Thursday, September 25, 2014

The New Novel Plan or I’m Making This Up as I Go Along.

U of Louisville puts entropy to work...
How do you plan a novel? I wish I knew; yet I keep trying. A plan is a comfort even when I know that it is no more than a container. A vessel that I fill with both my dreams and my commitment to chase them, a fragile clay pot to stand against the universe’s inevitable urge to entropy and all the myriad ways that manifests in my everyday life. For more on that go read Pamela Zoline’s Heat Death of the Universe (PDF). 

I was all set to blast through this novel in about three months. The outlining is finished, and I’ve been drafting the new first chapters to work with the material I’d already written. Then, a couple weeks ago I got word that I’ve been invited to attend the Turkey City Writers’Workshop later this fall. I’m thrilled, and I really want to write a shiny new story for it, so that I can get the most out of the workshop.

Yet, I don’t want to completely abandon my novel, so I’m changing my plan. Instead of drafting it at white-hot speed, I’m going to work on it super slowly. I’m going to use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method and write at least 25 minutes – and no more than one hour – a day, every day. This will probably get me about 350-500 words a day. At this pace, I should have a finished draft in about six and a half months. Of course when I get to the other side of this workshop, I’ll decide if I want to change my plan again.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Words Fail Me: Writing the Impossible

Ernest Hemingway said good stories should be like icebergs.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit the things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Earnest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

His theory of omission kicked off an era of minimalism that was a mixed blessing because achieving what he’s talking about takes a level of mastery that few writers attain – not that we shouldn’t try. His instinct to have the heart of the meaning express itself in the unwritten warp and weft of a story has without a doubt enriched modern literature.

Hemingway didn’t say that it was impossible to render the entire iceberg, only that it was better not to. Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s a writer’s job to take in the whole iceberg. I agree we must try to embrace the entire experience of what we are attempting to write about. In fantasy and science fiction this may mean hours spent building alien worlds, cultures, politics, or magic systems from the ground up before writing. Always, it means being alive to everything and everyone around us.

Despite our best efforts, we are all doomed to failure. We never grasp the entirety of any experience, the layers of nuance, the shades of meaning, the unknown histories. Worse, there is no way to hold onto the fragility of a fleeting moment without etherizing it like a butterfly and pinning it to a display case. A dead butterfly is still a butterfly, but it’s not the same thing that fluttered over the sun-splashed meadow.

Some things are omitted because there is just no way to articulate them. Karen Russell acknowledges this in this gorgeous quote from her wonderful novella * about a strange plague of insomnia so severe that sufferers eventually die:

"Then I wish for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story or ever "experienced" in the past tense, and so concluded; I don't want to say it, I don't even want to try to understand it, and so begin to mistake it for something else, and something else after that, paling shadows of this original feeling, something inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech."
From Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Writing is a way to plumb the depths of the unfathomable experience of our existence, and in the end, though we dive deep, it is impossible to know every contour of the submerged iceberg. And as Russell says, some things you can bring back from your journey of exploration and others you cannot.
* You can listen to Russell talk about Sleep Donation on Fresh Air, though I would recommend reading it first.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More for Your Ears

Lady Reading by Robert James Gordon
It’s always nice to sell a story, it’s a special treat to sell one to a podcast. For years now, I’ve enjoyed listening to the written word as much as reading it. I discovered audio books and podcasts when my kids were little, and my sitting-and-reading time almost entirely disappeared. Conversely, I spent lots of time on mundane tasks like laundry and driving to and from endless errands.*

I found audio books first, on disk, at the library. I dug up my dorky old CD player and it’s dorkier neoprene jog-belt carrier and started listening to books. There’s an art to sweeping the floor and listening to a book, a different kind of focus. But, if you’re busy with the banal jobs of keeping body and soul together, the house clean, and the kids diapered, it’s an art definitely worth mastering. 

I load books onto my iPod now (which is getting old and I suppose one day will be dorky too). I also stay current by listening to just a few of the hundreds (thousands? Millions?) of podcasts out there. I’ve listed some of my favorites previously, here are some new ones that I’ve added to my feed.

Cast of Wonders
And not just because they produced my story! There's a nice selection of excellent stories here as well as links to the Camp Myth novellas. Just because they call themselves a "young adult" podcast, doesn't mean us grownups can't listen to them too.

Toasted Cake
Another Parsec Award winning podcast run by author Tina Connolly. This one specializes in flash fiction - like a little dessert for your ears.

This excellent weekly speculative fiction magazine podcasts selected fiction and poetry read by the talented and satin-voiced Anaea Lay

Once a month the fiction editors at the New Yorker ask a writer to read one of their favorite stories that has been published in the magazines pages. This is followed by a brief discussion of the story. Good stuff for writers!

A free audio show covering the latest in science news. Once a month they read a flash fiction story from the print journal's Nature Futures feature.

One of my favorites. Produced by The Poetry Foundation, this podcast features one or two poems followed by a short discussion. Always lovely and useful.  

Go forth and listen!


* When I think back to my college days, I remember spending entire afternoons with friends at our local hole-in-the-wall bar where we would all complain that we didn’t have any time!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cast of Wonders Produces my Short Story – Flotsam – for your Ears!

Hey, Sunday!

Listen to my short story, Flotsam, for free over at the Cast of Wonders.

I’m so glad I discovered this nifty little outfit! Cast ofWonders is a Parsec Award* winning podcast out of Britain that specializes in Young adult fiction. As a reader and a parent, I love listening to novels, stories and podcasts. I also love reading out loud to my kids. I believe hearing stories, as well as reading them, is a great way to broaden your experience with all things literary. That’s why it’s so wonderful to find people who are passionate about bringing great stories to kids ears.

Be sure to check out their Camp Myth project while you’re there.  
“Cast of Wonders presents the first Camp Myth novella, Phoenix Watching, as a full cast audio drama serialized over 15 episodes. Each episode also features a camper spotlight, showcasing the rich and divers cast of characters.” 
Listen to it for free, get it on Kindle or spring for the actual, physical book. Camp Myth has its own very cool website and there’s even an RPG game – I think these guys get kids!

* The Parsec Awards are a “celebration of speculative fiction podcasting.” They’re like the Hugos of the podcast world. If you’re looking for great spec fic podcasts, these awards are great place to start!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Creative Development is a Progression: Finishing Things and Letting Them Go

Neil Gaiman's good advice
From Heinlein’s Rules of Writing to Gaiman’s advice (pictured above) to Chuck Wendig’s “finish your shit”; many writers agree, it’s not enough to simply write, you have to finish what you start. I also believe (like Heinlein) that after you finish a story, it is important to send it out into the world.

For me, writing is its own reward. This is what keeps me writing day in and day out, but once I commit to a character or set of characters and to their story, it’s important to see at least a draft of that story through to the end.

Simply writing all the way to the end – even if it’s the wrong ending and I end up replacing it – has taught me to emotionally commit to a story. Almost everything I write falls on tough times somewhere in the middle. Committing to finishing also forces me to come up with solutions that I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d given up.

After drafting it, resting it, revising it and giving it a final polish, I assess the story. I might see a soft spot in the logic, or a sentence that could maybe be tweaked one more time. But, if I feel that this is the best I can do with this story where I am today as a writer, then it’s time to let it go and move on to the next one.

You can only grow as a writer to a point if you never send your work out into the world. When I started writing, I would hold onto my stories working them over and over. I think I labored under the misconception that one day, in the future, my understanding of the craft would be complete. One day I would be a journeyman writer and the next day I would cross some invisible threshold to become a fully-fledged Writer. Of course in all truly creative pursuits, we are all always journeymen.

I know now that I have to put myself out there as I am with the full knowledge that tomorrow I might very well look back at today’s efforts and find them sophomoric. I’ve discovered that getting a story published is more than just a feather in my cap. It’s a kind of letting go that frees me to pursue the next level in my own development. 

I am continually pursuing mastery, striving to become a better storyteller, and I can see now that any productive artist comes to understand their creative development as a progression.

Painters don’t slave over one canvas for years, sculptors don’t carve only one figure. Artists keep producing until they have enough photographs or drawings or sculptures to fill a coffee shop or gallery. Musicians don’t work on one song or album endlessly; they make song after song, album after album. They go on tour then it’s back to the studio to record the next set of songs. What filmmakers (that you’ve heard of) only made one “perfect” film?

People working in creative arts may focus intensely on a particular work for a discrete amount of time, but they know that they’re playing a long game. Look at any artist’s body of work, whether its pop songs, etchings, or television shows, and you can see them try out new ideas, you can trace their beliefs as they become solidified or change direction. You can watch them explore new techniques, master them, and find their idiom. Each piece or song or novel is a record of his or her creative progression as a human being.

I feel vulnerable putting work out there when I know that I’ll be a better writer tomorrow. I want the world to see a perfect artist, but I’ve found it’s better to let people see me as I am today. There’s no such thing as a perfect artist just as there is no perfect work of art. Each story, painting or album is simply another link in the chain of an artist’s creative life. It’s the autobiography we all write without knowing the ending.

I don’t know who I will become, but if I keep on writing, finishing things, and sending them out into the world, one day ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, future me will be able to look back and see the steps I took to arrive at that day.