Little earthquakes

22 07 2014

Ann Patchett writes lovely characters.

Well, huh, that could be misleading, implying that all of her characters are lovely. They are not.

Let me try again: Ann Patchett is a lovely writer of characters.

Yes, better.

Even when the characters are only briefly sketched, or when she chooses to hide aspects of the character from the reader, she gives you enough that you want to learn more about these people.

Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder is, shall we say, an obdurate personality, bound up in her own understanding of the world and impatient-to-dismissive of alternative views. I found her to be admirable, as well as the kind of person who terrifies me. How does someone get to be that way? What is it like to live utterly without neuroses?

You could put a label on it, I guess, call her some variant of -pathology, but that would take away her humanness, reduce her to that pathological label.

In any case, Patchett doesn’t give us much to go on—here’s Annika Swenson, now deal with it—but she gives us (or me, at any rate) enough to make her a real human being, to make me wonder about her.

Patchett is generally able to make all of her characters, supporting and main, human. I was a bit frustrated with the main character in Patron Saint of Liars—or maybe I was frustrated with Patchett’s withholding of information about her—but I never doubted she existed. (In fact, she’s one of the inspirations for the main character in my second novel, who, like Rose , leaves an apparently decent life to live her own life.)

I do have to admit, however, that the opera singer in Bel Canto, Roxane Cross, never did become real to me. It’s not that she was a cardboard character or that I disbelieved that someone like her could exist, but she never came into view.

A lot of people loved that book, but I did not. It shared, with Run, Patchett’s greatest weakness as a writer: plot.

Now, I didn’t have a problem with the set-up of Bel Canto—a gala is taken over by militants—nor with the  suspension of time in which the hostages and militants alike subsequently live: Patchett excels at setting the stage and the letting her characters loose.

No, the problem was with the resolution. Patchett is fine at setting things in motion, but not so fine at bringing them to a close, and the bigger the push at the beginning, the rockier the ending. Had I been more drawn to Cross, (as I was with the characters in State of Wonder, which suffers from a similar dynamic) I might have been able to walk over those rocks with her, but I wasn’t, and thus was left stranded.

The lack of realness in many of the characters in Run meant that the reader was left mainly to the plot, which was. . . not good. Patchett is generally willing to let things ride for long periods, but in Run, she kept jamming up her characters with unnecessary plotting, with the overdrawn happenings crowding out the characters.

Which is why I think her best novel is The Magician’s Assistant. She sets events in motion, and then just lets them go; what plot developments there are arise from the characters themselves, so instead of these events pulling us, er, me, out of the story of their lives, they drew me further in.

Maybe because, like Taft (a much better novel than its name implies) and Patron Saint, the events are smaller, arising out of her characters lives rather than intruding upon them.

I know: the line between “arising out of” and “intruding upon” can be arbitrary, depending on whether you think a couple of runaways showing up at a bar or long-estranged family arriving to visit the grave of a recently-dead son & brother is organic rather than artificial.

Or maybe Patchett is just better at revealing the beauty in the ordinary than the extraordinary.

In any case, I prefer the ordinary set-ups, largely because Patchett doesn’t have to strain to move her characters into place for the denouement: they move there of their own accord and, in that end, we are left with the people themselves.





To the top of gravity

15 04 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to teach his students to write honestly.

I said, Well, yes, but. . . .

To which he replied, Sure, and. . . .

It’s marvelous to tell writers to write the naked truth, to get the courage to strip oneself naked by remembering that everyone else is naked, too.

Human condition: a talisman for bravery.

Except that, well, maybe not so much “Except that” as “In addition to” the call to honesty one must remind the student-writers to be brave, that honesty often requires bravery, because honesty is a hard good to handle.

To be honest requires bravery because you might get your teeth kicked in.

It is also the case that to be honest can be, as I put it, “giddifying”: you are loosed from yourself as helium bubbles pop through your skin and you can’t quite believe that the words you wrote and are about to send out are your words meant for everyone. You have broken the sound barrier and speed of light and are now stretching beyond time.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I’m being honest, at least how I can feel after having written: discombobulated and disoriented and blinking and wondering just where the gravity went.

Not always, not most times. But sometimes, still.

Such a glorious sensation: I’d chase it forever if it weren’t so unreliable.

Or I, braver.





I will try not to breathe

29 12 2013

So I got back from visiting a friend with C. (we decided against a drink at our bar) and went to bed earlier than I usually do on a Saturday night and it took awhile to fall asleep and I woke up at some point in the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t sleep and I don’t know if it was the visit or the pancakes or coffee or waffle fries but I couldn’t sleep and somewhere in the midst of the not sleeping I came up with an idea for another novel.

I have the title and everything.

Now, I’ve already been working on another novel (and need to finish off the edits of the second novel and oh yeah send out pitch letters) which has been long in incubation and which I really want to see how it works out but now this not-sleep idea came WHOOSH and I think I could knock out a first draft right quick then let it rest while I work on that other novel (and finish the edits of the second and send out pitch letters) and I don’t know, see if I could write two at the same time (they’re very different ideas) and hm there’s that cyborgology conference I want to write a paper for and, well, goddamn.

January’s going to be a busy month.





What’s your name, little girl?

21 09 2013

I’ve written some boneheaded things in my time.

For example, I wrote an editorial for The Daily Cardinal which began “Enough fucking around”, and proceeded to excoriate the Reagan administration for not doing enough to free the hostages in Iran.

And then that whole Iran-Contra thing broke. Yeah.

The narrative I wrote for/about my high school senior class, the one in which I told a tale involving every member of that class? There’s some nasty shit in there; in particular, a smirk about one guy who was sometimes picked on (and maybe a coupla’ of his friends, I don’t remember exactly) being the head of a gay motor-scooter club, or something similarly witless. It was a shitty thing to do: in the mid-1980s, to joke about someone being gay was really no joke at all, and I knew it, and did it anyway.

I’ve tried to avoid meanness since then, and although I do still have some problems with the kind of righteousness which got me in trouble with the hostages, I generally try to write what I’d stand behind, and stand behind what I’d write.

Two recent pieces at Lawyers, Guns & Money, about the names people give their kids, however, have reminded me of a more recent transgression. A coupla’ years ago Ta-Nehisi Coates posted something along these same lines, and a bunch of us jumped in with names we each found ridiculous. I contributed a number of names of people I had known (or known of) whose names were puns—stuff along the lines of Erasmus B. Dragon or Mike Easter.

I regret that now, and pretty much anything else I said about names, mostly because these are real people in the world. They bore no responsibility for their punned names, but because they happened to have crossed paths with me, those names were now held up for ridicule. It was a shitty thing to do, and I should have known better.

So while other LGM writers and commenters were having fun with all of the names they dislike, I couldn’t join in. Oh, there are definitely names I don’t like, but unlike the discussion about the horrors of ketchup, I thought, man, there are people out there with those names, who may love those names, and who are unlikely to shave the distinction between their names being mocked and their persons being mocked.

This doesn’t mean the writers and commenters at LGM are monsters of the universe, any more than I was a monster in writing what I did. Still, it’s a shitty thing to do.





Is this the real life

22 05 2013

I’m so late.

With the edits on Home Away Home, that is. Some time ago K. had expressed interest in the manuscript—she’d liked  The Unexpected Neighbor*—and I said, Ah, yeah, okay, as soon as I give it one last go around.

And then I did nothing.

K. bugged me, and I said Yeah yeah—I know, how awful that someone wants to read your work!—and did nothing. Repeat. And then I thought, Huh, I should get this done.

I made it easier by editing it section by section and sending those off to K. Some sections required sanding, others, sawing, but edits for one through five went pretty well.

And then I got busy with ghosting and grading and in the meantime K. was reading what I’d sent and then she finished and said, Hey. . . and I said Two weeks. And then did nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing: I started with the edits and again with the sanding and sawing and then I hit a point at which I realized Oh, crap, I’m gonna need a bigger saw, and stepped off.

I’ve stepped back up, proceeding bit by bit, but MAN do I have to dial it back. Both The Unexpected Neighbor and Home Away Home are dialogue-heavy and both suffer from the same defect: my tendency to make the characters too knowing.

Actually, it’s not just that they’re too knowing; it’s that this knowingness gets in the way of realistic dialogue. Now, were I writing a mannered piece, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the characters of both of these novels inhabit worlds I’d like readers to recognize; thus, they have to sound like real people.

I don’t mind that I over-write on the first draft; what I do mind is that it’s not until many drafts later that I manage to pare it back. I don’t know what I’m doing on those other drafts—it’s not as if these two works are plot-heavy—but apparently I can’t see the over-knowing dialogue until after I’ve worked everything else out.

Presuming, that is, that I’ve worked everything else out. . . .

~~~

*Click on that link and it’ll take you to Smashwords, where you can buy the novel for the princely sum of 3 bucks! Half the cost of a pint of Guinness! Less than a latte! Totally worth it!





Snap that thing thread, cont.

1 04 2013

There is one area in which I’ve never been good, will never be good, and. . . I don’t mind.

I’m talkin’ ’bout writing, specifically, deadline-oriented writing. I always wait until the latest possible moment to start something, and I always pull it off.

Always: there may have been times in which I didn’t, or turned out something so terrible that I might as well have burned past the due date, but excepting those few moments of freak out (paralysis in assembling an undergrad policy paper) or granted-ahead-of-time extension (grad human rights paper), I git ‘er done.

Now, latest possible moment doesn’t mean last possible minute. A research paper requires, duh, research, and the latest possible moment for a long and complicated piece might be, say, a week or two, while the lead time for a short and simple piece is a day or two. The point is that I’ll almost always have more time than a day or week or two, but will wait until I can feel the deadline before cracking open the word processor.

I have no control over when that feeling arrives. I’ve mentioned previously that I am not a particularly intuitive person and I don’t trust my gut, but this is not anything I’ve been to reason my way through. I can tell myself Get to work!, but unless that stress switch gets flipped by something beyond my comprehension, it ain’t happening.

And I’m fine with that.

That might be the one thing which distinguishes my writing procrastination from every other kind of procrastination: the stress is productive, creative, even. It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience—long days fixated on a required task are rarely pleasant—but I don’t hate it, either. Instead of anxiety scattering my mind, the pressure charges my concentration. I don’t lose focus—I gain it.

Like I said, I don’t know why or how this works for me, I just know that it does, and have been taking advantage of this. . . skill (?) for as long as I’ve had writing due.

~~~

. . . Which is another way of stating I’m up against a ghosting deadline, and may be a spectral presence on this blog for the next week.





Big wheel keep on turnin’

25 03 2013

Funny how that works: You start writing, and then. . . you just keep writing.

The upside of inertia.





Working in the coal mine, work, work

10 03 2013

I blog for free.

I like the sound of my own voice, and, as I once introduced myself, I have lunch and opinions; so when something pops up, I go, Hey, what do I think of this? And then I blog about it, to figure out my thoughts.

I also write (as in: write draft-edit-edit-rewerite-edit. . .) for free, as in This is something that I have to do, and so I do it. I’ll put it on Smashwords and Barnes & Noble and Amazon and hope someone pays for it, but, really, the cash isn’t going to flow.

I do these for free, in other words, because it pleases me.

If you want me to please you, however, then you have to pay me. I’ll be nice if you ask, and I’ll be nice when you pay, but if you want me to labor and you don’t want to compensate me for the fruits of that labor, then (cue Harlan Ellison): Fuck you. Pay me.

Nate Thayer and an Atlantic editor kicked off this latest iteration of Pay the Writer when the editor asked Thayer not simply for permission to repost something he’d already written, but to re-write it. When he asked how much he’d get paid, this was the response:

We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.

You, editor, who are getting paid to work for a for-profit company, approached someone to work for you knowing that you couldn’t pay him for that work? And then you waved the exposure flag?

Some have criticized Thayer for publishing the editor’s name and e-mail address (e.g., in these comments) , but even privacy-crazed me think that if you approach someone in a professional capacity using your work e-mail, then, no, it’s not unreasonable for said work e-mail to be published. I wouldn’t have published the address—there be dragons in cyberspace—but this matter ought not be the takeaway from the exchange.

No, the takeaway should be: Don’t fucking ask people to work for you if you can’t pay them cash-money. The website gets 13 million readers a month? As Thayer noted in an interview, I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent.

Miz Emily, er, Emily L. Hauser noted in her blog that she has written for The Atlantic for free, albeit at her own instigation. While she was glad  to appear on the site,  the fact of that byline has opened no doors, nor has it led to a single offer for paying work — when editors talk about the value of “exposure,” I can only hope that they’re ignorant of what a chimera that is.

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic published a long piece on the economics of digital journalism, and he makes a number of reasonable points about its dismal fiscal prospects. Okay, it’s hard out there for an editor—but that doesn’t excuse your own attempts to off-load that difficulty on to freelance writers.

Madrigal is arguing, in other words, that the choices for a quality publication are all bad, but hey, whatchoo gonna do? I don’t like to ask people for work that we can’t pay for. But I’m not willing to take a hardline and prevent someone who I think is great from publishing with us without pay. My main point and (to be normative about it) the main point in these negotiations is this: What do you, the writer, get out of this?

And then he sighs again about the difficulties of his job. For which he is being paid.

I know that my posts get re-posted with some regularity—not because they’re so great, but because there are any number of auto-aggregator sites out there that scoop up anything and everything they see. I don’t really like it, but they do link back to my site, and they’re not asking me to do more work. For free.

Jessica Hische has this great graphic Should I Work For Free (which someone posted a link to in the comments on a like-minded John Scalzi post), and the upshot is pretty much: No.

And that’s pretty much my upshot, with the following caveat: If The Atlantic wanted to repost something which I had written for me own pleasure, then, sure, the exposure might be nice; I was, after all, thrilled when being Freshly Pressed led to an increase in my Absurd readership.

But if you want me to work to please you: pay me.





A year has passed since I wrote my note

3 01 2013

You know that second novel? The one that needed just one, final, editorial swipe before I sent it out to. . . whom/wherever, never to be heard from again?

It’s been over a year since I began that one, final, editorial swipe.

Yeah.

I hauled it out of cold storage a coupla’ nights ago, and had to click around to make sure that I was working on the latest file because, y’know, it couldn’t have been since October 2011 that I last opened Home Away Home. Yeesh.

And it’s stupid, because while I’ve caught a few typos and made a few minor revisions here and there, there are only 2-4 spots where major revisions are required, and each of those 2-4 spots is maybe 1000, 1500 words long.

Now, those spots are crucial dialogues—the plausibility of the plot can be said to hang on believability that first dialogue, and the reader’s sense of the characters requires that the other dialogues sound like they’re coming from the characters and not from, well, me—but MAN, holding up a 152,000-word manuscript because I can’t shake loose 5000 good words?

Damn.

So that’s what I’ve been doing—not, y’know, panning for those 5000 words, but checking over the other 147,000 words to make sure that those, at least, are settled. Then I’ll hunker down with those last bits and sift and swirl and go round and round until I find the pieces that fit, until everything fits.

I’ll be damned if that takes me another year.





I want to ride my bicycle

25 11 2012

I hate writing, but I love having written.

I would never say that.

Having written is just fine—there is a satisfaction after finishing a long or difficult piece—but I don’t love it. And even with the satisfactions, there is also a kind of emptiness at the completion. I’m done is an occasion for melancholy and relief.

But writing? Hell yeah, I love writing. It’s even something beyond love: It’s as if I become who I am, that there is no distance between the being and the doing, that everything comes together in a moment of tumbling stillness. I disappear and am more there than I ever am, less a paradox than a transcendence, a clarity of purpose in which the purpose dissolves into itself.

Working out, on the other hand, yeah: I hate working out, but I love having worked out.

No, I don’t really hate working out, but I don’t really like it, either. I put up with it, because I don’t like what happens when I don’t. I want to be fit and reasonably trim and able to take care of myself, and so I work out. But the weightlifting and the bicycling and the stretching and all that?

Eh.

When I was younger I was fairly active, but I have no idea if I liked workouts or not. Maybe I did, or maybe I just didn’t think to ask whether or not I liked working out. I said I liked running, and, honestly, on my best days I still do like running, but did I really mean it? Did I really like lacing up the Brooks or Adidas or Saucony and wriggling into my jog bra and heading out to loop around the track or the neighborhood?

It’s possible, I guess, but this was probably a story I told myself as a way of crowbarring my sorry ass off the couch. I had an image of myself as more-or-less athletic, so I needed to say that I enjoyed partaking of athletic activities. Even if I didn’t.

Well, okay, I did like playing catch or shooting around, and I do enjoy taking bike rides with friends, but hauling myself on to my bike to lap around Prospect Park or over to the gym? Nope. Means to an end.

It’s good that I don’t hate weightlifting or biking, because I do like what they do for me: Nicer arms, stronger legs, increased endurance—and the sense that I’m not just a slug growing in Brooklyn.

But if I could accomplish all of that by napping? Oh, now that’s something I do enjoy.








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