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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Burning the Colossus

I probably wouldn't be alone in saying that I once had a slightly morbid obsession with Sylvia Plath. Who wouldn't want to be brilliant, gaunt, and tragically resistant to death? Oblique references to doomed romances? Count me in. When I took a poetry class in college and wrote appropriately morbid poetry, the instructor touted me as a Ms. Plath in the making. I took it as a compliment.

I thought I was over it until I rented Sylvia, which chronicles her relationship with Ted Hughes. Doomed romance, yes. Brilliant, gaunt (at least Gwyneth Paltrow is), and tragically resistant. Check. Not resistant enough. How painful it was to see kindred spirits fueling and consuming each other, the spark that brought them together the same spark that eventually extinguished her life and altered his permanently. It was romantic, but not in the way I had thought when I pored over The Bell Jar. To write poetry was to live poetry. Brilliance could only come from extreme loss.

I'm not so sure I feel differently now. My friend Tina's first novel (Nothing But The Truth and a Few White Lies - read it!) just came out, and it's quite simply fabulous. Hilarious and heartwarming. And clearly, despite the comedy, it flows out of a real sense of displacement, a trueness that is nearly heartbreaking. If you talk with her, she will tell you that her writing didn't step into that realm of trueness until she began to write from the heart. Her writing has always been amazing to me. But it's true - the work from her heart is extraordinary.

My own work flows out of loss - the loss of my daughter, the loss of a very close friend's sister. I hope I can do them justice, and sometimes I worry that I'm exploiting their lives by spinning them into a story. But then the story has taken on a life of its own, separate from me or my friend or my daughter or her sister. The particulars couldn't be more disparate, even if the emotions are true. Maybe not so much in the case of my daughter, whose life was so brief and vivid that I can't help but remember every detail. I feel a bit like Lady Lazarus, too - back from the dead, arisen from a year of grieving and another year spent with our second daughter. Survival seems like a gift too precious to waste.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Semilogical Universe

One of the beauties (and terrors) of writing fiction is that you get to start with a completely blank slate. The field is wide open for wacky quirks, horrific pasts, and scintillating secrets. My first instinct is to stay close to home, but when I get up a little courage and start letting my characters wander in their own universe, I'm amazed by the surprises that crop up.

You would think writing would be easier than real life because of this wide-open, anything goes-ness. But English majors everywhere could spend eons clueing the rest of us into the fact that the fictional universe has to be more logical than the one we live in. Ours has loose ends all over the place. In fiction, everything has to make sense. That doesn't necessarily translate as "happy ending," but the ending has to make sense. When it doesn't, you come away feeling gypped.

You see this most strikingly in fantasy. In all of the fantasy-writing workshops I've attended, the big take-away has always been to keep your universe logical. The magic, particularly, must be logical, since you can't have a spell work one way in one chapter and a different way in another (unless that's the nature of the spell - still a logic). Harry Potter does this beautifully - you can predict with fair certainty that if you see a cool spell in the first chapters of the book, it will somehow save his bespecticled hiney in the last. It's no less important in everyday contemporary fiction, though the "magic" may be a relationship, symbolic object, or family skeleton.

One of the biggest challenges (for me, anyway) is to fit the unknown in with the known. I know my character relatively well by now, and I know how she feels about various people in her life and how the events of the novel are shaping her and those around her. In particular, I'm currently focused on her relationship with her parents, which is probably one of the biggest arcs in the story. Hence the parents themselves, and even their relationships with their own parents, must fit together. I know some of the pieces, and I can guess at others. I can see how they have affected my character, but it's up to me to be the logic detective. Eliminate the impossible, consider the (sometimes ridiculous) probable. Sometimes it helps to try different scenarios on for size:
  1. Mother came from rich family, married beneath her, always trying to measure up.
  2. Mother came from poor family, wanted to marry above and didn't, feels constant shame.
  3. Mother came from intellectual family, married blue collar, must overcompensate.

Any of these could get me close to where I'm going (mother wants to prevent daughter from making mistakes), but that's not enough. I need to hit it precisely. Psychology can be messy in real life, but not in fiction.

Amazingly, these problems often solve themselves as I just keep going. Start with the familiar, explore to the extreme, come back to what is true in this virtual semilogical universe.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Club Hopping

First things first: I hit my goal! Yea!!! Molly would be so proud.

Now, on to club-hopping.

Even after years of writing, I still haven't figured out my schedule. There's the Butt-in-chair Club. There's Club 100, whose members diligently write 100 words per day for 100 days. There's the 4 a.m. Club. There's the Whenever-my-muse-shows-up Club.

I have dabbled in all of these clubs (even the 4 a.m. Club when aforementioned daughter was on the "On 2 hrs/Off 2 hrs" schedule...are you people insane?), but never really found a place to hang my quill. Now I'm perhaps the charter member of the One-day-per-week Club, which - miraculously - seems to work for me. I'm getting more done now than I ever have. (Nobody said this was good writing, but that's another topic).

Like many writers before me, I have discovered a secret of the universe: busy people get more done. Here's my theory on why it works for me:

When I sneak away to the library on Wednesdays,

a) I remind myself this is what I want to be doing (gold star, because this is truly the primary reason anyone should write);

b) I am paying somebody for the priviledge of doing it. Money is a huge motivator - or rather, the waste of it. I hate waste. Guilt is my beloved monkey; and

c) My husband will kill me if I don't. ("We spent how much for a sitter so you could write, and you've written 300 words in the last month??") Or rather, that's what I would say if I were him (see b).

Now that the big hunks are mostly in place, the little hunks and glue are starting to take shape - things that maybe I could tackle in short bursts, like 100 words/day. Maybe not for a hundred days, but it's worth a try.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Four Agreements

Three hours...three scenes...three thousand words...three more ways to torture my protagonist...

This was supposed to be four-four-four-four, but I procrastinated too much. Darn that library internet.

Full of Clif and wind, I'm off. See ya at the other side.




Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Spinning Webs into Words

I'm not one of those writers who loves to tell stories. That would be too easy. Without naming names (e.g. I am too lazy to go look up the sources), I can relate to the guy who said that writing is like opening up a vein. Or the woman (Jane Yolen, maybe? Katherine Paterson?) who said that writing comes out one word at a time, as a spider draws her web out of her own body.

So you can imagine the thrill when something (thank God!) comes easily - that moment of epiphany when you realize what's missing, why your character's final conclusions just aren't clicking, and what will make it all better. It's even nicer when it happens just before you can actually do something about it.

It's Tuesday night, and tomorrow is writing day. So I'm off to see if I can coax my brain into a little subconscious multi-tasking.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Worry Warthog-face

There's a lot of worry that goes into writing a novel. First, you worry about writing something that doesn't suck. Then you worry about writing something that's actually pretty good. Then you worry that when people laugh, it's not because you're funny but because you're a dork. Then you worry that you'll never write enough, then that you'll write too much, then that it will never get published (and this is likely for the vast majority of things people write), then that if you want to get published that you're not loving the process enough, not a real writer. Then there's worry over neglecting other responsibilities, worry about msg in takeout food, worry that the baby is going to grow up demented because mommy spent much of her life staring at the Hello Kitty laptop, worry, worry, worry.

Did I mention that I'm a person who worries?

But there's therapy for the baby, and there's the natural foods market across the street. As for the other worries, I try to remind myself that the lamest thing written is better than the most brilliant thing not, and just the fact that I sit here with bum-in-chair is all the validation I need that I'm a real writer. I read over Anne Lamott's SFD chapter and drink some nice tea. And I look forward to my Wednesdays where I can stretch out my brain and chip away at the vast landscape of ideas I store away in my mind all week. The canvas never looks like it does in my head. Never. But sometimes it gets dangerously close, and I am encouraged.

The bigger worries involve exposure - so I guess it's a good thing that I start with blogging and get used to the idea of my innermost thoughts being available to any casual reader. Inner landscape and exposure are indeed one of the core novel themes, which I guess makes sense, considering my tagline ("what do you have in your soul?" in case you missed it). And what is real, and what is fiction, and what fiction will readers think is real, and who is going to sue me for slander (you can't libel the dead, right?). But for the record, this is entirely a work of fiction in which the tiniest seeds of real life have been sprinkled as compost, sprouting here and there in ways that don't remotely resemble my life, the lives of my friends, or any family members. I draw inspiration from what I read, but I absolutely, unequivocally promise that I have never and will never in my life plagiarize (unless, after hearing you say something really cool, I follow up with, "Oooh, can I steal that for my novel?" which does happen rather frequently).

I don't know why I had to get that off my chest, but I did. I guess I was worried.

Welcome to Brimstone Soup

It's about time I started this. Alas, for the last year I've been blogging my daughter's life instead of mine. Late Lucy, yup, that's me. But there is value, I think, in sitting back, taking in all of the information, and giving it some thorough rumination. That's what it takes to write a novel. Or at least that's what it takes for me. Thinking, writing, scrapping, more thinking, walking, changing a few diapers, thinking while showering, getting to know the baby (live baby and novel baby), tearing oneself up oneside and down the other, getting a reality check from the critique group, deciding maybe whatever I wrote isn't so bad, more thinking, more writing, etc. And don't forget sleeping. Having a baby means being perpetually sleep deprived, and sleep is essential to the creative process.

So more to the point, I'm blogging about my novel-writing process. This is the secret YA novel, the one I wouldn't even talk about for months for fear of jinxing it. So don't ask, because I'm not going to tell you what it's about unless you're in my writing group. Time is precious and limited - I get one day a week to work on it, when my friend comes to watch my 1 year old daughter (who is more the Olivia type than the perfect-TV-baby type and requires a lot of attention the rest of the week). So it's slow-going. Lots of stuff is going into it, so "Soup" is an appropriate title. Definitely not chicken soup. And interest is brewing in different corners.