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.