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I’m Afraid I Can’t Let You Do That, Jean-Luc

October 13, 2010

This is a period of adjustment in the publishing industry, and unfortunately as a writer, I’m kind of trapped in the middle of it. My old nemesis, the eBook, is slowly taking over, and I’m not sure if I should be happy that there is a flicker of hope for the publishing business, or terrified that actual books are in danger of becoming obsolete. To me, this is like bread becoming obsolete, but who knows? With all the gluten-free, low carb crazes out there, it could happen, and people who eat sandwiches will become eccentrics who just can’t keep up with the timely notion that the proper way to consume almost every food is in smoothie form. Just look at those sandwich eaters. Weirdos.

But seriously, something has got to give in publishing, because they really aren’t making money off of books anymore. This is a problem for young writers, because publishers who live in constant fear of obsolescence don’t like to go out on a limb for new, relatively obscure voices.  Supposedly, the eBook  has the power to save us all, like a flat, digital Jesus (apparently the new iPad has been referred to as the “Jesus tablet”. And I’m not even going to try to make a joke about that…). It cuts publishing costs, which trickles down to us lowly writers, like water trickling from above into a pit of unsightly, troll-like creatures.

This is potentially awesome during a time when many creative industries are scrambling to reinvent themselves. The music industry is going for downloadable products (the fact that CDs are fading away is weird to me. This must be how my parents felt about records. Someone might have felt this way about the 8-track, but I’m not sure about that one).  To get butts back in seats at the movies, the movie industry is desperately trying the 3-d gimmick again, with varying degrees of success (and for people like me, the “cool” is not completely outweighed by the “slightly nauseating” factor. As if floors in movie theatres weren’t sticky enough already). Publishing has to change, too.

As much I as think it is absolutely necessary for the business models of creative industries to change, I hate change when it affects me. I wasn’t really bothered that much by the whole upheaval caused by mP3s because I wasn’t a working musician. I’m selfish like that. If we’re invaded by aliens who enslave the entire human race, and yet somehow manage to conveniently overlook me and the other members of my household, I’m not sure I would come save any of you if it meant the aliens would continue to inexplicably leave me alone. I would think about you. I might send a sympathy card, although probably not as it might reveal my location to the aliens.

On the one hand, this COULD mean positive change, not only for me but also for other writers like me, but all I can see is the eventual loss of real, paper books. Ok, this sounds melodramatic…I don’t really think it’s going to happen tomorrow. For a long time, there hasn’t been a replacement technology for books; they’re pretty simple in terms of design and function. Now there is one and I feel all threatened. As much as I love the Star Trek universe…there’s no paper over there. Few books, no newspapers, no magazines, no paperwork…everything is computerized. LCARS subtly took over everybody’s lives, like HAL’s friendly but still psychotic brother. And to some people, Star Trek represents an ideal universe, the type of future that we should all strive for. How many Star Trek geeks back in the 70s were responsible for the development of our computers and the mystifying Interweb? Ok, secular humanism, no money, equality and peace, I look forward to those things in the distant future. But no books? That’s just unacceptable.

 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

October 11, 2010

In my last post I mentioned that I have finally accepted that poetry is dead. I kinda feel a need to elucidate this because it’s a pretty controversial statement (well, it is to me, anyway) and I had a tough time admitting it to myself. I did the whole “5 stages of grief” thing:

  1. Someone else: “Poetry is dead. Me: “No, it isn’t.”
  2. “You are all abject morons for refusing to read, appreciate and understand this art form! I hate you all!” (Here is where I turn green and suddenly grow larger.) “Greer bite off moron’s head! Graaaah!” Pop! (That’s the sound of a head being bitten off, in case you were confused.)
  3. “If you read my poem, I’ll give you a lollipop.”
  4. … (That’s me too depressed to say anything else. I guess I could also do a : | face, but I try to avoid emoticons because, well, they are idiotic.)
  5. “Ok, fine, poetry IS dead, but I’m still not happy about it. Do not go gentle into that good night! Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” (Look, I said the title of the post in the post itself! That’s like when a character in a movie says the title of the movie!)

Now, when I say that poetry is dead, I don’t mean that it’s disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again. Obviously literature students still study it, there are still books of poetry available for sale at Barnes and Noble, and there are still thousands of angst-ridden teens writing bad poems about departed pets, true love, or suicide, depending upon the degree of their angst. Latin is also dead, but that doesn’t mean that no one studies it anymore (Amo, amas/I loved a lass/Amas, amat/But she grew very fat). But as an art form that really speaks to people, poetry is dead (I both laugh at and feel sorry for anyone carrying the title of “Poet Laureate” for this reason…actually, who is our current Poet Laureate? I used to know the answer to that question. Ok, now who is that chick who sings that song “I Kissed a Girl”? I bet everyone knows the answer to that, except me…I thought it was Jill Sobule, but to be fair, I wasn’t entirely wrong.). In a way, poetry has been replaced by popular music, which I suppose is sort of appropriate because a lot of classical poetry forms started as song forms anyway. You know, like the oh-so-popular virelai. Who doesn’t remember that? Snark.

I think that poetry still had a fighting chance before the Internet took over, but now we may as well pull the plug on it. Writing on the Internet needs to be short and sweet, so the reader doesn’t strain her precious little eyes, but that’s not the problem. In fact, unless we’re talking about “The Faerie Queen” or “The Song of Hiawatha” or some other epic piece, most poems are pretty short.  This is one of the reasons why I had trouble admitting the art form was dead, because it seems like a PERFECT format for new media.

The problem is that another important thing about writing for the Internet is that writing has to be EASY TO UNDERSTAND. Poetry is not easy to understand, and that is both the reason why it is fascinating AND the reason why it had to die. Even a short, apparently simple piece like Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Pool Players” is actually quite complex (incidentally, she was once Poet Laureate, but that was over 20 years ago. WHO THE HELL IS THE POET LAUREATE NOW? Hang on…ok, Wikipedia tells me it’s W.S. Merwin. I feel better now, although I really don’t care about his poetry). But back to Brooks. In only a few words she addresses youthful rebellion AND mortality, and her syncopated rhythms are probably worth hours of discussion by people who have nothing better to do. Really understanding poetry takes a lot of work, and like so many other subjects that we were all forced to study ad nauseam in school, most of us aren’t willing to expend time on it unless we are being threatened with an “F,” or possibly an afternoon’s detention.

Another problem with poetry as an art form is that, apparently, everyone can write it. I’ve met people who say, “Oh, wow, I could never write fiction,” but I’ve never met anyone who thinks he can’t write a poem. There seem to be two general assumptions about poetry: first, that if something rhymes, it is automatically poetic, and second (paradoxically, because very few amateur poets are willing to do away with rhyme scheme), all other rules of verse are unimportant and as long as the poet FEELS something deeply, he has created art. (I’m not necessarily arguing for a revival of formal verse, here, I just think that people should study it and be aware that it exists if they want to write poetry). As you may have guessed, I think this approach is total bullshit, but there it is – everyone is a poet, and they didn’t even realize they were one.

Unfortunately, if everyone can do something, it isn’t really an art form, because “art” is synonymous with “skill” and “mastery.” (I readily admit, writing stories about aliens getting shot by rednecks and all the other ridiculous stuff I do is NOT ART. It just entertains me).  Is eating potato chips or wearing clean underwear art? No, although the latter is probably a good idea.

When Will Then Be Now?

October 6, 2010

While watching a recent episode of “The Simpsons” (I bet you all saw it, the one where Lisa goes to arts camp and falls in love with creativity and art), I remembered myself at a tenderer age, and how I used to feel about writing. Picture, if you will, that it is 1993: popular music doesn’t suck, two people can fit into one pair of jeans, and I’m ten and full of grand ideas about being a bohemian artiste. Now, fast forward to today: popular music…uh…let’s not even get into that, one person barely fits in their own pair of jeans, and I’m in my late 20s and writing has become less of an art and more of a business.

What the hell happened to me? Am I “older and wiser” or am I just cynical and burnt out on writing articles about parrots? Should I weep for my lost innocence or allow myself a proud grin of experience? I’m not really sure, but just for kicks I decided I would analyze how my attitude towards “the craft” has changed.

Then: I used to write a lot of poetry. It was pretty bad, actually, looking back on it now, but considering I was in sixth grade it could have been a lot worse. Fiction was not a great strength of mine; in fact, the idea of writing anything cohesive that was longer than a page or two scared the living crap out of me (ok, I have to pause for a second and say that “living crap” has to be one of the most disgusting phrases ever devised in colloquial English. For me, it conjures up a mental image of poo-monsters rising up from the sewers and staggering around on the hunt for corn. “Graaaains,” they moan. “Night of the Living Crap.” Yeah, there’s a horror movie that will never be made. I hope…). As for non-fiction…in those good ol’ days, I don’t think it occurred to me that there was such a thing. I mean, I knew how to write an essay and I read non-fiction books occasionally, but it never dawned on me that one could make a career out of writing that sort of thing. I guess I thought that non-fiction titles just sprang up by magic, like a form of literary spontaneous generation (In general, I think a lot of people think this way about writing. They have no idea where it comes from, they just take it for granted that some nerd out there is going to contribute accurate facts to Wikipedia. It’s like produce in a grocery store: no one knows where it came from, they just eat it.)

Now: I gave up on poetry a long time ago, after it had been proclaimed dead, resuscitated, and then proclaimed dead again after a brief convalescence. I gave up largely because I was finally forced to agree with this essay. The author, who is obviously a literate and thoughtful person, says that if people like him can’t find the time or inclination to study poetry, then no one can. And I had to agree, because I AM literate and thoughtful, and there are a huge number of unread poetry volumes on my bookshelves.  These days, I concentrate heavily on the work that pays me, which is all non-fiction. I feel guilty about taking “time off” to work on fiction instead, because fiction doesn’t pay. Working on a short story is like taking a vacation. A vacation packed full of demonic possessions and epic lawn gnome battles, but a vacation all the same.

Then: I read constantly. I even read during class, putting my book in my desk and quietly turning the pages. I can’t tell you how many times I got into trouble for READING in class (ok, so I wasn’t paying attention to the teacher, but at least I was doing something constructive). Reading was fun. It was an escape. If I got sent to my room for misbehaving, I was thrilled because my room was full of books and it meant I could sit and read uninterrupted for as long as I remained unapologetic for my behavior. I also read a lot of great classics, “serious” authors like Faulkner, Joyce, and Nabokov.

Now: I read very sporadically. Every once in a while I pick up a book and finish it in a day or two, and then I don’t pick up another one for months on end.  Reading is no longer as fun; it actually seems like work to me now, because it kind of is. And when I DO actually pick up a book, it is often fluffy. Not literally fluffy (well, maybe sometimes, if I haven’t dusted off the bookcase in a while), but fluffy in the sense of being fun and light-hearted and perhaps a bit low-brow: I read things like Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie, and the Harry Potter books. I haven’t actually sunk to the sexy vampire level yet, but who knows? It might be just around the corner. That guy who plays the werewolf in the Twilight movies IS pretty hot.

Then: “I love language and I’m inspired by everything I experience!”

Now: “Must…make…quotas.”

Then:  “I don’t care about money, I’m an artist. Hey, mom, can I have twenty so I can go to the movies?”

Now: “We need groceries. I like money.”

It’s kind of sad how much things have changed, but at the same time I guess we all have to grow up eventually. The lack of passion really gets to me, though, because this is supposed to be my great dream come true. I grew up telling everyone that this is what I WANTED to do. If I were REALLY smart, I would have just kept writing as a hobby and not tried to turn my passion into my profession. I just keep hoping that someday in the not-too-distant future, I will have officially “paid my dues” and I can start writing fiction more prolifically again. Until that day, at least I have this blog.

Last year:  (said with disdain and mild disgust) “What do you mean, you think I should start a BLOG?”

Now: “I love you, blog.”

Shady’s Back

October 2, 2010
Guess who’s back?
Back again
I am back
Tell a friend!

Indeed I am back, and look, I have a nifty new banner!

To get back into this strange blogging world, I had another peek around at some other writing blogs (which I suppose I should do more often, but I kind of enjoy it here in my bubble). I find it somewhat odd that the majority of blogs about writing out there are NOT written by writers. It’s all about the industry, and editors and publishers giving advice about what you can do to get yourself published

Now, once again, I’m not always the most responsible adult. I kind of think of myself as being a duller version of Allie of Hyperbole and a Half fame (you know, with no adorable and hilarious cartoon drawings of blondes

Look! For no reason at all, it's Worf! And he's wearing a silly outfit!

or shark-bears); her struggles with answering email and cleaning all the things are very familiar to me (yeah, that’s right, I admire her blog. There, I said it. In a way, I’m even less of a successful adult than Allie claims to be, because although I COULD draw pictures of chocolate bunnies and killer robots and myself slamming my head against my desk and upload them for your amusement, that seems like too much of a hassle to me. Instead, I search the Internet for random stills from sci-fi shows.) But I don’t really think there’s a big trick to getting published. To me, there are two basic rules:

  1. Work hard (this is the one that poses a problem for me)
  2. Don’t be a moron. (this comes more easily…at least, I hope it does)

So, ok, work hard. That means write as much as possible, submit as much as possible, write as many query letters as possible. Man, it sounds so easy when I write it out that way. Too bad I’m too busy watching Star Trek and staring out the window at fascinating things like a squirrel eating a bagel (a WHOLE bagel! How does he fit it in his mouth?) to actually follow my own goddamn advice. (Actually, there is no squirrel. You, the reader, deserve full disclosure. I fictionalized a past experience to demonstrate that I am lazy.) (If there was a squirrel, there is an equal chance that it would be a “she.” I’m not an expert on squirrel gender, it’s just force of habit to say that things are male. It’s weird though, because when I write knitting articles for work I usually refer to the knitter as “she.” Ah, subtle sexism.)

Ok, moving on to the “Don’t be a moron”  rule. I notice that even people who call themselves writers don’t seem to like to read any more than anyone else does (yeah, I’m looking at you, me). This seems to include reading things like submission guidelines. Like that time I worked really hard on a 5000-or-so-word story and then submitted it to a publication that only accepted submissions of 500 words. That was dumb. Of course they didn’t publish me. Likewise, submitting a story about rampaging zombie dinosaurs who shoot lasers from their eyes to Lady’s Home Journal is probably a mistake.

I know a lot of writers are not grammarians or walking dictionaries, and I don’t really think that anyone can expect them to be. I’m lucky because I have an innate sense of what “sounds right” or “looks right” on paper, but not everyone can do that. However, there is this nifty little thing on most computers these days called a spellchecker. And although I personally would NEVER rely on Word’s ability to check grammar, my Strunk and White “Elements of Style” is a handy little volume. What I’m trying to say is, there are lots of resources for writers out there, and there’s no real excuse for submitting a piece that is riddled with mistakes. There are many ways NOT to be a moron, so don’t be one.

I guess there is also a third, unwritten rule: “Get lucky.” (And no, I don’t mean that in the “bow-chicka-bow-wow”, hot dogs and donuts sense.) Someday, an editor is going to pick up something I wrote and it’s just going to click.

So there you have it. In a single blog post I have revealed the secrets of the publishing industry. All those other advice-givers are just imitating.

The Worst Writing Metaphor Ever

July 21, 2010

In the past, when I’ve attempted the whole novel writing thing, I haven’t done much in the way of note taking or outline making. I just kinda winged it. Sometimes, good things happened and everything would click with no effort, like walking through a forest and suddenly coming to a clearing full of adorable chocolate bunnies.  And sometimes, horrible things happened and nothing made any sense in an irreparable sort of way, like walking through a forest and accidentally stumbling into a clearing full of  angry triceratops.

So this time,  I’m making an outline. Now I can see all the parts of the story that will be easy sailing ahead of time…oh, and I also have a full view of the bits that could cause brain hemorrhaging, the tragic, poorly imagined bits that I wrote down just as I began to run out of ideas. The plot holes. The things that make no sense. They’re like a mass of dropped stitches in a row of pristine knitting: I can’t stop thinking about them until I’ve fixed them.

However, obsessive urges to fix things are not necessarily indicators of sane good judgment, so before I rip my plot a new one I’m writing this. I’ve read that rewriting before the first draft is complete is a dangerous thing to do, and this isn’t even a first draft yet. The idea is that the writer will become preoccupied with the idea of getting everything JUST right the first time, and will keep rewriting ad nauseam and never finish.

I know from experience that this is completely true. The problem is the triceratops. I know they’re herbivores, but so are rhinoceri, and rhinoceri are mean-tempered and evil. I think of a triceratops as an even more enormous reptilian rhinoceros.

Before, in the time before the outline, every time I turned a corner in the vast, dark forest of my plot, there was an equal chance that the next clearing would hold bunnies OR dinosaurs. I couldn’t see them coming, so I kind of just took them as they came. Sometimes I got to sit back and eat chocolate bunnies, and sometimes I got attacked by triceratops (I guess there were in-betweens as well, but for the sake of my ridiculous metaphor we can pretend there weren’t).

Now there’s the outline. The forest is gone. The plot is now a vast, open field full of chocolate bunnies and dinosaurs. Of course, what I’m going to do in my increasingly tedious bunny/dinosaur metaphor is, I’m going to go through the field gorging myself on chocolate bunnies and avoiding the goddamn triceratops. At the end, I’ll have a tummy ache and there will be nothing but dinosaurs left.

Ok, now to complicate this situation even further, as the writer I have the power to make the dinosaurs less threatening before I plunge into the field with them. Let’s say I use a shrink ray and miniaturize them. I can’t make them disappear altogether, but I can at least make the problem smaller.

But can I handle the shrink ray? Will I go mad with power and shrink all the bunnies? Will a hapless group of schoolchildren wander by during my rampage and get shrunken down to doll-like beings? Fancy published writers who give fancy writing advice that is also published tell me I can’t handle the shrink ray.

Now that I have rephrased a perfectly sensible piece of writing advice  in this tangential manner, it kind of sounds like a dare to me. I’m gonna rewrite, and to hell with the consequences.

Sigh-Fi

July 13, 2010

Writing a novel:  take 4. The old fiction writing muscles are a bit rusty. It’s time to put them to use before they atrophy completely (horror of horrors!).

Being the ornery person that I am, I have to write a sci-fi novel despite the fact that my knowledge of science is limited at best. I’m solid in biology, or at least solid enough that I can do some research to find out what I want to know (it’s kind of like how you need to know how to spell something to look it up in the dictionary; if one has no knowledge of a subject WHATSOEVER than one can research for ages and not understand a large portion of the research materials). Physics, however, continues to elude me, as does computing, both of which are somewhat important in the context of the sci-fi genre.  To make up for my lack of scientific knowledge, I tend to focus more on sociological and political aspects of my novel (which are social sciences, dammit!).

However, as I write more science fiction shorts, I do find that I’m becoming more comfortable with the genre as a whole. I’ve discovered that in some cases, what I don’t know, I can fake. Sure, there’s no such thing as a gun that dissolves bones on impact NOW, but that doesn’t mean I can’t invent one. And why the hell shouldn’t there be a genetic virus that transforms people into parrots? It’s my universe, I can do what I want (says Eric Cartman).

So I have a brand new general plot outline that satisfies me. I get to use some of my already existing characters from my previous abortive attempts at writing a novel, and I’m also allowing myself to invent a few new ones because the process of characterization makes me all giddy. I started sketching a scene last night and it was going pretty well.

But then I came to a point in the plot that I hadn’t really thought out very carefully. Since becoming more accustomed to writing science fiction, I tend to try to solve my plot problems with clever use of technology. That’s what sci-fi is all about, right?

One of my main characters is a thief and a spy. He has a nice little flashback that explains how he got where he is at the beginning of the story, and in the flashback he describes how he failed to steal some awesome jewel (which is essentially the Hope Diamond in my head, curse rumors and all, but I can’t call it the “Hope Diamond” because this is science fiction and technically my characters aren’t speaking English even though I render their dialogue that way). So I needed to figure out the logistics of the theft. Now, I will admit to shoplifting silly, small items a couple of times as a child, but my parents always found out and made me return the items or pay for them. I’ve certainly never stolen anything that had any real value, and I’ve never broken into anyone’s house or tried to bust open a safe. So much for “writing what you know.”(Ok, so I also can’t actually claim to know what it’s like to live in deep space, but I assume it is chilly.)

I know that criminals case a joint before they rob it, so I had my thief do that. The breaking and entering part itself was easy enough to figure out, as well. It was the opening of the safe that stymied me. I couldn’t use traditional manipulation techniques (like listening to the tumblers to figure out the combination), and autodialers are also out, because this is a high-tech safe with a digital keypad instead of a tumbler lock. I’m fairly certain that the safe is made of some amazing futuristic alloy that prohibits drilling, as well (not to mention that drilling is LOUD, and seems kind of stupid to me).

“Aha!” I thought. “Enter sci-fi gadgetry!” So I started researching. I spent of a bunch of time reading about the new Oceans 11, and discovered that there’s a nifty thing called a pinch that uses magnetic forces to disrupt electrically conductive filaments by compressing them. They use it in Oceans to disable the electric system in the casino. It’s essentially useless for my purposes, but it does sound neat.

Anyway, I read and thought and read some more. I was so obsessed with the idea of using gadgets to solve my problem that I completely forgot about my most favorite thing: characterization. See, my thief grew up as a street urchin. He doesn’t have access to fancy technology. He has to rely on SKILL. He would be much more likely to find a way to trick the safe’s owner into revealing its combination, or he might search her desk for it, find it written down in code, and then decipher the code.

I need to remember my strengths, and unfortunately, clever use of technology is not one of them. I actually made my problem much WORSE by trying to solve it this way, because I wasted a bunch of time trying to be scientific when I needed to be paying attention to who my character is. Take 4 is therefore off to a slow start. But it’s a start, nonetheless.

Hey! Who Took My Apples?

July 12, 2010

Something I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about is the need for particular conditions to inspire them to write. I myself once proclaimed that I had to be depressed to write anything at all (this is when I was maybe 14, and desperately trying to be Sylvia Plath).  I’ve imposed other ridiculous limitations on myself, all of which have been disproven, such as “Oh, I can only write at night” (funny how the sun is shining, this must be a strange new variety of night), and “I need to be able to smoke cigarettes to think clearly and write well.” (Ok, so I’m still working on that one.)

I understand that some writers cling to rituals that help them gather their thoughts and get ready to work. Desk-cleaning is a pretty common habit, and one I kind of wish I had. I’m much more likely to stack books until the pile sways and topples, and I place dirty coffee cups under my desk (ahhh, out of sight, out of mind). I’ve read that the poet Schiller needed to fill his desk with rotting apples in order to write, but that might just be a rumor. I can’t find a trace of evidence for it on Wikipedia, and as we all know, if it’s not on Wikipedia it probably isn’t real (wait…there’s no Wikipedia article about me. Uh oh…).

Ok, now that I’ve recovered from a brief moment of existential angst, back to the subject at hand. I think that it’s fine for a writer to have a customary work schedule that begins with an activity like clearing clutter off her desk or making a cup of coffee. There are rituals that help one to focus and get ready for the day ahead,  and then there are excuses and superstitions. Although writing is a creative endeavor, it’s also just a job. What if a schoolteacher decided that her desk must be full of rotten apples in order for her teach? What if a nurse refused to work one day because his first patient was wearing a green shirt? What if every other schmo in the world got up in the morning and said, “Oh, I’m in a really good mood today. I can’t work when I’m happy, I better stay at home.”

My point is, that choosing not to write because one is too happy, or too sad, or too tired, or whatever it may be, is a choice. It has nothing to do with the external factors, and blaming one’s inability to write on the heat (yeah, I never do that) or the lack of fermented-apple-smell wafting upwards from one’s desk drawers isn’t  a valid excuse (I wonder if Schiller had a maid? Did she ever try to empty his desk? “I KNOW they’re rotten, I LIKE them that way!”).  It’s my prerogative if I make the choice not to write, but I really shouldn’t blame it on the weather or my mood. I have a  responsibility to keep on keeping on in spite of all those things, or at least to try, or I can’t really call myself a writer. Whoever heard of a writer who doesn’t write?

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. There always are. I think that “I can’t write because I am on fire,” is an excellent excuse to take the day off. “I can’t write because I have been abducted by aliens,” on the other hand, is iffy. Seriously? There’s no word processor on the mothership?