Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

I'm sitting in Chicago with my wife's family. It's cold out. Winter always reminds me of being unproductive - hunkered down in your house, wishing the cold away, and keeping yourself occupied until spring. The food is good: Ashley's grandmother is a great cook.

I'm not writing, though. I haven't in a few days honestly. It's disappointing, but I had a productive day the other day going through and plotting out my stories. After the other day (when I posted about my stories lacking plot), I realized that my stories are driven by characters and concepts. Many times they lack in a cohesive, linear plot. Sometimes that's not a bad thing, but as a standard, I don't like it. So I'm working on some more linear thoughts and seeing about
making my stories more functional. It's one thing to have conceptually- founded stories - indeed I quite like them - but to have stories with only a concept and no plot to drive the story just doesn't work.

So I've been debating doing something with my writing that I've never done: outline. I have never really thought of outlining as a good method for my writing, because I like to produce things very environmentally: that is, I like to write what comes to me and polish it later. What I've discovered, however, is that my mind wanders and when it wanders, so does the story. I don't always know how I want to the story to end, so I don't entirely know how to write the story to get to that point - especially if I'm going on the fly. Writing up an outline for a story might help alleviate some of my frustrations with not being able to produce those cohesive stories I desire.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Which I Rant

The Milwaukee Writers Workshop met this past Sunday. As is typical, I got into a discussion with one of the members about something writing-related. That day's topic: the literary elite. Oh boy do I love this conversation - and my opinion on the subject has changed since the years when I was in college.

My basic thoughts:

  1. Yes, there is a literary elite.
  2. No, they don't sit around discussing how bad your writing is. Nor do they even talk to one another about bad writing.
  3. There are better things to worry about.
There was a lot of brew-ha-ha surrounding a discussion of the literary elite in reaction to Jason Sanford's essay in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Without perpetuating the argument, I will say a few things in line with what our discussion was at the group.

The "literary elite" that we think of today was born out of the canon that was put together in the early part of the last century with the standardization of education and schools here in the States. It wasn't intentionally meant to drive a wedge between various fiction genre (save maybe for the overwhelming mass of pulp that was being published at the time), but it did, and that mentality has stayed. Unfortunately, yes, there is a sense of superiority with a great deal of scholars in this country when it comes to "literature" and "genre fiction" or any other type of fiction that doesn't fall into their parameters of what makes fiction become literature.

In today's age of marketable fiction (competent fiction with little sense of art to it), it's difficult to see past one's own bitterness about not getting published. For a long time, I was very jaded by the "literary elite" because I felt like my fiction was being overlooked simply for it's status as genre. Well, I was sorely mistaken. My fiction was being overlooked because it was bad. Maybe it's because I'm published now, and I can more fully understand the process of getting published and why the concept of the literary elite isn't as prevalent as most people believe. Yes, that sense of superiority by a lot of authors is down-right aggravating, but it can be overcome.

If you continue to have fiction returned to you with rejections, then it's probably not that the editors at those publications are snobbish twits who mock your writing; it's probably a matter of your needing to polish your work more thoroughly, have it looked at by a good group of writers, and maybe do some studying. Very few people get published right away; even fewer people make a name for themselves as writers; even fewer become obscenely wealthy. Write because you enjoy writing.

"Better to write for yourself and have no public than write for the public and have no self"
-- Cyril Connolly.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Pleasure of Isolation

I'm sitting at Bucketworks in Milwaukee tonight with a bunch of web geeks, and it's amazing that ever person here has two things: a computer (some of them more than one) and no problem at all sitting next to someone and not talking to them. As a writer, I've never been afraid that moment when I have to sequester myself in a room and block out all the distractions to just sit and write. That sort of isolation is not so much that (isolation) as it is putting yourself in that place of peace that allows you to function at full capacity.

Isolation is part of the modus operandi of a writer, but we thrive in community - or we should - because that sort of collaborative environment, wherein we interact with others who have a similar passion, we truly do thrive. I marvel sometimes at how my wife and I can be sitting in the same apartment - sometimes even in the same room - and chat with one another through instant messaging. It's part of our society, I suppose, but there's something in me that always longs for long conversations sitting at a coffee shop without all that digital mumbo-jumbo. To discuss writing is to bring it more fully into my own mind. My father always said that the best way to demonstrate how well you knew something was to teach it to someone else. Isolation does not facilitate that.

Moving on. I finished one of the short stories I've been working on. It was inspired by a selection of photos by an Australian photographer. I was intrigued by it and by its history and by the superstition that comes to fall on such a place. So I wrote about it. It's only three thousand words, but I'm pleased with it. I don't know that I'll be finishing NaNo, despite the completion of said piece, but I'm not disappointed as I once was. It's an accomplishment to me to be able to finish as much work as I have done so far. If I can finish at least one other short story and perhaps begin compiling some of the other work I've been doing, that will be a successful endeavor.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Today is not a good day

I'm lost. I have four different projects, all of them with very different themes and plots arcs and even genres, and still I'm lost. Granted, in just over two weeks I've churned out nearly 23-thousand words. I'm pleased at the word count. It's good that I've been able to sit and concentrate on getting some words out, but I'm not at all satisfied, for a number of reasons:

1) The writing - as is typical with first-draft material - is shit.
2) The flow has stopped, and I can tell. Where once there was a sense of connection to each piece; now there seems to be just a monotonous typing of words. I think that maybe I derailed myself a bit when I stepped away from the first piece and started the second one, and I've lost a bit of my momentum.
3) I'm questioning my style of writing, which leads me to my real discussion.

For months, perhaps even over the course of years since I graduated and have been writing consistently, I've thought of myself as a decent writer, one with a fair amount of skill and distinct voice. Now I've begun to realize that I am a very stylized writer. I begin with a concept, I continue to build upon that concept and by the end of the story, there's no story. I spend a great deal of time working up to a revelation with my characters - or my readers, or even myself - that never comes. It's disappointing to read story after story of my own material and find that I keep coming up short of my own goals.

So do I revise all of those pieces? Can I go back and begin to rewrite them - completely rewrite them from scratch - as though they were entirely new pieces? Both of those tasks seem daunting, and some of the stories are better left unfinished or unpolished, as I don't believe they're salvageable as they are.

I don't believe that I have the knack to be profound in my material. That's not who I am; that's not what I want to present in my stories. What I do hope for, however, is a sense of consistency that makes my stories mine: a consistency that gives me a voice that is distinct from so much of the monotony that pervades contemporary writing. At the moment, I have no achieved that, as I once thought I had.

Back to the drawing board.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Keep Your Opinions . . . Somewhere

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As a writer, it's in my best interest to be in agreement with the above quoted text. The First Amendment to the Constitution is powerful. It means a lot to a lot of people, but there are some who think that it means that they can say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

NOT TRUE. I repeat: not true. The government isn't allowed to tell you what you can and can't say, but I sure as hell can. And one thing is to keep your opinions to yourself - at least most of the time. Or, more importantly, out of your writing. One of the things that comes up a lot in some of the stories I read is that people want to get across their "point". They want you to understand what they're trying to say and then believe in it. Sometimes it comes off a little too much like a bit of a personal agenda, rather than a story, and that can be aggravating for both a reader and an editor.

I'm all for people having opinions, but it should really be considered who your audience is and what you're really trying to say. If you voice your opinions too loudly, then you become an evangelist for your own beliefs, and sometimes you may not have any followers. Be careful about what you say; be careful about whom you say it to; and be careful about saying it too often.

If in doubt, make sure you have a decent argument (as in, the facts behind what you're trying to argue) when you debate with someone. At least, that's my opinion.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Plot, No Story

So it's 10:00 AM on day 12 of NaNo. I'm nearly 800 words ahead of where I needed to be yesterday, which means my job will be easier today. However, as I write this story, I'm realizing something very dramatic: there's very little plot. It's disappointing, really; throughout the story I have a pretty distinct theme, and there's certainly setting, but there's not much of a plot.

Chris Baty - founder of National Novel Writing Month - says "No plot, no problem". Outwardly, the message of that seems uplifting: just write. Don't worry about the little things as you push through NaNo; just write. At the end of the month, though, if you've pumped out fifty thousand words, and you have no plot, you're going to have the biggest editing headache imaginable. No plot? Great, now you have to go through your entire story and make everything fit to the plot that you decide to stick into it. It's gonna be messy, and you're not going to like it.

That's where my beef with NaNo comes in. The good points: 1) it gets me writing every November in a way that I should be writing every day, all year long; 2) I meet new writers from around the city and sometimes around the world; 3) I'm writing, and I love the feeling I get when I'm writing and when I've accomplished something. However, NaNo does one thing very well. It pulls in all of the people who call themselves writers, who spend very little time at their craft, who don't study the classics or the contemporaries or even the critics. They write because they think it's fun (and believe me, I do, too), and they have grandiose ideas about getting published. I work very hard at what I do; I study, and I write, and I rewrite, and I learn from my fellow writers. One thing I've learned over the years is that if you've got no story, then you have no readers; and if you have no plot, then you have no story.

Now, I'm not dissing NaNo. In fact, I commend its ability to pull writers out of the woodwork. I'm all about creative education, and NaNo is a great example of that. What I'm criticizing are the people who treat my profession like a hobby and think challenging themselves to silly things like adding gnomes into their story at some point where the main character will freak out. Why? What does that add to the story?

I'm sorry, now I'm ranting. And I still don't have much of a plot. At least my main character is a likable guy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yes, You Can

It's November 11th, 2008. I've been working on NaNoWriMo for eleven days, and I'm behind. When my mind wanders, I distract myself. So, instead of distracting myself with online games or checking my email incessantly, I decided to distract myself with writing: or at least, purging my mind of the random thoughts that are clogging it and making me unable to get out a clear idea of a story. So this is my random, what-it's-like-to-be-a-writer blog. All of us need one of those, right?

The other night I sat in bed with my wife watching "Ratatouille" while she knit. It was a good movie, and it had a good message for both adults and kids. At the end, they cleverly gave to us - the reader - the moral of the story in the form of a review by the "villain" of the story, the food critic. It's a bit long, but there's one particular passage that caught my attention, and it's something that I've always exclaimed:

"In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: 'Anyone can cook'. But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

Having worked in the publishing industry for a while and having been a part of the writers community here in Milwaukee for longer (and even running my own critique group), I've seen a lot of people who believe that they can be writers. It is true - in a way - that everyone has the ability to write; we're all born storytellers. What people don't understand is that not everyone can be an artist: those of us who spend years at our craft can attest to that. Some of us might even one day have to admit to ourselves that we are not as much an artist as we once thought ourselves to be.

I believe, though, that everyone has potential, and we should foster that and help it grow. We can't know that we might be an artist if we're "purified" of such talent throughout school, which tends to happen in the States. If you don't know who Sir Ken Robinson is, please look him up - in regards to his speech at the TED Conferences some years ago.

I believe my true talent lies in the molding of a story not in the writing of it. There are stories that come across my desk which are good: they have all those things necessary to tell the story, but sometimes they lack that small element that allows the reader to truly grasp the story. As an editor, it's my duty to mold that story to be the best that it can be. To me, that is where I am the true artist - at least, I look at myself that way. Perhaps it is pretentious of me to believe that I have such elite talent. Maybe twenty years from now I'll realize I was wrong.

For now, I need to get back to writing. As this is my first post, I hope you enjoy the rest to come.