Friday, November 29, 2013

The Second Annual Belated Turkey of Gratitude

Still Life with Fruit and Ham, Jan Davidszoon de Heem, c.1649
Turns out the belatedness is part of the tradition. Since we here at Casa Schwarz are committed to not buying anything on Black Friday, this is one of the best days to be grateful.

30 things about writing and storytelling for which I am grateful.
  1. For poetry, which challenges, puzzles, and touches my soul. 
  2. And for Poetry Off The Shelf, the little podcast that has introduced me to several new poets this year.
  3. For my part-time job, which provides structure to my day, a little bread-and-butter money, and interesting coworkers with different experiences and opinions than my own.
  4. For my first WorldCon! Four days in San Antonio immersed in everything science fiction and fantasy. I won't say more here, as I wrote three long posts starting with this one.
  5. For Patrice Sarath, novelist extraordinaire, my WorldCon roomie, and early morning coffee house writing buddy.
  6. For ArmadilloCon, my awesome local SciFi and Fantasy convention. When money is tight and family commitments abound, it's great to know that I can always make it to this cool hometown convention. 
  7. For the Slugtribe Writers' Group. This open critique group has been a staple of my life since returning to writing. It's a perfect combination of regulars and random wild seeds and never fails to keep things interesting.
  8. For the editors who've published my stories and worked with me to make them better. They are as passionate about writing as I am and they spend uncounted hours bringing stories to the world for a very small monetary return.
  9. For the slush readers (and editors) who have rejected my stories, sometimes because they're not a good fit for their venue, but more importantly, because sometimes they need to be better.
  10. Again, and every year, for my journal. What a glorious mess. Whenever I'm stuck on a story (i.e. the middle of every story), I run to my journal and flail around for page after page until I can see a way forward. 
  11. For my husband who goes along with all my schemes and crazy dreams, like keeping chickens in the back yard, or pounding out story after story on my laptop. 
  12. For my 12-year-old, who keeps me hip to what middle schoolers are into, and who still lets me read her bedtime stories (currently The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.)
  13. For my 8-year-old who has introduced me to the world of My Little Pony as only someone from the target demographic can. 
  14. For Invader Zim and Adventure Time, Red Dwarf and Monty Python's Flying Circus. Family favorite viewing for together time on the couch.
  15. For Leo the dog. The pound puppy that the kids and hubby talked me into. When not laying at my feet while I write, he pesters me to get up off my butt and take him for a walk. Turns out that on foot and in the fresh air is an excellent place to work out story problems.
  16. For the books I've read this year including, Jagannath, Saga, Engine Summer (finally), Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenBeing Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and The Blue Fox to name a few.
  17. My little laptop. Repository of my works in progress and window to the virtual world.
  18. Scrivener. I'm using this writing software more and more, though I only know the tip of the iceberg as far as all the different bells and whistles 
  19. For the library, saving me thousands of dollars on my 12-year-old's manga habit, providing for my eclectic research needs, and loaning me stacks of huge, expensive art and photography books for story inspiration.
  20. For my virtual writers' communities where I can meet, commiserate and trade critiques with writers from around the world.
  21. For the worlds that have presented themselves in the stories that have created. Fantastic and impossible places of terror, adventure, love and heartbreak. No airfare required.
  22. For the characters who bud off some created world or concept and grow into unpredictable beings who turn the tables to surprise and delight me.
  23. Pinterest! How did it take me so long to get onboard with this visual feast?
  24. For the hour of writing time every morning between dropping my kids off to school and when I have to show up to work. Pure gold.
  25. For drafts that are broken and difficult. These are the ones that have the most to teach me about storytelling.
  26. For LePen felt tip markers in every color; they make my paper-and-pen revision look festive and fabulous.
  27. For a good night's sleep, when I can get it, and for the strange and delightful dreams that arrive in  the morning just before I wake up. If not fodder for plots, certainly some subconscious images have found their way into my story settings.
  28. For all the storytellers out there, gossips and tattle tellers, pundits and conspiracy theorists. 
  29. For all the surprises, not a day goes by without one!
  30. For all the stories nascent and invisible, waiting to be born. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thinking about Stories at the Craft Crucible

Night Light at Apostle Islands
Photographers: Mark Weller, John Rummel, Ian Weller
I spend a lot of time reading and critiquing stories in progress, both in person and for the online writers'  groups that I'm involved with. I've blogged about how important this is, but what I've been missing out on (and didn't even realize), was the pleasure of working with a finished and excellent story. 

Lucky for us Anaea Lay has started the Craft Crucible over on her blog. Every Wednesday she's posting an exemplary story along with her critical breakdown. It isn't about finding fault with great stories, it's about finding out what makes them tick. There are a million different ways for a story to fail and almost as many ways for one to succeed. Sadly, no simple formulas for us writers. Turns out, looking at why and how a story succeeds is just as important as finding out why a broken or unfinished story fails. And the best part about the Craft Crucible is that you can play along too!

Below are some of my thoughts on the stories she's covered so far. I've included links in for the stories, so you can read them first, because SPOILERS. Also, click on the Craft Crucible links to read Anaea's insights!

Seriously: SPOILERS! 
And check out Pank while you're at it!
Yesterday's story was Seven Items in Jason Reynolds' Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady by Robert Swartwood. Go on over and read it. It's an excellent example of a flash story, and won't take you more than a couple minutes to read. Then check out Anaea's thoughts. Here's a bit of my response:

"It’s well done all the way through, but what brings it to the next level for me, is Grady’s age and persistent innocence. His age and the title seem, at first, to be just a ploy to make the story more poignant, but by the end it projects Grady’s inevitable loss of innocence. Swartwood essentially wrote the first half of the story and invites the reader to become the storyteller, and imagine Grady growing older and coming to understand the terrible solution to the puzzle pieces that these objects in Jason’s jacket represent."
Last Wednesday's story was Consumer Testing by John Greenwood. This one appeared in Bourbon Penn. Here's a snippet of my thoughts for that one. (SPOILERS, for real this time. Do go read this deliciously creepy story first!) Check out Anaea's comments here.

"This story makes me think of J. G. Ballard with its main character who is unable to overcome a cascade of circumstances, and in its unflinching examination of the human dynamic of isolation and abandonment. The father has a pithy saying for every situation, but “Stick with what you know” and “keep yourself to yourself” are the cornerstones of what makes up the family’s philosophy. This is contrasted with his mother’s single opinion, “No good will come of it.” Which the narrator points out has “universal application.”
“No good” is where this story is headed. It’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a twist at the end that will result in rainbows and lollipops for the narrator. This is not a story of transformation. It does not illustrate a change in the main character. This story is like a proof. The narrator makes a claim in the beginning, and all the events in the story show his claim to be true. This is difficult  to pull off as a writer, and one of the reasons I like this story so much.
The first half of the story is about a recluse trying to get along in a perfectly normal, albeit uncaring world. Then the TV arrives and with it magic. The TV shifts the story onto another track. The TV comes to life and an “authorized representative of a subsidiary of the Mystery Shopping Consortium” appears with an offer that the narrator –though he wants to resist– somehow cannot refuse. It sounds suspiciously like a commercial but the narrator is clear that there is no electricity in the house."
The inaugural story was Kij Johnson's famous, or infamous, Spar. WARNING, this story is not for everyone. Some have called it "tentacle" porn, but that's not really accurate, maybe cilia sex, single-celled-alien-organism smut? Let's just say there is sexual content, but there's also grass and flowers and Shakespeare. I really enjoyed looking at this story again and was rewarded for my close attention. 
Check out her other excellent stories!
"When I read Spar this time, I was struck by the fact that she called their ship a “lifeboat.” It seems oddly nautical for a science fiction story set in space. There are more nautical references. She mentions “The mariner’s code” –again, odd for a space story. There’s the line from which the title is taken: “A shipwrecked Norwegian sharing a spar with a monolingual Portuguese?”

A spar can be the mast of a ship (also what two people do when they go through the motions of hand to hand combat – similar to the kind of motions she and the alien are relentlessly going through as well). 

Johnson includes a couple lines of poetry, which I recognized as Shakespeare. At first I thought they might be taken from The Tempest. Thanks to the Internets it was easy to track down. They're from 

Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It's clear that the entire poem informs Johnson's story on many levels (more than I'm glossing here).

Looking at the sonnet, the only concrete images in it have to do with seafaring:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark (i.e. lighthouse)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
It is the star to every wandering bark (i.e. a small boat – something like a lifeboat…)

Here love is described as constant but also distant, untouchable. Like dead Gary or the idea of him or her last image of his body frozen in space.

The sonnet backs into its topic with a negative:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
And Johnson, begins by describing what the alien is not:
“The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal.”
The middle of the sonnet describes what love is (the pole star, a light house, unmoving and distant)

The final couplet is a strange negative statement, which is a little harder to parse. (Does it proclaim his love since the poem stands as proof that he did indeed write/love? Is it an admission that his feelings have changed and therefore are not constant and he is no longer in love? Is this a poem of illicit love to his male lover and the last couplet serves as a kind of plausible deniability?)

Regardless of how you read it, it’s the same negative positive negative binary pattern that’s all over Spar."

Check out Anaea's reading of this one here

If you're trying to become a better writer consider "critiquing" the very best stories you can find. Come on over to the Craft Crucible and join the conversation!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Update: Not Exaclty NaNoWriMo

I have to say I’m having a blast with my Not Exactly NaNoWriMo challenge. On November 1st I set out to write a brand new story idea every day for 30 days. So, every morning this month I'm spending about 30 minutes freewriting something brand new.

I'm working from verbal and visual prompts, notes for nascent ideas stashed in my journal. I also have a list of phrases that have caught my ear. Things that sound like great titles, but that I have no story for - yet. Ray Bradbury did something like this with lists.

After I finish writing my new thing, I'm free to revisit the previous day(s) work and further develop it. I've started to read over the earlier ones. I'm putting new thoughts in my journal, playing with the ideas and themes, working up outlines, so that I can draft the middles and ends and turn these fragments into stories. I'm aiming to keep most of these in the flash to short story range. I don't know how the revision process will plug into what I'm doing, but I'm determined not to worry about it this month.

I’m also taking this opportunity to learn a little more about Scrivener. I set up a Scrivener project with 30 folders, one for each day. Each folder has the writing from my initial session, any relevant pictures and a place for random ideas and fragments of an outline. 

I now have 14 story starts (I have a 0 story that I did on October 31). Each entry is about a thousand words. I've listed them below along with the prompts, and for some, a little snippet of what I’ve written. Some are working titles, other titles I think I'll keep.

0 The Window
From a combination of this picture of a woman and a child and an article about a memorial gate (see 12 below) that I got by clicking on Random Article in Wikipedia. I often use two or three disparate things to prompt my writing. This often helps me tap into the unexpected. Usually this works as stated. This time these two elements remained separate, and when I reread this one, I decided to excise the bits about the gate and use it as a prompt for day 12.

1 Frank Breech & Footling
This is a title that I’ve had floating around in my journal.

2 The Comfort of Busses
I’ve been riding the bus to work a lot lately.

3 The Sleeping City
A prompt from Storymatic: A runaway, a tourist, "where is everyone"?

4 The Thief and the Vintner
A prompt from Chaotic Shiny: A bottle, a thief, and a minor god.

5 The Reverse Pygmalion
From undeveloped idea from my journal.

6 A Time Travel Story
From notes copied into my journal from some article on the internet:
"Nothing is flat and solid. Everything is full of gaps and holes, crevases, wrinkles and voids. This is true of the physical world and true of time too, you just have to go VERY small."
 7 The Angel in the Kitchen 
The prompt, from the Brainstormer app, was: Fish out of water/angelic/construction zone) Here’s a sample:
“Do you have a housemate?”
“No. Are you looking?”
“No. No. It’s just - I have an angel living with me. He wasn’t there when they showed me the house but -
"Ah." He nodded, understanding. “Well, it won’t last forever.” Then he laughed at his own joke. “The roommate situation,” he clarified.
They’re refurbishing the barracks.”
“Angels live in barracks?”
8 A Bride for the Marsh

From a picture of a young Palestinian groom with his bride. I’ve finally started using Pinterest mostly to collect visual material (including story prompts) for writing. Click on the sidebar to follow my pins. Here’s another sample:
"A lilting giggle drifted out from behind the fine silk fabric that covered her, accompanied by a sharp movement of her head that he thought must mean no. The sound reminded him of water when it rushes through a narrow place, busy and contented at the same time."

9 I’ve Got To Go
From the io9 Concept Art Prompt. These are posted every Saturday on io9, and writers are encouraged to post their stories in the comments. This is still a fragment, so I didn't post it. The picture is a great start, now I'll work to write a story that stands without the visual.

10 In Time
The working title for an epistolary time travel story.

11 The Trumpet and the Ticket Taker
This is actually an old fragment. In the spirit of clearing the boards I have a couple story fragments that I plan to dump into this project. I pasted in what I had, then expanded on it with 30 minutes of freewriting. Here’s a bit:
The vulture hop-stepped to the raft, extended his wings and jumped on. The dull ache in my head was spreading through the rest of my body. I scrubbed my eyes to try to get my head on straight. When I looked back, a man in black jeans and a black tee-shirt stood on the raft, hands clasped behind his back. He was bald and ruddy, and watched me with a carney’s neutral expression that says, I know I look scary, but you really want to ride this ride.
12 The Wandering Gate
This one was an image that I’d written into story 0 that I split off into its own separate story. These two stories will be quite different from each other, I think.

13 Six Shades of True
This excellent title and my prompt was from today’s Daily Writing Tips post about the origins and connotations of the word true.

14 Time Delay
From an idea I've had floating around for a while about robots and humans working together to mine a distant moon, maybe Titan.

That's all for now. I'm looking forward to another two weeks of taking the daily plunge.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Through the Portal to A Room of One's Own

Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever
It's been a while since I've read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Her title has become a writing aphorism, a quip that people say without, often without knowing the content of the slim volume that accompanies it. Here she is talking about the difference between how women are portrayed in literature and how they are viewed in real life:

"Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance ... She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband."

Sadly, her argument for the need for a literal and figural space for women writers within the literary tradition is still relevant. For a more recent example check out Matt Debenham's recent post, The Gilmour(s)* Down the Hall.

What I'm thinking about today is that title. The idea of a room of one's own. Woolf's posits that a woman must have a room of her own in order to write. I don't have my own room, and neither does my husband, yet we both manage to write. Charles Bukowski also refutes Woolf's idea with his poem Air and Light and Time and Space. When I write at home I usually do it at the dining room table or on the living room couch. I also write in coffeehouses and waiting rooms and sometimes on the bus. I write in my journal, on my computer, and on the cloud.

Yet, the title continues to resonate because it has an internal logic not entirely connected with the concerns of Woolf's essay. I see a room of one's own as a kind of portal. The one that all storytellers step through in order to first experience and then create a story. (Of course, the Portal story is an especially popular fantasy trope, and nothing new.) I think this trope is so attractive to writers because it represents the experience of writing a story. Karen Russell, for example speaks of staying "zipped into" a story. Because the story you're telling is a kind of place, something you can, and must, get inside.
Alice and the looking glass
Instead of a door or a looking glass or a magic wardrobe, my portal is the blank page. On the other side is a safe place where I can leap and fall, where I can try and fail. Behind closed doors is where I write the zero draft. The one no one but me gets to see. The empty page is not daunting to me. Its blankness invites me to step through into that room where anything can happen.
Virginia Woolf
 * Ironically, Virginia Woolf appears to be the only woman writer Gilmour does like.

Friday, November 1, 2013

National Novel Writing Month Isn't Just for Novel Writing!

Or it doesn't have to be. 

In case you haven’t heard November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This insanity has been going on for more than a dozen years now. I did it once a few years back and completed a perfectly trunkable novella. I had never written anything that long before and, on the most basic level, it gave me confidence that I could sustain an idea through at least 50,000 words. It also taught me that I could write one to two thousand words a day (at some cost due to Thanksgiving and its requisite family commitments). The work also contributed to my million words.

“Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction.”   ~generally attributed to Raymond Chandler.

One NaNoWriMo taught me everything I needed to learn from that exercise, and I haven't done it since. Yet, I know many people who do it every year. They do it for many reasons, for the camaraderie and for the discipline of the deadline that requires about 1,600 new words a day, every day for a month. Doing something every day for about 30 days is also a great way to form a new habit.

While I am not interested participating in Nano according to the rules as they're laid out, there is always a lot of chatter and excitement around November and that is one aspect of Nano that I really enjoy.* So much about writing is about pulling things out of the cave of my own subconscious, so much time spent in the fragile little worlds constructed inside my head. It's nice to have a feeling of solidarity with other people who are all pursuing a similar endeavor together. 

In lieu of attempting to write a novel I've devised my own challenge and it has to do with a difficulty that I have specific to my own writing process. I’m calling it the Not Exactly National Novel Writing Month or NeNaNoWriMo!

Every day this month, I am going to freewrite (i.e. speed write) a NEW story idea. Some will be from title ideas I have noted in my journal, others from story prompts or writing exercises.

Here’s why I picked this particular challenge. I love doing speed writing exercises because they tap into the subconscious. No matter how silly the prompt, if I write for 30 minutes without stopping I almost always find something among those wacky sentences and jumbled images that suggest a viable story. Where's the problem you might ask. The thing is, when I freewrite and see a gem in there, I immediately feel a certain obligation to pursue it. I tend to be very stubborn about seeing my ideas through and I have a rather layered, and time consuming, revision process, so I’ve been shying away from even playing with new ideas.

And that’s a bad thing. I think I need fewer precious curios and more nicked up toys in the pages of my journal. So, for the next thirty days, I’m going to freewrite a brand new thing every day. This is a 30-minute commitment, so I’ll have time to continue working on my other works-in-progress. If I have extra time I can fiddle with that day’s idea/story seed, but at the stroke of midnight I’ll close it and create something brand new.

Said Rear Admiral David Farragut
The important thing is to just keep moving forward. Oddly, the skill I want to end up with is the ability to NOT follow up on everything. I'll sort things out in December, and surely some things will be left undeveloped. And that will be okay.

* I'm not signing up on the NaNoWriMo site, though I don't think there's any rule against it.