Friday, February 25, 2011

Someone Left a Cake Out in The Rain

Writing is a subjective business, a lonely, difficult, often thankless, subjective business. As author Robin Black says in her excellent post on Beyond the Margins, every time we start a new project, we have to teach ourselves to write all over again. You must check out this article; it's fantastic! is Ms. Black's post on Subjectivity.

As I sit here on a snowy New England Day, the kids alternately squabbling and going Jedi in the next room, I contemplate this crazy writing thing. It could be easier, I think, to take up some more reasonable activity, bungy jumping for instance, or basket weaving or batik.

Some days, I open up my document and I can see every flaw. But then I think of this one-hit-wonder:

A song so bad that it was named "The Worst Song Ever Recorded" in Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. A song that is often lampooned... even more than 40 years later:

A song that was a HUGE hit.

Here's what the soggy cake teaches me: Do the best you can. Make sure you are happy with it and that you develop your skills and editor's eye, and let the chips (sprinkles?) fall where they may. And also, watch those metaphors, they can be a little over the top.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Grotto Where Inspiration Lurks

I took the kids to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art today and of course it was as amazing as you'd expect. Our definition of art stretched to include giant styrofoam mountains and rainbow colored gravel, rooms of bending light, geometrical walls, and pink and blue baby toys.

One of the most amazing exhibits was "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by artist Petah Coyne. And I tell you, it was every bit as intricate, creepy and beautiful as its literary namesake.

Suffice to say, Ms. Coyne can evoke a hell of a lot of emotion with black sand, dead birds, wax, metal and flowers.

In a back grotto, we came across this:

Untitled #720 (Eguchi's Ghost)

It was in alone in a dark room, about the size of a Mini Cooper, hanging motionless and so amazingly, deliciously creepy.

I had that feeling-- the one that many of you may be familiar with-- the one that whispers away an image away for later use, that begins adapting and applying and knitting it into the fabric of this possibility or that. I knew I would see this figure in my dreams and that maybe a reflection of it would appear in some later novel or story. I mean this thing was stealth and fear and stillness and beauty.... and quite (at present) beyond words. But I wanted those words.

Though it sounds rather drab to say it, I was inspired. No snazzy "spark" imagery-- light bulbs and lightning and falling apples-- and all that, just the back-of-the-spine-chill of visiting the grotto where Untitled #720 (Eguchi's Ghost) lurks.

In some karmic wheel of inspiration, the artist was inspired by fiction: "The House of Sleeping Beauties", a Japanese novella about an old man, approaching death, who visits a house where he can sleep among young unconscious young women.
And thus, methinks, inspiration jumps (or in this case, creeps) from one of us to another, whispering along its many paths.

What inspires you? How do you channel (or track) your inspiration?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Setting: How Real is Real Enough?

Years ago, I attended a question and answer session with author Bret Lott.

In it, Mr. Lott detailed the methods he used to ensure that the settings of his books were as down-to-the-details accurate as possible. If he was writing about Richmond, Virginia in 1952, for example, he would research how many gas stations there were, how many miles between this part of town and that, the name of the local supermarket, etc etc. He had it down, quite literally, to a science.

I was a much younger writer back then, and in awe of Mr. Lot's dedication. At that time, I was struggling through my first draft of the Novel Previously Known as Idylwilde, and worried about the wanton way I'd taken a real place, Orange Lake, Florida,

and infused it with all the qualities I needed for my novel to work. MY Orange Lake was not chocked with invasive weeds and shrinking with Florida's sorry water table. It was wilder, more rural than it had been during the time I lived in the area. It was the Orange Lake of my memory and my dreams. Uh, oh.

Not only was I a younger writer back then, I was a braver one. I asked Mr. Lott about taking a real place (um, a place in Florida for example....) and re-inventing it in fiction.

He said that was a lazy thing to do. That only a lazy writer would untether herself from the real honest to god place that was actually there on the map and shrug off the minutiae that gave readers a REAL experience. Something like that. My heart was thudding so loud in my ears at that point that I only heard pieces.

I nodded sheepishly. Okay, then. If I ever got to my final draft, I'd change the goshdurned name of the place altogether! (Yes, Mr. Lott, this is possibly the most lazy response imaginable....)

But even now, after many, many "final" versions of the novel, I have left the setting alone. Because it IS Orange Lake-- MY Orange Lake. And it fits.

In Family, Genius, Species, I took an even lazier route and from the get-go invented a town.... sort of.

I really invented the name of a town, switched around the details, the direction Main Street runs, the level of dilapidation.... but if you live in Western Mass, you know that my Burning Falls is more or less this place:

...a place I love so much I sometimes go the long way around just so I can soak in its wonderful New England Milltown-ness, a place that's in constant, failing renewal, a place that is just so close to perfect it makes my heart ache...

Nowadays, I'm okay with my lazy tendencies-- at least when it comes to setting.

This is fiction after all, and I want to portray the feel of a place, its gritty skies and derelict brickwork, its lush humid air, its whatever I feel it is. That's my writerly prerogative, right?

Do you agree? How do you approach setting in your work?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Hit Wednesday: Break My Stride

I'm sorry, I really am. You see I started this one-hit-wonder thing way back. It's like the gibbon obsession. Part of the way things are over here at Lesser Apricots: Cornball music, writing stuff and apes.

Today it's the music. More specifically, Matthew Wilder. 1983 personified.

C'mon, I KNOW you know this song......

Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Which I Prove Myself a Luddite

Twitter. Sigh.

I know I am supposed to be hip and down with it and all that but I'm sorry, I just .................. don't like Twitter.

Maybe it's because the "tweets" sort of resemble the lists of ingredients on the back of a TV Dinner: a few things you recognize interspersed with unintelligible whatchamacalits and hashmarks and whatnot.

Maybe it's because they're called "tweets". (This just sort of makes my skin crawl for some reason.)

Maybe because it seems that anything worth saying (Short of communications during a revolution) should be more than 140 characters long.

Maybe because Twitter just reminds me of Sarah Palin, the Palinization of our political discourse or something fancy thing like that (It would take more than 140 characters to explain, people....)

Likely, though, it's all because I'm old, or getting old. Hell, I don't text either. And my cell phone doesn't even have letters on it!

I'm sorry Twitter. I have tried to like you. Really I have. Came across this nifty list of the Best Twittering Agents and checked it out and everything. (Those of you hipper than I am should check this list out immediately.)

You and me, little bird, were just not meant to be....

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Redecorate, Renovate, Raze?


I've been writing since the time of my mother's old mechanical typewriter in second grade. And I thought I had the process down.

In fact, I love the process, how you start with the kaBOWm! of brainstorm. All What-if-what-if and then this and that and she could do this and then he'll, etc etc. Your ideas are two by fours in the house you will come to live within. And oh, it's a grand place, its windows lit up in the night. You run room to room, check out the cupboards and closets, jump on all the beds. You love this place! It's perfect!

Then there's the drafting, a sort of slow and steady progress. You settle in. The house doesn't seem quite as shiny-new anymore. You notice the stains in the ceiling and the ripped up carpet in the den, but you keep on. And then it's yours, more or less, and you fail to notice these things. Or anyway, it'd be so hard to make any changes now that you're all moved in.

For many of us, this is the end of it. We live in our less-than perfect houses, loving them anyway, comfortable.

But really, now's the time to revise.

I used to think that I loved this part. I'd spend days and days walking my novel's many rooms, adding a little paint, a new baseboard, a desk lamp might become a telephone might become an open bible. It was sort of fun, and I even felt like every day I was inching towards a better novel.

But that wasn't really revision. It was too easy. It was this:


If your novel is a house, constructed in the rich green land of your imagination, revision is just that: Re-VISION.

You might add another floor (I really wanted to say another story here, but it was too cheap a pun...) expand the kitchen, turn the three lightless little bedrooms into a fantastic den. in other words: You really change stuff.

It's terrifying.

Stuff gets tossed or put in storage, your roof opens to the rain. You fear you've lost the very soul of the place or that you will never, never, never-in-a-million-years manage to build it back up.

Fear haunts the revision process.

It's taken me 30-some years to recognize this. My ineffective revisions, my hundreds of not-different-enough drafts, my word switching and wall-painting... It was all about fear.

I didn't trust that better words would come. Each word, each sentence seemed like such a gift.

If I tore down the beautiful parlor with it's lush wallpaper and polished floor, how could I be sure that the room I'd construct in its place would measure up?

I couldn't. I didn't.

This last few weeks, I've taken a break from the gibbons. I've been revisiting an old manuscript, the Novel Previously Known as Idylwilde. A few years back, an agent called me and asked me to revise this manuscript. Of course, I was totally eager to do so. Following her advice, I pryed loose the back porch and nailed it to the front. Then I did a lot of redecorating, lush, pointless, redecorating. Of course, this wasn't enough, and after much hand-wringing (On my part not the agent's) I decided to abandon the place.

But in returning, I finally (finally!) found myself at the heart of a truth:

THE WORDS WILL COME. Maybe not easily, maybe not at first or perfect from the onset, but they will.

In order to do the hard work of revision, I had to trust this. I ripped out fully half of the manuscript and it felt.... liberating.

The novel was creaky with age, its weak spots, so apparent now. I took out my crowbar and got to work, trusting that something better would grow up in its place.

Perhaps it takes many many days of painting and trim to find your inner crowbar.

Okay, enough with the metaphors, already!

Here are a few practical things that helped me get my courage up:

1. Make a separate word document and save all the passages you cut. (Mine is 75 pages now and, probably, I will never look at it again.)

2. Think about the big stuff. If time effort and pain were not a factor, what would make your plot more interesting, exciting, connected, etc? This is the direction you'll be wanting to take.

3. Copy your document and rename it (I find it helps to give it some half-ridiculous name. Sort of like telling myself to loosen up) then slash and burn through the thing just to see how it feels. Take out whatever is questionable, repetitive, excessive, write comments to yourself in caps and yellow highlights, go Mystery Science Theater with it.... because IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER

4. Remember you are a totally capable writer and that the manuscript can only get BETTER. (I guess this might be termed going Stuart Smalley on it...)

4. Figure this type of revision is the writing equivalent to skydiving and just go ahead and do it.

(Yes, I snuck in a whole new metaphor here. Sorry about that. I've cut a ton of them out of the manuscript and had to put them somewhere)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Driver's Seat

By Sniff'n the Tears (Yes, that IS the name of the band) circa 1978

My seven year old asked me "You like this?"

I said, "Wellllll, I have a memory of liking it."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hidden Gibbons

Hidden Gibbons

Rather than focus on the logical thing: snow, great sheets of it out every window, drifts and oceans and dumps of it, I thought I'd go diversionary.

This is from the kids' inherited collection of "Magic, The Gathering" cards. Although they don't have a clue how to play the game, and don't seem to have the patience to learn, they do occasionally enjoy checking out the pictures on the cards.

By now, the kids are familiar with my gibbon obsession. That's how this one came to my attention.

It's cute isn't it? And how true is this?

"When these apes want something, it's a matter of gibbon take."

Be safe out there!