Monday, August 30, 2010

Dangling the Carrot

I just got a new job. This is good. It's at a carrot factory. This is less good. The hours are, shall we say, rather long. This is good and bad. Good, as the pay will be good. Bad, because working eight straight days for 85 hours and spending another 12 commuting eats up a huge part of your life. That's almost 100 hours out of a little more than a week. The pickings are a little bare after that. You scrape a minute off the ground here, find a few seconds around a corner there. Make a little pile and maybe you have a nice shiny hour.

To help myself through this I need, well, a carrot.

Dangle me something and I will chase. And my carrot to survive carrots is, of course, books.

On my only day off (after helping some family members move) I found some time to slip off to a bookstore. A chocolate iced-frappuccino in hand, I wandered. These were much better carrots than the ones I blasted with a water cannon for eleven or twelve hours a day.

So many covers, and pages, and words. So many sentences strung and set to dangle like bright Christmas lights.

I went with no set agenda. Just the lure of possibility, the dream of the unexpected. There's nothing quite like a bookstore -- tens of thousands of little treasure chests all set to be opened.

Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting cawwots.

I perused. Fingers sliding down rows, tap tap tapping on spines. Some I slide out. A glimpse of a cover. Words on the back. A flip of pages just to get the heft and feel of the book -- a sense of the texture of the pages, of how the book will fold and feel in my hand. Each book has a unique quality, vibrating at its own subtle and unique frequency.

Eventually I splurge, buying two instead of one. I end up with the new trade paperback of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stair and Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor.

Magical carrots. There was something particular about these books, about the covers, the pages, the weight, the feel, the subtle and particular thingyness of the books and the stories they promised. They were the ones. I'd be back of course. One needs more than two carrots over the course of a life. But for now, these were the carrots I wanted. The chosen ones.

Now if only I had time to read.

And what about you? What are your carrots? Do any of you have book rewards? Get this done, succeed at this, survive that, and the new book by your favourite author will be yours? What are your favourite carrot books?

Because everyone needs carrot books. Right?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The World in Miniature: Babysat by the Man in the Moon

by Matthew Rush
The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment

Babysat by the Man in the Moon

Mom drove. Dad navigated. They let me sit in the way back of our funny Peugeot Station Wagon. I sat and watched the grey river below and the green walls above fall away like the world was collapsing in upon itself.

It felt funny when we stopped. Then the entire world rushed back at me as if to say hello. It sort of felt like falling up and made my tummy tickle.

We stopped for Dungeoness Crab at a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and waiters dressed up like penguins. I loved watching the alien monsters crawl all over each other in the tank. Pincers, eyes and antennae; they clicked against the glass lethargically but I imagined they were ancient warriors of an elder race who fought for honor among the crustacean tribes.

Later my dad cracked them open and I ate their legs. Mom said they were liquid inside until someone cooked them. That was gross but they tasted good with warm butter like runny egg yolk.

We drove into the Horse Heaven Hills for the Eclipse. Suddenly I was on the moon, the furthest reaches of space within my grasp. I reached out and caught hold of a distant star in the palm of my little hand. I was the Eater of Worlds! So I plucked a white dwarf down from Heaven and placed it lovingly into my mouth.

On the way home I tried to watch the grey river flow away below us, but it was dark and I was sleepy.

I yawned, laid back and watched the moon as he chased us across the sky. He looked cold and distant, like grandpa after he got sick, but still he looked down on me and never fell behind no matter how fast or how far we drove. His light was weak and thin outside but when it melted through the window it poured over my face like cool alpine mist. Delightful.

I relaxed as I listened to the tires sing a lullaby against the asphalt. Soothing.

I fell asleep watching that silly old man's face as he followed us across the world, never quite catching up but always watching over and enveloping me in a blanket of silver comfort. Dreaming.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beneath the Mountain

So what do you do when time is flattened and the hours and minutes are crushed as thin as paper? A few spare seconds leak out the side and you scoop them up and cherish them. But so little time...

The hours seem so boundless and empty at times, ready to be taken up and filled. And yet each one of those hours is so tenuous. So easily torn and blown away on the wind.

What do you do? How do you keep your writing (or editing!) alive when your time narrows drastically? Tips or tricks? Mental philosophy? What keeps you plugging? What's necessary for you?

Monday, August 16, 2010

If You're Digging an Endless Ditch, Bill Schulz is Your Best Friend

Good writing is hard work. Am I the only one who once thought it would be easier?

When I was young, and realized I had some talent, I think there was a feeling of inevitability about success, about good writing. I would read a lot, and practice writing, and there it would be: a bit of great writing of my own.

Yet the longer I live, the more I realize how much work is required. The craft seems to get more complex as we go along, rather than simpler. Revise and edit, and then revise and edit again... It's one hefty ditch we have to dig. And sometimes it feels like we're digging with a spoon.

I think I've known for years that perseverence is often just as important as talent. You need talent, but it won't take you anywhere without hard work. And yet the sheer weight of that work as you progress... you want to be a published novelist? It's going to take effort. Effort on effort on effort.

Doggedness is so important. Not just to study the craft, not just to write day after day. But to face rejection and continue. To face critique and step up to it only to face critique again. And again. Because an agent is going to critique. And then an editor. A copyeditor. Reviewers. Readers. And you simply have to continue writing, digging, working.

And it's harder early on, when you are so uncertain of success (however you define success). How do you keep digging?

Good ol' Charlie Brown, right? There's something a little sad and funny about his determination, and yet there's a joy in his optimism, a sort of hope that is almost heroic. He's always there to take another kick at the ball, though chances at success are slim. All your life, Charlie Brown, all your life.

But he's dogged. He's gonna keep pushing. If Charlie Brown had a ditch to dig, I have this feeling he wouldn't be stopped. Can anyone here picture Charlie Brown putting down the shovel? If there's one thing Charlie Brown won't do, it's quit.

What about you? How do you keep digging? What pushes you through to draft 27 despite everything standing in your way?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The World in Miniature: Red Hat Day

by Jean Airey


hat was too large and the shoes too small. The dress had been on sale
at the Outlet for 90% off plus her Monday discount.

legs felt strange, loose fabric flapping around them. But she would
do. The colors were right. That was the main thing.

seen them on the street, laughing. Groups. Watching as she sat on a
bench – not long on one, moving to another, watching them order
food at the outside tables. They'd chatter and giggle and only eat
half of it. Waiting for them to leave. Then a quick walk by. Just a
bite of this or that. She didn't eat much.

there were large groups of them. A big party. She could stand up,
walk with them. Just a little behind, though. A smile, a question –
she would run. It had been too long.

was for the old cat who needed special food. She could eat anything,
but he depended on her. She'd never let anyone down. Ever. All the
years and the jobs that didn't need someone who could read or write.
A hard worker, they'd say. Always the first to be let go.

the corner she turned and walked toward the bank. The small revolver
hung heavy in the dress pocket. It wasn't loaded. Maybe next time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Destiny Has Many Faces

There's a bit of writing advice I hear a lot around the interwebz, and it's something with which I agree -- with a caveat.

First, the advice: As writers we shouldn't let anyone change our story from what it's meant to be. In other words, we should write our story the way that's right, and not worry about word count, genre, audience, etc.

There's value in this, in the idea that it's our story, and that we should always have full possession of it. We shouldn't automatically be swayed by every comment or critique of our writing; all opinions are not equal. A critique is only as valuable as what we do with it. A brilliant critique is only brilliant if it helps us transform our story in a positive way. A terrible critique is only terrible if we let it sway us in the wrong direction.

As a writer we have to take ownership of our writing. Its path is ours and ours alone to plot -- all committees are advisory only.

But... here's the caveat: It's easier to accept our story as definitive, as finished, than it is to explore change.

Destiny has many faces. And so too does our story, at least in the realm of possibility. The danger of the above writing advice is that the process becomes static. We see our story as fated - we see it as we first imagined it, as we wrote it out on the page. And, look, it's on the page! Finished! This concrete thing! Yes, we can tweak some sentences, the dialogue here and there. But the story is done. This is the story as it's meant to be, written in stone.

But what is that, exactly? What is meant to be? Is any story simply meant to be one thing and one thing only? We have a vision, certainly. But visions are malleable things. We ourselves often change, and our stories can change with us -- but only if we are open to the possibility, the idea that fate has many forms.

It can be an excuse for us, you see -- Oh, I can't change this, it's not what was meant to be. But that meaning is always wholly within us, and is bound only by what we can see and imagine. Yes, some things will lead us astray from what we want. We have to guard against this... but without closing ourselves off to the possibility of change, even deep change.

Destiny has many faces. I touched on this with my guest post for Nathan Bransford a few weeks ago. I think what I wanted writers to take away was the idea that you could see the story from within, that you could write in new doors and rooms to any story. Will they be right? Some yes, some no. But if we're never willing to make the attempt we're tying off our own possibilities, the power of our own imagination.

God built the world, and on the seventh day He rested. And on the eighth? Perhaps things started to evolve, to change - perhaps God started an endless revision in search of a final story.

Are we any different? The story is before us, always running into a future full of possibilities. We can cut things away, story elements becoming extinct, living on only as ghosts of memory. Yet the story remains, a fluid thing, open (as always) to possibility -- eternity is merely a story of continual genesis.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Bear of Mississauga Boulevard

by Bryan Russell

The Bear of Mississauga Boulevard

Katie crumpled the letter from Iraq. She uncrumpled it. Crumpled it. It would burn faster if she crumpled it. Poof.

All about speed. Iraq was eternity and if she burned the letter it would go fast. An oil well. Big gusts of smoke like the time the barbecue caught on fire when Mom left the meat on too long. Smoke like that. Only, you know, way bigger. And fast. Whoosh. Because everything else about Iraq took a million years. Time stopped there, in the desert. She pictured her dad there. Just standing. A shadow behind him.

“It’s bloody fucking hot,” he told Katie’s mom when he thought Katie wasn’t listening.

“Another scorcher,” is what he told Katie.

Her dad, standing. A long shadow behind him like the silent minute-hand of a clock.

Mr. Urgravic’s van was full of groceries. Though saying it was full was like saying the desert was hot. Katie watched the unloading. Damn full, that’s what it was. Big brown paper bags took up every bit of space.

Mr. Urgravic was huge. Tall, taller even than daddy, and almost as wide as the van. Sloping shoulders. Big chest, big belly, big legs. A beard.

They were paper bags, so he couldn’t just scoop up five or six at a time. No handles. One under each arm. It took a lot of trips. Mr. Urgravic sweated a lot. He soaked through his shirt, even though it was cool outside. He huffed a little. His breath an odd sound.

Katie watched through the hedge, until Mr. Urgravic stopped and looked over at her, at her hedge. Through her hedge. Yellow eyes. Katie sprinted away, gangly legs flying. She looked back once, Mr. Urgravic bending to pick up a big jar of honey. One of the bags had broken.

Katie kept running. It was cool here, and Katie could run forever. She was in cross country at school. She ran away from the other girls, left them behind.

“She’s a scorcher,” the coach always said, though he was really just a French teacher and might not know much.

Katie hadn’t seen Mr. Urgravic for awhile. He was never outside. The snow along his sidewalk was untouched, except for the footprints of the mailman who came at 11:00 every morning.

Sometime during the day, though, the mail always disappeared from the box.

School was out. Katie wandered through the snow. Waiting, though for what she didn’t know. The Christmas tree was up inside but it seemed pointless this year. The lights didn’t work. Mom didn’t know how to fix it.

Instead, Katie watched Mr. Urgravic’s house. Had he left? Had someone killed him? Maybe it was terrorists.

She walked around the house. All the blinds were pulled. It must be dark inside, like a cave. Unless he had all the lights on. But why would he waste electricity? Katie’s mom was always big on the evil of wasting electricity.

Katie decided. She walked to the door. Mail was gone. She knelt in the light snow. Knees cold. She lifted the mail slot in the door, the one the mailman never used. He used the box hanging to one side. But the door had a mail slot and Katie lifted it and looked inside.

Dark. She tried to see, tried to focus her eyes. She noticed the smell first. Not dirty, not bad, just thick. Something like Coover’s fur, years ago, before he got hit by a car. Damp. It was sort of like the smell of damp fur. Sort of thick. Like it hadn’t moved in a long time, this smell.

And then a sound. A slow sound. She’d been hearing it but not hearing it. Sort of a long, slow, cavernous sound. A little sharper at first. A pause. Then a release – a slower, flattened version of the first sound. Another pause. In and out.

The darkness thinned. Something moved. Not fast. A rise and fall. It was huge. Like a vast sofa pushed up by the door. A rise and fall, the shaggy hide breathing. Expanding.

A movement; a snuffle of sound; a shift as a massive head swung toward the door. Yellow eyes. A cavernous breath.

Katie sprinted, kicking up cold snow. Through the hedges. Branches pricked her skin.

Katie leapt out the door, pigtails flying. Dad had sent her for eggs. Down to the cornerstore. She was going to run the whole way. She told her dad, told him she was going to go fast.

“Fast as a bullet,” her dad said. A sad smile. He cleared his throat, looked back into his paper. “Don’t lose those coins.”

Katie ran, her legs bare and long in last year’s shorts, too small for her now. But she liked the air on her legs.

She pulled up short.

Mr. Urgravic looked at her. “Girl, sometimes you have to slow down. Not everything’s a sprint.”

“Yes, Mr. Urgravic.”

“I hear your Daddy’s home. You say hi, hear me? You do that?”

Katie nodded and ran on. Deep breaths. In and out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The End: A Study of Temporary Satisfaction

What's it like to finish a story for you?

To me there's nothing quite like finishing a first draft, particularly of a novel. Day after day after day, working toward The End - and finally reaching it? A wonderful, electric feeling (though not without a little exhaustion hidden beneath the surface).

Yet even finishing later drafts is interesting. The satisfaction, the energy of it. A week ago I finished the latest draft of my novel in progress and let it out of my hands. There's a thrill in that, in both the finishing and releasing... I find myself, often, with a sort of nervous energy filtering out through my limbs, out to my fingertips, as if they want to keep on tap tap tapping on those keys. It's like a static charge that builds up as you approach the end.

I finished, and found myself walking crazy little circles around the house, bobbing in and out of rooms, picking things up, putting them down, picking them up again. I decided to go for a run. Use that energy. Exercise and exorcise it, in a sense, as it would take awhile to settle down otherwise.

Feet on the pavement. There's a physical release, but there's always that sense of something that approaches meditation. The rhythm and repetition of running, of breathing, creates a calm state. Sort of paradoxical, really: when the body is most alive, most active, the mind is in one of its most settled states.

And part of this state (at least for me) is one of creation, of seeing ahead. And isn't this part of what writing The End is about - writing new beginnings?

There's always something next to write. Already, on that run, my brain started looking ahead to something new. And yet is that strange? There is something to be said for fully enjoying the steps on the way - to revel in that satisfaction that comes with completion.

And yet... writing is about the journey, about discovering something. Whatever ambitions I might have for my finished stories (readers, success, a career, etc.) it always comes back to the writing for me. The process. It's the process I love, the act of creation - of seeking, unearthing, discerning, feeling, shaping.

There's joy in completion, and yet nothing is ever complete. Perhaps I'm merely writing one long and ever-shifting story, a story of my perception of the world (however fantastical). A story that never ends - and without a true ending the true satisfaction has to come from that process, from that transformation of experience, dream and thought into words, into sentences and paragraphs and chapters, into that endless and ever-shifting narrative.

What about you? What is writing The End like for you? How do you react? Does the next thing always call you onward? Or is better to just spend some time binging on champagne and ice cream?