Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dreams From My Father (With Apologies to the President)

Details. Telling details. (You have to use your "Bond. James Bond" voice. Otherwise it's no good.)

Really, though, I find that to be an apt little wording: telling details. Details that tell something, that show something. I think that's one of the keys to good writing, finding those details that help tell the story. Details that reveal meaning and character. Yet it's not always easy to find those details. Too prosaic a detail and it's unrevealing, too cliched and it's boring or seems superfluous. Yet if it's too innocuous it can seem forced, too much of a stretch, as if the writer is drawing attention to all the crazy little things in life, to the zaniness of their own perceptions.

I think looking at real details has helped me craft fictional ones of my own. Falling in love with my father's area of expertise was part of this. My father was a History Professor. I wasn't really into history when I was young. My father's endless books were more decoration than opportunity. Yet the older I've gotten the more I've been drawn into history and memoir - for what is a memoir except an exploration of personal history?

History, too, is about the details. What do you select from the vast array of facts? What makes the story? For history and memoir are about story, too, about drawing the reader into a set of experiences. A memoir, for example, is a set of experiential details arranged to tell a story, and I find it fascinating to see how writers select details to tell their own stories. What do they share? And what do they avoid sharing? What are the details that give meaning to their own lives? What are the details that they see as representative of them, of the journey they've been on?

There are interesting patterns here for fiction writers to study. Sort of like primers for the creation of characters... and the same goes for events, too. The details of events, of a causal chain, of how action and reaction play against each other... History, I think, can show you the pattern of real events. Cause and effect have a sudden veracity and truth, they convince, and this, I think, is something that's invaluable for fiction writers. How do things tie together? The synchronicity of events?

Increasingly I find the backdrop of my fictional stories to be history, as if my father's walls of books have crept into my consciousness. If my camera-eye focuses on a fictional character then just beyond, half-hidden in the blurred background, lie the walls of history. If I hear characters speaking, it is always over the drone of real voices that gift a pattern of reality.

Some gifts are long in being appreciated, and my father's gift of history is one of these. And yet I do appreciate it, and hope now that I can pass a wall of books to my own children.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Mid-Project Crash

Hello, hello!

In some ways I think being a writer is a bit like having manic depression. There are huge, massive energy-boosting highs, followed by big, almost self destructive, lows. It's like a wavelength, our emotions go up and down all the time, up to the highest we know, and down by equal measure to the lowest depths we inhabit.

Let's say the highs are composed of the 'writers' high' (as I've seen it referred to in some texts), that being those times when you sit down with a scene beckoning, and you type like fury as the thing plays out in your mind. Between 4 and 7k words can just splurge out, and they're pure gold. The scenes are vibrant and alive, with the characters in full swing. Hours fly by, and you don't even notice, and woe betide anyone who breaks your flow!

Another high would be the satisfaction that comes with a completed story. One big high with a finished first draft, and another with a completed, polished work.

And another, huge high, with an acceptance for a short story, or a contract for a novel. Big, big emotional highs.

But we also have the lows. Yeah, you sit down on Monday and rattle out five thousand effective words, but come Tuesday, all you want to do is grin and watch telly. Something strange happened, and you can't account for it, but you don't really care. Come Wednesday, you're thinking, 'damn, I better get my act back together.' Come Friday, you're thinking you're never going to make it as a writer, and everything you ever wrote was garbage. Despair sets in.

And then there are rejections -- usually vastly more numerous than acceptances, taken in-stride most of the time, but occasionally, you've got that Friday feeling, and a rejection gives an extra kick and it's all doom an gloom.

So we have this situation where it's possible to fly high as a kite one day, and within the week, be doubtful and questioning everything, and within hours of that, the cycle can start over again as we sit down, suddenly inspired, and start flying high again... and so on and so forth.

Sometimes, though, a particular project can go into the 'damn, I should get my act together on this,' stage, but continue to resist. Some novels stall, some shorts beguile, and I'm pretty sure that every one of us has a story which has been consigned to the realm of 'I might look at it and try a revision one day' category, which we also know really means, 'I no longer give a damn about this.'

What's to be done?

I think if we could identify the no-hope stories early enough, we could save ourselves a lot of heartache. And I also think that there is a case for 'laying aside.' Not just for a few days to get perspective, not just for a few months to come back with fresh eyes and more skills, but the willingness to lay a story aside for years, on the basis that 'this sucks right now, but there's something here, and I want it in reserve for Lordy knows when.'

I know we all do have such a category, and regularly drop things into it, but I think all the nightmares could be taken out of this scenario. It's not so much, 'I can't write, I can't do this, I can't see what it needs, I can't, I can't, I can't...' I think it's more the case that, 'this ain't working right now, it's not the right time for this thing.'

A novel takes up a lot of dedicated time. Years, usually. Creating, and honing, and panning, and chopping, and revising, and rewriting, and editing... it can take a long time. Getting stuck once in a while is part of that. Like all writers, I want my latest novel to shine, to draw readers like a magnet, to hold them like gravity, and to speak to them on visionary or world-view-altering level. Fully engaged, is how I want my readers to be, and I want to employ every trick in the book, and some unique ones, in order to accomplish that.

But if my novel stalls at 14K words, I need to know what's going on, I need to know if this is: a) a short term lull in creativity, or b) a complete standstill, from which recovery will never happen.

We don't know. When a project grinds to a halt, we have no way of knowing if that's a terminal moment, or just another low.

I think we can use the wavelength theory to gauge this. I think that if an anticipated upsurge doesn't occur, that's when the project should be slid across onto thin ice. If it's then the cast that the project does not inspire over the duration of time in which you'd normally expect two, maybe three highs, then it needs to go in the bin.

And when I say 'bin' I mean, looking at it side-glance, but not really looking at it. I mean, consigned to the hard drive, with forlorn love, with echoes of passion, fingers reaching for it, but not quite connecting. Toss the story like a Frisbee. If you truly love something, let it go, if it loves you back...

Ellsea, of FM, recently revealed that she's been working on a story that she originally devised over three years ago. Three years!

It came back.

I think this is a viable technique. Yes, a novel can be forced out of a reluctant mind. But if the fire isn't there, if it really stalls and writing it is simply a case of making up the number of words, then I think it is time to cast the thing to oblivion.

Relative oblivion.

Given how much time a story takes to write and polish, and given the phenomenon of constant improvement among writers, I don't think we have the time to mess about trying to make things work when they're clearly not going to in the immediate future. Grab that next idea, and run with it.

Then when the creativity slows down, the the harder times come again, watch the wavelength.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Word Gremlin Talks of Revenge Robots

Word Gremlin: I like this place you have here. Smells of tasty book dust.

Ink: Um… tasty?

Word Gremlin: The blog is good, too. Though all those electrons give the words a sort of burnt taste, like overdone microwave dinners.

Ink: You eat words?

Word Gremlin: I eat the good words and spit out bad ones. Don't worry, you probably won't know the difference. Editing is a lost art.

Ink: Sort of an ugly little fellow, aren't you?

Word Gremlin: Flattery gets you nowhere.

Ink: You're not eating my books. I need those words.

Word Gremlin: Key to fame and fortune, eh? You have some old short stories on file. They're bad. Trust me, you can spare them. I won't even mention the poetry.

Ink: Go haunt some other store.

Word Gremlin: I like it here. Ambiance. And you named the place after me. Inklings. That's me, an inkling. But you can call me Word Gremlin.

Ink: I can squash you with my boot.

Word Gremlin: I can eat your head.

Ink: It's not made of words.

Word Gremlin: Ha! Shows what you know. Trust me, I looked inside. Mostly words.

Ink: Go away. I wanted to work on something.

Word Gremlin: Probably something bad.

Ink: I read a good reminder post by Nathan Bransford about character motivation in fiction. I liked the stuff on the benefit of complexity in motivation, and wanted to elaborate on that.

Word Gremlin: Ooh, yes! You do that and I'll make me some Revenge Robots.

Ink: Pardon?

Word Gremlin: I love me some Revenge Robots.

Ink: What the hell is a Revenge Robot?

Word Gremlin: You know, writers want to write real people… and I just eat up some of those good words that create complexity. Who needs all that? Having characters with too many motivations is confusing for you dumb humans. Simplify, I say. One motivation! That's all that's needed. One motivation provides propulsion. Mmmm… propulsion. That one's tasty.

Ink: I do like that word…

Word Gremlin: You like it too much, frankly. My Revenge Robots will cure you of that habit, though. They will strike you down with their well-developed sense of vengeance.

Ink: So a Revenge Robot is a character with only one motivation…

Word Gremlin: Yup. Popular in action movies. "You killed my woman. I will now spend my entire life seeking vengeance and will not stop even to eat a sandwich."

Ink: That's terrible. You create propulsion but lose all humanity. Characters become like those celebrity cardboard cutouts you see in the mall advertising ugly and expensive things. Propulsion alone isn't worth that.

Word Gremlin: See, I said you use that word too much. But you humans are easily confused. Revenge. You can handle that. Revenge and other stuff? Nope. So I eat it up. Gastro-intestinal editing. I give back good words, though, like "Kill!" and "Villain!" and "Your mother!" Words like "subtlety"? "Nuance"? Very distracting. You don't need 'em and they taste so fine…

Ink: What are you eating, anyway?

Word Gremlin: A Danielle Steele. Tastes like bad sex.

Ink: Hey, someone would have bought that.

Word Gremlin: There's lots more where it came from. I hear they're replicating themselves exponentially. In 48 hours your store will collapse under the weight of poorly bound paperbacks. Just trying to help.

Ink: I should squash you with my boot.

Word Gremlin: Eat your head. Weigh the odds, homo sapwit.

Ink: I'm gonna hit you with a book.

Word Gremlin: I eat books.

Ink: A picture book.

Word Gremlin: You're cruel.

Ink: I don't care. I'm interested in trying to write complex characters, people who have a variety of motivations that shift and change from moment to moment according to the pressures placed upon them. Because it is human experience that shapes motivation, and if the events of the story are relevant to the characters it will affect and change them. It will affect not only who they are but how they approach the world. It will affect not only the motivations that drive their life but those that shape their immediate moments.

Word Gremlin: You forgot to use "propulsion".

Ink: Squash. You. Like. A. Bug.

Word Gremlin: I'm supposed to be scared of a man who uses the word "onomatopoeia" in general conversation? No one should use a word like "onomatopoeia" in general conversation.

Ink: Go away. I have some writing to do.

Word Gremlin: I'm glad you've decided to write the latest Revenge Robot thriller. Stupid humans everywhere will be happy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

To Tweak or Not to Tweak? That is the Question.

So, I've got a question. Totally hypothetical, of course.

You've got a half dozen short stories under your belt. Somehow you've mustered the courage to send them out into the cruel universe for publication. Or mutilation. Whichever the Fates decree. You've got a plan, you see. Send out those little gems and wait patiently for them to return like wayward carrier pigeons, hopefully bearing good news in those little canisters tied to their legs, and in the meantime while away the long days by finally weaving that novel that's been percolating in the back of your noggin.

Then, just as you are in jeopardy of actually starting said novel, the rejection notices start flying at you, like poison darts fired by headhunters. But the people you think are headhunters are actually editors of magazines you THOUGHT you liked, only now you realize they obviously have no sense of style or eye for talent.

Oh sure, some of them have chatty little personal notes tacked on. Stuff like, "I loved your story except for the lack of plot and likeable characters…" or "We'd love to publish your story but for the fact that we have standards…" yada, yada, yada. Their sugar-coated platitudes can't hide the fact that it all adds up to the same thing: rejection!

Suddenly your attention is drawn from your upcoming bestseller back to these literary nuggets that desperately need a home. Upon reopening your stories you discover, to your horror, that perhaps there are flaws. Microscopic, to be sure, but they are there. And they must be addressed. Immediately!

So now you find yourself in this endless cycle of rehashing…rethinking…rewriting!

My question is this:

At some point, do you simply let them go? Those wayward stories, I mean. Do you get to a point where you throw your hands up and declare, "Enough! I will not budge another inch!" If they never find a home just consider it a part of your writing education and move on..?

Or do you endlessly tweak until they are perfect?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pattern Recognition

Hey, it's always great to crib a title from a bestseller, right? But seriously, I wanted to expand a little on the last post. We talked about form, about poetry, short stories and novels... but now I wanted to stretch that out to genre, stretch it out to our own unique stories. What draws you to the kind of stories you write? Where do they come from?

For me, things started with fantasy so I'll start there. Part of why I write fantasy is just because I love a good bit of imagination. Something magical... why not? I think I liked the physicality of fantasy, too. In an increasingly mechanized and abstract world I loved the directness of fantasy. You got a guy, a horse, a sword. You got some bloke to chop. It was stuff you could do with your own hands. I was an adventuresome kid. I never met a stick that wasn't really a gun or a sword (or a ray blaster, of course). Oh, okay, I liked violence. Battles! Epic fantasy seemed a natural choice.

The interesting thing is that those childhood choices often hold a certain resonance, vibrating at a frequency we recognize even decades later. They've worn a synaptic channel, and we're quick to recognize specific patterns. It's not something I think I'll ever escape (even if I wanted to). Now, what I want from fantasy has changed as I've aged... but I think part of the desire to still live within the old patterns of the fantastic derives from their familiarity, from the pitch of that resonating frequency. Those stories, for good or ill, have helped shape who I am, and so I'm bound, in a sense, to always work within that form, to always have my thoughts shaped within that framework. I'm like one of Pavlov's dogs: draw a sword and I start salivating.

There are other paths and patterns, however. Reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest when I was eighteen opened new and strange vistas. Reading it, I thought: "Holy shit, you can do this? You're allowed to do this in a story? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Reading Wallace was an awakening to an entirely new idea of what a story was, flipping my old ideas over and giving 'em a good kicking. I became fascinated not just with the content of a story, but its nature, its function. The tricks of the post-modernists caught my eye, stories that deconstruct themselves, narratives about narratives...

Yet tricks can grow tiring. I wanted something more essential than misdirection. What is a story trying to do? What do I see as its purpose? Maybe a story is there simply to peel open a human moment. My love of literary stories comes from this, I think. A fascination with psychology, a fascination with people. A desire to peel open something human and see how it works, as if beyond the words were a pile of little gears and levers I could discover and diagram. A story, for me, became a moment of exploration, a chance not merely to find an epiphany but to build one up out of scratch, stacking words together until the right shape was found, the right function, all the little wheels whirring into synchronicity.

I had to love magical realism, of course. How could I not love it when the fantastic leaked into the real and pried open human dilemmas? It was a natural fit, really. What better to explore than the unexplained and inexplicable? Kafka, Marquez, Calvino, Lethem, Chabon, Murakami... strange and unique, and yet the patterns were familiar, two seemingly disparate frequencies humming into sudden harmony.

I remember when my daughter first started learning to paint (she's an old hand now at four) and how excited she was when she realized she could swipe a brush through one paint to make one colour, and through another paint to make another colour. And then one day she realized that she could mix the paints to get an entirely different colour... and her face lit up. I think that's the expression I have, sometimes, when those frequencies align and a piece of the fantastic breaks free and dreams itself into the reality of a human moment.

So, those are my frequencies. What are yours? And how'd they come about?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Magnetic Pull

"I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."
- William Faulkner

I love this quote, though I don't necessarily agree with it (and Faulkner himself might not agree with it completely, as there's a wee taste here of a tongue in a cheek). It does make me think, though, about what it is that draws me to particular forms.

I'm no poet. And it's not a matter of failure, but rather a simple lack of desire or need. While I occasionally read poetry I have no real inclination to write it. I've written a few in the past (well in the past), but almost all were for Creative Writing courses. An assignment, a deadline, a task at hand. I enjoy and appreciate the language of poetry, how experience and emotion can be condensed into bare images, given shape through the most minimal of words. But it doesn't call to me. It doesn't stick in my head, doesn't persist past the moment.

Fiction, for me, has always had a certain magnetism. Something irresistable, a steep sort of gravity which I can't escape. I'm compelled. A fascination, a glamour... a bewitchment with the form.

I like short stories. I like their density, their ability to capture and articulate an idea. I like the idea of a reader being left to extrapolate beyond the parameters of the narrative. We see only a little, we're given clues, subtle hints... the world is out there, yet to be explored. It's a taste, a tease... I enjoy reading short stories, and I enjoy writing them. It's satisfying to sit for a day or two, typing, and then look down at something complete, something I can twist and turn in my hands. How does the light catch it this way? Or maybe this way? I can file and cut and polish and then I have something small and sparkly to admire, maybe to share, maybe to gift to a reader or two.

Yet short stories are not the fictional form that engenders my obsession. Oh, yes. Novels. Let me write odes to thee, my love, my novels read and written.

What is it, though, that creates this fierce attraction? More than anything I love to read novels. Poetry and short stories, yes. Non-fiction, yes. Memoir, my new and growing friend, yes. But novels... I think I like the journey of a novel. It's not about an instant, a moment, about something ephemeral and transitory, but rather it's built up slowly around me, a slow articulation, a meditation in words.

It was a novel, of course, that started it all. The Hobbit was the first, with others to follow. A romance, a passion. It's the novel I'm obsessed with, both reading and writing them. Studying them, poking them with sharp sticks to see if I can discern how they work, what makes them tick, how the little hand is connected to the big hand.

Writing a novel, for me, is writing towards something, writing to find something. It's an exploration, a movement from desire to understanding. I like how hard it is, how long it takes. It's a marathon instead of a sprint. You need to measure yourself, you need patience and will. You need to get lost inside your own head to survive a novel. It's probably going to hurt, you might want to stop... but you have to take another step and another step and then one more. You can't see the finish line... but you know it's there. You're racing against yourself. And somewhere on that journey, lost inside your head, you will find something important. You will see your limbs moving and that movement will be a revelation.

So what about you? What draws you to the forms you choose? Why do you write it? Any secret yearnings? Maybe an epic in iambic pentameter? Lay it out there...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What is "Reading"?

I know, I know, bizarre question. But there's method to my madness! No, really, there is. I swear. See, I might even prove it...

What brought the odd question to mind is my current enjoyment of the Harry Potter series via audiobook (while driving to and from work). It came about naturally enough. I had a curiosity about the series, and yet my To Be Read pile was filled with books that seemed more lush and enticing. Was I really going to devote that much of my reading time to the consumption of four or five thousand pages of Harry Potter? Um... no. But filling the dead hours of driving to and from work every day? Hmmm... yes, please. Why not?

It was a good choice, I think. The reader is excellent, the story fun and simple and easy to keep track of while weaving through snarls of traffic. I've made it through four of the seven books, and plan on listenting to the last three as well. Yet as I listened to the books I started to wonder... am I reading?

What is reading? For me it had always been a visual act. There's me and the words. We have a relationship. I see and absorb them, and they both shape and are shaped by me, becoming part of my consciousness. But now I was listening...

If someone asks me if I've read Harry Potter what do I say? I know the stories, the words are a part of me... and yet I haven't seen them. I haven't seen the movies, either, so I can't blame them for this understanding. Have I read the books? It's that intermediary that causes problems. It used to be: words - me. Now it's: words - reader - me. He's reading and I'm listening...

Yet many of the necessary actions are still the same. This is not the more passive absorption of film, where the narrative is complete in and of itself. The story still has to come to life in my head, shaped by my own imagination. And yet the voices are provided: it's imagination with an audio track. Is it different? Is it reading?

What do you think?