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.