ROW Checkin: April 22, 2012

At a certain level of abstraction my goals are: “Read more” and “Write more.” And assessed equally vaguely, so far so good.

Goal Part One: Read More: Since last check in, I’ve read all of China Miéville’s The City and The City. I have had several of his books sitting on the shelf for years but this is the first I’ve ever read. Miéville has a Ph.D. in international law or something and his writing suggests a conceptual depth far beneath its careful surface. Miéville is currently a darling of the nouveau fantasy crowd, and based on City and the City, deserves it. It’s not your daddy’s fantasy. The book was like hard boiled noir in a city designed by Kafka. Eastern europe… somewhere. A city that is internally segregated. Not like Berlin that had a physical wall dividing different halves. This city (these cities, technically) interlace the same geography and the inhabitants of one city are rigorously trained to “unsee” anything happening in the other city, and vice versa. If you make a slip, it’s called “breach” and a mysterious, terrifying organization called “Breach” apprehends you and… well, that’s part of the story. I kept waiting for more “fantasy” things to happen but the world was pretty believably depicted — as implausible as that set-up sounds.

After that foray into cutting edge specualtive fiction, it’s little wonder I had less success reading the first volume of the “Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser” stories by Fritz Lieber. They’re classic old school “sword and sorcery” but oh, my, my I couldn’t FORCE myself through them. Stereotypes, thin characters, awkward language for both dialogue and even twisted descriptions, names that are rather silly puns. For years, folks have been saying I would love these stories, that elements of my writing is reminiscent of these tales. I don’t know if I should be insulted! (grin) Then again, I started with the first collection of a multi-multi book series of tales. Maybe the ride gets smoother a little ways along. Again, maybe I didn’t cleanse my pallate after Miéville.

I am now just over half-way through Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Graheme-Smith and am enjoying the hell out of it. I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. Perfect summer-time reading, light, quick, clear sentences that don’t require (or repay) too much thought. Just clever enough without trying to go too far. It’s a fast read supplemented by the flavor of history that helps buoy up any lacking elements.It’s written in a pretty plain and direct style, intercutting bits from Lincoln’s “lost diary” with narrative that the author is composing. Nothing TOO profound but amusing as all get out.

Goal Part Two: Write More is actually supposed to be write 1,000 on the backstory to the haunted high school novel. Ish. I have a serviceable first draft of the whole first chapter. I feel that I’ve learned alot about Brandon, my protagonist by watching him act a bit. I also have completed this week an outline of sorts that draws on the Joseph Campbell “Hero with a Thousand Faces” archetype structure. I usually poo-poo any such grand metanarrative stuff but taken at the high level of abstraction that I used it, I found his schema rather enlightening. I am a bit light on the actual word count for my goal if I’m being a sticker for detail but ROW is definitely keeping my attention focused on one project, rather than a mishmash of too many little things.

 

ROW Checkin: April 15, 2012

Goal: 1,000 a day on the Haunted High School novel

Progress? So far so good.

Change of goal, slightly. Initially, I started off writing prep material in hopes to start actual drafting during the next Round of Words in July. I completed a good chunk of character prepwork, somewhat less on the scene prepwork. But then I realized I might be trying to write a really old school way.
I saw Scott Sigler interviewed on Sword and Laser and he described that for one of his books he’d posted each chapter as a podcast as he was writing them. Once the draft was finished he presumably took down the podcasts and edited the work together more cohesively. The narrative went off in a different direction, I gather, during this editing process. The idea is fascinating since the podcasts would help drum up an audience for the work in particular and for the writer in general. It would give a treat for the “early adopters / true fans” and it would also allow a writer a way to stay before the public attention while writing a big work. Writing and marketing aren’t as separate as they perhaps once were. Having said all that, I don’t think I’m planning to release my first drafts as a podcast but I am going into drafting now. I know the story I’m going to write, to the degree anyone knows how tales will really turn out before writing “The End.” WHen I sense I need a bit of backstory of plan to help, I’ll devote my 1,000 words to prepwork again but I’m officially giving myself permission to start writing for real.

 

Saturday Reading Update – April 14, 2012

I finished three books this week that I’d been working on for some time so don’t get the idea I’m some kind of page-turning wizard here. The point of these Reading Updates is to keep track of what I’ve read and to jot down a few notes of what I can take away from the works I read. I suspect that writers read differently than other readers, just like architects experience diferent things when they enter buildings and seamtresses notice different things when trying on clothes. My in-laws are all ceiling / lathing tradespeople so it’s fun to watch them enter a room and see their eyes drift up to the ceiling to check out the product used and its installation. I digress just a bit:

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin — Yes, I’m the last person in North America to get around to reading this. Notably this is the first complete, novel length work I’ve read on my iPhone. (I used to have the complete stories of Anton Chekov and the screenplay to the Big Lebowski on my Palm V way back in the day…) I now can say I *totally* get the idea of e-books. Sure it’s a different experience than reading an ink and paper book but if I had to carry around Martin’s tome, I’d still be reading it. I was able to slip out my iPhone and page through a bit while waiting for an elevator or for a checkout.

The depth of the world — It’s an epic so of course the world needs to have a sense of expanse bobbing just beneath the surface of the text. I usually despise that appendix-y sort of stuff but that probably has to do more with merely clumbsy attempts to integrate backstory into a narrative. I always had the sense that I was reading a narrative and not just a dramatized atlas. There was a great sense of familiarity about the world too while being fantastic. The echoes of the War of the Roses, I thought, added a sense of verisimilitude and plausibility.

Mulitiple character chapters — great strategy for depicting the expanse of the world. There was always a flavor of the writer’s style as a constant beneath each of the different tone and perspectives which helped for coherence. Characters were repeated enough to get a sense of emotional depth, something that I think I missed in, say, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for instance. Seems important that to avoid telling the tale from some character perspecctives though– my impulse would be to reserve the interiority of the less sympathetic characters for key moments. It would be fun to use the multiple character device to play up misunderstanding, fracturing the sense of an omniverse into a constellation of projections. Robert Coover’s story “The Babysitter” is a watershed proof of concept for that strategy but it succeeds largely on novelty. Susan Sontag’s “The Way we live now” (I think that’s the title) accented the multiplicity of voices in rumo and gossip (as I recall) I wonder if a longer piece could be written with multiple, highly contrasting voices.

Gentle insertion of the magical — The sense of truly fantastical was added in gradually. At the beginning there is a sense that oddities might be accounted for by exageration but piece by piece the fully fantastical elements were factored in. The problem of the re-enchantment of the world is one that a contemporary writer has to deal with in a different way, I think, than the speculative writer of the modernist era.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman — I checked this hardcover out from the library after being turned on to it by the Sword and Laser reading group on GoodReads. Sword and Laser, as of last night, is also a new media video show on the Geek and Sundry YouTube channel. I am very eager now to read the sequel “The Magician Kings.”

Literate narration — the prose is easy to read, clever and well-turned. The danger in this facility is that sometimes it felt like I was being told more than shown, that the book was a bit clotted in summary. Though it might be a writing textbook no-no, these segments were very enjoyable and I get the sense that it was intentionally a strategy to depict Quentin, the major character who is so obsessed with finding happiness that he almost lives his life stuck on fast forward hoping to get there.

Gritty magic — A snotty dismissal I’ve encountered might be paraphrased “Harry Potter with booze and sex, then more of the same in Narnia.” But that dismissal misses the point. Sure, I get the sense that Grossman’s background is in the literary genre more than in the fantasy genre so his attempts to make magic feel “real” might be a bit clumbsy. However, the world depicted is interesting and fresh. Magician’s aren’t magically happy; in fact, there’s a real sense that magic stunts ones emotional growth and maturation (though I think being a member of the monied elite as these characters are, might also arrest development.) What results however is a book *about* late adolescence / early adulthood that might not really be appropriate for teenagers. File under the “youth wasted on the young” paradox, perhaps?

Character as tone — Another really literary aspect of the book is what I’m taking to be the use of Quentin’s jaundiced perspective as the novel’s tone. In contrast to GRRM’s straightforward use of character perspective for each chapter, Quentin’s character is fully drenched into the book. I think both what is noticed and how it is depicted is fully the view from Quentin’s head, or at least as much as a third person limited narration can accomplish. I keep thinking of Catcher in the Rye (a book I despised as I recall for some snotty reason or another.) This strategy is really “literary” and a lot of the readers on GoodReads didn’t seem to be able to cope with a non-heroic protagonist.
Again, can’t wait to read the sequel.

The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem — I picked up this collection of stories at the public library booksale and I am nearly awe-struck. I won’t go through the stories one by one. I don’t know the last time I’ve encountered a writer who seems to be doing alsmot exactly what I am attempting with my writing. The experience is extremely productive; I stand convicted by his example. Where I think I tend to pull my punches and go for a merely literary “feel,” Lethem doggedly builds out his inventions to full, satisfying narratives while not sacrificing their inherent weirdness. I’m reminded of what a writing teacher told me “You’ve got to earn subtlety, kid.” Reading Lethem, I realized that I am way under-writing my ideas, to the detriment of my stories. He’s got a gently Dickian sensibility without the paranoia. His writing is clear an unaffected which allows the reader to focus on the fantastical elements he describes. I will definitely be reading more Lethem.

ROW Checkin: April 11, 2012

Writing is writing, right?

And I continue to put word after word, despite the unusual busy-ness of the past week so that’s a triumph. Right? Right? I am not as far along as I’d wished with the specifics of my ROW Goal, namely 1,000 words a day on prep work for my haunted high school novel. I also realized that I forgot to hit “publish” on last week’s update. D’oh.

• I did some non-novel writing. I wrote a nice sketch of a ghost story about a sleazy hotel near where I work. I figured out who the ghost was and captured a few choice exchanges beween my two investigators. It all was sparked by a chance peek into the “lobby” of the establishment as I walked by the other day — usually the drapes are closed but they were open to reveal a wonderfully cluttered office and a bullet-proof glass window. The opening scene just started to happen before my eyes and I had to transcribe it. When writing comes that easily, it’s hard for me to say no to such a gift. I also hammered out posts on several different blogs to which I contribute. I find it hard to consider posts to be “real” writing though, to be honest.

• I caught up on some serious reading over the holiday weekend and I don’t feel guilty about that at all. I finished The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Harry Potter/Narnia crossed with Catcher in the Rye) and, yes finally, I finished A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I want to add “Read More” to my goals, though that’s a rather slippery goal. I joined the “Sword and Laser” online book club /pocast ( http://www.swordandlaser.com/ )to help encourage me to read.

• I have also embarked on a new interest in fitness. It would be presumptuous to call it a “program” and “goal” sounds a bit too purposive. How about we leave it at “a newfound awareness” and leave it at that. I’ve walked to work a couple times. I’ve been using the iPhone app “Zombies, Run” — though using a stationary bike instead of running — and enjoying the heck out of it. I’ve also established an area in the basement where I can lift weights without feeling like a total dork-a-saurus. And I finally have a nice solid chair where I can meditate. Last year, I did a course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (basically secularized Vipissana meditation) which definitely helps keep me sane. Until this week, the best place I’ve had to meditate is an overstuffed recliner where it’s far too easy to drift off to sleep.

 

ROW Checkin: April 4, 2012

Goal: 1,000 words a day on prep materials mostly for my “haunted high school” novel

Check In Status: So far so good.
• I have three good meaty character descriptions for my three major characters — though everything I write uncovers more I could note. These descriptions have lead to a nice collection of quotations and situations that I’ve saved in my “Trapper Keeper” file for when I actually start drafting;

• a good start on descriptions of a couple more characters and I realized that there are other folks who I need to know about so I’ve appended them to my to do list;

• I am most proud of the several fair to good iterations of an outline following the fractal / “Snowflake” method. I started with a one sentence overview that I re-wrote 4 or 5 times and am now up to my third revision of a 5 sentence paragraph outline. The backbone of the story is becoming clearer. I’m trying to allow space around this story for the rest of the “trilogy.”

I find it exciting to focus on “prep work” even though I have a NaNo sized draft of the work. I love the deep revelations that backstory can give and left to my own devices, I fear I would stagnate there. The NaNo draft allowed me to gain first hand familiarity with the story and it got me to just start writing. Granted NaNoWriMo is just a writing spring, but I needed that starter’s gun. Taking the analogy further, I am reminded of the motto of a famous tennis shoe company “Just Go Ahead, Stop Planning and Fidgeting For Cry It Out Loaud and… Just Put a Few Words After a Few Other Words.” I think the tennis shoe company puts it a bit more succinctly.

If all continues to go well, I might be able to start drafting even before this ROW is up.

Is There Texting in this Text?

With due respect to Stanley Fish whose title I’m aping in this post, I’m on the hunt for good examples of texting within contemporary literature. Know any? Pass ’em along. Texting is a fact of life at least for folks under, say, 30 but I don’t know if I can think of *any* good examples of how texting shows up as a practice reflected in fiction.

I’m not immediately interested in the mere format of how texts appear on the page. A different type face, perhaps or italics, indented like quotations. Having said that, what would the best conversational attribution for texts? “He/she said” doesn’t work. “He/she… typed?” “He/she… texted?” There’s a cool factor of anonymity with texts. On a phone, you can tell who’s talking far better than you can tell who’s texting. That’s got to be exploited.

The piece I’m writing now really has to have texting as an essential element and it’s emerging as an interesting formal challenge. In traditional narrative, folks have to be in proximity to interact. It once was easy to mix in a complication simply by physically isolating someone. But in the era of ubiquitous telephony, separation becomes a bit cliche. Seriously, it doesn’t take too many overly convenient “No signal” or “Out of battery” messages to strain my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Horror stories seem to be the worst at this, don’t they? — which is hard to admit since it’s one of my favorite genres.

Texting is something even more different than telephone calls. Phone calls even cel calls are relatively long coherent conversations. Texts are flashes, interruptive messages that necessarily disrupt the continuity of the rest of one’s life. To read a text, one’s consciousness has to fragment if just for an instant. One’s attention has to flicker back and forth — at least mine does — in a way that is really different than, say, a phone call. I can talk on the phone, receiving and responding to audio input, while I’m receiving and responding to other kinds of input on other sense channels, like sight or touch. I remember back in the 90’s when folks were trying to explain what “virtual reality” was. The best explanation I heard was “it’s the place where you ‘go’ whenever you talk on the phone.” That really hit the spot. That “virtual phone booth” wasn’t necessarily immersive or pre-emptive of other reality. We’re still able to walk, cook, drive a car while talking on the phone. But there *is* a sense that the phone conversation takes place somewhere else, in some kind of augmented reality. Texts burst into *this* reality.

Texting presents all sorts of opportunities for fiction. It’s an overlay of meaning that doesn’t depend upon physical proximity. Texts allow revelation but also mystery since one never knows exactly who is on the other end. I just wish I was able to experience more attempts to integrate texts into fiction. Know any?

The Rejection Counter

Hard truth: Manuscript submissions are sometimes rejected and not published. Based on my modest experience, rejections in fact outnumber publications by an noticeably wide ratio. In other equally shocking news, puppies and kittens, even the cute and cuddly ones, will grow old and die.

I risk breaking hearts with these hard truths because another publication informed me today that it will refrain from publishing a manuscript I submitted. Darn. I thought the tale was well written and a good fit for the publication but other circumstances must have gotten in the way, like a glut of stories about astrally traveling painters. Or I might have been wrong about the story or its appropriateness. When a slush reader includes comments with a rejection, I always re-read the story and often revise it with those insights in mind. I respect the perspective of someone whose had to read FAR more crappy stories than I have.

I want to have more stories published and as I see it there are three ways I can do that: 1) write better stories, 2) read publications sensitively and frequently enough that I know what market fits a given story and 3) keep submitting. Since I started keeping track a couple years ago, I’ve only made 36 submissions which resulted in 4 publications. A tolerable ratio but not a staggering acheivement to say the least. I really admire writers like Tobias Buckell who are very upfront about how many rejections they’ve received. I mean, a rejection isn’t a character flaw; it’s a fact of a writer’s life.

I set a goal for myself last Thanksgiving to make 100 submissions before Thanksgiving 2012. To mark my progress on this goal, I use the Submission Tracker on Duotrope.com which is also the same resource I use to discover new possible markets. So far, I have made 14 submissions toward this goal. And as of today, I have one more manuscript freed up to submit again.

Even if it still stings just a little bit.

Why I Went to Church: Palm Sunday 2012

To say I wrestle with religion is an understatement. Spirituality is a core of my life and I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time on this earth involved in religious practice, reflection… and discontent. But I’m a contrary-minded curmudgeon about most things so it’s understandable that churchiness doesn’t escape my critical vitriol. I have given up LONG ago on the hope that a whole church service could be satisfying; at some point in nearly every service I’ve attended, I have to check out mentally and go to my “happy place” just to retain my sanity. There is no point listing the reasons; they would likely just reveal the shallowness of my soul. The strategy I’m trying now is to keep my senses open to see if there’s any reason to have gone to church. Today, I noticed a couple things:

• The postlude was from Bach Canatata no. 29 and the organist positively rocked it out. Does organ music get much better than Johann Sebastian? (though I say that while tipping my hat at Messien) I stayed in the pew to the very end and even applauded;

• The first Sunday of every month, my denomination celebrates communion, a ritual that still has a fair amount of meaning for me. Today it reminded me of my Mom for whom communion became very significant at the end of her life. As I filed down the aisle to “rip and dip,” I thought of the line from that old hymn “and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” Yes, I realize that’s not a very Protestant sentiment — sue me;

• But most importantly, a married couple sat in the pew ahead, easily in their late 70’s, maybe 80’s. One of them, I didn’t see which wrote the words “I love you” on a blank space of their bulletin. My heart welled up with joy at that sight, that tenderness I chanced to observe. I don’t know if they have been married for decades — it’s possible — or if they’ve become acquainted recently, but at that moment, one of them wanted to remind the other of their affection. In spring, the sap stirs even the oldest trees. At the risk of being a mere copy cat, I too scrawled the same message on my bulletin and passed it to my partner.

Nope, nothing earth-shattering — No Damascus Road epiphanies, perhaps. But those were three things I would have missed if I hadn’t attended church today.