Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dream Ursula K. LeGuin Dispenses Inspiration in a Red Swamp Thing Diving Suit

I had a vivid and wonderful dream last night.

I am visiting beautiful, but empty country home. Like Town & Country beautiful, Martha Stewart beautiful.

I walk through the house admiring the impeccable if completely predictable interior design. Outside the windows, I glimpse the beautifully kept grounds that surround the house. Immaculate, bright green lawns lead to copses of young trees then to shaded woodland beyond. There are also ponds and rustic outbuildings.

Standing at the back door, a wood-framed screen door, naturally. I see a large shed, perhaps some kind of workshop. A sign by the screen door says, “The dog and pail are to remain on the property in memory of Lou Reed.” * I look again and a tri-color hunting dog sits next to a metal pail by the shed. The dog trots toward me, and I walk out to greet him. He was smaller than I thought he would be – as if he’d stayed the size he was when I’d spotted him in the middle distance. He leads me back to the shed, which is now mostly submerged in one of the lovely clear ponds – as if it had always been so. Only the roof and the tops of the windows are above the surface of the water, still as glass. The dog sits back down next to the pail, which is now in the grass at the edge of the water.  

Next, I’m swimming under the water, following the bright red legs and fins of a diver that leading me deeper into the cool darkness. The diver disappears through a black basement entrance and I follow. Together we swim up alongside cellar stairs to emerge at the first floor. Inside the shed is dry, watertight. Through the windows the bright sunshine and beautiful green lawns are impossibly lovely, jewel-like when seen through the prismatic lens of the crystal clear water.
Ursula K. Le Guin
I turn back to the diver. Her bright red diving suit is designed to look like the Swamp Thing with delicate scales stamped into the material. There are no air tanks or hoses. Decorative fins sprout from the sides of her helmet, and opaque eyeshapes are worked into the visor. ** She takes the helmet off and it’s Ursula K. Le Guin! This is her house and her shed (but I knew that already). We sit on tatty ottomans facing each other, both looking around at the fascinating clutter of knickknacks and curios that fill the bare-floored room.

She says, “You see? This is where all the best story material is.”


Of course.

My subconscious recruited one of my literary heroes to remind me, in its own lovely and bizarre way, that the best things are waiting to be discovered – just below the surface. ***

* I have no idea how the dog, the pail, and Lou Reed figure into this, but they were a lovely detail.

** Last night, I finished reading All You Need is Kill, where the female protagonist wears a bright red armored suit, and over dinner we had a lively discussion with the girls about the Swamp Thing!

*** As captivating as all the curious objects inside were, I was also fascinated by how strange the world above appeared when viewed through that limpid water.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Am I Writing a Novel?

New words in the new binder.
I’ll be honest, as much as I love writing; the idea of writing a novel has always intimidated me. There are a myriad of reasons, mostly the stock ones, that have kept me from embarking on a novel (the time commitment, the complexity, it’ll suck and all that work will be wasted, I won't have time to write short stories). Yeah, they’re all lame, and I do want to write a novel – hell, I’d like to write a novel a year if I could just work out how to tackle this first one.

I have notes, ideas, and nascent plans for a couple novels in my journals, but I keep finding ways to put off actually starting a novel. The top reason that I haven’t started this year is because I have a couple unfinished stories that I’m struggling to complete. I wanted to clear the decks before attempting a novel, even though in the back of my mind I have a suspicion that this is just another way to punt this new challenge down the road yet again.

I don’t know why I am so cagey about settling down to write a novel. Yes I love short stories, yes they are their own distinct form, and yes will always want to write them too, but novels offer a much greater canvas and I think I’m more than ready to explore the unique challenges that long form story telling has to offer.

But wait, it appears I am writing a novel.

At my last two in-person critique sessions, I’ve brought sections of one of my troublesome “novellas.” Both times, more than one Slugtriber said they felt the material they were reading feels like it is meant to be a novel. Both times, I heard a chorus of we want to spend more time in this world and with these characters (among other constructive critiques).

Considering this novella’s obstinate problems in light of expanding it to novel length makes a host of issues suddenly look manageable. Like my crit group, I also want to spend more time in this world and get to know these characters better. So, I’ve decided to go with it and just let this story be the novel that it is (hopefully) meant to be.

It appears I’ve subverted my reluctance to start a novel by inadvertently starting one. Hey, whatever works.

The time commitment still seems intimidating, but I suspect (again) that might be the panicked part of my brain trying to set up a last line of resistance. I’ve already written about 16,000 words, which just leaves 74,000 words for a 90,000 word first draft. If I set everything else aside and write 1,000 new words a day (excluding weekends) I’ll have my draft complete by October 24th.

The only real sacrifice will be setting aside my other open projects for that time. I always want to write everything all at once… 

Leaving weekends out of my plan is a kind of safety valve. I’ll have weekends for catching up or downtime, or if I get lonely for the short story form I can write a quick piece of flash fiction.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. Here we go!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Free Writing Redux

It's been another hectic week. I've managed to fit in some writing, just not any blog writing. So here's an encore post polished up for your reading pleasure. I picked this one because I'm currently expanding the project, and I wanted to remind myself of the importance of writing freely while I restructure and reoutline.

A couple weeks ago I was thinking about process and how shape an idea without ruining it. One way of not holding on too tight to an idea is to write a LOT of words around it.  It's like flying multiple recon sorties over the foreign geography of the idea until the target -- or targets reveal themselves.

Short stories have to hit an emotional and thematic bull's eye, but they have to be free too. It's important not to be too frugal with world, especially when developing a story.

So I've decided to be even more spendthrift with words. My motto: More is more! The more I write the more material emerges from the dim recesses of my subconscious were all the interesting stuff hides.

Putting the Free Back in Free Writing

I picked up Writing With Power by Peter Elbow at Half Price Books a couple weeks ago and got a lot out of it. Much of this book is about writing nonfiction, which is probably why it wasn't on my radar. And fair warning, this book is verbose and a bit padded out. He does not include a chapter about brevity, so I guess he's being true to himself. I got the most out of the first third of the book, which deals with getting words out of your head and onto the paper (if revision is your bugaboo he addresses that along with audience and feedback).

Writing With Power made me realize that I've been screwing with my practice of free writing. Due to my own impatience (writing time is always hard to come by), I have this urge to make every word count. To write always to a purpose. What I've come to realize is that I can't skimp on true free writing.  It's OK to write garbage, to allow all that flotsam and jetsam fall out of my brain and onto the paper. Overall, I need to be more free with my words in all the stages of my writing, to expect to write more words than I will keep. It's okay to throw away, to not finish, to try things out and abandon the ones that don't work.
Speed Writing

This leads me to directed freewriting or speed writing (Elbow calls it "The Direct Writing Process"). Once I've free written my "throw away" pages, I start writing around my story idea, just writing freely and attentively, trying to let the structure and the soul of the thing emerge.

Another important point Elbow makes is not to be afraid of writing the wrong thing, because when you’re figuring something out, grasping for meaning, one of the best ways to get there is to blurt out the wrong thing and then adjust what your saying, circling until you zero in. Because it's much harder to hit a bull's eye without first taking some sloppy shots to warm up.

Free writing and speed writing means throwing away a lot while knowing that there are more words inside me, an infinite number of words. And most importantly, that among those words are the RIGHT words, the ones that will show me the way forward.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The World and How We See It

As a writer, I am constantly trying to create stories with characters that are complex and full of emotion, to describe worlds with concrete details, to infuse every story with a weight and reality that will make it live on the page. While I do this, I try to always remember just how limited my perceptions are. 
“Even though we accept the reality that's presented to us, we're really only seeing a little window of what's happening.”
~ David Eagleman
Just like when we tell stories to each other, we humans, when we look at the world around us, are in the business of making meaning. The more we learn about the brain, the more it becomes clear that there is no way for us to perceive the world in a neutral way, unbiased by our own prejudices and instincts. If this is true of our understanding of the physical world, I think it's doubly so for our interactions with  other people (and, I would posit,  animals).

Lifehacker has a great post about perception, and why it’s good to disrupt our usual ways of seeing things. Anyone can benefit from shaking up their routines and challenging their assumptions. It's refreshing to see things a little differently.

For a writer, it's a critical skill. If I'm going to create unique characters – real characters, not just straw men and women mouthing some opinion I personally don’t agree with – then I must empathize even with the very people who vex me the most. If I am to describe the places these characters inhabit in ways that are fresh and real, I must try to see the world afresh through my same old eyes.

The first step is to acknowledge that your own reality and Reality are not one and the same.
“David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.”
~ Lifehacker “Recalibrate Your Reality
Here are two great books that helped me wrap my head around the limits of my own perceptions.

Incognito by David Eagleman (His book, Sum, is excellent too!)

Here’s a quote:  
“The deep secret of the brain is that not only the spinal cord but the entire central nervous system works this way: internally generated activity is modulated by sensory input. In this view, the difference between being awake and being asleep is merely that the data coming in from the eyes anchors the perception. Asleep vision (dreaming) is perception that is not tied down to anything in the real world; waking perception is something like dreaming with a little more commitment to what´s in front of you. Other examples of unanchored perception are found in prisoners in pitch-park solitary confinement, or in people in sensory deprivation chambers. Both of these situations quickly lead to hallucinations.”

And, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Withdrawing an Accepted Story or We’ll Always Have Paris

I’ve withdrawn an accepted story – crazy, right?

I continue to walk the path of traditional publication, because it suits me. There are so many exciting genre and literary publications out there to submit to. More than I could ever write stories for. I like working with editors, and even slush readers. The term “gatekeepers” isn’t a dirty word to me. Sure they may have their preferences, but these people put their eyeballs on more stories in a month than I read in a year.

The majority of editors I deal with are doing what they do for the love of a great story (the same reasons that I’m writing). Even in my slender experience working with editors over galleys, I’ve learned new skills and techniques that I can apply to the next story.

But there are pitfalls, too. Editors, like the rest of us, are human. They have day jobs and families and a million other commitments. Early in 2013 I sold a story to a certain market, I signed the contract and then waited for galleys, publication, and eventual payment. This is usually a slow boat, and I know that, but after a year passed with no word of a planned publication date for the anthology my story was to appear in, I began to get a little frustrated.

This is the reason contracts are so useful. The contract I signed was a basic one and included a reversion clause (most do, but after this experience, I’ll be making sure all my contracts have one). A reversion clause basically states that if the publisher fails to publish said story in a specific amount of time (usually 12-18 months), all the rights revert back to the writer.

I was torn. I know writers who have had great experiences with this publication and the editor seems like a stand-up guy. There’s a temptation to just give it a little more time. Part of me wanted to just be nice and let things lie, but I also felt like I was abandoned on the wrong end of a broken promise. Besides, in the turbulent world of small publications, eZines and podcasts, “someday soon” often never comes. Finally, after the twelve months plus an extra month grace period, I decided to take my story back.

Even though I’m beginning the submission process again with this one, I feel better. So much so that I’ve decided to make this a personal policy with all my stories (hopefully won’t come up that much!).
It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of my little stories don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But I believe that – just as I hold myself accountable to treat editors, publishers, and slush readers professionally – I’m going to hold the editors who buy my works to the terms of their own contracts. Since payment is almost always “upon publication,” all a writer has between when a story is bought and when it is published is a promise – So it’s a good idea to make sure that promise is in the form of a contract.

Making a sale is always exhilarating, and when things don’t work out you can remember what Bogart said to Bacall at the end of Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Summertime Quote-a-Rama

School is out and we're managing houseguests and gearing up for some summer travel. My writing schedule has been reduced to noodling in my journal over the past few days. I went through my old journals/commonplace books and found some quotes for inspiration. Here are a few in no particular order. Enjoy!

“How the first draft lists will show you how the story will blow.” ~ Carol Bly in The Passionate Accurate Story

“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.” ~ John Gardner in The Art of Fiction

“I am an obsessive rewriter, doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say, but a great deal to add.” ~ Gore Vidal

 “Perfection is not very communicative” ~ Yo-Yo Ma

“Readers may savor nuance, unless it illuminates and deepens a clear-cut pattern they’ve been following, it’s nothing more than fancy window dressing in a vacant house.” ~ Lisa Cron in Wired for Story

“We write to taste live twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ~ Anais Nin

“Many writers practice “pain avoidance,” don’t.” ~ Carol Bly in The Passionate Accurate Story

“No two persons ever read the same book.” ~ Edmund Wilson

“Instead of thinking each draft has to be “it,” just try to make your story a little bit better than it was in the previous draft.” ~ LisaCron in Wired for Story

“All good fiction has moment-by-moment fascination. It has authority and at least a touch of strangeness. It draws us in.” ~ John Gardner in The Art of Fiction

“You can't really succeed with a novel anyway; they're too big. It's like city planning. You can't plan a perfect city because there's too much going on that you can't take into account. You can, however, write a perfect sentence now and then.” ~ Gore Vidal

“Let go of the edge of the pool.” ~ me

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Read Slow Write Fast

King goes on to clarify that you shouldn’t be reading just because it’s good for your writing – like drinking prune juice is because it’s good for your digestion. You, of course, should be reading because you LOVE it. A writer may not, in fact, start out as a passionate reader, but if you’re serious about the craft, you will become one.

But I don’t just read for the love of it. Any book – from pulp to high literature – can be my university as a writer. The good stuff provides multiple examples of techniques that work, and the bad stuff shows me what clichés and pitfalls to avoid. I read as much and as broadly as I can, including books outside my comfort zone (both stylistically and socio-politically). I tilt toward the literary, but I’ve found no reason to look down my nose at beach reads. Those books sell like hotcakes for a reason – they’re fun and fast paced. The authors know a thing or two about suspense and character and how to pull a reader through a story.

But there is still the limited hours-in-a-day conundrum. I am always wishing I could read more. My solution? I just tell myself: if you can’t go far, go deep.

Every few books, I make a point of reading one slowly and deeply. I’ve already blogged about how I’m a slow reader. In this case, it’s a feature not a bug.

Going deep is all about understanding the techniques used in a piece of writing. As I read, I’m looking under the hood of the story or arguement. I keep notes in my journal as I go. How is the author creating the tone of the book? Is it their vocabulary? The sentence structure? Is it in the dialogue? How does he or she help me connect emotionally with the characters? Understand their motivations? If something about the book isn’t working for me, I try to articulate why. If there are elements or techniques that don’t float my personal boat, I not only think about why – but about why those techniques might work for other readers.

This kind of deconstruction might not be everyone’s cup of tea. You might find that simply reading a book over (and over) illuminates how the author accomplished what he or she did with a particular book. The important thing is to strive to understand and internalize the techniques brought to bear on a particular work. With each piece of writing you examine, you’re accruing an innate understanding of the many techniques that go into a powerful piece of writing.

When it is time to write – to put that deep reading into practice – WRITE FAST! Writing fast feels a little out of control. All I can say is get comfortable with that feeling. Like any student you will stumble, fall and fail. But eventually, through careful reading and lots of writing, you’ll find that the tools in the writer’s toolbox are becoming integrated into your writer’s hind brain, and that’s where the magic happens! When the techniques of the craft are in place, the story can just flow out through your fingers.

Keep reading as much as you can, so that you encounter every writing technique over and over, so that you can recognize them across different styles and genres. This summer, you may find you’re enjoying your next beach read differently as you notice how the author manipulates pacing, reveals character or sets up a trail of clues.