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?

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.