The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson)

2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and to celebrate his legacy the Hogarth Press commissioned novelists to reinvent Shakespeare’s plays for the modern reader.

Jeanette Winterson tackles The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s stranger plays, in The Gap of Time. The original play revolves around a jealous king disowning his daughter (he believes she belongs to his childhood friend) and condemning her to death. The child survives, is raised by an adoptive family, and later reunites with her birth family.

Winterson possesses true talent and has written exceptional books, but The Gap of Timeis a mess. Its fundamental problem is inherent in its premise. Shakespeare’s unrealistic plot, which hinges on bizarre coincidences, undermines Winterson’s otherwise conventional approach to the material.

Winterson thus has to perform strange surgery. The novel begins with a dystopian science-fiction element — a “BabyHatch” where people abandon babies — the presence of which the culture more or less accepts. Until, of course, they don’t — because the BabyHatch has served its plot purpose — and we are back in a world without BabyHatches.

Winterson turns Shakespeare’s King Leontes into the capitalist Leo, stopping just short of the expected stereotype. A stereotype would be better, in fact, because the absurdity of Leo’s motivations and actions would then have some sensible literary context. When we are cued to expect a character with psychological complexity, then are forced to settle for feigned depth because this character must make senseless decisions to serve the plot, it rankles.

Winterson’s strengths lie elsewhere. The opening chapter, in which Shep adopts Perdita, is outstanding. It promises, in Shep, a fascinating figure whose momentous decision to rescue the baby establishes a strange network of relationships that go beyond anything he could imagine. Shep then disappears from the book, cast to the plot’s sidelines, and on his few returns to its stage is reduced to a caricature.

Strangely, the most poorly developed character of the novel is the adopted Perdita. Although Winterson was herself adopted, she is unable to offer any insight into Perdita’s character beyond basic clichés. Instead, Winterson retreats towards other, equally uninteresting but more active figures, in order to advance the story.

Characters move through one chapter in gritty realism, then become cartoons in the next chapter. Sections open with statements like “Perdita and Zel had come to London.” Yes, it mimics theatrical scene-setting, but in a novel nothing is more boring than such bland exposition. The prose is often amateurish and overwrought, as when Leo’s “eyes were dark with the unsaid.”

The great weakness of Winterson’s novel is her inability to dance with Shakespeare — she tries to move between tragedy and comedy, but is not willing to push the novel into an experimental fantasy space.

Until, suddenly, at the very end, she does — but only for a few tacked-on pages. If Winterson had been willing to experiment earlier, and throughout, then a lot of what she attempts might work.

The most painful moments of The Gap of Timecome when Winterson enters faux-experimentation mode, and draws our attention to the manufacture of her plot. Sometimes in apology, like when characters wonder at the coincidences or clichés. At other times, in ways meant to be clever that just feel condescending.

“There’s an old saying,” notes one character, “What’s past help should be past grief.”

“That’s Shakespeare,” replies another.

It’s more like Shakespeare for Dummies. Winterson is an otherwise excellent author, and The Gap of Timeis beneath her.

Draft by Draft: One Short Story from Concept to Completion

Continuing my online serialized nonfiction textbook

One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the third section, which covers developing the idea and starting to write. You can jump back and read the Introduction,or you can jump back to read how I developed the idea and started to write.

Tinkering with the Opening and Continuing to Write

I don’t know what to write next, so I sit back and re-read my beginning. I like this opening section, but I haven’t done what I said I’d do (introduce a very specific “you”). This doesn’t seem like a problem in this section, but it would be a problem going forward.

Probably, what I’ve written (127 words) will, with paragraph breaks, take up the first page or half-page of the manuscript when I format it properly (I don’t want to worry about formatting and that sort of nitpicking when I’m drafting). I feel like I should narrow that “you” by the second page, if not on the first. But I don’t have an idea on how to do this yet.

So the next thing I feel I need to do is find that “voice” — the narrative voice that the story is going to be written in. This is something I always need to do before I can really get a solid draft. I spend a lot of time trying to find the narrative voice — the tone and style of HOW the story will be told. WHAT happens in the story is in many ways less important than HOW that story is told. Somebody else could reproduce your plot but fail miserably, whereas you can work with the same plot and succeed — IF your style works. IF you’ve got the right handle on the language. (If you don’t believe me, look at Shakespeare, serial plagiarist and literary Lord.)

In this early stage, I find it helps to let my unconscious work a little on this problem of the narrative voice, while consciously I tinker with the language. For the most part, I try not to tinker with the language in the first draft, because it’s usually wasted time. Why streamline prose that I might delete later? It can even be counterproductive. Once that prose is streamlined, will I allow myself to delete it, even if it should be cut?

Nevertheless, I want to keep working on the story for my allotted writing time (if I’ve schedule an hour to write, I have to write for the full hour), and sometimes it helps to tinker and streamline the language while you’re trying to settle the story’s style. I will give myself a limit — I can only tinker and play for a few sessions before I have to commit to a narrative voice/style and finish the draft before doing more tinkering. Right now, it’s allowed, so I make a handful of changes.

I’ve highlighted my changes in bold below, and numbered them so that I can explain each. Here’s my original again:

First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! It’s the most exciting story of all time, and you’re reading it. Then you stop. All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending is sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.

The explosions are all in caps, when they happen at least. Of course they are. EXPLOSION! That one took you by surprise.

You put the story down. So far the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?

You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.

Now, here’s the revision (pretty minimal, but let’s look at my tinkering closely anyway, just to see how I’m thinking through the revision process):

First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! The (1) most exciting story of all time — (2) and you’re reading it. Then you pause (3). All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending seems (4) sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.

The explosions appear (5) in caps, when they happen at least. Of course. (6) EXPLOSION! (7)

You put the story down. So far, (8) the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?

You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled (9) with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.

I haven’t done much, but I’ve done a few things:

(1) I tend, like most people, to overuse the verb “to be” and the passive voice in my drafts. If I cut the word “It’s” then I will get to cut one instance of “to be” while punching into the “fact” that this is the most exciting story of all time a word sooner. In comedy writing, sometimes this is referred to as “shaving syllables” — that one word or syllable can make all the difference to the comic timing of a piece.

(As an aside, often in comedy you will want to re-order words to put the funniest idea/image at the very end of the sentence, even if now your sentence is ungrammatical, because you always want to end with your punchline or risk spoiling the comic effect.)

(2) If I replace the comma with an em dash, then the introduction of the word “you” and thus the second person narration will be a bit punchier. Coupled with the edit above (1), this changes the rhythm of the second sentence considerably (read the two versions out loud to see what I mean).

It’s more peppy, and more melodramatic, which suits my purpose of satirizing the first sentence as an exaggerated version of the sorts of stereotypical “first lines” that creative writing textbooks offer as strong first lines.

(3) I changed “stop” to “pause” because I am thinking about the reaction I want from “you” (as a character, and as a real reader). I don’t want you to “stop” — if the story’s exciting, you shouldn’t stop. But I do want a pause, some suspense, since “you” are next going to question whether or not this story could meaningfully be better than its first sentence.

(4) Similarly, the ending should not “be” sure to disappoint. It should “seem” that way — but then NOT disappoint. This also lets me lose another weak verb/form of “to be.”

(5) Again, I want to swap a “to be” for a stronger verb. Usually, the better verb option will already appear nearby in the sentence you wrote, and you can just cut words, but here “happen” doesn’t work so I have to do a real rewrite. I’ve settled on “appear.” In addition to this being more vivid, I find the original words “are all” awkward. When I read this out loud, I stumble over them, so they aren’t elegant.

(6) Cutting “they are” reduces repetition (although technically I cut the earlier “are,” and so already cut the repetition in the language) and another “to be” form. The main benefit here is that I have made the following “EXPLOSION” more punchy by virtue of altering the paragraph’s rhythm.

(7) I cut the line because, although I liked the idea, it seemed like it was too much. Besides, I was just talking about explosions, so that one was hardly a surprise.

(8) I just added this comma for the rhythm, to insert a brief pause. Also, it makes grammatical sense.

(9) I didn’t change anything here, but I want to draw attention to it as a moment when I have chosen to use the passive voice, which is technically “weak” writing, to counterbalance the “activity” of explosions. An explosion being filled with pathos is a senseless concept, and so I’m hoping to get some humour  out of that, and formally support the idea with the implied oxymoron of a passive explosion.

While this tinkering hasn’t led me to really change the narrative voice here, it’s helped me figure out what I really need out of my narrative voice going forward: less passivity and more specificity.

Next, I will draft a second scene/section and try to really nail down this “You” and thereby settle the story’s voice/style.

Pledge to support my work and the writing of this textbook, and gain access to each new section as it is completed! This post concludes the free material; I hope these posts have been helpful to you!

Draft by Draft: One Short Story from Concept to Completion

Continuing my online serialized nonfiction textbook

One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the second section, which covers developing the idea and starting to write. I posted the Introduction last week.

Developing the Idea and Starting to Write

The idea for “Explosions” arose, as ideas often do, from reading.

James Wood begins his book How Fiction Works with the following passage:

“The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, thought successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. . . . In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration.”

I couldn’t help but read these lines as a challenge. “Explosions” began, basically, by picking an imaginary mind-fight with some guy who wrote some book I was reading, a man who will never become aware of my existence or our feud.

I had read a number of second-person stories, but I had to agree with Wood’s assessment that few of them were particularly impressive. Why not? What are the problems that arise when writing in the second person?

For me, the most serious flaw is the lack of excitement, of the kind of immediacy you can feel in other forms of narration. Although the point of the second person is to “grab” the reader, by addressing her directly, the “you” address often operates to distance the reader. The results are akin to prose-poetry: a voice speaking broadly and meditatively to this imagined reader, not a visceral grasping for his throat.

The generality of the imagined “you,” often approached in this broad sense by an author anxious for any number of disparate reading “yous” to see themselves reflected in the pronoun, seemed the likely culprit.

So, I decided, I would write a short story where my “you” was a specific person addressed as “you” but otherwise sharing the narrowness of qualities that we find in a “regular” fictional character.

Initial Research

Something I do immediately, once I start to consider an idea, is conduct research. Sometimes, I research particular factual matters: if I want to set a story on Mars, I’ll go find some articles on Mars. More important to me, though, is trying to find literary examples. I look for stories that either make use of a similar idea or the same stylistic approach that I’m considering.

Since I don’t have a story idea yet, my initial research is into examples of second-person narrative. More narrowly, I want to find other examples of engaging and sustained use of the second person, which don’t lapse into prose-poetry or abstract meditation.

The best example I find is a metafictional short story by David Arnason called “A Girl’s Story,” which begins like this: “You’ve wondered what it would be like to be a character in a story, to sort of slip out of your ordinary self and into some other character. Well, I’m offering you the opportunity.”

Arnason is a criminally underrated and almost unknown writer (beyond the borders of Manitoba, where he looms large). I love this story, especially how Arnason handles the metafictional intrusions with an elegant touch. (I highly recommended There Can Never be Enough: New and Selected Stories.)

However, while I am sure I will wind the story into a metafiction (I don’t see how I can avoid it, writing in the second person, and I love metafictions), I want to shy away from saying “I” and speaking to the reader directly as an “I” addressing a “you.”

It just seems like the obvious thing to do, and I wonder if it’s to blame for this consistent problem I see in second-person narration. Maybe the “you” isn’t the problem at all — maybe the “I” speaking to “you” or their interaction is to blame. Regardless, I want to simplify the structure to focus on “you.”

Already, in this initial exploration, before I have fleshed out the idea, I’m starting to place limits on myself. Limits help the idea develop, like how the strict rhyme scheme of a sonnet helps you write. You aren’t staring at a blank page, you’ve got that rhyme scheme that you can mentally overlay onto the page, and writing becomes a process of problem-solving rather than forcing inspiration.

As you begin to investigate the avenues you might go down, it’s good to scrub some off the map — especially if they are too well-lit. In the city of fiction, you do better to find the darker, murker, more dangerous alleys. The well-trodden, litterless streets won’t take you anywhere interesting.

I want a novel-length example, of the kind Wood suggests would never work, even though I’m only writing a short story. I want to see how to sustain the second person for a long work — I will use some of the same tricks but condense the scope and hopefully also the energy.

I start writing before getting ahold of a good example, but during my revisions I find Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The publisher, Riverhead, is a member of Penguin Group, so Hamid’s book explodes my assumption that second-person narration is unmarketable. Like most publishing “wisdom,” such assumptions are typically untested and oversubscribed.

Hamid uses the same technique I settled on — making the “you” a very specific character, like any other “normal” character, to counterbalance the oddity of the narrative style. My instinct was right.

The Story’s Opening

I still don’t know what my story will be about, but I am excited by the idea, so I’ll just start writing. You always discover things in the writing. You can never start writing too early — as long as you are willing to later throw away your writing.

Often, since I have so many ideas, I don’t start writing seriously until years after I get an idea, letting things percolate until then, so that my first drafts have more solidity. But with “Explosions” I feel, frankly, a little lost. I’m putting off starting. I’m getting “writer’s block” … but I know that writer’s block is a lie, it doesn’t exist, the “cure” is to just start writing, so I do.

I make a deal with myself that I often make: I’ll set a timer and just commit to doing a bad job. Maybe I don’t feel like I can produce a great story today, but I can write really badly for twenty minutes.

I don’t have a character, or a plot, or anything. I just know that I want to use the second person “you” and that I want the story to be engaging and exciting in a way these second-person narratives usually are not.

What to write?

I find it’s always best to make any vague notion concrete, no matter how absurd this turns out. My idea is to write a “you” story that is exciting. How?

Well, I know what Hollywood would do with a story that was barely there, when it wanted to add excitement. Plop in some explosions.

I’ll do that, and I’ll try to work in some acknowledgement of how ridiculous this all is, and how I’m kinda worried I can’t do this.

This is the moment I come up with my title, and my opening paragraphs. I’m actually parodying how writers are told to begin their stories, with an exciting first line (a “hook”).

First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! It’s the most exciting story of all time, and you’re reading it. Then you stop. All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending is sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.

The explosions are all in caps, when they happen at least. Of course they are. EXPLOSION! That one took you by surprise.

You put the story down. So far the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?

You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.

That’s all I’ve got for now. But it’s a start.

Pledge to support my work and the writing of this textbook, and gain access to each new section as it is completed!

Draft by Draft: One Short Story from Concept to Completion

Introduction to my online serialized nonfiction textbook

One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the Introduction.

The Gamble of This Book

In his incredible novel Apikoros Sleuth, a murder mystery taking the form of a Talmudic inquiry, Robert Majzels writes, “If you take hold of the larger, you do not take hold; if you take hold of the smaller, you do take hold.”

Majzels’s novel mimics the style and visual structure of the Talmud, with a core scripture surrounded by commentary, and it’s possible that Majzels borrowed this quotation from some Hebrew text. Majzels is the one who, without knowing it, gave me the idea for this draft-by-draft project, by telling me a story about dining with a Very Famous Author. (I will begrudgingly hold back the Very Famous Author’s name. If you meet me, or Majzels, hector us into giving it up.)

Majzels commented to this Very Famous Author that he would love to see a writer of his prominence start a blog to show readers the process of how one of his novels developed, posting each day’s writing and the changes as the story moved through its drafts. The Very Famous Author was apparently horrified by the suggestion. Readers seeing his draft work! Majzels, a gruff curmudgeon, responded with, “Well, why don’t you just carve your novels on stone tablets,” and the conversation devolved.

(My other favourite story about Majzels is that he was once interviewed for a creative writing job somewhere, and they asked him a question along the lines of, “What would you do to encourage a student to discover her voice?” Majzels replied that he would never do something that horrible to a student. He didn’t get the job.)

The gamble of this book of mine, a 50,000-word inquiry into how I wrote a 5000-word short story, is that there some truth in the Majzels quote, and some wisdom in his challenge. By delving deep into the process of writing one single story, we should come to a fuller understanding of how any story develops, of how to write and edit overall — a better sense than if we remained in the broader realm of generalities and overarching principles.

As a creative writing teacher, I keep looking for a creative writing textbook. The existing ones have numerous failings. The most common failing is that they are written for beginners. Ironically, a beginner cannot get much out of a book aimed at beginners.

Beginner writers make all the same mistakes, but are better served by articles than by textbooks. A ten-page checklist that includes things like “convert sentences from the passive to the active voice,” and a booklet of related exercises, is really what a beginning writer needs, along with the time to write and read and learn through experience. Yet creative writing books focus, primarily, on providing a handful of things no beginning writer needs.

One useless thing that books for beginners typically provide is encouragement. It’s nice to encourage writers, but it’s not useful to the writer — at least, not useful in a practical sense. A writer who is motivated enough to buy a book about writing, or take a creative writing class, doesn’t need encouragement. They’re already encouraged, and they need to know how to work.

A writer who picks up a self-help book like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which offers only encouragement, and no craft discussion, is another matter. As a rule, I’m not much for self-help books, but you could do a lot worse than Pressfield’s. It will give you a good ass-kicking, which I would prescribe to most writers. Since that book exists, writers don’t need its ideas summarized, bowdlerized, prettified, and repackaged in larger textbooks that were supposed to be about how to become better at writing.

Another useless thing you’ll find in most creative writing books is a variety of exercises focused on developing your creativity and generating ideas. Writers who can’t write well don’t need exercises that spur forth their creativity. They need to be less creative for a while. They need to learn some rules. Then they need to sally forth with their creative guns firing and break all of those rules.

First, though, they need to understand the conventions that their readers and that publishing professionals understand and bring to bear on their reading. They need to know how to look at their writing the way that somebody else will look at it.

This is why so many beginning writers make the same mistakes: they don’t know how to read their own work. If they read the same story they just wrote in a magazine, they would hate it, and they would know why. But they can’t do that yet. That’s what they need to learn. Encouraging your ego and creativity won’t help you see yourself in a mirror.

In addition to being useless to beginning writers, these things are potentially harmful. They can distort that mirror. Yet there is another simple problem with most creative writing textbooks, which is that they aren’t useful to anybody who’s not a beginning writer.

So, as the writer grows, she grows beyond the book. While the above summarizes my frustrations as a teacher of writing, as a student of writing my frustration is that I want to learn from books! And almost every book is written for a beginning writer.

My gamble is that, by writing this book for a non-beginner, by moving through my process for writing a single story in as much detail and depth as I can, I will create a book that is of interest to both the established or mid-career author and the beginning author. In other words, I hope that this narrowness and depth will produce a book that paradoxically has more broad use than the standard, general, unfocused textbook.

You should be able to read this book again in five years and still find it useful, while other books in the genre have fallen away. We won’t know for five more years, I suppose. Let’s stake our wagers and wait and see.

In my next post, we’ll start to look at how I wrote one single short story, called “Explosions.”

The final version of “Explosions” is available on my Patreon site.

Pledge to support my work and the writing of this textbook, and gain access to each new section as it is completed!

Three Core Elements of My Home Office

Thinking Through Your Setup

I enjoy seeing how other writers work, and what tools they use. Today, I thought I would share three useful elements from my home office setup. The idea here is not so much to tell you how to set up your office, but to show you how I’ve put some thought into my setup. I will recommend the things I use, but the real recommendation is this: Think through your setup.

Erasable Pens, Highlighters, and Markers

Eons ago, I tried out erasable pens. They were the worst. Absolute garbage. Recently, I decided to give them a try again. Now, they are outstanding.

The brand I love is called FriXion. They appear to be imported from Japan; the packaging is riddled with kanji I cannot read. I have just been ordering them off Amazon with free shipping, so I don’t know if they are stocked in any stores.

They erase using heat, so basically anything that provides friction will erase for you. I have heard that if you leave your inked-up notes or whatever in the sun too long or near high heat then they will also be erased; I also hear that you can recover your erased text by putting the paper in the freezer. I can’t testify to that, but my sources are reliable.

You sometimes get light smudging with the highlighters (if you erase), but overall every FriXion item I have used is more or less excellent. Here are the three items from my recent order:

FriXion erasable coloured pens set

FriXion erasable coloured highlighters set

FriXion erasable coloured markers set

These things have changed my life. I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially for messy writers.

Monitor Adapters

I switched from PC to Mac and from desktop to laptop at the same time, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The portability of the laptop is an obvious advantage — whether I’m working in my home office or in my university office or in a coffeeshop, I have the exact same computer setup.

However, I missed multiple screens. I was used to having a two-screen setup: one for my writing and one for my research. I had put my PC screens into a garage sale pile, so I still had them, and one day it occurred to me that I could probably just find some sort of adapter and plug them into my laptop.

I did, and it worked. The only catch is that my laptop has a retina display but these old monitors don’t, so they basically look like garbage, but they are functional and it beats paying crazy money for fancy retina monitors.

All I needed was two of these babies:

Thunderbolt to VGA adapter

Of course, what you need really depends on your ports.

Kneeling Chair and a Standing Desk Rigging

I found some old wooden thingamajig at some garage sale and put it on the desk to raise my laptop. When you sit at your desk to write, your computer monitor should be level with your face so that you don’t have to look down. This is proper ergonomics.

To make this setup work (since my laptop keyboard is now out of reach), I have an external keyboard and trackpad.

I use the Apple brand ones:

Apple bluetooth keyboard

Apple bluetooth trackpad

They work wonderfully but are expensive. Now, there are a lot of less expensive options. I hear that this is a great set, and it’s very affordable:

Kingear wireless keyboard/mouse combo

However, I cannot vouch for those.

When you raise the laptop up like this, you can actually use it as a standing desk (in which case you’re not ergonomic anymore, but at least you’re not sitting all the time). When I stand, I just use the laptop keyboard. I basically sit to write and stand for non-writing, paperwork-type tasks.

When I sit, I use a kneeling chair. I found mine at a garage sale. It looks similar to this one.

I am no expert in what chair you should use, but I love this kneeling chair. It has really helped my back. It takes some time to get used to it. Don’t take this as medical advice, but for me it more or less forced me to engage my core when sitting and so has been helpful.

No matter what kind of chair you end up using, heed this warning: Put time and money and thought into your chair. Don’t be afraid to pay a lot of money for the right chair for you. Your chair is the most important thing in your office. Your chair = your health.

As I say, with this setup, I can also stand when I want to change positions or when I am just sick of sitting.

A lot of other stuff in this office that I will maybe walk through another day, but those are three core elements of my office that might inspire you to plan or re-plan your own office — the key is to be intentional and think about how you want to work.

Whatever you put in the office, and however you want to use the stuff in your office, take some time to consider your setup. An office setup that works for you will encourage you to spend more time in your office, getting things done.

KANADA: a comic Kafkan novel

sign up for the early chapters of my serialized story

KANADA is a comic novel filled with darkness, a spiritual cousin to Franz Kafka’s AMERIKA, starring a troubled and stumbling man named “I” — an experimental novel fusing humour and nightmare.

This serialized novella is the main attraction at my Patreon. Only a very early version of the first chapter was ever published, and then only in a small chapbook edition of less than 50 copies. Now, finally, I’m publishing the entire novella, which constitutes 1/3 of a planned novel.

As we reach the end of the novella, hopefully we will also reach a funding goal that allows me to continue the novel. KANADA is all planned out, and just needs to be written at this point. The novella of the first third, however, simply needs revision, which I will complete as I post new sections.

Kafka’s AMERIKA opens with an eager, optimistic immigrant happily spying the Statue of Liberty, which holds a sword aloft (instead of a torch). That strange little narrative shift from our world into a surreal world is mimicked in KANADA, where Winnipeg’s “Golden Boy” also holds a sword, but more radically the entire city core is surrounded by a massive wall of black metal designed to keep its denizens downtown. KANADA is a comic novel, but also partakes of magic realism in this manner, and has a strange, Kafkan darkness at its own core.

I’ve launched a website,, which will later contain more information on the book.

For now, sign up for the first few chapters, free to your email, and please consider supporting me through Patreon for FULL ACCESS to the rest as it is published.

KANADA: sign up for a sneak peek

* indicates required

Interview with Frank Black

Originally published in Stylus 13. 5 (2002)

[Photo by Rosario López]

Frank Black is the mastermind behind The Pixies, who paved the way for the alt-rock explosion of the early 1990s, and can count Kurt Cobain and David Bowie among his many fans.

At the time of this interview, Black had recently released two new albums with his band the Catholics, Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop, as well as the original Pixies demos (known to fans as The Purple Tape) as The Pixies.

You have a history of avoiding the press, and once claimed you’d never do another interview. So how come you’re talking to a loser like myself?

I do interviews all the time. I may not have done interviews on a particular record years ago, but I usually do interviews.

What turned you around?

I guess it’s just the nature of the business. You have to let your customers know you’ve got a record out, and the best way to do that is to talk to a journalist. Also, hopefully, it’s an opportunity to, you know, be misunderstood.

Why did you decide to release two separate albums? Are they meant to be companion pieces or are they supposed to stand alone?

Either/or, I guess. You can buy one, you can buy both. I made two records this year, so I’m releasing two records. If I made three records I probably would have — well, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with three records, I would have gotten too much resistance from the powers that be. Seems that they can handle two records.

What I’m wondering is why not a double album.

Why? Oh, well, it’s two different sections, two different lineups, two different producers. So it’s sort of out of deference to some of the people involved. I didn’t mix and match, I just kind of left them separate.

On the two new albums, the American West dominates both the lyrical and the musical content. Why is there that focus?

I guess it’s just the whole idea of going west. The first time I went west I was a baby, so I don’t have any memory of it, but subsequently I ended up moving back east, and then back west again, back east and back west again . . .

I’ve done that a lot in my life, growing up, and of course I travel around as a musician, so I’m still very much in touch with that experience of heading west across the continent. And of course I live in L.A., so even though I haven’t moved for quite some time now I’m always coming back here from somewhere, most often moving in a westerly direction from other parts of the USA or from Europe. Or Canada.

Black Letter Days is bookended with two covers of the same Tom Waits song, “The Black Rider.” Why did you choose this song to cover in such a prominent fashion?

We started to play that at our show about a year and a half ago. We tried a couple of different covers when we were recording, but that was the one that we did the best. Even then, I wasn’t happy with the way we were doing it . . . so we started to fool around with it a bit and have some fun, and the result was one reel of tape with probably seven different versions of “The Black Rider,” one devolving into the next and getting sillier, so what you hear is the first take and the last take.

It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, we’re just doing the song because we like it. Lyrically, the song is, on the one hand, really kind of dark and ghoulish, but on the other hand it’s very cabaret. It’s like, “Welcome everybody, to the night club. Let me sing you a song about the Devil.” It’s got this show biz-y kind of vibe.

Do you know if Tom Waits has heard the song?

No idea. He’s a busy guy, I’m sure he’s got other things to do than sit around with the new Frank Black record.

I understand that you recorded these albums in a portable studio of some sort.

Yeah, we’ve got a real vintage analog pile of gear, it’s all in flight cases. We move it around to different spaces and set it up and hopefully get a good sound going. We’ve set it up in three or four spaces now, all in LA, but we have hopes of moving it to other cities and setting it up in other warehouses.

Were you still recording live to two tracks?

Yeah. Or one track. Some of those songs are in mono. There are mono recordings on both albums actually. We have a mono machine and a stereo machine.

What is it about this method of recording that appeals to you?

I just like the challenge. It’s fun to have that parameter. We’re a band, so let’s all play together as a band. We’ll either pull it off together or fail, and we’ll put all our successes on an album and hopefully eliminate the failures. It’s very simple, instead of constructing this facsimile of a performance.

It’s interesting, because the trend now is towards overproduction. Every song you hear on the radio is, as you say, a construction.

Right. There are no rules, I’m not against anybody doing that, it’s just that what people do with that technology is they tend to iron everything out, so everything’s on 10 — as loud as it can be, as bright as it can be, as perfect as it can be — and the people who are doing that are the ones who are really trying to be on corporate radio, which is only playing 10 songs or whatever.

They’re all trying to fit into a certain super tiny niche because of the rewards available to those that make it into the exclusive club of commercial radio . . . I don’t listen to the radio, the music’s too bland and there’s just too much advertising. It’s just so, so corporate. [Makes disgusted sound.] I have no interest in it at all.

Why did you decide to release The Purple Tape [as The Pixies] at this time?

It’s just the way that it worked out, it’s been talked about for a couple years but we never got all our paperwork together or whatever until now, so it’s just a coincidence it came out in the same summer as the other albums.

What about the decision to re-record “Velvety,” with lyrics?

Well, that’s just some song I wrote in junior high and I never wrote lyrics for. When the Pixies did a version of it as a B-side I called it “Velvety Instrumental Version” as a reference to the Velvet Underground, because I was really into them at the time and I fancied myself able to pull off that kind of sound, which is maybe not that accurate. So I kind of painted myself into a corner, I was like, “Okay, I called it the instrumental version, so now I have to write a song called ‘Velvety.’ ”

So that became the lyrical direction of the song, I had to write a song about some woman name Velvety. I like those kinds of random parameters. That’s what songs are a lot of the time, they’re just games that you play, sometimes it’s a language thing, sometimes it’s a meter thing or a rhyming thing, there are all kinds of neurotic little games going on.

It seems that your past success has put you in this position where people demand that you grow as an artist, but then when you do they start condemning you for not sounding like The Pixies.

Right. Thank you for saying that.

Is it frustrating working under the shadow of that band?

Yeah, it’s occasionally depressing, when you read some review that totally pans you or something . . . The only thing that’s would give me revenge would be if I had a hit that somehow overshadowed it.

Unless that happens, that’s always going to be the thing hangs over me and, well, that’s okay. People like to talk about successes, frequently a success happens to someone early on in their career and it’s hard to escape that, not just for me but for anyone.

You’ve claimed to have had UFO experiences in the past. Would you care to tell me about them? (I’m a huge UFO fan.)

Well, there was a UFO that hung out over a house I was staying at when I was a baby and I heard about it years later from my family members. I was so surprised to hear this story, that they all saw this thing floating in the sky above the house, called the police and everything. They thought it was the end of the world.

I had another experience that I do remember, that my brother and I had involving kind of a missile or a rocket-shaped craft that passed over us in the morning or afternoon when we were outside playing. It was completely silent and passed slowly over us and we stopped and looked at it. And then we went back to our playing, you know, we were fairly young.

We never talked about it to anyone, not even to each other, and it came up in conversation 25 years or so later. We were both surprised that the other one remembered it, we each thought it was our own weird personal memory, and we just found it really surprising that we both had this kind of shared memory of the same thing.

I’m not really sure if I believe in UFOs, but I’ve had a couple of odd experiences.

You’ve also talked about a comet making you decide to start a band.

Well, I was down in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I was getting ready to go on a world trip. I was going to go down to New Zealand to look at Halley’s comet which was passing by that year. It just seemed like a cool thing to do.

I had begun to make preparations to drop out of school and to go do that, when I thought, “Wait a minute, what am I doing? I’m going to go to New Zealand and look at a comet? It’s cool, but what is it that I’ve been dreaming about my whole life? It’s to be a rock musician.”

So it was kind of interesting how the whole comet thing brought this to the top of my head, like “That is not my calling, to wander right now, my calling is to do this.”

Recommended Artistic Consumption

A new feature on the site — Recommended Artistic Consumption — where I simply round up some random things that have been fascinating me of late.

Andy Warhol eating a hamburger

If you haven’t already seen it, you HAVE to watch [the classic 4-minute conceptual art film/joke of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger)

It’s the weirdest way to eat a hamburger ever. First off, he puts the ketchup BESIDE the hamburger, and then dips the burger into it. It only gets odder from there.

While you’re at it, why not watch the parody Macaulay Culkin Eating a Slice of Pizza?

Artful Car Wash

While away a few more minutes with the car wash scene from Michael Haneke’s brilliant art film The Seventh Continent. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful.

Concette Principe

Thanks to Concetta Principe, whose Instagram post reminded me of the Haneke scene … and speaking of Concetta, I recently blurbed her excellent book This Real!

The Story Grid

Recently read The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne. It sounds deranged when you take a look at it, like a super-structural, hyper-formulaic scam. Actually, it’s a pretty solid synthesis of some core concepts from Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, and other structurally minded editors/writers.

These critters have a bad reputation with writers, but if you actually read their work, you’ll see that it’s not as prescriptive as it seems, although I disagree with a number of fundamental propositions, like the prominence of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” in their theories. (I believe that the “Hero’s Journey” is ill-suited to modern storytelling, although it works well in particular genres.)

Cautions noted, this Coyne book is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of breaking down pretty complex narrative structural issues into their core fundamentals. Also, he emphasizes all of this as an editing approach as much (if not more than) as a writing approach, and as a result this is probably the best book I’ve ever seen for plot-focused story editing.

I really need to make the time to write my own book on editing. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book. Coyne also made the whole book available online for free, in blog posts, “for the ramen eaters” (as he puts it). Jump down to the very bottom of the post archives and read chronologically (towards the present) and you’ll read the whole book plus more. I ended up buying The Story Grid before I finished reading it online, so that’s my endorsement.

Coyne does a very simple, extremely clever thing: he divides Genre in TWO and claims that strong stories have both an EXTERNAL Genre (e.g., a horror story) and an INTERNAL Genre (in other words, the protagonist’s interior world has an entire storyline/movement that is A DIFFERENT GENRE than what’s happening “externally” in the plot).

Coyne looks very closely at The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris to explore how (in his terms) that story combines a Thriller plot with what he calls a Disillusionment plot. Although this maybe sounds like gobbledegook to some of you, it’s actually an extremely simple-on-the-surface but complex-in-depth way of looking at how you can combine genre plots and (for lack of a better term) literary characterization in a very practically minded manner. Worth checking out, I guarantee.

Like everything else in the writing realm, you just need to not put all your stock in Coyne’s prescriptions, and remember this book exists in a tradition of narrative theory that is heavily prescriptive. It’s a more useful tradition that the naysayers would admit, but it’s still a specific tradition … it is of great use, but limited use.

The Focus Form

A simple tool to quell distractions and anxiety while you work

One of the most common problems a writer faces — in fact, one of the most common problems most people face — is the question of how to focus. I’ve devised one simple, elegant answer: the Focus Form.

The Problem

You sit down to write a short story. The next thing you know, you’re on Twitter arguing with idiots about their idiocy. You wrote those tweets, but that’s not really the writing you planned to produce, is it?

How did you get there? It began innocently enough. First, you sat down to write your story. Then, you got an idea for a poem. You popped open a new file to jot down the lines of the poem, and it was going good but then you got hung up on a word. You decided to check your thesaurus for a better word with a similar meaning.

You spied a word option for which you didn’t fully remember the precise definition, so you looked it up online. While you’re online, you figure you’ll research something for that story, so you googled that. Then you got caught in the online drift. Before you knew it, you were on Twitter.

Then that idiot’s tweet caught your eye and stressed you out. People are really that stupid these days? What is going to happen to the world? You know you shouldn’t engage, but you engage anyway. You can’t help yourself — you’re wound up.

Your phone goes off — a reminder that you’ve got to leave the house in 15 minutes if you don’t want to be late. Now you’re out of writing time, and you barely did anything.

Sound familiar?


It’s familiar to me. So many things in the modern world can take your focus away, and the sad, paradoxical irony of the writer’s life is that the very device which enables your writing — the computer — is also the single largest impediment to your writing.

So what should we do? Ditch our computers and go back to longhand scribbling on legal pads? Let’s say you do that. Do you stop getting distracted? No. Your phone is still beeping. So you put it on airplane mode, and put it in the other room.

Free from distractions? No. You’re stressing out about money still. You’re getting awesome new ideas that are cool but not what you’re here to do. Your hand hurts from holding a pen, you haven’t held a pen this long since you wrote your last exam.

It’s easy to blame the modern world for our distractions, or our phones, or the Internet, or idiots who tweet. But the problem is our brains. So what can we do about it, short of lobotomies, or decades of therapy?

Try the Focus Form

My core tool in the battle against my brain is the Focus Form. You can download it here. … Let me walk you through how it works.

In the top left, you write WHAT you want to focus on and WHY.

The WHAT should be a work-session goal that can feasibly be accomplished during the work-session.

If I’m working on my screenplay for Edenbridge, I don’t write “Edenbridge.” That’s a hundred-page screenplay, and I’ve got an hour. Instead, I write what I want to do in this next hour: “Draft the scene where Sara dies.”

One easy way to lose focus is to think about your larger project and get overwhelmed, not the smaller part that’s in front of you. Focus on the part of the project that you can actually accomplish right now. The first ingredient in our recipe for Focus is to actually focus our efforts.

Writing a book seems like an impossible task, and it’s easy to procrastinate. But you can write 1000 words in the next two hours. Is that too much? Do you still feel like you want to procrastinate that? Drop it down. Write 500 bad words in the next two hours. My friend Natalee Caple and I often make weekly goals where we commit to doing bad work. Bad writing is better than not writing. At least you’re still a writer!

The point of the WHAT/WHY section is so that when you catch yourself getting distracted, you can quickly draw your attention back to WHAT you are supposed to be doing (not in the grand scheme of things, but right now), and WHY. This is the core purpose of the Focus Form — catching yourself and returning your attention to your task — and so this part is the most important.

Underneath your WHAT, you write WHY. Why am I drafting the scene where Sara dies? Usually, for me, this is a few bullet points. You want a nice mix of practical reasons and more inspirational reasons.

The point of working on my example scene is:

  • to move closer to a finished draft of Edenbridge
  • because it’s going to be an important, hard scene that needs a lot of drafts
  • I want some practice writing a death scene
  • this will help move me closer to the next stage of pre-production
  • and thus hopefully closer to some more money!
  • because my daughter is getting closer and closer to university and university tuition

You could have fewer points. As long as your WHY list is motivating — actually good reasons WHY you should complete this task — then it doesn’t matter how much or how little you write. If your WHY list is not motivating to you … then why are you writing this thing? Write something else!

(When I really have to get something done, even though I don’t want to, then I just write “to get this OVER WITH and move on to something more fun” — if the task doesn’t excite me, maybe being finished the task will. Or, I write down a reward — “so then I can eat my haunted ghost pepper chips” — and I just artificially motivate myself in that manner.)

Then you start working.

While you work, you try to catch yourself once you get unfocused. There are three things that usually un-focus people: (1) Ideas, (2) Distractions, and (3) Anxieties.

The key here is to catch yourself getting unfocused and then identify what is un-focusing you. Then you write it down in the appropriate box on the form.

Then you re-read WHAT you’re supposed to be doing and WHY. Then you get back on track, and back to work.

Let’s walk through these three categories:


You know when I get my best ideas? When I’m supposed to be doing something else. Sound familiar?

This is insidious. Often these ideas are great (or, at least, they sure seem great when I’m working on something else!) and I find myself tempted to work on them.

Strike while the iron is hot! But wait, I was in the middle of striking a hot iron…

You know what happens next! You keep raising your hammer above a newer, hotter, more exciting iron … and never strike.

Write the idea down, and evaluate it later … when you aren’t dying to distract yourself from working. When I’m done my work session, I look through these ideas, and if they are actually good ideas I transfer them to my long “Someday/Maybe” to-do list. Maybe I make a couple of quick notes in Evernote or something.

The idea will keep. Any author with any experience knows this: ideas are worthless. You can’t even copyright ideas, that’s how worthless they are. They will keep just fine. What is valuable is an idea properly executed. So stop not executing your ideas because you got a new idea.


You know how you are working and then suddenly you find yourself on Facebook? When you catch yourself doing this, close down Facebook immediately and write “Facebook” on the form. Then get back on task.

There are two things happening here:

  • You are catching yourself in the middle of the habit, which is the first step towards breaking the habit
  • You are listing out your different distractions

Later on, I will go through this list and see where I’m wasting my time. This gives me a more objective sense of what I’m doing and not doing during my writing session. I might think I wasted my time on Facebook, but maybe I actually wasted it reading articles that I found while on Facebook. Facebook might not be the real problem, just an enabler.

Your goal (when your writing session is over) is to figure out what you can do to prevent yourself from getting distracted in the first place. I noticed recently that I spent a lot of time checking the Facebook page of a toxic person that stresses me out, to see if I could anticipate what they might do next.

So I blocked that person. Now, I can’t check that page, and I’m getting more work done and checking Facebook less, and my stress level dropped 20% overnight. Will I be less prepared when they pull some crazy out of their hat? Not really. You can’t prepare for that stuff, you can just drive yourself crazy trying to prepare.


Ever get stressed out while you’re working, and distract yourself that way? I sure do. This ranges from anxieties related to the project (“This stuff I’m writing sucks hard”) to stressing about life (“I think my daughter’s mad at me”). Well, I’ve got plenty of time to worry about stuff later, when I’m not working. After I write that scene, I can worry about how much it sucks, or why my daughter’s not texting me back.

The core concepts here (and for the Focus Form as a whole) are drawn from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation. You are “practicing attention” to catch yourself performing unconscious habits. You are isolating the things that draw your attention away from what you want it to be focused upon. You are objectifying abstract thoughts.

A lot of the time, simply writing on the form what I’m worrying about is enough to stop me from worrying. “My teenaged daughter isn’t replying to my texts!” Oh wait, that’s right … she’s a teenager, not replying to her Dad’s texts, because … she’s a teenager.

If it’s a bigger thing, like a real, legitimate worry, it will still be there to worry about later. Schedule some time to worry about it. That sounds stupid, but is an actual CBT technique that a psychotherapist would recommend to you, if you paid them hundreds of dollars. You create a “worry schedule” and then you try your best to confine worry to your scheduled time. What do you do when you catch yourself worrying? You write the worry down (like, maybe, I don’t know, on this form) and tell yourself you will worry about that later, during your scheduled worry time.

With enough practice, this mostly works, or works for most worries — although it does take practice. You delay your anxiety a bit, and it lessens, and you get some limits around it. In the meantime, you can get something done, or even just have a nice lunch.

Try It for a Week

Try the Focus Form out for at least a full week. It’s a little bit of extra work, but it functionally saves you wasting a lot of time.

If all that happens is that you realize you should block that toxic person from your Facebook feed, the extra effort of the Focus Form will pay off. Try to get into the habit.

I designed this form to be simple enough that you can sketch it on any blank piece of paper, but you can also download a pretty version here.

Let me know how the Focus Form works for you!