Friday, February 29, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Your Characters

I'm not positive, but I think I wrote a main character's final scene last night. It snuck up, and didn't even occur to me until this morning. Reflecting on it now, as then, I don't feel jubilant or mournful, just pensive. This may be because I'm not sure she's gone yet. Or maybe it's because she's fictional and so really, in the grand scheme, isn't so important to me.

But I wonder if saying goodbye to characters isn't a special sort of transition, wherein processing the loss is slow and subtle. Because I've never parted with a character from my novel before, I have no emotional frame of reference. Tell a small child that someone close to them has gone, for good, they rarely burst into tears. Instead they may ask a clarifying question or two, then simply return to the task that was interrupted --- watching television, or playing with toys --- now just a little more detached.

J.K. Rowling cried upon completing one of the final chapters in the last Harry Potter book, likewise having to say goodbye certain characters. My own character has not died but she is leaving, leaving the bounds of my fictional world and the characters in it. In doing so, she's also leaving me.

Most of my characters are extrapolations of people I know in life, composites of two, maybe three personalities at most. My particular fondness for this character --- the director of an after-school program, and my main character's boss --- developed because she is more a product of my imagination than any other in the book. I remember the moment I met her: her stalwart frame, raised on a booster step behind the podium, with her newborn infant strapped to her back, inspiring a school auditorium full of parents with her quirky charisma, wooing them, owning them. I hadn't realized she was so cunning, such a force to be reckoned with.

I'd had my conception of her mapped out on paper and in my brain for over a year. Some of my intentions were honest, some less so. On the whole it seemed to suit my needs. But characters come to life in their own time, in their own way. Chapter after chapter, numerous actions and quotations, and still your character remains a construction (another of my characters for instance, an elusive fly named Simon, has yet to come alive for me, and is a persistent concern).

As the writer the moment of birth is difficult to forecast, but it's quite discernible. Sometimes a mere utterance or gesture becomes the character's first breath. To capture the essence of this moment in three words: "There you are." From this point onward, writing her is decidedly easier, because she guides her own path. As author you're reduced from god to director, a role that is far more manageable.

Today it dawns on me that just as a character is born in her own time, she may leave in her own time as well.

If your time is now, Meg, then I say goodbye to you. The other characters may have their misgivings, but you and I have shared some powerful moments. You have made me, and continue to make me, very happy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Day Job

I work at Harrrr- vard,
I work at Harrrr- vard,
I work at Harrrr- vard.
(like you care).

Specifically I organize web conferences on public policy topics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. I speak frequently with high-profile leaders over the phone, and the conversations go like this:

"Mr. Ambassador, are you there?"

To which they usually answer, "Yes," and then begin talking to the important people on the call.

Truthfully it's satisfying work and we cover a range of topics like human trafficking, emergency evacuation, conservation, drug courts, etc. View any of the recordings and you can hear me welcome the audience, then say, "I'd like to turn things over to our moderator."

My boss is Steve Goldsmith (the politician, not the cricketer) who, besides being the former mayor of Indianapolis, has the distinction of being one of the only prominent Republicans at the Kennedy School --- hold your applause. His liberal staff generally forgive that he advised George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, because his politics don't come into play in the nonpartisan work we do here, and no one doubts that he is pragmatic, forward thinking and well-intentioned.

Working at Harvard doesn't make me rich but it's pretty sweet. Between holidays, personal days, snow closings and vacation we get about 7 weeks off, and the benefits are great. Pocket change for gym membership and extension school classes, solid health plan and library access (where I do most of my writing).

There's also lots of stuff going on here, all the time. I've killed many a lunch hour sitting in on great seminars about national security, politics and the press, and of course the current presidential race. Some of it's over my head and/or boring but most of it's pretty engaging even for a layman like me. Check here for some of the more prominent people that come to speak --- my clumsy tenacity won me a handshake with Mayor Michael Bloomberg (story for another post).

I collaborate with a lot of influential people, and hopefully I can leverage that if my book gets published. The people I have an actual rapport with are not senators and governors but they do talk to governors... and lots and lots of other people. Unfortunately, every other colleague they have has written a book. But fortunately, none of those books are a gritty, first-rate work of fiction.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

e-Newsletter Important Tool for Writers

Oh happy day! I found an e-newsletter service that integrates with my blog. Feedblitz is free and easy to use, and seems to offer a lot of control over your newsletter, such as how your content appears, how often it's distributed, and how much info you request from subscribers.

I even installed the little subscriber form with no trouble, and have been bragging about it ever since. When I do, I feel like a Who from Whoville, straight from the cover a Dr. Seuss book, pointing to a piece of gadgetry and exclaiming: "There's a Widget on my Blog!"

That this newsletter function does not come standard on every blog blows my mind. Advocates for blogging argue that one of the premiere features of blogs is the RSS feed, and in general I see the value. But I just don't know many people who use RSS feeds, and to confirm my suspicion I've started asking around. I have a lot of sophisticated, educated, successful and professional friends (swear to God) and I've yet to find that one of them actually uses RSS feeds. And I think I know why.

RSS is for information junkies, a wonky cult of professionals capable of consuming vast amounts of information on a regular basis. RSS lets them track their news from dozens of sources at once, satisfying an immediate need for any and all updates --- a need most of us simply do not have, nor would we be capable of satisfying such a need if it existed.

E-mail is accessible, invasive and widely used. Even people without computers use e-mail. My mom uses e-mail. And she forwards everything. The viral potential of a good posting makes my mouth water. Now I can actually leverage the network of friends, family and colleagues I have in order to get my blog read, rather than simply alerting them my blog and having them (1) ignore the RSS option, (2) check the blog once or twice and (3) ultimately forget about it.

My headline is merely a prediction at this point, but I do anticipate this will be a powerful weapon for writers.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Blogging is hard

Setting a blog up is as easy as advertised, but getting it any sort of attention (and knowing whether you are or not) requires more than just frequent, quality postings. I'm encountering many technical steps --- pinging, pasting analytics code, pasting widget code, submitting to to multiple blog search engines --- that, if you have no programming experience, I'd hope you'd find it as complicated and frustrating as I do.

Getting attention also requires a firm grasp of blogosphere etiquette, e.g. reading, commenting, and linking to other blogs. It's all challenging for me to wrap my brain around.

Integral to overcoming both these challenges developing a firm grasp of RSS and related "feed" reading tools. Ugh. When you blog, RSS is how you stay on top of current information in your domain, and presumably it's also how a lot of people will read your blog.

But honestly I don't know a lot people who use RSS feeds and news readers. And why are e-mail alerts not a standard feature on blogs??? Everyone uses e-mail, yah?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I began work on a novel in the summer of 2004. Now, in the prime of my late twenties, I near completion - phew!

Starting, then getting some momentum, was the most difficult - took nearly two years before I actually enjoyed (most of the time) sitting down to work on my baby. Now I approach another decidedly unromantic stage. After I subject my treasure to loathsome scrutiny and beg friends for suggestions I don't want, I’ll embark on a pride-swallowing campaign of self-promotion to agents and publishers with nothing promised but a bevy of ego numbing, demoralizing rejections.

In the event I do get published, I’ll transfer this energy to the reading public, so that I may save my work from a 500-copy printing and dusty bookshelf oblivion.

Though writing has long been a hobby I've never published, and figured my first foray might itself make for interesting reading. When I'm not writing, which unfortunately is most of the time, I work at a school of government organizing web conferences. Sometimes I exercise. The rest of the time I try to not neglect my friends and family, who have always encouraged what I do and are the lifeblood of both my inspiration and emotional health.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I'm in Love with "The Office."

And I might as well start talking about it now. I have watched seasons 1 and 2 in their entirety, and Friday night rented the first disc of season 3, and went to bed only after watching all seven episodes on the disc. It had been nearly a month since I finished Season 2, so my mini-marathon on Friday was like a small hit of heroin.

Good excuse to test out some tools here, like linking and video upload. New episodes begin on April 10.

I'm testing to see if I can embed a video of the beautiful Jenna Fischer on Letterman.

Will this work? I hope so. Probably can't hurt to have Jenna on your blog.

Hello, World (dress rehearsal).

My third attempt at blogging --- but this time I've got a clear set of goals, plus a how-to manual to guide me. The manual says I should be blogging even as I am still planning my blog and launch, which makes sense, so here's my first unofficial post.

My primary purpose is to generate some sort of visibility in advance of actually publishing my novel. I'm hoping such a ready-audience will (1) persuade publishers to publish the book in the first place and (2) get the book into the hands of people besides my friends and family.

But I anticipate that connecting with strangers will be quite fulfilling, and serve as its own reward. Lord knows I spend enough time writing e-mails of little relevance except that occasionally make my friends smile and win me kudos. Last time I blogged I simply tried transferring these e-mail musings on, say, snow angels and recipes for sweet potato balls, into a forum everyone could see.

Probably there will be more of that. But I'll also be chronicling my efforts to get the book finished, edited, published, and read, which will hopefully appeal to other fledgling artists out there.