We Should Never Meet

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We Should Never Meet
Author: Aimee Phan
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Thoughts: Excellent Writing; Kind of a Downer; Frustratingly Ambiguous; I Wish I Knew More About These People

So I grabbed Phan’s collection of linked short stories off a shelf at my favorite used book store in New Orleans (she’s the director of my writing program so I felt I needed to read it before classes began) and carried it around with me for a month before I could finally bring myself to read it. Something about it just seemed like it would be a painful read, but I was surprised to learn the opposite. Each story was fluid, gliding into each other and these people’s lives.

Set both during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the book explores, through various persons related to the event, Operation Babylift (an American intervention to immigrate orphans left in the wake of the war–mainly those children with American parentage) and the lives of the orphans related to it as they grew up in America. So clearly this was going to be a fraught topic: babies, war, American foster system and orphans. It’s a rough subject, but Phan doesn’t make things too wrenching. She isn’t trying to punish the reader, but rather give them this brief glance into the window of those affected’s lives.

I think, though, despite Phan’s seamless writing style, I couldn’t bring myself to love this book. She builds some frighteningly tense situations (the scene with Bac and Vinh in “Visitors” is wrenching) and then, at the last minute–right before the climax, takes you out of them. I felt a bit cheated to never hear the end of Bridget’s story, only left to assume the worst of her. The final story was, to me, the most flat and a bit of a bitter note to end on. And as for the various characters left behind in Vietnam, I craved more knowledge of their lives. What happened to them in the war. The worst is the terribly vague opening, effective in what it never says, but I felt most connected to Nan and then you never even learn the details of her situation and she’s never heard from again.

Overall, it’s a fast read with an interesting, lesser-known perspective on the Vietnam War. Worth a read, you may learn something, but overall, it won’t be replacing any favorites on the shelf.

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Day Ninety-Nine: Failure

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Dublin succumbed to it’s nature and dawned a cold and rainy day. Much more like it, Dublin! It would have been sad to have spent my entire visit in perfect sunshine. Due to the rain, however, my daily park nap was cancelled and I dragged my little brother around museums until our ankles swelled and we both fell asleep in a Costa Coffee Shop (irony).

Trinity College’s Science Gallery had an awesome little exhibit on failure called Fail Better. Some of the stories were quite inspiring in a way… Samuel Beckett’s own failed works, Dyson’s 5,000 failed prototypes, Christopher Reeve’s determination to see spinal injuries walk again, Alfred Nobel’s failure that led to his own brother’s death… I read that next year (although I haven’t investigated this further), according to a re-interpretation of Nobel’s will, that there will be a Nobel Prize awarded for failure.

I think that’s beautiful.

Failure in a way is the best thing that can happen. Without failure, how do we learn what we are capable of? How do we create something new?

Failures are innovators. Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try it again. Try it until your heart is broken. Try it until your fingers bleed. Try it until you die. Because really the only way to fail is to quit.

Find that one thing you love and work at it every day. If you can even get that far, you’re no longer a failure.

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Day Ninety-Eight: No More Writing Advice

I hereby refuse to read any more writing advice blogs/columns/articles/quotes.

The internet is flooded with advice on how to be a great writer. The irony is that most of it is horribly written. Or boring. Pedantic, mysterious, blunt, optimistic… Everything! I can’t take it anymore.

All I have actually learned from this impossible array of mostly conflicting advice is that the writing process is particularly personal. Have you ever noticed that no two people brush their teeth the same way? Watch them. Watch anyone. If even a simple act like brushing one’s teeth is a unique act of individualism, how could any two people write the same way?

The best way to learn how to write is to read and write as much as possible until you stumble into your own method.

I’m not saying don’t read publishing advice. I’m not saying don’t read other authors… Do. As much as possible, read their every word. I even like interviews about other writers’ writing process.

But to think that someone can sit you down and show you the exact method of creating a writing process? Of creating a character? Narrative? Story? No.

From now on, I write the way I write. It changes day-to-day. It’s sometimes impossible. Maybe it’s not the most efficient. Maybe I use a lot of adverbs. But it’s mine.

Day Sixty-Nine: Let’s Think Bigger

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Over the weekend I was discussing the first four chapters of my novel with a friend. She told me that a character of mine was heavily cliche in that she just seemed like almost a stock character… Snotty, Tennis Club Bully.

I love when people say things like this because I can just shout, “You are absolutely right!” and fix it. It’s a first draft. You’d have to be stupid to not think a first draft isn’t a work in progress.

But this got me thinking… well, this is a very small-time character. She is written currently as a 1-D Bully, but I only have about two scenes (maybe 500 words) with this character so time is not on my side. So I started thinking about how to make her more than just that… I mean, look at Dudley. He’s not much more than a spoiled jock.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to up the ante. Don’t write about a silly, insecure girl that picks on a future protagonist. (Been there, seen it a million times. Wow that makes our protagonist a better person… Surprise.) Write the meanest, cruelest little girl that has ever picked on a strange child. Why not? Kids can be sadistically cruel. It won’t even be unbelievable. If anything, malicious creativity can make a character seem more real (Hannibal Lector?).

Let’s think bigger.

You need two characters to have a talk about how incredible the world is. Don’t just put them on a mountaintop. Put them on the most spectacular, breathtaking mountain of all time. Why not? Trust me, there are way more insane sights in real life than there are in our minds.

Don’t let your character say something uninteresting. Don’t let them make the predictable choice. Look at every decision they make and ask yourself, would everyone do that? Because if they would, what makes your character extraordinary then? I once had a professor, when describing his favorite book (Rabbit Redux), say, “What I loved so much about Rabbit was that every time I thought he was going to do one thing, he did the complete opposite.”

We are not in the business of writing reality. We are in the business of writing Fiction. Let’s make Fiction spectacular. Let’s make the world as big and bold as we can. Up the ante. Put everything on the line. I mean, everything. Writing a book is like placing a bet and if you’re not going all-in then you’re not putting enough into it.

Let’s think bigger.

Day Sixty-Two: Productivity Tips

Well… Finished Chapter 15 on Friday and was more than thrilled to start Chapter 16 because it’s a pretty important one (not that they aren’t all important, but it is one of my favorite character’s first time to really hit the spotlight and I’m excited to write him).

Then the weekend happened. I love what I do all week, but even then, weekends are great, but this one was particularly good because an old college friend was in town and New Orleans has a lot of fun around St. Paddys. So I didn’t work then.

Then yesterday… I made the mistake of posting a tid-bit about grad school on my facebook which meant that my facebook and phone started blowing up all day. So I wrote about 500 words, most of which (I realized late last night) need to be cut.

On top of that, I just got to a coffee shop that I continue to come to even though (Every time!) I perpetually drink too much coffee and make myself sick. And I just put three sugars in said strong coffee so… I am a ticking time bomb. I may detonate like rocket fuel any minute now.

So much for starting Chapter 16…

I read a lot of productivity articles while procrastinating. It’s actually one of my favorite procrastination efforts because it creates the illusion of productivity. They all offer tips about efforts from meditation to isolation. Some of them are silly. Most are repititious. Hardly any of those tips work for me (If I start cleaning my desk, the house will eventually be spotless but I won’t have a word written).

Anyway, here are some of my personal productivity pointers:

1) Move location.

I hear this one a lot, because it’s the easiest fix. If you can’t write in your room because there is a bed and you have a terminal affinity for napping… then leave. Try writing outside (weather permitting). Try writing somewhere public and loud. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere with all your favorite things (even if it’s a weird place to write… like a bar). Everyone responds differently to different places. Just because your quiet room was the spot to write yesterday, doesn’t mean it is today.

Inversely… if you have a spot where you’ve hit a roll, stay there as long as you can! That space is now tied mentally to a productive work day. Try going to the last place you killed it at!

2) Read a book.

Whenever I can’t work, it’s because I’m stuck in my own words. Give someone else’s words a try.

3) Get a writing buddy.

I personally can’t write with another person around. My brain is hardwired for conversation because it’s easier than writing. I like to get a buddy that I can check in with and be like “6,000 words today! I am the Godzilla of children’s literature!” Have someone waiting on your writing… they’ll bug you into submission.

4) Exercise.

Sounds weird, but get yourself a little exercise-high. You’d be surprised how feeling good can get you going.

5) Don’t let that cursor blink.

Make a game out of it. Just write random words… Just list a bunch of adjectives that describe one character. Describe your best friend. The room you’re in. Your favorite memory. Just write and eventually you’ll get back to your project.

6) Time yourself.

I once had a teacher that gave us one minute to write down every verb (although this would work with almost every part of speech except articles/conjunctions) that popped into our mind. We could even just repeat them until a new word popped in. Then we wrote stories by connecting those adjectives to each other.

Also, timing yourself can give you fake, short-term deadlines. “Hey how long does it actually take me to write 1,000 words?”

7) Read your own work.

I hesitate to say this because it’s normally how I get stuck in an editing loop, but sometimes it’s refreshing to just go read your favorite passage in your work to remind yourself why you’re writing it.

8) Distract yourself first.

I get stuck thinking about other projects a lot. I spend all of my bad days sitting here thinking about this blog. So I’ve decided to do the blog first thing… Get it done, and put it aside so you can move on. This doesn’t apply to never-ending wastes of time. Do something with a clear end-point. That means no facebook… no youtube clips… you’ll be looping forever!

9) Sit in complete silence.

No technology. No writing even. No people around. Just sit there. Listen to the subtle sounds you never notice. Sit there for as long as you can until your brain can’t handle it and starts jumping around in your head. Write down the first thought that makes your brain go berzerk.

10) Take that nap, afterall.

Too tired to work? That’s ok! Naps can be a like the fresh-start of a new day. Maybe you just need to start over for a while.

BONUS) Still nowhere? Give it a break.

Don’t sit there and torture yourself. Today wasn’t your day. Go to bed early. Knock a few things off your to-do list. Get back in there tomorrow… Just don’t let tomorrow become the next day!

Feel free to share any Productivity Tips you guys might have. I’m always looking for some new trick to jump-start my brain.

(Sorry about all the updates… My Gifs won’t work in Publish, but they work in Preview… Dumb!)