August 31, 2010

Lying to Yourself and to Others

What I’m Reading Today: Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars.

I am rapidly becoming a Seth Godin devotee. I started paying attention to his writing when he decided, like an increasing number of established authors, to go it on his own without a publisher for his next book. I read a bit of his blog and just now finished All Marketers Are Liars.

Marketing is one of the things I do for my day job. I used to do it freelance, and now it’s part of my job as an editor for a foundation. So I have thought a bunch about it and I’m always looking for ways to better connect with people.

I’ve long thought that an effective marketing technique, depending on the audience, is to tell a story. It has to be a good story well-told, granted ~ and a much abbreviated story.  You have to use the techniques of good storytelling. Use the five senses, clarity, the significant detail, a compelling narrative. You can’t generalize and you have to tell, rather than show, as much as possible.

The subtitle of this book is “The power of telling authentic stories in a low-trust world.” This subtitle seems in contradiction to the title, but as Seth explains he was actually lying in the title, or at least stretching the truth. Marketers actually have to tell a true authentic story ~ they can’t lie, and they have to believe what they’re saying. It’s the consumers who are actually lying, and they are lying to themselves. They desire something, they have a certain worldview, so they buy the stories that align with their desires and worldview.

What you have to do as a marketer is to choose your audience and choose your story. You need to choose an audience with a certain set of values and desires and suit your very-well-told story to that audience. You can’t try to reach everyone because your story has to be specific and concrete and appeal to a group of people. If you reach a specific group of people with a great story, they will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, and so on.

This all got me thinking about book marketing. As a novelist (or nonfiction book writer), our product is our book. So ideas, a worldview, is our product, so we need to sell our worldview, or that of our books, to a certain group of people. Not only the story we tell has to be compelling, but also the story about the story has to be compelling. We have to tell an authentic well-told story about the book that is the story.

I was thinking that that’s where the author’s origin stories come in ~ how they became a writer, what’s interesting about them. That’s why we need a website and a blog. We need to keep telling our authentic story. Also the origin story of that particular book. That’s also why readers want writers to be the characters in their books. Authenticity. They want Hemingway to be Jake and Henry and Macomber and the old man. They want Tolkien to be Bilbo and Frodo. They want to touch that elusive physicality of the Grail.

So, I’m going to be thinking more about the story of the story (of my novel). Also, I’m going to be reading more Seth Godin!

Questions of the Day: What’s your story about the story? Do you think an author’s work should stand on its own? Or do you think the author’s life is relevant?

August 30, 2010

The Hobbit

What I’m Reading Today: Finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Ah, what a lovely story! I love The Hobbit! It’s a lovely story, not because it’s light and all nicey nice, but because the dark parts are balanced by the light parts. It’s an adventure story with depth. So hard to talk about these things.

This weekend, I was reminded of my childhood reading. I read The Hobbit for the first time in grade school, I think ~ maybe middle school. Rereading it took me back to those days. Plus, it’s fall, and the hot sun through the curtains, the cat curled up on the couch, the cool air in the mornings, the smell in the air, the sounds of leaves ~ it all came together to take me palpably back to that time. It’s all this mass of warm sun, me by myself lying on a bed or in a warm corner, reading, and severe Anglophilia. It’s almost atavistic.

It just makes me tingle to my toes with pleasure!

Questions of the Day: Do you have these deep sense memories of reading? What books trigger it?

August 27, 2010

Deliberate Murkiness

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful The Hobbit! What joy! What craft! What a great story!

I was thinking lately about writers who are deliberately unclear. As you know, I’m wedded to clarity in my writing. I believe that you should choose the simplest and the right word, rather than one that makes you sound like you’re really smart. Communication over self-congratulation. Substance over style. Readers ~ heck, even writers ~ take it to be depth, when it’s really laziness and self-centeredness on the part of the writer.

In my modern literature class years ago, we read Ezra Pound, and I hated him. I thought he committed the mortal writer sin of not considering his reader in the least. He expected his reader to worship him as a god and to learn his cosmology. There were some French theorists who I thought did the same thing.

There are writers who are trying to get at difficult subjects, which is something different. Sometimes things are just really hard to nail down, to describe. They’re very subtle or outside our common knowledge. This is not the same thing as writers totally disregarding the reader and being deliberately obscure.

As I’m thinking about it, sometimes maybe it’s writers not being brave, trying to shield themselves and/or their readers from the honest emotional truth of the situation. I have a feeling that I would be tempted to do this if I wrote more memoir or personal essay.

I like poetry, especially since it teaches you to weigh each word, and its meaning is packed so tightly. It’s like an elaborate code with many layers. However, poets are some of the worst offenders of this. I think that’s why I don’t read much poetry lately. They’re more focused on the beautiful language than they are on meaning. Style over substance.

As you can see, I feel strongly about this, but today I wanted to argue the other side. I wanted to tell myself why people would want to be deliberately murky, what the benefits are. Let’s see.
  • As I said, sometimes subjects are hard. You need to push the language and reach outside convention in order to try to express it.
  • Also, this obscurity extends beyond sentence-level language to structure and beyond. Sometimes, people are trying to do something novel. They’re trying to say something in a way that hasn’t been said before (e.g., Barthelme’s short story “Indian Uprising” in which he juxtaposes the atrocities of war with the small atrocities of love affairs).
  • It allows for such playfulness in language.
  • If you give yourself free reign, you may surprise yourself and arrive at someplace completely new. If you kick the censor out, your kid gets full reign.
  • To veil something, to protect the people you love.
  • For the pure love of language.
Questions of the Day: If you have additional reasons, please add them. I’m sure there are many I haven’t thought of.

August 26, 2010

Writing is ...

Just a quick but great quote today.

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~ E.L. Doctorow

August 25, 2010

Reading Women

What I’m Reading Today: I wanted something fun, so I’m rereading a bit of The Hobbit.

In a great post in the Atlantic, Chris Jackson talks about the recent kerfluffle by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who were criticizing the NYT for favoring white male darlings. He segues to talking about reading women writers.

A friend had recently asked Chris: When was the last time you read fiction by women?

That got me thinking about my reading habits. I assume that I read both men and women, but I really don’t know, so I decided to do an unofficial count using the books I’ve mentioned reading here on the blog since the first of the year. Do I favor male authors in my reading? As a woman author, I should be paying attention to this. Put my money where my mouth is.

First, here are the books I’ve read cover to cover.

Books by women
• My novel manuscript
• A friend’s novel manuscript
• A.M. Holmes The Mistress’s Daughter
• Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming
• Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag
• Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy
• Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking

Books by men
• Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
• Thom Jones The Pugilist at Rest
• William Kittredge’s The Best Stories of William Kittredge
• Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
• Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach
• Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn
• Sam Shepard’s Cruising Paradise
• Rusty Barnes’s Breaking It Down
• Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
• Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of a Whiskey Robber

Books by both men and women
• Anchor Anthology

Aack! I do favor men! I read three more books by men in the last eight months than by women. This was without any conscious effort to steer it one way or another.

Well, let’s look at something else. A lot of what I read is just tasting books. For example, I tasted A.M. Holmes a couple of years ago before I finished it this year. I’ll usually eventually come back and finish a book later. So let’s see the books I dipped into, sometimes just a page or two, sometimes a lot further.

Books by women
• Eudora Welty’s collected stories
• A friend’s collection of novellas
• Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves
• Lisa Genova’s Still Alice
• Allison Amend’s Stations West
• A CJ Cherryh novel (don't remember which one)

Books by men
• Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
• John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells the Truth
• J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
• China Mieville’s Kraken
• Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
• Mark Spragg’s Bone Fire
• Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamozov
• China Mieville’s The City & the City
• Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
• Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
• John William’s Stoner
• Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin
• Maurice Gee’s Going West
• A friend’s memoir manuscript
• Edward P. Jones The Known World

Books by women and men
• Scribner’s Anthology
• The first couple of pages of about forty novels by both women and men, for craft
• NewYorker’s 20 Under 40 stories
Best European Fiction 2010

Aaaack! This paints an even worse picture! Six books by women to fifteen books by men. When I dabble, I dabble a lot with men. :-)

And this doesn’t even mention the books I’ve bought that I haven’t touched yet.

Okay, vowing to mend my ways here. I’ve come clean. I’m going to make a concerted effort to read more women.

(This is not to mention a preference for white writers, writers from the US, and other biases I have. I MUST READ MORE WIDELY.)

Questions for the Day: How are your reading habits? Do you favor one group? Do they look exactly like you?

August 24, 2010

Teaching and Writing

What I’m Reading Today: Two great pieces in the Iowa Review I got in the mail yesterday: my friend Chavawn Kelley’s essay “The Romance of Barcelona” and Ben Percy’s story “The Rubber-band Gun.” Both killer ~ good job, guys!

It really feels like fall this morning ~ chilly, dark when we got up, the sun in a different place on the horizon ~ and the students went back to school yesterday. The university campus was alive with kids flirting and walking purposefully and wandering with puzzled looks on their faces.

One of the things I loved when I was teaching freshman English was being so in touch with a younger generation, knowing what matters to the people in my classes, hearing the scuttle on the latest this or that. I loved that they all have such infinite amounts of good will. They’re hopeful and smart and really want to do well. I love reading their papers, seeing what mattered to them, their earnestness, as well as their pettiness and grasping to find ways to affect their world. Some of them even try to intimidate you, especially as a female teacher. But it broke my heart to see those kids who tried so hard but just couldn’t make it.

There was one young man the first semester I taught. He was a young black man from back east, a running back on scholarship for the football team. He was good on the field, and he had a natural verbal ability in his papers for my class. He had such potential, but football took up all his time. He would come to class and be nodding in his seat, he was so tired. You could tell that he was just beat. And he tried so hard. I remember him taking the final. Even though there was not way he could pass, he came to the final and gave it his all. I wanted so much to give him a passing grade, a good grade ~ I was rooting for him ~ but there was no way. It broke my heart.

This is the reason I don’t teach freshman English any more. You’re supposed to nurture and help them to learn, but then you have to come back and stomp on them with grades. They all want As. And, I suppose, I invest too much emotionally in the students. It takes so much out of me to teach. Maybe if I had taught longer that would’ve been less of an issue.

But the main reason I quit teaching was because it pulls from the same part of the emotional brain that my writing does. When I was teaching, I couldn’t write, and it killed me. What is it that Stephen King says? It’s like having reverse battery cables draining your brain.

Maybe it’s different teaching creative writing, I don’t know.

That’s why I applaud all you stalwart writers out there who put so much into your teaching too. I don’t know how you do it. You have my deepest sympathies and my utmost admiration. Good job, guys.

Questions of the Day: Do you teach and write? How the heck do you do it?

August 23, 2010

Achieving an Effect

What I’m Reading Today: A draft of a novel cover to cover. Yay!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how far a writer needs to go to achieve an effect. There are many different aspects that need to add up. You need to have the action/plot add up, plus the subtext, the specific detail, the underlying character ~ consistency throughout. But not so much consistency that the effect is simplistic, dare I say forced or melodramatic.

It’s like calculus, or a great big puzzle. That’s what I love about writing. It’s not cut and dried, and you can never “master” it. Like life.

Some people go overboard with their effects. They don’t trust the reader and bludgeon the reader over the head with it again and agin. In these kinds of books, I find myself saying, “Okay. I GOT it. Let’s move on. Give me a little credit for intelligence.”

Some people don’t give you enough, and you’re left dazed and confused and with the vague feeling that the writer really meant something deep by what they wrote, but you’ll be danged if you know what it is.

Of course, different styles of writing use different means to achieve their effects. Some styles are very interior and are trying to catch every nuance of thought. Others are much more exterior and rely on the reader to catch each tiny hint that is dropped through action or insinuation.

No matter what style you write in, it’s hard. You have to trust your reader, yet give them enough bread crumbs to find their way home. And it helps to know your own proclivities. I know that I underwrite. I have to go back and embellish and give the reader more clues.

I also know I need to work on having more interiority/introspection and also on the author/narrator/protagonist split. (Author = you in the world; narrator = persona of you in the text, the benevolent overlord guiding the reader’s experience; protagonist = point of view that we care about. There’s a narrator even in first-person present tense.) My work to date has often been sans narrator, so that I sort of immerse the reader in the protagonist with little guidance. This is the biggest aspect of achieving an effect that I’ve been working on lately.

Questions of the Day: How do you handle achieving an effect? Do you have “proclivities”? Do you have a strong narrator, or absent one?

August 20, 2010

We Must Be Gladiators!

Taking the day off work to revise the novel, so just a quick note today.

It makes me think:  we have to make our writing a priority.  We can't disregard our responsibilities certainly, but then again we have to fight ~ FIGHT! ~ for the time and energy to do our creative work.  The world will not only passively resist; it will actively try to take all your creative time and energy away from you. 

You have to be selfish; you have to be strong; you have to be a gladiator for your muse, your vision, your art! 

August 19, 2010

Norman Rockwell’s Paintings

What I’m Reading Today: Revising a novel, which is both better than reading and harder.

I don’t know if you’d seen the news recently about the Norman Rockwell “Telling Stories” exhibit at the Smithsonian that included works from collectors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. You can see images from it here.

I’ve always loved Norman Rockwell. Every year, my calendar above my desk at work is either Norman Rockwell, what’s-his-name who paints women in landscapes with clouds (starts with an M?), or Ansel Adams.

Why do I love Norman Rockwell? Because his paintings are stories. Nothing new in asserting that. But his paintings are not only stories; they are stories that manage to be very particular but also universal at the same time.

I think fiction writers have a lot to learn from this. The details in NR’s paintings are fabulous. He uses the exact right detail, but they are subtle too. It’s the accumulation of those details that tells the story. The expressions on people’s faces, the body angles, what they’re wearing. Desire and pain and anger and pleasure writ large.

And he didn’t “make things up” out of his head; he painted recognizable people and things. He used models from real life and exaggerated them just a bit. He didn’t paint the idea of a blue dress - he painted the exact replica of one particular dress.

I guess this is at the heart of his appeal and how his paintings tell a story. In addition to setting and character, they have conflict, desire, and action/plot. You can tell that NR understood and loved these people deeply and desperately.

Doesn’t it just make your heart hurt a little to see his paintings?

Questions of the Day: What can fiction writers take away from the other arts? Do you it’s a fallacy to say that artists feel the world more deeply? Or is it that they just pay closer attention?

August 18, 2010

The Poesy of Bug Love

Have to run out to an appt this morning, so I thought I'd post a poem.  I was messing around with luscious words and funky internal rhythms, having a blast, though looking back now the imprecision of the language bothers me.

The Poesy of Bug Love

Ants at angles, seemingly teeming
Exquisitely arched antenna, collective caress
Subsonic hum - sshh - can you hear it?

Caterpillers pupate, green leaf love
Hands unfolding whirling unfurling resplendent hues
Soft lips brushing, hushing, the air

Spiders softly wooing, tiptoeing
Thoughts strung tight and trailing, moon-dark and paling above
Sleeping silk and satin, still clasp

Lightning bug buzzy, roundly amassed
Picasso in night milk, fluid in time, licentious
Find your way acquiescently

August 17, 2010

The Complexities of Point of View

What I’m Reading Today: The first little bit of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (thanks, Brad!). I’m loving it. What a strong and fascinating style.

Point of view is so much more complex than simply first-, second-, or third-person. There are so many variables to consider. Once you’ve decided on first or third (second isn’t really an option, unless it’s a short story), you’ve got so much more to think about. Past or present tense? Future tense? Usually, the emotional/character arc should be in the point of view character, but sometimes, in addition to the story being about the person talking, it’s mainly about some other character viewed from the outside (think The Great Gatsby). Sometimes the narrator all but disappears but is definitely there, as in Victorian novels. So narrator vs. point of view character vs. protagonist. Some people call how present the narrator is “obtrusiveness.” Tone and reliability of the narrator (think Lolita) are other considerations. Distance ~ how deep inside the head the point of view goes and how it varies ~ is another.

A lot of these considerations come about naturally. For example, the reliability of the narrator has a lot to do with the character of the narrator. I don’t think people set out thinking, “I’m going to create an unreliable narrator.” No, they think, “This guy’s a little shady, and he’s not going to tell the truth.”

But I think it’s good to know your own weaknesses. Some people may always be so immersed inside a character’s head that action and plot basically disappear (think Proust and Joyce). That is not my problem however. I’ve inherited that Western stoicism/sparity, a la Hemingway or McCarthy or Carver. I have a tendency to write characters who withhold. They don’t talk about their feelings, and often they aren’t even consciously aware of much about their feelings. And they certainly wouldn’t talk about them. Plus, distance in this tradition is almost always held outside the body. If it goes into interiority or introspection or recollection, it’s only briefly. You get only hints of what’s going on inside a character. The reader has to be really alert because the only hints that are given are subtle ~ in body language or small verbal hints. You have to really tune your ear.

So this is one of my weaknesses: I don’t give enough interiority nor introspection. Even if I have characters who withhold and don’t know what’s going on inside them, the reader needs more. That’s where a narrator comes in, which gets complex when you’re doing first-person. It’s as if first-person is actually a lot closer to third-person.

I’m working my way through it ~ I’m revising a novel and adding more of it.

Questions of the Day: Do you have a narrative stance that comes naturally? Are there parts of point of view you struggle with?

PS Not to make this post too long, but I have some shout outs I've been meaning to give for a week!  Congrats to Bonnie ZoBell for her great stories in JMWW ("The Writer as Rapist"), elimae ("Sandwich"), and Night Train ("Black Friday")! And your rock, James Gill! Great story "Birds of Winter" up at Fried Chicken and Coffee.  Finally, Kevin Canty's new book Everything is getting rave reviews, and I can't wait to read it!  Check out the New Yorker, NPR, and the New York Times.  I urge you to immediately go out and purchase a copy of Everything!

August 16, 2010

SSFD ~ The Wrap Up

What I’m Reading Today: Dipped back into a little of John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells the Truth while we were camping. He has such great things to say.

Well, I thought long and hard about it, and I’m going to throw in the towel on the Summer of Shitty First Drafts. I hate to do it, as I have an inordinate need for closure, and I hate giving up. But I have a novel or two that is more important, and being split like that and feeling guilty about everything is something I hate worse. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not to get anything done.

So, some observations about the SSFD challenge.

1. It was a very worthwhile experiment, though having to report when I failed the challenge was not fun. I learned a lot about myself, and I got a bunch of first drafts / first pages of short stories.

2. It is true that if you don’t fail sometimes, you’re really not putting yourself out there. Even if I hate to fail, even at a self-imposed challenge. But, really, you have to be prepared to fail of you risk anything at all. (Or maybe I’m just justifying things to myself. Blech.)

3. It reaffirmed that I have no problem coming up with ideas. Ideas are everywhere.

4. It sounds so easy. A story a week. Who couldn’t knock out a story a week? I feel like it’s something I should be able to accomplish. And I think I could over a short term with a firm (outside) deadline if I had to. However, it’s really hard, for a number of reasons. One, my time is so split in so many directions, and I do best when I have an idea, have some focused time to think about it, and then throw myself into it for a day or two. But an hour a day, sometimes having to skip, is A LOT harder for me. Second, writing stories takes a lot of focused emotional energy. See first reason.

5. It made me think a lot about whether I had the chops to be a full-time fiction writer. I still believe that I do ~ because I think I’ve got the focus and the drive, and if I was full-time I would arrange my schedule so that it would work. There’d also be a lot more emphasis on it in my mind, and I could be, as Jessamyn West said, “slightly savage” about it. It’s a matter of scheduling and priorities, to a certain extent.

6. I need a lot more pure rumination time on a story than I had realized before this. Whether I’m figuring the story out before I start or I’m staring at a blank page to begin, I need the same amount of pure cogitation time. It needs to mature in the subconscious. No amount of trying to force it will make it mature faster, though active thought will help it along a lot.

7. Nothing will get you out of sitting down in front of the blank page and getting words on the page. :-)

8. There seems to be a natural ebb and flow to my creativity, and well as my productivity. I’m generally not a page-a-day gal. I can be tremendously productive, and then I can be tremendously avoiding. I should accept this about myself but do all I can to keep the creative energy high.

9. The creative way is a lifetime of continual recommitment to yourself and your art. And I mean that: There is something that is unique to each of us ~ and I mean that in the true sense of the word: something that ONLY YOU can bring forth into the world. We should treasure that and not take it for granted nor devalue it. What you have to say/create is priceless because only you can create it. The world would be a poorer place without it.

Questions of the Day: What do you think about the SSFD challenge? Have you ever done something like this? How do you take failure?

August 13, 2010

I Want to Believe in Fairies

What I’m Reading Today: Last night, instead of reading, I was cogitating my writing.

We’re going camping this weekend. Yay! Should be fun. It got me thinking about being outdoors and about my childhood.

When I was a kid, I so wanted to believe in fairies and elves and gnomes. I had that great Gnomes book, with the fabulous illustrations, and I had a whole bunch of other books on the subject. I even had a “scholarly” book about fantastic creatures, including banshees and basilisks and dragons. It didn’t have nearly enough illustrations but gave great histories on the creatures. I also loved scifi and had Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. My brothers and I one summer, in imitation, created our own creatures, and I still have the crayon drawings somewhere.

I spent a lot of time alone and a lot of time out walking. You have to understand ~ we lived out in the middle of nowhere. Five or ten miles between houses and twenty-five miles to the nearest town. Forty-five to sixty or ninety miles between towns. I’m talking nothing but sagebrush and deer or antelope. When I say I went out for walks, I mean I was in the hills with not another living soul besides the rabbits, coyotes, and lizards.

I so wanted to be able to see a fairy. I wanted to come across a gnome’s house at the base of a tree. I wanted fairies to flit in the apple orchard. I wanted dwarves to walk out of caves. I wanted to objectively observe them, like I did the chipmunks. I wanted them so to be real. People talk about childhood being this special time when you can believe in fairies, but objectively I couldn’t. I didn’t observe them with my eyes. I wanted to, but they weren’t real. I read books where children saw them, but I couldn’t see them.

My daughter is this same way. She wants to believe in fairies, and she tells stories about them. She’s still in that stage where she seems to believe that if she says it’s true, than it is. She’ll assert something (not trying to get out of something, just telling the way the world is), and it will be totally false. Saying it makes it true.

I wonder, now, if this (and other things) created a kind of a split in me. The world of make believe vs. the “real world.” I do know that books were my life. They were where fairies were real. They created worlds where fairies could live. And I know that I spent most of my childhood trying to live in that world instead of the “real” one.

Something to cogitate more deeply, I think.

Questions of the Day: Did you believe in fairies? Did you want to? What other childhood things contributed to you being a writer and/or a reader?

August 12, 2010

The Hobbit

What I'm Reading Today:  The first couple of pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The past is another country, they say.  I was thinking about this, and I thought since I'm working on historical fiction I would read a little scifi/fantasy to see about world-building.  And of course, who doesn't love The Hobbit?!  How can you not just be swept away by it?  Here's how it begins.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tubeshaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats - the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill - The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it - and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained- well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit ... what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit - of Bilbo Baggins, that is - was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, - and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo's father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Questions of the Day:  Any tips on world building?  Without making a dry boring thing?

August 11, 2010

A Failure of Imagination

What I’m Reading Today: Some wonderful Eudora Welty stories from the collected stories. Oh why didn’t I discover her 20 years ago? And have you seen her photography? (She took the iconic photo on the cover of Edward P. Jones's The Known World.)

I remember in 1999 writing the first chapters of my first novel ~ the one I’m revising now ~ and one of my first big epiphanies was that writing is nothing more than a series of resisting clichés. I quickly figured out that the first thing that came to mind was always a cliché. You see the world in categories, and you apply stock phrases to it. It’s a very necessary part of a life, a tool that allows us to make it through out day, taking a lot of things for granted and not having to consider every sense impression that comes our way.

I was more focused on sentence-level clichés, but since then I’ve realized that clichés happen at the scene- and story-level too. They’re set pieces, things that people have seen a million times. I did not realize this at the time, though; hence, some of the shortcomings of that first draft.

As I’m revising that first novel, I realize that one of my shortcomings on it was a failure of imagination. I was struggling so much when I wrote it just to get the sentence-level clichés out of the way, I didn’t get far beyond them. Sure, I did get a surprising image here and there, but it was so much work just to get past them that I didn’t push much past them.

Now, as I go back, I realize that one thing I’ve learned is to push and push and push. To ask why? and how? and where? Instead of moving on to the next plot point, so that there’s nothing but action and dialog, I linger and look at what the protagonist is looking at and think about backstory and whether I should include that backstory and I let things roll around and I look for lots and lots of details. The only way the reader is going to see what I see, and what the protagonist sees, is if I slow it down a bit and make it a tapestry of impression.

So this is what I see as the failing of some writers early in their careers, and certainly it was mine: a failure of imagination. I needed to keep pushing, keep putting it on the page, fight that western sparity, not to go too far and make it “constipated” as one friend said but instead make it lush.

Questions of the Day: How has your style changed over the course your writing career? As a reader, can you detect a failure of imagination?

August 10, 2010

The Power of Story

What I’m Reading Today: More great Kraken.

There’s a manhunt going on in Wyoming and Montana right now. Three convicts escaped from a prison in Arizona with the help of one of the men’s cousins. They escaped by kidnapping a truck driver. They let him go free, but since then they’ve killed two people on vacation and burned the bodies. Two of the men have since been caught, one in the small town of Meeteetse, Wyoming, not far from where I grew up. The guy attended church, sang hymns, and mowed the church lawn before a woman he chatted with recognized him and turned him in. The last man is still on the loose in Glacier National Park in Montana with his cousin, a woman.

The man and woman think of themselves as Bonnie and Clyde. That got me thinking of the power of role models and the power of myth.

Role models are powerful things. Whether it’s Ghandi or Michael Jordan or President Obama or Queen Elizabeth, they provide hope and a sense of identity to so many people. But the same can be said for negative role models. Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, even Hitler ~ there are some people who idolize them and identify with them and want to be them.

Especially when the myths that grow up around them are so powerful. Certain myths are popular with certain groups of people in certain times. The myth of the cowboy is a popular one, but I’ve seen the dirty underbelly of that myth. The myth of freedom, whether in the form of Bonnie and Clyde, the Native American way of life, or democracy, is very powerful. They have their own narratives associated with them. The lone man at the voting booth, the cowboy riding the range, the Native American at one with the natural world. They are iconic.

I wanted to end by saying that these are all stories, and that stories give our lives meaning and tell us who we are. Us humans have an innate urge to create narrative in order to understand who we are and to understand the past and to foretell the future.

Questions of the Day: Is there a myth that you find particularly attractive? Have you seen the dark side of a myth?

August 9, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 10

What I’m Reading Today: Lots of internet history specific to and leading up to 1885.

Well, it’s the tenth week of the Summer of Shitty First Drafts. Three weeks to go.

Did I accomplish my goal this week? Well, I did, but in spirit only. I wrote 11 pages of brand-spanking new material. However, it was on revising the first novel I wrote (I signed with my agent on my second novel manuscript), not on a brand new story. However, it was a new beginning to the novel, so it’s sort of like starting a new story. The first line is “Sara stood at her father’s shoulder as he went over the weekly household accounts.” Judges, may we have ruling?

It’s amazing the change in my grasp of craft. As well it should be, as this was the first part of the first novel I wrote, as well as very early in my of writing short stories. 1999 vs. now. It’s hard to judge your own work sometimes, but even I can tell I’m light years ahead of where I was. Annie Proulx once told me, “You should be able to judge your own work.” Well, maybe, just now, I’m beginning to be able to (though tomorrow will be different, I’m sure).

It’s gratifying to see how much I’ve learned. It’s also terrifying ~ because that means the rewrite of this novel is basically from scratch. It’ll be easier than scratch because I do have stuff there, the plot, but I need to amplify it so much. Add a lot more depth, nuance, and character. The first fourth of it in particular I’ve rearranged and there will need to be some brand new scenes. Heck, probably through the rest of the novel as well, but I’m in denial.

It’s fun because the voice in this novel is so different from the one in the finished novel. The finished novel with Rachel is called Deep Down Things (DDT) and is women’s fiction set in the present, with four first-person POVs and in spare Hemingway-esque language. The first novel written but the one I’m revising is called Earth’s Imagined Corners (EIC) and is historical women’s fiction with close third person POV and much more lush language. When writing DDT, it was easier because I could be contemporary and have that spare western style that comes naturally to me but it was hard because I had to make sure to make the voices different enough. With EIC, I get to play and bring out my historical, sort of academic voice and just let the clauses go on and on, while still trying to make it as clear as possible. I get to bring out my Latinate phrasing. It’s been weird but switching back and forth between them.

I have to watch it, though, because I can easily get swallowed up in the research. I have a full box of research from my first go around, which I’m reading through, and now I have to do further research on the internet for little things. What were the types and colors of horses in 1885? What is the history of the town of Anamosa, Iowa? What battles did the Confederacy win in the Civil War? What was the Civil War called in its own time? It’s so easy to get pulled away into this fascinating history. I limit myself and keep pulling myself back to the writing of it. I try to keep the immediate goal in mind and have faith that even if I’m not researching it to death, I can always go back and check it. And even if I didn’t do research I’ve often found that going with what feels right is often very close to the truth of it when I later go back to double check it.

I find I write slower nowadays than I used to. By that, I mean I make less forward progress during the course of a day. I used to charge on through, telling myself, this is just a draft, don’t get caught up in the small stuff, you’ll start grinding your wheels. Now I do much much more sentence- and paragraph-level editing as I go. I find le mot juste, the right word, the surprising image. I push beyond the cliché to find something surprising. I write specifics, rather than generalities. I rework and rework a sentence. Something will remind me of something, and I’ll go up above and rework it up there, adding something. So on one hand it bothers me that I’m not doing more pages, but the pages I do have are much more well-written.

Virginia Woolf said that writing is like digging out caves behind our characters. Sometimes it feels like each word is that way. Each word opens up new possibilities, and you try all the alternatives and switch the sentence around and see how it sounds and substitute a new word and then switch it around again. That word scoops its own little cave, associations, a life behind it that adds up to create, eventually, the life in the text.

And, I might as well say it now, I don’t know how successful I’ll be with the rest of SSFD. Now that I’m on this project, I think I’d like to continue to focus on it. Sigh. But I’m so excited! I’m past the first hump of getting started and things are flowing and I’m living in that world.

Questions of the Day: How do you balance all your different writing commitments? Your work writing vs. your creative writing? Or, if you write creatively full time, how do you balance short story vs. novel vs. memoir?

PS My friend Mary M. Davies has a fabulous story "Feeding the Ballet Girls" in the next issue of Fiction.  I got to read this story in a draft stage - very exciting.  It isn't posted quite yet, but make sure to check it out!

August 6, 2010

Greatness Takes Time

What I’m Reading Today: I’m going to start back on novel manuscripts.

It took man something like three million years to discover fire. It took man another 3 million years ~ about 12,000 years ago ~ to get a handle on agriculture. Another 11,000 or so years before guns were invented. Another 537 years ~ 1769 ~ before the car was invented (the steam automobile, actually). The first, very rudimentary computer was invented 167 years later (1936).

So, it takes us 2 years to write a novel. Anything that’s great takes time. :-)

Questions of the Day: How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed by the daunting task of the novel?

August 5, 2010

An Excerpt from “Certitude”

What I’m Reading Today:  More wonderful Kraken.  It starts quietly, but China's minute and wonderful observations about the world are so compelling! Every paragraph or two, I go, "Ah!"

An excerpt from one of the wonderful short shorts by my friend Rusty Barnes in his book Breaking It Down. Such fabulous writing coupled with such compelling situations. Short shorts are not my length, but they sure are Rusty’s. I urge you to get a copy today.

From “Certitude”

Mathilde knew that Warren wanted nothing more than to be feral, a slavering beastly man prone to sudden rages, a man who might chase down a kill with great loping strides like a wolf, neatly hamstring it, and howl his success to the stars. She knew this with certitude and no little anxiety, as women know things about their husbands that they can never touch or affect. Out there, just beyond their comfortable suburban home, their daughter Violet had gone to smoke marijuana with her friends, and Warren had caught her by the sound of her giggle when he had stepped into the woods to urinate after raking the leaves, and after chasing away her friends Bobby and Tito, had summarily disowned her and thrown her out on her teenaged rump.

Warren had not always been this way, never so quick to passion and short of intellect. Mathilde recalled him as she had known him for most of their twenty years together, a lanky man with a slight gut who could put a new clutch plate in the car at noon and watch an opera that same night. She recalled every detail of their five-year engagement, their eventual decision to have Violet—her name an obvious Verdi homage—and all the various and sundry elements of a life lived together, and generally lived well.
Questions of the Day: What is your natural length of story? Why do you think that is?

August 4, 2010

I Want You to Want Me

What I’m Reading Today: Just starting China Miéville’s Kraken.  I really like it so far.

China Miéville gives the greatest author interviews. I love that he looks like ~ I don’t know the exact term ~ an alt thug, British street, yet he is one of the most eloquent writers I know. He always has such smart things to say, and I’m invariably bowled over. And I really want to like his fiction, but I haven’t really read any of it, so I’m starting Kraken.

In a recent interview, China said, “It’s not your job to do what readers want. It’s your job to make readers want what you do.”

How fabulous. Writers can’t chase the market. We can’t have focus groups to tell us to change this or change that. It results in mediocre work. If it’s to be any good, we have to put our heart and soul into it. Only by being as brave and honest as we can be, laying it all on the line, can we write something that will move people. You have to dazzle them and charm them and seduce them so well with your wit and craft that you hook a vein.

Be brave, be intrepid, roll on the ground and lay bare your belly to that big bad monster.

Questions of the Day: How do we make readers want what we do?

August 3, 2010

“Literary”

What I’m Reading Today:  Technical documents.  Been doing a little freelance work.

Today, I wanted to riff on the term “literary.” I hope I can be coherent about it.

We all want to write well. For some of us, that means we call ourselves and what we write “literary.” We want prose that people read and go, “Ah. Wow. That is a well-turned sentence.” To us, the term “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”

Definition 1 ~ Literary = well-written.

An extension of this is a writer who is a step above the average writer. Someone who has mastered their craft. They’ve put in their 10,000 hours. They’re up for awards because of their prose. They are the experts.

Definition 2 ~ Literary = masters of the craft.

Fair enough. I think everyone can agree that this is often the first thing that comes to mind. An extension of this, though, is that literary writing often draws attention to itself. The reader is not only marveling at the fabulous story (we hope); he or she is also marveling at the dexterity and craft of it. They’re reading for the pleasure of the metaphor and allusion. They are keeping half an ear on the resonances and the quality of it.

You might think this sounds fabulous, and it is, but as everyone knows there’s a dirty underbelly to all this. If the only thing the reader is paying attention to is the Latinate flourishes of your pen, they probably care a lot less about your characters and your story. This is what some people criticize about MFA programs ~ it trains writers who are very good but who could care less about plot. The criticism goes that they’re so focused on showing you their stuff that they fail to connect on a very basic story/heart/desire level. The reader is always being pulled out of the story.

Definition 3 ~ Literary = overwritten and self-conscious.

So the problem comes when you, the writer, who wants to come across as someone who knows her stuff, have to label your book for the publishing world. You think, damn it, I’ve put in my time, I write well {at least I hope I do}, so I am going to claim it, own it, and call myself “literary.” This is an assertion of confidence, sometimes wobbly, sometimes well-earned. Well, all the other writers out there are also trying to get their stuff published, and they’ve put in their time, and damn it they’re accomplished too, so they call themselves “literary.” Especially if I’m feeling a little unsure of myself, I’m going to put that in there. So, often, people who are just starting out, who in fact haven’t actually put in that much time ~ though to themselves their words come trippingly off the tongue and they can’t see any other way to fix it ~ they label their work “literary” because they want to assert that it’s well written. So in this case “literary,” meaning “well-written,” is possibly a little further away than the writer hopes.

Definition 4 ~ Literary = a fairly inexperienced writer claiming the territory of “well-written,” though this is often not the case.

You see the problem? Agents (and editors) see a writer claim “literary,” meaning “well-written,” when in fact the manuscript has a way to go, either because the writer has not yet learned his craft or because he impatiently sent out a first draft that was not fully developed yet. So, in this case, the term “literary” becomes a sign of an amateur. This is why I advised people to avoid this label in my checklist of things that may signal amateur to publishing professionals. If you do this and one or two other things, the agent will write you off. Understandibly.

Definition 5 ~ Literary = amateur.

What do you call your work instead, you ask? Well, that’s a tough one. I opt for the term “women’s fiction” for mine. I think going with a category like this is much safer. You could call it “book-club fiction” or “upmarket fiction,” which means well-written commercial fiction. And of course the problem is you have to label it something because you have to show some knowledge of publishing. Another way to get around it is to say “a novel in the vein of Richard Price” or “a novel comparable to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall,” or something like that. (NEVER “a fictional novel,” since this is redundant and agents see it way too much, they say.)

Genre fiction is the cash cow of the fiction publishing world. It’s the closest thing to a safe bet, they say. Literary is a huge gamble. Eric at Pimp My Novel gives an absolutely terrifying report about literary fiction. And with the publishing landscape changing so quickly, it may be an even bigger gamble in some ways. (Will the readers who like literary fiction be the last ones to move to the new, cheaper platforms?) So, in this case, the term “literary” is a big detriment. It’s like putting a huge L on your forehead. Look at me, I won’t sell more than 500 copies.

Definition 6 ~ Literary = loser.

The problem with literary as a category is that it not easily classifiable. With romance or scifi or historical fiction, you tend to know what you’re going to get. That’s one of its draws. It reaffirms received notions (not shake up preconceived notions, which is what literary fiction often does). It’s like your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant ~ you love it just as it is and you don’t want it to change. That’s why it’s easy for readers who want genre fiction to go into a bookstore and know what their getting. They want romance? They go to the romance shelf and pick one out, and the author’s name is a lot less important. When you’re a literary author, your name is your genre, and you have no one who has built up your genre before you. You’re starting from square one. It’s going to take a long time for you to build an audience, while for genre the audience is already there and is lining up rabid to buy the next book. So literary as a genre is a much more slippery thing. Beyond it being well-written, it’s really hard to define.

Definition 7 ~ Literary = a genre without coherence; you don’t know what you’re getting unless you’ve read this author before and liked them.

Finally, here’s AgentQuery.com’s great definition of literary ficton:
If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.

Multi-layered themes, descriptive narration, and three-dimensional characterization distinguish this genre from all others. Literary fiction often experiments with traditional structure, narrative voice, multi-POVs, and storylines to achieve an elevated sense of artistry. Although some literary fiction can become "commercial" by transcending its niche market and appealing to a broader audience, this is not the same as commercial fiction, which at its core has a commerical, marketable hook, plot, and storyline—all developed through literary prose. Literary fiction often merges with other fiction types to create hybrid genres such as literary thrillers, mysteries, historicals, epics, and family sagas.
Questions of the Day: Do you have any additional definitions to add? Do you disagree with any of mine? Are you in the literary camp, or the genre camp, or both?

August 2, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 9

What I’m Reading Today:  More fabulous Scribner’s Anthology.

Boy, when I said 13 weeks, I wasn’t thinking how long 13 weeks really was. I’m already so fragmented in my life, it’s hard having one more thing fragmenting me. But, you know, I’m learning a lot about myself through this process, which I think I’ll recap when it’s all over.

So, I didn’t quite rise to the challenge of the Summer of Shitty First Drafts, though I did get a story started. Not quite three pages. This week, I had no idea where I was going before I started. Usually I have the general scenario, the characters, and the first line worked out in my mind before I sit down to the page. This week, I typed the first thing that came to mind.

The first thing that popped into my head was: “Imagining my parents as swingers is easier to do than you might imagine. It was the 70s, after all, when I first knew them.” I think this came from a combination of thinking of two things: the movie The Ice Storm, which is based on a book by Rick Moody that I would love to read but have not yet, and a great 70s photo of my writer friend Merrik Bush-Pirkle and her family when she was a kid.

So, I liked those first lines but had no idea who said it or what was going to happen. I thought, well, it’s a kid watching his parents. They must have parties. What do they do with their kid when they have these parties? Well, he goes to the basement to play, and let’s give him a brother: “I thought it was normal to be banished to the basement while large groups of loud adults overran the first floor and spilled out onto the patio.”

Why a “him”? I don’t know. Maybe the protagonist became a boy when I wrote the line: “Damon, my little brother, and I would’ve been happy to stay in the basement if it weren’t for the swells of women’s thighs pressed into checkered miniskirts and the trainwreck tone in the voices drifting down the stairs.” A sensitive boy would notice these things.

I circled back and described the parents a bit: “Mom bobbed her brown hair and wore dresses splashed with color. Dad grew muttonchops and herbs.”

Then, continuing: “As the romance of sunset dimmed and night took over everyone’s hearts, the polite laughter and the clatter of dinnerware was replaced by deep guttural guffaws and the stomping of loafers.”

You get the idea. I continued on. I have no idea where this story is going, and I don’t have a name for it yet. Maybe someone at the party will do something to the boy. Or maybe he’ll realize something about himself. It’ll be about sex, but more than sex. Maybe about the fallibility of adults.

See, I’m all excited to find out!

Questions of the Day: What do you start with when you start a story? Can you just dive in knowing nothing? Or do you have to have some of it figured out?