Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.

Winning

Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month –  Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.

That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.

In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.

This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.

I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.

All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.

I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.

I didn’t.

At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.

I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.

And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.

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.

The Anti-Social Network

Today, I told Facebook that I couldn’t play with it anymore. Not anymore ever again, but it’s been getting more of my attention than it should, and I’m a student with a lot of homework to do.

But what do I do with all that stuff that crossed my mind that I didn’t stick on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else? I thought I’d put it here, in one giant list, just so that you know that I’m still thinking, even when I’m not compulsively posting it and then compulsively checking to see if anyone “liked” it.

In no particular order, my random thoughts: 

  • I finally figured out why my pedometer keeps showing me working out vigorously at ~7:50 every day. It’s because at ~7:50 every day, I am on a particularly bumpy, pitted and frightening piece of road driving my kid to school. I’ll take it, though. Keeping the damn car on the road is hard work, especially when I haven’t had a cocktail in at least 12 hours.
  • Ontologist: a medical specialist in ontology, specifically in curing it. I envision them sort of like the Guild of Assassins in Pratchett’s Discworld.
  • You know what power smells like? The mushroom funk of money? No. Money has no smell – not anymore. Money is now a plastic card plugged into a convenient fiction. The bordello whiff of perfume with its undertones of crotch and armpit? No. Sex doesn’t have the power you think it does, even if you can thread it in one orifice and out another and do it all day for a week at a time. Once people are sated, they’re just as treacherous as ever. No, power smells like urine. You make someone piss themselves and you’ve got them forever. They’ll never forget it, and neither will you.
  • Is “mimetic verisimilitude” redundant?

By the way, I cheated. I know I said I was staying away from Facebook, but I just had to peek. It’s very strange, peeking at people who know that they’re being looked at, just not by you. Everyone’s looking at each other, trying to catch one another’s eyes and positioning themselves so that the other people in the virtual room can see them to their best advantage. Meanwhile from the outside everyone looks a little alone, a little vulnerable. I closed the door very quietly and went away for a good cry at the beauty and sweetness of it all.

How I Got Published: Grad School Stories

Back when I first started taking writing seriously, I started going to writing conferences. Almost all writing conferences are the same: there’s some famous author who speaks at the beginning, telling their story about getting published, then a bunch of seminars that coach participants on the basics of writing: character building, plot basics, creating tension, good opening scenes, believable dialogue. The advice they gave us about finding an agent and a publisher was always the same: go to bookstores and find books that are like yours, then find the agents and publishers who represented those books and query them. They acknowledged that each of us would have to query a lot of agents and publishers, and that it would be difficult, confusing and an uphill battle.

What bothered me was that so few of the authors had actually gone that route. The first one I heard was a Chinese-American writer who was doing grad work when her professors told their contacts about her writing. When she came home on vacation, there were messages from agents on her answering machine because Chinese-American writing was hot. Another author said that she took copies of her manuscript wherever she went and handed them out to everyone she encountered, and she finally got an offer from an agent. Another one went to grad school and decided that she wanted to win a particular literary prize. She kept revising and submitting her manuscripts until she won it, then the agents came to her.

This isn’t fair. It makes me feel like there’s a fictional, accepted way of doing things – writing the impossible query letter, sussing out the exact right agents/publishers for our work (woe betide those of us who write a variety of different kinds of work), sending out and tracking a million queries. Everyone has signed a secret contract that this fiction is what we’re going to tell writers at conferences and seminars and MFA programs. It’s like that fiction that you’re going to meet the right person, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

The possibilities of electronic literature complicate the picture even more. Self-publishing ebooks, indie presses, print on demand – they all factor into the equation now, and the rules are changing. I’d like to stop this lie about the golden path to publication. Let’s go ahead and say “Do whatever it takes. Be inventive. Be persistent. But above all, be good at what you do.”

I think that’s the advice I’m going to give.

The Cult of Grad School

Last year, when I went away for my grad school residency, I posted every day about the things I was doing and thinking. For my first residency, I pushed myself to read the required reading for every lecture and presentation, and I tried to do all the recommended and suggested reading as well. Then I got here and found out that even if I hadn’t read the texts, the presenters usually didn’t rely exclusively on them for the content of their lectures. These aren’t multi-part classes where we’re being quizzed on the minutiae of a single text. These are discrete lectures of one or two hours where we’re exploring some big concept as illustrated by one or more texts. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

What I had forgotten about, though, was the physical and emotional toll residency took on me last time. It’s worse this time. What I forgot was just how much of a cult this place is. I looked at the ways that cults use coercive persuasion to bend the minds of their followers.

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations.

There are too many of us, packed into a few rooms of a corporate office building. There are no desks, so everyone either taps on a laptop (a sound that makes my skin literally hurt, so that I want to claw at my clothes as I’m trying to concentrate on the lecture) or (like I do) uses a clipboard or a notebook to take notes the old-fashioned way.  The schedule is so packed that there’s often a choice to be made about where to go next, so that anyone who isn’t careful finds themselves double-booked.

2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized.

Write more. Spend more time thinking about your edits. Who are you in relation to your characters? There’s not a single, simple explanation to all our problems as writers, but the about five explanations there are get repeated ad nauseum. While that can be good if you haven’t already heard that particular solution to your writing problems, it gets exhausting after a while. Last residency, it was “question your beliefs.” It seemed that most of the lectures harped on some aspect of that theme, and it led me to go back to some of my work and think hard about my characters’ motivations, but after a while, I had to question my questioning. And what did all my questioning lead to? It led to me believing that I needed to come back and ask more questions. Back here. Where I am now.

3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance and attention from a charismatic leader or group.

Every single person here is happy to see me. When I show up in the morning, people want me to sit by them and talk to them. They show me their websites, looking for my approval. They show me pictures of their spouses, their children or their pets. They act like they’ve waited for six months to hang out with me, and maybe they have. I do know that I am fond of a lot of these people, and it’s nice to see them after such a long separation, but I also still feel that fierce need to spend some time alone. And of course, everyone talks about the program chairman as though he walks on water, and there is always a queue of people trailing after him in the halls trying to talk to him about one thing or another.

4. They get a new identity based on the group.

Here, you are put into several groups at the same time. You are given a group name based on when you entered the program. Everyone who came in at the same time as me is a jacaranda, and our color is purple. There are blue spruces, yellow aspens, red sequoias and sycamores whose color I don’t know. Maybe they’re green. The aspens are the outgoing cohort, and a bunch of them have elected to wear yellow sparkly capes to show their solidarity and pride. That’s all fine and dandy, but a bit creepy at the same time. You are also sorted by genre: poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, writers of literature for young people.  They often don’t attend the same classes, so they see each other at the cohort events.

5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is strictly controlled.

I’m only entrapped here by virtue of the fact that I’m such a long way from my own family and friends. My best friend lives down here, but he’s got his own life going on. The trickier form of entrapment is keeping us so busy that we voluntarily sequester ourselves so that we can complete everything that’s being asked of us. We’ve got classes, forms to fill out, evaluations, summaries, contracts, all of which has to be done at specific times in specific ways and eats up a lot of what would otherwise be free time. While we have all the access to the outside world we could possibly want, we don’t necessarily have time for it. And our access to information about this little world we’re in is limited to the intranet platform – we use separate email rather than our own email, we have a separate site that houses all the news and information we need from this place.

Given the indoctrination we’re being subjected to, I think I can be forgiven for being a little on the emotional edge. And all that stuff about it being a cult aside, there is some amazing thinking and analyzing going on here. The outgoing graduates have once again been exploring aspects of literature I had never before considered, and I now have the benefit of a brain dump of their previous two years of research. We’ll see what this residency’s themes end up being.

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.

Raising Tech pt 1

Now that TechRaising is over, I’ve been asked about four million times just what happened and what I was doing. It seems like every time I try to explain exactly what happened this weekend, I end up telling a slightly different version of the story. The weekend was so full of action and emotion that it would be hard to tell the whole thing, and I’m always focusing on different parts of it and re-thinking them.

The Back Story

Back in December when I did my first grad school residency, I came up with the idea of writing a non-linear novel. In the strictest sense, any literature that involves more than one character is non-linear because every author talks about what this group of characters is doing, and then backs up in time to fill in what other characters were doing at the same time. As readers, we understand how this works and are able to follow along. We live our own lives that way, doing our own thing all day, then getting together with our friends or family and getting filled in on what they were doing when we weren’t around.

When I talked to my husband about it, he offered to figure out the programming necessary to make it happen, but I turned him down. My husband is a genius of a software engineer, but IOS programming (I had my heart set on an iPad app) isn’t his power alley, and it would take him a while to get up to speed. In the meantime, he just started a new job and he’s still working hard at being a competitive bagpiper. Those were some of the reasons I gave him for letting him off the hook, but the real reason is that I’ve been a project manager for a long time, and my way of getting things done is to be demanding and unreasonable (although in the nicest possible way). These are great when you’re cracking the whip over guys who would otherwise spend all day sending each other links to xkcd cartoons, but less great when you’re working with someone that you have to sit across the dinner table from.

 

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.

 

 

What Are You Doing?

I’m glad you asked that. I really am.

The thing that I’ve chosen to pursue is called hypertext fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a form of fiction that uses the utilities of electronic delivery to allow the reader to customize the story. Examples of it have been around for 20 years, but newer e-reader technologies and packaging now allow for better, more interesting presentations and the possibility that you don’t need to have access to the web to read the text (she says, although she has not solved certain problems just yet).

The story as I have imagined it has 6 characters whose points of view will be shown. It has what I’ve come to think of as 3 theaters of action, each one in a different part of the world. Action is happening in their stories at all times as the characters seek to deal with their situations and remedy their problems.

What I’m envisioning is not just being able to “package” the story from a single character’s point of view, but to be able to switch between several points of view (seeing the same scene from an 8-year-old girl, versus a 40-year-old man), or being able to package all stories told in a particular location. It means that I will be writing the same novel 6 times, and each of them must be entirely distinct, and each one must work with all the others.

There are two difficulties I foresee: the first comes in the writing itself. It’s going to be hard to write each node, or scene, as an independent thing such that you can go smoothly from one point of view to another and have the narrative make sense. For instance, if one character leaves the room after an argument, the other will stay behind and ruminate about the argument, or tear up the furniture, or whatever. The one who left might go and cry, or go and inject poison into the other’s toothpaste tube. Where does the scene end? Can you switch smoothly from the end of the poisoner’s scene to the beginning of the next scene starring the room-tosser? Will it flow, or will there be a backtracking? Not sure how I’m going to solve it. I’m also terribly prone to point of view shifts when I write. It’s easy to start talking about how he thinks she’s dependent and clingy and wishes she would just leave him and then put in a line about how she will never leave him because she’s punishing him for being such a wimp by making him take the first step away. If I did it better, it would be omniscient, but since I don’t, it’s just bad third person.

The other difficulty is in the user interface. How do you represent what the reader is seeing? How do you have them switch from one POV to another? From one scene in time to another? What happens if you push a “next” button? What happens if you choose a different character – do you get the same scene retold, or the next scene from a different POV? There are decisions to be made in the telling that will inform how this thing is programmed, and the Pirate and I have been talking about it nonstop.

While the idea of hypertext fiction is not new, the things I want to do with it are new, and are going to require what I anticipate will be years of work. But I’ve got time. I’ve got nothing but time.