January 31, 2011

Pat Conroy's Why I Write

Sorry for the blog silence.  I could offer excuses, but they would be lame, so let's just say I'll mend my ways!  Maybe not this week, however, as I'm headed to AWP in Washington, D.C.  I'm very excited!  Expect a full report when I get back. 

Today, I thought I'd offer you a little fabulous Pat Conroy from his book My Reading Life (via Gotham).

Some American writers are meaner than serial killers, but far more articulate ...

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent. When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understand that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our life’s work.

January 24, 2011

Hibernation and Resilience

I feel like I’ve been in hibernation. Other than the heavenly two weeks plus where I wrote 90 pages, I’ve been struggling with my writing productivity, and I haven’t felt I had the emotional/extra energy to do much online. Hence the bit of blog silence and my absence from Facebook and Twitter.

I’m not quite sure what happened. I was going great guns, and then I sort of hit the skids. A bit of depression maybe or something. The two weeks of writing certainly helped, but then I got a cold and fell right out of it again.

As I was getting my hair done today ~ much overdue, as I was starting to look a bit like Ted Kazynski ~ I came across an article about resilience. In it was the great Japanese proverb, if you fall down seven times, get up eight. When I read it, I thought, yeah. Yeah! That I can can do. Once again, the pigheadedness saves the day.

It also said something about having a bit of adversity as a child is a good thing. It inoculates you a bit against giving up later in life. Though it did say you don’t want too much adversity early, to where you’re so beaten down you don’t even allow yourself to dream.

It mentioned scientific studies on rats who received electric shocks and how much electric shocks they received until they didn’t even try to avoid it. The article said that the resilient have some combination of genes that make you resilient but then they’re not getting pounded down too severely. It also said that it helps to have social or family support.

I guess one thing I do have is resilience. Whether it’s from early “inoculation” or from a long line of ancestors who were pigheaded or because I have a great support system. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a bit manic depressive and that pendulum inevitably swings the other way! Either way, it helps me to think that if I just have faith in “the process,” it’ll all turn out all right.

So, I think I’m ready to make some (more) great progress on novel!

Questions of the Day: How’s your resilience? Have you gotten knocked down recently?

January 20, 2011

You Go!

Today, I just wanted to say that I believe in you.  All you have to do is sit down and write one word and then another, and then it will happen!

January 19, 2011

"Meditation on a Grapefruit"

Today, a lovely poem by the lovely and great Craig Arnold. God, we miss him.

Meditation on a Grapefruit

To wake when all is possible
before the agitations of the day
have gripped you
          To come to the kitchen
and peel a little basketball
for breakfast
          To tear the husk
like cotton padding           a cloud of oil
misting out of its pinprick pores
clean and sharp as pepper
          To ease
each pale pink section out of its case
so carefully           without breaking
a single pearly cell
          To slide each piece
into a cold blue china bowl
the juice pooling           until the whole
fruit is divided from its skin
and only then to eat
          so sweet
                    a discipline
precisely pointless           a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause           a little emptiness

each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without

January 18, 2011


I had yesterday off from work. As you know it was Martin Luther King day (or Equality Day). I am ashamed to say that, rather than doing something befitting the occasion, I spent it flipping between episodes of The Tudors and Intervention. Oddly addicting, both.

Watching Intervention is like watching a train wreck. Very compelling, inherently dramatic, soul wrenching. Not just the addict but the whole family is hitting rock bottom, and you’re there to watch it.

Like anything ~ be it sitcom, reality show, or a profile from a particular magazine ~ there’s a set script that Intervention follows. They film under the pretense of doing a documentary about addiction. We meet the family and hear about the horrible incident or incidents that caused this particular person to become addicted. The family all enables. The interventionist gives them a talking-to to make them realize the seriousness of the situation and then they stage the intervention. Then we find out how they did in a sentence or two at the end. They almost always are clean and sober.

I do not say this in any way to minimize the heart-wrenching situation the family is in nor the depth of everyone’s pain. But, like, say, VH1’s Behind the Music or Law and Order, there is a plot structure that each episode follows. This both seems sad ~ these are lives, after all, fit into this little box ~ but also heartens me to think that humanity is humanity the world over and we have so much in common.

But what really struck me was the beauty of these people, everyone in the family. Maybe it was just my mindset and on another day it would make me feel how ugly people are ~ like, say, an episode of Cops. But as I was watching, even the tormented addict fighting for all she was worth to keep things the same was beautiful to the point it made me teary, like when I think about the sensitive young man my husband was when he was a teenager (and still is).

It just makes me think of the truth in that old saw, “I fall onto the thorns of life, I bleed.”

Everyone in the family has his or her role. Often one parent is an enabler and the other is absent, one way or another. Often, there’s one sibling who is grounded and really the voice of reason, but he or she gets shouted down. In the whirling spinning center of it all is the addict. I don’t blame them at all, though ~ in some ways, they are the emblem of the family’s sickness. They keep the family together as much as anyone else. They allow others in the family to blame them and not face their own demons.

Then, this morning, I drove an hour and a half to a dentist’s appointment in Fort Collins. Up on top of the pass between Laramie and Cheyenne, there were ground blizzards and long stretches of ice. On the way back, I stopped to help a young woman named Laura who had spun out and ended up backwards in the borrow ditch. We were sitting in my car talking when the very nice man in the snow plow stopped to suggest that, since people were on their way to help, that the woman should sit in her car and I should continue on, as he said he’d seen more than once another car come along, lose control, and sideswipe the parked car that was helping. So I gave the gal my number and continued on.

What I thought about after that was that how we put ourselves in danger when we help people and how sometimes we aren’t really helping, just enabling people. I don’t mean to say I regret stopping to help the young woman ~ in Wyoming, especially in winter, you just gotta ~ but it did get me thinking about how life throws you storms and you cling to one another for help and sometimes you save someone and sometimes you do more harm than good. And boundaries ~ I thought a lot about boundaries and the strength it takes to be the one who stands up and says no.

Questions of the Day: What do you think of “reality” television? Which prompts me to ask the leading question: isn’t it another form of us trying to impose narrative, to make order out of the chaos of the world?

January 14, 2011

The BoDeans

Don't you love it when  you come across artists you hadn't known about before and they blow you away with their skill?  How you immediately fall deeply and passionately in love and you want to own or experience everything they've ever done?

Well, I've just discovered the BoDeans.  The way they modulate their voices, their exquisite harmonies, the fact that they're from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and they write their own songs, the fact that the lead singers seem to actually like each other and enjoy each other's company, their kickass music.  Just gives me the chills.

This morning, as we were getting ready for work, we queued up "Runaway" on the computer, and my little girl wrapped her arms around her daddy's neck and they danced all the way around the living room and kitchen.

So, for your Friday's moment of awe, here's the BoDeans live from Studio X singing "Stay."

Questions of the Day:  Who recently has just knocked your socks off, whether they sing or write or paint or sew or cook?

January 13, 2011

King Henry VIII

A bit rushed today, so I thought I'd just point out this fascinating Wiki about King Henry VIII.  It's made me really want to see Showtime's The Tudors, which I have not seen.

Fascinating stuff.  At the very bottom, it says that we know from his armour he was between 6'2" and 6'3" tall, which was a giant for his time.  When he was young and in shape, he weight 180 to 200 lbs, fighting weight.  Man oh man, he must've been something to behold. 

Like I said, history is just fascinating.

Questions of the Day:  Is there any particular time period that fascinates you?

January 12, 2011

Piers Anthony Rocks!

I definitely believe as writers we need to give back to our writing communities. There are so many stories out there of greedy unscrupulous writers or publishing professionals who take advantage of others, but there are also so many unsung heroes who take the time to nurture others in our field. Time to sing praises to one such person.

All I can say is that Piers Anthony rocks! An icon in his field, he took the time to read my friend Pembroke Sinclair’s novel Coming from Nowhere ~ to read the whole novel! ~ and give a review. (You can get the full story here on Pembroke’s blog, and you can read the review when comes out in his HiPiers column in February.)

Piers has written so many wonderful books and is known worldwide. Pembroke is, like me, a relatively new author. Nonetheless, Piers did Pembroke the honor of treating her like an intelligent professional. His review points out the strengths of the novel but also realistically evaluates what he sees as its weaknesses.

Here’s a teaser for Coming from Nowhere:
JD does not have a past--at least not one that she can remember--and that makes living life on Mars challenging. With nowhere to go, she is sent to the local military academy where she is trained to become a member of the elite secret police. While there, she becomes a pawn in Roger's struggle for military dominance and Chris's rebellion to overthrow the military regime. She supposedly holds a secret that will change the face of the soldier, but, unfortunately, she doesn't know what that secret is. Her only desire is to find the truth of her existence, and finds herself thrust into a realm where the truth of her past and present is more horrific than she ever imagined.
Go here to see the book trailer.

His generosity astounds and inspires me. I am personally going to go buy three of his novels right now! (Just did.)

Questions of the Day: Which writers inspire you with their kindness and generosity? Do you have any stories like this?

January 11, 2011

The Wyoming Cowboy in WWII

Dick Winters has passed away.  He was 92.  He was one of the brave WWII soldiers who was the subject of the Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and the subsequent excellent HBO series. This brings to mind my dad Royce Tillett.  Like Winters, he was born in 1918, and like Winters, he served in WWII.  This also reminded me of all the other very brave Wyoming soldiers, and I thought I'd post an article I did in 2004  for the University of Wyoming Alumnews about the 115th Cavalry.

The 115th Cavalry (Horse-Mechanized) in W Formation. 
Ft. Lewis, Washington, 1941.  Courtesy Wyoming Militia Historical Society.
The Wyoming Cowboy in World War II:  The 115th Cavalry Horse-Mechanized

When people think of Wyoming, they think of the Wyoming Cowboy. So why have some of the most colorful, most courageous, and hardest working Wyoming cowboys—the men of the 115th Cavalry Wyoming National Guard—been forgotten?

It's simply bad timing. The 115th Cavalry Regiment was formed after World War I from the First Regiment of the Cavalry, Wyoming National Guard, in 1921. Then, in anticipation of World War II, the 115th was activated, but within a year or two they were dispersed to other units. Some of its members performed valuable service on the home front, and many saw action but not as the 115th Cavalry Regiment. Because the unit was broken up early in the war, they are forgotten.

My Father Royce Tillett,
Ft. LewisCourtesy Fred Laing.
 My father, Royce Tillett, was one of them. A ranch kid from Lovell, Wyoming, he came to UW and took geology classes from S. H. Knight and history classes from T. A. Larsen. But before he was to graduate, he quit school to join the 115th Cavalry.

Initially, all 115th Cavalry troops were horse troops. Then, they began to be mechanized, and Troop A (Lovell), Troop B (Sheridan), and Troop C (Lander) stayed horse units, while Troop D (Laramie) and Troop E (Torrington) were mechanized. Troop F (Douglas) rode motorcycles, and Headquarters Troop (Casper) had both horses and was mechanized.

Some men resented the extra duties of tending a horse and so welcomed the change. Others hated to lose their horses, and there were rumors of suicides. Kenny Anderson (of Cody) said that "they took my horse away and gave me a jeep, and I never forgave them for it." But even those in favor of keeping their horses realized what they were up against. Irving Garbutt says, "against Hitler's Panzer division, going to war on as horse cavalry seemed outdated."

The University of Wyoming was also preparing for war. Eventually, they would provide training in engineering and other fields to soldiers. Some members of the 115th attended UW before they were activated, but, with current information, the proportion is unknown.

The 115th Cavalry was activated nine months before war was officially declared. The entire 115th Cavalry Regiment, all 1,086 men, was inducted into federal service on February 24, 1941, the day they boarded a train for Fort Lewis, Washington.

Like all wartime training facilities, Fort Lewis was unprepared for the influx of soldiers. The men trained with stove pipes for cannons, sticks and brooms for rifles, and jeeps marked "TANK" for enemy armored vehicles. Aircraft used sacks of flour for bombs.

An Officer of the 115th Cavalry Jumping
a Jeep. Courtesy Wyoming State Archives.
 My dad told stories of riding and shooting drills. In these, each man had to ride a horse at a gallop while firing a pistol at targets. Once past, he had to turn the horse while pulling the clip from the pistol and replacing it with one in his belt. Then he returned down the line, firing again at the targets. Dad says, "I'll be darned if the raunchy horse they gave me didn't run away with me. I fired wildly at the targets as I rode past, and when I reached the end and tried to turn that stubborn son-of-a-gun, he jerked his head and made me drop my replacement clip. But, you know, I hit every one of those targets."

After the initial excitement, life settled into a dull routine—marching, horse maneuvers, attending to the horses, and keeping things organized. The portly Colonel Hazeltine, whom the soldiers called "Colonel Die-and-shine," seemed more concerned with spit and polish than military maneuvers. The colonel was determined to have the best parade outfit on the post—and he did. The 115th was popular in public parades and demonstrations.

Colonel Hazeltine was known for his high standards in shoe maintenance. The soldiers used Cordova polish, a red dye, to polish the brown leather boots, and the colonel, crop in hand, would personally inspect each soldier's feet. The boots had to shine like a mirror. Some joked that the boots were intended to dazzle the enemy and blind them.

Some reports say the cavalrymen made $21 a month. Some raise that figure to $36.

Back home in Wyoming, families organized loads of gifts for the men. For example, the Lingle Legion Auxiliary mailed Christmas boxes full of goodies, and the people of Lovell raised enough money to buy them a juke box.

The men all had sweethearts, and today there are a lot of Wyoming transplants in the Washington-Oregon area due to marriage. My dad, tall and dashing in his uniform, saw my beautiful mom across a dance floor, and they were married before he shipped overseas. My mom, Marian Fisher, was originally from Iowa and was attending Willamette University at the time.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Fort Lewis heard over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. At that time, many men were away on 36-hour passes. When they returned, they found all gates barricaded by barbed wire and covered by machine guns. MPs at checkpoints searched all vehicles.

Unknown, Fred Laing, and Royce
Tillett, Ft. Lewis.  Courtesy Fred Laing.
The 115th was then ordered onto Coast Patrol. Their sector extended along almost all of the Oregon coast and into northern California, a vast amount of distance. The 115th was ordered to repel or hold enemy attacks on the beaches. If not possible, they were to blow up bridges, fight delaying actions, and then hold the designated north/south line of final resistance at Hood River, Oregon.

Each man had a carefully designated travel kit that included clothes and toiletries, gear for himself and his horse, food, water, bedding, guns and ammunition, a sewing kit, a compass, and half of a pup tent—the other half was provided by another man. Standard Operating Procedure called for trotting the horse for 40 minutes, walking 10, then resting 10. The horse always came first; on hills, the trooper got off and walked. In the evening, the horse was unsaddled, brushed, and its hooves cleaned, and it was fed and watered and then hobbled or picketed. After that, he could set up his tent and, as Jake Benshoof says, "if the trooper was in a reckless mood, consuming the C rations is attempted." During the night, guard duty was 2 hours on, 4 hours off.

In addition to Coast Patrol, the members of the 115th provided the valuable service of training other troops, and they were often called upon to act as enemy forces. A number of units passed through and trained at Fort Lewis on their way to overseas destinations, including the 41st Infantry Division.

Their Coast Patrol mission was not merely a precautionary measure. On September 9 and 29, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-25 surfaced off the coast of southern Oregon and launched a Glen seaplane, which dropped bombs inland. Luckily, the recent rains pre-empted what could have been large forest fires. Subsequently, the I-25 sank two ships off the coast of Oregon—the SS Camden and the SS Larry Doheny. The I-25 was finally sunk on September 3, 1943, by the USS Ellet and the USS Patterson.

The 115th Cavalry defended against another little-known threat in the form Japanese balloon bombs. From November 1944 through April 1945, the Japanese launched 9,300 balloon bombs into the jet stream that crosses over the Pacific Ocean and then the continental U.S. The public was not aware of this threat because, on January 4, 1945, the Office of Censorship requested that newspapers and radio broadcasts observe a publicity blackout. This voluntary censorship was strictly adhered to. The reason for the blackout was to discourage the Japanese from sending more bombs; if they did not know the results of the initial wave of bombs, they would doubt their effectiveness. The balloons were made of three or four layers of tissue paper sealed with an adhesive made from Japanese potatoes. Of the 9,300 launched, there were 285 confirmed sightings of balloons or parts of balloons in North America, as far east as eastern Michigan and as far north as northern Alaska. The only published account (prior to the publicity blackout) occurred near Thermopolis, Wyoming, and the only known casualties from this weapon were a woman and five children near Lakeview, Oregon.

Lives were lost while on Coast Patrol. On March 12, 1942, at Corvallis, Oregon, four men lost their lives in a barracks’ fire, among them Sergeant Harry Boles, Corporal John "Jack” Williams, and Sergeant Elmore J. Howell.

In 1943 and 1944, the 115th Cavalry began to be split up.

Some men stayed together and remained within the U.S., continuing to provide training, homeland defense, and other duties. They were stationed in California and at Camp Hood, Texas, and Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

After the 115th Cavalry, some went to North Africa and Europe.

Joe Heyer, who just passed away in July of 2004, was sent to North Africa in 1942 and was part of some brutal campaigns.

115th Cavalry Bars and Unit Pin.
When the 115th was dispersed, Harold Roum (Laramie) was assigned to the 16th Cavalry Reconnaissance, a light armor squadron. There he trained other servicemen, and in September 1944, he fought in France and Germany, where his squadron lost many men. After V-E Day, he was sent to invade Japan. He was halfway to the Panama Canal on V-J Day. After the war, he continued to serve in the Wyoming National Guard until 1965.

Those who stayed with the 115th Cavalry became the 115th Cavalry Group, commanded by Colonel Garnett Wilson. In February 1945, they relieved the 15th Cavalry near the seaport of St. Nazaire, France, to hold pockets of German resistance. On April 25, the 115th was attached to the 103rd Division near Stuttgard in southwestern Germany. Once across the Danube River, the 103rd captured Landsberg (near Munich), the town in which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Near this town of 30,000, the elements of the 103rd liberated six concentration camps. They helped push south into Austria, alongside the famous 101st Airborne. Then they captured Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps on May 4 and, at Brenner Pass looking down into Italy, they met members of the U.S. 88th Division, who had fought hard up the Po Valley.

Ike Prine was in the 115th Cavalry Band and played in many parades at Fort Lewis. He was sent to France and helped hold the St. Nazaire pocket. He did not continue with the 115th Cavalry Group, though; he was transferred to the Third Army and stayed in France until V-E Day.

My dad part of the 115th Cavalry Group, and he went to France, Germany, and Austria. Like Radar on MASH, he was the company clerk of Headquarters Troop—he could type 120 words a minute. He used to laugh when he said, "I thought as company clerk, I might stay at the rear and type reports. Turns out I rode up front in the jeep with the Colonel."

After the 115th Cavalry, some went to the Pacific, and a lot of men went to the 41st "Sunset" Division.

As part of the 41st, Jake Benshoof trained Russian, English, Canadian, French, and Greek troops in Pershing Tank operation, and then he was trained in amphibious armored warfare. He was shipped to the Pacific, where he was in the Caroline Island Group. Like many of the 41st, he shipped back to the U.S. through a huge typhoon.

Raymond McKinsey (Casper) was also reassigned to the 41st and sent to Australia and the South Pacific. In a letter from the Pacific dated 1943, he wrote: "Last night in bed we got to talking about snow storms and how we enjoyed them—we were sweating at the time and wondering what would happen here if it got 10 below zero." In Mindanao during the April 1945 Philippines campaign, he and his group surprised a force ten times their number. Thinking that they were outnumbered, these Japanese fled. Two months before the war ended, he returned to the U.S. on the point system. McKinsey received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and his final rank was General.

George Welch (Casper) joined the 115th in 1938 when he was 16 years old. He went to the Pacific with the 77th Division, including the Leyte and Cebu Islands in the Philippines. On August 9, 1945, the day the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they were preparing to land on Japan. Welch says, "In my opinion, if the bomb had not been dropped, we would have had American troops piled up on beaches a mile high and casualties would have been far worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Some men were wounded. Irving M. Stewart was a Japanese prisoner of war.

And some men were killed. Lieutenant Gorden Burt (Lander) lost his life in the battle at Leyte in the South Pacific after being transferred from the 115th. At present, though, there is no accurate record of how many former members of the 115th were killed in action in World War II.

In the end, no horses were transported overseas, and the reason given was that it was too expensive to transport and feed them. "While their thrift is to be commended," Jake Benshoof says, "the policy was never applied to troops going overseas."

After the war, many soldiers took advantage of Public Law No. 16 (for disabled veterans) and Public Law No. 346 (the GI Bill) to attend school. For example, Ike Prine of the 115th came to the University of Wyoming from 1946 to 1949, where he got a degree in education. He taught school in Laramie for 35 years, and both his sons and their wives attended UW.

The members of the 115th were some of the last military cowboys, and the myth of the Wyoming Cowboy appeals to something deep within us—just as it appealed to Americans during World War II. In May 1941, a Seattle newspaper reported: "Applause rose just once yesterday from the crowd of 10,000 which watched the greatest spectacle in the history of Ft. Lewis. ... The applause was for the horses and men of the 115th (Powder River) Cavalry from Wyoming. Perhaps it was for something else, too; something gay and romantic and gone forever." Our Wyoming Cowboys worked so hard and gave up so much.

I want to thank Jake Benshoof for his generosity and thoughtfulness. He was a tremendous help in writing this article.

January 7, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

Forty-two years ago today, I came blinking and squalling into the world.  It was a Tuesday. 

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

I'm supposed to be full of grace, but most days I feel more warthog than swan.

May your day be filled with grace!

January 6, 2011

Learning Through Imitation

I was at a talk given by Brad Watson a while back, and one of the things he said was that the best way to learn to write is to closely mimic the greats, to take an author you admire or feel inspired by and to try to write a story just like theirs. Use their rhythms and style and set up. Follow their paragraphing and tense and point of view. When they go to dialog, you go to dialog. Fill it with your ideas, but use their trappings.

This is what we did in the first workshop I ever took taught by the inestimable Alyson Hagy at the University of Wyoming. We tried to write like Heminway and Faulkner and Jean Toomer and others. In another online workshop (American Short Fiction, taught by the wonderful Jill Meyers), we took an actual excerpt of someone’s and changed it word by word into our own work. It was a wonderful exercise.

It’s not just an exercise for beginners. I keep going back to it. If I read something that I just love, I often will be inspired to imitate it. Or if I have a problem I’m trying to solve, I’ll often think of someone who does it well and try to infuse my work with the way they handle it. For example, right now I’m skipping around in time a lot in my work, and I think go back to Per Pettersen’s Out Stealing Horses (as I said yesterday).

It’s not the same as plagiarism. You’re not taking their words. You’re just using their work for inspiration. Some people even refuse to read great works when they’re writing because they say it influences them too much. My response to that is, I only hope that they would influence my work! Who better to be influenced by than the greats?

Questions of the Day: Have you ever done this? Has it helped?

January 5, 2011

Time in Fiction

The passage of time in fiction is a long and fascinating subject and is intimately related to other choices such as point of view, narrative distance, and many other things. I can be no means address it all, but I thought I’d ruminate on it today, specifically as it relates to the two novels I’ve written so far.

I’m kind of just thinking out loud here.

Pace is a closely related thing but not exactly the same thing. Pace is more the reader’s experience of a narrative and has more to do with rate of revelation than it does the passage of time. A fast-paced book has a lot happening, whether it’s physical or psychological, and a book with a slow pace takes lots of time to ruminate and to digress. It’s more about reader interest and how fast things “seem” to happen.

Time is not directly related to pace. You can skim through time very quickly and go vast distances as a writer and book may come across as slow. That may be because it’s boring to the reader or because not much is being revealed or because the narrative does not seem to relate to the main plot. On the other hand, you can do the Proustian thing and take 50 pages to describe someone waking up and getting out of bed, yet it may seem fascinating to some readers because the rate of revelation ~ of new developments and interesting details ~ is high.

I guess maybe pace is most closely related to how connected, how unified and coherent, all the elements of a narrative are. It’s probably other things too.

But the passage of time. Fiction writing is so amazing because you can make a moment last a lifetime or you can make a lifetime last only a moment. It’s very powerful. Two different writers can take the same concept and one will hold you rapt and the other will bore you to tears. It’s connected with how fresh and uncliched things are. Also whether you’re this person’s ideal reader ~ enough alike that you get what they are saying but not so exactly alike that what they have to say in new to you.

How you handle the passage of time can make or break you as an author. People must feel that they are in good hands. I’ve heard the assertion that fiction is nothing more or nothing less than the expression or handling of time.

Maybe I should just talk about the two novels I’ve written.

One novel, called Deep Down Things, is set in present-day Loveland, Colorado. It’s in first-person present tense with four alternating points of view, only one point of view per chapter. Within each chapter, time moves at a steady clip, but between chapters there can be jumps. No chapters overlap in time but move steadily forward one after another. The novel is in two sections with a six month gap in the break.

On a deeper level, time moves pretty quickly within the chapters. That’s because there is not much recollection or reflection or projection into the future. The characters are pretty much in the present and reacting to what’s in front of them. Partly this was because I grew up in the reserved stoic west, and like many western writers this narrative stance comes naturally to me. Also, though, these were characters who are not very self-aware nor self-reflective. Also, first person does not lend itself well to having a narrator (the voice of the author or overarching consciousness) that is detached from the point of view voice.

The other novel, called Earth’s Imagined Corners (that I’m rewriting now), is historical women’s fiction. It’s set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. It’s third person limited point of view with two protagonists and a narrator with a strong overarching voice. The point of view may be one per chapter or may switch between the two characters within a chapter. Time in this novel moves steadily forward, no gaps in time, but there are many digressions and recollections and reflections and projections. These are not gratuitous on my part (I hope) ~ they have to be directly tied in to the plot in some way. Time also overlaps, so one character might talk about a day’s developments and then in the next chapter another character might talk about the developments of that same day but from his or her point of view. This always moves the narrative forward though. It’s not simply a rehashing of the same events.

Time is very interesting in this because I’m jumping all over. (I’m thinking about rereading Out Stealing Horses by Per Pattersen because he jumps all over in time too.) In the real time of the novel, I try to move steadily forward, but in the recollections I may just give impressions or a thumbnail or I may do a whole scene.

In both of these, I’m always trying to balance the reader’s expectations with what I need to accomplish. I believe that you need to set up expectations and follow through on things and you should try to go with as basic a structure as possible ~ straight narration as much as possible. I’m always asking myself: Will this break from the pattern I’ve established be worth it? Does it contribute to the effect I’m trying to achieve?

I guess fiction writing is all about pattern in some sense. You raise expectation and either fulfill or deny it. You have motifs that return and twist and change throughout. You have a theme that may confirm or surprise your reader in its outcome. You and your reader are in this intricate dance where you have to bring all your skills to bear to lead as best you can and hope that your partner enjoys him- or herself.

Questions of the Day: Any thoughts to add to this discussion of time?

January 4, 2011

Eschewing Distraction and Putting in the Time

(If you notice my diction change slightly in these entries, it’s because I’m working on this lush voice of historical fiction, and it’s affecting my blogging.)

Hello, stranger! I apologize for missing yesterday’s post. I had one of those days where everything I touched went to pieces. I had to call technical assistance or chat online with them extensively for two separate things, and I was about ready to go postal. Not to mention I had dental surgery in the afternoon.

It’s funny, really, but I’ve been feeling resistant to diving back in to the internet. I love you guys and the interactions I have, but the sense of calm and the focused productivity I’ve been able to maintain over the last couple of weeks has been amazing. But today I’m diving back in, nonetheless. I’ll be paying more attention on Facebook and loitering over on Twitter.

Writers have different ways of ensuring their productivity. Some have goals like a certain word count or a certain number of pages. I find that my best approach is to set a certain amount of time, rather than a certain number of pages. (For this, I have a free online timer program that I set to work and then forget.) For some reason, this lets me fall back into the arms of my muse in a way that piecework can’t. If I think about the number of pages I have to go yet, I get slightly panicky, but if I think, I’ll just put in the time and have faith in the process, I’m actually much more productive. Turn the crank and something will come out.

It doesn’t stop me, when I’m not writing, from obsessively counting my pages (73) or my words (24,018) or from trying to calculate the amount of time it’s going to take to finish this rewrite (3-4 months), but it does allow me a more productive writing time when I am.

Questions of the Day: What “tricks” do you have to ensure you productivity?