Archive for July, 2012

Looking Up

July 24, 2012

I had a not-so-great night last night. Woke up around 2, spent way too long trying to go back to sleep. Hormones? Humidity? A dear friend’s illness? The election? The fact that I got zero writing done yesterday? The fact that while I was getting zero writing done, a friend of a friend’s debut novel just sold at auction?

Whatever the cause, my lousy night left me feeling too washed out to go to the gym this morning. And the fact that at 10 am I would be talking to the friend whose friend sold her book probably figured into the equation. Despite what I would like to think about myself, the idea of this other person’s success was not sitting well with me.

So I made the bed. Took a shower. Folded the cold wash. Tried (and failed) to fix a leak in the soaker hose that snakes through the petunias. Then I tried something harder. I switched to a new dentist. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy. Two phone calls and it was done. When I told our old dentist’s receptionist where to send our records, she even said, “I’ve heard great things about him!”

I still had about 45 minutes before my phone call. I figured that conversation would be a more fun if I went into it from a position of writerly strength. So, buoyed by my dentist-switching success, I opened the draft of my new novel, and wrote. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy, too. I wrote about someone finding a squashed doll’s head in the garden, until the phone rang.

The conversation was great. My friend was so thrilled for her friend, and the story of how the book got sold was so interesting and exciting, that I couldn’t help but get happy and excited, too. “It means it can happen!” My friend said when I confessed about how I’d been feeling. “It’s good!” And of course she was right. And then something else happened.

You know how in the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast,” after Belle decides she loves the Beast for his inner beauty, he magically transforms into a Rod Stewart look-alike, so she doesn’t have to marry a beast, after all?  That ending has always pissed me off. What kind of lesson is it teaching when her reward for not being shallow is the very thing she would have wanted if she were shallow? I mean, come on, folks! Well, what happened to me next was sort of like that.

Just as I was feeling good about my friend’s friend’s success, and feeling even better about myself for feeling so good about my friend’s friend’s success, the Fed Ex truck pulled up in front of my house. I never get things from Fed Ex. But this time, I did. It was 10 contributor’s copies of Lilith magazine’s Summer 2012 issue, in which my short story, “Letdown,” appears as the third-place winner in the publication’s annual fiction contest.

As my friend continued recounting her happy story, I quietly sliced the box opened, removed the packing paper, pulled out a copy of the magazine, and found my story. It looked great.

And that wasn’t the end of it, either. After I got off the phone, I returned to my writing, buoyed now not just by my dentist-switching success, but also by my friend’s friend’s publishing success, and by seeing my story in Lilith.

I lingered deliciously over the details of the squashed doll’s head’s appearance. I described the hell out of my protagonist’s delight in her find, and I compellingly explored her ambivalence about sharing her discovery with the woman she would be meeting for lunch later in the day, someone she was just beginning to know. Would her new maybe-friend understand her fascination with disembodied doll parts? And if not, what would that mean about the future of their friendship? I was brilliant.

And then the last thing happened. There I was, writing like nobody’s business, when the UPS truck pulled up. WTF? Two deliveries in one day? Who could it be from? And what could it be?

It was from was from a guy I have been friends with since the fifth grade, when we went on an ice-skating “date” in the park. We were closest in high school, which was when I started collecting disembodied doll parts. He was there for my sixteenth birthday, when my cake was decorated with a doll’s arm holding a molar with its braces band still attached. He baked the cake for my seventeenth birthday, which was decorated with an icing portrait of Jerry Garcia. We haven’t seen each other in years, but we have renewed our friendship through Facebook. He is a sculptor now, living in Los Angeles. One of his recent pieces was an enormous hand – basically, a gigantic, disembodied doll part. He had sent me three baby dolls’ hands and two feet, the models for his latest project.

My hormones are still incorrigible. It’s still way too humid. My dear friend is still ill. The upcoming election still scares me. And my first novel is still out on submission. But publishing success is possible. Thousands of readers will find my short story in Lilith. And my good old friend knew exactly where to send his doll parts.

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Things We Did in Colorado Springs

July 16, 2012

–Attended sister-in-law’s annual pig roast: live music, a 90-pound beast laid out with apple in mouth, live music, silly dancing, and marriage proposal (bride-to-be said yes).

–Helped sister-in-law purchase IPad. Developed IPad envy.

–Walked in Rock Ledge Ranch and Garden of Gods. Admired rock & cloud formations.

–“Didn’t notice” Local Traffic Only signs at entrance to Waldo-fire-ravished Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Snapped drive-by photos of devastation. Felt guilty. And lucky.

–Walked mile up and mile back down High Drive, near Cheyenne Mountain. Admired road-side flowers and octogenarian in-laws’ stamina.

–Saw 87-year-old mother-in-law through appendectomy. Relieved and astounded at patient’s resilience. 48 hours post-op, patient was strolling condo complex, supervising son’s gardening work, and even (briefly) picking up hoe herself.

–Ran in Garden of the Gods, 7-7:30, several mornings. Impressed by relative difficulty of running on steep, rock-and-sand trails at 6000 feet, compared to doing same on level pavement, at sea-level. And by how much more beautiful.

–Helped ‘rents-in-law hang pictures that have been sitting in piles since house in Rochester was sold, five years ago. Family photos, American Indian and Inuit prints, art by family members. Noted psychological/philosophical/poetic/whatever significance of said activity taking place so soon after in-laws’ being evacuated due to wild fires.

–Swam in condo-complex pool. Managed to remain placidly in lounge chair while obnoxious neighbor, unsolicited, stood in the water, shaking finger holding forth about likely demise of life as we know it if POTUS is re-elected. Left pool area as soon as politely possible.

–Sorted & divided ancestral textiles, mostly from India– embroidered, woven, silk, fine wool – with sister-in-law.

–Savored time with loved ones we see far too infrequently.

Evacuees

July 7, 2012

For a while, it looked like we might have to delay this summer’s visit to Colorado Springs. The Waldo Canyon fire started spreading towards the city about a week before we were scheduled to arrive. Our family here was forced to evacuate to the home of friends on the other side of town. But the fire was receding and the evacuees back home in time. When we got in, the fire was about 50% contained, and still very much on people’s minds.

The smell of smoke came and went, depending on the direction of the wind. The haze that hung over the mountain may have been smoke from the local fires, or it may have blown south from Wyoming.

One day we watched new plume rise from the center of a green patch high in the hills. S kept watching it. J said that after seeing flames rising from the mountains, one plume of smoke didn’t concern him. Plumes like that had been rising here and there for days.

He said he’d felt calm throughout the ordeal, but after they had returned home and finished a lunch of scrambled eggs, he was suddenly jittery. Not physically shaking. More like psychological jitters, he said. And when he was driving around town and turned on the jazz CDs he likes to listen to when he’s alone in the car, he found himself turning them right off again. Too much noise.

After she came home, S looked around her home, where everything was safe, exactly as she’d left it. She had taken a Buddha that has been in the family a long time, and the little stuffed squirrel she has had since she was little. It’s all just stuff, she said. But if she had to do it again, she would take her grandmother’s drawing of a horse.

Meanwhile, the fires kept burning. The day we arrived, more than a thousand firefighters were still engaged. Every morning and evening, when they changed shifts, grateful neighbors stood at designated intersections cheering and waving signs. You could still see some of the signs when you drove by, taped to trees and fences. “God Bless the Fire Fighters.” “We Love The Fire Fighters.” “Fire Fighters Are Super Heroes.”

One night, the friends who hosted our family during their evacuation came to dinner. It had been in the 90s most of the day, but by evening it was cool enough to sit outside. We ate kabobs and corn on the cob, appreciating each hint of breeze. As we were finishing up, we started feeling the slightest suggestion of rain drops. No one moved from their chairs. After a few minutes it stopped. It hadn’t even been enough to register as a trace on a weather report.

Building a Book

July 2, 2012

I’m trying to build a book. I began about eighteen months ago, with a very clear concept of my protagonist. Like me, P has recently entered a new phase in her life, and is a little bit at a loss. She knows what she’s done and who she’s been. But what’s next?

I asked myself, what if just as P was beginning to figure stuff out, a stranger (S) walked into her life, making a claim that not only threatened P’s plan for the future, but also cast doubt on her assumptions about the past?

That’s the basic idea. I knew what P’s plan was, and what S claimed. I knew, in a broad sense, how P’s response to S would evolve, and how it would all end up.

I understood P’s motives, but wasn’t sure of S’s. I had a basic idea of the most important auxiliary characters – their roles in the story, if not their specific characteristics. I knew the story’s beginning, middle and end, but had only a vague sense of all the stuff in between.

But that was okay. Those details could work themselves out. Right? I just needed to start writing, go with the flow, get as many words down as quickly as I could, and sort it all out later. There’s a technical term for this approach. It’s called pantsing. As in writing by the seat of your pants. Which comes from flying by the seat of your pants. Which, according to this, comes from the early days of aviation, before today’s fancy instruments, when pilots “read” the plane’s reactions by how it felt under their butts. But I digress.

With only the broadest idea, I pantsed the hell out of my story for about nine months, producing many words very quickly, vowing not to stop or look back until I had reached the ending. Following some advice a then-soon-to-be-famous writer gave me in a writing class some time in the 20th century, I kept adding complications. It worked for a while. And then it didn’t. I added so many complications and side tracks that I lost track of my ending. In fact, I never even go to the middle. One day I looked up and realized I had made a huge mess. And I had no interest in cleaning it up.

So I wrote some columns. Played with some picture book ideas. Told myself I sucked. Told myself I didn’t suck. Got a new agent. Revised my other book manuscript. Wrote a short story. Started another short story, but lost interest before I finished. Searched through my files of unfinished projects, and rediscovered my germ of an idea about P trying to plot her future, and S showing up with her inconvenient claim. There, waiting for me beneath the mess of complications and the wild rumpus of unchecked verbiage, were my original beginning, middle and end. And they were still warm.

I decided to try again. Only this time, I would do the opposite of pantsing. I would plan.

I began with the broadest possible, most generic outline. Act I: Introduce character and establish problem. Act II: Complicate. Act III: Resolve and conclude. I divided each act into five chapters, flagging chapters 3, 8 and 12 as tipping points, the halfway-point peaks in the narrative arc of each act. Chapter 8, the dead center of the book, would tip the entire story.

Next, I turned my generic outline into a questionnaire. For each chapter, I asked myself the same set of questions. Where and when does it take place? What are the main events? Which characters are involved? What are the characters’ mental states – the assumptions, dispositions and desires that drive their behavior? What background information does the reader need to learn at this stage? How could the chapters’ beginnings and endings create suspense and help draw the reader through the story?

As I filled in the blanks, I kept a running list of characters and their basic information in a separate document (it’s amazing how easy it is to forget things like someone’s name). When I got frustrated that I wasn’t writing, but only writing about writing, I added first and last sentence(s) to my outline. How many of these sentences will end up in the draft? It doesn’t matter. Writing them helps me figure stuff out. And it helps me remember what this whole exercise is about.

I’ve gotten my form about two-thirds filled in. I think I know how to get from chapter 1 to chapter 8 (the book’s midpoint), and how to get from chapter 12 (the tipping point in Act III) – to the ending. But I’m still a little murky about what how to get from chapter 8 to chapter 12.

But that’s okay. Right? We’re about to go visit family for a few weeks, and I won’t be doing much writing. When I come back, maybe I’ll discover that my unconscious has filled in the rest of the blanks while I was thinking about other stuff. Or maybe I’ll decide it’s time to start writing. If at Chapter 8, I’m still confused, I can always pants.

Like my protagonist P, I’m on the brink of something new. But while P believes she has finally figured everything out, I know that any minute, some unexpected S could wreck havoc on my plans. If and when that happens, I hope I handle it better than my poor protagonist.