February 28, 2010

Prepare Yourself

We'll be having another Cool Person Guest Blogger soon! I'm so thrilled!

February 26, 2010

So, You’re a Writer, Too?

I’m afraid today’s post is a bit of a rant.

I was talking to someone the other day who said, “Oh, I have a book in my head. All I have to do is write it down!” Every writer’s heard this at one time or another.

The person who said this was well meaning. They just wanted to make a connection. “See how we’re similar! We’re both writers.” I will grant them that. I love the fact that they were interested in books and writing and that they want to be a writer. Heck, I want to be a writer.

Ah, but the phrase “all I have to do is write it down.” That’s like saying, “I’ve got plans to build a rocketship to the moon all in my head. All I have to do is build the rocket.” Or “I’ve got some great plans for a city. I think I’ll call it Rome. Now all I have to do is build it.” Or “Oh, you’re only a mother? A father?”

Yes, it’s naivete on their part. They’ve never tried to actually write a book, so they don’t know what goes into it.

BUT, damn, I worked on my first novel for SEVEN YEARS (and I wrote lots of short stories and other things in that time frame and worked a full-time job and freelance and got my master’s). My second, FOUR, and I have been sending it out to agents for another year. I know I can do it faster, as I’m learning as I go, but still.

Sigh.

What I’m Reading Today: Joyce Maynard’s very moving personal essays, including “The Stories We Tell.” Oh, the amazing courage it took to tell these stories, and the depth and nuance she gives them.

February 25, 2010

Building an Audience

I was thinking this morning about how you build an audience one person at a time.

This is both a glorious and a monumental thing. When you think about all the people you need to connect with in order to meet publishers’ expectations on sales, it’s downright daunting. But if you think of all the great friends you’ll make along the way, it’s heart-warming.

It’s the same for all public figures. If you’re a politician, you do it one person at a time. If you’re a singer, you connect one person at a time. If you’re a talk show host, you make your name one audience member at a time.

There are things that make it happen more quickly. Bad news or good news gets your name out faster. People loving your stuff and passing your name around helps. Taking advantage of the internet (more on this later). This is what publicity is all about.

There’s also a bit of kairos involved. Right time, right place. What you write needs to be on the national mind, be something that people want to talk about, to be moved by. What should be comforting is that you’re a product of your time and what you’re thinking about is probably what the nation is thinking about in some fashion. However, it needs to be out of the ordinary enough to make people think but not so out there that you’re labeled as a quack.

All this takes time ~ lots and lots of time. That’s why it’s unreasonable for publishing to expect first-time authors to do well. They haven’t connected with enough people yet. That’s also why publishing wants people who are already famous ~ they already have an audience that doesn’t take time to build.

That’s why I encourage you, the writer, to go out today and start building an audience. Don’t think of them as an audience ~ think of them as a vast network of friends who like what you create. You have to use tact and good manners. Don’t force people. You’re just making friends, after all, and some people aren’t in the right frame of mind to have a new friend. But there are many many people yearning for connection. They want someone to talk to, to connect with.

This is where the internet comes in. You need to make a web page and fill it with lots of interesting stuff. How are people going to get to know you if you don’t put it out there? Start a blog and write in it at least 5 days a week. People need to know you’re reliable. Link to a lot of other people on both your site and your blog. You need to join Facebook or MySpace or other social networking sites and be an active member. Not only put your own stuff out there but also comment on others’ stuff. Don’t be just a self-promo-sapiens ~ spread the good word about your friends too! Be an amusing and delightful dinner guest, but be genuine too.

(Here’s a great list of Facebook etiquette here from the lovely Ru Freeman.)

Connect with other writers. They’re your audience too. They’re the ones who understand when you’re going ape-shit because edits are due or because you were rejected by that one place you had your heart set on.

Bossy Betty, over and out! (With apologies to fellow Vixen Betty for taking your name in vain!)

What I’m Reading Today: Not much. I had book club last night, which was wonderful, as always. Welcome new Vixens!

February 24, 2010

Rules for Writing

Today, I just wanted to point to two wonderful articles on advice to writers.

The first, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” is a wonderful gathering of ten rules by the Guardian from all kinds of different writers. There’s Elmore Leonard’s timeless ten rules, which inspired the piece. I vehemently agree with all his rules, particularly to avoid prologues and to use “said” only as an attribute. And I love “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Other writers include Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaimen, Annie Proulx, Zadie Smith, and more. So great!

The second, which I particularly love, is “A Reader’s Advice to Writers,” by Laura Miller on Salon. What I love about it is that it gets to the nitty gritty of what keeps a reader reading. I particularly like #3 “The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.” If you eliminate the elements staring at the end of the list, you’re writing a mass-market thriller ~ big on story, small on timelessness. If you eliminate the elements at the beginning of the list, you may be writing a literary masterpiece, but few people may read it.

That’s all.

What I’m Reading Today: I finished Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a writer ~ I see that now. It’s got all the greatness of both an adult book and a kids’ book. Just great.

February 23, 2010

Emailing Writers and Readers

I’ve been having some wonderful email exchanges lately. Some of them are with other writers, and some are with readers who found my stuff and liked it. I love this for a number of reasons. First and foremost, people are infinitely fascinating, and I love connecting and talking about what’s important to them and to me. Second, I love being a fan among fans, you know? They read my stuff and like it and tell me so, and then I read their stuff and like it and tell them so. It’s just so cool to read someone new, someone you know via email, and to be totally blown away by it.

I definitely know what agents mean when they say that the writers they pick up are the ones whom they read and it makes them think, “They let me read this? Wow. I am so honored. I want to know more about this fascinating person.”

And connecting with people who aren’t writers is just as interesting. They’re fascinating people who are passionate about things, and I love hearing about what people are passionate about.

And, to be totally honest, I’m a needy writer person, so I love hearing that my writing meant something to someone. As with all writers, I put my heart on the page in the hopes that someone will feel what those characters are feeling. It’s nice to hear that they do.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Harriet the Spy.

PS I got a rejection with a nice note today on the novel, as well as a very nice rejection from a literary magazine with an invitation to submit again. As my niece in the Army would say: HOOO-ah.

February 22, 2010

Unsung Heros Who Make Your (Reading) Life So Much Easier

I know the words “government report” and “clear, stylish, and delightful” aren’t usually put together, but I’ve recently discovered just that. The USGS Suggestions to Authors (STA) of the Reports of the United States Geological Survey (seventh edition, 1991) is a fabulous document. It includes sections on naming of aquifers and mineralogic terminology, but it also contains sections such as “Duties, ethics, and professional writing practices” and “Suggestions as to expression.” It is the most well-written technical style guide I’ve ever read.

Here are some excerpts.

“Countless books and pamphlets have been published in recent years to alert aspiring authors to the need for clarity and precision in technical writing. … If the prime objective of technical writing is precise communication, what could be more pathetic than a failure to communicate.”

“Personal contacts take place between authors and many other contributors throughout the Survey publication process. Ideally, these contacts are harmonious and mutually beneficial. Interpersonal frictions sometimes arise, but even strong personal differences can yield positive results when everyone observes courtesy, good will, and professional respect.”

“Your reward for proofreading ~ however tedious the task may seem ~ is the satisfaction of an error-free publication.”

Wow. This is Strunk and White’s recommendations to the tee.

Technical writing and editing are unsung arts. All you technical writers and editors out there ~ I salute you!

What I’m Reading Today: I finished Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking for book club. It has some very funny lines and some very traumatic material, but craft-wise it aspires to be so much more than it ultimately achieves. A nice light read.

February 19, 2010

Edward P. Jones Reads

Edward Jones’s reading last night was fabulous ~ of course!

I was bit late getting there, as I had to pick up the twins and take them home to be babysat by their grandmother before rushing back. Most of the auditorium was full so I stood at the back, planning just to stay there. A writer friend came in and stood beside me, but then someone waved us to two chairs toward the front, which, embarrassed, we took.

Ah, the reading. When Edward Jones reads, he is very serious, and he cocks his left arm up to hold down the pages on the podium, while his right hangs at his side. His voice has just a touch of an accent ~ it feels like D.C. combined with the south. When he spoke his character’s lines, his voice swelled and deepened. The audience sat rapt. Funny things that brought laughter from the audience were quickly followed by more sobering things.

First he read from some historical work set in the world of The Known World. It was a nuanced and tender portrayal of a man who believes he should not be a slave and of a woman who also believes that but takes a more practical view of things. The man is owed $500 from the woman and her husband, but he is arrested for his general cockiness and put in jail. The woman and her husband buy his freedom, but the man still insists they owe him the full amount and that he is free. The woman tries to get him to act like he’s supposed to so he doesn’t get in trouble, but by the end he’s lost a leg and she lets him go with a horse and most of his money. A fabulously realistic and heart-rending ending.

Then he read part of a story about a woman on a bus in D.C. Her eyes fog and then she goes entirely blind while on the bus. A kind homeless man helps her home, and at the end of the story she looks in the mirror and thinks about how alone she is and how much her beauty has meant to her.

Then someone asked the question: Why did he choose to write about slavery and did he do much research? He answered that what prompted the historical writing was that he remembered a fact he’d learned in college that black people owned slaves. Then he said that what you have to know when you begin writing is what’s in your character’s heart when they get up that morning. You don’t need to know all the historical fact. He said, say you were going to write about Benjamin Franklin at the Continental Congress. You know he might have had eggs for breakfast and that he was probably served by a maid. There was probably a newspaper that he read. When he went outside, the streets would smell like horse shit. Men would be riding horses and women would be riding in carriages. He said that you don’t need to know how a carriage was made then, and you already know from what history you’ve had and documentaries you’ve seen pretty much all you need to know. What’s important is what’s inside your character, what they need and want.

Then he hesitated a moment and said that if there were no more questions we were done. Oh, how I wanted someone to ask a question! And I didn’t have one ready at hand. He then went to sign books.

What I’m Reading Today: Rusty Barnes’s “Harry, Giselle and Joyce” at Fictionaut. Wonderfully poetic and strange ~ it defamiliarizes the everyday. Very moving.

PS I’m thrilled to be a chicken scratcher! My story “Revelations” is up at Fried Chicken and Coffee. Warning: It’s a bit dark.

February 18, 2010

The Known World of Edward P. Jones

I am thrilled to see Edward P. Jones read tonight! And my heart goes out to all of you who can't be here with me. I am truly lucky!

February 17, 2010

Writing Yourself into History

The small town near the ranch where I grew up is Lovell. It’s named after the rancher Henry Clay Lovell, who brought cattle into the area in 1879. My great grandparents, the Strongs, came into the area in 1894 and established a hotel and saloon. Other inhabitants included a black man by the name of Thaxton who ran a store. The Mormon community led by Abraham Woodruff moved in about 1900. Great Grandpa Strong liked to say, “I saw ‘em come over the hill.” The upstanding religious community who moved in cast a wary eye at the family saloon.

Apparently, the story goes, the town of Lovell was platted around the railroad, and all the land was owned by the Strongs and by other early families. The Mormons resented this and the money they would have to pay, what they felt was exorbitant, to have land around the main street, so one night they up and moved the town two blocks to the south.

One of the early industries in Lovell was a brick and tile factory, and the Strongs had shares in that factory. I don’t remember the exact history, but the factory went under and the Strongs were out a lot of money. They felt it was the consequence of some underhanded dealings.

Bad blood built up and my family had had enough. They moved 25 miles north to homestead along Crooked Creek. Great Grandpa Strong died about that time, so there ended up being three homesteads along the creek: Great Grandma who was called Ma Strong, my grandmother Bessie and her husband Billy Tillett, and sister Edna and her family.

When you read histories of the Lovell area, if the Strongs and Tilletts are mentioned, it’s as a footnote: the land for Lovell was purchased from Frank and Ellen Strong. The histories go right from the Lovell Ranch to the Mormon community. The histories after that are always told from the Mormon community’s point of view.

Not that I blame them. The Strongs and the Tilletts, for the most part, are a contrary contentious bunch. They weren’t joiners or particularly contributing members of the community; they were ~ and are ~ an antiestablishment and iconoclastic bunch. They were even known to bend the rules. Those stories of the Old West ~ my family lived them, but not from good upstanding citizen point of view. We were known as the outlaws out on the Crooked Creek. (This is probably why I like some of the work of William Faulkner so much.) Instead of religion or the community, the ranch was the organization my family paid tribute to.

And, though a number of them were educated at a university, my family never felt the urge to write themselves into history. I felt this keenly as a kid. I’d search vainly for mentions of my family, and they were never there. That’s one of the reasons, I think, I’ve always been an avid genealogy buff and an amateur historian.

This is also a reason I’m a writer. As a kid, I didn’t see myself or my family in “History.” I didn’t realize that histories were things that were written, that they were nothing more ~ or less ~ than point of view. I don’t know how old I was before I realized this. Not until I was an adult, for sure. So, not only did I feel that I didn’t have a voice personally ~ because I was the youngest of seven with parents busy working the ranch ~ but also I felt my family didn’t have a voice.

On a related note, I watched the first part of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s recent PBS work, Faces of America. What an absolutely fabulous series! (You can watch episodes online here.) I’m going immediately to see if I can find his other work. Faces of America takes 12 celebrities ~ two each from various backgrounds ~ and combines genealogical research with genome science to discover their background. The main takeaway is that everybody’s been doing it with everybody forever, and no one has a “pure” lineage. We are a melting pot. The show also makes you realize that history isn’t this disembodied thing; it’s your close relatives who actually lived through it. Finally, it reinforces what I said in this post that, when you’re creating a character, you need to think about his or her ancestors and how they affect your character.

What I’m Reading Today: A draft of a chapter from my friend Ken Olsen’s memoir. It’s the full meal deal ~ funny, heart-rending, passionate ~ yet it reads like a novel. I don’t know how many drafts he’s done, but it reads like he’s been working on it for years. Some lucky agent and publisher are going to be turning handsprings when they get it.

PS I got a form rejection on a query of the novel today, but my friend Pembroke got a request for a full!

February 16, 2010

Short and Sweet

I don’t think I’ll write much today. I’m still pricked raw from the writing of that personal essay. That Shelley quote ~ “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” ~ may be cliché these days, but it’s sometimes how I feel.

February 15, 2010

Getting Personal

Whew! I wrote over 4,000 words today.

Some of it was work-related, and some of it was on a personal essay. This is a personal essay I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, and I’ve been putting it off. Today was the deadline, though, so I backed myself into a corner to write it. One of the main reasons was because it was an emotionally hard one. I didn’t want to confront the issues involved. But now it’s done. I’ve been working it through in my mind for a long time, but it only took a day or two to put it to paper.

It’s so much easier for me to write these emotionally charged issues in the form of fiction. I can be totally honest and it doesn’t tear me up so much. But if I label it nonfiction, it’s a lot harder. Something about attaching the I to myself.

I think I’ll try to write more personal essays in the future ~ sort of in preparation for a memoir I hope to write someday based on the whole Hatfields and McCoys thing my family went through.

By the way, over the weekend that short story the editor asked me to revise was accepted! I also got a form rejection today ~ make that two form rejections.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Harriet the Spy.

February 12, 2010

Stay With ‘Em

When you’re watching an intense emotional movie, do you ever get the urge to fast forward? Do you ever want to know the end so that the suspense and the emotion doesn’t kill you?

Do you ever not mention to your spouse how you hate it when they say that thing, you know, that makes you want to scream? You don’t mention it because it’s the tip of the iceberg, and if you mention it, you’ll both have to confront the deeper issues?

Have you ever let a friendship die rather than say something about that one thing that drives you crazy but you’re afraid it will offend the person so, rather than confronting them, you just quit inviting them out for lunch.

Avoidance is a deep-seated coping strategy ~ one of my main ones, it seems, sometimes. It’s a spook that used to haunt me every day. I didn’t have the emotional stability to confront things. Since then, I’ve pretty much exorcised him. I look forward to confronting things to see how they’ll come out. I don’t mind saying no, even if I squirm a bit at the time, because I know if I don’t it’ll be so much worse later. Still, he served a valuable purpose. If the choice is avoid or go crazy, I’ll take avoidance every time.

But he’s still down there creeping around corners. He niggles me when I’m not paying attention. One of the ways he does this is by making me avoid the hard stuff in my fiction. Would I rather put this character through hell ~ she’s someone I like a lot, by the way, and I’m rooting for her ~ or would I rather let her off the hook? Of course, I’d rather let her off the hook. But if I let her off the hook, I betray the reader. One of the reasons people read is to see that person go there, be put in the horrible situation. Even if it turns out badly, the reader’s lived through it. So when I, the writer, don’t go there, the reader gets angry ~ justifiably so.

So I find that it’s my job to be my own vigilante and to hunt myself down when I’m shirking. You’ve got to go there.

What I’m Reading Today: Some inspirational stuff about writing to gear myself up to work on the novel.

February 11, 2010

Kindness Rocks

My mind is a bit of a convoluted mess today. Too little sleep last night. Plus I’ve had lots of distractions.

First, I got a nice rejection on a partial of the novel ~ even though it isn’t this agent’s cup of tea, she gave me great feedback on why. Such generosity with her time.

Second, an acceptance on a short story! Woo hoo! Nothing can make your day like flipping open your computer and pressing the on button, waiting, waiting, clicking onto the internet, bringing up your email, then seeing that sender is an editor or agent. Deep breath. You know it’s a rejection, but you hope it includes a nice note or maybe even an invitation to submit again. It pops up. It’s short, so of course it’s a rejection, probably a form one. But no! It’s an acceptance. We would like to use your story. Is it still available?

Third, an editor got back to me within an hour on a submission and gave me notes on the story. He said he’d like to see it again or to see another story! I’ve reread his note at least a dozen times. Not that I’m obsessively obsessing.

Fourth, another kind writer friend recommended me to an editor. I do not take these things lightly. They mean so so much.

So my heart is filled to bursting today with gratitude to the hard-working people who love stories as much as I do and who see something in my work. Or took the time to be kind. Palms to heart. In these cases, words are not enough.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Erdrich.

February 10, 2010

On Being Sick

Two weeks ago, it was my son coughing all night. Last week, it was my daughter. I’d had the sneezes and nothing more until Sunday night. Then I got the full-blown body aches, chills and fever, headache, sinus hell. I felt awful for two days, and it was yesterday afternoon, as if a switch were thrown, that I felt better.

What is it about being sick that feels like you’re looking into the maw of hell? The physical symptoms are the least of it. There is always a sense of impending doom, like all that you’ve built and strived for all these years will come crashing down around your ears. Everything seems hopeless ~ why try? The world’s ugly, you’re ugly, and humanity is nothing more than its most base instinct, like the final panel on a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

In better times, I tell myself these dark times build contrast. Without the lows, how do you know the highs? But that’s only when I’m on an even keel. When I’m in the middle of it, it’s hard to take the long view.

Lack of sleep will have the same effect on me. After the twins were born, I had a much better sense of postpartum depression. For me, it had more to do with lack of sleep than anything else.

My family believes that sleep is optional, that it’s sort of a weakness. As a consequence, I grew up without a schedule or regular sleep. In high school, I’d attend school all day, work as a waitress all evening, see my boyfriend, drive the 25 miles home, sleep a few hours, and then up for school the next day. It’s amazing I didn’t wreck on one of those trips home. This is one of the many reasons I was such a basket case in high school and college.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, first of all, I understand that our mental and emotional health is intimately tied to our physical health ~ a useful thing when building a character. Also, I have access to experiences that help with the darker characters, the ones who aren’t much bothered by social convention. I’m ever the good girl, but I can understand why someone would have delusions. And, finally, I think writers need to train like athletes ~ they need to be aware that if their physical health declines too much, if they don’t eat right or get enough sleep, their work will suffer, both in quantity and quality. Not that I always practice what I preach.

What I’m Reading Today: I started Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. Oh my gosh! I’m loving it. It shows all those little tensions and games and pressures within a stressed marriage from both points of view. It makes my heart hurt. I hope to write something as good.

PS It may seem like I’m shouting to the rooftops about a bunch of books and movies lately ~ and I have been ~ but these have all been so so good! I can’t believe my good fortune in finding such exquisite art: the Erdrich, Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming, the movies District 9 and The Hurt Locker, and for heaven’s sake Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I am blessed.

February 9, 2010

In Which I Sin Yet Again

I’ve had an epiphany of sorts today. My thinking about nonfiction has been all wrong. Let me enumerate my sins.

My first mistake is to collate the many forms of nonfiction into one. The structure of a newspaper story is nothing like the structure of a magazine feature. The structure of a personal essay is nothing like narrative nonfiction.

Second, I’ve accused nonfiction of being reductive. Some nonfiction ~ for example, newspaper stories ~ is reductive by its very nature. But there is a lot of nonfiction that seeks to do exactly what I do with fiction. That is, it seeks to reflect the world in all its ambiguity. It seeks to use (what I think of as) the tools of fiction to reflect lived life.

So my biggest sin is to think reductively about nonfiction. There is a broad span of fiction ~ the pulp story complete with stereotypes and predictable plot to the litarary short story that refuses to have a plot ~ just as there is a broad span of nonfiction ~ newspaper article to nonfiction book on a single subject.

Mea culpa.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend C.D. Mitchell’s nonfiction piece “This, Too, Is Vanity” at storySouth. This heartfelt wonderfully well-crafted essay is what got me thinking about nonfiction today. As C.D. puts it here, “In memoir, we do not take a podium and say ‘I did this! I am great!’ We instead take the podium and say, ‘This happened to me. Please forgive my ignorance. I have learned from the experience and am a better person as a result. Forgive me for what I was before; learn from what I am now.’"

February 8, 2010

Ride It Like a Good Horse

Yesterday, as I was chopping carrots and making pie dough for chicken pot pit, I listened to an old episode of This American Life. I love this show because, first, it’s endlessly fascinating and, second, it’s about real life yet is shaped into a satisfying story. This is something that I’m always thinking about: how to take the raw material of existence and, using words, shape it into a coherent and unified whole. Ira Glass has deep insight into storytelling here, here, here, and here.

The episode I listened to was #398 about long shots or, from the site, “stories of people betting on something with very bad odds, mostly because they have no other choice.” The prologue was about a high school football team in Utah who has not won a game in two seasons and won only two games the season before that. In fact, the other kids in their high school make fun of them. The prologue ends with reference to last year’s Kentucky Derby winner and the huge underdog Mind that Bird (50:1 odds) who came from way behind to win. The second piece is about a model prisoner who had a life sentence in California who, after many times, finally was deemed fit by the parole board, yet his parole still had to pass Governer Arnold Schwartzenegger. The final piece was by the amazing Wells Tower about his father and his father’s house.

In the piece about the football team, the interviewer asked the coach how he does it. Why doesn’t he just set the goal of, say, a couple of touchdowns. Or good defense. The coach said, no way. You can’t do that to them. No matter how many times they’ve lost, you still got to believe that you can win and act like it. You’ve got to make the kids believe that they can win. You’ve still got to go out there every game and play and do your best. You have to decide that you are the long shot.

As I listened to the language he was using ~ keep putting it out there, believe in yourself, long odds, despite what’s happened in the past ~ it struck me. That is exactly what it’s like to be a writer and be submitting for litmags and contests and agents and editors. There’s such incredible competition and such long odds. Each time you send something out, you have to believe that you have what it takes, that this time you’ll get that acceptance.

At the Kentucky Derby, when they asked the jockey how he did it, how he got Mind that Bird to win, he said, “I rode him like a good horse.”

We are, as writers, all long shots, and we have to ride it like a good horse.

What I’m Reading Today: Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming. I am totally blown away. I’ve always admired her work, but this, oh this ~ such a delicate touch, so much depth but so much light too. Alyson, this is my love letter to you.

PS Over the weekend, the Georgetown Review finally made it official, so I can announce it here: I’m runner-up in their 2010 Contest with my short story “Wanting”! It will come out in their next issue. Thank you so much, Georgetown Review! And, this morning, I got a very nice rejection on a partial of the novel.

February 5, 2010

Begone, Foul Germ

I sit here contemplating the blank page and find I don’t have much to say today, other than it’s a lot harder to get the energy to write with a cold coming on.

What I’m Reading Today: Drafts of short stories by my friends Rashena and Lisa Jo. You guys rock!

PS Received a form rejection today.

February 4, 2010

Don’t Forget Your Passport

Don’t you love those stories, be they science fiction or historical fiction or travelogs or whatever, that immerse you in a place that seems so exotic yet familiar? Sometimes books about where you’re from, a place you’re familiar with, can do this to you too. It’s such a knack to have enough detail to visualize and “understand” a place yet have the details be the exact right ones both for the character and to encapsulate the place, yet not bog down the story.

I was thinking about this as I was rereading C.J. Cherryh’s science fiction ~ she has the knack of situating you quickly and effectively, even inside an alien ~ and also as I was watching a video interview with E.L. Doctorow at the New York Times. Doctorow said that, to him, New York City isn’t a place like the West or Midwest that one could write about place, but it occurred to him that you could base fiction in the past in the same way you can base it in a place. You create a world. Another way to put it: “The past is another country.” Not quite sure where the quote comes from. (A cursory internet search reveals that it could be the opening sentence of The Go-between by the British L.P. Hartley, as well as the titles of a historical by the Australian Lois Battle and a crime novel by the Italian Gianrico Carofiglio.)

I think this is so true. My first novel manuscript (sitting in a drawer collecting dust) was a historical novel, and its research was so much fun and the imagining what it would’ve been like and the putting that on the page. It’s a wonder I got it done, the research was so much fun. Creating that world was a much more conscious effort than the one in the novel I have out to agents, which is set in the present.

I do think people go overboard. They try to leave out no detail, and the narrative bogs down to the point that the reader thinks, “What’s the point?” There’s a fine balance to be had. The details have to be the right ones ~ the details that that point of view would notice described in the way that point of view person would see it. One telling detail is worth ten boring descriptions.

But I do think it’s absolutely true ~ and a useful way to look at things ~ to consider setting not just landscape but historical moment too. It’s the way that place, that moment in time, that family, have all come together to affect that character.

The use of setting is a challenging issue and one I’m still working out. Sometimes I think there’s not enough of it in my work, but I’ve had people tell me that this or that has a “wonderful sense of place.” Maybe it’s a matter of it being like air ~ you don’t know it’s there but it’s all around you and it permeates you. But I constantly strive to make it a more conscious process.

What I’m Reading Today: I think I’m fighting a cold, so I’m actually wistfully wishing for a young adult adventure/comfort novel. Oh, not to have yet read all of Tolkien and Harry Potter.

February 3, 2010

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

Writer Paul Toth has an insightful post about how we create narratives of our lives over on his blog Violent Contradictions, which got me thinking about happy endings.

There are some people who love happy endings. In fact, one of my sisters told me that she only reads books with happy endings, and my mom wonders why I don’t write more. I think the emotional reasoning behind it is that life is hard enough and what they want from their reading is escapism. It’s not about a reflection of reality; it’s about escaping from that reality.

For the record ~ i.e., before I launch into my rant ~ I’m all for happy endings that are well done, that are nuanced and realistic but not syrupy-sweet tied-up-in-a-pretty-little-bow. We do get happy endings in real life. Well, not endings, really ~ more, happy interstices. They are in stories that capture a segment of a character’s life, and that segment just happens to end on an up note. A wonderful example of this type of story is Robert Boswell’s “City Bus” that appeared in the spring 2004 Ploughshares. As I remember it, it’s the wonderful story of a woman on a bus. A man gets on the bus, and by the end of the ride they fall in love.

But, a lot of times, happy endings are false constructions. If you’re writing entertainment that is meant to be an escape from reality, that’s fine. If you’re writing “reality,” it’s not. The ending doesn’t fit the character or the plot. It fits the genre or the wishful thinking of the author or editor or whomever. It’s not true in the sense that it isn’t true to the inner logic of the story and doesn’t contain all the ambiguity of lived experience.

Just as I don’t like this happy ending, I don’t like the I-didn’t-know-how-to-end-the-story-so-I-killed-off-the-protagonist-wow-isn’t-that-cool ending for the same reasons. Also other unhappy endings that are just as unrealistic or outside the logic of the story.

That’s why I like other types of endings ~ sad, ambiguous, epiphanic, ironic, imagistic, poetic, and so on. They look past the neat and tidy. I think it comes down to the fact that I never found myself represented in the books I read as a child and resented it. As a result, now I want to see people’s real lives, not escape from them.

What I’m Reading Today: When I was a kid, I read C.J. Cherryh’s speculative fiction. Well, then it would’ve been called science fiction. I remember in the Chanur novels being impressed with the way she would just plop you into an alien’s head, yet you were never lost. I was also curious as to whether they stood the test of time. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find my Chanur and read another of hers. We’re in a human’s head at the beginning, so I couldn’t judge that part of it, but I was impressed with the immediate political entanglements. You can tell that Cherryh respects her readers and trusts them to get it.

February 2, 2010

Inner Topology

I was raised 25 miles north of the small town of Lovell, Wyoming, at the southern base of Pryor Mountains. Our ranch nestled where the Crooked Creek valley opened out into plains. This is at the very northern tip of the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. This basin feels small ~ in the middle of nowhere with very few small towns ~ but if you look at an aerial photo of the whole of North America, it’s there big as day between the green of the mountains around Yellowstone Park and the small green strip of the Bighorn Mountains.

It’s weird. The aerial/topographic map doesn’t match the map in my mind in a lot of ways. In my mind, Seattle seems just as far away as New York City, yet in reality it’s a third closer. Omaha, because we have relatives there, feels just a hop skip and a jump, yet there on the map it’s a whole swathe of the country away.

Our interior lived landscapes don’t match the actual “objective” recordings of the landscapes. Not a new observation, I know.

I once did a report on “topology” in Miss Butters's high school math class. (A side note: If you were a senior boy in Miss Butters's class, you were the top of the heap. If you were a freshman girl, you had no hope whatsoever of getting her approval or attention. Or an A.) I don’t think I understood the report, even as I gave it. I talked about the mobius strip, that twisted piece of paper upon which you can trace a continuous line over all surfaces. I talked about deformations, or the stretching and shrinking of one object into another. Our inner topology is like that ~ deformational, twisting, hard to understand, hard to explain, but there’s a “science” or system to it.

It’s the inner topology that we’re trying to put on the page. I think sometimes people writing fiction try to be too “accurate” ~ maybe especially those over from nonfiction or professional writing. People will write, “He was five foot nine inches tall with sandy brown hair and blue eyes.” Which tells you nothing. What they should write is “Even though in looks he was average in every way, he came across as a seven foot quarterback with a super bowl smile.” Or “He was average in every way. If asked to describe him later, you wouldn’t be able to. He was neither tall nor short. His average-colored hair was average length. His unremarkable smile had no effect on others.” It’s all about the protagonist’s perception, not about fact.

Like many things in fiction, it’s not about the gnat’s ass truth. It’s about the emotional inner truth.

What I’m Reading Today: Elliott Holt’s short story “The Norwegians” at Guernica. Such wonderful details. Great things coming for Elliott.

Gosh, the good news just keeps coming! My friend and mentor Alyson Hagy has a great new book out The Ghosts of Wyoming. And friend Michael Czyzniewski’s story “Pregnant with Peanut Butter,” originally on Smokelong Quarterly, was selected for Dzanc’s Best of the Web!

February 1, 2010

That’s Strange

"The aim of literature ... is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart." ~ Donald Barthelme

I love this quote. A friend posted it on his wall on Facebook. One of the things I love about this quote is the juxtaposition of the concrete and the general ~ it’s a strange object (general and nonspecific) but it is covered with fur (much more visual and concrete). And then the sentence does this amazing thing. It soars to another realm with “breaks your heart.”

Barthelme could’ve said that literature creates a cute little stuffed animal, and then you go, “aaaaah.” It’s covered with fur. It’s supposed to break your heart. Most stuffed animals aren’t strange, though, nor do they break your heart. They’re the clichés of the toy world. No, what Barthelme did was defamiliarize, make strange. Not that he probably started with a stuffed animal.

In my opinion, that’s one of the things good art does ~ it defamiliarizes us. There are no new stories, as many people have said, but there are an infinite number of ways to tell old stories, and each person has his or her own unique outlook (and I mean that in its true sense ~ only one in the world), as Dennis Lehane says on Author magazine here (at the end of the interview).

One of the ways that we make things strange is by reaching beyond what first comes to mind (the cliché, what we’ve heard ten million times before) to the wonderful specifics of something. Sure, clichés are apt descriptions ~ that’s why they’re so time-worn and oft-repeated ~ but people have seen them so often that they’ve lost meaning. They don’t pack any punch. They don’t shake people out of their everyday lives and shout, “Look at me! Feel!”

However, I don’t go either for the strange for strange’s sake, nor the shocking for shock value. You’re trying to communicate with people, and if you make it too hard for them, too much work, they’re going to drop your writing ~ i.e., you ~ like a hot rock.

But isn’t the world really strange and wonderful just as it is? We don’t have to remake the world, just our perceptions of it. We need to see past our preconceived notions and the wall of expectations to what’s really going on and to try to find the words to express that.

Going beyond cliché isn’t comfortable for some readers ~ I’ve heard it said that the goal of genre fiction is to confirm expectations (follow genre conventions, have a happy ending), while the goal of literary fiction is to defamiliarize and defy expectations. Each has its place, but ~ for me ~ I want the real world in all its crazy glory.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Ray Norsworthy’s short story (chapter from a novel, really) “A Glorious Fit” at Fried Chicken and Coffee. Exactly what I’m talking about ~ so specific it’s train-wreck/squirmingly moving.