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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Time Is Not on My Side

I'm doing my final round of edits prior to starting to query and have had a few readers give me feedback. One of them pointed out that kids today don't use email anymore, they use Facebook to communicate, something I know since I'm the proud owner of a teenager. But my narrator uses email and doesn't have a Facebook account - which is something of a deliberate choice on my part, but it did bring up a problem I have had with the novel and one that plagues a lot of writers. Technology changes. And it seems to change overnight. And nothing dates your work faster than having out of date technology.

My novel started out as a short story in 1999. Remember 1999? That was thirteen years ago. Cell phones were around, but not everyone had one yet. The Internet was around, but most people used AOL, and having a computer was not quite as ubiquitous as it is now, especially one that had Internet access. In my original short story, no one had a cell phone, no one had a computer. Forget about iPods and smart phones and all these other things we've come to take for granted (a blog? what the heck was a blog?) By the time my short story (which had grown into a novella) came out and openly declared itself to be a full-fledged novel in 2008, the world had changed radically. And I have been playing technology catch-up ever since. In this final draft, I realized the flip phone I'd given to the older brother in the first draft (completed in 2009) was now dated, and have been going through the draft and changing all references to "flipping the phone open" to "turning the phone on." My narrator can no longer "snap the phone shut," which is a shame because that's such a great emotional indicator and you can't really turn a smart phone off in a way that shows annoyance.

I am not alone in chasing technology in this way or dealing with the technology conundrum in fiction. Literary fiction is plagued with a dearth of technology in its books. Fantasy has it a little easier since magic tends to take the place of technology, and the genres of Science Fiction and Thriller tend to place technology (and usually fantastical technology that hasn't been invented yet) front and center. The convenience of technology has eliminated a lot of the plot devices we writers of more reality-based fiction relied on to create delays or build tension.

I've written about this before, although I can't find the post right now, about the various ways in which I and other writers have gotten around the convenience of cell phones. See, cell phones made it possible for the hero to call his family to warn about imminent disaster or for the parents to call to warn their daughter they'd just found out her fiance was a psychopath. It eliminated all the time musing in the car while the protagonist drives from point A to point B thinking about the conversation she needs to have with her ex-husband. Now she can pick up her phone and bloody-well call him. So writers have had to invent reasons for the call not to be possible. Protagonists in fiction forget their cell phones a lot, or they forget to charge them, or they forget to turn them on. Their phones are highly susceptible to falling into toilets or other bodies of water that will cause them to be less than functional as phones. Their phones get damaged. A lot. All these are work-arounds, nods to the convenience of technology, but also to the narrative demands of story.

Story requires characters to face adversity. Their lives can't be too convenient or else they become boring, uninteresting. They have nothing to fight against. And, while a non-working cell phone may not be the overbearing evil of Sauron or Lord Voldemort, it certainly is an every day evil with which most people have to contend. Think about the last time your phone didn't work. Didn't you get pissed off? Didn't you want to fire off an angry letter to your cell phone service provider?

Trying to get around the technology conundrum makes a lot of literary writers place their stories in the pre-computer age of the 1980's. It solves a lot of problems because you don't have to worry about how quickly today's smart phone is going to be replaced by something else, like cyborg implants that place the Internet in our brains rather than at our fingertips. A cautionary tale for me is the final story in Jennifer Egan's terrific short story collection, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I actually didn't finish the story because it was set in a future time where people used their hand-held devices to "T" each other (something we commonly refer to as 'texting'). It was such clunky future-history (and I've read so much better from people who actually write in that genre), it felt like a literary writer trying to co-opt the fantasy genre without understanding the conventions of that genre (I could do a whole blog entry on that, let me tell you) or understanding how fantasy writers have actually done it already (and many times) and done it better. What I learned in an interview was that Egan had written that story prior to the iPhone's release. The iPhone brought a whole new way of relating to our phones into the culture and made many of the things Egan wrote about a reality. Unfortunately, reality didn't look exactly like what Egan wrote, so it came off, (to me, at least) as clunky future-history writing and not as revolutionary as many critics said.

I think it's getting better. The transformational pace of technology may not be slowing down, but I think we writers are beginning to adjust to the necessity of its inclusion in our stories and to use it more seamlessly. It's probably not a bad thing that cell phones have made us find other ways to build tension into our stories, or to prevent communication between two characters. The interesting thing, though, is when a writer doesn't find those new ways, it's now glaringly obvious that the whole cell phone problem is a plot device and nothing more.