Between the Covers

First of all, I was gone for a couple of days (and trust me, I’ve been BUSY in that couple of days), and you all abandoned me. I feel like you and I were at a party, having a lovely conversation, really getting to know one another, then I excused myself to go to the bathroom and when I came out, you were standing with that loudmouthed guy who was telling that story about his truck and the deer and the bean dip and you waved to me, and turned back to loudmouth just when he got to the part about hitting the possum with his golf cart. And I didn’t blame you. I can’t even begin to compete with that. I’ll be honest, though. It hurt.

Anyway, back to the whole blog post thing. Books. I’m talking about books. A big part of grad school has been the enormous amount of reading I get to do. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve finished V for Vendetta, Rashōmon, Dracula, Quiet (The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking), The Woman in White, The Windup Girl, and I’ve just started Status Anxiety.

The thing that I love about “annotations,” as opposed to book reports, reviews or anything else I could write about the books I read, is that they’re personal. They’re influenced by the other stuff I’ve read, the events in my own life, the mood I’m in. When I’m doing annotations, I feel like I am at liberty to bring in every connection I think of while reading a book. I can talk about my connection to Buddhism and depression when I write about Rashōmon, or about Occupy Wall Street when I talk about V for Vendetta, or about my own dark thoughts about our world’s future when I read The Windup Girl.

When I write annotations, I end up looking at the whole thing as a kind of therapy. I can certainly look at how Hemingway created stories out of nouns and verbs and admire that, but I can also think about how racist, sexist, generally asshole he was, and how that informed the kinds of people he wrote about, and how I wonder whether that narrow worldview contributed to his depression. Sometimes, I get myself so wound up about the kind of person I should be that I can’t stand the kind of person I am. Is that what it was like to live in Hemingway’s ultra-macho world?

I think that we all look for ourselves between the covers of every book we read. We want to be the hero; we want to be the super-cool villain who has money, power and good looks; we want to be the mom everyone loves, the son everyone’s proud of, the kid who’s quiet and unassuming until she saves the world. That’s great when it’s fiction and somebody gets to win in the end (even if that somebody is the bad guy). But when the subject is human’s desire for love, as is the case in Alain de Botton’s nonfiction book Status Anxiety, I’m just as apt to put myself in the shoes of the unspoken subject of the book, the person who worries about other people’s opinion of them and how that opinion is influenced by how much money a person has, how good-looking they are, what kind of job they have.

Sadly, I’m a writer, so I have no power whatsoever. I’m not good-looking, although because I’m just words on a page to you, you can imagine whatever you want. The same goes for my finances. In short, I’m worried about what you think of me. But I guess I don’t need to worry anymore. Given the fact that you’ve chosen the guy with the truck and the dead possum and the bean dip over me, it’s pretty clear where I stand.

At the Top of My Game

It happens every time. I’m feeling good. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve scheduled myself pretty tightly, partly from necessity, partly from neglect. I can’t control when other people want to have meetings or need to pay rent or get sick, and I tend to forget that planning a birthday party takes more than a day, or that I can’t be in two places at once.

At first, I’m humming along. I’m hitting on all cylinders, I’m cranking out the work, I’m feeling good about the number of things I’m checking off my “to do” list. You’d think I’d be happy, right? And I am! In fact, I’m so happy that when someone says to me “Can you take this on?” I say “Sure I can!” And I will trot out the old adage that if you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know, which is generally me.

I’m staying up all night reading for school, spending all day on the phone taking meetings while revising my manuscript while sending emails to the library board about our next big event.

And then comes the day when it all goes sour.

It could be that my kid mistook the deadline for her school project, thinking it was due a week later. Or somebody in the family gets sick and my down-to-the-second timing gets thrown out the window. Or worse, that I get sick, so not only can I not do all the things I’ve planned, but I feel horrible both mentally and physically.

As fast as I came up the hill of “I can do anything! I’m an achieving machine! Nothing can stop me!” I’m now screaming into the valley of “I’m a fuckup! Who do I think I’m kidding? Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

At one point, I put together a list of criteria for myself for which projects I should take on, and which I should decline. The problem is that when I can do anything, I can do anything. I don’t need to consult a list or a calendar. Certainly I can give you feedback on your website, write four chapters of a novel, help you move across country and meet you for drinks! But once it becomes clear that I can’t, it’s not just that I feel bad for letting people down. It’s what I imagine all those people are saying. That I’m a flake. That I’m incompetent. That I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am.

The end of the cycle is where I start believing that it’s all true. I’m not looking forward to that.

My Watch Is Messed Up

The future is now

The present is past

My watch is messed up…

Veggie Tales

A problem I’ve encountered when editing other writers is a sense of time. Long stretches of time pass without weekends, holidays or changes in the weather to mark them. I don’t realize how much I depend on those markers until they’re gone and I’m wondering “Why is this man wearing a scarf in this scene, and shorts in the next?”

But it’s not just a problem in fiction. I have a kid who has regular appointments on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and every single time, I end up thinking to myself “Oh, crap! It’s Tuesday/Thursday/Friday!” and I have to drop whatever I’m deep in the middle of and rush out the door at full speed. I used to put one of those cloth covers on my car, but I had to stop because the percentage of time I am late for something and don’t have the five minutes to waste pulling off the cover.

How do we anchor ourselves in time? I habitually wear a watch, end up sleeping with it on most nights, which helps me tell one hour from the next, but it can only work if I’m looking right at it. I wonder if I don’t need to set some kind of alarm for every single event in my life – eating meals, bathing, going to bed at night. What do I become if I’m always so heads-down in my own work that I can’t remember simple things like that?

I’ve been inundated lately with evidence that most good writers are, not to put too fine a point on it, bugshit crazy. While I don’t know that I would put myself on the same level as, say, William S. Burroughs, but even the author of Naked Lunch had it together enough to remember what time was lunchtime.

Why I Learn

For the past 36 hours, I’ve been going through the tutorials learning to use FileMaker, a database creation software.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Didn’t you finish putting all that info into a NeoOffice database?”

Yes I did. And then I moved the file from one folder to another, and the database disappeared. The form I created to populate it remained. The report I created to show all the edits in a printable list remained. It’s the actual table – you know, the thing with the information in it – that disappeared. The Pirate and I poked around for a half hour before I said “It’s no use. If NeoOffice’s databases are this fragile that you can’t even move the file without entirely breaking them, they’re of no use to me. I need something better.”

I had similar incidents that led me to learn Photoshop, Dreamweaver, how to drive a manual transmission car, how to make homemade pizza, how to build a chicken coop, FrameMaker, InDesign, how to use a tampon…I could go on and on. It seems like I have not had a single week in my adult life where I wasn’t learning a new thing to solve a new problem I’ve encountered.

My mother, when she found out I was getting her an iPad for her birthday, signed up for a class to teach her how to use it. I’m not that person. I can’t seem to get motivated to learn something until I have a specific problem I need to solve, and the way I learn things is to take the tools I’m presented and poke and prod them until I’ve figured out how to solve my problem. Granted, this leads to solutions like a rock-solid chicken coop built entirely without right angles, but I’m not after perfection. I’m after completion.

It makes me wonder what other people do when faced with an obstacle. The whole purpose of the database was so that I could put all the hundreds of edits I’d received for my novel into a single list, sort it into types of edits, and then tackle them in an orderly manner. I suppose I could have just saved a copy of my manuscript and then picked up each markup I’ve received, make the edits, and then move on. That process would take two to four times longer, but it would get the job done. And I’d have to do that longer, manual process on every novel for which I receive feedback. Now, I have a single tool that I can use to enter all my edits for any novel, and I can use it over and over again. I’ve solved my organizational problem.

I guess that’s why I learn. Because I’m not after perfection in my end results. I’m after perfection in my processes.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.

 

I’m Ruined

I spent December and the late part of January in writing intensives that brought home two dozen rules of good writing.  I’ve read half a dozen books, written fifty-odd pages of fiction and critiqued five hundred more since mid-December. And now I’ve been handed the latest work by one of the folks in my critique group, and I find that I’m reading the work of my dear friends differently.

First, my magic red pen has circled all his adverbs and underlined all his uses of “was” or “had.” Then, it has called out the instances where I’m being told something instead of shown it. Then, it’s putting brackets around all the POV shifts, all the verb tense shifts and all the “what the hell just happened” points. The only page that hasn’t received any revision marks is one that, because he formatted his manuscript in Word and I use NeoOffice, came out blank. (I went ahead and put a very sarcastic “This page intentionally left blank.” I know that contains an adverb, but it’s not original to me, so I don’t feel guilty.)

If it were my manuscript, I would receive back the markups and feel a little discouraged. I would look at red ink on every page, in huge amounts, and I might think “I’m terrible at this.” But there are two things that I know about this situation: the first is that this is an early draft, and the author is expecting major rewrites at this point. In fact, he may expect having to do more rewrites once it gets accepted for publication. Because that’s the second thing. The guy who wrote this has his third book coming out in April. He knows how to write commercial fiction.

The takeaway is that I can’t be hard on myself when I’m doing my own edits. I’ve long said that the hardest part of writing is editing, because it’s hard to edit yourself. On the other hand, I’m not sure.  Rick Moody said in a revision class that he believed that the larger questions of plot, characterization and style would solve themselves if you solve the smaller problems of adverbs, bad metaphors and passive voice. I am beginning to see how that’s true. Stripping your prose bare of all the stuff you put in to prop it up not only highlights what you did put in when you shouldn’t. It also shows up what’s not there. Tension. Action. Drama.

I’m going to start the re-writes on the novel that has been workshopped to death. It’s been two years since I wrote it, and it’s going to get the good going-over it deserves. And I hope that when my friend reads the markups I put on his draft, that he’s happy with the amount of revision I’m suggesting. And I hope that Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, H.P. Lovecraft, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and all my other favorites forgive me, because now, even when I read their works that have been labeled as “classics,” I can’t help but think “Adverb…passive voice…adverb, oh my – two in a row!”

Pandering to My Inner Nerd

Now that I’ve gotten about 2 dozen people’s written comments on the first 25 pages of my novel Two Women and a Boat, it’s time to do something about them. But I’m not the kind of person who can pull up an electronic document, pick up a pile of markups, and just dive in. I’m more methodical. More anal.

WHAT I’M SOLVING FOR:

  1. Much of the feedback, like typos and grammatical errors, is the same throughout all the edited manuscripts.
  2. I won’t act on all the feedback I get from each critic.
  3. I don’t want to have to keep going back and forth over those 25 pages over and over. I want to be able to go through and correct all the typos, then all the single-line fixes, then all the global fixes, etc.
  4. I want to keep track of who gave what feedback.
  5. I want to be able to incorporate the recommended grammatical fixes from all seminars/classes/lectures.

I don’t mind taking a little more up-front time to create a system that will save me time later, but I’m not a natural programmer (unlike my amazing husband). I can’t just look at a pile of data and order it in a way that will get me what I wanted. After four tries, I think I’ve come up with a database that I think is perfect.

It captures the name of the critic, a description of the correction, the date it was entered and the date it was completed, the manuscript version, and, the touch that I really feel will make a difference in my ease of editing, a field for correction type. I’m all excited now because it means that I can power through these 24 packets of comments, enter them into a single long list, add in all the rules that I know I should be looking for in my whole manuscript, and THEN sort by the type of correction I’m making. I can do all the globals at once. I can fix all the typos in one sitting. All the missed words, all the added words, all the local changes…

And now I’m going to get back to it.