Friday, December 16, 2011

We Are Temporarily Experiencing Higher Call Volume than Anticipated, Your Patience is Appreciated

I'm busy finishing up the final pages of draft three on the novel and getting the last of the holiday shopping finished up, so time is a bit crunched. In lieu of a new post, here's an oldie but goodie and TOTALLY seasonally appropriate:

The Hallelujah Post

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Revision - Part 2

While draft two was more complete - the characters more fully fleshed out, the plot holding together, and the major themes and imagery developing nicely - there were more questions to address in the next draft, and, once again I was faced with the dilemma of starting over with a blank piece of paper of editing from what was already on the page.

I should point out, I did read through draft two and made notes to myself, quite extensive notes, about how scenes needed to change. This was my "time to get real" draft, and anything that I was still in the hopeful stage about (as in the "I hope this works, but I know it doesn't") had to go or change. In some cases I left exercises for myself in the margins - list ten things Matt's feeling about Katami, list ten things Rachelle can say to Matt, ten things Alan's thinking - or rewrote passages on the back of the page. Once I began working on draft three, I would put Post-it Notes on the appropriate page as ideas came to me or I knew I would want an image to echo in specific scene later in the novel.

Draft three was the "figuring out the best way to tell the story" draft - the time to work out the structure of the novel (now that I knew what it was about, were there ways in which the form could work with the theme better?), really nail down the timeline, figure out what's working and make sure there wasn't anything in the novel that hadn't earned its place there. I also got really, really real about dialogue and became ruthless with what I call placeholder dialogue - the kind of dialogue characters speak when you know they have to have a particular conversation but you don't know enough about your characters yet to make it subtle.

Once again, I started out thinking I would cut and paste and edit from draft two. I mean, the draft was pretty solid. It was my MFA thesis and my thesis advisor called it one of the most fully realized theses she'd ever read, so why shouldn't I be able to zoom through this draft simply making changes to the existing text? And, once again, I tried for a couple of weeks to do this before succumbing to the blank document method of creating draft three. In this case, the blank document made it possible to break the novel open in an interesting way.

Like I said, this was my "get real" draft, and I had a transition in the first ten pages that had bothered me from the time this was a short story. In every draft I jumped from the very dramatic opening where Matt's older brother dies in a car accident right to the funeral. Then I was faced with the problem of having to introduce a whole bunch of characters (some of them major) in a gang shot - here's Matt's mother, here's his stepdad, here's the stepdad's mother and his sisters, and the dead brother's ex-girlfriend, and, for good measure, let me throw in Matt's soon-to-be-girlfriend whom he hasn't even met yet but he imagines her sitting in the church with them. It was character soup.

Faced with the "get real" moment, I asked myself what I was gaining by not showing the four days between the accident and the funeral. The answer led me to the creation of fifty or so new pages, new scenes that let me introduce all these characters one at a time, give them their moment on the stage, and then move on to another moment.

This change set the stage for draft three being a complete overhaul of draft two. The difference this time was that nothing was created that wasn't needed, wasn't demanded by the story. Maybe 15,000 words out of the 100,000+ in draft three were also in draft two, and there's only one scene in the entire novel that has survived pretty much intact from when this was a short story. It's still the same story, but it's like buying a used car and replacing all the major components and refurbishing the interior so it's still the same car, but everything's shiny and new and it runs great.

Now I'm in the "telling the story in the best way possible" draft and finally able to edit rather than rewrite. This draft focuses on the language and making sure that all the components are doing as much work as they possibly can. If there's a detail, it has to add something to the reader's understanding of character and plot. This draft is also about making sure that the flow in the piece as a whole feels continuous and builds and ebbs where it should. This is the moment for noticing the mechanics - how is the story being told (what's the mixture of narrative and scene)? Does the dialogue sound authentic for the characters? Do scenes begin and end where they should? Is there enough variation or do I have too many characters doing things that are too similar? Do I use the same description too many times? Is it solid or are there still moments where I'm only hoping it works?

So far, it's going well, and I'm really, really happy with the novel. Even though almost every page is bleeding red, all the parts are in the right place, the characters have their own space, and no one is wandering around in search of a plot anymore.

Revision - Part 1

(This week, I'm embarking on a series of posts about the revision process.)

Almost every writer hears the adage "90% of writing is rewriting" at least once in their lives (usually much, much more than that). You can read it, or some similar sentiment, in almost every book on writing even though most books on writing dedicate 90% of their pages to the construction of a story and 10% to revision. Even trying to get writers to talk about revision can be frustrating because it seems to be something you should just innately know how to do.

On one level, this is true. When I wrote my first novel at 13, I immediately began rewriting it. By the time I was finished, I was 16 and had completely rewritten the novel from beginning to end. Revision seemed to be quite simple and straight-forward. But then, so did writing.

Now I know better (or worse, depending on your perspective), and the revision process on my current novel has been anything but straight-forward. Each stage of the process has been fraught with anxiety and panic, most likely because a previous novel disintegrated like tissue paper in the rain during the revision process, and I was worried the same fate might await this novel. This was the main reason I went to grad school. I wanted to be in an environment where, if the novel started to fall apart, I could get help. Which worked, sort of. I ended up developing my own theory of revision and creating a map to help me through the process. The other week, when the novel started veering off course, I went back to my map and realized I had inadvertently tripped over into a new phase of revision and was, once again, running along without feeling the ground under my feet, making it up as I go along. The good news is I've reached the home stretch of the revision process - I'm into the editing and polishing phase. The likelihood of the novel falling apart here is minimal because all the pieces are in place and they fit very nicely.

The process I outlined for myself is a continuum of writing from the triggering impulse of the project to the very last word you write or change. It has four stages: telling yourself the story, telling the story, figuring out the best way to tell the story, and telling the story in the best way possible. A lot of the process is rewriting in the "start over with a blank sheet of paper" vein of rewriting. I'd heard of writers doing this and was filled with horror at the thought. All those words I'd labored over, all that time and hard work and anxiety, wiped out. Except they weren't totally wiped out. The first draft became the outline for the second. Having completed the first draft (telling myself the story), I now knew what my story was about and where it was going, so I was in a better position to understand which scenes worked in service to the story and which were superfluous (that first draft had a LOT of "character wandering around in search of plot" scenes) and where there were still gaps in my understanding of characters and plot. So draft two became about actually telling the story.

The difference between telling yourself the story and telling the story is like the difference between experiencing something and then telling your friends about it afterwards. You have the benefit of knowing what's going to happen, so you can pick and choose the details that are important and add information that makes the story better. You don't need to tell about the phone call that kept you at the office if the adventure was getting lost while hiking on the weekend. Same thing in writing. Now that you know what your story is about, you can start making sure your scenes, your images, your details line up in service to the story.

Is it possible to do that without scraping everything you wrote? Sure. I initially thought I'd print out my novel by scene, rearrange the scenes, cut and paste and wa la! Instant draft two. That didn't work for me. With this novel, there was too much that needed to move, be rewritten, added. Some of that may be because this novel started out as a short story and draft one happened when the short story began unpacking itself. So I started over with a clean sheet of paper and retyped EVERYTHING. I was completely stymied by the whole process, even down to the physicality of where to put draft one so I could see it while I typed. I kid you not. I finally had to tell myself it's okay to walk off the edge of the world without a parachute and just get to work.

I'm going to leave this here for now. Next week, I'll take us through draft two and the telling the story in the best way possible phase.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sometimes I Forget

Sometimes I forget one of the most fundamental lessons I've learned about writing (and, probably, one of the most fundamental lessons in life):

Nothing is written in stone.

I forgot this lesson this past weekend and got myself caught up in a full blown panic attack as I felt like the novel was careening out of control just as I was reaching out for the homestretch. I felt like I'd lost touch with the novel's essential themes and was adding endless new (and, most likely, unnecessary) scenes that were only set-blocking. Scenes that had no dramatic reason for being included except for the fact that I had to go from Point A to Point D and the logic circuits of my brain were saying that I had to include Points B and C as well, but they were dramatically uninteresting and not relevant to the plot of the novel.

And I so wanted to be done with the draft this weekend so I could go back being somewhat functional. Even I'm getting tired of putting things off "until after the novel's done" and I'm sure everyone around me is sick of this excuse, too (I mean, I missed all of Lit Quake (SF's fantastic two-week long literary festival at which some of my friends and favorite authors were reading) because, at this point in writing, I don't want to hear, see or read anyone else's words except my own).

In the clear, bright-eyed post-Halloween morning, I realize my panic is unnecessary. Yes, those scenes will probably be edited out or changed so they are dramatically relevant BECAUSE NOTHING IS WRITTEN IN STONE. Even years after his books were published, Faulkner was still revising them and editing them to get closer to what he was intending to say. I don't want to be like that. I want there to be an end point, but, and here's the main point: at this point in the writing process, no matter how much I want it to be the end, it's not. And there isn't anything that's on paper right now that can't be changed, eliminated or made stronger.

So, I'm better now. Feeling a little more grounded in the novel. I had to mark a couple of places as "come back to this" just to get myself back in alignment with the ending, and I may have to work backwards from my ending to make sure everything lines up, that the emotional clock ticks forward the way it's supposed to (right now it feels like my main character veers too suddenly, goes from being a good kid to being a bad-ass).

It's uncomfortable, feeling the novel go out of control like this right at the end, but as long as I keep breathing and reminding myself that I can fix whatever I don't like, I should be okay.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Let Me Call You Cupcake

I've been putting in a lot of hours at the computer lately, and talking about things I've learned as I work on the draft of my novel in this blog. Tonight, I want to talk about something sweet and fluffy: cupcakes.

Last year, my younger son was obsessed with baking shows on TV. Cake Boss was probably our favorite, but we also watched Ace of Cakes, Ultimate Cake-off, and, finally, Cupcake Wars. We learned decorating terms like fondant, isomalt,and modeling chocolate, and that you can create just about anything out of crisped rice treats. One of my favorite blogs is Cake Wrecks.

I like cupcakes. I grew up at a time when you only got cupcakes when someone had a birthday and their mom was extra nice and made something for the class. Not all moms did this when I was growing up, as opposed to now when every birthday comes complete with cupcakes for the class. So cupcakes are still something special to me.

Living in a large metropolitan area means I've gotten to benefit from the cupcake shop trend, and there are a few in San Francisco I like to visit.

My favorite is Teacake in Burlingame. Of all the shops I've been to, Teacake has the best combination of cake and frosting in terms of mouth feel and taste. Their flavors are a little limited - vanilla and chocolate with vanilla and chocolate buttercream and one or two special flavors each day. October has been great because they've featured a pumpkin cupcake and an apple crumb cupcake, both with cream cheese buttercream frosting. My spouse all likes Teacake because they do frosting shots of any flavor frosting you'd like. It's $1.00 and you get a generous amount of frosting served in the holder for a mini-cupcake. Kind of a sweet deal for someone who likes frosting a lot more than cake. And their frosting is really good. Not too sweet, not too heavy on the butter side of buttercream.

My next favorite is Cups and Cakes Bakery in San Francisco. These photos don't do justice to their amazing cupcakes, but pictured here are Pineapple Upside Down Cake and Pancake Breakfast. Their flavors are outrageous. Fauxstess, Boston Cream Pie, Rainbow Bright, Peanut Butter Cup, Rootbeer Float, need I go on? One thing I really love about Cups and Cakes is that almost all their featured flavors are available each day in regular and mini (not all flavors are available every day, but you can do special and custom orders. A friend of mine spied an order of Blue Velvet going out the door one time when she was there, and that's not a flavor they have on their menu). If there's one fault with these cupcakes, it's that the frosting is a bit on the sweet side. Still...I love the hot pink storefront and the fact that there's always parking on the street where they live.

Last up is Cako Bakery in Japantown. Cako's has some pretty awesome flavors. That's my younger son's favorite pictured - S'mores with toasted marshmallow frosting and graham cracker base. They also have a Blueberry Cheesecake, Cookies and Cream, Pink Lemonade, and 24 Karat, along with the more traditional flavors. My one complaint with Cako's is that their frosting is often too heavy on the butter side of buttercream leaving me with a mouthful of lightly flavored grease. This is especially true if you order one of the more traditional flavors where the cake isn't as sweet. With Cookies and Cream or some of their more exotic flavors, the cake is sweeter and makes up for the lack of sugar in the frosting. Still...the cake itself is probably the best of the three, and the extras like crushed cookies or graham crackers layered under the cake is phenomenal.

I've yet to hit a couple of the other Bay Area staples for cupcakes: Kara's Cupcakes and Susie Cakes, but I'm sure I'll get to them eventually.

And now, back to the novel...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shakespeare in Love or In Love with Shakespeare

Home-schooled Teen and I have begun our new school year together, and this year is all about Shakespeare. I'm excited since the last time I really looked at Shakespeare I was all of 21. Granted, it was during my study-abroad semester in London and we went to at least one Shakespeare play a week, many of them by the RSC, but I was 21 and not that widely nor deeply read as I am now.

Last year, HST and I read some of the foundational books of the Western canon - Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Inferno. This year, we are reading, more or less in order: Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar (with the addition of reading Plutarch's chapter on Caesar), Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Over the summer, we saw a production of Macbeth and read The Tempest (we were supposed to see a production of Tempest, but that's a whole different kettle of fish). My idea is to circle back to Shakespeare's final play so we can look at how he developed certain themes through his career.

I am excited about this year for a number of reasons. One, I really do love Shakespeare and often forget how much I love him until I pick up or see one of his plays. And then remember all over again how amazing a writer he is. Two, I am going to be teaching a class at Buena Vista University in Iowa this January about appropriation, and the Bard is a master appropriator. Having read the books we read last year, I find myself picking up on his references to the Aeneid in many of his plays. But he also used folktales, popular plays by other writers, gossip, Plutarch, Virgil and almost any other writer with whom the public might be familiar to recontextualize themes and characters who were well-known. Three, I find some of the themes he returns to fascinating. The public versus the private self. The roles people assume and what makes a king a king (I'm not a Shakespearean scholar, but I would almost guarantee that some of the very first seeds of the American Revolution were sown from Henry V and Shakespeare's musing on the idea that a king is just a man with good props). And, four, this time period in European history is incredible. The more I learn, the more fascinated I am with it. We may think our country is in turmoil right now, but it is nothing, NOTHING compared to 16th century Europe with the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestants, the rise of the moneyed merchant class, colonization of North America, a woman (WOMAN!) on the throne of England, and the rise of England as the dominant world power. The intrigue, the politics, the social upheaval. How could it not be the stuff of great stories?

So, HST and I have embarked. Our first stop on this voyage is Taming of the Shrew, probably one of the most controversial plays for contemporary audiences. One critic I read as I was preparing my study guide of HST talked about how, though the play is a farce, it can't be forgotten that Shakespeare was a man and how constrained women's roles were during this age. True. But I think it forgets that this is also the man who presents more nuanced roles for women in his other plays. Why would he have other female characters who have great strength and ask us, in this farce, to take Katherine at face value when she talks about the rightful domination of women by men? It's a difficult play for contemporary women to stomach, I agree. I saw a production that went the full nine yards of making Kate a victim of domestic violence. HST and I have just started, so I'll post again about some of the conclusions we come to, and I've paired Shrew up with Romeo and Juliet, so we have two looks at marriage in radically different plays that both, at their heart, turn on the idea of arranged marriage versus marriage for love.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Getting Near the End

I went away to a lovely little house on the Russian River last week so I could get some writing done, and ended up with forty-eight pages and 13,000 words, which means I'm about seventy pages from the end.

For the most part, the next seventy pages will be some of the easiest writing of the entire draft. I've got very few notes from my draft two read-through, which means I'm just typing, adding in some layering, some deeper understandings of the characters and the imagery of the novel that have developed during the writing of the third draft. With the exception of one sequence of scenes (which I've mapped out so thoroughly at this point), I won't be writing large chunks of new text. Although, I've said that before and found myself writing LOTS of new text in this draft. In a strange way, draft three is the same as the previous draft, and in some ways, it's radically different.

On Facebook, I'm inundating my friends with updates about how many pages I've written, and my frustrations with interruptions (I returned to a remodel in one of our neighbor's houses) and just fitting my life in when my mind is perpetually elsewhere. At this point, Altar is officially the longest thing I've ever written and the longest I've ever spent writing something. One of my friends asked me what I'm going to do after it's done, and I jokingly said, "Go to Disneyland." To which she replied, "That's not a bad idea." I know. I feel it starting already. Though there will be editing to do when (fingers crossed) the novel gets taken by an agent and bought by an editor, it will not occupy me in the same way the writing does. I will not live with my characters in the way I do now. For one thing, I will have moved on to the next project by the time that comes about, for another, I won't have to be living so deeply in the story.

So what does it feel like right now? Fluid. Very fluid. I feel a lightness, an ease not only in my mind, but in my body. I am smiling a lot these days. For the most part, small annoyances (like rude drivers) don't stick with me. I get cranky when I can't get to the words (like earlier this week - re-entry was rough with a long list of things that had piled up while I was away. I still haven't worked my way through all of it), I get cranky with my family when they ask to borrow my time for things that were completely avoidable (aka: when the kids call because they've forgotten something at home that they need for school ASAP), and I get cranky when the hammering starts up in the remodel and interrupts my flow of words.

I am posting word totals to Facebook because that is truly what is going on in my life right now. Words. On the page. The story flowing forward in such a beautiful and profound way it's almost like it's not even me writing it at times. It seems to come through me rather than from me. And that is when writing is at its best. There is a tension building as I write ever closer to the final words, as I write towards some of my favorite scenes in the entire book, as I envision myself staring at the computer screen and hearing the printer churn out page after page of the completed manuscript.

I think what surprises me most is how easy it has been to follow this story to this conclusive moment. Over the years, I've heard of writers who spend decades on a single novel and wondered how they could do that, how they could maintain the focus, how they could not drive themselves mad with all the other ideas they weren't getting to. The answer turns out to be that it's surprisingly simple when the idea, the characters, the way the story develops continues to surprise you, to delight you, to reward your attention by getting better and deeper. It hasn't been easy. I have put this story down many times. It started as a 25-page short story in 1999. It grew into a novella a couple of years later. Three years ago, it turned into a full-fledged novel, and here I am, at last, reaching out for the end.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can You Believe It?

There was a discussion on one of the agent blogs I read several weeks ago (months, probably, knowing how chronologically challenged I am) about whether a teenage protagonist in a YA novel would use a particular word or not. The agent said that no teenager she knew would ever use this word and so it ruined the veracity of the character for her. Many of the blog readers commented that they've heard plenty of teenagers use that word or words of a similar elevated vocabulary level (I forget the exact word, but it was a mult-syllabic, Latinate, SAT-type word).

Similar discussions come up in workshop classrooms all the time. One person says something in a story isn't believable and another says, "Oh no, the same thing happened to me (or my brother, best friend, dog) and it happened exactly like this."

I think the discussions actually miss the point.

The question isn't 'can you believe it?' but 'is it believable for this character?'

To paraphrase Shakespeare (because I'm not going to get the quote right, and I don't want to take the time to go find it): there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.

Or, to paraphrase Douglas Adams: In an infinite universe, everything is possible.

These discussions came to mind while I was working on my own novel tonight and wrote the phrase I haven’t made up the reading I’ve missed nor gotten the class notes from anyone and realized it was the wrong language for my character. I've taken a lot of care to make it clear Matt is intelligent and observant. He has to be. He's carrying the observational weight of the entire novel. The reader has to trust his ability to tell the story and give valuable insight into his own character as well as those around him, otherwise the whole conceit of the novel collapses into the diary of a precocious fourteen year old. And that's not what I'm after.

I'm reminded of a friend who wrote a stunning first novel years ago with a very young narrator. She wrote a very smart scene early on where her narrator observed her mother walking through the grocery store, commenting not only on the height of her heels and the tightness of her shirt, but the reactions of the other customers in the store. Instinctively, my friend had done the work of getting the reader to trust this narrator's ability to reveal truth and tell the story even though she was ten years old.

So I don't think the question is one of whether a particular word or observation is believable. If the question of believability comes up, it's usually because the writer hasn't done the work to make the reader believe it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of Harry Potter

I had an interesting moment the other day when a new character was introduced in the novel I was reading. Her name was Merope. I knew the name came out of Greek mythology (Merope was the name of one of Atlas' daughters), but I kept getting a flash in my mind of a bedraggled young woman with stringy black hair and a very white face. The image was so vivid, I thought it had to come from a movie.

This happens a lot. I have near-perfect recall for just about any actor I've ever seen in a movie. I've only been stumped a few times, most notably by Hugo Weaving who I saw in Priscilla - Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings movies, and The Matrix and didn't recognize as the same person (largely because Weaving is one of the few actors who can change the cadence and tone of his speech from role to role - Johnny Depp can do it, too, but I've never failed to recognize him since I've loved him since his 21 Jump Street days, and he's usually the star of the movie with his name above the title). It wasn't until a friend called Weaving 'Agent Elf' that I realized I'd been completely fooled.

I usually know the names of the actors, too, not just the roles they played, and have been known to recognize dog and cat actors as well. This ability is like my super power and might lead you to believe I spend lot of time reading the tabloids or memorizing IMDB, but nothing could be further from the truth. The information just sticks. Like Crazy Glue.

This time was different, though. I didn't get the snippet of dialogue that usually helps me figure out who the actor is or the name of the movie he or she was in. Every time I saw the name 'Merope,' I got that flash of the woman's face until it hit me. It wasn't a movie. It was the sixth Harry Potter book I was remembering. Tom Riddle's mother was Merope.

When I realized that, I turned to my husband and told him I want to be able to do exactly that, create an image with words that is so vivid a reader will think they've seen it rather than read it. That's not just good writing, that's amazing writing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shouting about Rivers

All this week I’m guest blogging at To Be Shouted, a creative blog started by James Wilson and his family. Each month, they choose a topic and each family member plus one guest blogger gets a week to do whatever they want with the topic. Posts on previous topics (bread, Sundays, home, maps) have included meditations on the topics, essays, paintings, photo essays, stories, just about anything you can think of as a way to conceptualize the topic in a creative way. This month’s topic is ‘river,’ and I’ve been immersed (pardon the pun) in the subject for the past couple of weeks preparing for my To Be Shouted debut.

I’ve been having a good time with the topic, but what’s been really interesting is watching my creative arc as the project developed.

My first step in developing something interesting was to brainstorm. What did I know about rivers? What rivers did I know? What did I think about them? What came to mind when I thought about the word ‘river.’ I wrote down everything I could think of and tacked the list on the cork board over my desk so I could see it each day.

As I got closer to my deadline, I began researching the topic on the Internet. What was a river? What came up on the first page when I Googled the term ‘river?’ That search led me a recording of Joni Mitchell’s “River” on YouTube which got me thinking about the number of river-related songs I knew. So I started searching on YouTube for videos of songs about rivers, which, in turn, led to the post I put up today. But it also started me thinking about the symbolic use of rivers in music, literature and art.

I also thought a lot about mythology and river gods, the words associated with rivers and the effects rivers have on the landscape. I wrote a couple of things about those topics, but I also wanted to do something creative.

The next step in my process was the jump into interpretation of rivers, leaving the physical reality of rivers behind and moving into the metaphysical and symbolic. I’ve written a poem, have a piece of flash fiction/short short in the works, and am working on a couple of visual pieces – all of which will start hitting the blog in the next couple of days.

What’s been nice about this is watching the creative work evolve. So often, when I’m faced with a grant proposal or a residency application, I have a difficult time coming up with what I want to do, a difficult time describing the kind of work I want to create. I now realize, that’s mostly because I’m trying to jump to the last stage of this process without doing any of the previous stages, without any of the brainstorming or processing of information. The work I propose always feels flat. So the guest blogging on To Be Shouted has been a valuable microcosm of my creative process and a really good learning experience for me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To Be Shouted

I will be guest blogging over at To Be Shouted from today until the end of the month. To Be Shouted is the brain child of my friend, James Wilson, and his family, all of them talented artists. Each month, they choose a theme and write, create art, or post images related to that them. This month, the theme is 'river.' I've got some meditations, a poem, a story, and some art pieces that will be posted over the next ten days. Come check it out.

(the image above is one I took several years ago at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. The line of stones the girls are walking across marks the boundary between lake and river, the beginning of a journey that ends some 2,300 miles later in the Gulf of Mexico)

And Now, Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Life

Today is the first day of school for my younger son (the older one went back to school last week), which means the house belongs to myself and the two dogs (who spend most of their time sleeping) for several hours each day.

It would have been tempting to plan to dive right back into work and start zooming away on the novel as soon as the door closed behind the younger child, but, I know myself better than this. I knew I would need some decompression time, time to adjust to the silence of the house (and the increase in environmental noise - like barking dogs and construction - that would become louder because of the vacuum), and I actually planned to give myself some space to do this. I'll pat myself on the back. I got myself right. Finally.

The house is quiet. Too quiet. And feels empty. The dogs are both sacked out - big dog on the couch and puppy by the sliding glass door. It's an overcast day in Baylandia, which makes the day feel even quieter.

So there's decompression from the kids going back to school and no longer being in the house. And there's also decompression from spending the weekend in Reno for Worldcon, which was a whirlwind of panel discussions on topics as diverse as infectious diseases (a catastrophic epidemic will not wipe out the human race, all it will take is a disease that kills 10% of the population to sufficiently disrupt such essentials as distribution of clean water and food and we'll die of water and food-born pathogens), writing fiction with real people as characters (make sure to choose someone who has been dead long enough to have few heirs or someone who does not have a litigious estate), and the nature of consciousness (a "philosophical zombie" is someone who does not know if anyone else has consciousness because, while you know you yourself have consciousness, you can not absolutely know for sure that anyone else you meet does as well). The highlight of my weekend was meeting Guy Consolmagno, or Brother Guy, who is an MIT-educated Jesuit priest and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, who set us straight about a number of things including that the excommunication of Galileo was not about his science, it was a political move brought about because Galileo's patrons, the de Medicis, had fallen out of favor. Two years after his excommunication, Galileo was back on his estate carrying on just as before. (which, of course, makes me want to research it and write about it - this weekend was great for giving me more stories that I will probably never be able to write)

Another highlight was the panel discussion on linguistics. The academic credentials of the four panelists were incredibly impressive - PhD's all - but what really impressed...the moderator created the Klingon language and one of the panelists created the Dothraki language for the HBO Game of Thrones series. (Also amazing to me...the number of times George RR Martin crossed my path just wandering around the con like all the rest of us mere mortals. Unfortunately, I never had my camera handy when he did so).

Despite Worldcon's focus on SF and fantasy writing (or maybe because of it), I found plenty of interconnection with my own work. A talk about the ways ancient cultures have mapped the heavens gave me lots of information that relates directly to the novel, as did the linguistics discussion. I often went back to my hotel room at the end of the day with my head spinning and so mentally exhausted, I couldn't even contemplate playing Solitaire on the computer.

So, here I am again, just me and my words, and a novel to complete, and a whole bunch of new stories to think about. Which will make my next blog post very timely. Awhile back, I asked several writer and artist friends, how they created a balance between the existing work and the new ideas that inevitably form while you're engaged in a long-term project. My next post will focus on their responses.

Friday, July 29, 2011

From the Files

Found this yesterday while going through my grad school folders. It was created by those of us in Michelle Carter's Teaching Creative Writing class in fall of 2007 (so I'm not solely responsible for this, just contributed to it). If you've ever been in a workshop or critique group, you'll appreciate this.

Roles and Dynamics Found in Workshop Hell:

The Justifier - a) recognizes the writer's intentions and insists that the writer has accomplished them; b) reflexively defends the work as it is.

The Placater - "I just LOVE the writing!" Everything is wonderful, wants everyone to feel good.

The Alpha-Dog - "As my agent remarked over martinis last night..."

The Slash & Burner - thinks he or she is demonstrating critical acumen by crapping all over everything.

The Psychoanalyzer - "Clearly, the writer is the child of an alcoholic, probably two..."

The Digressor - "This reminds me of that time..."

The Fixer - "Start on page 10, move the scene on page 3 to page 7, and end the story on page 12, and make your main character a man."

The POV-changer - "Try changing this to first person..."

The Cosmic-Nitpicker - insists on focusing on irrelevant trivialities such as word choice in first drafts, titles, the color of a character's clothing or hair.

The Politicizer - "As a Marxist feminist, I find it offensive that..."

The Lit Crit Student/ Aesthetic Advocate - "The signifier fails to decenter the sign..."

The Formalist/Traditionalist/Classicist - "This is not a story..."

The Flame Warrior - insists on having personal battles and butting heads with everyone over everything.

The Teacher/Group Leader-Pleaser - arse-kisser

The Automatic Contrarian - habitually challenges the teacher because he or she knows more than the teacher.

The Personalizer - "I've never been to China, but I did have Chinese food for dinner last night and..."

The Perpetually Clueless - "I've got no idea what this story is about, actually."

The Cliche-Lover - praises what is trite/familiar and fears surprise and originality.

The Defender - responds to all comments with "But my writing group/husband/dog really loves this story."

The Explainer - "I know it's really slow up to page 50, but that's necessary because..."

The Validation-Hungry Genius - just wants to be told how brilliant he/she is.

The Dismisser - "I don't really care what you think about my work, it's being published next month just as it is."

The Apologizer - "You're right, I suck. I should just stop writing now."

The Excuse-Maker - "I haven't slept in a week, I'm moving, my cat died..."

The Psychotherapy Patient/ The Tender Plant - "I haven't felt this violated since my parents' divorce destroyed my life."

The Realist - "But that's how it really happened."

The Unintelligible Theorizer - "This piece is a deconstruction of Heidegger's praxis in its problemization of Paul de Man..."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Notes from the Life

Couple of things today:

I'm going through my file cabinet right now, becoming reacquainted with various piece of paper I have collected and held on to, sometimes for several years. I've found some story starts from more than a decade ago (probably more like two decades - it is astounding how recent they seem and yet, when I do the chronology thing, I realize how long ago I actually put those words on that piece of paper - have I really been at this writing thing that long?)and been pleasantly surprised at how good they are (which, of course, begs the question of why it is so easy for me to doubt the quality of my writing. Believe me, I do. And often).

I also reacquainted myself with my "success" folder - it contains acceptance letters (and also "good" rejection letters - my favorites are rejections of the short story "Choice" which has become the novel I'm working on: "Although there is much to admire here, sorry to disappoint you on 'Choice.'" and "This story is hovering on the edge of being a great story..."). There are also comments from editors and people I interviewed during my freelancing days - my favorite, after adding a concluding paragraph to a run-of-the-mill round-up article about the top ten innovative tech businesses in Nevada, my editor e-mailed back, "Perfect. Good fluff is an art form." Love it!) Looking at the success folder was a great shot-in-the-arm and I'm grateful the younger version of myself thought to create the folder and keep it in the very front of the filing cabinet where it's visible every time I open that drawer. Good job, younger self!

I'm also going through the vast multitude of folders full of stuff from grad school. It's too early to start doing a thorough culling, and there's sooooo much good stuff in these folders, that I'm not doing a lot of thinning here. But what is interesting is coming across things I wrote for exercises and not recognizing them as my own writing nor remembering their creation at all. This has happened quite a few times. It's completely understandable. The pace of grad school was tremendous - I did my MFA in three years. It was three years of constant pressure to create and write and get work out there on a deadline (maybe that's why the work has been moving at such a slow pace during my first post-grad school year). Looking at these snippets of stories or novels (I mined previous novels and novels that were still in development mercilessly in an effort to short cut the creation process when a professor asked for scenes - a totally legitimate way to create what I needed to for the class), I'm amazed at what I produced, and how much of it there is, and how GOOD a lot of it is. I've thought I hadn't really written anything during my time in grad school. Um, hello? It makes me very glad I'm doing this culling and pruning thing right now. (though I truly wish I didn't have to keep reminding myself that 1) I'm good, and 2) I'm productive, almost prolific.)

The other thing is that I saw George RR Martin last night in Redwood City courtesy of the super in dependant book store Kepler's. What I did not know until last night was that Kepler's promoted George's first book in the series, Game of Thrones, and sold more copies of that book than any other bookstore in the country.

It's an odd thing to see an author in person, especially an author who has achieved the kind of super-star status that packs out a 1,000 seat theater or, as happened at ComicCon, has 7,000 people lined up for hours to get seats in an auditorium that only seats 4,000. There is never enough time for all the questions to be asked let alone answered (in this case, George talked a bit about why this latest book took so long and about the HBO series, then there were a few questions from the audience and then George sat at a table and signed books for the 1,000 people (several of whom had brought the full limit of three books for signing) - the event started at 7, my friend and I got out of there at 10 with our signed copy) and it always seems like the author can't quite answer the question the audience wants answered the most: what is it like in your head?

Having been to a number of author readings and signings, etc, I truly think that is the one question the audience really wants answered, but neither the audience nor the author knows how to get to it.

Anyway, back to the files and the ever rising pile of paper in the recycling bin.

(There will be a picture of George attached to this blog post as soon as I can get it from my friend. Promise)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blame it on the Puppy & the Importance of Rewards

Our family added a new member at the beginning of the month, which means my writing schedule has gone to heck. Puppy gets up at 6 am, so my 4 am writing times have gone by the wayside for a bit. Puppy also needs constant vigilance because we are in housebreaking mode (Something for which Puppy seems to have no use. He's just not getting it. He will. He is not the first puppy I've had, and they've all learned to ask to go out). But it's all just as well because it gave me plenty of time to read A Dance with Dragons and Turn of Mind and not feel guilty that I wasn't working on my own novel.

Alice LaPlante's novel, Turn of Mind, came out and has been doing very well. Alice was one of my mentors during grad school and is the professor who had me send the first draft of my novel to her agent when it was completed, which I wrote about in this blog entry. It's next on my reading list, but I've heard Alice read from it a couple of times and know that it is excellent. Maureen Corrigan reviewed the book on Fresh Air and made what I think is an incredibly salient point about Alice's combining a story about a woman with Alzheimer's with a murder mystery: If this were a straight work of literary fiction, that grim storyline might be too hard to stick with; but, that's where the suspense formula rescues this tale from despair. Just as we're losing Dr. White, we readers are rewarded with the cold comfort of the truth about the murder.

I think it's a point writers of contemporary fiction too often forget. We need to give readers a satisfying and rewarding ending to our stories. This doesn't mean that our stories have to have a happy ending, but that our endings need to be deep and rich with meaning.

It's something some writer friends and I were talking about over coffee at the beginning of the summer. We got on the subject of naming books we'd read recently that were satisfying reads and realized pretty quickly that, though there were many wonderful books out there, very few contemporary ones left us with a sense of satisfaction when we were done. It reminded me of my frustration with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Franzen spends hundreds of pages building up to a family reunion - the last Christmas the family will spend together because the father is becoming increasing incapacitated by dementia and the siblings are grown and scattered. When we finally get to the moment when all family members are in the same house, the anticipated explosion never comes. Instead, Chip, the youngest sibling, arrives just as his older brother is departing for the airport. True to life? Sure it is. But it was ultimately unsatisfying and left me feeling cheated and unrewarded for sticking with these thoroughly annoying and deeply flawed people. Where was the larger meaning? Where was the sense of closure?

Again, I'm not talking about happy endings. What Corrigan illuminates in her review of Alice's book is that there is no happy ending possible for Alice's protagonist, but the resolution of the mystery for the reader allows for a sense of completeness and closure. There can be unhappy, unresolved conclusions for characters. That's the way life is. We don't always get resolution for our complicated story lines. But for the reader, there has to be something more. In too many contemporary novels, there just isn't.

I was reminded of the need for rewards while reading the fifth book in George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons. Martin's book are HUGE. Dragons is just under 1,000 pages, and the previous four books total somewhere around 3,000 pages combined. He gives readers a cast of thousands and more story lines than any one human being should be capable of keeping track of. But Martin is a genius puzzle master and adept at rewarding the diligent reader. The final resolution of this series is years away. It is likely the seventh book will not be released until after 2020 if Martin continues to write at the same pace he has up until now (and no one wants to see him compromise quality in favor of them coming out any sooner), so he has to give readers incremental rewards for continuing to read the series. Spectacular cliffhangers at the end of each book are just part of it. There are characters who disappear and reappear in surprising places, but who's reappearance is entirely reasonable if you are paying attention. He gives clues. And the reward for paying attention is the pleasure you get when you find out you've been right all along or the surprise when something unexpected happens.

I've also been thinking about rewards a lot because of Puppy. Puppy is amazingly food oriented, which makes him incredibly easy to train. He learned to sit on command in less than a day. Dog, who will be three in August (they're both Airedales), has only recently come to understand the value of food. As a puppy, she couldn't have cared less, which made it frustrating and one of the reasons she continues to be a crazy woman when people come to the house and why she needs to be walked on a pronged collar (which I detest, but it keeps her from knocking me over in her desire to greet another dog or person). Because of Dog's behavior, I enrolled both Puppy and Dog in training classes (Dog's breeder recommended the trainer having taken Dog's mother to the classes, so I knew the trainer understood Airedales). This past week we practiced walking on a leash outside the classroom space. Dog's been doing great in the classroom, but, as soon as we were outside, her usual behavior returned. Trees! Dumpsters! Other dogs! There was simply TOO MUCH STUFF for her to pay attention to the clicker or the treats. The trainer suggested, since she wasn't interested in the treats as a reward (and, I mean, I had SALMON, not salmon-flavored treats, honest to goodness dried salmon, in the treat bag), I should use the other things she was interested in as the reward. Walk a few steps and, if she was staying with me, let her go sniff, then call her back and walk a few more steps, then reward her with a good sniff. It worked like a charm.

Which made me think even more about rewards and how, as writers, we need to give rewards to our readers. The reward doesn't have to be the happily ever after of Jane Austen's novels. But it doesn't have to be the happily ever never of Jonathan Franzen either.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Just Because It's True...

One of the most difficult aspects of writing is getting dialogue right. I got a reminder about that this week when I was working on a scene for my novel that happens on the one week anniversary of the death of my main character's brother. The step-dad in my novel is getting his doctorate in psychology so he's asked a friend who's specializing in grief counseling to help the family. My main character, 14 year-old Matt, is having none of it. The scene is important for a couple of reasons - it brings in the idea that anniversaries or significant milestones can trigger feelings of grief and mourning, which is key to understanding why Matt is telling this story in such detail. It also comes at the point where Matt is realizing there was more going on in his brother's life than he was aware of.

Lorelie, the grief counselor, asks the family to talk about the day Denny died, what they were doing, what Denny was doing, as a way to acknowledge the difference between this Saturday and the one on which Denny died. Matt, who has a near-perfect memory, thinks this is stupid and tells her he remembers everything that happened that day.

In my initial draft of the scene, he rattles off the details of the day starting with waking up at 7:08, taking a shower, smelling his step-dad's burnt toast, eating cornflakes from the blue bowl with the big chip out of the rim, watching TV (with specific shows, of course) and then going up to his room to play on his computer, hearing Denny wake up at 12:18, etc. etc. All written out in dialogue:

"I woke up at 7:08. Alan was making breakfast in the kitchen, I could smell the coffee and burnt toast. I got out of bed. I went to the bathroom then took a shower and got dressed. Then I had cornflakes and watched that TV show where they make warriors from different eras fight each other. It was Marines versus Samurai last week. The Marines won. Then I went upstairs..."

The problem with dialogue like this, besides being really, really boring, is that it made Matt sound psychotic and unbelievable. No one, no matter how good a memory he or she has, can really do this unless there is something else going on for them like a form of autism or a condition known as hyperthymesia, which Matt does not have (when I was researching eidetic memory for my novel, I ran across Jill Price who has near perfect recall of every day she's lived for the past twenty nine years. This article from Wired Magazine explores her exceptional memory, but talks about it as a form of OCD, the product of an obsessive recitation of the events that have happened in her life, so she has perfect recall of everything that has happened to her, but not for events that happened in the world around her - good info, but not what I'm exploring in the novel).

The recitation of Matt's day, complete with time stamps, didn't ring true. Plus, there were other things I wanted to be calling the reader's attention to, like Matt realizing, as he's rattling of this list, that something was different about the music Denny was playing when he woke up. It was a country song not heavy metal, and Matt didn't notice it in the moment of experiencing it (again, really important for one of the themes of the novel about memory and reconstruction of experience). To write it in scene, with Matt's dialogue being given to the reader as it's happening, made this moment clunky. I had to do one of these - 'and I noticed, while I was speaking' - types of things, which are awkward. So I knew I had to narrate the dialogue, tell the reader what Matt was saying rather than showing it:

“I remember all of it,” I say, and start to list everything that happened that day. I include the toast Alan burned, the chipped rim on the bowl I ate my corn flakes out of, mom asking for the laundry in my room. Even as I’m burying them in the details of that day, I recognize how much I’m leaving out, like mom throwing up in the bathroom because I’m not supposed to know she’s pregnant yet. I know, already, I won’t tell them about Denny going out the window or the look he gave me when I get to that part of the day, but I don’t know if that’s because I don’t want them to know it or because I want to keep it for myself.
As I’m talking, I also know how crazy it is that I can remember all of this, how it sounds like I'm obsessed, but I can’t stop. Now that I've started, I need to purge myself, to get it all out.
When I get to Denny waking up, I start to shake, my teeth chattering so it’s difficult to form words as I tell them how Denny started playing music right after one, which is how I knew he was awake. But even as I say it, I feel in my gut how something’s off, the music was different.

In the odd way of writing fiction, the narrated scene feels more real even though the reader no longer gets Matt's exact words.

This is one of the most difficult things to balance as a writer: writing something in a less-than-realistic way in order for it to be more true-to-life. It reminds me of a mantra that we used to repeat in a critique group I belonged to many years ago: Just because it really happened, doesn't mean it makes a good story.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Only from the mind of a writer...

From the "how do writers spend their time" files:

Sometimes, when I'm trying to get the creative juices flowing on a particular scene, it helps to look things up. Some of those things are helpful, some turn out to be just a way to procrastinate. This morning, stuck with how to get from the scene I'm in to the scene I want to come next, I noodled around with a few ideas, came up with an analogy between the way you can be suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that the person you love is no longer there after a death and the way it feels to drown. Great. Nice. Works well.

But, my conscious, and always helpful, brain pointed out, you've never drowned, you should look it up.

So I did. I found a couple of citations that gave me great information.
From a lifeguard of 15+ years who has seen lots of people drown, die, and been revived.

A compelling description from someone who was shipwrecked.

Unfortunately they only served to show me that the actual details of drowning weren't really necessary for what I wanted to write.

But then this caught my eye in the Google search results:
What does it feel like to drown? If you're decapitated, how long do you remain conscious? New Scientist has a fascinating feature on how it ...

And I just had to take a look.

How it feels to die.

The answer, it turns out, is seven seconds if the blade that severs your head is sharp and makes a clean cut.

So there, in a nutshell, is what writers do with their time. Aren't you so glad you asked?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues

Been feeling somewhat low and at odds with myself lately, which pretty much means I haven't been writing as much as I need to. I don't mean 'need' as in needing to get work done, I mean 'need' the same way an athlete needs to work out in order to feel fit. But that's largely due to the start of summer vacation. Okay, full disclosure, it's also due to my near-obsession with reading the first four books of the Game of Thrones series twice (that's roughly 6,000 pages in the past two months) before the fifth book comes out on July 12th and reading The Inferno for my work with Home-Schooled Teen.

Mostly, though, it's the beginning of summer that's thrown me off my stride, as it does almost every year. It's difficult to make a smooth transition from having my days to myself to having two kids hanging out at home. This year, we had planned to be away from home for most of the summer on a cross-country trip. Unfortunately, the rising cost of gas increased the cost of that trip enough that we've postponed it until next summer. So the kids are home and decided they didn't want to do summer camps this year. Which means they're home. Full time. They're good kids and pretty used to their mom's crazy insistence on being left alone for vast stretches of time as well as her lion's roar when she gets interrupted while she's writing (I do allow interruptions in the case of life-threatening situations, if blood has been spilled, or the house is burning down. Other than that, you take your life in your hands if you come into my space while I'm working). As much as they leave me alone, it's still difficult to write when I know they're there. So I haven't been. And it's starting to show.

Which means that it's time to commence the Emergency Summer Plan of Action: waking up at 4 am to work on the novel for a few hours before everyone else's day gets going.

I've done it before. Several years ago, I finished up another novel by getting up at 4 am for three months straight, and it was wonderful. It wasn't so much the blissfully uninterrupted hours of writing time, it was sitting down to write day after day and observing the ebbs and flow of my creative process. There were productive days and non-productive days. Days when the writing flowed and days when it was stuck in the mud. The work responded to that schedule, too. It seemed to like the extra attention and the additional commitment I was making to get that book finished. The other thing I noticed, when I get up at 4 am and start writing immediately, I don't get that niggly, annoying half hour of self-doubt while my conscious brain gives up the idea that it's in control. When I start writing at 4 am, my conscious brain is still asleep and doesn't notice that anything's going on until I'm half an hour into the work and then it takes a look and goes, okay, everything's under control.

So back to 4 am wake-up calls while I get this novel finished.

There are other things on the summer docket. I'm putting together an Etsy store to sell my cards and pins. Fingers crossed I'll have that going in the next month. I'll make an announcement here when that happens and direct everyone to my store.

The big excitement at the beginning of July is the arrival of my mentor, Alice la Plante's first novel in bookstores. Alice is an amazing writer and this book gotten some serious buzz - it's the #1 summer Indie Bookseller's pick - finger's crossed it'll do great. The book is about a woman with Alzheimer's who is accused of murdering her next door neighbor and can't remember what she was doing, just that there was blood on her hands and the police arrested her. You should definitely go look for Turn of Mind by Alice la Plante and help it become a best seller.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Defense of Fantasy

(Quick note: I started this post back in April, then got sidetracked by reading the rest of the George RR Martin series and working on my own novel, as well as some family stuff that needed to get done, the start of summer vacation, and plans for the arrival of a new puppy. Since I started this post, I have finished the series and am now almost done with my second read-through of it (there were some things I wanted to investigate and figure out a little more while they were still fresh in my mind) in anticipation of the release of the fifth book in the series on July 12th.)

For the past week, I’ve been indulging an ancient passion of mine: reading fantasy. I picked up A Game of Thrones after watching the first episode of the HBO miniseries last Sunday night, and was completely in thrall to the book from the first chapter to the last. It’s one of the few books I’ve read in the past several years that I have devoured, pretty much bringing all other work to a halt so I could swallow it in one gulp (I even took my car in for service just so I could read for two hours without feeling guilty that I wasn’t getting anything done – the car needed the work, but still…). It’s a pretty big book to take in that way, more than 600 pages long, and Thrones is just the first of a series. It took me two and a half days. I finished this morning and have already started in on Book Two: Clash of Kings. Yeah. It’s that good. Sweeping. Epic. Told from multiple points of view with a cast of thousands. And the action never stops from page one onward. I can’t even imagine the mind that could conceive of a plot this elaborate and intricate and able to keep everything straight. And the writing is beautiful.

Which brings me to the real point of my post. Give me a moment while I climb up on my soapbox. Okay. Here it goes:

I don’t understand the bias against fantasy (or any genre, for that matter) in most creative writing programs. Many of you, if you’re regular readers of my blog, will remember the letter I wrote to Neil Gaiman that he posted on his blog about my experiences in creative writing programs and their response to genre writing. The bias is that serious writers don’t write fantasy because fantasy can’t explore the depth of the human condition as deeply or as truthfully as realistic (ie; literary) fiction can. Any fantasy writer is, by virtue of writing fantasy, not a good writer.

Which, I think, is a load of hogswallop.

I was twelve when I discovered my dad’s collection of classic science fiction/fantasy – Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clark, Le Guinn – all the biggies were there, and I read most of them. The first book I read, after I was done with fairy tales, horse stories and a brief, though thoroughly embarrassing, stint with romance novels (though, in my own defense, I probably learned a LOT about how to write a good sex scene from those novels, good enough to get one of my grad professors to write ‘Hot!’ in the margin of my novel)…but what I consider to be my first REAL book was Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s dystopic book burning classic. I went on to read Stranger in a Strange Land (and learn the meaning of ‘grokking’ something), 2001, I Robot and the Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Andromeda Strain, just about anything I could get my hands on. I listened to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so much I developed an English accent (my dad, thank you so much! decided to tape the BBC radio play when it was first broadcast on NPR back in 198?, ’81, I think) and I have first edition copies of all the books in the series except the first one (darn!).

At one point, I wanted to be write fantasy, but I gave it up because I realized my ideas just weren’t good enough. Yes. You heard that right. I turned to literary fiction because I couldn’t write fantasy. There’s my deep, dark little secret. I am a failed fantasy writer.

While I think the true source of the bias lies in the fact that fantasy writers have an easier time making money from their writing than literary writers, I’ll set that aside for the moment in order to comment on why I think the quality argument is a bogus one and how the genre of fantasy is a more legitimate descendant of western literature than literary writing, and one with far deeper roots.

One of the reasons I think fantasy is seen as a facile is that it is closely aligned with fairy tales, myths, the fantastical stories we read as children. Just as the stuffed rabbit we couldn’t go to sleep without embarrasses us as adults, so to, the literature we adored as children does not seem to be the stuff serious adults who want to be taken as serious intellectuals should be reading.

I’ve read a lot of the western canon’s foundational work – Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Inferno, and I read a lot more classic work than I do contemporary fiction (there, another deep dark admission). Dostoyevsky, Austen, Elliot, Kafka, Woolf, etc. My favorite time period is fiction written between the two world wars. Most classical work, at least until the industrial era, has some kind of fantastical element to it. In fact, I think a lot more work that has stood the test of time has fantastical elements than doesn’t.

Now, I haven’t done any research on this, and it’s a developing theory of mine, but I think the insistence on a strictly literary genre (and yes, it is a genre) of fiction has come about with the rise of the middle class, especially the educated middle class. The middle class is extremely concerned with manners and the correct way of doing things. Think about Austen and the concern about marrying correctly – who do you think she was writing for? So the rise of literary writing seems to me, to have come about with the rise of an educated middle class, concerned with seeming to be smart, savvy, ahead of the curve, and vitally concerned that others recognize these qualities in them. Hence the need to denigrate the things that might have been enjoyed as children, like fairy tales. Sophisticated people do not listen to ghost stories or believe in knights in shining armor. Horrors if a dragon should show up! Or a robot!

But the insistence that literary fiction somehow has the corner on a true reflection of culture or is somehow deeper or more meaningful because it shows us as we truly are drives me nuts. I love Andre Aicman. His Call Me By Your Name is one of the most amazing works of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a long time. However, when I read his latest novel, Eight White Nights, I found myself wondering who on Earth actually acts like this? Who thinks like this? Yes, it’s rendered in excruciatingly accurate and realistic details, but really, I know very few people who imagine standing on the street gazing up at the lighted window of a woman they’ve just broken up with within hours of meeting said woman, or who are so enamored with the future past tense of their lives that they forget to live the present moment. Is it a valid point? Sure. I’m positive there are actually people who think like this, but, you know what? They’re not very interesting to read about for several hundred pages.

Another problem contemporary writing has is an inability to deal with the present moment. In a Paris Review interview, Ray Bradbury said that mainstream writing ignores the major ideas of our time. “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen or twenty years late,” he said. You can see this played out in the tendency for literary fiction to place stories in the near past, at a time when computers, cell phones and the internet were non-existent. Ask any writer about the “cell phone” problem and, most likely, you’ll get a list of ploys that writer has used to get around the ways in which ready access to a phone would solve a necessary plot complication. The phone is lost. Cell service is spotty. The phone simply isn’t turned on. The battery is low. The phone’s gotten dropped in a toilet and is no longer working.

Seriously, wouldn’t it be simply easier to put your characters on another planet?

But really, what those who denigrate fantasy miss is that the best fantasy writing is allegory. It treats the issues of our day in a way that we can hold them in our hands and examine them up close. Genocide? War? Tyranny? Evil? The just use of political power? These are all issues that exist in our contemporary world, but they are difficult to transform into realistic novels without becoming preachy or pedantic or, worse, boring and issue-driven. But fantasy can deal with them in ways that are interesting and draw direct comparisons to our real world. One of the things I admire about the George RR Martin series is how he shows war from all sides – one side’s murder is another’s self-defense. Wars (and political careers) turn on a decision made in the heat of the moment. The series is an extensive contemplation of what justice means. And it’s fun to read. And it has dragons.

And it is the legitimate descendant of the foundations of western literature in a way literary fiction is not. I am reading The Inferno right now. At every turn, there is a monster or a mythical creature or some character out of legend. It is tied into our ancestral memory of sitting by the fire, listening to the stories of heroes. It taps deep into our subconscious to reveal a deeper truth about ourselves and who we are. Which is probably why, after more than 700 years, it is still being read.

We abandon these myths and folktales at our peril. We impoverish our literature by insisting that the only true literature, the only legitimate form of expression, is that which renders our world in realistic detail. Because it denies the essential fact of writing – writing, by its very act, transforms our world into symbols. It isn’t realistic no matter what we do. No matter how realistically a writer renders a world, there is still the fantastical, alchemical process of taking these words you are reading and transforming them into pictures in your mind.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Post of Quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes about writing in no particular order:

‎"Whatever I think is radical and interventionist and different about my work in terms of American literature...a book has to work as a book for someone who just isn't going to pick up on all these clever things you think you're doing." - Toni Morrison

‎"Every writer should have tattooed backwards on his (or her) forehead, like on ambulances, the words 'everybody needs an editor'." - Michael Chichton

I don’t think it’s the poet’s job to witness only tragedy. I think it’s a poet’s job to witness joy in the world, no matter how much tragedy also exists. - Ilya Kaminsky

A scream is but a scream unless you shape it with feelings and put names to the meanings. - Donald Hall

Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you who you are. - Anton Chekhov

Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse to allow words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning. A meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. - Virginia Woolf

To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. - Haruki Murakami

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. - Albert Einstein

If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people. -
Virginia Woolf

Teach yourself to work in uncertainty. - Bernard Malamud

When you're stuck, close your eyes and make a mark - it's not the object, it's the process, the exploration. - Sara Cole

Talk that does not end in any kind of action is better suppressed altogether. - Thomas Carlyle

If you are a poet, you will see that there is a cloud in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. - Thich Nhat Hanh

The thing about performance, even if it’s only an illusion, is that it is a celebration of the fact that we do contain within ourselves infinite possibilities. -
Daniel Day-Lewis

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself. - James Stephens

I don’t trust my abilities as a writer nearly as much as I trust my instincts as a person. - Jonathan Safran Foer

We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand. - Cecil Day-Lewis

There are no bad words or good words, there are only words in bad or good places. -
W. Nowottny

I never write exercises, but sometimes I write poems which fail and then I call them exercises. - Robert Frost

The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. - John Gardner

The moment we stop caring where the story will go next, the writer has failed, and we stop reading. - John Gardner

Learn your theories well, but lay them aside when you touch the reality of the living soul. - Carl Jung

We cannot think about things but only the names of things. - Hobbes

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. - C.G. Jung

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. - C.G. Jung

I am a native in this world
And think in it as a native thinks.
Wallace Stevens

Nothing can come out of an artist that is not in the man. - H.L. Mencken

The main difference between an experienced writer and an inexperienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day. - Norman Mailer

Poets tell many lies.
Solon c638 – 599 B.C.

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. - Stephen King

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. – Chinese proverb

Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. - Robert Louis Stevenson

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. - Douglas Adams

The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp. - Terry Pratchett

Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself. - Terry Pratchett

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Killing Your Darlings

"In writing, you must
kill all your darlings."
— William Faulkner

Well, Bill, it's been a bloody day. The darlings are lying in tatters around my feet. I have hopes that one of them will be resurrected somewhere else in the novel, but, for now, it's been cut from this draft of the novel.

What are darlings, you may ask? Darlings are those well-crafted pieces of writing every writer adores when they're created. We cherish them, nurture them, and protect them through draft after draft, honing the words around them so that we can keep them just a little bit longer. Unfortunately, they don't fit in the work. They may be lovely sentences or finely wrought scenes. The writing may be some of the best work you've ever done. But, when it comes right down to it, they don't work. They have to go. And the only thing you can do is take out the scalpel and start cutting.

Today's been that day for a couple of scenes in my novel. As I said, one of them may find a home elsewhere in the novel. There's actually some information in it that has to show up for something else to make sense later on, but, I had to cut it from where it was.

The lesson I've been learning lately is that my editing has shifted from honing the writing to making sure that the writing fits the story. It's the difference between worrying about the quality of the writing and realizing the quality is no longer the issue, it's a matter of whether the writing is doing the work it needs to in the scene or if the scene fits. Something may be written very well, but, if it's in the wrong place, it will be as jarring as playing the wrong note in a piano recital.

So the darlings fell today. One by one. And it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inspiration Point

I am extremely grateful to have a secondary art form I can fall back on when the writing (and the writering) gets wonky. Photography. It's been a way to keep the creative fires stoked while the writing decides to go off and sulk for some reason. Over the past couple of decades, photography has been the saving grace, keeping me from falling into a long, dark teatime of the soul many, many times. When I finished my undergrad degree and couldn't write a word without a paralyzing sense of futility and worthlessness, photography was how I kept connected to my creative self for the seven years it took to get beyond the destructive words of a couple of professors. Many times, photography has helped me overcome the small blocks that come during any creative project, or shown me the solution to a particular problem by putting it into a different language, a visual one.

This past week was such a time.

After weeks of the novel rolling along just fine, it all came to a crashing halt in the past couple of weeks. Suddenly, the words were not flowing. It was taking me days to write two pages and, worse, I was starting to doubt that I remembered all the things I wanted to do in this draft sufficiently to make this final revision achieve the full vision I had for the novel. It just sucked. Even beyond the thirty minutes it usually sucks. What was getting written was fine, but the experience was as if I was writing the words in my own blood. It was agonizing. I became a horrible, bitchy person, too, snapping at everyone, falling into a dark pit of despair and not knowing how, nor really wanting, to get out.

So I took a day off from writing and went to take pictures. I chose to go to a place I love: Fort Point, the only remaining Civil War-era fort on the West Coast. It figures into my next novel, but it's also such an amazingly evocative place for me (it is, quite literally, right underneath the SF side of the Golden Gate Bridge), I thought, if anything can get me out of my funk, Fort Point can. Only I didn't know Fort Point wasn't open during the week. So I was stuck. And pissed.

But can you see the symbolism here? Here I was, locked out of a place I'd found creatively inspiring, just as I was locked out my novel.

I accepted the challenge the universe was offering me. Okay. Can't photograph inside, I'll see what I can find outside.

My first attempts were not inspiring. I'd wanted to photograph in black and white, but it wasn't working. And my eye wasn't there at all. I could feel it just looking through the viewfinder. I wasn't finding the image. As I said in my post How Do You Know You're A Good Writer, you can feel when you get it right. This is one of the main things photography has taught me because the feedback is so instantaneous in photography. You don't have to read 200 pages of text to know if you've got it right, you can see it immediately. With digital photography, the feedback is even quicker. And it's helped me learn what that moment feels like when I know (or rather, my subconscious knows) it works.

Then I switched to color and the results were a little better.

Then there was the image that's at the top of this post, and I felt things begin to shift. I remembered my interest in patterns and the edges of things.

I started thinking about what was going on with the patterns I was photographing, what made these photos more visually interesting to me than what I'd started out doing that day, and realized I had stumbled on some craft ideas that were applicable to writing:

Juxtaposition works as a way of showing how two disparate objects rub up against each other, the tension comes from the degree of difference between them. For example, black and white creates a much greater sense of contrast than two shades of blue. It's also a way of showing how two objects can be affected in radically different ways by the same process.

The same idea is true in fiction. How sentences, scenes, and chapters are ordered can create radically different effects because of what happens before it and after it. Juxtaposition of characters is also important. Nothing bothers me more in a story (especially TV shows or movies) when story lines are essentially the same - different characters going through the EXACT SAME THING. Shakespeare used subplots to echo the main plot line. There were similarities, yes, but he showed different outcomes through his subplots, the dynamics of each plot were different. Putting too many similar characters together makes a story very bland, although I also have a problem with a lot of contemporary fiction where characters are quirky for the sake of being quirky. So it's a delicate thing. But back to the photography because here was my visual art form showing me something I was forgetting in my novel - the juxtaposition of two characters in a scene.

I also noticed that what makes repetition interesting is when it's broken. It's the unexpected surprise that really makes us aware of the pattern.

And then there was the moment I found a small project, and really felt my inner artist kick in. Many of the bricks on the exterior of the fort have names carved into them, some of them dating back to the 1930's or earlier, so I created an alphabet by finding each sequential letter in the names on the fort's facade. It was a challenge, and I'm sure I looked quite deranged scanning the bricks and saying, "'X', there's an 'X,' I have to remember that." When it was done, and I had found all 26 letters, I felt great.

Which was another lesson for me to remember: if the big project isn't working, give yourself a small assignment. A scene, some dialogue between two characters, a scene written from another character's point of view.

And, ultimately, the big lesson of the day for me was about giving up the illusion of control in the creative process. I'd been trying to control my novel too tightly, and it was rebelling. I'm dealing with a pissed off fourteen-year old narrator, sometimes my novel takes on that personna, and I have to remember that when I'm dealing with it.

There is an adage that lots of writers like to repeat about discipline and the necessity of showing up every day. While I agree with that, I also believe it's more important to honor the way you want to write. For me, when I try to adhere to a strict, every day writing schedule, my writer shuts down. I have to let my writer guide me, trust that she knows what she's doing and, if she says she needs a break, to take that break even when it's frustrating or doesn't make sense. Thank goodness I have a second art form that makes it possible for me to be creative and figure things out while in the act of creation.

And the last thing I learned. When you're really stuck, steal someone else's artwork and make it your own: