Friday, September 7, 2012

Insanity, Interrupted

I've decided to shut down my Insanity experience for now for a couple of reasons.

A few days ago, I started noticing an absence of oomph, for lack of a better term, in my legs, which get brutalized during the Insanity workouts. 

I took one day off, then two, then three out of four. My legs still felt dead. 

And the workouts only get harder and longer from here.

Quite frankly, I just don't have time for it right now. I've got too many other things going on to accommodate the workouts and the time and rest needed it takes to recover from each workout. Although the workouts are only 40 minutes are so, it takes easily that long before you feel like you can function again afterwards. 

I suppose I feel leaner, although amazingly, the scale has not budged an ounce. I find this remarkable, given how intense the workouts are, given that up until my recent hiatus, I'd done heavy cardio and plyometric exercises virtually every day for the better part of a month. My shirt and shorts, even my shoes, were soaked with sweat at the end of each workout. 

OK, I'm rambling. 

Here's what you need to know about Insanity, if you were thinking about trying it. First, the Insanity materials include a bunch of disclaimers, including a warning to check with your physician before beginning the program.

You need to be in relatively good cardiovascular shape. This can't be the first thing you do after a long layoff from exercise. You won't make it through the workouts.

Upper body strength is nice, but it's the least important thing to bring to the table. 

You need a lot of free time. A couple hours per day for workouts and recovery. You also will need to sleep at least eight hours a night. I'll say this -- I slept damn good in these last weeks. The problem is that it's rare that I get 8 hours of sleep. I usually get by with 6 or so. It's not enough for Insanity. Eventually, your body will start to quit on you.

With kids, the day job, the writing at night, and all the other stuff, I just can't devote the recovery time needed to make it through. 

I'm going to switch back to another Beachbody program (the makers of Insanity) called 10-Minute Trainer. This set contains 5 different workouts, each 10 minutes in length, and you can do 1, 2, or 3 workouts per day, depending on your schedule. They're tough, but doable. Not nearly as crazy as Insanity.

I hate cutting this program short, but there are only so many hours in each day.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Death of a Manuscript

Last fall, I came up with a really cool idea for a post-apocalyptic novel. 

As I've mentioned before, I love that genre, and am fully aware that the market is pretty saturated with stories of zombies, plagues, vampires, Earth-bound asteroids, armies of Sta-Puft Marshmallow Men, and so on and so forth. 

But THIS idea. 

This was a twist on the genre I hadn't seen yet out there. 

I talked to my agent, my first readers, and my wife about it. They all seemed excited by it. I worked on the outline, set out the major plot points. I did have a bit of a hard time deciding on what the main character's ultimate quest would be, but I didn't worry too much about it. The idea was so damn good, I figured it would work itself out (see where this is going?) 

So I got to work on the manuscript in December. And wrote and wrote and wrote. By the end of April, I had myself a complete manuscript, nearly 100,000 words in length. I was pretty proud of myself. 

I took a week or two off from it, did a couple pass-through reads to clean some things up and shipped it off to my readers. 

While  I waited for them to get back to me, something started to nag at me. Something felt wrong. The story didn't pop out at me. I compared it to The Jackpot, which had a very simple, very clearly-defined quest -- Samantha working to return a stolen lottery ticket back to its rightful owner while resisting the temptation to keep it for herself. It's the narrative thread. But what was this book about? Why did it feel so flat? 

The first reader got back to me with his notes: He liked the premise a lot, but, uh, um, what's it ABOUT? 

My second reader came back with his notes: "The writing is really good, but I'm having a hard time rooting for the main character." To me, this is very similar to my first reader's note. Guess what my agent said when she read it? 


I read through it again. They were right. One hundred percent right.  

The book was sick. Very sick. I rushed it into surgery and began looking for where things went off the rails. Early, it turns out. Very early. And the infection spread rapidly throughout the rest of the manuscript. I made the fatal mistake of confusing a good idea with a story. I didn't know what the main character was pursuing, what his ultimate goal was, who he even was, and the novel is fatally flawed because of it.  The main character does pursue something, but he was backed into it by circumstance, not because he  was actively trying to solve a problem that affected him directly. That's not to say that there aren't novels that succeed in this paradigm -- it's just that mine doesn't, because this quest he's on isn't clearly defined. He doesn't even know what it is until the last 20 pages of the book. 


As Gertrude Stein famously said: "There's no there there." 

Fixing the book isn't going to be a simple matter of revising a few sections, adding some character depth or anything like that. It's going to require a complete re-write. I'll have to throw out some 300 pages.

So there it is. I forgot the key storytelling principles. What is the book about? What does the main character want? Why does he want it? And how will your main character's true nature drive his or her approach to pursuing the goal? 

I think about my three favorite books, and how simple the stories are at their core. The Stand is about our heroes' quest to defeat Randall Flagg. Mystic River is about Sean Devine's quest to find Katie Marcus' killer. Lonesome Dove is about Woodrow and Gus leading the cattle drive north from Texas. In all of these books, it's character that drives how each of the quests is pursued. 

So let my tale be a warning to you, fellow writers. Make sure you know these things before you start writing. Don't confuse a good idea with a good story. A good idea is merely a starting point. You have to hammer it down like a blacksmith forging a sword from steel. 

If you don't, you could find yourself in the same pickle as me. And believe me, it ain't a fun place to be.