Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bold Enough to Fall on Your Face

I want to be a bold writer.  Bold enough to fall on my face.  I'm not there yet.  I worry too much about what other people think.  I play it too safe.  I follow the rules too often - what's marketable, what I hear at conferences and workshops, what's the recommended style or genre.

When I was younger, I knew none of that stuff, and I had a more direct connection to my soul as a writer.  My craft was a mess.  I needed to learn what I've learned.  But I think I had a kind of open-mindedness, a willingness to explore, that I miss.  Of course, I was also so timid as a person that my writing rarely saw the light of day.  I don't miss that one bit.

I'd like to be fearless enough to trust my most outlandish visions and believe that somebody, somewhere, will "get" them, embrace them as I do, and not just think they're weird and confusing.

I've been re-reading Melville's MOBY DICK as preparation for a novel idea I have, and I've decided that Melville writes the way Baz Luhrman directs.  In fairness, I should probably compare Baz to Melville, not the other way around.  After all, Melville was here first.  Regardless, what they have in common is boldness.  Both of them are bold enough to fall on their faces.  They both make these occasionally insane and out of control choices that are sometimes brilliant and sometimes ... ridiculous.  

Melville switches genres, and points of view, willy-nilly as it pleases him.  One moment we're reading straight narrative, and the next he's switched to a stage script.  We're in the head of Ishmael, and then we're omniscient, knowing Ahab's deepest thoughts.  But there's this take-no-prisoner robust quality to the prose that makes you feel alive.  When it flies, it's hearty, intense, Shakespearean.

Baz Luhrman's films have a similar quality.  Baz chooses these super-drenched color palettes.  His settings are at once realistic and hyper-realistic.  His characters veer wildly from caricature to three-dimensional human beings.  He commits fully to his choices.  He throws himself into it.  Sometimes it's bracing and fresh as a dive in a tropical lagoon.  And sometimes it's hopelessly off-base.  But at least he commits.  He doesn't hold back.

I want to write boldly enough to fall on my face.  I'm not there yet.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Time to Write and a Time to Pause

Normally, I'm a proponent of writing frequently, daily if possible, whether you "feel like it" or not.  Write something.  Keep your muscles active.  Write through the blocks.

But for the past 2 weeks, my heart just hasn't been in it.  I'm sure that will change.  However, for the moment, my spirit seems more focused on living, being with friends and family and loved ones, reflecting and existing and keeping life simple.  Taking stock.  I wonder if any other writers out there are experiencing the same thing just now.

Here are some wise words from a long-time bestseller that speak to this:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to weep and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to break down and a time to build up.
A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to get and a time to lose.
A time to keep and a time to cast away.
A time to tear and a time to sew.
A time to keep silence and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time of war and a time of peace.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I Have Nothing To Say Here

This week, I have no words about the craft of writing.  My thoughts are mostly elsewhere.  I offer only this.  In a world reeling from acts of destruction, we need acts of creation.  Write.  Draw.  Paint.  Sculpt.  Sing.  Dance.  Bake.  Sew.  Live.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Blog Hop - The Next Big Thing

My thanks to The Tex Files for inviting me to join in this very user-friendly, low-stress blog hop.  Several weeks ago.  Fortunately, I had permission to take my sweet time.  So here goes:

Rules of the Next Big Thing
  1. Use this format for your post
  2. Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
  3. Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
  • What is your working title of your book?  KEEPSAFES
  • Where did the idea come from for the book?  A girl I taught in 3rd grade who struggled with being different and made an insanely bold choice at the 5th grade talent show that transformed how everyone saw her.  I felt like I was watching her literally transform into a bird and soar before my very eyes.  I wanted to somehow capture that feeling and pay homage to her spirit and struggle.  The story and character have evolved quite a bit since then.
  • What genre does your book fall under?  YA magical realism.
  • Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  I have no idea.  I think that's getting way ahead of myself.  I want to finish the damn thing first.
  • What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  When her mother forces her  to move away from her childhood home and her best friend Stella, rebellious, overweight Hope Armandino throws a fit that rends the fabric of reality and sends her on a nightmarish vision quest in the vein of Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro.
  • Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Only time will tell, i.e. when the darn thing is finished.  I'm looking for an agent and find the whole self-publishing thing just a bit daunting.
  • How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  The first draft took me a year.  It was almost entirely crap, but a critique of the first 10 pages helped me see the value inside the crap.  I've been working on the "second first draft" on and off for another year, maybe a bit more, but I've digressed to other projects along the way.
  • What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  There are some elements of Karen Russell's work, and, as I mentioned, the images make me think of Gilliam or del Toro, though that's a movie reference.  I seem to stumble my way into genres sometimes, so I'm still continuing my self-education on other books in this genre that might be similar. 
  • Who or what inspired you to write this book?  In addition to the young girl I mentioned above, I guess I would credit Elizabeth Rusch who, when she met with me to go over her critique of the first chapter, began by saying "I loved this.  Have you sold it yet?"  I realized then that I couldn't just throw it away, as I'd planned.
  • What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  It's an adventure, with imaginary creatures, mysterious fortune tellers and trips to an underworld, but it's also an exploration of friendship, the mother-daughter dynamic and the balance between identity and relationships, where problems that are all-too-real, such as abuse and abandonment, find their manifestation in darker visions from another realm.    
Phew!  Whose up next?  Go check out these blogs:

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Quotes to Provoke

Between the holidays, teaching, and a paper due for a graduate class, I'm a bit swamped this week, so here, for your writerly contemplation, are two fabulous and provoking quotes.  Have at it!

"Enlightenment is the curse of civilization.  A man who wastes his energy on knowledge is a fool.  The more he learns, the more he wants and the more unhappy he becomes."

- The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham 

"Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain.  A few savage tribes eat them, but reading is the only method of assimilation revealed to the west."   
-E.M. Forster

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Now a Message From Our Sponsor

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program of weekly blog posts about the writing craft for some shameless, celebratory self-promotion.  I normally eschew such behavior, but since I shared my goal of 100 rejections with you, I thought it only fair to share the welcome failure of that goal.  You see, I'm unlikely to reach 100 rejections because I've now had not one, but TWO acceptances within the past month.  Kaleidotrope has purchased my short story "Bread of Life" for online publication in 2014 and The Saturday Evening Post has purchased "The Battle of the Pewhasset Pie Palace" for publication in their online issue for Jan/Feb of 2013.  This feels really good.

About a year or so ago, I made the decision to build my arsenal of short stories as a means of building my writing platform.  You see, as you may know from other posts, the whole marketing thing is not one of my strong suits.  I have a website.  I have two blogs.  I have an author's page on Facebook.  I even finally signed up for Twitter.  But I am not a master at using those tools for self-promotion.  However, I noticed that many writers of books I was reading and admiring, such as Karen Russell, had gotten their feet in the door through the short story market.  And the digital age has been a boon to that market. So I decided maybe that was one way I could seek to build my platform, visibility and credentials - writing short stories and submitting them consistently.  This strategy has been slowly but surely yielding results, sometimes in the form of placing at a high level in a contest, sometimes in the form of almost-made-it and "please try again with another."  And now, at last, in the form of actual sales.

So, besides my own personal celebratory yee-haw, I guess this blogpost is also an example of an alternative method of marketing and building your platform for writers, like me, who struggle with the promotional side of things.  Best of luck, and keep on trucking!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reading with a Purpose

It's funny how often the lessons I teach my third graders find their way into my writing life.  Case in point.  This week in third grade, we were learning that good readers often ask questions while they read and then read to find the answers.  This gives your reading focus and purpose, which can help you get more out of it.  After teaching this lesson, I realized I was watching it in action in my own writer-as-reader life.

For example, when I read MOBY DICK in high school, I read it because I had to, and, while I often enjoyed books that I read because I had to, the pressure of assigned reading just as often meant powering through a book without deep understanding, leaving me with vague, fuzzy impressions and an overall sense of the book as a "tough read."  MOBY DICK is the latest book in my process of re-reading the classics as a grown-up, only this time, I'm reading with a very specific purpose related to a character I want to write about (the character demanding to be heard, see my recent post).  Reading MOBY DICK at my own pace as my own self-imposed assignment, I find myself gleaning more out of all of it than I did the first time, even the lengthy digressions about the craft or history of whaling, the types of whales and the parts of the whale.  I'm getting more out of it because I'm reading with a purpose, a self-assigned purpose.

As an adult, with a demanding job and lots of other things going on in my life, I've noticed a tendency for my attention to drift when I read.  But when I'm reading with a purpose, that doesn't happen.  Whether it's reading short stories to build my skills as a short story writer, or reading a book about AIDS with highlighter in hand to add to my knowledge base as research for a new project, if I'm reading with a deep and specific purpose, I sit up and pay attention.

Too often, as teachers, we fail to train our students in setting themselves a purpose before they read.  Watching this lesson unfold in my own brain has given focus and purpose to the process of teaching this lesson to my students.  Do I detect a pattern?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Novel vs Picture Book Throw-down!

November is National Novel Writing Month.  Wait.  No.  November is Picture Book Month.  I'm so confused!!!!!!  Apparently, November just plain loves to read, so it can't decide whether it's novel month or picture book month.

How shall I honor this identity-challenged writing celebration?  Write a novel and read a picture book?  Read a novel and write a picture book?  Curl up under the covers with one of each?

I spend a lot of time with picture books, being a third grade teacher.  In this visual age, they definitely call to readers.  For writers, that can be a siren call.  "I started with a picture book because I thought it would be easier."  Fighting words!  Picture books force you to focus on the essence of good story structure and word choice.  One false step can throw the whole thing off.  In picture books, every word counts.  That's the worst possible thinking when you're trying to pound out 50,000 words in one month for NaNoWriMo.  Polishing can be your enemy there.  In picture books, less is more.  What is unsaid gives the illustrator the freedom essential to their role.  In novels, the words ARE the illustrations, and the reader's experience depends on those rich textural details that envelop them in another world.

Some folks have made NaNoWriMo and Picture Book Month (PiBoMo????) into a hybrid challenge by setting a goal to brainstorm a certain number of picture book concepts by the end of the month.  I guess you can morph NaNoWriMo to meet your own goals.   Hell, why not set a goal of writing an epic poem, or an entire collection of short stories centered on a given theme?  I can't help wondering if it's right to cram an endless list of genres into one month, but it's meant to provide the external kick-in-the-pants to jumpstart your work if you're stalled.  Maybe it should be renamed "Kick-in-the-pants Month" or "Break Your Writer's Block Month."  No?  Okay.

So, why November?  Is it the cold, gray days that make our brains and spirits go into hybernation?  We definitely need something to energize us in the face of that desire to curl up and hide.  I confess, Picture Book Month appeals to the hibernating bear cub in me.  Get me a cup of hot cocoa, my jammies, a snuggly comforter and a big overstuffed chair.  Load me up with picture books and let me while away the dark and dismal winter like a dormant rose bush.  Then, come spring, all that stored up energy can burst forth in a flurry of 50,000 words.

In the end, I can't choose.  Writing or reading, I love a good picture book and I love a good novel.  Don't they each deserve their own month????

Friday, November 02, 2012

A Character Demanding to be Heard

After a recent writing retreat, a character came to me with his story and I'm afraid to tell it.  I'm afraid that I'm the wrong person because there's a lot I don't really know about this character's world and I'm afraid to find out.  He's challenging me, challenging my own belief in my open mindedness, challenging my willingness to step outside my comfort zone, challenging my confidence.

The character is a gay teen in the 1980s who moves to the Castro District of San Francisco and experiences the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.  He's brought a book title with him, an incredibly strong voice, a compulsion to tell his story and even a plot structure.  He's also brought an in-your-face challenge:  "Are you, Cindy, willing to learn what you need to learn to tell my story?  Are you willing to really get to know me and my world?"  And I don't know the answer.

He was so insistent that I pulled my car over to the side of the road while I was driving back from this writing retreat and wrote 500 words in his voice, 500 words that appears to be the opening of a YA novel.  Then, when I got home, I started a Scrivener file for this project.  If you know anything about Scrivener, you know that step represents a certain level of commitment.  I even started an outline.

It's clear this kid has pull, this kid who won't tell me his real name but simply says "Call me Ishmael."  This kid who believes the story of the fight against AIDS is the gay community's epic struggle, on a par with GILGAMESH or the ILIAD, or MOBY DICK.

I remember the AIDS epidemic.  I know this kid's big feelings about that epidemic come from a deep place inside me and from my own experience and my conviction that this story needs to be told for a YA audience.  It's a part of history that isn't making it into the history books young adults encounter.  But my experience was not as deep as this kid's.  I was more of an outsider, a straight woman in the theater community with gay friends and relatives who died.  I've tried telling the story from a POV character closer to me.  It's not working.  Then along comes this kid saying, "Hey!  This is my story, damn it!  You need to tell it my way."  What am I supposed to do with this?

 Perhaps this is a time to apply my own advice from one of my recent posts and say "Yes, and ..."

Have you ever had a character grab you with this level of insistence, a character whose story you feel you have no right to tell, might not even be able to tell, but the character has other ideas?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Missing Link Between Realistic Fiction and Magical Realism

I have magical realism on the brain thanks to a YA novel I'm working on (maybe "wrestling into submission" is more accurate).   I think "magical realism" is a modern term, coined in reference to Latin American and Caribbean literature.  In college, Wilson Harris' GUYANA QUARTET made quite an impression on me for its immersion in dream imagery.  Often the examples cited are modern works by authors such as Neil Gaiman or Toni Morrison.    Still, the genre is so deeply woven with the visions of dreams and myths and fairytales that I can't help thinking there are older examples to explore.  A  fellow writer once told me Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND fit the magical realism genre.  I reread it and was struck by how episodic the plot was.  Almost too dreamlike, the very issue I've run into on my own piece.

In the midst of all this contemplation, it dawned on me that there is a "missing link" literature between realistic fiction and magical realism.  You could call it "heightened realism."  I think of two images from Dickens that illustrate this idea.  The first, and perhaps most famous, is Miss Havisham's wedding cake in GREAT EXPECTATIONS:

Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber, or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a table with a long tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks stopped all together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
This is just a "slice" of the cake (maybe my "Moldy Leftovers" post sent my mind down this road), but it's an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about.  There's no magic involved here, but the heightened, nightmarish quality of the image goes beyond the bounds of reality.  Miss Havisham herself, and all her surroundings, follow a similar vein.

The second Dickens image that came to mind was from LITTLE DORRIT.  It is the sudden collapse of the Clennam House, near the end of the novel, caused not by earthquake or natural disaster but seemingly out of the blue after a lifetime of lies and deceit:
In one swift instant the old house was before them, with the manlying smoking in the window; another thundering sound, and itheaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed,and fell.  Deafened by the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded bythe dust, they hid their faces and stood rooted to the spot.  Thedust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for amoment and showed them the stars.  As they looked up, wildly cryingfor help, the great pile of chimneys, which was then alone leftstanding like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and haileditself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragmentwere intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper. 
In both of these examples, Dickens unabashedly embraces the metaphorical potency of his images and places it outside the boundaries of reality by heightening the reality to a nightmarish level.

Some of the best, most intense moments in fiction, for me, do this, especially when it comes to disturbing images.  Melville's MOBY DICK is another great example, full of realistic events that are given a metaphorical and surreal import through mood, tone, exaggeration.  The final images of that novel still haunt me.  

So, with Halloween coming up, perhaps it's time to think about creating haunting, potent images through heightened reality.  Consider letting the old masters be your guides.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Yes, and ...

In improvisational comedy, and also in good brainstorming, there's a rule that you don't say "no" to any idea.  You say "Yes, and ..."  It's a hard rule to follow.

Last weekend I thought about this rule as I was slogging through one of my bouts with my friend the Big D (Depression).  The Big D doesn't like to say "yes" to anything or anyone unless it's something that keeps me at home.  For example, both members of my writing group had to cancel.  One asked if it was ok.  The Big D said "sure."  The rest of me desperately needed the connection, but felt incapable of asking for it thanks to Big D's super powers of sluggishness.  Then, another writer friend, one I've never hung out with one-on-one before, asked if I wanted to go to a Wordstock event.  "No!" insisted the Big D.  But the rest of me stopped and thought, "This is an answer to my sadness over canceling writing group this week."  I said "Yes" and was glad I did.

This got me thinking about the application of "Yes, and ..." to life, and also to writing.  When you're writing a first draft in particular, or are stuck on a piece, applying the rule of "Yes, and ..." can help break through.  The editor brain often wants to say "No."  Agents and publishers are looking for reasons to say "No," not because they hate you but simply because they can't publish or represent everything.  But your creative brain, the one that writes the damn stuff in the first place, needs to be trained to say "Yes, and ..."  "What if my protagonist jumps out the window here?"  "Yes, and then discovers she can fly."  "Yes, and then crashes into a building."

In my other writing group, someone mentioned the plot strategy of "Therefore" and "But then."  I'm tempted to sit down and rewrite my whole synopsis using only these 3 transitional phrases after the first sentence:  "Yes, and-"  "Therefore"  "But then."  It's bound to make the plot go SOMEWHERE.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Exploring Moldy Leftovers

I'm working on a YA novel of a teenage girl's nightmarish vision quest in the vein of Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro.  (Can you tell I've been ruminating on pitches?).  Now, I've done several drafts and synopses of this piece, but I don't feel like I've finished a real draft yet.  Why do I say that?  The story changes every time.  Radically.  Characters, major plot points, themes, story arcs.  It's a different animal with every pass, which is ironic since there's a lot of transformation that happens in the story itself.

I'm currently stuck at that awful precipice right before you launch into the potentially boggy morass of the middle.  And I'm afraid to go forward because the whole damn thing has been such quicksand I'm convinced I'm just going to go down another wrong tunnel.  Then I decide, "Let's look back at some of those old drafts."  So I do.

The experience is a lot like going through the leftovers in the fridge.  You know - the ones in tupperware containers that are too opaque to make out the contents.  The vague shapes wrapped in aluminum foil.  I open the container - in this case some old computer file labeled something like "Feathers Version 5".  At first, I'm not sure what I'm  looking at.  Then I get a little closer ... and the smell hits me.  And all I can say is "Yuck!  What a mess!  Why did I keep that?"

Then there's the ones that I sniff at and taste and try to remember how old they are and whether they've gone bad or not.  I find myself scraping off the mold and hoping to salvage chunks of the leftovers, like you might do with old hunks of cheese, or burnt toast.  And some of it seems worth saving.  You might call this the manuscript version of dumpster diving.

I'm not sure if I've just progressed a lot as a writer since I wrote these drafts, or if it's simply the nature of what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."  A friend in one of my writing groups recently suggested rereading Lamott's thoughts on this subject, and as I was writing this blog post, I did.  They were comforting, even inspiring, a reminder that those moldy leftovers served an important purpose in their day, and that maybe they still have a purpose to serve.

I'll close with a moldy leftover story from my summer.  My Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this August by renewing their vows.  The day before the ceremony, Mom took a foil-wrapped lump out of the freezer.  It was a piece of their original wedding cake.  For years, they took it out and had a bite on their anniversary.  At some point, obviously, they thought better of that tradition for health reasons.  But there it was, this piece of 50-year-old wedding cake, preserved through five decades of change and life.

For the post-vow-renewal celebration, Mom put the lump of wedding cake out on a plate, under glass.  She placed it in the entry way for all to see, along with their original bride-and-groom cake-topper.  Then she had second thoughts about this and wanted to hide it in the corner somewhere, or even put it out of sight all together.  It was turning greener with every passing moment of exposure to air so it looked a bit like a lump of Kryptonite.  She was afraid someone might think it was an exotic cheese, eat a piece, get ptomaine poisoning and die.

When she went to hide it, I got furious.  "You didn't make it through 50 years of marriage by hiding the moldy parts!  You didn't get here by being perfect!  You got here because you love each other even with all the flaws and imperfections.  They're part of who you are.  They're part of your journey.  That moldy lump of wedding cake is beautiful.  Don't you dare hide it away!"

So, here's to moldy leftovers.  Who knows what they might teach you?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Scriptus Interruptus

I wonder if I'm the only one who gets cranky and irritable when a great writing session gets interrupted.  The other day, I was cruising along with my 5 AM writing session before I left for school and I was on a roll.  Deep into the story.  Messy plot points were clicking into place.  Tangled logic was untangling itself.  It was great.

Then I looked at the clock.  And I had to stop.  I had to stop because I am a teacher, which I love being, and teachers can't be late for work.  It's not just bad form.  It's a minor disaster.  You can't do it.

So I had to stop writing.  And I was ticked off and in high cranky mode for the rest of the day.  It was worse than PMS.  I think my students could sense it because they were not at their best that day either, which didn't help matters.

I honestly believe my day of irritability was a direct result of what I'm dubbing scriptus interruptus.  Mind you, having to stop in the midst of a productive writing session can be a good thing.  It means I have a place to pick up from the next day so it's easier to get rolling.  Most of the time, I'm okay with that.  I've been able to embrace that.  With my school-year writing schedule, I've had to embrace that.

But sometimes ... it just ticks me off.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Digital Age Meets Oral Tradition

As I was laying awake way too early a few mornings ago, I found myself contemplating the evolution of human storytelling.  "In the beginning was the word," or so it says in the Bible.  In the beginning of human storytelling was the oral tradition, where bards and actors learned and created tales in their heads to share and disseminate throughout the community and pass down from one generation to the next, each weaving their own special threads into the fabric of the story.

Then came literacy; a select few scribes could write the words down, preserving one author's intent for posterity, at least for those who could read.  Since reading and writing were elite skills, the oral tradition still played a vital role.

Then along came the printing press, throwing literacy skills open to the whole world.  And now we're in the digital age.

How is the digital age like the oral tradition?  I had a vision this morning as I sat down to back up my writing onto a thumb drive, a vision of all of us transferring our thoughts from our human brains to our digital brains, a place where they only exist while the machine is working.  The computer is our bard.  It learns the words for us.  It learns them exactly as we write them.  Social media serves the evolutionary role of oral tradition, passing the words around the community and sometimes changing them or their message in the process.

And it all disappears as far as posterity is concerned unless it is written down, because our digital memories are only good for posterity if the technology doesn't change.  Just as the library at Alexandria burned, our digital records can be wiped out.  What remains to posterity depends on the nature of the disaster.  Some stories will live on in human biological brains.  Some may be reconstructed from the dead technology by future digital archeologists through painstaking restoration processes.  Some will survive in print.

Guess I'm getting all big-picture and philosophical this week.  Why not?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mammon and the Storyteller: I Just Want To Write, Dammit!

I'm in danger of becoming a blog-whiner, one of my least favorite species.  Truly.  When I read a blog, I don't want to read about somebody whining over their day or apologizing for neglecting the blogosphere.  Yet here I am preparing to whine, yet again, about the social media flood and its stagnation-inducing effect on my writing.  Blogs and book giveaways and raffles and memes and e-book releases and cover reveals.  I feel like such a dinosaur.  I don't have time for that stuff.  I just want to write, dammit.

And if I should ever manage to get an agent or a publisher interested in my stuff, God forbid they wander over to this whiney rant born of a sad little neglected blog.  "What do we want with her?" they may say.  "All she wants to do is write.  Writers are a dime a dozen.  We don't need more writers.  We need marketers."  That's the message I'm getting these days.

As for self-publishing in the brave new world of the digital age, how is it any better than the old version of self-publishing?  You have to fork over a bundle of money (it's a bundle by my standards) for editors and cover art and all those important extras that will make you competitive.  I don't see that as much of an improvement over the days of vanity presses.  Yes, you control it, but you're still paying for it.

We human beings are driven to tell stories, I guess.  Tell them and write them.  But selling them?  That's a different animal.  The days of the tribal storyteller as a combination entertainer and shaman are gone.  Money has changed the storyteller's role forever.  Look at Hollywood.  How can the spirit that is meant to reflect on the deeper elements of human existence survive in the competitive commercial world?  Perhaps that is why so many artists end up screwed up, addicted, depressed, lost.  We're turning shamans into slaves, trained monkeys and prostitutes.

Oh, how very dark I'm being tonight!

Maybe I should be rejoicing in the notion that the human race is embracing its literary drive.  Maybe it's a good thing, everyone pouring their thoughts into words, this massive output of creative energy.  Afterall, some terrific creative work continues to emerge from all of this.  Have we human beings in the digital age become our own version of the old fable about the monkeys typing Shakespeare?    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Dark Side Continued

Gothic Forest by kuba - Dark gothic forest landscapeNot long ago, I shared a post about darkness in children's literature.  I've been thinking again about that question lately.  I've been revising a YA novel that is magical realism.  The plot is constantly out of control and elusive, but there's something about this piece that keeps pulling me back to it.  I've been bringing the existing pages to my YA critique group and mulling over their comments.  Somehow those comments recently led me to rewrite a pivotal scene into a much darker direction, opening up an almost sinister side to my protagonist, a side she's probably frightened of in herself, the destructive hatred of her parent.  Matricide comes to mind.  (Mom, if you read this, don't worry.  I love you.)

If I'm being honest, I think a lot of teens have these feelings.  So, introducing this element more explicitly into my story feels exciting, and terrifying.  Those of us who are not teens are understandably uncomfortable with a teen's capacity to do real harm to another human being.  But when I was a teen, my own dark sides terrified me and obsessed me.  So, venturing down this road with my protagonist interests me.  How do we manage to come through the other end of those huge feelings of rage and those destructive tendencies?  How do we explore them, harness them, process them?  What happens when we try to ignore them or avoid them?

In the end, I think this story will be infinitely stronger when I take it in this direction.  But I'm worried.  I'm pretty confident the teen readers will have no problem with this darker vision.  I wonder if the adult gatekeepers will be able to handle it.  I wonder, frankly, if I will be able to handle it.  Time, as Virginia Woolf would say, to strangle the angel in the house.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Downsizing My Writing Projects

The school year is about to begin, and that means my writing rhythm will once again undergo a seismic shift.  Great chunks of writing time are no longer mine.  The work must soon be squeezed into 15-30 minutes chunks at 5 AM or so on weekdays, with occasional added bursts on the weekends and after school.  I am in mourning over this change. And I face a dilemma.  I must choose between my many written "children."

Over the summer, I was able to devote time to all of it - picture books, short stories, 2 YA novels, 2 critique groups, 2 blogs, research, and a consistent stream of submitting and resubmitting.  Past experience tells me I won't be able to sustain this level of productivity during the school year.  I'll have to make some tough decisions.

I feel like a manager dealing with budget cuts and layoffs.  "I'm sorry," I will say to my short stories and picture books, "But I'm going to have to reduce your hours.  I'll let you know when I need you."  And to my wildly intriguing magical realism piece, whose plot has caused me no end of problems, I shall say, "We're going to need to put you on the back burner for a while."

I'll have to choose one project as my main focus, knowing there will be days and times when I need a break from it, when I need to go visit the other stuff to keep me fresh and engaged.  Maybe it will take me a little longer between resubmissions, though my goal is still 100 rejections by the end of the year.  And there's always winter break to reconnect with my old friends.

How do you prioritize projects when your writing time is cut back?

Monday, August 20, 2012

One Compass to Find Your Way Through the Indie Book Forest

Compass by spktkpkt - about WebKit...can't sleep...For readers wanting to navigate the overwhelming flood that has become the self-published e-book market, there is finally a glimmer of hope - the website.  The window of opportunity in which digital publishing made self-publishing truly viable seemed to be closing, in my opinion, because there were so many people doing it that it was its own slush pile.  How could readers EVER find you in all that stuff?  Every writing group I'm part of has a constant stream of announcements about people's new e-releases, free book giveaways, etc., etc.  And the reviewing mechanisms were too easily exploited just by getting friends to review your book, or paying someone to review it.  I've been getting so discouraged by this whole notion.

ANYWAY, the IndiReader website seems to be like a breath of fresh air, a place for truly independent reviews and opinions on the indie, e-book, self-publishing market.  Check it out:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fear of Success - the Elephant in the Room

elephant yellow on purple by jogdragoon - Mind activating elephantYou hear a lot on writer websites and writing conferences and in writing books about dealing with rejection and the fear of rejection.  But lately I've been thinking about the elephant in the room, the thing I'm almost embarrassed to bring up.  Fear of success.  Lately, when I see an email or an envelope from a place to which I've submitted my work, I think I'm a little terrified of the "yes."  What will it unleash?  What expectations will be involved?

With my short stories it's slightly less terrifying.  After all, a "yes" to a short story isn't likely to wreak massive ongoing changes on my life.  Still, that fear of success is there.  I think I'm anxious about the anticlimactic nature of the "yes" to my short stories.  I've been down that road with contests before, where I finally won, and even got a nice chunk of change, and had that "now what?" moment.  If I get a story published, then what?  Will I ever be satisfied?  Probably not, as long as there are more stories to tell.  And that's a good thing.

But what if one of my books gets a yes?  First of all, I have no idea how that will happen, or what I will say.  But, let's imagine it all works out and those initial humps and bumps are managed.  I know a book deal would mean changes for me.  What would I be expected to do in terms of promotion?  I know on a vaguely theoretical level, and even that scares me.  That process of putting myself out there scares me.  What would it mean for my life as a teacher?  What about things like editorial letters and revisions and deadlines?  Contracts and legal stuff and rights?  Not to mention reviews (cue scary music) - people judging me and my work publicly and brutally.  Sometimes I just hope for some simple, modest success where the changes won't be too overwhelming.  Other times I ask myself "Why in the world do I believe I deserve any kind of success?"  And let's face it, that's not the attitude you want your author to have if they're going to go out there and do any kind of publicity or promotion.

So, yes.  I fear change and therefore I fear success.  I wonder sometimes if this fear keeps me from doing all I could to achieve my writing goals.  In fairness, though, I don't think I'm holding back.  I write every day.  I regularly submit my work.  I have a blog and a website and a facebook presence.  I attend conferences and get critiques and pitch my work.  I'm in two critique groups.  I'm sticking my neck out there in spite of all sorts of fears.

I suppose fear of success is just one more reason for me to focus on the writing and let go of the endgame.  Whatever degree of success I end up having, the bottom line is that I write because I want to write.  I like weaving stories about the world.  It's one of the ways I interact with life.  No matter what fabulous success, abject failure, or mediocre versions of either might await me.  No matter what mammals invade the room of my brain.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Message In a Bottle

I think I've been suffering a combination of digital, e-text overload and writer's ADD (attention-deficit disorder).  Perhaps it's the summer vacation brain.  I have so much more time to write, which is AWESOME, but it means I spend a lot more time inside my own head, which is DANGEROUS.  A little too much of the introspective prism.

Whatever the reason, I've found myself thinking lately that writing these days is like sending a message out on the ocean in a bottle.  Maybe it's always been that way.  Each of us human spirits are isolated on our little desert islands and we write messages to the unknown world at large, then set them adrift on the open sea hoping they will find another lonely soul and speak to them.  Granted, we study the tides to help our message travel in the direction most likely to find an audience.  (Hell, I never said this metaphor was perfect.)  But at bottom there is a great act of faith in sending forth your written yearnings to an unseen, faceless, theoretical recipient, releasing all control, and then being left to wait.

What gets me right now, with the digital self-publishing opportunity-turned-mania-turned-glut, is the sense that the entire world is clogging the ocean with so many bottles of messages that the other lonely souls are more fed up than interested and the poor ocean is polluted and all the creatures in it are endangered.  (See if you can make sense out of THAT metaphor!)  What used to be a conversation, or an effort at conversation, between readers and writer has become a sort of desperate clamoring, a tower of babble, filled with writers screaming "Free e-book giveaway!  Blog tour!  Check out my new release!!".

I know the readers are still out there.  And writers are all readers, or should be.  I just wonder if they're scanning the horizon for those floating bottles anymore.

A confession - Portland, Oregon, where I make my home, has finally gotten something approaching a taste of the heat wave that hit the rest of the country.  Perhaps it is melting my brain.  I will use that as my excuse for the meandering nature of this post.  That and the fact that short stories, novels and picture books have been motivating me, garnering my attention and inspiring me to such an extent that I have neglected the ol' blog for too long and therefore felt compelled to toss a message out onto the sea of cyberspace.  Here it is.  Now, step out of the sun, have a nice drink of something cool, and save that bottle as a future communication device.

(Photo © Slateriverproductions | Stock Free Images& Dreamstime Stock Photos)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cut the Last Line, and Other Lessons in the Short Story

Over the past few months, I've embarked on a self-taught exploration of the short story, as I battle to improve my skills in this form and to build a presence and platform through it.  I've been reading a wide range of short stories, in literary magazines and in collections of all sorts.  Here's some of what I've learned to make my own short stories better. Maybe it will be helpful to you, too.
  • Cut the last line.  The ending of the short story, particularly in what's termed "literary fiction," is nearly mystical in its finesse.  It's so easy to go too far, to finish it too completely.  The best short stories have a sense of near-completion that leaves the final touch, the last step or conclusion, to the reader, asking them to sit with the story for a few moments more after they finish.  Some stories don't seem to end at all, and I think that can go too far.  However, I have a bad tendency to want to put the cherry on the sundae myself, instead of letting my reader have that satisfaction.  I've discovered that nearly all my short stories work better if I cut the last line.  It's a little like the advice to novel writers to cut the first 30 pages.
  • In your language and word choice, less is more.  You've no doubt heard the maxim that, in short stories, every word counts.  But what does that mean as you edit?  For me, it means constantly asking myself, "Do I need that word?  Do I need that sentence?"  Just like the endings, the body of the short story needs to let the reader draw inferences from the strength of your images and word choice.  In short stories, you have to take "show don't tell" an extra step.  Show one strong resonant, inexplicable image that carries weight.  Let the reader seek meaning as the image  dissolves on their tongue.
  • Unpack the small moments.  The best short stories take time to explore the meaning in small moments, to notice the details of both the inner and outer life of that moment and let the details vibrate the strings of the reader's own experiences.
  • Images are all.  They are the language of the short story.  They make it sing.  This is where short story and poetry share DNA.  
  • Set a context of tension.  The subtle short stories don't use an obvious "hook," but they do establish a mood of tension at the start that is tight enough to carry the kind of unpacking and reflective exploration that makes the short story work.
  • The journey is in the character.  The inner world of the character is the essence of the short story plot arc.
These are the conclusions I've drawn from my exploration into the short story world.  Now, I throw open the doors to all of you to share your insights.  (Hmm ... maybe I should cut those last two lines.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

New Perspectives and Reaching Up

When I am working with struggling readers in my classroom, I often have to decide when to move them to a lower level of reading material and when to push them to a level a little harder than where they are reading.  I have to decide if the other kids in their reading group are the best fit for where that student is as a reader and where they need to go.  When I pick just the right moment to push a student up to a level a little bit harder, the results can be wildly dramatic.  Sometimes, they take off.  And when it's not the right time, they flounder.  I was thinking about this yesterday after my first meeting with a new critique group.

In this group, for the first time, all the other members are further along in their writing careers than I am.  Most have agents and have had their own work published, in book form.  This is a little intimidating, since I always carry that fear in my brain that I may never reach that point, or, alternately, that I will reach that point and be utterly unprepared for what that means. Not to mention the green-eyed monster that lurks in my depths whenever I am faced with another writer who has reached this level.  I wish I could say I was above such feelings, but I am not.

On the other hand, being in a group with greater experience than myself is very exciting.  I think it is exactly the right time for me as a writer to be in this situation.  I take my writing seriously.  I write regularly.  I attend conferences and workshops.  I submit my work.  I've had some awards.  I've had some nibbles.  I am ready to take things to another level.  If I can get out of my own way and not psyche myself out, this could be something that can really help me fly.  And, with any luck, I will manage to contribute a little something to the group as well.  Deep breaths.  Step in.  Learn.

Have you ever had a time where you reached up, where you put yourself a little further in the deep end?  How did it work out?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shall We Play A Game?

Okay, fans of contests, games and other online funnery!  Here's a competition for you.  I'm calling it, "You Can't Win If You're Not in the Game."  The goal?  Rack up 100 rejections by the end of the year.  Truly, I'm aiming for the end of the summer, but realistic goals are a good thing.  The rules?  All your submissions MUST be in "good faith."  That is, they have to be well-researched with a chance of a reasonable fit.  For example, a realistic, literary fiction story submitted to a science fiction magazine doesn't count. A zombie gore-fest submitted to a literary fiction magazine doesn't count.  That part's going to be on the honor system, since I'm not about to spend my precious rejection-gathering time researching everybody else's submissions.  Your submissions don't have to be all the same pieces.  In the event that nobody reaches the goal of 100 rejections, the person with the most good-faith rejections wins.   Just to give everybody a head start, any rejections you've accumulated since January 1, 2012, can count towards your total.  That puts me at 10.  I guess I've got my  work cut out for me!  Lucky for me, I'm a teacher on summer vacation.

Why am I doing this?  I've been resolutely committing myself to submitting my short stories and other work and building up my rejection callouses.  It's not fun.  So I want to make it fun.  The more I submit, the better chance I get an acceptance.  The corollary?  The more rejections I get, the closer I am to that acceptance.  Mind you, every submission I make involves a certain amount of homework:  What kind of magazine, agent or publisher is a good fit for this particular piece?  How can I craft my cover/query letter to interest this magazine, agent or publisher?  Are there any new revisions that can make this piece even better?  What format or other rules does this magazine, editor or publisher have?

Putting all this effort in, on top of the effort to get a piece to what I honestly believe is submission-ready quality, takes a lot out of me.  Then I start second guessing myself and trying to read between the lines of silence.  Is a short turn-around time a bad sign or a good sign?  If it's been out there too long, does that mean it's gotten lost, is being considered, or what?  Did this one-sentence rejection reflect a complete disinterest in my piece or simply an efficient editor?  So, I'm changing the rules of the game to keep myself entertained and keep my chin up.

Whose with me???

Friday, June 15, 2012

Having Fun Again

A few weeks ago, I woke up with the first line of a story in my brain.  It featured two characters - Big Rosco and Taco Charlie.  I fell instantly in love with these names and these guys.  They tickled me and delighted me.  I wrote down the line and then ran with it, and I had a blast.  The story is still developing, but it is just so much fun!  I tend towards the darker stuff, and I've often thought I needed to inject more humor into my work.  It seems Big Rosco and Taco Charlie have shown up for just that purpose.  They came along right when I needed them, as I slogged through the end of the school year.  Now that summer has arrived for me, I can't wait to shake my nasty cold and dive in head first to Rosco and Charlie's wacky world and see where it takes me.

Have you ever had a character or story or line of inspiration show up in just the right way at just the right time to take you to a new place?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Turn To the Dark Side, Luke

I am developing a nasty habit of letting other people do the work for me!  I blame the end of the school year and its collision with dragon boat race season.  Plus the fact that other bloggers have great things to say that are absolutely worth sharing.  With that in mind, this week I'm sharing a link to a post by Kell Andrews at Operation Awesome about the role of darkness in children's literature.  With the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES, this topic has become a hot one in many discussions, but it's really not a new one.  Ever since humans first began attempting to identify childhood as a time of protected innocence, and define children's literature as a genre separate from adult literature, the debate over its role, over what's appropriate for young minds, over moralizing versus adventure, has simmered, raged, bubbled and percolated.  (Okay - I'm having fun with verbs - so sue me!)

Anyway, Kell's post is a great one to tickle this discussion back to life.  Check it out and jump into the conversation.  While you're at it, drink a toast to LEMONY SNICKET, a champion of the dark side if ever there was one.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Shared Thoughts On Writing Routines

I've been deeply immersed in stories and queries and school stuff, leaving me with nothing but scraps and incomplete drafts for blog posts.  Lucky for me, there are other awesome folks out there in the blogosphere with helpful thoughts on writing.  So, this week, I share with you a blog post on the pros and cons of writing routines, from K.M. Weiland at WordPlay.   How appropriate, given this current disruption in my blog-posting routines!

Writing routines have definitely amped up my own productivity as a writer, getting those creative muscles in shape.  However, the willingness to break routine has also helped, especially when I'm stuck or frustrated with one piece and can break routine to work on something completely different.

Check out Weiland's post and share your thoughts on the ups and downs of routines.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Tomorrow (Sunday, May 20) at 2:00 on the Society of the Inner Ear at KZME Radio 107.1 FM, you can catch another one of my audio theater pieces.  It's entitled CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? and was written as part of A MURDER OF CROWS, the award-winning Willamette Radio Workshop's first compilation of original pieces.  The MURDER OF CROWS project later morphed into the Writers On-the-air Workshop.  When Writers On-the-air drew out-of-state participants, our web-guru created an online forum that eventually evolved into THIS BLOG!  A selection of pieces from MURDER OF CROWS, including CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? and SWEETHEARTS, an early piece by Hugo Award-winner and Nebula nominee  Mary Robinette Kowal, went on to win WRW's first Ogle Award

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? was my personal take on horror in the age of cell-phones and the demons that possess them.  The concept has cropped up elsewhere since then, because it's a pretty irresistible step in the world of 21st century horror what-ifs.  Still, the piece has a special place in my heart, a sort of DILBERT-meets-POLTERGEIST.  

The companion piece tomorrow is called STATE EXECUTIONER.  From the old LIGHTS OUT series, it's set in the days of King George III and tells the tale of a man who becomes obsessed with his profession as the state executioner.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Writing Through the Blues

I was reminded yesterday of one reason I write and one way I know I'm a writer.  I started the day with a serious case of the blues.  More than the blues, really.  Something darker and more insidious.  I didn't want to do anything.  I felt oppressed by the sense of failure, in my writing among other things.  I sat down in the garden and started perusing my writing notebook and some old pieces.  Before I knew it, I'd been pulled into that all-consuming mental world of imagination, time had passed and so had my dark feelings.  It was so reassuring to remember writing had that power for me, and to realize that power held true even when my writing itself is in part the source of my depression.  It reinforced in me the knowledge that I will always write, whatever external validation or publication success may or may not happen.  I write because I write.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

What's In an Award? Thoughts on the Pulitzer Snub

This year, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction.  Three novels were nominated.  Some say this snub is as it should be, that nothing good enough is out there right now.  Some say this is a reflection of the Pulitzer Committee's elitist attitude.  Some think it's a result of the increasingly commercial emphasis in the publishing world at the expense of true literary quality.  Some say the committee just nominated the wrong stuff.

I couldn't help balking at this snub.  With all the writing out there in this digital explosion of the written word, was there really nothing worthy of the recognition of the Pulitzer Prize?  At a time when bookstores are going under and the possible death of the printed book haunts the horizon, is this the statement the committee wants to make?  My first reaction was "What a slap in the face to every writer working today!"

But it turns out this isn't the first time the committee refused to award a prize.  And there have been some pretty great books published during the years that no prize was awarded.  In fact, we humans have a long tradition of failing to recognize great work that is ultimately vindicated by posterity.  Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS was passed up for the Nobel Prize because of supposedly "second rate storytelling."  CITIZEN KANE didn't win a best picture Oscar.  The lesson here is that external validation has its limitations, and what readers and posterity ultimately recognize as valuable may never receive the establishment's stamp of approval.

So, write your story.  Then go ahead and throw your hat in the ring for whatever external validations are out there, but know they never tell the whole story.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Word Play

Word play isn't just for kids, but they're definitely the best at it.  For the past 2 weeks, poet Eric Hull of the Vox spoken-word chorus has been doing a residency in my classroom.  Bringing a poet into the classroom has unlocked the sheer joy of playing with words in some beautiful ways.  Kids who have been notoriously reluctant writers all year are suddenly inspired.  The energy in the room is palpable.  They're beaming with their creations and rushing up eagerly to show me.  What's perhaps most surprising is how little it took, really.  Some time spent on rhythm and meter, a lesson on alliteration, one on similes and one on rhyming couplets.  

With all the focus we have on state testing and improving the basics of writing (spelling, capitals, periods 'til we're all blue in the face), I guess I've lost sight of the fun of words.  Poetry always gets the shaft in the curriculum for the sake of expository writing and longer narratives that will get at the kind of sustained writing expected by the state standards and the tests.  I'm saddened and mad at myself that I've let that thinking rule me.  What a breath of fresh air to remember how fun it can be to play with words!

I think this is a lesson for my writer self, too.  When I'm bogged in the slog of submissions and the killjoy of queries, maybe it's time for an internal rhyme or a little alliterative literature.  Even us serious writers need to remember to play with words.  Who knows what fresh visions the muse might conjure when caught up in the joy of word play?

A few samples from my kids:
"Murky muddy mighty mushy mountains."
"Oregon tastes like peanut butter."
"Oregon looks like a giant blob with two right angles."
"Oregon has a lot of beaches, but Ms. McGean still teaches."
"Oregon is as salty as the beach."
"I saw a raccoon that ruined my cocoon."

And the one that caused a giant grin to burst across one too-often sad boy:
"When there is a brain drain,
Ms. McGean goes insane."

That one made me laugh out loud.

Promise to self:  remember to play and have fun with words and with learning, no matter what "accountability measures" might be breathing down your neck.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Today On the Society of the Inner Ear

Tune in today at 2:00 to the Society of the Inner Ear at KZME Radio 107.1 FM to catch some awesome audio theater, including an original piece by yours truly called THE ST. JAMES SISTERS, inspired by the classic song The St. James Infirmary Blues, with a dark whiff of the Grimm's story The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  THE ST JAMES SISTERS was written for the award-winning Willamette Radio Workshop.  Other featured pieces include THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, starring Agnes Moorehead, and TURNSTILES, a short award-winning piece by Portland writer Carole Oberholtzer.  I thought it would be airing on Mother's Day, but it's airing early.  Enjoy!

Friday, April 20, 2012

How I'm Learning to Love Literary Fiction

Remember when I posted about that {censored} term "literary fiction"?  I'll admit, I was a bit snarky about the whole concept.  After I wrote that post, I found I couldn't stop chewing on the question of literary fiction.  I had also entered a phase of submitting and resubmitting my short stories to various markets.  And I happened to have a big stack of gift cards to Powell's Books courtesy of the Teacher as Writer workshop through Wordstock.  (Sidebar - if you ever get a chance to participate in that workshop, take it!  Best writing workshop I've ever been in!)  Anyway, I decided to pick up a copy of Tin House, a Portland-based publication focusing on literary fiction that has developed a terrific reputation.  And I learned something.

Not everything in it was my cup of tea, but there was no denying the power of the language, the way the authors used words and imagery to fresh and evocative effect.  I found myself savoring phrases, lingering over images, in a way that I just don't do with a "page turner."  My favorite pieces draped a curtain of tension over the story from the very beginning, and allowed the tension to hang in the air while the story proceeded forward in careful, contemplative fashion.  I was reminded what a difference a well-chosen word or phrase or image can make, how the poetic element can transform a story.  Literary fiction chooses to shine a spotlight on those qualities.   My own writing could benefit if I spent a little more time wandering the world of literary fiction.

So, literary fiction, I offer a humble apology for my past snarking and now acknowledge your value in a too-rushed, Hollywood-driven world.  I shall visit you again.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Escape from the Abyss, and More

Well, I guess the end of the nasty cold has allowed me to rise out of the abyss and get back to writing.  So all you folks who cheered me on and reminded me that the abyss would pass, you were right.  Even my latest rejection letter didn't manage to suck me back in.  I guess the bottom line is that I want to write stories and the writing itself will always call me back eventually, whether the external validation is there or not.

On a mildly related note, one of my audio theater pieces, THE ST. JAMES SISTERS will be airing on Mother's Day via The Society of the Inner Ear on KZME 107.1FM as part of an homage to women in audio theater.  I wrote the piece for Willamette Radio Workshop as part of a collection of pieces inspired by the blues classic, St. James Infirmary Blues.  Mine is set in the Civil War and based not only on the song but on the Grimms fairy tale of the Seven Dancing Princesses, with a darker underlying theme around the impact of war and the issue of survivor's guilt.

The other featured pieces are Agnes Moorehead performing Charlotte Perkins Gilman's THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, and TURNSTILES by Carole Oberholtzer.

Thus endeth the self-promotion.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Into the Abyss

I have had two highly unproductive weeks.  I have no words of wisdom about it.  I sent off a bunch of stuff and the waiting game has been going and going and going.  I worked on some new stuff.  I wrestled with some structural things on novel #3.  I got sick and couldn't manage my usual 5 AM writing before teaching.  Every spare moment seems filled with the demands just to keep the basics of body and soul together, with no energy, brain power or waking time left to write.  I know I am not alone.  I know others have been here before me.  I know I will eventually get to write again.  Hell, summer vacation is coming.  But just at this moment, I am staring into the abyss.  It doesn't feel like I'm germinating ideas or  doing anything but pure survival, with no fuel to draw on.  Stalled out and ready to abandon the damn car on the side of the road.

Call it my "dark night of the soul."  I will try to trust that this will pass.  Maybe when I get the taxes done the abyss won't seem so deep and dark.

This blog post is me calling "hallooo" into the abyss and waiting for something more than an echo.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons from a Seed

This week, I've been thinking about seeds and writing.  I've been thinking about what some people call writer's block and others call a dormant period, where ideas are germinating but nothing is visibly being produced.  I sat down to write this blog post thinking I knew what all those terms meant.  Then I looked them up and here's what I learned.

Seeds have two states that give them added survival strength when conditions aren't right for growth.  When seeds are in the packet and haven't been planted, they're dry and inactive.  They're not growing, but they aren't vulnerable either.  They can handle severe environmental changes.  When seeds are dormant, they're alive and they've been planted, but they're not growing.  They're waiting.  In dormancy, usually, something about their conditions has to change to get things moving again - temperature, water, sunlight, soil.  Dormancy is a way of surviving by making sure seeds don't put energy into growth until ALL the conditions are right.

Then there's germination.  The seed has been planted.  The conditions are right.  But you can't see anything happening.  That's because germination is the growth of an embryonic plant inside the seed.  You don't know it's happening until the sprout finally breaks through and emerges.

If you never give the inactive seed what it needs, it will stay inactive, and may eventually die.  If you plant the seed, but conditions aren't right, it may lie dormant until the right conditions come along.  If it's dormant for too long, you can bump it out of dormancy by changing the conditions.  And if the seed is germinating, it's in a vulnerable period and needs the right nutrients and conditions maintained while it does its work.

Lessons for the writer who is blocked or stuck?  First, you have to figure out WHY you're not writing.  Which state are you in, if you apply the seed metaphor?  Are you inactive, giving yourself the toughest possible protection against harsh external conditions (maybe massive life stressors, for example)?  Are you in a dormant period, where many conditions are right but things just aren't moving forward?  Which conditions aren't right?  What crucial element is missing that is causing you to conserve your energy?  Or are you germinating, taking in nutrients and developing the embryo of an idea through mental work that just cannot be seen yet?

How you proceed next depends on which kind of blocked you are.

Me?  I have a project that's well beyond the embryo stage, and I even have a plan for how to work on it.  But the timing doesn't feel right.  Every time I sat down to work on it, something held me back.  That project is in a dormant phase.  Some of the elements it needs are in place, but the conditions aren't quite right.  If it lies dormant for too long, I will need to kick start it by experimenting with which conditions have to change.  For now, I'm content to let it lie dormant, rather than expending energy at the wrong time.

Instead of working on that project, I pored over old notebooks and picked out a couple of ideas that spoke to me.  I find myself wanting to read, read, read - taking in nutrients.  The more I read the more I feel that creative urge pushing up inside of me, looking for an outlet.  Definitely germination.  It's a delicate phase.  I need to be patient, continuing to take in nutrients and sustain the favorable conditions that are feeding me.

I realize I've extended this metaphor well beyond the bounds of decency.  It's helped me.  I hope it's helped you.  Anyone else out there feeling blocked?  Which seed state is it - inactive, dormant or germinating?  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Painfully Exquisite Imagery

As I've mentioned, the latest classic on my Kindle is F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED.  He uses imagery to painfully exact effect, not only to evoke the sensory experience but also to address the emotional resonance of a moment at its most nuanced level.  This is especially striking to me because he has such an aloofness to his style.  To manage both that sense of distance and that intimacy of experience just knocks me for a loop.  Another writer whose skill with words extends to that perfect expression of moments of the soul is Virginia Woolf, my personal all-time favorite.

Here's an example from Fitzgerald - a scene that could be described this way:
Anthony and Gloria caught a cab.  They drove through the city at night, passing the tall buildings.  He kissed her.  She let him.
But this is how Fitzgerald describes it:
A cab yawned at the curb.  As it moved off like a boat on a labyrinthine ocean and lost itself among the inchoate night masses of great buildings, among the now stilled, now strident, cries and clangings, Anthony put his arm around the girl, drew her over to him and kissed her damp, childish mouth.
She was silent.  She turned her face up to him, pale under the wisps and patches of light that trailed in like moonshine through foliage.  Her eyes were gleaming ripples in the white lake of her face; the shadows of her hair bordered the brow with a persuasive unintimate dusk.   ...
Such a kiss - it was a flower held against the face, never to be described, scarcely to be remembered; as though her beauty itself were giving off emanations of itself which settled transiently and already dissolving upon his heart.
As my husband Sam pointed out, Hemingway probably would've wanted to punch Fitzgerald in the throat.  I, on the other hand, find this level of writing makes me both excruciatingly jealous (If only I wrote half so well!)  and utterly inspired.

Who are the writers that have this effect on you, that capture ineffable moments and make them, well, effable?

(By the way, in case your wondering, "inchoate" means "not fully formed" or "still developing" - apt for the night images of the buildings and for the relationship between Gloria and Anthony.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Speaking of High Concept: Fitzgerald on Hollywood and Novels

In my quest to read or re-read classics, I've been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED for the first time.  In one scene, set at a dinner party, a novelist meets a movie producer.  The following conversation ensues:
"I hear all the new novels are sold to the moving pictures as soon as they come out."
"That's true.  Of course the main thing in a moving picture is a strong story."
"Yes, I suppose so." 
"So many novels are all full of talk and psychology.  Of course those aren't as valuable to us.  It's impossible to make much of that interesting on the screen." 
"You want plots first," said Richard brilliantly. 
"Of course.  Plots first."  
Fitzgerald's novel was published in 1922, but this could have been a conversation at a writing conference today.  THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED itself certainly falls more into the category of "talk and psychology."  Fitzgerald captures moments, conversations, characters and images with such clarity and has such magnificent facility in the way he uses words that plot just doesn't seem so important.  I doubt anyone would consider his work to be "high concept."  "Literary fiction" perhaps?

There's an interesting challenge:  Write a pitch or query for a classic work of literature.  Can you spin it as "high concept"?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Room of One's Own: Honoring a Literary Foremother

[Apologies for this longer-than-usual post, but I believe it's worth the space during Women's History Month.  To hear an mp3 of this piece, go to this link on my website.]

As a woman and a writer, I think of Virginia Woolf as one of my foremothers.  Whenever I read Woolf’s 1928 essay A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, I am struck again by the truth of it and the profound sense of my own role in the great arc of the history of my gender.  Woolf's essay is an incredible, wide-ranging exploration, of which I have chosen a very small piece to share here.
Woolf begins by stating what she calls a “minor opinion”:  a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction...
She goes on to imagine a visit to a British men’s college where she is barred entry to the library because she is a woman.  While dining with a friend, she contrasts the great history of wealth and resources at the foundation of the all-male college with the woefully limited resources of Fernham, the nearby women’s college, founded by women and for women.
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? ...  
There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary's mother--if that was her picture--may have been a wastrel - in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church) - but, if so, her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. ...  
Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease to-night and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, ... physics, ... mathematics, ... relativity .... If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine .... We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon....  
Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been ... no Mary. ... For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it.  
... First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. ... If Mrs Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and all the rest of it?  But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all.  
Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property...  
So we talked standing at the window and looking, as so many thousands look every night, down on the domes and towers of the famous city beneath us. ... One thought of all the books that were assembled down there; ... of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space. Certainly our mothers had not provided us with any thing comparable to all this--our mothers who found it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds, our mothers who bore thirteen children to ministers of religion at St Andrews.
Woolf ponders what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind.   She thinks about
... how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and ... how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; ... about the safety and prosperity of the one sex and  the poverty and insecurity of the other and  the effect of tradition and  the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer. 
Woolf goes to the British Musuem and finds it odd how many books about women were written by men.  Finally, she imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister, as gifted as he, and how impossible it would have been for the genius of Shakespeare’s sister ever to have found the light, let alone lived to see posterity.  And then she concludes:
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.   
This opportunity... is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so--... --and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; ... then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, ... she will be born.
As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
Today, I honor Women’s History Month  by honoring all our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and all our daughters and grand-daughters and great-granddaughters, whether they write fiction or bear and raise children or run for president, for we are all part of Women’s History.

[This edited version of Woolf's essay, with my intro and outro, was recorded at the Willamette Radio Workshop studio and first aired on Dmae Robert's Stage and Studio program on KBOO radio as part of Women's History Month.]

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