2004-10-25

Three hours and twenty minutes later ...

Ok, I've been at my office since 11 and aside from making the previous post, collating notes I received on what is now called "Dirty Darlene" (the short story I workshopped last night), and beginning plot notes for another short story, I can't say I've moved FORWARD significantly on anything this morning ...

Clearly I am listening to the wrong music. Will go change CD and see if I can't make massive improvements to "DD" in the next 90 minutes.

NaNoWriMo begins again ...

One thing I forgot about in the holiday-rush -- some insane writer somewhere picked jam-packed NOVEMBER for the annual NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month is essentially what it says: Write a Novel in One Month, with "novel" defined as 50,000 words of fiction. Every year I think about it, and every year I say to myself, "SKL, you don't need them, you're mid-draft, this isn't your first stab at this book, 50,000 words written in haste does not a novel make ... etc."

But I've decided this year I might as well close my eyes and hold my breath and use NaNoWriMo for my own means. I'm about 15,000 words into my new draft of HART, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try to crank out the next 50,000 as quick as I can, right? And since I write completely from scratch on every rewrite, I've decided that as long as I start where I am, p. 46, Chapter 4, and move FORWARD 50,000 words, I'm mostly playing by the rules.

Plus, any added pressure not to allow the holiday rush to pull me out of the office is most welcome.

SO, for those of you who have just joined me:

HART / ITS CLINGING HABIT (working titles) is the story of Anna Cohen, a senior at Hart Preparatory School, who attempts to dull her loneliness, isolation, and feelings of ordinariness by pursuing a sexual relationship with the school's popular new teacher, Marcus Green.

2004-10-22

So Many Projects, So Little Time ...

Have actually written a bit today -- opened Chapter 4, and moved plot points around a bit on the ol' bullletin board. Am not going to beat myself up about not doing enough -- until the New Year, I've decided ANY PROGRESS MADE on any given day is completely self-esteem-worthy, considering how much other "real/non-writer" life must be squeezed into the schedule in the next few months:

One week from now: Halloween -- requires costume (mostly taken care of) and cookies to bring to Halloween party (recipe chosen, but must buy ingredients and bake)

10 days from now: Election Night -- requires constant vigilance of electoral polls, voting, shopping for party, and baking.

1 month from now: Thanksgiving -- requires traveling east, fitting in Levy and Friedman family appearances, and assembling appropriate Thanksgiving Day outfit. Also requires dropping 5 of the 8 pounds gained since wedding before going home to family who would no doubt gloat at any widening in evidence. This clearly requires ceasing with candy and ice cream (sad), and ramping up dreaded treadmill time (sadder).

6 weeks from now: My birthday. Day to be marked, as in all birthdays past, by deep depression about life intruding upon work, and thus work being undone, and thus me being pathetic excuse for person who is just getting older and older with nothing to show for it. However, at least I get to go see "Caroline or Change" that night.

2 months from now: Christmas/Chanukah -- requires HOLIDAY CARDS designed, ordered, addressed, stamped, sent. Requires presents planned and bought and wrapped and shipped. Requires enormous amounts of baking. Also requires COMPLETION of wedding photo albums to give as gifts to relatives.

2+ months from now: New Year's -- requires leaving LA for parts not yet known. This requires choosing said part and getting there. Also I would really like to have chosen an architect by then so we can start the house project moving forward. This, obviously, requires calling and interviewing architects.

But damn it, if it kills me, I will get to the office every day, and I will accomplish SOMETHING novel/story-minded.

So, I repeat: I opened Chapter 4 today. I will settle for that.

Off to the treadmill.

2004-10-20

Politics and Art

I am finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my work in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. So many polls, so little time. If I'm not here I'm here or here or here. So many polls, so little time. It's enough to make you throw your hands up and go clean out the garage until the smoke clears.

Which, if 2000 was any indication, may be sometime MONTHS from now. But at least my garage would be clean. I read somewhere that Anne Patchett declutters for months, mulling over her books and not writing a word. Then, the closets spotless and cabinets sorted, she sits down at the keyboard and the first draft spills out.

It's a tempting thought, but in moments like these it is important to remember that for me, at least, any day without a bit of word-to-paper in it is a day I'm more likely to show the world the SKL who is an all-out raving, completely frustrated bitch.

On a slightly brighter note, I did finish a new draft of "Dirty Diane" in the last few days and have submitted it to Writing Group 2 for discussion Sunday.

But today, despite three hours in front of this computer, novel progress was a truly pathetic 3 sentences -- 193 words.

2004-10-15

What's That Thing About All The Little Wor(l)ds On The Head Of A Pin?

This has been one of those weeks where you can't help thinking that sometimes, writing a novel is like taking the SAT:

Your first guess is (often) right.

I say this from the perspective of a writer who has no fear of revising her work. I have never been a "dash it off and it's done" sort of person. This novel, for instance, is in its EIGHTH start-to-finish draft. And each draft I write is so unrecognizable from the last that it would be impossible for anyone but me to know that the novel I started writing in 1998 has any relationship to the one I am writing now. (All but the two main characters have changed. All but the central plot line is completely different, and even the central plot line has changed to a great degree. But nonetheless, THAT novel and THIS are the same.)

However, just because I have no fear of revising doesn't mean I have no PROBLEM with it. I have a huge problem: I see too many fixes. And because I see too many fixes, I write too many fixes, which means for every START-TO-FINISH draft, I have two or three FALSE-START drafts, which usually progress about three chapters into the mss before I talk myself into starting over. I have about FIFTY attempts at each of the first three chapters at this point, and even this current draft has about six different approaches to CHAPTER THREE.

But I have decided that this is my final attempt at a START-TO-FINISH draft of this novel. There will be no going back. I have now written a new CHAPTER ONE (previously PROLOGUE) and a new CHAPTER TWO. Here, then, I have been at CHAPTER THREE these last few days. My original intent was just to strengthen the CHAPTER THREE I drafted on my last FALSE-START pass at this book, because I liked that CHAPTER THREE BEST.

That is, until I decided it was time to re-do CHAPTER THREE, at which point I decided it was all wrong and spent most of yesterday panicking that I was lost again.

So Husband smartly said, pack it in, you've spent 3 hours worrying over this problem and you're worrying in crazy-making circles. Go to a movie. So I did, and I returned to the office today having decided to rework the CHAPTER THREE I already had. Meaning, not only was yesterday's worrying silly, but so was ALL of the work I did Wednesday. I mean, how boring was THAT?

So today I sat down to rework the original-this-draft-ish-Chapter-Three. I spent 90 minutes writing a scene for the middle of the chapter that doesn't belong there. I took it out. I re-read the chapter without the new scene. I pretty much worked already, I decided.

Because sometimes writing is like the SAT, and your first guess works.

Though I have a horrible feeling that this rule may not hold true for my earlier draft of Chapter Four, which I think actually really sucks, not just sort of.

But I am going to try to let go of this worry for now and turn my agonizing little brain to the new ending for "Dirty Diane," which I still for the life of me can't come up with. What the hell does she do if not run them all SPLAT into a schoolbus?

2004-10-13

This Is Why They Call It Work

Sometimes this is an entirely joyless pursuit. I have just spent the better part of 3 hours trying to shape Chapter 3. I have an opening, though I can't say I'm in love with it--I think tomorrow I need to rewrite the scene so that Anna and Ingrid and Elf and Charlie actually talk about what they're doing at Hart. Then, I want to skip the whole "Nic loves Elf" thing I was going to write, and go back into present action: Rosh Hashanah, and Anna meeting Christy. And in fact, the way out of that scene is for Charlie to arrive, and Nic and Christy to move tables when he does... and then Anna can say, well, so much for sentimentality, things are back to normal now. But she clings to history, b.c. history is everything at Hart ... I need to get that somehow back in. AARGH. Confusing writing day but I will muddle through eventually, as always, right?

2004-10-12

"Do You Want What You Call The Jelly and I Call The Jam" ...

... is a line from my favorite movie ever, International Velvet, which is not the Elizabeth Taylor movie you are thinking of but its far more interesting sequel, starring Tatum O'Neill. It's a wonderful film, but you seem to need to be a certain kind of person to appreciate it, as no one I've ever turned on to it has gotten it's appeal. BUT ANYWAY:

What was Chapter 1 and is now Chapter 2, is, for the moment, done. Which means I am into Chapter 3 tomorrow.

Have also started integrating notes into "Dirty Diane" and realize it is going to be slower going than previously thought. Biggest problem is going to be the ending, obviously, as I kind of like how macabre it is. However, I feared it was melodramatic to the extreme, and that was basically confirmed for me at Group. No one wants Diane plowing into a bus b/c they feel it's out of character, and I buy that. Trouble is, I LOVE HER PLOWING INTO A BUS. So a choice has to be made -- am I more in love with that final image or the person D. is now? One or the other clearly has got to give.

I seem to have made myself believe this whole story started with that image to begin with, but that's not true. Actually, this whole story came out of my remembering that the woman who inspired this story was rumored to actually LIVE in a school-bus.

I have school-busses on the brain, clearly, as my new Chapter 1 is school-bus-centric also.

2004-10-11

My Workshop Philosophy

1000+ words today as I continued re-working the graveyard scene. Will finish with this chapter tomorrow -- I only have a small two-paragraphs-ish change left, and then it's on to the next.

Sunday Group was productive, and I've decided to bring them "Dirty Diane" after I rework it to Wednesday Group's notes, seeing as the other story I'm working on just gets huger and huger the more I think about it and will by no stretch of the imagination have enough shape to it to bring it in by next week, when I'm slated to workshop.

Which brings me to my Workshop Philosophy:

I don't think it's helpful to bring pieces of things into workshop if they don't have a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, just bringing in the beginning of a story makes it impossible to critique anything but sentence-level concerns, and notes to plot/structure are not only meaningless, since you have no real idea of writer-intent and direction, but can also be very confusing to the writer, who may think she knows where she's going but be waylaid by her readers' best-intentions but generally useless ideas, given what little they have to work with.

That said, I believe beginning-middle-end drafts of short stories are best suited to the workshop format. Novel excerpts are a bit more problematic. Chapters with beginnings, middles, and ends, can be talked about as stand-alone pieces, obviously, but the bigger and often more useful question for the writer of "how this piece functions among the rest" can not be addressed in isolation. This is why so often I hear writers of novels in workshop say "but this DOES work, despite all your notes, BECAUSE OF WHAT COMES NEXT." We clearly can't verify that, because we don't have what comes next.

Of course, if you're not concerned yet with how one chapter functions in context, and just want stand-alone critique -- which is very useful for shaping chapters to stand alone for publication, for instance--then all the power to the novel-writer who wants to workshop chapters. I have been such a novel-writer. However, I have often suffered from workshopping chapters mid-draft because of the problem mentioned in the first paragraph of this "Philosophy" in regards to workshopping "pieces" of short stories: readers in workshop can not help but suggest to you where they think your novel is going, or where they want it to go. This is pretty standard workshop analysis, and I believe it is useful when working with a beginning-middle-end piece like a "complete" story or chapter because it functions as a gut-check: "I thought you were going one way because you set up XYZ, but then you went ABC and it didn't ring true for me." However, when you are workshopping chapters, if you don't know how your story plays out on the very last page of your book, and in fact, if you haven't already WRITTEN that very last page, often the "this is where I think you're going" notes taken in workshop on early chapters sneak into your work on new and later chapters and pretty well fuck you up, either because you spend your whole life RE-WORKING the early chapters so they don't "mislead," and therefore never move forward, or without noticing you're doing it, you write your new, later chapters in a direction you hadn't meant to go.

I have experienced all of this many many times because sometimes the thrill of finishing a chapter in isolation alone in your room makes you want to print it out and bring it around and find out what's working and what's not, WAY TOO EARLY. I have decided after doing this so many times you'd think I was as bull-headed and stupid as Shrub that I will no longer workshop chapters when I am mid-novel draft. I don't want "suggestions" to end up in my novel until it's finished to MY specs, and can stand a little "gut-checking" with everybody else's ideas.

So, my novel will not appear at workshop again until this draft it is complete, sometime in February, if all goes according to plan. This of course means I need to spend a little time drafting stories to workshop, because the process of being critiqued is hugely useful to writing life and energizing and necessary. Actually, I like doing the critiquing just as much being critiqued, and find that damn close to equally useful. But either way, I like the thought of birthing a bunch of short stories in the months to come.

2004-10-08

Notes to Self

Only 281 words today, but I'm incredibly happy with them, so I'm not going to beat myself up about that. This morning I decided to rework the Big Dog's funeral chapter, which meant essentially losing whatever I could lose but also deepening the characters, deleting all lazy shorthand prettiness for actual depth and meaning. So gone now is Nic's killer-opiate-smile (always hated that, knew it wasn't in anyway "real") and in its place, fearlessness that is "equal parts curiosity and short-sightedness" -- he is no longer the golden boy who can do no wrong because he's got such white teeth, but a guy who is brave because failure doesn't scare him, who messes up a lot but isn't upset by it, just constantly and not entirely unpleasantly, surprised. He's incorrigible, is his real deal, and that absence of learning curve combined with courage is very attractive to Anna, as it is to most people. It's loveable even as it's frustrating. THAT'S what needs to be expressed about him.

Also, amazing how one phrase changes and FOCUSES everything -- for instance -- earlier draft:

"it didn’t seem all that strange or surreal to me that we were presiding over a grave-digging on our first day back to school, or at least, no stranger than I'd grown used to life seeming here."

New draft:

"it didn’t seem all that strange or surreal to me that we were presiding over a grave-digging on our first day back to school, or at least, no stranger than anything else Nic had ever talked me into doing."

Lesson here: PLOT IS CHARACTER -- ACTION IS WHAT PEOPLE DO TO PEOPLE.

2004-10-07

Big Gold Star

551 words and Chapter 1 stands "completed"! Yeehaw. I deserve a good lunch.

Just Keep Telling Yourself It's All About the Process

Came in to office this morning raring to finish my new Chapter One, because I think I'm about a paragraph and a polish away from putting it to bed and moving on.

But because I got such great notes on a short story I was working on at Group last night -- no, we're not all touchy-feely, yes, writer-talk is a helluva lot more helpful than talk-therapy -- I pulled out the draft/notes for another story I started working on last summer, around the same time that I drafted the story I got notes on last night, just to see what was there.

This new story is far less developed than the one I was working on last night. Mostly, it's a collection of scenes between best friends who are 7 years old and trying to figure out all the adult drama around them while also starting to experiment with their own physicality. It's very skeleton-ish -- mostly, I wrote it because I wanted a framework for the last scene, which I've been carrying around with me for twenty years, in which a boy takes our protagonist into the kindergarten closet to kiss her, and when they emerge, our heroine's best friend chases him down the hallways screaming "Kiss me too! Kiss me too!" I wanted to talk about how sometimes the people you "kiss" are interchangeable, but some times not -- but also how CHOOSING is what relationships are all about, and despite the "you should never choose your boyfriend over a girl" rule, that's COMPLETE BULLSHIT -- getting married and having kids and making a family life is all about choosing your boyfriend first. Anyway, I was having all these thoughts obliquely while writing this story last summer, but realized re-reading it today I was avoiding the hard stuff: THE AWFULNESS OF ACTUALLY MAKING THAT CHOICE as a grown-up, so really the easy kid stuff I wrote needs to be cut into the hard adult stuff of doing that for real -- cutting the cord with the friend, as it were. The story needs to follow our hero trying to justify/own her choice of leaving her friend behind so she can go forward (anybody see a theme in my work here? yeah, and what of it?).

But I have SO MUCH MATERIAL for this with these two girls--I mean, there's a 20+ year friendship in ashes I've been dying to mine, that's what writer's do, resurrect their little murders, right? -- that I worry about it becoming a very long long story or even a novella. And where the hell is the market for that?

WHICH IS COMPLETELY THE WRONG THOUGHT. I need to just write the fucker and worry about what it IS afterwards.

So today, I am going to "finish" my Chapter One and then start working on filling out this new story. It would be good if I could motor through a full draft of the story in the next week or so, so I can workshop it in my Sunday Group in two weeks, because though I could bring the story from last night to Sunday Group, I want to bring something less-worked-over in to them so I have two projects to work through BESIDES the novel and then NO EXCUSE TO EVER NOT WRITE because you can't be blocked on three things at once, it's just completely impossible, lightening can not strike three times.

2004-10-06

The Little Engine That Could

493 words.

"I think I can, I think I can."

Which really, when it all comes down to it, is the single most important life lesson EVER.

2004-10-05

Oh and on This American Life ...

A wonderful story on air this weekend that was so good I stayed in my car at the parking lot of my gym in the sweltering heat to hear how it would end:

"a story by Jonathan Goldstein about what it's like to date Lois Lane when she's on the rebound from Superman."

Hmm. Wonder if his novel Lenny Bruce is Dead is as crappy as the Amazon reviewers claim.

Slowly but Surely

337 decent okay sorts of words and a font-experiment:

Last night, as I began reading Plot Against America, I was struck, as I always am, by Roth's sure touch. His sentences have a sense of authorial certainty that I envy to no end. Every word is perfectly chosen, every clause indelible, every detail indispensible. How many writers can really list all the ways women work, all the things they cook and clean and organize daily, filling a long paragraph with this list, and not seem like they're just jerking off on the page? (I didn't mean to conjure up Portnoy with that statement, but there you go.) I was ruminating about this, and then I began to wonder if maybe how his sentences LOOK, art-wise on the page, has anything to do with this --

-- so today I came into the office and surfed around to find a font that approximates that in the new novel and the copy of American Pastoral that's in the office. I ended up at fonts.com, where fonts aren't free but at least you don't have to wade through "surveys" to get to the good stuff. I searched by sight, and came up with a font called Hollander, which I bought and installed on my machine. Then I killed a bunch of time making my Chapter 1 look a lot like Chapter 1 of American Pastoral ... and I gotta admit, Maud Newton was right on the money:

My work looks better and I'm willing to convince myself it reads better, and with that Dumbo-esque metaphorical-flying-feather in mind, I managed to get Anna out of Hillsdale and onto Route 44. Yippee!

2004-10-04

The #1 Reason I Got Married

Husband claims all is NOT crap. Am feeling slightly better. Will go forward tomorrow NO MATTER WHAT.

Then I'll come home and make Shepherd's Pie from our leftovers.

Bloody Monday

Ok, I opened the document that is my new Chapter One. I read the document. I made piddly edits. I tried to move the document further and mostly felt like, what's the point when it just sucks? And I now feel like it's all the worst crap I have ever ever written in my life. Which would be your regular run-of-the-mill writer worry except for this tiny wrinkle: for much of the last six years it's been the ONLY thing I write. Which means it's not just the worst crap but also EVERYTHING I write/have written is crap.

Fuck.

The Butchest I've Ever Been

Ok, so I visited the Gender Genie because it's Monday and I'm having a hard time getting to my novel.

And I plugged in the first chapter of my book -- which, let's be fair here, at least helped me take the awesome step of opening the document, right?

I scored thusly:

Words: 2308
Female Score: 2541
Male Score: 2663
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Harrumph.

But then again, perhaps if I publish under a pseudonym I'll get better sales.

Sunday Wifely Sunday / OUTSIDE VALENTINE by Liza Ward

I may have hit the pinacle of housewife. Yesterday I cleaned up after the cats, changed, laundered, and folded the sheets, made the shopping list and weekly menus, SHOPPPED both at Trader Joe's AND the Mayfair to fulfill needs of said list, worked on wedding photo albums, and still found the time to make my own power bars.

In between all this I read the Sunday Times (new NYTBR: BLAH AND OVERBLOWN IN EVERY WAY ... how did they possibly make it LESS interesting/insightful?) and got through the underwhelming OUTSIDE VALENTINE by Liza Ward.

OUTSIDE VALENTINE is another entry in the pile of books/movies/albums about the Starkweater murders. (By the way, I can make this segue to my impressions of the book because much of the time I found myself quietly chastising the housekeeping skills of various fictional characters from my real-live couch while I waited for my home-made power bars to finish baking. Seriously. How sad is that?)

Anyway, the "hook" of this novel is that Liza Ward "lucked" into being the daughter of a Starkweather survivor (her father's parents were killed by the crazy teenagers), which meant she could easily get enough publicity to make most people blind to the problems with this book. Reviews were so glowing I bought into the hype, which is not a common thing for me, and may account for my disappontment, but there you go.

First, a quick plot check. OUTSIDE VALENTINE tells three stories: that of the middle-aged Lowell Bowman (the survivor in question, 1991); Susan Hurst, a girl who lives a few streets down from the Bowmans and will someday marry Low Bowman (told from her POV in 1962); and Caril Ann Fugate, Charlie Starkweather's girlfriend, who narrates the killing spree (told from her POV, 1957). Ward is pretty good at writing the girls -- she writes vivid scenes, and the teenagers are fully drawn and completely believable. The problem is when she tries to write the Lowell Bowman, whose adult life in 1991 is meant to anchor the narratives of the past.

I have two issues with Lowell Bowman. First, Ward presents him as terribly damaged and emotionally remote because of the tragedy he's experienced -- however, she never succeeds in bringing him to life, perhaps because he's so remote to her she can't feel him, either. (If indeed she started this project as a way to get closer to her father or understand him further, as far as I can tell she hasn't succeeded).

But worse, I thought, was the way she used Lowell to function in the plot. Because we see the girls as teens, and we experience the events that shape them, they are completely alive to us. However, Lowell is absent for the central event of his teenage years -- the murders -- so Ward chooses only to show him as a grown-up, having lived with that absence for decades. So she has to invent a "today" life for him that will drive and anchor the more vivid "past" parts of the narrative, but the life she chooses for Low is wish-washy and unbelievable. He's a failing art dealer in New York who has grown cold to his wife and distant from his children for reasons that are never explored (I'm sorry, but "30 years ago my parents were murdered" is not a good enough reason if you've been functioning just fine until now). Worse, the 1991 plot development that drives the descent into the 1957 and 1962 narratives is Lowell's adult wife Susan asking Low what's in a safe deposit box that they've been billed $3000 for: and he CLAIMS NOT TO KNOW.

Ok, I'm sort-of-in-a-fiction-sort-of-way okay with forgetting what's in a safe deposit box. HOWEVER, if you don't know what's in it, then why the hell do you refuse to go deal with it? Shouldn't you be curious, especially if there's a $3000 rental fee hanging over your head?

Totally annoying. If I had been the editors of this book, and my writer told me she needed a safe deposit box because the contents of said box were going to be the link to Susan's 1962 narrative sections and Caril Ann's 1957 narrative sections, then I would have had him OPEN THE BOX at the start of the novel, b/c this move of having Low avoid it and avoid it for 300 pages is completely stupid. It just makes him annoying, and more over, it tries to turn the contents of the box into A HUGE SURPRISE, which, of course, it's not. It's a really lame trick. REALLY REALLY LAME.

That said, Liza Ward is not a terrible writer. She was totally convincing with the female characters in this book, and had she written a novel entirely about Caril Ann or even Susan I would probably have loved it. But she didn't. Ah well.

However, today I get my copy of The Plot Against America, so onto better pastures tonight.