Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”
Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.
And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.
Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.
Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.
We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?
I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.
So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.
I wouldn’t say that I have the knack yet. On the second full revision of my manuscript, I still feel like Alice with the Queen of Hearts’ playing-card army showering down on her head. There’s too much stuff to keep in my head. I question my own judgement. Sometimes I read a chapter and think, “Where’s the story? What was this about, again?”
But the process has changed. Mysteriously, paragraphs that came seamless from my brain now appear on the page with words, especially adverbs, and whole sentences blue-penciled. (Only metaphorically. No actual hallucinations so far.)
A lot of the stuff struck out by the Revision Angel is background, details about my imaginary community and beloved characters that please me greatly. On the first
revision, I couldn’t conceive of parting with them. Now, I see them as personal delights of my own, and I don’t object to clearing them away, giving my readers space to create the place and the people for themselves. My vision won’t disappear. Even if these details never make it into the series, I’ll still have them.
To my surprise, the pain is minimal. If I could see the expression on my own face as I work, I think I would look like my great-granddaughter when dessert is served. She listens, wriggling slightly, to her mother’s advice to “limit yourself,” sighs, wriggles just once more, and does not take another cookie.
My first six chapters now hang together and keep moving, but it’s time for a shock. Unhappily, the next thing that happens is a meeting. Not the “journeys end in…” kind of meeting, the kind with a Treasurer’s Report. The scene has a furious argument in it, but even so, a feeling of cerebrality creeps over me. No doubt getting your own way over Subparagraph 17b can be a genuine victory. The problem is ensuring that your prose doesn’t read like Subparagraph 17b.
This is where Alice’s playing-card army seems to threaten me. There are 40 scenes to go, at least, and the thought of rearranging them gives me the same short-of-breath feeling I get when playing jackstraws. If I pull this one stick out, will the whole pile collapse? How can I be sure that revision won’t become rewriting the whole book from scratch?
I guess I can’t be sure. There’s some new text in the six revised chapters, so there is such a thing as “a little rewriting.” I’ll just have to pick one jackstraw and pull. If you hear a loud crash, call 911.
MAKING THINGS UP
It’s nice to know that there are judges out there who enjoy nonsense as well as I do. Who actually give prizes to writers of light fantasy. Writers who enjoy a little strangeness. Not a lot, mind you, just that wee bit of weird, that soupcon of screwiness, those bites of bizarre that flavor ordinary life with unordinary happenstances. Not talking creepy or spooky here, just a little quirky.
The Bethlehem Writers Group (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that is, not Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Israel, or any other place), honored me with a prize this year in their paranormal contest. I took third place, but I placed, and that’s all it takes to make me happy.
Here’s the link:
You’ll also be able to read the second place story but the first place winner will be published in their collection in 2018.
I wouldn’t have been able to wait until 2018 to see my story in print had I taken first place, third place gave me instant gratification. If I was an adept at the computer I’d be able to show you my certificate giving me even more gratification, but enough about me.
The September issue of WRITER’S DIGEST arrived last week and I’m enjoying the articles, as always, but not the fact that it’s the SEPTEMBER issue! I want more summer.
Anyway, I learned about the “the uninterrupted fictional dream,” a phrase coined by John Gardner. The following paragraph comes from Tess Callahan’s column, Train Your Eye for Better Writing in the Sept. issue.
“As readers, the most important thing to notice is often what we don’t notice – that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction famously called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers, it appears seamless on the part of the author. It’s not, of course.”
How I would love to have my readers fall into uninterrupted fictional dreams. It’s not only enjoyable for the reader but obviously fulfilling for the writer to know that not only do they have readers but these readers are falling into uninterrupted fictional dreams.
Here’s something else from Tess Callahan. She relates writing a story to a painter working on a canvas.
“Most visual artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. Writers can benefit from the same.
“What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.
To write this way means you must be working on the whole canvas at once, relating one image to another across distances. To get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the thread that connects it to the whole living organism of the story.”
In another article, same issue, Taming the Inner Critic, by David Corbett, I found this bit of profundity:
“Simplicity is the true hallmark of elegance, and over complication is the refuge of the confused.”
That was a somewhat bothersome statement even though I happen to think it’s true. Bothersome because I think that the story I’m working on now is verging on the overcomplicated and if it is I suppose it will fall down in the uninterrupted fictional dream department. And I wouldn’t like that to happen at all.
I’ve been berating myself all week for not being Neil Gaiman.
I’m not bothered that I haven’t written multiple blockbuster fantasies – that’s past praying for. I’m just fed up with my inability to spot all the glorious weirdness I know is out there, just beyond my peripheral vision.
When Gaiman was writing American Gods, he traveled the U.S. by the back roads, stopping in the small towns, eating in the diners, and above all, visiting the “roadside attractions.” Genius that he is, Gaiman realized that in America, the loci of magical forces would not be intersecting ley lines, ruined temples or mysterious Templar manuscripts. They would be found in places like the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Now, I had a house in Ithaca, Wisconsin, for 9 years. I was less than 20 miles from Spring Green. For counties around, the sides of barns and old factories were plastered with ads for the House on the Rock. And I never went there.
I never rode the centaur on the “world’s largest indoor carousel.” (None of the mounts on the House on the Rock’s carousel is a horse.)
I never saw the doll collection, thousands of them, arranged on tiered platforms like a wedding cake (if you had a wedding where the guests ate the bride. Brides.) I never walked into the infinity room, suspended without support over the sheer drop below the Rock itself, a 60-foot column of stone atop which no sane person would ever, ever build a House.
Thoughtful people have reflected negatively on the House on the Rock. It contains a dusty collection without rhyme or reason, accumulated, it would seem, for the same reason that Hillary climbed Mt. Everest: it could be done. There was stuff in the world, so one Alex Jordan, Jr. built the House, bought the stuff, hauled it there and… that’s it. That was the point. If there was a point.
Gaiman is not a thoughtful, reflective person, he is a lunatic genius, so he knew what to do with the House on the Rock. In American Gods, the old gods of America’s immigrant peoples gather at the House on the Rock to debate the means of making a comeback. They ride the carousel. They quarrel. They split into factions. And then they are overwhelmed by other gods, who… but I won’t spoil your fun. Buy the book.
It happens that I spent the past week driving across America. Dope that I am, I did it the sensible way. I took the interstates. I ate at the same McDonald’s every day – it followed me around like a jackal. I read the same billboards over and over. The same jerk in the same Minicooper cut across the same three lanes of traffic every seven exits. Every mile of the northeast and the Midwest had exactly the same things on offer.
I tried, I really did. But when I reached my goal in the Rocky Mountains and toted up my score of weird-and-wonderful, it was pitiful. Three. That was my score: three.
Number One: Somewhere in Nebraska, above what looked like a warehouse, a billboard modestly touted its owner and his wares:
MAX I. (SOME-NAME-OR-OTHER).
CAREER APPAREL. FLOOR MATS. TOWELS.
Question: which careers?
Number Two: A woman sitting at a bar, her back to my table. Her heels – the real ones, not the ones on her sandals – are hooked around the legs of her bar stool. They are huge, perfectly spherical and smooth as cue balls. Her Achilles tendons could play a major part in a suspension bridge. If Achilles had built his up to the same proportions, he would have lived to sack Troy.
Number Three: A headline in the local paper. (This shouldn’t count, because when I read it I had already reached my destination. But I’m desperate here, people.)
Locals Become Leading Trout Semen Freezers
“John Riger and Barry Stout said that as far as they knew, they were the only ones preserving fish semen on their scale anywhere in the world.”
This was apparently good news for the Tasmanian rainbow trout.
On the other hand, Riger’s and Stout’s teenage daughters ran away to join a convent the day after the story was printed. And I really shouldn’t claim a point for this find: the accomplishment recorded took place in 1987. The Aspen Times has a regular archival feature. Around here, history is measured in decades, not centuries.
So, readers, help me out here. You aren’t Neil Gaiman, either. What weird-and-wonderful thing has crossed your path lately? And above all, where did you find it?
Over the past two days I have written the following: 1) a confession by a murderer; 2) an abduction; 3) a car crash; and 4) a suicide—all of which transpire in the matter of about an hour or less. This is all part of the transformation of my novel, Anne, from women’s fiction to a murder mystery. Though I know it won’t be long until I have to rework the parts of the novel I’ve written in the past, for now I am having fun adding new scenes.
Yikes. Did I just say that I am having fun writing about people committing murder? The “real” me, not the “writer” me, does not like to think about people (or pets) dying. Who does? So how am I able to kill off my characters without shedding a tear? Heartless, I suppose. But only when it comes to fictional characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to my fellow bloggers on Thursday Night Writes who have paved the way with their own heartless stories of murder and mayhem.
There’s still one more death to go but that one was written a few years ago as part of Olivia. Though originally the result of an accident, the death could benefit from a few tweaks to make it more sinister, maybe a full-fledged murder!
I’m excited to be reworking what I now realize was a flat story about family relationships into an exciting murder mystery, albeit not your typical Tana French mystery with a plethora of suspects. At this point in the writing I do not have any suspects, other than the guilty party. Naturally I’m concerned that the “zero suspects” approach will be less than satisfactory to “my” readers. But I remind myself that it’s still early in the process—the chrysalis has a long way to go before the butterfly emerges.
A lack of suspects isn’t my only concern with “Anne.” I’m afraid that I’m front-loading the novel with the stuff that keeps readers of murder mysteries turning the pages.
Did I mention that I don’t have a sleuth? And many miles to go with Anne?
I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with Onestory.com. This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.
I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”
But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.
The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.
To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?
There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.
That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”
I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:
Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.
Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process.
But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:
I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.
Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.
Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.
I have zero tolerance for hot weather; one of the reasons I moved up to rural New Hampshire from balmy NYC and Boston.
This spring, after freezing my patootie off during a very unseasonably cold May, I now find myself, in June, melting like a slug on salt.
I wanted warm all through May. Now I want an Arctic cold front to push in. I want, I want , I want. Where will it end? Is there a permanent perfect temperature anywhere? How can I curl up with a good book in this sort of environment? Summer is for fun, but twenty degrees cooler would be a lot more fun.
Northerners sweat, Southerners wouldn’t even break a dew (genteel southern way of saying perspire) on these ninety degree days. It’s all in what you’re used to, I suppose.
Jane Austen – a brilliant woman who composed all her stories in pen on paper, no spell check, no cut and paste, no computer! – said this about summer days:
“To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.”
Of course, any day in England with enough sunshine to create shade to sit in was a fine day. But to sit in the shade means to find a cool spot under a tree. Did Jane’s England have ticks? Mosquitoes? Black flies? It seems they didn’t. Or at least they were never complained about. Or did I just miss those magic moments when Elizabeth and Darcy, proclaiming their love one to another, ceased their proclamations to run screaming from a swarm of black flies to find shelter in Longbourn? Or when the Bennet women, intent upon embroidery in their cool sitting room, fell, one by one, to the sensation of ticks walking around under their copious underclothing? Had the ticks dropped from the majestic English oaks onto their coiffed hair as they sat in the shade looking upon verdure? It happens here all too often. Jane, possibly wanting to avoid unpleasant topics, alluded only to such things as baby sisters running off with scoundrels and bringing shame upon the family name. There she was comfortable.
I don’t mean to copycat the subject of ticks from Karen’s last post but it’s such an alluring subject and unavoidable when speaking of verdure on a fine day. And heat. They all seem to go hand in hand.
And, why do ticks seek out the most annoying parts of the body to engorge themselves on blood, leaving their calling cards behind in the form of cellulitis and Lyme disease? Jane, can you answer that little conundrum?
So, I stay holed up in the house until I can see that a wisp of wind is stirring the branches of the mighty oaks and maples. Then I’ll venture out onto the verdure. Perchance there will be a game of croquet on the lawn, perhaps the cold front will move in. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
So that I wouldn’t end up boring our faithful readers with a regurgitation of a prior post, tonight I reread my recent blog posts. (Topics I was considering: genealogy, NO; my in-progress murder mysteries, NO; whining about my inability to finish any of my writing projects, NO. I wasn’t sure what was left to write about.) This followed my second shower of the day, a necessity after the excitement of finding two ticks crawling on my body, with no way to tell if there were any nestling in my hair.
Generally my husband handles all of the spiders and other unsavory creatures in the house. He was off grocery shopping. Lousy timing on his part.
My reaction to the discovery of the first nasty, vile, disgusting creature crawling on my upper arm was to flick it off with the tips of my fingers. He landed on our multi-colored granite counter and by the time I grabbed a paper towel and turned back to the counter, he was scampering away. I was faster and nabbed him with the paper towel (there is no way you can squish those buggers) then flushed him down the toilet.
I texted my daughter so that she would know that one of her ticks had traveled twenty-two miles home with me and she should check her children then settled on the couch to get caught up on the political news I missed today.
Just as I was about to take another bite of my peanut butter and jelly covered English muffin, I felt the telltale tickle on my leg of another tick. (Often those tickles are just phantom ticks–tricks of your mind.) I jumped up and flicked it onto the rug where it was extremely invisible. But I wasn’t. It found my bare foot. Flicked onto the rug again. Back onto my heel. (I may have screamed but since no one was here to hear it, we’ll never know for certain.) Flicked onto the hardwood floor where I could see it. I managed to capture him with a piece of notebook paper.
I flushed him as well. And watched him get sucked down the toilet into the pipes and out to the septic tank. That’s the plan, anyway. You can bet I won’t be using that toilet for a few days.
(Topics I wasn’t considering but wrote about anyway: ticks, YES!)
UPDATE: At exactly 4:52 a.m. I was startled awake by something crawling on my face. TICK!! I bolted out of bed, smashed at my face while frantically pounding the bed. I couldn’t see anything on the bed so I ran into the bathroom thinking it was still on my face. I flapped my bangs but didn’t see anything. I returned to bed and surprisingly fell back asleep. When I woke up a few hours later I found a dead spider on the bathroom sink. Not just dead but almost petrified.
Is it possible he fell from the skylight over my bed and landed on my face? If this were a novel I’d say of course it is, anything is possible.
I was thinking the other day about the dying institution of marriage. The mystery I’m writing involves an inheritance which, in turn, hangs on the outdated concept of legitimacy.
Mind you, I’m all for dropping any stigma (if any remains) on being born “out of wedlock.” But honestly, older people, if you had been asked in your youth what major changes might occur in your lifetime, would you have predicted indifference to the presence or absence of marriage vows? Of substituting “if it works out” for “till death do us part”?
Anyway, I sat down and tried to come up with other dying institutions that I had thought would live forever. Lo and behold, nearly every one that occurred to me involved reading and writing — one of the core complexes of life for likely readers of this blog.
I had occasion to write something down for one of my grandsons not long ago. He frowned at the note – I thought my handwriting was the problem. I got no farther than, “Oh, sorry, that word’s….,” when he rushed to reassure me. “Oh, it’s okay, Grandma. I can read cursive script.” He can’t write it, though. The schools now teach printing, not writing, because who writes anything longer than a grocery list anymore?
Letters (in the sense of correspondence) no longer exist. Their factual content is now transmitted through email. Their creative, imaginative, playful and literary qualities are just gone. (Worse: their playful qualities are have shrunk and hardened into emoticons created by some wretch chained in an office cubicle.) Email is to letter-writing as tweeting is to thinking.
Now that apps have homogenized all forms of information transfer, “writing down” is no longer a distinct activity with defined functions in society. Do our grandchildren get the point of “The Typewriter,” the famous piece of music that duplicates the rhythm of typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of the carriage and the slam of the carriage return? This tune, without comment, once conveyed “composition” or “news reporting.” (Click the link to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play it, with percussionist Martin Breinschmid on the typewriter.)
Editors are as the dodo. I am still unpublished, but I hear by the grapevine that publishers no longer employ such people. Or if they do, the evidence has vanished from much of what is published. My blogging colleague Eleanor Ingbretson recently read a mystery involving that nasty marine animal, the leech. It was spelled “leach” throughout. WTH. You know what I meant. (That link will take you to the blog of the same name, where you will find fellow mourners of the craft of words.)
(Subcategory of the above: use of the subjunctive. And don’t get me started on “may” and “might.”)
Paper is gone, too, or at least unnecessary. I think text is made of electrons now, but I really haven’t the faintest idea. Vandals burned the monastery libraries of Europe; hackers may yet wipe out War and Peace.
We have lived in the age of the Antonines, and Commodus is upon us. (Don’t bother me with questions when I’m being crotchety. Google it.)