Monday, July 30, 2007

I Can Always Fix It Later

When I set out to write my first published novel, China Mountain Zhang, I had a couple of things in mind. I wanted to leave out all the boring parts of my writing--the to-ing and fro-ing, the novel equivalent of standing in line. The result of this is that I would leapfrog entire chunks of Zhang's life. He had a job in China, a kind of internship during his schooling, and then bam, next time we see him he has been back in New York for several months, meaning that he finished his internship, traveled back home, got in touch with his family (who we never much see except for one brief lunch with his mother) found a place to live, yadda yadda.

I think there was a lot of merit in that approach, even though my fourth novel is pretty much about all the things that I just described as skipping in my first novel. But the impulse behind that was the attempt to respect the first law of novel writing, Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Reader. As I am thrashing my way through the chapter I am writing right now, I have just spent several pages getting one of the characters up the driveway and into the house. In ten pages she has come inside, smoked an illicit cigarette in a bathroom of the house of her ex-husband, and after those ten pages, she has just said good morning to her teen-aged daughter who she hasn't seen in a couple of years.

This could be really important and compelling build-up, or it could be navel gazing. It's been really valuable to me, as I worm my way into this woman's skin. But that doesn't mean it won't bore the reader.

So, I figure I can drop back to my personal rule for how to get through a draft. I can always fix it later. I'll make a comment in the text asking myself to review this when I get to the next draft. And if it feels too slow, I can always edit it way back, right? It's just, sometimes I don't know if I can trust myself to throw stuff out.

Friday, July 27, 2007

An Acapella Blues Break

I should be writing--or at least staring at the manuscript--but I heard "People Grinnin' In Your Face" on the way home from yoga last night. I was clapping and bobbing at a stop light when I realized what that always must look like from outside the car.

This is Austin, the live music capital of the country. People must have known I wasn't having a seizure.

Anyway, the version on her new CD The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster has a couple of backup singers but it's still sans instruments. That's what I was listening to last night. In a Subaru Outback. At the intersection of Burnet and 183. If you saw me and were wondering if I should be allowed to drive without medication or something.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Getting Back Inside

I was in Cleveland for five days.

Now I'm looking at the draft of the novel on my screen and I haven't a clue how to get back inside the story. I feel like I'm trying to type with welding gloves on. Who wrote this stuff, anyway. It's not that it's good or bad, it's just that, well, it's hard to imagine the interior life of these characters. And what happens next?

Oh man.

So I'm doing what any sensible person does when something like this happens. I'm playing solitaire. I'm making soup. I'm posting in my blog. The soup has cheddar and jalapeño chicken sausage in it.

Eventually the back part of my brain will get disgusted and take a crowbar to the smooth glossy surface of this manuscript and let me back inside. At least, I hope so.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Jane Austin Book Club: Trailer


Monday, July 16, 2007

Are We Having Fun Yet?

(I am at Okay, it's harder than I thought but still good on this draft.)

I've had a cold, which meant, as far as I was concerned that I couldn't possibly work on my novel, but alas, I'm feeling better which means I should go back to the damn thing. I thought about working on my outline, but decided to default to my old rule of having to write two pages of the current draft before allowing myself to do anything else. I haven't quite completed my two pages, but blogging about the process somehow counts at this point, right?


So there are a lot of things I feel pretty solid about in this scene. I know the characters. One of them is loosely based on the older brother of a friend of mine in High School. I don't usually base characters on people I know, but this novel involves a high school girl. Sometimes it seemed to me that there were people I knew who were incomprehensible. Now I can look back and get a sense of them, but at the time, I found them so self-assured in aspects of the world that were pretty much opaque to me. And somehow it seems really interesting to write about someone like that--one of those older boys who were so physically fearless. And I was so fearful, of censure, of looking as foolish as I felt, of somehow derailing the process of getting to college (and therefore getting out of the small town where I lived.)

That's all informing the characters in ways that I think are making them feel lively, complex, unexpected but true.

What is so much harder for me is the problem of making the scene not only vivid, true and well written, but worth reading. It seemed to me that if it were vivid, true and well written, that should be enough, but I have come to the conclusion that perhaps there is the problem of grim. I am, in my heart of hearts, an earnest and grim writer. I think at times that reading a Maureen McHugh scene can be a little like taking your vitamins. Good for you but not, you know, the highlight of your day. (I think some of this may be a reaction to my own fears in college where I was so convinced that I wasn't getting and understanding whatever piece of literature we were reading that I invested it all with great weight. Reading literature was taxing, sometimes illuminating, but it was not fun. Fun was reserved for the stuff I read in my spare time. But now, if I want to write Real Stuff, I have a reflex to reach for grim. And yet, Chekhov is funny! Shakespeare is funny! Not all the time, but still!) So in addition to asking myself, is this technically deft, does it forward the plot, does it have dramatic tension, does it illuminate the human condition, does it tell some sort of truth, I am forced to ask myself, is it fun?

I was raised Catholic and I am ethnically still Catholic, even if I'm not religious, so my reflex reaction to this is, Life is Not an Amusement Park Ride. And yet, while I am willing to concede that not every scene in my novel needs to be fun, I think that the occasional fun moment might be called for. And at this point, it seems to me that a little levity and wit could add immensely to the scene.

Of course, staring that the page thinking, 'be witty, be witty' is probably not the most productive way to go about it.

(Be witty.
Be witty.
Be witty.

What kind of word is 'witty' anyway?)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

It's All Bob's Fault

He forwarded this link to me.

I saw a Mazda Protege yesterday.

Dinner Guests

We're having some of the crew from where Bob works over to dinner tonight--The Kids. The Kids are the techs and the thirty and unders, some of whom I know from yoga. Funny, the engineers, middle-aged guys mostly, don't show up at yoga so much. But Kayce, who is part of an all women improv group (they do improv musicals! It is slack-jawed amazing to watch! Improving songs where they all sing the same improvised chorus to the same improvised melody--we're going to see one of their shows in a couple of weeks where they do Star Trek improv) and Courtney, who has done more stuff than most people I know and who is one of the few guys at yoga, are a lot of fun to be around. So we're having a bunch of people over for dinner because they are young and energetic.

Is that an old fart thing to do or what?

I'm making pork tenderoin on the grill, tofu satay with Thai peanut sauce, grilled veggies, and Bob is picking up good ciabatta rolls. Tiramisu for dessert. And Bob is making Buddha's Cosmos and Manhattens, plus the usual assortment of soda, wine and beer.

The really fun thing about cooking for The Kids is most of them have the kind of lives that don't involve a lot of sit down dinners. So they are appreciative. And they take the leftovers home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road this weekend.

The Road is Not Science Fiction. I happen to like Not Science Fiction books. I like Margaret Atwood's Not Science Fiction, for example. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is another Not Science Fiction book (although that's not Mary's decision, that's the publisher's.) I've never read Doris Lessing's Shikasta books (which she says ARE science fiction) but I've read Memoirs of a Survivor and Briefing For a Descent Into Hell. Although it has been years, I liked them, too. I've written some Not Science Fiction, not intentionally. (I thought most of my Not Science Fiction actually was sf, but hey, who am I?)

I was a little put off by the way people talked about The Road. It sounded a little like On The Beach meets Mad Max. A post apocalyptic road trip with lots of violence. I've read Cormac McCarthy--Blood Meridian, The Crossing. After Blood Meridian, I thought that The Road could be pretty horrific.

It's a slim book, big print, about a father and son crossing an ashen post apocalyptic wilderness to get to the coast, although the father is not sure it will do them any good. They travel a very specific post apocalyptic America, including places I've been. A long trip through the Appalachians. But in the end, I was disappointed. The Road is well written, but not extraordinarily well written. McCarthy's flat affect and vivid landscapes are really my kind of writing, usually. But here, the landscape was gray. A lot. Except when it was on fire. I kept thinking of the passage in Toni Morrison's Beloved where the grandmother loves the square of red on her quilt.

I found myself wondering things I don't think I should have been wondering about. All the animal life, birds, everything, is dead. As is all plant life. Bugs? I find myself thinking. Are there no flies? If something killed off all the animals and the plants, how come people are still alive? Was it radiation? But this is Not Science Fiction, and that's one of the things that Not Science Fiction does. It is unabashed about not building a consistent world. I don't mind this--most 'consistent' science fiction worlds break down pretty quickly if you look too close. I don't mind that The Road doesn't bother to explain this. Except I couldn't figure out what it was that The Road was doing.

The reviews of the book talk a great deal about the relationship between the father and the son. This is the heart of the novel. The story of a man who fiercely loves his son. I didn't quite believe in the boy. Children are hard to write about, but this child struck me as too perfect. But then, maybe, I'm thinking, the book isn't working precisely on that level. Lots of perfectly fine literature, transcendent literature, works at things other than psychological realism. (Kafka, for example. Asking why the parents in "The Metamorphosis" don't either figure it out or call an exterminator is missing the point and the power of the story.) In that case, The Road says, 'Don't Give Up!' The world may be ash, but there's hope!

There's hope? Love transcends all? Jesus Christ on a crutch, you think that there aren't people in Darfur who don't love their children? But who die anyway, and whose children die anyway? And we can destroy the whole world and say that Love transcends? Cormac McCarthy never struck me as a sentimental guy--but maybe he's just a guy who hides his sentimentality under minimalist stylistic technique.

In the end I found myself in an uncomfortably place. I get tired of hearing how some writer tried to do SF and didn't do it as well as SF does. I've heard how derivative Harry Potter is, how much better genre writers did it. The truth is, genre writing does genre better than non-genre, but while I started this post with a tongue-in-cheek description of Not Science Fiction, it's entirely possible for someone to use tropes of SF in a non-genre way. I like that stuff. (Just because someone plays with genre conventions doesn't mean that they are really writing Not Science Fiction--or it might be better to say, some people IN SF write Not Science Fiction, people like Kelly Link and Karen Fowler.) But at the end of The Road I kept thinking that this particular book has been done to death in SF.

I wouldn't say don't read it. I'm one small voice. Lots of very smart people love this book. But I didn't.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How Old-Fashioned, Yet Not

From Slate:

Nearly 2,000 officials have been caught violating China's one-child policy from 2000 to 2005. The list includes 21 lawmakers, 24 political advisers, 6 "senior intellectuals," and more than 100 entrepreneurs. "Rising incomes mean some newly rich can afford to break the rules and pay resulting fines." Some of the newly exposed violators were "found to have kept mistresses," leading to extra children. American offense: taking a mistress. Chinese offense: having a baby with your mistress.

Science Fiction, that's what I say. Old fashioned social norms colliding with futuristic problems like over-population.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Home Again, Home Again

Great con. But although I spent time with Karen Fowler, John Kessel, Ellen Datlow, Nina Hoffman RoseFox and the crew, Lucius Shepherd, Greg Feeley, Ted Chiang, Gavin Grant (though only briefly with Kelly Link) Amelia Beamer, Charlie Brown, Scott Edelman, Amelia Beamer, Michael Swanwick, Kay Kenyon and others, I didn't get enough time with ANY of them. I never did get to spend any time with Paul Park, Paolo Bacigalupi, Rick Wilber, Jim Cambias, Gordon Van Gelder, Jeff Ford, or a BUNCH of other people.

David Moles, I did pass on your message to Alex Jablakov about having written the best Mars novel of the 90's and he is about to publish another novel...but I didn't have a chance to find out more because, of course, it was a convention.

Came home to find Howard had charmed the dogs. They are great, but sometimes they look at me with a faint suggestion of boredom--as if life with Bob and me was somehow less...transformative.

I have a cold. Ah, airports

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A National Treasure... house sitting for me.

No computer in Burlington for me--so the novel, and I, are on hiatus. I left a few thin spots in the outline. Any ideas are appreciated.

Outline Fever!

Austin Kleon has a post about the outline of Faulkner's novel that he wrote on the walls of his office. Since Austin is psychic, he actually wrote this post on Thursday, July 6, 2006, but it is so germane to my last post, I stole his photo and I'm happily posting a link to his post.

Considering that I've only actually spoken to Austin a couple of times in person, it's amazing how much stuff I steal from his blog.

My outline is going along nicely. Right now it looks like this:

Baby Goth

  1. (Prologue) Rhea Drunk and Dial 8/28/2005
  2. Amanda 8/19
    1. Party
    2. Skinny dipping
    3. walk in the woods
    4. home
    1. Party
  3. Rhea walking with the saints 8/20
    1. Argument: Rhea plans to leave Butch
    2. Asks Amanda about moving in with her if she would move back
  4. Amanda needs some sort of tension point.
  5. Road trip stuff needs to happen that does not feel like one damn thing after another, but like a carefully constructed set of incidents that illuminate the themes of the novel and consistently reveal aspects of character. It would help if they would also be entertaining.
  6. Hurricane 8/29
I figure getting through C takes up about fifty pages of the novel. Which means that about 300 pages of the novel are detailed in D. and E.

I need to do more research for F., but I'm expecting that the research will help with figuring out the story there.

Well, at least I have the next scene...

Monday, July 02, 2007

Loretta Lynn Said It:

"You have to be different, great, or first."

(From Austin Kleon's cool post it collage.)

I have my novel open on my computer. I know what the next scene is. I even know what the chapter after THAT is. I just don't know what the next sentence is so rather than actually work, I'll blog.

It's like warming up. Doing a little jog before the race.

In the warm glow of last night's drink, I promised something...oh, shit. Right. Organic versus outline. The whole stupid, how do you write your novel thing. David is right, vegetables (organic) versus outlines would be better. I don't outline. Outlining is for hacks. I believe in the difficult but fulfilling process of finding my novel as I write it; letting inspiration and the shape of what I've already written shape what comes next. Which is why I've thrown this novel out five times already.

But outlining is mechanical. It limits the subtle interplay of character and situation that make a novel unexpected and, well, art. Which is why its for hacks. Like William Faulkner, who outlined one of his novels on the walls of his study. (Okay, I think it was The Hamlet, which is not one of his novels that is, you know, taught at college, like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, or even Light in August.)

I tried outlining a novel, my second novel, and it was my least successful. There were probably other mitigating factors to that. I had written half the novel over a period of many years starting my senior year of college, abandoned it and written my first published novel, and come back to it. I had changed a lot and a lot of what the novel was about, I no longer felt quite so keenly about. The novel was originally written in two different tenses and I allowed myself to be talked out of that, which was, in retrospect, a mistake. And I wasn't a very good writer yet.

But I blame the outline.

Still, after thrashing around in this current work, I'm thinking an outline might not be a bad idea. I have been thinking about writing this thing a lot lately. (Not, you will note, actually writing it.) And it seems, when I am not actually writing it, that if I outlined it, I could, you know, bang it out pretty quick. Which might mean that when I get to stage four of the novel process chart (from the last post, the stage that says 'This Really Sucks') I might not throw it all out. I might actually finish it.

I thought, when I threw it out and started over the last time, that it was because it was not first, great or different, to cite Loretta Lynn. But maybe it was just because I thought it sucked.

If you subscribe to the theory that the two great structures of literature are 'A Stranger Comes to Town' (the Iliad) and 'Someone Goes On a Journey' (the Odyssey) then the book I am working on now is 'Someone Goes on a Journey.' I don't actually subscribe to that theory, and I'm pretty sure no one actually does anymore. But it's useful to think about that when thinking about the novel and the outline.

Besides, if I'm outlining, I'm 'working' without actually having to work. Right?

Novel: Episode 1, I Begin Anew

I've been working on a book since about 2001. I've written as much as eighty pages of it, only to through out what I've written because 'it wasn't working.' Or, 'It was boring.'

I've started it again, and I've decided this time what I've written is 'pretty good' but this state can pass. But Bob made me a Buddha's Cosmo at dinner (his signature drink) and I had the great idea that I would blog about writing the novel. I promise, no word counts, no discussions of the actual novel itself. But this way, if I don't actually write the damn thing, my disgrace will be public.

So I've started with a chart that illustrates my understanding of the process of writing a novel, based on writing four of them. I am somewhere between the first point on the graph and the second point on the graph.

Tomorrow, when the alcohol wears off (one drink, especially one of Bob's drinks, pretty much makes me technically over the legal limit for blogging) I will wonder what the hell I have committed myself to, and then post about outlines versus organic. Or more to the point, about my preconceived and clearly foolish notions about those things.

Why Women Talk

"Talking releases a rush of dopamine and oxycotin (the 'reward' and 'bonding' neurochemicals) in a woman's brain," explains Louann Brisendine, M.D., author of The Female Brain and a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco. "It's the biggest neurological reward a woman can get besides an orgasm." First of all, this chemical reaction explains a great deal about women. Second, it gives you a powerful tool: A simple "I can't wait to see you tonight" is enough to distract her from the insanity of the day and reinforce the love circuits in her brain.

I suspect that like a lot of gender science, this one is on shaky ground. But it does explain a lot.

(From Wife Support. A web article of dubious authority.)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Readercon Next Week

Off to Boston on the 5th for Readercon. The usual annoying plane stuff--we fly through JFK and it takes all day. We have a two hour layover in JFK. I think that's good. In my last two trips I've had eight flights (it's hard to get out of Austin without flying through some other airport, so ever trip involves two connections.) Not one of those flights has left on time. Luckily, the connections have been late as well.

I hate flying. I'm overweight. Seat are narrow. I can't cross my legs without kicking the person next to me. Luckily, the person next to me this time will be Bob. I can kick him--we're married. Of course, he gets to kick me back.

Most of my fandom/prodom experiences are East Coast fandom/prodom. This isn't to say I don't know people from the West Coast. Some of my favorite people are west of the Mississippi River. But most of my travel has been east. So there are a ton of people I'm looking forward to seeing at Readercon. John Kessel, Jim Kelly, Ellen Datlow, Greg Feeley. I used to live three houses down from Lucius Shepard when we both lived in Staten Island--although I was just an unpublished kid and he was writing Life During Wartime. Paul Park, Alexander Jablokov, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Cat Valente. I hope to meet Jim Cambias, who I've worked with but never actually met. I hope to meet Nathan Ballingrud, whose story, "You Go Where It Takes You" so impressed me years ago when I was judging the Fountain Award. And of course, Link & Grant.

And then there are the jet setting westerners I also love to spend time with. Karen Fowler (who might be busy this time around.) Ted Chiang, Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

The problem is there isn't enough time and there aren't enough meals. Conventions are a weird way of maintaining friendships. Half a conversation here, a panel there (I know I'll see Alex Jablakov because we're on a panel together. I'm hoping he has kid pictures.) It's an absurd system, really.

I'm reading a new story. I had originally planned to read it at Wiscon, but the plane was delayed. It's called "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large." It's an expository lump occasionally interrupted by narrative. Exposition isn't so bad. If it was, we wouldn't read non-fiction. It's just that bad exposition is bad. It's going to be in an anthology called Eclipse, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Nightshade Books.

It opens like this:

On June 13, 2014, Simon Weiss came into the mechanic’s shop where he worked in Brookneal, Virginia. He was a quiet kid in Carharts overalls. He had started working at Brookneal Goodyear two years before at 16. He was enrolled at the vocational school and living with a foster family. His auto mechanics teacher had found him the job after school. In the aftermath of the Baltimore attack, Brookneal had taken in more than its share of Baltimore homeless. Jim Dwyer, who owns Brookneal Goodyear, said that some of those people were problems. “A lot of those people were not used to working for a living,” Dwyer says. “They expected to go on in Brookneal pretty much the way they had in Baltimore. I guess a lot of them had drug problems and such.” But not Simon. He never missed work. He was always on time. Dwyer thought that work was the place Simon felt most comfortable. On Saturdays while he was still in high school, Simon arrived early in his lovingly maintained ’08 Honda Civic. He made coffee and read the funnies while waiting for everyone else to arrive. He looked up to Dwyer and had asked Dwyer advice about a girl. The girl hadn’t lasted. His foster parents were, in Dwyer’s words, “decent people” but they had two other foster kids, one of whom had leukemia from the effects of the dirty bomb.

On this hot summer Friday morning, two weeks after Simon’s graduation from high school, a couple came in at about 9:30 and asked to see Simon. There was something about them that made Dwyer watch closely when Simon came in from the back where he was doing an oil change. “When he came through that door,” Dwyer said, “his expression never changed. He thought it was something about a car, someone complaining or asking a question or something, you could tell. He had a kind of polite expression on his face. But there wasn’t a flash of recognition or anything. There was nothing.”

When the woman saw him she started sobbing. She called him William. He looked at Dwyer and then at her and said okay. She was his mother and she had been looking for him for five years.

“Why didn’t you try to find us?” she asked.

“I don’t remember,” Simon said. And then he walked back into the garage, to the Lexus he was doing the oil change on. Dwyer followed him back. Simon did not respond when Dwyer spoke to him. He stood there for a moment and then he started to cry. “I’m crazy,” he told Dwyer.