The WordSpider

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Of Word Processors Old and New

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Two weeks ago I wrote here that my topics for upcoming posts would arise from my current project:  undertaking a major revision of my paranormal romance The Vanth.  This post has nothing to do with The Vanth itself (herself?) but much to do with the process of revision.  I doubt that I would have become a novelist without learning to use a computer, and thus acquiring the ability to move large blocks of text around without having to literally cut and paste and then retype it all. 

This is not to say that I don’t write by hand.  I do.  I filled a dozen or more blank books during my travel year, and I have stacks of labeled boxes of old journals in a funny little attic next to my office.  Some go back 50 years or more. 

Many writers, especially poets, prefer to write only by hand.   Some claim their creativity flows most directly that way to the paper, and this may be even more true of left-handed writers.  Lefties as a group may or may not be more creative or intuitive than the rest of us, but the left hand is linked to the non-linear, instinctive, not to say illogical right side of the brain.  Certainly some of the greatest poetry can be called illogical, and I think all poetry is, at some level, best processed in a non-linear way.  But I am not a poet.

Back in the days when people with cell phones were a minority, back when hardly anyone even took photos on their phones, let alone surfing the web, reading or even, by now, more than likely writing books on them, back when more and more people had personal computers while some still settled for modern technology in a simpler form, back in the 1980s, the poet Jesse Bernstein would sometimes ask guests, “Hey, wanna see my word processor?”  

When they said yes, he’d grin, dig into his pocket and produce a stub of pencil.  That was more joke than truth, though, because in fact Jesse did most of his work on typewriters.  He loved them with a passion that went far beyond his extraordinarily well-developed office supply fetish.  (I’ve never known anyone who owned more paper clips, more staples—or more staplers—than Jesse.)  Though he (unlike me) stopped short of naming his machines, they were individuals to him, with distinct personalities.

He generally had at least two, and often three typewriters, but his dearest possession was a sturdy pale green portable Hermes 3000.  That model, he used to say, was famed as a war correspondent’s typewriter—and Jesse did consider himself a war correspondent. 

Jesse also loved the narrow, spiral-bound notepads used by reporters—it was mostly on them that he wore his pencils down—and once persuaded Regina Hackett, arts reporter for the old Post-Intelligencer, to get him a stack of them imprinted with the P-I’s logo on the covers.

Why did Jesse call himself a war correspondent?  As a child and youth he had been forced to live in the filthy and dangerous underside of our society, its streets, its institutions.  The unimaginable abuse he suffered there had left a legacy of nightmares and PTSD that meant he never truly left that war zone; it was no wonder he identified withViet Nam vets and Holocaust survivors.  He often said it was his duty as a survivor to speak for those who had not survived or who had no voice.  So he spent hours in his office clacking away on his Hermes, sending out dispatches, in the form of poems, from the battlefront of despair and madness.

Me, I’ve never suffered that much.  I do entertainment, and sometimes a lighter form of journalism, telling small but true stories of writers I’ve known.

 


Trash

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Today’s topic was suggested by the day of the week and by my last post:  my garbage is collected on Monday mornings, and “trash” is a term I often hear used to describe any book despised by the speaker.  Many readers naturally would so describe the ill-written pornography I mentioned last week, with justice.  This label is often, however, applied most unfairly, or with too little knowledge to provide any reasonable basis for judgment, simply because one doesn’t read a certain genre.

Long ago I tried to interest my mother in the novels of Georgette Heyer.  I knew she would love them for their intelligence, their historical accuracy, their shrewd depiction of human nature and their delicious, deliriously funny comedy.  She flatly refused to even try one, saying, “Romance?  I don’t read that trash.”  My reply, “But you read Jane Austen,” almost got me thrown out of the house.

Still, I had to laugh, because Mom’s comment reminded me irresistibly of one of the regular customers at the bookstore where I worked at the time.  It was a neighborhood buy-sell-trade establishment, with a large clientele of elderly women.  This particular old woman had a gravelly voice, a thick German accent, dyed orange hair and heavy makeup in the color scheme of Snow White—lips as red as blood, etc.  One day as she plunked down the books she’d brought to trade, her usual pile of nicotine-imbued true crime paperbacks, she glanced disparagingly at a stack of romances on the desk and sneered, “I don’t read dat love schtuff.”

That was in the 1990s, when romantic fiction was in a state of transition.  Explicit sex was making its way out of the frankly pornographic into new territory, the mainstream New-York-Times-bestseller romance novel.  A crop of curious names for body parts arose, as apparently descriptions of sex in women’s fiction, however graphic, still required coy euphemisms.  One of these especially I cannot recall to this day without laughter:  “her woman’s nubbin.”  There was such a huge demand for racy scenes that even established authors felt obliged to include them, to the dismay of some loyal readers who preferred implied sex acts to graphic description.  “I used to love Danielle Steele,” mourned one old dear, “until she started writing this smutty trash.”  Now some readers would call all of Steele’s work trash, whether smutty or not, but that’s beside the point.

Nowadays there are almost always explicit romances on the best seller lists, and there’s not a whole lot of distinction between some of the novels considered “literary”—or at least published in trade paperback—and their mass market sisters.  Is this good?  Is this bad?  Who knows?  Many prognosticators are claiming that print media, especially novels, are hurtling toward obsolescence, but the fact is, people are still buying and reading books, all kinds of books.  One reader’s trash is another reader’s literature, and so, I suspect, it will always be.

 

 


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.


reading & writing & a little arithmetic

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

 Lately I’ve reached the realization that although I don’t have an actual career as a writer, I have composed and distributed plenty of writing in my time, I have been paid for some of it, journalism mainly; much more of my work I consider public service, unpaid but often widely read:  letters and longer opinion pieces in local newspapers; meditations and rituals for my  spiritual circle, the Church of the Holy Girlfriends; academic essays at Seattle Central Community College and The Evergreen State College; messages of peace and justice for the flyers handed out at Women in Black silent peace vigils in Seattle.  That last I haven’t done in some time, but I did it every week for several years.  It was an interesting artform, requiring me to be concise, dramatic, factual and emotional, and above all, quickly legible on a half sheet of paper.  (Oh such manoevering with fonts and margins!)  So, all told, I have done quite a lot of writing, and one way or another I’ve seen a lot of it published; I just don’t often get paid for it. 

In my mid-sixties I am starting to face the possibility that I may never write a really good novel.  The one I spent seven years writing now looks to me, with a couple years’ distance, like an uneven mess:  lots of good parts, but they don’t hang together well.  A sympathetic friend tells me I am probably being unnecessarily harsh to myself and my novel.  Maybe I’m just hypercritical—it would not be the first time—but my biggest criticism of the novel as it stands now is that it (or I) can’t decide whether it’s literary or pop fiction.  I’m not sure whether the heroine’s light-hearted, rather comic romance belongs in the same book with the drugs, despair and suicide of her ex-husband.  My only defense against charges of improbability is that such disparate events have occurred in close proximity in my life and in the lives of my friends.

But I still keep writing, and I still keep hoping, clinging to the example of the English novelist Mary Wesley, who saw her first book into print at age 72, and has gone on to write several more.

As for reading:  lately I’ve been comforting myself with classic British mysteries.  I love Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham series and Jo Bannister’s Castlemere books, but at present I feel that I have read them to death, like a dog worrying a stuffed animal into a grubby rag.  On the other hand, I’ve managed to leave Dorothy Sayers’ books alone long enough to be able to reread them with pleasure, even the earliest and most aggressively frivolous of the lot, Whose Body?  I’ve also been enjoying Dorothy Simpson’s Luke Thanet books, another small town police procedural series with heart, humor and insight.

Maybe I should be writing a mystery…

 

 

 


Wild Life and a Working Writer

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Wild Life

by Molly Gloss

Mariner Books trade paperback, 2000

cost:  $2.00 at Perry Mall Antiques,Bremerton

The words “antique” and “vintage” alarm me when I’m on a tight budget.  I’ve seen the twin of a colander I bought for $1.50 at St. Vinnie’s offered as an antique at $12.  But antique malls where dozens of venders set their own prices do sometimes offer bargains, like the collection of $2 books with Pacific Northwest themes I once found at Perry Mall.

I’d heard of Molly Gloss and The Jump-Off Creek, her award-winning novel about a fiercely independent widow homesteading in Eastern Oregon in the 1890s.  In buying Wild Life I thought I was getting another book of that type, a well-researched historical novel.  Wild Life is that, all right, but it’s something more as well.  Historical accuracy merges, at first imperceptibly, into a sense of the mythic quality of the ancient forest, and then into outright fantasy that is somehow utterly believable, making the story as unclassifiable as it is enthralling. 

Even more to my taste, the novel depicts the life of a working writer.  The heroine is not a troubled genius, nor a creator of undying art; she’s a popular novelist who works hard for her living at a craft she mostly enjoys, struggling—as do we all—to balance her work with her family, her health, her daily life.  Ultimately, because she is above all a both a truth teller and a storyteller, she’s trying to keep her balance between sharing and mythologizing her own experience of life.  This is not just a good read:  it’s a useful read for any working writer, no matter what her genre.

The story is set in turn-of-the-last-century Oregon, this time in the west, in small towns and logging camps along the Columbia and in the deep woods.  In an interview at the back of the book, Gloss says Wild Life grew out of her research for The Jump-Off Creek.  Lydia, the heroine of that book, was a reader, so Gloss immersed herself in the popular fiction of the era.  She discovered that many of those “dime novels” were written by women—not only stories of love and domestic life but also Western adventures, fantasy and science fiction featuring strong-minded and intrepid heroines. 

Charlotte, the heroine of Wild Life, earns her living as the author of such fantastical tales.  Born in Oregon and partly raised inNew York City, she now lives on the homestead she inherited from her mother.   Without regard for public opinion she smokes cigars and rides her bicycle to town wearing trousers.  Her husband having vanished—deliberately or not, neither she nor the reader knows—she must balance earning a living with the job of bringing up five sons, with the help of her loyal but disapproving housekeeper Melba.

When Melba’s granddaughter disappears from a logging camp near Yacolt, Charlotte, both concerned for the child and eager for action and new experience, joins the search party.  Separated from her companions in the deep forest, she finds herself living an adventure as fantastical as anything she has ever read or written.

Besides giving us a detailed and historically accurate picture of life in the muddy towns and logging camps linked together by Oregon’s great rivers,  Gloss weaves in Native American legend, feminism both theoretical and down-to-earth, and an illuminating sampling of the literature and the scientific and philosophical speculations of the era.  Above all she celebrates the human need for wilderness and mystery.

 Molly Gloss wrote her first novel, Outside the Gates, a young adult fantasy, after studying with Portland science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin.  The Jump-Off Creek followed in 1989.  The Dazzle of Day (1997) is science fiction.  The two streams of Gloss’s writing, history and fantasy, came together in Wild LifeThe Hearts of Horses (2007) is historical fiction again.  All five titles are available from the Kitsap Regional Library in various formats including large print and audio books.


book review: Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God

by Joe Coomer

Cost:  $0.95, at the Bremerton St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store

It was one of those rainy days when I was desperate for something new to read.  I was sick of all my old favorites, and I had no idea what I wanted.  The library near me was closed, so I went to St. Vinnie’s and let my eyes graze at random along the shelves of hardcover and trade paperback fiction.  

The title grabbed me first, speaking of the sea, of loss and confusion, and of an author with an unusual mind.  Within the first few pages, I was captured by the beauty of the writing and, reluctantly closing the book, I put it in my basket and checked out.   I had a list of a few other household items to look for, but I decided they could wait; I wanted to get home, make a pot of tea and dive into the book. 

Recently widowed Charlotte has fled Kentucky to escape her in-laws’ obsessive demands on her memories of their son.  Driving aimlessly, she drifts to a stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a quaint but still vibrant seaport.  Enchanted by the harbor, she rents a room on an old wooden motor yacht moored on the river.   Rocked into peace by the boat’s motion, she relaxes and begins to live again instead of running away. 

Liking and trust gradually develop between her, the boat’s elderly and eccentric owner Grace, and another tenant, the teenage Chloe,  and as their friendship transcends the generation gaps, the three women form a family, looking out for each other when troubles converge on them from all directions.   Leaving the harbor for the sea, they steer the boat toward Prince Edward Island, home of the beloved fictional heroine Anne of Green Gables.  Their comical, terrifying, and heartrending adventures aboard the Rosinante reveal unsuspected strengths and talents in all three women.

Coomer’s characters are complex, deliciously odd and at the same time completely believable, which makes for exciting reading.  It’s easy to identify with them, and at the same time it’s nearly impossible to guess what they will do next.  He is that rarity, a man who understands women well enough to write believably from a woman’s point of view.  In spite of the masculine given name, in fact, I assumed he was female until I saw his photo on another of his books.

The Kitsap Regional Library owns this novel and two other books by Coomer.  In A Pocketful of Names, Hannah, a fine artist who is commercially successful,  lives alone on a tinyMaine island, until her self-sufficient life is disrupted by a half-drowned dog, a teenage boy fleeing abuse, and the mysterious holes being dug on her island.   Rather belatedly she gets to know some of her neighbors, and learns things about the uncle who left her the island that disturb her view of the past.  Ultimately she faces a shattering revelation about herself, and learns to weather it with the help of the very people she had been so reluctant to let into her life. 

Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, a non-fiction account of Coomer’s restoration of an old motor yacht and his search for her history, should appeal to Kitsap’s boat lovers.   I’m keeping an eye out for other Coomer novels our library doesn’t own, especially the irresistibly titled Apologizing to Dogs.