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.