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.