Friday, December 7, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About History

Only men sat here, doing important things.
The women were too busy making sure there was
a home for these guys to come home to, to make History.
This piece of amazingness came across the transom this morning Sexism in historical fantasy by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which is a response in support of this other piece of amazingness about writing historically accurate fantasy fiction that preserves the belief that what men do is important in history and what women do...not so much: The Mary Sue by Dan Wohl

Both of these articles are about issues that are very near and dear to my heart and one of the major themes in my novel, The Altar of Dead Pets. Who gets to write 'history?' What does that term mean? How do we create History out of the disparate threads of Women's history, African-American history, Native American history, Hispanic history, etc, etc etc? When do the footnotes stop being footnotes and get recognized as what they really are? The true story of how we have come to be who we are as individuals and families, as a culture, as a nation, as a species, as inhabitants of the planet Earth?

But I'll also add that the ideas expressed in those two articles aren't limited to works of historical fantasy. Even future fantasy is predicated on the same assumptions of who acts in a society and what acts matter.

When I was 13, I wrote a Star Wars novel called Children of the Force. It was 1978 (yes, I just told you how old I am, gasp), and the first movie had just come out, the second was being filmed, and I was in love with the series (fan fiction had yet to become a thing, and the Internet was still almost two decades away, unfortunately). I was in love with science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to be a SF/F writer (something that got beaten out of me when I got to college and became a creative writing major - but that's another blog post. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've already seen it both on Word Slut and on Neil Gaiman's blog).

The novel I wrote at 13 featured a female Jedi knight as the main character. Katarra, for that was her name, had been in charge of a rebel base on a planet the Empire had invaded. It was a mad race to the rebel base to wipe the computers because something had gone wrong and files that should have been destroyed hadn't been, leaving the location of all other rebel bases vulnerable to discovery by the Empire. In the climactic scene, Katarra battles Darth Vader in the obligatory light saber dual, even taking over for Luke when he tries to be the hero and gets himself severely injured.

I still have both the original draft and the revision that I finished when I was 16. It is one of the things that sustains me when I am deep in the depths of despair about being able to complete a draft or do the revision. I did this when I was a teenager. I spent an entire summer staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning so I could write when the house was silent (boy, is that a pattern that keeps repeating in my life). But it took until I was in my 40's to realize the truth about that novel, the truth I'd known without knowing I knew it as a teenager, as a young woman, and that I'd forgotten as an adult.

In order to make a place for myself in that fantasy world with the swashbuckling Han Solo and the masculine order of the Jedi Knights (which I just knew, KNEW, was a male-only order even though, in the original movie that isn't stated - Katarra was trained in private by her father who was a Jedi Knight (okay, I'll come totally clean - her father was Obi Wan) and came to grief because she killed her brother while they were sparring with light sabers - see, secret female training of a male-only order results in grief, banishment - I knew it even as a 13 year old), in order to make a place for myself in this world that seemed to allow space for only one woman of power (in college, in the mid-80s, I heard Susan Sontag speak and she referred to this as "the dark woman" phenomena - in male-dominated spheres, such as literature, there was space for only one or two women at a time - you still see this, though to a lessening degree as the years go on, in politics, haute couture, fine cooking, etc), in order to make a place for myself in this universe, I had to create a female Jedi Knight.

Anyone who knows me, knows I am not and never have been a Princess to be rescued. And while Princess Leia was totally bad ass in that original movie and turned many of the rescued princess tropes on their ears, she was the dark woman of the Star Wars franchise (also, as an aside, of which I seem to be making many today, please note what happened to her in the course of the original trilogy - she went from being bad ass (though asexual - Lucas made Carrie Fisher bind her chest because her breasts jiggled too much in that white nuns habit she was wearing - seriously, you never noticed how much she's dressed like a nun in that movie? Go take a look) and powerful and basically taking over her own "rescue" (love that scene in the movie, "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you" "Really, what's your plan? Oh, you don't have one? Let me take that gun and get us the hell out of here.") to being a sex object. Nun to half-clad slave girl to earth mother in three movies.

But back to my original point. I was not a princes (no matter how bad ass) to be rescued. And so, I created my alter-ego as a powerful woman in her own right, someone who not only doesn't need to be rescued, but goes and rescues others and battles Darth Vader into submission. And doesn't end up as the trophy prize for some macho guy at the end. She ends up getting the forgiveness of her father and his recognition that she was every bit as worthy of the title of Jedi Knight as her brother. But, and here's the thing that really blows my mind about how smart my 13-year old self was, she doesn't need it. She knows what she is, and she knows  her value, and she knows that what she's accomplished is important and necessary for the Rebellion to continue. Katarra doesn't yell "F*CK YOU, you old white guy!" at Obi Wan's spectral figure, but neither does she fall into a mushy pile of goo now that she's gotten validation from him (For the entire novel, she pretty much thinks her father was wrong for not recognizing her own gifts and bucking the convention of a male-only Jedi order), she simply acknowledges what he's said and continues doing what she's been doing all along. Pretty much like most women do.

And back to my original original point - what those articles I linked to are talking about is not limited to just historical fantasy. Nor are they limited to fantasy either. Those of us who write what I call "legitimate" fiction (with the scare quotes) need to be careful of the same traps and conceits - reflecting the cultural conventions without questioning their legitimacy or their perpetuation is just as bad, in my humble opinion, as turning dynamic, self-assured women into half-clad slave girls chained to giant phallic slugs (or turds, I go back and forth on what I think Jabba the Hut looks like - talking penis or talking pile of sh*t).

Monday, December 3, 2012

How to Survive the End of Your Novel

I'm guest blogging over at my friend's Writing About Writing blog about how to survive the end of your novel (or any long writing project). Go check it out if you want some advice on what to do when you fall into that post-novel Void (and go check it out if you think that will never happen to you).

The past couple of weeks have been pretty amazing. Not because of anything extraordinary that has happened, but because of something very ordinary. I started writing again. Which is what prompted me to ask Chris if I could do a guest blog for him. 

I've been hanging out inside The Void for quite some time now. I'm not sure what happened, but it really got bad over the summer in the post-Squaw Valley craziness. The novel just went away. I mean, like I couldn't even remember what I'd written, couldn't even read the novel I'd been so thrilled with when I finished it at the end of March. I tried being disciplined about setting up a writing time. Tried starting a new project. Nothing. And the timing couldn't have been worse. I met an agent at Squaw. Someone I truly wanted to work with and with whom I had a good connection. He passed on the novel, but said he'd look at a revision if I wanted to do one. Of course, I said yes. He'd put his finger on some of the things that had (honestly) begun to bother me about the novel - places I was hoping would pass for serious and literary rather than places where nothing was happening. (As an aside: if, as you're reading your work, you come across places where, in the back of your head, you hear whispered mutterings of "well, no one will notice" or are justifying anything, I mean anything, in your work, take a deep breath and go back to work - you aren't done). And the agent came back and started helping me refine the premise of my novel so I'd have a better idea of what I wanted to do with my revision. 

The only problem was I still couldn't get inside the novel. I could barely remember what I'd written. And I mean that completely and 100% honestly. I had developed a serious block. The Void had me firmly in its grip.

In truth, I hadn't given myself enough time. The novel wasn't ready to go out into the world. And I hadn't let myself mourn and separate from what I'd created in that draft enough to be able to evaluate whether it was truly done. And I got depressed.

To put it bluntly, The Void is awful. It doesn't announce itself. It just kind of arrives, like fog. Although, where I live, fog thunders over the mountains. Fog has a body. Forget creeping in on little cat feet, the fog I see from my back window pours over the mountain top like Niagara Falls. I've spent the past couple of months thinking about giving up writing. I know. Crazy, right? 

The most worrisome aspect of The Void for me was how all my ideas just stopped. It was like my brain froze. I'm used to being inundated with ideas while I write. I keep a white board over my desk so I can write  these ideas down because, when I'm writing as deeply as I was on Altar, I am a one-trick pony. Plus, I've learned, some ideas seem really amazing when they first hatch, but aren't quite the shiny object I thought they were a couple of days later. So now I wait. But, caught in The Void, all the ideas just stopped coming. Even the ones I'd had before were uninteresting. And the novel I originally went to grad school to write, the one everyone loves, the one that has the easy premise to explain, that one wasn't budging. Which should have been my biggest indication that I wasn't done with Altar.

The Void is sticky and tricky. And it tries to make you think it's real. It isn't. I finally just relaxed, stop fighting, told myself "It is what it is" and stopped worrying about it. 

And this crazy thing happened. The Void went away.

I started getting up at four in the morning. Even waking up before my alarm goes off. I know. Crazy, right? But it works for me. I've done this before and it's almost like my inner writer needs me to make that kind of crazy, over-the-top gesture to know I'm serious. Every morning, I get two delicious hours of silence in which to work. And then I go for a bike ride. Because I also started riding my bike again. At the moment, I'm getting in about 50 miles a week when it isn't raining. Writing and then zooming along the bay on my bike and everything is wonderful. The other day, I passed right beneath a red-tailed hawk who was eating breakfast (a squirrel or something I think - I wasn't getting that close - that photo was taken with telephoto) on the bridge railing. How can a day that starts with writing and a red-tailed hawk be anything less than awesome?

It feels good right now. The words are flowing even though I'm taking it slowly. At the moment, I'm reminding myself to take it in stride. No matter if it's The Void or The Work, it is what it is, and each will take it's own time (but I'll still take The Work over The Void any day of the week).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper

I am teaching home-schooled teen American Fiction this year and our next reading adventure is The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper. While perusing the Internet in search of background material, I found this gem of literary analysis by Mark Twain. My favorite criticism is that characters should be alive, except when they're corpses, and, when they are corpses, the reader should be able to tell that they are.

Mark Twain on The Deerslayer

Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.
5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.
7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

An image round-up

Submitted for you amusement, here are a few things I've been looking at recently.

In honor of Banned Book Week:

A common feeling among writers:

Braille version of The Little Prince:

Fantastic real estate:

Fitzgerald's signature through his ages:

There really is an old book smell:

No surprise, the answer is always "yes."

If you find a stray book, please give it a good home:

Schools should replace their snack machines with these vending machines:

My next art project:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When the Universe Speaks, it Speaks in Symbols

Fogbow: finding the unexpected in unexpected places.

I had not intended to take such a long break from writing anything on this blog, but, short story, I've been going through some stuff. Family stuff, novel stuff, life stuff, health stuff. Those kind of things.

For the most part, things have been going well, and I don't want to say too much right now, but I will say I have found myself confronted with some roadblocks as far as the novel is concerned (note to writer self: when you hear that voice telling you something is not-quite-right, LISTEN. Yeah, that kind of roadblock. The kind that happens when that thing in the novel you've been kind-of-sort-of-hoping-no-one-would-notice-and-you're-not-really-letting-yourself-know-you're-noticing-because-you're-really-hoping-you're-wrong-about-it-and-that-you're-actually-brilliant turns out to be yeah, that thing you should have fixed before the agent looked at it).

So I've been working to overcome the roadblocks, which has got to be one of the most frustrating things to do because it was all about thinking my way out of a writing problem. I don't know about you, but this doesn't usually work for me, but there didn't seem to be any other way to get done what I needed to get done. It wasn't about the writing. It was about what the writing was about and trying to come up with a succinct and snappy way to say it - which, of course, exposed a deeper problem that needed to be dealt with. Someday I hope to explain it all, but I'm saving it for when I actually master the problem so I can seem all brilliant. That day is not today.

Today is about process.

I am a kinesthetic person. Which means thinking my way into a problem from the outside is really difficult. When I'm confronted with a new thing to do, like trying to rewrite a novel, I usually know the first couple of things I need to do, but beyond that, it gets murky and I get confused and trying to think my way through the process makes me want to take a nap. But...once I get started, the path becomes clear. I am within the problem at that point and all the dots line up very nicely. Until that magic moment, when my brain kicks over into that space, though, I'm lost. (with my novel, seriously, I was having trouble even remembering what I'd written. I have no trouble talking about my novel, but when I need to manipulate the words, rearrange them or figure out the patterns of the novel - forget it. If I'm not in the creative space, it is just static going on inside my brain). Having gotten to the end of my third draft, my brain had pretty much shut down on the working through the problems of the novel and was being very reluctant to start the machinery moving again. It was like the whole manufacturing plant had gone dark. I was out of the story-telling space and not finding the entrance again.

So, I did the next best thing. I started a new project. I'm now about 20 pages into a fantasy novel I've been kicking around in my head for the past year or so. A fun little project. But it got the story-telling space going in my head again, and the wheels started to turn easier on Altar. But I was still having issues resolving the problem in the text itself.

Then came the day of the Metaphorical Bike Ride.

I've discovered that I like bike riding (again, I used to do it a lot when I was younger). It doesn't suck for the first 30 minutes as so many other forms of exercise do. Most days I ride at least 10 miles on the Bay Trail, which is a beautiful path that runs along the entirety of the SF Bay, and I do longer rides once or twice a week. I've been hoping to get to at least 25 miles, but I keep losing the trail at this one point and have to turn around, which puts me at about 22 miles. I'm not the only one who loses the trail at this place. I've seen other bikers riding around aimlessly in this area. The problem is that the trail is well-marked, especially when you're riding on the straight-aways with the bay or the marshland on one side and a residential neighborhood or street on the other. Not much you can do except keep going straight. Thanks, guys, those trail signs are very helpful. Then you get to this one spot where the trail suddenly divides in like five different directions and THERE ARE NO TRAIL MARKERS (just like where I was with my novel after Squaw - the trail suddenly branched and there were no markers to tell me which was the correct option).

On the trail, continuing straight took me either to a playing field complex (and there were two options here, one led me to some hotels and the other put me up on a surface road) OR over the 101 freeway and a total dead end a block later. If I went over the bridge, instead of going straight, I was on the campus of a high-tech company. If I turned right after the bridge, I went into a park and a dead-end or ended up on another street. For some reason, the "turn left" option never occurred to me. Either I didn't see the path to the left (I didn't the first couple of times I did this) OR it didn't feel right because it essentially made me back-track in the direction I'd just come.

In any event, I didn't turn left and I kept not turning left because it never occurred to me to turn left.

At least it didn't until I was thinking about it and playing it back in my head and realized turning left was the only option I hadn't tried yet and I should probably do it.

The day of the metaphorical ride started out with me getting caught in a rush hour traffic jam and getting to my starting point later than I wanted to. Which was a big deal because I had an appointment and thought I was going to have to cut my ride short to make it. Then, for some reason, once I got on the bike, I felt like I wasn't going anywhere. I have a phone app that tracks mileage for me and tells me when I hit each mile, how long I've been riding, and how fast my lap time was. A good mile time for me right now is about five and a half minutes. I was listening, but not really listening, to the app tell me I was clocking miles in at under five minutes, but it felt SLOW and like I wasn't getting anywhere. I'd also underestimated how far from where I'd started the bridge was. So here I am, feeling like I'm moving slow and not being able to get to the bridge to test out my theory, but I got close enough to see people running on the other side of the inlet, which told me that, yes, there was a trail there, and feel pretty confident that I was right. But I couldn't get there myself just yet. At the end of the ride, it turned out I'd done 13 miles in just over an hour, which was a pretty good pace for me, and much, much faster than I thought I'd been going (the converse of that is the ride I did yesterday that felt nowhere near as slow as the metaphorical ride and yet I barely covered 10 miles - I was doing 6 minute miles! Subjective experience is not a good way of gauging progress was the lesson I took from yesterday's ride.)

Here's where the metaphors come in:
1) I was actually moving much faster than I thought I was - probably the same way that, even though it feels like I'm not getting anywhere with the novel right now, I'm making more progress than I know.
2) I didn't reach the goal, but got close enough to confirm my suspicions - I wasn't quite close enough to the solution in my novel to actually see it, but I could have confidence that I was on the right track.
3) In order to find the trail, I had to do something that was 100% counter-intuitive and that looked like back-tracking - in order to figure out what I needed to do, I was going to have to do something that looked like going backwards and that seemed completely opposite to what I thought I was going to have to do.

Whether you think I'm reading too much into it or not, it worked. Two days ago, I confirmed my theory about the trail, and, that night, the piece that I needed to figure out popped into my head in a flash of inspiration. Everything fell into place and finally, finally, the idea felt right, felt organic to the novel and as if it was already a part of the novel, I just hadn't written it yet because I just hadn't seen it. I hadn't turned left because I didn't know left even existed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

At Squaw, even the dogs listen to the faculty readings.
I am back from the Squaw Valley Writers' Workshop, and all I can say is WOW! I had a fabulous time, learned a lot, met some amazingly great people, and, basically, spent a week reaffirming my commitment to my writing and reconnecting with why I actually write.

About 150 screenwriters, fiction and nonfiction writers attend the workshop each year. Agents, editors, and published authors make up the faculty. Attendance is based on a submission of your work that will be used not only for acceptance, but also to pair you up with a workshop leader and a one-on-one consultation with a faculty member. Workshop groups meet from nine to noon with a different faculty member serving as group leader each day. The afternoon and evening are given over to panel discussions and readings. Attendees live in various vacation homes located within Squaw Valley or condos at the Tyrolian Village.

I was pretty happy with both my workshop leader, Ron Carlson, and my one-on-one consult, Diana Coglianese, an editor at Knopf who specializes in literary fiction. I was even happier with both my workshop-mates who were, to a person, generous and insightful readers and terrific writers in their own right, and my five housemates. My housemates were incredibly compatible and spent a lot of time together at  dinner and the afternoon sessions and readings. We got along so well, it was sometimes difficult to get the reading done for the next day because we all congregated in the living room to read and ended up talking. The week was a complete immersion in writing and reading, surrounded by people who love books and writing. Even the near-90 degree weather didn't stop me from having a fabulous time (though I did pick up a cold, so I'm going to sign off now and go take a nap. More about Squaw later this week, I promise).

Friday, June 22, 2012


I'm not going to mince words. Rejection sucks.

In the writing business, rejection happens far, far more often than acceptance. It's probably something like a 1000:1 ratio. Although maybe it just feels that way. Most writers accept that rejection is part of the terrain, and learn to make peace with it by realizing that rejection doesn't always equate with lack of quality. We console ourselves by looking up the rejection letters of famous people (like here) and citing statistics like C.S. Lewis' 800 rejections before selling anything (like here). No matter what type of writing you do, rejection is going to happen when you're trying to get other people to spend their money to support you.

If you can't come to terms with that, you've got no business calling yourself a writer. 

At a certain point, you find yourself opening those envelopes and emails, reading the "sorry to disappoint you" message, shrugging your shoulders and going back to what you were doing before, which is, most likely, working on a new writing project (because, seriously, if you are sitting around waiting for your masterpiece to be accepted for publication before you start working on the next project, you've also got no business calling yourself a writer).

As I've been sending Altar of Dead Pets out to agents, I've gotten rejections. It's part of the business. I fully realize that, even if Altar were the most amazing, extraordinary novel EVER written, not every agent is going to like it or, even, if they do like it, be able to sell it. And I've gotten rejections from agents who definitely fall into the latter category. They like it, think it's well written, but don't feel as if they could be successful with it. (in the writing biz, that's called a good rejection - we actually have different categories of rejection because, hey, when you're dealing with a 1000:1 ratio, not all rejections are created equal and you've GOT to find some way to make yourself feel better - maybe I'll do a post about the 50 Shades of Rejection for next week). Most of the rejections are fine - a couple of lines that tell me the agent read my query and pages but doesn't think it's the right project for him or her. No problem

However, sometimes, there's a rejection letter that is just...well...insulting.

I got one of those this week. And it wasn't for the novel. It was for a piece I submitted to a literary journal. 

It wasn't that the letter was rude (a friend of mine has gotten those - the ones that basically tell you you should give up. NOW) or led me to believe my writing hadn't been given courteous consideration (again, gotten those - the insta-rejections that hit your email inbox less than 24 hours after you sent something. Another friend just got one of those TWO hours after she sent the query on a Sunday evening - that's REALLY telling the writer you don't care because it seems like it was an automated rejection letter).

This rejection letter was none of those things. Instead, it bent over backward to be...nice. And it bent over backward to take my feelings into consideration. And it bent over backward to assure me that I should, in no way be discouraged by this rejection. And it bent over backward to let me know how many really good writers this publication has rejected over the years and how much work - work that they really, really like - they've had to reject because they simply can't publish everything nor do they have the time to give me a critique of my work. And they really, really hope this won't make me stop writing.

And there it is. The thing I find insulting.

This was a literary journal with a very good reputation. It has a professional editor. They publish professional writers. Many of whom have international reputations. And yet, the letter treats me as if I am some fragile flower who's feelings will be so damaged by this rejection that I will stop writing. 

As I said above, if rejection is going to make you stop writing, you're not a writer. 

My real point in this is not to be snarky about the rejection, it's to say that rejection happens and it's, essentially, meaningless to the writing process. Part of being a professional, an adult, is to know and have faith in the work I'm doing and recognize that one person's opinion is not the world's.

And my other point is to ask editors and agents to please, please, have respect for the writers with whom you come in contact. If we are truly professionals, rejection, even yours, will not kill us. Treat us like the professionals we are. Please.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back to Basics

I got together with a friend of mine this morning for our weekly summertime writing, support, marketing, critique group meeting. We met at the SF Conservancy of Flowers and talked for a bit and then wrote for a bit and then talked some more, and I've been feeling great ever since then. It's amazing how much of a difference being able to jot down a few words makes to my sense of balance and well-being. But more than that, I made some connections today that I want to share with you.

Traci came up with our writing prompt. It was a really simple one: Choose an object in this room and have your character interact with it in some meaningful way. 

Both of us are working on fantasy projects right now, like I wrote about in my last post about Decoding the Muse. I decided to use a traditional quest/hero's journey pattern for my project and was outlining it while I was at Lake Tahoe last week. I know where it's going, and I know most things about the plot, but where I kind of got bogged down in my outline was in Chapter 3 -the small tests, trials and obstacles that my characters encounter on their trip. I couldn't figure out what those would look like and finally had to tell myself that I'd figure it out when I got to those middle chapters. The small obstacles portion of the plot is important - it keeps the action going while the characters are learning the rules, getting to know each other, and discovering the skills they will need to be successful on their quest. If you think about Lord of the Rings, these are the small trials the Hobbits have to survive before they meet up with Strider at the Prancing Pony. In the book, it's things like the Barrowdowns (where they get the swords that will ultimately allow Merry to defeat the Witch King of Angmar) and they meet Tom Bombadil (an alley who helps them safely on to the next phase of their journey). When the Fellowship is formed, there's a similar phase as each member of the Fellowship slowly learns to trust each other. In the movie, it's the scenes where Boromir is teaching the Hobbits to fight and when they're trying to climb the mountains, but Frodo is allowed to say they will turn back when the Sauroman brings a blizzard on them.

Anyway...I was having trouble figuring out what obstacles my characters would face, what skills they would need to acquire, and basically just over-thinking the whole thing (how strange for me). Today's prompt gave me a road map.

The object I chose was a strange plant (see right) that, as I wrote, turned into an animal and then became a cub that drove a spike through the toe of one of the character's shoes when he nudged it. One of the other characters recognizes that what looks like a plant is actually an animal and that it has a MOTHER that is much larger and they must get out of there now. And suddenly, there it was, one of the first tests this group of characters has to face. 

What also happened was that I realized I had a road map for the rest of the tests, a way to figure out how to write them. I'm going to do them as a series of prompts based on locations in Golden Gate Park. I realized this after I stepped outside the greenhouse and came across this tunnel. After turning a plant into an animal, seeing this tunnel as dark and dangerous, almost like a mouth, was no problem. 

Writing prompts are one of those "tricks" all writers keep in their tool boxes. Prompts are a way of narrowing down choices which, in a perverse bit of psychology, actually helps us make decisions. Too many choices = no ideas. Put limits on those choices and suddenly the world is just bursting with the EXACT THING YOU NEED FOR YOUR STORY.

A little bit after this, I picked up my younger son from chess camp where he's a junior counselor after having been an attendee since he was in first grade. He's teaching the younger kids the skills that he's learned and discovering that it's a good refresher in the basics for him as well. Which is when I realized why teaching creative writing to the kids in elementary and middle school has been such an important part of my creative process for the past eight years. It's about remembering the basics and continually reminding myself that the fundamentals are important. Keep writing. There are no wrong answers. When you can't think of something to write, make something up. Those are the things I tell my students all the time. All the fancy bells and whistles and terminology with which writers want to dress up the writing process come down to basics. Traci's simple writing prompt was enough to open up the world of my novel in a way that all the convolutions of my outlining and knowledge of the hero's journey didn't.

And don't get me wrong. Having those technical skills and depth of knowledge about craft is important - they'll save me when the novel bogs down and I can't figure out why. I'll be able to go back and figure out what went wrong because of those skills. But the basics...that's what's going to keep the project moving forward and get me working on the next one and the one after that...and it's what's going to have me back in the classroom in the fall telling the kids to keep writing. When they tell me they can't think of anything to write about, I'll tell them to look around. The world is full of possibilities.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Decoding the Muse

The lake was spectacular yesterday.
I spent yesterday in Lake Tahoe with a friend who needed to make a couple of sales calls for her company and didn't want to make the round trip from the Bay Area by herself. While she took care of her appointments (which resulted in two new clients for her business Asta Glass), I spent the time outlining a new writing project (I don't know yet whether it's going to be a novella, novel or even (gasp) a series because I'm not sure how big it's going to get on me, so for now it's "the writing project" - though my instincts tell me it's at least a novel).

To be honest, I've been resisting this project for awhile mainly because it's fantasy. My intention when I finished Altar was to begin work on the novel I originally applied to grad school to write, but I've found that, as much as I would like to be, I'm not really "finished" with Altar. As I've conducted my agent search, writing and rewriting and revising the query letter, writing multiple versions of my synopsis depending on the requested length, maintaining the novel's Facebook page, etc, etc, etc - it has kept my brain very much preoccupied with that novel and its characters and the new project is too similar in intention (ie; contemporary/literary fiction) to receive much bandwidth. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, it spooked me. I started working on it, wrote one page, felt it start to go very, very deep and begin to acquire depth of layers in the images and, to put it bluntly, FREAKED OUT. I haven't been able to go near it for months.

Earlier this week, I had coffee with a friend of mine who was going through a similar problem with a novel of her own. It got too big too fast and scared her. So she started working on a children's book. It made me think about this fantasy project. The one that's been niggling at me lately. The one that's been patiently waiting its turn and always getting shunted to the back of the line. The one that has invaded my working notes lately, the one the muse has been sending me plot points and character details for lately.

So I went home and wrote the prologue for the project. And it went terrifically well, even adding a heretofore unknown plot point that was positively genius for the final reveal of the main character's identity - the thing on which the entire story rests. And I spent yesterday, while my friend was at her appointments putting together an outline of the project.

I don't usually do outlines - so this was new territory for me. Since this is a plot-driven work, I wanted to get my ducks in a row and figure out where my motley crew of characters is going to go and what they're going to do when they get there. It's proving to be a great exercise, giving me lots of new things in incorporate in the work. But above all: IT'S FUN. It's just what I needed. Something fun. Something that is designed to be entertaining for myself (and any readers, if I'm so lucky) and something in which I am not so terribly invested that if it doesn't work out, I will be devastated (at least not yet). And, above all, something which is writing very fast.

My "desk" at Tahoe.
Which brings me to the main point of this post. Sometimes it's really difficult to understand what the muse is trying to say simply because IT DOESN'T MATCH WHAT I THINK I SHOULD DO. In this case, my conscious brain was telling me the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, the serious thing to do would be to start the next literary novel since I consider myself to be a literary writer. But the writer part of my brain (the one where the muse resides) was telling me to go have fun. The harder I tried to make myself work on the serious thing, the less I wanted to write and the more time I spent inventing reasons to stay away from my writing desk. I am, working on a fantasy novel (okay, I said it) about a character named Mouse who is a LOT more than she seems, and having a blast. And, most importantly, my muse is curled up like a fat and happy cat in a patch of sunshine, quietly purring to herself. Onward...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Neil Gaiman's Commencement Address

If you haven't seen this yet, you should. Especially if you are a writer, artist, freelancer, creative person trying to figure out how the hell to have a career in this crazy world where no one seems to be paying attention. It will be the best 20 minutes of your life this week. Trust me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Glamorous Life of A Writer

This "job opportunity" came through the email the other day from my alma mater (I've changed the identifying information):

"Client" would be interested to give a promising graduate student an editorial opportunity, reading and commenting on the readability of a fiction narrative novel. Total pages are 585 and in a pdf format that can be easily e-mailed to you. You would to read the text [sic] and comment as to readability.  He would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for the project. "Client" believes it would take about 8 to 16 hours to do a professional read through and is eager to begin this editorial project.

Believe me, "job opportunities" like this appear all the time when you're a writer. Before I went to grad school and got my fancy creative writing degree, I worked for many years as a freelance writer (I've got the clips to prove it and you can still Google my name and see some of them online) and then a friend of mine and I ran a copywriting company for a couple of years where we wrote marketing copy for companies, ghosted articles and books for executives (you didn't think they write those themselves, did you?), and picked up the odd job like the one above. I stopped when got into grad school, but she's still at it. Most days, I think she deserves a medal for keeping her sanity in the face of "job opportunities" from people who believe they've got the book everyone has been waiting for.

Seriously, there's a category of people out there who believe that writers are just waiting around for people who want help to bring their amazing projects to fruition. For free or as close to free as they can get because you, as the writer, should be grateful for the opportunity to work on something like this, and, hey, let's get real, if you were any good, you'd have a book contract already and be living the jet setting life. Am I right or am I right?

Take, for instance, the above opportunity. The client believes it will take about sixteen hours to read and critique this 585-page manuscript. That works out to 36 pages an hour. Even reading through my own novel (which I know intimately), editing and proofreading along the way, I read about 20 pages an hour max. So that puts us up to about 30 hours at a minimum to do this guy's manuscript justice (the reality, based on my experience, is that it's going to take closer to 50). If I were still in the biz, I'd bid this project at $1,500 ($50 an hour), but I can almost guarantee you that he's thinking "reasonable compensation" means $100 max.

Which is where the disconnect between "what I do" and "what people think I do" lies.

When people hire a writer, they're not thinking about how they're actually hiring a professional to do something they can't do. Just like hiring a plumber or an electrician, when you hire a writer, you're hiring someone who has spent years honing his or her craft, taking the time to learn and practice all those niggling rules of grammar everyone forgot as soon as they were out of school, and who has a skill set you don't possess. How do I know you don't possess them? You wouldn't be hiring a writer if you did. 

In addition, when you hire a professional writer to help you hone something that you hope to have published, you're also hiring a professional who understands the marketplace (or at least should) and what your manuscript has to do to compete out there in the big wide world with a thousand other manuscripts that say essentially the same thing. 

A lot of times, clients don't want to listen to that. I can't tell you how often my friend tells me stories about clients who have "improved" the copy she's written by filling it with grammatical errors, random digressions, etc, that she then has to clean up. I once had a client, for whom I was writing web copy, tell the creative director of the project to have me go through the copy because he'd found a LOT of grammatical errors. The creative director and I rolled our eyes, but I did comb through the copy and even had a grammar checking program go through it, too. The result? One grammatical issue that was more a question of style than grammar. 

What I find funny about all this (and I do find it funny despite the somewhat snarky tone of this piece), is how clients expect the writer to be more invested in the project than they are. Writing a book, even editing a book, takes a great deal of time and effort and expertise to accomplish well. Think of it as turning over your child to be raised and educated by someone else. Wouldn't you want someone who knows more than you do? And wouldn't you want to pay them in a way that reflects the true value of what they're doing for you? And wouldn't...oh, well, yeah...and that's a discussion for another time. I'm off to work on my next masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

When I'm Procrastinating...

Some of the things I read and look at when I'm trying really hard not to write or just need a laugh:

Texts between a man and his dog. This Tumblr is kind of like an ongoing soap opera, and it's really, really, really super funny.

The Bloggess. If you haven't discovered her, you are missing out. 

Cake Wrecks. Need I say more?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Odyssey - Literature or Hack Writing?

My alter ego, Lady Felicity St. John-Smythe, is guest blogging for a friend on his blog, Writing About Writing. I reviewed that hack piece of genre fiction, The Odyssey, with tongue firmly placed in cheek. Check it out.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Word Slut will be on vacation this coming week.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Un-Altar-ed Excerpts #1

This is the first of a series of posts of scenes I've cut from Altar of Dead Pets or add-on stories featuring the characters who appear in my novel. This excerpt is from the X-files.

  I should have been born the same month as Denny, almost the same day even. But I arrived two months early at the end of June under circumstances I’ve never been told because mom always changed the subject as soon as it came up. Just another one of those unanswered questions that hung in the air like smoke after a fire, but I can pretty much guess why I was born early. The family dynamics were set in cement by the time I was born, and my arrival did little to change them.
I spent the first month of my life in the NICU at the hospital. Denny said I looked like a piece of chicken wearing a blue knitted cap. My first baby picture shows Denny standing next to the isolette, his hands pushed through its sides into sterile ghost-like gloves. He’s got one hand on my tennis ball-sized head, and I’ve got my tiny hand wrapped around his index finger, gripping it like it’s the only thing keeping me from disappearing.
When I was allowed to go home, Denny insisted I sleep in his room even though I woke him up every couple of hours for the first month. Though mom was usually the one to get me, sometimes Denny would take care of me so mom could sleep. Why a seven-year old would be taking care of a newborn is another one of those questions that hangs in the air, another one of those, “Do you really have to ask?” moments that make up so much of my life it’s a wonder I have any memories at all. But I never had to ask anyone why Denny wanted me in his room.
The first fight I remember was when I was three. I know it wasn’t their first fight because I already knew, as soon as I heard dad’s voice rising in the living room, to climb into Denny’s bed. I don’t remember being scared. I just remember the warmth of Denny's chest against my back and the whisper of his voice in my ear. It was almost enough to drown out my father’s anger. My brother's arms around my chest could almost make me believe I was safe.
Our father’s voice was like the zoo lions at feeding time, impatient and frustrated, coming through the wall too indistinct to make out words, a snarl slashing at the air in our room. Not that words mattered. Our father’s anger was often indistinct, a blunt instrument battering against our ears. We felt it most ominously in its cessation, like the passing of an earthquake. At least I did. My father, if he caught me when he was in one of his rages, would turn to me with his arm raised, ready to strike. I would see his arm hold there, in the air, quivering like a tree about to fall in a storm, and then he’d snarl, his arm grabbing whatever was handy and smashing it to the floor. If anyone else was nearby, he’d grab them instead. It was usually Denny. So many times I watched my brother get slammed against a wall, my dad’s fist crushing into his chest, and me, standing there silent, my dad screaming at me how I better not be crying because my piece of shit brother wasn’t worth the effort. Sometimes he dared mom to make him stop, taunting her, asking her why she didn’t. When Denny got bigger, almost as big as dad by his twelfth birthday, Denny talked back to him, kept his attention from turning to mom, let dad spend that fury on his body. That's when dad started staying out, drinking at a bar, coming home after we'd gone to bed, going after mom only when he was sure Denny would stay with me, protect me, chose me over mom because that's what mom wanted, too. I've never asked why I was the least expendable, why my body was spared. And no one's ever asked what I remember because they know too well how much I remember.
Over the years, Denny and I got used to the crashes and the yelling, but the one thing we could never get used to was mom crying. We both wanted to go to her. To make him stop. We knew we couldn’t. We knew she wouldn't want us to. So Denny would wrap his arms around me, and we’d huddle beneath his blankets, and Denny would tell me stories about the stars. My favorite was about Pegasus, the winged horse that could fly to Mount Olympus.
        Pegasus was the child of Poseidon, the sea god, and Medusa, who had live snakes growing on her head instead of hair. When Perseus cut off her head, Pegasus was born from the drops of blood.
        “So something wonderful can come from something horrible,” Denny said, and I didn’t need him to fill in the blank spaces as our dad slammed the front door so hard, the entire house shook. And then the silence. And in the silence, the sound of mom sweeping the floor, the pure mechanical sound of it almost scarier than our father's violence because, by the time we woke up the next morning, everything would look perfect again, as if nothing had happened the night before. All history of the event had been erased. The only way we knew what had broken was by figuring out was missing. We never talked about the things that were no longer there, and none of us ever forgot and asked, “Whatever happened to…?” Not even about my father after he left for good.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Organizational Fallacy

I want to talk about a major fallacy that creative people fall into (probably most people, but I've had several conversations about this with friends who are in the creative fields, so it seems to be more a creative person issue to me): the organizational fallacy. Or, stated another way: If I could just get myself organized, I'd be able to get to all the projects on my list.

So here's my to do list right now:

I'm querying Altar of Dead Pets - which means finding agents who are selling novels like mine, researching them, researching the books they've repped, rewriting my query letter to reflect what they want to see (most agents want to see the same thing - a one paragraph description of the novel, a one paragraph bio of myself, and a bit of information about marketing or why I'm the only one in the world who could have written this book - but some agents ask for slightly different information or want it in a specific order), and basically sifting through the thousands upon thousands of agents out there to find the handful with whom I think I've got a shot.

Part of my effort in this area is building audience on my Facebook page for Altar. The page is my experiment in social media marketing - building interest in the novel through links to relevant news articles (for example, I linked to a news piece on how our conception of death has changed over the years which directly related to a part of the novel where Matt talks about changes in how we determine if someone is dead and that the determination has moved from the heart to the brain as our medical abilities have improved) and small excerpts, recreating portions of Monica's Book of the Dead journal with my photography of cemeteries and roadside memorials, and other writing-related pieces of information. I'm going to start doing add-on stories this week - stories that are based on characters in the novel, but not a part of the novel or from scenes that I liked but were edited out for space (my first Un-Altered Excerpt will be one of these, an X-files scene that got edited down to a paragraph of Matt explaining how Denny taught him about the stars and planets).

Go check out Altar of Dead Pets on Facebook if you want to see what I'm doing, and please, while you're there, like the page.

So there's Altar, still taking up a lot of my time, but then there's moving on to the next novel, Finding Ithaka, which is in the telling-myself-the story phase, which means writing lots of pages very few of which will probably make it into the final draft (if Altar is any indication). But I love my new characters and am excited about the new story taking shape.

Then there's all the other projects that say - me, me, me, pick me, whenever I look around. I've got a YA novel that jumped on me over the summer and stories that want to be written. A collaborative project with a couple of friends. And looking for opportunities to get involved with the fabulous Bay Area literary scene and read my work. In the midst of all this, I've also decided to apply to Squaw Valley and look for residency opportunities. And, oh yeah, teach and take care of my family.

Which comes back to the organizational fallacy, the belief that if I just figure out how to organize my time better, it will all miraculously get done. It's the fallacy of comparison - I've got a friend who writes every day (seriously, he's been writing a blog post a day on his blog, Writing about Writing) AND keeps his house clean. At the moment, my house cleaning happens when things get to the point where I can't stand it anymore (okay, that's pretty much how my house cleaning happens all the time, not just when I'm busy with writing). Another friend literally channels stories and novels. Last year, she wrote more than 500,000 words. I wrote about 100,000, but many of those were words I'd already written in some form, so they don't count in the same way.

In each case, I look at what my friends are doing, how much time they're writing, their clean houses, their well-groomed pets or children and think, if only I could get my to do list under control and stay on top of how I use my time, I could get all of it done.

I suppose it's not too different no matter what field you're in, but I think, with the creative brain comes the sense that, "I'm creative. I should be able to figure this out!" And yet, I have to reconcile myself time and again to the fact that I am a mere mortal who can only do so much with the same 24 hours that everyone else gets no matter how much I want to believe there's a clever way to fold time like origami paper and get an extra hour or two in the day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Do I Start?

Over on the Facebook page for my novel, Altar of Dead Pets, one of my friends asked how to get get started writing. She's got an idea for a story but she's never written anything before. Here's what I told her:

Just do what all writers do, start putting words on paper (what ever from paper takes these days). I wouldn't worry about form at this point. What really matters is taking time to get the words down in whatever way they want to come. If it seems like too big a task, you can start small. Take fifteen minutes a day and just write stream of consciousness and see what shows up and what form it starts to take. You may find characters showing up. You may find the story you want to tell taking off in an unexpected direction. 

Altar started out with a freewrite (timed stream of consciousness writing) on the word "choice." The narrator's voice showed up in the first sentence I wrote: "School shrink says everything's a choice and I think he's full of it 'cause what about some fool ass kid who sticks his head out a car window? Should have been the easiest choice in the world, keeping himself in that car with the pot and the JD. But no, my brother sticks his head out that window and gets himself killed." Seriously, I remember it that vividly. But the important thing is that I went with what showed up on the page, said yes to what arrived and kept saying yes as the story developed.

If you've paid even a small amount of attention as you've read other novels, you know, instinctively, the shape a novel needs to take. Most of writing is just getting out of your way and letting the story and the characters take over, especially in the first draft, which is all you should be thinking about right now. Just getting the story down. Shaping it, making it look like a novel - that's all for the second draft.

But first steps first. Get yourself writing 15 minutes each day and see what shows up. Don't worry about it for the first couple of weeks, just let whatever happens on the page happen and say yes to wherever it goes. It may not have continuity from one day to the next, that's fine. The important thing is showing up so the story knows where to find you - think of it as if you're having coffee with a new friend. Your friend has to know where to find you. And then, whatever your new friend asks, you say yes and keep on saying yes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You Can Like My Novel on Facebook

You can now like The Altar of Dead Pets on Facebook.

The page will contain photographs of locations that appear in the novel, excerpts, links to relevant articles and news stories about themes on which the novel touches, articles on writing and being a writer, and memes I find funny or interesting that I'd like to share. 

Click here to go to Altar's Facebook page and please like my novel!

Monday, March 12, 2012

And the Beat Goes On

Well, the agent search is underway for Altar of Dead Pets, and I'm actually finding the process a lot more fun than I thought I would because I'm paying closer attention to what's going on in the publishing industry than I usually do - looking at deals that are being made, the types of books that are selling, who's doing them, and evaluating them against what I think I need to have Altar be successful. It is a total crap-shoot, of course. But I like the challenge of making a hypothesis (which agent is likely to respond to my work), doing the research to find out if my assumptions are logical, and then getting to test the hypothesis by making a query. Still a crap-shoot, but at least, this way, it's more of a game.

As I've found with previous stages of Altar's growth from short story to novel to book, this marks a new stage in my growth as a writer. The first rejection hurt. I felt that horrible shame of "how on earth did I think I was worthy?" But it was very quickly followed by - it's just information. It just means I didn't target the correct person. Part of this comes from the fact that I know I've written a good book - in the whole history of this story and everyone who has read it, only a handful of people have not been wowed by it (my favorite reaction is still the one from the Nevada Arts Council's Fellowship panel that I am a "kickass writer of rare depth and inventiveness"). 

Last week, I met with a friend I'd asked to read Altar and, at the end of our meeting, he asked me, "You do know how good this book is, don't you?" I could hear in his voice how serious he was, how much he needed to know that I knew, and that brushing aside the comment with false modesty or saying, "What a nice thing to say!" wasn't going to cut it. So I told him the truth. Yes, I know how good the book is. I also know how much writing this book has changed me. For the first time in my life I know I am a writer and I don't need anyone to validate that for me. No matter what happens with Altar, whether it achieves my goal of getting published, it doesn't change the fact that it is a good book. I've never had that sense of confidence in myself or my work before.

Now it's just about marketing and saleability, and I really have no control over what the publishing market is doing right now. 

So, what do I do while I wait? Simple. I get to work on the next novel.

Ithaka (the novel's working title) is actually the novel I went to grad school to write.I worked on it for the first year of my grad program and then had the one-two punch of finally resolving a key scene in Altar and getting some relevant feedback on the original short story, which made Altar grab hold of my writer brain and not let go for the next couple of years. Now I'm back to Ithaka with a much better idea of how to write this novel than I had before - to be honest, it scared me silly that I was going to screw it up, and it's too good an idea to risk screwing up. 

I'm doing research while I let the story coalesce again, let the characters come back to me, let the novel tell me how it wants to structure itself. I finally got my opening image, which, for me, is where a novel starts. I may have characters and dialogue and know the arc of the plot, but until I have that opening image, it ain't going nowhere. 

I found an amazing book just by luck: Thieves of Baghdad by Matthew Bogdanos. I picked the book because I wanted to read about the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 just after Baghdad fell since it figures in my novel. What I've found is a treasure-trove of material about many things that touch on aspects of Ithaka. Plus, it's a very, very well told story.

The oddest thing for me, shifting from the all-consuming writing and editing of Altar to the generative phase of writing for Ithaka, is remembering that the two things happen on different schedules. I couldn't edit in the evening. By 9 pm, my brain was done for the night. So all my editing for Altar  took place in the bright light of day, making things like house cleaning, grocery shopping, etc. fall by the wayside. The generative writing of Ithaka happens best after 9 pm, so now I have my days free again and am trying to figure out what to do with all this time I've got. It's probably the biggest post-novel adjustment I've had. And that's probably a good thing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is Good Writing?

This week I had the (always) frustrating activity of helping one of my sons pick a book for a book report. His school uses the Accelerated Reader program which, no offense, I detest with a passion. It's not that I don't think AR is worthwhile - it is to the extent that it helps the teachers steer the kids who are not proficient readers toward books that may be more challenging than they might otherwise read and it lets them easily track how much their students are reading. But my issue with AR has always been trying to find books that challenge an extremely proficient reader that are also on the AR list and eligible to be used for book reports (and don't even get me started on what it's like to find historical fiction for a boy who reads at the 12th grade level that is both interesting to him and on the AR list).

Our issue this week was finding a science fiction book for him to read. The only books that AR had listed at the 8th grade and up level his teacher wanted him to read were those in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey series and Alan Dean Foster, neither choice thrilled me having read both. The book I thought he would enjoy, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was, alas, rated at 5.2. And here is where I really take issue with AR. It's rankings are based on the length of the book and the difficulty of the vocabulary, not the complexity of issues in the book. So books by Bradbury, George Orwell and, believe it or not, Shakespeare (who wrote plays, yes, I know) are ranked below those of the Series of Unfortunately Events by Lemony Snickett. Again, please, I'm not disparaging. Really, I'm not. But when Hamlet is ranked lower than the first book in the SUE series, something is wrong. Fortunately, the teacher agreed with me and my son will be reading Fahrenheit 451. In fact, he'd already started and really loves it. But then, this is a kid I read Kafka's The Metamorphosis to as a bedtime story when he was in 2nd grade because he asked me to after I told him it was about a guy turning into a cockroach. He loved it and he understood it, too.

But here's what I really want to get at, the thing that AR misses. Books do not have to be long or contain complex vocabulary to be good. The best writing is clear and concise. The best writers are those who can take complex ideas and explain them in the simplest of ways so that the most people can understand them. (Shakespeare is complex only because we don't speak like they did in Elizabethan England, but, once you get beyond the changes in the language, you realize he's actually making quite clear some of the greatest mysteries of the human heart. Ideas that are so universal, we understand them at once.)

It's always subjective (which is the element the AR ratings are trying to get beyond - those questions of good writing versus bad). Is it bad writing because it doesn't appeal to a wide audience? Or does that mean that it's ideas are so elevated only a few people can (or should be able to) understand them? It's Ray Bradbury (who always wrote at a 6th grade level) vs. Arthur C. Clarke. All I know is when Richard Feynman talks, I understand physics because he's able to express those complex ideas in ways that are comprehensible.

Which is what I think my job is as a writer. I am supposed to make complex ideas accessible. It is my job to communicate to my readers what it feels like to be inside another person's head, another person's heart, and make them understand that person from the inside out. I think there is no territory so foreign as another person's heart. Make that comprehensible to another human being, make a reader feel as if he or she is not alone because someone else knows how it feels to be inside this skin, make it accessible and real, and that's what good writing is all about. Good writing takes the specific and expresses in a way that it becomes universal. Shakespeare knew that. That's why we can relate to a Danish prince or an English king or a pair of teenage lovers in Verona and feel as if they speak to us. It is my job to be human and to write about what it means to be this human in this particular skin in this particular time and place as clearly and simply as I know how so you, the reader, can understand it, so you can feel it, so you can live it, so, after you're done with my book, you understand a little more about the world than when you started reading. That's my job. And when I succeed, that's good writing.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Story So Far

I find myself in a really odd place right now: I am alone in my own head. I finished my edits and the novel is now in the hands of an agent, so there's nothing really to do with it until she comes back with a response (okay, except for a couple of things. I spoke with one of my readers last night who pointed out places where he just couldn't suspend disbelief that the story was being told by a 14-year old. As he said, "No fourteen year old boy would say 'little old lady flats.' I'm gay, and even I wouldn't have noticed that at fourteen." Point taken). I've kind of been sitting here thinking, well, now what do I do with my time?

Answer: Get to work on the next novel.

So it's back to the generative phase of writing for me, which is exciting. I love the peaks and valleys of this stage of writing. In some ways, it's a heck of a lot easier to get things done (like grocery shopping on a regular basis) because a lot of my thinking, processing, letting things fall into place can happen during the day while the actually putting words down in a logical order portion of it can happen late at night or even very early in the morning. I found the editing worked best during the daytime. Whenever I tried to edit or rewrite after nine at night, I fell asleep or my brain was sluggish. It took a lot of will power to work within the analytical portion of my brain after the sun went down.

I'm excited, though. The next novel is the project which made me apply for grad school. I had written another novel about fifteen years ago that fell apart just at the point where an agent was interested in seeing it. I'd worked on it for several years and, in a workshop, the workshop leader asked me what was the most essential question about the novel and I couldn't answer it. At that point, I realized I was at a dead end. That experience started me on a journey to learn craft so that I would not end up at the same point with the next thing I wrote. I spent many years doing workshops, going to conferences, reading and reading and reading, and, ultimately, going to grad school and getting my MFA in a program that was exceptional for teaching craft and process. (as an aside, it was during an assignment in grad school that I figured out what went wrong with that other novel and will probably go back to it at some point because I still love those characters - as briefly as I can, what happened to that novel was not knowing how to listen to critique group feedback and forgetting what my original vision for the novel was while I tried to revise to answer all the group's concerns. The assignment that made me realize this was to write a synopsis of a novel. I dusted off my old synopsis for this novel, rewrote it and was so pleased with it, I sent it to a friend who had been part of that critique group. She responded that she hadn't understood a key element of the novel's conceit (and neither did the workshop leader, and, for that matter, neither did I by that point in trying to revise it). It made me realize what had happened to that novel and radically changed how I listen to feedback)

At the time I started grad school, I had an idea for a new novel. An idea that was so good, so exciting, that I just didn't want to screw it up. I spent my first year in grad school working on it, had a pretty complete outline, and about a hundred pages written. Then, stuck for a second story to submit to the class in Alice La Plante's fiction workshop, I asked her if I could bring the original draft of a short story I'd written - I got a couple of grants with the story, had gotten some really good rejection letters (most notably, a personal note on a form rejection from The New Yorker), and, in the process of trying to revise it, it had started to unpack itself and was now a novella. I wanted to get some feedback and see if I was on the right track with my revisions. Alice said yes, so I brought the story in, got some really good feedback, and then went back to work on the novel. A couple of months later, I took a half-day workshop with another really gifted SFSU professor, Matthew Davidson. Matthew gave us an exercise and I literally walked across the room thinking about a scene from the novel that I wanted to work on, sat down at a desk to write it, and what came out was a scene from the story. I had been struggling with this scene because I didn't understand what it needed to do. The scene fell into place as I wrote through this exercise and, at the end of it, the story "came out" and declared itself to be a novel and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to be working on it until it was done.

110,000 words later, that novel is The Altar of Dead Pets.

So, now it's time to let Matt grow up and go out into the world (which, in a funny way, is the movement of that novel), and get reacquainted with Nikki and Owen and their 17-year old son Marcus and the twins, Amanda and Leo. Time to let bitchy Catherine and her sister Helen out of their kennels. Time to shift from living in Reno in March to living on the Sonoma Coast in summer. Time for research and exploring and stumbling through scenes and reminding myself over and over again that it doesn't matter how mundane the words in the first draft are, they will become vivid and wonderful by the time I'm done and I will fall in love these characters as I did with Matt and Denny and everyone else in their screwed up family. In short, it's time to write.