Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tabula Non-Rasa

Well, it got more likes on Facebook than anything I've ever posted, even this

, so I feel like it's maybe overkill to share it here, but: I got an acceptance for the zombie noir story. I had fun writing it - the word "dame" is in the title - but when I was finished, most of the genre markets that seemed right precluded it because they specifically noted in their submission guidelines that they didn't want 1) zombies or 2) old-fashioned, Chandler-style noir. One market actually noted "No dames walking into your office." (Splutter.) Here's a sample, a description of the dame who does her duty and walks into my main character's office.
Aside from the bundle she carried, there wasn't a thing about her that was bulky. She was delicate all over. The silk blouse I mentioned, but she had on a black silk skirt, too, pleated, the kind that rustles in whispers, trying to tell you secrets about what's underneath. The seams in her stockings were perfectly straight, and even though the aroma of trouble clouded the air around her, I couldn't help following those seams all the way up under that whispering skirt. Her hair was black silk too, and she had on a soft gray fedora with a generous brim that hid one green eye. I believed I might have snapped her elbow if I'd hung on too hard; if she'd fallen in the street, she might have broken up like a gingerbread girl. I was sweating in my lightest tan linen suit down here in the Quarter, pushing my hat up over damp hair, but she looked and felt too cool. 
Modern noir mags don't want this sort of thing, I guess. So, as I've done an interestingly high number of times before, I tried a UK market and found open arms. Yay for me. Now back to work.

Oh, right. Still haven't gotten started on the story on which I need to get started.

And still reading Moby-Dick. It has gotten less delightful. I'm still intrigued by it, though, and I want very much to know what Melville is up to with this business of putting everything and the kitchen sink in the book and then giving us mere sips of the "main" story. What is that about? What's the point of it? What effect does it have on the reader? Alas, I'm not reading it under the guiding hand of a professor, so I must resort to SparkNotes after I'm through.

I started my summer class this week. We began with Plato because, of course, that's where everything begins. I'm reminded of a very old Dave Barry column where he wrote about how every school year, history class opens with the Mesopotamians, the root of all civilization. Teachers figure they have tons of time to set forth the rest of the material, but by the end of the year they're rushing like crazy to get through World War II and then over the summer the kids forget everything so they have to start over with the Mesopotamians again in the fall. I don't know why this stuck with me, but the phrase "starting over with the Mesopotamians" cracks me up. It does call back to the repetitiveness of early schooling. And this is probably the third or fourth time I've started over with Plato and the allegory of the cave, so yeah.

Wow, hello, tangent. See, this is what happens when I don't have any writing to write about. Maybe if I can stop fooling around with my new ukulele, and stop falling asleep during Phaedrus, I'll get to writing the danged story, and I'll have more to say.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Thinnest of Air

I'm out of town today, back east to celebrate some milestones, but I thought that was no reason not to entertain you.

I revised the journalist story a bit on Wednesday and sent it out on Thursday. Scary. But I was at the point where I no longer knew if what I was doing was making it worse or better, so out it went.

I'm reading Moby-Dick. Reading one Big Book about every year seems to work well for me - Infinite Jest in 2012, Ulysses in 2013, now the great white whale in 2014. (Middlemarch in 2015?) I'm about 200 pages in, and I have to say, it's a completely different reading experience than I thought it would be. Mid-19th century American literature feels hopelessly quaint to me in style (sorry), but aside from that, and the feeling that a good half of this could really be trimmed down by a determined editor, it's...delightful. The voice is so merry. The text is crazy quotable. Even the stuff that seems excessive adds to the sense that this is an entertainment rather than a chore. I've tried three times now to read The Woman in White and I never got past the first two chapters because I was bored silly by the sentences. I expected to force my way into Moby-Dick just like that, but no. My thoughts meander back to it, and whether I can get in a couple of chapters, when I have other things I should be doing.

Of course, I'm writing this before my plane flight on Thursday, during which I probably read a good deal more of it, so by now maybe I've given up in frustration after all (or, depending on whether we were delayed, finished the danged thing). I also brought, on my Nook, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (DFW), Tenth of December (Saunders), Veronica (Gaitskill), and Blood Meridian (McCarthy). I'm telling you this less to show off and more so you can laugh at the hubris and ambition I display whilst shoved into a sardine can going 500 miles an hour, smelling the unfortunate emissions of my fellow sardines, burning, burning, burning to get out and take a fresh breath.

I hate to fly.

Anyhow, Moby-Dick. Thumbs, so far, up. If you have the time and space to set aside for the book - because the style is old-fashioned, and I find it somewhat hard to pay attention to if something else is going on - I recommend it. As long as you remember that the racial attitudes suit the time and we didn't know then that we'd run out of whales. Here's a quote.
Yes, there is death in this business of whaling--a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Avoiding the Challenge I Can Do

After school was over last week I gulped four books, one after another, in the space of five days. Like a seal eating herring. As if that was my only responsibility, to read until my head hurt. Golly, did it make me happy. And now the apartment is a total mess and there's no food in the fridge. C'est la vie [du livre].

I learned piles of good stuff this semester. My two classes were so different but equally useful and fascinating. The experimental lit class, for which we read a book per week in the first half of the semester, was technically a workshop class, and among its many virtues, it helped to prepare me directly for one of the major projects on my plate in the next two years. One of the things our professor repeated again and again was that we had to write the thing we didn't know how to write. I know that sounds either contradictory or like one of those semi-platitudes that writers and pop Buddhists tend to spread around (i.e. "To move forward, you must take the first step" - they're pretty easy to invent, actually, you just phrase tautologies so they sound metaphorical and profound).

But this one's actually true. If you write the thing you don't know how to write - the thing you're not sure you can write - you develop your skills as you're writing it, and this means that you grow far faster. If you just do donuts writing the stuff you already know how to write, it's like paying a prostitute. It's a sure thing, and it doesn't satisfy, and it doesn't have any meaning.

I don't know, but I suspect, that this is part of the reason I've been balking like an unbroke horse at writing the next short story I have to write. For a while I was all blocked up with how to build the characters and the climax and whatnot, but now I've got that sorted out thanks to a very helpful friend, and there's no reason not to get started. But I haven't. I have no excuses. Except possibly that it feels like it might be less of a challenge than the last two stories I finished. Like Lisa Simpson, I prefer challenges I can do, but I'm concerned that since it doesn't look like much of a challenge, it's not going to be much of a story, either.

Well, crap

There are more significant writing challenges on my list, but I want to get this particular story out of my head. After that I think I'll finally be ready to do Highbinder revisions. Gack.

In other news, I got tired of fucking around with the bread story and sent it out to a scary, intimidating market. I'm planning to do the same thing with the journalist story (different market, same scary/intimidation level), hopefully this week, after some more revisions and if I can think up a frigging title for it. A market that accepted a story of mine last fall, with a promised pub date of December '13, has gone pretty much AWOL, so I think I'm going to withdraw that story come June 1st and look for a new market for it. Actually, that happened with two of my acceptances last year, but the other piece is short, and isn't really of use in any other way, so I might record it and put it on my SoundCloud.

And I bought a ukulele from eBay. I haven't played an instrument since I was like 14, and that was for school rather than for the joy of it, so I thought this might be fun. If you have ukulele tips, please send them along.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Practice Makes...Better

An interesting thing happened last week. I had sent two separate stories to two separate reader-friends about a week apart, and both of them e-mailed me back within a few hours of each other. This was not even the interesting part; the interesting part was that both sets of feedback shared the compliment that I do dialogue well. These are the passages that got those compliments, so you can determine for yourself if these readers are right:

Charlotte scoffed and dropped the lighter on the overflowing coffee table. "If your nose is so keen, what the fuck are you still doing here? You haven’t gotten enough of me?"
"I just love buying you ice cream."
She sat up. "You bring me some?"
"I forgot."
She sat back. "Figures."
Jamie uncapped her pen. "Why don’t you tell me about Estella?"

"Do you have to talk about Raymond so much?"
"All I said was that he used to love this curry recipe too."
"It's like he's always on the side of your life. Like he never really moved out of your head."
"Gene. We were married for twelve years."
"Thanks for reminding me."

Of course I was grateful for the compliments, but I was as surprised as I've ever been about reader feedback. I've never thought dialogue was one of my strong points. I've always considered it a weak point, in truth, and every time I write it, I sweat over each word and revise it with an even more merciless eye than I give the rest of the prose.

The instructor for my UCLA class said at one point that he loved writing dialogue, that it was how he felt himself getting into the story while writing. I marveled at this. I don't hate doing it, but I find it so fraught. So troublesome. I'm constantly afraid I'm doing it wrong: that all the characters within a single story have the same patterns of speech, or that all the characters within all my stories have the same patterns of speech, or it's written unnaturally, or it's written too naturally, or there are too many attributions, or not enough, or something. I never, ever feel like I have the rhythm of dialogue down correctly, whereas I feel reasonably confident about the rhythm of my non-dialogue sentences.

I think this is partly because I like reading dialogue a lot less than I like reading paragraphs. But it's also because I've read so many different kinds of dialogue and yet heard so many teachers/writers say that dialogue has to be this one specific way or it doesn't work. That's contradictory, you know. In genre stories, dialogue can be expository, where in literary stories, its strict purpose is to reveal character. It can't be overly realistic to life or it won't sound right, but George Saunders and DFW write dialogue that's so weird and true and funny that I can practically hear it spoken aloud in the room when I'm reading it. It can't be in big long paragraphs, because the reader won't believe characters could talk that way, but how else can you get a character to ramble, if you need that kind of rambling or if s/he's just a rambler?

If you listen to writing teachers, dialogue seems like it's quite narrow, like it must be a specific way. And yet it can vary so staggeringly among writers. I mean, compare Jane Bowles's dialogue to Jane Austen's. Dorothy Parker's to William Faulkner's. [Read that link, it's short and funny.] Dumbledore's long wrap-up speeches in the HP books; Dan Brown's hilarious expository voicemail messages. A couple of years ago I read The Accidental Tourist, which has pages of dialogue that mostly shoots back and forth unattributed. While I admired Anne Tyler for writing such sharp, highly characteristic dialogue, I was certain I'd never write that way - both because I wouldn't enjoy reading it and because I couldn't possibly write it that well.

Yet according to these two readers of mine, I'm doing something right with my dialogue. And here's the point [at long last]: if I'm doing something right, it's because I've forced myself to write dialogue for years, methodically, one word after another, revising its knickers off. I've pounded away at it and approached it like it's a weak point rather than with easy confidence. This is what interests me about this whole incident - that I've practiced at something having to do with writing and have gotten better at it in a way that can be measured. Even though I don't think I wrote dialogue well in years past and don't think I do it particularly well now, I've never had compliments on it before. That shows me that something is different, and I think the something is that I've had a lot of practice.

Which - I don't know if you've heard - supposedly "makes perfect." Uh huh.

None of this is related to the post above.
I Google Image-searched "practice makes perfect" in the hope of finding a snarky retort to the aphorism. This image, which is available on t-shirts, shot glasses, and other flotsam from Cafepress, kind of blew me away, because it contradicts its own corny-ass (and really quite defeatist!) message with such precision that I couldn't have done it more tidily if I'd intended to. (If you're not a copy editor by nature, look at the word "practice" a little more carefully...) The font choices and the person's other merchandise make me think that this was not an ironical choice,
but oh, it should have been. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Coping with Salieri Syndrome

Last night I was thinking about Brian Wilson. Sometimes, in order to keep the lid on a persistent earworm, I assemble weird mixes from my iTunes on the fly. The more I confuse my music center, the less likely it is that the Jem theme is going to kick around in there all night. Why not listen to the Bellamy Brothers next to Dr. Dre? Last night, along with some Dylan and some Feist and some Daft Punk & etc, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" got in there. Every time I'm listening to the later Beach Boys (i.e. not the "Surfin' USA" era), I think about poor Brian Wilson and the misfortune of being born a Salieri.

The legend goes that Wilson worked himself to the bone making Pet Sounds in response to the Beatles' Rubber Soul. Today neither album sounds crazily different from what preceded it, but at the time they were both big leaps. Fun, fluffy pop marked both bands' careers in the early 60s, but Rubber Soul was richer, folkier, more varied, more album-like, even a little experimental at times. Pet Sounds tried to mimic these qualities in its own way.

Rubber Soul happened at the end of 1965. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. Yay! Totally worth it!

And then, in 1967, the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And Brian Wilson had a total nervous breakdown.

I'm not kidding. Wilson's mental health was pretty fragile throughout the mid-sixties, but evidently Sgt. Pepper was the breaking point. McCartney has said that the band was inspired by Pet Sounds to make Sgt. Pepper, which is nice and all, but, um...Sgt. Pepper. Your argument is invalid. The Beach Boys were never the same; Wilson went somewhat AWOL until the early 70s, and they kind of bounced back later, but it wasn't like before.

I think it broke Wilson that the Beatles were revolutionizing pop music pretty much right under his nose. He probably had, in greater abundance, the same feeling I have about Randall Munroe (the creator of xkcd), which is like "I totally hate you for your brilliance, but please don't stop making art, but you're making all of us look bad, but I love you, but I also hate you." (Don't misunderstand - I am a little ant trying to make little ant art, and Munroe's had enormous, widespread success, and anyway he and I aren't even in the same field. So it's definitely not the same thing. But that IhateyouIloveyouIhateyouIloveyou feeling's gotta be the same.)

Like this. Remember this? In Ratatouille? When Skinner eats the ratatouille at the end, and is immediately astonished/in love/furious?

The problem is, when you're confronted with once-in-a-century genius and you're just a once-in-a-decade artist, you can't see it as history will. You can only take it personally. That was the best part of Amadeus (aside from three hours of superlative music) - that interesting problem of well, I can't really blame you, Salieri, for hating Mozart, because if you're a composer other than Mozart in the eighteenth century, it sucks to be you. It probably sucks about as much as it does if you're a band other than the Beatles in the 60s.

So, there we are. Poor Brian Wilson.

But this is another reason why spite and envy about the creative works and/or success of other writers is such a waste of time. If they're better than you, even if they're on another plane of better than you, there isn't much you can do about it but be the best Salieri you can be. History will roll on with or without you; you can't control it. And, after all, Pet Sounds is a really good record. Well worth a listen.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Title II: Electric Boogaloo

Friday again. Nothing again.

Read this instead. My good opinion of Writer's Digest is gradually disintegrating, but this list is excellent; it's 15 things a writer should never do, and the majority of them are lessons I learned the hard way. (Except #5. There's just no percentage in being dishonest or rude to people whose help you might need one day.)

Take heed. And hold a good thought for me having something to say in May.