Heavy Thoughts on Holly Golightly

One of the hazards of being a sci-fi fanatic is that in the quest to read every space opera and see every time travel movie, a person inevitably misses some of the classics. For this reason, my girlfriend has taken it upon herself to make sure I am properly educated in classic cinema. Recently we watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Netflix, which I had never seen before. I’m not usually a big fan of romantic comedy, but I must admit I enjoyed it. However, I’m not a person who can simply enjoy something, I’m obsessed with analysis. So naturally, I have some comments and observations I’d like to share.

Like most romantic comedies, I found I fairly predictable, though quite well-written. I was not aware that it was based on a novel by the great Truman Capote. It’s no wonder these characters have captivated people for so long, especially Audrey Hepburn’s irrepressible Holly Golightly. This movie is a perfect example of the “show don’t tell” dictum. Her friend Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard) says nothing romantic to Holly for most of the movie, but his feelings for her are obvious.

Another thing I loved about the movie was its period feel, which was of course contemporary when it was made. It’s the same reason I like foreign movies, for the window they provide into another culture. Likewise, Breakfast is a window into another time, though I’m old enough to remember many of the elements in the story. One of the movie’s most jarring elements is the pervasiveness of smoking. Although the nasty habit is still with us, it’s sad that the social aspect is gone, along with accoutrements like Holly’s amazing two-foot-long cigarette holder. (Recently I saw an Audrey Hepburn calendar featuring the iconic Tiffany’s photo in which the cigarette had been air-brushed out. Heresy!) Other nostalgic items include rotary phones, men and women wearing classy hats, and the automobile as an exhaust-spewing seat-belt-less land yacht. Humor was different in those times, too, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s hilariously offensive Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi.

But the thing that impressed me most was how civilized the people were. Though Holly’s neighbor Yunioshi repeatedly scolds her for her inconsiderate behavior, he tolerates her antics with Asian detachment until he finally calls the cops on her noisy party. When the police arrive, there’s no SWAT team, just guys in blue uniforms armed with nothing more deadly than billy clubs. On other occasions, Holly’s drunken suitors bang on her apartment door at all hours of the night, but they skedaddle the moment Yunioshi yells at them. Likewise, when Holly’s ex (Buddy Ebsen) shows up wanting to take her home to Arkansas, he accepts her refusal sadly but graciously. Through all this, does Holly get angry and defensive when her schemes to land a rich man fail? No, she remains optimistic, though at times a bit clueless.

As I reflected on the changes in American behavior since that time, a powerful sadness came over me. Admittedly, romantic comedies like Breakfast gloss over issues like poverty and racism, and the few blacks that appeared in the background looked respectably middle-class. Yet despite Jim Crow, “the ‘hood” was much safer in those days, with most black men home with their families rather than languishing in prison, as Thomas Sowell would tell us. In 1961, our country had recently finished two brutal wars, but there was still more neighborly idealism than angry jingoism. People believed in kindness and charity, and gave to the poor of their own accord, rather than being forced by the tax man. It’s not like they were all angels; Holly is a low-grade grifter, and Paul is the ‘kept man’ of a rich married woman. But for the most part, the system worked. Breakups led mostly to broken hearts, not broken bones, and bar brawls tended to end with black eyes rather than gut shots.

So how did we get from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Breaking Bad? I’m not one to blame the decline of religion and traditional morality. I don’t mind if two men can get married, and I don’t care about the divorce rate, abortion, or illegal immigration. But I do care about peace and freedom, which have been in short supply lately. My own theory is that Holly’s generation is partly to blame. They were too polite, and too trusting, and allowed the government and the ultra-wealthy to promulgate numerous wars and financial frauds. By the time the country passed to the Baby Boomers, the Military Industrial Complex, which Eisenhower warned us about right around the time Breakfast was being filmed, was firmly in control.

Since then, we’ve had the Cold War,the War on Poverty the Vietnam War, two Gulf Wars, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Nowadays America spends more on weaponry and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. What we gained in sophistication, we lost in civility. Characters like Paul, the cynical aspiring novelist, and Holly, the social climber with the banned cigarette holder, are far more civilized than most of us will ever be.

More Writing Strategies, and Cory Doctorow’s Writing Tips

In my last post I detailed a few writing strategies that had worked for me, and I referenced a helpful article by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. It’s a fascinating piece, with several intriguing suggestions, some of which I like and others, not so much.

As I said before, I love his idea about committing yourself to writing a certain number of words per day. However, I disagree strongly with the idea of writing an exact number of words. If I’m inspired I want to continue writing for as long as time permits. On the weekends I sometimes write as many as 2000 words per day on my primary project. Most days, though, I don’t have time to go much beyond my minimum 500; my day job takes care of that. If I were a full-time writer, though, I would need to balance my time between writing new material and other activities such as researching, editing, and promotion. I would probably either set a maximum word count or a time limit.

Doctorow’s reason for stopping at an exact word count – even if it means quitting in the middle of a sentence – is so you have a continuation point in your brain for the next day. That’s a good argument, but for me, it’s not necessary. I rarely get stuck on a story, and if I do, I’m obsessive enough that I think about the problem while doing other activities, such as walking the dogs or driving to work. I almost always come up with something.

Another of Doctorow’s rules, which I arrived at independently, is “don’t research.” More precisely, he means to keep your writing and and research times separate. Part of the trouble with Fidelio is that, being in the steampunk genre, which requires a lot of historical research to do correctly. I love history and could spend hours reading about it- but it doesn’t get your writing done.

When Doctorow is writing and needs to reference a fact that he doesn’t currently know (the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example), he doesn’t stop to research that fact. Instead, he inserts the abbreviation “TK” into the text, to remind himself to insert the information at a later time. He uses “TK” because the combination appears in very few English words, making it easy to search. During my July experiment I began doing something similar. For my own place marker I use a descriptive phrase in curly braces, such as {name of spouse.} As a software developer I use braces all the time, but when was the last time you saw them in fiction? The advantage of my scheme over a fixed marker such as “TK” is that I don’t forget what kind of info I need to substitute in any particular place.

Now for another of Doctorow’s point that I don’t like: dump the word processor. He suggests using a plain-vanilla text editor such as “emacs” rather than a word processor like Microsoft Word. It’s true that word processors can be distracting with all of their formatting features, but there’s also an advantage in ease of use. Besides, I use very few of these features until the entire work is done. I’m a Open Office partisan myself; it’s simpler than Word but much easier to use than emacs, which I appreciate from a programmer’s standpoint, but not for prose. Features like word wrap and double spacing make the text easier to read, which means easier to edit, and jobs like paragraph indenting and converting quotation marks are done automatically.

That brings me to a rule of my own that was not in Doctorow’s article– I like to plan in advance what my primary writing project will be for the upcoming month or two. If I didn’t, I’d be tempted to jump around from project to project and not finish any of them. For example, when I started Diana’s Fury at the beginning of July (to be honest, I’d already written one scene, but lets not quibble) I didn’t allow myself to switch projects it was finished. However, to ensure I wouldn’t stray from Fidelio for too long, a set a drop-dead date of August 1st. Luckily, I finished the rough draft of Diana a week early, so I then took the opportunity to work on an urban fantasy story I’d started and abandoned in 2011. Although I haven’t yet finished that story, it’s next in line after I’m done with the rough draft of Fidelio.

These simple rules have helped me vanquish a problem that has bedeviled me since I’ve started writing seriously- my obsession with working in a totally linear fashion (that is, writing one book at a time.) That’s what almost killed my enthusiasm for the craft. I spent many months writing my first book, Centrifugal Force and many more editing it. During the editing phase I had many cool ideas I forced myself to forgo. Eventually I got so burned out on the book that I had to put it aside for a few months. Now that I’m doing two or more projects in parallel (one for just writing, another for editing, and a possible third for research and/or outlining) that doesn’t happen to me any more.

So now you have them, my “top secret” writing tips, which you can modify to your own liking. Remember, the most important rule is not to write at any particular time of day, it’s just to set a regular time and stick to it. Also, be sure to check out articles and blogs by experienced authors. To a writer, newbies are not competition, they’re comrades.

Amazingly Simple Yet Effective Writing Strategies

Today I return from a one-month hiatus from this blog. In the intervening time I’ve discovered some useful writing strategies that I’d like to share. I came upon some of these on my own; others indirectly. All of them come with the following disclaimer: Everybody is different and what works for one person may not work for another. As we like to say in the Linux world, YMMV (your mileage may vary.)

First of all, I’d like to stress that I’ve been writing regularly for the last several years, and that although it’s more work than non-writers realize, I really enjoy it. That brings me to my first piece of advice. If you try writing, and you find you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. If, on the other hand, you want to “become a writer,” the best way to do so is by frequent practice. As cartoonist Len Wein once said, “A writer writes. Period. No matter if someone is buying your work or not.”

In order to write, you must make time to write, no matter how busy you are. That brings up the second suggestion: it’s important to set aside a regular time each day for your writing. I’ve been lucky in that my day job is more flexible than most. My employer allows me to bring my own PC to work, and I write during my lunch break. Even better, I’m able to take my lunch from 1-2 PM, which means I can use the lunch room when it’s practically free of distractions.

A word of caution: You employer may not be so easy going. In particular, if you’re a technology worker, beware- some companies think they own every bit of intellectual property you produce, whether or not it’s related to your actual job. Before hiring on, make sure your contract only applies to writings relevant to the business. If not, get out as soon as possible – or write secretly, under a pen name, and never let those greedy bastards know what you’re up to. When your masterpiece is complete, quit your job, wait a few months to make it seem plausible, and voila! You just wrote your debut novel in record time.

The third strategy was something I happened on accidentally. For that I need to thank my friend Rissa Watkins, who is in the same sci-fi writer’s group (Nexus) as I am, well as an additional group. During June of this year, her other group staged a writing contest, in which a writer could earn points for writing each day, but lost them all on any day on which you failed to produce the minimum number of words. Rissa kindly invited Nexus members to participate as well, and though none of us did, I was intrigued by the concept.

I had already been writing practically every day, in the sense that I was always doing something writing-related, whether it was writing original work, editing, outlining, researching background facts, critiquing fellow group members’ submissions, or writing for this blog. What I lacked was focus. I decided to apply the principle of the contest on my own, and picked 500 as my minimum word count per day. In addition, I “found” some additional writing time by getting up a bit earlier every day. (Please don’t hate me because I’m a morning person!)

Since starting this strategy on July first, I’ve only missed the 500-word figure one time, and on that day it wasn’t by much. Following this “weird tip” (I hate those ads, too, but I couldn’t resist- should I also say that it makes writing schools furious?) has allowed me to produce much more material than ever before. For the initial test I took a 30-day hiatus from Fidelio’s Automata, the steampunk novel I’d been struggling with, to pursue a concept for an adventure novella that had been kicking around inside my head. By the end of the month I’d finished the rough draft of Diana’s Fury, and was enthusiastic to return to working on Fidelio. The best part of this strategy has been that on most days, I’ve been able to finish my 500 words before my workday starts. This leaves my lunch hour to pursue other writing-related activities, such as critiquing, editing, blogging and research.

Now I must give another acknowledgment: if I’m not mistaken, someone in Rissa’s group attributed the contest idea (at least in part) to sci-fi author Cory Doctorow. I googled his name with the phrase “writing tips,” and found this great 2009 article on Locus Online. Among his suggestions was the idea of committing yourself to writing to a particular word count per day, which, as I’ve noted, has worked wonders for me.

It seems this article has gotten a bit too long, as is my usual habit, so I’ll save the rest for my next post. In the meantime, you can check out Doctorow’s article, which I’ll critique and build upon later this week.