Saturday, December 28, 2013

Near-Fetched vs. Not

One of several books I read over the holiday was Bel Canto, a 2001 novel by Ann Patchett which won several prizes upon its release. I had read her latest book, State of Wonder, this past spring, and I really didn't know what to make of it. At the time I said this:
It's the first of her books I've read. ...I found myself looking forward to finishing, but also reading with enjoyment (Patchett creates narrative tension extraordinarily well)...much of its plot struck me as outlandish. Yet when I was in the last chapter, I felt like I'd been through a remarkable experience. I looked back at the journey of the novel with amazement and pleasure at what I and the characters had been through. Ultimately I am confused about it. 
State of Wonder gave me a great deal of food for thought; I've been thinking about it on and off since I read it in May. "Outlandish" is still the best word I know to describe the plot of the book, and yet I never scoffed and gave up because Patchett had written something that wasn't believable on the human scale.

The question I found myself asking after I read State of Wonder was whether it matters that the world of a book is far-fetched, as long as the author has confidence and skill. I thought State of Wonder worked, and I enjoyed it in the process of reading it, but when I was finished, the down-to-earth side of my brain protested that such a wacky premise should never have gotten on the page at all, much less published.

What's the point of novels, anyway? To build a world that's so realistic, on its own terms, that no one will question that they're reading something that could actually happen? Or to build a world, any world, into which the reader can tumble, entire, like Alice into the rabbit-hole? State of Wonder made me ask these questions. A book that casts a complete spell the way it did really reorients my view on fiction, and reminds me of how books felt when I was a little girl - how much I viewed them as utter escape from the present. A magic carpet, bound and glued, that took me wherever the author wanted me to go, no matter whether the destination was a real place or not. Wonder was maybe not realistic, but it was spellbinding, and it reminded me that there are more things between paper covers, Hemingway, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I've read weirder stuff, sure. Sci-fi and fantasy books go way outside the realm of near-fetched. But Patchett is a contemporary literary author, and I don't think Wonder is meant to be magical realism. Even if it is, it doesn't read that way; it reads like...crazy realism? Exotic realism? I don't know that there's a term for it. It reads like it's outside the rules of any one genre.

But I fell head-over-heels into it, and I did the same for Bel Canto, which is not equally far-fetched, but close. It's based (loosely) on a real incident, but truth is stranger than fiction and this is pretty strange fiction. I loved the characters, I raced through every page, and I was slightly bereft when I was finished. I bought into every detail even as that other side of my brain tapped a foot and sniffed highly improbable. Once I was used to the outlandishness, I was sorry to let it go to return to more firmly realistic fiction.

I think the old truth about the rules of writing fiction - the importance of not breaking them is inversely proportional to how good your work is - applies here, but I still couldn't nail down for you exactly what rules it seemed to me like Patchett was breaking. There's no rule that says your scenario has to be believable in the real world. State of Wonder made me see that potentially, the most important rule is that the reader has to want to turn the page and read what comes next.

I guess the takeaway is that every writer needs to build a rabbit-hole - a consistent, intriguing world in which it's safe to suspend disbelief. Maybe that world is 90s-era Portland, where young grungers fall in love and have unsafe sex (Girl); or it's an otherworldly backcountry that's populated by fairies as well as credulous, romantic young men (Little, Big); or it's Viking-era Greenland, so thoroughly historically accurate that the novel can be used as a secondary source (The Thrall's Tale). Make me a sound rabbit-hole, and I'll tumble in without a thought.

Maybe another takeaway is that I need to suspend that foot-tapping self a little more often. She's kind of awful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Marking Time

I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. I haven't read much, either. The end of the semester seems to have let all the air out of me and I'm expending energy on everything else but reading and writing.

A rainstorm a few weeks ago evidenced a massive leak in our bedroom ceiling, and yesterday, workmen tramped in and out of the apartment all day...doing...stuff. This was the result:

Yeah. Reassuring. We're looking at other apartments in the area; asbestos is kind of the last straw with this place.

We're sleeping in the living room. During the day, the box spring and mattress lean across the couch. Like a Murphy bed, except a lot more work. They still have to put actual drywall in the ceiling and presumably paint it with that popcorn crap. So there will be more tramping. For some reason, I am incapable of being pleasant and shit-happens-y about all this, even though it's just a couple of days of inconvenience. All I want to do is bitch.

At the end of this week I travel to Florida for the Christmas holiday. After that will come a couple of weeks of taking it easy. Everything in between the Vegas party and New Year's feels like marking time. I am not in the holiday spirit, and I'm not ready for 2014, and I really just want to sleep in my bedroom.

Sorry. There'll be actual Fictating sometime soon.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What I Did on My (Second) Vegas Vacation

Names have been changed for the author's amusement, and because she is terrible with names.

Prologue: November 28-29

Thursday, AM: Drive the five hours between Los Angeles and Las Vegas with husband and friend. Rent supercool Dodge Challenger. Have rip-roaring time.

Friday, AM: Drive home.

Chapter the First: One Week Later

Thursday, December 5

Morning: "Race" husband to Vegas. His company Christmas party is there, tonight. We leave the house at the same time. I drive, he flies. He beats me by about 90 minutes.

We're doing it this way because his flight is free; because I prefer driving to flying, while he is the other way around; and because I have to go to a class on Friday that starts at 11 AM. If I don't attend this class, I lose the equivalent of 5% of my final grade. I have explained the situation to my professor, and she has said she'll understand if I'm late. But I'll have to leave insanely early in the morning - after an epic Vegas party - to get back to L.A. in time, and I don't want to subject husband to such evil. So.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I keep wanting to write a post on how I feel about the holidays and stopping myself. My inner Grinch is on the rampage this year, and I don't necessarily want to expose her to friends and loved ones.

I finished Airships. Heavens above. I've really picked some incredible books of short stories to read this year! If you want to be amazed, read that thing. There was also an interesting treasure in the inside cover:

Space Library: 1999!

I took out Under the Volcano from the library to read next, but I am so tired of men's writing that I just couldn't take it. Nearly everything we've read for my UCLA class this semester has been by white men, as have most of the books I've read for fun over the same period. I'm used to this, of course, but the insistent feeling of standing outside the party has been a lot worse lately. Male writers often (unintentionally) (?) create worlds in which I stand apart, where all the characters who look like me are trophies or objects or barnyard animals. So I fled to the girliest unread book on my shelf: a Georgette Heyer. I gobbled it in less than 24 hours and I feel such relief. Yes, I do exist after all.

I'm also following two comic books right now: the Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky collaboration about which you will get the wrong impression (and I'll draw unfortunate searches) if I name, so I'll just direct you there; and the Kelly Sue DeConnick/Emma Rios book Pretty Deadly. I adored PD #1, but #2 was...largely confusing (and OMG learn to use commas, whoever letters these books). I still can't wait for the next one. The pleasure of following a comic book upon release, book by book over several months, is one I wasn't familiar with until now. And a pleasure it is, indeed.

Matt and I and a lovely friend spent Thanksgiving Day in Las Vegas this year. It was a very cool trip. On the drive back, Matt and I developed an idea about a Western that I am now committed to writing. The landscape inspired us. I've sketched out the idea, and I've already fallen in love with the main character. She's like a much more damaged version of the main character of Highbinder, one who believes in revenge instead of not. I really want to just write it, go go go, but I feel I need to at least read a couple of Westerns before I do; thus far all I've read are Elmore Leonard and Annie Proulx stories. Anybody know if Lonesome Dove is really that good?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

In Which I Dabble in Great Novels

Over the past month, I read Sophie's Choice, by William Styron, and Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. The former is considered an important novel of the 20th century, the latter an important novel of the Western canon. Both were compulsively readable, and I felt a mix of relief and satisfaction when I finished each, and I find it really weird that I happened to read them back-to-back like that. They have almost nothing in common aside from prominence, and even in that fashion they are known for different reasons and qualities. But they are both Great Novels.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Step Right Up, Find the Character Arc and Win a Prize

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a literary story of about 3,000 words, and on Monday I revised it. Matt read it yesterday, and he asked me why the main character didn't undergo any change.

I had reasons, but we tangented out to talking about whether it's necessary for the main character of a literary short story to have a character arc at all. I thought through some examples and ultimately decided that the answer is no, but that I couldn't really say why the non-arcing dynamic works in those stories.

In literary stories, I tend to write characters that resist change. I find those characters most interesting. A gymnastics coach who has a girl die under his care and still insists that it's her fault, not his. A serial killer who recognizes that his victim is a person, not an object, and kills her anyway. In the story at hand, a woman whose hypocrisy and self-centeredness never budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she's a terrible person. I like exploring people who behave this way.

Matt said that the story had the feel of a string of incidents, though, and that there was no overarching change as one incident led into the other. At least she has to be getting worse, he said, more hypocritical and self-centered, even if she doesn't have an actual epiphany.

He gave me the tools to fix the story, I think, but it certainly was an interesting question. I think over a novel you kind of have to create a character arc, but maybe not necessarily in a story. In fact, I'd argue that a number of the stories I've read for the UCLA class don't have one: "I Don't Talk Service No More," "Rock Springs," "Two Gallants." In each of those, stuff happens to the characters, but there's no evidence of how they are different people at the end of the story than they are at the beginning. Sometimes there are obstacles that they overcome (or don't), but sometimes it's just stuff happening. I feel like you can pretty easily have a story where the main character will remember the culminating incident forever, will know that things were never quite the same after that happened, but will still refuse any significant personality change.

Frankly, I prefer this to an epiphany that the writer worked up but that I don't understand. I've read quite a lot of those in the plethora of short stories I've consumed over the past six months. Okay, so this was a big change, but from what to what?

Also, doesn't the arc take place in the reader, in some way? Aren't you the one who's different after reading a really stunning story? What do you think?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rowing and Rowing and Rowing

I finally got to work on the airplane story over the last week. I wrote a few pages and then went back to Mary Gaitskill's story "The Arms and Legs of the Lake" - which was what helped me decide to try and write this fucker, after all - to figure out how she did what she did. After I was done reading it, I immediately wanted to read it again. I wanted to type it out word by word, to break it down in a series of diagrams, to understand down to the last syllable how she built the thing. I enjoyed it enough the first time around; reading it with a more analytical approach the second time made it open up beyond belief.

So, okay, here's what she did: she defined character through episodic exposition - not explaining how the character felt, but sketching scenes that took place in the past to demonstrate where the character's feelings came from. This is extremely useful information. My UCLA instructor mentioned that he's always looking for ways to "make a scene out of it," whatever it might be. A scene rather than explanation. And even in exposition, even sometimes without using dialogue, Gaitskill accomplished this. She made episodes. (This may be basic writing craft stuff, but it's stuff that no one's told me before, so it's useful to me.)

Putting Gaitskill down and returning once more to my own work, I thought I might just never set pen to paper again. The draft I had so far read like idiot crayon scribbles. I mean, she's a Guggenheim fellow, so I'm well aware that there's really no comparison, but reading them one after the other was...unhelpful.

I kept driving at it, certain that the idea was good, even if the draft completely stank. The next day's pages seemed pretty bad, too, and I wondered if the idea was good but not workable, or at least not writable by me. I whined to Matt about how badly it was going, and he said maybe I should quit and write something else. I said no. In life I am a veteran quitter, but quitting a writing project before I have written a whole draft is something I've virtually never done.

Sometimes I quit after the draft is done and before revising, and sometimes I quit before the revising is done, and sometimes I set the MS aside and come back it later - even years later - but I almost always write to the end. I'm possessed of the idea that I can't write endings especially well and need to practice at it, but I also believe that a writer cripples herself by not finishing projects. It wears down the confidence and stunts the writing-learning process.

The next day I couldn't face the draft, and instead I read a short book by Annie Dillard called The Writing Life, which I got used on Amazon for like a buck-fifty some months ago. At the time it arrived, I felt like I'd recently absorbed a lot of self-importance about the oh so noble mission of a writer, so I set it aside until I was ready to read it with less skepticism.

I'm glad I waited. What a lovely little book it is.

Near the end, she describes at length a conversation she had with a painter, and the long, seemingly unrelated story the painter tells in response to her question about how his work is going. (You should read the book, because I can't do her prose justice.) A friend of his was rowing in Haro Strait, a narrow channel dotted with islands between Washington State and Canada. The rower had found a large, valuable log in the water and was towing it to shore. He got caught by the tide, going out. He was pulled nearly to another, miles-away island by the tide, but he kept rowing and rowing and rowing against it, the heavy log tugging him farther and farther out. Sometime during the night, the tide turned, and "now the log was with him." He made it home in the morning after rowing in the same direction all night. "So that's how my work is going," the painter said at last.
The current's got me. Feels like I'm about in the middle in the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in. 
God, did I sympathize. Rowing and rowing and rowing.

That very day, I sat down to the airplane story and the tide turned. Suddenly the characters started coming together. Their stories seemed less melodramatic and more compelling; their lives came alive. I think I'll end up rewriting some of it completely once I'm finished, but it doesn't seem unsalvageable anymore, like I'm throwing good time after bad.

I don't know if there's ever a point to just stopping rowing, just sitting there and letting the tide pull you to Canada. That's not what someone with control over her work does. If the story gets finished and it's a no-hoper, fine; I'll put it in a trunk and write something else. But getting pulled out to Quitsea is not acceptable to me. I'd rather write "Screw Flanders" enough times to make up the word count I had in mind than just leave it undone.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Monkeybicycle / Comments

Very quick post today to let you know some things.

1) The acceptance I mentioned here is now in flower: my story "This Fall, Thursdays, 9 PM" appeared on Monkeybicycle today. I am exceedingly pleased. Go here to read it, and do read it if you like me or have enjoyed reading this blog. Unlike some of the other pieces I've published in the past two years, I can recommend it to most audiences wholeheartedly. It has violence and wicked circumstances, but it's not bizarre or overlong or really disturbed like much of the other stuff I'm proud of.

If you're here from that story, welcome! Thanks for clicking over. Stick around; I love new friends.

2) New comment policy. I love comments, truly, but anonymous comments that are plainly devised to injure or undermine me, or just to be negative, will now be deleted. I didn't want to start Malleting comments, because a. it shows that I spent time and energy on idiot trolls and b. I like to think that troll comments demonstrate the exact weight and substance of their value without me having to do anything. I kind of wish I still had a Wordpress blog, because I'd do what the Bloggess does: edit them, hilariously. Blogger has so many limitations, y'all.

Anyway. If trolly comments were part of a multitude, I'd probably leave them up and laugh. But not enough of you weigh in on my posts to keep these negative comments from being obvious and irritating. And I have this sense that me not doing anything makes me look weak and unprofessional rather than just blase. So, the Mallet is now in operation.

To all trolls, everywhere: please don't waste your infinitely valuable time on me. The internet is vast, and there are many wonderful things out there to turn your critical eye upon in order to ruin them. I don't care what you have to say, and nothing that you do is going to make me stop writing.

Kisses from the Fictator.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Celebrity Deathmatch: Narration vs. Dialogue

First things first: I recorded another piece of fiction. This one's less than ten minutes! It's a tiny piece of the time book, and sort of a microcosmic version of the book's central fantasy element, but the real reason I like it is the voice. This guy is such a dick. I had lots of fun reading him into the microphone.

In other news, I did some more actual writing this week: I finally started on the airplane story. The concept underlying this story is probably ten years old, and I mucked it up horribly the last time I tried a draft. It's been knocking around in my head ever since then, but kind of non-urgently. Since I thought up a way into the idea a few months ago, it's been pressing on me with far more insistence, but I've tried to ignore it, because the potential act of writing it intimidates me badly. I'm not sure I'm skilled enough to set the story forth in the way I want to. I believe the idea/story could be really good, even great, but I'm afraid I'll muck it up again and then have to set it aside a second time.

[Total sidebar: Stephen King expressed this exact anxiety about one of the stories in Skeleton Crew, "Survivor Type," which was about a doctor stranded on a desert island who becomes autocannibalistic to survive. As I recall, King said that the idea seemed too grotesquely delightful to set down at first, so he didn't write it for a long while, afraid of messing it up. Frankly, Steve? I think you did. While the idea is indeed pretty delightful, the story is drug-soaked and ugly, one of my least favorites in that collection.]

Now I worry I've waited too long, and my own anxiety is keeping the thing from being any good. I wrote a few hundred words, and introduced the first two characters; while it seems okay at this [ridiculously early] stage, the fact that there'll be a lot of narration and exposition in this story weighs heavily on me. (For various in-story reasons, writing more of it in dialogue - creating scenes rather than explanations - is not possible.) Until recently, I didn't worry very intently about the balance between narration and dialogue, figuring both were fine and mostly trying to find a good half-and-half between them whenever I wrote. But then 1) the teacher in my UCLA writing class pointed out that the opening to my workshopped story, which I thought was quite strong, is really all exposition; and 2) I skimmed through the Greenland book and saw how I tend to lapse into Victorian narration in order to storytell when I get too lazy comfortable.

As a reader I prefer narration to dialogue, but over the course of this year, several smart writers at the fronts of rooms full of students have told me that most readers are the opposite way. One of my teachers even said that dialogue is considered a break, while chunky paragraphs are taxing. I found this surprising to the point of astonishment, as for me it's always been completely the other way around. Dialogue is laborious for me to read and beautiful narration just flies by.

Anyone want to share their thoughts on this? Which reads more easily to you?

So this story. I don't know. Matt says I should just write it and see what happens, and of course he's right. I just don't want to expend a lot of energy on it and find that the idea's plain old unworkable after all, or that I'm not good enough to do it justice. Or that I am, but I have to rewrite it once I'm through. I never, ever want to do that. But I'm learning that rewriting is the way to write - gradually, kicking and screaming, I am learning it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Various Benedictions

Finally, finally, finally, I wrote something over the weekend. On Saturday night, when I was all by myself. It's not the main idea I've been suckling for far too long, but an idea that occurred to me only a few weeks ago that was much easier to get at. It felt exhilarating going on the page, and I hope it'll feel that way when I pick it up again to revise after my mandatory two-week waiting period.

I've spoken before about how much of a relief it is to write when it's been a while since I've written. How my cup runneth over with anxiety that the machinery just won't start again, and how like a cool rain on a hot day it is when the words finally patter out in ink. Yes, it was the same way. And the resolutions were just the same, too; this time I'll keep up with writing at least some fiction at least once a week. Even if it's just an exercise. I will, I will. And, increasingly, I know this is a lie before the thought has even finished its circuit. (It must be like what alcoholics mutter to themselves in the harsh morning. This time I'll do it right. I won't fuck it up. I'll keep to the program. Oh, Christ, what'll I do?)

Aside from this writing goodness and...mixed emotional reaction, I got some very, very, very good news on Sunday: one of my shortest and most recently written stories has been accepted. At a literary magazine that is established enough to have a Wikipedia page and a couple thousand followers on Facebook. This may seem to be rather an empty honor to you, but to me it is a benediction from heaven.

Ah, how well you capture me, Mr. Lichtenstein

I'll keep you posted as to which magazine and what story when it appears. It is a pretty black tale (unsurprising, since I wrote it), but I had fun playing with the concept. It was the first story I've ever written into a final form and then rewritten from scratch, trying a whole different direction.

In social media news (shudder), I've opened my own Facebook page to followers. And consequently I'll try to write some public posts.

Have you read or seen the play or movie Proof? We just finished a unit on the play in my literature class, and I'm freakin' gobsmacked at it. Layers upon layers upon layers. The play has a precision that's just breathtaking as you circle closer to its heart. The movie is okay, but doesn't communicate this quality as well as reading the play does.

I recently read another book that I adored in exactly the opposite way: with my heart, my whole heart, instead of mostly my brain. It was Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, a historical YA novel set in WWII - and two out of three of those criteria make the book really not my sort of thing at all. Still, I'll never look on its like again. What a treasure. I don't want to tell you about the time that my heart stopped and didn't really get going again for another two chapters, or the time I cried, or the other time I cried. It's all too spoilery. Just read it, one page at a time, and DON'T read the summary on the jacket.

Again an accurate depiction of my emotions

The tour de force of Code Name Verity was why the book I finished over the weekend was such a disappointment. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a finalist for the Booker and a big hoopdy-hoop book back in 2005, was an obvious allegory on the macro level and a pale copy of other IP I've encountered on the micro. It was written in a very simple and repetitive style, which was almost certainly part of the point re: the main characters, but the effect was dull and irritating. Everybody loved it, critically, and I'm at a total loss as to why. The YA book of the previous paragraph, which hasn't won anything like a Booker nom, was superior.

Do snooty lit critics just not read decent genre fiction? Ever? Because seemingly if you mix one mediocre speculative element into an otherwise very blah book by a big-name literary author, critics just seem to go insane. I can't think of other examples of this phenomenon right now, but I know I've read a couple. I want to grab these critics by their lapels and scream THIS ISN'T THAT GOOD, YOU DUMMIES. Read some damn Bradbury. Read some Valente. Read some Tobler. Read some LeGuin.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Gone to Soundcloud and Exploring Trunked Work

So, I took an afternoon and voice-recorded a short story of mine, "Gone to Earth," about which I have been proud and happy since I originally wrote it a few years back. It won honorable mention in a Writer's Digest contest (although I have this sneaking feeling that WD contests are just profitmongers and it's actually a meaningless honor), but nooooobody wants it. It's been submitted something like 15 times. Every so often I get fed up with it and move it to my Retired folder, but then after a year I'll read it again and go "Dammit, this thing is good," and dust it off for another round of rejections. No more. I recorded it and that's how it's going into the world.

A bit of backstory: The idea is mine, but I stole the title from a book by Mary Webb, which was pretty successful in its day but has fallen almost entirely into obscurity. This book contains the worst, most incomprehensible dialect of any book I have ever read. And the story feels a little, er...obsolete. But I loved the title, loved what it implied. In the book, the title is something of a metaphor about the main character, her pet fox, and her eventual self-sacrifice, but in my story it's slightly more literal.

"Gone to Earth" is about 4,500 words, and that turned out to be 25 minutes of audio and a whole afternoon's work in recording. I trimmed it a bit, and it's down to 22 minutes, but I don't blame you if you don't click below. Even 22 minutes feels too long to me.

So I'm looking for shorter pieces to record. I have a couple of little nonfictions that I'll probably try, but I want to do a sprinkling of both, fiction and non, and so I looked at some of the longer pieces I've written to see if I can scalpel out stuff that's 3K or less. Seeking excerpts that stood on their own, I ended up skimming two novels I've written and decided to trunk - the time book and the Greenland book - and boy, was that a strange trip.

Both books are probably better trunked for now. I don't like some of the characters in the time book enough to rewrite it with the same people, and it simply won't do as it is. I might rewrite it with the same kind of fantasy-universe rules, but with different characters and a different situation. Kind of taking patches from what exists but sewing a whole new quilt. Some of that book does stand on its own, and there's a short piece from it that I'm probably going to record. There's also a 14,000-word patch (Clara's journal/story, for those of you who've read it) that is one of my favorite things that I've written, but which I'm pretty sure no one but me can love.

Meanwhile, the Greenland book...oh, brother. I'm astonished by the scope of that book and by how inadequately I executed it. It contains reams of Victorian-style exposition text, all of which should have been translated into actual scenes where things happen rather than telling the audience all about it after the fact.

Thing is, I'm kind of dumbfounded by the extent of the universe I created in this book. I made a whole language! Seriously! And I'm still so compelled by the characters. Maybe it's a rookie move to fall in love with your characters as you're writing them, but it's what I do every time I write something worth reading, and that love was still so strong for all three of my main characters as I skimmed over the Greenland book.

I don't think I'm ready to rewrite it yet, but I am determined to do so someday. I think it will wind up very long in its eventual incarnation. Epical. There are well over a dozen secondary characters, all of whom have specific roles to play. I definitely did not make each of these characters clear in the version that exists, and I don't want the reader to get (too) confused, so I might build whole storylines for them and end up with an opus of Game of Thrones length once I'm finished.

What else is happening...I still haven't found time to set aside for writing new stuff, and it's starting to wear on my well-being. I have more story ideas than I know what to do with. Some good friends are moving away from L.A. for new adventures, leaving me and Matt pretty bereft. My group won a poetry contest in my English class, and as a prize, I got a sticker that looks like this:

Artist: Peter Nevins. More good stuff at

I'd be best served by sticking it over my computer screen, I think - particularly to block out Facebook, if such a thing is possible - but I might put it on my car.

Got a painful rejection yesterday, but the less said about it the better. All part of the cycle. Find new market, resubmit, rinse, repeat.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Interlude Containing Zebras

About a quarter of the people who visited the last post answered the poll. Sheesh, y'all. There's still time, if you want to vote.

The recordation idea of the poll springs from the same place as today's post. Certain stories of mine are unsaleable, either according to mountains of rejections or for other reasons, but are still worthwhile in my eyes. I thought that recording these pieces in my own mellifluous voice [laughter] and posting them on my website might be interesting for all of us. I'll wait a bit longer for the poll to tell me whether or not there's interest enough in this idea to make it worth my while, but in the meantime here's one of those pieces in prose form.

This is nonfiction, after a fashion, and I wrote it at Esalen within the parameters of a writing exercise related to the alphabet (see if you can pick up on it, she said dryly). I got compliments on it while I was there, and I think it's pretty okay for a flash (I don't write flash especially well), but it's too gimmicky and a bit too self-centered for me to feel right about sending it anywhere. So you get it, instead, all 640ish words of it. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Back to the Point...Eventually

I am easily distracted from the purpose of this blog.

On Friday night, I drafted a post about taking solace in Star Wars after a difficult day last week, and I was all ready to post it today, but it's just not right. This is a writing blog. It's about my life, too, but the rule to which I try to hold is only to write about non-art-related life episodes if I can turn them into writing exercises, after a fashion. My last post, about Zoe - that was good news that I was bursting to share, but I also tried to make it an exercise. To write it in the most artful way possible.

Anyway. Star Wars provided solace after a difficult day. Also, I got a [second] tattoo, see:

It's the lamppost that marks the northwestern border of Narnia, drawn by my talented friend Kathleen and carved on my arm forevermore by Katelyn Crane at MD Tattoo Studio. You can't see it from this picture, but the line work is amazing. After epic waffling, I got it, and I love it.

And that's enough of my life. Answer this poll, would you? Neither response will hurt my feelings.

If I created audio recordings of me reading my work (fiction and nonfiction), would you want to listen to them?

In the last couple of weeks I've had some very disappointing rejections. There've been a few that didn't matter much, but there were others where I felt that the piece and the mag were just right for each other, and the rejection said things like "We loved it, but we don't want it. Send us something else." Intellectually, I realize that this is the best possible kind of rejection to get - it means (crucially) that my work is getting better, and (less crucially, but a nice consolation) that I might get into the mag in the future. But in the act of reading the e-mail, or at night before I go to sleep...these rejections are NO FUN.

And yet.

I got an acceptance, too, recently. An LGBTQ publication called Wilde Magazine is going to publish a short story of mine called "The Hands of Men," in which something really awful happens to a nice closeted young man. The magazine will be out before the end of the month, if I'm not mistaken. This is great news. While I'm less googly-eyed about this story than I am about others I've written, I really wanted it to have a home. And now it does. Hooray!

Here is a short list of the projects swirling around my head to work on:
-Airplane story
-Weird hypertext story that I don't know how to write because it requires web development skilz I don't have
-Cee story #2
-Noir story #2

And here is a complete list of the projects I have managed to get my butt in my seat and work on:


Did I mention I got a tattoo?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I Think I'll Throw a Party


Lemme splain.

The apartment building I live in is shaped like a long U, and I live on the inward side, which means I can see a lot of other balconies from my balcony. Kind of like Rear Window. My desk sits next to the glass balcony doors, but even if it didn't, even if it was anywhere else in my apartment, I still would have been able to hear Zoe and her owner all day, every day.

Zoe is a little Bichon-type white fluffy dog, and until this past weekend, Zoe resided with her owner in an apartment across from me and over one. And Zoe barked incessantly. If Zoe's owner was on her balcony, Zoe was with her, and if Zoe was with her, Zoe was barking. And Zoe's owner was on the balcony nearly all day, from 8 or 9 AM until 2 or 3 PM. A lumpy woman with bad taste in pajama pants and (in the afternoon, once she got dressed) makeup thick enough for me to see her eyeliner from my desk, she sat out there and chain-smoked and talked on the phone, alternating between Spanish and English, for hours on end. I still have no idea what she was on about, nor how, if this eternal talking was somehow part of her work, her clients/boss/whoever put up with the sound of a dog barking nonfuckingstop in the background. Her balcony was too far away for me to understand what she was saying. But it was not too far away to hear Zoe.



I could think of nothing that would stop this. Even if the management office could be arsed to deal with such a thing, what would they do? You can talk about nuisance codes and whatnot, but I knew I was pretty much stuck with Zoe via official channels.

I thought about leaving a note at Zoe's door with cut-up magazine letters: STOP THE BARKING OR THE DOG GETS IT. But how would I follow through? I also thought of leaving a $75 gift card to PetSmart at the door, with an anonymous note saying BUY A DAMN BARK COLLAR ALREADY. If I thought she'd've taken my suggestion, I would gladly have spent the money. But I know there are people who object to debatably cruel measures to keep incredibly poorly trained animals from irritating everyone in the vicinity. Perhaps this particular woman was one of them.

In recent months, Zoe's owner had started trying to curb the barking (I guess?) by snapping "Zoe!" after every bark. Like so: *bark* "Zoe!" *bark bark* "Zoe! Ssh!" *bark* "Zoe!" *bark bark* "Zoe, stop!" Needless to say, this did not work. It just meant I learned Zoe's name.

Last weekend, I was going up the stairs next to my apartment, which gives me a more straight-on view into Zoe's apartment, and I saw that the decorative wall sconce at the back of the dining room had been taken down. Large packing boxes were open in there.

Oh, be still my heart.

I did not dare to hope.

But on Monday, the white plastic lawn chairs and the little table with the cactus on it had been removed from Zoe's balcony. Inside, the blinds were open and the lights were off.

And all this week? No Zoe. No "Zoe!" No talking woman with her two cell phones and unfathomable schedule. NO BARKING.

Oh, the blessed silence.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Re: 11/22/63 and a Certain Surprising Thumbs-Down

This post is spectacularly full of spoilers. 

I have been reading Stephen King since before I was 10 years old. I've read 45 of his books, which according to this problematic list is about half of his output. After finishing Ulysses, I must have decided that my taste for long books had not abated, so I set in on 11/22/63. I hit what was in essence the first plot point and did something that I know is a sin, something I never thought I'd admit to doing in a public place. I read ahead. After gathering intel on what happened in the middle and the end of the book, I decided provisionally to keep going. My bookmark is currently placed between pages 358 and 359, and now I'm thinking of doing something else I've never done before: give up on a King book before I'm finished.

Friday, October 11, 2013

All Perfume

The workshop on Wednesday night was not what I expected. Everybody [who talked] was more engaged with my story than I thought they would be. An aspect of the story that had never occurred to me (and probably never would have), but that I consider a major problem, was brought to my attention, so YAY for that. Overall the experience was less scary and frustrating and a good deal weirder than I thought it would be, based on prior workshoppings in which I've participated.

After I finished the Greenland book and gave it to Matt to read, and we talked about it, it was truly, genuinely funky to hear my characters' names coming out of his mouth. I'd e-mailed about the book with other people, but there's no substitute for hearing names spoken aloud that you've made up and endowed with meaning yourself. The same freaky feeling happened here. (Especially since the names in this story are odd: Shawnboy, Cee.) I don't remember this happening when Matt talked to me about Highbinder, but I don't know if that's because I'm used to him being part of my internal writing world now, or because Berra's realer to me than anyone else I've created.

Not for the first time, I wish I had a workshop group. After hearing from these ladies and gents, I wanted to know what they'd make of some of the other stories of mine that need work. Alas, alack, Alaska.


Guess what I did yesterday?


This is not me; it's a German fencer named Peter Joppich in 2010.
But it might as well be me.
I listened to the very last "yes", the absolute final one, read by dear Marcella, and I put down my iPod and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Done. And, unless for a class, probably NEVER AGAIN.

Don't get me wrong. There were parts of Ulysses that I loved. There were things about it that tickled my intellectual fancy, and aspects at which I marveled. I kept finding little corners where other high-literary books I've read have called back to it, which was interesting. But holy hell was it a slog. And the more obtuse sections were as exasperating as anything I've ever read, even Infinite Jest (which, in truth, I had an easier time with, although I don't know what that means).

I hugely enjoyed Molly's soliloquy, and it reminded me that before about episode 12 (the damned Citizen), there were parts where the book clipped right along for me. It lost me pretty much entirely during episode 15, the longest, which was written in the format of a play. But all throughout, the characters of Bloom and Stephen and Molly were as real as real humans, as risible and endearing, which is an accomplishment indeed.

I'd love to sit down over coffee (or shots) with somebody about this book, because I feel quite clueless about it and my reactions to and interpretations of it. It'd be nice to pick the brains of others. I read over the SparkNotes for it, and although I think a lot of fans of Ulysses would say this is the worst way to enjoy it, I found them incredibly helpful.

And now I can read other stuff! The pile of books I want to read is tall and teetery indeed. I hardly know where to start.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Upcoming and Downgoing

I woke up on the wrong side of the week, but I have some administrative stuff to address and a few other things to say, so here's a post anyway.

1) I referred to a secret project a few posts back. Tomorrow, that project debuts: I helped to copy-edit a series of comics for the creator of Ctrl+Alt+Del, one of my two most favorite webcomics. While labor-intensive, this project was so much fun that I am having a hard time adjusting back to my normal copy-editing job. If you somehow got here from there, welcome!

2) I mentioned it on Facebook and in a group e-mail, but not here: Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #45, with my story "Kingdom Automata", aka the crazy robot story, which I have written about at great length in this blog, is available here. For free in electronic forms, and for a nominal fee in paperback.

3) Opera season started on Saturday. Get ready for opera posts for the next several months! Woooo!!!!1!

4) I was the only one to volunteer a story during the first week of workshop in my UCLA class, so one of my stories is going to be drawn and quartered workshopped by 17 other students tomorrow night. I agonized over the choice, and spent most of the last four days regretting the story I picked, but there's nothing for it now and I must have had a reason to select that one in the first place.

The instructor got the class to give me a round of applause for being brave enough to volunteer during the first week, before we know anything about each other. I waved it away: "I'm just a show-off." Because I am.

5) One of our assignments for this class is to find a paragraph or two of fiction that we love and bring it in at some point to read aloud. I am stumped. I looked at all my best-loved books and realized I love them in macro ways; because the story connects to itself, and the characters shift over time, not because one paragraph stands out. (This is not so for movies - I know plenty of movies where just one shot will send me to heaven.) I'd do Chandler or Leonard, because they're masters at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, but our instructor has mentioned that he's going to bring in some Chandler, so.

The one I'm considering right now is Rebecca, some of the first chapter: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Rebecca emerged from my youth as my Fahrenheit 451 book - the one I'd choose to memorize, to become, in the event that books went extinct. Rereading it last year, I realized it's really not a perfect book, but I still stand by it as one of the most evocative books I've read, and one of those books calculated to make you fall in love with itself. So, reading from that first spell-setting chapter seems to fit in with the point of the exercise, even if the book isn't one I can defend on the whole. Maybe I'll figure out something else before it's my turn.

Wish me luck with the rest of the week.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Betwixt Thee and Me, Cronenberg, an Unbridgeable Gap

Last week I watched David Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash. (NOT Paul Haggis's 2004 ensemble piece about racism in Los Angeles.) This film has been on my tentative watch list for years now, ever since I heard about it, but I generally delay watching Cronenberg films for far longer than necessary, for reasons that I shall illuminate at length.

The topic of Crash is symphorophilia - a sexual fetish centered on car accidents. To oversimplify the film to its most lurid elements, a group of characters change partners and dance repeatedly to get their jollies before, during, and after car wrecks; while watching crash-test footage; inside previously wrecked cars; in the course of replicating famous accidents such as James Dean's and Jayne Mansfield's; and in other situations as well. If you want to watch James Spader fuck every possible cast member of a movie, rent this one.

So, although I posted on Facebook that my reaction to Crash was essentially this

, that's sort of tongue-in-cheek. I'm not a prude, and even though car-crash-iphilia does seem a little weird to me, different strokes for different folks, y'know.

I thought many other things about Crash, too. The film was fascinatingly distant, and near-perfect in a sub-Arctic kind of way. Even though I didn't enjoy it on a thumbs up/thumbs down level, I'll be thinking about it with intellectual interest for a long time. So this seemed like a good occasion for me to talk about Cronenberg for a bit, hopefully drawing in a larger point about creators and audiences somewhere down the line.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nerd or Dunce

In my literature class, we've moved from short stories to poetry. The way my textbook is set up, it's pretty easy to read a plethora of other poems in the course of reading just the poems for class, and hence I'm reading a lot of poetry lately.

One poem that I read for the first time just a few weeks ago is "Ozymandias", potentially Percy Bysshe Shelley's most famous poem, and a poem that is...not obscure in wider culture. Here's the text, and here's Walter White reading it:

(I don't watch Breaking Bad, and in fact I lament the loss of the zany Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle, but this is an exquisite reading.)

I find myself wanting to read this poem approximately once a day. It has broken me open. It has given me An Experience.

Obviously famous poems are famous because they strike some kind of essential chord among masses of people, but I still get a little embarrassed whenever this precise thing happens: when I stumble across some super-famous work of art, am uncommonly moved by it, and then have to come to terms with the fact that it's special to me, too, just as it's been special to legion English majors across time. This is the kind of new discovery that's cute when 17-year-olds make it, but I feel like by now, I should have already read and become familiar with "Ozymandias". I've read Watchmen, after all. (I think I thought the reference was to antiquity, not to a poet as relatively recent as Shelley.)

When I stand back from it, of course, this is idiocy. No one can read the entire Western canon (aside from Harold Bloom, the git), and a few things are bound to be left by the side of the road here and there while I try newly published books and reread old loves. And we are all having new experiences all the time. If we're not, what's the point? So it isn't anything to be ashamed of.

Yet as I mix with different groups of writers, I feel like one of two things happens: I feel either as if I'm not well-read enough, both in terms of the classics and in terms of litmags, news in the writing/publishing world, and knowledge of up-and-coming literary stars - or I feel the opposite way. As if I've read too much, way more than the average; as if my involvement in literature is too extreme, and I'm reading more and working harder than I need to in order to keep up. I wonder how you can have gotten through life without reading The Portrait of a Lady, or I wonder how you can possibly know about so many books without your brain leaking out onto your collar like an overfilled glass. Either way, the sense is that I'm not on an equal footing with the writers around me, whether I'm the nerd or the dunce, and it is a savagely uncomfortable feeling.

Again: from far away, this doesn't matter at all and is sort of awful of me to notice and care about. Everyone is different! With different lives and experiences and roads paved with books stretching back unto childhood. And that's awesome! It means I can rave about Henry James and share The Chronology of Water with every writer I meet who hasn't read it. And they can chastise me for not reading Middlemarch or Junot Díaz (or Piers Anthony, for that matter). And maybe, when I do finally reread One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or read "Ozymandias" for the first time at almost-32, I can feel it in my bones in a way I might not have at 17.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Unadorned, But Updated

Over the weekend, I worked on a secret project and I fixed my website. The former was a total geek-out for me, and I can't in good conscience discuss what it was. The best I can do: it involved copy editing and an artist I admire a lot, and is probably not remotely as supercool to anyone else as it is to me. My website, of course, took much less time than I thought it would, and once it was fixed, it was fixed. So, voila. Check it out. I'll have to change it again pretty soon here, because the issue of Theaker's QF with my crazy robot story in it is evidently going to come out within a couple of weeks. But that change will be quick and easy and I will accomplish it fearlessly. 

Back in 2008, my website had all kinds of other shit on it. It had loads of writing samples; it had a detailed table that set forth my submissions and rejections, which I updated so that my [nonexistent] readers could track my progress; it had pages of writer's backstory about the projects I was working on or had completed. None of this seems like a good idea anymore. The samples - okay, but the links on the site to my published fiction show stuff that's finished and editor-approved, which is even better than stuff no one has said yes to. If I had books for sale, samples would be a good idea, but I don't. The progress table - something tells me that magazine editors won't think too highly of me publishing that information. The backstory - well, I'm permanently interested in writer's backstory, particularly my own (preen), but I doubt that anyone else is, particularly since I am the opposite of prominent. 

So I don't really know what to put on the site other than what I have: two little pages, the index and the one that sets out all the published work of mine that you can find on the internet. I am not a fan of rambling bios; when asked by publications, I stick with "Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in x, y, and z. She lives in California and blogs at <a>The Fictator</a>." Clean and neat. Although I always want to know more about the writers I like, long bios virtually never give me the information I want and are almost always dull or self-aggrandizing or both. 

Anyone have any thoughts about how to juice up the site? Anything you'd like to see there? The only ideas I have involve lists, like lists of movies or books I enjoy, lists of places I've lived, lists of people I've dated, etc. Even with more biographical detail than just a blank list, that stuff is not interesting and I know it. 


My UCLA class starts Wednesday. I am excited and extremely anxious that I'll fuck it up somehow. We've been assigned stories to read, which is a pleasant surprise, as prior workshopping classes I've taken would have benefited from outside work. I finished my instructor's book, Middle Men, over the weekend, and really enjoyed it. I'd read two of the stories before in litmags but liked them just as much a second time. Los Angeles is one of the stars of the book, so I rolled around in that like a horse in the grass. 

My classes at CSUN are simultaneously more effort than I expected and exactly how I thought they'd be. In my lit class, we've moved on from short stories to poetry, and thence, for me, into the black void of know-nothing. In my syntax class, I'm passionately engaged on a conceptual level and fumbling around like an idiot on the level of concrete answers to homework problems. 

My life has gotten a little overstuffed in recent weeks, and I'm trying to keep up. I expect to write an essay this week about this picture 

and I really want to get started on a complex short story I've mentioned in half the posts I've put up recently. I doubt I'd accomplish any more if I was juggling three balls instead of four (with school), but when I'm looking at the clock and looking at my to-do list, it doesn't feel that way. 

And tomorrow begins my 384th month on this planet. After spending all damn weekend at my computer, I feel every minute of that in my neck muscles. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Looking at Old Work or In Which There Is Much Facepalming

For some reason, this week seemed like a good time for me to take a look at a novella-length science fiction story that I wrote in 2007. I think I was reminded of it after catching sight of a market on Duotrope that accepted novellas only and finding that interesting. So I had a look.

My writing was so much worse in 2007 that I kind of can't believe it.

One of the biggest favors a rejecting editor ever did me was tell me that I relied too much on weak and helping verbs. I have no recollection when or in what context this occurred, but I wish I could get on my knees and kiss this editor's feet. "Was verbing" used to be my go-to way to write. Like, in 75% of my sentences, a character was standing in a doorway, she was eating an apple, she was stitching up a wound. I thought it indicated immediacy - so-and-so was opening the door while saying the dialogue you just read. I was so thoroughly wrong. I am appalled at how clunky and hideous this (amazingly consistent) method reads to me now. Here's a sample.
I could hear Dad talking steadily in the next room, and as Roger and I walked through the front room, what he was saying started to come clear. ... There was the sound of weeping ... We came into the dining room. Dad was sitting on the floor. He looked years older than he had when we came to see him the previous month. He wasn’t even eighty yet, but he looked so much older. His voice was raspy, and he was still talking, to his Clara and to somebody else.

This wee passage betrays three giant problems with my writing as it was then: helping verbs, overdescribing poorly, and perspective.

Helping verbs: "Was" appears 413 times in the original 22,500-word manuscript, five of them right here, plus "wasn't". Ugh. "Was sitting" should be "sat", "was saying" should be "said". The last sentence should start something like "He talked on in a raspy voice," to cut a couple of words and two wases.

Verbs like "sound" and "look" and "feel" and similar should be used with care, too, as they're weak verbs. (In syntax, I now know, they're called light verbs, and do interesting things to the structure of a sentence.) "Seems" in particular is a verb I can't seem (ahem) to stay away from, but I try to remind myself when drafting that it's a fiction equivalent to a weasel word. Not one thing or another. That's no way to write powerfully.

Another issue is that for years, my characters obsessively looked and looked and looked. They looked at everything around them, and at each other constantly. ("Look": 130 appearances in this MS.) I suspect this bad habit is due to being trained in film rather than writing. Eyelines are absolutely essential in filmmaking, and where everyone's looking is a critical set of choices when creating a scene with dialogue. But it dawned on me when I was revising Highbinder that there's not a lot of evident eye contact in most published fiction.

Overdescribing poorly: I remember my motivation for writing the way I did. Although I couldn't have said it this way then, the watchword was "hark." Hark, the sound of weeping floats from the next room. Hark, our father looks so old. Hark, his voice is raspy. This is the way you notice a scene in real life, one thing at a time with small, ordinary words, but by Christ it's horrible to read in fiction. (As an example of the right way to do it, Toni Morrison is an incredibly evocative writer, and she describes hardly at all, with a poet's touch.) And even though I overdid it, the descriptions are so bad! I wanted to say it straight for the reader, so she could walk right into the room with my characters, but I ended up making it mindlessly dull.

Perspective: This seems to be a common thing for writers who haven't learned their craft yet. They'll describe the scene as the narrator or main character experiences it. "I could hear Dad talking steadily", "He looked so much older". You gotta let the narrator stand back from the scene a little bit, and let the reader come in to observe things on her own: Dad talked steadily. His lined face betrayed his age. Obviously you can't leave the MC's experiences out completely, particularly in first person, but just a teensy sprinkle of "I could hear" and "I could see" and "I could feel" is likely the way to go. YA and genre fiction do this over-the-character's-shoulder technique a lot more than lit fic, and that's fine, but if you do it too much the writing just seems inept.

In general, there's nothing good here. There's no creative spark in this passage. Nothing in it at all that makes it seem competent, much less compelling.

I was such a fucking amateur. I'm ashamed.

(And I realize, too, that I am probably still an amateur now. That I'll look back at my current work in another five years and go ah, Jesus, I can't believe I sent my work to anybody, much less Analog and Prairie Schooner.)

However! This novella, the 2007 one, does not seem like it's unsalvageable. I spent a whole morning last week editing about half of it, vacuuming out as many wases and weres as I could manage, cringing so hard I probably took an inch off my height. After sleeping on it, I'm not sure this effort was the right way to go. The MS is less like a car dragged out of a lake and more like a corrupted piece of software: every sentence and paragraph too feeble, every chapter needing a bones-out rewrite. I think I should just start all over. Sketch out the novella, the characters, etc. and begin with word one.

Although it bears an annoying resemblance to Children of Men, the ideas in it feel like they're worth saving, and the climax is one of the best I've ever come up with. So maybe I'll rewrite it. (Someday.) It struck me as the kind of project that might be good for a self-released ebook, if none of the handful of novella markets out there is interested. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Plenty to Say Somewhere Else

At the moment, I'm hurting for stuff to contemplate on this blog. (So if there's anything you want me to write about, say so.) Sometimes, I'll set out to write a blog post about something and I write so many words that the post transforms into an essay, so I pitch it to appropriate websites instead of posting it here. That's happened with Gods Like Us, which I said I'd write more about, and I did, but it wound up as the subject of a whole essay. Often what happens next is that the pitch doesn't rustle up any interest and I post the essay here instead anyway. Which is what may end up happening with the Gods Like Us piece, as with Breaking Dawn.

And then there's Zack Snyder. I watched his remake of Dawn of the Dead last week (and wow, what a crackerjack picture; downright amazing for a debut film, even if it pissed off Romero fanboys), and it got me going again about what an odd figure I consider Snyder to be. I was ranting about this to Matt and said in jest that I should write a book about him, and Matt said, in seriousness, "You should. You definitely have enough material, and your ideas are interesting." Well, shucks. I'm thinking about starting with an essay instead. Or even a blog post. Oh, wait.

In any case, I'm sure something will happen next week that'll give me material for three posts in a row, but for now...

I got another encouraging and painful rejection on Sunday. And a form rejection that I pretty much expected followed by, a few hours later, an exhortation from the same magazine to enter their upcoming contest. Entry fees ahoy!

I know you're on tenterhooks about how I'm doing with Ulysses. I'm on disc 16. If you've read it, I'm near the end of the long section that's styled as a play, and I've finally made it through that scatological/S&M passage with the whorehouse madam. (The trial for obscenity wasn't so quaint and silly as I'd thought.) I've decided to trudge on to the end of this funhouse, through the last minute of the 22nd disc, and hopefully something fine will be waiting for me there.

Evil? But it has "fun" in the name! 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

[Draws Arrow to Next Week]

This is a busy week, and I haven't read or written anything new in the recent past. (Ulysses is stymieing me from reading any more than my required classwork.) Matter of fact, that's getting to be a problem. I've done plenty of revision recently, and I've written and revised a few essays, but I haven't written any new fiction since I finished the dissection/hot springs story in August. Over the last few months I feel like I've gotten the hang of revision a bit better than before, and while, OKAY, it is fairly satisfying after all (grumble grouse), I'm hurting for the feeling of fresh words on the page.

I know exactly the story I want to write, but it requires rotating among well-defined characters, and I need to do detailed character sketches and plot out how the arc of the story corresponds to the switching perspectives before I actually get to the writing. That seems like a lot of work, so I haven't done it.

Rather like the other big thing looming on my to-do list: my website (, don't go look). It is more than a year out of date, and I need to go in there and take out all the yoga stuff and put in my recent publications (especially since my appearance in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is coming up very soon). I know it'll take merely a full morning or a full afternoon, and if I just set that aside I can knock it out and stop worrying, but I've been putting it off for...well, over a year.

In other news, I've had some very friendly rejections in the last week. One called my story "hypnotic" but said the conflict wasn't evident enough. (This is unsurprising, and fine with me.) One said that the particular essay I pitched didn't work for them, but "feel free to keep in touch." I've had some pretty unfriendly ones too; a mag I've been coveting for yeeeears kept my story long past their average time for rejecting stories and well into their average time for accepting stories (according to Duotrope), and then sent me a form rejection anyway.

Insert paragraph here about how rejections are mere returns, and editors have logic and demands that have nothing to do with me, and getting my hopes up like that is a reflection on me, not the mag. Okay, check. It still stung for a few hours.

The high temperatures here are supposed to drop below 90 at last by the end of the week. I'm really looking forward to that. I like opening the balcony door in the mornings and letting the fresh air come in, and it's a low point in the day when it gets so hot inside that I have to close the door and turn on the wretched air conditioning. It's not exactly a central air system, so it's quite noisy - we have to turn up the TV and our voices when it's on - and it kicks on and off about every ten minutes. I'm fortunate to have air conditioning, and to be able to afford it, but being at home with it all day long gets very seriously on my nerves during the summer. What passes for autumn here will be nice.

Here's something for you to read that's much more interesting than me talking about the weather, although it's not an especially happy story. I've read it every few months or so since I found it, and I just can't get over it. So stunningly written.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

State of the Bookstore

I had a very frustrating experience today.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm taking a course with a fiction writer, Jim Gavin, starting in October. I decided to buy his book and read it, 1) for politeness 2) to see where he's coming from 3) possibly to have something from which to draw questions and examples. I remember reading something vague, ages ago, indicating that traditionally-published writers get more screwed on royalties on Amazon sales than they do on brick-and-mortar store sales, so I decided to go buy the book at my closest bookstore. Aside from used stores and surplus stores - neither of which would likely have the book, because it was just published in February - the closest is a Barnes & Noble 10 miles and 20 minutes away in Calabasas; the next closest is another B&N 20 miles and 30 minutes away in Thousand Oaks.

So we made a day of it, went to Thousand Oaks and ate at Umami Burger (and found out my favorite boutique, which had amazingly fun clothes at absurdly low prices, has closed) and went to the bookstore after.

They didn't have the book.

So because it was sort of on the way home, we went to the other B&N in Calabasas.

They didn't have it either.

Heckuva job, y'all. 
Now, because I often want books that aren't brand-new, nor are they bestsellers, I usually start at Amazon instead of going to the bookstore. Especially because the closest bookstore is a hassle* to get to. But I thought this would be a great example of an occasion where the bookstore was the right place to go: the book was just recently released (by Simon & Schuster!), and I wanted to maximize the author's royalties. And lo, I still couldn't get the book.

I know part of the problem is that I was at two B&Ns, instead of at an independent store where they'd be more likely to stock a book of short stories by a first-time author. But I can't find a single independent store in the Valley that isn't a used shop; the closest one as the crow flies appears to be in Malibu, which is 40 minutes away. I know I'm in a bit of a dead zone, but that isn't the point. Every time I've tried to do the right thing by books and not buy them on Amazon, I've ended up discouraged, having wasted time and gas in order to find out that I should've just ordered from Amazon in the first place.

I don't know what, if anything, this means for The Future of Books. Maybe nothing. It's anecdotal, after all, and maybe doesn't line up with everyone's experience. Matt and I talked about it on the way home, and he said it would be nice to have an Espresso Book Machine sitting in the corner of any given B&N, so it could spit out the book you wanted even if it wasn't on the shelf. Shit, I said, if it was up to me, Espresso Book Machines would be on street corners like mailboxes. But I guess that's too much to ask.

*I know the stores aren't very far away in relative terms, i.e. for someone who lives in a suburb or a rural area. But I live in Coruscant Los Angeles. Ten miles? Come on. There's like four Trader Joe'ses within ten miles of me. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

One Formative Night at the Movies

Some time ago I read this in the stage of the morning when my eyes are still only partway open. All the stuff in there is fine advice, but the only item that struck me as terribly different from other, similar online lists of advice from people who have grown old enough to know better than all of us was #8, which lodged in my mind.
When meeting someone new, try to find out what formative experience occurred in their lives before they were seventeen.  It is my belief that some important event in everyone’s youth has an influence on everything that occurs afterwards.
As I read other stuff and moved on with my day, I kept turning that over. What an interesting notion, I thought, that everyone in the whole world had some single formative experience that mattered so much to them that it impacted the whole direction of their lives. Of course all the stuff that happens to you before age 17 is formative in some way, as is pretty much everything else in the years that go forward from there - we're clay, after all, not steel - but the idea that there's ONE thing that mattered to every other moment in life, well, that got my imagination going.

It didn't take me very long, half an hour, probably, to think of what that one thing would be for me. It was seeing Romeo + Juliet, the Baz Luhrmann movie from 1996, in the movie theater.

My eyes hurt when it was over, because I didn't blink enough while watching.

It would be dumb to claim that the film's appeal to fourteen-year-old me had nothing to do with the romance of the story, nor with my attachment to both of the young actors who played the leads, and certainly I was in love with Shakespeare's language even that early. Plus, I'd been Balthazar AND Friar John in a high-school performance of the play (both of whom, incidentally, are main players in fucking up the kids' communication, leading to the suicides - go me). But the film of the film is what really made it the seminal experience it was for me.

I hadn't known movies could impose themselves upon the audience visually the way that one does, could grab me almost solely by the eyeballs and hold on for two hours. Previously I liked movies for their stories, I liked actors for their natural appeal. I didn't see movies as pieces of art, as projects undertaken by droves of professionals, but as entertainments that dropped out of the sky. I would never see cinema that way again, not after Romeo + Juliet. That one movie is why I got a degree in film. It's the catalyst for some of the most profound experiences I've had. It's why I see the world the way I do.

Food for thought. What's your pre-17 thing?

Monday, September 9, 2013


I'm very excited and proud to say that I had an essay published in Role/Reboot on Monday about my experience as an only child. I hope to write more for the site in the future, because its content is always terrific, and I'm intimidated and grateful to add my name to its alumni.

If you're here from R/R yourself, welcome! I promise that first paragraph wasn't disingenuous brownnosing.

Along with this, I got some other good news on Sunday evening: an acceptance for the opera story from Deimos eZine. It'll appear in their December issue. I think I owe this acceptance entirely to my friend Maleesha, who read the story over the weekend and inserted a comment at the exact moment, a page and a half in, where she finally became interested in the story. I was sorry to cut most of what came before, but that was feedback too precise to ignore. And obviously she was right, because it was the shorter version that got a yes, after nine no thankses. I'd received a rejection for the earlier version of the story a day prior, the first personal rejection I've had in yonks, and that editor, too, said it took too long to get started. She also found the central thrust of the dystopia unrealistic, but there's really not much I can do about that.

I also owe thanks to Kathleen. As I explained here, I don't think I would have written the opera story at all without her little push.

Over the weekend I revised like crazy on the dissection story (which actually has nothing whatever to do with dissection; it's "the hot springs story" in my head, but dissection is how I identified it on this blog, so I guess I'm stuck with that), and I think I ended up with something better, but it's six damn hundred words longer. I had a particular market in mind for this story that has a hard upper limit of 8,000 words, and it's now out. I might submit a shorter version with the earlier ending to them instead, just to see.

This week I want to get to work on a short essay I've been putting off for too long and on a very, very old story idea that I'm hoping to resurrect. I made a real hash of it the first time, but I was something like ten years younger (I might even have tried to write this in high school; don't remember) and I put the wrong stylistic frame around it. A Mary Gaitskill story gave me a potential way in to the idea that doesn't suck. I'm worried I'm going to fuck it up again, but it seems like I won't have lost anything if I do, because I'd already discarded the idea as unworkable. So maybe that'll free me to do better stuff, to dare harder.

Thanks, Lynda. Sometimes I need reminding that these really are the only two questions that matter. 

On Saturday night, my brain dreamed for me the idea for Quantum Leap in a slightly different form and presented it as brand-new. It wasn't until I was scribbling sleepily in my notebook the idea for a series of flash fictions under the rubric of "surfacing" in new identities that my brain went "Hello? Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell? Amazing early-90s hair? You have no new ideas."

"Aw, dang," I replied.

Over the weekend I finished up Gods Like Us, and I haven't enjoyed a nonfiction book so much in years. It was SO good. You don't even know. I've started assembling more thoughts about it which I'm saving for a whole other post.

School is fun, too. September is a red-letter month so far. I'm trying to enjoy it instead of worrying about when/whether it's all going to go south.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Embarrafleeing and Writing Poorly

What a title. It's a rich, fascinating life I lead, and well worth your time. 

On the last Sunday in August, I went to UCLA to attend the Writers Faire. Despite the information on the website and the flyer I got in the mail, I didn't know what to expect there. I'm really glad I went, but I had a bit of a social anxiety moment right at the end there, found myself doing the activity a friend coined "embarrafleeing" - walking overly fast in an attempt to outrun having just made an idiot of yourself. I think that's why I haven't written here in a week. The responsible thing to do would be to make good art out of this, break it down and tell you in excruciating detail how much of a twit I felt, trying to explain my educational motives to the head of an MFA program while we both sweated in the sun, praying as I hurried to my car that he would never, ever remember me in any way or for any reason. Great practice for sketching a scene. But every time I opened a Compose window, I balked. And I'd rather write than not write, so, that's all I'll say about it for now. 

In the interests of posterity, or those who get here by Googling, amazingly smart and engaging people spoke and manned booths at the UCLA Extension Writers Faire, and it was a fine event to attend even though I had no real idea what I, or it, was about. I'm really looking forward to my class there, which starts in October. I had a short talk with my instructor-to-be about the Writers Program, and he was friendly and thoughtful and humble and helpful. It was great. (For the record, this guy started at UCLA Extension, and went on to a Stegner Fellowship and placing work in the New Yorker and other honors.) If you have an opportunity to go to the Faire and an interest in the Extension Writers' Program (or, really, getting a writing degree in the greater L.A. area), go. It'll help. 

Last week I started school at CSUN, and while it's been exhilarating and fun and bizarre in equal measures to sit in a classroom full of undergraduates, there isn't much there to write about, either. Both of my professors are enthusiastic and interesting and smart. I'm intimidated by the concepts and workload of the one class and itching to get at the material in the other. The library's really nice, and buying a Razor scooter to get around on campus was a far better idea than I could have guessed. 

I'm over the halfway point in Ulysses, and I'm thinking seriously of skipping most of the rest of it, listening to Molly Bloom's soliloquy, and walking away. I'm just not enjoying it at all. "Tiresome" is the adjective that best describes my opinion as I listen and listen and listen and listen to it. On the other hand, I think, I could just listen to the whole thing now and be done, earn the achievement of completing it, never have to get into it again. A book like this doesn't have the same rules as the rest of what I read, of giving up when I feel like it because life is too short. It's too Important to the Canon. Blech. 

On break from Ulysses, I read Jenny and the Jaws of Life, a book of short stories published in the 1980s by Jincy Willett, and I've never read a book like it. Go read it for yourself, and maybe you can tell me what went on in half the stories. When I wasn't slightly baffled, I was enraptured; never was I bored. Really a treasure. 

Writing news: I tried to write a particular story a couple of weeks ago, and this is what happened: 

I was in the wrong mode, trying to apply genre style to a literary idea, and I couldn't get my brain to switch back over. The tone was freaky and hyper and the dialogue was atrocious. So I'm going to give it another try in a couple of weeks, after Ulysses is over one way or the other, after I've settled into school. 

Additionally, I have one scene to rewrite in that dissection story, and then I think it'll be good to go. The subject matter of this story draws largely from my experience at Esalen, and there is nothing about it that really makes it pop, if you will. Most of my other lit stories are extreme in some way, involving death or sex or something, but this is just one woman's quiet crisis. 

Part of me wonders what on earth the point is of writing a story like this, where the stakes are so low that getting the reader to care is a dicey thing. But the other part of me says that, really, the balance of writers working today routinely ignore this question and get their work in excellent, prestigious markets. Because of style, because of quality, because of character. Those are things I think this story has. Not that I don't work hard to make those things exist in the more flashy stories, but that I always assume I need both to make a story good enough for professional consideration (and because it's just my tendency at present to write about sex and death). So it's been a worthwhile experience to set aside the special effects and concentrate on wordcraft to make a story pop off the page. We'll see if it worked. I have two markets in mind already.