Wednesday, December 24, 2014

There's Gotta Be a 420 Joke in Here Somewhere

At the end of last week, I drafted 90% of a thoughtful post about a problem with the theme of fathers and sons in narrative art. One of those theoretical, "let's make believe I know what I'm talking about" kinds of posts, which I really like writing but which I have no idea if people like reading, or if they have any basis in actual discourse. By the time I was finished thinking about the theme and revising the post, I sort of hated my opinions about it, along with what I'd written. I think my brain is momentarily tired of being tested against the cruel light of what genuine experts know about these kinds of topics. Perhaps I'll like the post a lot better once the holidays are over, but in the meantime I'm just going to share something else.

Meanwhile just skirting the subject of what's happening this week

The final exercise I did in my workshop class this semester was after a writer named Lou Beach, who wrote a whole book of stories of under 420 characters each. (This used to be the data limit for Facebook posts. Good times, eh?) I wrote several, and I was pretty happy with what I came up with, so here are a few.

Never have I ever, she prompted. Never have I ever. I would have been happy to hear that little loop of R and V and soft H from her mouth for days, but she wanted a new truth from mine. Gossip, maybe. Tim told me last night that he. Did you hear that he. Kissed you, I answered. 
Why is Esther the only thing on my mind at this moment? Not my kids or my husband or my sainted mother, but Esther. Nothing under me but sky and flame, and the debris of 126 other passengers in a screaming lipstick tube. No parachute. No flotation device. My body moves at terminal velocity and my mind hovers on a stupid stuffed horse I bought my sister when we were both eleven. 
The fall made me dizzy, but trying to get up and failing, like a downed drunk, was worse. Engines muttering and a sharp bitter smell around me. Stay still. Keep breathing. I've got a kit for when this happens, even so far from home. It's a seizure, I tell myself, I've been telling myself for several minutes, until I realize it's just that I've fallen in love with the girl at the gas pump next to mine. 

Naturally these all pale in comparison with Beach's own work and with the greatest and famousest six-word story, but I really had fun writing them. Try a few of your own. 420 characters, not 420 words. MS Word doesn't keep track of characters automatically, but I estimate that 80 words is a good upper limit to keep in mind at first. What can you say in that amount of space?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

English as Acrobat, or the Folly of TOCWTS

Several weeks back, a blogger that I really should have stopped reading by now asked in a post whether the correct styling was As and Bs or A's and B's. This question actually can't be answered, believe it or not, and within it lies an invaluable writing/editing lesson for a certain type of person. If you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, this post might run a little dull for you. (And, by the way, if you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, what are you doing reading this blog?)

In my view - those three words apply to the rest of this paragraph - apostrophes are only available as punctuation when substituting for other letters in contractions (would not --> wouldn't) or when indicating possession (Krycek's prosthesis). A's and B's is not a possessive construction, it's a plural construction, and apostrophes cannot be used correctly when pluralizing nouns. Even though styling it As and Bs can be a little confusing, because the first item in the list looks like a capitalized version of the word "as", it’s still the mechanically correct style. And anyway so much of English syntax and grammar depends upon context, upon user effort, and As and Bs will only be confusing for as long as it takes the reader to read through the next two words.

I was not the first commenter on the relevant blog post, and one of the earlier commenters laid down that it was definitely A's and B's. I commented and specifically said that I didn't want to get into an argument, but that in my view, apostrophes can't ever be used for possession, etc., basically a short version of the paragraph above. I noted that I had three years of experience as a copy editor. The prior commenter responded pretty rudely, saying that whoever was paying me to be an editor should be made aware that they were paying someone incompetent, and noted that she had many more years of experience editing than I did. I sort of went  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on it, and said that my company followed the Chicago style guide fairly closely but that we had our own house guide and that, of course, style guides vary. The commenter responded by quoting a passage from Chicago that kinda proved my point rather than hers, and then closed with something like "the vast majority of writers and editors would prefer A's and B's."

A Google Image search of "grammar Nazi" turns up all kinds of delightful stuff,
including things I feel really bad laughing at 

Like I said, I didn't want to get into it. Apostrophes are a sore point with me because they are so often misused out there in the non-grammar-devoted world, and this commenter was unpleasantly aggressive, and that combination meant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was the way to go. So I didn't respond a second time.

But I knew without a doubt that the commenter was invested in a phenomenon called The One Correct Way To Style. TOCWTS is something that I thought existed in the years before I was a copy editor, but I now know something that, if you are a picky, grouchy grammar fiend like me, take heed, weary one, because this will make your future life a thousand times easier: it does not exist.

There is no one correct way to do certain kinds of punctuation and styling in English. There just isn't. There are different styles, and which one is used in whatever it is you're reading depends on 1) the publication and 2) the context. That's all. No other big rule in the sky; the publication and the context. Some organizations use Chicago, some use AP, some use house rules. If you're the one writing, with no other answerable party, which one is used depends on your preference and potentially on your investment in the rhythm of a sentence. So the rude commenter was right, it's A's and B's, but so was I, it's As and Bs.

(dies laughing)

In this blog I use the Oxford or serial comma, meaning that in a list of three items, a comma appears before the last item in the list. Mulder, Scully, and Skinner. In quite a lot of style guides, the second comma, after "Scully", is not correct. For me, this is nuts, because it causes unnecessary confusion, but for the Washington Post, it's the law. I also would say (contrary to the style guide of the company where I worked for three years) Jesus's taxes or Texas's fertilizer, rather than Jesus' taxes or Texas' fertilizer. Not because one or the other is correct - neither is correct or incorrect (!!), it depends on the style guide - but because the apostrophe hanging out there looks weird to me on a non-plural noun, different than the friends' convictions or the creatures' fangs, for example. And I would always say As and Bs, because apostrophes matter a hell of a lot to me, but if I worked for a company or a client that insisted on A's and B's, I would cringe and correct for that. Because that's how it's correct in that context. No immutable TOCWTS exists for that phrase. It's all context.

There are rules of English punctuation and style that do not bend. The difference between it's and its is not negotiable. But English is a remarkable acrobat, flexible and strong and death-defying, and there is no one way to be an acrobat. Once I accepted this, the arguments I was willing to have about punctuation and grammar dropped to nearly zero. Because if there's no one correct way to do certain stylings, who's to say that I know the one correct way to use any of the rules I've always considered immutable?

From here, I could ramble awhile about poststructuralism, and how my whole worldview seems to be heading in that direction as I get older and learn more - truth dissociating itself from certainty, and vice versa, and things getting really malleable and interesting and me thinking that yeah, this is how life really is, lived in the liminal spaces between this rule and that reality - or I can give you a concrete example, hastily created in Paint, to sum up.

Neither one is wrong. They are both acceptable. It just depends on where, when, and how you are.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

All Fiction is a Farce

So, remember that required, requisitioned radical revision I did on the Girl Scout story for my workshop class? I'm still kind of eh about what I did with it, but something came out in class that's worth analysis. Here's the beginning:
Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.

Yes, that's really the way I'm starting this. Because it's hilarious how much my life is a replica of the premise of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
One of the students who read my revision in class last week pinged the second sentence up there. He said that sentence implies that the narrator is conscious of an audience, although nothing in the rest of the story mentions or clarifies that awareness. Tallulah (the narrating character) appears to be telling this story to someone, per that sentence, but the story doesn't say who that someone is. Who is it? he asked me.

What do you think? I said.

I don't know! he said. Who is it?

Sharp guy, this student. He's asked questions like this before - questions that imply I have a concrete answer about some aspect of a story I wrote, an answer that he wants. He's quite right about the sentence, but the answer isn't simple, and I doubt it's the one he wants.

The answer is, I wanted the reader to read that sentence and think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration. All fiction is a farce, see. There is no Tallulah. I made her up for the purposes of writing the Girl Scout story. Tallulah is narrating to an audience because there is a reader sitting there with the story I wrote in her voice, and for no other reason. The Fresh Prince theme song is really the way I'm starting my story, and it's really the way Tallulah's starting hers. I meant to pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz: whether you like it or not, reader, all there is is me at my desk. No smoke, no flame, no Tallulah.

I'll grant you that I went about this exposure pretty clumsily/lazily in this story, and that there are only two moments in the 2,500 words that even bother with it. The rest of the story is straightforward and not really all that good. I think the reason I wrote that second sentence into the story at all is that I was harried about having to write it, and I fall back to my Big Writing Concerns when I have to write and I don't know what to write about. (Or when I can't think of a better way to transition from the Fresh Prince theme song into the meat of the story.) BWCs for me are the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration, along with truth and the other stuff I wrote about in this post.

There are authors who dance with these issues gracefully. I am not one of them as yet. John Barth does it in "Lost in the Funhouse" (the story), Wallace does it in "Good Old Neon", and a Canadian writer named Lee Henderson does it in "Attempts at a Great Relationship", which was probably my first exposure to this kind of metafiction.

Although this was likely my real first exposure.
There's a reason I loved Harold. 

I copied some aspects of Henderson's story when I wrote "How [Not] to Bake Bread" this spring, a story which I do not claim is any good at all but which felt like my first major foray into the kind of writing I deeply want to do. I haven't managed to write anything like it since, and I don't really know how to go about doing so, but I find that my desire to make readers think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration keeps leaking into even the most mundane fiction over the last few months. Especially when I don't have a clear idea of what I'm writing about.

So I get meta when I get stressed. I find myself jabbering about Barthes and Prospero and how bizarre reading actually is - the various levels of delusion that we elevator downward and through when we open the cover of a book. When I sit down to write something I don't know how to write, I dig into the lotto bowl, and I come up with, say, something in pop culture. I use that thing as an entry point, and then I seem to just pass the burden of what I'm doing on to the reader with "Wow, you guys, reading is fucked up, amirite?"

Later on in that revision of the Girl Scout story, this appears:
Hearing [my life history] laid out for Naomee like that changed things, though. The way it came out of me wasn't complex, or lasting - it didn't resonate in my bones, didn't lie on top of my skin like a film of cheap soap. It did sound like a TV movie plot. Was my life so easy to summarize?
I'm trying to poke the reader into realizing the sham in which she and I are complicit. Yes of course Tallulah's life is easy to summarize. I MADE IT UP. I made it up and you have read it and that is some crazy shit.

I wish I was better at that poke. Sometimes I feel it's the only thing I want to write about - that stories and characters are far less crucially the thing that motivates me to put words on the page and that the meta stuff, the stuff that comes out when I'm stressed (like, oh, now) is all that matters to me. Writers can't expose those issues in fiction without coming up with stories and characters, of course, and doing so unconvincingly leads to terrible fiction. Just ask the people who read my revision of the Girl Scout story.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rosanna, or How I Discovered Something Worth Knowing

How do you learn things you're glad to know? For me it usually happens elliptically. Through weird coincidences. Yes, I do have an example, glad you asked.

Years ago, a friend recommended that I listen to a cover of Toto's "Africa" recorded by a Slovenian a capella group, Perpetuum Jazzile. I loved it, so I surfed on and listened to them doing "Rosanna," even though "Rosanna" was never a favorite song of mine. It was too bouncy, maybe a minute too long, with a silly synth bridge and a loud and unnecessary brass line. One of those songs that I heard enough times on my parents' adult contemporary FM station in the car on the way to the grocery store that I never felt the need to listen to it in my adult life.

Until I heard Perpetuum Jazzile do "Rosanna."

Then the song took on something new, a charm it hadn't had before. It felt like an interesting assemblage of elements instead of a mere lump of semiprecious material. After a few listens to the cover, I decided to listen to the real thing, for the first time in years, so I YouTubed actual Toto doing "Rosanna." The first comment under the video (at the time) was something like "Ah, Rosanna. Making drummers cry like children since 1982."

Wow, what?

I had no idea what that was about, and wanted to know, so I looked it up. Turns out that Toto's drummer, Jeff Porcaro, was quite possibly the best pop-music drummer of the 20th century. He was a studio musician on many, many, many recordings, a lot of them very famous indeed, and his playing was effortless, innovative, and precise. He died at 38, weirdly, while mowing his lawn, possibly after taking a leetle too much cocaine, but maybe from something else.

For "Rosanna," Jeff Porcaro wrote what is now known as the Rosanna shuffle (!), and after that my research turned into areas of music knowledge that I could no longer follow - ghost notes and other stuff about drumming that I don't understand. But this shuffle is famously hard. (There's video of Porcaro himself breaking it down. I suspect it resembles Michael Jordan teaching how to dunk.) Tons of videos exist of amateur drummers playing along with the song, concentration and pride sharing facial space. For "Rosanna"! A song that I considered one of the least interesting hits of the 80s until Perpetuum Jazzile came into my life.

I consider this information about Jeff Porcaro and the Rosanna shuffle to be ephemera well worth knowing, whether I ever find practical use for it or not. You never know what's going to be of use inside your head, though. Hell, maybe I'll be across beers from a drummer one day and this will be the only thing I have to say to him. And let's not leave aside the fact that today I got an entire blog post out of it.

In any event, I'm really glad I know this, but the way I got to it is so knotted and forked that it's a wonder I learned it at all. From a friend pointing me to a cover of a song I love, to a cover of a song I was once kind of eh about, to the song itself, to a comment on YouTube (which I suggest has the worst comment threads in the entire universe), to Wikipedia, and thence to new knowledge.


I seriously doubt I would've had occasion to learn Jeff Porcaro's name any other way. This Escheresque path to knowledge is the way I learn lots of things worth knowing, and incidentally, it's also the way I pick up little details that make writing more fun and interesting than it would otherwise be. I like finding a place in story, in character, to put the random stuff I learn. I haven't found a place for "Rosanna" yet, but I suspect I will.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excess, Both Mine and Hearst's

So wow, this past weekend was interesting. I:
  • read most of Go Down, Moses 
  • wrote an entire story nearly from scratch - used some of the characters and a little of the premise from the Girl Scout story, but expanded and rethought so significantly that it's a whole separate story, and no part of the 2,500 words of it existed previously outside my head 
  • wrote a prospectus for a final literary analysis paper, which might be total crap 
  • read a couple of chapters of Intertextuality, by Graham Allen 
  • read or skimmed about a dozen scholarly papers 
  • chose twenty sentences from a writing exercise to cut up and put in an envelope together 
  • attempted to comprehend Lacan 
  • wished Matt happy trails on a short trip he's taking with his parents, on which I'm going along as of [checks watch] this morning, and 
  • finished off season 4 of The X-Files in my continuing marathon. 
It was a weekend that played to my strengths as a postmodern thinker, but I was pretty close to insane by Sunday night.

I'm disgruntled with what I did on the Girl Scout story. A radical revision was mandatory, per the professor (I guess that'd make it a required, requisitioned radical revision), so I did one, but I'm pretty eh about what I came up with. It was easy to write and hard to revise - the exact opposite of the original version of the story. Isn't that interesting? (In a few weeks I might come back to this and unpack it, because it may be worth expanding upon in a longer post, but I'm seriously dying of schoolwork, so let's call this parenthetical a Post-It note for possible further thought later.)

I put myself into a different narrative position, and found that although I didn't mind telling the story inside a certain character's head, it wasn't at all the story that intrigued me about the situation. I didn't work especially hard in drafting it, and the results were not especially appealing, so the revision was a kind of hapless clean-up on something that doesn't have a lot of integrity. I don't have the time to make it worthy of me, and anyway it's work I did for a class assignment, not work I did because I thought I needed to write a better story. So, I met the requirements of the class, which is fine for this story at this moment. End of line.

Thanks to everyone for their responses to my poll of last Friday. As of this writing I have three friends and ten traitors in my life. Ha ha, no, I don't mean to call you traitors (you rotten traitors) but the poll's answers certainly exposed what I actually wanted to do with my December as opposed to what I probably need to do.

Classes are proceeding as normal tomorrow, but I won't be at them. I'll be here instead. I'm going to try and mentally set aside everything that still remains for me to do in terms of school until I get back, and wallow richly in the excess of others.

Yeah, no, this level of excess is tooooootally normal

Happy [early] Thanksgiving, everyone.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Not Much More than a Poll

All I'm doing right now is keeping my head on the millstone. Or...wait. No?

Because I've got more schoolwork than I can feasibly do between now and the end of the semester (which is in like two weeks), really I'm just looking forward to the end, which will come sometime between December 8 (last day of classes) and December 12 (last paper due). Hence my thoughts of late stray to December 13, when my mind will be free and able to focus on other things for a month or so. 

When I finished the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, around Labor Day, I promised myself that I could start the next volume at the end of this semester, i.e. on December 13. I've been looking forward to it all this time. But in between then and now, I figured out that I was ready to start writing the wikibook. I haven't written word one on it, because I'm barely keeping my head above water with all the other stuff. So this is my dilemma: should I spend the month's break reading Proust? Or should I spend the month's break making a sincere start on this novel? 

What do you, the viewers at home, think? 

Should I start the book or should I start the book?

Nose to the grindstone! That's what I meant to say. I think I've been reading too much. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Chekhov Meets Poochie

The Simpsons comes up on this blog sometimes, and it comes up among friends sometimes, but it comes up in my brain, like, all the time. Most of the minutes I live in any given week contain a thought related to The Simpsons. I'm certainly not the only person whose mind is more or less a Simpsons encyclopedia, but I know people who've never watched it. So I never really know, when I'm trying to use The Simpsons to make a point or a joke, whether it's going to make the right amount of sense to everybody.

Okay, then. Disclaimer made. 

The Simpsons once introduced a character named Poochie, a "soulless product of committee thinking" to its violent, animated show-within-a-show, Itchy & Scratchy. In the episode, the title characters are driving, approaching a fireworks factory, when Poochie appears at the side of the road. He proceeds to mug, shout catchphrases, and generally make like soulless characters did in the 1990s. Cut to Milhouse, one of the watching Simpsons characters, who moans "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Poochie hops in the car and drives off, and the fireworks factory sits there, unused. No violence; no joy.

You probably don't need to watch this if you were nodding along to the paragraph above, but if you weren't, please watch it, if only up to 1.30. The rest of the post'll make more sense. 

The longer this scene has cooked in my brain, the more writing lessons I find in Milhouse's question. (Really.) Poochie was introduced because Itchy & Scratchy's ratings were falling, and the producers wanted to keep getting raises every year. So they added Poochie to the "dramaturgical dyad" represented by Itchy and Scratchy (or by Tom and Jerry, or by Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote). And Poochie fucked things up not necessarily because he was a dramaturgical third wheel, but because he was a gimmick. What he did was not what the show did. 

Hence Milhouse's question. What he's asking is, when is this show going to do what I expect it to do? When am I going to get the explosion that is the whole point of this experience? 

It is a completely correct question to ask of any art. I'm not saying that every piece of art has to do what the audience wants it to, or what makes the audience feel comfy. That would mean we'd only ever have committee art: blockbuster summer movies instead of art-house films, James Patterson books instead of (not in addition to) Virginia Woolf. But every narrative has to be consistent to its purpose, and satisfactory, whether we're talking about a Roadrunner cartoon or a Faulkner novel.

One of my professors has said that a good book or a good story teaches the audience how to read it. Good art in any stratum accomplishes this. I sit down to watch The Avengers, and I know what kind of movie it is, what kind of enjoyment I'm going to get out of it, before five minutes have passed. I sit down to read a David Markson book, and I know what its pleasures (or lack thereof) will be in a few pages. It tells me what it's up to, and I adjust my expectations.* That's how audiences get satisfaction out of art. Stopping a Roadrunner cartoon in the middle to put Wile E. Coyote on a soapbox about the disappearing desert ecosystem, and never tossing him off a cliff at all, would not satisfy, even if the audience cares about the environment. The audience would just sit there, scratching its abstract audience-head, going "Why didn't he fall off the cliff?" Because that's what a Roadrunner cartoon is for

Audiences with any small measure of sophistication adjust their expectations based on the art they're consuming. I may not feel that every one of my questions has been answered when I watch a Lynch film, but that is not my expectation. 

And so back to Milhouse. His question betrays his expectation for Itchy & Scratchy: it's going to be violent. If a fireworks factory appears in the frame, there damn well better be explosions before the end of the show. Failing to make that happen betrays the audience's expectation and, more significantly, the purpose of the art. By showing the fireworks factory, the show is teaching Milhouse how to watch it, and by bringing in Poochie (who is essentially a commercial for the 1990s, not a character), it discards that lesson. 

The fireworks factory is something else, too: it's Chekhov's gun
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. 

Chekhov's gun mostly means "don't put shit in your stories that doesn't matter," but I also think of it as a lesson about narrative coherence, and about what draws the audience's attention. A gun on the wall in a story about the descendants of Samuel Colt might not need to go off, but that gun in the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead sure as hell had to. It was contextually unusual, and it was brought to the audience's attention. The fireworks factory might not be unusual in the context of Itchy & Scratchy, but it was brought to the audience's attention, and Milhouse is totally right to ask when that particular gun is going to go off.

There's yet another lesson that comes out of this question, which was (IMHO) most succinctly stated by Tom Servo in the MST3K of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank: Never show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie. The fireworks factory is the most interesting thing in the cartoon, but it's Poochie's bullshit that's front and center. And Poochie is rendered even more horrid by the possibility of the fireworks factory. 

So, in sum, what can writers take from Milhouse's question? I'll put it in bullet form: 
  • Teach your audience how to read your art. 
  • Don't fuck with that lesson. 
  • Understand that your audience is going to have expectations of your art, based on when and where s/he is consuming it and whatever other paratextual cues you offer about it. 
  • Meet those expectations, unless you want your art to annoy. 
  • Put only the stuff that matters into your work. 
  • Make that stuff matter as it narratively ought to. 
  • And don't shortchange the best parts of your work in favor of something that works less well, even if that something matters more to you. 
That's a lot to glean from one nine-word question in a TV episode from 1997. Not bad, Van Houten, not bad. Oh, and there's a thing to learn from Poochie himself: don't put a commercial masquerading as a character into your art. But I don't think we really needed Poochie to learn that. 

*This is why postmodernism is so cool to me: it constantly tosses those expectations up in the air and lets them fall as they may. But it's also why not everyone can deal with postmodernism - because they want their experiences to be consistent, because they want to feel secure about the kind of art they're consuming. You should've read the reactions on an opera fan page I frequent about a postmodern production of Prince Igor I attended last season. Whoo, they were not happy. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Based on True Plant-Related Events

I don't have anything to blog about right now, so instead I'm opening my coat. What follows is 1,000ish words of an exercise I wrote for my workshop class this semester. I didn't like the way the remaining 500 words turned out - too tidy - but I liked this first 1,000. I hope you like it too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I Guess I'm Mostly Surprised When It Works

There's one last thing to muse on from that Facebook Q&A: Things that surprise you while writing, things that worked that you didn't think would, or vice versa, etc...

This comment came from my husband, whose job is in a creative field very different from my own, but who offers me tremendous advice about how creative work works. He has lots of experience with what works and what doesn't, and how to deal with each possibility. I have less, and I am not remotely as mature as he is about ideas not working. Really, he should be the one writing this post.

Plus, I looked at this comment and I didn't know how to build an answer out of it. The only thing I could think about was writing a sci-fi novella years ago, one that didn't work out because I couldn't really write yet, and discovering after it was on the page that the climax of the book was a big shootout that killed four children. I did not know those kids, who were pivotal, would die at any point in writing the novella until after I'd made them dead. Total shock.

But I've told this story to myself and others so many times that it's threadbare. I've lost the particular memories of it, the sense of what I thought the story was going to do before I sat down to write that day. I remember feeling horrified that I'd written such a thing, and I remember the knowledge that the event was precisely in place in the novella. Little else remains.

That story connects to Matt's first clause, things that surprise me while writing, but other than "let your work surprise you as it twists and turns and takes its own directions," which isn't universally sound advice at all, I don't know what to take away from it. Maybe nothing. Maybe it was just a thing that happened when I was an inexperienced writer and I hadn't yet learned how to listen to the book that was inside me and take notes about it before I sat down to draft.

What worked and didn't work...well, usually it's in the particulars that such things go on. I take a lot of ideas from dreams (two of the four novels I've written, a couple of the not-very-many short stories I've published), and that feeling of OMIGOD I have to write down that dream it was AMAZING, and then finding the next afternoon that the dream was absurd or go-nowhere, is not exclusive to me, or to writers.

But the boy-and-mom crisis story, yeah, that one didn't work, and it was a surprise. It was the first story I wrote after I finished Highbinder, and I think the writer-dial was still mostly tuned to action/genre, because half the story was literary and the other half was written like a comic book. The two halves interleaved to tell the story of how this kid and his (single) mom cope with the kid having had an affair with the mom's best friend, a married woman who lives next door. I thought the idea was solid, and I thought the execution went okay. The actiony parts of the story were much more lively and interesting to read than the literary parts, but again, I'd just finished a book that has a lot of action in it, so I had a good bit of that energy left over.

I workshopped the story at my UCLA class, and my instructor told me exactly what to do with my ending - which was definitely the least-working part of the story - but I've set it aside without revising it, because the thing just doesn't hang together. I continue to be surprised every time I think about it, because it really should have worked. I got three decent characters, triangulated in a good conflict; I got an unusual, surprising structure; I got some pretty okay writing in there. But it just doesn't have that certain thing that makes reading worthwhile. It's limp and dull, like hair without Pantene Pro-V. Oh, well.

One thing that always surprises me is how insignificant to readers are the problems that have obsessed you while drafting. The Girl Scout story is written practically as a dyad, in two parts that are almost their own flash pieces, and I worried like crazy after revising that the story didn't have an overall arc and felt like two separate stories smashed together. No one mentioned this, not my initial readers nor any of the 15 people who read it for my workshop class. I even asked two readers about it and they were both like, shrug, no. This happens pretty much every time, that I worry about some element of a story and no one notices it, and instead they notice shit that I never would've thought of.

In writing Highbinder, I worked really hard to give someone a certain set of characteristics without saying flat-out that her nature was not altogether human. I put in bits and pieces of this nature pretty much every time she was mentioned. No one noticed. Three people have read that book and given me detailed feedback on it, and I said something to the effect of "You didn't notice anything in particular about Character?" and they were all like, shrug, no. Gaaaah.

So I've stopped asking those questions, the stuff I worry over that no one mentions. In my workshop class, the workshoppees' questions often seem to be of that strain - they ask them, and I'm like, why on earth are you worried about that when X issue is the elephant in the room? And the answer is probably that the writer notices stuff that the reader doesn't, and vice versa, eternally.

There's a lot that surprises me while I'm actually putting words on the page. Largely the same thing, over and over, that I marveled at during my years of copy editing: that English is contortionist in its flexibility, in the multiple ways it's possible to say what you want to say. But other stuff, too, stuff that's kind of overly self-complimentary, so, sorry.

Like, that I'm at a point now where I can confidently cross something out with the knowledge that I'll write something better instead. Or that I can write a sentence that doesn't sound quite right and just make a note to come back to it later, because it's not a disaster, I can find another way to say it that doesn't suck. That I can make up things to say, one sentence after another. These things amaze me every time. I feel like the same writer I was in high school, the one who was content to write 1,500 words of sheer description of thinly disguised Fitzgerald characters and not want to change a single word despite it being undeniably stupid. I'm not that writer, at all, even if I sometimes behave like her. But I feel like her, and I'm amazed when what comes out of my pen is nothing like what she'd write. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Perhaps I'll Wet My Whistle

I have a long post drafted and ready to go, but I think I've written a few too many long posts of late. So here's something shorter.

I got an acceptance from a pretty cool magazine last night, but I can't tell you about it yet because I'm following my own advice. It was for the grandma story, which I apparently haven't talked about on this blog much; the only place I found it was in this post, which was almost a full year ago. I was satisfied enough with the story that I just kept sending it places instead of fussing over it and blabbing about it here. Maybe there's a lesson there.

I'd like to note that this acceptance comes after an extended string of rejections over the last couple of months. I am very, very happy. I even had a second glass of wine to celebrate. (I live dangerously, y'all.)

The end of the semester can't come soon enough for me this time around. I think I must be doing one of my classes wrong, because the workload is just monstrous. I do not actually have a plan for how I'll complete everything I have to do over the next month. Freak out and run around in circles, maybe?

Here, let's let some Simpsons writers amuse you more than I can. A meatier post is headed your way next week.

Monday, November 3, 2014

What Not to Do if You're Butthurt and Other Stories

Here are a few mini-blog posts, instead of one coherent one, because that is what I have for you.

(1) I woke up this morning thinking about public figures who are not universally admirable - a consequence of reading this post, which had a sort of eternal-mirror effect on me, as I'm close to removing that blog from my reading list because I find the writer increasingly combative, and so while I don't have the same relationship with the writer of that blog that the writer of that blog has with the subject of that blog post, it's still kind of ironic. Dontcha think?

I considered writing my own post about how I cope with public figures I admire but do not like, but after I looked at the comments on Jenny's post and found that "people we admire usually aren't everything we want them to be" is not in fact the great new lesson that I thought it was - because I learned it on my own, through experience, without being taught it by a parent or a mentor or an article on, and hence thought it was worth sharing as if it was new - I decided to save that musing for a time when it's somehow more relevant. Anais Nin, Richard Nixon, and yes, Amanda Palmer: these are people who are not everything I want them to be (or sometimes almost nothing I want them to be), but whom I still admire. Another time I'll tell you why.

Yes, I admire Richard Nixon.

There are so many good Deal With It pics that I pretty much died trying to pick one

(2) This weekend I finished Absalom, Absalom!, and I hope there are few books more momentous, more sublime, to come in my lifetime. I don't think my heart can take many more. It was SO HARD, you guys, it was harder than Remembrance of Things Past (or the first three volumes anyway) and way harder than Moby-Dick, but it was better than almost any book I've ever read.

I don't know why.

I can't distill for you why, for me, it built to such a pitch that I thought my head might pop like a grape before I was finished putting all of its words through my eyes, nor why even for all that I couldn't understand exactly what happened in the last major set piece. (Thank Christ for SparkNotes.) It was like the dead middle of The Sound and the Fury, two or three of my favorite pages in all literature, except bigger and badder, and for a stretch of many more pages. It reminded me of a film, Ordet, which is so difficult as to be almost unwatchable but which I always list as one of my favorite films. It gave me a set of thoughts and sensations that no other film has ever given me. Absalom, too, is so hard that I can't see myself recommending it, but I'll certainly put it up there on the list of the best books I know.

(3) Something happened in the videogame world that reflects very tidily on something I'm dealing with in my workshop class that I've been wanting to blog about. Jim Sterling, a critic for The Escapist, created a walkthrough review of the independent videogame The Slaughtering Grounds, giving it a poor grade. (That is, Sterling recorded his eye-view experience of playing the game and talked over the recording, discussing what he found was or wasn't working about it. Video here.) The developer, whose name does not seem to be a matter of public record, responded to this poor review by making a video with text annotations over Sterling's criticisms, explaining his intentions in making the game and why Sterling is a poopyface. This went about as well as you might expect. (Sterling's response to the response to the review is here. The dev's response to the response to the response to the review [yep] is here.)

Actually, same goes for this one - just Google Images "butthurt"

The central problem here is that you can't argue against someone's response to your art. You can't. You can't. You can talk about how your intentions may be different than the consequent experience of the art, but it's risky; I think the only contexts in which that works are a) if you need to improve the art, to make the experience jibe with your intentions, and you need more explicit feedback to do so, or b) you find it funny or interesting or instructive how the intentions and experiences don't match up and you want to share that. But it is not possible to defend against user experience. And most kinds of defending oneself against criticism sound terrible. They sound defensive and immature, almost universally. From the outside, even subtler ones than this dev's poorly spelled insults sound defensive and immature.

See, I couldn't even narrow it down to just one

It's particularly awkward in workshop, because there's nothing I know of that a writer can say about her intentions to which I won't respond with "Okay, but it needs to be on the page." If you get published, you can't go around to everybody in the world who's reading your story and stand over them and say what you meant by this or that. It has to be on the page. Matt's boss puts it even more succinctly: "You don't come in the box."

[by which he means a little version of the developer is not wrapped up with the game disc. perv.]

(4) My writing exercise this weekend went so much better than I expected that it put me in a good mood, which is such a rare event that I feel the need to record it. I keep waiting for a writing exercise to be good enough that I want to share it, but not so good that I want to keep it under my hat for revision, expansion, and potential submission. If that ever happens, I'll post it here. In the meantime, th-th-th-th-that's all, folks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

William, William!

Apparently, certain people are more natural mimics than others. These folks adopt others' accents, often unconsciously, if they hang around them enough. I've never been much of a mimic; I can't even pretend to be Australian without sounding like a Hanna-Barbera villain. I created a Cockney accent for Nancy in an elementary school production of Oliver! that, most unfortunately, no responsible adult could talk me out of. (If anyone still has VHS tapes - Taylor Elementary, Norfolk, Virginia, early 1990s - please burn them.)

The book for my Faulkner/Morrison class this week is Absalom, Absalom!, which boasts the longest sentence in the English language (1,288 words), according to Guinness. I'm saying this with my forehead to the ground: it is a hard book. I believe that the not insignificant trouble I'm having with it is just desserts for the passionate post I wrote defending long sentences, but I also believe that Absalom is why my writing exercise this week included a sentence that was a hundred and eighty-seven words long. Previously for this class I wrote a sentence that was even longer (209 words), but for that one I just kept piling conjunctions behind commas. I only used one semicolon. The one I wrote on Sunday uses all kinds of punctuation to patch itself together, just as Faulkner does in Absalom.

This is the earlier one:
He’d tried skating on a downhill section of hardpack, but his board had hit a rock and he’d fallen badly and broken his right ankle and couldn’t walk, so he tried to wad himself up onto the board and roll along like a legless man but he’d slipped on a hill leading into one of the abandoned building sites that surrounded their warehouse like enormous moons around a small, sheltered planet, and he’d tumbled ass over teakettle down and into a terrible pit dug for a long-forgotten foundation with a rocky bottom full of small dead creatures who got in and couldn’t get out; a half-rotted dog was in there and Ray’s hand sank into its putrid chest first thing when he tried to stand and he shrieked and dropped down again and he lay there half the night, his ankle full of ground glass, sweating and shivering in a thin TAPOUT t-shirt, shouting himself hoarse when he saw headlights, and they got him to the hospital and gave him blankets and sips of water and x-rays and codeine, and his dad didn’t come to pick him up at all, in fact hung up on Sergeant Kleinman when she called to say how his son had passed the night. 
Not that Faulknerian, just has a sort of rising pitch. The 187-word one I wrote for this week's exercise is much more of a bob-and-weave, swoop-and-double-back piece of work. I don't feel good about making it public, but here's a shorter long sentence from the same piece (74 words):
Only that one remains in my memory, but when they chanted it – the two women interviewed for the podcast who sat and touched each other’s hands in rhythm to see what they remembered two decades at least after the last time they were bored somewhere and had to do something with each other aside from folding paper into shapes to flick and mold and fit inside itself – my palms itched on the steering wheel.
See how much less organized the second sentence is? How clauses hang on each other like plastic monkeys from a barrel, prepositional mixed with conjunctive, rather than chains of tidier clauses holding hands obediently? That disorganization is my brain trying to sort out and incorporate Absalom. It is a hard book, but I'm still mimicking it, even though I'm not trying to and don't want to. I want to write my own work, not Faulkner's, but a pale attempt at his syntax is still what's coming out of my fingers at the moment because it's what's on my mind.

Can you blame me? Rowr.

No, I'm kidding, he's a dead alcoholic with dubious taste in socks. 

This isn't the first time this has happened, but it's the weakest I've ever been at keeping other voices from bleeding into my writing. I suspect that part of the reason for this lack of integrity is how emotionally challenging the reading for this semester has been. I don't feel like I'm close to a breakdown or anything, but the diet of Faulkner, Morrison, and the short stories we've been reading in my workshop class has made a tumult of my insides. Most recently, "Diary of an Interesting Year" was assigned, and I couldn't bring myself to read it twice, as I have all the other stories this semester. It was unrelentingly bleak with a charming British wit painted on top.  I stared at the blinking cursor for minutes on end when it came time to write a reading response to it.

So that's why I did some work on the secret project this week instead of the wikibook. The secret project is more instinctual, and a bit Gothic, and while I still don't want to mimic Faulkner to write, I thought his influence might help instead of hurting. It went fairly well. I didn't finish what I'd hoped to finish, but I inched along. I tried hard to keep the sentences short, or shorter anyway, so it felt a lot more inchy than usual.

I'll let you know if Absalom, for all its difficulty, turns out to be Great. Or if any of that Greatness rubs off on me. (Prognosis: doubtful.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Such Outward Things Do Dwell in My Desires

Maybe next year St. Crispin's Day will fall on a day when I'd normally blog, but this year it's tomorrow, October 25, 2014, that the anniversary of one of the bloodiest single battles in the history of Western civilization (a more ironic term in this case even than usual) falls. If you didn't know about it, you've got a year to learn until the 600th anniversary. I might throw a party. I threaten to throw a Battle of Agincourt/St. Crispin's Day party every year and never do, but a 600th anniversary of anything is rare enough that I might actually follow through.

Not pictured: St. Crispin Glover

Anyway. Since it's not actually October 25th, and posting the Henry V speech would be a very lazy way to fill this space, I'll address some of the other stuff that was in my Facebook feedback a couple of weeks ago. These are questions that didn't lead to long or good answers, unfortunately, so I'm going with a Q&A format.

Q. Tips about being a good editor of one's work?

A. See, great example. My tips include a) practicing, a lot, for yeeears, and b) buying Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne. That's it. Not that interesting an answer.

The more you practice on other people's work, the better you'll be at your own. If you don't have any other people's writing to practice on, find a text copy of Oliver Twist or another Dickens novel on Gutenberg and try editing it, just omitting needless words and making sentences clearer and punchier, in your word processor. That sounds unkind, or presumptuous, but...just try it. I think you'll see what I mean.

Art by Kate Beaton

Q. All About Fonts?

A. I sort of love fonts, although having learned about the existence of true font nerds, I don't fall in that category. I really like Bookman Old Style and Book Antiqua, I am not that excited about Arial, and I dislike Courier. Of course Comic Sans is a scourge, and the font that Slate has been using of late is such a travesty that I've stopped reading the site altogether, when it used to be an everyday thing. Those ys, ugh. TNR is completely transparent to me, with no inflection at all, so that's always my preference. I do think fonts have inflection, and affect the way readers read, but I couldn't begin to interpret how they work.

You thought you were writing a joke comment, didn't you? Ha! HA! I even edited down that paragraph because I went on too long about sans serif.

Q. What are they teaching you in that [workshop] class of yours?

A. Lots of stuff. If I learn anything that seems worth chewing over or passing on, I'll probably write whole posts about it, like this one. Sadly, I haven't garnered any more faith in the process. In my workshop class last semester, we focused on "What is this story doing?", which turned out to be a lot more fruitful than other methods. But I think you need a lot of skill, both in the group and in the workshoppee, to do it from that angle.

I could write a whole post about what I think of workshopping, but it would not be especially positive. So I'll set that aside for now.

Here's a hint. Art by Peter Brueghel. 

Q. Writing rituals?

A. It's kind of silly how superstitious I am. However, the only element that's not negotiable is food. I can't be hungry or I can't write. Funny, because historically many writers have been motivated by hunger, but I can't concentrate for shit if my stomach's not full.

Otherwise, this is how I prefer to do it. I keep a notes book, always smaller than 8.5 x 11, where I write down dreams, character ideas, stuff I saw out in the world that I want to preserve for later, etc., all the way up to many-page plot outlines and poorly drawn maps of fictional cities. Any notes I take elsewhere - on my phone, in a .txt on my desktop, etc. - eventually get transcribed in the notes book. I keep a separate drafting book, a lined A4 or 8.5 x 11 Moleskine, where I write the first draft of everything longhand with specific Sharpie pens, which cost too much and don't last long enough, but I'm addicted to them. When drafting is done, I type from that notebook, and in typing I'm revising. So the first typed draft is like the second or 2.5th draft of the work, because I'm usually correcting the draft even as I'm drafting, because I am annoying.

Not everyone needs writing practices this specific.

This was by far the oddest Google Images search result for "meticulous." 

None of these elements other than the full tummy is 100% required. Sometimes I'll write in ballpoint on notebook paper. (Not often, though.) And sometimes I need a small alcoholic beverage to lose my fear of the blank page, but getting too drunk to go on is a bad idea.

Speaking of which, don't let any rogue Agincourt partiers slip you anything too strong this weekend. It's only the 599th anniversary, after all. No need to really let your hair down.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Control Ain't Just a Janet Jackson Song

The Girl Scout story got workshopped yesterday. It was a confusing, difficult workshop. There was no consensus; everyone had something different to say about what they wanted it to do and be. Usually when that happens, it means the story needs pitching, not rewriting, but I'm certain that is not the case here. So I don't really know where to go with it, aside from just trusting in what I wrote, which is an extremely arrogant thing to do. I think I'll submit it a few places and then look at it again in six months or thereabouts.

The most worrisome comment was from the professor, who told me that I needed to "let go of intent" to give my work "a more organic feel". This is more or less the same thing that my workshop professor from last semester told me. She gave me feedback that has haunted me insanely since I got it: that my control over the writing was too tight, that the story was constructed too meticulously and that I needed to let go and write with more freedom. I have no idea what this means or how to improve it (particularly with the story I workshopped that led to this feedback, which required strong control, dammit), but hearing an echo of it in another professor, who has no idea what the prior one said, makes me want to wail and rend my garments.


(She also said the Girl Scout story was "nearly flawless" in its surface aspects. Which is a nice adjective, one I'm happy to take away with me.)

Aside from that, something else happened since last we spoke. Over the weekend, I had a fit that is seemingly becoming a part of my ritual for beginning a big project. I drew you a highly professional diagram for this process.

So this weekend I kicked and screamed and yelled and whined about the wikibook, because no fooling, you guys, I am genuinely scared out of my skull about writing this thing. But I can't keep pretending that I can put it off until next year, or next century. I have to begin. So I had the tantrum, and now I can buckle down.

I have no idea how this project is going to go. Not a clue. Generally it takes me something like a quarter of a year to write a novel (which, please, writers who are reading: don't use that as an example for your own work or a way to shame me about the shoddiness of my effort), but the nature of this book means I could be working on it for much longer. Years, maybe. I hope I won't be, but I'm not eliminating it as a possibility.

Matt advised me to set a deadline for review on it. That is, he said I should work for a certain number of months and then make a mandatory stop to reevaluate the project, see if I should keep going or stop or set other deadlines or what. I thought this was fucking amazing advice, and I plan to implement it.

I don't know how to organize my work on it around my other responsibilities, which have changed dramatically since the last time I worked on a novel. But I hope to get going before the end of October. Now that I've punched pillows and moaned sufficiently, work can really start.

It's work that needs tight control, so I guess my professor's feedback is well-timed. Either that or I'm not ready to write this book at all and it's going to be a big disaster. I guess, in the coming months, we'll see.

Friday, October 17, 2014

It's the Law, Except When It's Not

Is this a From Me to You post? I don't really know.

I asked for some feedback on what to blog about on Facebook last Friday. Responses ranged from helpful to scatological:

The only thing (aside from poop) that came up more than once is time, so let's go with that for now.

I've heard of writers who get up at 4 AM to write for an hour every day before they fix their kids' breakfasts, functioning on six hours of sleep for years on end. I've heard of writers who compose novels with their thumbs, on BlackBerries, while they sit at security-guard jobs. I've heard of writers who do a couple hundred words at a time on their lunch breaks.

I do not write this way. I admire the dedication of those writers, but OMG no.

This past spring I went to a reading by Aimee Bender, whose novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake I adored. Someone asked her during the Q&A how she found time for writing, and she gave an answer that, while not personally helpful to me, I pass on whenever I'm asked a question about finding time to write. She said that for most of her writing life, she got up every morning and wrote for an hour. This was not a new suggestion to me, but the way she phrased it was novel: she told herself this is the law. You have to write for an hour, no matter what; it's the law. Something about that phrasing worked extremely well for her, and I can see how it would be helpful for other writers.

So yeah, just put Judge Dredd over your desk and you'll write up a storm

Pretty much the only rule of writing that I've heard repeated everywhere, that does not change from site to site and teacher to teacher, is that you have to write every day. And I don't do it. I don't like to advertise this, because it makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong, but I just can't write every day. It would become rote and unfun and impossible if I had to do it every day, and how could I build a fulfilling life out of that?

But I suspect few people are as stymied by routine as I am, so "write every day" is probably a good rule for the majority of writers. It means you get in the habit of constant writing, whether you feel like it or not, whether what comes out is good or not. It means you do a lot of work, and that's how you get better. Besides, in truth, I don't recommend my method to anybody. I'm a binge personality (I don't recommend that, either), and bingeing is how I write: for hours and hours on end, for hours every day for perhaps weeks at a time, setting aside food and sleep and husband until the project is done and I go back to my life. My whole focus is on the project and I'm sleepwalking through everything else, and when I try to imagine focusing on the project for a little bit of time every day for months or years of days in a row, it sounds like hell.

Literally the only other writer I've ever heard of who works/worked like this is Faulkner, who, I understand, wrote his books in a matter of months each and then went on alcoholic benders until it was time to write again. It's nice to be in that company (if not that lifestyle), but again, I don't recommend it.

(awkward pulling at collar)

The best way I've ever heard of to write every day when you don't have time to write every day is what my friend Katie does. She has no time to write, and she has a quota of 200 words per day. (Keeping your goal low is crucial for this writing-every-day thing, because 200 words a day, piddling as it sounds, is still 70,000+ words per year.) If she can't meet the quota one day, it's not something for which she berates herself, which is crucial. Even better, she's not allowed to write more than 200 words per day to get ahead on future days, but she is allowed to write more per day to make up for past days. This is such a kind and forgiving, yet steely, method of making writing happen, and I admire it so much. It means that she can feel better about making up for her whole week on a Friday night when she's on fire, but she can't get cocky and give herself days off the next week.

(By the way, check out Katie's new website and, thereby, her essays and fiction. She's the best.)

The heart of this question, for me, is not how to make time for writing in your day, but how to make time for writing in your life. For most people, carving out a bit of time every day is how to do it, but for me, it means non-actual-writing stuff on a regular basis and actual writing only every so often. That is, constant people-watching and eavesdropping is how I build the foundation for a story or a book (sorry, world, but I'm always observing you), and then a big release every so often is how the story or book happens.

Over the past two years, I've pretty much stopped agonizing about dry spells. I'm not sure if I accept or reject the idea of writer's block, but I sometimes fail to write for six or eight months at a clip. I used to fret and complain about this a lot, but now I just shut up and wait. I accept that dry spells are an unavoidable aspect of a binge personality, and that the machine will start up again. (There's proof on this very blog that it will.)

And I will not run out of ideas. I have three book-sized ideas sitting in my notebook, waiting for me to be ready to write them. One of them has a few more years at least (it's about God, so...I could be forty or older before that one comes together), one of them I've tried twice and it's just not ripe yet, I guess, and the third is gonna go, most likely, in the next few months. Plus there's the sequel to Highbinder, which I'm readyish to write, but I don't think it's a good idea to start yet, and a western that I'm not in the least ready to write. That's plenty of work for a while, along with short story ideas that'll crop up along the way and old work that I could retool now that I know more.

So that's how I make time for writing. I spread out my arms and settle into a cross-legged position and wait. It's the attitude of making room in my head for it. When I'm ready, the writing happens, kind of like bowel movements happen - whether you have time for them now or not. I go through the motions of resisting or procrastinating, but every cell in me knows, when it's time, what I have to do: butt in chair, fingers wrapped around pen, concentration on page, until the work is done. When it's time to binge on writing, it's time, and everything else in my life has to move aside for it.

If you don't feel the same get-to-the-bathroom-now urgency that I do when it's time for you to write, then you should probably try to write 200 words every day. If you can't manage that, try first making room in your head for writing to happen, and eventually, hopefully, you'll find room in your life for some small quota per day. I wish I had more reliable and less mysterious methods I could share for how I do it, but I hope I've shared some helpful methods of others, instead.

Also, I managed to write about poop. So there.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We, the Other Mothers, Do Not Salute You

Over the weekend I revised the story I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the one I thought came out pretty well. I was right, it came out pretty well. I'll name it the Girl Scout story here. It was hard to write but easy to revise (which, like, THANK YOU, LITTLE BABY JESUS), and I'm pleased with it. Matt's read revealed no major problems (which may actually be a first), another reader loved it and had no suggestions, and I even sent it to the hardest critic in my life, who loved it. I have submission plans for it already, but I'm also handing it out to my workshop class. I'll find out next Monday what they thought of it, and of course you'll hear about that.

I did lots of other stuff this weekend, too: saw an amazing opera, went to an unbelievable Hollywood costume exhibition, went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday (which was yesterday), did part of a very hard writing exercise, read about half of Toni Morrison's Jazz. Having a real job, even though it's part-time, has really changed the shape of my free hours, which is why so much had to squeeze into those two days. Lots to say about that, but I don't really want to get into it, here or anywhere else, honestly.

Although it is part of the reason why there was no post in this space on Friday. I didn't know what to write about, and I didn't really have the mental time to come up with a topic. I asked for feedback about post topics on Facebook and got some good answers, so look for that this Friday and in other posts to come. In the meantime, I think I'll veer right back to the story I revised this weekend as an opportunity to talk about the first-person plural point of view.

If you don't know what I mean, first-person plural is "we."
We found what we were looking for in the small freezer at the front of the shop - Cornettos, of course, in paper wrappers, which we greedily tore open and crunched and licked until they were gone. 
If you didn't just get the urge to watch Shaun of the Dead, I'm not sure we can be friends anymore

After he read the Girl Scout story, which is written in first-person plural, Matt asked me who else writes in this POV. I told him Joshua Ferris, of course, Then We Came to the End, and he said yeah, you always mention that guy, who else? I said um...well, me, I guess. I'd told him that first-person plural wasn't an uncommon way to tell a story, but promptly failed to think of any other stories or novels I've read in that POV. (Examples are welcome in the comments.)

What is first-person plural good for? I can't give you college-sanctioned answers to that question, but I can tell you that I've used it for two stories (and read it in a well-executed novel) where the intention was to give the sense of a collective mindset. Whether that mindset is actually shared in its entirety by the whole group of characters to whom the "we" refers is part of what gives the stories, or the novel, their tension. In End, the characters are all co-workers, so the POV serves as an interesting commentary on the nature of the millennial workplace. Ferris also positions the co-workers separately from their boss, who is quietly battling breast cancer, throughout the novel. There's a we and then there's a she. It's a useful construct for character conflict.

The characters that compose the we also have separate identities - ways in which they stand apart from what they share as part of the collective. In both of the stories I've written in first-person plural, this distinction crops up at a crucial point in the narrative. It's meant to be the crest of a wave, the point when the prose points out the characters' distinctions.
A few of us wonder again whether she’s sleeping with Ray, and whether this means that she has his ear. Only two of us know that she isn’t and doesn’t.
In the Girl Scout story, my intention was to invoke a specter from my childhood: The Other Mothers. O, the dreaded Other Mothers. The heartless, judgy, gossipy clan of women who do everything right and observe every tiny thing you do wrong. For whom there are evidently thirty hours in the day to accomplish it all, instead of your own twenty-four. Who notice, and remember forever, the one day your child had dirty fingernails or tangled hair, the one day you yanked your kid by the arm and yelled instead of speaking patiently and wisely, the one day you put Doritos into the lunch box instead of apple slices. Of course The Other Mothers are not a united army (God help us all if they become one), but the ways in which they are the same are virulent, and have the potential to form interesting conflicts at, say, a Girl Scout meeting at which there arrives a new and different mom. Enter first-person plural, where The Other Mothers are the we.

I mean, thank goodness

I don't know if I'm doing this right, of course. It's possible that the conclusions I drew about what I observed in End are not the correct conclusions, and I'm using first-person plural wrong. I guess Monday will be an opportunity to hear about that, and to find out from our professor if there's something else I could or should be doing with the POV. If I'm wrong, I will mind, of course, but I'll mind a lot less than I would if I hadn't had the opportunity to put this story on paper in the meantime.

See you Friday. We'll be waiting.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What I Meant to Say About Sentences

Oh, mercy, I don't even know where to start this post. I guess it starts with Stanley Fish, but if I start with Stanley Fish I really should start with Ron Rosenbaum, just for anecdote's sake, and if I do that, I might as well start with the dinosaurs because I'll go on for thousands of words.

Or I could start with the alphabet. This is my next tattoo:

Because that, right there, is how you write books. You write them with what's inside that monogram, and that's all there is to it: arranging the alphabet over and over. But see, that leads me to a fun encounter that happened during the first or second class period in my workshop this semester, so maybe that's the place I should start. The place where, after a back-and-forth, I shouted "Sentences!" like a child shouting "Ice cream!"

There's also Dr. Haake, and what she told us last semester about the spaces between sentences (that's the place where writing happens. Did you know that? I didn't). There's Proust vs. Hemingway: WWE SMACKDOWN. There's brick and spackle and comma and semicolon. There's Chomsky.

It appears that I have already started.

I wanted to write today about sentences. I wanted to write about this book I read last month, How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish, which is a wonderful book that I recommend very highly if you give a damn about writing and (not or) you have made it through The Elements of Style and took some of its advice to heart and memory.

I wanted to write about how much sentences mean to me, and how much it consequently meant to me that my teacher told me I write good sentences. Sounds meaningless, but it's a compliment I'll take to my grave, because I knew she meant it. How much I learned from rearranging sentences nonstop for three years as a copy editor, a practice I would recommend to any aspiring writer who can't read How to Write a Sentence, because after three years rearranging sentences as a copy editor you will enjoy How to Write a Sentence, I can pretty much guarantee that. How How to Write a Sentence condensed those three years and the semester of syntax that I took into a couple of chapters, and how grateful I am that Stanley Fish did that, so I can just point to this book and say "You want to write? Listen to Fish."

How I take every sentence seriously. The mouthfeel of it, the sense of it under your eyeballs and between your hands, the rhythm of it from your ribcage to your pubic bone. How I could barely do this week's writing exercise for my workshop class, because it demanded that we go through a prior exercise and rearrange 50% of the sentences with the notion in mind that the shape of every sentence matters, and I'd had that notion in mind when I wrote 100% of the sentences in my exercises, and then again when I revised them, so what was I supposed to do now? Rearrange them in a way that I didn't like, or that didn't suit the story? Just to make sure I did the exercise?

I wanted to write about the essay we read for this week, "The Geography of Sentences," which talks about how readers get lost in long, complex sentences that branch out into crazy kudzu vines that you have to follow out and then read backwards to find your way to the period. Yes, they do. They do get lost. That is exactly what they do. That is the point, essayist, getting lost and then rereading, because the pleasure is in following the winding road and then starting it over again to see all the pretty things on the way to the end twice. That, among so many other things, is what I learned from Proust: making a reader go back over a long, complex sentence is the point of writing a long, complex sentence. (And in Proust it's symbolic, this structure, because the book is all tied up with the winding, nonlinear, nonsimple nature of memory.) The essayist didn't disapprove, per se, of this kind of sentence. She just said to be careful when writing this kind of sentence, because Faulkner can get away with it [, but you can't, was the implication]. My reader-brain finds no greater pleasure than a sentence with a half-dozen branching clauses, and weeps at the penury of a Hemingway sentence, but the Hemingway sentence conquered literature in the 20th century and even a maximalist as brilliant as DFW couldn't bring the long sentence back to popularity, so I guess the war is won, at least for my lifetime, and I need to get over it, but do you see this sentence here? That sentence there is me not getting over it.

Sometimes kudzu will ruin the landscape for all other plants. 

I wanted to write about the sentence. The glory, the hubris, the necessity, the profundity, the iron maiden and the open valley of the sentence. The fact that all I care about as a writer, when I strip away all my ego, my goals, my petty foolishness, bickering with critiquers, inadequacy, discipline, lack of discipline, hunger, pride, beauty, idiotic yearning toward poetry -

- all I care about is writing good sentences.

I wanted to write about all that. But there's just too much to say.

Friday, October 3, 2014

From Me to You: Everything Means Nothing, or a Primer on Rejections

Welcome, one and all, to the fifth and final-for-now From Me to You digital pamphlet. There may be more topics for me to cover in the future, but my download folder is nearly out of favorite images, so it's time to say adios. I wish I'd posted these every two weeks instead of every week, because I think we're all getting a little fatigued, but if wishes were horses, those wishes would all run away, shrieking and bucking, terrified of a great unseen evil.*

You're still not listening to Welcome to Night Vale, are you? 

The first pamphlet regarded looking up markets to which to submit your work. Then I explained about little details in the submission process, followed by cover letters. Last week I ranted about bios and discussed the patience required in waiting for an answer. This week, a survival guide for rejections and acceptances.