Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dramatic, Climactic Water Revisions

Yesterday afternoon I'd finally had enough of fiddling with Highbinder and I called it good. This is something like my sixth revision since finishing the draft last January, and I'm pretty sure I'm not done, but I'm as done as I can get right now and keep from being able to recite all 325 pages of it from memory. I sent out a few queries and now I've only to write other things while I wait.

Matt asked me if I was happy with the changes I made. The harder I tried to answer that, the less able I was. I made the changes in order to reflect the climax back on the prologue, and the feedback that led me to these changes was directly on point, but it also led me into a kind of tautology that I doubt a reader will notice but that bothers the hell out of me.

Let me just be clear instead of mincing around it, even if this gives some things away. My main character, Berra, has a big problem with water. She can't be immersed in it for very long without harm. In the prologue, which is self-contained, like a short story (or so I hope/intend), she confronts immersion in water, and while she's not permanently harmed, it's a traumatic experience. The big climax of the book, as written and revised last year, involves Berra causing some property damage with dynamite, after which she's arrested. My miracle reader said, yo, why didn't your climax have any water in it? That's her THING, and you missed the opportunity to inject that type of danger into the scene. Berra didn't confront water in a dangerous way at all for the whole book after you set it up so nicely in the prologue. Wow, man, said I, that was stupid of me. And thence followed an entire year of procrastination while I tried to figure out how I could put water in the climax.

Well, I figured out a way, but only after a number of desperate conversations with Matt where I was just tearing my hair out trying, and really he deserves the credit for setting it straight in my mind, but even so, the whole thing seems kind of precarious. I don't really have a concrete plot-driven justification for the water being there, except that it is, for reasons Berra can't discover either. I hope I'll be able to retcon my way into a good reason in one of the sequels - I have a sorta-reason in mind, but it's flimsy - but as of right now I don't feel that good about it.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that putting water into the climax was the right thing to do. The way it reflects on what happened in the prologue is interesting and worthwhile. Do I feel good about those edits? No. But I don't think I would have felt good about any edits after a year of avoiding them and worrying about them. I'm satisfied with them, for the time being, and if I wake up in the middle of the night with a better idea in two months you bet I'm going to plunge right into a seventh revision.

In other news, I've been on an unlucky streak with books recently. Right now I'm near the end of a novel that is more than a little repulsive, but still promises greater satisfaction than I've had out of the previous three. Maybe I'll switch to poetry for a while, or reread something I know I love. The fall semester is still two months away, but I'm already looking forward to it; I got some good news yesterday that I can't share until it's all certain. I really intended to start on a new short story this week, but it might not work out. We're covering structuralism and poststructuralism in a single day in my summer class, tomorrow, so there's a lot to keep my brain cells occupied. There's other stuff happening, too, but I guess I've forgotten it all, what with learning 2,500 years of literary theory in the past month.

Friday, June 20, 2014

1,000 Words About Skin

It's been a busy week. My husband bought me a car. I have all the feels about getting rid of my old one, and am trying to organize my thoughts enough to assemble an essay about the experience.

I did find the time to record something new to put on SoundCloud. This doesn't really have a title, so I slapped a semi-dumb one on it. I'm very happy with the prose but pretty unhappy with the recording; the first two recordings I did sounded a hell of a lot better than this one, and it's been so many months that I don't remember what I did differently to make those sound pretty good and this sound like crap. I can't but say "oh, well" about it. I have limited equipment and even more limited abilities. 

The story of this story is that I wrote about 1,000 words in response to an open call for an anthology about body image. It's not quite nonfiction, but most of what's in it is true. My work was accepted, but I haven't heard anything about the anthology in well over a year, so I presume the editor has lost interest or the project is proceeding without me. Either way, these 1,000 words are orphaned. Finding an appropriate market for them seems more difficult than it's worth. So instead you get to hear them from my own mouth, spoken into a microphone, added to some overly noticeable environmental noise and echo and then piped into your ear. I couldn't be arsed to do an intro, like in the last two, so be ready to listen right when it starts. Sheesh, I'm really making it sound appealing, ain't I?

Oh, well. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Just Read All the Books. There, Solved.

Did you read this Slate article from last week about how grownups who read YA fiction should be ashamed of themselves? Well, what the author actually says is that adults who read fiction intended for young adults should be embarrassed, which makes all the difference in the world. I read the article before I read any of the backlash, and I didn't think the author was YA-shaming, although butthurt and snarky articles have appeared all over the internet arguing that she was.

I don't really have a dog in this fight. Which may be why the article initially made almost no impression on me, aside from a feeling of justification that I stopped reading Slate entirely after its format change. (It's too busy, and I haaaate their new font.) Some lady thinks YA books aren't complex enough for grownups. So she's a snob. Yawn. But the more I thought about this, the more it troubled me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Year of Procrastination, Two Days of Work

On Friday and Saturday of last week, I sat down at last, at long-ass last, to revise Highbinder. I have had this endeavor on my to-do list since June of 2013, since I got some catalytic comments from a reader-friend. I can't believe it took me a fucking year. And I'm done with the first pass, because, as predicted in my New Year's resolution, it was really not that much work. It was burdensome psychological work to get myself to sit down, was all.

I did line edits (cut about 200 words that way, from just under 96,000), but more importantly I changed around the climax, some stuff throughout that informs the climax, and some of the (fictional) engineering of the world. I also removed most of the F-words in it (I resisted him, but my reader was right about that), which made me sad. I like F-words. I'm pretty sure I didn't fuck it up, but I'm going to let it sit for two weeks and then go through the whole thing again.

This revising entailed a full read of the book for the first time in many months. (For those of you following along at home, I finished the draft in January of 2013.) I shouldn't be surprised about this, but it felt...well, it's very much a book I wrote over a year ago, before I took the Esalen workshop, the UCLA class, or any of the CSUN classes. The prose often seemed clumsy, even though in reading I could remember firsthand the effort I'd put into the placement of every word. It's also very much a genre novel; everything was way overexplained, the dialogue sometimes told the story, and the narration is so far inside the protagonist's head that I should've been able to hear her heartbeat.

Ultimately, all of this is okay with me. I think the book works well enough as it is, for what it is, that I don't feel the need to start over from the top and rewrite it. (If it gets roundly rejected, maybe I will, but so far the only rejection has been because "I just didn't fall in love with the characters".) I worry a little bit about writing the sequel, because either the style will be quite different or I'll have to rewire my brain in order to put it together. The latter sounds exhausting.

It was an uneasy couple of days, but it was also such fun to dive back into that world. I enjoyed building it, and I can't wait to share it.

I don't know if it was the revising or something else, but a couple story ideas have dropped onto the pile, my first in several months. I think that means I need to get to my notebook this week. One of them came from work and the other from one of the weirdest damn dreams I've ever had, which linked sex with trains. Don't ask me. I mean...trains?

north by northwest
And not all delightful and sanitary like this 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Babywatching, or How to Spy on Your Neighbors Doing Mundane Things

My apartment's balcony looks out on the balconies of all the other apartments in my building. The building is U-shaped, so I can see a lot of what goes on in other people's lives. This is both good and bad; there's people-watching galore, but not all the people are pleasant to watch.

Several months ago I saw that the young woman who lived across the way on the ground floor was heavily pregnant. She was sweeping her patio, moving a couple of chairs and a table around, and the cast of her shoulders and the sluggishness of her movements told me she was miserable. Maybe she was just tired, but she didn't look tired.

The baby has since been born. Someone's parents - his or hers, I couldn't say - are living in the apartment with the couple and the babe. They smoke on the patio sometimes.

Yesterday I caught sight, through the patio door, of the young dad feeding the baby. He was reclined on the couch, with the baby propped up on his thighs, and he kept switching the hand with which he held the bottle up to the little thing's mouth. It moved its arms and legs, herky-jerky. Intermittently he picked the baby up and patted it against his shoulder. He varied between patting and stroking the baby's back with almost mechanical precision: eight pats, eight seconds of stroking.

I watched this between the arms of the gravity chair I have on my own balcony, between the dowels of my balcony's railing, through two layers of glass doors and a layer of screen. It went on for twenty-five minutes. I was mesmerized. This tiny creature, totally helpless; this reclining human, who, if he was not watching a television located out of frame, was focused completely on his child. I have almost no experience with infants, but I knew what he was doing, and I knew how tired he might be of doing it, and I knew that the baby in his lap will never remember that he did it at all.

Sometimes when I look at infants or toddlers, I imagine them growing to adulthood as if in a sped-up cartoon, ballooning up and out in a goofy time-lapse. Their chubby useless fingers becoming long and skilled; their faces becoming discernible from one another; their skin sprouting hair and their bodies carving themselves into polygons instead of circles and ellipses. I think I do this because my own husband was a preemie (a tiny preemie: 26 weeks) and is now 6'2" with broad shoulders, and it's hard to believe the miniature reddened alien I've seen in family pictures is the huge man who takes up half our bed. Looking at this baby - who finally fell asleep, and when its dad wanted something he couldn't reach, he looked around briefly and then just continued to sit, because oh well, I'm not waking the baby up just because I'm thirsty - I tried to see its future years upon it. I tried to see the world in which it will come to maturity. The experiences that will be available to it when it's a teenager. The things, and the intangible things, it will create.

And I couldn't. It was just a baby, a small creature that knows nothing but the bottle at its mouth, the warmth of its parent's thighs under its pliable back, sleeping and waking and having its needs attended to. It didn't have an identity to me. Its identity right now is Baby, but the potential identity curled up inside it, that might be just about anything, now, mightn't it?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Melville, Mightiness, and Misanthropes

I finished Moby-Dick. What a tremendous book; what a thoroughly weird book. No less weird today than in 1852, I'll wager, if maybe a little easier to understand in a more fragmented era. It was puzzling and boring; it was frightening and involving; it was pretty much unlike anything else I've read.

In Ahab's speeches it had that too-rare quality of mightiness. It's like I can see Melville at his desk, and for a while he's studiously writing away, like normal, and then suddenly he raises his arms and shouts an incantation and lightning crashes all around him, blazing bright words into the page, and the resulting thunder is what booms through the reader's mind as the prose rolls out. When I read Salvage the Bones I called this quality an author bending the English language utterly to her will. It's a mighty language, a wild rearing creature, and it's a rare and fine thing if a writer is able to pour all that power into sentences while saying what s/he wants to say.

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2. Lear is all over Moby-Dick.
This is from Good Tickle-Brain, a terrific website that treats Shakespeare in stick figures.
After finishing with the White Whale I turned to something else: a short novel of the late 1930s that had an entirely different tone. It was The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, a writer who produced four short novels and died in a car crash at 37. Locust was made into a film in the 1970s that was made much of at the time but seems to have been forgotten.

I did not like this book. It's about Hollywood, sort of, and all sources indicate that it's a sort of cruel farce about the lives of these three central characters, but I found it draggy and misogynist and unfun. There was just so little movement. There were terrific set-pieces, but not much plot.

The biggest problem was the tone, though. The book felt bottomlessly cynical. It reminded me a lot of the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man, with Nicolas Cage, which I know I really shouldn't be mentioning in a post that also talks about Lear and Moby-Dick, but just bear with me. Wicker Man is a rotten movie (although the RiffTrax of it is so good that I own the DVD), and the first time I saw it I found it totally mystifying. There was no one to root for! Everyone was terrible! Our protagonist is a pushy, annoying, sexist dick; the people whose lifestyle he finds so unacceptable are hostile and weird and sexist; his guppy-faced twue wuv is hair-tearingly passive and yet obstructive in her own airheaded way. Fuck y'all! Fuck all y'all!

Which is not how you generally interact with characters in a mainstream American film. The dynamic between characters and audience here was so negative, so off-putting, that I really had no idea how to watch the film. I couldn't just ascribe it to the film not working for me, to the characters not being appealing to me in particular; the characters were downright hostile to a viewing audience, I'd wager any audience, which made no sense at all. Until I looked up Neil LaBute and read the word misanthrope used to describe him. And suddenly it all fell into place. He hates everything! So of course everyone is hateable in this film of his. I saw his In the Company of Men years ago and found it intriguing, uncomfortable, and disappointing, but not so openly fuck-you as The Wicker Man is. And I thought that film made a point about misogyny, so I sort of thought Wicker Man was doing the same thing at first, but really no. It's just a ball of hate.

And this is where I go back to The Day of the Locust, which also felt like a ball of hate, to a milder degree. I don't find West's level of cynicism about the world edgy or cool; I find it off-putting. I find it ugly. It's the same way I felt about the Hunter Thompson I've read, about the Bukowski I tried to read. I felt like I was being flipped the bird, that finger being directed mostly at the world in general but also right at me, and that's just not the way I look at life, nor the way I like to look at life.

When I was thinking about putting this post together, I thought of saying that misanthropy is a less evolved way to see the world, but I don't actually believe that's true. I'd never say that full-on optimism is a more evolved way to see the world. I just don't believe in full-on one or the other; life is a mixed bag, and so should art be. Cynicism about Hollywood is fine, but I thought it worked perfectly in L.A. Story, which was extremely cynical but also romantic and sincere. Or Watchmen: Alan Moore strikes me as somewhat misanthropic, but he knows how to seed hope and beauty into a tale to make the ugliness bearable. Misanthropy seems like a deliberate choice for only always bad, and when has that ever worked out?

It didn't work out for Ahab, I can tell you true.