Thursday, January 29, 2009

Store and Share Your Fiction Online

Yesterday I learned that Yahoo! Briefcase --- the service I've been using to store my novel (and some other random documents) online --- is shutting down. The service always seemed pretty archaic to me, offering only 30 MB of storage and a rigid interface that never changed in four years, so I thought this day might come eventually. Truth be told, I sometimes wondered whether I wasn't the only person on earth using Briefcase in the first place.

Meanwhile, you may recall that I only just posted my first chapter excerpt a few months ago. Accomplishing this turned out to be an arduous task because, while it seemed like a simple and obvious feature to include. you can't store documents on Blogger. In this case, I wanted to find a web service, preferably free, that allowed me to upload a document and generate a unique URL address for that document, so that people interested in, say, reading my chapter, only had to click my link once and, presto!, my chapter would appear. At the time, the best option I could find was Google Sites. Better than nothing, but it required at least two clicks to get to any document I wanted to share, and the intervening window was confusing.

Hooray for SkyDrive! Store and Share Your Files.

Apparently I was looking in the wrong places. Within minutes of looking for a new place to store my private files, I found this article outlining many free options for storing and sharing files online.

I went with the first in the list, Microsoft SkyDrive, and so far I'm pretty pleased. If I install a little applet I can drag and drop all the files I want into a folder, then simply click an "Upload" button and away they go. Much faster than the Yahoo service I'd been using.

Also, if I place files in a public folder, I can generate a hyperlinked icon that people can click and go straight to the file I want --- no intermediate screens or clicks. Yay! Here's what it looks like (sharing both my first chapter and my short-fiction-submission-guide):





Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Best MFA Program in Creative Writing

[Update: After my 2009 experience applying to Michener and other top MFA programs, and coping with my subsequent acceptance to none, I am geared up to make a second go of it.  Wish me luck!]

For the last two years I've seriously considered pursuing an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing. If I my novel ends up not getting published, returning to school to sharpen my skills would hopefully improve my chances second time around. Moreover, the supportive environment and imposed structure may be what I need to pick myself up and take a second swing, as this has been a taxing experience.

And if I do publish my novel, I may go for the MFA anyway, because even though I'm not finished I'm absolutely ready for something new --- a new project, a new location, new learning experiences, new people. And there will be much to gain by increasing the amount of feedback I get from other serious writers.

At the very least, it would be nice if the second phase of my writing career weren't quite so solitary.

What I know of MFA programs I've garnered from two sources. The first is Tom Kealy's The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, which as far as I can tell is the most focused and comprehensive source out there (especially in conjunction with his blog). Second is this more digestible list from the Atlantic Monthly*.

After poring over these I found myself gravitating most toward the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. Inevitably I came to idealize it, which is inconvenient since, ya know, these programs are pretty hard to get into. Practicality aside though, the Michener Center is highly reputed, which is the most obvious reason to put it near the top of my list. But there are three additional factors that make the Michener Center my favorite:

1) It's the best-funded program out there. Many MFA programs pay full tuition for students, and some even pay a stipend with no or minimal teaching requirements. The Michener Center pays a 25,000 dollar per year stipend for three years, no teaching requirement, and allows you to apply for an additional 2,000 dollars for "professional development." You get paid living wages to write and to learn to write. Am I dreaming?

2) I like its multi-genre emphasis, such that students must choose a primary and a secondary focus among the four areas of fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting.

3) I've yet to hear a bad word uttered about Austin, Texas. All reports I get from those who lived there are that Austin is fun, young, cultured... I hear it's even warm.

Since deciding the Michener Center is my top choice, I've lately found a fourth reason to go there, which is that James A. Michener, reputed author and founder of the program, is my new nemesis. If I'm to complete the prophecy, bring balance to the force, and prove that I am the chosen one, I must descend upon this writers' Mecca to challenge and defeat his legacy. The prophets have spoken. I shall journey to Austin and face my destiny.

If I feel like it, that is.

*I also recommend this associated article. It contains provocative thoughts from BU's MFA program director Leslie Epstein, like his theory that a novelist must have a semi-concrete notion of an ending in mind (which I agree with) and his scorn for the ellipsis (which I think is a little harsh).

The Inspiring, Intimidating James Michener

A few days ago I dropped a line to a musician friend to wish him a happy birthday, sparking an unexpected and pleasing exchange (a little one-sided, I dare say) about favorite books. It turned out that Mike* --- a popular solo performer and parodist here in Boston --- is an avid reader and was starved for some good book conversation.

Thus, I found myself in the familiar and embarrassing position of confessing my troubled relationship with books and, as a result, my relatively (for a novelist) poor familiarity with the universe of quality fiction. Undaunted in the least, Mike proceeded to rattle off some of his more recent favorites. I further confessed that I'd read none of the authors he listed, and that his favorite, James A. Michener, I wasn't even sure if I'd heard of before.

I've always felt an artistic kinship towards musicians --- I suppose I relate to their dual wish to inspire and entertain with their art, and because they're not prose writers (usually) I don't regard them with competitive caution. I know how vital, how nourishing, inspiration is to fellow artists and so I always take special interest in their recommendations. And with Mike, I don't harbor my usual suspicion that some unconscious desire to project sophistication is selecting his favorites for him --- his signature song, after all, is about masturbation; talk about somebody who doesn't take himself too seriously.

I never doubted that Mike had classy tastes, but his passion for Michener intrigued me. When I told him so, he wrote back:

"Michener won a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific. It's weird. I never read Michener while he was alive because they were always making movies and mini-series of his stuff (it's all historical fiction) and I assumed it was fluff. Man was I wrong. As soon as I read my first Michener (Hawaii) I was blown away.

"I assumed there was no way he could have written anything else as good. Wrong. EVERYTHING is as good. if i had to pick a favorite American author, it'd probably be him. I'm putting him in the company of Twain, Melville and Toni Morrison here. I've read about a dozen so far and I'd be hard pressed to pick a fave. I'd suggest you start with The Source, Chesapeake or Caribbean. One caveat: to Michener anything under a thousand pages is cliff-notes. His general formula is to take a small geographical area and cover it - literally - from the beginning of time to the present. It's not unusual in a Michener book for life not to appear on earth for 150 pages or so. It sounds dull, but it's RIVETING. Something interesting is that he wrote about 80 or so HUGE books, but he didn't write the first one til he was in his 40s."

This pitch compelled me to Google Michener immediately. That I was so unfamiliar with his work up to this point astounds me. Not only did he write 40 lengthy books, but he seemed just as comfortable with fiction as with non-fiction. Not only did he win a Pulitzer, he was immensely popular too, selling 75 million books worldwide. His books are apparently all epic and well-researched. He spent whole mornings writing, and whole afternoons reading, meeting people, and generally immersing himself in the places where his stories unfolded. And as if these accomplishments aren't enough, he was also a naval officer in WWII, and even took a stab at politics.

Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

The real kicker for me is that James A. Michener was also a generous philanthropist (as I fantasize I will be should writing ever make me rich and famous) who gave away 100 million dollars to various charities, universities, etc. It was at this point that I finally realized I had heard of Michener once before, because he founded my dream MFA program in creative writing, The Michener Center For Writers, at the University of Texas in Austin.

Well that does it. James A. Michener is my new mentor-nemesis, at once a benevolent inspiration and a source of fear, envy and hatred. If he is the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi, I am the bitterly passionate and frequently misguided Anakin Skywalker. How can I live up to him? And yet I must. Such is the paradox of model inspiration: He who daunts you, drives you.

It may take a while, but soon enough I will pick up one of his books, even though the odds of me finishing are slim. For me, reading a thousand page book would be an even greater accomplishment than writing one --- hell, I even put down Anna Karenina and David Copperfield halfway through, and I was enjoying both. Whether I finish it, or like it, doesn't really matter though. A new bar has been set, for better or worse.

You may have passed into the afterlife, Master Michener --- your Jedi robe now a puddle at my feet --- but our rivalry has just begun.

Bonus contest - I'll ship a copy of Mike's album, Pissed in Boston, to the first person that can guess who my previous nemesis was. (You cannot participate if I've told you at some point already). Two hints: (1) I've never really read anything by this author, either. (2) Unlike Michener, age was a vital factor in this rivalry. Submit your guess in the "Comments" section of this post.

*Mike Barrett is a solo musician and parodist (sounds like Irish folk meets Tom Waits?) who performs all around greater Boston, and for one month of the year in Ireland. I watched him perform during my first summer in Boston, 2oo1. My friends and I were so thrilled we hired him to perform at a party later that year at Cornell, where he was a smash(ed) hit. We've kept in touch since. You can check out Mike's music and shenanigans at MySpace, Facebook, and buy his album at CD Baby. To add yourself to his contact list and be notified of upcoming shows, drop an e-mail to barrettoffends@gmail.com.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fiction Writing in the Internet Age

(I started writing this response a month ago, which is why the blog article I refer to is over a month old).

This article from the Guardian Books Blog discusses Jack Kerouac's scroll for On the Road and how the scroll lent itself to Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness writing style. The author ponders over the impact that the word processor has had on the craft of writing, in terms of the edit-as you-go powers it grants the writer. I made a comment, which I'm reprinting and expanding here.

As a writer myself, I find the computer's Internet connection even more influential than the word processor. To be sure, I edit constantly as I write, so much so that I no portion of my writing could ever be considered a "first draft" in the traditional sense. Rarely do I allow a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase exist in its raw form for more than a few seconds --- as soon as they are born they are subject to rapid and frequent alterations.

This tendency alone probably makes my novel drastically different, in both style and substance, than if I had written it in 1951, but besides using word processor I also, always, write my fiction with two web browser windows open:

1ST WINDOW = Merriam-Webster.com, so that I can instantly and frequently look up synonyms and definitions, which allows me a lot more freedom to explore word choice than if if I had to open and scan a thesaurus or dictionary all the time. Since my vocabulary has always been somewhat limited (relative to other aspiring writers, anyway) this tool is a total blessing.

2ND WINDOW = This is my "research" window. It starts off as Wikipedia by default, but generally it serves as my launching pad to chase down, immediately, any notions or ideas I may suddenly get in my head. Once, for example, I decided that I needed to make a doctor-character of mine less accessible to another character who was romantically interested in her (drrrah-mah). I thought one way to do this might be to have her do humanitarian work overseas. I was able to research various third world regions of the word and the epidemics that plague those places, the cultural and geographical details that make these places interesting, and then internships and fellowships that could help get my character over there.

Thanks to the Internet, I can instantly determine the plausibility of an idea, seek related alternatives, and collect all the technical details necessary to make it authentic.

I've been incorporating Internet access into my writing routine pretty much since I began my novel, and it's so ingrained that if I don't have a connection, I'm automatically distracted and anxious before I even begin typing, preoccupied by the very idea of my missing lifeline, like I'm going to war without my lucky coin.

One could easily argue the disadvantages of this kind of writing routine. For one thing, it's a ready distraction, especially when one is feeling uninspired. Often what masquerades as researching is actually an unconscious avoidance of writing anything (I'm most prone to this when I've gone a few days without working on the book). The Internet can also be a black hole. Countless times I've chased down ideas for hours only to come up empty handed, dazed and frustrated, often forgetting where or why I started.

Still, I think the benefits of Internet access outweigh the disadvantages, because when I'm brainstorming ideas, the Internet is like a second, much larger brain, and I'm not restricted by my limited knowledge (and lord knows I know little) or the time it takes to check out a book from the library. There's a whole world out there waiting to be incorporated into my stories.

But let me put it to the other writers out there, whether you are pro, semi-pro or amateur. Do sometimes you wish you could go back to an age where you were limited to the type writer, or even the fountain pen?