Friday, December 3, 2010

About Dinosaurs and Why We Write

A month today since my last entry. I hear many writers say they write because they must, because they can't NOT write. I don't have that problem, obviously. I write because I love to write. I love to put words together for many reasons, none of which have to do with a compulsion to write.

I like to tell stories. I like to paint pictures with words, pictures that make someone else feel a scene as I intend. I like to create (or recreate) emotions. And all that is so amazingly banal. Every writer wants those basics. Craft. No, I write because I like to influence, change or open minds, find commonality. I question and want to shake fixed beliefs and systems and get others to question, or see differently.

I write because I want to make a difference. I admit it. I want to influence people, not to think like I think--that may change from day to day--but to think, period. Not to accept anything as truth because someone has said it is. Yes, that would include priests, politicians, and ministers, imams, and rabbis (and my own father was a minister.) And that brings me to dinosaurs.

I live within driving distance of The Creation Museum. Someday I will go see it, when I think I can keep a straight face, because my experience with the people who might frequent the place is that they often have little sense of humor. But come on, folks. Given the abundance of scientific data, how can these people actually believe that dinosaurs and humans (homo sapiens, of course, since there can't have been any other types of humanoid bipeds in earth's history) existed side by side? Did Noah just forget to take them on the ark? Or did he simply, defiantly disobey God's direct command? Or, wait...might there not have been dinosaurs on the planet at the time of the flood?

It was in the paper today that the creator of the Creation Museum is going to build a life-sized replica of the ark. I wonder where he got the plans and specs? I mean, of course, other than the Biblical cubits of length, breadth, etc. Been a while since I've looked at the specs. But damn, it's going to be tight for the brontosauruses.

And yet, as the military's report on Don't Ask Don't Tell has finally been released, saying what most knew it would say, one man refuses to listen, and he is in a position to allow the change that will happen to move forward. No, he says. It doesn't matter what the people think, what the soldiers think (except those who agree with him), this is wrong because, because, because he believes it is.

Dinosaurs do live among us. I stand corrected.

Now, I don't want my blog to be about politics. I want it to be fun and interesting. But I realize that I don't necessarily agree with the mogul who said, to paraphrase, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." I don't want to preach or be preached to. I don't want to write polemics. And yet, I do want to influence. I admit it. Pry minds open. Offer questions. Question every assumption. I believe that people with talent to write should use it for the betterment of this small world. Sure, mysteries are great, and comedies, and horror stories, and romance, and dystopian literary journeys into a bleak future. Entertainment for the sake of entertainment is pure wonder and joy. I'm all for it. But between the jokes and the twists and the unique turns of phrase, we need to speak out.

Where are we going, when all movement stops while we each obstruct the other? We'll never all agree. How boring would that be? But must we fight? Must we live in fear? Do we tell stories only to distract? To allay the fear? Or do we look for some truths? Not the ones fed to us. Imagine no religion, John Lennon said. Imagine. Imagine all the people...  Well, we all know. I think that's why I write.

Why do you?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

I have absolutely no idea. Go ask Alice.

But I can tell you why a garden is.

It was a hideously hot and humid summer here in the Midwest, and didn't we let our gardens languish and the weeds grew out of control? Oh, the area immediately visible from the deck where, of an evening, we sit and sip and enjoy the small, controlled back yard stayed well maintained and lush. But the areas not immediately visible (to us..the hell with the neighbors) began, by summer's end, to look as though no one lived in the house. The once beautiful clumps of black-eyed Susan and hardy ageratum spread their mats of roots and choked out most everything else. The walkway disappeared as the overgrowth flopped over. But it couldn't be left that way going into winter, or spring would be a disaster. So we go back to what was once a clean slate and begin, foot by foot, day by day, to dig up the intruders, throw away the invaders, carry huge clumps of matted soil to the curb for pickup. Then there's the trimming back of shrubs, some now, some that wait until spring. And, when the beds are cleaned up and the perennials cut back, we remember the ones that were too crowded and cramped and needed digging up and dividing, so we dig up and split them, and replant them in new places. And, while the back aches, and there's more, still, to do, there's satisfaction in the doing, of seeing things that didn't work in one place, that were dug up and moved years ago, thriving now, creating structure and bones. And being able to see how pieces that were out of place are now filling in a space that needed them. Oh, and the immense pleasure of giving the heave-ho to what was once beautiful, but no longer belonged in the total picture.

So it is with a manuscript in progress--and I've come to believe, having "finished" my novel several times, only to go back, when I (or another pair of eyes) step back and see it as a whole, what is working and what isn't, that every manuscript is a work in progress. At least until a publisher says it's done, or we give up, shelve it, and move on. As "they" say, writing is rewriting. No garden is static. If left alone, it takes on its own dynamic, reverting to what nature prefers. But we tease it, pluck it, move one thing here, remove one there, and when it looks just right, we sit back and enjoy it. Until we see that this shrub would do better over there with more sun, and that one is going to get too big for where it is, so will be better moved to the back. Oh, and what was back there will get more water and flourish in the space the other moved from. Editing can be like pruning a shrub, getting rid of extraneous words, words with the wrong tone, unnecessary phrases. But the real rewriting, revising (re-vision-ing) comes with digging up the huge clumps that, while lovely at first, no longer fit or belong, taking the scene that broke up another scene and moving it later, or earlier, combining it with another, and stepping back to see the shape as the elements relate to each other.

A garden is never finished. Even if it has periods where it can be just tended, eventually things will outgrow their space or die, and there are always new temptations to include. Books will, at some point, be finished, whether by publisher's decree or banishment. Another will be begun, and the process begins again. A different structure, or a variation. A new bed to plant. A new story to tell. And then the digging, moving, replanting, and pruning that goes into telling it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Enjoying The Journey

We begin a journey with a destination in mind, or, if we remain mindful of Lao Tse, with the journey itself being the ever changing, expanding, shifting destination, and where we arrive at the end, just the end.

When my partner and I planned a month in the British Isles several years ago, our advanced planning consisted of booking a hotel in London for the first few days, another in Dublin for the first and last of five nights in Ireland, another in Edinburg for two nights. Those we booked in advance thinking it might be difficult to wing it in a major city. Other than those points, the rest of the trip was by auto with a general but loose itinerary. Each day we'd look at our options, set out, and take the back roads to unexpected places. We blew a tire outside Blarney and got a very local side trip to a nearby garage. Every day was discovery, some wrong turns, and some amazing surprises. We would find a town in an area we wanted to explore (the Cotswolds, the Lake District, a drive over a desolate highlands moor to an oceanside town in Scotland) and stop, find a B&B or hotel in time to explore the town on foot, find a pub for a pint, have dinner in whatever place the innkeeper said was best for cheap local food and fun, and then loosely plan the next day. We hit the high points along the way, walked the steps that Wordsworth walked above his lake, explored Yorkminster at dusk, found an ancient stone circle atop a misty mountain, just us and the sheep. The point of the trip was never getting from London to London by way of Ireland, Scotland, and points between. The point was the points between, as satisfying as the destination itself proved to be.

Not long ago, Nathan Bransford, literary agent, blogged about when dreams become expections. His post is here. It had particular relevance to me because, at a very ripe age, I've embraced the reality of the odds of publishing success, and realize that those dreams are just that: dreams. Sure, I'd love to find an agent who loved this novel and sold it to a publisher who sold the movie rights, the movie and novel filling my empty coffers as I churn out the follow-up. But those are dreams.

Many of us writers, authors, persevere in the face of impossible odds with a sense of pride at maintaining the Sisyphean task. Some of us keep preparing, perpetual students, practicing, reading, studying the craft as an avoidance mechanism for actually attempting to write the novel, or, if written, take it to the next step. What's the point of being serious when the odds are only slightly this side of insurmountable? The point is the journey. The point is how the paint is applied to the canvas, the words put down on the pages.  The point is the doing of it. And in the journey lie the surprises, the discoveries, and, yes, the disappointments and wasted side trips.

But they are never wasted, are they? Otherwise we'd never have explored the tiny village green surrounded by charming Irish homes, shops, and pubs, colors of Easter eggs, while waiting for the auto repair. We'd never find the unexpected twist of plot when a character does something on his own that changes the direction of everything. Or the frustration when the discovery adds depth to the total experience for us, the creators, the voyagers, but ends up on the cutting room floor. Or, as now, when a very good reader points out some holes in the opening, long put to bed, and it's back to revising again. But in this detour, I find myself back on the journey, new discoveries laid out in front of me.

And so we persevere. Would I like to be finished? Of course, but what is finished? The last step before the first step of another phase, project, or jouney. I Ching says, over and over, perseverance furthers. And so it must. Because the end of the journey is always, at any stage, at any place, just ahead, the next town, the next revision, the next book, in the cloud of dreams. Dreams can be goals, and they should be. But if they become expectations, the journey sours. Maybe I'm placating myself. These be not easy times. But I honestly think I'd rather enjoy the road than fly over it. If I find Xanadu, so much the better.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

By Request

It was a year ago August 24 when the younger of my two older sisters passed. It's been the four of us two older sisters and my younger brother, since our parents died within two years of each other way back in the 50s, so the loss of one of the four of us was a difficult event. You might think that early loss prepares you, but it really doesn't. On the day we thought she would be leaving, I was unable to get to where she and my other sister and my brother, and her family were holding vigil, so I wrote what came to me and sent it on, and they read it aloud at her bedside. My brother has asked me to post it here, in her memory and our ongoing and constant love.

Quiet Now

Time Bandits

I never saw the movie, so I don’t really know what the title meant in context, but it feels appropriate for the past few weeks. It’s been over a month since I’ve posted. And what’s been accomplished? I’ve tweaked the query again, but still not to my satisfaction, to send off to a fellow writer for critique, adjust again as necessary, and begin another round of querying. Thank God this missing month is one where many agents take time off. But what of my WIP? Would that be the inchoate whisperings of a story to follow up my current novel and give Carter another adventure? Or do I leave him alone and move on? Unlike the writers who can hardly keep up with the novel ideas (ha) bombarding them for birthing, I have to mine the dark undercurrents to find and catch them. Then there’s the old couple still in the kitchen on the second page of the short I’ve started based on a newspaper article last winter about…well, never mind. I’ll save it for the story.

I don’t know how we lived before computers. Quite well, in fact, but, just sayin’. I made it through school with a portable non-electric Corona, but editing papers was no easy task without cut and paste. It did teach patience and typing skills. And I thought I’d forever carry the yellow legal tablet in a hardback cover for the inspired moments in the park, at the beach, at a cafe table outside the museum. But then came the 90s and all that took a backseat to moveable text. I mention this only because I’ve spent almost the entire last week falling behind on everything while I tried to repair the laptop I use the most. Two complete clean installations of the operating system, neither of which worked after days of downloading software and Microsoft updates. Finally I resorted to spending two days on the phone with techs in India (I’ve grown fond of the accent) and the Philippines while they worked remotely on it. It seems finally to be fixed, so now I’ve spent the past day and a half catching up on blog reading and emails that had piled up. And really, who but me gives a shit? But as with my yellow legal pad, so goes the world, and soon the book will be a collector’s item, an objet d’art as we read on our e-readers. What that means for publishing I’ll leave to the many many bloggers discussing it. (And whom I keep reading to stay current, and there goes more writing time…)

So, on writing, I haven’t much to add after this absence, because not much has been done. But I do believe that downtime, whether stolen or forced upon us, is good for the process as well. As long as it doesn’t become a habit. If I’d been inside writing or working on my query last week in the early evening, instead of outside enjoying a cocktail with my partner, I would have missed the extraordinary event of looking up at a flurry of large wings in a pine in our back yard to see a red-tailed hawk sitting there. Well, he wasn’t, of course, just sitting there. He’d spotted his dinner and this was just taking his seat at the restaurant. He disappeared into the trees for a moment. I was disappointed not to have been able to see him fly away. There’s something eternally wondrous to me about a hawk in flight. But then he returned to the branch, this time with his dinner. I love bunnies as much as the next guy, but hey, they do wreak havoc on a garden, and a bird’s gotta eat. So he/she sat there, munching, watching us watch him, for nearly half an hour. We were able to walk up under the tree close enough to see his meal hanging from the branch and the one foot that held it. Close enough to see its markings and face and the slight crest of its head feathers. I said aloud, “don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,” idiot that I was, realizing, if I may anthropomorphize for a moment, that this huge bird with razor talons and beak must have thought, “Yeah, right. You hurt me. That’s gonna happen.” So, after a while, the bird finished and with those pale-undersided wings spread and minimal flapping, took off and was gone up the alley. And that’s all. Just one of those rare and wonderful moments of pure, raw nature up close and personal. Thanks, bird.

But the writer’s journey is never done, so on to another revision, another round, another new blank page. Forgive my rambling, but I needed a self-indulgent kick in my own ass to get this thing moving again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Voice

In nearly every critique of writers' works, be it of a query, a chapter, a blog entry or a novel, the topic of voice comes up. We know that voice is the element that makes each writer unique. It's often said that one can't develop voice by trying, consciously, to find it or create it, that it only comes about through constant writing until one's own way of way of it putting down becomes stripped of affectations, blind obedience to rules, and takes on a distinctive tone and cadence.

Okay, so we know what it is, sort of, and we know when we read a work that has it, and we can recognize many well-known authors' voices, and we know that without it, we ain't goin' nowhere. Love him or hate him, a few pages from the middle of The Road could be no one but Cormac McCarthy.

So I'm finally reading The Lovely Bones because it was lent to me. I had read the first pages years ago and was hooked, but not enough to buy it. Then the movie had me look again, but still not intrigued enough to pick it up. But having it put into my hand, I did want to see why this debut author broke through the barriers to publication and not only landed an agent who sold the book to a publisher, but became a best-seller that went on to be made into a film. Why?

Well, the first page is obvious. A dead fourteen-year-old girl narrating her own murder. Great hook. But then (the big BUT) I moved past the opening chapters as she narrates the story from "her" heaven, looking down on events that unfold, and something began to bother me. Significantly. The writer has voice, no doubt. The narrator, the dead girl, has voice. But is the voice of the dead girl her voice or the voice of the writer? Because I'm constantly stopping at bits of observation on her (dead girl's) part that sound no more like a fourteen year old girl than I do. She says she wasn't the bright one. (That would be her still-alive older sister.) Her language, her choices of images, metaphors, and observations are so beyond a fourteen year old. My question, then, is is the voice of the novel, written in first person from the girl's POV, hers or the author's? We're told that each character's speech in dialogue, must be distinctively hers/his. Should it not be the same for a character who happens to be a first-person narrator? Or do we not care as long as the whole thing has "voice" and maintains it throughout. Because, as stated up top, the author must have voice.

What I do know is that I'm constantly stopping, though I'm enjoying the story well enough, and shaking my head, thinking no fourteen-year-old girl would think that or say it that way, and whether or not the "voice" of the author is distinctive (and therefore good by that standard), I should be held in her (the girl's) head, in her story, in her observations and way of seeing and saying things, and never pulled out to think she'd never say that. Shouldn't I? Isn't that the author's job?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What If?

Since that last post, started on Thursday but not completed until today (Sunday), I've had the wonderful opportunity to spend each of those nights more awake than asleep, quietly (mostly) following my stream of consciousness. Among the islands in that stream were the island of peaceful meditation with healing light, the island of anxiety about how crappy I'd feel the next day, the continent of contemplation about the nature of dedication to a hopeless and ridiculous project, the islet of don't believe in that continent, and the lovely tropical motu of What If. My favorite dwelling place. Trade winds. Soft sand and turquoise waters. And endless possible variations on perceived reality, where nothing is sacred but everything is.

What if... what seemed like inspiration and now feels stupid by the light of day really were inspiration? And, if so, inspired by whom or what?

What if... time really is not a continuum, if past, present, future is a human construct to make sense, with our limited vision, of a moment in which all exists at once?

What if...other civilizations, if we're to call them that, do exist, but we don't perceive them because they aren't physical in the way we experience physical? Might the universe(s) not well be populated by many kinds of sentience, not necessarily in any life form or beings as we perceive them?

What if... the miracles and visions of our ancient prophets, seers, visionaries, and divinities are all true and all nothing like we perceive them? Like time, humanity must make sense of what it can't explain, and so the "chariots of the gods" become the wheel within a wheel, an alien implantation a virgin birth, beaming up an ascension? Is it any less miraculous? If a caterpillar can "die" and morph into a butterfly or moth, might not apparent miracles be as mundane in parallel dimensions overlapping this one?

What if... there really are "things" in the closet, under the bed, in the basement, in the dark? What if children really do retain a bit of a pre-birth consciousness (not exactly Wordsworthian, but) that enables a kind of perception of the invisible that age diminishes as we grow to be more of the world.

What if... all the stories of alien visitation are not only true, but only part of the truth. Is it even possible we are alone in this vast cosmos?

What if... an entire civilization lives on a "planet" that is some sub-atomic particle in a toenail, its entire history, from inception to destruction, in our perception of time, lasting as long as that bit of nail takes to grow and get clipped?

What if... insomnia really does create insanity in an otherwise sane person?

The Endless Query

Back at it, once again. Holiday's over. Back on the bus.

Out of ten queries sent out, I've received 9 form rejections, one no response.
 
So, even though that is only one batch of queries sent, the response rate (zilch) would indicate that maybe the query itself isn't doing its job. And, as I've lain awake in those hours after midnight not thinking about it, what I've not thought about is that the query I've been using doesn't really get to the nature of the story. It sounds like a basic good (gay) guy vs. evil-evangelist story. But that isn't really it. It's more supernatural, more creepy, more David Lynchian. The query needs to convey more of that. Normaltown, USA being invaded by beings from some dark dimension to capture the vortex of powerful energy (light) that "downloads" there and to invert it to its dark opposite, beginning the plunge of this planet, a gameboard in the greater scheme, into darkness, reversing its evolution, and winning one for the dark side. 

And this must all be conveyed as a sales tool in a prescribed format (with variations per agent guidelines): The hook, preferably one strong grabber sentence to get across the basic thrust, including the protagonist, the problem to be overcome (both plot problem and the protag's internal problem), the nature of the quest, i.e. what's at stake if s/he doesn't achieve his/her goal. The hook is then followed by an extremely briefs synopsis of the main plot only, a few pertinent details, but most importantly, the voice and essence of the story. All to make the agent request some of all of the actual manuscript. No small task, but one which every unpublished author must face, and there is definitely good company in the misery of the task.




Or did I say all this before?
 
So, once more unto the breach...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Old To Be New

At 5:30 AM, the query that's out there in the hands of a few overworked agents is definitely not the one you want to have written and sent. It isn't telling the heart of the story. It isn't engaging with its unique and compelling voice. I've made the antagonist appear to be one thing because there isn't room in the few allowed words to show what he really is, or that the normal-appearing town is full of dark beings invading in the persons of neighbors, friends, and cops. The bad guy isn't really a bad guy, he's just possessed by a seriously bad entity from some other dimension in space/time. Slowly the protagonist learns what's really going on, and what appears to be a prosaic story of good gay guy confronting rabid fundamentalist evangelist is really a story of invasion to overtake the vortex, the portal, the gateway of cosmic light energy that the town was founded by early visionaries to protect. Okay, there's the story. But as it's shown, a battle between fundy and gay guy, it doesn't project what it morphs into, or that the stakes aren't Carter saving his father, or even the town, but ultimately preserving the life-force of the planet. But I roll over and try to go back to sleep, because it is 5:30 in the morning, and I'll have all day to fret over it.


Revision four-hundred twenty-seven coming up. It's old news that the query is almost more difficult than writing the novel. See the many professionals disagree on what constitutes the good query here, and here, and those are just two. The synopses (yes, plural, because one never knows what will be requested) were difficult enough. No, worse than that. They're a f*****g bitch. But they're Snow White compared to the query. And on the other end of 5:30 AM, when it isn't wake-up time but I-still-haven't-f*****g-gotten-to-sleep-yet time, then of course all the pondering over the difficulty comes round to a simple fact: the whole novel sucks, so how could a good query come from it, let alone attract an agent to want to take on trying to sell it?


Not that any of this is unexpected. It's just that, like trying to figure out how to create a blog, how to handle it, and what the hell to write in it, with all the experience I've accrued, I'm pathetically old to be a newbie at all this. I've written all my life, but it has always been practice. Read. Read about writing. Practice the craft. Read more. Write more. But never, ever take that leap to actually writing for publication. That's for when you really have time, or know what you're doing, or have practiced long enough, or, or... when you grow up and get very old and wise. So now it's about doing it for the doing of it. But do it. And keep doing it. And keep writing, and honing, and fretting, polishing, starting again, rewriting, sending it out, taking all the steps. But damn, at 5:30 AM, it's a long, dark hallway. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Always beginning again

(New to Blogger, leaving behind LiveJournal and Wordpress)

I should be writing in those hours when sleep hides down the hall, in the shadows, refusing to visit me. Teasing, drifting a little. Ah, here it comes. But no, the thought that it's coming chases it away, and I should get up and write. More later.