Saturday, November 23, 2013

"So What If I Haven't Written Much Lately? Neither Has Shakespeare"

It's been a while since I've posted in here, so I thought I'd just check in today. I don't have any words of supposed wisdom to share. I've been in the midst of the battle of submissions, rejections, and hearing nothing back at all, combined with the dark night of the soul that all writers must endure where we read some of our stuff and it seems to lay lifeless on the page. Being in a phase like this, it takes most of my energy, what isn't going to the large chunk known as "the rest of my existence", to keep working on my priority writing projects. The time and energy available to me has gone to those, rather than to any of my blogs. My personal approach to NaNoWriMo became "Just keep writing and don't give up on yourself." And screw any obsession with the word count, if you'll pardon my french.

With my current rather dismal perspective on my writing, I am so immensely grateful for my writing groups. They are keeping me going and feeding me the necessary insights to make the process itself positive and joyful, regardless of the immediate outcome. So, with Thanksgiving nearing, I give thanks for writer friends, near and far, in one form or another. You are great blessings!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

NaNoWriMo: My Annual Battle with Ambivalence

Here comes November, National Novel Writing Month.  Once again, there is a flurry of texts and Facebook posts and emails as the big kick-off approaches, and once again I find myself faced with that question - "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" And, once again, I amsteeped in an ambivalence that the overly introspective part of me feels compelled to examine. Is it laziness? Fear? Skepticism? Healthy cynicism? Is it the anti-joiner in me, the side of me that will refuse to do something simply to declare my independence from the crowd? ("We're all individuals." "I'm not!")

Something about the concept of National Novel Writing Month feels wrong to me. It seems to support the notion that anyone, everyone, indeed the entire country, can and should be writing a novel. Do I really believe that? I certainly believe everyone has a story to tell, and that the process of telling our stories is fundamental to who we are, and who we can become, as human beings. But I don't believe that everyone's story should become a novel. I don't believe everyone should declare themselves a writer. I do believe there already exists a glut of people who call themselves writers, myself among them.

I know diluting the name of "writer" or trivializing the process of writing a novel is not the intention of NaNoWriMo. I believe the intention is to inspire writers to push through the blocks and the tough spots, to challenge those who claim the name of writer to live up to that name by finishing a novel-length work, and to create a community of support that will allow you to reach your writing goals. These are all worthy purposes.

Still, something about the phrase "National Novel Writing Month" sticks in my craw. Maybe it's the bandwagon nature of it or the cram-for-exam component, the idea that those 50,000 words churned out in a month will actually constitute a novel. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say "National First Draft Writing Month?"

On the other hand, maybe this is envy and sour grapes speaking. I know quite a few writers who approach this month with seriousness and planning. They do their advance work. They have an outline, character sketches, everything you need to justifiably commit to a month-long intensive push that will, in fact, result in what could legitimately be called a novel. I salute them. They represent the best of what NaNoWriMo can be. Until I have approached it as they have, I have no right to criticize the concept.

My ambivalence may, in the end, come down to the age-old debate between "the plotters" and "the pantsers," between those who believe in the divine inspiration of the muse driving them forward, and those who believe you must outline and plan first in order to create something meaningful from that drive. For myself, as so often seems to happen in my life, I find I am a mixture of these two styles, an uneasy detente between the abstract-random thinker and the linear-analytical thinker. The plotter and the pantser coexist within me, attempting to sit down together over coffee or lunch and work out a compromise. And every year around this time they stare at each other across the table of my mind and ask, "Now what?"

Do I join the crowd? Do my own thing? Ignore the whole hullabaloo and fuss? Or throw in on it just once to see what happens and make me better informed?

I suppose I should end by throwing that question at you - "Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?" Why or why not?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

My Hard Drive Having Died, I Can Now See the Moon

I once gave my father a card with this quote on it:
My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.
I've been thinking a lot about that quote this week.  You see, my computer hard drive died on me.  I had backed up my work a few days earlier, so I didn't think I'd lost too much, but there were no guarantees.  What could have felt like a disaster left me oddly dispassionate and philosophical.

Not having a computer for a week gave me a chance to come at my writing life from a different angle.  I had fallen into the routine of sitting down in front of the computer, opening my existing work, rereading and then revising.  Nothing wrong with that, mind you, and having a writing routine or habit can be good for you, but sometimes a routine can become a rut, and lately I've been feeling like my writing has been a bit lackluster.  Maybe it's all the focus I've been putting on submitting and querying and trying to get published.  Maybe it's the pieces I've been working on.  Maybe it's the nature of revision over drafting.  Maybe it's the intrusion of the rest of my life.

With my computer gone, I took a few steps back.  I revisited some things in my iPad.  I skimmed over old notebooks.  I did a little mental writing, marinating of ideas, and reading.  I felt relaxed, open minded, curious to play with projects.  I've been afraid to follow that impulse, or even acknowledge that impulse, because I've been so anxious to finish existing projects and submit them.  I've been afraid that if I take a break from the hard work of revising, or pushing through the muddled middle, on existing projects, I would be copping out.  I've been viewing the "play" of writing as a distraction that would keep me from my professionally-oriented goals.

By the end of the week, the hard drive had been replaced and through the magic of Time Machine most of my work had been restored.  So I fell back into that routine again.  Open the laptop, open the document, begin re-reading.  However, the universe wasn't done with me.

I realized I had, in fact, lost more revisions than I thought.  I was seized with frustration.  "I really liked those changes, and they were subtle stuff and I can't remember how I did it and I don't want to sit there massaging my way through it all over again!"  So I went looking for my thumb drive, the repository of my back-up to the back-up, in hopes that it had the more recent draft.  Lo and behold the thumb drive was MIA.  (Still is, as of this writing.)

The Zen attitude that had prevailed in my psyche when everything might have been lost now gave way to a frenzied panic at the thought that some minute massaging of text was irretrievable gone.  I ransacked of every nook and cranny, as if by finding the missing thumb drive I would find my missing writer's mojo.  No thumb drive materialized.

At last, I stopped ransacking.  A voice inside me kept saying "Step back.  Step back.  Step back."  My rut has gotten me so locked to technology that I no longer seem to trust my own creative brain.  I have begun to value the individual words, and the time spent massaging them, over the hard muscle work of creation, the daredevil plunge of discovery, the greater arc of story and character. Is this just the nature of the revision phase or is it a symptom of some larger paradigm shift I need to make?

My husband told me the story of a writer pre-computer-era whose housekeeper mistakenly used his manuscript to stoke the fire.  Engulfed by flames at a time when there were no back-ups - a far more violent, visceral, and permanent fate.  What did that writer do?  Wrote it better.

Has my computer caused me to develop a disconnected relationship with my own stories and ideas, one in which they exist in some ephemeral and insubstantial ether instead of residing in the marrow of my own bones? Maybe it's time to step out of the digital world, print some hard copies, grab some pens and notebooks, and immerse myself in the old-fashioned, hand-cramp-inducing, physically present act of writing, brain directly wired to the instruments with the only glowing illumination being that emanating from within myself.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Writer's Play Space

Does the world really need another blog?  Do I really need to write one?  Yes, as it turns out, at least to question number two.  Critique partner Suzanne Lagrande and I were bemoaning today the way that the search for agents and publication has been sucking the joy out of our writing.  Still, we both know we're never going to stop writing, published or not.  But there's something incomplete about writing things that don't find an audience.  So, we decided we needed a potentially public, low-stakes anything-goes place to put forth our writerly experiments and explorations.  A writer's play space.  Check it out!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Putting the Maxim to the Test

Conventional wisdom says "Write the story you have to tell.  Don't write to the market."  The thinking is that great work will find its market.  I guess right now I am putting that thinking to the test.

I have a piece that has gotten lots of positive comments from publishers and agents.  As a result, I know the writing is strong.  The challenge is finding it's niche in the marketplace.  About a year ago, I had shelved it because of this.  Then, I saw a possible fit, sent it, and got a tremendous response, though ultimately still a no.  Now, the market seems to have shifted in a way that has left an opening for this piece.  So, I am acting on faith, sending it out, hoping that it will find its home.

This is a hard process.  I feel protective of this piece and its characters, but the only way they will find their audience is if I put them out there.  I don't want to shelve this one again.  I want it to find its home.  I am trying to have faith that if this story spoke to some, it will speak to others and somewhere, somebody will see that there is an audience for it.

But maybe not.

The world is no doubt filled with writers who have gone through this same struggle.  On  the one hand, if the piece doesn't fit a niche, perhaps it is unique.  It stands out.  It's not the same old thing that's been done before.  On the other hand, maybe there's a reason for that.  Maybe this story, well-written though it may be, doesn't have a wide enough audience.  Or maybe it's meant for the self-publishing world.  (I admit, that decision would feel, to me, like a defeat).

It's too early to call this one.  Much too early.

I want to be able to just put the story out there and forget about it.  But I can't.  I know it's standing, hat in hand, hoping, waiting, knocking on the doors of the agents and editors I have sent it off to.  If I've done everything I can, I have to let go.  But that doesn't mean I won't be thinking about it, even as I move on to new stories, new characters.

"Write the story you have to tell.  Don't write to the market."  I am putting this to the test.  I'll keep you posted on the results.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Querying Process and the Big Picture

So, as I promised my critique group, I have begun "querying the hell out of" THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART, a middle grade manuscript that seems to have found legs.  I say it has found legs because in the past 6 months I've had a publisher interested and an agent, though neither panned out, and the thing was chosen as a top manuscript at the SCBWI Oregon Conference.  The buzz lately seems to be that realistic, voice-driven middle grade dealing with bigger issues is hot right now.  The time is ripe to query this manuscript.

I had my initial list of possible agents to query.  Some were currently closed to queries. Some would only take exclusive submissions, which goes against my "query the hell out of it" strategy.  So, I sent it to the remaining folks and then I visited  Query Tracker.

If you don't know about Query Tracker, it's an online database that can help you find agents interested in your genre.  You can then see if there are any comments from other authors about that agent.  In my case, I especially wanted to see if there were a lot of "never responded" situations.  I am sick of sending my work out and never hearing anything back, so I want this round to be as full of folks who respond as possible, even if it's a rejection.

Next step, I checked out the agent's website to see what they are looking for in more specific terms.  I know my manuscript.  I know what the publisher and agent with interest had to say about it.  I know its strengths.  I looked for words like "voice-driven", "memorable characters," "heart," "timeless."  Then I knew I had a potential fit.

Unfortunately, I think I skipped a step.  I wanted to get it done, to get those queries out there.  But I should have taken more time looking at where the agents were located, if they've made deals with major publishers, and what, if any, buzz there was about them on Absolute Write, an online forum where authors share their experiences and concerns about various agents.  I wanted to ride my momentum.  I didn't want to over-think it.  I didn't want to slow myself down.  So I skipped those steps.  But sometimes those steps can give you valuable information.

Finding an agent would be huge.  It can seem as daunting and impossible as actually getting published.  Sometimes it looms so large in my mind that I can't see past it.  I start thinking "Any agent is better than nothing."  But that's a short-sighted perspective.  I'm not just looking for an agent for one book.  I want an agent for my career.  I want an agent who will work for me.  I know my own limitations and I know I can't do this alone.

Finding AN agent isn't the goal.  AN agent may not end up being THE agent.  It's not unusual to have several false starts before finding THE agent.  Even that isn't the goal.  Once I find THE agent, there's still a long haul of revisions and edits and more submissions to come.  I have to keep the big picture in mind.

The big picture? Writing new work all the time.  Getting feedback and critiques and making it the absolute best it can be.  Networking.  Attending conferences.  Building my platform through blogs, twitter, website, and so forth.  Researching the best fit agents.  Querying the hell out of it.  Being prepared to dance with a lot of people before I find the right fit. Doing more revisions.  Going through more submissions.  Working on new pieces while I'm waiting.  Dancing with more partners to find the right publisher, with the help of an agent.  Making more revisions.  Working on new pieces while I'm waiting.  Publicizing.  Going through the very public process of reviews and sales and "what if it doesn't fly".  Starting the process over and over and over again.  Always, always writing new work.

If I can't keep the big picture in mind, I will get sucked into "If onlys."  "If only I sold one story," "If only I had an agent," "If only I got something published."  If I want to be a writer, it is a career.  It is not about an endgame.  It is an ongoing cycle of these activities.  The goals?  Tell the stories I have to tell.  Find a way to share them that still honors their value.  Find people who will bring their expertise to the table in a partnership with me to help me find an audience for my work and get paid for my work.  This isn't a sprint.  It isn't even a marathon.  It's a perpetual, spiraling journey.

Monday, September 02, 2013

As 50 Looms

I am 47 years old.  My 50th birthday will mark ten years of working seriously on my writing the way a professional should.  I have come a long way since my late 30s.  But as 50 looms, it seems to demand a big, landmark-type oath of some sort.

I am always leery of goals I cannot control.  I cannot force an agent to sign me or a publisher to buy my book.  However, if I am honest with myself, I know that's what I want.  I don't want to reach my 50th birthday still struggling and querying and hoping and clinging to the barest scraps of encouragement.  Not after ten years.  Not as I round the half-century mark of my life.  I want to stand before the world and say, "My goal is to have an agent or a book deal or both by the time I'm 50."  Such a statement terrifies me, fraught as it is with the potential for failure, riddled as it is with elements beyond my control.

I'm doing what I'm supposed to do to get there. Writing regularly.  Participating in a  critique group.  Attending conferences.  Building my digital platform.  Submitting my work.  But as 50 looms, I feel I should redouble my efforts somehow.

I have one finished novel and a bunch of short stories.  I've even sold some of those shorts.  I have a second novel that is finished but needing revision, which I'm working on diligently.  I have a third novel that has resisted the completion of a decent draft but keeps pulling at me.  And the rest of my life, my teaching job, my family, my other interests, they pull at me, too.

I really only have two and half years to go until I turn 50.  30 months.  30 months to, as my critique group puts it, "query the hell out of" my first novel, and finish revising the second one, and finish the third one.  But mostly, query the hell out of the first one, because without the queries and the pitches, that elusive agent/book deal will never, ever, ever happen.  Which would leave me with self-publishing, a possibility I have considered and rejected more times than I can count, and know I will revisit again before I hit that half-century milestone.

And then what?  If I haven't reached those goals by the time I reach the big 5-0, what then?  I don't imagine I will quit writing.  I can't help myself.  But I can't imagine just plodding on and on the same way, Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill over and over again indefinitely.

Ah, soul-searching.  The older you get, the more loaded it gets.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Querying Makes Me Want To Throw Up

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's once again time for me to suck it up and face the task of querying something.  This has to be among my least favorite writer activities ever.  Query letters involve this incredibly frustrating dance between capturing the essence and voice of your work and somehow distilling it, and yourself, down to one page of professional-sounding text that will grab the interest of an agent or a publisher enough to bother reading the first page, which must then deliver as promised and more.  The query is the champion you send in to battle for a protagonist whose story has become so near and dear to you that the character is real, part of your family.  It is the first hurdle towards ANYTHING.

Lucky for me, I have this critique group that is beautifully pushy/encouraging about getting me to query.  "Query the hell out of it" were their exact words.  And I am throwing out the one-at-a-time mentality in favor of sending off multiple queries to appropriate recipients who have expressed an interest in something like this novel.

Sounds like I have a pretty good attitude, right?  Wrong.  Querying makes me want to throw up, or to throw my computer across the room, I'm not sure which.  It's so hard to find the right balance between professional voice and writer's voice.  I want the damn thing to be perfect, but perfectionism has historically been the enemy of forward progress for me, and so it is with querying.  Just pull the trigger, McGean!

I have no sage advice to offer here.  I can offer only commiseration with those other poor souls out there who are gearing up for this special battle of the writer's world.  That and this encouragement:  Those folks in my critique group who said "Query the hell out of it" know whereof they speak.  Their tireless querying efforts have been netting agents.  And so, shall I follow them into battle.  Excelsior!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Elegy to the Typewriter

 Mobile Payments Sending Cash Registers The Way of The Typewriter
I started thinking about this post two years ago, when I heard that the last typewriter factory in the world had closed its doors.  I felt such a wave of grief over this news.  I still remember when my parents gave me my first typewriter, in third grade.  It represented to me their understanding that I loved to write, their belief in me as a writer, and their permission to make it official.  That typewriter stayed with me for over twenty years, before it developed so many personality quirks (truly a ghost in the machine) that I could no longer use it reliably for anything meant for public consumption.

I confess.  I don't use a typewriter anymore.  I haven't for years.  But I still felt so saddened and heartbroken at the notion that such machines had truly gone the way of the dinosaur.

As it turns out, the "last typewriter factory" story wasn't entirely accurate.  The rumors of its death have been exaggerated, though I doubt we can say the exaggeration was great.  Typewriters are still being made, but I wonder for how long.  

We may love the idea of the typewriter more than the machine itself.  It represents a vigorous physical relationship between writer and creation.  Creating on a typewriter is not quiet and subdued, something you do at the beach or the coffee shop or in a secluded garden.  It's loud.  It hammers and bangs and dings and zips.  When the words flow, the typewriter announces it with rapid, staccato urgency.  And when the words slow, there is an ominous, suspenseful sound, footsteps stalking the hallway and pausing to listen at your door.  Mistakes are rocks over which you must stumble, realities you must face and deal with, requiring effort, and correcting tape or liquid paper, to remove.  This is a different animal than writing by hand or by computer.

Does this difference in the physical act impact a writer's style?  I wonder.  Are the works of the typewriter's heyday stylistically distinct from those created before and after?  You could make an argument that they are, that the peak of the typewriting era was also the emergence of rugged styles such as Hemingway, Heller, Salinger - the Americans riding in and driving out the more rococo prose of 19th century novelists.

Some writers (Harlan Ellison, for example) still swear by composition on the typewriter.  Is it a matter of age and generation?  Are there young writers today, under the age of 20, for example, who have even experienced writing by typewriter?  I imagine they are rare and that, like the quill pen, the pounding power of creation by typewriter is becoming an oddity, a curiosity, drifting into a past beyond retro and landing at last on the shores of antique, where it will not be lost but rather kept alive by a small but ever-present order of devotees who will share their love of this John Henry of a machine with anyone who cares to hear.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Acknowledging Summer

It dawned on me today that I've gotten way out of my weekly blog posting routine, which is weird because I'm on summer vacation, a time when I have time, so keeping up with my blogs should be no problem, right?  Wrong!  Turns out this summer, I am off any routine or schedule, and my activities are largely driven by weather and whims.  Oh, and I've been working on revisions on a YA novel, which is where my writing time is going. I feel as if I've been thinking a lot about writing, and doing lots of writing and reading, and yet I've had very little going on in the blogosphere.  Perhaps my mind is simply too immersed in fiction at the moment.  So, consider this a short, sweet post, simply to say that blogger Cindy has not disappeared.  Profound and interesting insights into the writing craft (or at least what I hope fits that description) will eventually return, I am sure.  Just not today.

And the picture?  That'd be the current issue of The Saturday Evening Post, with my short story in it!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Poetry Is Everywhere

This has been a week of mourning for the printed word, as my local paper, The Oregonian, takes the ax to its staff, its home delivery, and its print content.  However, as I walked home from the coffee shop, where I had been sitting reading a printed book by the small, independent local Forest Avenue Press, I saw a poem posted in someone's yard.  I stopped and read it and it nearly brought tears to my eyes.  For the rest of my walk, everything around me wanted to be a poem, too.  Then, at home, there was a poem in my email from my friend, William S. Gregory.  And, perusing the blogosphere, another poem called to me from Christi Krug's site Fire By Night.  With poetry all around me, perhaps the portentous omens I have seen in the news of dying bees and dying customs are not so very dire after all.  Thank you, poets, one and all.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Penguin's Pushcart

While reading recently about the Book Expo of America, I came upon a news item about the Penguin Group's old-fashioned, print-only Book Truck and Pushcart, a mobile store scheduled to travel the Route 66 journey made famous in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (one of my all-time favorite novels) and partly-inspired by New York's classic hotdog carts.  I found this notion wholely delightful, and very much in line with the strange dichotomy our modern world seems to be embracing - high-tech digital wonderment on one hand, low-tech retro small-business on the other.  

I must admit this dichotomy makes me unreasonably happy.  Maybe it's because I live in Portland.  The old-fashioned traveling bookstore notion represented by Penguin's Book Truck falls right in line with the locally-sourced movement of restaurants and the movement towards repairing over replacing in the realm of other products, not to mention the food cart revolution that has allowed small business restaurateurs a fiscally low-risk entry-point.  E-books seem to have dealt a serious blow to big name publishing houses and bookstores, but the indies are thriving, and benefitting from the access to technology such as print-on-demand.  With their pushcart/book truck idea, Penguin appears to be engaging in competition on indie terms.  

We humans seem hell-bent on finding ways to keep our humble, simple humanity, community and craftsmanship intact even as we catapult ourselves through cyberspace.  I say this cycling back to basics while embracing progress is healthy.  It  gives me hope.  I'm not a luddite; I'm a humanist.

Read more here:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Don't Give Up

Remember that post I wrote recently about whether it was time to give up?  Well, this weekend I got my answer.  It was most emphatically NOT time to give up.  I won't share details now, but suffice it to say I stand before you today prepared to shout from the rooftops to those of you who are feeling discouraged:  DON'T GIVE UP!  Do the work.  Write the story you have to tell.  Write other stories. Explore a variety of genres.  Keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Listen to the signals others send you.  Listen to your gut.  Keep cultivating the ground.  This is a marathon.  But there is hope.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Great Gatsby: The Movie

I am a fan of Baz Luhrmann.  I love his bold, sometimes crazy, never dull choices.  I love his distinctive style.  I love his fabulous, if sometimes flawed films.  There is no one else like him.  And when I heard he was directing a film version of THE GREAT GATSBY I said, "YES!!  That is a match made in heaven."

Why?  Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing is rooted in richly textured sensory details and descriptive images that make you catch your breath and savor.  His themes and moods are embedded in that imagery.  It is his signature and what makes him great.  And the glittering magnificence of the surface is an essential element of his stories.

So, I had high expectations for this film.  And I knew there would be those who would hate it.  Baz isn't everybody's cup of tea.  I was right.  The reviews have been luke warm.  But from where I'm sitting, Baz knocked this one out of the park, and his cast did too.

First off, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire are perfectly cast.  DiCaprio captures not just Gatsby's surface layer but every other layer beneath it, and Maguire makes Nick Carraway's role in this story so clear, so essential.  Their performances, and Baz's direction, bring out Fitzgerald's themes of within and without, of the watcher and observer juxtaposed against the participants in life.

Now, I knew Baz would nail the over-the-top frenzied and desperate extravagance of Gatsby's parties, and he did.  But what took my breath away was his absolute grasp of the intimate quiet moments and the minute and subtle details.  Those are what make Fitzgerald's writing sing, and those were present.  Baz nailed the contrasts between the loud manic parties and the simple human emotions.

Purists take issue with the use of hip-hop music at times in the soundtrack, but to my mind it is the perfect way to convey to a modern sensibility the mood of a raise-the-roof so-loud-you-don't-have-to-think partying mentality.  At the same time, the way Baz uses those moments in the soundtrack, which are not constant but very carefully placed, forces us to recognize that this is not just a story of the Jazz Age, as it is so often characterized. Rather, it is a story of the American economic truth as it collides and recollides with individual human truth in the past, present and future.  The film's choice of language from the book, right down to the final moments, embraces this notion.  "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  This is not just a story of that time, but of our time, of American experience, of the haves and have-nots, the 1% and the 99%, and everyone in-between.

As for the frame story of Carraway writing his tale while in a sanitorium, it's a choice that falls for me into the category of Baz's inevitable and forgivable mis-steps.  It didn't ruin the film for me.  In some ways, it may have enhanced Carraway's character a bit, and forced me to think about aspects of the story in a different way.  But it also provided one of a handful of subtle yet, to my mind, intentional nods towards the Orson Welles classic CITIZEN KANE, whose link with Gatsby had never before occurred to me and now seems incredibly obvious.  Both tales are rather hard, sad looks at the underlying messiness behind the classic rags-to-riches vision of the American dream.  I might almost have been afraid to make this connection with such a revered icon of American cinema had not my husband, the world's biggest Welles fan, mentioned it first.

Finally, a word about the other funky possible mis-step, the letters and words from the story that float across the screen.  Some might see this as heavy-handed.  I imagine the film would have worked brilliantly without it.  However, it didn't mar the experience for me, and I think it was a genuine gesture of respect and affection for the fact that this story is one of the great works of American literature.  The words, the language, are an integral part of its greatness, so Baz chose to emphasize and celebrate that through the visual medium.

Suffice it to say that I loved this film, I want to see it again, and I must now reread GATSBY. As for those who don't care for it and don't get it, I am mystified.  Let us nod politely to one another as we pass on the street of opinion and then walk on.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Playing with Order

I tease one of my critique partners because her number one thing to do is change the order of things.  Sometimes it makes me crazy.  But sometimes it's exactly what's needed.  The other day, I showed her a couple of short stories that I like but that just weren't getting the kind of responses I wanted to see, despite numerous submissions.  With  all my other shorts, I'd at least had a nibble here or there, but these two?  Nada.  It was time to get some fresh eyes on them.

My CP did her usual order switcheroos and, as we discussed the whys and wherefores, two things came clear in my mind, both related to the process and where these stories were in their development.  When you "pants it," writing without an outline and exploring an image or character or idea for the first time, as I tend to do on my short stories, the structure and order of the story is at first driven by that exploratory process.  There's some scene setting, some getting-to-know-you as you ease into the beginning of the story.  Sometimes, the crux of your theme may be right there from the beginning, because that's the nugget of idea that got you started on the story in the first place.  All of that is fine, but it doesn't always create the most effective experience for the reader.

Take the beginning.  A short story doesn't always have to have the kind of high-impact hook that you want in a high-concept novel, but it still needs a sense of tension from the get-go.  Instead of easing into the moment on one of the stories, my CP pulled a line from the bottom of page 1 and said "This is your opening.  This is where your tension is."  Spot on.

On the other hand, you don't want your beginning to give away the whole story.  You're going to build the conflict and build towards that thematic lynchpin that pulls you through the middle and brings the pieces together.  Get there too soon and your story turns redundant, covering that thematic ground over and over until your reader is, well, bored.  That was the fundamental problem with my other story.  Said my CP, "This whole section seems like it belongs closer to the end so you have somewhere to go."  And she was right.

In both cases, the original structure of the story had solidified too soon in the process, getting stuck at that exploratory draft stage so it wasn't serving the forward pull needed for the reader's experience, rather than the author's discovery experience.  Something to keep in mind when you're a "pantser."

Friday, April 26, 2013

One Answer to the Questions "Why Do We Do This?" and "Is It Worth It?"

This is a stunning answer to the question I was asking here in my last post (Is it worth it?  Am I ready to give up?).  Here is the story of Vivian Maier, someone who followed her creative drive utterly in private for an entire lifetime and left an incredible legacy that has thankfully been found and shared with the world.  She was an "amateur" who neither sought nor received any public validation for her work, and yet it's clear that she pursued it with the dedication, commitment and vision of a "professional."  Let's put that distinction to bed, shall we?

This is what it means to be an artist.  You see the world a certain way.  You try to capture and express what you see.  You create.  You do so because it is who you are.  And then comes the question of whether, with whom, and how to share what you create.

There are artists who believe their creative work is meant only for them, it is a private endeavor.  Sometimes they're right.  But sometimes, as in the case of Vivian Maier, and many another great posthumously discovered creative artist (and yes, I include writers as artists), they're wrong.  They have failed to see that they are creating something that speaks to other members of the human race so eloquently that it must be shared.

We human beings are engaged in a millenia-old struggle to understand ourselves and our world, to make sense of it.  This struggle builds and grows and bears fruit through conversation, through discourse.  That discourse happens not merely in the present and face to face through talking, but mind to mind and soul to soul across time and space through art, through the written and spoken word, through music, through scientific discovery, through inventions and engineering and architecture.  You could say that the meaning of life is to participate in this conversation, to contribute to the expression and exploration of life and the world and the human journey.

There's a reason we humans have a drive to understand, to create, to give expression to our experience.  That struggle to understand, the effort to explore and capture and express, is worth it because it's why we're here.  It will never be complete, but it is a beautiful, magnificent, holy, eternal work-in--progress.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Is the Hard Work Worth It?

Doug and Wendy Whiner are in the house lately.  Well, they're in my brain, anyway, cutting loose with a chorus of "This is HAAAAARD!"  Normally, I try to make this blog have some sort of redeeming value.  I put thought into it and try to make it relevant to the writing craft and the writing experience.  And I try to post once a week.  Well, this week, I failed.  I also try not to post about lame excuses and whine about why I can't keep up with my writing goals.  I'm not interested in blogs that do that, so I assume you aren't interested in that either.

But this week, I have waded into an unproductive swamp.  And all I can think of to say about the craft is "Writing is HAAAAARD!  WAHHHH!"  My drill sergeant self says, "Get over yourself, get off your duff and out of bed and sit down and do it, damn it!  Quit bellyaching!  Of course it's hard!  Anything worth doing is hard!  So what?"  Funny thing.  That drill sergeant voice doesn't seem to be doing the trick.  But it's right, you know.  Writing is hard.  And so what?  Perhaps the question is, is the hard work worth it?  And worth it by what criteria?

On the other hand, "Is the hard work worth it?" seems like the wrong question.  It's not like I'm suddenly going to stop wanting to write stories or express experiences and thoughts through the written word.  That's always there.  It's part of me.  The question is whether I am willing to do the hard work required to take it to the next level.  Is that worth it?  That's a task that goes beyond the joyful creation of stories.  That's a task that requires longterm commitment and determination and slogging through those swampy areas and sticking your neck out and getting knocked down and failing over and over and over again.  It takes patience and focus and a tough hide.

Still, that question "Is it worth it?" doesn't seem to fit.  "Am I ready to give up?" might be more to the point.  That's the bottom line, isn't it?  Am I ready to give up on this larger notion of writing novels and submitting novels and finding an agent and a publisher?  That's the bottom line.  Am I willing to give up on that because it's "TOO HAAAARD!"  Nope.  Nope.  Not yet.  Drill sergeant wins.

What about you?  Is the hard work worth it?  Worth it by what criteria?  Are you ready to give up?  What keeps you going?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From Banal to Sublime: Tolstoy's One-two Punch

As I may have mentioned, I've been reading ANNA KARENINA, one paragraph or so at a time on my phone, which somehow tickles me to no end.  I'm nearly finished.  It is a strange and contradictory piece of literature, at times so achingly poetic I want to cry, and at other times so blandly dry and superficial that I wonder if it's still the same book.  However, I think I've concluded there's a method to that madness.

I hit a particularly long and excruciating section of the novel in which Konstantin Levin, the secret heart of the story in my opinion, spends a bunch of time in the confusing world of Russian small-town political machinations.  This section seems interminable.  I found myself wondering what the hell Tolstoy was up to.  Then - BAM!  He writes this transcendent description of the birth of Levin's child, and the contrast between these two sections is so shockingly vivid that I can't help but think it's done on purpose.  By juxtaposing the banal and the sublime, Tolstoy's given us a potent, in-your-face reminder of what things truly matter in this world, and it ain't political intrigue and bureaucratic backslapping.

So what do I take away from this as a writer?  Structure at the service of theme.  The courage to take your reader down a side road that will set up a later section.  The impact of contrast.  The power of a well-written and sympathetic character to keep the reader following them down those side roads.  Tolstoy's one-two punch would never have worked if Levin hadn't been such a fully realized internally complex and well-drawn character.

Tried any one-two punches of your own lately?  

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Writing in the darkness

My current project is steeped in darkness.  Yes, I've paid my electric bill.  No, this project is about inner darkness and outer darkness and monsters real and imagined.  Working on it is a process of peeling away layers to find the story, and then artfully layering images back over it in a purposeful manner.

Spring Break arrived, which meant I could immerse myself in this piece, which is what has to happen if I stand any chance of making it work.  To make this character work, I have to think like her, feel like her while I'm writing her.  When I don't fully immerse myself, the writing just lays there on the page, full of events and logistics, with no soul whatsoever.

But immersing yourself in darkness has its pitfalls.  It stirs up your own inner demons.  It can cloak your days in a bleak film and affect the way you view your world.

Apparently, my brain is protecting me from too much immersion in darkness, because, after a flurry of inspiration that rebooted this piece for me, I've proceeded to get stuck.  Again.  So now I'm attempting the yeoman labor of trying to muscle my way through this stuck spot.  The problem is, when a piece is this driven by the inner world of the character, muscling through doesn't seem to be enough.  The only time the piece truly moves forward is when it's injected with that particular spark of energy that can't be found by muscling.

I will have to find a way to sit down and dialogue with my brain, a way to reassure my psyche that I will watch out for it during this process and I won't let this character and her inner demons overwhelm me.  The thing is, I'm not sure how to do that.

Have you written a character that took you to dark places?  How did you manage to let go of your own fear or anxiety enough to do the work?  Did you ever find yourself stuck just out of self-preservation?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dear Author

Dear Author.  Two words I've grown to hate.  The salutation of rejection.  I open my email and there they are and I know it means not only another rejection, but a form rejection, the impersonal device used by publishers and agents to clear the slush pile decks as efficiently as possible.  I understand.  And I hate it.  I am nobody.  I am "Author."

And yet ... At least I'm that.  I am "author."  The powers that be have called me an author.  But why?  Because I managed not only to write something and, presumably, finish it, but I have had the courage, or chutzpah, or stupidity, to submit it somewhere.  And for this, I am called "author."  I'll bet they say that to all the girls.  Well, they do.

How do they know I deserve that name?  Do they have another form letter somewhere for the even-less-deserving that says "Dear Bozo"?  "Dear Wannabe?"  "Dear WTF?"  No.  They are being polite.  They also thank me.  Seriously?  Are they truly grateful that yet another of thousands has sent them a manuscript they DON'T want?  No.  But they extend us this courtesy, and in doing so, in giving us this title, they bring us to our knees and our humility.  

Thou hast written.  Thou hast submitted.  We dub thee "author" and we thank thee.  Go and sin no more.

We who submit have grown to wear these words as badges of honor.  "How many rejection letters have you collected?"  We look to our heroes and count their rejections like so many notches on the sword, so many battle scars.  Rejection is our penance, our dues, our years in purgatory, the price we pay to earn enlightenment and a place at the table. 

I am "Author."  I come with my shaved head and my begging bowl.  Will you let me in?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Writer's Inferno

When I was a senior in high school, as a culmination of our study of Dante's INFERNO, my high school English teacher gave us the assignment of writing our own INFERNO.  It had to be an allegory, all our punishments had to fit the crimes, and we had to reach for a style reminiscent of Dante.  It remains one of my favorite assignments.

I decided to make my inferno a writer's inferno.  The entire thing was structured on a gigantic typing element.  The most offensive crimes were relegated to the most frequently used letters, while lesser crimes were placed on the less frequent letters.  Hence, Satan and the worst offenders of all were located on the letter "e."

I still have this paper, and it still cracks me up to read it.  It's also somewhat gratifying to remember that, even at the age of 17, I saw myself as a writer, so much so that, in my high school English assignment, I attempted to define my view of literature.  However, it was a high school student's perspective.  Therefore, I placed Dante, Melville and other writers of allegory near the worst offenders.  Their punishment, besides getting pounded against the wall of the infernal paper, was to be plagued with lice and vermin because  they "attached significance to every detail of their writing, causing endless suffering for others" (I was thinking of myself and my fellow students, who had endured the hard labor of lengthy term papers about symbolism in these works).  "Their works crawled with symbolism that their readers had to pick out."  Hence their lice-infestation punishment.

My 17 year old self made James Michener my guide, there to save me "from the path of cheap detective stories, dime novels, paperback books, television miniseries, lousy English papers and other bad writing."  Apparently I had issues with genre fiction and making money from writing.  Ah, youth!  Michener clearly qualified, in my teenage mind, as a virtuous pagan, and his only crime, apparently, was that he had allowed his epic novels to be turned into mini-series.  I condemned Alex Haley for the same reason.

I seemed to have been on quite an anti-TV screed on this assignment, because TV critics and writers of TV series got pretty prominent spots.  Poor Norman Lear gets special mention.  Other writers my teen self deemed worthy of Hell included Harlequin Romance writers, sensational journalists, political philosophers, and writers of pornography.

I wonder who I would place in writer's Hell today.  Who would you put there, and where on the landscape would they land?

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Rereading the Classics: Damn, That's Good!

Sometimes, as I'm reading, I just have to stop and say, "Damn, that's good!"  This is one of those moments.  From ANNA KARENINA, by Leo Tolstoy, currently on my iPad Kindle:

When Levin, after loading his gun, moved on, the sun had fully risen, though unseen behind the storm-clouds.  The moon had lost all of its luster, and was like a white cloud in the sky.  Not a single star could be seen.  The sedge, silvery with dew before, now shone like gold.  The stagnant pools were all like amber.  The blue of the grass had changed to yellow-green.  The marsh birds twittered and swarmed about the brook and upon the bushes that glittered with dew and cast long shadows.  A hawk woke up and settled on a haycock, turning its head from side to side and looking discontentedly at the marsh.  Crows were flying about the field, and a bare-legged boy was driving the horses to an old man, who got up from under his long coat and was combing his hair.  The smoke from the gun was white as milk over the green of the grass.

 Okay.  There are a couple of similes in there that, perhaps, are cliche today.  Who knows if they were then, or if they are in Russian?  Not me.  And maybe there are too many similes for some people's tastes, though you never know what's been lost in the translation.  But, damn it, if you don't feel like you are there with Levin, hunting the rural Russian marshes in the chilly dawn, you have no soul.  Talk about painting with words in the minutest detail, attention to every brushstroke that can bring the scene alive.  And the structure!  The way it starts with humanity and ends with humanity, while the slow, must-be-savored imagery of the solitary moment blossoms out in-between?  You can't help but read this section with the quiet, reflective, hushed reverence that Levin is experiencing.  Damn, that's good.

Friday, February 22, 2013

When Inspiration Strikes

I hit a rough patch after some tough family stuff, and my writing had ground to a halt.  But I think last week's post actually helped me break through.  I accepted the fact that writing can take many forms, gave myself credit for keeping something going in the midst of it all and printed out the messy hodgepodge that is the middle-to-end notes of my current manuscript.  I read through the hodgepodge, and a funny thing happened.  Some shapes began to emerge from the primordial soup.  I made notes on the manuscript, scribbling here and there.  Nothing quite beats paper and pencil and objects in hand when you need to shake up the etch-a-sketch of your brain.

After a satisfying session of reading and notating, I had to jump in the shower.  Wouldn't you know it?  As so often happens, inspiration hit in the shower.  A new, crystal clear opening paragraph that brought the whole mess into focus.  Grabbed my bathrobe, jogged out of the bathroom and down the stairs to catch the fire in words.  Typed it up, printed it out, and tucked it in my bag to bring to my writing partner that day.

The end?  Not quite.  Walking the 15 blocks or so to the coffee shop, a steady rain falling, and BAM!  The next chunk of text crystallizes in my head, with a nice, fresh emerging metaphor that launches me where I want to go.  So I stop in the middle of the sidewalk in the pouring rain, grab what shelter I can from a nearby tree, and scribble down that second chunk.

Still not done.  I get to the coffee shop a bit early, grab a seat, and start scribbling more.  More!  More!  After great feedback from my writing partner, I ran with the new stuff when I got back home.  Suddenly, I've gone from stalled and stagnant and how-will-this-piece-of-&(*%&^-ever-work to jazzed, excited, clarity, fresh and vivid language fun awesomeness!

I'm an aquarius, and, while I don't normally put much stock in the zodiac, it certainly seems like there's something to this water sign thing.  Clearly, inspiration strikes me with the droplets.  How about you?

Friday, February 15, 2013

What Counts as Writing?

I've been searching my brain for some words of wisdom for this week.  I've got nothing.  Life (and death) has sent my writing careening off course over the past couple of weeks, in the worst way.  The funny thing is, I realized I AM still writing.  I'm writing blog entries.  I'm writing in my journal.  I'm writing emails.  I'm just not writing fiction.

The latest push in education is the Common Core Standards.  In the area of writing and reading, these new standards put a huge emphasis on nonfiction (informational text, they call it) because it is the type of writing most people use and interact with in their daily lives.  But in the community of writers, nonfiction sometimes seems to be treated as a second-class citizen.  Why would I think my nonfiction writing "doesn't count" somehow?

Of course, blog entries and emails and journaling won't help me finish my novel or revise that short story of mine.  But they keep my muscles healthy while the rest of me is spluttering my way through life's sudden onslaught.  And they remind me that I am a writer.  I process this adventure of life through writing about it - fiction, nonfiction, you name it.  I can't help myself.  It's how I think and feel and experience.  Not everyone responds to life by straining it through words to find it's essence.  Those who do are writers by nature, if not by profession.

This blog entry is a nice little representation of writing as processing.  At the beginning, I said I had nothing to say.  As I continued writing, processing my thoughts, I found I had plenty to say, and more importantly, I was able to put to bed one recent source of personal discouragement ("I'm not getting any writing done at all; why do I bother?  Maybe I'm not a writer.").  Yes, life's travails have derailed the big fiction project for now.  But they haven't stopped me from writing.  Not even close.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Required Reading: Bad BBQ

A fellow blogger, The Tex Files, made a recent comment about how people tend to hate any literature they are required to read in English class:  "No lie: among my adult friends, this is the best possible predictor of who loved Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby and who found them unbearable. If you read it cuz you were told to, and had to spend six weeks thereafter dissecting all the themes in class, chances are you will not be a lifetime fan."  

This got me thinking about my own experiences.  I wouldn't say I hated all the literature I've ever been required to read.  Some things I grew to love, or loved immediately.  Still, especially in college, when the reading load was beyond intense, my goal was often just to get it done, rather than to ruminate on it.  When I wrote papers and dissected the work on demand, I'm betting more often than not that I missed the real heart of the matter, because my own heart wasn't engaging with the text.  Only my intellect was.

Of course, I'm viewing this in retrospect.  While I was in college, I loved digging into literature with other students.  I was fortunate to be at a college  where I was surrounded by people fueled with intellectual curiosity.  It was a breath of fresh air after high school, where an interest in talking about the reading assignment was viewed as a sign of irredeemable nerd-dom, and this at a time well before nerds were considered even remotely cool.  However, though I loved digging into the literature, the workload didn't leave room for the kind of slow-turning contemplation that brings depth and cooks into the skin.

I'm suddenly thinking about barbecue, and that's not such an off-base image here.  Really good barbecue takes time.  It's slow-cooked all day long.  That's the secret.  You can have the greatest piece of meat in the world, but if you rush the cooking, all you've got is bad barbecue.  Maybe experiencing great literature works the same way.  Certainly, I've gotten more out of the classics I've read by my own choice and at my own pace than I did from those texts I powered through in college.  But all that dissecting in college trained my brain for deeper interaction with literature.  Yes, it felt like drudgery at the time, and may have left a bad taste in my mouth, but maybe that's just the necessary collateral damage of all that brain training

When you read something because you choose it, you're bringing a more meaningful purpose to your reading experience than you do when that same text is required.  You have a goal in reading it.  Somewhere in your mind, you are bringing questions you yourself have generated that inform your interaction with that text.  Purpose makes a difference.

This line of thought brings me straight to my third graders.  They are young enough that they still need to be trained on how to choose a "good fit" book.  They don't always choose books that will stretch them the way they must be stretched to grow as readers.  I imagine it's the same with college students.  We all need a push outside our comfort zone from time to time.  When we're learning and developing, we need that extra nudge to challenge ourselves and grow those neural connections.  Maybe the collateral damage is worth it.  Still, we educators have to keep it in mind and try to minimize that damage as much as possible.  You can push someone too far, and then, instead of neural connections, all you grow is hatred, dread and negative associations.

Popular Posts