Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Yours and Mine: A Lament on Revision

Last time on The Fictator:
Matt asked me why I felt the story had to be in a dialect at all, and I didn't have a proper answer for him. Because that's how it sounds in my head. I could strip away the dialect and it would probably be much the same story, but it wouldn't feel right to me. Would it be better, though?
After I wrote that, I started to go off on a long tangent about changing things in my work despite not wanting to, and decided that it would make a better separate post instead.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dialectic Feedback

I've blabbed a few times about this weird story I wrote about a boy on a garbage scow. I am too lazy to look up every reference on the blog, but here's a recent one, after all the book talk. The other day I got back some feedback on it that indicated the pidgin I wrote it in was an unpleasant part of the story. The feedback-giver noted that she had a "poison eye" (what a great phrase) toward dialect in general, so she wasn't sure she was impartial about the dialect in this story. She said the story itself was good, but her feedback was more limited than usual; I think she wasn't able to give it as close a read as she usually manages because the dialect bugged her so.

How do you feel about dialects? Love 'em or hate 'em? I think they can get irritating over the course of a whole book, especially if I can't quite parse how they sound. I never did get the hang of some of Hagrid's speech patterns in the Harry Potter books, not until I heard them from Robbie Coltrane. But I really enjoy dialects in short stories, usually, because they're like dropping in on a world I'm not familiar with and then leaving it before I discover all its downsides.

Here are the first two paragraphs.
Me n my Pa always lived here, on the river, is what I tell them when they come. The pretty ladies in their paperdoll dresses. They hold little lace hankies on their faces n they always frown, always, their foreheads creasin like the inside of an elbow. Different ladies, I think, or at least different hats n different shapes under their dresses, n they always ask how can you live here, my dear little man? Me n my Pa always lived here, is what I tell them.

Nothin was different for years. They come twice a month or so. They bring hard bread n the clearest water you ever saw in tin cups. Sometimes they sick up, when they think no one’s lookin, over the side of Maurice. My Pa named it that, he tell me, for his own pa. I ask him once if I should rename it Alfred when he pass on, when I come to be Lord of the Barge, but he din’t answer.

Matt asked me why I felt the story had to be in a dialect at all, and I didn't have a proper answer for him. Because that's how it sounds in my head. I could strip away the dialect and it would probably be much the same story, but it wouldn't feel right to me. Would it be better, though?

I've prepared three essays in the last couple of weeks. All three are about feminism issues, but they vary greatly in tone. I pitched the most serious one to a favorite website and got a response that was a sort of favorable rejection; the essay was three times too long for them, but they wanted to hear more pitches from me. So I'll wait a few days and pitch the second one. The third one's already gone to another favorite website.

I've also written a couple thousand words on the wikibook. Too soon to say if it's going to become something. I'm trying to write it in miniature pieces, just a few hundred words at a time, so I don't get overwhelmed by the project.

There's lots of other news, but none of it fits here. Let's all just keep on truckin'.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


For nearly all of my stories and for some of my books, I've conceived and executed the whole thing. Characters, story, descriptions, themes, etc etc, up to and including putting words on the page and then (of course) revising them. But other books I've talked over with Matt until we're both hoarse. In some of these cases, he's given me central ideas, ideas without which the project would not exist. I've told him repeatedly that I feel guilty taking these ideas and putting my name only on the book, but he tells me that he can't write the damn thing, and what good are his ideas without the writer who does all the work?

My guilt persists. This weekend we talked for over an hour on the wikibook (as it shall now be known), because I was brainstorming and wanted to know if certain technology ideas I had were feasible. The information and ideas he gave me in the course of this conversation may (or may not) end up being pivots on which the plot turns. Like, they're his ideas, his plot. Doesn't he deserve some credit for that other than a thank-you in acknowledgements that no one reads?

What do you think? Where does authorship start and end?

On Sunday night I watched L.A. Confidential for the 1800th time, and man, it just never is anything but brilliant in every gesture, every moment. The reason I loved it most this time was how character-driven it is. One of the most recent times I watched it, it dawned on me how hard it is to create three main characters who are superficially alike but thoroughly different underneath without turning them into broad sketches. It's a difficult balance and I'm always impressed by it. This time around it was inspiring to see just how much character drove the plot - how intertwined character and motivation were, and how characteristics slotted in to make plot developments fresh (if not surprising per se), moving, and easy to comprehend.

That's how I want to write. It's harder on character Z that X event happens because he has characteristic Y, and the reader knows it in an instant because Z has been developed so well. I attempted that in Highbinder, but I think it was a little rudimentary, and I had a lot fewer moving pieces there than L.A. Confidential does. (A GM assembly line has fewer moving pieces than L.A. Confidential does.)

Incidentally, while watching I found myself thinking of The Black Dahlia and realizing that part of the reason it failed so spectacularly at being a good movie was that it was trying to be the next L.A. Confidential. Which was a dumb thing to do. Also incidentally, I just saw Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3 last weekend, and he looks not a molecule different now than he did 15 years ago. Whatever he's using, I want some.

Today I went to the L.A. County Museum of Art to see the Kubrick exhibit. I also took a quick walk around the modern art gallery and saw all kinds of wonderful stuff. They have a Rothko, which I sat and looked at for a little while. I had a freaky transcendental experience in the Rothko gallery at the Tate Modern about ten years ago, and ever since then I've been a fan.

This is the one I saw, White Center, 1957. 

Incidentally (again!), if you choose to go to LACMA - and you should, it's a wonderful museum - set aside a considerable period of time to get there and back. I've been down into the city a handful of times for various things since we moved here (exhibits, a concert, To the Wonder), and this was by far the worst experience I've had with it. Nevertheless, I had such a wonderful time looking at Hollywood (the district) outside my car windows. There's so much to see on every block. I'd want to live there if it didn't have such a vacant, sad, dangerous feeling in the air.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hey Pretty...


--I keep getting e-mails from people who want to add me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+. I do not want to be a part of any of these networks. I get an e-mail from one of them once or twice a week. I'm starting to see how Baby Boomers feel when people tell them they have to get a webcam, or a smartphone, or a whatever. LEAVE ME BE, WHIPPERSNAPPERS.

--I thought I'd be working on House of Leaves for at least a month - it took me ages to read Infinite Jest - and I finished it in about a week. Very surprising, particularly since in the early sections it took me an hour to get through 15 pages, but then later there were whole chunks of pages that just raced by because there were only a few words on each page. I think that either Johnny or Johnny's mom conceived the entire thing, stem to stern. My main pieces of evidence are the grammar and punctuation oddities that persist in every incarnation of text throughout the book, but there's also the Pelican thing, the different languages, other stuff I read on comment threads that fits in. I think the house is the mind, and the horror in the house is the fact of death. (Highlight to read; do not comment and spoil, just e-mail me if you want to talk.) I also think that Mark Z. Danielewski read Infinite Jest in 1995 and decided he just had to make his own. But if I'm wrong about that, I apologize personally and profusely to him.

Did I like it? Sort of. I found it interesting to pick up and study from all angles, like a mutant in a jar. I found it useful when considering my own future project. I found it exasperating. I think I like the experience of looking back on it far more than I liked the experience of reading it. In places it was fascinating, revealing a writer with a powerful stylistic gift and a dark and scintillating imagination. Those moments were frequently buried under semi-scholarship and wearying footnotes. But I did learn the term "ergodic literature" in the process of reading it, which is almost worthwhile on its own.

--Months ago I changed my e-mail notification sound to a lightsaber unsheathing. Despite hearing it a dozen times a day, it hasn't gotten old in the least.

--Blogger doesn't work very well with dual sign-ins on Google, and neither does Google Docs. This has become a giant headache since I got a new job that uses Google Docs almost exclusively. It means I have to go through a big hassle to blog here. Which I do not like.

--I have a date to see The Great Gatsby this morning. My anticipation, bosoms a-heave, and the reasons therefor could be a really long post in itself.

--Haven't written in about a week. Reeeeally itchy to get started on something already.

--I did come up with a new load-bearing plot line for the Marilyn book. It and the weird wiki/CYOA project are vying epically for my favor. I want to write (or at least make a significant effort on) one of them this year. Before fall. But I don't know which one, and I'm mentally dawdling around trying to choose when I ought to just pick one and go.

--My website keeps popping into my head at odd moments. I desperately need to set aside a half-day and update/fix it. It's pretty much a year out of date at this point. That's embarrassing.

--After the last piece of feedback I got, I suddenly lost all patience with the writing process and the thoughts and emotions it stirs. At that moment, I no longer wanted to write for the consumption of others, and I understood better than I ever have the people who write novels and never show them to anyone. Not through twisted perfectionism (that's a mechanism I understand very well), but because they wrote for themselves instead of for an audience. I wish I'd believed I should be writing that way all along, because I don't think I'd be so unhappy with my work now.

I'd really like to write a longer and more exploratory post about this, but it might not be forthcoming anytime soon.

Why, no, that experience has nothing to do with not having written anything since. Nothing at all.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Between Me and Embellishment

I revised the boy-and-mom crisis story, and really it turned out much better than I thought. I think the ending is too obvious, though, not obtuse and literary enough. I don't know how or whether to fix it.

On Thursday I started on an essay that's partially about a continuing low-level struggle I've been having with the property management of my apartment complex, but to paraphrase Adrian Mole, it's not really about that, it's very deep, it's about life and stuff like that. It seemed to be going well, but then I accidentally got too drunk to keep going. Kids, don't drink vodka cocktails on an empty stomach.

I've been struggling for years with the essay form. Historically, more of my essays have been accepted for publication than my fiction. I used to think that was because I wrote good essays, but now I think it's possibly because my opinions are potent and I can argue them reasonably well, rather than because my essay writing has any intrinsic merit.

The thing I've been wondering is whether I'm approaching the style of my essays all wrong. When I'm on the writing highway and I decide on an essay topic I want to explore, I usually take the exit for straightforward, Wurtzel-type prose. I'm happy with it when I'm writing and revising, but when I go back and read it later, it lacks power, and it lacks me. Maybe the thing to do is keep driving until I find something that's between this blog voice, right here, and my more decorative, more subtle fiction voice. I don't rightly know what that would sound like.

And I am apprehensive about an essential task for a good creative nonfiction writer: eliding incidents and dialogue in order to tell a better story. The world always seems to slip sideways when I think about that. If I'm going to make up dialogue for her, since I can't remember exactly what she said, why not fabricate other stuff? I can pretend I was addicted to crack while I struggled to quit smoking. It'll punch up the whole experience considerably! I know intellectually that it's not all or nothing, but in practice...for me, there's the truth the way my brain recorded it, and then there's everything else. The line sits there, and all else is shades of fiction. Anything that goes on the page aside from the truth the way my brain recorded it feels dishonest, even if it's in service of the piece, or if it's harmless, or if it's a might-as-well-be situation, or all three.

When I began work on this essay, though - which uses the issue with my apartment complex to get at the problem of who's responsible for a woman's safety in public - I decided I'd try to tell it as if it was fiction. I determined I'd discard what didn't work in those parameters and sub in the closest truth I could. So far I think it's working, but then I really was quite tipsy when I left off in the middle. The alcohol helped me tie in an incident that I doubt I'd be brave enough to include when sober, so that particular brain damage is probably for the better.

I wrote another poem recently. I was doing yoga and I had a very particular sensation, and while in years past I would have rushed to my anonymous blog to describe it, I can't do that anymore. I could have recorded it in my paper journal, but I intuited that exploring it sideways, through the bits and pieces of language that writing poetry necessitates, would yield more interesting results than the narrative version I'd compose in a journal.

I'm very pleased with what came out. I still don't know what I'm doing writing poetry - I don't understand virtually anything about the mechanics, and I can't distinguish a good poem from a bad poem or understand why I like one and not another. But the revision is a bit more fun than with prose, because it's a lot less work to try six different synonyms and see what works than to rewrite entire pages or chapters. And I have pretty much no ambition at all with my poems. I write them to record and express, rather than to communicate or profit. Kind of a steam valve.

In reading news, I read 100 pages of Soon I Will Be Invincible and gave up. I don't know if I was misreading or if the editor was sloppy, but after the second really confusing situational hole - and when we were still doing flashbacks and backstory and totally static exposition after 100 pages - I couldn't hold any more faith with the author. I feel bad about this assessment, because the book was highly recommended to me, but that was what I read. If you are just desperately aching for a comic-book world in prose form, you'll probably see past what I saw, but Ready Player One did much of this better, if in a neighboring solar system.

And I read just the very first few pages of House of Leaves. Dunno. I'm withholding judgment for the moment.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Not Just a Hurricane

I finished Salvage the Bones and holy shit. I read and reread this paragraph on page 255 (of 258), my hands shaking, about fifteen times before I brought the book back to the library:
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.

I even read it aloud to Matt in a voice unsteady with tears. Good God, Jesmyn Ward.

Still really not the sort of book I'd normally seek out to read, but its conclusion, full of the might and thunder of an author bending the English language utterly to her will, was worth any amount of stretch outside my comfort zone.

That's all for today. Just had to share that with you.