Tuesday, September 28, 2010
In this case, though, I am thinking very practically. Is it necessary to write a novel chronologically, that is--in the order it will appear when it is finished? This is a question I've discussed lately with students.
My answer for that is no. Write the chapters that come to you. Write them in whatever way works for you. I have written chronologically on some books. On others, I've written chapters like a tourist map of a walking tour; the marked stops help direct the internal journey.
Specifically, on Hiroshima Dreams, I wrote the first two chapters, the middle chapter, and the last chapter at one sitting, and sold the book with that material. Writing the rest of the book was extremely difficult, but no doubt I was helped by my map. I've written beginning and ending chapters first on at least half of my books, then sometimes worked forward and backward as a way to trick myself into reaching that difficult middle territory.
The idea, as always, is to find your process. If you are stalled where you are, it's often helpful to write a later chapter, or maybe even chapters that you might toss. Never restrict yourself, or impose rules on "how things must be done." Within some structures, such as episodic you can shuffle and reorder chapters.
Find your way. Inspiration is precious. Grab it when it comes.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Thankfully, I have a lovely independent bookstore here, called Island Books. I am thinking of asking the owner, Judy, to lay a mattress down for cold nights when I am too tired to drive over the bridge. A piano would also be nice. But the mattress might not impress her other customers. What do you think?
This is a beautiful day. Punctuation is what separates us from the animals. Just try to get a monkey to use a hyphen correctly. Don't even get me started on the semi-colons.
Go to the website and you can read all about your faithful friends, the punctuation marks. You can get the recipe for the Official Meat Loaf of National Punctuation Day. Normally I would question their use of the exclamation point there, but is some cases a little exuberance is warranted, especially when it comes to meatloaf. And--oh, is it my birthday?--there is a punctuation Haiku contest. There is also merchandise, with clever punctuation puns like "A semi-colon is not a surgical procedure," and "Jesus and the twelve apostrophes." ("Man," Jesus said. "Can you guys stop being so possessive?")
In celebration I am making my annual vow to stop abusing the poor em dashes--who have really done nothing to deserve what I do to them. And I am trailing off with ellipses, elaborating with semi-colons, scattering commas like breadcrumbs. I shall hug my words with parenthesis and put a firm period at the end of my day. For life is not a paragraph, my friends, but at least it can be well-punctuated.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I check my email incessantly, as my editor has the latest draft of my novel. Actually she has had it since July but forgot she had it so I sent her the updated draft last week. Now I wait. Again. While waiting I have started something new, which I like but it’s way too early to show it to anyone. And then there is that picture book dummy that my editor likes but wants to wait until the first picture book comes out, to see if my sales warrant doing another. It’s the game of cat and mouse. But are we playing hide-and-seek or toss-and-twirl? And which am I--the cat, the chipmunk or the bird? I hope it’s not the bird.
I wonder how others play this game?
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
This is OK Go's thing--to make these crazy one-take videos that explode the internet. They've been continually one-upping themselves in the Holy Jim Thome, that's one take! department with the big marching bands and crazy Rube Goldberg machines of last spring's "This Too Shall Pass."
So I imagine when they were planning the next video, the conversation went something like this:
Ok Go Guy #1: "So, what are we going to do this time?"
OK Go Guy #2: "I dunno."
OK Go Guy #3: "I dunno."
OK Go Guy #4: "Dogs."
Ok Go Guys #1-3: "Cool."
The choreography and stagecraft are exuberantly low-rent (apparently I'm not the only one who's dropped a big chunk at Ikea lately.) But, you know, dogs. Apparently it took about 200 takes to get it right. That's what it takes sometimes, and sometimes your supporting cast will poop on your shoe, but eventually all your dogs are beautifully in sync and you have something to marvel at. The effort doesn't show, there's no trace of poop anywhere--the product is simply this effervescent bit of three-and-a-half minute silliness.
I'm having a lot of conversations lately about the hard patches of writing, those times when you're so stuck in the mud you start to think that mud is part of your identity. Just play, I tell my students. Free yourself. Have fun. See what happens. Then I go wallow in the mud myself. But this is the goal, we play, we try, we do 200 takes, and by the end your dogs are springing out everywhere, joyously.
Friday, September 17, 2010
This is the same amount of work I've had to do for days, but I fidget and fiddle here and there and every time I get to this point I think I am not a good enough writer for this part.
I told my friend Megan this tonight--she also happens to be a Hamline alum and is thus quite sage. She listened as she did not have the luxury of skimming. She nodded knowingly and told me that these things in my head were the work of Simon the Awfulizer. Simon sits on your shoulder and hisses awful things in your ear.
But, according to Megan, the world must balance Simon out, and so it has given us Jacques, the Dog of Truth. Jacques does not speak soothing things in your ear or argue with Simon. He just bites him in the ass.
So, here is to Jacques, and precipices, and the battle ahead. Write well, and when Simon hisses in your ear, call on Jacques, and write on.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
It sounds like something Tums might fix, but it’s really
a popular topic for movies and books. How long can it be
before there’s a ride in some theme park where grubby,
goggled survivors with sawed-off shotguns charge
terrified patrons who barely escape. Then, laughing
and relieved, emerge into a recognizable world of fresh
air and lemonade and uniformed employees pointing
to other attractions. The Tunnel of Love, for example,
with its swan boats. And the corresponding Tunnel
of Hate with its disorderly lines and cruel attendants
shouting, “Shut up! Shut up and sit down if you know
what’s good for you!”
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Sometimes, okay, most of the time, my life is plain dull. Some may think otherwise, because it sounds thrilling. I move back and forth from Maine to Savannah with my cool British writer/illustrator partner, our two dogs and cat. I have a new teaching job outside of Philadelphia, so we’ve added a third stop to the chaos. I swim in the Maine ocean in a wetsuit. I see alligators in the swamps of Georgia. My mother lives on a tiny island in the Caribbean where I go snorkeling. My in-laws live in Brighton, England—the hippest town in GB. I know a lot of famous people (like Ron Koertge and Jane Resh Thomas, etc...oh and I knew Zero Mostel, too who is not a children’s book writer, but what the hey—knowing him makes me seem exotic, right?) I had a spider monkey as a pet when I was growing up. My family lived in Norway in a hut in the mountains with no electricity or running water while my father studied lemmings. I write. I illustrate. I have a few books published.
But, the truth of the matter is, my life is dull. I prepare for classes. I read Hamline packets every month. I try to get daily exercise. I walk the dogs. I pack and move a couple times a year. I go to bed insanely early and get up the next day. I stress about writing or not-writing, and when, if ever, I am going to get my next contract. A contract validates that work, but the work is the only thing that makes life interesting, and as writers we can always make our life sound as dull or exciting as we want. Why I have never written about that monkey or the lemmings yet, is a curiosity to me as well.
Friday, September 10, 2010
In other words, my brain is as put together as an Ikea box that someone's unpacked and left to rot in the middle of a living room. I am jealous of Ron and would like to spend several days in the dark movie theater with my fellows, engaged in this communal act of watching. Roger Sutton has some interesting musings on the difference between reading and watching on his blog. And I think he's right--sometimes you just want to let the story wash over you.
I was recently forced to watch Avatar and my brain is such that instead of maintaining my posture of writing-matters-dammit! outrage, I could only marvel at the pretty blue guys. They can stick their tails into things and become all, like, connected. It's like an ethernet network, except in your soul. Still, it was good movie to watch with an unassembled-brain--with no critical judgement to speak of I could see that, as utterly stupid, cliched, and noxious as the screenplay is, James Cameron does know how to create an experience. His moviemaking is all about that desire to sit in the dark and give yourself up to something else. He gets it. Even if his sense of nuance is rather lacking.
In other movie news, they're trying to cast The Hunger Games movie. Kristen Stewart is on the shortlist--her performance mooning over that vampire with the hair inTwilight is apparently adequate screen test for Katniss. It's not just the mooning--the female hero of both of these books seem to distinguish themselves by being undistinguished. These girls are blank slates, defined more by the boys in whose eyes they long to see themselves. And the disaffected, affectless Stewart is the perfect actress for this kind of role. These characters have combined to gross 8 bajillion dollars over the last few years, and I'm wondering what it is about this kind of female protagonist that's so appealing. Is it that a preteen reader can project herself onto the main character? Or that there's comfort in an essentially passive protagonist just trying to make her way in this crazy world? And what does it mean for our efforts to try to encourage strong, active protagonists--people who happen to the story instead of letting it happen to them?
Maybe I just need to go sit in the dark somewhere.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Sunday, September 5, 2010
We all have our ticks. Some conscious, others not. Have you ever noticed upon re-reading your first drafts you tend to use (often overuse) certain words or phrases? I am especially prone to beginning sentences with “But.” Sometimes a well-placed “but” can work wonders, but more often than not it’s just filler. BUT I also overuse “just” to the point of it sounding JUST plain weird. These words are easy to cut: “I overuse “just” to the point of it sounding weird.” Once you become familiar with your particular word habit it becomes second nature to eliminate them in later drafts. (“also” is a word I get carried away with, as I notice in the sentence above.)
BUT, (would “however” work better as an opener here?) one of my all time favorites is the parenthetical aside. I am still trying to figure out if this is a nasty habit that ought to be sliced from every first draft, or is it actually one that marks my individual writing style? I used to think I had to get rid of them all, but now I am beginning to embrace my love of parentheses. I use them in lieu of the comma (comma overuse bugs me), but mostly I use them as a little whisper into the reader’s ear that may add another layer to the meaning of my line. (Or is it merely a layer of contradictory cockiness I am adding?) I am sure I use them incorrectly at times, (and annoyingly). Like “buts,” “justs,” and “alsos,” they could be eliminated, but for now I have decided to embrace my predilection for parentheses and leave them be.
If you’re concerned about the correct usage of parenthetical asides (obviously I am not) you can always go here…
Perhaps I ought to write a book using as many asides as possible—this sounds like a thrill to me, even though it may end up being completely annoying to the reader. (However I’ll continue to cut the other nasty habits). BUT it ALSO may JUST be the cure I need to get over my obsession (I mean: “it may be the cure…”). Or perhaps it is the only way to figure out how to use them wisely (after all a well-placed parenthetical aside can work wonders, too!) It's all style, no?
PS. I love the em dash (—) as well, but that’s another story.
(Oh, then there’s the ellipses…!)
Friday, September 3, 2010
Mapping out a book like Joyce Carol Oates would kill my desire to write it, and destroy the sense of discovery that keeps me working. Trusting my memory like Albee (who was the first person to tell me I had talent as a writer, when I was 22) would be close to a disaster. So when ideas come to me, I write notes on anything handy: napkins, receipts, bank statements, the little notebook Jill gave me that I keep in my purse. I call my home phone from my cell and leave messages for myself. If one of my kids gets home and listens to the messages first they might hear: "She is sucked into a vortex." Or, "The witch drowns in chocolate." My husband Michael also bought me a micro-tape recorder for when I drive. I just can't let one idea escape, although, yes, I often forget about these pieces of paper or lose them. Another process I am teaching my son is to work in stages and drafts, a little each day, comparing it to the instruments he plays (three), how baby steps can add up to something big, something we all know by now, but is nice to remember
It is all about finding your process, your tricks, and your triggers.
I don’t remember who said or wrote: “Form sets you free.” When I was younger, just starting out, I rebelled against anything that smacked of rigidity or confinement. But lately, I have found that writing within a set form or—even better—sticking to firm word limits, has freed me to experiment with content or style within set boundaries. I have written 750-word essays on environmental subjects for our local paper and for Northern Woodlands magazine. I’ve written 150-word Letters to the Editor. I signed up for Hamline’s blog, in part to see if I could stick to the (suggested) 250-word limit. (It’s hard!) My next goal is to leap into poetic forms, as Kevin does in Ron’s Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.
My most challenging, yet liberating, experience with form was writing a novel for Breakfast Serials, a company that publishes serialized stories in newspapers nationwide. The novels appear in 18 installments. Chapters are 800 words; each ends with a cliffhanger so the reader will buy next week’s paper. Writing within these guidelines was like solving a puzzle. I had to invent a story with a clear through line and strong forward momentum. I learned more about plot and pacing than I expected and yes—thank you, Jane!—I was forced to slash “lard-ass prose.” Now I realize: a student could write a serial novel in a semester. A chapter a week, four or five chapters per packet, 14,400 words total—and you’d have a complete novel. Anyone game to try?
(This post=249 words.)