What Time Gets You

I like to be clean, so every day I go into my bathroom, and I have a choice to make. Do I take a shower or a leisurely bath? If I have to be somewhere soon, I take a shower. If I have nowhere to be and nothing else to do, I might indulge myself in a bath. No one is allowed to disturb me in the bath (unless they’re bringing in champagne – that’s always allowed), and I normally stay in until I wake up because the water has gone cold and my fingers are so pruney they hurt. A bath isn’t something I can rush through. I can’t even start the water running unless I know I have a good long time.

I just got the latest round of comments back on the manuscript I’m working on. My mentor loves the premise, loves the characters, but thinks that I need to get further into the characters. His comment was that the changes I had made to my manuscript were “workmanlike.” I have to admit. That stung. On the other hand, he loves the story so much that he couldn’t keep himself from rewriting big chunks of it – he said he couldn’t resist. What he suggested was that I take a bath in my manuscript. Give myself the time to get all the way into it, so that I can inhabit the characters, play with them, live inside their skins and let them have their own reactions rather than the reactions I’m writing for them.

It turns out my mentor lives alone. His time is his own to dispose of however he chooses, so when he says “it may take you 8 hours to get the first page right,” he doesn’t necessarily realize that I do not have 8 hours in a row to devote to this ever. Between driving the kid to school, laundry, watering the garden, taking the dogs out to pee every hour or so, there is no such thing as 3 uninterrupted hours, forget 8. I would love to be able to say that I’m sitting my office turning out my masterpiece and my husband and child keep coming into my inner sanctum and disturbing me, but that’s not the case. It’s usually me going out into the rest of the house and demanding kisses or tea or a bite of whatever they’re eating.

Virginia Woolf posited that for women to write fiction they needed money and a room of their own. I have both, but what I don’t have is the conviction that it is right for me to use them. So, it’s not a lack of time or talent that’s keeping me from my literary goals. It’s will.

To Tell the Truth

When we talk about writing, one of the most basic dichotomies is “fiction” and “nonfiction.” We tend to think of “fiction” as things that somebody made up, and “nonfiction” as things that happened and are being reported on.

Except that it’s just not that easy.

Let’s say that you go to a sporting event in a big, crowded stadium. The game is over, and as you’re going to your car, two guys in front of you get into a fight. There is scuffling, punching, blood flies. After a few moments, the two men separate and go to their own cars, each throwing hostile glances over his shoulder at the other guy. What can you say about that? You can report the facts (and by “facts,” in this case, I mean “scenario I made up out of whole cloth”). The problem is that each of those guys will come to you and say “That’s not what happened,” and will then explain to you that the other guy spent the entire game winding him up, insulting his team, insulting his wife, his mother, his choice of beers and then, as they were leaving, the other guy started it.

Do you put that into your story? If you choose not to, can you still call your story “nonfiction,” since you’ve chosen to leave out pertinent facts? If you find out that one guy has a long record of convictions for assault and the other guy recently went off his lithium, do you put that in? How about if one participant was Chinese and the other Argentinian? Or that one was 75 years old and the other on crutches? Do you even know if that had any bearing?

The point is that even newspaper reporting, the gold standard of “just the facts” writing, is skewed toward a certain point of view. The reporter chooses from the available, verifiable facts only those that seem most pertinent to the story and leaves the rest out, no matter how much the rest might mean to something like a criminal investigation or a civil lawsuit.

But where nonfiction is concerned with taking all of the available details about a situation and picking and choosing among them to craft a certain kind of story, fiction writers have exactly the opposite job. They start from the story and pick and choose what details to add to support it. This is where verisimilitude becomes critical. Verisimilitude means that a literary work depicts something real, something believable. To Kill a Mockingbird has verisimilitude. The Story of Babar does not.

Verisimilitude is different than the truth, because, to quote the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.” So if you depict Leonardo da Vinci leading a robot army, no one will believe you, despite drawings he made of both armored tanks AND robotic knights. If you portray American cowboys calling police “pigs,” no one will believe you despite the fact that the use of the word “pig” to describe police dates back to the 19th century.

If, as fiction writers, we want to talk about something that actually happened, but “fictionalize” it, that is to say make it seem like something that happened in a different place at a different time to different people so that we don’t get sued or socially shunned or beat up, we have to double back on the whole “make the scene up from scratch” scenario. We have to take a real event, take out telling details of one kind (and we decide what kind that is), and leave in details of some other kind. But then we have to replace the stuff we took out with stuff that we make up, and we have to make sure that the stuff we put back in keeps the story the same. That’s where it gets so, so tricky.

I want to talk about my best friend who skinned her knee roller skating when we were 9, but do I leave in the roller skates or the fact that we’d ditched school to do it and she couldn’t go back to school with a bloody knee, or that her dad beat her for ditching school and never let her come to my house again? (And no, that never happened either.) What do I take out and what do I leave in to create the same story of risk and error and loss without putting either myself or my former friend at risk?

These are the really hard choices we make as writers, and every time I find myself in this situation, I always have to ask myself “why does this matter”? If what matters is that I feel I was unfairly scapegoated as a child, then I can tell that story any number of ways. If what matters is that my friend’s father was an abuser whose only punishment for any infraction was a beating, that’s a different problem to solve.

At the end of the day, it’s down to the individual writer to decide what they’re writing. How much do you want to massage the facts of an event you witnessed and are presenting as the truth? How much do you want to stick to believability when you talk about a fictional meeting between two famous people? How much do you want to protect the people you know in real life when you’re putting them into a story that may or may not have ever happened?

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.

My Revision Process

I went to the zoo recently, and while watching a giraffe walk like two men on stilts in a tent, it occurred to me that my own editing process looks much like the revision process I believe God went through in making the horse.

a rhinocerous

They pee straight backward. Did you know that?

The Rhinocerous Phase

I’ve finished my manuscript. It’s huge. It’s got bits on it that look like they were tacked on at the last minute, and the parts don’t feel like they fit together very well. Much like the rhino, perhaps the legs are a little thin for the body, the skin doesn’t look like it fits quite right, and the eyes are too small. But it’s got all the requisite parts, in more or less the right place. When I look at it, though, I think to myself “this isn’t nearly as graceful, as flowing, as uplifting as I was hoping for.” So, I start smoothing things out a bit.

a hippopotamus

When I was a kid, we called these “hippomopotamus.” Okay, I still call them that.

The Hippopotamus Phase

I’ve smoothed things out. It’s not as warty, the bits that obviously don’t belong have been taken out, I’ve made a few improvements to the flow. It’s definitely smoother, but look at it. It’s still a bit more bloated than I was hoping for. It’s not very graceful, except when underwater and all the ink begins to run and swirl, but I don’t kid myself about the way that most editors read – they don’t do it underwater. This thing needs to look wonderful and powerful and majestic on land. Time to do some cutting.

a tapir, but not the flying kind

One of my biology professors once went through an entire lecture talking about “flying tapirs.” He meant “flying lemurs,” but I have invested in a special pith helmet just in case I’m ever in the Brazilian jungle.

The Tapir Phase

I’ve cut it down. My lovely piece of writing is now about a third the size it was before. I’ve taken out long, boring expositions, lingering descriptions of scenery, pages of unnecessary background. But it’s still sort of lumpy and ungainly. It’s still not the model of effortless verbal grace I’ve been imagining. And that bit I added on the front there? I don’t think that’s working out at all. So, time to perhaps add a little back. Time to start thinking hard about what’s really important. I want my piece to be the right length, but there’s also breadth and height and all that. Color wouldn’t be bad either.

an okapi

It’s fun to look at, but stylistically, a bit of a mess.

The Okapi Phase

I’ve gone back to the drawing board. I’ve taken all the parts of my story that I felt really had something, and I re-wrote everything else. I added new characters with pizzazz and sparkle. And I gave one guy a funny speech impediment. And I added this great scene between the bad guy and his chief minion where they’re ordering pizza. And it’s really starting to look much more like what I was envisioning. The plot is all hanging together really well, but…well…it’s just not quite there. Not quite. Almost, though. I can certainly see glimpses of greatness. From a certain angle, it’s got a certain majesty to it. But yeah, maybe I’ve overdone. What am I really going for here? More The Great Gatsby, or Cat in the Hat? I have to make some hard choices.

two giraffes running

They’re every bit as graceful as a creature made entirely of knees.

The Giraffe Phase

I’m almost there! I can see it! I’ve toned it down, I’ve shaped and pared the story until its crystalline structure just sings. The plot is everything I’m hoping for, but I do have to admit, the language is letting me down in places. Too stilted in some places, too awkward in others. I’m looking for a more consistent tone and voice, and am willing to sacrifice the 17″-long purple tongue to get it. And I think that succumbing to the urge to add back the horns was, in retrospect, a mistake.

a mule

The only difference between a mule and a horse is some misplaces modifiers and too many commas.

The Mule Phase

I’ve been working on this one story forever. I’m getting sick of it. It’s beginning to smell. And yet, it’s so close! I’ve taken out the awkward bits, polished up the language, and it is now nearly everything I want it to be. Except for that place on page 68 where I typed “that” instead of “then.” And that other place where I didn’t capitalize the last name of the girlfriend. And that place where it was Tuesday at the beginning of the scene and Monday at the end. But I’m so close. I can’t taste it, but boy, can I ever smell it.

a horse

Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also fast, and can kick your ass. And it’s a vegetarian.

Success!

It’s done! It’s beautiful! No one reading this can deny that it’s a masterpiece. Yes, it took a lot of work to get here, but I’ve got a story with grace, flow, majesty…and the kind of legs that will hopefully carry me to a sequel.

ReWrite, ReVise, ReThink

It’s the end of the month, and I’m in the same dilemma that I find myself in pretty often. I’m working on re-writes to a piece that I’m pretty excited about. I can see its possibilities, I can see it taking shape as I peel away the stuff that’s been bogging it down, fix the stuff that was a little bit broken, polish up the chrome and supercharge the…um…fraculator….you get it.

At the same time, I’ve got another piece that I’m equally excited about. This is a piece that I’m still creating. I’m only just starting to make mistakes on it. I’m still exploring, seeing what it has to offer, getting to know the lay of the land, meeting the locals. It’s a nonstop party in this new place, and I hate to leave a party! Okay. That’s an utter lie. Everyone that knows me knows that after two drinks, I’m standing by the door tapping my watch and saying that my dogs are getting lonely without me, but this is a fictional party where I’m always having a lovely time dancing and telling hilarious jokes and my hair never goes weird and my mascara never starts to run.

And at the same time that I’m supercharging my fraculator and charming everyone at the fictional party, there’s this other piece. Like most writers, I have a whole file of stuff that I’ve started writing and then sort of abandoned, half finished, or quasi-finished, or one-sentenced, in drawers and files and all over the place, and every once in a while, I dig those things up and think to myself “Holy mambo – that is GENIUS!” And I push everything else off my desk to make room for this amazing perfect idea that I can’t believe I discarded in a moment of folly.

But then something happens. Someone reminds me that I owe them revisions, or the next chunk of something, and I realize that I have to buckle down and finish something. I have to make a choice. Hobson’s choice. Sophie’s choice. Which is like Hobson’s choice, only way better-looking. Speaking of which, there’s a place called Hobson’s Choice Cleaners in my new neighborhood in San Francisco. My mother and I figure that it means that they give you the choice between putting stains in your shirts or ripping the buttons off. But I digress.

What I really wish is that I had more time, or that I had more of me, or that I were less creative. But I don’t have any of those things. I have my own Hobson’s choice to make. My own metaphorical buttons to rip off, my own metaphorical shirts to stain. And sitting here, writing this blog ain’t gonna get it done, is it?

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.

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!”