Thursday, December 30, 2010
Now there's a few reasons for this. One is simply that my reading tastes are much more diverse and eclectic than they once were. In that regard, the balance is necessarily going to change. When I was young I read mostly fantasy, with smatterings of other things. Now I read mostly other things, with smatterings of fantasy.
Now, I think that breadth of reading is good for me as a writer (and human being), even as a writer of fantasy. ***Which is not to say that it would necessarily be good for every writer of fantasy -- just for me, at the least.*** And part of it, too, is that I don't find as much fantasy as I would like that satisfies the complexity I desire in a story, and meets character, style and swordfight quotient needs. Which, of course, is part of the reason I write the kind of stories I write, because I feel there might be something missing, and that other readers might feel this lack as well.
Yet I've been thinking about something else, as well, and that has to do with the physical form of fantasy itself -- the series. Because a lot of the great fantasy writers (particularly in epic fantasy) work in series. And often pretty long series. And when I was young this was fine, because I was usually reading a whole bunch of series at once. I might be in the middle of ten or twenty at any one time. And new books in the different series would pop up fairly regularly, keeping me in reading material as I rotated endlessly through the different series. And if there was a lull, I could always search out a new series or author, or use that time to enjoy one of the smatterings, one of the non-fantasy books on my reading list.
But as the ratio started leaning more to the smatterings than to the fantasy, something else happened. It wasn't just a change in taste, but a change in the patterns of my reading. I was now separated from that cycle of endless series, interchanging and handing me off from book to book. And I now find it harder to keep up with series.
I find, now, that I start some good series, but divorced from that cycle of reading I don't wait for the next book, don't search it out when it arrives - even if I fully enjoyed the opening of the series. Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie... these guys are worth reading more of. But I'm out of that series loop.
It's a matter of habit, I suppose. Tracking series, targeting the new books when they come out, a matter of developing a fluid reading schedule. You kind of tie yourself in to a commitment: I'm going to read a bunch of books by this author, with installments coming over a few (possibly many) years. The reading life partly planned out long in advance...
I find this harder now. My choice of reading matter now is very... whimsical? Mercurial? I don't know what I'm going to read, usually, until I pick it off the shelf. A matter of feel, of tone, of trying to satisfy some sort of amorphous need I can't pidgeonhole let alone describe. It's an ephemeral path that connects my books, that links together my reading life.
And yet I miss series reading, too. That sense of engagement that comes with such a long narrative, the sense of familiarity and comfort.
One of my goals for the new year is to read more fantasy/speculative fiction. Yet I wonder if I can succeed? I'm curious to see how ingrained my reading habits have become. And if I'm successful, how will it affect those habits?
What about you, Fellow Sophisticates? Have your reading habits changed? What's your experience of series and reading commitments?
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
And it seems that for the 100th post I blurbed and linked 100 great books... so I thought Why not do it again? And then I remembered that post almost killed me. Yes, the long black tunnel, the shining light at the end... all the ex-girlfriends trying to shove me along.
Okay, it wasn't all of them.
Okay, it was.
So instead of 100 books, I'll just do some of the great books I read this year. Some people stick to the best books published in 2010... but since I'm perennially behind the publishing times in my reading it would look like I don't, you know, actually read. Which I do!
So just a collection of random great books I read this year. That should be enough. If not, I shall come and burn all your tinsel. And that stuff burns, baby. Won't need no yuletide logs, is what I'm saying.
Light Boxes, by Shane Jones. A weird and surreal modern fable in which February lets fall an endless winter on a small town, and nothing is permitted flight. Yet the town fights back, led by a community of balloonists. Yes, I know you want to read it. Please do.
Solo, by Rana Dasgupta. A strange novel in which stories are wound together, and what is story and what is fact becomes blurred. What sort of truth lies in the fictions we tell ourselves?
Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel. This is a beautiful and strange and stunning book, circling the Holocaust and coming at it obliquely - which happens to be both the theme and the subject matter of the novel itself. An absolutely brilliant book. I really liked Life of Pi, but Beatrice and Virgil is a better book. Perhaps a truly great one.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. I finally read it! And yes, it was brilliant. It took me awhile to get into it, but the ending (and the build-up to that ending) is fantabulously marvellous.
The Ecstatic, by Victor Lavalle. Another great book, and somewhat like Oscar Wao in its interesting and atypical protagonist. And it might be a more even and consistently good book than Oscar Wao, though it can't match the ending. More people should know about Lavalle.
Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcon. A riveting look at the end product of war and broken revolutions, tracked through the lost and missing - the empty spaces in the lives of those left behind.
Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg. Short stories! A wonderful and diverse collection by one of the best short form writers out there. Full of awesome.
Money From Hitler, by Radka Denemarkova. Talked a bit about this one here.
Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan. I read McEwan's newest book, Solar, as well, and while it was very good I much preferred this older, and less well known, of his novels, Black Dogs. I thought it was wonderful from the opening line. And the opening line is a beauty.
Toll the Hounds, by Steven Erikson. The latest (the 8th) in my favourite fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like the others in the series, it percolates with madness, and its sheer size and scope and complexity is a little intimidating. But for depth of imagination, nothing beats it. Note to self: Read more fantasy next year.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Child protagonists in adult novels sometimes grate on me, but this fine mystery was an exception. Flavia's almost sociopathic tendencies made it an interesting read.
Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson. How come the peaceful Scandinavians write so many great crime novels? A mystery, indeed. And we have another fine example here.
The Big Gold Dream, by Chester Himes. An oldie but a goodie. A fantastic black detective team in old-time Harlem.
I Was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond. A pioneer of British noir, and this is dark indeed. Brutal and heavy, but the writing is wonderful and the mood overpowering.
The Shadow of the Sun, Another Day of Life, The Emperor, Shah of Shahs, al by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Needless to say, one of my new favourite writers. A brilliant journalist, both in terms of his writing and his willingness and ability to observe from the ground. Shadow of the Sun charts dozens of large and small stories in Africa (and is the sort of book that reconfirms my desire to be a writer), while Another Day of Life charts civil war in Angola. Shah of Shahs follows revolution in Iran, while The Emperor deconstructs the court politics in Emperor Selassie's Ethiopia.
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. A wonderful book about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, but also about race and culture and pereception in America.
Dark Summit, by Nick Heil. If you liked Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, you'll like Dark Summit. A fascinating, and riveting, look at life and death atop the highest place on earth.
The Tiger, by John Vaillant. A strange story of vengeance -- a tiger's vengeance against the man who wronged him. And, of course, the aftermath, and the necessity of further death. An intriguing narrative.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Hasn't it all been said already? A little lacking in the depth and psychology I might have wanted in this scenario, but you can't argue with the author's brilliance at pacing and tension. A great read.
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson. A classic, and deservedly so. I mean, you know things never end well for the dogs in these books. But the narrative is fascinating, and the voice is pitch perfect. Once hooked, I'd follow that voice anywhere. And the little brother pitching stones... makes me laugh every time.
So, that's it. Great books! A strange year has passed! Anyone else looking forward to the new one? I certainly am. High expectations! Optimism is surprisingly cheap. See you all on the far side of Christmas, sated with Turkey and pie and all manner of deliriously sinful chocolates. Plus, egg nog. Can't forgo the Nog. Right? Right? Who's with me?
Monday, December 20, 2010
It's a simple question, but maybe the answers are sometimes more complex than expected. I've been thinking about this for a bit, mostly on account of a couple of conversations with my friend Matt Rush. And I'll buy him a Vikings jersey if he minds me putting this here.
So the latter of those two conversations was a few days ago, when he mentioned that he didn't know much about my work in progress, and hadn't really felt like it was his place to ask, because I might be keeping the information close to the vest intentionally.
And the earlier conversation was a month or two ago, when Matt found out that I wrote (in terms of my WIP novel) epic fantasy.
Does that surprise? AT first I was surprised that he was surprised. And then I started thinking... about my blog and blog friends, first and foremost. What's on my blog? A lot of stuff about writing in general, as well as some of flash fiction -- which, as it happens, is all literary or literary magical realism.
So maybe other people would be surprised that I spend the bulk of my time writing epic fantasy? It's interesting to think about, as it involves trying to look at yourself through the eyes of someone else, wondering how you present yourself to the world.
I'm an eclectic reader, and somewhat of an eclectic writer, too. I write literary and fantasy, and a magical realist hybrid of the two (sometimes with other genres, like crime and mystery, leaching into those forms). But I think my goal has always been to be a fantasy novelist. My first love. And it was a love that implanted some sort of deep obsession. Novelist! Yes! Sign me up!
I also dabble in literary novels, but my professional goal focuses on becoming that weird and strange breed of madman, the fantasy novelist. Unless someone wants to offer me a huge advance for a literary novel. Just sayin'.
So here we have the fact that I spend endless hours flicking away at laptop keys, writing about sword fights and magic. And also there's the fact that apparently I don't seem to talk about it much. Which is odd considering I (and my buddies) have a blog about writing (and yes, they, at least, know what I write :).
Now, I usually don't talk about projects when I'm working on a first draft. This is true. I'm not sure if it's superstition or merely an idea of energy conservation -- I don't want to expend narrative energy anywhere except on the page. And, perhaps, I don't want opinions yet, either. I don't want other views trying to shape or influence either me or the work in progress. I simply have a vision I wish to follow, and I want a silent world in which to track that tricky monster through the snow.
But my WIP is long past the first draft stage. Heck, if someone gets me talking about it I might not shut up. So it's not that I don't like to talk about my writing.
But perhaps I see it as an imposition? Do any of you feel this? Like, if you start jabbering about the WIP you'll suddenly become that old guy at the bar mumbling on to everyone and no one about his one big thing thirty years ago and wasn't it so great? I suppose I don't want to push my story on anyone, if they're not interested. Maybe I know I won't shut up once started, so I'm merely saving myself from future social awkwardness and embarassment. For example...
Ink: "Should I buy that sequinned shirt that's supposed to be for men?"
The Oracle: CEASE AND DESIST! STOP! DO NOT PASS GO!
Am I the only one like this? Do the rest of you secretly yearn for sequins? Oops, I mean, do the rest of you talk about your works in progress? Do people know what you write? Do you have rules for discussing your writing?
And if people don't know what type of things you write... what would their guess be? And would they be surprised to learn the truth?
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Life and Death Through the Eyes of a Child
The walls were blood-red brick, the building seeming treacherous despite its goal of healing. The young man held his wife’s hand tight, the removable baby seat carrier in his other hand. Together they strode forward to face the battle for their two-month-old daughter’s recovery, a daughter that they had only known for days but loved their whole lives.
An internal battle of red against white as the blood cells tried to fight it out. And there they were, inside of the hematology and oncology ward, looking for reinforcements.
Yet the young man was beginning to feel guilty about his daughter’s ailments. She had a disorder a problem, and while she would suffer a transfusion and treatment, she would get better. However, there were other young soldiers around. Little ones with wide eyes, sad faces, and no hair were battling a worse enemy. How could he pity himself?
Their names were called and they went to the back room, escaping the stares of the children.
He took a seat next to his wife and they waited in the room with the door open and he eavesdropped as a young girl spoke in the room across the hall. “Good afternoon, doctor.”
“Well how are you today, Ms. Sarah Morley?” a seasoned doctor said in a joking voice.
The young man got up from his seat and walked to the doorway to see the little girl. Her hair was just stubble on top of her head and a light glowed from her blue eyes. She seemed happy and despite a thousand reasons to frown, she smiled.
The doctor pulled out her four inch medical chart and opened it to the recent pages. Sarah gave it a quick study and asked, “Do I have the thickest chart in the files yet?”
The doctor shook her head at the girl’s persistent competitiveness and said, “No, not yet. There are a few more with thicker.”
She replied, with a cunning and beautifully wise smile, “At least I still have a chart.”
Bonus Announcement: My friend Susan Quinn is having a fabulous contest for charity! Check it out here. Who's your llama?
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I love reading them, and would recommend that every writer reads the Paris Review Interviews, Volumes 1 to 4. (Must read! Must read! Must read!) And I've also enjoyed intervieweing writers, both on my blog and elsewhere (including a wonderful one I had published with the Canadian writer Daphne Marlatt). I'm endlessly fascinated about the uniqueness of each writer, and also with the common bonds that tie us together in this strange and interesting pursuit.
But, recently, and for the first time, someone interviewed me. Very strange! Odd to wear the other hat, as it were. And it was also a fun experience, and I want to thank Doug Morrison for the opportunity. If anyone's interested, you can find it here.
And check out some of the other interviews while you're there: writers like Dale Brown, Tawna Fenske, Kennedy Foster, Sean Ferrell, Robin Becker and Brian Haig, as well as other industry experts.
Monday, December 13, 2010
What with the grand advent of self-publishing, I've been wondering about this a bit. In traditional publishing you don't really have much say. You get the words in line, the publisher handles the rest. Why let a writer have a say, when it's possible they don't know what they're doing?
But with self-publishing writers can gain control over many of these aspect. Paper and font and design and, of course, the cover. Because writers are creative people, and will often have other creative interests, like art, design, computer graphics, etc. But even without those skills it has to be tempting...
I think a lot of writers have such clear images of their stories, and these images translate into ideas and desires about the book itself, about the book as a physical object. They can picture a cover, how their name is printed, whether it's glossy or matte...
So what about you? Do you ever have that urge to do it all yourself? My friend Renee did this, and I think she enjoyed finding the images, deciding what she wanted the cover to be like... but with this came all the little details that are a headache, most likely, without an expert. Page layout, file formats, embedding images...
So what do you think about creative control?
Monday, December 6, 2010
I Had Trouble in Getting to Brooklyn, It’s True
I was real happy and carefree and young
And I always wrote stories using the theories of Jung
And nothing, not anything ever went wrong
Until… well, one day I was writing along
And I guess I got careless. I guess I got messing
With adverbs, not seeing what I was stressing
And that’s how it started.
Zot! What a shot!
I stubbed my big brain
On a very hard plot
And I flopped in the chair
(Oh so, so, so pale)
And I sprained the main bone
In the tip of my tail!
Now, I never had ever had
So I said to myself,
“I don’t want any more.
If I watch out for plots
With my eyes straight ahead,
I’ll keep out of trouble
Forever,” I said.
But, watching ahead…
Well, it just didn’t work.
I was watching those plots. Then I felt a hard jerk.
The complete lack of an opening hook
Sneaked up from in back and went after my book!
And I learned there are troubles
Of more than one kind.
Some come from ahead
And some come from behind.
So I said to myself, “Now, I’ll just have to start
To be twice as careful and be twice as smart.
I’ll watch out for trouble in the front and back sections
By aiming my eyeballs in different directions.
I found this to be
Quite a difficult stunt,
But now I was safe
Both in back and in front.
Then NEW troubles came!
Point of view at my neck!
Punctuation down low!
And now I was really in trouble, you know.
The plots! And the hook!
They all need a shrink!
I had so many troubles, I just couldn’t think!
There I was,
All completely surrounded by trouble,
When a chap stumbled up all covered in stubble.
“Young fellow,” he said, “what has happened to you
Has happened to me and to other scribes, too.
So I’ll tell you what I have decided to do…
I’m off to the city of Brooklyn, it’s true,
Where they make beautiful books, red, white and bright blue,
And they never have troubles! At least, very few.
“It is not very far.
And my Volvo is strong.
It’ll get us there fast.
So hop in! Come along!”
I jumped in beside him. Then all through that day
The Volvo rolled on in a Volvo-ish way.
The road got more bumpy, more rocky, more tricky.
By midnight, I tell you, my stomach felt icky.
And so I said, “Mister, please, when do we get
To that wonderful town? Aren’t we almost there yet?”
“Young fellow,” he told me, “don’t start in to stew.
At sunrise, we’ll drive into Brooklyn, it’s true.
And you’ll have no more troubles. I promise, I do.”
But, when dawn finally came and the darkness got light,
That wonderful city was nowhere in sight.
Instead of the city, we ran into trouble.
The manuscript got sick and it started to bubble.
Fearing contagion, “Out! Out!” said the man with the stubble.
So there, there I was in a dreadful position.
My book sure needed a bookish physician.
Now, doctors for books are not often seen.
Especially on roadsides. They’re far, far between.
But I pulled that old book and set out to find
Some doctor, while dragging my hopes out behind.
I pulled, pulled and pulled. Then the next thing I knew,
I was pulling the book and a long sequel tome, too!
“Now, really!” I thought, “this is rather unfair.
It’s hard to sell one, and worse for a pair.”
“This is called teamwork,” said Shelton B. Faking,
“I’m an agent, I swear, and you’re a star in the making!
I’ll pick the best roads, tell you just where to go
And we’ll find a good doctor more quickly, you know.
I’ll just take your last paycheck, whatever you’ve brung.”
And he bossed me around just because I was young.
He told me write big. Then he told me write small.
And that’s what he told me all spring and all fall.
Next winter we located Dr. Sam Snell,
Who knew all about thrillers and cozies as well.
Our manuscript, he said, had a bad case of leaks
And should be edited at Bread Loaf for at least twenty weeks.
I was tired. How I wanted to crawl back in bed!
But the book doctor sent me away and he said,
“Your troubles are practically all at an end.
Just run down that hill and around the next bend
And you’ll come to the happy MFA, my good friend.
The Iowa Workshop leaves at 4:42
And will take you directly to Brooklyn, it’s true,
Where they make beautiful books, red, white and bright blue,
And they never have troubles. At least, very few.”
The workshop was there. And that part was just fine.
But tacked on a stick was a very small sign
Saying, “Notice to writers perusing our fame
We are sorry to say that our teacher, the blighter,
Just won a pullitzer and spurned all his new writers.
So, until further notice, the workshop (don’t sue!)
Cannot possibly take you to Brooklyn, it’s true…
“But I wish you a most pleasant journey by query.
Iowa President, Horace B. Wary.”
So I went on by query, thanks to Horace P. Wary.
And that Horace B. Wary almost ruined my query!
A hundred Nays later
My heart was so sore!
THEN, wouldn’t you know it!
It started to pour!
I was critiqued to the skin (with a red pen just mark it!)
When a fellow washed up with the Publisher’s Market!
The Publisher’s Market came early this once,
“But offers no hope to us writers, you dunce!
Any fool would get out! So I’ve packed up my things
And I’m off to my granddaddy’s, out in Palm Springs.
Take cover!” he yelled. “Use my book if you wish!”
Then he grabbed up his bottle and drank like a fish.
I ran in the house and I fell in a heap.
I needed my rest, but I just couldn’t sleep.
Did you ever sleep, when your words were like ice?
And your story was about three owls and a gay cockatrice?
I listened all night to the growls and the yowls,
The chattering teeth of four fiendish fowls,
Thoughts of the Publisher’s Market churning my bowels.
I tossed and I flipped and I flopped and I flepped.
It was quarter past five when I finally slept.
Then I dreamed I was sleeping on billowy billows
Of soft silk and satin bestseller-stuffed pillows.
I dreamed I was sleeping in Brooklyn, it’s true,
Where they make beautiful books, red, white and bright blue,
And they never have troubles. At least, very few.
Then I woke up
And it just wasn’t true.
I was crashing downhill in flame war and flood
My email light blinking and mouth full of crud.
“That’s my story you’ve stolen,” came the bright shiny howls,
“of a gay cockatrice and three charming white owls!”
And I said to myself, “Now I really don’t see
Why troubles like this have to happen to me!”
I blogged for twelve days without toothpaste or soap.
I practically, almost had given up hope
When someone online shouted, “Here! Use this trope!”
Then I knew that my troubles had come to an end.
And I typed out that trope, calling, “Thank you, my friend!”
I went to hit send. But it wasn’t a friend.
And I saw that my troubles were not at an end.
A long email with ALLCAPS scared me out of my wits.
It bellowed “Us writers are going on a self-publishing blitz!
“There’s a war going on! And it’s time that you knew
Every scribe in this land has his duty to do.
We’re marching to battle. We need you, my boy.
We’re about to attack, we’re about to destroy
The Perilous Publisher of Pompelmoose Pass!
So, get into line! You’re a Private, First Class!”
They gave me a pencil
And one little lead,
Which was not very much,
If you see what I said.
Then they yelled, “Get that Publisher! Attack without fear!
The glorious moment of victory is near!”
And the glorious novelists led the advance
With a glorious swish of their pens in a trance
All while wearing old pajama-plaid pants.
Then we charged round a corner and found that, alas,
There was more than one Publisher in Pompelmoose Pass!
And the self-publishing email shouted out to the men,
“This happens in war every now and again.
Sometimes you are winners. Some times you are losers.
We never can win against so many book choosers
And so I suggest that it’s time to retreat!”
And the writers raced off on their pajama clad feet.
There I was!
With more angry Publishers than I’d ever seen!
There I was!
With one little pencil and too little green spleen!
There I was!
And I thought, “Will I ever get through
To the wonderful city of Brooklyn, so true,
Where they make beautiful books, red, white and bright blue,
And they never have troubles, at least very few?
I had terrible trouble in keeping up face
Then I saw a big sign that sang out “Create Space!”
I didn’t have time to find out what that meant,
But the sign had a link. And the link’s where I went.
Well… that link where I went
Was a sort of a funnel
That led me down into
A frightful black tunnel.
The traffic down there
Was a mess, I must say,
With billions of books
Written all the wrong way.
They bumped me with bios,
And banged me with fan fiction.
I ran into thrillers
With all sorts of bad diction.
I skidded on verbiage
And fell on some porn.
Troubles! I wished
I had never been born!
I was down there three days in that book-filled-up place.
At least eight thousand times, I fell smack on my face.
I injured three chapters, my prologue and climax,
My action got sloppy and so did my syntax.
What’s more, I was starved. I had nothing to read.
My eyes were all swelled up and started to bleed.
Then, just when I thought I could stand it no more,
By chance I discovered a tiny trap door!
I popped my head out. The great sky was sky-blue
And I knew, from the authors, I’d finally come through
To a place where they make books, red, white and bright blue,
I couldn’t be far, now, from Brooklyn, it’s true!
There it was! With its glittering towers in the air!
I’d made it! I’d done it! At last I was there!
And I knew that I’d left all my troubles behind
When a chap in a suit that shimmered and shined
Waved me a wave that was friendly and kind.
“Welcome!” he said as he gave me his hand.
“Welcome, my son, to this beautiful land.
Welcome to sweet, sunny Brooklyn, so blue,
Where they never have troubles.
At least very few.
As a matter of fact, they have only just one.
Imagine! Just one little trouble, my son.
And this one little trouble,
As you will now find,
Is this one little trouble they have with our kind…
“For there’s only one room left to rent, yes it’s true,
And the price is too high for our likes, me and you.
They left me a notice right here on the floor
Evicting me last Tuesday at quarter to four.
Since then, I can’t open this door any more!
And I can’t burn the notice. It’s very bad luck
To burn any notice, and that’s why we’re stuck
And why no one gets in and the town’s gone to pot.
It’s a terrible state of affairs, is it not!
“And so,” said the writer from Brooklyn, so blue,
“My job as a novelist is finished. I’m through!
And I’ll tell you what I have decided to do…
“I’m leaving,” he said, “leaving Brooklyn, it’s true,
Where they make beautiful books, red white and bright blue,
And they never have troubles, at least very few.
And I’m off to the City of Angels, so tall,
Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!
Come on along with me,” he said as he ran,
“And you’ll never have any more troubles, young man!”
I’d have no more troubles…
That’s what the man said.
So I started to go.
But I didn’t.
I did some quick thinking
Inside of my head.
Then I started a new novel
No owls -- one, two, three…
I know I’ll have troubles
But now I’ll be free.
I’ll always have troubles.
I’ll, maybe, get bit
By porous plot holes
On the place where I sit.
But I’ve bought a new moleskin.
I’m all ready, you see.
Now my troubles are going
To have troubles with me!
Thursday, December 2, 2010
The Kid Chompers
“The woman next door to us has claws,” Cassidy said when her father
came home. “I saw them under her coat.”
Her father put his briefcase down. “Oh, big fingernails?”
“I didn’t say big fingernails. She has claws on her feet.”
“She can’t have claws, sweetheart,” he said.
“She does so! Big, thick claws like some kind of a horrible animal.”
“She had on a costume then,” he said and moved to the kitchen.
Cassidy followed him. “You’re not listening to me, Dad. She has claws
on her feet.”
“It’s Halloween weekend.” Her father opened the refrigerator and took
out a Heineken. “Everybody at work was in costume today. The secretary
was dressed up like a pirate, and I saw a Frankenstein in the library.
The woman bought her claws at some shopping mall.”
“Oh,” Cassidy said. Hot tears of relief welled up in her eyes. “I
thought they were real. They were just awful.”
He laughed and ruffled her hair. “She was going to a party, Cass, or
she just left one. I know everything’s been hard on you lately, losing
your mother, the move, dealing with all these boxes.”
“I’m okay, Dad. Really.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’m going to tell you a story.
You’ll like this one. When I was ten years old, just like you, the
roof of the house next door was right outside my bedroom window, and
my granddad told me that the Kid Chompers lived in the chimney.”
She smirked. “The Kid Chompers.”
“He said the Kid Chompers would come out at night -- not every night,
just when the moon was out. The Kid Chompers were like genies in a
bottle, and they’d get bigger and bigger and look in the windows for
kids. That’s why kids should never crawl out a window because the Kid
Chompers will chomp down on them. They control the kids who climb out
on the rooftops. They eat ‘em up and nobody ever sees ‘em again.” He
laughed. “I was so scared I slept with the blanket over my head.”
“You’re making fun of me,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.
“No, you’re my best girl. You’re my all-time favorite.”
“You’re my favorite, too, Dad.”
Cassidy woke up in the middle of the night. The windows didn’t have
curtains yet and mysterious tree shadows swayed across the bare wood
She’d been dreaming about Kid Chompers, but the dream began to fade
the more she tried to remember what it had been about. Something about
Kid Chompers scratching at the window, trying to get inside.
The cat lay on the end of the bed. Everything seemed to be fine.
Just in case, though, she crept to the window. And sure enough, their
neighbor was out there on the roof of the porch. I knew she was out there. I knew it. She ducked down and then dared another peek.
“And she’s still wearing her party claws,” she whispered.
Monday, November 29, 2010
I don't know how widely known this is, but at About.com you can sign up to mailing lists on a variety of subjects (e.g. 15-minute fashion, African travel, freshwater fishing). Among the categories on offer is a crazy fringe interest labeled, 'Fiction Writing.'
Like I say, I don't know how well known this is, so this could be the blogging equivalent of saying, 'That Shakespeare, I hear he was pretty handy with words.'
However, I've been receiving updates from About Fiction Writing for a while now, and for just short of a while I've been ignoring and deleting them. Ironically enough (you'll see why in a moment), the first one I've stopped to really have a look at included a list of:
Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist
For fear of prosecution, I won't reproduce that list. It doesn't matter, the whole thing can be seen here. What I want to do is celebrate point five:
Point 5: Ignore all reasonable sounding advice
Fantastic! My kind of advice. Upon finding it reasonable, you have to dismiss it! Here's the argument:
"Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.”
Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable."
Fantastic. I quite like the About.com Fiction Writing articles. Many of them are written by published authors, some contain interviews with authors, others are market updates or news on publishing houses, this kind of thing. So, this is my li'l recommendation to have a look sometime.
As to 'point 5' - I agree!
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
This goes for every writer. Every writer. The problem, I think, is that for many writers this readerly response (or even the mere thought of this response) is a paralyzing force, when really it should be freeing.
No one escapes this phenomena. J.K. Rowling may have sold 80 billion books (all estimations by Ink Inc.), but for all the hordes of admirers there are many who just aren't all that into her. Actually, there are legions who mock her writing and stories. There are thousands and thousands who not only fail to love her writing, but actively dislike it - even, dare I say, hate it.
Do you know how much shit that woman has taken? We'd be digging a long time to get through it, steam shovel or no steam shovel. Now, obviously dealing with the hate is much easier when you're swimming in money and have vast armies of devoted followers ready to hex anyone at your command.
So, there's no escape.
I say embrace that, and let it be freeing rather than paralyzing.
Too many writers, I think, are shut down by negative feedback, by someone not liking their story. All the more so, say, if it's a professional. A few agents didn't like the book, so it must be terrible and should be burned at once...
But the thing is, if you polled random readers the response might be the same, and through no fault of the writing. Why would your gypsy vampire novel appeal to a reader of political biographies? Agents aren't really that different. For one, they simply make mistakes on occasion, misjuding quality and potential readership. They're human. But mostly they're just trying to see something that works for them. They have different tastes. An agent isn't trying to make a decision on every story concerning it's quality and publishability - they will reject many things of publishable quality. Their question, I think, is much more narrow and focused than that: Is this something I want to represent?
Now, that earlier question concerning publishable quality will certainly be a part of this determination, but there's so much more to it than that. Do they like the vision of the story? Believe in the writer? Does it have fixable faults? Does the agent have the right contacts to sell it?
Varied responses to a story is just the odds of a subjective readership. It's not that different for an average reader: they go to the store, they pick up books, they read back blurbs. Most of them they put back down. It's not about quality, it's about fit. No book fits everyone.
And yet so many writers find a single rejection, a single negative reading response so damning. Someone didn't like it! Oh my God! I need a latte and a new life ambition! Gah!
And yet this response by a reader is only natural, really, and so obvious when we think of it. Do we like every book we pick up? And, heck, that's stuff which has already jumped a lot of publishing bars and gained that seal of approval. But some books simply aren't for us as readers. We put the book down and try to find something that is. Sometimes we guess right, sometimes we don't.
I've been reading Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, one of the most lauded literary novels of the year. And it's brilliant, and funny, and clever... but it's not my kind of brilliant. Oh, how I want something to happen. No more clever asides, no more sharp insights into the character's past or family... just something dramatic actually happening, right now, that means something to somebody - that means something to me, the subjective reader.
But of course other readers are perfectly thrilled with this book - and there's much to be thrilled about in it. But that book simply wasn't written for me.
And that's okay. That is, in fact, inevitable. Most books weren't written for me. Nor should my books, I think, be written for everyone.
I think it's freeing, really, to accept that people won't like your writing. That's part of being human, part of being a unique particle afloat in a sea of unique particles, each one bouncing and spinning off the others, an ocean of wonderful and unpredictable chaos.
Once we accept that our writing won't be right for everyone, we can discard our fears and go about writing the story we want to write and trying to find the audience we want to reach. The question isn't who doesn't want to read this... but, rather, who does? Our job, as I see it, is to find that audience and convince them.
It won't be everyone, but we don't need everyone. Everyone is an impossible dream, a fiction, an abstraction. But there are real readers out there, real people looking for the stories that are right for them.
It's a big sea, though, so we better start swimming.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Before the curtain goes up, her father dresses her. He holds out lavender stocking, and she climbs into them, a cat’s cradle, between his finger and thumb. He pulls them up, making sure the crotch fits snugly, making sure there are no wrinkles at her knees. He tugs a shirt over her head, twists her into a silver skirt, zipper at the back, his thumb pressing against the clip to lock it. He buffs her patent leather Mary Janes, shines the buckles, and warns her not to run or jump or move—“You’ll scuff the shoes.”
After her father changed, she spied him in the basement. Night after night, with hammer and chisel, he carved a pair of legs. He shaped the first thigh, then knee, curve of the calf muscle, ankle, heel, arch, and toes of the left leg, and with the same attention, he carved the right. He pained both of them the color of flesh and hung them from the rafters to dry. Afterward he dressed them in tights and fitted them with small, black patent leather shoes.
The first time she climbed into the box, he told her there was plenty of room, and it indeed felt that way. But soon she realized there were her legs, and the thighs of the magic legs. There was the illusion of her body sliced in half, and there was her body—neck, breasts, arms, stomach, buttocks, sex, legs and feet—whole inside the box.
There was the saw, and at first she thought it was fake like the legs. But her father explained that it was real. He held it out for her, balancing it in his two smooth palms. He let her touch the teeth. He told her to be careful, but a droplet of blood had already bloomed on her finger.
He told her that during the act she should not speak or scream. She should not react to the saw, except to smile. She practices this by grinning into a mirror and pressing her fingernails into her thigh as hard as she can.
On the night of the show, she stands behind the curtain, very still. Her shoes and the shoes on the fake legs are polished. Her father is a good artist, and if it weren’t for the warmth of her skin, the differences between the two pairs of legs would not be detected.
The curtain goes up revealing the spotlit box. The audience claps. She climbs in, pushes the fake legs out for the audience to see. Her father, the Great Margeaux, closes the lid.
Her hands are hot, and her fingernails grip the wood. Her legs are curled, soft underneath her silver skirt. She moves them, wriggling her toes inside her shoes. Splinters catch her stockings.
Haw, haw. Her father’s saw begins. Keeping still now, she is keen for her part: to kick the fake legs when she is halved. Her smile is like a white knife. The audience gasps.
“Where’s the blood? There should be blood,” says a little boy in the front row.
Stupid kid, she thinks. He should know the difference.
Haw, haw. It’s coming close. There is only a thin piece of plywood between her leg and the saw. She wants to break it, kick her live leg into the saw’s path, teach the little boy a lesson.
Her heel is poised.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The Dinner Party
Cedric tapped his foot impatiently. He detested tardiness. This was, after all, a feast fit for a king.
It bothered him not a bit that others had done all the work. He would vent his frustrations on his inconsiderate guests as if he had painstakingly prepared each morsel.
He began to pace, fretting and muttering to himself about the lack of manners these days.
What was that? Was it her? Was she here, finally?
No, it was those two buffoons, Beauregard and Sinclair, making a valiant effort to appear nonchalant as they slunk to their customary places, avoiding Cedric's stern looks.
As he prepared to scold them Cedric detected a delicate aroma, a sweet scent that he associated with…her.
She was here, at last! Gloria!
Time stood still as she magically appeared, elegant in her fur coat, the moonlight playing in her eyes.
Suddenly, everything came to a screeching halt.
Gloria had a companion.
Who is he? Cedric hurled the question at Gloria in a single, pained look.
Oh, the nerve! How could she do this to him, after he had arranged such a banquet, all for her.
He swaggered towards them, locking eyes with this new, unwanted guest. They both refused to look away, battling in tense silence.
He had to admit, the newcomer was handsome, and young. He was probably stronger than Cedric, too. But there was a certain decorum to be observed. A hierarchy existed, and he was willing to risk personal injury, if need be, to preserve his honor.
Cedric forced a smile in an attempt to convey suave self-confidence. His opponent, obviously unnerved by the resultant ghastly leer, relented and looked away. The others released a collective breath.
Sniffing with disdain, Cedric sauntered back to his place at the head, confident that this impertinent fellow had been put in his place.
With a slight nod he signaled for the feast to begin.
As the evening progressed, Gloria grew restless. She fumed over Cedric’s boorish behavior. After his fit of jealousy she could not resist the opportunity to further antagonize him. Catching her companion’s attention she winked an invitation to sneak off. He hesitated for a moment, then followed her.
Over her shoulder she could see Cedric’s stricken face as they walked away. The sight of his pompous ego deflating was too much for her.
She began to giggle. Soon her chuckling became contagious laughter. Her companion joined in and she thought she could even hear Beauregard and Sinclair cackling. Their combined yelping echoed across the savannah.
For a moment, Gloria felt sorry for Cedric. But, no, he deserved it. He had always thought he was God’s gift to hyenas.
Monday, November 8, 2010
I told him I was thrilled for him - it's a great opportunity. And he's still got my back, and I've got his (not that he needs it). Nathan has always been an agent who puts people first, and I think it's important to return that favour. If this choice is the best for him and his family, then it's the best choice.
And yet there's always a sense of loss, that sense of what might have been. These thoughts have been stewing together in my mind, along with Wanu's post of last week about taking a leave of absence, as it were, from writing. The two are strangely connected for me.
(I'm not leaving! Don't worry! Unless you want me to leave. Shit. I won't think about that.)
Nathan was not the first agent I worked with. A few years ago I had another, Joanne Kellock, but she passed away from cancer at the time we were going to start submitting. (Yes, I'll accept all donations of rabbit feet for agentish luck) This came on the heels of another loss - my father, who had recently passed away.
At the same time, I had just finished my last degree, gotten married, started a new career and then quit it to start another, and been diagnosed with a disease. What this all meant, when lumped together, was a longish fallow period in my writing. I fiddled with a few old things, maybe wrote a page here and there, but for the most part I simply didn't write.
This, though, wasn't a bad thing. Yes, writing through things is hugely important. You can't endlessly make excuses - in the end, you simply have to get the work done if you want to get anywhere. But... but... but... sometimes a break is not simply okay, but necessary. I didn't write because I had nothing left to put into writing. Every bit of my energy had been sucked out, had been pulled into other things. And I was grieving. My focus was elsewhere - rooted in the real world rather than my imaginary ones.
And yet I think the most important thing I did was allow myself to do this. I gave myself permission not to write. I didn't worry, didn't fear, didn't shout "Oh my God, writer's block! Save me!"
I have always felt that writer's block is a bit of a fallacy. Not that people don't get blocked, but that Writer's Block becomes this almost mythic beast, this phantasm of the writer's mind. It grows, and grows - and yet it's so insubstantial that there seems nothing one can do fight against it.
But the truth of the matter is that it's insubstantial because it's not real. There is no capital W, capital B, Writer's Block. Just many little blocks - a thousand, a million of them, each one unique to each unique writer. For some it may simply be a plotting problem, for others a matter of confidence. For some it might be fear, for some it might be a simple lack of time.
I think it's better to try and find the specific problem and deal with it, rather than beseech the phantasm, pleading for release. He's not listening - he has no ears to listen with.
For me, it was about accepting this period of grief and redirected energy. The words were still in my head, and they would never leave. They would find their way to the page in their own time.
And yet this can be hard, can't it? To allow yourself these moments? But they can be worthwhile and important. Farmers leave fields fallow on purpose - sometimes the soil needs it, all to make richer crops in the years to come. So goes things for writers - we need rich soil to grow our words in.
It's a matter of faith, perhaps, and confidence. Confidence in our ability and in what it is we are meant to do with our words, our stories, our thoughts and dreams. Yet that confidence can be hard to find.
I'm not entirely sure where mine comes from. Belief in my ability, perhaps, and a gift from all those who have believed in it, too? People have helped along the way, with advice, with support, with simple appreciation for what I've put on the page. Perhaps some of that confidence is simply natural, an outcropping of personal pigheadedness. I, shall we say, do not like failure. Now, I may define success and failure on my own terms, but I'm pretty determined to meet my own criteria for such success.
And yet a lot of that confidence to persevere and continue, I think, is about accepting that old saw, that it's more about the journey than the destination. Hokey, maybe, but it's about understanding the value of those hours at the keyboard. Not simply as a means to an end, not even as practice. You do it because you're a writer and that will always be a part of you. And you do it, even more than that, because there is something necessary and valuable about the specific act itself. Not just a matter of identity, a matter of training, or the creation of a product, however poor or extraordinary. But the act itself, the value of an imagination acting upon a blank page.
Because to me the most important thing is those hours of actual writing, the process itself. And, in truth, it's not just about me, about the blank page and the story that might form on it. It's about the world and my perception of it, and, in those moments of writing, how I explore and seek to understand it. Writing, to me, is my filter for the world, the lens with which I bring it into focus.
I'm naturally fairly blind, but contact lenses make the world clear for me, perceptible and understandable. Writing frames my consciousness in the same way. the act itself is important, the transformation, the formulation in words of a million perceived and felt things. Writing is an act of clarity, an act of envisioning.
And I don't think that ever completely leaves us. You can take the writer away from the keyboard, but you can never entirely take the keyboard from the writer. Inside, the words are there. The mind makes stories. Memory itself is a story of oneself, a narrative framed as explanation, as motive and cause. And, if you wait long enough, I think the blank page will always start to call once more: the desire to make concrete the silent and hidden stories that flit through our consciousness, that help us make sense of the world as we experience it.
Friday, November 5, 2010
The two naked men nodded hesitantly to each other. They stood in line, not wanting to move. Neither were entirely certain how to hold themselves, but fatigue dulled nervousness, and accumulated fear overshadowed shame. This nakedness was just one more thing. They tended to hold their hands in front of themselves, out of politeness. Their ribs were clearly visible in pale, taut skin, the bones arching toward each other, meeting in the hollows of concave chests.
“Are you from Budapest?” one man asked.
“Yes,” a second man said. “And you?”
“Yes, I lived on Egyesules Street.”
The second man blinked, a light kindling in his eyes. “Is it so? I, too, lived on Egyesules Street. Out past the park.”
“We were near the boulevard. That’s where my home was. We had a beautiful garden.”
“Yes, yes, I know the area. That is strange. Do I know you?”
“I do not think so,” the first man said. “I don’t recall you, though I thought I knew most of the people on the street. Yes? My family was there for many years.”
“Mine, too. Mine, too. How old are you? I cannot tell in here.”
Everyone in this place became indistinct after awhile, features blurring, age creeping over each face regardless of years. Everyone here was centuries old, vast lifetimes washing quickly through their skins.
“I am thirty five. And you?”
“I am thirty six,” the second man said. “It is so strange. I do not recall you. And yet we must have seen each other, yes?”
“So many years on the street. Playing as a boy. Playing football at the park. Many boys were there. Did you play?”
“Yes, I played. I wasn’t very good. If I looked up when dribbling I tripped over the ball. If I looked down when dribbling everyone yelled at me for not passing.”
“I was pretty good, though not as good as my friend Bodo. He was a very good player. Very good.”
“I remember him!” the second man said. “Yes, he was very good. I remember that. I remember playing with him. What has happened to him, do you know?”
The first man looked away and said nothing. They were both silent for a time.
“You had a garden, you say?” the second man said. “I must have seen it. Walking on the street, I must have passed it by.”
“It was beautiful. I worked very hard on it. The garden was already very nice when we bought the house. I was struck by it. That is why I picked that house, I think. I had always liked the garden. Even as a boy, walking to play football. Isn’t it strange? You were there, too. Playing football. Walking past the garden. I think I improved it, though. The garden. I read a lot of books, taught myself. Every spring I would go out planting.”
“Yes, I think I saw that garden. A beautiful garden. Was there a little stone wall? Yes, a little stone wall. And beautiful flowers.”
A guard walked by and the men stopped speaking. Their eyes followed the guard. The whole line of naked men quieted at the passing of the booted feet. The bare feet of the naked men stopped their weary shuffling, still as mortuary statues.
The second man nodded slightly once the guard had passed. “I think I remember you. I didn’t recognize you at first, but I do now. Did you have an older sister? A sister named Myrta?”
“Yes, that is me.”
The second man opened his mouth to speak, but closed it, fearing the silence that would follow his question. He nodded, thinking of the street, the garden, the games boys played, the girls they admired. He could smell the roses, the blossoms on the little tree. “There was a tree,” he said. “You had a little tree, with blossoms. They smelled lovely.”
“Yes, that’s the place,” the first man said.
The second man wanted to ask what kind of tree had blossoms that smelled so sweetly. He knew little of horticulture. But the guard was returning and the whispered voices were silenced.
“Juden!” the guard yelled. “Jetzt, jetzt! Schnell, schnell!”
The line started moving, the naked men shuffling forward.
“It is good to see you again,” the first man said, his lips barely moving.
The second man nodded. “Sholem.”
“Schnell, schnell!” the guard yelled.
The naked men walked into the chamber. The second man was still thinking about the blossoms. What were they? He would have to ask. The memory of the blossoms struck him so sweetly, so keenly, the fragrant taste of them hanging in the air. They would fall in graceful arcs, spinning slowly down to new resting places, gathering in pale drifts amidst the insubstantial ghosts of old petals. Petals, a spring snow atop the green, green grass.
“Doing a seventeenth revision on a project does not make a writer an artist or move him above the writer hoi polloi any more than dressing entirely in black or wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches or big, black drover coats. These are all affectations, and smack of dilettantism. Real writers, and real artists, finish books and move on to the next project.”
Holly Lisle, Vision: A Resource for Writers, May-June 2002
I do love the no-nonsense quote from Holly there. In order to get a novel completed and get busy on the next, she advocates a one-pass manuscript revision, the full formula of which can be seen here:
I'm not always in agreement with what Holly has to say, and certainly, the one-pass manuscript revision seems, at first, like some kinda mythical beast: fill all the plot holes, delete all the extraneous scenes (and alter references to them), insert all the missing but needed scenes, hone the plot and character arcs, ramp up the tension and conflict wherever possible, all in one pass? And, aaand also, polish the prose.
I'm gonna give it a go!
I don't think it's possible, but I'm still going to give it a go.
Actually, I've already started. I've got to say that this idea is so big, so sexy, so damned in your face, that executing it is a highly engaging process, and... dare I say.. fun!
It's very satisfying to go through a novel leaving no stone unturned, to face every li'l barrier, every place where I know something needs doing, to mark it, make notes, and move on.
It's really interesting to find that I can't hide from myself when doing this. If problem x exists, then leaving it will necessitate a second pass on the manuscript, and that defeats the object. So I find myself being quite strict. I force myself to tackle issues in the novel that I knew needed tackling, but which I basically wanted to shove under the carpet and hope the novel would kinda work for someone, somewhere, and that'd be that.
Whether the one-pass manuscript revision is really possible, I don't know, but I think the sheer amount of lessons learned from attempting it will make the endeavor worthwhile.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
I don’t write non fiction with the same literary flourishes, or cheeky-chappyness, that Ink does so this post is going to be a liiiiidle bit different.
There's a nice li'l para under the blog name that says The Alchemy of Writing is a home for three friends who’ve never met. I’m one of those three guys. The quiet one, I guess, as I haven't posted for a while.
Mabe a year.
Okay, so I’d like to broach the subject of breaks in writing. Not the ‘oops, didn’t find time today’ variety, but proper ‘omg, this is driving me nuts!’ writing breakdowns.
The highs and lows of this 'hobby' are so extreme that it can be more like a turbulent love affair: there's amazing nights of little sleep complete with eyes-lidded goofy smiles as the sun comes up, there’s fond caresses (at the keyboard!), real ‘in the zone’ moments, great celebrations of ‘Boo-yakka!’ proportions, and wistful dreamy thoughts while going about everyday life.
Love always comes first, huh? I bet everyone who reads this would rather have a beautiful novel in print than win the lottery. Yes? But this burning passion can have a dark side: insecurity, jealousy, self doubt, petulance, mind games, and exasperation can be regular features of a love like this.
What about when it gets too much?
Do lovers really need a holiday?
When is it okay, if ever, to storm away from writing, slam the door, prize your pen from trembling fingers, hurl it across the room, and drown out the soft clinks of it skimming across the floor with screams of, “I’m leaving you!”
And does writing ever come back, cap-in-hand, and make grovelling apologies for whatever misdemeanour got it into your bad books (f-nak!) in the first place?
I remember reading a forum post by a guy who felt trapped. He’d undergone a lot of authorial improvement, seen the quality of his prose improve, seen his talent getting nice ‘n’ honed. But he felt pressured to keep writing in the belief that any break would cause his ability to immediately start dissolving. So he was running ahead of this dissolving talent thing like a Pamplona runner ahead of bulls. And he’d worked up a feverish sweat! He was such a good writer, pouring his emotion onto the (virtual) page, that his emotional state was unmistakeable: just a few sharp breaths away from screaming!
Most of the responses to his post included variations of this phrase: ‘When the fun goes out of writing, take a break.’
Is that sound advice?
Counter to ‘when the fun goes out, stop doing it’ there’s another phrase: ‘The true test of any vocation is love of the drudgery involved.’
In one of my ‘how to write’ books the author said there were days when he felt fully eager to write, while on other occasions he’d rather drink bleach. He advised keep going, even when it feels awful, just keep writing. He also said that he noticed no difference in the quality of his work between enthusiastic days, and lousy days.
And this is the thing: writing does include drudgery, and some of the psychological obstacles aren’t exactly small. The highs are fantastic, but some of the chores... crikey.
So... keep at it when it’s challenging Vs. when the fun stops, walk away.
Where do we draw the line? And if we step over that line, what awaits on the other side?
I think there are two main fears when it comes to taking a break: 1) that ability will deteriorate, and 2) that not-writing will become a permanent habit.
I’ve just taken a year off, and I don’t think either of those fears has a sound basis. Well, they have as much basis as any other fear I suppose, but I don’t think walking away from writing will produce either of those results. Unless... unless... uless you’re really not a writer.
While I rate practice and keeping your ‘eye in’ and such, I don’t think writing ability can ever deteriorate to inept levels, no matter how long a writer leaves the hard drive festering.
And I think it’s purely the case that a writer will always return. As long as there’s a draw, a passion, even if the passions go dark and wild, if they turn to outright resistance or any other thing that can lead to tantrums and sulking, I think it’s fine to act on those passions.
The intimacy of true love is only attained through supreme self honesty, and I think that’s the nub here - if the original love is inside someone, indeed if the very resistance is borne of the passion to write, then the desire to walk away is the voice of emotional reason.
Crikey, after all that I think I’m saying, ‘Listen to your heart.’
Probably with a little, 'Things'll work themselves out' added in.
And a dash of 'If it's meant, it'll happen.'
Monday, October 25, 2010
I have a couple degress in Creative Writing, and one of the great things about those experiences was the fact that I wasn't alone. Writing is such a solitary endeavor at times, and yet there's a part of me that wants very much to share the process. Not the immediate act, but the sense of the experience itself. It's nice to commune with like minds, with people who understand what you're going through, who've shared the same (or at least similar) experiences.
After I finished my Masters degree, though, that community split up and scattered across the world. I found myself missing that sense of a shared journey. I turned to the online world and found a new community, and I've been grateful ever since. I've met so many wonderful writers and people who are on the same journey. A load shared is a load lightened.
And yet it's so hard to keep up with that community the way I want to. Yes, I'm particularly busy right now, but I'm certainly not the only busy person out there. Many are busier.
There are so many interesting writers and interesting blogs, and yet I struggle to visit many of them as often as I'd like. So what do you do? How do you keep tied into this wonderful community? How do you find time to take it all in?
I mean, my friend Tahereh must have friends lining up around the block, her email account bending and bowing down in the middle under the weight of all those friendly messages and communiques from fellow travellers.
So how do you do it? How does a hermitish fellow keep the conversation alive? How do you make time for everyone?
Friday, October 22, 2010
There had never been any question about it. It was her fault. And for that, she was bound to him forever. Or at least, until she could assuage the guilt or until he forgave her, set her free. But the bonds were too tight; she could barely hope that they would ever snap.
“It’s your fault, Audrey.” He never let her forget that. “If only you hadn’t been there…”
He was drunk again. She remembered the last time he let his brain get addled with alcohol, and shuddered.
“Have you ever thought of getting a job, Ryan?” She had to approach gently. He was too volatile these days.
“A job?” He barked a laugh. “What can a cripple like me work as?”
“You aren’t crippled. You just can’t play anymore.”
He turned to her, his eyes flashing dangerously. “And whose fault is it that I had to give up the piano? And now you’re finding me a nuisance? Am I in your way, Audrey? Am I robbing you of a life?”
“No.” She took his hands. “I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t –”
“I was meant to do great things, be world-famous.” A hazy glimmer settled in his faraway gaze.
When she noticed the hardening of his jaw, it was too late. He had grabbed hold of her. She braced herself for the incoming tide. But instead of hitting her, he took her face and pressed his lips against hers. The smell of alcohol made her gag, but she tried not to struggle.
It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon.
But his hands were running all over her now. He gripped her more tightly when she writhed. Her breathing was labored now, as the panic that spread from within her became a blanket of goosebumps. Her skin crawled wherever his hands and lips roamed.
“It’s your fault, Audrey.”
“Please stop. Please.”
“But don’t you see? It’s your fault.” His voice was muffled against her skin.
She imagined herself engulfed by the toxic cloud of guilt, the one that numbed her senses so that she was unable to bring herself to leave him. She choked on it, reveled in it.
Later, she would tell herself it was that cloud of guilt that made her grab his hair and swing his head against the edge of the coffee table. It was that cloud of guilt that made her deaf to the crack of his skull, blind to the crimson river that poured out of him, stained his face.
Right then, she stared down at him, her bloody angel, whom she once loved. She could think of nothing apart from the music he played, a hushed melody that she feared to forget.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Forgotten Songs of Children
Mark stepped in through the door, feeling the silence of the house. Another beer? His foot hurt from the game, and it was another damn loss. He should’ve had a goal, too, if the damn ref had been paying attention.
He scrounged a beer from the fridge and walked into the living room. His wife was asleep on the couch. She had a vaguely unpleasant expression on her face.
Better that she was asleep, as he hadn’t told her he was going out after the game with the guys. He could do without her nagging, the damn look she’d give him because the kids were already in bed and he’d missed them again.
He grabbed the tv remote. Something would be on. But when he hit the button nothing happened. Mark mashed it down a few times. “Shit. A blind ref and now this.” He stood. He walked angrily to the tv and tried to turn it on by hand, but there was only a dull blackness on the screen.
Mark hit the button again and again. Fucking thing. He smacked the button, hoping the tv would turn on or break.
He blinked as the voices came through. He looked at the screen. Blank. No sign of life. But he’d heard voices.
And there again, distantly. Children. Children’s voices, speaking in a tone and rhythm that hinted of music.
The tv was blank. The kids, he thought. The kids are awake. What the hell were they doing up? If they were fooling around he’d give ‘em heck.
Mark listened, straining at the voices. He couldn’t make out words. Just the child-like trilling, the fluting sound of distant voices, their sound untouched by age, innocent and free…
Yet there was something mocking in the notes. Something almost callous, almost cruel. As if they were laughing at him.
Goddamn kids, trying to get away with it.
Mark took a step, banging his sore foot on the coffee table. He grabbed his foot for a second, hopping, and then limped to the hallway.
The voices came, closer and brighter and sharper, and yet still the sound they made was somehow wordless, or beyond words. Laughter set to music, sharp lines crossing and re-crossing. Voices twining and haunting each other, picking at the seams of the world. Many voices. The voices of many children: five or six or ten or twenty.
Mark stopped. He felt cold, his skin pebbling. A cold breath on his neck. The voices were high, floating, moving somehow, as if orbiting him, circling him and wrapping him in sharp wire.
A wind fell through his head and chest and out through his limbs, rushing out from toes and fingers. The sudden presence of fear, of panic.
Mark flung himself up the stairs, toward Kate and Edie’s room. He pushed in the door, the light from the hall slanting across the sleeping faces.
He breathed. They were okay. Peaceful. Mark blinked. No, not peaceful, exactly. They were asleep, their faces pale but not quite reposed. They moved a little, as if dreaming, as if speaking, their lips forming silent imitations of words.
It was nothing, though, the voices. Just the wind. The kids were fine.
The voices struck, the laughter high and drifting, and Mark knew his children were in danger. His lungs felt like balloons ready to burst. He stumbled from the room. Something was here.
The voices whirled, fluting through the air, the harsh laughter of children.
Outside, they were outside. He took the stairs two at a time, trying to find his breath, fighting the sudden pain in his foot, the dread made manifest.
He limped to the door, swung it open. Stepping out into the night the wind was cold on his skin and he shivered. Silence in the dark.
The red glow bloomed in the night, here in one spot and here in another, the light limning butterflies – huge, vast butterflies, starlight peering through their red wings. They glowed, fluttering in the blackness, moving and bobbing and spinning in the air. The wordless voices returned. Loud, now, and deafening, a wordless song filled with cold and tinkling laughter.
The red light spread. It was the red light of his own blood, he’d seen it as a child, in the dark, when he held a flashlight behind his hand and the beam poured through his skin and bled out red on the other side, the bloodlight thick and strange, both liquid and insubstantial.
Peals of laughter, the children laughing, the music of words he would never understand, in a language he had already failed to learn, the wind on his skin and in his hair and the song in his cold ears.
The red light blinked out and there was only blackness and he could see nothing, nothing, nothing.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
So my thanks are going out today. And what about you? Any people on your writing journey you're particularly thankful for?
Should be back tomorrow with a regular post. If not, it's because I'm in some sort of roast-duck induced catatonic state.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
His foot taps to the music, and he can’t help the wiggle that follows. He’s a Jedi and a Ninja and a bird all wrapped up in a whirl of arms and legs. When his mom walks in the room, he stumbles to a stop and almost lands on the cat. “Keep going,” she says, but he goes to find something that boys do, like training Pokemon to fight.
At the piano, he knows just where the fingers go to make that song, the one his brother plays with his long fingers and three years of lessons. One day he’ll be big enough to visit Mrs. Lyle and her giant black piano that shares a room with her harp and lace covered shelves.
He marches up the steps, because his mom is making him. Pictures of girls in pink tutus hang on the wall. He covers his eyes in protest and trips. His mom catches him before he falls.
The dance class has a mirror and is filled with girls, just like he said. Then a boy comes in, with short black hair that sticks out from his big brown head. The boy stands next to him, and he knows the boy will be his new best friend.
The teacher lets them go free style and the boy kicks and punches the air. He copies the boy, who smiles and punches the air again. His fists fly in the mirror.
Later on the TV, there’s a bunch of people dancing. In front are the boys, with feet that twist and turn while their bodies slant like lizards. They sway together, then hop apart like frogs. The music makes his toes tap.
“Can we watch it again?” he asks. His mom smiles.
When he goes back to dance class, he doesn’t cover his eyes, and an amazing thing happens. Two more boys come to class. They stick like glue to him, and he shows them how to twist their feet like sneaky snakes. They trip over his feet and he laughs.
Next time he’ll show them the Ninja move.
Monday, October 4, 2010
This is one of those bits of writing advice I stumble across everywhere (yes, everywhere), and yet I've never done it. I feel like I have a good "ear" for writing, for dialogue, for the sound and flow of a sentence. So odd, that term, since my ear is exactly what I don't use. And yet maybe I'm missing something by skipping this technique?
What's making me rethink this audio absence is that I read a lot to my kids. Now, reading picture books was fun, but I wasn't exactly analyzing the prose (okay, only sometimes). But my daughter is five now, and though she's only learning to read and write herself, she absolutely loves listening to stories - and, when a story is involved, her attention span is incredible. She can make sense of complete novels, so we've been reading her long books. Anne of Green Gables, Old Yeller, The Secret of Nimh, The Hobbit, etc. I just started reading Lloyd Alexander's wonderful series The Prydain Chronicles, starting with The Book of Three.
And what was striking me as I read was not just the simple elegance of his prose, but how my voice played off it. What are the words on the page... and do I want to read them that way? Sometimes word choice and rhythm and flow made me unconsciously deduct or add words. I'd say it, and realize a moment later what I'd done.
There's an interesting sort of engagement with the words when reading aloud. Trying to have the voice inflect the words properly, to not just repeat them correctly but catch and reflect the proper meaning. I note word choices, sounds, the feel of how a character talks.
I'm coming up to the appearance of Gurgi in the novel, a little furball of a character with an odd speech pattern I've always adored. "Crunches and munches for poor Gurgi!" He's a memorable character, I'm sure, for anyone who's read the book, and I'm trying to figure out how to capture him in my own voice. To give a hint of Gurgi...
And of course this got me thinking about my own writing, my own stories, and how I've never read them to myself out loud. It's an interesting way to walk around in the words, hearing them from your own lips. It's like an echo effect: you read and interpret the words silently, the brain processing meaning, and then you hear them again an instant later, your voice echoing the thoughts, spitting them back out.
Yet sometimes the echo is not perfect. There is a slight dissonance, that sense of transformation as words pass from page to brain to lips. The complex process of interpretation and dramatic shading, the recreation of rhythm... there are little jarrings, small false notes in the performance. As I read, part of my brain tumbles over each of these, thinking and analyzing the prose, the interior versus the exterior soundings.
So am I missing something? Do any of you read your work aloud? Why do you do it, and what do you think it does for you? And, of course, is it embarassing to be caught spouting your prose at an empty room? I have a feeling I'd end up doing goofy pantomime that would find its way onto Youtube.
Friday, October 1, 2010
For Matt Rush (ask and you shall receive...)
The young man blinked tiredly, his hands sorting carrots. He no longer heard the bang and crash of machinery, and when he fell it was like a glide in a dream, weightless and against the grain of reality.
The cutters went schnick schnick and everybody screamed. There was a lot of blood, and one arm was flung back up to the sorting tables.
People rushed about.
“Damn, damn, damn!” said the plant manager. “Production is really going to be slowed down.”
The foreman grunted. “Shit. Now we’re down a man. Can we hire someone for tomorrow?”
One of the graders pointed shakily at the arm. It was moving.
Everyone watched. The arm moved slowly at first, but it picked up speed quickly. Muscle memory, it appeared, was a wonderful thing.
“Look at that,” the foreman said.
The body was carted away in the background. A sanitation chap lazily mopped around on the floor beneath the catwalks.
“It’s going pretty good,” the plant manager said. He looked at the other graders. “See that? It’s going faster than all of you. You can learn something here.”
“Um,” one of the pale graders said. “There’s a lot of blood on it…”
“Well, that’s what the plastic gloves are for, right?” the plant manager said. “Slide some on there.”
“Back to work, everyone, back to work!” the foreman said, waving his hand in a little circular motion.
The severed arm whizzed over the carrots, plucking and tossing. It was very quick.
The management team gathered. They were all very happy with the arm.
Look at it go! they said. Everyone was very pleased.
“Maybe we should give it a raise,” someone said.
“It hasn’t asked for a raise,” the plant manager said, and the others nodded sagely.
“It’s working right through break.”
“What does it need a break for?” the foreman said. “Doesn’t need lunch, either. No stomach, see.”
“Excellent,” the plant manager said.
“We’ll have to pay it for working through lunch, at least. Right?” the administration assistant said.
“We’re already paying for eight hours,” the plant manager said. “If this is how it wants to spend its lunch period, well, that’s its choice. That’s a worker’s right.”
“Yessiree,” the foreman said.
They all watched the arm as it glided over the grading table, selecting and casting aside carrots. No bad carrots would get through. None of the other graders got too close to the arm. They tried to recall, vaguely, the young man’s name. His face was already a shadow.
“An example to us all,” the plant manager said.
Monday, September 27, 2010
How do we choose what to write next?
Sometimes things choose us, or it is, at least, a shared responsibility. I'm one of those writers who always has a lot of story ideas, a lot of books (or short stories) I want to write. How to choose (or be chosen)?
The different stories, to me, are like planets. Each is its own world; some are full of life, teeming with living things, with interlocked ecosystems, while others are dead and inert - still others are just starting to bloom, deep chemical processes ripening beneath the surface and spawning a series of evolutional changes. And each of these planets has a gravity, a pull, a specific density working on the vast space around it.
My brain (my soul, my muse, my whatever) is like a comet whizzing by this clustered system of planetary bodies. Each one attracts me, swings me close, drawing me in. And yet I am hurtling fast indeed. Perhaps I fly close to a small one (short story) and spin once around it and then away. So little time is needed.
A novel, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It is not quick, or easy. You cannot whiz by a vast planet and take it all in, translate it for the world you left behind and to which you wish to return. To map such a planet you must enter orbit. You must circle again and again, each time sharpening your view, learning more, recording deeper impressions.
A novel idea requires a deep gravity if it is to reach fruition, an incredible pull. If it's not strong enough, this pull, my little comet will slip away into space befoe the story is ever completed.
And the interesting thing about these planets is that their gravity changes. So strange! One novel I'm revising (in theory) had an idea with a steep gravity at first, one that pulled me in, started my surveying passes from orbit, mapping out ideas and future trajectories. And yet there were problems, and the planet shrank, became porous and soft and thin, its gravity weakening until I was slung away, dragged off by the gravity of a monster red planet that seemed to suck up space all around it, drinking in vast seas of matter and growing and growing and growing.
I mapped that world (and am still mapping it), and yet on a service run back to the ol' home world (everyone needs a vacation now and again) I passed by that first planet once more. And in an instant the planet became dense and strong, its weight fastening me into orbit. I had inadvertently solved the problems that once hampered me, and now the planet had the requisite weight to keep hold of me for the duration.
The terrestrial surveys are almost complete.
And for you? What has the most weight? What's drawing you in right now to that wonderful orbit overlooking the genesis of a strange new world?
Monday, September 20, 2010
2. Things are always chaotic at the beginning. So many things to trip over! The slalom can be effective, but it's like tacking an extra kilometre onto your book. All's good, though, if you can find a bit of space and hit your stride.
3. Pace is wonderful, but you can go too fast. People need a chance to breathe, and air is a wonderful thing. And don't set your pace by someone who's going half the distance.
4. Properly-fitted footwear is beneficial everywhere.
5. It's okay if someone else finishes before you, as long as you get to the finish line, too. Even if it's a couple pushing racing strollers. Okay, I have no idea what that means in terms of writing, but it was a little depressing when they passed me. (Though, really, they were awesome and made of some sort of newfangled metal alloy - their children were all shiny and made of melted-down gold medals)
6. Everyone has their own speed. Finding yours is the key.
7. Potholes are to be avoided. But, every now and again, the pothole is inevitable. Pain may be involved. But keep going. There are potholes along every route. Keep your eyes peeled. Tough it out.
8. Get it done. It doesn't have to look pretty. An ungainly gait is fine, as long as it gets you where you need to go.
9. Perseverence. Sometimes it's going to hurt. Sometimes it's going to hurt a lot. We all hit points where we say "Maybe this is enough. Maybe I'll just stop here. Enough is enough." But embrace the pain. The end is only going to be sweeter for having pushed through these doubts.
10. Trying to grab and drink those little cups of water from the water station while running and breathing heavily is much harder than it looks. Plus, also, messy. This also has nothing to do with writing. Um. Don't drink and write? Okay, don't drink and write. You heard it here first.
11. Run hard at the end. The crowd always likes a good closer.
12. Hot dogs make everything feel better. Trust me.
Monday, September 13, 2010
I'm not the only, either. Haruki Murakami wrote a great book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and it's about running, of course, but it's also about writing, and about how the two sometimes meet, and how they both infuse his creative life.
I think something of the same goes for me - there's a connection. How profound, I don't know. I wouldn't say the running is necessary for the writing, though I feel better when I run. And I do often think about stories when I'm running, so there is, in a sense, a direct linkage. The running is a piece of my creative process.
The real connection, though, is something to do with the state of mind. The old sports metaphor is "in the zone". It is, I think, when you seem to move beyond the conscious to an almost automatic response. It's like instinct. You seem to stop thinking and simply react, and everything comes easy. Everything flows.
It's a peaceful state, in some senses, and yet also an ecstatic one. There's a calmness, and yet the world comes more vividly to the eye, more clearly to the ear, more solidly to the hand. It seems like instinct, or the muse taking over. You feel almost like a funnel, and things just flow through you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi even wrote a book about it: Flow.
I feel this when I write. Not always, but often enough when I get into serious writing, deep into a story I'm working on every day. I feel it when I run, too. Not always, but often enough when I'm out on the roads every day. The sudden ease, the sudden flow. It's a bit like you're flying, a sense of pervasive lightness, of freedom. The fingers fluttering so light and quick upon the keys, the feet flashing so smoothly upon the road it's as if you're gliding, barely skimming the surface.
Yet that feeling can be misleading. I'm not sure it's entirely the muse. I may not be channeling anything but myself. And it does not comes easily. My first run in the spring, after months off this year... there was no flow. There was not a flow for many days, perhaps a month or two. The legs had to put in the hours, the miles. The muscles build strength and memory. The stride is slowly encoded in the body. It becomes automatic, it flows, only with endless repetition. A thousand steps, a million steps.
It's not so different with writing. It comes only after a thousand words, a million words, a conglomeration of countless bits of learning, countless moments of practice. It is not instinct grasping at something before or beyond the rational, but rather a synthesis, the sudden cohesion of what you've learned, of what you know. You don't have to think about it in the conscious sense, as it's become a part of you. Your own mind provides you with a moment of grace.
The patter of keys. The patter of feet.