I've learned some important things about myself lately. For instance, I use of course a lot. As in: He was already there. Of course he was. I'm not big on adverbs, it turns out, but excessively fond of the ones I do use. Like oddly and carefully.
What does this mean? Oddly, I'm not sure. But of course Iím going to find out. As carefully as I can.
What? Oh. Yeah. Novel rewrites. Can be fun.
Lots of fun, actually.
(And no, I donít overuse actually, actually.)
Stories went out Monday. One story to three places, another to three other places. Easy, it turns out. Just look up the literary magazines, read samples of the stories they publish, decide you like their sensibility, read their submission policy, take notes, look up more literary magazines, do the same. Divide the results into categories (this story goes here, that story might suit that place better). Print cover letters, label envelopes, affix SASEs to cover letters with colorful paperclips, double check that you're putting the right story/cover letter into the right envelope. Seal it all up and hand to spouse to run to post office. (Last step optional, depending on availability and mood of said spouse.) That wasn't so hard, was it?
But for some reason it was. It felt as terribly dreary, as horridly mind numbingly depressing, as preparing for our tax appointment. Why? It should be fun, shouldn't it? Should carry with it the promise of publication or at least more deliciously personal rejection letters. Should tantalize and tease, not depress.
I think it may have something to do with this: A friend and I were IMing yesterday about writing and having written. Fact is, once you've written and declared the manuscript complete and fully realized, you have to send your material out. And then it's no longer the idealized version of itself and you're no longer A Great Writer Nobody Knows About Yet. You're exposed, judged. And maybe you will be discovered, maybe everyone will love and devour your words, maybe you'll be the next (fill in the blank depending on genre of choice and preferred success measurement). Maybe so. Big risk, though, isn't it? That you won't be. Easier to be going to, to be on the verge of, to be about to find out than it is to actually, y'know, go ahead and risk it.
This, I think, explains that slogging through mud feeling. It's a tidal wave of emotional resistance. I did it anyway, though. And will do it again in April. And in May. And in June... and maybe at some point it'll get easier.
I'm thinking a few "yes!" responses along the way will help get me past this hump. But until then, doing it instead of talking about doing it, that helps too.
It's a funny thing. I have three short stories I feel are strong enough to send out to literary magazines. But do I? UmÖ wellÖ let's see. I keep a record, I can tell you exactly.
I sent one story out to a few places December 4th.
December 2003, that is. Sent it out to other places February 6th 2004. Sent it out again, along with another story I'd written in the interim, August 2nd. Sent the second story one place last month.
Hot and heavy on the submission front? Not so much.
I like what happens when I send them out, too. Last month I got a rejection letter from Zoetrope that called the second story powerful. Also one from Indiana Review saying the first was seriously considered and asking me to submit again. Both were from that round of submissions this past summer.
Then why don't I send them out more? There are hundreds of small literary magazines out there. A number of them are quite good. If you don't submit, you don't get published. It's a simple algorithm. And yet I don't. When I think about doing it, it feels like a monumental task. Research magazines, print out the stories, put mailing envelopes together. Not a big deal if you do it once, send to one magazine. But if you send out the hundreds of envelopes it probably takes to get a "Yes, we'll take it" call in amongst all the "I really liked it but" letters (not to mention the inevitable form letter rejections), well, that's a lot of envelope licking. Part of the job, right? Part of what it takes to get published in this format, which can lend legitimacy to the writer and in theory make it easier for a book publisher to take you on. Even if it doesn't do that, though, wouldn't it be cool? To have a story published? In print? Flip through the pages, hold it in your hands, know strangers are discovering your words, responding to your creation, isn't that what it's all about?
And yet I don't submit and so can't be published.
Why the hell not?
Almost done with this pass of my novel. Am more than a little obsessed. Am also more than a little depressed, which I think has mostly to do with the events within the novel. Sometimes when I'm writing I engulf or rather am engulfed by the mood of what I write, like a chameleon taking on the coloration of a given rock or glen. I'm green and mottled today and terribly cloudy. I am also just about fifty pages from the end of this draft. So maybe sad too, this mood. This story will no longer be solely mine after this. It will belong to a small set of readers and then (after rewrites) to my agent and then (after rewrites) perhaps to editors in dingy or overbright rooms in fifth or tenth floor office suites in midtown Manhattan buildings. My manuscript. From my mind. And then someday maybe I'll hold it in my hands again, a book. But from here to there, so fraught. So many eyes. So much hope and therefore fear too. If and Maybe and Will It? And oh, this book, these words from me to you, the collective You, but also really to me because it gives me pleasure and pride and also pain mixed in. Like today. Cloudy and mottled in my head, chance of clearing tomorrow. The manuscript is and is not me. It leaves me soon. It becomes Other. Grows wings?
I got this idea from Tiny Coconut, who got it from Sundry (who I discovered as a result and really like). I love it, loved reading theirs and then digging in my own files for stories begun but abandoned.
Here are mine:
The problem wasnÔŅĹt what she did that night. I can understand the impulse to steal pretty china in an elegant restaurant, as if somehow youÔŅĹll carry the luxury home with you along with whatever traces of chocolate truffle remain on the delicately tapered rim. No, the problem was how she did it: with a wide toothy smile, her eyes half slits and a gurgle in her voice as she insisted that no, this was right and this was fun and this was going to fit in my fatherÔŅĹs pocket, ÔŅĹHere you go, honey, slip it on in there.ÔŅĹ
Or maybe that wasnÔŅĹt what made me squirm in my mahogany-backed Queen Anne chair and plead with her, ÔŅĹStop, put it back, donÔŅĹt do that.ÔŅĹ After all, if youÔŅĹre going to steal, you should do it with style and ÔŅĹlan and complete assurance. But there was a triumph in her eyes as she handed him the second custard cup and the third and then a miniature silver spoon, the kind they give babies for their first mouthful of rice cereal or, in this case, sugar to stir into a similarly miniature cappuccino cup with blue forget-me-nots painted on the white porcelain. Which also went into my fatherÔŅĹs voluminous suit pocket.
Yes, it was the triumph that bothered me the most. Nobody should enjoy stealing quite that much.
Prickling, tingling, warm. . . itchy. I lie on a soft, cushioned table. Alone in a small room. Trying not to scratch my belly. Millimeter-thin needles stick out of my abdomen. White balls on top bounce lightly as I breathe. I'm glad there's no mirror on the ceiling, I'd run out of the room screaming. Instead I gaze at a painting, very Chinese, two pandas munching on -- whatever they munch on. Something green and feathery.
Focus. My belly. Warm. Red flower, no, red is blood, blood is what we don't want here -- white flower unfurling, opening, blossoming inside my womb. Healing, cleansing, pure and loving. I hold the thought for five long seconds and then drift back to those needles. Itchy. Don't scratch. Oh man, how do I not scratch? Didn't they do this in the Spanish Inquisition -- tie you up, take your clothes off, and tickle you with a feather until you cried and told them anything they wanted to know, anything at all, as long as they let you SCRATCH?? Don't scratch. Can't scratch.
I scratch. Not the needles, around the needles. They sway and sting as I brush my fingers past them. They're like stalks of wheat. IÔŅĹm growing a field of needles on my infertile abdomen.
The tail end of winter. The snow on the ground has turned to slush. The radiator gurgles to itself and occasionally hisses in a burst of passion. The dawn creeps into the room past the heavy curtain. I lie in bed, asleep and dreaming. I dream of a hospital bed with the metal bars up. My grandfather lies there. Is he asleep? I don't know, but then, I'm asleep, so how can I judge? I'm lying in bed with him now, in my dream. I wear a heavy flannel nightgown, he's in a flimsy hospital gown. I hold him close until he stops shaking. He falls asleep and I drift off too, or maybe I start dreaming another dream.
A week later I'm on the phone with my mother. I only talk to her once a month, she lives in Canada, and neither of us can afford the long distance call. She tells me my grandfather got through the surgery okay.
He has hardening of the arteries. He is, after all, eighty five years old. They had to clear the blood vessels. I picture surgeons armed with pipe cleaners.
I ask when the surgery occurred. She tells me.
It was the very morning I dreamed that I held him in my arms, hugging him and willing my energy into him.
The strange thing is that I've never been that close to my grandfather.
I've been wanting to write here, not let this site go fallow. But it'll have to be in bits and bites for a time. Most of what I want to write is meaty and I don't have time for meat. No, I'm in novel rewrite mode, heavy duty. A five hundred forty nine page document entails a whole lotta words to examine, scenes to parse, interactions to measure. Yup. Rewrite heaven, that's where I'll be. It's not unlike picking fleas out of a long haired cat's belly. Takes concentration and focus and the little suckers keep jumping away before you can squish them.
When you look at anything under a microscope (yes, even a flea), you discover all kinds of unexpected facets. For instance: I use of course an awful lot. Sometimes in dialogue, but mostly in the narrative. And sometimes it works better than anything else could in that particular spot and so I leave it alone. But it's a writing tic, that kind of repetition. It's not thematic, it's not tonal, it's just habit. So I pick out all the of courses and prepare the slide for close examination. Does this one pass muster? Yes? Good. No? What else gives the mood I want right there? HmmÖ And on it goes. I use gerunds a bit more than the style manuals suggest, and even run-on sentences and fragments. When should I fix them? When do they serve to convey emotion in a breathless endless monologue or staccato short beats? When do they just annoy and interrupt the flow of the read? What is bad writing and what is my voice, not only acceptable but even, dare I say, desirable, even though it may not be the way your English teacher taught? The simple little stuff, it turns out, is not so simple after all.
I'm also finding some dialogue, some inner monologue, that worked well when I wrote it, doesn't work so well in the rewrite. Not because it's bad (though inevitably some is), but because it doesnít fit what comes later. An example: A man speaking with his employee. He reveals an emotion. A bit out of character, but he's feeling something pretty strong, so okay. That's even kind of interesting, that he'd do that right there. Only thing? A few scenes later he reveals the same emotion to someone else. And it works much better in that context. The first revelation? Gone. He's all business in this draft. When I wrote the first scene, I obviously had no idea he'd do that later.
This is actually the most intriguing part of this process for me. I remember at least some of how this evolved into a manscript, I remember being in the dark about how I'd get from prologue to finis, but now that it's complete? It feels, even to me, as if it were always thus. Always this particular form, this specific ride. And so it almost surprises me to find these out of place moments that are there not because of sloppy writing (though, did I mention? that too, in other spots) but because I wrote forward into the dark and now it's all brightly lit.
I'm enjoying it more than I expected.
I just hit page 200 in my rewrite. How long did it take me in the first draft? A year? I reread and relive, sometimes I can even smell the scent of what I had for lunch that day or the kiss of ocean breeze on my face as I walked from the Santa Monica Library to the car to go get Damian the day I wrote that particular paragraph.
Reading a novel can be a full body immersion, submerging deep into the prose and world of the book. It's so different reading a novel when you've written it. You're inside as a reader but also outside as a writer. You go to bed thinking about it, wake up wondering if you should go back and fix that bit where he thinks about the future, add more to the s&x bit, what about the phrasing of that other part, was it too cliche? And yet you find yourself immersed nevertheless, waterlogged, swimming in that world, but a world you yourself have created.
It's an interesting feeling.
(And before you say, "Wait, you're moving too fast!" you should know: I rewrote much of this first half once already, skipping only a few larger issues I'm tackling now, along with word choice and cadence. I'm working micro and macro at once here.)
The hardest part of rewriting an entire novel turns out not to be the work itself, not the decisions about what needs work and what doesn't. It's the shift, back and forth and back to the past too: I wrote this passage two years ago, how can I rewrite it? How can I stay true to the tone and tenor of the words when I'm not that person anymore, when my cells have shed and renewed themselves and my writing style has altered as my life has progressed? But I can, it seems. I do, it seems.
Then there's the left brain/right brain dichotomy of it. I chug along on the surface, analyzing word choices and gerund overuse and abrupt sentence fragments and unintentional repetition and the clichťs that inevitably slip in here and there (those sneaky little devils) (a clichť in itself, no?) (see what I mean about sneaky?) and then I come across a section that needs an actual get-your-hands-dirty revamp and I stop. My brain? Switch to creative mode? Um, okay, but how? Once Iím in line edit mode, it's not so easy to find my muse. She doesn't always come when called, especially when I haven't needed her for a few weeks. She's taken a well-deserved rest, my poor overworked muse. (Remember: 140 pages in two weeks. Muse got tired. So did I.)
I discovered last month that the first page or so is always the hardest, that I have to try extra hard to get past the self-conscious "I'm writing that? Is that the best choice here?" baloney that creates halting, unsteady prose. After two pages, I usually find a groove, though, and the words flow. But here? Two pages of new material is all I need to write (until I get to the next section that needs in-depth work). Not enough time to even begin to sense the beat, much less find the flow. Also, during the surface copyediting bits, I'm pretty much exclusively using the hyper-analytical part of my brain. The exact part of my brain I do NOT want to use when writing a new scene. Unless I want it to sound like a textbook and not a novel.
Okay, now I can celebrate. I've finally finished the first draft of my novel. Yes indeedy, yes I have. And it feels so, so good. And Iím so so proud. And I finished, yes I did, and I'm happy, yes I am and it's good, yes it is. (And I'm not drunk, no I'm not.)
The difference? I rewrote that last ten pages last night. It may not be perfect but it fits now and I can call the manuscript whole now. Because yes, things before the end can be screwy and uneven and oh-my-god-you-have-to-fix-that! messy and I Ė and my first readers Ė can accept that. But if the end bumps, well, I think you end up responding to the entire story based on that, even if you don't mean to. I want my readers to close the book with a sigh, feeling that emotional conclusion, that sense of completion. A sense of wholeness, it comes back to that. And I think if the last ten pages yank you out of the story because of their not-rightness, you will end up feeling like you ate only half your meal. And so I considered the novel incomplete even though the draft was technically finished.
It's a funny thing, too. The rewrite was pretty small, a matter of shifting emphasis. All the actions happened in the right order, they just felt wrong. The why was wrong. And at the end of the story, that matters. A lot.
So I rewrote last night, printed the pages this morning, and gave them to my mother, who had already read from page 175 through page 538 in the last three days. She read the new pages before lunch. We sat down to talk about the novel. In depth. For the first time, I can discuss the whole thing with someone and get feedback. Did this work for you, were you surprised by that, did that feel like the right emotional tone there? And she did and it was and she liked it and said she'd recommend it to someone else even if the author were a stranger. She even said that she was in tears reading the last hundred pages. That means more to me than anything. My mother is a highly critical reader and she mostly reads the kind of fiction I aspire to write. If she liked it, I've done okay.
Maybe that's why it feels okay to say it's done now. My mom likes it! Someone who isn't me has seen it, has experienced it as a pure read without knowing what comes next, and has enjoyed that read. That's a powerful feeing for me as a writer. More so than I expected, given the number of screenplays I've written (and shown to readers). This book has lived inside of me for a long time, slowly coming to the surface to emerge in tangible form. For someone else to read and see and understand, well, it makes it real. And so now I can rejoice.
So last night I was sitting on the bed, computer on my lap, typing away on my novel. Writing so fast these past couple of weeks, averaging ten pages a day. Writing every day. Writing and writing, oh yes. Time to finish my novel. Just two more weeks until my birthday, a firm and not so arbitrary deadline. I knew I'd be depressed on my birthday if I couldn't point to something big, something solid and real, that I'd accomplished this year. I needed that, needed to be done with the first draft of my first novel. To have that sense of completion.
Well. I do now. Last night my writing session ended not because I ran out of steam but because I ran out of story. Finis. The End. Chapter thirty and goodbye. 114,000 words. 549 pages. I printed it today. It's one hell of a thick tome.
I think I'm still in shock. I've been working on this sucker for so long now, writing so slowly in the cracks between the rest of my life. The first year I wrote 77 pages. I think I wrote that much this last week.
Elation is the wrong word, the wrong emotion. I should be celebrating, I know. I mean, it's an accomplishment, right? But I feel Ė well, a lot of things. A little sad. This has been my big huge always-present project for so long now. The characters live on in my brain, the texture of the story, the problems to solve in the upcoming set of pages, the sometimes-amazing flat-out joy as I write. I'll never create this particular first draft again, won't feel that pleasure as this particular world unfolds both with and without my conscious volition. I expect to write another novel, and that will be a similar pleasure, but I also know that each manuscript will have its own flavor, it's own joys, and the specific stream of consciousness tone and deeply bittersweet romance of this one will likely be a singular experience. And so yes, that's sad.
I also feel relieved. I made it all the way to the end. I wasn't sure at some points along the way, had no idea how I was going to get from point A to point Z and build the character arcs I wanted in the process. Some big sequences were daunting before I tackled them. Not anymore. Now they're written. To be rewritten, yes, but that's an utterly distinct kind of brain work. I did it. Got all the way through, told the story I wanted to tell.
But I also feel like I'm leaving something unfinished. Just because you write The End doesnít make it so. I'm not happy with the last ten pages, for example. Maybe I rushed or maybe it's just a tricky passage, but it doesn't feel right and that nags at me. Not a satisfying way to end, y'know? And the whole second half of the book is pretty much the way it first came out of my head onto the screen. It's probably pretty raw stuff, with sentences that don't flow as well as they should, dialogue that says too much, emotional beats that got left behind in the flush of writing. It needs editing. It needs me. It's not ready to go running off on its own yet. Not all grown up yet. Iím not done yet. And so The End can be deceiving. It's an entire document, but it's not a complete one.
But yes, mingled in among all those other emotions, I do have a kind of deep pleasure in the thought: I wrote a novel. It's got a beginning, a middle, an end. I did that. And that part does feel mighty good.
You'd think with all this writing I've been doing (nineteen thousand words since last Monday, a/k/a 92 pages in EIGHT DAYS) (yes, I'm still in shock), I'd be exhausted. That I'd sleep well, smug and content with myself and my voluminous output.
Not so much. I've been sleeping very badly indeed, in fact. Turns out writing flat-out like this? Not good for your composure. I lie down and my brain turns on. What did I write today? Was it good, did it work? Maybe this part did, but what about that part? What's up next? What shape will it have? What tone? What emotion? Where are my main characters now, after what I put them through today? How do they feel? Where do they go? Does my mental sketch of the next set of pages still work? What do I do if it doesn't? Do I keep going and risk derailing, skidding into the nearest embankment, taking my entire novel with me, or do I slow down and reconsider, rewrite, rethink?
I think as a writer I need time to digest, to dream the story, to feel it deep in myself. And if Iím not giving myself time in between writing sessions, my brain insists on taking it. Late at night. When I'm trying to fall asleep.
Two days ago, I wrote a scene. Not a bad scene, I thought, but afterwards, I was in a terrible mood. I ended up printing it out and showing it to Dan. Verdict: too on the nose, tells us emotional beats we already know. Solution: rewrite. Instead of having the character talk about how he feels about his father, have him give an anecdote that illustrates it in a more oblique way. Simple, obvious even. I think if I hadn't been writing so fast, I'd have seen it myself. But sometimes when you're rushing to keep up with a train, your surroundings blur. You know something wasn't quite right back there at the last crossing, but you didn't get a good enough glimpse to know what.
I rewrote. I liked it much better. I felt much better. My emotional equilibrium is apparently dependent on the quality of my output, a perilous state of affairs.
Yesterday I wrote a scene. A very hard scene. One of those pivotal, center-of-the-emotional-narrative scenes. One of those scenes I usually avoid for days, cleaning out my cabinets and doing lots of extraneous "research" instead of writing. (And you wonder why it takes so long for me to finish a novel!) Now, though, I have a deadline (I want a complete manuscript by my birthday on the 29th and I'm still, oh, 30 to 50 pages away). No avoiding. So I wrote yesterday. Slowly at first. Smoothly at first. Some of the best writing I've done, I think. But partway through it shifted. I kept writing anyway, hoping I'd catch the mood or maybe I was wrong, maybe this was strong after all and I was just too close to it to know.
This may explain why I was awake half the night. It may not. But I was. Up and fretting. I know it's not a big deal, I do know that. So what if I delete and rewrite, so what if it takes a few tries to shape what I want? But somehow it mattered at two a.m. that what I'd written wasn't resonant, wasn't evocative, wasn't what it should be.
It probably doesn't help that I'm currently immersed in an amazing book, The Time Traveler's Wife. It's brilliant so far. It's also written in a style very unlike my own. Spare. Understated. Poetic, yes, but in a vastly different way. My book is more, well, dreamlike. Hallucinogenic at times. I try to keep it somewhat grounded, but I go far inside my characters' minds. And when you're reading something that feels nearly perfect but is so radically different from what you're creating, it makes you question every word, every phrase, every choice. And then you write something that doesn't ring true and ugh. Just ugh.
Bad night last night. Took the day off from writing today. Reread what I had. Cut a bit. I'll go back to it tonight after Damian's in bed and see if I can add the emotional beats that feel missing and alter the ones that feel untrue. I don't want to write forward tonight, I just want to fix what I have. I want to calm my insane writer self down so she lets me get some sleep tonight.
One of the facets of this experience, writing in a rush after having worked on the book such a long time, is that I'm living the novel as I go. It's becoming me or I'm becoming it, I'm not sure which. And so when something's off and wrong, it feels like part of my anatomy's twisted. I need a cast but I have to make do with a rewrite. A kinder sort of surgery, I suppose, though it doesn't feel like it at the moment.
Wish me luck. My sleep depends on it.
I seem to have taken an inadvertent leave of absence from this blog. Also possibly from my sanity. And certainly from my social responsibilities (Email? What's that? I'm sorry, did you write me? I'll write back, I will. At some point. Maybe even soon. I swear.)
I'm not quite sure, though. It may in fact be the opposite. I seem, at any rate, to have discovered a secret, a well of extra time in my day or, okay, maybe just more efficient use of the time I had always so casually, thoughtlessly discarded while bitterly complaining that there was never enough.
All of which is to say that I've been writing like a turbocharged demon on the lam from the law.
It started with the realization that my birthday's coming up (the 29th of this month, if anyone's paying attention to dates) and that I still haven't finished this damned novel, nor have I published, nor have I done much else of note in the past few years (excluding the whole parenting deal). I may not have a huge degree of control over the publishing part, but you know? Can't publish what doesn't exist. And I can at least take control of that part. Finish the first draft by my birthday? Why not?
At the time Ė roughly five days ago Ė I had a little more than 400 pages written, about 80,000 words. My goal is simply to get to the end of the book, wherever that may fall, but I expected it would come somewhere between page 450 and 500, somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words. So fifty to one hundred pages in a month. Doable, though I've probably never written quite that much in one sustained drive. But Diane was zipping through her NaNoWriMo novel, writing 2000 to 3500 words per day. Surely I could apply backside to seat cushion, fingers to keyboard, and tap out 1000 words a day (approximately five pages). Twenty five pages a week, one hundred pages in four weeks, The End a done deal in a month.
But this is December. Month of extracurricular activities. Holiday shopping, celebrating, school vacation (starts the 18th), mother visiting (starts the 16th). Not only that, but we're mid-bathroom spruce-up, which entails a lot of painting. Which is primarily my department. And did I mention some people are coming next week to put new flooring in the kitchen and someone else is coming to hollow out the cabinet next to the sink for a dishwasher and someone else will come to hook up the plumbing and someone else the electricity, a veritable parade of worker bees? Hard to get sustained writing in with all that commotion.
But why not try?
This week I've been trying. And a funny thing happened. Once I decided I could, I did. Ten pages (2000 words) Monday, fifteen pages (3000 words) Tuesday, another ten pages yesterday and eight pages so far today, rapidly closing in on ten. I'm on page 450 at this moment but by the time I go to bed, that landmark too will be past history.
There's probably nothing more boring than hearing a writer talk about page count. I realize this. But you have to understand. I have never, no not ever done this before. It's like flying, like skimming along the surface of water in a motorboat that turns into a glider plane and you're soaring and everything's moving so fast it's a blur, and you're dizzy and laughing and giddy with it all.
More important to me, I don't think my writing has suffered for it. Iím not just filling space, writing randomly, hoping to somehow tap dance my way to the end. I can tell. If I look back at the pages I wrote so painstakingly, a page one day and half a page another, they're the same in tone, in style, in content. It's of a piece. And that makes me happy too.
I don't know if I could do this earlier in the novel. In fact, I know I couldn't have done it in the first chapters. I had to find the tone, find the voice, set up the story. Too much to do. Too hard. Impossible to barrel through that and do a good job. But this? If I've done my job, I've set everything in motion already, built and built the story threads up until it's all ready to topple over. The ending is a matter of giving it the push and helping it all cascade down. Or something. I'm not sure. I'm still in the midst of it.
But there's something else at work here. The fact of deciding to write more every day, to push past that "this is HARD!" whine that says stop, frees me up. I feel it every day. The first page is tough. I'm finding my stride and I keep slipping. But then? If I say, "Okay, big deal, it'll pass," it does. The muscle cramps, the brain stutter, the myriad excuses for stopping, they fade away and leave me alone to write. And that's good to know. That I can do this.
This week I write in the morning while Dan's getting Damian dressed. I write in the afternoon while Damian's at school. I write in the later afternoon if Damian's got a floor timer in the house. I write at night on my bed, listening to Damian's sleep-snuffle and occasional sleep-commentary (he talks in his sleep but we rarely understand what he says). Words pour out of me with every sigh, with every exhale. Out my ears, my pores, my fingertips. And Iím happy. So so happy.
I've been thinking about mysteries lately. Novels, movies, and maybe a few TV shows, to spice things up. How do you construct a mystery? You take a twisty unsolved conundrum (usually an unexplained death). Then you find someone who cares a whole lot about the answer. A paid sleuth is easiest to establish but unpaid may be more intriguing Ė why does this person care so much? Then you figure out who dunnit and why. But with clues that lead only one place, it's a path, not a maze. So you also conjure up a number of possible culprits, every single one complete with motivation and access.
This is where I get stuck. Because when you do this, when you create multiple suspects, what are you really saying? That everyone is capable of murder, given a strong enough reason? But is that true? You're certainly, without a doubt, saying that you can't trust people, that everyone has secrets. Because inevitably the sleuth uncovers some dirty laundry, some melodramatic backstory that leads her to suspect Ms. X of the murder. And then maybe she confronts Ms. X, who breaks down and sobs, "No, it wasn't that way at all! I didn't kill him, I loved him! He was secretly my bastard son, I kept it from the world so he would inherit his supposed mother's wealth!" And then the sleuth hands poor grieving Ms. X a tissue and moves on to Suspect Y.
I haven't counted, but I'm guessing there have to be at least three, if not more, of these false leads in your average mystery novel. Each one has to have a potent enough reason to commit murder Ė and ideally a compelling enough twist to show why it's not true in this case or that one. That's a lot of drama. And this, in particular, is my problem. How do you do this? How do you create a world in which everyone has an extremely powerful, dramatic dirty secret? When does it tip over into soap opera? How can you keep it real?
I'm a couple of weeks behind watching the TV show Lost, but this show is a good example of what Iím talking about. Every week the A story concentrates on a different major character. Inevitably we flash back to that person's life pre-plane crash. And apparently also inevitably we watch an extremely dramatic story unfold in said person's past. Running from the law (literally). Following a cold, harsh but apparently mentally ill father to Australia only to discover his death. Marrying the love of your life only to see him follow in your Korean Mafia father's footsteps, complete with literal blood on his hands. And so on. And so forth. Everyone has a story, yes. But does everyone have this kind of story? At some point, that delicate suspension of disbelief that allows you the reader/viewer to stay engaged breaks. And then we the creators are in trouble.
This is where I get stuck.
Those of you who have been reading me for a while (ie: years) may remember a rant I wrote the first time NaNoWriMo came around. (NaNoWriMo, for those not in the know, is a novel-writing project, the goal of which is to generate a 50,000 word first draft in the course of a single month.) I was against it, felt it fostered bad writing. That a writer's mindset becomes poisoned by page count obsessions and that good writing needs time to simmer on the stove, it can't rush out of you in a month-long spew.
I've changed my mind. Oh, I still believe this is not the ideal way to write a good novel. But I think it's a damned good way to exorcize the devil that keeps most people who yearn to write from ever getting past the first page. I think I've also gotten past a kind of unconscious elitism. It doesnít matter if your novel is National Book Award material. If you want to write, if you enjoy the process and feel like you have something to say, something to explore or even just a plot idea that feels like fun to write, why not spend the time in that world? I donít have to win blue ribbons at baking competitions when I bake pumpkin pies or chocolate chip cookies, I do it for the fun of it and because I love to eat the results. Writing carries its own deep satisfaction (less caloric, too).
Diane turned me onto NaNoBlogMo the other night, a blog portal for people who are posting their novels in serial form on the web. With a great and dreadful trepidation, I clicked the links and read bits of prose. Found one extremely well written chunk, though I suspect if I read too much it might start to feel self-indulgent and young. Read another, not so good. Not terrible, though, just awkward and filled with storytelling mistakes. But I find something oddly endearing about that, about someone writing a story she wanted to tell, no matter that her words weren't coming easily.
I browsed a few more, none as good as the first or as bad as the second. Many seem to be perfectly acceptable first drafts, outpourings of words and sentences waiting to be honed and sifted and clarified. Whether they turn into good novels depends on the rewriting skills and knowledge of their authors. Also on those authors' desire to do the hard work of rewrites. I suspect most of these manuscripts will end November 30th and stay just as they are for all eternity or at least until the pixels start to blur and the hard drives no longer spin up.
But why not? It's process, not product. It's about trying something out. I'm always telling Damian not to worry so much about being perfect, that we all make mistakes, that's how we learn, that you have to practice to get better. If NaNoWriMo gets people past writer's block and lets them loosen those muscles, discover they can get past Chapter One and even meander all the way to the general vicinity of THE END, then it seems to me that it's a good thing.
All that said, I have no intention of ever trying it myself. I seem to be drawn to write much like being sucked into a vortex, I don't need a timer or a deadline to keep myself on track. And I'd rather start and stop and examine and revamp and go at my own stuttering pace than rush full speed ahead on the A Novel In A Month freight train.
Then again, if I ever get so seriously stuck that I stop writing fiction for months and years on end, then yeah. Sign me up.
I was telling Dan today about my ending woes. Um, novel ending, that is. Since I started this book, I've worried at, chewed over, contemplated and revised my idea of how it shound end. I don't mean the last page or even the last five pages but rather the last large chunk, fifty pages or more. How the story crescendoes and concludes. How I take all the threads and weave them in just the right way so it feels like a complete tapestry, or should the metaphor be musical? It is musical, I think. You don't want to just fade out, simply stop, you want to bring all the instruments up, faster and higher, to their natural, seemingly inevitable end point. Sometimes I think about story, the mechanics of what happens in that section. Right now I'm contemplating character. How do these people deal with where this story has taken them? How do they therefore interact? How have they grown and have they grown enough yet and if so, how can I show that and if not, how can I precipitate that? Complex stuff. Chewy stuff. Head scratching stuff.
Anyway. I was talking through all of this, or at least a portion of it, and Dan said something I found interesting and I suspect very true, so I thought I'd record it here. Which is: beginnings are easy to conceive, hard to write. Endings are hard to conceive, easy to write.
I think this is dead on. Everyone seemingly (especially in LA) has a story idea, and they all go something like, "See, there's this person, and this thing happens to him and wow, right?" Voila, a beginning. But to write it? Trickier. You have to start just right. With a bang but not too much of one, don't oversell it before you've fully jumped in. And please, for the love of god, develop your character a little before the real action starts. Let me know who I'm riding along this journey with, okay? But also? Don't just regurgitate exposition on my lap, that gets so messy. And boring. And please, do have some kind of story that I care about to keep me happy until the real meat of the story begins. And so on. And so forth. And then there's the matter of finding the right tone that'll carry you through the rest of the manuscript, and learning to hear your characters' voices in your head.
The end? Well, see above. I'm worried about mine. I've been spinning this story, this web of intrigue and emotional angst, and it needs a conclusion which means I need to have gotten everyone/everything (ie: characters, plotlines) to that place all at once and with the right flourish to leave you satisfied and not throwing the book across the room. Writing an ending is a lot like cooking a fancy meal. Everything has to finish at the right time and you have an awful lot of sauces to stir and meat to turn and bread to take out of the oven all at the same time to make it come out right. And yet when you've figured out some but not all of it, you can dive in. The rest may come in inspired flashes as you write, you know these characters and this story so well by now and it pulls you along as you write, it tugs at you and demands of you and if you surrender to it, you will, yes you will finish this book, this script, this opus, this creation will be on the page and in the computer, no longer just a figment of your fevered brain but real.
In all my talk of a writing addiction, the endorphin rush of the flow of a good writing session when the words pour out from somewhere that both is and isn't from and of me, for all that Ė and it's all true Ė there's another side. Times like today. After a long lull, a couple of months with just a day here or two days there to work on the novel, I've started back in this week. Day one, Tuesday, went okay. Kind of. Feet getting wet. Damp, at least. Day two, Wednesday, was one of those dreamscape writing sessions. Lovely. Which brings us to Day Three. Today. I eagerly turned on the computer, eagerly opened my Word file, ready for my fix. Stared at the words. Stared some more. Went off to check some blogs.
What, me, write? I don't THINK so. Nuh uh. Not gonna do it. Don't wanna do it. Can't go there, can't pull it out of me. It's too HARD!
But yesterday it was fun. What happened?
I don't know. Partly, I think, I was just tired. Got up too early to take Damian to OT across town. But partlyÖ wellÖ it happens. Sometimes it's not about the scene I'm writing, sometimes there's nothing wrong with the structure of what I've devised. Sometimes it's just this kind of self-consciousness that takes over. I examine every word before I write it, dissect it once it's on the screen, delete it and try again. It's not that any of it's bad, exactly. (Well, not all of it, anyway.) But it feels like I'm sitting outside myself, watching every thought as it forms. Trying to mimic the flow, fake the attitude. Sometimes it works, too, sometimes I ease into the stream that way. Other times, well, not so much.
Today I stopped writing and went to the bedroom to take a nap. Maybe tomorrow I'll regain the zen of writing, that non-thinking thought process that allows me to live the world instead of writing the words one by one. Wish me luck.
I'm pretty sure I know what book I'm going to write after I finish this novel. (Which is to say, the novel I haven't picked up in weeks, curse this no-floor time, no babysitter part-time kindergarten situation, but help is on the way Ė soon, even. Within a week, probably. But I digress.) This next one is loosely based on a script I wrote but never quite worked out, which in turn was based on a genre novel idea I never fully developed, so I've had it in my head for a while. I'm itching to get into it but scared, too. Aspects of it hit too close to home while other aspects are too unfamiliar and require more research than I'd prefer. (Preference: none. Rarely possible. Would get boring quickly if I only told stories about things I already knew. But I digress again.)
So yes, working to finish one novel. Thinking about the next one. So what's this third one floating around in my head? I won't get to it for a while. Years, maybe. But it came to me over a year ago, so it's had plenty of practice at waiting. It's very patient. When I first got this idea, I saw it as a script. I remember Toni laughing at me because I'd sworn up and down that I was not, no way, not ever going to write another script and yet here I was with a script idea. Well, I'm not writing it as a script. But it scares me as a novel. The main character is a cop in a small town. I donít know from small town life and I know less about what it's like to be a police officer. And yet. That's the idea. And it wants me to tell it. What can I do?
It presented itself as a mystery when it first appeared. I donít do mysteries either. Well, mostly not. My next one is only kind of a mystery and my current one is not even slightly a mystery. And yet. This is the idea and it compels me for all sorts of reasons. But a full fledged mystery with a cop protagonist? Can I hire someone to write this for me? (Um, no.) So I've been thinking about this one too. Worrying at it, wondering if I can pull this off, even a few years from now. Today I had a realization, though. And that realization is the reason I write tonight, though with the long preamble, you are no doubt already lost in the thicket of my convoluted brain processes. (I'm tired. Must sleep soon. Must turn off computer and go to bed. But I digress yet again.)
So. The realization. I started pondering what intrigued me about the idea. The center of it is this push-pull between the main character and another woman, the antagonist. They have a past together. I don't know quite what yet but confronting this person brings up all kinds of intense stuff for Ms. Main Character Cop Person. But if we don't know this other woman is the antagonist until the end (when we solve the mystery), what is the rest of the story? Hmm. Hey, what if we do know? What if she figures it out early on and the rest of the story can be a combination of cat-and-mouse flushing-bad-girl-out and painful/difficult flashback memories? Simple switch. Turns it from mystery into thriller, I guess, though not precisely. Psychological thriller, maybe, edging into drama. Or maybe the other way around, I wonít know until I write it. But this I think I can do. Especially the flashback parts. And who knows, maybe if she already knows who dunnit, she doesn't have to be a cop. Maybe she can be a lawyer or something. I can write a lawyer, I think. I've met more of them, anyway. And worked on legal TV shows. Or maybe she can be something else involved in that general world, a paralegal or a firearms expert or handwriting specialist orÖ oh, hell, maybe she'll just be a cop. But at least I can see it now. The shape of it. Don't know if I can pull it off. Don't know if I'll ever write it. But I can see it. And I like that. Now I can put it back into the file in the back of my overcrowded brain, the file labeled "save for later" and let go of it for a while, now that I've solved one puzzle.
Iíve been enjoying Tad Bitterís series of lessons on screenwriting. Heís doing a good job of it and even though Iím no longer writing scripts, I appreciate the recap. Story structure is story structure in every form. The script format is particularly unforgiving but by its spare nature it allows you to see the bones, the framework a good story needs.
I have a quibble with a recent entry, though. He says:
It helps to pick a character type that already exists in another film or book and go from there. Once you do that itís time to make him or her your own. Give them some depth. How do you do this? Flaws. Great characters have flaws. Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes. Robert Langdon of ďThe Da Vinci CodeĒ was afraid of heights. The book Iím reading now has a protagonist whoís a recovering alcoholic whoís already fallen off the wagon again in the first fifty pages. Heís a tragic hero of sorts. If you give them a few flaws, itís going to affect the way your character reacts to a given situation.
First, this may just be me, but I have a problem with the idea of taking a character from another book or film. Sure, you can find archetypes this way and yes, you can alter them to make them your own. But I think when you do that, youíre in danger of perpetuating the endlessly devolving filmic stereotypes that make us all wince when we watch movies. Why not bring something fresh to the mix? Why not look around you, use people you know, types youíve run across in your life? At the LA Times Book Fair this spring, Sherman Alexie spoke about how his story ideas sometimes spark from people he may see just for a few minutes, but their attitude, their demeanor and emotional affect imbue some spirit he wants to explore and thus a story is born. Me, I pluck characters from my life for short stories but in my scripts and long fiction, I donít take my model from either fiction or real life. The characters simply emerge and after a certain point I feel like I know them. They become real to me, maybe because Iíve known people like that or maybe because in some way I am people like that. Their pain is mine, their quirks are sometimes mine or maybe their strength is one Iíd like to borrow.
Second Ė and this was the main point I wanted to make Ė I hate the (extremely common) film writerís convention of giving the protagonist some specific, discrete fear or quirk, most especially a singular event from the past that shapes him or her. It feels so damned contrived. I know it can be a kind of shorthand in a foreshortened medium. But itís part of what makes movies flatter and less rich than they could be. When you can sum up a character in a single quirky fear, it diminishes him and I as a viewer stop believing in him as a person. I fall out of the movie.
I remember a screenwriter friend once telling me that the way to create character quickly was to find something external: a limp, a parrot on the shoulder, a shroud of smoke from a constantly lit pipe. Itís an instant visual and it can work, but you need more. Why the pipe, wherefore the limp, what relationship does this person have with said bird? Can we go deeper? Admittedly, sometimes itís better not to delve. Sometimes itís better to leave a quirk unexplored and simply let it add texture if itís one small part rather than all of your character work. But I still think a lifetime of alcoholism with a recent sobriety (Tadís other example) is a far better building block toward creating an interesting character than a fear of snakes. Itís bigger, meatier, brings with it more baggage. It simply means more. If youíre going for shorthand, why not choose something that can resonate? I once wrote a script with a character who was afraid of public speaking, afraid of crowds in general. It pays off in the story in various ways but you know? Itís pretty dumb. In retrospect, I could have done something more with it. For instance, if sheíd been on or near the autistic spectrum, if the sensory over-stimulation made her nerves stutter and misfire, that could have made the fear work as part of a larger picture. But as the center of a character in and of itself? Even with a backstory to explain it? Shallow is thy name. Contrivance is thy game.
It's hard to create a character with three dimensions using only word images. An actor breathes some life into that persona and of course in fiction, you've got more breathing room as well. But it's hard to capture someone on the page, which is why writers resort to contrivances.
If you think about it, it's hard to capture someone you know. Even yourself. I look in the mirror, I know me. But if I describe that woman I see, I know -- because I've experienced this -- that a close friend will turn around and say, "Nuh-uh, that's not you at all. You're underselling yourself" or "You're exaggerating that" or even "What the hell are you talking about?" Who's right? The Tamar that Toni would describe probably bears some resemblance but is not quite the person that Dan would describe or that Diane or my mom would describe. Or Damian, for that matter. I'd be very curious to hear his take on who Mommy is. A true knowledge of me, who I am, in a way can only be arrived at in pieces, a myriad of mirrors.
So how can we build a person from scratch, describe her in terse script form or even the more detailed novelistic impressionism? We can't. But we have to find our way through to enough detail and enough reality so that it seems that we do. It's so easy to fall back on crutches but I think they diminish that reality. They become less than fully human. The trick is to catch the right set of mirror images, catch that glimpse of humanity in your character, and jot it down before it slips away. Like catching a ghost in a jar. Except a whole lot easier. Because though we can't fully know each other or even ourselves, we do have this gut-level sense of what a person is, how it feels to go through certain experiences and how that might change you both in large ways and small ones. And if we can catch that essence, the quirks and odd fears and all the rest emerge naturally. Tricky but eminently doable.
Iím past page 350. Nearing the end of the novel (my goal is 425 pages, more or less). I know Iíll need to rewrite it, tweak it, maybe even tear it apart and put it back together in a vastly different pattern. In other words, I know thereís work ahead. And I still have a good chunk of first draft left to write. This is not past, this is still very much present, this book. And yet I canít seem to stop thinking about the next book.
Itís ridiculous, I donít even have the hours carved out of my new schedule yet to write my current novel and god knows itís been a slow not-even-steady marathon run, so how can I possibly be gearing up yet for Number Two? Itís kind of insane. And yet I am.
In a way, maybe itís eminently sane of me. After all, this one will require a certain amount of research and careful plotting. I tend to rush that part, wanting to dive into the actual writing because thatís where the fun lies. But this next book will suffer if I do. And so maybe I can eat my cake and have it, write the current book and sink into that sea of words while constructing the framework for the next odyssey.
Somewhere along the line Iíll need to find a cop or two to interview, learn the inside of a police station and a jail and maybe even a morgue. On the other hand, those are standard-issue thriller and mystery fodder and I live in a made-for-the-screen town. Iím sure I can find a way in. The LAPD probably has a whole division set aside for this purpose. But Iím nervous anyway. Iíve never done this, never gone to the source and asked the questions. Not for fiction. Iíve read books and visited locales but never interviewed people for this. Should beÖ wellÖ interesting.
Another part of this research-and-build-plot process will be learning more about the kind of plot to build. This is a mystery. Well, not exactly. Itís really a character study and a commentary on painful life issues. And yet itís a mystery too; the hook and the pull into the novel posit a problem and the main character cares a lot about the outcome. So even though itís not my main focus, it may well be hers and so I must craft this carefully to do both. Sheís also writing a mystery herself, which of course means I will write it her. And so I need to steep myself in the ways you build suspense, plot twists and revelations, the way you feed the reader information but only enough to intrigue and tantalize. Bits at a time and then more bits. Iíve looked at several how-to-write-a-mystery book but they donít really answer my questions. So Iím going to go straight to the source: mystery novels. I plan to read a book, take notes as I go, and then go back and analyze what each scene intends. Then read another. And another. Should be fun.
No wonder Iím antsy to start: I have a lot to do.
And if anyone has suggestions on mysteries with some depth of character and theme or mainstream/literary fiction with strong mystery elements, I'd love to hear about them. I know more of the former than the latter but I welcome all suggestions. I need a reading list! Work to do, books to read, thoughts to think.
So I did carve out a small slice of my afternoon (extremely small, unfortunately) to write. And it felt just as good/bad/good as it does. Hard and easy tangled up together in a writer's knot. I missed that. The hard part too, the part where you stare and ponder and fret and wonder and finally make it work in your head and on the page (you hope). Because it means that area of my brain was engaged again in a puzzle-solving way.
After I take a break from the novel, I always have to reread the last big chunk of words, both to get back into the flow of it and more concretely to know what's there so I have a handle on my characters' current moods and thoughts. Donít want to write a big happy scene between two people who have just been thinking dark thoughts about each other. Or maybe I still can, but with that undercurrent firmly in place, not blithely forgotten. So I reread.
I remember rereading my scripts in first draft form. I usually winced, smiled, winced some more, but I recognized the words, remembered the writing process. The interesting thing now with this is that I don't. I look at it and I'm kind of awed. Not that it's so amazingly wonderful Ė it is, after all, a first, raw draft Ė but there's something about a novel (this novel?) that feels so, well, there. It exists, it has texture and flavor and I'm not completely sure how that happened or who wrote it. Which is good, I think, except that every time I sit down to work, I worry. Because whoever it is that wrote that last bit? I don't know where she went and here I am, stuck with her Word file and not a clue how to copy her style.
This is why I stopped writing fiction in college. I was always afraid I'd forget how to sink into that dream; it drove me to drink (just enough to loosen up my inhibitions) and then ultimately to stopping altogether (because I am so not a drinker). I still have that fear. The difference now is that I also have more guts. What's the worst that'll happen? A bad writing session, a deleted set of pages. I can live with that. And at least this way I'm warming the chair for that other writer, right?
This is my last week of non-mommy hours for a while. I want to stockpile them, like saving Halloween candy under the bed for the lean times in mid-November. Barring that, I want to exploit every single minute of to-myself time I have. Mostly I want to write my heart out, write reams of pages on my novel to stem that craving and make the next few non-writing weeks okay.
But it doesnít work that way, does it? I sat down to write this morning and wrote a sentence. Then another. Then I got up to, um, I forget. Brush my hair again? Pet the cat? Something vitally important. Then I web-surfed and wrote another sentence. Writing when youíre not in the flow? Not fun. Sometimes you just have to get past the stuck part, though. Just write through it. Some sections are like that, they donít get your juices flowing.
A few sentences and an hour later, I went to get Damian from his morning Ė now only Ė school. His last week of this school too, then another graduation to attend. Heís excited about this one because theyíre going to sing. He likes that. He was singing the song (do-re-mi a/k/a "doe a deer") to himself this afternoon and was surprised when I joined in. ďYou know that song too?Ē As if the teachers had invented it. But I digress.
During my half hour drive to school, I thought about my scene. Why was it so hard to write? Why did it feel like working while tied to the chair by heavy ropes? Mostly this novel hasnít felt like that. Why was this scene different? Itís a fairly interesting one, or so I would have thought: one character watches a video of another character, intrigued by what it will reveal about her.
Somewhere between Pico and National Boulevards, I realized what was wrong. It always comes back to this, doesnít it? I wasnít being true to the characterís emotional state. Going into the scene, heís been mad at this person. Intrigued? All wrong. Pissy and wanting to find fault is more like it. And just like that, the scene has juice. Because his emotional state is stronger, more charged, which is always easier to write. Also because it feels right for him in that moment. Definitely easier to write when youíre not fighting the material.
I was all charged up, ready to rush back to the computer and fire up Word. But wait. With Damian in tow? I donít write with Damian around, at least nothing as intensive and enveloping as fiction. And a floor timer was due at the house in an hour. (Yes, we actually have floor time hours this week, glory be and god bless the fabulous bestest-of-them-all floor time therapist who moved to Chicago last month but is back for a single week, bored and looking for work. I love him. Iíd marry him but heís not my type. Besides, it would be bigamy and I hear thatís frowned on in most states. But I digress again.)
Anyway. Floor time is, well, itís often noisy. Especially with this particular dude. Lots of loud games, running around the house, shouting at each other, dueling and shooting lasers and flying through portals and such. Hard to concentrate in that kind of racket, yíknow? I usually plan fairly mindless work for the floor time therapist time slot. Cleaning. Exercise. Photo tweaking. Wallpaper removal.
And yes, while the floor time session was in full swing today, it was noisy indeed. But after Iíd lifted weights and sorted photos, I had two choices. Organize my office, the smart thing to do. Or try and write. The ridiculous thing to attempt.
I opened the file. Copied the boring version into a just-in-case file. Started writing. Heard shouts from the other room. Yeah, whatever. Kept writing. Footsteps thudding past. I looked up, registered two male bodies flashing by. Head back down, kept typing. Words coming out. Feelings coming out. Felt right. Flowed. Got to the end of the scene. Saved the file with a satisfied sigh. Listened to the echoed noises of silly games geared to help a six year old boy keep his focus and affect high for an extended imaginative session. Felt the buzz of a good work session.
Thereís a lesson here beyond the obvious one I keep forgetting and then remembering (when writing, stay true to character feelings, keep emotional stakes high where possible, conflict whether external or internal drives the story). The lesson is this: My writing time has been limited not by my personal commitments and chaotic life, but by my belief that these factors will limit me.
After this week, Damian will be out of school for nearly three weeks. He may have a floor time session or two but mostly weíll be in each otherís hair morning, noon and night. This can be fun. I want to set up play dates and museum outings and baking sessions and science experiments. But although Damian wants a lot of attention sometimes, he also likes to play by himself a certain chunk of the day, spinning froggy scenarios and investing in his imaginary world. And thatís good for him. Itís also good for me. If I give myself permission, I too can spend that time investing in my imaginary world. Iíll be a happier and more fulfilled mommy as a result.
A few weeks ago, Damian had a play date with one of his best friends. We were hanging out chatting with said friendís parents. This is the conversation that led to the photo gig, incidentally. But at one point I was describing my novel to them. The dad asked how far I was from the end. Answer: pretty close. At the time I was around 335 pages in; Iíll type The End somewhere around the 425 page mark, give or take a whole bunch of pages. So Iím in the home stretch. Act Three. Climax, denouement. End.
He asked how long it will take to get from here to there. I sighed. Life has a way of making the answer more complicated than youíd think. He rephrased: How long would it take if you had the time to devote to it? Answer: probably a month.
Since then, Iíve found myself thinking about this a lot. A month of concentrated work. A month and Iíd have completed the first full draft of my first full novel. It wonít really be a month, I know that. Dan goes back to work on August 9th, we have projects to finish up first. Damian has the end of August off from school. I wonít have unlimited, focused time for this. But this guy made me see it that way for a moment. A monthís worth of work. A pile of pages: beginning, middle and end. Tangible.
We went on vacation shortly after that afternoon and when we got back, I went down to Irvine where I worked my butt off last week. So writing time hasnít exactly been at a surplus around here. But Iím back now, caught up on my sleep (well more or less) and settled into my life (well, kind of). Back to exercising regularly as of this week. Back, too, to writing regularly.
As always, I start slowly. Two pages yesterday, three today. Sinking back into the dream in stages, like wading into a pool: first you dip your feet in, testing the temperature, then you stand at the shallow end, your legs submerged to thigh level, then finally you slide your body beneath the surface. Itís like that. Acclimating myself to the words and the story. But itís different now. I find myself thinking Ė not while Iím writing but before and also after Ė how this is the last act, this is the final stage, this should be climbing toward a crescendo, the final clash of characters and emotions in a messy mix. This is where the plot threads and personality disasters come to a head. This is it.
Fortunately, like I said, I donít think this while Iím writing. Because thatís too much in a novel like this. Itís more organic a beast. I can shape it, sure, but after I do, I have to trust in the material itself to build appropriately. Maybe this is part of the difference between screenplay and novel or maybe itís just the difference between my screenplays and this novel, but I canít push-push-push the material. Past a certain point, past the imaginings and the figurings and the mappings out, it simply is, and my job seems to be mostly learning to be true to that. To still the chatter in my brain that wants to overlay a certain structure, a certain tension. To let it have that on its own. To trust the story, which I suppose ultimately means trusting myself.
Which is maybe what this heading-toward-the-finale is about. Because then itís done. Complete. An entity, no longer unformed. Re-shapeable, yes, of course. But existing as a whole. No longer theoretical. And I have to trust that too, that this is what it is and what, on some level, it should be. Thereís always, I think, this Platonic ideal of the novel in your head, the dream before itís been dreamt, a book that hits all the right emotional beats and feels real and sure and strong and heartfelt, that makes you cry with its beauty. Is this that book? It canít be. Itís not an ideal, itís real.
Or, rather, it will be real in a month or two. Because slowly or quickly I am surely heading toward The End. And then Iíll see what I have.
About a week ago, I saw a sudden surge of interest in one of my back entries, the one about fake/not fake bloggers. I had no idea where these people were coming from or why. No inbound links to explain it. Then someone wrote me, explaining and asking if I had anything to add to the ongoing investigation. I didnít, not really. I was never a central player in this drama. But it intrigued me then and it still does, maybe more so.
Jason Kottke has already written about this and itís even appeared on MeFi, so itís hardly breaking news, but it still fascinates me and I feel part of it, albeit in an extremely peripheral way. Hereís the deal: a blogger named Plain Layne, one of the tell-all personal diarist style bloggers, had been writing since late 2001. She wrote sexually explicit material and had some writing chops, too, so naturally she developed quite a following. Then one of her readers wrote an explanation in his own blog of why he had never linked to her even though he read her religiously. The reason? He believed she was fictional.
Within a day (I believe), her site was gone, replaced by a ďdown for renovationsĒ page. In Polish, no less. Bells went off, people gathered, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys got on the case. Before long theyíd ferreted out a possible link to another sudden disappearing act, one Acanit, who yanked her blog three years ago after someone questioned her reality. Thus the hits to my old entry, where I wrote about Acanit, among others. She was a strong writer, often extremely evocative. She wrote larger-than-life accounts of her past and present. She lived in the Twin Cities, spent time in Mexico, and was bisexual. Which could all describe Layne as well. There are many other similarities and links, but others have summed them up and so I wonít. You can read the original post and thread or go to David Grenierís two substantive entries on the subject (particularly the second) and see it all laid out, the entire ďis she real?Ē pro and con debate.
When I first looked at Layneís writing, searching for similarities with Acanitís remembered prose, I thought, ďNo, couldnít be.Ē The styles are similar but not the same. Acanitís writing is more mature, more world-weary, more politically aware. Layneís seems younger and more self-involved. But I kept thinking about it over the next day or so and realized: if both women are fictional constructs, of course theyíd be different in just these kinds of ways. Thatís the nature of good fiction. As a writer, you get inside someone elseís head, make them come alive with as much three dimensional character as you have the skill to shape. And those voices are not your own. They may be similar to each other and to you, just as Layneís voice is reminiscent of Acanitís, but theyíre not your normal tone and even though you create them, they are not you.
Right now Iím writing a novel with three main characters. I write in the third person intimate, which means I write close up and get inside their heads, eavesdrop on their internal monologues. I find my own thoughts switching as I write one character or another. I take on their attitudes. One has a slight swagger, another is deeply sad, a third insecure and less sophisticated. One is male, the others are female. And yes, my thoughts change accordingly. Itís something you canít explain, you just do. Itís like acting. You take on the role, you inhabit that person.
I can imagine the writer behind Layne/Acanit. If this was indeed fictional (and I believe it was), I think she imbued each persona with a large dollop of personal truth and invested in that persona completely as she (or, hell, he) wrote each journal. I think it was probably fun in the same way that writing fiction can be, only this time she (or he) got immediate positive feedback, lots of kudos, lots of reader involvement in these creations that took on lives of their own. She/he probably craved that the way I crave my fictional worlds. I miss the people I write when Iím not there. In one way I look forward to finishing the novel, but Iíll also be sad to say goodbye to those characters. I think an ongoing blog, writing an entire life as it unfolds, becoming that person each time you sit down to write and walking down the street conjuring up the next twist in the tale, that would be addictive. Like youíre living two lives, yours and that of your creation.
Itís ideal, really. You write, you get feedback, you watch your hit counters. Something we all do. But if youíre writing a made-up life, you can add and subtract events at will. People fall away when you tell too many cute baby stories? Nix the baby. Bloggers start linking to you like crazy when you go lesbian? Bring on the female sexcapades. Much like the ratings and reviews for a TV series can change the nature of what we see on the show, the linkage and commentary can change the events that unfold on a blog if the writer is no longer bound by what really happened. Which is why I donít necessarily buy the ďit has to be a guy writing this because it reads like a guyís fantasyĒ concept. That proves nothing except that this is what readers enjoy. Hell, I wish I could treat my life with such elasticity. My readership would soar. What fun!
Iíve never been able to understand why someone would do this, but I think Iím starting to. Iím sure there are any number of underlying psychological causes, but then we all have those hidden-to-us agendas, donít we? On the surface, I suspect it feels like a game. Not a ďHa ha, Iím fooling you!Ē type of game, but more of a creative exercise. Can I pull this off? Can I create an entire life? And then as you write and as people read, you become invested. And addicted. And you continue on as long as you can until one day someone questions the veracity of your fictional world and you pull the plug instantly because the very worst thing to face is the anger. People feel betrayed. People thought of the fictional construct as real, and in a way she was. But of course she really wasnít. And if you feel tender toward that person and maybe also a little (a lot?) guilty about the secret pleasure of it all, the last thing you want is to get caught out. To have to confess. To have to break these peopleís hearts. And so you yank the blog and run away fast.
Some people on these comment threads think ďLayneĒ is laughing right now. On the contrary, I think sheís in pain. Incidentally, David Grenier thinks she should have at least copped her double identity to him since he knew her as both. I think she could never have done that. To tell even one person is to reveal the secret, the little man behind the curtain, and then the Great and Powerful Oz is powerful no longer. The facade has to remain impenetrable or itís over.
I find myself hoping Layne/Acanit will find this entry some day by ego-googling and will write me. I would love to interview her, not to track down her/his identity but to ask what it was like to do this. This is an obviously intelligent, talented writer. Iíd love to know how it felt to create this kind of not-real reality.
ďYouíre in a good mood.Ē
ďIs it because you wrote today?Ē
Itís been three months (more?) since I wrote on my novel. Oh, I havenít abandoned writing altogether: I wrote a short story, worked on a large nonfiction project and a small one and reread and tweaked my novel, to boot. But none of it is the same as writing forward on an extended dream of a scenario. I need that. Iím not complete without it.
I know a lot of people in the arts who feel the same way. They need that part of their brain engaged, working on something, creating. Is it like that for other people too? For lawyers and doctors and scientists and accountants and bookstore owners and other people who work at something they may care about deeply but that arenít considered creative in the same way. If that's you, do you lust for your work when youíre not doing it? Do you dream about it at night, think about it in the shower, does part of your brain wake up when youíre finally doing it again? Does it feel then like youíve been half asleep for the past few months? Or, if not, do you have something else that makes you feel this way? I find myself wondering if this state is a peculiarity of the artistic temperament or if itís more universal.
The one thing I do know: Iím happy to be back writing again. Even if half of what I wrote today was crap. Thatís what the delete key is for. The act of writing, that made me happy. And a few good sentences, fresh turns of phrase, poignant moments, unexpected emotions. Thatís why I write. To experience the story unfolding within and without me. To move forward even when itís two steps forward, one step back. The way the thoughts transmute into what comes out of my fingertips. The intangible made tangible. Iím not complete without it.
Before I began submitting stories to literary magazines, I never understood the concept of a good rejection. A rejection is a rejection is a painfully throbbing abscess, right?
Dan called today. He was home, I was out. ďIf you got bad news, small bad news, would that completely depress you?Ē IE: are you in good enough shape to hear more awful shit?
ďSmall bad news?Ē
ďWell, you got an envelope. Self addressed. Thatís not good, right?Ē
ďItís a rejection. Open it anyway.Ē
So he opened it. And read it. Sure enough, Tin House said no. But with a handwritten Ė and signed Ė note addressed to me by name, saying they liked my writing, would love to see more. Tin House is one of my favorite lit mags as well as a very prestigious one. I donít think Dan quite understands why I was delighted by that note, but he wasnít about to kill my good mood. But this is how people get published. The editors read your work, become acquainted it, start to smile when they see your name on the first page. Next thing you know, youíre in. Thatís what happened to Melissa Banks, I believe. She developed a relationship with the Zoetrope editor over a series of near-misses, ended up with a commission to write a story, which became the lynchpin for a set of linked short stories, A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Her first book.
This short story of mine, the one I wrote in December and January, the one I said was a breakthrough for me, thatís the one thatís now garnered three requests to see more. This has never happened before. For me, handwritten notes are a step up. Granted, Iíve sent few stories out thus far and those to few venues, but still. I didnít get more aggressive because I could tell they werenít ready for prime time. This one is, it seems. Enough so to get past the first two, maybe three, readers at Tin House and land me a handwritten note from the classy Missouri Review too. And also to make it to the top five choices at the respected Folio (thanks, Lara). And who knows? Maybe in the next batch of submissions, itíll garner an even nicer phone call, one saying ďWe want to publish it.Ē It feels eminently possible. Within reach.
Iím thinking the time is nearly right to begin sending out the next story. And write another new one, too. Because this slush pile lottery? Itís getting fun.
Someone asked me in email why I think scriptwriting isnít for me. Itís a huge question and I thought Iíd try to answer it here. (And by the way, feel free to do the same. If I like the question, Iíll try to answer it. I always welcome blog fodder.)
There are three parts to the answer. My personal reasons, what it's like to be a writer in Hollywood, and what it's like to try and break in.
First: me. Iím not congenitally suited to the screenplay form. I imagine stories in images, yes, and that sounds like it makes me an ideal candidate to jot down those pictures and turn them into movies. But not really because I want to capture all the images, write down every bit of what I see. You canít do that in a script. Spare is the operative word there. The way the room looks? Thatís production design. The way the street looks? Location scout. The way the light slants through the window? Gaffer working with cinematographer. The expressions that flit across the main characterís face? Acting and editing choices. Your only tools in a script are dialogue, plot and overall structure. Your palette is as much what you leave out as what you put in. Subtext is everything, but please for godís sake donít spell it out in parenthetical notes. And language? If you can add a fillip to a spare description, great. But thatís all. A script, as writing teachers will never tire of telling you, is a blueprint, not the final edifice.
Itís not for me. I want to wallow in prose. I want to enjoy language, creating mood and color with it like a weaver at her loom. Beyond that, I want to be God. I want to describe and describe and describe. I want to create the complete experience. I want you to close the book with a sigh and a smile. I want to give you that. Me. On my own, with the help of a few editors perhaps, but mostly me. Itís not arrogance, itís a need. And Iíve seen what happens to screenwriters in Hollywood.
Which brings me to the second issue. Hollywood is not about the words. Screenwriters do not own their work. They usually donít even stay on their movies through the entire development process, and they consider themselves fortunate Ė the creators of these characters, the spinners of these words, consider themselves fortunate Ė to be allowed onto the set, to sit quietly in a corner and observe. If theyíre given that much. If theyíre lucky enough. I think it goes back to the origin of film. Silent movies. Short silents. Screenwriting back then consisted of ďHey, I have an idea!Ē and an ďAnd then he can do that and that and the other thing too!Ē and a ďYeah, cool!Ē to wrap it up. Then they went off and shot the notes scribbled on a commissary napkin. Writers like this didnít take themselves seriously, they didnít push for co-authorship with the studios and directors. After all, they were just scribbling simple little scenarios on napkins, right? Thus it began. Now we have films written by committee. One writer comes up with the idea, pitches it, gets a little money (or maybe a lot) and writes a draft, hoping beyond hope that she stays on the project. But then she turns it in to the studio. ďWe want wittier dialogue.Ē On to the next writer for a dialogue polish. Another writer is good at action set pieces. A third is good at long monologues that set up character. And on it goes. The real author? The studio executive giving notes. Maybe the director. The star, who wants to beef up his part and definitely get rid of all shades of gray, his audience must only see him doing macho hero type things. The writer? Um, which writer was that again?
Working screenwriters are not a terribly happy group.
Aspiring screenwriters are an even more unhappy lot. Well, if theyíve been around for a while trying to break in and failing time and time again, always hoping against hope. This meeting, this connection, this agent, this contest, this opportunity, thatíll be the answer, thatís how Iíll finally get past the gatekeepers and make it into the magic kingdom. (That magic kingdom? See above. Not so magic.)
Six thousand would-be screenwriters apply for the Nicholl Fellowship every year, which is probably an infinitesimal percentage of the total number of writers struggling to break in. But letís just take those six thousand for now. And letís take another number. Last time I looked, twelve spec scripts by brand new (ie: previously unsold) writers were bought by studios to make into movies per year. Twelve. In the course of a year. If the six thousand were the only aspiring writers (and you know theyíre not), the odds against any one of them seeing a check for their efforts would be 500:1. And we know the odds are actually far worse.
Odds aside, though, I saw it myself. I had an agent. She sent a script of mine out. Producers and development executives liked it. One wanted to option it, the others wanted to meet me. So I went on a round of what they call meet-and-greet meetings wherein production company folk told me why they hadnít bought my script and why they wouldnít be hiring me to write an adaptation or a rewrite of someone elseís idea. Why they couldnít do business with me. It all boiled down to: ďI canít sell you to the studio. You have no track record.Ē
In other words, you canít make it till you make it. Itís not the idea, they say. Itís the execution. The script. Itís not the script, they say, the script can be rewritten. Itís the idea, that perfect high concept logline. Itís not any of that, they say. Itís whether you can get a star attached. Preferably male. Preferably young. Itís not that, they say, stars are too expensive, thatíll sink your movie. Itís the special effects; is this a summer tentpole movie?
As an aspiring wannabe, you run in circles second and third guessing yourself and your writing, getting closer to getting past that door but never getting through as you get older and grayer and therefore less desirable in this youth-obsessed Angelino culture.
Oh, there are other ways in. You can write an independent movie, raise the money yourself from a conglomerate of dentists and realtors, then direct it on hi-def video. That has the plus of being a lot of fun and the bigger plus that you have something to show for your work at the end of the day. After all, you canít sit down with a bowl of popcorn and watch a script. And if you make enough of these baby movies, you might get some festival attention which leads to some industry attention which leads toÖ? Maybe. Yes. It can. Though the competition in the low budget indie world can be fierce too. You have to do it as an end in itself, I think. Not a means to an end.
Or you can move to LA and get a low paying job as a TV writerís assistant. Lots of down time to write your own scripts, lots of professional writers around to give you feedback and help you improve your craft, and most of all, a gaping maw of need for twenty two scripts per season including at least one or two from freelancers (as mandated by the WGA) and you, the friendly neighborhood aspiring writer, are right there. Smiling and eager and oh so nice. After a few freelance scripts here and there around town, you can get a staff job on a series. After a few of those, maybe you can produce a series of your own (the best place for a writer in Hollywood is series creator) or branch out into feature films. And youíre in.
So there are indeed ways into the jungle. If this is in fact your heartís desire. But most people donít choose those methods. Most people do what I did: they write feature scripts from their own ideas, figuring if itís good enough, itíll find its way in. Thatís what all the script writing books say, what all the gurus teach. Quality wins in the end. So they all hope and pray and write their hearts out and it rarely, if ever, works.
I have more to say on this, on why so many people try to write scripts despite the almost inevitable heartbreak involved, but thatís for another day. Maybe tomorrow.
A thought left over from the LA Times Book Fair: how do memoir and fiction differ when the fiction sometimes stays this-close to what really occurred and the memoir often strays? What does it mean to be writing one or the other? How do you stay true the form? Most important to me: if you have a story in mind, something that happened to you, how do you decide which form is right?
Iíve found myself musing on this the past several days. My novel is not autobiographical, not even a little (Iím not a circus performer) but of course some of the feelings and attitudes inevitably are. I have another novel in mind, perhaps the next one Iíll write. That one is more autobiographical, which is to say the time and place and some of the details are from my life but the character and the main events of the story are fictional (Iíve never had a meeting with a dead person). Those are both clear cut, they need to be fiction, they need the ability to weave stories from my imagination with a dollop here or there from life.
But I keep a third novel in the back of my mind. An entirely autobiographical one Ė beginning, middle, and end. And my stories are mostly from life, though sometimes perhaps not entirely so and Iíll never tell you which is which (unless you ask, of course) (which means, yes, I will tell) (I think) (then again, maybe not). So sometimes I wonder if I should write one as a creative nonfiction piece, a memoir.
But Iíve done that. In my original online journal. And while I find it sometimes cathartic to go back and re-imagine, reshape and rethink events, I donít know that theyíre always best served in nonfiction form. Itís so raw. You canít step behind a curtain and say ďthis isnít me, itís a character,Ē youíre exposed. And after a while that feels too uncomfortable and you start to realize there are things you canít say freely in that form. For one thing, youíre talking about real people with real feelings and real law firmsí phone numbers in their real Palm Pilots.
Writers get sued for fictional portrayals too, of course. Thinly disguising events in a roman a clef is ultimately little protection and then you have people constantly wondering as they read, ďIs that part real? Did that actually happen?Ē which can derail the full submersion experience reading should be.
After I got home from the book fair, I read up a little on some of the memoirists. One of them has written a book on writing personal essays. Apparently sheís stirred up some controversy by admitting sheís not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when she writes. She squishes together different events and disparate people and of course makes up entire conversations. Yup, she makes stuff up. Sheís writing about events that took place decades ago. Who remembers that fully? I remember certain events with clarity, situations that carried emotional freight. But I donít remember enough to tell my life as a satisfying story. If I were to write a book about my childhood, Iíd probably fudge all over the place to make it feel real for you. Is it wrong to do that? It feels kind of wrong to me and kind of right too. Is the goal in memoir writing to impart a journalistic purity to the work or is it to tell a compelling story that happens to (mostly) be true?
Itís a whole lot easier, I think, to write the same story as fiction. There you have the license, in fact sometimes the imperative, to make stuff up. Ironically, I think you can get closer to the fundamental emotional truth that way, without the constraints of real life getting in the way.
Why then does anyone ever write memoir instead of fiction? I think because thereís something compelling about knowing that this really happened, that itís all true. I think thatís why people have trouble with deviations from this reality, when they find out about the fudges. Because it makes the story less real and therefore less valuable as a touchstone.
I think both are valid, both have their purpose and meaning, both inform and shape our sense of an experience, a life. As a writer, you have to measure the story itself, let it tell you which to write. Do you want freedom or do you want verisimilitude? Which kind of reality do you seek this time?
What should I write about tonight? The cake I baked today known formally as the Test Cake, a dry run for Damianís upcoming birthday party. Also known as the ďShould we order an expensive cake from Sweet Lady Jane or should we save the bucks and dump a bunch of butter and flour into a mixer?Ē cake.
Or should I write about an interesting article I read online, an interview with the head of USCís screenwriting department? In the first half he talks about writing and his overall career and later he discusses the specifics of how heís currently adapting a book from a series Iíve never heard of before but Iím sure you all have (The Three Investigators).
The cake may be more fun to contemplate, though. It wasnít easy today, finding a good yellow cake recipe. It took a while, much Google searching and cookbooks strewn about the guest room, before I found a likely candidate. I chose it because it included almond extract as well as vanilla, and Iím a sucker for almond anything. I also chose it because it instructs you to separate the eggs and beat the whites until peaks form. I hate beating whites, even with a mixer. Iím terrified Iíll overmix and make mush. But I love the results in cake. Lighter, almost airy. I wanted something that would stand out as Someone Made This, Isnít That Impressive? Because after all if youíre going to go to the trouble, it should be brag-worthy, right?
On the other hand, the interview with David Howard struck an unexpected chord for me. In it, he talks about an enlightening workshop he took with Frank Daniel that changed the course of his life (exciting him enough to make him want to write scripts). He says, in part:
DH: One of the most important things I learned from Frank in the first hour (and throughout our years of working together) was that a story is about the experience you are creating for the audience. Like many beginning writers, I thought all I needed to do was figure out my characters and the world and the conflicts and then the story was done. I didn't realize that is only part of the process. The "telling" in storytelling is consciously striving to have an intended impact on the audience - to give them an exciting and meaningful experience through the lives of the characters. To create that experience we make thousands of decisions about what portion of the lives and world and conflicts we reveal when, in what order, for what impact. That's true storytelling.
I think itís very true. So many writers Ė and here Iím thinking of aspiring screenwriters but also novelists and even bloggers and journallers Ė donít seem to pay attention to this simple principle: youíre not writing in a vacuum. You write to be read or itís just mental masturbation. And if you write to be read, you do need to be aware of your audience, of how your words will affect them. You need to craft your story for the reader, to satisfy (or intentionally leave them unsated). To provoke a laugh or a sigh.
And yet itís not that simple after all. Because you can go too far in the other direction. I know I did. I was so concerned with my readers, with being liked, with seeking approval, that I wasnít writing from the gut. I was second and third guessing myself. I was choosing my story ideas for cleverness rather than personal resonance. Only when a story resonates with the writer does it have enough creative juice to sustain the reader as well.
Back to today and my cake baking exercise. You must understand, this was a serious endeavor. Involving at least four bowls and four sticks of butter (two for the cake, two for the icing). Also much sifting and stirring and folding. Also some questions about proper form: Should I really put the wax paper in the cake tins? Wonít the cake get wrinkly? And: will this work as well if I use regular flour instead of pastry flour? What about the sugar? Am I really supposed to sift it? Itís sugar! How fluffy will it get? And is the icing really supposed to be this hard to spread? Ah, more milk. That's the secret.
When I bake, I feel like a chemist mixing proper amounts of this and that. Though I may use a knife to level the tops of measuring cups instead of a scale to weigh the liquid in beakers, Iím still mixing careful proportions of various elements so they can combine and interact and ultimately transmute under heat into something altogether different and new.
Dare I say it? This process, itís not altogether unlike writing. The work, the disparate ingredients, the careful but ultimately unpredictable melding and of course the outcome. Does it taste good? Is it enjoyable on the palate, in the brain? Is it a good read/a tasty treat? Once again it comes back to audience. The passion of the baker, the enthusiasm of the chef, does it translate?
Dan and Damian came home to find a cake on the table with one piece already removed. The authorís own reread, if you will. They cut their own slices. They declared it a success. Damian had another piece for dessert later. He ate nearly all of it, which if you know Damian means he loves it. Heís not a cake person. Which goes back to why I worked so hard to unearth just the right recipe to lure this birthday-boy-to-be to relish his own birthday cake. A slightly eggy, very buttery yellow cake with a moist crumb, with chocolate icing like frozen waves and strawberry filling between the layers. Apparently this audience, my most important judge, gave it a thumbs up.
Though he did tell me that next time I should make a whole cake, not one with a bite already taken out of it. Not too hard to accommodate. My stomachís so full of cake I donít think Iíll eat any of the next iteration. Just as there comes a time I can no longer reread my own story, I apparently have my cake limits as well. Anyone want a piece of delicious homemade cake? Itís on my dining room table waiting for its moment in the limelight.
The white tents up ahead so bright in the sun. All those booths. Not too many people yet. This is going to be fun.
Tiny Coconut is a great panel-going partner. Extremely compatible.
Boy, there are a lot of people in LA who read. Who knew?
Boy, these people donít look like Hollywood glamour pusses. Whereíd they all come from?
At the short story panel:
Sherman Alexie is charming. I must read his short story collection. Soon.
People really do write from their own experience even when it doesnít seem like it. Seeds of ideas are everywhere. We all steal from bits we see, overhear, read. Itís what we do with it after that that makes it our own.
When we read a writer giving us the flavor of city life in Russia or Japanese suburbs in the forties or life on the reservation, it looks exotic to us and we somehow see that writer as a spokesperson for that world, a travel guide of sorts, but to them, theyíre just writing from the life around them or inside them and it can be annoying when you want to write something more universal but you end up getting tagged as a (insert ethnicity here) writer.
Itís not just me. Short stories are harder than novels for a lot of people.
Conversely, theyíre easier. You only spend a month on one, you can afford to experiment, fall on your face. You havenít made the same kind of investment.
With short stories, you jump right into the meat of the thing. You have less time. You can write from/about a single image.
And by the way, itís extremely annoying when a panelist watches the ceiling the entire time heís talking. Even if he says interesting things.
At the truth in fiction panel:
Why are there all women on this panel? Do only women admit how close their fiction is to real life?
These women are funny.
Ayelet Waldman just hit a home run. Profound. Must read her new book. It sounds like a kick in the teeth but in a good way. When you write from passion, I want to read it.
An awful lot of authors do write from real life, thinly fictionalizing their own experience or their parentsí or their dentistís, but mostly their own.
How do they manage to get enough distance from the subject when they do that? How do they shape the story? Maybe next year a panel will talk about that part.
Apparently if you want to cast a real person as a villain, the best way to do it is to simply describe. Lose the adjectives. Without modifiers that give away your feelings, that person will read the bare description and approve of their portrayal just as they approve of their own actions in life.
Sometimes if you write about people and they read it, they start remembering what you wrote as if it really happened even when that part is made up.
At the creative nonfiction panel:
Why are there all men on this panel? Why are they all going on and on and on about their books? What makes this a discussion? For that matter, what makes these books creative nonfiction? From the descriptions, most of them sound like journalism with perhaps more of the first person POV but not really that much.
Again, why am I sitting here listening to authors sell their books to me? I wanted answers to perplexing questions or at least a bit of self-reflection. Itís the moderatorís fault. He told them to talk. They did. Then again, TC points out that when the women in the Truth in Fiction panel were asked to talk about their books, they did so but also tied what they said into the salient issue of the panel. These men? Not so much.
So what is creative nonfiction anyway? Is it just journalism with more of an I to the writerly eye? I thought it was much more fluid and personal than that.
On the other hand, the PR job kind of worked. Iím now interested in Hampton Sidesí book (Americana, full of stories of fascinating people) and Martin J. Smithís (Poplorica, a look at the origin and oddities of popular cultural phenomena like the suburban lawn). But still. Iíd have preferred a real conversation.
At the memoir panel:
Theyíre reading from their work, this is good. This is fun. This is kind of a waste of time because I can just get the books out of the library. On the other hand, it does remind me what exactly a memoir is. So personal, these people sitting up there on the stage revealing glimpses of their childhood pain.
Memoir has apparently become hot lately. I guess this is true, isnít it? Vivian Gornick posits during the panel that the reason is that since World War Two, people have felt a need for testament. Later, someone else calls it testimony. Itís an empowering, a statement that the ordinary life can be important enough to read about.
Memoir is apparently a political statement. Politics keeps coming up. Nuala OíFaolain says the fact that she, a middle aged Irish woman, can write this and have it read and recognized is a kind of political statement. Michael Datcher has a theory that we live in such a segregated society, we read memoirs as a safe way to learn about other cultures. I think this is horseshit, that heís got an racial/social agenda and sees everything through that narrow lens, but whatever. I do agree that the personal is political. Vastly so.
Oh, now theyíre arguing about whether memoir as testimony necessarily means memoir is not literary. No answers there. Is literary defined as good writing, turns of phrase, or does it lie somewhere else?
Nobody talks about how they shape their lives for the page though Vivian Gornick says she conflates events and gives people pseudonyms.
At the science writing panel:
Weíre here because TC is a science writer and also knows some of the guys (yeah, all men) on the panel. Iím fine with this. It could be interesting to hear about. I have no idea how one writes about science for a general audience.
Apparently the way one writes about anything else that fascinates. Something sparks your interest, you have a seed of an idea, you do the research, you talk to people, you get deeply involved in the world, you write.
How is this different from creative nonfiction? I mean, I believe it is in actuality, but from the descriptions on each panel, it isnít. There, the men did research, wrote about something they didnít already know from their own experience. Here, the men end up with an emotional investment in what theyíre writing. Of course they do.
Chandler Burr describes the way the scientists of smell turn away from him while heís doing the research for Emperor of Scent. They canít stand the idea of this altogether different concept of how we smell. Itís interesting the things that divide people so deeply. Not always what youíd expect. Other scientific fields, on the surface more fraught and important, are less divisive than this.
It can be a handicap to come into the field of science writing from a background as a scientist. One of the editors (Philip Hilts, I think) describes a cub science reporter who got scared when it was time to go cover something in biology. He thought it would take years to gain the knowledge heíd need to walk in the door. But reporters are reporters in every field: you dip into the subject, you gather your bits of knowledge, and you run the facts past some experts before you run the piece.
I like this panel. I love learning about things altogether different from my own experience. I can understand the allure of the field.
Outside, in the heat and the crowd:
Wow, itís like Time Square at rush hour. A veritable sea of humanity.
Books for five bucks. Cool. Here's Seabiscuit. Cool. Some good kid books too, half price. Cool. Bag now feels like I'm carrying around a bunch of rocks. Not so cool.
The guy at the Paris Review booth says they accept about sixteen stories a year out of thirty to forty thousand submissions. And I thought it was hard to get into Harvard. He says with those odds, why not submit your story everywhere at once? He has a point.
The woman at the Tin House booth says a story gets three reads Ė three different readers, that is to say Ė before it gets to her. And then if she likes it, she sends it on to New York, where an editorial committee all has to like it. So if that committee consists of five people, a total of nine jaded, tired, overworked and underpaid readers have to love your story for it to get published in that magazine.
On the other hand, they just have to love it, not to see it as a movie with Julia Roberts in the lead. Not so hard. Just write a kickass story. And then write another.
Itís hot out here.
Why did I park so far from the center of the fair? My blisters are getting blisters.
Where did I park the car exactly? TC goes one way in the garage, I go the other. We scout out the elusive vehicle. We sink into the seats. We head home. Ready to write.
I got jittery today. Anxious. Eating compulsively, fretting even more compulsively. Convinced that the projects Iím waiting on (among them, a short story lingering at two high profile literary magazines for twice as long as usual, this is usually considered a good thing) are all going to turn to shit. That nothingís going to work out. That no news is bad news. That the charter school people who visited Damianís class today saw him at his worst and will now reject him, thereby decimating our safety school option (all this because the teacher told me, ďHe was pretty much himself, just a little quiet in circle after handwriting group.Ē) That weíre never, no not ever going to be able to move from this house where weíre surrounded by noisy renters on every side. (Even though we chatted with the very responsive landlord on the north side, who will help us with the old lady with her loud Russian TV.)
So yeah. That was my day. Ms. Negativity, thatís me. Ms. Anxious and Depressed For No Reason.
Coincidentally I started writing a new short story yesterday and worked on it more today, getting into the meat of the piece.
Coincidentally, this story is making me extremely uncomfortable. Itís based on a real incident Ė two, actually Ė and it hurts to even think about. So why am I writing it? Because good stories come out of pain. Oh, not necessarily, not for everyone. But for me? I think yes. I think my best stuff, at least my best short fiction and maybe the longer material too, comes from tapping into some deep-seated and extremely uncomfortable emotional issues. Sometimes they're transmuted into completely fictional scenarios, sometimes they're closer to my remembered reality.
The trick is to shape the latter so theyíre not just thinly disguised therapy, unsatisfying to anyone besides me. And though I know the essentials of how to tell a strong tale and I know the kinds of thematic resonance that can achieve this, I donít really have any idea when Iím in the midst of it whether this one (whichever this one is) comes anywhere near that. I just have to trust. And know that if I donít make it this time, I can toss the story and nobody has to know. But if I do, then Iíve written something with some emotional punch. Maybe. If Iím lucky. If the muse is with me and if I have enough clarity to see past my own reaction to the raw material.
Thereís this voice in my head, it started up last night. It says ďWhy are you writing this? Everyone writes a story about this. Itís one of those rites of passage sorts of stories, I bet every magazine editor from Alaska to Florida has read one of these this week. And I bet every magazine editor from Alaska to Florida has rejected twenty of them this month. Why should yours be any different? Why not just abandon it now? Youíll never succeed, this will never get published, it doesnít deserve to be published,Ē (this based on the two pages Iíd written yesterday) ďitís trite and overwrought and melodramatic and ridiculousĒ (did I mention? two pages?) ďand an unworthy follow up to your last home run of a story, just put it down and walk away slowly, youíll never amount to anything, youíre a one hit wonder Ė assuming that other one even gets published, because even if that one is good, one of your best, that doesnít mean it measures up to the other stories out there because youíre just not that good, certainly not as good as you think you are or someone would have discovered you already, come knocking on your door and riffling through your files, because that's how people get published, not all this send it out and wait nonsense. You're doomed, face it.Ē
I recognize that voice, though I havenít heard it in years, not with this intensity. It comes from the time this story takes place. It comes from the pages of the story itself, a frozen insecure painfully eager to please but sure she canít self. A much younger self.
I write this story partly because itís good fodder for a piece of fiction, partly because itís time. But writing it is hard. Ghosts lurk here. Nasty, slimy icky ghosts.
Now I just have to figure out how to work them into the story.
Have you read the rant by Jane Austen Doe in Salon, her lament of the midlist writer? It's not really what it purports to be; the large advance for her first book made her more than midlist and its dismal sales made a hash of her career. She's hardly the midlist author poster child. But that article has spawned a host of blog entries that make fascinating reading, and that are tutorials in the business of novel writing. My current favorite is this by SF writer Charles Stross. It's loaded with information about the realities of advances, sales, and royalties. The nuts and bolts.
I'd love to see a tutorial on how to grow a career -- how to turn a sale into a series of sales into a growing readership into longevity. Because I think this issue is at the heart of Jane Austen Doe's plaint: she didn't know how to do just that for herself. But I suspect the answer is different for every writer.
My mother's entry today has some resonance for me. I never went to grad school, never got that MFA that writing folk seem to consider so important. It's late in the game to do it now and anyway, that's besides the point. I don't want to. I would hate it. I hated college. I hate being told what to learn and how to write.
So the question really becomes: can you learn on your own? When it comes to writing and maybe art too, I think the answer is yes and no. You can but only if you know how to go about it and that you need to teach yourself the craft, that you can't just toss paint on the canvas or words on the page and consider yourself a professional.
I learned in the trenches, so to speak. I learned by showing script after script to agents and producers and other writers, by getting feedback and rewriting and getting more feedback and rewriting yet again. I also read a lot and saw a lot of movies and analyzed everything all the time. But most of all, I learned from two gentlemen who turned out to be cads but who taught me how to write cleanly and from the gut. A master class in writing from two highly paid writers who were trying the role of producer on for size, to my benefit and detriment both.
So yes, I absolutely believe that you can have a solid background and education without ever stepping foot in a classroom. Who came up with the idea that we have to all learn the same way, anyhow?
(And Mom, I bet you made that kid think for days after that. Shook his world.)
John Scalzi has some very cogent advice for writers. Not so much about writing but rather about attitude. About jealousy and arrogance and not being an ass. He's dead-on. It's hard, though. Hubris usually masks a deep-seated insecurity. Jealousy comes from a gnawing feeling that you'll never get to be in that successful person's shoes. These are tough emotions to combat. But I think in order to become that successful writer (and how you define success is up to you), you need to get over that hangdog snap-and-growl. Get over yourself, you could say. And excising jealousy is a good start.
Oh, but the writing-in-coffeeshops thing? I agree and disagree. I do think a lot of posturing goes on and in most cases not much real writing. But when I drop Damian off at noon and have to loiter in Santa Monica until his three p.m. pickup, I head to the library or a local cafe where I write with my headphones on and try to block out the world. On those days, it's usually the only writing time I have. Use it or lose it. So I use it.
Would I rather be at home? Well, yeah. Then I wouldn't have to overhear annoying conversations full of hot air about the film business or contend with random wet-socks body odor or inhale secondhand smoke through the open door. But I've also grown to like this time. I can't get up to go to the kitchen, I can't find chores or errands to do. I have to sit in a chair and focus on the screen. Sometimes I amaze myself by what comes out.
Iím on page 332 of my novel and I just skidded to a halt. Iím not worried; itís happened before and may even happen again, though I now have something like one hundred pages left to write, so maybe not.
One of the ways I know I need to take a break from the headlong rush forward is whatís been spilling out of my fingers onto the screen. I can see myself using tricks I learned from screenwriting. Have the characters do something with their hands or even their whole bodies. Have them fiddle. People donít just stand there and talk, after all. And then have that action, whatever it is, inform the scene. Which is fine, and Iíve done it in scenes and sequences that have come out the better for it.
But when I start writing scenes where a character who normally has tremendous dignity leans back in his chair and almost topples over, when a scene or two later, I have another character step on a glossy magazine cover and go splat on her ass, I know Iím letting myself get sloppy. Itís not necessarily terrible writing. For a romantic comedy. But that kind of near-slapstick has no place in the world of this novel. And the fact that Iím sticking it in there means my brain is getting tired and Iím stepping a little too far outside the minds of my characters. Iím writing from the outside in. Iím losing my sureness, my sense of truth. So Iím stepping back further. Iím going back sixty-some pages to the last point I left off in my first tweaking pass.
I generally try to avoid intensive rewrites during the first draft. I think you can get into perfectionist mode and stifle yourself, rewriting the same chapters obsessively instead of moving forward. But that doesnít mean Iím waiting until Iím all done to go back through the so-raw material. I do, after all, want my select few readers to give feedback, let me know Iím still on the right path. Their input has helped me find my way through this. I want that. I want it soon, actually. But if I show them the pages the way they come out of my head the first go-round, I know those pages will come back to me with lots of ď????Ē and ďI donít understandĒ notations. Because it doesnít always make sense, what I write. I mean, it does to me and it will to other people too once I clean the prose up a bit.
Today, for instance, I deleted a paragraph that spelled to much out (also known as hitting you over the head with the idea), dumped a couple of sentences that sounded like they said something but actually didnít, and altered a whole bunch of wording. Sometimes not necessarily because it was bad, either. I changed ďbright rhinestone sparkle of herĒ to ďrhinestone shine of her,Ē not because I hated the first phrase but because it evoked something beautiful and magical and what I wanted was an implicit tawdriness in this woman as seen through anotherís eyes. Something as seemingly benign as that small phrase can give the wrong message about an entire relationship. Later Iíll rewrite for the bigger issues and still later Iíll pay attention to cadence and rhythm, but this rewrite is for sense and story flow. Does it parse? Does it say what I want it to say? Does that emotion, that thought, that action work in that spot? If yes, then move on. If no, then tweak until it does.
Iím doing it because I need the breather and because I want my readers to have something to read. But this rewrite, smoothing out the rough edges, tracking the story throughlines, also does something important for me. Because by the time I get to where I left off, Iíll be back inside the action. Exactly where I need to be.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine finished the first draft of her first novel. ďYay,Ē I said, expecting to read it and give notes for the inevitable first rewrite. But no. Instead, after a cursory run-through for line tweaks, off the manuscript went in a box to New York and her agent connection there. Iím sad for my friend. Also frustrated and even angry. She just shot herself in the foot. The book isnít ready. Not nearly. And you rarely get second chances with this. Sending the novel off before itís ready is self-sabotage.
This made it hard for me to read something John Scalzi wrote in his blog the other day. Heís just finished his third novel. Which is a fantastic accomplishment, and it sounds like a fun book, too. And I enjoyed his post-mortem entry on it. But he says in the comments to the entry that heís going to send the manuscript off to his publisher in the next few days after just a cursory proofread. He says,
I rewrite only very rarely, mostly because I tend to resolve most of my writing issues during the initial writing. In some sense I think "re-writing" is an artifact of the days of typewriters, when it wasn't easy or practical to rework material on the fly. With computers, it's much simpler to makes changes as you go along.
Now, I have tremendous respect for John Scalzi as an essayist and I suspect he does know how to tell a story. But I strongly disagree with this assertion. This method may very well work for him, heís got the chops and experience to potentially pull it off. And I havenít read the novel, so I obviously canít comment on the particulars. But it scares me to think of some writer out there taking his opinion to heart, someone like my friend, looking for validation and an outside justification to avoid the work that needs doing. The world already has too many bad, unedited novels.
I admit that Iím coming from a very different position and background on this. Scalzi has been a nonfiction writer for a long time, short pieces evolving into longer works, but everything with a distinct and clear format. Iím sure itís quite possible to turn in a polished first draft of a nonfiction book. On the other hand, Iíve been writing screenplays, which demand extreme tightness in the writing as well as a streamlined plot, since the scripts are often nothing but plot. Every beat has to count in multiple ways. Itís like a sonnet, except with more rules. Those puppies need to be massaged every which way. Lots of rewriting unless you get incredibly lucky with the first draft and everything magically falls into place. This can happen but itís rare as hell. Ten drafts are more the rule than the exception, and thatís before you even send the thing to your agent for a look-see. So naturally I expect to go through multiple drafts of a novel.
I think itís facile to say that you can catch errors as you move forward, therefore youíre rewriting on the fly. Yes, to some extent you can, but that doesnít account for larger pacing issues Ė the first half of story sags while the second half has uneven leaps, that kind of thing. Or unexpected character development. Your main character is leaving her job and her kids to sail around the world? How did she come to that conclusion? Set that up sooner, seed it through the earlier chapters. Uneven character development can trip you up too; if you read through your novel after youíre done, you may realize that a character acts one way and then switches tone with no explanation.
And frankly, thatís all small stuff. The larger issues are often about clarifying what youíre trying to say and making sure the climax is satisfying because of everything youíve set up going into it emotionally as well as plot-wise. Or maybe it involves restructuring the story, shifting chapters around, rebalancing. Stuff you simply canít do mid-flow because it doesnít yet exist in toto.
I also think thereís a danger in writing your first draft with too close an eye on the editing. It can make you write tight and not in a good way. Tight as in overly controlled. Tight as in leaving little room for invention, for freeform world and character building, for wild attacks of the muse that may or may not fit the parameters of what youíre creating but if you let them in, they may inform and enrich the work and after all you can always decide later how they fit. If, that is, you allow yourself a later. If you do a proper rewrite. I say this as one who has made this mistake, by the way. I've written too tight, too carefully, and it's bitten me in the ass.
Some people think what Iím saying only applies to mainstream, literary fiction. But Iíve picked up an awful lot of genre fiction over the years. Mystery and romance but mostly SF and fantasy. A tremendous percentage of it is badly written. Maybe that could be fixed only with intensive applications of writing seminars and sleep-deprivation brainwashing tactics. Or maybe the authors just canít write. But I think more often the culprit is sloppy editing. Sloppy self-editing, to be exact. A writer, looking at deadlines, wanting that next installment of the advance, decides sheís done and sends the manuscript off without the rethinking that would turn something mildly readable into a memorable work. In trying to avoid wasting her own time with a so-called unneeded rewrite, she ends up wasting mine as a reader. These days Iíll just put the book down and walk away if the writing is slipshod. With more time and editing, maybe the author could have hooked another new reader, maybe risen above the dreaded midlist limbo of small first runs and quick trips to the remainder tables. (Or in the case of my friend, maybe gotten her work published for very the first time.)
Having said all that, Iím about to contradict myself. Because my basic policy is to rewrite until I and my trusted cadre of three readers think the thing is ready. With most of my short stories, thatís meant a fair amount of massaging and even some rethinking. With the last story, it just meant lopping off the first half of the narrative and tweaking lines to make them sing. It was ready to send off within a week after I finished the first draft. Of course, it was also thirteen pages long. My novel wonít be ready that quickly. Iím sure of it. Even though my cadre likes the novel a lot and seems to have fewer notes as I go deeper into it, none of us will know (myself included) until we read the entire work in one go.
The larger issue, Iím realizing, is knowing when somethingís done. Iíve met writers who tinker until the work is massively overwritten, well past done, and theyíre past making it better, now theyíre just making a bigger mess. So yes, they exist too. But they donít generally get published or produced, maybe because they canít let go of the pages. The trick is knowing exactly how much to do, no less and no more. Thatís the art and the mystery of it.
It seems it is now my turn to lie in bed and make grumbling noises. I'm not nearly as sick as Damian was, thankfully, but I've been better.
Since I have no Jennifer Crusie novels on hand, I spent most of my wakeful time web surfing. (The combination of PowerBook and wifi is a splendid thing.) I came across an interview with Ursula LeGuin (via Blog of a Bookslut). She's such a graceful, thoughtful woman. Also, she said this, which resonated for me:
Soon after A Wizard of Earthsea came out in England it received a review in a science-fiction periodical which took the book to task for being "consolatory" and "reassuring". Well, fair enough, I thought, if the consolation is false, if the reassurance is unwarranted; but are consolation and reassurance inherently false, unwarranted - foolish, soft, silly, childish - sentimental? Are we writers only to threaten, terrify, and depress our readers with our ruthless honesty: have we not as good a right to offer them whatever comfort we've come by honestly?
I wrote the reviewer and told him what I thought, and that I thought I had Tolkien to back me up. He wrote back nicely enough saying that of course he hadn't been thinking of the book as being written for children. Apparently it is permissible to reassure or console children, but not adults.
Such an attitude seems to me to be based on a strange notion that the Common Reader is so happy, so foolishly confident, so stupidly trustful, that the Common Writer's whole duty is to convince him that life is hard and full of grief and that there is no consolation. Most adults I know already know that life is hard and full of grief; and they look for both confirmation of this knowledge, and consolation for it, in art.
I tend toward positive conclusions in my own writing: reconciliations, growth, even happiness. This is not necessarily fashionable. I think some people feel it makes a work too accessible, too lowest common denominator, too pretty. Fuck that.
LeGuin, of course, said it far far better.
I took most of last week off from writing. Dan has had some time between episodes (his last one was already cut and locked, his next one hasnít started shooting yet) and so we spent the time together. Saw a movie in the theater (wow), had a leisurely lunch another day. We played. It was fun. And when I sat down this afternoon to write, I realized I'd forgotten how.
Yes, I had one of those bad writing days. One filled with at least three false starts and a lot more head scratching and finely honed procrastination techniques.
The problem was this: the scene I had to write involved the two main characters coming together after a night apart and a painful secret revealed. The obvious choice was to have them talk about the painful secret, but theyíd already done that to the extent I think these two people could, and besides, a conversation delineating the pain and anger? Too on the nose, subtext made text. Inelegant writing. (Also known as False Start Number One.)
So here they were and here I was, none of us sure what to do. I wrote a bit of shoe leather (so named after what it usually involves, people walking from one place to another. ďHe went here and then he went there and then he took the bus downtown to the Canal Street stop.Ē Yawn. Interstitial material the eye glides over while waiting for the story to resume. Best not to write in the first place.) This wasnít your typical shoe leather, admittedly. Two people moving around each other in tense silence. But still. Not quite right. It felt like I was gliding on the surface of the story. It felt flat. False Start Number Two.
Well, okay. Maybe there should be some sex involved. Check gut: should they have sex? Gut says not a terrible idea. People do strange things under pressure. So I started to move the characters toward sex. This I can do. I have a goal, a plan, actual story material to write.
Then why did it come out sounding like a bad romance novel clinch? Somehow the mechanics of people getting undressed, fumbling to touch each other, responding physically, itís too easy to fall into standard cadences as you write, to fit into how youíd expect something like that to read. Or maybe as a reader itís too easy to make assumptions when you read certain phrases, Iím not sure. But I do know that it didnít work for this moment in the story. That was False Start Number Three. And probably Number Four and maybe even Number Five, as I fumbled with words to undress my characters from within.
I kept writing, though. Trying different things. Deleting just about everything. I ended up jumping ahead, writing truly from within. Letís say you write ďI kissed him.Ē Thatís plot, thatís what happened. If you write instead ďThe experience felt like a dream of something that was happening to someone else,Ē then you start to separate from the nuts and bolts of the action and you can play with time and emotion. At which point itís easy to avoid the clichťs of a clinch, the expected sequence of events, and so you can write something that goes where you need it to go and feels like part of the story youíre telling.
When I get stuck like I did today, I often find myself resorting to standard prose. Something that sounds an awful lot like what Iíve read before, and not in a National Book Award finalist either. Thereís a kind of writing thatís easy to do but, well, pedestrian. So when I find myself writing like that, it means I have to take another path, find another way to present the same bit of plot. Because the way you tell it affects the story itself. And that may be the hardest thing to master as a writer.
Caren Lissner recently linked to a description of a new book (and interview with that bookís author). The book is The Midnight Disease, by Alice Weaver Flaherty. Itís about hypergraphia, defined as the overwhelming urge to write. As Flaherty describes it, it sounds like the creative urge is found somewhere in the temporal lobes. Brain injuries can affect it, as can neurological conditions. Fascinating stuff.
This ties into something Iíve been contemplating recently. If you ask me why I write, I have a pile of reasons. Theyíre all true, maybe some more than others. But the real reason I write is far simpler. I write because it gives me a rush. A physical rush. Oh, not the kind of writing Iím doing right now, putting words together to describe or muse on a given topic. Fiction. Dipping into the stream of semi-conscious right-brain meets left-brain word/sentence/story shaping. That kind of writing. Sometimes I hate it, sometimes itís like slogging through week-old city slush in slippers, wet and cold and probably contaminated. But sometimes Ė oh, yes. Sometimes itís like a drunken sleepy dream, a delicious sherry dream but no, thatís not quite it either.
One day last week I spent my afternoon writing in the library, sinking deep into the prose. I was surprised when it was already almost three. I staggered (well, walked) to the car, started the ignition, drove the few blocks to school. Halfway there, I realized I was still in a daze. It was almost like a hypnotic trance. An altered state. Like I should get a blood test to make sure I was legal to drive. So it doesnít surprise me that thereís some neurochemical element to the writing process. It only surprises me that people donít talk about it more.
I don't know if you've noticed, but I haven't written anything lengthy here this week. There's a reason. I've been busy with my novel. I wrote -- well, I'm not sure exactly where I started on Monday, but I think I wrote something like four thousand words this week, maybe even five. Which is rare for me, since I usually grab my writing time between the time I drop Damian off at school (at noon, supposedly, but often later) and pick him up (at three) but then you have to factor in time to eat lunch (half an hour, usually) and drive to the library and then back to school (fifteen minutes) and time to wind up the courage to plunge back into the ongoing stream of words. So I have maybe an hour and a half of good writing time two or three times a week. Which is absurd since I do have some time to myself every day but I've been using it for other things. Like exercise, paying bills, running errands, responding to email. But you know what? I'm a writer. So what if we don't have enough food to last the week? We can make do. I have to write. So this week I did. I wrote every day.
This brought the total page count up to 304.
I'm buzzing with it. It would be a lie to say I never doubted I'd complete the novel. Of course I've doubted it, just like I've doubted that the result will be readable. But now it seems very much like I will in fact get to the end, and not too long from now. And that feels huge.
A novel. My first novel. Yes, I've written nearly a dozen screenplays. And yes, at the end of each one, I said "whew!" and flipped through the printed pages with a satisfied sigh: "I wrote that. All of that. Yes, me." But a novel, that's diving into the deep end of the pool. A tome. And this novel in particular is like writing a dream state, it's all about emotion and tone. It's realistic but yet not. It's a challenge.
My brain is tired. Tomorrow I want to do something to get out of my head. I think I'll paint the living room yellow.
I just started reading One Pill Makes You Smaller, by Lisa Dierbeck, a first novel by a high school friend of mine. We lost touch a long time ago, unfortunately. Reading this novel makes me realize I miss her, even after all these years.
But I digress. What I really wanted to note was that reading her prose reminds me of a truism of fiction: specificity is a very good thing. In the first chapter, she describes something the characters call the toy box that's really storage for recreational drugs. She spends some time with the box, giving it the full treatment. When I was done reading that passage, I not only could see the object in all its concrete detail, but I felt like I too was there in that room, listening to the desultory conversation as I examined the collage on the sides of the toy box. And that's what specificity can do for you.
Writing this latest short story has been revelatory. It feels like the first time I've nailed a story. First. Time. Ever. So of course I find myself trying to decipher what I did right.
I think part of the answer is the subject. It's inherently emotional, and that's key because it draws you through the story. But I've had that before, I think, and not been as successful. Dan thinks the biggest part is that I let go of plot. Or rather, de-emphasized plot. The story itself is simpler and so I can concentrate on what I'm best at, a kind of nearly-but-not-quite freeform prose that builds on itself.
When I write it out like that, it sounds like bragging, but I think it's important for any writer -- or anyone, really -- to know their strengths. Why hobble yourself trying to do something that doesn't fit you? Why not gear your work toward what you know you can do well? Okay, yes, it's good to stretch yourself. Trust me, writing stretches me. Even when it's easy it's not.
So now I'm thinking of ideas that will allow me to focus more on the telling and less on the story. An interesting side effect is that the ideas I'm coming up with make me squirm. ("I have to go there? Live that?") I think that's a good sign.
Thursday was Not A Good Day. It was one of those days when every lane of traffic you switch to immediately becomes the slow lane, when the question you ask when you drop off your kid's application in the magnet school office gets exactly the opposite answer you wanted (needed) to hear, when you have to drive past every tree trimming operation and construction zone from downtown to Santa Monica because youíre still too chickenshit to take the freeway (and on that kind of a day, better you donít try), when you scrape the still-new car up against the curb with an EEE! and a Ow! when you try and park in the teeny tiny straight-up-the-45-degree-angle-hill spot and sure enough, now the rear passenger side hubcap has a nice display of scratch marks, and most of all when you get the car door open to grab your backpack and computer bag only to find Ė no computer bag. No computer.
Yeah. I wasnít too pleased. I also discovered something interesting about myself. I can write longhand when necessity requires it, but I canít write longhand story notes in my little spiral bound notebook. I need room, you see. I need to be unfettered, I need sprawl.
Or maybe I just need something less pretty so I can tear the sheet off and crumple it up, Iím not really sure.
Anyway. Two hours in the cafť, no writing. Then off to pick Damian up at school, except that the floor time session Iíd thought was cancelled was actually on (the therapist now recovered from her prior high fever) and I had two more hours to fill. With, yes, thatís right, you got it. No computer.
Which is when I discovered the legal pad corollary. I can in fact write story notes in a legal pad. Maybe even easier than on the computer, which I tend to think of as an extension of my brain.
It may have turned out for the best (well, except for the endless drive, the hubcap scratches, and the oppressive magnet school system rules). Iím at a stage in my novel where Iím writing blind. And thatís uncomfortable. In my experience it leads to writing crap. Back in high school, I wrote a short story and got stuck because I had no idea where it was going. I ended up inserting a random act of senseless violence because my characters were bored and so was I and, well, it was there. What a sticky gluey morass of a story that was. Then in college I wrote some stories with a little more idea of plot, mostly a few vague phrases. And that was enough to get from A to Z in a sort of fumbling, ass-backward way though not without some alcohol-fueled liberation of inhibition. Which is when I stopped writing fiction and turned to screenwriting. Structure, that badly needed structure, became my best friend.
Now I always need at least some sort of knowledge of the terrain and definitely the ending. As Iíve said before, I donít have an exact map with this novel, no detailed outline delineating the story from prelude to inciting incident to midpoint to climax to tag and every scene and sequence in between. Iíve done that on scripts but this is a different beast altogether. Larger, for one thing. And more Ė well, for lack of a better word, more intuitive. I donít always know what Iím going to write. I take tangents that come back to the main action or that become the main action. Things evolve. And yet it still has a structure and I hope a fairly tight one. Contradictory? Yes, I know it is. Itís nevertheless the way this novel is working, and I like it but at the same time it feels very much like walking along a path where the scenery is fascinating and involving but at any moment I may find the dirt give way underfoot and Iíll be stepping out into nothing. Blank grey nothing.
Whenever that happens, I plot. I sort out what needs to happen in the next thirty to fifty pages, I lay out scenes and sequences I think would have impact and also bring the story the next step along, I take a peek at the freaky-scary everything-changes section coming up in the third act and write a few notes about it that probably contradict the notes I wrote last time and the time before. I may even take another gander at the ending, though I usually leave that alone since I know the flavor of it and thatís enough for now.
It works for me, this half-outline method. It gives me the confidence to continue, even if continuing means dumping what Iíve just plotted and writing blind after all. Because the very act of plotting means thinking about what needs to happen. Having that almost subterranean awareness gives my writing mind something to chew on as it creates the reality. And often enough I do use the outlined ideas and thatís even better.
That freaky-scary everything-changes section? Coming up soon. Extremely soon. And itís making me nervous. So Thursday, sitting there in the late afternoon in the school conference room, in the very seat the administrator proclaimed from at Damianís last two IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings, I scribbled on a yellow legal pad and scrubbed much of my previous tentative scratchings about that dark void of a section.
The problem with the section was always that it felt like a different novel to me. The setting changes, the dynamic changes, I thought Iíd therefore need to invent a new plot overlay to give the emotions some action. But how to do that without making the material feel grafted on as an afterthought when it should be the very heart of the book? This Thursday I had an answer. Maybe it was the air in that room, the molecules charged with people discussing and debating and deciding, but I saw the rest of my story and it works neatly and comfortably within the parameters Iíve already set up. I donít need to invent a new overlay, I donít really even need to move the action to a new city Ė at least, not entirely. People can buy plane tickets. They can go back and forth. This works. Modern technology is a wondrous thing. I can do what I need to do while keeping the current story very much intact. And thatís a tremendous relief. I may well ditch half of what I scribbled; I expect I will, but itís given me what I needed. A new structure to hang the rest of the story on.
Maybe I should leave my computer at home more often.
So yesterday I finished the first draft of my latest story. I was proud of the format. Iíd broken the story into four beats, each one precipitated by and built around a difficult phone call. I was happy with the way it came out. I cut the 4675 words down to around 3925, printed it out and handed it to Dan to read.
His comment? Start with the last beat. The first three read like set-up. Plot, not emotion. The meat of the story is that last long section.
Heís right, damnit. I hate him.
I think I had to write it that way even though it doesnít work for the reader. Iím writing about a difficult night, a night I remember all too well. Some people think itís easier to write from real life; you donít have to make things up. Itís actually much harder. You have to give yourself the freedom to reform the narrative, pulling away from the ďBut it really happened that way!Ē trap and creating something thatís an involving, evocative read even to people who have never met you.
This piece in particular has a lot of back story. Things that happened leading into the events of the night. Iíve tried writing this before, but ended up bogged down in details. But getting the exposition out of the way early (those previous three phone calls) helped me avoid all that in this iteration. It made the main action cleaner, I think. I didnít have to wonder, ďDo they know enough?Ē, I knew they did so I could just write.
Today I deleted all that lovely what-came-before action. And I don't miss it. Funny thing, I think itís going to be easy now to set up everything you actually need to know within the single sequence. Just a few sentences here and there and youíve got the whole picture. I just couldnít see how until Iíd written it the other way first. Ten pages gone, ten Ė or maybe two Ė sentences to add and my work is done.
Well, that part of it is done. Thereís still a matter of building the character more so sheís distinctly not me and so you the reader can see and feel like you know her, if only just a bite-sized taste of personality. And subtly underlining the themes I unearthed through the writing process. Now I can make them resonate, if I do it right. A word here, a fragment of a thought there, and the story becomes that much stronger. Thatís the tricky part with short stories. You donít have a novelís luxury of words and tangents. You have to be succinct but let your reader inside the storyís walls, give them enough to invest in. Itís like writing a haiku instead of a ballad. A flavor, not a meal.
Something else interesting I noticed today. When I deleted the first half of the story, the cuts I made yesterday no longer worked. I had to restore the passages Iíd thought of as writerly flourishes. Now theyíre necessary. Now they set the mood and allow us inside the narratorís head. When the story shrank, the flourishes took on meaning. I see that as a good sign.
Iím done hating Dan. Now Iím happy to have him. My own personal editor, insightful and analytical. And Iím excited to get back to the story, whip that puppy into shape.
The current issue of Poets and Writers has an interesting opinion piece by Steve Almond. His thesis: eschew agents. He has a valid point or two. He claims that authors are in thrall to agents, they look up to them and act subordinate and, well, desperate. A new writers rarely thinks of interviewing an agent; instead, she nervously hopes sheíll pass muster and become that agentís client. And it continues in that manner throughout the relationship Ė the agent calls the shots, tells the author how he's going to market the book, who he'll send it to and then what she should demand in the contract. But whoís generating the material? Whoís the creator? The agent? No, the writer. So why give your power away like that?
Iíve seen all this, transposed to the film world, the screenwriter and her agent. Iíve been that writer, so nervous around my agent I never dared disagree with her game plan. I wouldnít do it again. But there are other options. Itís possible, first of all, to be choosy about what agent you sign with, making sure to find one who respects you for your brain as well as your prose. And then, yes, itís possible to be equals with your agent. Almond claims the agent is the writerís employee. I donít think this is exactly right. My accountant is not my employee. He has his expertise, which is not mine. We hire him in the sense that we pay him, yes. And we can leave him if weíre not content with his work. But we also bow to his superior knowledge of the tax laws. We bought a house on his say-so (though years after he said so, which was our mistake). We listen to him because he knows what heís talking about. Weíre in a contractual relationship, we use his services, but I would never consider him our employee. I think itís similar with an agent and a writer. It behooves the writer to listen to the agentís advice and to grant the agent his superior knowledge when it comes to marketing a book.
Almond is writing from a very specific perspective. He writes short stories. Not linked stories, not novels. Discrete stories. Well, short story collections usually have dismal sales. Thereís little in that for an agent. Unsurprisingly, agents have not been terribly interested in Almond. Does that make them bad people, obsessed with the bottom line? Guess what? It is a business. Thereís nothing wrong with wanting to pay the mortgage. Writers want that too.
His former agent suggested that Almond write a novel. He said he ďwound up spending more than a year writing a terrible book.Ē He does say thatís his fault for listening to the agent and not his instincts, but he also faults the agents who regularly give such advice, saying they give it because novels sell better and therefore make them richer agents. I disagree.
I have a relative by marriage. He wrote short stories for a long time. Good ones. He developed somewhat of a following, but a very limited one. He started to write novels, most likely at his agentís behest. It wasnít easy for him, itís not his natural mťtier. Guess what? He became a National Book Award finalist a few years ago. He got a tenured job at a good university. He wrote a respected book on writing. Heís a big name in the lit world now. Maybe agents have writersí careers in mind when they give advice. Maybe itís nice to have someone in your corner, someone who has reason to talk to editors at all the major and several minor publishing houses on a regular basis. Someone who has reason to keep up with the all-important publishing world gossip in a way that a writer probably never could Ė unless said writer got a job at a publishing house. Or at an agency.
Me, Iím planning to get an agent when I finish my novel. I plan to find someone I like and can trust to be my business partner. And then I plan to let that person give me the benefit of his or her wisdom in the field. And Iím okay with that.
I've been thinking about character a lot. What goes into character. How to build a strong character. The slippery slope inherent in the very concept of character.
On the page, that is.
Main characters, while not necessarily easy to pull off, do at least offer larger canvases. You the reader and therefore you the writer spend a lot of time with these people. Many opportunities to get to know all their foibles, fears, and fantasies. There's time too to build insecurities, conundrums, thoughts of past and future, attitudes and idiosyncrasies.
Secondary characters, though, the ones who trot on stage for a scene or two, leave again to live their own lives in their own book somewhere, trot back to support or undercut or add credibility or counterpoint to the main character. They're tricky. You don't have much time, you don't get that close. How do you the writer build someone believable, someone interesting, someone three dimensional?
A screenwriter I know once said what you need to do is give them quirks. An affected limp, a Chihuahua fetish, a habit of chewing gum and sticking it on any available surface (preferably one that will later get the hero or heroine in trouble). He said that's all you really need. One or two memorable bits of personality, maybe three if they appear onscreen a lot.
That's one way to do it. Not a good way. Sufficient for action adventures or broad comedies. Maybe it works for screenplays in the sense that you can trust an actor to take the quirky bits and do enough homework to flesh something interesting out of not a whole lot (see Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean for an amazing example of this). But a quirk does not make a person. And for fiction, where there is no actor to swoop in and plug the leaks in your writerly flourishes, you have to do better.
The problem, I've found, is that you can come up with a reasonable facsimile of character by assembling some attitudes and interesting life events, but what ends up happening is that you don't have enough time to develop said events in this glorified walk-on role, and thus you get a single note played again and yet again, making the character more of a characteristic.
I now think the answer may lie in contradiction. If I say one thing and do another, I'm instantly more intriguing. If I do something that you interpret one way: "she's so sweet for thinking of me with this diamond necklace" and then you find out the real motivation and it changes your opinion: "she just wanted to make sure I was looking down when she snuck that Chihuahua past security in her coat", well, I've got something else going on. This is maybe not the best example, because it too is simplistic (not to mention over the top). But you get the idea. And two or three contradictions are better than one. Two or three layers of shifting meaning or just shifting reaction. ("She was nice to me yesterday but now she's being kind of a bitch. Oh, she had a bad fight with her Chihuahua and now she's mad at the world and taking it out on me. Oh look, now she's giving her Chihuahua to the pound. Boy, she must really be mad. Oh look, she's crying. Awww. She does care. Sheís just seriously fucked up.") You can start to build a sliver of a real person that way in not very much story real estate.
I'm still thinking it over. Iím not sure this is enough by itself, but it's a start at getting a conceptual handle on something that's normally more intuition and experimentation. Making a person come alive on the page. Not as easy as taking a photograph and sticking it into a scrapbook. I think it's more like the art of a great caricaturist, someone who can, with just a few pen strokes, a slithery line here and a scribble there, can define a face so clearly you'd recognize the person depicted therein if you walked by her on the street. This mole here, that downturn to the outsides of the eyes, that spread of nostrils, that curve of cheek and chin. Itís about capturing individuality.
Tonight, just a comment on writing from another source. It's Writing 101, obvious and known, but still worth repeating and repeating until it sinks in.
I read a review of a short story collection a few days ago. The reviewer liked the book in many ways but felt the author had made the cardinal error of a first time writer: she'd said, not shown what each story was about. She'd summarized emotion.
In the reviewer's own words:
Wexler allows her readers to be lazy and passive, collecting information without earning it. She takes no stylistic risks. The intensity of the stories thus greatly suffers from our not having to work at understanding them. Because she has not drawn us into the story with appropriate elusiveness, our reactions remain merely cognitive: we see her points without feeling them.
I quote this not to rub the criticism into the writer's nose like someone training a puppy not to pee on the carpet, but rather to imbed it in my own brain. I know the rule. Know it thoroughly and completely. But do I own it? I'm not at all sure I do. In fact, I suspect I don't. I suspect that -- maybe because of my years as an aspiring screenwriter, trained to underline the important bits for bored production company readers, or maybe just because I'm a somewhat insecure new novelist -- I spell too much out. I'm afraid you won't get it, you see. That you'll miss the point if I don't tell you. But in doing that I take some of the fun away, don't I?
Note to self: back away from the highlight-subtext pen. Put it down and back away slowly.
So of course after bragging about how smooth my story was sailing along, I came to a dead halt. Or rather, one of those moments where you say, ďI canít write this. Nu-uh. No way. Too hard. Not fun anymore, can I stop now? Get a job as an auto mechanic, get all covered in grease, with bulging arm muscles, and forget about the writing thing?Ē
The thing about writing from a real-life event? Itís not like remembering that event. Itís like plunging back in time: breathing the air in that long-ago room, hearing the sounds and smelling the scents and feeling the emotions. Thatís the hard part, because of course for a moment in your life to be story-worthy, it was probably a painful one.
Thatís what happened to me a couple of days ago. I got to a part of the story I didnít want to write. The real-life events turned out fine, I can look back and shrug, we can talk about it and say ďYeah, that was kinda weird, huh?Ē But now Iím writing from the point of view of someone who doesnít know the rest of the story yet. Not a place I ever want to be again. Only I am now, because Iím writing it. I write it because itís a good story. You canít go over it, you canít go under it, you can only go through it. Again.
ďSo why not write something brand new, completely fictional?Ē I hear you say, ďSomething without that baggage from the past.Ē Well, I do that too. With my novel. Which is currently sitting on the computer behind this file, taunting me. This next part, the section Iím about to write? Excruciating for the characters. And Iíve invested in their emotional lives by now, maybe a little too much. I know these people, I care about them. And as I write, I am them, at least a little. So yeah. Iím squirming about that one too.
Ah, the writing life. Itís a breeze.
Thereís this short story Iíve had in my head for five years, ever since the event-which-can-be-altered happened. I sat down two years ago and wrote a paragraph. Stretched it to a page. Stopped. Too melodramatic, too full of portent. Bad bad bad.
Sat down again a year and a half ago with a new approach. Wrote five pages with great difficulty. Got stuck. The next bit was going to be lots of non-verbal woman-with-crying-baby angst. The way I was writing it, I worried it would bore the reader. Hell, it bored me. So I put it down, but the story nagged. No, hounded. Write me, write me, Iím here and Iím not going away, damnit. I hate when fiction does that. On the other hand, thatís why Iím writing my novel. That too is a story that never left me alone. So maybe this is just how I work.
But still, even though the story seed tickled and wiggled in the back of my brain, I had no way in and so every time it poked its head out: ďIím still here! Write me!Ē Iíd stuff it back inside. ďIím not ready, go away. I may never be ready. Shut up and find yourself someone else to write you. Anyone want a story idea, cheap at twice the price?Ē
And so it went. But one day last week or maybe the week before Neil Gaiman mentioned in his blog that he was starting his new novel. He talked in passing about finding the tone, and how itís got an easy, conversational voice, much like he has in his blog.
Ah. Yes. My novel has a poetic sort of style. It works for the subject, I think; it lends a certain dreamlike quality to the action (or at least thatís what itís supposed to do). But this short story needs something completely different. I hadnít been consciously going for poetic, but everything I wrote had a studied quality, like a late Renaissance still life. Attention to detail, yes, but everything so carefully placed and so quiet. When youíre writing about how excruciating long stretches alone with baby feel to a new mom, that doesnít work so well. (Donít worry, I am in fact not giving anything away about this story.)
That was that. In the car a few days ago, the opening came to me. And the next part. And the bit after that. Because now I have a voice for it. Not a portentous, slow voice nor a bittersweet, poetic voice. Something more blunt, more ironic. And now Iíve got three pages written. I even wrote over the weekend. Every time I open the file to take a peek, I write more even if I donít mean to. I wrote a paragraph or two sitting at the dining table yesterday afternoon keeping Damian company while he devoured a grilled cheese sandwich. I never do that.
This is of course premature to say and Iím tempting the writing gods by posting this, but I think I have the story licked. Finally it can get out of my head and onto the page. Fully fleshed out at last.
Iíve tried to send my stories out before. I sent one, I think. To two places. A year ago, maybe two. And when I got the inevitable rejections, I stopped. I had excuses: I have to do research, figure out where to query, I have to write another story, I have to concentrate on my novel. Well, sure. But I also had to get over the paralyzing fear. Fear of what? Of rejection. Wholesale, complete, industry-wide ďyou canít write, bitchĒ rejection.
I went to a panel discussion on literary magazines a few months ago. The speakers were all editors. I thought I might get some tips: what are they looking for in query letters, how do you determine what magazine is a good fit? That sort of thing. I got some of that, but the biggest snippet of information was something unspoken but blindingly obvious once I sat down and listened to these people. Literary magazines are a labor of love. Small operations, scrambling to stay alive in a huge sea of indifference. Theyíve got one or two full time staff members and a handful of volunteers sifting through piles of manuscripts. They have to include some well known writers to pad their volumes, to get newsstand browsers to pick the journal up and maybe even buy a copy, maybe eventually subscribe.
This is not the film industry with its calculations of artistic worth as measured by logline marketability and attractiveness to the box office star of the moment. This is a much smaller, simpler equation. In the eyes of one or two people sitting in a dark hole of an office, does this story engage? Does it tickle their particular fancy at that moment? Thatís all there really is to it.
Cover letters sometimes help, yes. Not because the editors are necessarily impressed by prior publications, but because the words therein can make the writer three dimensional to the reader. But cover letters arenít necessary. Itís really just about the story. More, itís a matter of taste. Personal taste. That knowledge takes the sting out of rejection, at least for me.
I went to Duttonís Wednesday afternoon while Damian was in school. Sat down in their little cafť, pulled two dozen literary journals off the shelves, and started flipping through to see what lay within. Are all the stories bucolic farm scenes? Are they avant-garde non-linear head-games? Are they straight, unadorned narratives? Do they feel macho? Emotional? Stoic? Do they have a clear sense of style? If so, what?
I donít know that I got all my questions answered. I canít do that without spending hours Ė weeks Ė reading through back issues of each magazine. But I saw that Journal W is all about the twisty plots, Journal X focuses more on character (to the detriment of style, Iím afraid), Journal Y has stories that are like perfect jewels, each one piercing the heart, and Journal Z prefers stories with a political agenda. I took notes, remembered some magazines Iíd read and forgotten in the past, looked at authorís notes to see what other publications they listed in their brag sheets and took more notes, then I left the store to go fetch Damian.
I found myself thinking about the magazines in the car. So many stories. So many beautifully written stories. Who reads them? How many readers even know about these carefully crafted journals? I usually pick up a book if I want to read fiction. These journals are a whole new world to me. They say people donít read anymore. Whoís reading the literary magazines? Just wannabe writers, feeding on that which they desire, keeping it alive in an onanistic cycle? Iím glad they exist but I wonder who buys them. Maybe I will.
These volumes are fat, many of them, the size of a trade paperback and just as thick. But they usually come out just twice a year, and they include essays, book reviews, poetry and artwork along with a smattering of short stories. There isnít a whole lot of room for a new writer in there. In its way, this too is freeing. Because it means this is a game of odds. Rejection just means ďno room here right now, sorry, try again some other time.Ē Dan often says that a door to door salesman has to knock on a hundred doors to make a sale. If I send each story to a hundred literary journals, maybe I too will make a sale. Thatís ninety nine rejections. I better get started, huh?
Yesterday, I sent out five copies of my latest story, an excerpt from my novel. I could feel the thrill shooting through my spine as I slid the story-plus-cover-letter-plus-SASE into each envelope. Those letter-sized envelopes will probably come back in a few months, postmarked Oregon or Wisconsin, each with a nice little rejection note inside. Thatís fine, thatís part of the process. This is a beginning.
Today I hit the magic 250 page mark (well, 253 pages) as well as the equally magic 50K word count, the one NaNoWriMo touts as a complete novel (technically, Iím at 51,225 words). Iím past the halfway point. This book-beast is real. And it looks like Iíll actually finish it, too (my goal is 400 pages/80K words or so). Not that I had any doubts, but, well, Iíve had doubts. Like weight loss, itís a huge undertaking demanding discipline and perseverance, with lows that will kick your butt as well as giddy, ďI did it! Iím doing it! This is so cool!Ē highs.
Dan said today he doesnít know how I write past the end of each chapter; he knows I donít have the kind of detailed scene-by-scene outline I use in screenplays, so how do I know what to write next? Iím winging it much more than I ever have before, and this is a big pile of pages to wing. I told him that I know where Iím going to end up and some bits of story along the way, so I just have to estimate how far along I need to be next and then I can figure out a way to write to there, allowing for serendipity and inspiration and an occasional writerly trance along the way.
Vague, huh? Dan came up with a metaphor which I think explains it better.
Letís say you want to drive from Los Angeles to New York. Youíve got a clear goal and you even know roughly what youíll see along the way. Here are deserts, bring water. Thereís a big mountain range over there, itíll probably be cold. Along this area, there are one hell of a lot of wheat and corn fields, better figure out a way to make that part interesting so you donít drive off the road, asleep at the wheel. There are great huge ocean-like lakes somewhere in the eastern edge of middle part, but you have to go out of your way for them, is the car in good enough shape to handle the detour?
You know all this, the general terrain with implicit questions to inform your decisions. And youíve got a compass guiding you from southwest to northeast. But no map, so you donít know the exact route. That part you figure out as you go. You ask people in gas stations and diners, you plan a little way ahead (picking up a map of, say, Utah when you hit the state border), and you go by gut.
Thatís what writing this novel is like.
I've been struggling through the current scene in my novel. It's from the male character's POV, which is generally more challenging for me, but more, I started it with only a vague idea of what it was about. I prefer to have the character goals and obstacles clear in my head for any given scene, it makes it easier to know what I'm writing toward. On the other hand, some of my favorite sequences evolved from no more than a general "she's coming from this charged emotion and getting into her car to drive home" notion.
Sometimes, though, it's harder. In this case, the emotions are not only charged, but complex, yet the actions of the scene are extremely simple and mundane (two people making dinner). I'm more than halfway through writing it and I think I'm finally getting a sense of what I'm doing there. Which necessitates a little rewrite massage, but shouldn't be too bad. But it's an uncomfortable enough process that I've been avoiding the work this week. I hate that. Sometimes it's an effective strategy, and the muttering in the back of my brain as I slip into alpha sleep fixes the problems for me while I'm consciously thinking of other things, but sometimes (like now) it just stalls me out and depresses me.
I think I figured out today how to get past this block, though -- how to get my butt back in the chair and my fingers poised over the keyboard. I started thinking of the next bit. It's one of the most pivotal sequences in the novel, where things are inadvertently revealed and emotions are naturally high while people are doing things that can't allow them to deal fully with what's going on underneath. I love that stuff. Drama with a twist of the knife. I have all sorts of ideas of how to structure it, of moments and images and painful bits. But I can't write it until I finish this scene, can I?
I'm looking forward to getting back to work.
I found a notice at the library for a weekly writer's meeting at a different branch. It's at a time I could go. But do I want to? Why do people join writer's groups, anyway? Is it for feedback? That's the idea, I guess, but it has to be just the right combination of voices for good quality, constructive feedback, doesn't it? I've been in writer's groups for screenwriting, thus my hesitation. The social aspect is fun. The feedback aspect? Not necessarily. I was in one that was positively brutal and when you're critiquing something in progress, you run the risk of permanently derailing the story. I was in another group that was warm and fuzzy and a lot of fun, but the feedback, although well meaning and certainly not hurtful, was a little clueless and ultimately not at all helpful. That writing group led me astray because I started writing toward what I perceived they liked instead of writing what I needed to write.
A group by its nature, I think, tends to want things easy to digest. Material that's more like other work they've read/seen than fresh, new and challenging. And as you read, you may feel one way toward a character based on a single action, but later on that character surprises you and you change your mind. But if you're reading in bits and pieces, your early feeling may solidify -- and, more problematically, the writer will hear how you feel and may therefore make different choices as he or she writes forward, compromising the work.
This writing group that meets at the library is a somewhat different beast: they write from prompts. Writing exercises. Then I think they talk about the exercises and maybe talk a bit about other work too. It could be a chance to get my writing style and method critiqued without submitting my more tender work to the critical knife. And it would be nice to be among a community of writers. If indeed that's the nature of the group.
How do I decide? Do I commit the time to this, taking it away from my other writing projects? Good idea or bad? I don't know. I just don't know.
Thereís this story I started a few months ago. I liked where it was going but I put it down nevertheless. I wasnít sure why I stopped writing; I thought maybe I just wasnít in the mood. This was shortly after I went on hiatus from my novel. I figured I was just written out, all the words drained out of me like water swirling away down the sink. But I realized a few weeks ago that in fact I had a dilemma.
The story, like many short stories and like most of mine (though curiously enough not my novel), is loosely based on a real incident. But this incident could get me in trouble. People can be awfully prickly about how you present their foibles, even in fiction. And you can only protest ďbut I made it up!Ē so long and then you sort of have to shut up. The law's not always with you.
I wanted to change the scenario a bit to protect myself and the story but couldnít think of a better locale. So I stopped writing. A friend came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution, though: change, not the locale, but the character. I ran it through the movie projector in my mind and it worked even better than the original. Great. Wonderful. Yay friends!
But I realized something today. The solution only works in an ideal, non-politicized world. In other words, it doesnít work. The solution involved changing a flamboyant woman into a flamboyant gay man. Sounds easy, and it would be. But the character has, well, foibles. And these foibles could be construed as unlikable, though I donít necessarily feel that way. And that would Ė if you look at things through a certain filter Ė mean I cast a gay guy as my villain. Again, I donít consider this person a villain, just a trifle deluded. But letís be realistic here. If youíre reading submissions for some literary magazine and you read a story where the only gay person is not altogether wonderful, youíll probably assume the writer is a homophobe.
Itís ironic because itís so far from true you canít get there from here. I would guess more of my friends are gay than straight. I get bent out of shape at the Boy Scoutsí ridiculous prejudices, I abhor the fact that gay marriage isnít legal, I donít understand why anyone should care what anyone elseís sexual orientation is and why that should set people apart in any way. I also believe thereís a spectrum of straight-to-gay sexuality, that we all fall somewhere on that curve and that most people are neither one hundred percent straight nor one hundred percent gay but somewhere in between, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
But itís not like I can append a note to the story, telling all readers not to judge me and my story by this one character. And maybe in some sense I would be culpable if I wrote it that way. Iíd be perpetuating a stereotype, the queeny gay man who does outrageous, socially unacceptable things with an enormous sense of entitlement. And since thereís no balancing character, itís pretty doomed. If I were reading that story, Iíd wonder about the writer and her politics too. It reminds me of the hullabaloo some years ago about Basic Instinct, that it showed lesbians as villains at a time when there were no good dykes in the movies except maybe in tiny-budgeted well-intentioned indies.
It frustrates me that I have to give up my perfect characterization, but this is not a perfect world. Things are better, but gay men and women are still mostly stereotyped in the media. Itís still an identifier. It still matters when it shouldnít. And so I have to be careful not to play into the prejudice myself. I wish it were otherwise, I wish one negative portrayal didnít mean a condemnation of a huge sector of humanity. If I write a mean straight white woman, it wonít offend anyone unless my portrayal reeks of misogyny. But if I write a mean gay man Ė or gay woman Ė my portrayal automatically reeks of homophobia. Even if it doesnít.
After posting the other day about my writerly stage fright, I went on to write two new pages. Apparently this blog has magic powers. Either that, or I just needed to say it aloud (so to speak) to exorcise the fear.
The problem wasnít just writing ahead into the great unknown, though. It was something else too. I had a chunk of information to impart in the next scene. I had this idea that the character with the information would ask the female lead to meet her so they could talk, and that during the course of this conversation, she could both cry on Female Leadís shoulder and regurgitate exposition. This works. Sort of. In a clunky, obvious, potboiler way. Which is precisely the tone Iíve been working so hard to avoid for the past two hundred plus pages. So I stopped, not knowing why. Not until I talked it through with Dan. He asked what the conflict was in the scene. I said I didnít know.
Dan suggested I instead have the Exposition Character talk to the Male Lead, who doesnít like her. Presto, conflict.
What Iíve come to realize is that the conflict in my novel is primarily internal and unspoken. Unlike my screenplays, where everything tended to be up front and in the open, this is interior, subtextual tension. If a man is confronted with a woman he doesnít like and she says something that reveals her own personal pain, heís going to feel a bittersweet pang, right? Right. Internal conflict. Interesting tension. Bingo. I've got my tone back.
Sometimes itís just a matter of trying the oblique approach. That, and asking your spouse for help.
Itís always odd to talk about the writing process without either giving concrete examples from the text or just devolving into page counts. (I wrote ten pages today! Iím so happy! or I rewrote the same paragraph twenty times! Iím going to go jump off a cliff now, goodbye cruel world.) Nevertheless, itís an enormous part of my life and thoughts and part of what I want to do with this blog is record that process, writing a novel for the first time. So bear with me if it doesnít always make sense. Or, well, call me on it. Thatís what the comments are for. (Only be nice, okay? Okay.)
Here I am with it: Iím approximately halfway through my novel. 216 pages, to be exact. 43,502 words, to be more exact. Sometimes Iím convinced the whole thing is overly dramatic, has a hokey concept, and lacks all subtlety or human truth to it. Other times I reread a passage and think, ďHey, I wrote that. Cool.Ē
I took two months off, came back to it, read through from page 100 or so, made copious notes, rewrote (painfully slowly Ė I hate rewriting), and now Iím ready to begin moving forward again. And Iím scared. Why is that?
I think itís simple. I donít know what comes next. When I read the pages Iíve already written, I see what Iíve done wrong and some of what Iíve done right. I see the shape of it and it feels as if it was meant to be like that Ė or, if not, then a fairly close approximation thereof. Itís a tangible object, words on a page, shapes in your mind. But when I then go to write forward, well, thatís all make-believe, isnít it? Chimerical, an optical illusion on the road, shimmering and disappearing in my mind. If I have a thought-picture of what comes next, thatís sometimes enough and I can write a sentence or two and then step back into the flow. But sometimes itís not. Sometimes I wrote that bit and then stop dead, stuck.
I think itís a kind of stage fright. You have to be both hyper-conscious and semi-unconscious to write well. Evaluating, shaping, imagining, but not thinking too hard about the process itself. Right now? Iím thinking too hard. I havenít told new story since mid-summer. Iím afraid of new story. What if I get it wrong?
Someone give me a kick in the pants. For now, Iím going to go stare at the screen some more and hope my fingers decide to type something more than gibberish.