Monday, November 29, 2010

He Can't be Unreasoned With!

I don't know how widely known this is, but at 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."

                                                                                         - Kris Saknussemm

Fantastic. I quite like the 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

You Be The Turkey

Happy Turkey Day, Yanks! I shall eat some pumpkin pie just for you. Yes, I'm just that sort of a friend. It's all about the sacrifice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

You Hate Me And I'm Okay With That

I've been thinking about a writer's understanding of audience lately, partly because of this post by Susan Quinn and this one by Nathan Bransford. I think the thing that's always struck me is that not everyone will like my writing. It doesn't really matter how good I become, there will always be people who won't connect with it.

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

The Prop - The World in Miniature

by Janice Leotti

The Prop

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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Dinner Party - The World in Miniature

by Jeff Hall

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

Nathan Bransford, the Deafness of Phantasms, and a Blind Man's Faith in the Possibility of Sight

As most of you writers in Internetland probably know, the inestimable Nathan Bransford is leaving agenting. What many of you might not know (though some have probably guessed) is that I've been working with Nathan on my novel for quite awhile now. So the news, for me, certainly hit home. Luckily I got an early heads up! Otherwise some of my brain might have melted out of my ear upon reading his post. :)

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

Reunion - The World in Miniature

by Bryan Russell


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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

One-Pass Manuscript Revision?

“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.