Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bore-Us Lessing and Other Lore from Last Week

After this weekend, I need to write a postscript to this post about reading. I need to make a correction: sometimes I do read in order to conquer. Because I'm 400 pages into The Golden Notebook and I'm determined to finish it - not because I'm enjoying it, but because it will not defeat me.

It's boring. It's astoundingly boring. It is this boring:

It combines endless self-dissection of a dull and pretty pathetic woman with political philosophy that has all the maturity of Objectivism with bold pronouncements about how women in general feel about orgasms and menstruation that bear little resemblance to how I (a woman, last time I checked) feel about orgasms and menstruation with UNFATHOMABLE BORINGNESS.

The edition I'm reading is 666 pages long (not a typo). For the first 150 pages I kept going because I was waiting for it to get somewhere, and for another 100 pages I kept going because I couldn't believe it really wasn't going anywhere, and then for another 50 I kept going because I marveled at how the book was almost halfway done and it was still as boring as counting rocks, and for the last 50 pages I've been fueled by vengeance. I insist upon finishing it now. It shall not triumph.

On Sunday I picked up This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which is a book of shortish essays, just to read a few as a break. I laughed, and nearly cried, hysterical with relief at Patchett's fluid, pleasant prose, her wit, her utter lack of clunkiness and her ears not made of tin.

How did The Golden Notebook ever win such a respectable place in 20th century literature? The more pages I stack up behind my bookmark, the more I find that Lessing really doesn't write well. The structure of the book is postmodern and interesting, but the content sucks. Her word repetition is not a style (like Saunders or Wallace) but just poor editing; her prose is flat and lifeless; her head-hopping and interminable psychological speculation betray an inability to convey character information in subtler ways, not an Auster-like multilevel approach to human behavior.

Well. Now that I've complained at length about an experience I could theoretically stop having at any time, here's what else is up.

Last week felt like a big writing week. I wrote about 5,000 words, which is not actually much when I hold it up next to productive weeks of times past, but it felt like an awful lot. On Thursday morning I set out to do this week's writing exercise for my workshop class, because I had volunteered to share the exercise with the whole class on Monday and I wanted a decent amount of time to get it out. I wrote 1,000 words, but in writing I abandoned caution about how close to my own life I hewed, and I realized in revising that I could not possibly read this 1,000 words aloud to 15 people who do not know me.

So I started over. I had a handful of ideas that stuck to the exercise's parameters, and for two hours none of them worked. I wrote and crossed out, wrote and crossed out. I did finally eke out 1,000 words by thieving part of a friend's stressful job situation to write about. (She was fine with it.) It turned out funny and largely okay; I don't think I'll be submitting it anywhere, but it was competent and it did not embarrass me to read it to the class, which is all an exercise really has to do.

The class liked it. They thought it was funny and they said I read it well. Now I have only to wait and fill my stomach with adrenaline for two weeks more.

See, I signed up for the first workshop slot in mid-October - that is, my story will be one of the first two longer pieces we'll be workshopping in class. (I usually volunteer to go first in a workshop class not because I want to, but to cut down on awkward silence. In my experience no one ever wants to go first.) The story is to be 2,000-2,500 words, and I've had an idea kicking around for several months that I thought would be good for around that length. I intended to write it last week so I'd have two weeks to let it ferment before revising and bringing it in to class.

I set to work on it on Friday and managed 500 words before I ran out of gas. After a long break, I worked for several hours on Friday night, and it was hard, harder than writing has been for many months. I finished a draft (too long, of course), in enough time that I can give it two weeks before I revise, so technically the session was a success. But it was a terrible time. My desperation to walk away and do something else, anything else, was at DEFCON 2. Still, I sat and did it. Because that's the only way it gets done.

I think it's okay, this story. I planned it partly as an opportunity to revisit first-person plural, which I used for this brief story and which I just love. It's limiting and generous in such unique ways, and it's so rewarding to find the right situation for it. I got really interested in the characters as I was writing, and I think that means I'm on the right track.

Is there a situation that can't be covered by a gif from Easy A?
Because if there is, I don't want to know about it. 

In non-writing news, I got a new job, which I start today. I've been working at home for almost three years and I'm frightened about going into an office again. I loved being a copy editor, but the work has dried up as dramatically as California has, and a girl's gotta live. Wish me luck.

Friday, September 26, 2014

From Me to You: Bios and W a i t i n g

Hi, everybody!

The soup of the day is the fourth installment of From Me to You, a series of Friday posts where I tell you what I've learned about submitting fiction to literary magazines. Previously I held forth on researching markets, getting all your administrative ducks in a row, and how cover letters work. Today's dual topic is writer bios and "What happens next?" Once I got started on bios, I was surprised at how much I had to say about the subject, so away we go.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Narrative...Narrative Everywhere

Last week. Matt is playing Destiny. I'm wading through Faulkner.

"I guess shotguns won't change much in the future," he says.

I read to the end of the sentence and look up. "Hm?"

"It's funny to me that the shotgun is still the same. You load it like this and you pump it like this." His avatar loads some shells and chk-chks the gun like you do.

"But if you changed those functionalities it wouldn't be a shotgun anymore," I say. Matt and I both know that on the rare occasions I play video games myself instead of watching him play, the shotgun is my weapon of choice. It would also be my weapon of choice in the zombie apocalypse. (Of course we've had that conversation.)

"Future shotguns should make shotguns better," he says.

"But if you changed out the weaknesses of present-day shotguns, they wouldn't be shotguns."

"So what makes a shotgun?" he says. He asks the question in this probing genuine way he has that tells me he wants a real answer, that he's not just blueskying or joking. That the answer will offer up some other little grain of sand that makes me me, some more content regarding the wife he chose.

I don't think for long. I just rattle off the things I love about shotguns. "The shrapnel aspect of the shells, the pump action, the fact that you don't have a lot of ammo, and...the sheer power of it when you fire." My brain thinks BOOM, thinks of people jolted at the shoulder and staggering back a step. Oh, pardon me, BOOM, while I turn you into dog chow.

Matt's avatar's gun rises and falls gently with her breath while he looks at me. "That's interesting," he says. "What you think of as shotgun characteristics are like the story of the shotgun."

Huh. "Huh," I say.

"I mean not how it's manufactured or its technical specs, but what you have to do to fire it, and what happens when you do. That's the story of the gun, not what's good about it."

"I never thought of that," I say.

"It's very you," he says.

"I don't really know much about shotguns," I say. "You'd have to ask [friend who owns a bunch of guns]. I just know what I like to fire at dudes in videogames."

"Uh huh," he says. His avatar gets back to running and gunning. He favors arming her with an assault rifle for reasons I will never understand.

Friday, September 19, 2014

From Me to You: Much Ado About Cover Letters

Welcome to the third installment of From Me to You. Thousands and thousands of words expended upon how to submit your work if you're a total n00b. We've gone through researching markets and minding your Ps and Qs when submitting. Today! Cover letters!

Margaret Atwood drew this. I'm sorry for her and me and everyone who feels this way, but

Please know, right away, that the philosophy on cover letters varies greatly. (And please keep that in mind as you read every single sentence that follows.) Please also know that I'm specifically talking about cover letters for literary magazine submissions in this post. Cover letters for book submissions and pitches for essays or features have different rules.

Some author advice websites and columns will tell you to write something in your cover letter that makes you stand out. Some will tell you to be completely neutral. Some experts will say that you should list every last credit you've ever had, while others will say that looks boastful and/or is boring. The advice is just all over the place, totally inconsistent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Worstbest Writing, Worstbest Weather

My to-do list for today involves four writing tasks, two reading tasks, and "change sheets?" I think it's going to be a good day.

So far we've had to do two exercises in my workshop class, and my work on them has been the worstbest kind of work. For each, I've written my requisite word count, and been very pleased with the result, to the point where I think maybe I can fiddle with the result and eventually send it to a flash fiction market. And then as I start to fiddle with it, the thing starts to look bad, and then worse, and then I kind of turn away in shame, like George McFly turning away from that ginger who's macking on Lorraine instead of defending her, while Marty's going all transparent in the corner, like oh, forget this, I don't actually have a solid core of self-esteem, I'll just go home and read my pulp sci-fi mags. Who wants a smokin' hot, boy-crazy girlfriend, anyway?

Of course, we all know that George found it in him to stand up to that ginger and get the girl.
Let it be a lesson to all of us. 

What? You guys don't have Back to the Future memorized down to the last millisecond?

The point is, these exercises have felt really good at first, very solid and forward-moving in terms of my writing ability, and then they collapse under scrutiny. Exercises collapsing under scrutiny is in itself not a surprise, nor even something I can beat myself up about, but it's disappointing to think that I've done well and then discover that I haven't.

I believe I can fix the second one, but I haven't heard from my small group about it. After I do, on Wednesday, I'll let it sit for a month or more before I look again. I've read it too many times. Here's the first paragraph, though.
Obviously the place is unsafe, but it’s a large expanse of flat concrete out of the sun, so the boys go there to skateboard. Skating is transportation, mating dance, and self-expression all in one, so they learn jumps and trade lingo under the corrugated roof of this old warehouse, its viscera cleanly removed, its walls torn off in ragged sections as if eaten. Usually, Dylan’s older brother crams all five of them into his dusty blue Corolla in exchange for weed or gas money, because moms do not need to know about the warehouse, and they roll away the long dog days after school out here, surrounded by loose desert and abandoned equipment, the wind stirring sand into their hair. Yesterday, Dylan’s brother brought his girlfriend along in the passenger seat when he came to pick them up, so Ray and Colin got left behind. 
I actually took this from life. I drove about an hour north of L.A. to see a friend last week, and on the way back I went by what appeared to be a group of abandoned construction sites. Under a former building, which is now not much more than a rusty steel roof and the beams holding it up, I saw the bottom halves of boys skateboarding around. Oddly, their movements reminded me of nothing so much as bumper cars, trundling in little sedate paths. I think it's because they were pretty far away. Whoever those boys are, I doubt they are sedate up close.

One of my writing tasks today is revisions on the dreadful story. A reader gave me a fucking perfect solution to a minor web of problems in the story, so integrating her idea should be like putting a key in a lock. I hope. And then I'll start in on Light in August. Thus I go into undiscovered country in terms of Faulkner, and I'm pretty fearful but naturally I'm looking forward to it, too.

It is HOT here. My Facebook friends in other climes are making noises about fall, and it's kind of disorienting, because it reminds me that it is actually September. (And my friend in Australia is talking about how nice it is to fold warm laundry in the season she's in, but that's a bit different.) Here, September feels like an extension of August - dog-hot, what-are-you-talking-about-Eliot-August-is-clearly-the-cruelest-month August - instead of the transitional month it's always been for me. A few more years in SoCal and I won't associate September with autumn at all any longer.

Friday, September 12, 2014

From Me to You: How to Be Punctilious When Submitting

Last time on From Me to You, we started talking about submitting your work. The only thing I managed to cover was how to research a market, and how to determine, through largely circumstantial evidence, whether it's the right market for your work. I feel the urge to repeat one of the things I said in a slightly different way: finding the right market for your story is more important than finding the market that will accept your story. After half a dozen rejections that offer no clues as to why your story "didn't work for us," you might start to look for markets that seem to take any old thing, just to feel redeemed. Avoid this urge. A market that's not discriminating, or that doesn't have a coherent policy about what it publishes, is not a desirable one.

If no markets seem right for your story, write something else and look again. That doesn't seem like very good advice, but it's the advice I've been getting for a long time and the more I write and submit, the more I think it actually is good. It could be that your work is just that radical, and that's why you can't find a market that seems right, but...it's unlikely. The more likely answer is that you need to write better, which means you need to write more. (I've had to accept this myself, so I know it's not easy.)

As before, the rest of the pictures in this post are going to be irrelevant.
This one is so relevant to me that it hurts to look at it. 

Anyway. This time, as the title of this post indicates, let's talk about some nitty-gritty details of submitting.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In This Weather, Probably a Hot Mess

Last week I revised the dreadful story, which I think turned out quite non-dreadful. I'm waiting for some feedback on it right this very minute, not that I'm counting the minutes or anything. I'm not. Really. I also asked randomly for a friend's opinion on a story I wrote some months ago and about which I haven't really been sure since then. It pivots on a long sex scene, but I don't think it's exactly erotica, or at least not only erotica, and it was nice to hear from my friend that she didn't think so either. (Although Matt does think so. Which means I need a tiebreaker. Anyone want to read a dirty story for me?)

We started in on writing exercises in my creative writing class and on The Sound and the Fury in my literature class. I couldn't really say about the former, because my exercise didn't get workshopped on Monday and the professor hasn't gotten back to me either, and on the latter...oh, mother of mercy. I loved it when I read it last year, I loved it when I read it last weekend, I loved talking about it in class, I overflowed with it at dinner last night, I could talk about this book forever.

Aw, c'mon, yes it does

My exercise, though. We had to create something that had a bunch of different methods of narrative all jammed together and jumbled up, i.e. scene --> summary --> gap --> summary --> pause --> stretch --> pause and so forth. In trying to put this together, I gave up on narrative coherence and wrote a weird collage about a day at the Santa Monica Pier. I wasn't sure if it came out a cool mess or a hot mess, but I guess I'll find out on Wednesday. If they like it, maybe I'll post it here next week, if I'm still as much out of ideas for stuff to write about then as I am now. Ha ha. Ha. Ehhhh.

Actually, I've been working pretty busily on the next couple of posts to follow my last one, about submitting work. I'm surprised at how much I have to say about it and how helpful I'm fooling myself into thinking I am. I figure I'll post them on Fridays until I run out of material. But that's really business, not craft, and I prefer writing about craft. Or really about how I interpret craft, and hurdles I meet therein, and how my own work has been informative on my journey into craft improvement. But for any of that to be bloggable, I'd have to be writing. Exercises are close to that, but they are not that.

I've been looking for an excuse to use this picture for a long time. CRAFT, see?

Fall isn't here yet. It's hot as a leather-covered crotch here in the San Fernando Valley. I'm not complaining, because I moved here specifically to trade long summers for long winters, but I'm definitely feeling kind of "next slide, please," about high-nineties days.

Okay, talking about the weather. Time to vamoose.

Friday, September 5, 2014

From Me to You: Finding Markets

Today I want to talk about a practical matter - finding markets to which to submit work. A crucial note, before I do: I don't position myself as an expert. I have writer-friends who have had work published in serious magazines, print anthologies, and prominent online markets; writer-friends who self-publish on a regular basis with success; and writer-friends who've never had anything appear anywhere. I'm not claiming to know more than any of them. I'm just sharing what I do know.

The reason I'm doing this is that yet another person has recently asked me probing questions about submitting work. I say "yet another" because new friends and strangers asking me questions about submitting is more common than I ever expected when I started telling people about my blog/website/attempts at being a writer. I felt, well, what do I know? I'm not in Harper's. But this keeps happening. So in case there are more of you out there, here's this post: what I know, what has worked for me, full stop. Not "what you should do with your work" or "how to get into magazines" or anything similar.

I had the hardest time ever finding pictures that worked for this post, so this will be the only one that's relevant. The rest of them are just some favorite pictures from my download folder. 

The number-one question I get asked is how I know where to submit. The answer to this question ran so long that it's the whole post. I'll do more of these posts if this one is popular.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mellifluous Miscellany

Haven't done a "miscellaneous stuff" post in a very long time. Maybe it feels unprofessional? Well, I don't have any other ideas today.

1. Relieved of the (delightful! but very real) burden of Remembrance of Things Past, the first volume of which I finally finished over the weekend, I read two books cover to cover yesterday: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Glitz by Elmore Leonard. It was a great, great, great Labor Day. Any occasion where I get to read all day is a great, great, great day.

2. There were some obnoxious dudes in the gym this morning who I'm fairly sure don't even live in the complex. I slammed the gym door when I was leaving, to passive-aggressively communicate that they were obnoxious, but all morning I've been imagining future conversations with them wherein I have them right where I want them, Goldfinger-style. I think I need to get out more.

3. The roofers are still raising my blood pressure. (Could I make that into wordplay?) I caved and bought earplugs. I hate earplugs, but they brought the noise down to a point where I could relax in the apartment and, although I could still feel the furniture shaking under me, I was no longer fearing for the integrity of my ceiling (or of the blood vessels in my brain).

4. Mederma works at reducing scars' visibility. I have a burn on my arm (from a totally mundane kitchen incident) that's many months old and still discolored. I asked my dermatologist for recommendations, and she said there wasn't much I could do, so I bought some Mederma at Rite-Aid (through some kind of illogical spending-vengeance, I guess), and I've only been using it for a week and I already see a difference. I'm surprised. And kind of mad at my dermatologist.

5. It'll be time to revise the dreadful story on Friday, but it's still so much on my mind that I might put it off another week. In the meantime I wish I could get back to the notebook, but...

6. ...all my best resolutions about reducing screen time here at home, after the near-total lack of it on my vacation, have come pretty much to naught. I am frustrated that I can't seem to step away from the screens the way I did so easily when I was out of town. Facebook time is climbing back up there, too.

7. Lucky seven. I'm trying to have an opinion about this J.Law-nude-photo-leaking-thing, since internet writers (some of them writers I admire greatly) have been weighing in on it like crazy, but I just don't. I mean, it sucks; privacy is hard to come by; this shit is unfair - even if this shit often comes with the territory of being famous, it's still unfair. But whatever it says about women and bodies and consumption is stuff that's been around for a long time and I don't have a significant point of view about it on this round.

There you go. Miscellany. And here's an image for good measure.

8. School will really get going in the next week or so, I think,
and at the moment I'm looking forward to it.