Friday, May 28, 2010

The demon who makes trophies of men

The sci-fi short story is done. I hope others feel as positive about it as I do. Fortunately, my writing group was helpful enough to let me put it into the mix and pick over it for sense and clarity. Aside from that, and looking over other people's stuff (which I've been told does not count towards the maximum number of projects a person ought to work on simultaneously) I've been enjoying getting back into the mindset of my fantasy series. I sat down with a pen and some scratch paper for a bit. Earlier, I mentioned that I was having issue with deciding what happens in what order. Emphasis on the order. And I think I have a problem.

Years ago, someone handed me a popular fantasy series I will not name. I got maybe through the first fifty pages or so, when a character I had grown attached to was eaten by wolves. Then his friend, who I thought maybe would benefit from watching his friend die, and go on and do great things, died from some other mundane horror. At the time, I was fairly upset. I didn't know who the main characters were because people were dying wholesale. Given that the real world serves as some basis for fantasy situations (the "Dark" Ages and such, Victorian era England) it's harder to slight someone that's actually done the research. People died often and quickly back in those days.

So it occurred to me that I could just kill characters off. And I wish I was kidding. I won't, of course. The characters of mine that are alive have things to do, important strings to hold onto, or tug, to make the whole ship move in the correct direction at the proper speed. But dang there's a lot of them, and it makes me wonder if the story is less of a ship and more of some strange, sailing mansion. But, if that's the biggest problem I have this year, it will be the best year so far. A different publisher from the one I'm contracted with wants another manuscript of mine signed over via contract. That's very flattering, but I have to admit, sadly, another failure of mine today.

I second-guess them because they're a new house. The issue is less about them and more about me, consequently. Because I've had a gripe for a long time about things like this. My theory was that people don't trust other people. Someone we don't know asks us for something, and if it isn't a dire situation, in the rain, with orchestral music playing, then the response, usually, is "I don't know you, man." I feel like it would be hypocritical of me, as a champion of trusting our fellow man, if I denied these people based on their untested status. Never mind that I'm waiting on a reply from another, more seasoned publishing house that also has my work. That actually just better proves my point.

So I'm a little sour today, about what digressions I've made in my progress as a human being and a writer. At the meeting last night, one of the guys, another writer who is normally very positive and upbeat, had recently gotten a rejection letter and it tinged his edges and crept into his tone. And I could empathize. Being rejected can be damaging, and it seems like for those individuals typically known for their sensitivity (artists), success as professionals in their various crafts requires a moderate amount of the acrid stuff. So I guess it's just a rough week. In my part of the world, it's also grown hot. Hot like... I think about how the native lady in Predator spoke about the heat when she was talking about the legend of the hungry jungle.

But then again, how's the song go? I get knocked down, and I get up again, you're never going to knock me down?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sleeping while operating heavy machinery

This morning, or this afternoon rather (when I finally woke up) I reflected on the old Animaniacs short "Good Idea, Bad Idea." As a child, they were funny, and the soothing baritone of the narrator's voice did much to massage those lessons into my memory. I stayed up entirely too late last night engaged in geekery that I don't wish to describe (read: ashamed). My eyes hurt, and upon realizing that I had plans today, I blinked to stare at the ruin my weekend has become as a result of reckless action.

Last week, about Wednesday, I finished the books I was working on (rather, the drafts thereof). I was on a bit of a high; I even thought enough of myself to mention the completion of the feats to the fellows in my writing group (admittedly, they didn't ask what I was up to, and I wanted some pats on the back). Consequently, I felt like maybe I had earned myself a brief vacation. What transpired during the rest of the week was, comparatively, like binge-drinking in some nameless, Spanish tourist trap. I squint even now to wonder at what I've been doing with my time.  Thus far, I have two rotten pages of a short story done and some gaping spots of memory to fill in.

On the other hand, it has been good to live in a different world of my conceiving. The books I was working on had their own habitat and characters and climate, as all stories do. The new book I'm working on (a continuation of the first book I have contracted) is much more singular, that is to say not split in three. It has no fewer stories but overall is one thing, that I can more leisurely swim in. I stand in the shower and wonder at conversations between characters, alike and dissimilar; I cut the grass and ponder at the order of major events. Driving to visit one of various friends, I puzzle at my different characters' motivations. It's a neat place to be. Though, at some point, words have to get on the page somehow.

So, tomorrow I go back to work for the summer semester. I'm taking with me one of my various, trusty pens, and on whatever paper is available I will begin scratching out an imaginary future for an imaginary world. My first problem, conceptually, is not what happens first, but what should be described as happening first. Sometimes I think maybe I would benefit some from just peeking into one of those "How to Write" books, hoping for answers to questions like this. In my experience, one orders such things however, takes a step back and turns one's head sideways while staring. If it's not right, one simply goes back and re-orders them. This seems like a less than efficient way.

But today is shot. All I can think about is the sun going down so I'll have an excuse to crawl back into bed. I rub my eyes but the ache in them does not dissipate. It's times like this that I think that maybe it might not be so bad to go by the Caffeine Temple and pray just a little. The dark stuff demands only, what, some of my growth, a bit of dependence, possibly a few years off my life? That doesn't seem so bad.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Writerly isn't even a word

A friend shared with me some humility yesterday: a story I had (allegedly) written in an attempt to get him to collaborate with me (a dream of mine). He had apparently found said file, dusted it off, and (finally) did his due diligence. He shared it with me, but waited until I was halfway through the first paragraph and thoroughly confused before he told me which parts were mine and which were his. I thought to myself "I really thought his writing was better than this." But no. No, the thick, swampy sections of untrimmed prose were mine. After wretching, I thought "if those guys at the writer's group thought the prologue to my book was mired in a bog, they should read this." My friend, of course, enlightened me as to how happy I should be at how far I've come. One of the greatest compliments he's given me to date is "When you write a story, I can feel confident that no matter what it is, you won't butcher it."

I finished the epilogues to those stories yesterday, and felt good about them. That same friend finished not long after, a veteran reader, and described to me what he liked, and what he didn't like. I was confronted with an interesting dilemma, one which I think all writers are, or at least most. Because a story is not exactly what happens on the paper; a story is what gets written down. One such might sound something like this thing I'm plagiarizing from facebook "A man and a woman, both driving in different cars with their windows down, pass one another while driving in different directions. She yells to him, 'Pig!' so he shouts back, 'Bitch!' and another block or so later, he careens into a mammoth swine sitting in the road." Now, a writer, I think, ought to know where the man was going, where the woman was going, the era in which the story takes place, what kinds of cars they're driving, and their marital histories. Or rather, a writer ought to know the pertinent details of the situation, even though they may never tell the reader. Then, and this part is more difficult, a writer chooses which parts need to be told to create understanding, and tells them.

One of my epilogues, thus far, fails at this. In my mind, certain things had become necessary. The reader, whom I do not know and haven't talked to, was anticipated to have certain desires to know certain things which I had purposely kept from them, and now was choosing to reveal. Except not quite. The addition to the book fell flat because other things did not come across as I intended. The cylinder fired, but not at the right time. The belt was connected, but turned so the grooves were facing out and not in. So this morning, I retooled. It was a bit amazing to me that I could simply "tell a different part of the story" which, hopefully, fit in that space. Maybe the reader needs to know this instead of that. Or maybe that would become necessary if these items were tweaked. The phase of which I speak, when a writer tries to figure out why the plane exploded instead of flew, is re-writing.

The something I failed to acknowledge I don't even have a word for. It is described as the reader inserting information based on inferences made in the book and knowledges they themselves bring to the book from the outside. This is something I tried to take advantage of in a novella I wrote. I called it caging, because the story is roughly 30,000 words long, but at least another amount of chapters of the lengths written is "missing." My attempt was to give the reader enough to fill in those blanks if they were paying attention, but at the same time not suffocating the imagination with a box. I used a cage to give it room to breath. It worked for some people, but not so for others. In the epilogue (thus the book) of which I speak, it worked against me. Honestly, I didn't understand the blow back, but I guess if people knew their eyebrows were going to be blown off, they'd duck, or wear some sort of eyebrow-protecting guards or something.

But don't you dare call it science.

Monday, May 17, 2010

One hundred twenty thousand more words

If only questions were currency. This past weekend I had a wild hair. I thought: "I have so relatively little left to write, I can do it in a week, right? Oh, but what if I can't? Maybe I should get started now, that way any extra time on the back end is free." So I did. I wrote one chapter, then another, then another. Three days later, I edited the draft the 25th chapter of one of three books, each with 25 chapters. Aside from the epilogues that lead off into elsewhere, I have finally finished the goal I set out to achieve earlier this year. Go me.

Last night I dreamed about Iron Man 2. I can recall seeing an extended trailer for the movie, and that's all I've seen of it. Last night, a dream I had was a contrived scene from the movie (I don't actually know that, it was dream logic) and I woke up wondering why that happens. The cool answer is that I've gotten so much practice at taking stories and seeing where they go, I can literally do it in my sleep. How weird would it be to go see the movie in question (which I will) and for the scene to my dream be on the screen?

Words from the writer's group meeting echo to me. One of my fellows talked about the divide between writing that is free that can be given away, that thousands upon thousands will read, and being able to sell that same writing to an editor or publisher (via agent or not). The latter group considers trends and popularity, tries to predict what is hot, and what isn't, what will sell and what won't. The former group just likes to read good stories. The group mate digressed slightly, because his example was fanfiction, and he spent a while saying how my work was so much better than fanfiction, and yet...  the rejections keep on coming. That's just how it goes, is that what the saying is?

Over pizza I talked with a friend about some of my characters, and he didn't exactly said I did my stories the wrong way, his statement sounded more like "I've yet to read someone's writing where they do it the right way, or at least in a way that I find interesting and believable." He's one of the few whom I cannot seem able to impress with my writing. I told him that very item is on my bucket list. Some of us like to parachute with anvils, apparently. But if you can't make a living while earning the respect and adoration of your friends, then was it all worth it? I mean, I could make a living and not earn my friends' respect working at Office Depot (this is going to become a thing; the weird part is, I shop there).

So this week had some highs, and some lows. I'm well on my way to accomplishing my goal for the week of non work. I think I might even get around to starting one of those sci-fi shorts (the other requires research on a phenomenon called the Big Rip before it can be attempted). Though, I also need to read for the group meeting, as well as keep cracking away at my other friend's manuscript. It's only Monday. Would it be presumptuous calling this thing a draw?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Today a teacher who writes

Blog is an appropriate word today (it reminds me of an awkward, spontaneous quip or a disgusting throat gesture). In the past, I've described this exercise as essay in a newer millenium, or one-sided discourse for the argumentatively inclined. But in untimely fashion, today at work, I was filled with a feeling, and have become fit for bursting.

Earlier in the semester, I sent up a prayer, which is rare for someone like me; not because I don't believe, but I take calling on powers not my own very seriously. I wanted assistance helping my students: to not be too shallow, or too impatient, too weak, or too distracted, too selfish, or too uncaring. I wanted to be there for them. Throughout the semester, I succeeded some, and failed some in these regards. Just now though, I was reading over some of the students' graduation speeches. I could hear the editor voice at the back of my mind: "that's three cliches in one sentence" and "something's wrong with this paragraph." Yet gracefully, I could also ignore it.

On the way to a wedding the other weekend, I discussed the nature of art with a friend. He outlined the components of craft and intent, and we batted semantics back and forth, arriving at no real conclusions. I've read work in the past weeks, some award-nominated, some endeavoring to be published, and others in between. These students' words were honest, but further, they were stuffed between emotions crammed around the letters and words like packing peanuts. They made me feel.

Objectively, I likely come off as pessimist. A lot of people in my life commend me for things they believe I should feel good about. And I haven't been an utter failure in things I attempt. But rarely do I feel pride. Pride as it relates to joy or happiness. I am proud of my students. Proud enough not to undervalue the leg of the journey they're on, and proud enough not to undermine them by pointing out something so crass as "it's only a high school diploma." I am proud enough to be happy.

I am humbled today by the greatness of relatively small things. A paper thin document can change a life; the words printed on it aren't overly rare, or expertly crafted, yet meaningful. And oh so very powerful. I feel like singing, or dancing, but I likely won't do much of either. Behind my eyes, I can feel wetness mixed with a masculine shame. I wonder if it would be patronizing to name these things miracles.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The difference between which pages stay blank

I'd like to claim that I did blog and you just didn't know it. Technically, I wrote something, and handed it to a friend to put on his, small e-rant page. And I've been writing other things, too. As fate would have it, I'm working this week, also, which is not getting in the way of my earlier pace of a chapter a week on each book, but this close to the finish (my ever-changing outline I carry around in my pocket finally has the end of each book) is beginning to unnerve. I wonder if my computer will hold up, if some gremlin will sneak into my room and magnetize my flash drives, if I'll sleep walk into my Google docs and rewrite all the pages in pig Latin. Next week is my week off, and provided this week goes well, next week I'll have roughly 6-9 chapters to write before work starts back up again. I don't think it's going to happen, at least not as quickly as I'd want. But then, that is my theme song.

This Thursday I meet back up with the writing group. This week my own words will be covered in red marks, arrows pointing from small passages explaining the faults and merits of things, the letters A-W-K littered about. It is my hope to hone the beginning of my book to house all the qualities a book should, and that publishers look for. I feel confident that my story is good, and is some shade of original. Now the problem is the delivery system. Is it clear enough, and is it fast enough? Last week, we had a discussion about the internet ruining books, or rather the experience of reading, not because they can be downloaded and read on screens, but because the speed of the age has translated into a needfulness in the reading public that puts pressure on the author. I didn't sound off on the issue, but I did think about it. While I would like some warm up time, personally, I can support throwing away useless passages that connect to nothing at all. But I've been accused of being a minimalist before, even recently one of the writers in the group commented on my packing my sentences tightly with multiple ideas, and then explaining them (for some readers) not quite enough. Reading me is work, for some, and the mental trudge can be unpleasant. I wonder if that makes me a conformist of the new or not.

When I started this, I submitted to Tor, and Roc, and Del Rey, and I have a stack of those rejection letters. This was years ago, and I think I've gotten better since. Another writer friend of mine told me when she finished her book, she was going to submit it to the "big boys" first and then she would "join the 'I've never heard of that publisher' club." As you might suspect, the people who contracted my novel back in January puts me squarely in that club, so my feelings were bruised. Further, the last few places I've submitted to would extend my membership to the club. Hearing her talk, I wondered why it hadn't occurred to me to try again. I'd tightened the work, renamed it, found its center and become more confident in its abilities. But not once did I even think about going to their websites, printing out some copies as per their submissions standards, and mailing them. I wondered if that is some indication of some viral and secretive pessimism in me.

No, I thought to myself, because I'm still writing. I thought up a new story just the other day. It's a 'proper' science fiction story with ships and laser guns. Not too much metaphor and analogy, none of the rubbish of figurativeness (okay those are all lies). At some point, when I finish these next couple, I'll have a handful of short stories to send out to places. That'll be good, I figure. My mentor said to me once "Good stories get published," and I chose to believe them then, and I choose to believe him now.

That Office Depot application is still unfinished on my desk. It's opened to the Background Information Release Form. Almost done, but subtly refusing to give in. Smells like optimism to me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Discounted hope

This summer is shaping up to be like last summer, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. The duress of a lack of money is up, like the temperature, and with it comes gnawing uncertainty. My mentor once told me about "teachers who write" and "writers who teach." He cited himself as the former, and the latter being much closer to the ideal. The difference comes from what a body focuses on. People sometimes extend their hand in greeting with a confident smile, and after their names they're fond of saying "I'm a writer," when the more appropriate statement would be "I like to write sometimes." Recently, I told a friend I didn't want that to be me, I didn't want to work at Office Depot to make ends meet while I tried to be something circumstance weren't allowing me to be. Yesterday, an application to that very place found its way onto my desk. I stared at the ceiling, wondering if I was being dared or mocked or both.

One of the producers from the Fresh Prince of Bel-air, a friend of the building in which I worked, gave a speech at a leadership conference I attended years ago. Like Bill Cosby, he did his pontificating on my campus in sweat pants because he was just that well connected and wealthy. He discussed a concept I recall as vital to my development as a person: the mule-fart moment. He called it that because while tilling the earth in his native Alabama, holding the rough ends of the plow while the haunches of the beast rolled along in front of him, it farted in his face. He couldn't dodge or duck or close his nose fast enough. The stink, he had recounted, was unbearable. He shouted to high heaven, praying, and told god that so long as he didn't let him sink any lower than that point right then, he'd be forever grateful. And so far as I'm aware, that was as low as he ever sank. He went on to write and act and produce and make enough money that he could afford to dress like he didn't have any.

Ever since, then I've been testing the temperature of the water. Dipping in a toe, then my whole foot, asking myself "Is this too hot? Can I stand this?" Because as time has gone on, the water's gotten closer and closer to boiling. I found a flyer for "Walk-in Wednesdays" at a free health clinic that only asked for a $20 donation. A noble concept to be sure, but I never thought I'd be among those who needed it. The two part irony of this is that 1) I'm constantly accused of being a pessimist and 2) as a writer, it is my job to imagine possibilities, however unlikely or nonsensical. And the flyer surprised me the same way the job application did.

Starting next week, I will have a two-week hiatus from work. In that time, I hope to finish the novels I'm working on, and hopefully at least one of the short stories rattling around in my brain. I have no deadline, or no real reason to attempt this, except that I work at trying to make the best of each opportunity given to me; I don't want to look back knowing I could've done more. And with a gap of time, with so few chapters left to write, I might as well scribe them then. Last year, around this time, I was wrecking my car, and writing a novel. Then, I submitted it for publication, and received positive feedback by early winter. As I'm finding out now, it isn't a flawless blueprint, or timely at all, but it at least isn't a road map pointed in a completely awful direction. So I guess I'll follow that.

A former roommate of mine got married last weekend. Seeing his progress from then to now, I had to marvel at how he did it. He never struck me as the harrowed type; in fact, I always thought he was a little oblivious, and mistakenly confident. Or maybe that was what optimism looked like, and I was just confused. Personally, I imagine often how good things could be, and when I pull my head out of the clouds, I become a little sour over the realities of my situation. Maybe the key is being happy with where I am, or taking some pride in the next few steps only, forgetting the past, and worrying less about the out-of-reach future. To believe that the present is just the present, and not the future.