Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Middle of Nowhere


I’ve turned my attention to a little nonfiction project. My workshop instructor, Gail, is encouraging us to enter The Sun’s Readers Write contests. So I’m plugging away at the March 1 deadline theme: The Middle of Nowhere.

This theme screams to me for so many reasons. The middle of nowhere is my childhood encapsulated. I am an only child. I grew up on a farm that had been allowed to return to prairie. I spent my ‘tween years making long, lonely bike rides into town, my bike whizzing through the middle of nowhere. And there’s an avalanche of sharp emotional stuff that’s hard to share.

A favorite memory is walking home from the middle school I attended. On nice days, I’d get this wild need in me to be free the moment the final bell rang. The buses sat parked, waiting in front of the building. All the kids streamed like lemmings toward them. But I’d sneak out the back and hike across the playground, across the baseball diamond and the long expanse of purposeless grass. I’d feel that yoke of peer pressure and school garbage melt off me as the schoolyard melted into the woods. I’d walk along the edge of the woods, forest on one side, tall grass on the other, for a mile or more until the woods faded away into a patchwork quilt of muddy corn fields. In Spring I was careful to stick to the rutted tractor path, picking my way across the matted bleached grass. Eventually, the path led to a small brook. There were a few well placed stones that even I (never graceful, no matter how I tried) could cross without getting my feet wet. A little further along the cornfield and I’d clamber up the ditch onto the road in front of my house. Sometimes the bus whooshed past me in a gush of gray exhaust as I stood on the tractor path, waiting to cross to home.

For the most part, it’s nice revisiting those memories. As for my contest entry, I don’t have any cohesive thesis. My plan is to write and write and write. Eventually, I suspect I’ll find a focus. I guess the middle of nowhere is where I am right now, wandering through my memories, trying to find my way.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Not So Terrible


This week, I took my recent Your Story entry to my weekly writing workshop. Since it didn’t make the cut with WD, I thought I’d work the piece over a bit to turn it into a saleable story. I explained the prompt and guidelines: Write 750 words max on Three boys go to a local swimming hole. Shortly after they arrive, something terrible happens.

Some of the responses I received got me thinking.

From one critic:

“…I don’t really think this meets the requirement of ‘something terrible’.”

From another:

“Not a ‘terrible’ event as the prompt had maybe wanted…”

On reexamination, I think they were right, to a certain extent. When I approached the prompt, I decided to take a creative approach to it, rather than falling into the trap of the predictable. I elected to rely on point of view. The events of the story—a young boy is thwarted when he attempts to kiss a girl he has a crush on – aren’t technically terrible. No one dies. No one is maimed. No flesh-eating zombies burst from the woods to eat the amorous young pair. But this thwarting of his blossoming youthful love feels terrible to Danny, the protagonist. He’s admired Beth from afar for a long time. He finally has a chance to overcome his social inadequacies and seize the moment and the girl. But he’s interrupted before he can clinch the deal. In my eyes, a teenager would see that as terrible.

It made me think of melancholy Prince Hamlet:

For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (Act II, Scene 2)

Shakespeare knew it and all self-respecting writers know it: good and terrible are entirely relative. It’s called point of view.

Still, the critics got me thinking. In the end, here’s what I conclude:

My critics failure to see the terribleness of this event was not a failure of imagination on their part. But instead I think it marks a failure on my part as the author to paint the event in all its emotional drama.

So back to the drawing board to paint Danny’s heartbreak more darkly. I have a good idea how to do it. And now that the manacles of word count are off, I have no excuse for not getting it right.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No Go? Oh, Good!


I found out today my story “Vanilla” didn’t make the cut for the latest Writer’s Digest Your Story contest.

A bit of backstory: not making the Your Story cut used to make me crazy. I’d read the finalists and bitch and moan. I’d boil over every trite phrasing the finalists got away with. I’d fume over every cheap ploy. It wasn’t fair! I’d labored over my entry. Couldn’t they see my genius, for God's sake??????

A year later, I couldn’t care less.

I’m actually rather relieved that my story wasn’t selected. This time, I’d felt my hands were tied by the 750 word limit. Vanilla is a story with a gigantic heart. But it was stifled by a restrictive word limit. Now, the sky’s the limit.

But there’s more than that to my change of heart.

Fact One: All I really want is a good story. And Vanilla could be very good. Had it made the cut, it would have been as half-developed adolescent. Now that the gloves are off, I can bring it to adulthood.

Fact Two: The whole story was born from the Your Story prompt. The story never would have come to life without it. A good prompt is like a gift from the writing gods. So, I didn’t win in the traditional sense, but really, I won.

Fact Three: Past losses have led to bigger, better wins. Burning Black was a Your Story reject from last year. I sold it to Every Day Fiction and it made their annual anthology. Now a copy of that anthology is sitting in a coffeehouse gathering me more readers (I hope) The ante is upped when you consider that even if Burning Black had been picked as a finalist in Your Story, it would have been put out anonymously until a final winner was selected. If it didn’t win, no one would ever know it was my story. And anonymity doesn’t net new readers.

How many times our losses turn out to be wins.

So what’s your story? When did you lose, then win? Give a holler. I like a good Cinderella story.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Just Because I Can, Doesn’t Mean I Should


I have a recurring problem with my writing. I fall into these long passages of glorious description, when I should be moving on with my story.

Take, for example, this paragraph from an early draft of my short story, “The Getaway”:

The day of the outing dawned too beautiful for Mark’s liking. Blue sky, a fresh dusting of snow on the branches, but the roads clear and wet as they drove along the shore of Lake Michigan. The beach was a gallery of contorted ice sculptures, crystalline white blocks tumbled against one another by the waves, spires and hollows where the water had carved and dripped. Beyond the ice field, the water gleamed frozen green, the color of old Coke bottles capped with choppy white frost. It was beautiful in a way that hurt his eyes, unblemished, too pristine, too perfect.

Ugh. Too much, clearly. In the revised version, after much prompting by writing friends, I pared this back considerably and also fixed the glaring structural errors. But it was a bear to let even one image go, although I knew the story cried for it.

I think this disease comes from an honest place: my longstanding adoration of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are passages in Gatsby that make me weep, even after a dozen or more readings. I’ve never been able to read about the billowing curtains at Daisy Buchanan’s house without floating away with them. On a recent reread of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” I was astonished at the lightness of his prose, of how masterfully he used it to make the inevitable emotional crash at the end of the story more devastating. When it comes to wringing potential from language, Fitzgerald was a master.

I need to master restraint.

This issue loomed hugely on my recent reread of Folly. I suspected there was far too much artful clutter, but I was loathe to clip a single word. In retrospect, I see I need to surgically excise at least a third of the description slogging down the pace.

It brings to mind a favorite analogy, from Gary Provost’s Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing. In it, Provost compares a story to a race car and excess words to penny nails. One or two nails won’t slow down a story, but sacks and sacks loaded in the backseat will. The message is clear: jettison the junk.

I think all writers stand at the edge of this trap. We’re so in love (and hate, but that’s another post) with what we write, we can’t imagine our stories being trimmed. It’s hard to step aside, to let the story stand alone, rather than prop it up with authorial help. We describe things to death, say the same thing over and over. We beat our readers over the heads with our intrusive presence. Sure they get it, but do they really want or need to? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

And yes, I should take a hacksaw to this post, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Can You Get There From Here?


I’ve been trying to get back into Folly. Problem is, I’m all hung up. I reread chapter one, getting ready to tackle chapter two, only to realize chapter one needs work. So now I have a quandary: do I go back and rework chapter one? Or do I plow ahead with chapter two? How do I ever finish something as big as a novel if I never like what I wrote?

Anyone who knows me can guess what I decided to do. Yep, I wrote a short story. When in doubt, I tend to avoid the problem by tackling small bits I feel are within my grasp.

But that isn’t getting the novel done, is it?

I’ve justified this behavior a million ways. I’m just too busy right now to concentrate on something so long. The kiddo’s too little for me to get anywhere on big projects. I can’t decide which novel is best to pursue. I’ll just finish this/these quick short story/ies, then I’ll get back to work on my novel/s. I’ll clean the house/go camping/polish my toenails/weed the garden first. I need to lose weight. I need more rest. I have a cold.

It’s pissing me off. The problem is me, and I know what at least part of it is. I need the gratification of getting something done. And writing a novel is a damned long haul. I love seeing my growing list of short story credits. I love checking my email, hoping for another acceptance. But I want to hold a book with my name on the cover in my hand. When people ask what I write, I want to offer the title of a novel and tell them to trek over to the bookstore and buy it.

So how do I get there from here?

Yes, I know the answer: one scraped out word at a time. But it’s not as easy as it seems. This writing life has set me out on an odyssey of personal growth equal only to the demands of parenting. Clearly, I have one more monster I need to slay.

What kind of obstacles have you faced in your writing? How did you overcome them? Or are you still slogging around like me?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Progress, Kinda


I finally finished “The End of Day.” For those who don’t know, I’ve been fighting this story since I scratched out the first draft in Rhinelander in July. From the start, it felt like a special piece, even in its earliest forms. But it needed work. (Ok, an overhaul.) And, like all doting mamas, I couldn’t see its faults.

At the same time, I couldn’t let it go.

I can’t count how many times I worked End of Day over. Usually, just changing a few words and lamenting that inner tension that comes from being onto something that could be really good, yet knowing I still didn’t have it right. It reminded me of when my daughter was born; I labored for almost four days, but it was all work without any progress.

I think what bothered me most was how hung up I became in it. Toiling over adjectives that really didn’t matter. Agonizing over trivialities like dialogue tags. I told myself I needed to get End of Day out the door so I could get back to work on Folly. From Thanksgiving on, I puttered and puttered and puttered, while Folly grew cold on the back burner.

Then, with the new year, providence: WB Stephen identified the missing key to the puzzle. He even offered a suggestion how to fix it. And it was a good suggestion. A really, really, really good suggestion. The kind where you read it and that “Oh, yeah,” feeling washes over you. After all those months of tinkering, puttering, putzing, within an hour, End of Day was fixed. I submitted it to Flashquake this morning.

So no more excuses. No more distractions. No putzing. Come naptime today, I reopen Folly. I’ve neglected it and I expect it will fight me for that. But I’ll ease in, make my peace, nudge it gently. A series of tiny steps taken in the same direction eventually leads somewhere. Folly and I will get there, come distractions and high water.

And as for you, Stephen. Buddy. I owe you a beer. Thanks for helping me knock off my biggest excuse. Now I’m just left with the ones too personal to reveal here. So I’d better get my butt in gear.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hot Six for 2009


Since last year's resolutions went so well, I'm posting my list for 2009. Here are my goals for the year:

  1. Finish revisions on Jamieson’s Folly.
  2. Write 10 short stories.
  3. Of those, publish at least 5.
  4. Keep up this blog.
  5. Implement at least one other way of effectively promoting my writing.
  6. Complete NaNoWriMo.

It's a short list, but it should keep me busy. I look forward to ticking each of these off in the gleaming, fresh months ahead.

May all of you have a wonderful year, filled with growth, fulfillment and realized potential. Whatever you do, keep writing!