Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Flying under the radar

Maybe if I tried to only post once a month I'd succeed in doing it three times a week? I seem contrary as a cat. It never seems possible as much time has gone past as actually has.

Short update. I'm about to jump into fiction after doing 2 of 5 short blurb nonfiction things that took less time than I could have expected but more time than I wanted them to, and an afternoon of financial things I don't understand and other work that several friends have so generously loaned me their expertise on that I'm amazed and grateful.

But the jumping isn't going well. I turned in the last assignment close to an hour ago. I should be writing by now. I should at the very least want to be writing by now. I certainly wanted to earlier.

I'm thinking the fiction has to come first again. I don't know how. I have no idea how to drive off the nagging terror that I'm not making money and justifying my existence before I do the thing I love rather than after -- All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy -- but I used to do it. And I want it back.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Process, Possibly Painful

Not the writing itself, but the getting to where I can.

We are moving. This seemingly simple statement appears to actually be a euphemism for We are sitting in the house we're supposed to be moved out of, staring at a great many things that aren't even close to packed, many of which are breakable and have their own original boxes and packing, though we don't know where, and many of which are large, heavy and unwieldy (cats, for example, and entertainment units) and we're moving those and a major appliance and all the stuff in the kitchen. I predict, with optimism, that we will finish our move in 2015. Late 2015.

In the meantime, I'm writing around the move as best I can. Not because I'm wonderful and dedicated and all that, but because of a recent awakening that shook me up and that I don't believe I've chronicled here and therefore should, because it was definitely process-intensive and shook me up.

But I am writing. More than usual. 2000 word days when I can, and a lot of swearing when I can't. And what amazes me is the number of things that come up to stop it. This past week I wrote 4896 words on Tuesday and 3019 words on Wednesday. Thursday I had several short articles due, and every intention of doing them within a specific time frame, doing some moving and errands, having midnight tea with another night owl (we meet by phone Thursday night or Friday morning at midnight and drink tea and talk.) Furthermore, the short articles I was doing were actually due on Friday, but I was doing them Thursday in order to take Friday to do nothing other than a lunch meeting and FICTION.

So here's what really happened. The schedule I'd set for myself - the how long errands had to take, the unpacking and refilling of a bookcase at the new house, the driving home again to the current/old house - all that took only 30 minutes longer than I'd budgeted, which was fine. Some of the other stuff for that day was random and didn't have to be done right then. But the short articles I'd figured would be done after I talked to Rick on his "lunch" break (8:30 p.m. and why don't they just call it dinner?) and before talking to the midnight friend and afterwards I'd have a treadmill run AND do a little fiction on Thursday, too.

Nope. The articles which should have been done in three hours (they're specific, have very controlling guidelines, and are very short) took six. The midnight tea was shorter than usual, but between the extra 30 minutes everything else took, and losing three hours on the articles, I had 50 minutes left when I finished and, logically, since my brain was tired and the stories required catching up to where I'd been, I gave up and watched "Friends" until Rick got home.

OK, I can deal. I'm grouchy, because not writing on the day before an all-day-for-writing day means it balances out word-count-wise and is kind of a waste of time. The all day fiction is still wonderful, but it doesn't really up my word count for the week. Still, I was looking forward to Friday.

So here's what happened to Friday.

Friday I woke after 5 hours sleep (we didn't get to bed till after 5 a.m. and I'm very tired of the nocturnal thing, not to mention just very tired) so I could shower and make the 40 minute drive to the lunch. The lunch itself was good in some ways, in that more was accomplished or at least will be and the magazine it was for is doing better than I thought, so all in all I'm glad I went, but curious about some of it. Several people had to leave between 1:00 and 1:30 and the published didn't start talking actual publishing things until then. For the majority of lunch, it was just lunch. I had figured on 90 minutes tops, and it was 150 - 2 and 1/2 hours. Granted, good things happened for me and the nonfiction (pays the mortgage) writing in that last hour, but I had intended to leave at 1:30, run by the new house briefly and be home by 3:00. Writing.

That didn't happen. At all. I didn't get to the new house until 3:00, and once there, sick of fighting to get to the fiction*, I chose to head over to the Humane Society and spend some time both scoping out who to talk to for an upcoming article and petting a bunch of cats.

(*Sometimes when I fight, fight, fight all the things that need doing and want doing and so on to get to the fiction, the fiction feels put out and just sulks once I'm there. I'm not sure if this falls into the category of the way once I get caught up recording rejections for stories more come in [a bit magic] or if it's just that sometimes when I have to keep dealing with reality, it's harder to fall into fantasy. But it happens more than I'd like.)

Just before I got to the Humane Society something caused me to look at the horrid truck's dash displays. Rick says I must have noticed something, or heard something, without being aware. But something made me look, and the truck was running just a whisker away from the red. Amazingly hot. As well, it was 3:22 or so, and he starts work at 3:30, which meant he'd already be in Herlong, but he wasn't actually working. So I parked in the county complex and called him promptly and he told me how to do a great many things I didn't know how to do - checking things, opening things to begin with, etc. - whereupon I was able to report back that the coolant in the overflow container was actually boiling and spitting through a hose to nowhere that was attached to the overflow.

The long and short of which is that he drove back from Herlong, forsaking the Friday overtime day, and I wish it could have happened at 2:30 when he'd been in Reno, but of course I was still at the meeting and antsy and trying to leave. And I went into the Humane Society and talked to a lot of cats and a lot of people and spent the hour I'd likely have spent there and Rick came back and did things to the truck and took it home with me driving the car which, though it's mine, now felt like sitting in a deep, dark hole - one gets used to the tall of a truck.

I was giddy happy all of Friday night, having him home. I made pizza and we watched "The Bourne Identity." But there was no fiction and only a few hundred words Saturday when I had an off moment.

There was, actually, a point to this but I can't identify it now. Perhaps persistence (someday I will tire of this alliteration), though I didn't win through. I was so happy having Rick home I didn't write Friday (I can't write when he's home anyway) and only wrote something like 350 words Saturday while he was washing the truck. Today we're going to the new house and I have half a mind to pull out the laptop that's already there and play with a novel proposal while he drywalls a beam, but it wont work. Reality says I'll be interrupted too often and the idea is crazy-making.

Maybe my point is nothing more than this: Sometimes not writing is not your fault. Next post: When not writing was absolutely my fault.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A short, kind of process-y, nonfiction intrusion

So this is going to be short, because I'm going to go do fiction in a few minutes, because I've been annoyed to find that I have finally played a fiction writer's game with myself and managed to find a way to make fiction impossible for me to do. That annoys me not because I have always felt superior to fiction writers who weird themselves out, but because I have simply never done so before and really didn't need to learn how to start.

But in a short aside on the nonfiction (pays-the-rent) front, I'd just like to note something to those people who give assignments from those of us who write the assignments.

Basically. Writers who write for a living are excited to get work. Sometimes we're even excited by things that look like they're going to be really hard and hurt our brains. We're weird that way and, at least in my case, if I didn't love it, I wouldn't be doing it.

But. If you give a writer writing work and request the writer do the following 5 things on the project (Things 1 through 5) and the writer sends back Things 1 through 5 and maybe Things 6 through 10 because they looked helpful or professional or logical or could be discarded if unwanted, that's fine. No reason to pat the writer on the head. No need to say thank you for being so thorough and professional. That's fine. The writer was simply moved to go the extra step, or believed in the project, or likes to give more value for the invoice. Writer doesn't need patting.

What isn't fine is if the writer is given an assignment to do Things 1 through 5, and comes back with 1 through 5 done, and done well, and accompanied by Things 6 through 10 as extras but still things that took time/research/writing/whatever, it is not fine to then say nothing more than "Where are Things 11 through 15?"

And if the writer follows up with an email that reads "Following up" in the subject line and goes on to offer whatever may be needed to complete the project past what she was hired to do, it is not nice to say "I've been struggling with it for two days, what a pain" without clarifying if this is the writer's fault or something weird going on with the project, about which the writer had no clue. Writers being creative people, we will assume the worst.

... That said, there's something really nice about getting past the point of worrying endlessly "Will the client want to work with me again? Will he? Will he? Will he?" and starting to think, "Do I want to work with the client again? Hmmm."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

There's a Staircase Down the Other Side, Part 2

Several months ago, before it was beautiful out (beautiful in my world is over 100 degrees F, like now, when it's that way by noon) I climbed my first desert foothill. It's an ornamental foothill, in my opinion, real enough, but kind of left there out of politeness by the community surrounding it, and emptying into a Walgreen's parking lot. Not roughing it by any stretch of the imagination, not hiking, just clambering up in the way of someone who's used to flat ground suddenly going up.

On my way up the foothill, I was well aware lots of other people had done this. There wasn't a lot of trash, but the ubiquitous broken bottles and a beer can or two, some half-hearted graffiti on rocks. At the top one of the rocks seemed hollowed out and surrounded by other rocks as if someone (or a group of someones) were planning to make a natural-ish BBQ. There were rabbit droppings but no rabbits, and a quick lizard zipping by. Very citified foothill. I just did it to see if I would love climbing the rabbit-colored foothills surrounding Reno and leading to our east-of-Reno habitat (the one we're ever so slowly moving out of.) And as I neared the top, it occurred to me there was almost certainly going to be a staircase on the other side of the foothill, something simple and self-explanatory, something making all this mucking about in dirt and safe an exercise in ...

Well, not futility. Because I liked doing it. My legs like climbing up things (my lungs are never too sure.) The muscles get all happy and they don't get overly sore the next day, even when my foothills are not ornamental. And I learn things, I suppose, or at least feel a confidence that I can go climb a foothill or that the 16-year-old is still in there giving "No Trespassing, This Foothill is Somehow Magically Owned By OTHER PEOPLE" signs conciliatory pats as I blow past them (or crawl, depending how steep it is at that point.)

There wasn't a staircase, once I got up there and was able to survey a kingdom of strip malls and cookie cutter housing developments, but there was a path. And a bench. And it made me laugh and it reminded me of writing because so many times we go through that with a new project - we struggle upwards, we FIND THINGS OUT, we learn new things, we make amazing discoveries, we find new ways to do things that we want to share with other writers, and often we feel ever so clever.

Until we find our notes from the last novel, wherein we discovered the exact same tricks and techniques, or even an earlier draft of what we're working on with notes that say "Do this" with this being the thing we thought we'd just discovered.

Which is not a complaint, but more an amusement. I keep saying we, but for all I know I'm the only writer in the world constantly discovering the same thing to my same amusement. I doubt this though (based mainly on the fact that when I mention it, other writers generally say something like, "I've done that!" which leads me to believe ... well, the obvious.)

And so I wasn't amazed, but also wasn't quite as amused, when recently conversation with another (fantastic!) writer who we'll call Annie here (mostly because that's her name) led to an exchange in which I meant to be asking her about how her writing was going and instead something she said made me think of something about my own and I said that I keep getting up in the middle of perfectly good sentences and wandering off.

I don't mean that figuratively. I mean that I'm actually getting up mid-sentence, laying down my pen, and wandering off to find I'm doing dishes or petting a cat or standing on the porch or packing a box for moving (at least that last activity is useful at that point in time.) I'm still in the zone, still in the daydreamy writer place where story is all and the real world isn't real in the least. I come to because I'm not up and making tea or folding laundry because I'm working through a stuck place (this is common and I have no problem with it at all). I'm up making tea or folding laundry for no reason. The writing was working. The story was going forward. Maybe it wasn't genius work, but it was getting written.

And now it isn't.

Annie thought about that very briefly and said, essentially, that it had been less than two years since the emotion had started showing up in my writing, wasn't it? I kind of stared at her and nodded with no great show of intelligence. Maybe, she said, I was at the point of evolving in my writing where that was changing from a somewhat conscious thing into how I wrote.

Maybe I was uncomfortable with it.

I gaped.

Brief background: My stories until November 2008 didn't have a massive amount of emotion from characters. I myself didn't like to show massive amounts of emotion (and didn't even know what to do with most emotions) and so my characters acted much the way I did. Tell me that my teenage stepson was turning into a virus (as happened in one of my workshop stories) and I would briefly say "That sucks!" (but I'd mean it) and then I'd do what was logical to me, especially if I happened to be (as my character was) a virologist. Apparently, however, readers wanted more. They wanted to know the character was upset.

Well, of course she was. Who wouldn't be? Aren't teenagers difficult enough when they're not replicating into virus? And anyway, she liked the kid. That was a given, wasn't it?

And then came the master class in fiction, in which I wrote a novella about a potential suicide, and tapped into all the emotions (and then brought in some aliens for good measure) and emotion began to come into my writing.

This is process, I believe. My process. And evolution. And hard stuff. And the more I thought about what Annie said, the more it made sense. Because nowadays (does anyone actually say that anymore? Nowadays?) when I sit down to write a fluffy ghost story about nothing more than Boo! Ghosts! I get layers of meaning. It's still a ghost story, only now the character being haunted is haunted by more than a Boo! Ghost! Rather his own past and failings and hopes and dreams are getting in there and the story, I might add, is much. Harder. To. Write.

Delighted, amazed, pleased, and wishing I didn't have to leave halfway through that discussion, I went home and thought about it for about 24 hours after which time I had a weekly midnight tea with another nocturnal-ish writer, who we'll call Diane (for the same reason I'm calling Annie "Annie.") And to her I related this startling conversation I'd had with Annie and how it had turned out.

Diane was quiet briefly (I think she may have been wishing she could reach through the phone and pat me on the head) before she said, "You told me the same thing recently when I was doing the same thing."


Yup. She was having trouble with something she was doing with the novel she was writing and she couldn't stay at her desk for any amount of time. She kept getting up and wandering off, she had told me, and it was making her crazy. And I had responded, "Wow, you must be really hitting some emotion in your writing and writing something hard." Or something to that effect. I can't say exactly what I said because I didn't have the insight or recall to even remember saying it. All I know is I had been able to identify it in her report of her process but when it showed up in my own -- restless writering (should be a word) = hard stuff coming through -- nope! Had to have someone else see it for me.

I'm not sure if I'm pleased with this or not. The idea of discovering the same thing time and again, especially to the point of falling on it with glad cries of "Oh, now I understand!" before discovering I understood it all before and am understanding now as an again? That makes me a little tired. Rather the way I understand that every weekend we spend working on the remodel and moving some boxes and every day that we cram packing, loading, unloading into days that already have all the normal requisite daily living stuff in them has a cumulative effect of making us a little more tired and more tired sooner with longer recovery times.

It's just that this cumulative process is positive. As if I'm running and for every really good run I have a couple bad runs where I'm still tired, but then the next really good run is a little farther or a little better.

And it leads me to wonder if when I'm reading the things I see in other writers' work, the good and the bad and the indifferent (the 'huh' that doesn't lead to loving or loathing but simply to noting) should be things I should look at in my own work. If the times I listen to another writer and say, "Well, maybe that's because -- " and the other writer says, "OH!" in that way of sudden understanding, perhaps I need to look at my own then and see if there's an "oh" moment looming.

Or maybe this is what it is. Constant rediscovery. The joy of a foothill conquered not tempered by the realization that three years ago a taller, wilder foothill was conquered in less time with less scrabbling, but simply joy at the idea that it was conquered, it was fun, and tomorrow it might be the mountain itself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


This isn't meant to be well thought out or deeply insightful. Just a thought. I was meant to be at a mystery writing workshop this week, having left last Friday with friends and gotten there Saturday and today would be the fourth day of the workshop. I'd done most of the reading for it, and was ready to go, and made the decision not to about 8 hours before I would have left.

The road to not going was, she said, mixing metaphors or something, a bit of a train wreck. There were checks that didn't come in on time though everyone else had been paid who was involved in that project. There was a day when anything and everything that could slow me down did so and that was the day before I was supposed to leave. And then that Thursday my Internet connection went down in a terminal thud and required many phone calls and several people before it was resolved yesterday, Monday. Plus I would have had to take one article with something like 23 interviews (of which I'd done 4) and the end of a nonfiction project with me and while I love the fact that I have work, and while I've done that before at an even more intense workshop (by the same people, in the same lovely Oregon coast location), it's not my favorite thing to do.

My clue came when financial insanity inserted itself and I finally threw my hands into the air and said, "Fine! I'm not arguing.  I can't go." At which point the financial insanity was lifted in two different ways, one the reassurance I could worry about it later and second that some of it was misunderstood by me.  And my mood went down instead of up. 

The thing I didn't like was the idea that I might not be going to a fiction workshop because the nonfiction wanted finishing. Nonfiction is something I love doing.  It's not the goal, though.  So I kept fighting to go, even though common sense, a train wreck of a day, financial considerations and the fact that we're moving in less than a month and have not packed even a single book should have been enough.

What was enough was my relief when I made the decision that even though the financial considerations were laid to rest, I wasn't going. I'm sorry to be missing it.  I can't help but wonder what everyone's doing right now and I wish I had that lovely beach to run on before going back to my room to write. But on Friday when my friends were driving there and I wasn't, I realized that I had budgeted time so that no one expected anything from me that day. I wasn't where I was going to be/supposed to be, so I didn't have to be anywhere. At which point I sat down and wrote 17 1/2 pages. Saturday morning I wrote one more. Yesterday, in between some of the things I would have had to do, I wrote another 10 or more pages for around 3000 words.

For me, that means I listened. Now I'm going to go write some more.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pushed Process

I was thinking about pushing the process and the results I've seen from doing just that, but I haven't been able to do that in about a week and pushed process has been happening naturally.

Which is to say when I have a short turn around on two short articles I don't know how to find the info for and which I didn't work on over the weekend because it was our 17th wedding anniversary and which are due tomorrow, that seems to be one of the best triggers possible for making the fiction want out.

I wrote something around 850 words last night on two different projects, but what impresses me is this: First, neither had a concrete due date. One was a short story I wrote a very long time ago for an anthology project that instantly folded, like the minute I hit 'send' or something. It's a slippery time travel story mixed with alternate reality mixed with the main character's actual schizophrenia mixed with an incident or event that sets everything in motion. I haven't looked closely at it in years, just knew I've always liked the story and believed in it, so when a magazine I'd very much like to get into wrote back and said if I'd clarify some issues, they'd read it again, because they like it, I decided to. After having put this off for no less than three months, I did it last night when the end of a nonfiction book and those two articles and another article that, now I've done the impossible 12 interviews for, really should be written even if the editor isn't in a panic about it (she knew she was giving me 12 interviews to track down.) Net new word count was something around 400 words. Old words taken out were around 100, since the story ended up 300 words longer than it had been. Probably took around 90 minutes and turns out the problem was the central conceit or instigating incident no longer made sense without the anthology wrapped around it. So I changed it, and to me it makes sense, and it took a good chunk of time away from those niggly deadline mortgage-paying nonfiction projects. The other 400 words came in a story that has no deadline, is just a short, silly little story that I rather like, and which was finished only that market doesn't take present tense, so I spent about an hour changing it to past tense.

Second, I did not head over and work on the novel (which is so close to the end it has apparently frightened me, so work on it is scant) or any of the 4 or 5 short stories in progress or any of the other 4 I think stories that someone as said they'd like to see again if I made changes (I am not particularly good at changing stories - as opposed to just writing new ones with the new info in them - but in these instances the suggestion was usually cutting about 1000 words and I'd like to see how each of these would look shorter, which isn't a process that lends itself to just writing a similar-but-different story.) I didn't go do these things, I did head over to the nonfiction (where I promptly lost myself in the pleasure of the book project and all three articles languished). But the fiction did yammer in my head.

Which is why it's not always necessary to clear the decks and find a glorious sun-drenched (or moody thunderstorm-ridden) two or three or four hours to work on the fiction. Like anything else, fiction can expand (at least in my experience) to fill the time available to it, without necessarily producing more than it would have in a constrained shorter span. Sometimes when I'm on deadline with articles or books I find I write more fiction than ever. Maybe because the writing engine is primed, maybe because I'm contrary. I really don't care which - it's fiction! Other times, having done battle with depression or tiredness or those fiddly little life details that sometimes eat up vast tracts of time, I find that Rick calling from Reno to say he'll be home in 30 minutes causes me to dive into the fiction and write upwards of 1000 words in that time.

So today I'm writing a post when I should be finding the two short articles' info so I can start the minute Rick leaves for work when really I meant to start by now and I can only hope that not only does the nonfiction flow and get itself well done and out of the way, but that the fiction will notice it's being edged out - and react.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There's a staircase down the other side

I live in Nevada, and desert is my number one favorite most beautiful landscape. I've been wanting to get out into the desert all spring, or maybe since last fall, but without the insanity of going out over the winter. It seems like getting your feet onto the earth and getting yourself into the sagebrush should be simple in a state like Nevada, but wherever you go there's barbed wire fences. Theoretically it's BLM land and the barbed wire is to keep the cows in, not necessarily to keep you out, you're on your own with the cows unless it's posted otherwise. But going out by myself, as a female, I want to stay within view of the street when I'm mucking about in the sage. I want people going by on the street to be able to see me, because I don't want to run into one or two people who can see me when there's no one else around who can. If that sounds like paranoia, I'll point out that one major street in Reno, McCarran which rings the city, where it meets Keystone in the north, was the site of a sexual assault. The guy just pulled the jogger into a ditch. Of course, this doesn't prove my point of being safer near traffic, because she was near traffic, it just proves my paranoia is rational.

Where we live, we're rural enough I should be able to find trails and paths through the sage that are near enough to a major thoroughfare that I can be seen, so I've been looking any time we go anywhere at exits off I-80, Derby Dam, Wadsworth, maybe Lockwood, seeing where the foothills are, where I'd have to go through barbed wire fences, where there actually are cows and while cows don't bother me, I don't need to mingle with them. And in Fernley, where I live under protest, I've been looking at the irrigation canal and the access road that runs along it and keeps me off Farm District Road where people drive like maniacs and the verge is two inches wide then a good angle downward and covered in scree and stickers.

Today I was going to go up behind the medical center out at the east end of Prater in Sparks because I was coming into Reno and we don't have the money or the gas lately for me to just drive into Reno to run. But I came in for lunch with a friend and that meant I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, though admittedly the oldest shoes I've ever had, and not running or mucking about in the sage clothes. So while i wanted to go up the foothill -- I want to encounter a rabbit; my husband's afraid I'll encounter a rattlesnake -- instead because I was low on time and people were returning every call I'd ever made and I have articles to finish, I went across the street from the grocery I'd gone to, over to Walgreen's, parked in their lot and climbed up just a hill. It's all green grass right now, probably sheet grass that everyone complains about. It's rocky and the soil is loose. I saw rabbit pellets and I felt like I was out somewhere even though I was surrounded by streets I recognize that I could see on every side.

But it was a good climb, 20 minutes up and back, my knees telling me what they thought of that, and before I got to the top as I was slipping off rocks and looking at lichen I didn't even know grew here, realizing I was far from the first person to climb up this sort of ornamental hill behind Walgreen's because there were tags on the top, and looking at a circle of rocks weirdly surrounding nothing that looked like a fire pit though nobody would put that in amidst brush in an expensive housing development, I was thinking: Probably there's going to be a staircase going down the other side.

Just seemed like one of those things. You're not really out in the wild. You haven't even gone to a cultivated trail that's out in the wild. You're in a city and you're going up a hill because it's a vacant lot. It's a vacant hill. That's it.

So I thought to myself there's going to be a staircase down the other side. And when I got up there it took me a couple seconds to realize what it was I was seeing because I was looking for rabbits and looking out for glass and other people's tags, and I was sliding down the rocks and I looked and there was a path. Admittedly it was very steep, and the bottoms of my shoes are very slick, and the new ones are too uncomfortable so I was in the old ones, so going up the rocks was more convincing and going down the rocks would have been more convincing for grabbing hold and having purchase. But I went down the path because it amused me. And not only that, but partway down on the side of the hill with a nice view of the valley I didn't really bother to look at, there was a bench.

That was my adventure. It made me think of the process of writing. You climb and you climb and you climb up these rock strewn hills and maybe there's going to be a great view at the top and maybe you're going to find out this project didn't work. But almost always what you're going to find when you get to the top of the hill is there's a staircase on the other side. Either somebody's going to tell you some tool or technique or trick that would have made this simpler to write - whether that's more fun or not I'm not going to debate - or you're going to learn something immediately afterwards, or, you're going to realize right after you get done redrafting, revamping, rewriting, rehashing, whatever it is your process involves, you already knew how to do this. And you made it harder because? Well, because it was a hill, and you thought you'd climb up it. And when you get to the other side, there's that staircase, and you realize what you could have done. And it's just possible that by going up the side of the hill, by climbing over the rocks and seeing the rabbit pellets, and looking at other people's tags, maybe you get something more out of it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Proving Process

This is my first post of 2010, late February, which means really? I need to decide if I'm going to keep this blog and tell people about it or give up the idea. Or make a schedule for myself to keep with blog posts that doesn't involve writing them in my head while showering or driving, because people can't read those, and that's a good thing.

I've been thinking all along the focus of this blog needs to be on something I understand and have done. I understand process, though what I mostly understand it for is its mystery and the curious fact that it changes with every project, and I do mean every project. Write an article on Nevada's economy for a business magazine in January, process is This. Write an article on Nevada's economy for the same business magazine in February, even understanding that the economy has not changed a whit nor has the magazine, and the process is That.

But this blog is about fiction, because that's my first love. I could actually write, possibly endlessly, about writing articles, finding article work, querying articles (I was quite good at it as long as we're not discussing the actual sitting down and doing of it), outlining, interviewing, finding the experts to interview in the first place, working with editors (much more pleasant in almost every case than most new writers are led to believe - writer and editor are supposed to be on the same side.) I could do this, but my heart's not in it. Plus, truth to tell, when it comes down to the writing of those articles? The process changes every time. Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I follow my questions (provided I was asking questions logically and not randomly.) Sometimes I have a thread interview, someone who answered every question logically, guided the interview in a coherent or chronological manner, who was quotable in the extreme. Sometimes it's a jigsaw puzzle, the way I used to do term papers - spill my subject headings all over the page, type in every person who talked about it, then start cutting (those are not fun articles, it means no one was the really clear, coherent one or, just as difficult, every interview subject was and they all said very similar clear, coherent things... just a little differently.)

Fiction process, though. Ask a random writer how he or she wrote the last novel or short story. Most likely, they'll tell you. Ask them how they're going to do the next, especially if they're standing at the beginning of that process, gazing into the abyss of words and plot logic and character steadfastness to come, and you might send that writer screaming in terror.

Of the writers I've known and talked about this with, the majority of us have no idea how we wrote the last novel, at least not when we're facing the next one, because we have even less idea how we're going to write this one. I'm not even sure how each of mine started. The first two came out of nowhere, as if I'd challenged myself to write the hardest thing possible for me: a created world quest-type fantasy.

Really? That's really what wanted to be written? Complete with horses and swords and long distances to be covered without use of modern transportation or modern calendars (my moons bloomed and waned really unpredictably until I got the hang of writing down the calendar I was using for that world - which was pretty much about the time I was done needing to move my characters through time.) The idea came out of nothing more than a couple images and ran for two books, and the process, this being my first and second novel, was this:

Panic. Type some pages. Hand write some pages. Put the thing down. Write some fiction of another sort (I didn't write nonfiction then.) Forget the book for such a long period of time that I eventually found myself wondering how "my people" were doing and, more strangely, since they were my people, what they were doing, which generally wasn't much if I wasn't there to make them do it.

This continued for the whole of the first book, but it was also when I learned that when the writing got smaller and smaller, the details less and less important but more and more plentiful, and I was spending three paragraphs or an entire page on something as minute as a character going somewhere in a car with nothing eventful happening, that I had come to the end of what I had plotted and it was time to write another single spaced page with three fat block paragraphs that outlined the next 30 or so pages of actual story. Then I had to back the character up so whatever hadn't been transpiring on the page but just hanging out there, clogging up book with words, would stop and the character would do something useful which, like as not, was to go away and let another character out on deck.

The first book took me either one and a half years or two and a half years and I have - almost definitely, almost for certain - stopped trying to figure out which. I started it during a hot dry lovely summer spent in a dark dank dingy and stinky law office in a terminally sagging building where I worked for an attorney I called Fungus (not with affection) who screamed a lot and then left to play golf (according to even people who pretended to like him, that was not the game he was actually abusing.) I didn't have that much to do because the attorney didn't have that much to do (no one liked him, not even the people who like to assign pro bono cases) and during that time I started wondering if, since I'd been writing fairly seriously for four years, was I ever going to write a novel. And the reason I can't pinpoint whether I started it in one particular summer or the next is that I worked for the Fungus Amongus for two years (making me the third longest staying secretary there - in 9 years he had 14 1/2 secretaries. One stayed five years. The half left after lunch on the first day.)

But the first novel taught me things. My process involves writing by hand a lot, because I can do it faster and with more words that look like words than when I type. It also involves having a separate notebook where I can, if I try very hard to remember, write down things like character eye color and the names of people we're not going to see again for 50 pages.

I only write this down if I have mentioned it, because otherwise I'd just spend all day making up characters and also because I sense I'm usually wrong. I assume I know how my character looks after we've spent a number of pages together - this is how it usually works. I write the character by starting with traits or a specific problem the character might be in. Then I wonder who would have a problem with that, and start developing the person. Then I look for the person's name, which involves much wondering about the house and wandering amongst the cats, saying things like, "He's a lot like you, Thud, but I can't call him Thud." Because how many people do you know named Thud? And eventually familiarity with the character leads me to believe that Thud is six feet tall, a little pudgy, has strawberry blond hair and dresses in t-shirts a lot.

Which I'm sure is wrong. Because when I do interviews with people, I start thinking what they must look like. I imagine age, hair color, expressions, mode of dress. And routinely the article comes out with photos of the person I talked to (it doesn't occur to me usually to Google the person) and low and behold, the pleasant faced older man with brown hair is a cross looking 30 year old with jet black hair. Which is why I know if I ever ran into my characters on the street, I'd walk right by without knowing it.

This was the process for book 1 of Sarodyn or possibly Sarodyn City. Those first two books need very much to be redrafted (which for me, means I want to reread them, then start over without reading them anymore) now that I have a grasp on point of view, which was pretty slithery for me back then. The process for book 2 was to type The End at the end of book 1, have an idea, leap into it, find a temp job where the women actually yelled at me if I finished my work too quickly. It took me a week or two to realize I was destroying the status quo; they had trained management to think they could only work So Fast and if I could work 4x faster, they could too...

Once I figured out why they kept snapping at me I fell into a pattern. Fifteen minutes of work for the cranky ladies followed by, eventually, 45 minutes of work on my novel. and that worked until the missing cranky lady (I'm sure she was) returned from her hysterectomy seven weeks later or so, by which time I was well on my way with Sarodyn City 2 - which took 4 months.