Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading slumps

I'm a reader. I read a lot and every day. I'm a frustratingly slow reader, but I put in a lot of hours, so the pages add up. And, as discussed before, I have a weird compulsion for measuring my progress, which is always far short of my goals, one of those goals being an average of 2 complete books per week throughout a calendar year.

One reason I never reach that goal is that a couple times a year I hit what I call reading slumps. I'll be close to the average I'm aiming for and then fall behind when, for a few weeks, I can't get interested in anything or finish anything. I probably spend less time reading during these slumps, but the more noticeable symptom is that I go through piles of books without reading more than a few pages in each. I procrastinate opening them, am quick to dismiss them and, if I don't dismiss them, procrastinate re-opening them the next day.I don't think this is necessarily because I've hit a run of bad books. Often these are books that I've been looking forward to for a long time. And I don't have any enthusiasm for trying an old favorite, either.

I try different strategies to get myself going. I try to catch up on literary journals that have piled up. I usually leave the short story in The New Yorker to last, and those tend to pile up. The complete issues of The New Yorker pile up. Trashier magazines. All of these go down a little easier than literary novels during one of these slumps. In general, I can get into nonfiction more than fiction during the periods, so I'll plug away at some history or biography, and I don't feel as bad about not finishing those if I get bored with them. After all, with biographies, you always know they die in the end. I read a couple of brainier journals recently, cover to cover, that I normally would have only read a couple articles from before they got swamped by more urgent interests. They made me feel so smart that I'm tempted to subscribe to them, but I know I'm unlikely to engage with them like that regularly. Another strategy is to build my stamina back up by starting with genre fiction that goes down more easily. I knocked off a couple John Le Carre novels recently that way.

I can't think of any good reason for these slumps. It's a curious phenomenon but nothing to worry about. It's probably just a form of fatigue, and it's natural to need a break. What's strange is that it's not a break from reading to anything else. It's not like I'm being drawn more to the TV or movies or the record collection. I do all that stuff the usual amount. It's like a limbo. It's like being hungry and all the usual stuff is in the cupboard, but it all looks more tasteless than usual. Eventually something sparks my enthusiasm again and I'm back on track with too much that I want to read asap and regretting how little time I have to read.

These slumps usually only last a few weeks, but the most recent one has been protracted -- really since Christmas, so close to three months now. I think I've finished about 4 books in that time, and I've cracked the spines of dozens of others, including all the "best of the year" books from 2011 that I got for Christmas and had been looking forward to. I'm not sure why this one is lasting longer than usual. Other things on my mind, I guess.

Anyway, I hopefully do feel it coming to an end. I've been putting in a lot more time reading the last few days. Not on a novel yet, but I've been tearing through a couple nonfiction books and worried about how they're still preventing me from getting to other things because they're so long.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beware the Interview with Beware The Hawk author A.J. O'Connell

For the first time ever, Working On A Novel has a guest, someone who worked on a novel and got it published and is working on another novel. And she still agreed to be in a writing group with me.

A.J. O'Connell's recently published e-book, Beware the Hawk is about a snarky pink-haired courier who works for a secret anti-government group and gets ensnared in a conspiracy involving her inept co-worker, a hot mechanic, an iPhone and a leg injury. It was recently published by Vagabondage Books.

She's been all over blog world answering sensible questions about the book, but she's at the world's dorkiest writing blog now and has agreed to answer some dorky writing questions.

Welcome A.J. So tell us about the gear you use when you write. Number two pencils? Dictaphone and personal secretary? Macbook Air?

Thanks for having me, Robert.

For the most part I use a battered MacBook, which I've covered with stickers in defiance of Apple's anti-sceptic aesthetic. There was a time when I did all my first-draft writing longhand, but at some point in the '90s I found that I could think better if I wrote on a computer. Originally I took to the computer because I type faster than I write, and I was better able to keep up with my thoughts. Now writing with the computer is a habit.

I use the laptop and Microsoft Word for most writing and drafting, but sometimes it's impractical. Like when I'm in the shower. I'm like Wally Lamb in at least this one respect: I get a lot of ideas in the shower. So I have three diving slates that hang in there. They're little pieces of white plastic with attached pencils. If I get an idea, I scribble it down and then I transcribe it when the slate dries. They are my favorite pieces of writing gear by far.

I've talked before on this blog about my feeling that the energy I would use capturing every thought that comes along during the day doesn't actually help. Obviously, the writing slate, which is very cool, represents the opposite theory -- capturing every thought when you have it. Do you think it helps? Do all those notes help you get the job done? Also, what's your hot water bill like? Can you use that as a tax deduction now that you're a published writer? 

Actually, I tend to agree with your "writing time is time to write theory." I find that notes I scribble in the car or speak into a recorder tend to be useless. I lose the notes, or the idea I took down loses its je ne sais quoi because I wrote it down, and thus allowed it out of my head before it was fully developed.

The shower is a little different. It's my time for problem-solving. When I get in there, my brain goes to work on trouble spots in my fiction. I just took a look at my slates. They are covered with little scenes and writing exercises and attempts to resolve plot and character issues. Half of those scenes won't make it onto the computer, but a few of those paragraphs will  crack some major problems.

I don't know why the shower is such an effective writing tool. Maybe it's because there are no distractions in there. Maybe it's the water. I will admit to taking some long showers when I really get working on my fiction, so I should probably check with our accountant about that hot water bill. 

Can you give an example of what you mean by "issues" or "problems"? I know when I'm having a problem that I have to stew on, but I have a hard time talking about that problem with another writer. For all the anxiety that the growth of MFA programs has made this work too crafty and technical, I feel like we still have a really limited vocabulary for discussing the craft. I'm curious if you have any better luck describing a problem in your work than I do.

It depends on the problem. The most common problem I have with my work is easy to describe, in broad terms. I call it The First Five. It's plagued me for years.

It goes a little something like this:
I have a great idea for a story. I have two or three interesting characters with compelling problems. I write about five pages of decent story and then I lose direction. I have a hard time finding something to drive the story after those first five pages.

Telling you why I have a hard time getting beyond those first five pages is more difficult, because each story seems to have an individual issue that stops me on page 5.

Recently you saw a story in our writers' group that's giving me trouble. In that case, I couldn't get beyond the first five because my protagonist has to make a big decision, which is central to the story, but I don't know her well enough to know what she would choose. This seems obvious, after a meeting of our writers' group and a week or two of distance from the piece. But while I was writing, it would be hard for me to step out of the creative process, plunk a finger down on the page and say "This is what's wrong. This is why I can't go on." 

Speaking of our writing group, you shared part of an earlier draft of Beware The Hawk with us, and I remember one part that didn't appear in the published version. Readers will see a funny description of the Fung Wha bus, but you had a more extensive scene on the bus with more of the funny. I'm not questioning the decision to remove that, but I'm curious to hear about the thinking behind it. Was it one of those "kill your darlings" situations? How'd you feel about letting it go? Was it your idea or your editor's to cut it?

Speaking of our writing group, indeed! It was your suggestion to cut that scene, Robert. 

I wrestled with the decision to axe those pages. Ultimately, I decided that they didn't serve my story. As short as my book is, there was no room for a long scene with no clear purpose.

I still have that scene, and other deleted scenes. I may use them for marketing purposes, or for my web site, or for other work. 

Yikes, is that true? I don't remember, and I really didn't mean it as a leading question! I hope I framed my advice more openly than that. Like think about how this scene serves the story OR think about cutting it.

No worries! You were very professional about your advice, and you were also correct - the pages needed to go. Also, now you know that I really do take the advice I'm given during writing group.

You imply that there was a practical limit to how long it could be, which I wouldn't have expected with an e-book. Am I wrong about that presumption? Was your publisher concerned to keep it under a certain length?

There are a couple of reasons that I referenced the length of the book. For one thing, the manuscript was solicited to be part of Vagabondage Press's novella series, so to  did have to stay at novella/novelette size.

But when I wrote earlier that the cut scene was too long for the size of the story, what I meant was that it wasn't proportional to the rest of the work. I had written a short book, comprised of short scenes. That first long scene disturbed the rhythm of the rest of the book. No matter how much I loved it, it had to go.

You and I have something in common -- experience working on newspapers. Do you agree with my theory that once you write for that kind of regular deadline writer's block becomes a non-issue? (Writer's block is kind of out of fashion anyway. You never hear writers complaining about it anymore.) How has the experience of writing for newspapers affected your process when doing your creative work?

Ah, you share this theory with Anna Quindlen and Kim McLarin. While I was studying for my MFA, I wrote a research paper about reporters-turned-fiction writers and both authors mentioned this.

McLarin (who was my mentor, and who wrote Jump at the Sun and Meeting of the Waters) made this great comment about words not being "precious" once you've been a reporter, and I agree with her. When you're writing two or three stories a day for a newspaper, you don't agonize over your language. Not every word has to be perfect. Your job is to get the story right, to have the story done by deadline and to make the story fit the space allotted for it.

So I do agree, in part. As long as I have a deadline, I do not experience writers' block, because I have the discipline to sit down in a chair and work through the problems in my story. But if I don't have a deadline, and haven't given myself one, I do experience something like writer's block, although I think it might be more accurately described as laziness, or an unwillingness to get into certain material.

Writing for a newspaper has also made me better at tight writing. The job of a reporter is to tell a story with the fewest words possible. I've always written short, but journalism helped me strengthen my short prose.

This blog has an outsized preoccupation with what music should be playing when I write. (Something, but not nothing. No vocals, because that seems to distract me more than a melody alone. So it's usually classical.) How about you?

I can't always listen to music while I'm writing - I'm easily distracted -  but music plays a very important part in my creative process, especially when I'm in the early, dreaming stages of the writing process.

Back in the day, I used to make mix-tapes of the songs that inspired whatever daydream I was working on. Back then, I was a teenager, and I spent a lot of time skulking around the neighborhood, listening to my tapes on my Walkman, dreaming up whatever it was I was going to commit to paper in the evening, when I was done with my homework.

Now I have playlists on iTunes for many of my projects. When I'm starting to work on a novel or a long story, I come up with a list of songs that seem to capture the mood of the piece I'm working on. The job of the playlist is to keep me in the world I'm creating. I actually pulled out my old laptop and looked at an old playlist for Beware the Hawk. It's not the original, which was on a CD or a mixtape and has been lost in the mists of time, but the songs on this list include Moby's "Run On," Supertramp's "Goodbye Stranger" and the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," among others.

A lot of this blog obsesses on word counts and page counts, and I know down to the word how quickly I write per hour and how many hours it took to write a draft. How do you "measure" your work while it's in progress? Do you want to share anything about your pace, or do you find that counterproductive?

Wow. I don't do anything like that; I'm afraid that all the measurements might distract me from the work. Also, there are days when I can't produce much at all, and it would be depressing for me to compare those days against my average.

When I have a good, clear writing schedule (i.e., the summer), my goal is to produce at least 500 words a day, a lá Graham Greene. I find that having a goal of 500 words is attainable and not at all intimidating. Sometimes it takes me all day to write 500 words, but often when I set a 500-word goal for myself, I find myself producing two or three times that amount.

That, however, is during the best of times.

This semester, life has gotten hectic. I have more paid work to do during the day, and my writing time has suffered. In an effort to boost my productivity, I am trying something new: for the first 15 minutes of every day, I've been writing longhand in a blank book. I set a timer and write.

Note: I started doing this last week, at some point during our interview, so I wasn't lying for the first question, when I said I never write longhand anymore.

This has been working well so far. I often write well past my 15 minutes. I've written much more in the last week than I have in the last month, and I'm making progress on a short story. For the sake of this question, I counted what I wrote in 15 minutes this morning: just shy of 250 words. When I type them up later this week, I know they will grow by at least another 100.

It's interesting that you "made a liar out of yourself" during the few days we've been having this conversation by tinkering with your process in a significant way. We operate with narratives about ourselves -- I work best under pressure; I work best with a yellow shade over a 40-watt bulb three feet to my left; I can't work without without my lucky penny -- but in reality we're always tinkering with our process and our conditions trying to trick ourselves into writing for another day.

It's true, we do create personal mythologies about how we work, when really, if we're dedicated, we do whatever it takes to keep writing. 

Another frequent subject of this blog is the books I draw lessons from. (Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Novel by Jane Smiley; Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by L. Rust Hills; How Fiction Works by James Wood; Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway; Conversation with Toni Morrison) I've compacted these into a hardened dogma that I judge everything by. Do you have similar resources that form the basis of how you talk to yourself about your writing? (Do you talk to yourself about your writing?)

It's funny that you mentioned craft books. Just last night I was looking at my stacks and stacks of writing books and thinking about how I never really use them. That's not true; I do read them, if I need something specific from them. There are some books that I find to be more useful than others. In general, I find it difficult to use craft books. I read them and I make notes and I dog-ear pages, and I then instantly forget the specifics of what I've read, or which book it was in.

More valuable to me as resources are the lectures I've attended in grad school, and at conferences and the handouts from grad school professors. I keep a file folder of writing exercises, outlines, and notes from lectures. It's worth mentioning here that I'm a synesthete, and that my own doodles during lectures and notes (even the placement of the text on the page) help me to organize information better than any craft book can.

I don't have a hardened dogma based on these resources. What I have instead is a rich mental compost comprised of all the craft books I've read, all the lectures I've taken notes on and all the interviews I've read or done with authors. I pull from that when I'm working.

You ask if I talk to myself about my writing. I like to talk to myself about my writing, but I limit these conversations, because I feel they are not always productive for me. At best, I distract myself from my work with these discussions. At worst, I fear that I will create a negative feedback loop which will keep me from being able to write freely.

Though I've never discussed it explicitly, one of the running themes of this blog from the beginning has been the challenge of being an autodidact at writing fiction, homeschooling myself along the way as best as I could. Your case is interesting because, while you got a MFA, we're celebrating the publication of a book that was written prior to that formal program. Tell us about your self-taught years versus your MFA years.

This was a tough question to answer. It actually took me hours to think through this response.

I don't think of my pre-MFA years as being particularly self-taught. The study of writing was never my focus. I've always considered myself to be a practicing artist rather than a scholar. Because of this attitude, I spent a long time avoiding the study of writing and simply wrote.

This didn't work out very well for me, because I practiced my art in a vacuum, or with a small group of other writers who were also operating, more or less, in a vacuum.

I worked - I participated in National Novel Writing Month every year and produced work for writing groups -  but for the most part, I was spinning my wheels. I didn't have good writing habits. I would experience bursts of productivity, but the productivity was not sustained. I did write Beware the Hawk during that time, but I didn't finish it until after the MFA.

I mentioned that craft books don't work well for me. In an attempt to correct my writing problems (not being able to finish anything, not having direction, etc.) I accumulated many craft books anyhow. I would read them but I wouldn't retain the information, and I also wasn't sure which books deserved my attention.

The only books that helped me were actual novels. When I had a good novel in my hands (John Steinbeck's East of Eden and John Gardner's Grendel spring to mind, as does Shanghai Baby, by Wei Hui) my prose would improve and I would become more productive. But there too, I had problems, because I wasn't sure which novels would trigger this response.

I discovered, after several years of this approach to writing, that what I needed was to be apprenticed to a successful writer. Bill Roorbach wrote a decent essay about this, called "On Apprenticeship," which was published in Poets & Writers Magazine in 1995. Like an artist or a dancer or a martial artist, I needed a master.

My MFA provided that; for two years I worked with different mentors who led by example, and who guided my reading, my writing, who were able to give me suggestions about my habits, and point me to resources that would help me with my specific problems. The formal education gave me some context for the work I'd been doing.

I still consider myself an artist, and I still put more weight on practicing my art rather than studying it. The difference is this: now I have a vocabulary to describe what I'm doing, I have a firmer knowledge of craft and better writing habits. I know where to go for the guidance I need and I'm a member of a large community of writers who are very generous with their advice and expertise.

I'm more committed to life as a writer now, and I also now consider myself to be a legitimate author. Working with mentors who were living and working as writers and teachers made me realize that a writerly life was possible for me.

I don't think writing, or any kind of art, can be taught. But it can be guided and put into context. 

What a fun coincidence that you mention East of Eden. As you may know, the format of this blog is inspired by the journal Steinbeck kept while he was drafting that novel. I've been fascinated with it since I first discovered it 20 years ago. It's definitely one of those "for fans only" artifacts. If you're not intensely curious about either the writing process or the trivia of East of Eden, it's deadly boring. But when I'm struggling, I get a kick out of seeing the Nobel prize winner at the height of his confidence laid low by the trouble of finding a stationary store that carries the exact pencils he needs. It's 18-months of daily complaints I'm sure he never intended anyone to read.

You've mentioned Journal of a Novel before, but I did not realize that it was written while Steinbeck was working on East of Eden. I've never read it, but since it's about the creation of a brilliant novel (Wasn't writing an epic like that daunting? How did he make Cathy so terrifying when we know so much about her?) and since it's influenced a respected fellow writer, I am more than willing to pick it up. After all, it's a journal, not a craft book.

I'll loan it to you next time I see you at writing group. One last question before we finish. There are a lot of other cool things we could have discussed about your new publication -- the experience of using an e-book publisher for example -- but I imagine a lot of that is covered elsewhere. Please share a few of your most recommended links to learn more about the book, where to buy it, and where you've had a chance to answer some other interesting questions.

I am delighted to share some book-related links! You can find out more about the book over at my blog, where I shamelessly promote myself and my work. The book is available in three different formats (Kindle, Nook and PDF)  at my publisher's site, and in many, many formats (from Sony Readers to Palm devices) at Smashwords.

I've done a few interviews and guest posts since the book release, but one of my favorites was with Brooke of Books Distilled. She posted a review of the book and then posted an interview based on the book a few days later. That was a lot of fun, and made me feel like kind of a celebrity.

This interview, however, has made me feel like a different kind of celebrity altogether. I've always been enamored of the author interviews done by the Paris Review; I love reading the long, conversational interviews with writers like Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. Your comprehensive questions, and the fact that we've been doing this interview over the course of eight days, really does give it the air of an old time Paris Review interview, even if the interview has been done via email.

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. It's been a pleasure, and you've made me re-examine my own thoughts about writing. 

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Drafting, plain and simple

Here's a picture of the new writing setup I described the other day. I like it quite a lot. It feels decedent somehow to be tipped back in a comfy chair with the keyboard in my lap. The recycled (and neutered) CPU, the new screen (very large to me but not to real technophiles) and the wireless keyboard -- a full-size and comfy keyboard that I can really jam on. (I hate the puny keyboards on laptops and I plug a full-size keyboard into my my main laptop when it's at home.)

1,500 words today. I'm getting in a rhythm over the last week. I'm not convinced I write any faster this way, but it's working for me at a basic level, and it saves the time of retyping from manuscript. I can get in the zone and create. To the extent that I don't as much as I want to, that's a problem with the book and not with my writing conditions.

I've been jumping around scenes in different parts of the book. That's setting me up for the problem that I was trying to avoid of having a first draft where it doesn't all hang together, but I can't figure out a way to keep going otherwise. I'm afraid of not keeping up some momentum and for the drafting to stall.

I might call time out soon and go back just to my opening scenes and try to revise them seriously so that anything written subsequently is drafted under the influence of what I come to know about the book through that revision. That would sitting up in a proper desk chair, though, because I'll need to use a computer mouse to do that.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bulletin board problems and solutions

Update: See the note at the bottom about how this went wrong after this was posted and how I rethought the design.

Pictured here is my attempt to make my own extra large bulletin board on the cheap. I think it looks pretty good if you ignore the fact that there's no bottom border to it because I miscalculated how much ribbon I would need and haven't got back to the store yet. Another quibble is with the color. On its own, I think the color and the border look good, but hanging in this particular room with the too dark paint I have in here, it makes things pretty gloomy. Doing it again, I would try to find a fabric a little lighter blond. I could also have tried for a colorful fabric or a patterned fabric, but I don't have enough confidence in my design skills to have tried that. We're talking about 15 square feet, and something too adventurous would have been very noticeable. I choose this fabric because it most resembled the shade and texture of actual cork board, and I figured that was a safe starting point.

The fabric is covering a big 3 x 5 piece of cardboard. 2-ply of it actually. It's two sides of a box that a file cabinet was delivered in. The box wasn't banged up much, so that when I sliced off one side with a box knife and trimmed were it was crunched, I lost about a half inch around. I used a t-square and yardstick to square it more or less. The ribbon on the edges hides where it's not even. Then I used that one piece to trace and cut out a piece on the opposite side of the box. I glued those together with plain school glue. I wanted 2-ply so I wouldn't be worried about the thumbtacks driving all the way through, and it gives it a nice amount of heft. Once I had the fabric I used a staple gun around the back. The staples don't work very well in cardboard, but with enough of them there isn't too much pull on any one. To keep the fabric from bunching, I went in a cross cross pattern when stapling -- 12 o clock, 6, 3, 9, 1, 7, 4, 10, etc. Then I wrapped the ribbon -- 1 1/2 in wide in my design -- around the edges and stapled them.

The hard part was figuring out how to hang it. I have plenty of picture hanging hardware and figured it would be easy to use spare parts from that, but it turns out those all depend on putting threaded screws into the wood of a picture frame, and that doesn't work with cardboard. My first few workarounds failed, and the whole mess fell down a couple times. I decided I needed something long and flat that I could tape down to distribute the weight and then the hanger, whether wire or a hook, would be attached to that. I ended up with those two elements in one piece. I took 1 of the 2 silver metal levers off a large black binder clip. I gave it a little bend so the closed end would stick out from the lateral surface of the back of the cardboard. Then I applied a crisscross of long strips of packing tape over the prongs so they were held in place on the cardboard and the closed end was exposed. Which I then simply hung on a nail. (Don't forget to drill that pilot hole, of course. No point in screwing up the plaster.)

Total cost, about $17 with the ribbon and 3 yards of fabric I chose. And it should look like a nice bulletin board once I get that other 5 feet of ribbon I forgot. (Naturally, they'll be sold out of that color or pattern when I get back to the store, and I'll have to start over.)

Why I needed a giant bulletin board . . . that should be obvious by looking at it. I have only the barest sense of what might go in the first draft of my novel, and this is already covered. I don't feel like I have any wiggle room to move stuff around or to make my outline any more detailed.

Getting to this point has been a little bit of a saga. Let's just say that I strongly recommend against the miserable squares of cork they sell at office supply stores with little scraps of adhesive tape. Every morning I woke up to find more bits of my novel littering the floor, and my closet door is covered with the remains of the awful adhesive.

Whoops. Attaching anchors with packing tape didn't work after all. Nor did duct tape. It's fallen down about 5 times now. In short, whether I'm using a hook or a wire, attaching it to the flat back surface of  the cardboard doesn't work. I'm figuring out belatedly that I need to be working with both sides of the cardboard or -- possibly -- with 2-plyness of it. The most elegant solutions should have been done before I attached the fabric or before I glued the two pieces of cardboard together. Put another way, I should have designed all of it before starting to build it.

So I've got a less than elegant solution going now, which should be easy for someone else to improve on. Basically, I have two holes punched through the cardboard and fabric with anchors on the front attached to wire running through to the back. In my case, the two objects are . . . . binder clips again! Brass ones that match the color okay. The two clips appear to levitate alongside the vertical surface of the board and, in theory, they add extra functionality.

Binders clips is what I happened to have. Another option that occurred to me is decorative drawer pulls, which could be used to hang things from. I suppose if I wandered the aisles of an office supply store other ideas would occur to me. Large rings like flashcards with holes punched in them are strung on. Maybe a pair of some kind of small white board as long as they had their own firm anchors on the back.

Another possibility -- if the fabric hadn't been stapled on yet -- is something that goes under the fabric and isn't functional. My wife suggested the brass brads that we used to use to bind loose leaf paper. Punch those through from the back and fold the arms flat on the front side, then twist the picture wire around the head of the button on the back. Do they even sell those brads anymore?

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Realism and the fantastical offshoots

1,000 words today. I'm settling into the routine of composing on the computer with my new set up. It doesn't seem to be any faster for now. I feel like I go back and revise a lot more. Maybe because writing longhand is slower I get the words closer to right as I'm going along than I do when I'm typing. We'll see.

I've been thinking about my struggles with this book and the seed of a theory came to me this morning. On the one hand, my comfort zone is 20th-century realism. Everything I write tends to get heavy fast. On the other hand, my idea for this book -- and my wish for it -- is something more playful. I won't say more energetic -- because, done right, realism should have a lot of energy to it from the emotional stakes -- but I want this to get its energy from other sources. More fun sources maybe.

Does that mean I want something less dark? No. I don't equate realism with dark, and I don't particularly want to avoid having it get dark. But I do want it to be fun along the way.

I love magical realism and entertain the idea sometimes of ginning up a project that would use its techniques in a setting and sensibility that makes sense for me. But this project isn't it.

Sometimes I wish I was a fantasy writer. It would be fun just to have a monster or alien rear its head up and keep my characters from too much navel-gazing. But that would be cheating in a way if it weren't integral with what else I'm doing. Integrity is a concept I've been thinking a lot about lately. I don't mean it in the modern sense of having values or being moral upright or being honest. I mean it in a sense that is connected to the related word of integrated. The parts of a story should be in alignment with one another -- an idea I think I got from L. Rust Hills. Put another way, it's not enough for a piece of writing to be good, it must work according to the rules established elsewhere in the story and it must work in concert with the other elements of the story. The character should pressure the plot should escalate the theme should reveal the setting should pressure the character and so on. Going too far with my longing for the fantastical would be a form of escapism in a destructive sense. It wouldn't have integrity.

Yet the longing is there. I suppose another way of thinking about it is the traditions of the grotesque and the gothic. Aberrant elements in an otherwise recognizable world. And I do have some of that going on in my story already. But that still doesn't get to the longing for playfulness so much.

The touchstone I keep returning to is Kavalier and Clay. I love the way it mixes high seriousness -- including the evolving interior emotional space of fully developed, human, complex characters -- with flirtations with the fantastic, including comic books and magical and spiritual folklore. Early in the book when Joe climbs the fire escape and we see it through Sammy's eyes and he appears to fly up it like a superhero, I'm not sure what to think there. Does Joe break the laws of physics? Does Sammy hallucinate it? Is this an example of Sammy's overexcited imagination? The uncertainty right there of whether or not we're staying in a realist frame is part of the fun of the story, and forever after I keep waiting for the comic book characters to come to life off the pages that the realist characters are drawing.

Well, I'm gibbering here, because I'm struggling with something, but I have the sense that the thing I'm struggling with is key to finding the heart of the book I'm working on. I'm looking not for the fantasy mode but the fantastical offshoots within realism. How to create it and how to sell it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Internet and research

Yesterday, while writing at my new set up, I ran into one of the first occasions where there would have been some benefit to having the internet handy, and I thought it was an interesting illustration of how much things have changed in the last few years. I’ve noticed before how often I rely on Wikipedia and Google for a quick search for something – a confirmation of a detail, a quick lesson on some technical matter to make sure I have the vocab right. (What did we used to do?) That definitely speeds things up, though arguably it makes a writer more focused on technical issues than on getting into the imaginative space where some real magic can happen.

Yesterday as I was drafting I came to a spot where I wanted to use a real-life song title. I had a sense of the era and style and also of the rhythm of the language that would fit. My recent custom would have been to google “pop hits of 19__,” click a link that looked like it would provide a list, quickly scan the list until I found a title I liked for my purposes and then get back into my draft and kept going.

But, now, no internet. So, instead, I was up and out of my chair wandering around the house looking for reference books and CDs that could help. (I don’t do a very good job of keeping my library organized.) It so happens that I have a coffee table book called “The American Songbook.” (Not actually on the coffee table, natch. I used big books like that as subject dividers in my LP collection.) And after thumbing through that for a few seconds I was back at work. That’s case was a lucky break. It’s not the Library of Congress in here or anything, so I imagine there will be a lot of times when I don't have the book I need and I’ll just have to make a note on research to be done later. Like writers used to do before the internet, I guess.

Also yesterday, I did not check my email while I was writing or check Facebook or watch any funny videos or tweak my Pandora station. I just wrote. Itching all the while to turn around and turn on my main computer so I could do those things, or get on blogger and tell this goofy story, but not actually doing it. Until now. But now is not my writing time, so I'm cool.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The neutered computer at last

I developed a new set up for myself over the last week. I got a recycled CPU which I have neutered so that it can’t get on the internet or do anything else really except MS Word. (I’m considering loading music files from my other computer to this so I can play the kind of background music that I find helpful, but now that I think of it, I guess there are no speakers of any kind, good or bad, in this set up.) I replaced the very old CRT style monitor with a new flat screen, 20-inches. It was the cheapest one in the store and not state of the art, but it’s the nicest one I’ve ever had, and I can see this word doc from across the room. (Which is key to this next part.) And I upgraded from the original old keyboard to a new wireless keyboard, which is f-ing amazing. It’s not state of the art, either. It’s about the cheapest one I could get that is wireless and that has a wrist pad. (Essential.)

Here’s where it gets really cool. My regular reading chair in my office, about a body’s length away from the desk where this computer sits, is a comfy IKEA chair without arm rests and with a little spring to it. I have a footstool, also. I am now sitting in that chair with the wireless keyboard comfortably in my lap with my legs comfortably up and my eyes comfortably tracking this on a screen that is about 6 feet away. 

I’ll use a thumb drive to transfer this over to the computer that is on the internet. That’s not practical for something I would need to do regularly, but for working on my book, it makes more sense. I envision composing this way instead of by longhand from here on out. Faster composing, and it cuts out the retyping entirely. I don't know for sure that I'll be able to make that change. Composing longhand is a long habit.

Most importantly, whether I’m composing or retyping from manuscript or working on rewrites and revisions, I won’t be able to get on the internet! Which is a good thing. I’ve strongly desired this for a couple years and am so glad to have finally arranged it.