Who You Gonna Call?

The last time I was at the hairdresser, my stylist was talking about her landlord. She lives in what she describes as an “adorable junior studio,” but it does have its share of problems. She’s had to do a lot of cleaning and fixing, including replacing the locks. She said that she’s petitioned her landlord to make these fixes, but even the other tenants in her building have told her that appealing to him is useless. She called him a slumlord.

It got me to thinking about my house. I think I may be a slumlord. The problem is that my only tenants are me and my family. I’m perpetually overscheduled, and it’s easier to just learn to work with the things that are a little bit broken, a little bit cluttered, a little bit sketchy.

A partial list:

  • there’s a broken dishwasher sitting on my back porch
  • along with a broken toaster oven
  • and a DVD player that doesn’t work
  • and a elliptical trainer that finally conked out
  • and my stationary bike that only just died (despite how it looks, I exercise a lot)
  • the door of the cabinet in the guest bathroom has a broken hinge and it’s just hanging there
  • same with the bottom door of the linen cupboard
  • the utility sink in the laundry room has a hole in it
  • there are two tiles missing from the corner of the kitchen counter
  • the porch railings need painting
  • the planting boxes from the porch need cleaning out and replanting

This is just the big stuff that annoys me daily. What’s the most annoying bit isn’t that I’m on tap to fix this stuff, but I can’t do it myself, and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do. The hinges that have failed are the really complicated, fiddly kind, and I don’t get them. I can’t load the exercise equipment into the back of my truck by myself in order to take it to the dump.

This is really the paradox of modern life. We have dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and washing machines and garage door openers – all sorts of labor-saving devices. All this saved labor is supposed to translate to saved time – time that milady can spend sunning her dainty knees by the pool, etc. Except that Americans haven’t done that. Americans have taken that extra time and filled it up with more work. And I am, in that respect, very American.

I guess at some point I’m going to have to put down my work – my manuscripts, my trips to the city to fix up another house with its own problems, my work helping my kid with her schoolwork, etc. – and start fixing some things around here. Either that, or I stage a rent strike.

To Bag the Impossible Bag

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been on a quest for the ultimate handbag. I’ve had bags that were like luggage:

Retro squirrel bag

How could you not love this?

 

Bags that were actually boxes with handles:

Red glass box purse

Frankly, a good box purse is still my first choice

 

And bags that had pockets for everything:

Fossil Backpack

Okay, this one's really more of a backpack.

 

But each one left something to be desired. What am I looking for? Something that goes with everything (so, black or brown leather would be ideal), but that has more pockets than just a simple bag. Something that is spacious enough for my tendency to over-prepare (I generally have at least two small notebooks, four pens, seventeen lipsticks, a phone, a large wallet, another wallet with all those stupid loyalty cards, a brush, an iPod, earbuds, and forty-seven receipts, and that’s when I travel light). Something that looks nice, but not too pretentious.

Alexander McQueen clutch and shoes

This, for example, is a little too pretentious for me. Just a little. A smidgen.

 

The fastening has to be secure, but easy to open (don’t say it, I know that’s an oxymoron). And it has to have a shoulder strap. I am normally juggling five things in my hands, and I don’t want my purse to be one of them. At least, not until I have staff that follow me around, interacting with the world for me so that all I have to do is hold my tiny yappy dog and tea.

I think I may end up getting…

 

 

wait for it…

 

 

a diaper bag.

 

Think about it. Diaper bags are the epitome of “holds a lot of stuff.” And modern designs are pretty posh looking! But I’m trying to decide whether giving in and buying a diaper bag as my regular carrying-around bag is the clutter equivalent of giving up and wearing sweats all the time. Clearly, I’m going to have to angst over this for a while longer. And keep switching my stuff between the three purses I have now that I hate and love in equal measure for all sorts of different reasons.

Observing the Decencies

I’ve drawn the Pirate into listening to Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. It’s the kind of audio book where we stop the playback every few minutes so that we can talk about what’s being said.

One of the points he made was this: “As our standard of living goes up, the luxuries become the decencies, and the decencies become necessities.”

I realized that I had only considered two classes of things: necessities and luxuries. When those are your only choices and you divide all the stuff you own into one of those two camps, you either sound like a delusional hedonist who classifies having a car for each person in their household a “necessity,” or like a rich liberal apologizing by classifying owning a computer as a “luxury.” Granted, what qualifies as “necessary” depends on your circumstances. If you work from home at a tech job, a computer is a necessity. For families living in dense urban areas with public transportation where only one spouse has a full-time job, having more than one car isn’t necessary. Convenient, but not necessary.

Here’s where the idea of “decency” comes in. It’s the idea of a thing that isn’t a luxury, but is a step up from a necessity. The wonderful world of hygiene is a great example. We all agree that keeping clean is a necessity: the first line of defense against diseases ranging from the common cold to cholera to ebola. If we agree that hygiene is a necessity, and hygiene means soap and water, we also agree that soap is a necessity.

If you are the hardy type, you can mix the same lye you use to unblock your drains with some water, add your cooking oil (including bacon grease and meat trimmings), and create a soap that will burn your skin, smell bad and serve your purposes. That’s necessity. Buying lye in bulk and using only your used cooking grease, soap made this way would cost a just under two and a half cents per ounce. When I was a kid, my mom always bought Ivory soap. It didn’t smell weird, and it was inexpensive. You can get Ivory soap for about 13 cents per ounce. Necessity or decency – your call. What happens when you get to things like Lush? Depending on your preference, you’ll be paying $1.99 to $2.64 per ounce for this high-end soap – two orders of magnitude more than the DIY version. There’s no way anyone can justify that kind of outlay as “necessity,” and calling it “decency” is disingenuous.

It’s been making me think about my own definitions. How much do I need most of the things I use and enjoy? How do I justify to myself the purchases I make? I need to think harder about the choices I make. I need to make sure that I’m not buying things just because I’m being lazy or self-indulgent. I need to remember that I’m not alone on this planet, and that I need to play fair, share, and leave some stuff for others.

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.

Who Do You Believe?

I’m currently at Borderlands Press Boot Camp, and today is the day that we met with the folks running the group and got small-group feedback. Last night, a staffer read our separately-submitted two-page excerpts (we were requested to send in two pages from a current work in progress) out loud. We were instructed to raise a hand when we felt that we had heard enough to make a decision about the book, either yes or no. The group was brutal. They completely trashed nearly everyone’s submission, and by the time they got to mine (the last one), they were just shrugging their shoulders and asking each other “what the hell is this” and laughing in a not-kind way.

Mr. A, the man furthest to the left, said that it was a mess – he couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be happening. Mr. B, the man in the center, just laughed derisively. He shouted out “Muffin-faced? What does that even mean?” (I find this slightly funny because I stole that term from Paul Theroux, who used it to describe Queen Elizabeth in an article in Vanity Fair.) Mr. C, the man furthest to the right, seemed to want to hear more. He was willing to forgive its obvious deficiencies because he wanted to hear the end.

I was expecting the small-group feedback to look a lot the same – that everyone would trash me and I’d feel like an idiot. Imagine my shock, then, when Mr. A pronounced it “nearly perfect,” and observed that “either you’ve been writing for a very long time, or you’re gifted.” In the next session, Mr. B’s written notes said “I confess: I loved this.” Mr. C, the man I was sure would hale me as a genius, made some very discouraging remarks. He did say that it worked, that I had managed to walk a very fine line between horror and hilarity. I feel like he was tough on everybody, and that perhaps I got off a little easier than some, but it was still much tougher than I was expecting.

Here’s my dilemma, and I know that this has happened to everyone: On Friday night, I sat and listened to Messrs. A, B and C. I listened to how they presented themselves, how they put their thoughts together, the points they made, etc. I decided that Mr. A was a waste of time. I didn’t agree with his ideas or opinions and thought that he was a little full of himself. I wasn’t entirely sold on Mr. B either. He laughed at his own jokes and parroted the words of the other two men constantly. Mr. C seemed the most well-prepared, the most articulate, the most mentally together of the three. I had already decided that I would listen more carefully to his advice than to Mr. A’s or Mr. B’s.

But now that I’ve gotten their advice, I can’t help but feel that perhaps Mr. A and Mr. B are smarter than I had given them credit for. Obviously, they’re smart enough to see what a “perfect,” “gifted,” lovable writer I am. And perhaps Mr. C isn’t quite as bright as I wanted to think he was.

It’s tempting to believe the people who flattered me, but I’m going to go home and look at the dozens of copies of this same 25 pages I’ve now had critiqued and handed back, and I’m going to try the suggestions that Mr. C gave me. I’m not going to rest on my A and B laurels.

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.

 

 

Fault Lines

When you encounter a problem, how important is it to you to establish fault?

For instance, if you are walking down the street and you see a piece of trash on the sidewalk, do you ask of anyone nearby whether it’s theirs? How about if you’re at home and someone leaves a piece of trash on the floor? Do you act differently in one place versus another? Why?

If you are at work and a problem arises, do you first establish who’s to blame, or do you first fix the problem?

There are good reasons for establishing who’s at fault when things go wrong.

  1. If the same person makes the same mistake repeatedly, they should either be educated (if they don’t realize they’re doing the wrong thing) or fired (if they do, but they don’t care).
  2. If many people are making the same mistake, your policies should either be more widely known or changed.
  3. If the mistake is something that only a single person can undo, such as an incorrectly sent email.

There is one very good reason to avoid establishing fault. It’s no use if the only reason you’re establishing fault is to cover your own ass. Sadly, though, this seems to me to be the number one reason that anyone bothers to get to the bottom of any problem.

All of this is really just me thinking hard about a current situation where something has gone wrong, and I’m searching for the person responsible. I’m trying to drill down and question my own motives because I don’t want this to turn into something negative, when I know that it doesn’t have to be. If handled properly, this could be a great learning experience for everyone involved.

Let’s see if I’m that good.

A GUI Problem

While I’m trying to solve the problems of creating the text for the hypertext thing I’m working on, the Pirate is trying to solve the problems of the workspace to create it and the interface that people will use to read it.

I tried using Storyspace, but although I suspect it’ll do the thing I want, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I think I’m going to have to call customer service and have a real live human being  walk me through how I would go about creating what I want. It doesn’t help that the documentation is awful. I’m trying to figure out how to connect two nodes together, but it’s all about how those things relate to each other in the first place, and each time they refer to a link or a piece of text or a window, they call it something different.

The problem is, I suspect that I’m devoting all this time to solving the data representation problems solely to get out of doing the writing. I know me. This is exactly the sort of thing I would do.

This is the basic problem of perfectionism: I get myself so freaked out about getting every single detail right that I am immobilized, afraid to even start lest I get started going in entirely the wrong direction. My father has exactly the opposite problem. He takes things on for which he has no qualifications and even less of an idea of how to proceed and just starts doing stuff. It might be the wrong stuff, it might be okay stuff, it might be brilliant stuff, but he adjusts as he goes along, and things turn out however they turn out. Whenever I get into this place where I’m so freaked out about starting off in the wrong direction, I think “What would my dad do?” And then, I normally do something else, because I often disagree with my father just on principle. But at least I’ve committed to a course of action.

My course of action on this particular problem is to leave the programmatic challenges for later and just start writing the text. How will I keep things organized? Remember, I’ve got 6 point of view characters in 3 different locations, each one of whom is operating independently. These three locations are very far apart, so there’s a large time difference, meaning that some characters might be asleep while others are doing things. To make things a little more complicated, any two of these characters might swap places at any time. After two days of talks with the Pirate about things that are both down the road and in the weeds (the future is apparently a kind of shoddy neighborhood), I decided that here and now I’m just going to put the timeline on the x axis of a spreadsheet, the character names on the y axis, color the cells with a color representing any one of the three locations, and then each cell will link out to a text document containing the written text for that scene, thereby capturing POV, location and time in one cell.

Organizational problem solved. As for the rest of it, later. I’ll sort it out later.

Days 4 & 5: Welcome to the Blur

Saturday was the first day of nothing but lectures. The first lecture was given by one of the graduating cohort. Giving a lecture is a requirement for those in their last residency period, as are submission of a final manuscript, submission of an annotated bibliography of all books read during your grad school process and giving a reading of your work. The grad student was sufficiently nervous and unprepared, as though in her entire undergrad life she had never had to stand up in front of people and give a lecture. Maybe she hadn’t. But the subject was engaging, and what I liked was how much she encouraged the discussion of those of us in the room. The second lecture, on minimalism (which lasted for two hours), was similarly engaging. The faculty member giving that lecture was soliciting answers from the class and was the sort of person who, when a comment was made that wasn’t perhaps what he was looking for or that seemed to contradict what was being said, had the generosity of intellect to take a second and actually think about what was being said to him and either say “Yes, I can see how that can be true,” or “I see what you’re saying, but I’ll tell you why I think differently.” It was the best discussion I’ve heard yet.

I contrast it with the last class I took, another two-hour lecture. This faculty member asked us to save our questions and comments for the end when she would have a question period, but by the end of her lecture, nobody had anything to say. I could see several people during the course of the lecture talking to the people around them; clearly they felt engaged with the material and had things to contribute to the discussion, but there was no discussion. It meant that this two hour lecture felt like just that. A Two. Hour. Lecture.

So, day 4’s tip: engage your listeners! Make your audience part of the conversation! Encourage them to think and participate!

Today, we chose our mentors. All the faculty who will be mentoring in fiction this semester sat in a “Dating Game”-style lineup and told us a little bit about their style, and then we got to ask questions of them. What surprised me was how many of them (7 out of 9) said “I don’t do genre writing.” Frankly, I find that hard to believe. My personal feeling is that if you have a well-written story with engaging characters, a good plot, etc., does it matter whether the setting is Middle Earth, or whether the characters are werewolves? I wasn’t the only person to be offended by the seeming blanket condemnation of genre writing as being somehow unworthy of graduate-level students.

We also had our first actual critique session with our writing groups. Because I am the newest to our group, I was worried that maybe I hadn’t “done it right,” but I was grateful for the experiences I’ve had with my other writing groups. It gave me solid grounding on what helpful critique looks like, and the whole process was wonderful. As with nearly any group who shares an intimate experience (and critiquing someone’s writing is very, very intimate), we are already inviting each other over to our houses and wanting to hang out.

I have to turn in my four top choices for mentors, and it turned out to be harder than I thought to pick just one. Do I go with the guy who’s really supportive and likes to talk on the phone? Do I go with the woman who really values experimental fiction, even though I don’t like the way she writes? Do I go with the guy who gave the absorbing and challenging minimalism lecture, despite the fact that he intimidates the hell out of me? We’ll see how it goes. We submit our choices tomorrow morning and we find out our assignments tomorrow afternoon.