Friday, February 18, 2011

Breaking up Is Hard to Do / You Are What You Eat

What do novels do to you? I'd love to know how other people feel after turning that last page.

I've been trying to figure out why I am so wrecked after I finish reading a novel. It's worse than The Day after Christmas Blues -- far more distracting, disorienting.

One obvious answer is that a novel is a heck of a lotta information for your brain to process: tens of thousands of words, meanings layered on meanings, emotions, scenery, and a side of curly fries to boot.

It's more than that, though.

Books grab you, drag you into a new world.

Novels are convoluted high-speed rollercoasters that, instead of returning you to a sparkling popcorn-scented amusement park, deposit you directly into your drab office cubicle in the middle of a work day, leaving you as blinking, disoriented, and exhausted as a bodysnatcher or medium who just finished convening with the dead. And the phone is ringing, and your boss is coming down the corridor, and you still have cotton candy on your fingertips, and you have to pee. Or maybe not that last part. But sometimes you do feel a little sick.

The transition can be as happy and gentle as a mother lowering a baby to its crib.

It can be as dismaying as seeing your entire family and everything you own receding into the distance on a departing train as you chase it through an empty station.

Sometimes, it's just a rough kick on the seat of your pants and the sound of a slamming door.

For me, it's never a clean break.

Books possess me, weave barbed vines into my psyche, use my emotions as marionettes, and shape the way I view the world and express myself, sometimes indelibly.

Maybe that's why people don't just set aside books they hate. They hurl those suckers across the room. The wrath isn't about time forever wasted; it's about exorcism. That book was trying to slide its nasty, slimy vines into your brain, use you like a puppet. So invasive, so unwanted. You can't just turn your back. You have to smite! Destroy! (Lest it creep from beneath your bed at night to grab you by the ankles and mark you for life.)

When the cable channel Sprout premiered (2001-ish?), they played episodes of Sesame Street from the early 1970s that hadn't seen the light of day in decades. My friend was visiting that weekend, and we -- both children of the seventies -- sat transfixed for hours, looking at each other, first with discomfort, then fearful delight, then gleeful laughter, as our mouths moved on their own, reciting old rhymes, singing old songs -- things we didn't know we knew. We heard jokes and silly inflections that existed in those episodes and those episodes alone. They were elements so ingrained in our minds as Something Funny that we each thought we'd invented them or that they were a native part of our personas.

It was wonderfully disturbing fun, and when the marathon ended, I went about feeling haunted and melancholy. A small window had opened on my formative years and then closed again in a whoosh of dust. I was left not just missing the experience but wondering how much of me was me and how much came from snippets of Sesame Street with a sprinkle of Stephen King on top for added sparkle.

This is fiction for me. Each book leaves its own tattoo. Afterward, there's a healing process. I often skim the entire novel a second time, if I liked it, and sometimes a third. If it's going to be a part of me, I need to know what it all meant. You are what you eat, as they say.

So, how about you? Can you just close a book and move on without a second glance? Am I overly impressionable?

* The latest book to possess me is Donna Tartt's Secret History. More than 500 pages of lovely, if disturbing rollercoaster that's left an aftertaste of scotch and cigarettes and India ink, as well as a fascination with how she got me to love these often-horrible characters, seducing me along with the protagonist. I thank my husband for introducing it to me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

From my fortune cookie:
Today's oak tree is yesterday's nut that held its ground.

I knew it was good to be a stubborn eccentric.

Plugging away at my story today so I can be tomorrow's oak tree.

Or an author.

Or something.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Ravens & Writing Desks

How is a raven like a writing desk? Well, in my case, they're both glossy black and perch high, staring out at rooftops. Also? They both steal and hide all my shiny treasures.

It's a funny thing. I bought a writing desk two weeks ago, and now all my shiny muses have gone MIA. I sit at the pretty little thing in the corner of my bedroom, surrounded by glorious windows, snowcapped mountains, miles of blue sky, and sunshine, and my mind is blank.

Then I start eyeing my old desk.

My old desk was my bed, pillows piled high behind my back, every spring in my ancient mattress jabbing me in most painful fashion, and a rather inadequate plastic bedtray holding my wheezing overheated laptop above my trapped legs. In this exalted spot, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words -- many of them perfectly cromulent -- but it was ergonomically lacking, and it often led to mountains of papers and books stealing my husband's spot beside me. Furthermore, I couldn't rise without the back-straining fun of lowering laptop and tray to the ground, so I rarely did. I wrote late into the night, woke in the wee hours with thoughts of my stories, and the first thing I did in the morning was lift that burden back onto my legs.

Since getting this desk, a strange transformation has occurred.

My bed is now...a bed.

I sit at my desk, and...oh, look at that cozy bed...  I lose the urge to write. I just want a nap. And, when I'm not napping, I find myself reading. I've read like a fiend from this intriguing new land of Bed. It's been glorious, but when I wake in the wee hours now, my thoughts are full of these other novels. It's kind of disconcerting. There's absolutely nothing I can do about those words or characters. Three a.m. is not the hour for literary analysis or technical comparisons.

Damn if my mind isn't trying, however.

(Especially since The Rejectionist inspired me to read Elizabeth Hand's novella Illyria this week. It's beautiful, haunting, and there's a note of magic/mystery that I can almost but not quite get a grasp on. My mind keeps going around and around on it, and I don't know if there's any final destination to be had, or if it's even important. But the wee hours are good for that circular sort of anxiety and confusion. Aunt Kate... Emerald rings... Sob-inducing voices... Theaters...)

And my own words. I have none. I've sat on the rug and made index cards for my storyboard. I've made one or two blog posts. I wrote a one-paragraph message to an old friend. But I'm just not feeling it.

I am a creature of habit. Change really throws me off-kilter these days. And apparently my muses are terrible at reading maps. Hopefully they'll pull over for directions soon, reach this new desk, and this old dog will learn the trick of a new workspace.

Do changes in your routine throw you off, too? Do you have some sort of constant that eases transition for you (music, lighting, a space, a picture, etc.)?  Do you prefer variety? Do you know of a good GPS system for slowpoke muses?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Phone Call to the Past, Present, and Future

Hey! Me two years ago! Read this!

No. Seriously. Read this!

Larry Brooks offers some vital advice to writers

I spent way too long writing vignettes and/or a chronological series of events. I'm just now trying to weave my story over a proper framework.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Beating the Cat (That You've Saved)

I have been absent.

I have been pondering a question.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?

No, not really. (And sorry to display my embarrassing familiarity with Bread lyrics.)

I want to know, if a picture's worth a thousand words, then how many words is a single page of screenplay worth? In a novel, that is.

My fascination of late is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You'll Ever Need. Forget screenwriting -- it works for novels, too. The book is brilliant for distilling the myriad bits of storytelling wisdom I've heard over the years into a concise, easy to understand format. I hesitate to say formula because blah blah blah yeah we're all too artistic to cram our masterpieces into a formula, etc. But, really, this book is magic to me.

He lays out the basic elements of plot, talks about how they relate to one another (Act II is often an upside-down funhouse version of Act I, and Act III is a synthesis of the two), and tells you a precise order and proportion in which to use them. Again, I knew most of it, but it was loose, bouncing around in my head -- much like my plot. I really needed a graphic way to examine my novel and all its bits and pieces, and he offers one with his fifteen beats and The Board.

This is not a proper review. There's some horrific noise going on down the street right now. They seem to be using  bumblebees the size of 747s to do construction on the empty lot. Fills every gap in the air with sound. I may start screaming soon.

Anyway, I can't tell you how thrilling it is to be able to see my entire novel in one place, see where it goes off track, and see where it fits. I now know how to fix it!

The one thing I am not yet sure of is how to apply screenplay page numbers to a novel. He bases this on a 110-page screenplay. Can I turn the pages into percentages of total pages? Can I be lazy and turn each page into a thousand words (knowing a 110k-word novel is a wee bit too long)? Or does the catalyst HAVE to happen on page 25, even in a novel? Probably not. It finally occurred to me this morning (because, yes, I'm that scatterbrained sometimes) that I can Google "Save the Cat Novels" and see actual answers. Or opinions. Or articles on losing weight and how to buy prescriptions overseas.

I've only found one article so far (bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz says the neighborhood), but I'll keep looking and perhaps share my wisdom on the blog later.

Meanwhile, do give the book a glance or two. I really loved it. And, if you've read it and used it for your non-script writing, chime in here and let me know how you did it and how it turned out.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Back to the Drawing Board

Nathan Bransford announced the finalists in this year's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge this morning, and there are some great entries there. A few of my favorites made it, but we're not supposed to mention names until the final vote is tallied -- no fair campaigning, not even unintentionally.

Head over there to read the finalists' paragraphs and cast your vote in the comments section.

I'm feeling a bit of the Day after Christmas Blues. I never expected to win or even place. I just enjoyed the wondering, the waiting, the having something out there where people could read it. Meanwhile, it marks a few firsts:
  • my first contest
  • my first exposure to an agent's discerning eyeballs
  • my first toss into the slush pile.

But, as far as landings in a slush pile go, it was very soft, and now I feel more like an official writer. A rite of passage. Woohoo!

I guess it's not an official rejection. The Great Hell-No Letter of Despair will come later, along with all its special feelings.

I linked to my first paragraph before, but now I'll post it here in all of its shame glory entirety.
Elizabeth fit her feet into the rut of a forgotten rainstorm, one sneaker before the other down the old dirt road. Just a needle in a record’s scratchy groove, she sang dirges to the dying summer sun and surrendered to the pull of her secret haven. From her perch atop Mars Hill, she’d gaze over town, imagine herself as one of the soaring ravens, and forget real life, find her breath again. She couldn’t remember ever needing it more.

The entire first chapter (brief) is here.

I need to add more pent-up urgency. She now has more of a reason to be in a hurry. And, yes, there are probaby more issues to fix.

Off to The Marvelous Land of Revisions!