left with an imperfect story.

There is less impatience with a book and that can be a bad thing. The impatience is not gone completely and when I do finally release the new version of “Going Too Far” it won’t be perfect. The challenge has been figuring out how much better I want to make it. My initial thought was to just let the book reflect where I was in 1994. Now I don’t want my 1994 writing to affect sales for stuff I write in 2011. When I first took on the task of reworking the book my goal was to make just minor changes. As soon as I started the work, though, I realized I couldn’t live with that. Just today I had an idea for it that I think will improve it greatly, but will add time to the process. So this thing will take longer than I had hoped. At times the work will be kind of agonizing, if sitting at a desk writing on a computer can legitimately be called agony.

So now I have to complete my first edit. The next step will be to rewrite it implementing my brainstorm from this morning. Then I will have to read it again. After that I will have a pro editor read it. Then I’ll make final changes. Only then, will I feel good about sending the story out there.

Still, it probably wouldn’t hurt to establish a deadline. I’ll get back to you.

First eBook on its Way

In 1994 I finished a novel. Five years later I got it published, after turning it from third-person to first person and on the advice of the publisher making it a more fast-paced book. In the end I didn’t love the finished product. People who read it gave it mostly good reviews on Amazon. It sold a handful of copies. I did not make much from it. The publisher sold its entire stable of books to another publisher, who didn’t want to carry mine. Since eBooks have become easy to publish I’ve toyed with the idea of reproducing it on that format.

The other day I found a copy of the first draft, read the first few pages and realized that’s the version I want to publish. I’m getting it scanned, after which I’ll give it a good editing, probably another one and then release it out there for those of you with Kindles, Nooks or other eBook readers.

The book, titled “Going Too Far,” (It’s not erotica.) is a pretty good reflection of where I was at that point in my life. I was 32 when I finished the first draft, trying to figure out how to make a relationship work and also what I was supposed to do with my life as a career. The characters reflect people I’ve known and I suppose I’m in there, too, but no one is an exact match. Only one character, in fact, comes close to reflecting an actual person. The main character doesn’t, but he does have some of the same wishes I had at that point in my life.

This will be my first venture with eBook publishing, so I can’t say for sure when the book will be out, but it will be a matter of weeks, not months. And not that many weeks at that.

I will keep you posted.

TheNarrativeArts.com is Alive!

I estimated it would take until the end of August to make the changes I wanted to make before continuing with the podcasts. I was right on! I’m ahead of schedule, not over budget but under revenue. That Demand Media thing was a hit to the pocketbook, but not fatal.

In fact, financial viability was one of the reasons I wanted the break. I love doing the podcasts and I have book projects on my schedule, but if possible I would like it to be more than a hobby. So I put ads on every page of the website.

With the first few podcasts I had developed a few hits, but if I had done any that were hugely successful, I would have been completely at the mercy of donations to see any money from it.

At any rate, the site (TheNarrativeArts.com) is now live. The first podcast comes out on Sept. 2. It is nice to be at this point and to be well prepared for the relaunch as well. I should have at least two podcasts ready to go by that date and another in the works.

My first new book will be published in 2012. Another author, one very close to me, should be making her book available before the new year. I’ll explain that when we get closer to launch date. I think it’s pretty cool what she’s doing.

I wrote a novel in 1999. I can’t say I’m in love with it. There is a pretty long backstory to how that book was published and why I wasn’t ultimately thrilled with the end result. But the people who read it liked it. I believe I’ll be making a Kindle version available on that.

These are interesting times we live in, but I find myself optimistic. Perhaps that is because I am enjoying so much participating in an art that thrives in good times or bad. I don’t mean it always thrives financially, but when times are tough or when they’re sailing people appreciate storytelling to serve whatever purpose it does. Whether it’s a conversation around a campfire or a major movie, we dig our stories.

Going to California

The whole point of this blog was to have something with a history once I released another book.

About a decade ago I had a novel published, though that sounds haughtier than it really is. I had to pay a little bit, though not the typical vanity press fees. I had worked for a small publisher before and the fees seemed reasonable, because I was going to have the book edited and designed, or so I believed. In the end I was the editor and I wish I had been the cover designer. I lost all enthusiasm for the book once I got my copies and didn’t do a thing to market it. Friends and family who read it liked it, but what friend or family would say otherwise? Overall it was a nice learning experience and the book is a good reflection of where I was in my life before I got married. I thought there was valuable stuff for anyone in the story. The book sold a few dozen copies and you can still see it, or buy it, on Amazon. If the link doesn’t work, search for “Going Too Far” under “Steven Gardner.”

The desire to write books has never gone away. After 10 years of reporting I believed I’ve learned a lot about telling stories and plan to use whatever skills I have to tell my own growing up story. The story ends as I leave my family to begin serving my LDS mission. I hesitated for a long time to write the story, because I didn’t know what kind of hook I could have that would make the autobiography. Eventually I just started writing some of the stories I remembered in hopes that one day I’d stumble upon a theme that would work. Early on I considered the main theme being one of walking in two worlds, caused by my family’s conversion to Mormonism when I was 11. That may still be the overall theme that generates whatever may be interesting. But also in telling stories verbally I’ve found it not as difficult as I once thought to make the tales fun. I’m still writing the first draft. The next piece of work will be compiling a mountain of stories and weaving a tale that remains engaging throughout. It means I’ll have to throw out a lot of what I’ve written, or save it for some future project.

A few weeks back I came upon the idea of doing some research that can only be done in California, since that is where I grew up. I won’t give too many details, because it is, from what I can tell, still a unique way of weaving the story together. It does involve newspaper archives. So sometime before summer’s out I’ll make a drive down to Southern Cal. I hope to crash on someone’s floor for about a week as I make daily visits to the Los Angeles County Library in West Covina. I had thought about going as early as May, but that doesn’t look like it will work, because that butts up against our wedding anniversary and because the library will be open one fewer day than in a regular week.

I’m going to make several pitches to go get an agent or a publisher, but I’m also open to self-publishing. The process is much less expensive these days. I can find someone to edit for me so that I’m sure it’s a quality project. Designing a cover shouldn’t be difficult, especially for Diana. And I believe I can make the book sell well enough that writing books will be a worthwhile second career until it becomes a first one. After this book I want to do the same for my father, which would mean making another trip to Los Angeles and to Denver. Besides flattering my own ego and that of my father, doing these books will teach me skills in gathering historical evidence. With that experience it could make me even better suited for taking on more expansive projects, the kind of work done in The Devil in the White City, or American Lightning.

God Laughs at My Plans

How disheartening to be an aspiring author and to read a book that suggests that it takes a series of events to create huge successes. The “New York Times” is reporting that book publishers are getting more stingy. What this means is that the $5 million I expected to demand as an advance for my first book will have to be cut back to $100,000. All this, because the economy is in the tank and the people who take incongruous screeds and turn them into cash can’t hold quarterly retreats on the deck of boats made out of $100 bills anymore. Once a year, tops.

What makes this all the more discouraging is that I’m learning it just as I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest revelation, “Outliers.” In the book you read the stunning confession by Bill Gates that he got lucky, the startling truth that older kids are better hockey players than younger ones and that sometimes planes crash because people don’t want to offend their bosses.

Let me not make too much light of the book, because as usual Gladwell delivers solid and interesting evidence to back up his case. It’s at least as solid as anecdotal evidence can be. There is some data, at least enough to satisfy many with a scientific or economic bent. The basic thesis Gladwell makes is that those who are hugely successful get there through their work, but not their work alone. Almost always accompanying the hours of toil are a series of external events that would appear to be completely beyond the control of those who benefit from them.

Here’s what he said:

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Finished the Novel, Controversy Awaits

The novel itself, should it ever be something that gets published, will not be the source of controversy. My status as a National Novel Writing Month winner will be.

I started Sunday morning about 18,000 words short of the 50k mark each writer has to meet to be called a winner. All month I have really wanted to get there. I started off well, but got to visiting with family and stuff, so the last weekend I had a lot of catching up to do. I wrote 5,000 words on Saturday, which was enough to make me realize that I could pull it off if I hustled on Sunday.

So for most of the day I have been sitting on the most comfortable chair in the house, laptop in hand, unaware that every wasted second could cost me the right to call myself a winner. And one or two wasted seconds may have just been the difference. The judges are still out on that one. Here’s why.

The NaNo site has an official counter that counts the manuscript length for you. Throughout the day, when I knew I wasn’t near finished, I would submit my text to see how close I was getting compared to the word counter in Microsoft Word. Each time the NaNo site was giving me one more word than my own word processing program.

Between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. I had hit 40,000 words and change. I went to the site and wanted to get a count. Doing so, by the way updates the word count on the overall display, so there was a psychological bonus for doing it. Well, on this occasion, I must have hit “paste” twice, because the word counter gave me credit for 80,000 words and I suddenly had the “winner” tag on my page. I figured it would be no problem to correct it. So I deleted the text, resubmitted it and the correct word count came up. It did not, however, remove the winner tag. I tried a couple more times and it didn’t work. I eventually realized I was wasting time, so I got back to the novel and the task of finishing it so I could feel good about what the Web site was saying about me.

I was getting close to the end, watching the clock and realizing I was cutting it dreadfully close. With about a minute to spare I did a word count and it came in at 50,000 on the nose. I thought the NaNo site would clock me at 50,001. To my surprise, though, when I went to the site it said the deadline had passed. I was feeling pretty good about finishing the novel, really good in fact. But I wanted the validation from NaNo. My site said “winner,” but the word count was stuck in the 40k range.

So I got resourceful, went and changed the time zone and found out the word counter would work. It clocked me at 50,000 exactly, just like Microsoft Word.

So I was feeling OK about it, but that doesn’t last. So I wrote to NaNo and came clean about what I did. If I get the official nod from them that I finished, then I might flash the NaNo “winner” button and print the certificate. Then again, I don’t know that I can feel good about that. I mean, rules are rules. By changing the time zone I got around them, but I’m not sure I deserve the button. According to the NaNo clock, I didn’t write a novel in a month. I wrote a novel in one month and one minute. Dang. Now I’ll have to do it again next year.

Surpassing Expectations, So Far

As I mentioned a day ago, I’m participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month, the challenge that is exactly what its title suggests. You write a novel in a month. There is no judging of the work, only the word count, and an acknowledgment that a lot of what will be written will be crap. As I said previously, the magic is in the editing.

When midnight struck on Nov. 1, I was in the middle of watching a movie. Once that ended I took to writing my first bit. To get to 50,000 words, the target for those doing this, you have to write about 1,667 words every day. I broke 2,000 the first night and went to be around 3 a.m. Before bed on Saturday I broke 4,200 and tonight I surpassed 6,300. So I’m about 1,300 words ahead of schedule.

I think I need to be. For one, fear of not finishing has overtaken me. I’ve got an idea that’s going somewhere and I’ve got a deadline. Second, I want the certificate and Web badge you get for doing the work. Third, there’s an election Tuesday and I’m aware that on that day it might be kind of tough for me to carry on with this project. So when I start again I don’t want to be behind.

The odd thing was, today I knew that even if I wrote nothing, I’d be ahead of schedule because I had technically done more than two days work on the first day. And yet later in the evening I decided to pick up the laptop, because I had thought of an ending and I knew where the story was going next. So I decided to write at least the ending. I did so and found out I had added about 600 words pretty easily. That was enough to get me going back to where I was in the story to continue on.

Tonight I had little intention of writing and no expectations about where I’d end up once I started, yet when I did so it was the most enjoyable chapter of this whole experience. I guess that should tell me something.

Not Funny

Friends at work convinced me to join the NaNoWriMo project this year. It’s where you write a novel, 50,000 words, in a month. I’m keeping pace after day one, keeping ahead of the count you need to finish. I’ve noticed a few things, though.

1. When they tell you that your stuff will include a lot of crap, that is so unbelievably true. I think anyone reading my novel would fall asleep, or decide to get off the toilet, within about 37 seconds.

2. That there’s crap is beneficial, because it reinforces my long-held belief that the magic will sometimes come in the writing, but it’s more often in the editing. I decided to do NaNoWriMo this year in spite of the other two projects I had in mind because the first few sentences of the fiction piece struck me from out of the Washington gray skies. I liked those lines. Everything else since has been really bland.

3. I put my book in the “Satire, Humor & Parody” category, but so far it’s not very funny. I’ve got a decent premise going, but I like the humor I find in writers like Steve Martin or Lewis Grizzard. They go along telling you a story and drop in lines here and there that strike you. I’m not funny in the first draft very often.

4. Editing is the beauty. Writing this novel will be fine. Editing it will be hard, but if this thing is to be worth a read at all, the editing will be necessary.

5. Come the end of November my intention will likely be to go back to my other projects and work on those with at least half the intensity I’ve demonstrated doing this work. My rationale for doing the novel was that it could spark some creativity that will benefit those works. On Dec. 1 I might change my mind.