Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Poetry and Mind Reading

I was reading a poem that I didn't quite get, but I could get some sense of the meaning and passion behind it, just out of reach, and it occurred to me that if some sort of mind reading were possible, this is what it would be like: Sometimes a message comes through loud and clear and you get it and can either agree or not, or you can at least appreciate it. And sometimes the set of experiences that you'd need for the thought to speak to you are just slightly skew of your own, and you get some vague impressions but at the end of it all you just can't say what it's about. And usually, even when the meaning is reasonably clear, it takes a little bit of intellectual work to unpack it all. I'm not claiming for a moment that this is an original thought, but when I approach it this way, even poetry I don't get provides me with a neat experience.

This is a switch from my experience as a literature major in college and grad school. So much of my schooling focused on decoding poetry, as if we'd intercepted from the front--"If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two"--"Roger that: the lovers are staying together BRRRSSSCHT!!!" "The white dove sails at dawn" "BRRRSSSCHT!!! Wait--what?!" If you decoded it the same as the professor did, you had succeeded. If you decoded it differently or not at all, you failed. And that's where my discomfort with poetry probably stems from: too much experience of failure. Who likes feeling inept so much?

I've been stumbling across a lot of poetry lately. I suppose discovering Taylor Mali a few months ago reawakened my interest in the form. I don't ever find that I don't know what Mali is talking about. Maybe because he places an emphasis on accessibility, or maybe because, as a teacher, I share enough common background with him that I get what he's talking about.

I'd like to go to a poetry slam sometime, ideally with someone who was into them and knowledgeable. I don't pretend for a moment that I could write anything worthwhile myself, but I'm just enjoying the opportunity to appreciate what others can do. It's a little bit of a relief, actually, to be able to come to art as a consumer only. I think I can maybe appreciate more purely when I'm not thinking about how I would like to do it myself.

And yet . . . and yet part of me wishes I understood the medium better because I'd like to crystallize thought this way. I wrote crappy poetry as a teenager like every angsty, arty kid does. I don't mean that. I mean I wish I had some sense of how to write poetry that captures and evokes something without being self-conscious. Maybe I'd like to experience more poetry in the hopes of getting a sense of how this is done. Lord knows we don't need crappy teen poetry from nearly-forty-year-olds.

Some poetry I've been reading recently, along with how I ended up there:

  • "On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City" by Sherman Alexie. I read this because The Rejectionist posted it on her blog, and I was especially interested because Alexie wrote a YA novel I'm dying to read, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. (You saw what I did there, didn't you?) I have no experience of genocide, but I can thoroughly identify with being a minority who can pass for Anglo, and with having white people say things in front of me they might not say if they realized I wasn't Anglo. So while all of this poem speaks to me, parts of it do so as experiences I share and parts of it as experiences I'm grateful not to share. Here's some more poetry by Alexie:
  • "Love poem in the shape of a cochlear mechanism" by J. Mae Barizo (not a permalink, sorry). I found this poem while looking for more online poetry by Alexie. This poem actually prompted this post, largely because I don't get it. My uncle and aunt are deaf, so I have some passing awareness of what a Cochlear mechanism is and the pros and cons of restoring hearing this way. I feel like I can *almost* sense meaning here, but like I lack some experience that would tie it all together and make it understandable to me. This is what prompted the comparison to mind-reading without the background to make the thoughts intelligible. In the past, coming across a poem like this would make me feel inadequate, like maybe if I were smarter I would get it. This would be followed in short order by anger: This poet is obviously some pseudo-intellectual playing a masturbatory game by stringing together cryptic phrases so that a bunch of snobby elites would stand around and nod thoughtfully, with nobody daring to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Now I'm just appreciating the experience for its very alien-ness.
  • "Narrative 5" by Paul Guest. Another look inside someone else's head. I like the images here, particularly that of the soaked book and the crude drawing of a bus. I feel like a lot of it sails over my head, but that's okay. I ran across his poem when I followed a link to his excellent rant about the idiocy of the new TSA screening procedures, and his uncomfortable experience with them.
  • "Song for an Ancient City" and "To the River," by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Paige Wick, respectively. Elizabeth Bear linked to this page on Twitter, and possibly in her LiveJournal as well. She was linking to "Song for an Ancient City," but I actually found "To the River" more compelling. Later I read here that El-Mohtar wrote "Somg for an Ancient City" as a love song to Damascus and this seemed to emphasize my sense that my ability to "get" poetry depends on my ability to step at least partway into another's shoes*. I'm not going to feel embarrassed if what I took from "To the River" is something other than what Wick intended, or if I missed a world of nuance--because there's the flipside: that our experience of someone else's poetry is our own, neh? I guess the speaker is a ghost or possibly a vampire, but I keyed in on the images of stolen innocence: the ribbon, the knee-socks, the unmade bed. As an adult survivor, these images speak to me. There is a sense, to me anyway, that the speaker is now tempting new victims to the river, which is of course disturbing when I look at the poem in that light. But I focused instead on the confusion embodied in the lines "And I'm hideous and hair-thatched/because I must be trash/for him to throw me to the river/like a used cigarette." Who can't identify with being used and discarded?
Anyway, I don't think I'm fully communicating how much this idea of poetry as imperfect mind-reading changes my appreciation of poetry, but to me it's kind of game changing. It goes beyond a throwaway metaphor. It basically empowers me to enjoy poetry without regard to whether I'm decoding it in the way the author intended, where before I could only enjoy it if it spoke to me perfectly.

*Um, I totally intended to put a footnote here, but now I can't remember what it was. Damn.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Waxing rhapsodic about independent booksellers.

As part of her series on the changes in the publishing industry, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has more or less your typical paean to independent bookstores, along with all the reasons the rise of superstores and Amazon are a bad thing.

Intellectually I know how the prominence of Barnes & Noble limited the possibilities for the midlist author. If the buyer for Barnes & Noble didn't want to carry your book, then the publisher may as well not bother to publish it. And I know how Amazon throws its weight around to demand bigger discounts, resulting, among other things, in less viability for traditional royalty publishers and lower royalties for authors.

Rusch hasn't quite gotten into all of that yet, but she's got a ton of experience in the publishing world, and I don't doubt her observations as a buyer.

I just haven't experienced it the same way myself.

I remember the days before the box stores well, but I only remember one independent bookseller competing with the Waldenbooks and B. Daltons back then in Miami: Books and Books in Coral Gables. Books and Books is still there. As a teenager, I perceived Books and Books as a place I could go experience indifference from the employees, and to find virtually no science fiction and fantasy. Lots of artsy literary stuff, but none of what I liked. I absolutely received more attentive service from the mall chain.

Maybe the only reason they ignored me was because they didn't perceive teenagers as genuine customers; maybe I'd have had a different experience as an adult, or if I'd brought an adult in with me. Maybe their selection of books changed somewhere along the line. Though I don't live in Miami anymore, I have noticed online that most of the genre signings in Miami seem to end up at Books and Books. Does that mean they're friendlier to the genres, that they're friendlier to signings, or that authors are trying to help them out out of some fetish for independent bookstores?

Waldenbooks and B. Daltons had a pretty terrible selection of just about anything, to be sure. They had like a "club" you could sign up for as a genre reader, though. You got some worthless little card that might have scored you discounts on some things, I can't remember. And a little flimsy magazine-type thing that would talk about upcoming books to look for. The staff pretty much kept behind the counter, but they did seem enthusiastic about books and occasionally about science fiction and fantasy.

Bookstop was the first big bookstore I ever encountered. They also did the genre club thing, as I recall, and they sold the discount card like everyone does now. But their selection was huge! I only had a year or two of shopping there before they were eaten up by Barnes and Noble, but again, a huge selection compared to the mall stores. (And compared to Books and Books.) As a reader barely into his twenties, I loved the place.

I haven't had Rusch's bad experience with B&N employees. Of course, I don't ask for recommendations from them, so that might be part of it. For the most part, my interaction with bookstore employees involves asking where this or that title is, or if they plan on ordering something else, and I suppose that interaction looks the same at one bookstore as it does at another. I do often get engaged in casual conversations about the books I'm buying or looking for, and the staff always strikes me as pretty knowledgeable, actually. I've never worked at a bookstore; during the time in my life when I was working for minimum wage, the closest bookstore involved an hour's drive on the interstate. But it has always struck me as a job that attracts people who love reading, and I've always found that very cool.

Now as an aspiring writer, I know I've got a vested interest (or not technically vested yet, I suppose, but certainly an interest) in what happens to book retailers, and in whichever option increases the likelihood of my making money from my writing. So yeah, go independent bookstores. Rah.

And I'm not saying I disagree with Rusch's observations. She's describing her experiences, so she can't possibly be wrong. I just found it interesting food for thought, because I find myself sharing the knee-jerk reaction to Amazon and Barnes & Noble that the literary blogosphere tells me to have. And yet, when I look through my own memories, I've never really experienced that mythical independent bookseller where the light is always golden and they're knowledgeable about my genres and they hand-sell me all sorts of awesome things I'd never find on my own.

(Incidentally, you know where I get my to-be-read titles from? Not booksellers. Blogs. I see stuff that sounds cool and add it to my--wait for it--Amazon Wish List. And then I pull that wish list up on my phone when I'm in a brick and mortar store and find maybe 25% of the things on it. Other stuff I order online when I get around to it. Which does make Rusch's point that while the big box stores have a big selection, they don't have a lot of variety. One bookstore's selection is much the same as another's. Again, I'm not disputing her observations, just noting that I've never known a time when it was substantially better.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I can haz full request?

So I'm easing into the query process, and made this video to blow off some steam.

Any idea what I'm doing wrong?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Checking In

I basically haven't looked at my blog since school started, so I figured I ought to check in lest people think I fell by the wayside when it came to writing too.

This school year has been brutal--the hardest I can ever remember. There is so much paperwork and jumping through hoops. Some of it is punishment for having been a D school for two years--clearly we teachers aren't doing enough. (I'm sure the powers-that-be would take exception to my labeling it a punishment, but the shoe fits, you know?) We also have new textbooks, and I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel at every turn. I've never worked so hard, nor felt like I was accomplishing so little. I feel like the sacrifices I make, the time I put in, the things I do well, are all largely unnoticed. The things I don't get around to, though--because there's so much to do I can't possibly get around to it all--are immediately noticed and commented upon. I get to work at 6:15, on average, and leave at 4 on average, and still feel constantly guilty for every second I'm not working.

Through it all, though, I haven't let the writing slip. In fact, I've done a better job this year of being dedicated to my art and craft than I did last year. Since I'm getting up early to do schoolwork, I'm giving myself the evenings to write. Every night I put in at least a couple of hours, and progress is slow but steady.

Good News: I think I mentioned that Vanishing Act was a finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Award in the category of Unpublished Young Adult Novel. Well it won! First place! So my record in contests continues to be pretty good.

As for the submissions process--some up, some down. I'm submitting to agents at a snail's pace, because it seems better to fire them out in small bursts and be able to use whatever feedback I do get, rather than to blanket the literary world and see what happens. I can still count the number of agents I've queried without taking my shoes off. I've had a grand total of one form rejection, which I think is some kind of awesome, even with as few queries as I've sent out. I got a rejection today from an agent I'd really been crossing my fingers on. It had good feedback on it--good points, though I'm going to have to sleep on things for a bit to figure out how to make the improvements she said the MS needed. (See? Querying slowly was a good call!) To be unbelievably arrogant, I kind of have a feeling someone's going to want to represent this book, but if it doesn't happen, hopefully this agent will like my next manuscript better.

Anyway, I feel like a loser for not updating this blog more, but right now my priorities seem to be work, parenting, writing, and reading. There pretty much isn't room for a fifth thing on my list right now, be it television, going out with friends, tweeting, blogging, or reading other people's blogs. I have a feeling next year won't be much better in that regard, because I'm helping to kick off a new IB program at my school, so I'll be reinventing the wheel yet again. Hopefully someday I'll find myself teaching courses I've taught before, using materials I've used before. Certainly I've been in my career long enough to have reached that point. Now I understand why my father, late in his career, didn't want to take on the opportunity of starting a new Computer Science program at a school that didn't have one.

Speaking of reading: I've been reading Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy. Why is it so hard to find in bookstores? I thought How to Ditch Your Fairy was fantastic, but I think these are better. Razorbill is not exactly a small house, so what the heck gives? Among YA authors, Larbalestier and Janice Hardy are the ones most writing the kinds of books I want to be writing. (Among science fiction writers, in case anyone's keeping score, the list would be Steven Gould--whose writing is often so close to YA as to blur any meaningful distinction--Mary Robinette Kowal, and Elizabeth Bear. I'm probably forgetting someone, but that's who comes to mind.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On perspective, and experiencing your work as a reader

Alternate Title: In which I wax immodest about the manuscript I'm shopping . . .

So I recently had a request for a full from an agent--


Since this is kind of a braggy post, let me gather all my recent brags together. I'll put 'em in spoiler tags, though, in case you don't want to put up with all the immodesty:

» Click to show shameless bragging - click again to hide... «


Ahem. Where were we then? Oh yes, the full request.

I'll never be done working on making this manuscript the best it can possibly be until it's in print (or in the trunk, I suppose), so even though I'm querying for it I'm still trying to polish it as much as I can. It's been a pretty painstaking process, going through one chapter at a time in multiple sweeps looking for different things each time, and from time to time I think I've lost sight of the forest in all these trees.

Before sending the full off, though, I went through to the end tightening wherever I could, temporarily abandoning my slow pace. As I neared the end of the process, I realized that this was the first time in a long time that I had gone through such a large portion of my manuscript in such a short period of time. While I was still working on it and picking at nits and not merely reading for pleasure, I have to say it was a refreshing change in perspective. For the first time in a long time I had a chance to get caught up in the narrative.

If you're in the same situation I've been in--with a completed manuscript you've been picking at from up close that you haven't stepped back and read for a while, I recommend you try reading it through at some point. I found myself experiencing the tension in a way that you just can't when you spend forever looking at each chapter. As I neared the end, I looked back and marveled at all I'd been through with these characters. At all the emotional moments, I found myself getting emotional myself, verklempt both when things went awfully wrong and when things went astonishingly right.

For a lot of my revision process I've been focusing on the things I didn't know when I began, and I've been amazed and embarrassed at my overuse of to be verbs, my cart-before-horse tendency to talk about what characters could see and hear rather than simply showing. When you look really closely at something, especially something you made, you can only see the flaws. Take a step back and maybe you'll see something different. When I had the chance to experience my novel more like a reader might, I felt proud. I felt like I'd created and polished and worked and, in the end, come up with something that was actually pretty good.

Lord knows if anybody else will think so. Maybe I'll get a lot of "close but no cigar" from my agent search. I have to acknowledge that so it doesn't seem like I've got a fat head, because in our society we don't like it when anybody feels too good about themselves. We slap people down for having the hubris to think they're special. But you know what? If you don't believe in your own work, who the heck will?

Friday, August 6, 2010

The big dog is not always the one doing the barking

I'm working on Vanishing Act again, and I came across this piece:

“Yeah, yeah, we heard you kid. You’re not doing it. I’m not talking to you; I’m talking to your old man.” To Steven, he added, “Tell me this wasn’t the easiest money you ever made. What do I always say? Kids are natural born con artists.”

“Says the natural born bullshit artist.”

Why were they staring at him? Oh Jesus, he hadn’t said that out loud, had he?

Chris’s father narrowed his eyes. “Boy, what have I told you about talking to your Uncle Danny like that?”

Chris wished he could disappear right now, but of course that wasn’t how things worked. Fine, then. There was no point in apologizing or backing down. He’d said what he’d said. They wouldn’t forget; they wouldn’t forgive.

“He’s not my uncle.” Chris noticed his hands shaking, and he dropped them into his lap to keep the men from seeing. “He’s not your brother. He’s just your loser friend. And if you were any sort of father, you’d take my side when your buddy comes around trying to make me do bad stuff.” Tears streamed down his face by the time he finished, but he didn’t care. Much. He wiped his nose on a napkin and dropped it on the table in front of him.

Steven’s eyes flashed and he backed his seat away from the table. Chris thought he would get up and beat him right there, but Danny grabbed his forearm and kept him from standing. “Relax, Steve-O,” he said, looking around at the mostly empty restaurant. “The kid’s pulled off his first big job and he’s feeling his oats. He figures he’s a man now, and he can tell us off like an equal.”

Looking around once more, he leaned in and said, “Ain’t that right, boy? You think you’re a man now? Think you’re a big deal? Think you did all those jobs by yourself? Who gave you that busted iPod? Who found the Adamses and set you up there in the first place? Who comes up with damn near every idea for the three of us? Who carried all that stuff out of the Adams’s house while you pretended to be a private school brat? We all did this kid, not just you. You don’t think about what anyone else does because you can’t see past the edge of your own nose. Just like a typical little kid. You think you’re a man now, gonna call me by my first name? You think you’re my equal? Well let me tell you when you’ll be my equal. The day you can kick my ass is the day I’ll treat you like my equal. Until then, you’re nothing but a snot-faced brat.”

Danny flicked Chris’s mucus-filled napkin onto his lap for emphasis and lowered his voice further. “You call me whatever you want if it makes you feel big. You go ahead and tell us what you will and won’t do to help out. But I’ll tell you something: you can’t be with us only part-time. You’re either all in, all the way, or don’t expect to share in the rewards. Don’t go to war with me, little boy. You’ll lose.”

As I worked on this, I realized that there are several instances in the book where Chris's father is ready to physically punish Chris for not showing Danny enough respect, and is prevented from doing so by Danny. I questioned myself when I noticed it. Why did they keep ending up in this pattern? Was I too lazy to write the ugly scene that would otherwise have come next? Is there a nice streak in Danny I've never noticed?

Well, there are plenty of unpleasant scenes in the book, so that's not it. And Danny's definitely the bad guy (or rather, the worse guy). So what's up with his seeming benevolence? For some reason, Danny's actions felt right in these instances, but I hadn't really thought about why.

Once I'd noticed the pattern, though, I thought about it and I think I see why it is the right behavior for Danny. If Chris's father beats Chris into submission for Danny, he's essentially defending Danny. Danny's alpha dog status would be challenged by this. By preventing Chris's father from harming him, Danny asserts superiority over both. He's telling Chris's father what to do, and he's acting magnanimous toward Chris. Only the king can be magnanimous, right? (Or the powerful, anyway. Notice the root word, magnus: great.)

Danny gets his revenge--he always does--but he does it his way, not by having someone defend him.

I didn't think about all this consciously before, but I think I made the right choice by Danny because I was in character. It can be hard to write a bad guy because I don't want to admit that I've got that somewhere inside of me to pull out. But everybody, I think, has it in them to be selfish, petty, and just generally shitty to other people. Maybe instead of being afraid to face this in ourselves, it's more useful to revel in having a safe place to put on this mask and play.

Friday, July 23, 2010


So I recently had a story become a finalist in a literary competition. (Pause for a moment of "Yay me!")


On an entirely unrelated note, I had cause to pull up an old story and read through it. This is a story that has not sold yet, and is pretty much out of pro-paying options. However, it received very nice, personal rejections from some editors at pro markets who complimented my writing and indicated they wanted to see more from me. It was also a finalist in a couple of literary competitions.

You know what? I was stunned at how awful the writing seems to me. My attempts to create tension and hook the reader seem so obvious and hamfisted, my conflict so melodramatic, and I'm embarrassed that I sent this story out to anyone.

I'm also, secretly, a bit thrilled.

Because when I started sending this story out a couple of years ago, I thought it was sooo polished. From a writing standpoint if not a storytelling one, I thought I was at the top of my game. So what I take away from how amateurish it seems to me now is that I've gotten a lot better since then, and that, FSM willing, it won't be long before I break through.

Here is the opening of the old story in question:

Kayla burst through the door and into the night, clutching her prize in her hand. It had worked. It had worked! Now all she needed to do was get back home. Back to her new life.

Her senses seemed to be on high alert as she covered the couple blocks to her parents’ home. On some level, she had been sure something would go wrong, and now everything she saw, from the guy drinking a beer in a paper bag right outside the store to the SUV hurtling past as she jogged along the sidewalk, took on a sinister purpose in her mind. Mostly she looked out for police, or perhaps some dark, unmarked sedan instead. But nothing stopped her, and in less than five minutes she was standing behind the house.

Through the rear window, she could see her mother walking around the kitchen. It looked like she was on the phone. At this hour, her father would be in the living room, watching his CSI: Miami or Criminal Minds or whatever crime drama he was currently obsessing over. They’d be furious if they knew she’d been this close without stopping in to say hello, but there was no time.

She chuckled at the irony in that.

Behind the house, she stood just outside of the faintly glowing edges of the displacement field and eyed it warily as she rested with one hand on her old swing set, catching her breath while the peeling corners of the paint dug into her palm. The field was rotating rather more quickly than it had been twenty minutes ago, and, beyond it, the floor of the laboratory was pitching and yawing—or at least, it seemed to from her vantage point. Clumsy. She could have done better, but then, she was out here.

As she watched, the rotation slowed. The alignment wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t going to be, and she couldn’t wait forever. The floor in her lab was a little more than a foot higher than the grass was, and the wall was in view, setting the course of her landing skew to the path she’d have to take into the displacement field, but she had to move now.

Kayla ran the three steps separating her from the field and jumped. For one blessed second, she was back in the lab. Then the change in gravity hit her. This was still new to her, and she flailed as “back” became “down.” She tottered, and time seemed to slow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dirt behind her house coming up to meet her, and, worse, the neon-colored rim of the displacement field. She could not let that touch her.

“Help me!” she cried out, flailing, thrusting her hands in front of her. And then her breath was taken away by a searing pain and the sweet stench of sizzling flesh she barely had time to recognize as her own. The ticket, fluttering leaflike in the chaos where the air of the yard met the air of the lab, was the last thing she saw before the edge of the field sliced from her right armpit to her left ear.

All that past perfect, signaling that I'm giving backstory. I was so desperate to start with action, but so desperate to dump info there just the same. And an intro that ends in the death of the central character, only to have her alive again after the # break. How provocative! And the clumsy bits of foreshadowing: her chuckling at an irony that the reader can't possibly get yet, or the comments about how inexpertly the displacement field is being handled. I use the word "as" six times here, something I've come to regard as a marker of inexpertly trying to weave action together with info. Sixteen uses of the word "was," which I've come to associate with telling rather than showing. I feel like I was trying so hard.

Here is the intro to a short story I'm working on right now, that I'm maybe a fourth of the way through writing. This story doesn't even have a title yet. It's first draft, not the least bit cleaned up:

The Orinoco’s dark surface twitched and undulated, one eddy gradually separating itself from the otherwise languid film. Carolina edged back into the shadows between the bait shop and the boatyard and maintained her vigil, gripping her father’s revolver with both hands like a talisman. From the other end of the alleyway, strains of an old song by Maná drifted down.

Over the debris that had once formed the retaining wall, a shape rose, shimmery and pink and dripping. Carolina’s eyes reported the scene faithfully, but she blinked anyway, scrunching her eyelids together as though demanding her eyes bring back better information next time. Blink. Slick pink-grey skin, a ridged back with water cascading off, and a long snout. Blink. No, not a snout. A nose. A regular old human nose, though maybe larger than average, and a high forehead. Blink. No, not pink. White like a norteamericano. Whiter than her own caramel skin certainly, but not pink. Blink. And not naked, after all, but wearing clothes so white she could hardly make them out in the twilight. He stood up, clearly a man now, and the moonlight practically reflected off his liquiliqui, especially the silver buttons on his high collar. The silvery light made something else clear: he wore nothing beneath his loose linen pants. Blink. What she had taken to be a high forehead now appeared to be the crown of a llanero hat, with a fashionably narrow brim pulled low.

Carolina sucked in a breath. He was still beautiful. Eight years had worn down her girlhood and left her instead with calluses and worry lines, but he was still the achingly perfect boy she remembered, as though not a day had passed. She crouched behind an empty tank, wrinkling her nose at the shrimp and algae scent, and watched him step past, whistling an upbeat tune she’d not heard before as he swam through the night. When his back was to her, she stepped out and pointed the gun at his back.

“Looking for someone, tonino?” she asked.

Now maybe I'm just full of myself—or maybe I'm full of something else—but this reads so much better to me right now. Only three uses of "as," and two of those are in the context of comparisons, and none to show simultaneous action. Only three uses of the word "was."

I feel like this piece is more vibrant because, while the previous one begins with action, it tells the reader about the action while this one shows it more. I show it through Carolina's eyes, but I try not to use words that give the reader a sense of detachment. I don't indicate that she sees this or that—I just show this or that and assume it's obvious that she's doing the seeing.

It still needs some work. I'm not at all sure the blink paragraph works, and I think the cadence of the first paragraph could be better. And maybe someone reading this blog will think it absolutely sucks. But I like it. I think it's a lot better and that excites me.

Maybe in a year or two I'll think it's horribly amateurish and I'll be embarrassed that I ever bragged on these awful paragraphs. I kind of hope so, because that'll mean I'll have continued to grow as a writer.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Congratulations to my wife on her prize-winning essay!

I don't know that I have any regular readers who aren't already friends with my wife, but just in case I figured I throw a shout-out to her win in the "Pyr and Dragons Adventure" essay contest:


Lots of us who love speculative fiction have similar stories. The particulars differ--I never had asthma or ITP--but the fact that we all found something that fired our dreams and our imagination is pretty constant. In that, I think Lisa speaks for all of us.

So go check the link out if you haven't already, read the essay, and congratulate her!

And if you're going to Dragon*Con, let me know!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On honorary men, stereotypical women, and feminized men

I read some great food for thought on writing and gender over the last couple of days. At sfnovelists, Marie Brennan talked about the tendency of writers to attempt to create "strong female characters" by basically writing "men with tits": characters who act like stereotypical men in every way but the plumbing and the name.

In the comments to Brennan's post, someone linked to an article deconstructing the trope of the Hollywood strong female character. This was the bit that best summed it up for me:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

(I had mixed feelings on the discussion of hot women ending up with schlubby everydudes. While reading the article, I couldn't deny that the author [I could only find the author's online handle, not a real name] was onto something, but the farther I got into the comments the more clear it became that many of the commenters seemed to buy into the myth that looks were the only component of desirability. As a schlubby ugly guy who's nevertheless pretty decent in a lot of ways ;) I beg to differ.)

I also ran across a rather heated debate on Absolute Write on whether it was okay to write gay characters who conformed to gay stereotypes. One of the principals in the discussion claimed to be a gay male who was stereotypically feminine, and his argument was, as I understood it, that people like him existed and shouldn't be swept under the rug in the name of fighting stereotypes.

I've thought a lot about this issue over the years, because it's something I don't want to inadvertently do in my own writing. I seem to be drawn to characters of either sex who fuck with gender expectations. I'm not the most macho of men, so I like seeing sensitive male characters. I'm also drawn to strong females in life as in art. My male characters tend to be sensitive--am I feminizing them? My female characters tend to be strong--are they just boys in drag? And I've not yet gotten around to writing a gay character, but since my tendency is generally to buck stereotypes, that's a tack I could certainly see myself taking.

I don't have any good answers, but in all three discussions I found online this week, the bottom line seemed to be about characterization. At least some of the vitriol in the Absolute Write discussion seemed to come from the fact that the poster suggested writing gays according to stereotype with no real focus on who these characters were--in other words, instead of allowing their characteristics to grow organically from their personalities, to use stereotypes as a code for "this guy is gay." In real life, most people don't conform that perfectly to a whole set of expectations. They'll conform to some and defy others, and which is which is rooted in their personalities and their experiences and who they are.

Likewise in the Overthinking It article and in Brennan's blog post, the emphasis seemed to come down to making the female characters good characters, not on whether they do or do not kick ass. In particular, my eyes lit up when Brennan cited Firefly's Zoe (pictured) as an example of a good strong character of the female variety--and not just because I have a crush on Zoe. Oh yes, she definitely kicks ass, but she is also definitely a real woman, and not a guy in disguise.

As for my own writing, all I can do is try my hardest to do right by my characters, and think of them as real people who come by their personality quirks the hard way. So far I haven't had any complaints, but when I do, hopefully I'll listen with an open mind.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Editorial Anonymous: Countdown: A Conversation with Deborah Wiles

In revision I throw out great wads of the plot (usually the entire second half), but as I do that, the light begins to dawn, I begin to understand who my characters are and what their motivations are, which inform their actions and reactions, and as these things begin coming clear, I go back and layer in foreshadowing and tension.

This novel sounds fascinating--no, I haven't read it, or anything by Deborah Wiles. But this paragraph struck me because it echoes my experience of writing a 129,000 word YA novel and then cutting out 48,000 words of it.

All that stuff I cut? It was useful. It was useful to me because it was time I spent with my protagonist. I didn't consciously think about characterization as much as I'd like to in the future--and yeah, I'd prefer not to chop a third off of my next MS--but in the process of writing all those scenes I was unconsciously working on characterization, if nothing else.

I'm tired of the way people laugh when I tell them my first draft clocked in at 129,000 words. Hello, it's not like I was ignorant of the expectations. I'd already written a YA trunk novel of 90,000 words. And yeah, writing long is something I've always wrestled with.

But I ain't sorry.

The time I spent writing that huge first draft was time well spent. Time getting to know my characters and my setting and the living situations of all the players. Some people walk around the mall holding imaginary conversations with their characters. Some people go off and do firsthand research, living as a migrant worker or whatever. I wrote.

No shame in that.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blue Fire

For anybody who was intrigued by my post about Janice Hardy's Shifter last November, you might be interested to know that the sequel, Blue Fire, is just about ready to come out, and you can win an ARC of it here, but you won't, because I will. :p

Monday, July 12, 2010

On the (un)importance of getting everything right

I have a tendency sometimes to research myself into a corner. I don't want to get something wrong, so I come up with all the flaws in my story ideas and try to torture my stories into working around these flaws. And I've certainly had the experience as a reader of getting annoyed at a story that touched on something that I am knowledgeable about and Got It Wrong.

But I'm starting to think you can make a fetish of accuracy and take it too far. Recently I read a couple of stories that touched on areas I am knowledgeable about and got things wrong . . . and worked anyway.

I think many of us are passionate about the things we're "experts" in--that's why we're experts in the first place, sometimes. Maybe it's a musical instrument you play or your ethnic background or your religion or your occupation. Maybe it's a language you speak. With me these areas include (but are probably not limited to) my culture and first language, the religion I grew up in, teaching, the geography of places I've lived . . .

When I was a kid my parents used to watch a lot of cooking shows on PBS. We were a one television family for much of my childhood--and I never had a TV in my room--so I either watched what they watched or I watched nothing at all. So I grew up with more than my share of Julia Child and Yan Can Cook and the Galloping Gourmet. My favorite among these shows--pretty much the only one I could stand, actually, was Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. I didn't give much of a damn about cooking--though maybe these shows laid the groundwork for my cooking as an adult--but Jeff Smith didn't just give recipes. He gave stories and history and bits of folklore about every recipe and about the people who ate whatever dish he was presenting. I loved the stories.

Until he did an episode on Cuban Cooking! Oh my goodness he got everything so wrong! He explained how Cubans and Mexicans pronounce "tamales" differently--um no, USians pronounce it differently, and incorrectly surmise their pronunciation is how Mexicans actually pronounce it. Then he showed how to make a Cuban Sandwich--with mayonnaise and salami! Ugh! (Yes, some restaurants make Cuban Sandwiches like this. They are wrong.) Along with my sense of outrage of seeing him get my culture and my food wrong was this thought: what else had he been getting wrong over the years? How could I trust now that any of his other stories were more authentic than the ones he told about Cubans?

I never looked at the show quite the same way again.

But here's the thing--if I had wanted to cook authentic food, I could see how that mattered. But when it came to enjoying his stories, did it make them any less enjoyable if they weren't totally accurate or well-researched?

Getting back to food, when I eat at a restaurant that is not Cuban, I really don't care how authentic the food is--I care if I like how it tastes. I know most of the Asian and Mexican food I eat is inauthentic, and I'm okay with that. For some reason, though, it drives me nuts when an allegedly Cuban restaurant serves a bunch of spicy dishes or makes a dish wrong.

And okay, if you get a detail wrong in your story, experts in that field will howl. But will most people care?

I suppose they will if it's something so fundamental that lots of non-experts know you blew it. And why tick off even the experts if you don't have to? There's nothing wrong with getting things as right as you can. Sure, that's a virtue.

But maybe it's good to remember sometimes that telling a good story is what it's really about.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How do you want to be remembered?

Thursday I was able to get away from work for a few hours to attend my kids' fifth grade graduation. (Who schedules an event like this at 9:30 in the morning?! Are those of us who actually work for a living such a small minority around here?)

Since I was giving a final exam until 9:15, I got there with literally seconds to spare before the ceremony began. The graduation was in the school's gymnasium, and I didn't even bother trying to find a seat in the bleachers, because I basically would have had to walk in front of the action to do so. I was able to find a nice spot to stand in the wings, and I've never minded standing. (I pretty much do it all day anyway.) Shortly after I got there, a guy with a camcorder showed up and decided that smack in front of me was the perfect spot for him to shoot the entire ceremony from, so for most of the event, this was my view:

Anyway, I spend the week or two leading up to the graduation trying not to be too cynical about it in front of my kids. Seriously, though, why do we need to many graduations? Before my kids ever get to high school, they will have graduated three times from the very same school! Seriously: there was kindergarten graduation, now elementary school graduation, and in three years middle school graduation, but they go to a K-8! And I was annoyed at some of the expensive ways this was turning into a big deal. For instance, there was an expectation that the girls would wear a nice dress, but they have occasion to wear such a dress maybe once before they outgrow it. I couldn't see buying fancy dresses just for this.

They actually had nice dresses from last summer that they could just barely still squeeze into, but we were worried that the straps on them would be too thin for the school's dress code. They also had nice shoes, but they could not wear those because they were backless. This has been a tough few years for teachers in this state, with pay cuts, cuts in benefits, and rising prices on everything, so the idea of buying new things when we actually had stuff they could wear was doubly aggravating. Seriously, if you've decided this is such a big event that they need to dress up for it, then suspend the parts of your dress code that would rule out a lot of nice clothes. In the end, we went with the dresses they had, but we bought new shoes. We couldn't find any that were dressy and closed back and flat while still being a good fit, so we also had them wear bobby socks with them. I thought that would work fine, but I'm embarrassed to report that they're the only girls who wore socks. :-/

Rather than imitate a high school graduation to the hilt, they had each teacher introduce the kids in his or her class. As the kids crossed the stage, they were handed the microphone and they told the audience either one thing they were looking forward to in middle school or one thing they'd like to be remembered for. I thought that was a nice twist.

So as I stood there listening to kids giving their little soundbites and watching the head of the guy in front of me, I turned the question on myself. What would I like to be remembered for? (I'm not planning on going anywhere any time soon, but then, my kids aren't planning on leaving their school for three years either, so I guess the question is just as relevant to me as it is to them.)

I don't need to be remembered as talented or successful. I hope people remember me as generous and as hard-working. I think I am these things, but I often feel that other people don't notice it. I'm not necessarily showy in the things I do, so sometimes I work really hard on something and people assume it was easy, or sometimes my definition of generous doesn't seem to match that of other people. (For instance, as a teacher, I don't define generous as "giving everybody good grades." I define it in terms of generosity with my time and effort.)

So what about you, my three or four regular readers? What do you want to be remembered for?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Middle Grade Musings

One of the books I ordered from that amazing sale was categorized under Young Adult but was really Middle Grade. I read it yesterday with an eye toward whether or not I could write straight-up MG, since I already tend toward the young end of YA.

I'm not going to name the book here, not because I have anything bad to say about the novel per se, but because I'm focusing more on my own reaction to it, and I'd hate to come across as being critical of the book when that's not my intention.

In tone, this felt a lot like pieces I *have* written--just not long pieces. I don't know if I could write like this for sixty or seventy thousand words. I think I could; I'm not sure how much I'd like it, though. One thing that helped mitigate that twee-ness I often pick up from MG writing is that it was in first person. The young narrative voice helped keep it from having that grandmotherly voice that grates on me. Actually, it reminded me of short humorous pieces I wrote when I was about the same age as the protagonist--when I was a ninth grader.

It was innocent in content--not that this comes as a surprise. High school freshmen in MG books apparently crush all the time, but they never think overtly sexual thoughts or make overtly sexual statements. Or even much innuendo. They say "damn" and "crap" and possibly "hell," but nothing stronger than that. These don't read like real-life freshmen--they read like middle-schoolers (and innocent middle-schoolers at that), which is to be expected, given that middle-schoolers are the target readers.

There are other considerations beyond tone, though. I think the biggest one for me is the scale of the conflict. This book was about beginning high school, and all the changes that come with that. Now I know some MG books have higher stakes--life and death, even. On the one hand, the relatively low stakes in this book worked with the faintly humorous voice of the narrator. On the other hand, it made it hard for the book to grab my interest at first. There wasn't much happening beyond middle school friends drifting apart, crushes, new friends, and so forth. I would have liked a bit more adventure. Eventually the emotional stakes got high enough to carry me through to the end, but I could see some readers not making it that far.

So the bottom line? I don't know any more than I did before whether I could write on the MG side of the divide. I think I could hit that tone and keep the content down. What I'm not certain of is that I could come up with a plotline that would hold my own interest. In the bookstore, YA's are far more likely to intrigue me than MG's, but I'll keep my eyes open and keep learning the genre. Maybe Barnes and Noble with have another awesome sale.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tension on Every Page

A couple years or so ago, I was reading a writing resource that advocated listing various elements about each scene in your novel--I no longer remember exactly what, characters, time, whatever, and conflict. That is, what conflict was occurring in each scene. It said, in passing, that any scene without conflict should be scrapped.

At the time, I blew it off. It was just the sort of impracticable writing advice that vague how-to's were full of. How can you possibly have conflict in every scene? Sometimes you have other things you need to achieve in a scene--bring characters together, have a character investigate something, lay the groundwork for something you're going to need later, you name it.

Of course, that's how I ended up writing a 120,000-word YA novel with lots of boring scenes that didn't carry their weight. *grin* Over the course of cutting off forty-thousand words, I slowly and painstakingly learned that this was actually pretty good advice. But conflict doesn't have to be between people. And even if it is between people, it doesn't have to be overt. So what we're talking about here isn't so much conflict as it is tension. If I'd understood that, I would have written a better novel in the first place, and the revision process wouldn't have been as painful as it's been.

I've done a pretty good job of pulling unnecessary scenes, but this week I ran across a bit that wasn't working for me. Chris is staying with Michelle and Paul Adams, the marks. He needs to stay with them long enough for a relationship to form that will make it hard to con them, and I need to show this relationship developing. Chris also needs to learn the location of the key to a rifle case in which the Adamses keep some Civil War-era rifles Danny and Steve want to steal. So quality-time relationship-building, and finding stuff. The scenes are necessary, but where's the conflict come in?

In retrospect the answer is pretty obvious. What I'm doing is trimming back on the description, of which there's too much, and ramping up the tension. The tension comes from Chris misinterpreting every signal he gets from the Adamses, based on a lifetime of interaction with Danny and Steve:

Paul obviously wanted to chat, but Chris had no idea what to say. Paul seemed nice and sort of funny, but other than baseball, Chris had no idea what he was interested in. And Chris knew next to nothing about baseball.

Well, it was something, anyway. “So do the Braves play again soon?” he asked.

Paul chuckled. What, was it a stupid question? “From April through September, they play nearly every day.” Of course it was a stupid question. Chris felt his face heat up. Whatever, I don’t really like baseball anyway.


Chris got the sense Paul was trying to get him interested in something--several times, he offered to buy Chris whatever he was looking at. Chris declined as politely as he could each time--although it was particularly hard to say no in the bookstore. He’s not really being generous, Chris reminded himself. He’s trying to buy you. Anyway, it was easy to be generous if you were rich; it didn’t really mean anything. Chris’s father would probably have loved to buy him all sorts of things, if he had the money. Probably.


When they got to a store that sold nothing but baseball caps, though, Paul insisted on buying Chris a fitted Atlanta Braves cap, and would not listen to his objections. Fine, thought Chris. You’re not buying it for me. You’re buying it for you.

Here's another bit:

Finally, mercifully, the game was over. Paul made a show of throwing away the scorecard, saying it didn’t matter who won or lost, they were just playing for fun.

“Fifty-three to eighty-four,” muttered Chris.


“Fifty-three to eight-four. You won.” In case you weren’t sure. “If you didn’t care what the score was, why did you write it down after each hole?”
Paul held out a placating hand. “I don’t know. They give you a card and a pencil, and it’s just what everyone does. It didn’t even occur to me not to. But it’s not like it matters. Who cares who won?”

“Sure,” said Chris. Whatever you say.

Last one, I promise:

Ah, so that was it. “Well I’m sorry,” said Chris. “It looks like you’ll have to find some other kid to live out your sports fantasies through.”

Paul’s eyes widened. He’s going to hit me now, thought Chris.

Anyway, these aren't quite as cleaned up as they could be--I see some repetitive phrasing and way too much use of the characters' names--but the point is that I get all the interaction and relationship-building. In fact, the relationship-building is arguably deeper because now it repeatedly sets up Chris's expectations and repeatedly showcases how the Adamses are different from the kind of family he is used to.

I wish I'd had a better understanding years ago of how conflict and tension could--and should--underlie any scene, even one that wasn't overtly about disagreement.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Juno Good Characterization When You See It

I just saw the movie Juno for the first time last night. I remember hearing it was very good when it was new, but I don't get out to theaters much and I miss a lot of movies. Eventually this movie slipped out of theaters and out of my consciousness. Just one more flick my artsy friends liked that I never got around to seeing, along with Bend it Like Beckham and Whale Rider. But then one of the cable channels, I forgot which, started advertising that they were going to show the film, which reminded me of its existence, except I don't like to watch movies on broadcast TV because of commercials, editing, and lack of widescreen, so I rented it on iTunes instead. See industry people? Make stuff available for free and people will pay to enjoy it instead. Paradoxical, but seemingly true. (It's funny how I can't stand iTunes for music, what it's intended for, but absolutely love it for renting movies.)

I enjoyed the movie the whole way through, but at first I was enjoying it as just another quirky comedy. Somewhere near the end it dawned on my that I was actually seeing an excellent movie. Afterward, I read up on Juno's critical reception and box office performance. I saw that it won the Oscar for best screenplay for Diablo Cody, which surprises me not at all, and I saw discussion of its portrayal of abortion--which it really did handle sensitively enough that you can think it's pro-whatever-your-side is, regardless of what side you're on. I saw praise for its humor and its dialogue and the performances. What I didn't see much mention of was its characterization.

This may be the best example of characterization I have ever seen. All the stock sentiments about how to create excellent characters, which never come with specifics on how to accomplish them, are carried off here. No major character is a villain, even when some of them are at odds with Juno. The primary and secondary characters are all dynamic, and we gradually learn bits about them, and can see the strengths and flaws of each. The canard that each character is the star of his or her own story is actually brought to life here, as each was treated, again, with respect and sensitivity and none was merely a stand-in for the author to beat up for the sake of making a point.

When I was done watching the movie I tried to mentally retrace how Cody accomplished this--I mean, these are the things everyone says to do, but I rarely see them accomplished this well. It's one thing to say you should treat your secondary characters, and even your adversarial characters, with respect, but actually accomplishing this is rarer. How can I learn from Juno?

Um, here there be spoilers, obviously.

Here's what I've come up with: For the first half of the movie or so, every character actually slides right in to a stock role. Juno is your typical intelligent, brash-mouth, eccentric, sassy teen heroine. She mocks pop culture and high school life and gives us a cheeky narration of the world as she sees it. I've seen her at least a dozen times before. Bleeker is the typical sweet nerd who straddles the line between boy friend and boyfriend. He's awestruck by Juno, obviously in love, and she can't see it. On the other hand, he's too passive to do anything about it. Juno's father is the standard over-indulgent beleaguered dad. Her step-mother is your typical slightly-theatening, not-entirely-welcome step-mother. When she meets Mark and Vanessa, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby, Mark is that sweet, understanding adult who can see past Juno's quirkiness because he still hasn't lost his connection to his own youth. He's the cool dad figure. Vanessa is his shrewish wife who forces him to confine his youthful expressions to one room in his house that she has granted him, where he can keep his guitars and his posters and stuff. She seems a little flaky in her intense desire for a baby. She reads all the baby books and prepares months in advance while Mark advocates a little more common sense. She is the working woman who criticizes work-from-home Mark for not holding up his end of the workload even though he appears to earn more money than she does. She's too serious, while Mark hasn't lost his playful side. We can see that they're headed for problems, but the problems all appear to be Vanessa's fault. All very stock characters in stock interactions. If the movie had kept going in the direction it was headed it would have been entertaining enough, but not necessarily a Very Good Movie.

Sounds like I'm undercutting my point here, huh? But the thing is, it felt to me as though Diablo used those stock roles as our introduction to the characters to give us a handle on them. And maybe that answers the question of how to pull off deep, dynamic characters. Because you can't really front-load all the things that make your characters unique snowflakes, can you? You try to give it all at once and all you have is a messy hodge-podge. But isn't the way it plays out in Juno actually more like how we get to know people in real life? You meet someone, and you immediately pigeon-hole them, not because you're bad or shallow, but because your brain needs to figure out how the world fits together. So this person is a jock or a joker or an artist or a brainy type or an asshole or a drunk or dumb or a minority. I think we first see people as typical whatevers, and I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with that. Then we get to know them as individuals and see how they diverge from that typical role we've classified them as, and the people who become important in our lives become far too complex to possibly boil down to a central characteristic. The loudmouth drunk at the bar that we never see again, though, remains nothing but a loudmouth drunk, as though he has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. The teacher whose class we couldn't wait to get out of remains nothing but a bitch who finds fault in our best efforts, and we neither know nor care about who she is when she leaves the classroom. (For that matter, Beeker's mother is never anything but a nasty, judgmental lady, because she's not central to the story. If she were, we'd probably see the reasons for her bad characteristics and we'd also see her redeeming virtues.) We do stereotype, and I think this is a necessary feature--our brains' only way of making sense of the world. We are freed from those stereotypes to the extent that we remember that they aren't actually the sum of anybody's being, and to the extent that we remain open to revising our generalizations with specific information.

So what I think Cody gives us those easy characterizations on purpose so that we have a starting point, and spends the second half of the movie subverting them one by one. I kept seeing a scene begin and thinking I knew exactly where it was going, and then being surprised when it went somewhere else instead.

The first moment that surprised me was when Juno's stepmother accompanied her to the ultrasound. I was a little surprised to see her there at all, because I had the impression that Juno and she were not close, but I chalked it up to her wanting to have a woman-to-woman moment with her. But then her stepmother reams out the ultrasound technician for making a judgmental remark--it's a beautiful thing, not a hysterical shouting fit but a cold, calculated verbal take-down--and I think, whoa, she's not such a bitch! Or rather, she's a bitch, but she's a good bitch! She doesn't hate Juno or see her as a distracting reminder of her husband's first marriage--she actually cares for her.

The next scene that didn't play out as I foresaw was when Juno and Leah see Vanessa at the mall. I expected them to mock her from a distance, since some antipathy between Juno and Vanessa has already been set up. Or I expected Juno to see that Vanessa was an unfit mother, as she ran around with . . . I think it was her young niece. It was actually a weird moment of . . . crap, I can't think of the right word. I'm going to go with paradigm-shifting: I'm watching this scene and trying to fit it into my preconceived notion of where it's going. Vanessa is running around with this kid and I think she's going to try too hard, show her desperation for a kid by smothering her niece with attention and create an unpleasant scene. But it doesn't happen . . . they just have fun together. Then she runs into Juno and I'm thinking she's going to display her paranoia by accusing Juno of stalking her, but it doesn't happen. Then Juno invites her to feel the fetus kicking, and it seems as though the fetus won't kick for Vanessa, though it will for everyone else, and this seems like it's going to make a point about Vanessa's unfitness to be a mother. Juno encourages Vanessa to talk to her fetus, and a tender-awkward scene ensues, and I'm waiting for Vanessa to screw it up, but she doesn't. And then the scene ends and I realize it didn't play to my expectations. It was awkward, yes--so's real life. In the end we see Vanessa not as this shrill rival but as a person, with faults and virtues, who happens to want very badly to be a mother.

But the scene that really subverted my expectations was Juno's last scene inside Mark and Vanessa's home. In keeping with my expectations of Juno as a sassy teen and Mark as a warm, friendly older guy, I'm expecting that Juno's mom or Vanessa are going to perceive something creepy about the friendship between Juno and Mark when there isn't, because they Just Don't Understand. But then Juno and Mark are alone in his house and they're getting closer and closer--uncomfortably close. And I'm watching the scene, revising my expectations, and thinking, okay, Juno, because she is naive, has fallen in love with Mark, but he doesn't realize what's going on in this scene because he thinks of her as a kid, or because he thinks nothing can happen with her because she's pregnant. She's going to embarrassingly cross some line, and he's going to have to pick up the pieces and that's where this is going . . . . Only that wasn't it at all. Instead, it's Mark who has developed an attraction for Juno, and Juno who didn't see it coming because she saw him as this safe adult, and it's Juno who is most definitely Not Okay with this. Because, sure, Mark is this fun-loving kind guy who has not lost his youthful side, but he's also, we now see, shallow and immature and not yet ready to act like a grown-up. And yet, he has a point when he defends himself in the inevitable confrontation with Vanessa--just because she decided she was ready to have a child didn't mean he was ready for the same thing. (Of course, a grown-up, a man, would have communicated with his wife before it got to this point. Vanessa is controlling because Mark can't or won't communicate.) Mark's the closest thing to a villain in this movie, because there's just no getting around his inappropriate attachment to a sixteen-year-old, but we do see his virtues and his side of things, even if in the end we conclude that he's kind of a jerk. (But again the reversal, because we spend half the movie thinking he's cool and Vanessa's awful.)

There isn't as clear-cut a moment of reversal with Juno's father. He's sweet throughout. But at first he seems to be played as your stereotypical Stupid Dad, and we see through his conversation with his wife when Juno's not there, and with how he deals with Juno throughout the movie, that he's not stupid at all. He's actually one of the few smart, loving dad figures in film.

So, to sum up, Diablo Cody seems to use standard character tropes to get us into the story, to introduce us to the characters, and then spend the rest of the movie subverting those tropes, and fleshing out the major characters through scenes that defy our expectations.

Can this be applied to every kind of story? I don't know. I think it necessarily changes a story when you portray all the characters as people trying to walk their journeys to the best of their abilities (whether they're flawed or not). In Vanishing Act, Uncle Danny is a villain. There's no doubt about that. I tried to flesh him out, and to understand his rationalizations for why he acts the way he does, but he's really just a jerk. Chris's father is half villain and half spineless loser. As the story progresses, you may learn more about the characters and why they are as they are, but I don't know that I ever really subvert who they seem to be. (And that's hardly unique. Most stories don't.) If I had it to do over again, where would the story go if I decided to make things not be as they appear? I guess I'd have to start with more sympathetic portrayals of Danny and Steve, if I want Chris to end up where he does. Maybe have Paul and Michelle seem more like clueless marks at first. (Now I find myself wondering if Cody planned the reversals at first, or if she got halfway through a typical teenage dramedy and then just decided halfway through that it would be more interesting if, in the words of Wierd Al, "everything you know is wrong."

I don't know. Food for thought, neh?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nick and Norah Have Way More Glamorous Lives Than You had a fantastic sale on YA books last weekend--basically the sort of stuff that usually ends up on the bargain shelf near the front of the the store. They had three books for $9.99, in many cases hardcovers, and so I decided this was a good chance to expand my reading in the field.

They had almost no YA speculative fiction, though--or at least, almost none that wasn't about vampires or otherwise unappealing to me--so I ended up with a couple of books that are outside of what I write.

The books arrived yesterday, and I went ahead and read through one of them--the thin Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. I chose it partly *because* it was so thin--if this book is much over 60,000 words, I'll eat my laptop--and partly because I'd seen and been intrigued by the movie poster already. (Say, whatever happened to that movie? Did it come out and tank? Has it not come out yet? Also, why does every book get turned into "A Major Motion Picture"? If every book is "a major motion picture," doesn't that make it a little less "major"? Will I ever see a book cover boasting "Now a Run-of-the-Mill Motion Picture"?)

The title is an effective one, for me anyway; I think I was hooked from the first time I read it on the poster. It's hard to explain why it works for me, but I think the crux is that it's so unconventional, it suggests the movie/novel with have an offbeat sensibility that will resonate well with me.

The book wasn't really all that offbeat. The narrative was a bit unconventional, largely because of the way it was co-authored. Apparently Rachel Cohn and David Levithan took turns writing chapter by chapter, alternating the POVs of the two protagonists. (I'm under the impression that Levithan wrote Nick's chapters and Cohn wrote Norah's, but I'm too lazy to double-check.) I thought Levithan did a fantastic job of setting Cohn up with hooks at the end of most of the Nick chapters--it reminded me of that improv game where one comedian throws another one a total blindside right before turning the story over, just to see the other react.

As I mentioned, this was outside of my usual reading habits--which is cool. I used to read much more widely than I do now. This is very much in the genre of teen romance that has become so hot in the last two or three years. I have read a little romance, but not the teen variety. I also read enough *about* the teen romance scene on the blogosphere that it's refreshing to see one partly written by a male author, and featuring a sensitive male protagonist.

I've been hearing for two or three years that YA titles had gotten a lot more racy, and not really seen evidence for that in my own YA reading. But then, the YA I read is almost exclusively speculative fiction. With this book, I did see evidence for that. There were three instances of frustrated near-fellatio, neither of the protagonists is a virgin, and the casual assumption that virtually no eighteen-year-old is seems evident. The assumed audience for YA novels is two or three years younger than the protagonists are, so my own kids are a bit young for this book yet. Would I want them reading it in three or four years? um . . . I don't know. I can see parents of intelligent, well-read, sophisticated teens being okay with it. I guess it depends on the kid and the parent and the level of discourse that already goes on between the two.

There's also a sense, I think, that artistic lives are somehow more pure than more mundane lives, as evidences by the unquestioned disdain the characters feel for people with corporate jobs midtown. Hey, somebody has to do those jobs. We can't all be Bohemians.

I rather enjoyed the opening hook--Nick, a bassist in a "queer-core" band, sees his ex-girlfriend show up at the end of one of his shows, and, in order to avoid confronting her after the show, asks the girl standing next to him, Norah, to be his five-minute-girlfriend. The plot takes some interesting twists to extend their time together, bit by bit, until they end up spending pretty much the whole night together, going from one New York spot to another. The major tensions are more or less resolved two-thirds of the way through, and the remainder drags on and verges on anticlimactic. We have the last of the near-fellatios, the decision by the protagonists to wait before introducing sex to their relationship, and a rather contrived minor tension where Norah begins to wonder if Nick might be gay. But we pretty much know their relationship will continue beyond this first night.

I have to think I read this book the way it was meant to be read. I began reading it around eleven at night, and finished around two in the morning. I recommend reading it this way, as it lead me to feel that my own body mirrored the protagonists' tiredness, beginning their adventure at what could easily have been the end of an already-eventful night, and their happy exhaustion by the end of the story. It's such a short book that you can read it in a single sitting, and the extended denouement doesn't really bother you that much.

I also enjoyed the setting, since I love New York City so much--although Nick's ridiculous luck in finding free parking in the city strains credulity.

The insert of full-color photos in the middle of the book was a delightful bit of nostalgia for me. I can't remember the last time I read a book that included "scenes from the movie," but it's certainly been a long time. And yet, the photos irritated me because I could see from the captions that the filmmakers made significant changes to the plotline, and that those changes appeared to make the film more formulaic. It's funny how that always seems to happen, isn't it?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Permission to write crap

I've never been big on the whole philosophy of turning off your inner editor and letting yourself write crap and fix it later. Forever ago when I wrote Prototype I tried doing just that, and the results were disappointing. Writing had always tended to come easily for me, but I found myself stuck at the beginning of this book, feeling like someone had shut off a valve in me and the words just wouldn't flow. So I did what I'd always heard other people talking about and just plowed ahead, figuring I could fix it later. In the end, I wasn't very happy with what I wrote, and I don't feel like I ever quite fixed it either.

With Vanishing Act I didn't set out giving myself permission to write crap. That doesn't mean I wrote wonderfully polished stuff either. Many times crap is what I did write, but it was the best crap I was capable of turning out at the time. I've done a ton of revision, as I've attested to here, so this post is certainly not about writing stuff so good you don't need to revise. But I came to feel that if I gave myself permission to write stuff I thought was crap at the time, then crap was precisely what I would write, and I found decrapping crap to be excruciating and verging on impossible.

Years after Prototype when this whole NaNoWriMo thing came into popularity, I just figured "different strokes for different folks." Maybe some people really need the freeing effect of telling themselves to just get something down. That didn't seem to be how I worked.

I think I may be coming around.

I've put so much work into revising Vanishing Act, which used to be over fifty percent longer than it is now, that I think I've finally learned some lessons which couldn't seem to sink in before. I'm starting to get much better at finding prose that is not tight, and, more importantly, I'm starting to put my finger on what makes a scene boring or irrelevant. Revising was excruciating when it consisted of recognizing that something was crap but not having a clue in a bucket how to fix it. The other day it struck me that I've finally gotten a bit of a handle on how to decrap crap.

So next time I write something new instead of revising, I'm going to experiment with turning off that inner editor. It might be freeing. We'll see.

As for NaNoWriMo and the folks who preach "Give yourself permission to write crap," the one caveat I'll add to that is that if you don't spend a ton of time revising--as much time as you spend revising as you spend writing, probably, crap is still all you'll end up with. (Unless you're much luckier or more talented than I am.) I'm only now starting to feel like I have some of the tools to fix my own worst writing. If I were less obsessive, how would I pick up those tools? Books are wonderful, but I've learned that I can read advice that is true and useful and learn nothing until something makes me get it--not in my head, but down in my bones. (I know there's a NaNoReviseMo, but somehow I don't see as many people talking about participating in that.)

Revising is not a heady rush of artistic inspiration, but it may just be that it's in revising that you learn how to write.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

If you get stung in your dreams, can you go into anaphylactic shock in real life?

I've always been jealous of my wife's dreams. She gets scenes, characters, hell, entire plotlines. She wakes up and says, "I had this awesome dream! I have to write this!" Her plots seem to just come to her, while I have to work for mine.

Like most people, probably, I tend not to remember my dreams, and to think I didn't have any. I've read that everyone has dreams, and if you think you don't you're just not remembering them, but it's probably not unreasonable to suppose the fact that I get so little sleep plays a factor in either my frequency of dreaming or my ability to remember them. Maybe when I do sleep I have to sleep more deeply or something.

When I do remember my dreams, they're of the most pathetic and mundane variety. I kid you not, I dream I'm grading papers, or teaching, or driving my kids somewhere. Maybe I don't remember 'em because they're so damn unmemorable. I also get the universal stress dreams. My most frequent one seems to be of the oh-no-I-forgot-to-put-on-pants variety. (What's odd about that one is I'm always terrified that everyone's going to notice, but pretty much nobody ever does. I become a master of misdirection and hiding. Hmm. Maybe there's a story there.)

Once in a long while, like maybe every year or two, I have a truly awful dream, and I discovered years ago that I had kind of an interesting ability when it came to dreams like that.

The night before last, for example, I dreamt that I was doing some spring cleaning (see?!) and while I was cleaning an outdoor storage compartment (which we don't actually have) I disturbed an enormous hive of wasps. Now you have to understand that wasps fill me with the most unmanly terror. The worst thing about being an adult is that I can't run to someone else when I find a wasp's nest; being the one who has to face them down pretty much is my definition of being a grown-up.

Anyway, this nest seems to have been the deathstar of wasps, because I was being chased by dozens of them (I'm pretty sure bees congregate in numbers but wasps don't, but I didn't have time to argue with my dream logic, mmkay?) I was also dimly aware that I may have released other wasps into my home, but I had my own problems at the moment. In real life wasps aren't all that fast, and you can outrun them if you run ten or twenty feet or so, but these suckers were tenacious. I was sprinting (well, as best a two-hundred-and-mumblety pound guy can sprint, anyway) and each time I looked back, they were still on my tail. Most of them hadn't stung me yet, though two or three might have gotten me, but I knew that I didn't have a lot of endurance, and there was no way I'd be able to keep this up for long. Any second now, I would lose my steam and get stung by an epic number of angry wasps.

And then my brain did this strange thing it's done a handful of times in the past. As I was running, I had this moment of This isn't actually happening you know. This is a dream, and I don't have to accept this outcome. I can wake up.

So I did, and I lay there in the darkness with my heart pounding for a while before I decided to get up and get some grading done.

As I mentioned, this isn't the first time I've opted out of an unpleasant dream. I remember doing it once when I dreamt that my father was dying, and another time when I dreamt I was going to jail for something I didn't do. And other times I can't specifically recall. I always thought it was kind of cool that I could do that. I don't really know a thing about lucid dreaming, but this seemed to have that sort of quality of exercising control over your dreams.

As I was driving to work in the morning, it struck me that this "feature" had a downside. Maybe the reason I never dream storylines is because I can opt out of unpleasantness in my dreams. How can you have a story without unpleasantness? My wife's dreams have characters getting tortured, captured by enemies, accused of crimes, discovering they're clones. Hell, I wouldn't make it halfway through one of her dreams, and so I can't possibly make it to the cool resolution either!

I actually have gotten ideas from dreams from time to time, but they're always premises or things like that, not full blown plots with conflicts and resolutions.

I wonder if there's a way to train my brain to not wake up, but to work out the happy ending to whatever awful situation it generates.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Where do I begin . . .

I keep thinking of things I should post to my blog, and then I never seem to get around to it. Then when I finally get time, I sit in front of the computer trying to remember what amazing insight I had and coming up empty.

I've been getting a lot of great revision done on Vanishing Act lately. I've crossed another milestone on the way down, and now I'm at 82,000 words. I really am finding that now, months later, it's easier for me to make some of the tough changes.

You're not supposed to blog about this, because allegedly agents and/or editor sometimes look up the blogs of people they're considering, and you don't want them to know how long you've been looking for or how many people have rejected you, but I sent out my very first query/partial for Vanishing Act Friday. (I guess if a really long time passes without a bite, I can always come back and edit this line out.)

While I was out, I also mailed off submissions for a writing contest for me and for my wife. There's kind of a funny story, there. I wanted to keep working on making my manuscript better for as long as I could, right up until the deadline. There were some specific searches I wanted to get done for junk words, passive constructions, and so forth. Like any metropolitan area I'm familiar with, we have a late night post office at the airport, where I tend to run things when I'm up against a postmark deadline. So I went into Friday night fully intending to get our submissions to the post office some time between 11 pm and midnight. I worked backward, figuring I should try to get there by eleven, to leave some cushion. I figured on a half hour of driving, so I should leave home by 10:30. I figured I'd give myself an hour to do all the printing and formatting (that may seem like a lot, but the contest had very specific guidelines. Names removed from manuscripts, a thirty word bio, a thirty word logline, three copies of the first fifty pages, and so forth. So I figured I wanted to be done trying to revise by nine or nine-thirty.

Well I'm not sure where the time went--I think putting the manuscript together took even longer than I allowed for--but I ended up leaving the house at 11:30. I got to the post office at 11:56, and ran in with my four packages. There wasn't a deadline really on the agent submission, so I did the three contest submissions first. As each postmarked stamp came out of the machine, I checked the date and did a little dance for each one that came out April 30th. When I finally did the one for the agent submission, it came out postmarked May 1.


Okay, maybe that was a bit closer than I intended to cut it.

Then again, I have friends who congratulate you if you get a tax refund of zero, because that means you avoided giving the government any more of your money than they were entitled to. I suppose you could call this a win, because I literally got every last possible second of revision in on these contest entries before I sent them out.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sometimes you can't simply tweak something

This morning's struggle was this paragraph, still in the first third of the book (I'm looking forward to getting past chapter eight or so, where I feel like the writing really improved. Right now revising feels too much like rewriting.

Anyway, here goes:

The bookshelves lining two entire walls of the study held almost as much interest for him as the rifle cabinet did. Paul or Michelle, or perhaps both, liked to read as much as he did. Uncle Danny had made him leave everything behind, including the book he had been reading. Chris eyed the shelf hungrily. He would have to take a longer look later.

I suppose this isn't a horrible paragraph, but it's kind of a dead one. There are two sentences in a row that end with the "as much as ___ did" structure. It also suggests that Chris is planning on borrowing a book from Paul and Michelle. Now he will eventually do just that, but at this point he shouldn't be planning on it. He should be expecting to be there a day at most. I let my knowledge of what was coming seep into the moment. Also, when it comes to third person limited, it's not particularly tight penetration.

The thing is, though, having decided I didn't care for this paragraph, I couldn't seem to fix it. At first I was mostly trying to find a way to take out the repeated "as much as ___ did"s, so I was just trying to come up with different words to say the same thing. The problem was that I could not say the same things without some of the problems I just pointed out, but had not yet articulated to myself. I didn't know why the paragraph wasn't working, but it continued to not work no matter what words I plugged into the existing sentences.

Then I decided perhaps I shouldn't be trying so much to keep the existing sentences with just a few tweaks. Perhaps what I needed to do was delete the entire paragraph and rewrite it from scratch. I tried that, and managed to get something that I could live with.

Here's the new version. Hopefully it's better:

Though he was supposed to be focused on the rifle cabinet, something else caught his eye. All those books! Somebody here was a reader. It must be nice to be able to keep books after you read them and look at them again later if you wanted to. Chris had never had the chance to take a close look at somebody’s book collection; what you read probably said something about you. Hopefully he’d get to spend some time in this room before he left.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How do I *know*?!

So I'm working on Vanishing Act again after leaving it dormant for a very long time. I haven't lost my passion for the protagonist and what he goes through, but I've been staying away from it mostly because it's so much damned work compared to my more recent writing projects. I learned so much while working on this and over the year or so after I finished that first draft that it practically hurts to go back and read some of the passages in this. I mean, hell, I already cut forty thousand words, and there's still fat! It's not that it can't be cleaned up, but that cleaning it up is so much less fun than writing new stories. (Another issue is the time versus what I have to show for it. In the time it takes me to wrestle with this manuscript, I can put four or five short stories into circulation with the paying markets. Any one of those could strike paydirt while I'm still cutting darlings from Vanishing Act [and I'm still checking my e-mail compulsively forty times a day for one of them in particular.])

So why am I taking it up again? Well, I figure if I'm going to seriously pitch it around, this is the time. Since it's a finalist in the Do It! Write! contest, I'm going to be able to say on my query letters that it placed [whatever] in a contest judged by an acquisitions editor from Harper-Collins, and I know that when a contest has a respected judge, that makes it worth mentioning in those letters.

So as much as I feel like I could polish and cut forever, I think the time to take that blind leap is coming quickly. If nobody takes it on, that's okay. The next book will be better. :-)


Anyway, I'm still finding places, mostly in the first third of the book, where the writing just isn't carrying its weight. Passive constructions (not passive voice per se, but telling more than showing), repeated phrases, and stuff that simply lacks polish. And I've got a good enough eye now to see what's bad, but sometimes the fixes can still be hard to find.

This is hardly new or Earth-shaking, but one thing I have to keep reminding myself is to ask myself how I know. That's my trick for making the writing vivid. Specifically, how do I know a character's mental or emotional state?

Here's an example:

“I just wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She seemed awkward herself for the first time all day.

What drew my attention to that sentence in the first place was that it was my third use of "for the first time" in the chapter, but the problems with this paragraph run deeper than that.

And that's actually an important point. For me, at least, repetitive phrasing is almost always an indicator of deeper problems. I use repetitive phrasing when I'm writing lazy. I'm trying to get the words on the screen, get the chapter done, whatever, and not looking for the best way to do it, which is okay, as long as I eventually revise. But clichés--even if they're just "house clichés"--are a symptom of the same underlying problem that leads to passive writing. (Again, for me, anyway.)

I struggled for a while to fix the superficial problems. One of the other two repetitions of the phrase was easy to get rid of, but one of them, I felt, needed to stay. There's no real reason not to leave this one too, but this paragraph was ringing clunky to my ear, and now is not the time to be lazy, anyway.

But I couldn't figure out how else to convey what I thought was important here--that it was noteworthy that Michelle seemed nervous, because she was the only person who had not shown any sign of nerves in what had been a very unusual day. How else could I distinguish this time from all the times she had not seemed nervous? Everything I came up with sounded even more clunky--in particular, everything I was coming up with was even more passive. Lots of "to be" verbs that indicate that you're seeing description or exposition and not action.

Then I asked myself an obvious question: How does Chris, the POV character, know Michelle is nervous?

When I thought of it like that, here is what I came up with:

The door opened partway and Michelle poked her head inside. “I wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She paused abruptly, as if she had been planning on saying something else and then changed her mind.

This may not be perfect. I'm telling you her pause was abrupt; is there a way I could show that instead? Maybe if I just say "she paused," and lose the "abruptly." It's still a work in progress. But for the most part, now I'm showing you nervous instead of telling you. Who knows? Maybe I could come up with a nice simile for her stopping-and-starting.

But the point is the question that broke the logjam was how do the characters know the thing I'm trying to convey? If I can't think of a way they would know, then I shouldn't even have it there, because I'm breaking POV by telling you things the POV character couldn't figure out.

This may be unbelievably obvious advice for anybody reading this. Hell, it's obvious for me, since this isn't a new advice. But what I'm working on is internalizing all the little techniques I've picked up--remembering things like that when it really counts.

Also, did you notice what else happened there? The point I was so anxious to make--the contrast between Michelle's earlier confidence and her awkwardness now, didn't actually make it to this revised version at all. And that's okay. If I've characterized well, readers will pick up on the fact that she's usually able to project confidence, but that this interaction is testing even her abilities. It won't seem out of character--readers will be able to distinguish between this quiet moment and her earlier displays of confidence. Or maybe not, but that's a chance I need to take. This is a recurring problem of mine, and a reason I tend to (tended to, really, since I've gotten a lot better with my more recent writing): Closed Captioning for the Dumb. (Heh . . . I like that so much I think I'll make it a tag. I bet I have cause to use it again.) I'm always so worried that readers will fail to pick up some subtlety or nuance that I intend that I hammer it home, over and over again. I need to have more faith in my readers, first of all. Second of all, if some readers don't see exactly what's in my mind, that's okay. Hopefully the story is entertaining and meaningful without having a direct dump of what's going on in my brain. And the things that sail over your head when you first read a story are the ones that make the story reward re-reading anyway.