Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Moving Target - Writing Over Time, or Bringing Up Baby

My last post was about how time affects the reader's view of a work of literature. Back when I wrote it, (a week ago), I was all gung-ho to do a follow-up post about how time affects the writer's relationship to their own work. I had the post half-written in my mind. I counted on my brief reference in my last post as sufficient to jog any memories that might need jogging with the mere flip of an ipad.

Now, here I am, a week or so later, and already my relationship to the material has changed. Between then and now, things have happened. Not earth-shattering things, just the ebb and flow of living. Still, that ebb and flow is enough to shift the sands. The thought that popped up so vividly then seems distant and foggy now. New blog posts and story ideas have been jostling for a place in line. And this is after little more than 7 days. This is with the succinct, manageable form of a blog post.

How, then, do we writers, changeable humans that we are, manage to sustain our connection to a novel, with its complex storylines and fully-realized characters whose truth and consistency must hold not only across the space of hundreds of pages but across the many years it takes to complete such a longer work? It's not like we stop changing and growing and evolving during that time. What do we do if we sit down one day and discover that the themes or characters that drove us to create a story in the first place are no longer the themes that resonate for us today?

Perhaps we need to be time travelers in our own minds, imaginative enough to go back and find the emotional truth that drew us to a story. But we're also responsible for creating characters vivid enough to have life and growth on their own, outside our minds. The skin and tissue of our characters must be consistent and strong, but also fluid, allowing them to grow. In the end, like parents, we must trust them, release them from our own control in the hope that they can stand, walk, run and live on their own.

How? Well, if my own mini-experiment in this blog post is any indicator, when you don't feel the connection anymore, write your way back in from a new angle. Maybe your story will be richer for it. Or maybe, as in my case, you'll at least feel you've given it the attention it deserved. And if you drop it, ignore it, give up on it? Maybe, like Frankenstein's monster, it will come to you at night in some terrifyingly powerful form and insist that you own it as yours.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Change Over Time - Experiencing Stories at Different Phases of Life

Back in high school, when I took calculus, I remember there was something called "change over time." I think we represented it with the Greek letter delta. I've forgotten an awful lot I learned in calculus, but lately I've been thinking about change over time - as it relates to writing, of course.

I've been re-reading Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST at the gym lately on my iPad (there's a sentence I'd never have expected to write). I first read it when I was about 12 or 13 years old. After watching a movie adaptation on Netflix, I found myself wondering how accurate my memories of the story truly were, and how my experience of it might be different at the age of 45 than it was 30 plus years ago. The adult me is infinitely better tuned to Dickens' wry tone and scathing condemnation of his society than the adolescent me. But beyond that, there were entire sections I had completely forgotten (or perhaps blocked out) and even characters I barely remembered or noticed the first time that stand out much more this time through. My impressions of other characters are completely changed. Fagin and the Artful Dodger, for example, seemed much more complex, almost sympathetic, on my first round, while their villainy and self-interested motives appear obvious now.

I remember my mother had a similar reaction to SILAS MARNER. In high school she thought it was boring and stupid. As an adult, she found it deeply moving. So, now I'm on a mission. The next on my list is Jane Austen, who left me utterly cold when I first read her stuff in high school. We'll see what I think of Mr. Darcy and the rest this time through.

The words don't change with time, but we do, and we, the readers, are co-creators with an author. We stage and interpret their work in our mind's eye, and as our minds change, our experience of the story changes.

Change over time affects us as writers, too, a fact that can prove especially challenging when you work on something over the course of many years. But that's a story for another blogpost, one I suspect will be entitled THE MOVING TARGET.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Genres and Misfits - Labels in Literature

The digital age demands categories and labels in order to sort the overwhelming quantity of data and information floating through cyber space. Search engines want to know where we fit and where our ideas fit. They want to know because there are people at the other end trying to sift through all this information to find what they seek. Genre labels can help your audience find you, and they can help you connect with the right people and places. Nevertheless, the process of labeling oneself tickles a disturbing place in the brain.

I recently checked out an online database for submissions called duotrope (my thanks to Pete Morin of the Fiction Writers Guild on Linked In for sharing this). It seemed like a great resource, but it forced me to parse things into multiple layers of categories. Duotrope's lists were not only sorted into 9 genres, but also into innumerable subgenres and each of those were sorted into styles. I struggled to determine which of my stories fit into which categories, or whether my stories were misfits.

Agents and publishers use genre labels, too. So often, the bio information for editors or agents at a conference or in a newsletter includes a list of genres they seek and those that "need not apply." Meanwhile, authors struggle to decode what each agent's definition of these terms might be. Do they interpret "horror" the way I interpret "horror"? How are they defining "magical realism"? What's their issue with "inspirational," or do they really mean "anything at all to do with religion"?

I suppose it's better than being back in high school, where people assigned labels and categories to human beings. Still, I can't help but notice that same, rebellious piece of my brain fighting against the boxes, whether it's "jock, brain, stoner and drama fag" or "horror, romance, mystery and thriller."

None of us like being pigeonholed. Maybe that's because so many voices coexist inside us. We are filled with selves - dark selves, humorous selves, adventurous selves, argumentative selves. Each self has it's own collection of stories, and those stories take many different forms. Perhaps that's the beauty of the whole genre and subgenre game. I'm not labeling myself. I'm just labeling one story. And I have an unlimited supply of stories inside of me, stories of many different stripes.

Classifying and categorizing is part of human nature. Even as young children, we sort our world into categories - people who look like our parents and people who don't; men with beards and men without; humans, animals and clowns (their own disturbing category). It's how we store memories and organize data in our brains. The danger comes when we exclude things from our world based purely on labels and categories, when we shrink our world to fit those categories, when the labels serve as boundaries to our vision of the possible. Narrowing the search shouldn't mean narrowing your mind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Stumbling Into Genre

First, let's get the shameless self-promotion out of the way. My short story, DAEMIEL WATCHES, just won 2nd place in the Kay Snow Awards. External validation is a lovely thing. But here's the bloggable part. This is the 2nd short story I've written that has won an award, and both of them have been in the horror and suspense genre. "Big deal," you say. Well, since I've never particularly thought of myself as a horror and suspense writer - or even a horror and suspense reader - it is kind of a big deal. Or at least a mid-sized deal. It's left me asking myself what this means for me as a writer.

The realization that I have more than a few horror and suspense pieces to my credit had been gradually creeping up on me, enough so that I made a special page for them on my website. But this latest turn of events has put it all in a new light. Mind you, I don't plan on throwing my lot in with horror writers and ignoring everything else from here on, but I do plan on examining more closely the kind of writer I am and wish to be and the kinds of stories that draw my best work from me.

It got me thinking of the time I was browsing the shelves in Powell's Books and stumbled upon a copy of John Steinbeck's first novel, CUP OF GOLD, a swashbuckler based on the life of pirate Henry Morgan. It wasn't terrible, but it really wasn't Steinbeck. He so clearly had not yet found his true writing home, as if he was trying to live in someone else's skin.

I'm still not sure exactly what conclusions to draw about myself as a writer from all of this. At a minimum, it's a reminder not to pigeonhole myself, but rather to keep my mind open to stories of any genre, write the stories that demand I write them and attend to the characters who insist on attention. Still, I think I may have to take a look at some Stephen King.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Luddite Versus the Populist

Yes, folks, I'm going to continue to contemplate the questions of literature in the digital age. Let me say, first of all, that following this conversation in its many forms and facets, has led me to blogs and chatrooms all over cyberspace and into several different books, from HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo to NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD by Margaret Atwood and beyond. The topic seems to engender debate that is lively to say the least.

In my own thoughts on e-publishing, I find two perspectives warring inside me - the luddite and the populist. The luddite approaches the entire concept with a healthy dose of paranoia and distrust. She always notices the latest posts warning that Facebook has changed its privacy settings to give it the ability to own her image, her words and all the private information she or any of her friends have ever posted anywhere in the cyber universe. She would rather remain unknown than click "yes" to anything giving some faceless cyber creature permission to do anything and believes her keychain is nobody's business but hers. She believes computers, television and cellphones have cut us off from one another and created a generation of children increasingly incapable of civil conversation. Her favorite books include George Orwell's 1984 and FEED by M.T. Anderson.

Then there's the populist. She honors the internet as one of the great heroes of all the latest revolutions throughout the world. She celebrates it as a tool of the masses, overthrowing the information elite and throwing open the doors of ideas to the people. She has a copy of Apple's famous METROPOLIS-inspired Superbowl ad saved on her iPhone and firmly believes that e-publishing is to the common man what the printing press once was. She believes humanity's desire for connection will always win out over the isolating aspects of the computer, and points to the explosion of social networking, skyping and shared gaming experiences as proof. She is an incurable optimist and she likes it that way.

Which one is winning? Honestly, I think I'll keep them both around, just to stay grounded. Whose winning in your head?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Continuing the Conversation on the Digital Revolution

My friend Jan Bear is fearless in her exploration of the digital realm as it relates to writers. I keep telling her she will become the first in a new breed that, for lack of a better word, I'm calling a digital agent. I look to her as Virgil to my Dante in the dark wood of the digital world. She has graciously decided to chime in on our conversation about the digital revolution at her blog:

Friday, July 08, 2011

Craftsmanship vs Mass Production: Literature in the Digital Age

Lately, I can't seem to stop thinking about this question of the digital revolution and its effects on writing, writers and literature. Most recently, I found myself wondering how the new age of blogs and e-publishing impacted the quality of written work.

It seems to me that the digital revolution is to the world of ideas and stories what the industrial revolution was to furniture and other such material goods. We are entering an age of mass-production of ideas. The printing press enabled mass-production of the concrete items that contained the ideas, the messengers, i.e. books. But now, the ideas themselves can flow forth at an unprecedented rate from anyone and everyone, with minimal effort, risk or sense of commitment.

When the industrial age allowed the mass production of items such as clothing and furniture, many would argue that a reduction in quality followed close behind and craftsmanship was lost. "They don't make 'em like they used to." Will we find this same thing to be true with stories and ideas in the digital age? Will craftsmanship fall by the wayside in favor of "increased traffic"? After all, we've all heard that the more frequently you post on your blog, the better your traffic.

Call me a luddite if you will. Or perhaps this is simply another in a series of warning signs that I am becoming an old curmudgeon. But maybe it's a call to arms, a reminder not to compromise quality in the face of quantity and the rush to deliver.

For an interesting conversation about this topic, from a different perspective, check out the post
"Tsunami of Crap" at The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Reading with Two Brains

One of the great joys of summer vacations, especially as a teacher or a student, is the time to read, and to truly lose yourself in a book. But ever since I've gotten serious about my writing, I find I read with two brains. One is the reader, who drops herself deep down into the world of the story, journeys with the characters, hopes and fears with them and, if the author does his or her job right, can't stop until the book is done. The other brain is the writer brain. She has a much tougher job, and she knows it. She's clinical, analytical, and sits way up high studying, taking notes. She often tries to muscle the reader out of the way so she can get a closer look at the machinery behind the magic. She's Toto to the reader-brain's Dorothy, pulling away that curtain so she can reveal the wizard's true self.

I'm always telling myself that the writer brain deserves to take a closer look. She deserves a chance to go for another ride on the book, to take her time and pick apart the language and the technique that swept the reader off her feet. But the reader, ever a bit flighty and always looking for the next magic moment, insists, "But I've already read that one! I want to try this one out! There are so many books, and so little time!"

My writer brain has gotten pretty good at catching things on-the-fly, identifying where a particular book or author has demonstrated special mastery. J.K. Rowling makes me want to turn the page the way Doritoes make me want to keep eating. Water for Elephants has an incredible opening scene. Lovely Bones demonstrates a brilliant and unusual use of point of view. Dickens creates unforgettable characters and writes fantastic dialogue. The Hobbit is a beautiful example of voice. I could go on and on.

"Yes, yes," says my writer brain. "That's WHAT they did. But HOW? HOW? That's the most valuable part! I must have the chance for further study!" I wonder, if I let her have her way, would she be strong enough to take charge and analyze the way she wants? Or would my reader brain once again win the struggle, caught up in the magic spell of words, story and character that won her over in the first place?

Once, long ago in college, I had to do exactly that - analyze, analyze, analyze. I did fine, but I'm not sure I ever did it with quite this purpose - as the sorcerer's apprentice, hoping to learn the master's spells and tricks well enough to apply them to my own magic.

Have you ever re-read a book purely to analyze the technique in-depth? What book? What did you learn?

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