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.