Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Neither the First Nor the Last Lesson from South Park

If you're reading this and you've also been sent a proof copy of my Greenland book, please see here. After some useful feedback, I created a few family trees, to help parse out all the different characters. A dramatis personae might not be out of place, but it's rather old-fashioned for this sort of book, so for the time being, I hope this helps. If you haven't read the book, the information at that link won't make any sense to you, but you're welcome to look; it doesn't give very much away.

I grew tired of my Nordic landscapes and started downloading fractal wallpapers. I now hunger for ever more of them. They are gorgeous, and I'm not yet tired of looking at them. I'm using Windows 7, with rotating wallpapers, and I finally figured out the easier way to get pictures into rotation, so I'm probably going to end up using all my disk space on the dang fractals. But they are so cool.

I've now written over 70,000 words on the horror novel. And somehow, I'm astonished to find, I'm in Act III: The Ticking Clock.

Excerpted from an e-mail I recently wrote:
A feature screenplay has two plot points, right? End of act I, end of act II. Each of the plot points spins the story in a whole new direction. I am not a literary expert, but I understand that books have numerous plot points, and that they’re diagnosed in a completely different way than in films. In films, there are two and only two, and other important things that happen are merely Things That Happen, not actual plot points. In American films, they are generally so obvious that you can’t not notice them once the concept has been pointed out to you.
In the feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, there's a point near the end where the Mole looks at his watch, and he sees this:

Ever since I started noticing that the third act virtually always involves a ticking clock in one way or another, thanks to this movie and specifically this frame of animation, I can't stop noticing it. Now, in my horror novel, my antagonist has given my protagonists 24 hours to decide something, and I still totally failed to notice I was in The Ticking Clock until one of my characters said "Clara wants our answer before noon tomorrow." I typed that, and then, after I read it over, I thought of the image above.

Ha. Wow, brain. That's some serious training a lifetime of American movies and almost ten years of cinema study has given you. Like, re-education, almost. It's also really ironic, because what's at stake in The Ticking Clock is time, which is kind of the whole point of my book.

Well, it's funny to me, anyway.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Obscure Ability to Find What You're Looking For

Two nights ago I had a dream that, when I woke up, stuck like caramel in my teeth. I was in my old house, the one on Maryleborn Road, where I lived in high school. Somehow the house was mine, I owned it with Matt. It had the old green carpet and the dark paneling, prior to the redo (to the benefit of all, believe me) my mom did. Our landlord's leather sofa was in the exact same place, but the living room seemed stretched, much larger than it had been in life. The house was absolutely piled with stuff, papers and folders and books and notes and objects, just piles and piles of things everywhere, and since there was so much space, the stacks were endless.

My father wanted me to go somewhere with him, and before we left, I had to find an array of items, perhaps ten of them. They were all things from the non-recent past, years-old items or notes or paperwork. I felt sort of triumphant that I knew I had these things, that I had done the right thing and saved them, but because the house was much larger than my memory of it and there were hundreds of piles, I couldn't find what he wanted me to find. He was reminding me in his gently-annoyed voice that it was time to leave, past time, and that I had told him I had these things, and why hadn't I found them so we could leave? I was assuring him that I just needed a few more minutes, because I knew I had the stuff, I had saved it all like I was supposed to, but there were just so many piles to look through. I had located probably two or three of the ten items I had to find when I woke up. There were other elements to this dream, but that was the gist of it.

It was crystal-clear to me what this dream was about, even at the moment I woke from it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

This Post Is Made from 100% Procrastination

For the first time I'm understanding the difference between wanting a vacation due to desiring a break from a job I don't like, and wanting a vacation due to a sort of tired burnout. Maybe this is naive of me, maybe people who like their jobs are saying DUH, but at this point I could really use a couple of days where I don't have to do any work. I enormously enjoy each category of the work I'm doing, all for different reasons, but I'd really love a breather. My body could use a respite from teaching, too. I've been subbing a lot in the last couple of weeks, and although more money is always good, I think I'm ready to drop back to my regular schedule of (now) 6 classes a week rather than, for example, this week's 8.

My first reader has gotten back to me about the Greenland book, and because he's very kind, he has allowed me to go back and forth with him at great length about the manuscript. Last night I composed the third in a series of e-mails to him in Microsoft Word before pasting it into the body of the reply; with his paragraphs and my responses it was about 5,300 words. I feel guilty asking him to talk about my work in such great detail, but he continues to insist that it's okay.

The actual substance of his feedback has been very surprising. He told me that I've written a bummer of a book, something which is okay with me but which I hadn't really connected the dots to realize. He said that it was actually interesting and not impossible to follow the language, and that he didn't find the setup too holey, issues I worried over endlessly. He noted that there are many more characters than a modern novel usually has, and I honestly hadn't really thought of that. I don't know if it's a flaw per se, but both he and Matt said they had a hard time following who was who, so I think a family tree in the back of the book is in order. Just, like, not a complete one, or some surprises will be lost.

While I'm pleased to see that I've still got enough of the book in my bones to talk to him about it in detail, I find that I have zero motivation to dive into re-editing it. I definitely need further perspectives - especially from women, especially from people who like reading novels more than this friend does - but there are even a few easy fixes my friend pointed out which I could implement easily enough now, and I haven't exactly jumped right on that. I could do it, it's not a confidence thing, but I'm totally not interested.

I think it's because I'm working on the horror book, and don't want to dilute my writing energy back to a book with such an enormously different group of characters. So perhaps, after all, it was a bad idea to jump right into the new book without being completely finished with the old book. Of course, at my current rate of work, I'll be finished with the horror book by my tentative deadline (April) and definitely by my drop-deadline (June), and will be able to take a break between the full closed-door draft and the first open-door draft to hunker down on the Greenland book. Plus, I won't know until June whether my Greenland book won grant money, and I can't really send it out for publisher approval until I find that out. So maybe it worked out better this way, rather than worse. I'm just worried that the feedback will kind of dim in its fresh usefulness in my mind, and I won't remember all the resolutions I had for making things better.

Last night I knitted myself a coaster for my desk, so I could get rid of an old coaster with bad memories (um...never mind) and I put on The Social Network to amuse me whilst working. I still stand in utter awe of that movie's script. It's like All About Eve; I could put it on a continuous loop for about 14 hours and listen to it and feel smarter and smarter all the time. Every time I see it, someone else's performance jumps out at me. This time, again, it was Andrew Garfield's. I wanted to steal his character out of that movie and run off with him to Mexico the first time I saw it, and I felt that way all over again this time.

This was the result, by the way:

Turned out a little lumpier than I expected, but I don't have any emotional turmoil attached to it, and it'll keep condensation from ruining my desk. Which is the point.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Workspace, v.4

With Matt's and Ikea's help, I've got The Ultimate Workstation now:

Contrary to appearances, there wasn't actually a nuclear explosion happening inside my house when this picture was taken. The afternoon sun is kinda bright, is all.

I feel very silly having a monitor, a mouse, and a keyboard all hooked up to a laptop, because why didn't I just buy a damn PC, but this is just how it's worked out. Now my laptop is far enough away and high enough up that it isn't ergonomically bad for me to look at the screen, my fingers are happy about typing on this yummy new keyboard, and I'm not taking up half the space on the dining room table with my setup. We went to Ikea and bought what amounts to a slab of pine on top of some metal sawhorses, but it's exactly what I need, no more and no less. Plus, it's a lot warmer upstairs than it was in the dining room, so I'm very happy. Doubleplus, because the pine's unfinished, I can draw encouraging messages on it in Sharpie (or perhaps get someone more talented to do this for me). Like a desk version of a Trapper Keeper.

Well, then. Back to today's chores. I goofed around too much in the past week and now have a hundred things to do before I can do fun things like blog or work on the book. Maybe in a few days I'll have more to say.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

If You Liked It Then You Shoulda Put a Vampire In It

I took an online writing workshop through the magazine Barrelhouse this past fall, and one of the things I was hoping to get into with my instructors and fellow students was what genre amounts to in the writing market of today. My opinion was previously that since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, then building with Harry Potter and, later, Twilight and all the accompanying vampire television, fantasy fiction has become much more of a mainstream proposition, no longer restricted to social misfits and obese owners of comic book stores with stained shirts, but something you can read on the subway without people thinking badly of you. Then I stumbled on this page on Wikipedia, and learned that apparently everybody is reading fantasy on the subway, and has been for many years, and has maybe just been putting false book jackets for Philip Roth over that Ken Follett novel. Which made me wonder ever more why the literary community disdained genre fiction. I think it has something to do with the taint of money against the porcelain posterior of art, the idea that popularity means you haven't written something lasting and worthwhile. I tend to believe exactly the opposite, because I think it matters if people like it. Especially if gigantic numbers of people like it.

In any case, I had thought that genre writers were rather maligned among the literary community, and while I think this is still probably true for writers who are deep inside the boundaries of the genre (i.e. high fantasy, hard science fiction), genre bleeds over into literary fiction in ways I hadn't really guessed. I was told by one of the workshop leaders that agents had taken to suggesting, "Put a vampire in it!" for lit-fic that they didn't think was yet worth selling. Shudder. And once I started looking for genre fiction in the lit community, I found that Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood are sometimes considered more genre authors than straight literary authors, which enormously surprised me. 

I'm much more familiar with Atwood, and yeah, she writes a good amount of speculative fiction. Probably her most famous work is The Handmaid's Tale, which stands immediately next to 1984, is Venus to Orwell's Mars. But she's also written a number of novels that aren't speculative at all, that are about women and friendships and woe in the present day, and there's no doubt to me that her work falls firmly into the category of literary fiction. 

I have all sorts of questions about this sticky subject - whether genre fiction can only be acceptable to book snobs if it's in a literary-fiction shell, where the dividing line is between something that's Fantasy and something that's Literary With Fantastic Elements, why something that so plainly has worth is deemed worthless by so many in the literary community. Whether the derision has changed since LotR, or whether the shooing-in of genre elements is about dollar signs on the part of the agent rather than a concession about available quality. Why the community bothers to hold up Cormac McCarthy as an example of its broad-mindedness when it could just as well be reading Ursula LeGuin and calling it even. I could spend all day brooding over this. 

But that was a really, really long way of saying that I'm struggling with the genre problem in my work. Right now, you see, I'm working on a horror novel. Or at least, I conceptualized it as a horror novel. In fact, I put in a bunch of silly horror tropes at the outset. My "monster" has residence under the stairs. I collected a group of young characters and put them in a lodge way out in the woods. The call is coming from inside the house. At some point I hope to have someone say she'll be right back. Etc. This tickled me pink when I started erecting the structure of it, because I LOVE horror fiction, especially when it's extremely well-done and is nevertheless idiotically gory. (Drag Me to Hell is a perfect example of this kind of thing, a wonderfully made movie that tosses buckets of gunk at the screen and wants you to laugh about it.) I wanted to write a really excellent horror book that had silly cliches snuck into it so that intelligent consumers of genre fiction would read my book and wink and say "I see what you did there." I hoped it would tickle them as much as it did me. 

The problem is, my writing is getting better.  

I'm stepping away from the self that worries about sounding arrogant to tell you this. My writing is getting better. Last night I wrote a few thousand words that, when I was finished, I read over and shivered; it was exactly what I wanted to say, beautiful sentences that didn't need editing. 
The room inside was dustless, with fresh pink and white gerberas on the little table under the window. A faint clean-linen aroma emanated from the canopy bed, on which was arranged a panoply of stuffed animals, their friendly blank eyes and funny colors only grim in the context of this room. An enormous, elaborate dollhouse stood open on the right-side wall. A downsized dresser stood against another wall, a blue satin jewelry box the sole object on its surface. Elaine knew that a plastic ballerina crouched inside, en pointe on a spring. A nightlight glowed under the drapery of the bed.
I'm writing much more carefully now than in times past, working on a sentence-by-sentence basis rather than just writing a lot, sloppily, and coming back later to fix it during the editing process. I never wind up with more than a few really splendid sentences that way, and by writing with total intention now, I end up with whole paragraphs of fiction that makes me proud to read it instead of just baseline getting-my-point-across stuff. It is much, much harder, slower and more exasperating, but oh, is it ever better. 

So I'm writing a really beautiful horror book. A book with emotional impact and difficult truths. But it's still a horror book, and of all genre fiction, I think horror is the least likely ever to be respectable, the way certain swaths of fantasy fiction have become respectable. 

So. What am I writing here? I am not denying that horror fiction can be beautifully written, by any means. But I find myself asking what literary fiction actually means, and why I'm so convinced that I can't write it, because that level of quality is what I'm striving to write day after day. It just also has a monster under the stairs. If I was writing a literary novel about this subject, I would emphasize that the book is about time, and the fucked-up-ed-ness of time and those who can manipulate it. But then I'd be writing a whole different book, a philosophical sort of thing that was more primarily about how humans perceive time than about how this group of characters copes with an evil little girl who can alter it. I'll think about the big philosophical stuff, and I'll maybe encourage my readers to do so while reading, but topically I'm much more interested in writing about the evil little girl than about the big stuff. 

Perhaps that's what makes this a genre book rather than a literary book. Writing about the evil girl rather than writing about the concept. I do have an idea for a conceptual book, but it's in the future, after I've become a much better writer than I am now. At the moment I just want to know what Clara's going to do next. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Don't Be Steppin'

So, I was originally going to try and write about this with the notion that as a writer, SOPA and PIPA matter to my interests--in the future, without fair use excerpts of my work in various places on the web, I won't see as much promotion as I'd like. That's a pretty threadbare connection, so I thought I just wouldn't write about it. But I realized that the reason SOPA and PIPA and their idiocy matter to me is that I'm a citizen of the internet. As are we all. SOPA and PIPA matter to anyone at all who uses the web on a regular basis. Which means that they matter to you as well.

I think what needs to be said about the wrongheadedness of these bills is easily Googleable, and what interests me about it was crystallized by an item I read this morning from The Escapist. It seems that the hacker group Anonymous is claiming to have hacked and broken some major websites overnight: the Department of Justice, the MPAA, the RIAA, and Universal Music Group. Not that I expect these sites to be invulnerable to a serious hacker collective, but I'm still rather impressed; this ain't small potatoes.

I had kind of hoped that the peaceful shutdown protests that took place on Wednesday would go even further than they did. I hoped that Google would shut down its search function for a day, keep people from being able to Google anything for just 24 hours. I hoped that Twitter would grind to a halt. I hoped that comments forums all over the internet on sites like the Washington Post and the New York Times would cease functioning, so that just for one day, you couldn't make your voice heard (no matter what you have to say). I thought if there was serious, major disruption to the sites that people use with impunity every day--even, perhaps, sites that senators themselves visit--they would see how goddamn stupid these bills were, how too-far their reach extends.

I don't want to see the world go down in flames of chaos. Nor do I really even want people to actually suffer for their stupidity. But I know that in order to make obtuse people see reason about something that matters past the ends of their noses, you have to hit them hard exactly where they live. That means different things to different people, of course. If, as a barista, you know that a certain senator just has to have his Starbucks in order to function, and whenever he comes to the counter you turn your back and refuse to serve him--and you could be sure that all Starbucks baristas everywhere would do the same--you would probably have his ear a little more easily than if as an employee of a McDonald's you intended to refuse him, when the senator hasn't visited McDonald's in twenty years.

One of the things that troubles me about these bills is the same thing that troubles me about a great deal of legislation passed in the last 15 years: it seems to have been drafted and pressed and fed through the rollers of Congress without any sort of input from the actual constituency that elected these congressmen. I'll grant you that I have a pretty self-selecting group of friends to choose from, but I don't know a single person who thinks this legislation is anything like a good idea. I'd love to see the numbers on how many ordinary folk contacted their representatives on Wednesday, after discovering what SOPA and PIPA were all about, and said, no, we do NOT want this to be law. I'm betting it was a lot of them. I'm betting it was enough to elect somebody completely new, in fact.

For Wednesday's protests to actually hit the congressmen where they live, though, it would have to be a more dramatic gesture than Wikipedia and Reddit and what-have-you. It would have to be Google and CNN.com and CNBC.com and the Cornell site that houses the U.S. Code and whatever other sites congressmen and their staff use to get through their workdays. YouTube, probably. It would have to matter more than just your constituency rising up against your actions, right? It would have to be your bank's website.

For Anonymous to take out these websites is--if not merely an act of revenge for Megaupload, which would be kind of lame and negate my whole point, and I can't believe it's a coincidence, with SOPA and PIPA so nearby--intentioned, I think, to send the message We Know the Internet and You Don't. Don't Be Steppin' in 'Hoods that Ain't Yourn. If this is their message, I think it's a completely proper one, if delivered in a terroristy sort of way. Of course, how the authorities will see such a message is a completely different matter. They'll smack down like parents on teenage rebellion: you little punks. How dare you fuck with us just because you can't break copyright law as easily as you could three days ago. It's meaningless defacement, taking down some websites, like spray-painting ASSHOLE on somebody's car.

This is the problem with terrorist messages, of course. They're never delivered properly. The destruction always seems to matter more than the message. Which is why the Gandhi/King-type protests of Wednesday did so much good: we're not going to wreck anything, we're just going to make your life a little harder for a day. Just to show you, and meanwhile show a lot of other people who didn't even know about it, that we think you're doing the wrong thing.

Yet I can't help having some admiration at the message, if only the message, of Anonymous in wrecking usdoj.gov. Rather than only showing you how heavy an anvil is by slackening the rope until the weight's pressing down on the top of your head, it's a razor slicing through the rope that holds the anvil up. Bang, you're dead.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Genuinely Weird and Totally Awesome

I'm about to hit 55,000 words on the horror novel, and while I'm pleased with its direction, and with some of the individual paragraphs and sentences and whatnot, I'm not sure whether it'll be an utter mess when I'm done with the first draft. I had a meandering talk with Matt yesterday about the spot where I was blocked (until I wrote through it, yay for me), and that brought me to the realization that there are a bunch of different ways I could make this universe work. He is the best devil ever to advocate, so I went down one leafy green path with him before discovering that it wasn't my original intention, and then went down another one while he listened and asked more questions, and then another. I think it might have made him a little nuts, but it was certainly helpful for me.

I wrote a segment yesterday about a couple of my main characters getting high. (On the maryjane.) I am telling you the truth when I say that I have never been high. So even before I put together a complete draft, I'm going to need to beg indulgence from somebody so I can find out if I wrote these few paragraphs properly. It's not with zero knowledge that I cobbled this section together, but certainly it lacks personal experience. I feel a little stupid and extremely square that I have to ask someone else, "Is this more or less what it's like to be high?", but there it is. Someone will probably write to suggest that I just get high myself and find out, but I'm not really interested.

I'm reading Infinite Jest, I think I mentioned a few posts back. I woke up too early the other morning after unsettling, unremembered dreams and I went downstairs and read it for an hour or two. I am on page fifty-eight. I said this proudly to Matt when he came downstairs, and pointed out that I was already an eighteenth of the way through the book. (To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how I'll get through it, or when.) I should have learned the lesson that it's not a good idea to get too heavily into a piece of fiction while you're working on a piece of your own, because the last few chapters of the Greenland book were a tad too Austen-y for their genre due to what I was doing during breaks in the work. But I figure that a little more David Foster Wallace in any given piece of fiction can't really hurt. And it's long past time for me to have read this book.

Today is a day that I'll get the chance to do all three of my jobs, along with my fourth, unpaid one: I taught yoga this morning, I've got a couple of copy-editing tasks to do and turn in, and I've got something to edit with my paralegal hat on. When I'm finished with that, I'm going to work on the novel some more. I wake up and go to bed feeling lucky every day, now, but I don't say to myself often enough how genuinely weird and totally awesome my life is in its new configuration.

Apropos of nothing:

It's from a series of eight which I love utterly. I want to contact the artist and ask him if he'll do mini-prints for me that I can frame, but I have no idea how much I'd pay him for something like that and therefore whether I can afford it, so it seems foolish to ask.

OKAY THAT'S ENOUGH PROCRASTINATING. I have to get to work. Ooh, it's almost time for lunch!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fictional Facts (Fast and Fraudulent)

I finally wrote a couple thousand words or so today. It's been a complicated week, with my jobs intruding on my writing time a lot (dang money, having to be made), and I haven't had the chance to write much. I told Matt a couple of days ago that I felt dissatisfied with the way the week was going, that I felt like it was slipping away from me. Now it's Friday night and I've only just gotten the chance to write what I really want to be writing.

I wrote a scene today that took place during the Civil War, and I had a great many details to look up to make sure I wasn't being too horribly disrespectful. A lot of them (what the weather was like in Buckingham County, Virginia on April 7th, 1865) I couldn't find; a lot of them (how many men were in a company and how many in a battalion; whether a corporal was an officer) I embarrassingly couldn't keep in my head long enough to close out the stupid window in my browser.

One of my favorite things about Stephen King's books of short stories is the bit at the end, where he tells you a little about each story's history - how it came to him, what he was thinking about when he wrote it, whether and where it was published (or not), etc. I find some of these commentaries to be more interesting than the actual stories, and one I well remember is for "Dolan's Cadillac", a revenge story about a man who (thpoilerth) buries the mobster who killed his wife inside his own Cadillac, six feet under. He does this by having the guy drive into a trap on a deserted highway and then using highway equipment to cover up the car. King explained in his bonus feature that he tried to fake the facts about how this would occur, how the man would dig the hole and get the car in it and so on. He found after a draft or two that he just couldn't manage it without more facts, so he called his polymath brother and asked him to explain how it would be done. His brother sent him a videotape of himself explaining it, with physics and miniature figures and a pile of dirt.

I'm tangenting a little, but the point emergeth: part of what I remember about this bonus feature (and a few others King has written about other stories) is that King says without shame that he's a very lazy writer when it comes to facts like this. That he generally only bothers to get it right in the very most shallow way possible, the way in which your average layman wouldn't know the difference. He's just not Michael Crichton, he says, and can't be buggered to get all of that crap perfectly correct.

I'm somewhere in the middle. I like things to be right, but I'm certainly not going to lose my mind if it's not - particularly if it's too obscure for anyone to know the difference. Certainly anyone who's ever lived in Greenland is going to contradict plenty of the stuff in my previous book, but come on, I'm supposed to cater to that subset of people? Sure, I'd love to have the thousands of dollars it would require for me to spend two weeks in Greenland fact-gathering, but I don't.

The Civil War is something else again. A lot of people are going to cry foul on a fudge, including some members of my own family. So I tried to get right as much as I could. But when I found myself looking up names of corporals who died on April 7th of 1865 to see if I could get a moderately correct reference in there...yeah, that was too much. It's a horror novel, folks, it ain't scholarship.

I'd love to know what others think about this. Do you think it all has to be perfect for it to be enjoyed? Or can fiction be safely loose and undependable when it comes to facts?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Snow Like Ash

Note: I intended to post this on Tuesday but just didn't have the time. 

Last night it snowed. It was my perfect snow. I wait all winter, sometimes fruitlessly, for a snow like this.

It was the kind with the big fat blobby flakes, the one that look like mistakes from the snowflake factory. As if a few got stuck together on the assembly line and are just getting thrown out anyway, tossed overboard from the special effects catwalk in the sky no matter if they look like gobs of cotton. And they were in no hurry as they fell, floating down steadily, in that way where if you look up at the dark-gray sky, you can freeze-frame a whole segment of the drifting wads, and then look past those and find another frameful, and then beyond that one. Like the 360-degree camera introduced so dramatically in The Matrix, suddenly to life in snow.

I loathe winter. I hate being cold with something of a pathology. I abhor the whole season with an intensity I'm told is rather unmatched. I always feel such joy when the time comes to stop lumbering around with my heavy coat and garments, to let my skin breathe the free air again, to taste the sun on my collarbones. And the opposite thing, when it's time to protect that skin from the knifing cold, oh. Each year the hopeless feeling builds on last year's, a modest skyscraper of negativity at this point.

But I don't mind snow. I read once about how snow is created, the conditions that have to be present in the atmosphere for snow to form and fall, and I was kind of astonished that it ever happened at all. Because of that, it feels a little like a miracle to me.

I sometimes wish that we could have snow without winter, that we could have cool dry snow that fell and evaporated on streets warmed by summer sun. Or snow like ash, built up and swept away into nothing. I had this thought as I was driving home through the three-dimensional weather, sweeping cotton from my windshield, and I remembered the Uglies series of teen novels by a writer named Scott Westerfeld. It's set in the not-too-distant future, where everybody living in the central cities is subject to an operation upon reaching age 16, which renders them beautiful to a very specific standard. The beauty standard was scientifically determined, as I recall, to be as attractive to human eyes as possible. These superhuman beauties ("pretties") don't look much like our standard of beauty now, but more like baby animals.

If you're surprised when I tell you there's a dark side to this operation, you have never read a science fiction book before. There are multiple thought-provoking things about the series, and one of them is the very simple idea, seemingly impossible for humans to grasp on a cosmic level, that you can't have everything. A procedure that appears to put everyone on a level playing field in terms of appearance is going to have some serious drawbacks. As Eloi, you can play all day, but you're going to get eaten at night. An iPhone is going to have an expensive monthly service charge. It's just the way of things.

If I want my perfect snow, I have to live with the cold. Even Calvin accepts that.

My delight with last night's snow meant that I could ignore the cold, a little bit. Living in Maryland, I have the luxury to see snow less as a harbinger of death and mayhem than as a landscape enhancement. And certainly last night that's what it was. It was a marvel. I drove home wondering at it, watching it.

When I woke up this morning, it was all gone. There were white edgings on some of the roofs, but the frosting on the trees, the blanket on the ground, the mufflement of traffic and the inimitable cool stillness in the air--nothing remained.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mining Whilst Tipsy

Matt is rather drunkily slaughtering orks in the computer room. I'm rather drunkily sitting in front of my computer out here. In theory I ought to be plunking down more words in the novel, but I'm not really feelin' it. I'm in a fainting-couch mood, instead. This is a mood where I go into the computer room, plunk down in the empty laundry basket, and give deep sighs until Matt asks me what's wrong. Then I draw a dramatic hand across my forehead, lean back, and tell him that writing is soooo hard. Then we both laugh.

I'm in a good place on the novel, really. Things are going well. I'm on track to be finished well before my deadline if I don't lose momentum. There are mechanical problems, but they're fixable. My writing is actually smoother and more creative in its smallities than on the previous project; I'm prouder of it on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I'm not positive it adds up to anything, but I think one day it will. I'm also grateful that I have the version of Microsoft Word which shows me, in the bottom bar, how many words are in my document. It's incredibly helpful to see that total and know I'm nowhere near the end of the story. But it also shows me that I'm nowhere near the end of the story. Gaaaah.

Sugar has this to say about writing:
Writing is hard for every last one of us... Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
It's a quote I relied upon completely when I discovered it back in the fall, and I would not, not, not have completed the Greenland book without it. But the day-to-day experience of writing a novel is indeed not at all unlike mining. It's dirty and unpleasant and hard and from inside the mine, it doesn't look like you've made any kind of progress. For the moment, I just want to curl up in a ball and have someone pet me and say yes, dear, it surely is hard. Poor coal-mining baby.

No one is doing this for me right now, although the alcohol seeping into my brain cells (while it's removing some of them--woops, there goes what I knew about Kierkegaard) is certainly clawing away at the maudlin-ness. See, maybe there's the secret to coal mining. Get good and lubed up before you go down in the pit. Wait, no, that's a bad idea. I think I'm just about ready to get back to digging myself, seeing as how what I'm doing isn't actually life-threatening and I need to ride this buzz before it vanishes.

But first! In other news, I'm rereading Rebecca for the zillionth time. The most recent time I read it was in college, though, and at 30 it's quite a different experience. It turns out that I remember the mood, tone, events, and characters of the book far better than I remember the actual page-by-page experience of reading it. I've always said that it's the book I'd be if Fahrenheit 451 became reality. I still hold to that, as it's just essential reading, but I'm kind of turned off by how much more rhapsodically descriptive it is than I remembered, how much less it is about Big Things and how much more it is about small things. And how much more informed by patriarchy it is than I remembered. Thanks a lot, Mount Holyoke, now I'll permanently notice crap like that. Next on the list is David Foster Wallace, whom I've never read before aside from a short story or two which I didn't much enjoy. We'll see how Infinite Jest strikes me. I'm 1 for 2 on Thomas Pynchon.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Workspace Update

Thanks to Matt, I'm now thoroughly equipped to stare at pretty pictures while I work.

Lil' Tom Servo and bobble-head Vault Boy are there to cheer me on. Matt points out that everyone needs a yes-man and a contrarian, and he's absolutely right. And now I have everything I could need. Except, at the moment, time to work.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Vacant Stare Is How You Know I'm Working

I downloaded a desktop theme called "Nordic Scenes" a few days ago. Before that, rotating NASA spacescapes graced my desktop (say that three times fast), and although they made me and my human life feel distinctly big and significant, I was ready for a change. I had previously thought about getting some glacier-themed stuff to look at while I was writing the Greenland book, but I am so allergic to cold and cold environs that I thought it would just make me unhappy, rather than making me more in tune with what I was writing. I'm really glad I caved; these pictures are gorgeous, and although ice or mountains are often a theme, they aren't always.

I just wish I knew where the heck they'd taken the pictures. I mean, duh, in Nordic areas, just--is this Iceland? Norway? Greenland itself? I have no idea.

About half the time that I'm writing, I'm actually staring off into space above my laptop, because I'm thinking as I'm putting words down, and thanks to seventh grade typing class, I don't need to look at my fingers. I kind of wish I could be looking at something other than either the closed blinds or the inside of our patio, where the weedy pots sit forlornly on the concrete, helpfully reminding me that no plant will ever, ever flourish under my care, ever, unless I give up and leave it to its own devices (this is how the rosemary on our front walk survives). Not so helpful to my confidence, as a writer, a member of the supposedly more nurturing gender, or a human being. I mean, really. Who can't grow zucchini?

Where was I? Oh, yes, my view. I told Matt what I really wanted was a large screen, monitor-sized, that had beautiful rotating pictures on it for me to gaze at blankly while I typed, or while I sat like a stump and waited to know what to type. Pictures rather like the pretty themes you can download for Windows 7, actually. I don't want to pay for one of those digital picture frames, because I'm not really a picture person. I just want a kind of meditation screen.

We have a small old monitor in our garage that I tried and failed to sell on Craiglist once, and I'm giving some thought to hooking that guy up and leaving my lovely rotating Nordic desktop on it to look at. But since I'm working at the dining room table now, if we ever decide to eat a meal on this table again there'll be a whole setup to clear away instead of just this laptop. I don't want to be a pain, nor do I want things to be unnecessarily complicated.

When I was working on the yoga memoir I now have in the metaphorical trunk, I wrote about how people often reject props because they see them as being for beginners, or for wimps. I wrote something about how if you think of yourself as a hardcore practitioner, your attitude is, sheeit, I can do yoga on a concrete floor in India, man, I don't need no stinkin' props. Well, okay, if you insist, but it's not necessary to do that to do "real" yoga. And it's more pleasant to use props if they're available, anyway. It's nicer to practice on a Manduka mat in non-chafey pants if you can, even if your practice is mobile and advanced enough to be anywhere and in anything. Using a block makes life easier in half-moon, and boy, does practicing in Lululemon feel like a million bucks.

I could probably write in a heatless, windowless garret if I had to. Longhand, God help me. But I like writing in a padded chair, on a speedy little laptop, and I like having something pretty to look at while I'm working. So I think I'm going to try out that monitor setup after all, no matter if it makes my writing rig seem unreasonably elaborate. It may not make my writing any better to have something to look at, but it'll make me feel better.

Even with the equipment I have now, I did get past my block this week. Thanks in part to the judicious and responsible application of alcohol, I got to work. I wrote several thousand words this week, and I have a good idea for where to go next. It's not a project that has a picture-ready theme like the Greenland book, so I think I'll stick with Nordic scenes for now, but we'll see. My stamina bar is filling up again, and I have confidence that I'll finish this project, if for no other reason than I really want to work on the next one. For that next one, I know exactly what kind of slideshow I'll use: pictures of Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stolen Because I Love It

I read this on the Trenches webcomic website, and it's such a simple and excellent story that I just had to share it with you.
We used to have someone who would buy cans of Coke bulk and keep them in the fridge, selling them and donating the proceeds to charity. It relied on the honor system to leave money for them, but over time, the money wasn’t matching the missing cans…by a significant margin.

People started to get into heated arguments about it, with accusations flying left and right and emails questioning “What kind of people work here?!”

Finally, after much discussion, a webcam was set up to keep an eye on it. Many thought it signaled the end of our company culture and an absolute loss of faith in who we thought were our friends and coworkers.

The next day we fired the cleaners for stealing the money and drinking the Coke. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's Great, Really, But How About an Honorable Cash Prize?

Just before the New Year I got an e-mail from Writer's Digest, advising me that my work warranted an Honorable Mention in a recent horror contest. The May/June issue of WD will list my name as honorably mentioned in the contest, and I get a free copy of the 2012 Writer's Market. Which is nice, and the cost of the book means I'm ahead about $10 above my entry fee. Yay!

The story in question is "Gone to Earth", the title of which I blatantly stole from an early-20th-century book by a female author named Mary Webb. A sample (of my story, not hers):
The silence maddened her for the first week, but one day she shut her eyes and sat on the porch and listened, and she heard it finally: the whistling sounds of the trees, the industry of squirrels, the chittering of nesting birds, faraway burbling water. The clamor was deafening if you listened. The expectation of television, of booming car stereos, of next-door Smiths embroiled in domestic battle, had drowned out the real sounds that existed in this place. She was suddenly dizzy with the altitude.

Two weeks later, and she is knitting her fingers into the tiny garden’s wet dirt. A woodpecker is sporadic in keeping her company as she kneels in the damp earth. She hums Springsteen. A pale green tendril from a bush nearby snakes its way around her moving wrist.

She ceases and looks at it. It is still for a moment, and then it moves again, climbing its way up her arm to the crease of her elbow. She stands up at speed and the tendril slips away harmlessly, lying on the ground.

Shelly is shaking, her eyes wide, the tune in her throat forgotten. Her earthen hands dangle. The tendril does not move. It is another three days before she goes to the garden again, and by then the seeds and weeds alike have uncurled into life, the weeds twice as large and throttling the squash.
I wrote the story a few years ago, and although it really does belong in the stable of genre work, not literary, it was still (at the time) the closest I'd ever come to writing exactly what I had in mind. A piece of work I'm proud of. One day I want to place it in Weird Tales - it was rejected two years ago, but maybe with some more work it'll be worthy.

As I said a while back (while I was agonizedly editing "Gone to Earth" down for this very contest, in fact), I don't really know what's up with contests, how they work, but thus far this is the third one in which I have been granted an honorable mention. I'm pleased that I warrant mention, especially of the honorable sort, but I'm kind of starting to wonder what's up with this. (I'm an Honorable Mention winner from way back, all the way to science fair projects in elementary school and whatnot.) What do I do to break through from "yeah, we liked it" to "this is outstanding by any measure"? More characterization? Fewer adjectives? Thicker paper?

In other news, I bought Florence + the Machine's new album (Lungs has been listened to a nub, or would have been, if it hadn't been listened to entirely in digital form), and have discovered that noise-canceling headphones are really the only way to listen to Florence + the Machine. I just want to lie down and let her voice soak into my body, maybe for a day or two straight.

Also, totally blocked from working on the horror novel, either through laziness or perfectionist fears or whatever else is making me chemically unable to put one word in front of the other. I think this evening I'll try lubing up with a cocktail and see where that gets me. Yeah, not a wise habit, but it worked nicely with the Greenland book, and I didn't wind up with an alcohol problem after it was all over, so I think I'm OK. Also also, someone with more talent in the tip of her nose than I have in my entire brain has just e-mailed me a WIP for me to read and chat with her about, so I am apparently being revenged for my impatience with my readers. I can't wait to dig in.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Resolute, 2011 Edition

Happy New Year!

At my former, anonymous blog, I got into the tradition of posting last year's New Year's resolutions and their result, and then making new ones in the same post. It was a useful tool to gauge how my year went, so I see no reason to stop it. Here are last year's:

1. Don’t lose sight of my health. Although in practical terms I flossed a lot less than I should have, and December of 2011 will always be remembered by me as the Month of Neverending Desserts, I still think I succeeded at this in a way I couldn't have known about when I made the resolution. My digestive health was becoming rather seriously bad in the months before I quit full-time work, and now I'm healthy again for the most part.

2. Remember the Bikram lesson. This lesson is sort of a long story, but the short version is that there is just no quick fix for my life. It doesn’t benefit me to run full speed into a perceived solution, because generally that solution ends up feeling an awful lot like a wall. I think I succeeded at remembering this. Kind of. I still want a single solution to drop into my life - the lottery, a fat book advance, a penalty-free writedown of our mortgage, etc. I haven't gotten much better at not hoping for such things, even though I learned a lot this year about how patience and inching toward my goals really does benefit me.

3. Stop worrying about “normal”. ENTIRELY. A wise person explained to me in 2010 that as long as your behavior doesn’t do anyone any harm, there is no reason to compare it to others’ and feel bad that it’s not the same. I made a lot of progress in this direction this year, but I still worry that I'm not...I don't know...keeping up? In certain ways? My house isn't as clean as the neighbors', I don't have as strong and solid of a life plan as my classmates'. Stuff like that. Whether the way I behave is normal or not, I care a lot less about that now, so I guess that's success.

4. Reeeeeead mooooooore boooooooooooooks. Yeah, I did. A lot more. Yay me.

5. Be better about my budget. Success. I'm a good deal more circumspect than I was in 2010, and not artificially via guilt. Which is great.

6. Relax about turning 30. I failed at this in terms of a resolution, as I was not at all relaxed over the course of the year (or on the actual birthday) about turning 30. But I turned 30 and the world didn't end. It's much nicer to be 30 than it was to be 23, I'll say that much. But in terms of not being worried about aging, that's a big FAIL FAIL FAIL.

7. Find a direction. Success. I want to be a novelist. Time will tell if it's a direction that works.

This was a much better year for resolutions than most of them have been. [pats self on back] And this year's resolutions:

1. Slim down in terms of possessions. It's not necessary for me to own the equivalent of a video store, for example, or a whole stable of items that I might find a use for someday. I need to be still more ruthless about getting rid of things. I'm a recovering pack-rat (which is rather like being a recovering alcoholic - you're never really cured), and there is lots more to do.

2. With my newfound financial circumspection, toss more money into my debts. This is actually a specific thing I need to do, not just a "pay off debt" resolution. It's hard to explain practically, but it's a pretty simple financial-habits issue.

3. In terms of writing, put into practice all the things that have worked for me in 2011. Specifically: 1) Keep blogging. It helps me find my voice. 2) Just Do It. Put words on the page; it all comes from there. 3) Set a time-limit goal and stick to it. For example, my absolute deadline for the horror novel is June (failing some kind of insane life circumstance). I will be done with a first draft by June, or I'm fired.

4. Be fearless. Prior years' resolutions were about getting rid of guilt or embarrassment, or about decreasing fear to sustainable levels. This year I'm going for broke: fearlessness. About my writing, about my teaching, about being around other human beings, about going confidently in whatever direction my life wants to take me.

5. Detach. Stop fretting over the outcome and how it affects you and whether what happened reflects badly on you. Just live and do your best.

I think I had some more small ones floating around in my mind, but after 24 hours of trying to remember them, I can't. Maybe I'll update later, or maybe I'll just try to do these five as best I can.

I hope wherever and whoever you are, 2012 is your year.