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Archive for January, 2012

Adventures in Writing

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Two days ago I finished the first draft of my story Joy, which makes me happy because now I get to know how it ends.  Believe me, I was wondering.  When I first started writing it, I had no idea.  As I went on working, I gradually had some idea, but as it turned out, there was something else, something more going on that I hadn’t seen—any more than Nadine herself saw it until it jumped up and stared her in the face.  “If it was a bear,” my mother would have said, “it would have bit you.”

Nadine used to be Theresa, or Teresa, by the way, as you may remember if you read the earlier very partial draft I posted here a few weeks back.

 This was and is the beginning of the story:

             Do what gives you joy.

            Some lady what called herself a motivational speaker said that, at this hippie-dippie spiritual workshop Marnie  dragged me to one Monday. It was all about how to find the right work for yourself, and I thought, what a load of crap, because, come on now, how many people do you know who find joy in their jobs? 

The first, most important thing about this story, to me as a writer, is that it came to me as a gift.  I never planned to write it, never plotted it out.  For a long time I didn’t know the name of the narrator-protagonist, let alone where her story was going; I just heard her ungrammatical but utterly sincere voice in my head, telling her story, demanding that I let her story come through me.

Now, from this beginning you would expect, as I myself expected, that the story would be about Nadine finding the kind of work that suits her, that does at some level bring her joy.  And she does find her right work, but it turned out that was nowhere near the whole story.  I wrote on Facebook, the day I finally got it:

“”I was writing this story about a woman trying to find the kind of work that suited her – or any work at all! and go figure, it just turned into a love story.  Not a romance (sorry, my PENRWA colleagues) but a love story. It’s funny how sometimes fiction, like life, laughs at what you think you’re doing and informs you that you’re doing something else entirely.”

Fellow author Marcus Smith (http://www.mleonsmith.com/) responded:  “I get this all the time when I write. There are aspects to the main character in the piece I am writing that I didn’t plan or expect…”

One thing that excites me about the story—I’m talking now about the work of fiction I’ve written, which is not quite the same thing as Nadine’s personal history—is that I was true to her voice and I used my craft, the techniques I’ve been learning.  In fact using my craft helped me be true to my character’s voice.  I said as much as needed to be said about the backstory, and I fed it in a little bit at a time, as it naturally came up.  I even managed to wind up knowing more of it than I needed to put into the story, and for me that is a huge victory.

Another exciting thing is that I wrote it because it wanted to be written, not because I saw a way to sell it.  I still don’t see a way to sell it, and I still like it a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I despise salable art.  I made my living for many years selling “wearable art” which is a fancy way of saying I made one-of-a-kind patchwork purses and occasionally vests or tunics.

My purses were useful and well-constructed, and every piece of the patchwork was unique.  At the same time, while I never mass-produced, it’s fair to say that some pieces were less strikingly original than others.  I’d put together a satisfying combination of fabrics, different colors and prints and textures complementing each other, and one or two pieces of patchwork out of that combination might have something extra that made them art.  I kept working steadily, and I made a living, and sometimes I got the special pieces.

Now that’s what I’m trying to do as a writer.  If I’m going to start bringing in money, I have to keep working steadily at my craft, and I have to find the format for my work that makes it salable:  the shapes of story, the right genres.  But what keeps me going is the special pieces, the ones I never could have planned, the adventures, the gifts.  That’s why I write.


P. D. James Visits Pemberley

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Admirers of both Jane Austen and English mystery novelist P. D. James were thrilled by news of James’ latest book, Death Comes to Pemberley.  Those who have read it may now feel bemused.

Pemberley, in case you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, is the home of the haughty aristocrat Darcy who marries the lively and irreverent Elizabeth Bennet in the end.

Interviewed last November,  James admitted to being ambivalent about sequels, but added, “Austen’s characters take such a hold on our imagination that the wish to know more of them is irresistible.”  In a book she frankly called self-indulgent, she combined her “two lifelong enthusiasms,” writing detective fiction and Jane Austen’s novels.  The results are, well, mixed.

I’ve read only a handful of the modern sequels.  Joan Aiken, prolific author of juvenile, romantic suspense and historical fiction, gave us six books linked to Austen’s novels; Colleen McCullough, who also writes in several genres, notably a series set in Imperial Rome, produced The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.   

Taken on their merits, these novels have their own integrity, but I can’t consider them sequels to Jane Austen’s books.  Aiken and McCullough share a predilection for grotesquery and melodrama at odds with Austen’s tone, subject matter, and characters.   It’s fairer to say that Austen’s people and settings inspired these very different tales. 

Death Comes to Pemberley, by contrast, is almost too respectful, and thus comes off rather dry at first.  P. D. James turns ninety-two this year, and it’s tempting to attribute the flat pedestrian tone to age and fatigue.  However, her previous novel, The Private Patient, is as complex and richly atmospheric as anything she’s done, while the mind displayed in the Telegraph interview go shows no sign of failing. 

 Too much of the book simply recapitulates the events of Pride and Prejudice.  James then carries the Bennet sisters, their husbands and their families forward six years, and sets the stage by describing the little world of the Pemberley estate.  Then the murder occurs, and the Darcys’ ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Wickham is arrested and must stand trial.

Here, finally, I felt that I was reading P.D. James, as I watched her juggle the minutia of Regency detective methods with an examination of Darcy’s relationship to Wickham.  Their past dealings and contrasting characters are important to the plot of Pride and Prejudice mainly as they showElizabeth’s development:  offended by Darcy’s stiff reserve, flattered by Wickham’s attentions, she misjudges both and must admit herself mistaken.  James, however, focuses on the two men. 

Wickham has been a thorn in Darcy’s side since they were boys together in Pemberley’s woods:  Darcy proud, lonely, bred to heavy responsibility; Wickham poor, charming and unscrupulous—and Darcy’s father’s pet.  Yet Darcy knows that for all his faults and misdeeds, Wickham is not a violent man, and takes on responsibility for his defense.  More, Darcy at last develops real empathy for Wickham’s situation.  Raised as a child of privilege yet provided with neither wealth nor responsibility, Wickham almost inevitably developed a sense of entitlement that gave rise to most of his sins and troubles.  As his father’s heir, Darcy comes to see that he owes Wickham more tolerance and reparation than he had formerly imagined. 

 Two links of interest:

 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8870688/PD-James-on-Death-Comes-to-Pemberley.html 

http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austseql.html   sequels and spin-offs from Jane Austen’s novels

 


Craft

Monday, January 9th, 2012

As a member of PENRWA (http://penrwa.blogspot.com/), the Kitsap Peninsula chapter of the Romance Writers of America, I participate in an email group.  This morning Susan Lyons  (http://www.susanlyons.ca) shared a link to a helpful article called Talking Back to Your Brain. (http://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/talking-back-to-your-brain/)

 After a short lecture on the structure of the human brain, the authors pointed out that we often sabotage ourselves by asking our brains the wrong sort of questions, such as a question which is framed so as to generate depressing answers, or a question so vague that the answers are meaningless, or a question so big that the very volume of answers tends to immobilize us or create  despair.  This sort of thing is far from helpful to a writer—or indeed anyone—who is already feeling stuck.  Instead, the authors recommended, ask yourself very specific questions, with a sharp and limited focus.  They then gave examples of such questions, and one leapt out at me:

“How can I put more tension in this scene?”

The reason that one grabbed me, I think, is that it’s a question of craft.  Sufficient tension to carry the story along—and the readers with it—does  not just happen, it seems, except perhaps to the most gifted writers, and so it has to be put in, like adding seasoning to a sauce.

Writers talk, and some of them talk quite a lot, about the craft of writing.  For most of my life, until I began working seriously on my writing, I was idealistic, not to say naïve.  With an absolute belief in the power of Sincerity and the holiness of Art, I disdained the use of tricks.   I just wanted to tell a true story—a story that, although it might be fiction, conveyed some truth about life as I knew it.  Of course I believed in developing skills and honing them by practice, but I was not sure exactly what was meant by “craft.”  The concept aroused mixed feelings in me, as mixed as the meanings of the word:  craft as skill; craft as technique; craft as trickery.

Craft as skill:  Nothing is sweeter than those times when the work is going right, when honest workmanship and joyous play become one.  That sense of ease comes partly by serendipity but more importantly from  a well-practiced set of skills, like having a set of clean and shining tools lying ready to hand.

 Craft as technique:  It’s still about skill, but now it’s skill employed in shaping tried and true patterns, which may or may not have much heart in them.  Technique may be a display of skill for its own sake, or just for the sake of making a buck.  There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily; it can still be honest workmanship.  Many popular authors owe their success to their mastery of technique combined with timeliness:  a clear sense of what kind of story the public want at the moment.

Craft as trickery:  When technique becomes a substitute for story, when formulas replace characters, I as a reader feel cheated.  As a voracious and omnivorous reader, I have often been beguiled into entering a book by trickery, manipulated while it lasted into thinking it was an exciting story peopled with intriguing characters, but in the end left unsatisfied, even slightly queasy, as though I’d just eaten something pretending to be a good meal but in truth consisting entirely of air, genetically modified soy solids, hydrogenated fat and artificial flavors.  That’s not the kind of story I want to read, and it’s not the kind I want to write. 

So, back to that hypothetical scene without enough tension in it.  It needs something.  But if the characters are to remain true at heart, however wildly exotic the fiction they inhabit, then to my mind,  the tension cannot legitimately be ratcheted up  by merely employing clever plot devices.  The writer must first understand that more tension must be shown—and that is a matter of the best sort of craft, that understanding—and then find genuine sources of tension in the characters and their situation as they already exist in their author’s mind. 

Even if a book is a lightweight piece of genre fiction, it can still be made of honest ingredients.


Pace

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

Happy New Year!

 As I write this, I am feeling both proud and humble—and pleasantly fatigued, and smugly virtuous as well.  Today I took part in the Bremerton YMCA’s Resolution Walk/Run.

I am proud of my out-of-shape, overweight, sixty-something self for staying the five kilometer course (just over three miles) at a fairly brisk walk, and humble about being the very last straggler on that course.  (Others returned later than me, but they had gone much further.)  Uphill and down the course ran, along quiet Sunday morning streets, in perfect weather, crisp and dry and partly sunny—I don’t think I could have done this in icy rain.  It was hard work for me all the same, especially the steep hills, but I kept on going.  Eventually I hit my stride and then dogged endurance gave way to enjoyment. 

When I reached the halfway point, at Viewcrest Drive, I stopped to rest, drink from my water bottle, and admire the vista of water and land, distant city and still more distant mountains.  I picked myself a sprig of long-needled pine as a little trophy.  (After four decades in Washington, I love cedars like a native Northwesterner, but I was born and raised among pine woods, and the scent of pinesap in winter still carries me straight back to my earliest memories of joy.)

my victory bouquet

I turned to complete the second half and was immediately passed at a fast jog by a woman at least ten years older than me:  another humbling moment.   But I was still feeling good about being outdoors bright and early, moving well in my body, and taking part in a community celebration of renewal and commitment to good health, and so although I was humbled, I was not ashamed.   I went on walking, picked up another little pine branch along the way, and then a branch of red berries:  my victory bouquet.

Yes, that woman is older and thinner and faster than I am.   But one thing I’ve learned to avoid, as a person and especially as an artist, is the toxic folly of measuring myself against others.  There’s no point in comparing apples to oranges, aardvarks to orangutans.  Nor is there much point in comparing me, for good or ill, to Mother Teresa, Queen Elizabeth, Jon-Benét Ramsey or Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Palin or Tina Fey.  The one trait I share with all the above is our gender.  With the trim and speedy lady of the pink jacket and the slightly rigid-looking gray curls who passed me this morning, I have this much in common:  we are both alive, both over sixty years old, and both care about staying healthy and active.  The reasons why she is—apparently—in so much better physical shape than I am will probably never be known to either of us.

What matters to me today is that I made the effort, at my own pace, and by doing so, I found my joy:  that place where work and pleasure meet and become one.

And so it is with my writing.  I have not done much lately, for many of the same reasons that my weight has slid back up the last few months:  a complex work schedule made more complicated by illness followed by holidays.  I accept responsibility:  these are explanations, not excuses.  I must do better if I want anyone—myself included —to take my writing seriously, and I will.  I will keep working steadily and I will pace myself.

Call that my New Year’s Resolution.

This blog helps keep me honest:  I have to write something every week.  (The one time I “cheated” by publishing my unfinished story Joy here, at least I had been working all week on that story.) 

An odd thing I’ve discovered about myself is that my natural rhythm is one of stops and starts.  A “steady” pace for me essentially means a fairly regular alternation of periods of intense work with periods of lying fallow.  Accepting that about myself has made it much easier for me to tell the difference between lying fallow and just being lazy—of which I am quite as capable as the next writer.  Having a better sense of when I can and should burst into intensely creative activity and when I just have to grit my teeth and plod along keeps me from despair.  Those times when I am apparently accomplishing nothing, I’ve learned to recognize as periods of building up my strength and skills, preparing myself for frenetic activity later.

My next big venture— this is a New Year’s Resolution as well—will be a mystery novel set in Kitsap County.  That’s all I’m going to say about it now; it’s far too young a project to be exposed to the harsh elements.   Thanks to my readers’ comments for the inspiration and encouragement.

 Another resolution:  I will take part in National Novel Writing Month in November.  Last year was the first time I seriously considered it, and I was struck ill before I could make more than a gesture at beginning.  By the time I was well enough to write, I had lost too many days for someone who also has a day job.  But this year I’m determined to make it happen.  I’ve been told it’s not considered cheating to plan out in advance the characters, location, and even a rough sense of the arc of the plot, so long as the actual writing of the tale begins in November.