How to Spend your Money

Much has been written on how to make money. Here’s a word on how to spend it in service of your work.

1.  Recognize, please, that at the heart of any creative undertaking is a gamble.

2.  So, put aside your dream, all fuzzy and fantastic, and set the cold, hard plan. State the goal in a single, clear sentence. Break it into pieces, and turn each piece into an action list with deadlines and measures of success. And with this critical thinking complete, buy or barter a couple of hours of an expert or two’s time to critique it.

3.  Next, acquire the tools. A budget sets the parameters on any spending but it isn’t a pair of handcuffs.  A seamstress, for example, can’t do much without cloth, but I did see one once who did wonders with Handy Wipes stitched into a wild wardrobe.  And there was another who made her clothing out of candy wrappers. Both had the press trailing after them, the investors not long behind.

4.  Get some education. Read. Study your betters, and take advantage of what’s online. Much of it is free. Short bursts add up. Just keep them coming.

5.  Then run your game, each action item managed with a ruthless eye, each piece moved strategically toward your goal. Keep track of every dime.

6.  But reexamine periodically. Buy or barter help to find your blind spots. See what’s leaking cash. Learn why. This will hurt—maybe even a lot—but improvement is guaranteed.

7.  Then go back to work. Make some changes. Test. Persevere.

At the end of the day, at the end of the quarter, every outgoing dollar has to count. If you can do that, it will take some risk out of your gamble. But if you can’t make an expenditure count, don’t spend the dollar.

Photo credit: dollar bill – David Siqueira; candy – Chris Chidsey, both stock.xchng

How to Write an Opening Line

In an effort to learn from my betters, I’m always on the lookout for a great opening line, and the daily news never disappoints. This is how one of my favorite writers—Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times—started a front page story earlier this month.

By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch.

It’s a perfect opener: vivid, precise, surprising, well-rhythmed—the human drama in Technicolor. Of course, I wanted to read more, which is the best and most useful test of a great opening line.

He makes it look easy, the mark of a master: Set the stage, draw your reader in by the collar if you have to, and be nice.

Check out: “An Italian Antihero’s Time to Shine,” by Michael Kimmelman, NYTimes, March 10, 2010.

Photo credit: Mateusz Stachowski, stock.xchng

The Need for Authenticity

I met a young Indonesian man once who worked in the dining hall of a cruise ship and who had an unusual talent for remembering names. Eight hundred, even a thousand at a time—he never made a mistake. If the computer, with its near endless capacity to store and retrieve the tiniest bits of information without hesitation, was not already in existence, one would have to search long and hard for a metaphor to describe this ability.

His name was Imam Harjowarsito Danarekso Riyanto. He shortened it to H.D. when he left home and later converted the initials to Hunky Dory. He liked that his made-up name did double duty, as it answered who he as well as how he was. “Hunky Dory!” he’d reply to either question, his face cracked wide with a smile.

Just about everything is done for you on a cruise ship. It was Hunky’s job to give each passenger a clean tray from the stack waiting at the head of the line, a busy little towel in hand to wipe away any lingering dishwasher drops. The ship’s guests enjoyed him and lined up on his side of the dining hall just for the pleasurable shock of being greeted by name and with such cheer.

Meanwhile, across the ship’s dining hall, another assistant steward, with the same job, was envious of Hunky’s celebrity. Also Indonesian, and playing on Hunky’s trick, he simplified his name to Okey Dokey. But because he did not have the same peculiar gift for recalling a patron’s name, nor was he particularly lighthearted, he did not woo away any of Hunky’s adoring patrons.

For a writer, it was a lesson in authenticity.

Okey would have been better off sitting down, examining his gifts, and building a plan for himself based on his strengths. Everyone has strengths. Instead, he chose to copy something that was not authentic to him, and the results were a little bit sad.

No matter the genre—and no matter art form, really, painter, writer, musician, inventor, whatever the creative undertaking—what you bring to it has to be the authentic you, or it likely won’t succeed. Begin with what you do well.

Photo credit: thumbs up – Davide Guglielmo,; muscles – Andrzej Pobiedzinski; both with stock.xchng

The Danger of Silence

A controversy is brewing at my alma mater. It concerns a video, five minutes give or take, fabulous music, wake you right up and carry you along, the faces of youth with you—but it puts the college in, um, quite a light. People are weighing in all over the place.

Drink, drugs, money, sex, entitlement, arrogance—it’s all here and as fluid as velvet in the hand. I appreciated the skillfulness of it, the beauty and the candor, a tearing off of the veil.

Yeah, I knew this went on, but geez, it looks like this?

Like it? Don’t like it?

I enjoyed it, but even if I didn’t, I’d be voting on the side of bring it on.

Silence all the artists, and you take away the mirrors.

Photo Credit: Michael Metz

Getting it Right

The writer Joan Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne had an expression for when a work was successful.  They asked each other: Did the author “get it right?”

The line jumped out at me, for that is my measure as well and the only question that matters.

The language, the structure, the content, the message, the point, the moral, if there is one, the color, feel, smell, taste and texture of a thing, the arc of the narrative, beginnings, middles, and ends, the details, the rhythm, the resonance, the opening line—did I get it right?

If it isn’t right—if it’s hollow, or stupid, or naïve, or clumsy, or misguided, or annoying, or just plain wrong—I will undertake as many revisions as are required to fix it.

The most amount of time I have spent on a single line at a single sitting? 45 minutes.

The most I have scrapped at one time? 425 pages—twice.

But getting it right is the entire point of a day’s labor. If I succeed, I can at the least offer a reader a bit of clarity in a complicated world. If I don’t succeed, I just add to the noise.

Photo credit: both images, Sigurd Decroos, stock.xchng

A Writer Goes to a Party

With some regularity, a writer—any creator, really—has to get out of the chair and into the world, or what he or she has to contribute will fail to interest anyone for very long.

An invitation to a party is one such opportunity, but some writers, so used to working alone, find excuses not to attend. If this is your inclination, you might reconsider for the sake of your work.

The one caveat is to say nothing of your embryonic work. Too much, too soon is deadly. Instead, just have a good time. Draw the other guy out, which is easy, as the story that interests a person the most is his own. Ask your questions. Listen.

Presumably, you will be good company, as is required. And from your end, you will likely have more than just pleasantries to churn over as you get ready for bed.

You might have something striking, or meaningful, or puzzling that will be useful to you in your work. And though you might be hard pressed just then to articulate it, if you can jot down a few words, a fragment, or maybe even an opening line—it’s a place to begin later.

And then forget it and go to sleep. Whatever struck you, whatever penetrated, will marinate in your dreams and count for something in the morning.

Photo credit: Terri-Ann Hanlon, stock.xchang

The Clause for Immortality

Some writers pick up the pen to fulfill one hope above all: the wish for immortality.

That’s a distraction, even for a daydream, even if for the grandkids. Consider it a flamingo. And, as a rule, it won’t work either.

While a writer may think, in that heady moment of signing a contract, that a publisher is supposed to keep his or her work alive forever, there are a few implied conditions. Key among them is the need for the arrangement to make financial sense to the publisher, or your work is suddenly fish wrap.

I’ve seen some contracts, and signed some as well. As a lawyer, I read every speck of the fine print. Money, fame, glory, film rights, merchandise, e-rights, reprints, translations, royalties, cover approval, size of print, and more—are negotiable, especially if your agent says so.

But there is nothing romantic about this document. And there is no clause for immortality. To the contrary, all you will really find here in the endless, enumerated paragraphs of legalese is a demand for truly excellent work.

If you can produce it, get yourself a good deal. Then go on and write your next one. The opportunity to do so, to engage in creative work of any kind, is what is valuable to the independent thinker. What matters is the process. Never mind how long your last one will endure.

Photo Credit: magnifying glass, Marilia Florencio Santos, stock.xchng; pencil pusher, Zsuzsanna Kilian, stock.xchng

The Cutting Room Floor

I just finished a new essay, my eleventh, and though I say this about every essay or story, it was a devil from the beginning. This one concerned matters of faith, sticky moments, and my father’s death. Any one of these subjects is hell for an essay and I had tripled up my misery.

I worked on it for a few weeks, off and on. I let some time slide and came back again to look. I thought it was done and was feeling pretty good about it. But I was wrong. An editor cut it to pieces. Eight pages left from eighteen, or so.

I decided that I hated the essay and abandoned it for a couple of months. When I went back, it was so obvious. Everything that hit the floor deserved to go. The essay meandered, with side issues taken up and the main story lost in the clutter.  Eliminate the superfluous matter, and the story crystallized.

Shorter, faster, tighter, brighter—words to live by.

Also, blessings on all my editors’ heads.

UPDATE:  This essay, “For the Birds,” is forthcoming, early 2011, in  Lalitambra Mandiram.

Photo credit: Aurelia Werneck, stock.xchng

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A Little Dose of Presumption.

In the mix of skills needed to write, a little dose of why not? of course, I can do this is a valuable addition.

Once in a while, you’ll have to speak about your work. Maybe you’ll have to defend it, or sell it. And as the first, reasoned and unequivocal champion of your own undertaking, it helps to be able to speak kindly of it, if not winsomely.

But more than this, you have to sit down every day and do it, and this alone can take some presuming—that it’s worth it, that you have something to say, and that it is within your means and abilities to do so.

Too much presumption is not a good idea and endears you to no one.

But a little bit? A spoonful of absolutely, hold my messages, I am working now is essential. It lightens the step and puts a brighter spin on the day, but even better, it keeps work flowing.

Photo credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian, stock.xchng