Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do You Get Intimidated?

Do you ever have an idea for a scene, or story, and throw it around in your head for a while, and then decide that the technical difficulties of realising that sequence would be too much hassle for the payoff?

I've caught myself doing this, twice, and now I'm unimpressed with myself on that score. I have ditched two ideas because I didn't fancy the technical challenges. One of them was about a three-party conflict with an invisible person (who wasn't the MC) in the scene. Another was a strange effect I was trying for, having the narrator explain something, but then having the MC respond to the narrator's reflections, not directly, but as if influenced by them and/or vice versa. I know that sounds pretty normal, but this is it really, there's something difficult that I wanted to do, but just tossed it aside. I find it difficult even trying to explain what I wanted to do, let alone actually carry it off.

I think I'm going to change this, and be a bit braver about tricky ideas.

But I wondered if other people ever get this. You ever back off from an idea like that?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


As some of you know, I'm part of a twelve-strong novel critique group. It's an incredible learning experience, both to receive critique on a finished novel, and to offer it on someone else's.

It's difficult, sometimes, though, to identify what is 'wrong' with a piece, as opposed to what is simply not going down too well with my own personal tastes. Take this latest novel: I'm struggling to read it, right near the beginning, completely turned off. I can give reasons, but are they valid in any sense other than 'I don't like this'?

The work in question has a patchwork quality to the presentation, the scenes are only loosely connected, and the 'story' follows different characters with lots of backstory and summary in relation to each. After fifty pages, I don't know who the focus is supposed to be on, or even if there's a story here.

There's some early anthropomorphising of an elephant and a monkey (to the point at which they think in English) which I think is just plain silly.

And there's a big Voodoo woman who appears early on who seems to have nothing either original, nor credible, about her. What she says provides the only real intrigue to the story, but both her, and the characters she talks to, then take a back-seat for the next thirty pages.

Sound like this novel needs work?

Well, the work in question isn't from my crit circle. It is, rather, my assessment of the bestselling author, Isabel Allende's, Forest of the Pygmies.

I picked it up in the library after being unable to find Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows which was recommended by a writer at FM. In defence of the work, I should say that Allende's novel is part of a series for younger readers, so I'm not the intended target market at all. The work is also a translation, so might have lost some pizazz, although even allowing for younger tastes, I can't see how anything can lose that much pizazz.

Bear with me, though, I didn't write this post just to harangue everyone with my crass misdirection. There's a point to this, and that is: Surely, if I can feel this sour toward a published novel, almost entirely because it is outside my own genre, even though it is written by a well respected international bestselling author... and! I can give 'sound' reasons for my discomfort with the story... how valid are the crit-points I'm making at my novel club?

We all acknowledge, sooner or later, that it isn't the crit that's the important part of exchanging critique, but what the author does with the information in that crit. I'm not saying, for example, that I think I'm unknowingly sabotaging the work of my peers. But I am saying that the numbers are dangerous. Six billion people in the world, and we're going to listen to just a handful about what to alter in our novels?

Given how much the 'rules' don't really count for anything, apparently, (sometimes), in the world of publishing, are we doing each other any good?

On balance, I suspect, 'yes', we are, as long as everyone is careful about what they highlight as possible shortfalls, and about what they accept/agree with as being shortfalls in their own work.

Indeed, it can all work out very nicely. Check out the acknowledgements from the front of Sasha Miller's 1996 fantasy novel, Ladylord:

This work owes a lot to the Gang, who alternately pummelled me into abandoning the entire project (Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., in particular, for his infernal Standard Lecture 47) and encouraged me (Donald Robertson, crying "More dragon! More dragon!" and Marina Fitch telling me how, in spite of her being so hard on the manuscript, she couldn't get the story out of her mind). Then there was Lisa Swallow with her steadying influence, and John Staley, who translated the name of one of the characters as something really bizarre in Japanese, and Jim Aikin, who liked it from the start while being just as tough and uncompromising as anybody else in the critique group. Thanks to Kent Brewster, who enthusiastically approved, from the start, and thanks to Tony Bryant for helping me with the details of the duel and an important point of honour. Thanks also to the other dozen or so people who laid hands, one way and another, on the project and whose reaction was, for the most part, favourable. And special thanks to Susan Graham, who finally got the thing off high centre, and to Jim Frenkel, who carried it through.

Because of you, and sometimes in spite of you, I got it finished -- because it wouldn't let go of me, either.

Sounds like a very harsh crit group! Well done to Sasha for persevering, and to her Gang for helping so enthusiastically. Obviously, the alchemy worked, both for the story, and among the crit group.

Acting on crit, I think, in its purest essence, is about broadening the appeal of a novel, making it 'generally' more accessible, and/or more exciting. Every crit-point might be a ticket to 'hone' the story in some way, but perhaps it's best to be aware of how far from 'general' reception, a singular crit-point might be.

I guess this is also why we need multiple crits -- to enable a more rounded perspective. Even then, though, there could be hidden dangers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rejection Joys

Oh, those sweet nothings whispered in the ear, the breathy purr, the "No. Get lost." Doesn't it get you excited?

Rejection! Everyone has to have an opinion on rejection. So my question is: Are there good rejections? Are there rejections that encourage you?

I got a rejection today, and it was of the "good" variety, if there is such a thing. I'd sent a story to AGNI, a pro literary magazine edited by a major American critic, Sven Birkerts. Rejection... but a perosalized and flattering one. He made a point to state this was not a normal rejection note, and went on to praise my story and lively writing and to say that he definitely wanted me to submit new stories. What does this mean? Well, I guess it means a major critic likes my writing, which is confirming in a way. It's "good". Not as good, say, as an acceptance. Or, you know, money. But a good that's better than a bad, at least. Right track? I hope so.

It's odd getting back into the whole short story thing. I wrote a few back in my gradschool days, got a few published, and then spent a number of years working on long novel projects. But the last year or two I've reacquired a taste for the short story (and had to relearn, in a sense, the whole form, as I'd forgotten - or never known - a fair number of things). And now I have a little pile of them and it's time to send them out into the world. Back out into Acceptance and Rejection Land, always a mystical place of subjectivity, a surreal landscape guarded by grad students, quirky eccentrics and gaggles of squint-eyed and jaded writers (kinfolk, of course).

So now that I'm back "out there" I guess it's time to revisit some of my ideas on rejection (many of which were formulated during my time as an editor). So... opinions? Are there helpful rejections? What's your attitude towards them? No emotion, file them away... stew a bit, get on with things... hysterical breakdown... crying jags... alcohol and pill benders... And do you distinguish between different types? What was the most helpful or motivating rejection you've had? If you have a story, lay it on me.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Vocation of Unhappiness?

I have a little quote here from an interview with the writer Georges Simenon (from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III) that I wanted to share, as I thought it would be interesting to see how different writers react to it. Here goes...

Simenon: Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. I don't think an artist can ever be happy.

Interviewer: Why?

Simenon: Because, first, I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist, it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.

I thought this was very intriguing, though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I see no reason why an artist can't be happy. Even if there is something necessarily unhappy about the pursuit of art (and I'm not sure there is), there is more to the artist than that pursuit alone. Art is merely one aspect of life, or perhaps an interpretation of it. But even for the happy artists... is writing a profession, and do you think we'd be better off without it? Intriguing. Is our art really that risky, really that damaging?

The part that really caught me, however, was that last bit, the idea that the artist is searching for himself in his art. A writer, in putting down words and stories, is seeking to find himself, to locate, perhaps, his own thoughts and sense of self. I think there's something to this, at least for some writers (me being one of them). I think I'm an explorative writer, both in seeking outward, in exploring something I don't know... and in exploring inward.

My most recent novel is about a kidnapping, a woman held for ransom in a makeshift cell. Part of this is outward exploration, a result of a (perhaps somewhat morbid) curiosity, a desire to know what others who have been imprisoned have gone through. And yet much of it is a very personal exploration, too, looking not only abstractly at imprisonment but personally, peeling apart my own thoughts, feelings and fears of imprisonment, my own claustrophobia, my own capacity for choice and action.

So, thoughts and reactions? What's up with writers and happiness? The artistic impulse? Self-revelation?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Turning the Crank, or, Secret Hoochie Koochie Loves

So what turns your crank in terms of writing?

I know (or hope) we all love writing. But what's your secret love, what's that part of writing that really sets you on fire? Think pools of gasoline and a blowtorch...

Is it dialogue? Description? Or maybe it's an action scene? Charting the interior thoughts of a character? Exposition? Or maybe it's writing a plot twist, or foreshadowing something in a clever way? Or maybe you've got the Jones for a good old fashioned sex scene? Or maybe you like coming up with a monster, or an interesting setting? Or maybe it's journals or letters? Or dreams? Or finally getting to write the nasty villain stuff? Or writing cuss words!

What are the little bits you're always happy to write? And why?

I like action, and I love dialogue... but I get rapturous over a good bit of description, whether it's spare or ornate. I'm a very visual person, very image oriented (love of art and photography fits in here - I will not mention the sadness of my broken camera), and I think that plays into my writing. How much of that love of visual wonders relates to the fact that without my contact lenses I'm pretty much blind? Maybe that blurred world I retreat into each night provides an interesting contrast with the beauty of certain images, an opportunity to really absorb and appreciate the sights before my eyes.

So, yeah, description. Which, um, probably won't surprise some of you who've read my stories. :) But yes, a finely turned sentence of description... that's a thing of wonder. The rhythm of a line as it slowly unfolds an image I can see without actually seeing... that is something, I think, I'll always love. Sight beyond sight, where words are like bright lights that reveal the sudden vividness of the world.

So... secret hoochie koochies anyone?