Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tom 301 - For Advanced Writers Only

I won't name names but there is a famous author who once lamented that there were not yet college courses being offered in that author’s name but, hopefully, there would be soon.

That author needed my brother Tom to come over and push that author off that author’s chair.

Tom is one of those very approachable, super-kind people who are hugely successful because they are 100% suited to what they do. They radiate their good expectations of their lives, and only talk to one or two people when they’re blue instead of dragging their address book down with them. When I have a party it is Tom everyone wants to sit next to, including me, and if someone gets drunk and laughs extra large over humor that is only medium, it is Tom who makes them feel the next day like everyone else did the same thing.

Unless they're pretentious. Here is what happened when I tried once to say a pretentious thing to Tom:

Me: (tilting head and looking serious) Have you heard that expression, “Forgiveness is the violet of the heel that’s crushed it?”
Tom: No.
Me: Wait, that was wrong. It’s “Forgiveness is the violet of the fragrance…” No. Wait.
Tom: Okay.
Me: Ah. This is it. “Forgiveness is the fragrance of the heel that has crushed the…”
Me: I’m mixing up Forgiveness and Fragrance. Okay. Hold on.
Tom: Okay.
Me: “Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet which clings to the heel that has crushed it.”
Tom: Christ.
Me: That’s it.
Tom: Please, just tell me if I love something I’ll set it free… yadee, yadee, yadee.

(Don’t you wish he was your brother?)

Our exchanges are all over the map but I take that one in particular out and look at it when writing becomes flowery, or pretentious, or God forbid, “gauzey,” the worst, and laziest adjective ever born to describe a writer’s style. Pretentious writing among other things, inflates a point which probably belongs in the “goes without saying,” bin. It’s almost as tedious as moody writing, those short sentences or strings of words which all say the same thing but in a different way, as though a reader will come around and be in your mood with you if you poke at them enough.

He looked at the door. Stared. Didn’t look away. Time went by. Still. He stared.
And then, when staring wasn’t enough – he couldn’t look away. He stared some more.
At the door.
He was alone. He was tired. He was forgotten. He was a violet on the heel of a fragrance of a boot.

I love second day editing for that reason. You’re in a different mood, maybe not as gloomy or - gauzey. Maybe not as cheerful or perky. You look over that last half of a paragraph before the chapter ends and see all those fragments absent the influence that made them magical when you typed them and you realize - it’s not standalone. It needs to lean on your writer mood or it will fall down. Standalone writing, the kind that looks great no matter what comes before or after or how long it’s been there on the page is, like having those conversations with Tom that make you feel understood.

Unless you try to be pretentious. I will not be pretentious, even Someday, or I'll get pushed off my chair.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Thoughts from Bedford Falls

My kids are home from college.
It’s been snowing (politely) for two days and the yard looks like the Christmas card on my desk. I’m baking cookies, wrapping presents, listening to the Rat Pack, telling everyone not to look in the dining room. If I were a movie, I’d turn me off and say “Oh, please.”

And speaking of movies…
We’ve already watched the home movies and made fun of my wide, 80’s hair and my husband’s clothes. Watched three times, the birthday party at which my daughter answered every question asked of her with the word, “two.” Moved on to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Same daughter: “I don’t know. I’d still be pissed about that $8000.”)

The kids decorated the tree last night while we stayed out of the way and eavesdropped. The easy banter they share – the kind one only shares with co-stars from the same home movies - made me laugh until I didn’t think my face would change back.

My sons stayed up until an ungodly hour doing the nothing in particular you do when people you've missed are in the same room.

This morning I had eggs, toast and coffee with my daughter without planning it in advance. I like it that now, if one of us uses a swear word in conversation the other one doesn’t flinch. We say, “I know. Seriously,” a lot.

I’ll wander around the house today, look out the window and wrap things. Later, I’ll see the rest of my family at an annual party.

This year, I have taken the things I’m worried about, dreading, regretting, fearful of, and scooped them like crumbs on the counter top into December 27. This year, between the financial and the professional, I will have a full day on December 27.

But for the week that is before me, the days that are within view, I am going to look hard at my personal fortune, memorize it, marinate in it. In a year, I won’t remember December 27. But if I’m doing this right, I will remember December 20, and a week that followed when the beauty was allowed in where it’s warm.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I've had a tough week. Pass me those metaphors.

My book is after me.
It was limp and pale and feverish.
I made it better and now it wants to thank me.
Everywhere I go, there it is.

It’s a metaphor day, I love those. I try not to say writer-things to non-writers who care for me because it means they'll have to work so hard not to tell me I sound like a pom-poms arse. But I lost power for five days. I had a post-concussion headache for three weeks. And the whole time, even with a headache in the dark, I let everyone go first at intersections because it's the holidays. So I’m going to have a metaphor post because I’ve been very good.
Without further ado:

I’ve compared this process of finishing and rewriting a novel to labor and delivery (like 4978675 other writers) but it is, it is, it is like that. Minus the feeling that one’s body is splitting in half, there is the same panicky feeling that comes toward the end when there is:

No turning back. You don’t want to turn back, but if you did, you couldn't.

Because I began the book with the ending in mind, I wrote toward it, bringing the first draft right up to the penultimate scene. Then I went across the street and looked at it from there and realized…it wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t a girl, it was a boy! Not a Francesca after all, but a Frankie. If I was going to Do Everything, I would need all new t-shirts and onesies, in different colors. And a blue frame around the giraffe picture, not pink, or that lame, not-sure-yellow. This is why people keep boy names for their girls. It's just too hard to change Everything and make a new picture. It's a lot of work.

Writers who are unpleased with an arc are never bored. In traffic lines, in supermarket lines, we’re near the page we left open at home. We’re writing still. It’s like having a round the clock dilemma to work through. You can’t make it happen, you can only wait. So you wait and wait, and get frustrated with all those false breakthroughs, until finally at a light, in the dentist chair, while you’re looking at your cat, the awful/thrilling question comes: Would this be better? Then you say, Yes. It would be a lot better. It would be perfect.

And it’s time. The “real” breakthrough has arrived.

I was writing a scene a few nights ago that had been coming together for a while in my head, and then zip, zip, zip - there it was. I looked at it and said, "Of course. He gets custody of the teenager. Of course he does."

It is a page long, about 400 words, and the sentences are sparse, but it lays out the chemistry, history, and motivation between two characters better than any short story I could write. What was there before was maybe a B, adequate enough. What is there now is a 4.0. I realized…this works. Then I realized…it will change Everything.

I thought about the rest of the book, the things I could push around a little, maybe reword, edit out, but that only seemed like writing with make-up on. Serious writers don't turn their backs on writing that can be truer. The only choice is to embark on some ruthless, Serious rewriting until the day comes again when you can sit at a red light without staring into space and getting honked at.

There is no turning back. It's mine, I asked for it, and the book will not be what I imagined originally, but wonderfully better; rich with life, love, feeling, meaning, and spirit.

Like my life after my children were born.

(I had to. This is a metaphor post and that one is the truest of all).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Word count on a yesterday day

Because I'm doing (or have plans to do) Everything to write, rewrite and launch my novel, by 9:00 on a typical Serious day I’ve done my work-out and have written 1000 words or more.

When I read about other writers “avoiding the page,” it makes no sense. We don’t go through the publication and submitting process because there’s nothing else to do – we’re Serious, most of us.

I understand it completely.

It’s not a block, it’s a disconnect between the stars of the mind that have to align in order to create. On good days, that connection falls in without a lot of prep work. You pack up your imagination and la-la-la, wander deep into the forest-mind of your character, visualizing everything from a facial expression to the sound of traffic going by. And you write it all down before the tape stops. You say "There! Done!" and wheel back from the desk in your chair. On bad days, you’re in two places at once. You’re wondering how a character would react to a murder scene, while you consider a holistic treatment for the dog’s hot spot.

Yesterday by 9:00, I’d sent an e-mail to a couple of people to see if anyone else thinks Rod Blagojevich resembles Michael Scott with bangs, checked out mug shots of musicians on Smoking Gun to prove to my son that Axl Rose had been arrested (he has), read a couple of Onion articles, made a shopping list, and clicked on most of the AOL headlines (what pop star under 25 just gave birth to number four, I wanted to know). Then I windexed the glass surfaces in my attic, looked for "Christmas Festival" by the Boston Pops, IM’d my violist daughter who was having a bad AM, and skimmed all of my favorite sites authored by Very Serious writers. This made me (finally) go back to my WIP, where I changed “as though,” to “as if,” sixteen times.

Yield by 10:00: fourteen words.

Because yesterday was such a crappy day weather and Economy wise, I was pretty convinced by 4 PM that I would fail to Do Anything, much less Everything, in spite of what it says up there at the top of this page.

But just for fun, at around 4:05, I opened a page. I did a little editing. A little thinking, and dreaming. I had the right music playing. And I wrote a scene that nailed the relationship between two major characters, when they witness a crime scene together.

And now I’m in love again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

That's why

When I gave birth to our daughter, even though I was on the quiet side, and was never, ever, ever like women who tell their husbands not to touch them again, I did wonder, after twenty-six hours, how women go through it more than once. I did, yes I did, think I might be able to get by on one child. Four children later, I can tell you it’s horse-you-know-what that you forget the pain (I can describe it today). But you start to accumulate so much on the benefit side of the equation that sooner or later you think, “The pain, well, yes. But they have tiny parts of you, and tiny parts of him, and they smell great and they adore you and they have those knuckle-less hands. Okay, let’s.”

This is what it’s like when you finish the draft of a novel and know you have to start the agonizing rewrites. It’s the labor. You’ll have to fire some characters, or at least bring out their motivation. You may have to line through whole sections to allow a breakthrough the room it needs to grow. “This hurts. I’ll just do this one book and be done.” Sooner or later, your book gets knuckles and there you are saying, "Wouldn't it be funny if four old guys had a contest to see who could get arrested first?" Chapter One.

In the meantime, several questions bubble up during the tedious and exhilarating stage of revising, some to ignore, some to consider, among them: “What is the audience for this? Why does this matter?” If you are in the wrong kind of mood it’s only a short hop over to: “Why am I doing this?” and then you know it’s time to make a tin foil ball and play hockey with the cat.

Or, read someone else on the subject. I’m blog robbing, but from Janet Reid’s site, I was directed to Murderati where I read this, something which affected me so deeply, I wound up staring out the window like a character in my women’s fiction of olde. Sometimes it isn’t why you write, but for whom. And it isn't because of what writing does to change your life, but maybe someone else's.

A timely epiphany, Sunday is almost over and Monday rewrites await.