A few days ago, when you were in a conversation with some friends, you used a common enough phrase, "worst-case scenario" in reference to a potential social outcome. The situation and the phrase stuck with you because the actual even, as it transpired, was much worse than your candidate for the worst-case scenario.
It has become a truth, universally recognized, that most worst-case scenarios are not given accurate names. There is always a case worse than the supposed or anticipated worst case. Because you were aware of this on a number of levels, it was not the elephant in the living room. Such metaphoric elephants are conditions or circumstances you don't wish to notice or cope with or even recognize, preferring to trip over them and affect great surprise or walk about them as though they did not exist.
Your next step up from the elephant in the living room is a condition you've named the mosquito in the bedroom, that rapacious and hungry female (males for some reason do not draw blood) who buzzes about when the lights are turned off. Her target is you. You hear her, are aware of her intent, then drawn into a lights-on, lights-off game in which you hope to squash her.
You may be aware of the elephant in the living room and ignore it, but you cannot and do not pretend to ignore the mosquito in the bedroom.
In this case, the mosquito leads directly to your more educated sense of the worst-case scenario being resigned to the not-so-hot scenario. Something worse can always happen. Such results are given an aura of the mysterious, perhaps even so far as mystical or karmic. Part of the problem stems from too much reliance on predicting the exact nature and degree of any outcome.
Some writers pride themselves on their ability to concoct a worst-case outcome of true, utter awfulness and then to provide for their next work an outcome even more spectacular. Not bad for starters. Writers should be able to see beyond the limitations of worst-case and into dreadfulness of epic creativity. Melville pushed worst-case pretty far with Moby-Dick, leaving us only one survivor after having taken out a large ensemble crew. The prevailing wisdom is that he had to leave someone to tell the story in all its tangle of involvement. Yet Melville could have reached beyond by having the GWW (Great White Whale) at least having one nosh off of Ishmael's body, perhaps even a foot or hand. He could have had Ishmael die midway through his debriefing, leaving us to wonder and follow our own individualized sense of worst-case plus one, which is to say our individual sense of worst case instead of a more articulated worst case.
Writers, you included, it appears, limit themselves when they speak of the worst-case scenario as anything but a benchmark for a more complete and inexorable worst case which, in order to go beyond the benchmark, must secure the consultation of the characters.
Readers have experienced such awful cataclysmic results that they have come to expect gigantic surprises and activity that makes mayhem seem like kinderspiel, which is child's play in German, used because things in German, even such things as bitte and danke, sound worse than they do in English or French or Italian.
Whether they are using their reading as a surrogate for real life activity and confrontations with adversity and the partnership of active encounter with reality or because they have in fact engaged and felt the combination punches to their esteem and experience, readers don't want things too easy. They may claim to prefer such tropes as "nice" and "happy." but in their secret heart, they want the worst case. Not only that, they see you letting your characters off without a proper romp in worst-case super, they'll write you off without so much as a "Goodnight, John Boy."
Sunday, March 31, 2013
A few days ago, when you were in a conversation with some friends, you used a common enough phrase, "worst-case scenario" in reference to a potential social outcome. The situation and the phrase stuck with you because the actual even, as it transpired, was much worse than your candidate for the worst-case scenario.
Saturday, March 30, 2013
More than once--many times more than once--you've been invited to address writing groups where some variation of an unfortunate theme plays out. Before you're introduced, the chairperson of the group gives an assignment for the next meeting.
The first time you heard the assignment, you cringed. After the most recent incident, you have vowed to ask before accepting the invitation.
What follows is a conflation of the events of which you write:
The chairperson asks for three volunteers, the first one to place the first prompt. "Somewhere in the first paragraph," the volunteer says. "The word--" a dramatic pause. "--drizzle." A collective groan from the audience.
The chairperson now calls for the second volunteer, who says, "Fifteenth line. The word 'exfoliate.' Will accept 'exfoliation.'" Another collective groan.
You have also groaned, twice, but have kept the groans inward.
Now the chairperson summons the third volunteer. "Any time after word five hundred, the words 'omelette whisk.'"
You have already begun looking for the door, thinking of excuses, wondering which invented illness would be most appropriate because this is a group of highly intelligent persons, a fact you've appreciated from visiting with them.
Do you go on as planned, speaking about a vital subject such as point of view or perhaps verb tenses or the more annoying one of adverbs? Or do you discuss your feelings about prompts?
In fact, you've done both, giving your anti-prompt speech, wondering if it will do any good, suspecting it won't. You've also tried ignoring a discussion of prompts, although doing so can lead to you being invited to stay to hear the collective results of the last assignment. You've done that, too, with the result of experiencing any number of cringes.
A prompt is in effect a play on the role of the prompter, slightly off stage in live performances, whose job it is to supply in sotto voce the line some unfortunate actor has forgotten or buried. So far as writers are concerned, prompts are exercises, geared to free the inner writer, set the creative system working, produce some writing in seeming spontaneity.
You've encountered some devoted, intelligent writers who regularly play off of prompts, and some of the results, writing that incorporates prompts in some form or another (At least six hundred words on your first ice cream soda), all with the goal of getting the writer to do what most writers do on a regular basis, which is write. You've heard writing to prompts equated with the musician's daily practice in order to keep the chops at maximum ability.
Your dear chum, Barnaby Conrad, had devised a type of prompt that to your knowledge has actually done what most other prompts fall short of doing--producing a publishable work. Conrad's prompt was the essence of simplicity in its description, "Write a five-hundred-word sentence." You were there when Fanny Flagg nodded to herself after hearing the assignment, then set about composing a five-hundred-word sentence that ultimately became Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe. A year later, someone turned his Conradian sentence into a mystery novel. A number of individuals who've written such sentences praise the exercise for the unsuspected benefit of being forced to follow a narrative line.
Your own opinion of the prompts (Write at least three hundred words without using the letter d. Describe a time when you thought a dog was going to bite you and did not.) centers around the fact of them not producing useful dramatic material, instead producing demonstrations of the author's wit, cleverness, and vocabulary. All these qualities are there to be found in most successful stories, but you believe these qualities come from the interaction between characters rather than a demonstration of the author's glibness and facility. A clever exercise is not necessarily a drama any more than skillful brush strokes do not necessarily lead to a moving and satisfying painting.
Stories are made by getting words down, rearranging them, sometimes removing some, other times introducing yet others until a particular chemistry forms, much in the way of a master chef, putting together a perfect blend of ingredients to form a basic sauce such as a bechemel or hollandaise. Mere cooks or beginners can approach the same sauce by duplicating the ingredients, but somewhere along the way, the reductions and last-minute additions are things the amateur would fuss over or lose control of.
Beginning and emerging writers often reveal their status by wishing not only to make an appearance in their story but to do so in a way that calls attention to their cleverness. You often enjoy cleverness in writing, but the cleverness you enjoy is not the kind that calls attention to itself, rather it permits the reader to see it and to savor it.
In addition to being an extremely gifted new writer, Karen Russell is clever, her reach for out-of-the-ordinary narrators and themes adding several dimensions of depth and insight to her work. Her cleverness leads her way past the edge in terms of her flirtations with failure. You were a bit put off by a few of the stories in her recent collection, but only up to the point of recognizing how she gravitates to playing the risk card. Watching her emerging career jump start its way along the road, you see her using risk and reach rather than mere cleverness. The result is a growing sense of confidence emerging even from those stories--the one in particular about the tattooed man--that seem to lapse into cleverness.
This is only one example. Fitzgerald leaned heavily on cleverness in This Side of Paradise. You were young enough when you first read it to want to show how clever you were because that was the way to be published, wasn't it?
No, it was not. Not for you. Not for the time when you were coming forth with stories you thought to send out.
Prompts are not for you, either. For you, embarking on a new story, stalking it, dogging it until you've reached the point where you cannot hope to understand what it's about much less where it will go is the best prompt of all.
Friday, March 29, 2013
First Draft: Where the Writer Loses Control of Story. Final Draft: Where the Writer Loses Control of Temper
Note to self: Whenever a student prefaces a question with the observation, "This is probably a dumb question--" make sure you write down the question. In addition, make sure you answer it in writing, then store that written answer somewhere such as here, where you're likely to see it at some moment of need, reclaim it, and make use of it.
You still remember a time around the ending of the last century and the beginning of this when it seemed an increasing number of students began by owning up to a dumbness they did not in fact have, then ask you what revision meant.
At first, you'd preface your own responses with an equally defensive preamble, "I'd have thought that was obvious--" Except for the fact of the question being asked enough times to convince you the answer was not so obvious, either to them or to you. Thus the wisdom of the ages coming back to remind you how among other things, teaching is a partnership, which is to say you gain information and technique as well as passing it along to others.
Your recent book on fiction writing has a laundry list you devised for yourself in relationship to the work you expect and believe you need to perform on a given piece of work before it is ready to go off somewhere along the bouncy ride to publication.
You get the work to the first plateau, which means you arrive at the point where you begin to realize you are repeating yourself or you are throwing things away, in effect trying to pin too many tails on the donkey, or, worse yet, you fume and struggle to get at what comes next until the realization dawns on you that there is no more next to come--you have in effect finished the first draft.
Then you apply your approach to revision, which begins with deciding where the material begins. No brainer to make the second step where the piece ends, then the third step, the Are-you-sure? step before moving on to such things as Whose story is it?
After you've gone through your individualized laundry list of revision steps, you've probably rewritten and moved things about to the point where the earliest drafts are no longer recognizable. You've put things in, taken many things out, rearranged various orders, and are beginning to have restored faith in your ability to present a narrative, even to the point of laughing at yourself for the inevitable question to Self: Why couldn't you have seen this sooner? As though there were a satisfactory answer to such a question. As though you didn't already know why there was no satisfactory answer. As though you hadn't learned much in all these years of sifting about like an archaeologist, sifting through potsherds and detritus for clues and artifacts. As though.
By this time, you're feeling comfortable, perhaps happy or energized by your evolution from the first draft to this version you're about to set off with, into the world, tossed as you'd with such cavalier bravado launched the paper airplanes of your grammar school days.
This stage is critical because unless you are more careful than your usual wont, you are setting yourself up for a massive encounter, your own equivalent of the Battle of Agincourt in which the Brits took on the French, brought to such memorable life by Shakespeare in Henry V. Thing is, you won't be battling for anything so noble. You'll be preparing to do battle with the next logical step along the road to publication, which is to say editing.
If you're not careful, and there's a smattering of rejections for any reason at all before the work finds a home, you might even have reached that combative state of defensiveness where your inner child is cursing the rejectors and feeling even more justified in having written this fine, wonderful thing you've been at such pains to bring along.
Now, you've reached the crucial time. An editor has seen and shared your regard for the work, wants to take it on. Of course, you say. Of course someone wants to take it on. This is a worthwhile project that could have already been finding its way in the marketplace, had it not been for these wusses, these insensitive sorts who lacked the vision to see the wonder and uniqueness of your vision.
Right. You think that way, but get over it. Fast. The more you think that, the less likely you're going to be to listen well to the person who's bringing it into the fold.
That individual is, of course, the editor, who brings another vision of your project to the table. She is a person who wants the project, but has a vision for it that comes from a place beyond your own vision. She may well see the same things you see in the project, but she may well see others, which she will point out to you, step by step, which means going through the manuscript yet another time.
The more you go through this process, the greater the likelihood your subsequent projects will benefit, particularly in reference to the sense of you that is determined to defend by argument all the issues raised. The more you dig your heels in, offering resistance, the more probable you'll come to regard the person who invited you to the party in the first place not as a host but an enemy.
No, there is no such thing as Editorial Infallibility. Some editors, however well their intentions extend, are working at the outer edges of their ability to see your work. You are still smarting from an editorial director who refused to use the title of your latest book as a means of identifying you on a blurb you'd provided one of her authors. Her reasoning: Your blurb was for a novel. You should provide a title of one of your novels. There was yet another editor who thought a blurb you'd provided was too long. Yet another editor joined the long line of editors who believe your sentences tend to run too long. A great friend of yours is locked in an epic battle with a magazine editor relative to a six-hundred-word piece, his starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly notwithstanding.
Dealings with an editor's notes and suggestions is more often than not a conversation rather than an argument. As you listen to your characters, ideas, and themes, be at pains as well to listen to your editor.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Alternate universe fiction is a genre that presupposes a universe similar to our own in all but a few significant distances. The more you consider the implications of alternate universes, the more important you believe the necessity for you to have read some of them, written at least one, and spend some time discussing with students and editorial clients.
All readers enjoy surprise. As a consequence, each genre provides an appropriate presentation of a turn of events or discovery that the reader is not likely to anticipate. The reader of Alternate Universe fiction enters it with expectations of being transported to a landscape of some surprises which had no being in this universe, surprises that keep the reader off balance, eager to continue with the narrative in order to experience the things and events that come next.
Although the reader enjoys the surprises and continues reading to experience them, the moment these things and events and devices become predictable, the reader sets the book down, perhaps intending to return. Not to put too obvious a joke on the matter, under such circumstances, you'd be surprised if the reader were to return. Predictability is not a valued commodity in story.
Until the pieces fell into place where you were able to see the alternate universe story or novel as a framework for any novel, even those which seem to be most distant in theme and implication, you were fond of your belief that every novel, however far away in theme and implication, was a mystery novel or novel of detection. This recent Alternate Universe revelation that has come to you, by no means in the desert, does not in any way interfere with the mystery novel being a template for any novel.
More to the point, a novel is both, simultaneously.
This leads you to conflate the notion of surrealism in the visual arts with story. Surrealism in effect suggests another potential universe where a distorted or anomalous image is the norm, thus the Magritte "portrait" with the large apple.
A lifetime of reading, rereading, and contemplation about what you've read and why certain characters and situations work so well for you have made it easier to approach your own work. Troubles arose there when you carried too much thought with you into your work, wondering how an effect was achieved, why it worked, how you could bring the same kind of technique to bear in a situation you had under way.
Nice to be able to draw the line in the process where you're so caught up listening to the characters that you don't have time to think about anything else. You in fact do not have time to think until you've finished a day's work and begin to reread what you've learned from your characters.
The best way of all to surprise yourself as you write is the way of listening to them, the characters,pursuing their goals. Each of them, you need to remind yourself, is a separate universe, an alternate universe. Thus the characters are--and should be--apart from you, central to their own universe, governed by the quality that alternates them from your universe, governed in addition by the differences in their own universe.
Where you'd spent past hours contriving outlines and dramatic throughlines, you now find it easier to get into a greater sense of "their" story, "their" universe than you did when you tried to force your notion of the universe on them.
Note to self: Read your characters' memoirs. Believe them. If they do not have memoirs, you must take some time to help them set one down. But be careful you don't try to impose your universe on theirs.
Example: Yesterday, in a discussion with ENK, who lives in Hollywood, you directed her to a Sears store in your alternate universe, which is to say that your Sears store was at the southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. Not only that, the store was still known as Sears, Roebuck. In another world, kiddo. There are now some Sears stores in Glendale and Burbank, but the Sears, Roebuck of your Los Angeles universe is long gone.
The message here is that you have an eye and memory for places and details in your universe. These are valuable tools for evoking your universe, but you must also remember: Where ever you focus within your universe, that landscape has undergone and will continue to undergo changes. Your characters come from their own universe, and you will do well to remember this, because, no matter how much you argue the matter, story begins when two or more characters step on stage, each believing her or his cause to be the just and correct one.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
A favored complaint heard among the evolving writers who are scolded for presenting unconvincing responses, "But it really happened that way."
The complaint is neither age nor gender specific. For that matter, neither is it genre specific. Thus the boulder has begun to trundle down the hill, carried along by the momentum of its own faulty logic.
To the extent that logic is an iffy tool in arguing the aspects of a story, "But it really happened that way" is a statement that opens more doors than it closes. When, for instance, was the last time you read a story that had been argued into place?
Well-wrought technique often is so stunning in its effect on us that we override out sense of logic and remain rooted inside the story, cheering some in their efforts against those who appear to stand in their way. Technique takes us places logic can never hope to reach because technique makes us feel the rightness or correctness of a moment in spite of our nuanced awareness that story is a contrivance, a confection, an illusion, done with mirrors, smoke, and a great deal of delegating responses to the reader.
The event driving the writer's insistence, the "it" that really happened, is yet another example of logic gone to disgrace. If the writer insists he or she saw an event similar to the one under critical examination, the writer is guilty of not delegating the "it" to one or more characters, saving it for a moment of authorial intrusion, which was in great likelihood the reason why the matter is called to review in the first place.
Got a writer here who says the suspect material in a story is based on an actual event, took place on June 15th, 2011. Got witnesses.
For one thing, so what? Perhaps we'd have accepted the "it" as having really happened if the material had been a product of evocation rather than description. Perhaps we'd have restrained it under any circumstances because we didn't believe it, were not convinced, had no stake in the outcome, had, in fact, no awareness of or concern for any outcome.
Even if the event happened in real life, we so far have only the writer's word, and if we have to go about, relying on the writer's words as opposed to the characters' feelings, we'd have begun our migration away from the story, breaking into a trot to increase our distance.
Another way to look at the "it" that really happened: if there'd been two or more writers skulking about when things were becoming dodgy and the fireworks were erupting in the early Spring night, perhaps each of them saw it a different way. No--emend that. Get statements from each. Anticipate some agreement regarding details, but do not expect total congruence, Even among loving individuals and groups, when did you last see total agreement about anything.
Thinbgs that really happened took place to a wide scatter of observers or to as few as one. In each case, the observer saw what he or she beloeved was the true agenda of the event. The simple, basic joy of story is that observers of an event have an individual belief in the correctness of their individual vision. We may have both witnessed similar events, but my vision of it is more correct and, therefore, truthful than yours. Well, I'll see that and raise you my version was more correct and actual than yours.
Abstract triangles in geometric exercises may be argued into congruence with demonstrations of side, angle, side being equal or even of angle, side, angle having equal weight, but suppose you had a writer from the American south and a writer from the American Northeast, discussing, say, the Battle of Shiloh or Bull Run.
You think of the times you directed your characters to play out conversations you'd had or wished to have, events you'd hoped to achieve, outcomes for which you'd expended considerable preparation. You think of some person in relative authority, an agent, an editor, a television producer, or, in one example with a television laugh-track technician, wanting to know from you where the laughs were to go on a script, how far down the line the reader or viewer stands in the preparation of such things.
Such thoughts are enough to push you deeper into processes you invent rather than copy.
The voices within your head, demanding to be let out, or seductively suggesting a touch of sun at the pool or, better yet, the beach, don't give a fig if you got "it," whatever it was, from something that really happened. They're clamoring to be heard in their own voices, with their own trembling cadences and squeaky larynxes.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
There are times when Story becomes personified and slips a note under your door. Someone, the note reads, attempted to see you in order to deliver something. Mystery, already, right? Some package, an invitation, a note.
But you were out, perhaps at a coffee shop, writing a story about someone who believes the chances of having an interesting note slipped under his door increase while he is away. His reason is simple enough: No interesting notes have been left under his door when he was home. When a thing is a certainty, particularly in story, then the thing is static and stasis is a negative quality, a condition of skip-ahead-to-the-good-parts place.
This character is relying on a ritual kind of magic, all too familiar to you. For the most obvious reason, you had to leave the house in order to write the beginnings of such a story; the story would never come to you when you were at home. Such a story has never come to you when you were home.
There is no telling what could be left under your door or in your mail box. You might even get a note intended for a previous tenant. The delivery person might have had dyslexia, resulting in the numbers of your street address being reversed or jumbled. Where ever you are that is not at home, you could be energized by the sense of daring such a story might bring.
Although you do not think you resemble the actor Tom Hanks, he could be portraying you or your character. Meg Ryan is the woman. Bad idea. She is talented and attractive, but you'd have to have finished the entire story, then leased the film rights, at once thrilled to have someone of her stature case in the story but already out of the story and distant from it because she is not a person you see when you see characters engaged in stories you've constructed.
You are back to the kinds of notes people would be likely to leave under your door or packages they'd be likely to deliver, knowing enough about Story to know that you find fault with one character left alone in a scene for too long because much of the time the character will get to thinking the kinds of things that also contribute to stasis, things such as John wondering how "it" had begun, or wondering why he was here, doing this.
Too many stories reach that point of stasis when a front-rank character stops doing and begins wondering or speculating. The difference between speculation and suspicion is racing toward dramatic inertia. Speculation is one on the scale of one-to-ten; suspicion is ten. I'm speculating you might find John interesting. I suspect you of carrying on with John.
Macbeth, for instance, did not have too much time alone before killing King Malcolm. He saw, for instance, a porter, carrying Malcolm's supper to him, then began thinking this would be Malcolm's last supper, which triggered thoughts of The Last Supper, which triggered thoughts of conscience and religion, all happening pretty fast, sending him to Lady Macbeth to tell her he couldn't go through with the killing.
Lesson to be taken: Thoughts are okay in small doses; story is about movement, action, spoken words. The words have to be directed between, at, to, and about other persons.
Thus you've returned to your problem of a character who has left his house in order to work some ritual into being. Thought won't do it. The results have to come through action, confrontation, attempt, event, all those wonderful words meaning movement as opposed to thought.
Messages on your iPhone or slipped under your door tend to be as far removed from interesting as possible. Once someone sent you an intriguing message on your phone, resulting in your realization that it was a wrong number, a response from you that intrigued the sender, plus a new note from her saying you might have become her new best friend. You have no idea who this person was, but for days, story was running rampant all over the place because, at last, someone had sent you a message with some substance to it, which is to say mystery, ambiguity, potential, causes for speculation.
Such matters invariably return to story. If no one leaves a note under your door, even one from your landlady, telling you she has a few Easter eggs for you, then you have to go out and find or invent circumstances with sufficient mystery, intrigue, danger, potentials for love or mistaken identity or both.
Monday, March 25, 2013
How many hours of thought, conscious effort, and wild probing for additional sources of information have gone into your search? How many will The Process allow you to claim without demanding an audit?
Answers to those questions reside in the ashes of sad disaster. At first, you thought The Process--your process--was magical in nature, with at least a common denominator of mysticism, of somehow tapping into some great, Jungian-in-nature, source.
Then you allowed yourself to believe The Process had a rational basis, close to scientific in its implications. Talent was a part of it, of course, You went so far as to believe you had a good deal of that quality. Perhaps. But perhaps not. No matter; you saw the future as a detente between the logic of human behavior and the extent of your talent. In this perfect, rational world, you could see your work grow to the extent you were able to understand human behavior and have some ability to quantify your talent, perhaps even by exercise, to enhance that valuable quality.
That, as the saying goes, was then. Now has brought you yet another vision, a vision that feels better, works better for you, feels as comfortable as your four-day-old vision in your left eye now seems, which is to say sharper in image, color corrected, even coated with UV protection from direct sunlight.
In so many words from the advice and texts of The Process in its rational approach, Kill your darlings. One of these very darlings was the belief that learning the rules and--to mix the metaphor--practicing your scales would grant you ability--no, Ability--of such a level as to insure regularity of publication and, thus, regular checks, royalty statements with black ink, more agreements to publish arriving in your mail. This would be well and good if what you wished was the ability to produce a mechanically sound story, one able to pass the local building codes.
By no means were all your previous romances boring, unsatisfactory, even doomed. You think back on some of them and are able to extrapolate potentials for growth into the truest kinds of partnership inherent in love. Thus you are able to look back on The Rational Process with some degree of fondness. This could have been a relationship from which you'd not have strayed, been content with the gradual reduction of output from one novel a month to two or three a year, then one a year or so, each of those interspersed with the occasional short story, each of those pondered with greater deliberation, time off for pursuit of interests such as The Old West, Anthropology, and Music as well as the more personalized music.
The Mystical Process had its moments too, jumping into your awareness when you first began, being set aside for a number of years, then rekindled on that epic picnic you had with Christopher Isherwood, when he told you of his collaboration on translating The Bhagavad-Gita with Swami Prabhavananda, and the arrival of the line that continues to haunt you, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof." Thus Krishna to the famed General Arjuna. You liked the notion that the work, whatever the outcome, pleased you. Suffice the work to be enough, in spite of the difficulties of doing it well, even better as you progressed. Who could resist such a life? You were already used to being broke much of the time. Doing the work would somehow keep you afloat in the world, if not a successful man, a happy one, in particular relationship to a number of your friends who were successful but not happy.
Now, there is this, neither rational, mystical, nor in most ways mysterious. The work comes from The Process, same as ever, but the Process comes from a blue-cheese metaphor for you, crumbly, blue-veined with mold, with a slight peppery tang. Associations arrive within a paragraph or two of warm-up. The mysteries are not of the universe, which of themselves are profound and amazing; the mysteries of you are very bit as exciting. No one had to tell you how fruitful the arrival of these associations and chemical bonding can be, or how exciting the process of following them can be.
You do not work to explain the universe to itself or to serve apprenticeship to The Rational Process, or to learn the slight-of-hand equivalents of magic to supplement your narrative. You work to lead yourself down paths you'd have avoided before, paths you do not dare to take in the daylight hours, perhaps only in your dreams. You've come to accept another dramatic truth" Don't tell the Reader what the Reader already knows. This is of a piece with attempting to explain to the Universe how the Universe works.
Enough of that. Your work is to expose yourself to all the things you do not know and in that process come to appreciate even more what the work is.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Story is a skillful demonstration of the behavior governing objects. When we first encounter story, we may see individuals at rest, where they wish to remain but for reasons near and dear to them, they cannot.
After some deliberation, the individuals overcome the conditions of rest or inactivity, either acting on a temptation to do what they fear or, for some reason feel constrained to attempt. Perhaps, in the overcoming of moral and/or physical obstacles, they devise a plan. If the plan is daring enough, the participants experience a sense of exhilaration which, however reckless the exhilaration may make them, overcomes the last vestiges of rest or inactivity.
The characters are now in motion, where they will remain until they have accomplished a goal or met a resistance of sufficient force to bring them to rest and frustration.
In this calculus, story is underway, their momentum propelling the characters to a position beyond the point where they have committed themselves. Even were they to stop, there would be consequences significant enough for us to realize they could not hope to regain the rest and inactivity in place when we first met them. This is an important benchmark in story.
As readers, we have to know these individuals well enough to know there would be some repercussions and consequences if they were to attempt to negate the movement to this point.
Thinking about this point, you are reminded of Mark Twain, writing in his essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" about the necessity of characters being made to seem alive and thus susceptible to consequences for which the reader can forge identification and empathy. Of course, this makes sense for writers. After all the times of reading this essay, each new time you approach it, you can still feel Twain's frustration with the fact of Cooper's popularity.
Twain did not, at this point in his career, have to worry about popularity, thus you are ready to absolve him of envy or, worse yet, jealousy. All the while, you are able to agree with his sense of frustration and bewilderment. You read the Cooper novels as a boy. Even then, something seemed wrong. Twain nudged you closer to understanding what the wrong things were, things you have been trying to purge from your own writing efforts, things you've been noting as a teacher to pass on to your students, suggestions you note for writers whose work it has been your privilege to edit. Not to forget error points you pass along as a reviewer.
Removing palpable human characteristics such as needs, ambition, curiosity, and cultural purpose from individuals leaves little for them except to be mere objects, barely animate if animate at all. Thus the point you've been working toward here, which is that without human participation, the movements and conditions of rest you've been discussing apply to the various states of inertia.
Inertia is a quality found in matter, but in characters as well. Part of the quality of inertia has to do with resistance to change, a quality a character of mythic proportion discovered when he was condemned by Zeus to intimate contact with a boulder, which he was sentenced to push for all eternity up a hill, against the resistance provided by the grade of the hill and the weight of the boulder. At the top of the hill, change was inevitable. A greater force even than Zeus saw to that.
At the top of the hill, the boulder seemed to have a life of its own. You'd be guilty of anthropomorphizing the boulder by giving it a desire to roll down that hill. Boulders do what boulders do; they pay heed to the process of inertia either by resisting the move up the hill, or by barreling down the hill at a rate that could be calculated if its mass and weight and the downward slope of the hill were known. They also come to rest, at which point some force relative to their weight and mass is needed to coax it into motion.
You offer the same potential for inertia within story because the humans involved are chosen for their own resistance to change, their ability to deliberate, be roused by, or justify beyond the state of rest, into a state of motion. Equating the speed and potential effect of the downward motion of the boulder with the consequences of a character with a plan or, shall we say, a state of motion, we've made a jump from basic physics to basic drama.
In story, individuals are objects subject to the qualities of inertia. They move in vectors, which is to say lines of direction, at a force. The physics definition of force is: a vector quantity, expressing magnitude and direction. We stand out of the way of tumbling boulders with more alacrity than we avoid characters with magnitude and direction.
As readers, we admire and try to see how the author has achieved such dramatic inertia. As writers, we try to set our characters on paths where their downward movement will begin to accelerate, gather speed, then attain a velocity we can no longer control. Then our work has begun and, like Sisyphus, we are in for the long haul.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
You still sting from the memory of the loss of your first pocket knife, given you on your sixth birthday, a treasure that fell out of your pocket when you were in the room of a person you supposed to be a chum. Months after the loss, you saw your supposed friend with it, claimed it, and were greeted with the mantra, "Finders keepers, losers weepers." Scarcely a week elapses when, should your hand enter the right side pocket of your trousers and you encounter your present pocket knife, you think of that knife from so long ago, and you often think of its effect on you, which is to say it is possible to discover upward of ten pocket knives in your various drawers or storage shelves.
There is an adjunct sting associated with past pain in relation to upward of fifty fountain pens among your present possessions. Although you would under most circumstances, have illustrated art books and collections of photographs among your books, there are any number of titles specific to Oriental artists, due in compensation for another example of finders keepers and the loan of a book of Hokusai illustrations to one friend and its reappearance in the home of another. Thus three examples of things. As well, there are photographs and correspondence and paintings from deceased friends, and of course memories of them. From cyber visits to current-day Virginia City, Nevada, you have the presentiment that, were you to return for a sentimental journey, you would be saddened by what you saw and what you did not find.
All this is a laundry list of events that in some way or other shaped you in someway into the person you have become. All this is recognition that no one gets through unscathed by such things, much less without having some embedded response to them.
You can add here the fact of being shown on a screen an image that reminded you of a tiny red carnation, only to be told it was by no means good news, was in fact a malignant tumor. And now your most recent surgical adventure, the farewell to the lens you were issued at birth and its replacement with a stunning addition to your visual capacity.
These items represent a mingle of good and bad, of pleasure, some form of pain or another, and the resulting modifications and adaptations within your range of behavior.
These are yours; everyone has them to some degree. These encounters have open-ended potential. You are in the sense of having been around for as long as you have, joined in bonds of common and uncommon experience with anyone you see about you in real time, on line, or in digital imaging.
Adding to these common bonds, you've acquired friends, associates, acquaintances, some of whom have been lovers, friends, or individuals for whom you feel degrees of animosity. Thus into the pattern comes the energizing dynamic of personal chemistry.
In your own experience, you have felt various types of chemistry so far as other individuals are concerned. Some of the chemistry was or is frankly sexual, others of a more Platonic or mutual interest basis and, not to forget the chemistry of repelling forces, the chemistry of antagonism.
You've also noticed in various dramatic productions a subjective quality of chemistry between two or more actors, making the roles they portray of even greater interest to you, This chemistry between characters fascinates you, causes you to wonder openly about the relationship between characters you create to the point of causing you to pursue reading about acting techniques as well as watching with focus the chemistry or lack thereof between individuals you see about you.
How do past experiences turn the lives of individuals about you and the individuals you offer up on a serving platter to the narratives you have created and have hopes yet of creating? You look for quirkiness in yourself and have no difficulty finding it. From time to time, you think you understand why a specific person behaves in a certain way. Sometimes your understanding comes from direct experience in the sense that the individual admits to a response you understand well because you respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Other times, you deliberately try to see a response at some difference from your own, followed by a serious and devoted attempt to "see" that response as a truthful and, thus, believable one.
Thrilling as it was and is for you to hear information about individuals who have in reality set foot on the moon, it is more thrilling for you to read of characters who set foot on the novels and short stories of writers, dramatists, historians.
Somewhere in the process of creating your own characters, there is the calculus of you moving beyond Dr. Frankenstein's attempts to create life from the scraps of individuals who once lived and are now summoned again to live again under different circumstances.
In a sense you are sharing Dr. Frankenstein's hubris by thinking you can create life, but your path shears off from the fictional doctor, joining the multitudes of men and women for whom creation of story is a way of expressing gratitude for the ambiguous nature of mankind. Through this haze of ambiguity, you seek to record your hunting expeditions in much the same way petroglyphs on rocks and etchings on cave walls depict rituals and hunting expeditions of a more modern kind.
There is some informed speculation that many petroglyphs and cave drawings are the works of shamans, many of whom, in altered states of mind, attempted the same sorts of essays you attempt when you bring your characters forth. You wish to know why things are, why you behave as you do, why others respond to life events as they do. There is something you have in common with your forebears. They were hunting and gathering. You are hunting and gathering. They were foraging. You are foraging. They were in hot pursuit of truth. You are in hot pursuit of understanding.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Among your favorite types of stories are those associated with the term "vision quest," in which one or more characters in various genera seek ways of seeing things as they had not seen them before. The term "vision quest" is broad enough to take in yet another term from yet another language, the German bildungsroman, in which a young person attempts to achieve some vision of a lifestyle or understanding that will see them into individuality as a matured, ripened person.
You like and ratify the notion of the vision quest becoming a detective's attempts to "see" sufficiently into the patterns surrounding a crime or series of crimes to supply the three basic constituents of the mystery novel, means, motive, and opportunity.
A vision quest might not begin as a deliberate attempt to find a new way of seeing the outer world or, indeed, as T. S. Eliot put it of St. Augustine, "To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang about mine ears," the poetry-made-archetype of the conversion in the desert."
Your own vision quests, now that you think of the matter, are more often connected with something you've composed yourself or, as an editor, when you are looking for the most felicitous and yet clear way to suggest to an author how to see her or his work.
These things are brought to your mind by your experiences of yesterday, wherein a gifted opthamologist took step one of a two-step process related to your physical capacity to see and, thus, experience the persons, places, and things about you.
Your primary motives were to take steps to remove the effects of a condition that had been called to your attention as long ago as twenty years and which were a subject of conversation each subsequent time you had your existing prescription for contact lenses revisited. "Nothing to worry about yet. Cataract is a by-product of aging. We all get them. Your process has begun."
Last September, when the time came to renew your license to operate a motor vehicle, your left eye got you to the near-miss level. Although you did pass the vision requirements, you'd had enough association with individuals who'd had cataract-replacement surgery to cast your decision. Now was the time. Yesterday was the time. The opthamologist agreed with your choice of starting with the left eye.
You entered the Santa Barbara Surgery Center yesterday morning at 7:15, wearing only the contact lens in your right eye, one with a relative strength of 5.5. Per directions, you'd been adding drops to your naked left eye since Wednesday morning.
Today, thirty-six hours post-op, you still wear the contact lens on your right eye. Your left eye, recovering from the removal of its lens, the replacement with another, and a few minor incisions made to correct a pronounced astigmatism, affords you the results of a vision quest. You are able to see at least on a par with the right eye, which for most of your life has been your stronger, more reliable eye, and with corrective lens such as a soft contact, a trusted ally in the worlds of reading, recognition, navigation, and appreciation.
At a distance of twenty-four inches from the computer screen, without your customary drug store reading glasses, you are able to read this text with your left eye as you type it. You are also able to read the text at this distance with your right eye, but that eye requires the contact lens being in place.
In addition, the image you see from the thirty-six-hour post-op eye is crisper, whiter, seemingly more legible by a tad than the corrected vision from the right eye. Next time you see the opthamologist, you'll ask if this has anything to do with the fact of the notation on the card he gave you describing the implanted lens as, among other things, UV with light blue filter.
Much of this description is as objective as you can make it. You believe the effects of this vision quest of yours will manifest themselves in numerous objective and subjective ways over the next few months as your body, your brain, and your psyche adjust to and cope with these re-visions.
You're pretty certain this new lens and, in the next few months, the other one, the part two you intend to acquire, will not, as another poet put it, help you acquire "some giftie the Giver gie us/ To see [your]selves as others see us." But you'll be better able to Read Robert Burns than ever before, with the hope that the other things you'll have seen and appreciated from this enriching experience will help you come closer.
In your last office visit with the opthamologist, when the subject of which lens you'd have installed was discussed, you ventured that you'd been wearing glasses most of your life, thus any need for an occasional use of reading glasses would be no cause for either disappointment or concern. You wanted to see distance, you told him, to see down the road, to see what was coming, to be able to make it out as soon as possible.
What would you say, he asked, to down the road and up close.
Bring it on, you said.
He gave you a hearty clap on the back. You have no idea what awaits you, he said.
Why start now? You said.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
You've worn eyeglasses for most of your life, with the exception of a time in your early teens. Then, the mother of your sister's boyfriend, a practitioner of the Bates System, took you in hand. She gave you a series of exercises which allowed you to navigate the world without the heavy horn rims or metal frames seeming to grab you by the ears.
By then, reading caught up with you in serious ways, following your immersion at the University, where glasses--bifocal glasses--returned with a vengeance. The recent discovery of a photo of you in your last year of UCLA reminded you the extent to which you saw things through reading lenses as well as the rose-colored ones of youth and the politically tinted ones you'd grown into.
By early 1980, you were ready for contact lenses, which have been with you to this very day.
Today may well be the end of an era.
Today, once again, you have been edited. Some unworkable material deleted, some revisions of high functional value inserted. And more to come.
You checked into the Santa Barbara Surgical center, across the parking lot from Trader Joe's on De la Vina, were ushered into a curtained stall, thrown a hospital gown, then told to "Get into these." In due course, a spry, athletic--he bicycles to work every day--opthamologist had at your left eye, removing the lens, which had become cloudy, a condition known as cataract. In its place, Douglas Katsev, M.D. placed a toric 25.5 diopter lens which, even before he fitted it into its permanent resting place, afforded you sight the equivalent of the lens you came equipped with at birth when covered by an 8X magnification soft contact lens.
The prognosis is good for an eventual settling in after a month or so of a vision potential that will require dime store reading glasses, if those. Since the same cloudiness remains in your right lens, your interest in round two of cataract surgery is sharp,
Essential as eyesight is for navigating in and about the world of Reality with relative ease, it is also a powerful metaphor in which aspects of person obtain. What do you see within yourself? How do you see others? How is your perception of relationships, say those between you and others or between individuals you know at some social or professional level? How accurate is your vision of self and the world about you? Have you in metaphor been able to do for your artistic and intellectual awareness the equivalent of what Doughas Katsev, M.D. has done for you on a more direct, optical basis?
When you find yourself in a conversation with another, reaching a moment where you find yourself saying, "I see your point," will you be reminded of the magnificent editing that has been performed on your body today? And will that association help you be a better listener and conversant?
Is your enhanced interest in having your dominant right eye edited purely a matter of physical expediency? Might this dramatic shift and its potential for even greater drama be the equivalent of a kid with a new toy? Will you, accordingly, come to the point of taking the change for granted? Is there some realistic hope that better lenses, better vision, and most assuredly, a greater yet peripheral vision capacity, will provide you a greater source of insight into your own and human behavior?
These are more than speculative questions when you realize you are fast moving toward the hundred twelfth month anniversary of yet another kind of surgery, wherein Dr. Alex Koper, with skill and success, rid your body of a portion of tissue in which rebellious, driven tissues were staging an Occupy Lowenkopf movement?
As regular check-ups and various imaging tests confirmed your cancer-free state, you were aware of resolving to be a more deliberate person, a better person, a more engaged person. Now you add to that calculus a vision of a super-hero-type character who can already, after one day, see a bit better, bound to a place where you will see better yet with both eyes. You are asking for ways to achieve the gift of greater cognitive vision as well, aren't you? You're looking for ways to effect an editorial process on your empathy, your abilities, your generosity, your appreciation.
The University of Southern California Dental School and, later, Paul Avolese have worked some remarkable editorial work on your teeth and gums. Alex Koper has done some skillful editing in your lower abdomen, D. Ross McNaught and John Gainor have edited your hips, and now, Douglas Katsev has added his talents to your eyes.
You have a challenge before you, which is to understand and accept your newly edited self, then carry it, word by word, to your computer screen, notepads, and lectures where, word by word, you must rise to the edited version you have become.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Somehow, thoughts of the Dylan Thomas poem, "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" came to your mind, as you were looking at the manuscript of a client. At first, you could not see the reason why the poem should come to you although, given the nature of the manuscript at the moment, you were pleased for the distraction.
The process of association and connection is often dreamlike, linking things in symbols or codes, providing you the sort of mystery you so often sought without realizing it when you were younger and attracted to secret code rings, elaborate text codes, invisible ink (try lemon juice, for one example), and the still sensual pleasure of "beating" a crossword puzzle.
In this case, you came to realize the Dylan Thomas poem was telling you what the manuscript--quite good up to the point where you began to wander--wanted. The manuscript wanted a clearer focus on power, where the power came from, which way it was headed, who had it, how it was being used, how the protagonist had to learn the marital arts technique of diverting it to the direction he wished it to take.
All story is in effect a coil, wrapped about the armature of intent. In some cases, the power is in the possession of convention, other times the elders, still other times the ruling classes. The better stories define power by objectifying it. investing a person or thing with the power, giving the protagonist a tangible opponent.
Charles Hickman Titus, a favored professor of political science, once made a remark you remember still: "Whenever two or more persons gather, there you find lurking in the background the politics of power." This observation led you to consider personal politics, helping you inch along your way toward your own goal of being able to tell a story.
Your own interest in such personal uses of power led you through the corridors and lecture rooms of the social sciences buildings at UCLA, essaying courses in anthropology, sociology, and political science, the latter of which edged out anthropology as your academic minor.
Politics excite, intrigue, frustrate, and inspire you, all excellent qualities, you reckon, to help you achieve your stated goal of a growing understanding of the dynamic of story.
Many of your earlier, plot-driven ventures had scenes in which there was at least one reversal of power, the metaphoric turning of the tide against, the gradual strengthening of the tide for. Which character has and with conscious deliberation exerts power over another?
Are there--can there be--benevolent dictators? Where is the power within a democracy? What of all the endless permutations and variations on the theme of "Who's in charge?"
In direct opposition to your attempts at greater self-control, certain things have power over you, causing you to understand you are indeed no ascetic, no Buddhist or renunciate. You often participate in a ritual of which you've become quite fond, the Homa fire, a Vedic ritual in which Agni, the god of fire, is evoked, offered a tasty snack, flowers, water, sandalwood paste, and the like. In Agni's fiery presence, the fire of Brahman, the ineffable aspect of divinity, is evoked further. As a part of the ritual, you offer up thoughts, actions, intentions. "May all this," the recitative goes, "be an offering to Brahman."
Good luck on that, your seriousness and intentions sincere notwithstanding. Things do have power over you. They distract you. Pretty difficult, for instance, to hear J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavichord and not be absorbed by it, away from whatever you might have been doing and into deeply felt emotional connections with it. The same holds true for many varieties of music. Don't mention the lure of fountain pens, or pasta with clam sauce or shirts or books or note pads. You have no trouble knowing what to give yourself for any and all gift-giving occasions or occasional splurges.
This list of things fails to include living things, your close chum, Sally, your friends, students, men and women who are your peers, your elders, your juniors, all of whom you have some sort of crush on. If none of these had power over you, you'd have invented it and given it to them as, indeed, you have, voluntarily and involuntarily delegated power to persons, places, and things.
Only this morning, you were discussing with a student the continuing power the city of Los Angeles exerts over you, although you have not lived there since 1974, speaking of which, the place where you have lived since 1974 exerts a daily power over you, even at those precise moments when you encounter some seeming obstacle of epic proportions.
You thought of some of this briefly when you went to the Mac Store in search of a power cord for an appliance, when you saw a news item about a power outage, and when someone remarked that green was a power color for you.
In one way or another, you think about power the way you think about sex or any of the other emotional and/or physical appetites. You hope it shows in you, your stories, your narratives, your communications.
A few weeks ago, you sat before an audience at a bookstore in Malibu, about to improvise a presentation on what your new book was about and how you'd been motivated to write it. At your right was a table on which a potfull of chrysanthemums rested.
Seated in the audience, a dear old pal, Lizzie, who suggestged to the master of ceremonies that she move the pot lest your gestures collide with it to the discomfort of the pot and you. Lizzie's observations were apt, an observation of the power that surrounds and sometimes invades you, and which you would mourn with severity were it to depart.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Nothing you did to achieve a career as a writer or. later, for your career as an editor,prepared you for the immense, plodding reality of the slush pile.
The books and articles you read about the necessary steps to advance in either discipline spoke of slush piles, often in the sense of suggesting your own work could land in such places, often through mere accident rather than some inherent fault with your material. The slush pile was--and is--to the publishing industry what the carbon footprint or the ozone layer are to global ecology.
Archaeologists are fond of taking core samples from areas that seem worthy of study, polar regions for instance or such areas as the channel between the central and southern coasts of California and the Channel Islands somewhat to the west. These core samplings reveal virtual dioramas of what the area was like at a specific geological or temporal moment.
Slush piles are analogous to core samplings; they reflect the state of amateurishness in writing ability orbiting about at a particular time. They represent degrees of sincere learning, monumental hubris, gifted beginning attempts, and a disheartening spread of misinformation.
As mankind needed to evolve out of the primordial ooze, writers need to evolve beyond the slush pile to the point where an editor will make some comment, extend some line of potential salvage.
Your work has surely been in slush piles, has with equal certainty been tosse3d salvage lines which resulted in publication. As an editor, you've made a few significant finds in the slush pile, and some near misses for which you wrote letters and extended some measure of contact, in one or two cases to disastrous consequences.
This essay is neither to brag about discoveries or reminisce about disasters of epic crossed purposes but instead to discuss the slush pile as a learning experience.
Until you reached (earned, merited, outlasted competition) senior editorial status, a significant task involved reading slush pile submissions until you could bear to read no further, then write a report offering a synopsis of the work, the amount of editorial time necessary to bring it to publishable quality, the fit--if any--with the list of the publisher paying your salary, and such additional potentials as its life in the backlist and additional potential so far as subsidiary rights were concerned.
The work day was not long enough for you to do this slush pile reading, attend to your actual editing or copyediting chores, attendance at and preparation for editorial meetings, and meetings with authors, thus you frequently brought slush pile material home to read, then make notes, all of which left you in a relative state of disinterest toward dinner, followed, if you were fortunate, with a window of an hour or two for your own reading and writing before sleep advanced upon you like a panhandler in a parking lot.
Some of the materials in slush piles defied your attempts at identity, which made your job somewhat less taxing. Others showed a willingness to commit small torts against logic and/or language. Still others caused you long moments of discomfort in which you first noted stylistic and content inelegance and then, before moving on to the next submission, recognizing your own culpability in performing such approaches to storytelling.
You'd begun married life in a one-bedroom apartment in the Hollywood Hills which, if a bit crowded, was not uncomfortable, but the discovery of a remarkable apartment in Santa Monica with two bedrooms, a splendid patio, and an expansive sense of comfortability came into play. The rent was twice as much. Remembering your own ease at producing paperback novels, you nodded your best what-the-hell nod, then left the Hollywood Hills for a triumphant return to the city of your birth, Santa Monica.
The slush pile was disheartening. When you are dealing with it, you begin to see why police officers seem so world weary, why shoe sales persons speak with such distaste about smelly feet, why lawyers complain that their clients lie to them. You reach a point where your first line of defense is to write review-like reports, taking some pleasure in your diagnostic ability and the opportunities taken and ignored wherein to write witty observations. But soon you are hit with the sense that your writing, while of some value to the publishing company, is not reaching the audience you'd hoped for. And in a full recognition of the inherent irony, you realize you are using in your pulp novels to help pay the rent the same egregious tropes you are bemoaning in your editorial reports for your day job.
For a time, short but still valuable, you take pleasure in knowing you are seeing at first hand mistakes beginners make, mistakes you are being warned off of in ways the books you read cannot describe. You are as close to the trenches as possible.
True enough, one day, you find something and you think, yes, this could work, and soon you are off to New York, tracking down a literary agent unlike any you have previously met. He answers the door still wearing pajamas and a dressing gown. Ah, he says. Come in. I was just having tea. Perhaps you will have tea. The tea turns out to be the same brand your maternal grandmother preferred. Well, the agent says, perhaps we have ethnicity in common, your grandmother and I. Here, he says. We'll see. He extends a bowl of sugar cubes, watches you carefully. You know what this means. You take the cube of sugar, put it between your teeth, sip the strong brew. Well, he says. Shall we talk business?
"Five," you say.
"I can't believe you are sent here to offer me five."
"Frequent flyer miles," you say. Then you say five again.
Later that night, you call the publisher at home. How much, he asks.
You tell him you almost had the deal at five.
"Five is not bad," the publisher says. Tell me about the almost.
You tell him you had to go up a tad.
Tell me about the tad.
Wait a minute. You offered him five hundred? I thought you were talking five thousand. You went to one thousand?
You had, indeed, gone to one thousand.
Take the rest of the day off. Go to Katz. Buy a corned beef.
You reminded him it was already ten your time.
All right, sleep in tomorrow. You're a senior editor now.
You did not mention that it was the pajamas and dressing gown and bedroom slippers that gave you the idea to offer five hundred which, when you did make the offer, the agent said, "It's like you flying out her from California to tell an old man to go fuck himself."
"A thousand," you said, prepared to go higher, believing you were not in fact telling him to go fuck himself, believing you'd found something in the slush pile that would keep him in tea for many years to come.
On the plane back to Los Angeles, you had time to consider the slush pile as a learning experience most writers do not get. They cannot see the ant-like behavior of the writers who produce the material that goes into the slush pile.
From this remove, years later and six publishers later, you still can't say which part of you profited the most from the slush pile, the writer you or the editor you. Perhaps neither. Perhaps the teacher you, the you you'd not expected to become as a direct result of you being the editor you'd not expected to become, which, of course, you'd become because of the writer you'd become, which you'd reached the point of not taking for granted, not at all.
A few years later, when you came back to Los Angeles from New York, having placed the massmarket rights for the project you'd found in the slush pile, your publisher called you in and told you to go buy a car, some medium range Mercedes-Benz. "And don't give me that crap about not wanting one because it's a German car. I've seen that goddamn Volkswagen of yours that--that--"
"Gregor Samsa. Bug. Vermin, really."
"Right. Bug. I've seen that damned bug. Get yourself a real car."
You actually got a VW Camper, which the publisher snorted at as another Samsa. But because it was not as expensive as a Mercedes-Benz, he threw in a year of insurance, which was renewed for another year, and who knows how long that would have gone on if you hadn't taken on a few projects that did not do so well.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Years after the fact, you often have dreams (daydreams and longer, more sophisticated night ones) about them. In a significant way, they remain as much with me as the images of my first crush, Rena Passacantando, and my second and third, not to forget her of the mellifluous name Helayne, leading the way to the likes of Barbara, then Pauline, the persistence of Ruth, and what about Lois? Seems you had a great many crushes, growing up. True enough. And the literary equivalents were there as well, some of them not so remote in terms of their fame and effects. Try Leigh Brackett, for instance, or Andre Norton. Try Zenna Henderson. Try Ursula K. (even back then, you knew what the K. stood for) Le Gunn.
Don't forget Albert Payson Terhune or Robert Heinlein, and there was a Howard Pease, and a Joseph Altsheler, and C. S. Forester before we move back into the names from the old pulp magazines, names such as Manley Wade Wellman, Bram Stoker, Paul Cain, and one whose writings about a detective named Max Friday reminded you of the kinds of stuff you were writing.
Even into your twenties, when you were a temporary mail deliverer during the Christmas break and got to deliver envelopes stuffed with what you knew were galley proofs of forthcoming stories. Ray something or other. Ray Bradbury.
You were reading these ladies and gents because you had to, which is to say you were reading them because you were addicted to the magazines in which they were published, or because librarians suggested them to you as a means of feeding the roaring furnace that was you.
You think about these men and women and what they did to you. They made what they did seem so easy. They made you think you could do the same thing. Never mind that part of their talent was to make what they did seem easy and believable. Never mind that they were such professionals that you made the mistaken leap of learning to the plateau where you believed you had to have a story all plotted and ready before you could begin setting the words down.
You were well into the world of burned bridges before you realized, often in great heaves and gobs of frustration and despair, that "it" was not as easy as you'd been led to believe. Who led you down this sinuous path? They did. Not in so many words, but rather from their very words. The effect they were having on you was exactly the effect you'd hoped to have on readers of those same pulpy pages, those same "paperback" novels you were able at one time to buy from coin-operated machines for twenty-five cents a pop.
One of the many turns those early, bridge-burning, frustrating days took you was into the world of publishing, where you were dealing with some of the names you'd read with such fascination. Bill S. Ballinger. Tom Dewey. Steve Fisher. "Jeez, kid," Fisher once said, "don't go getting mushy on me." But you did, and he gave you the book he'd said he always wanted to write. Frank Gruber made it seem even easier than you'd thought. He was under contract to give two mysteries a year to Dutton. He was story editor of a TV series called Tales of Wells-Fargo," and he still gave you four books.
Another of the turns was meeting Gunnar Hjerstedt who, wanting something a bit more catchy, called himself Day Keene. Watching him and another Floridian, Bob Turner, spin out story after story, the business of easy came forth again. Nothing to it, Keene instructed you, or rather tossed it off one night at Slim Harrison's Bank Cafe on Gaffey Street in the waterfront slums of San Pedro. "TFS," he said. "All you have to do. TFS."
"TFS?" you said.
"Tell the fucking story."
You do, which is to say most of the time you do. Most of the time, you're confident that you can go back, search and destroy the places where you don't. But the sense of it, the import of it, they carry over into everything.
Nothing is easy.
Sometimes, getting out of bed in the morning is not easy, and when you've not long ago read some comment from a writer who says she bounds our of bed or he can't get up early enough to suit his writing Jones, you think you have a good deal to learn about such a simple thing as getting out of bed, thus how can you hope to get to the computer or a note pad and get things down.
Deadlines help. You've put in enough time living with such things to have learned what great triggering devices they are to getting you focused on the story, the project, which, to your great relief, seems to be down there, swirling about somewhere, waiting for you to tell it. You've come to a place where you enjoy deadlines for their part in helping you realize they help you meet them by forcing you to ignore potentials for digression. They also help you realize there are times when you are well ahead of them and have listened to the material earlier.
Writing and getting out of bed are not the only difficult things, now that you think of it. Everything is difficult because writing and getting out of bed have contributed, each in its own way, to helping you see how splendid the potential is for doing everything with a sort of elan or panache or both. All about you, there are men and women doing difficult things, making them seem remarkable in their performance.
This business of difficulty, then; it has nothing to do with age. Difficulty has to do with the integrity of events and your decisions to give them, whatever they might be, an inertia that is a combination of fun, enthusiasm, and a reach that takes you somewhere beyond ordinary. Then you come face to face with the wonderful fear that the thing you've chosen to do--getting out of bed, say, or writing a paragraph, or making some coffee--is a thing you might botch.
Then you go forth and have at it.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
You use the term "episodic" with regularity in classes dealing with the writing of fiction, classes dealing with the reading of literature, and editorial reports to writers whose manuscripts you've taken to evaluate. The term takes you--a child of the double-feature movie and (on Saturday afternoons) a cartoon and serial as well.
This was a world where you'd come into your parents' life as the Great Depression was ratcheting to an end. Even so, you came into your parents' life after they'd been fairly affluent, then saw resources dwindle. You didn't know the affluent part. The fifteen cents you were allotted for the Saturday double feature seemed an enormous gift. Ten cents for admission, five cents for a Peter Paul Mounds bar, a chocolate-covered oblong of coconut, divided in two, each half topped with a small almond. When a few of these gifts seemed at risk, you were forced to extremes such as work. When a State tax of one cent was added, upping the admission to eleven cents, you were in a living episode. You could not purchase a Mounds Bar with four cents. You either needed a way to find the extra penny--sometimes the lounge cushions at the Ritz Theater, Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea provided bounty--or resort to the penny candy at the magazine stand on La Brea and Olympic.
You could not contain your patience to reach the age level where you could begin selling or delivering the various Los Angeles newspapers of the day, the then hated (because of its anti-union attitudes) Los Angeles Times, and the despicable-in-other-ways Los Angeles Herald-Express (afternoon and, ugh, Hearst) or the Los Angeles Examiner (also Hearst). You were thrilled to be able to sell the Daily News, which in its wonderful way had already begun to inform your politics.
The point is, you had some cash available for Big Little Books and movies. Your favorite reading and viewing in both genera were apt to be centered on characters who made frequent appearances. Two such characters got your loyalty in yet another medium, the afternoon or evening radio serial. As your tastes began to change, you used such anthology-type radio programs as a bargaining chip to remain "up" until nine o'clock, the better to hear the mysteries and weird suspense stories.
The key word in your tastes was serial. A character--even ones you had less care for--of note would have at least one adventure a week. Announcers often used the word episode. "Tonight's episode begins..." Or perhaps, at the close of last week's episode..."
Some one was forever in the act of moving from one disaster or close call to the next. "Successfully avoiding the trap set for him by the Masked Avenger, Captain Midnight, his faithful pal, Icky, and other key members of the Secret Squadron, set forth to stamp out evil in ..."
Episode became a series of events. Depending where you came in, the events could begin with the escape from the fate of the previous adventure, then on to the immersion in a new adventure, which ended in a cliffhanger.
By the time you were up for reading A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, you'd ventured into the origin and intent of the term cliffhanger, which among other things, was how any given episode ended.
The Hardy novel brought to you attention another fine element for an episode. In your slalom race toward puberty, you became aware of the love triangle as another aspect of the way to end an episode (and in real life made few friends thanks to your belief that being involved in a love triangle was a pathway to a more satisfying relationship).
Your use of the term episodic leads you often to the description of a popular conceit that is demonstrable with a box of dominoes. Stand the dominoes in end (not side) in close enough proximity that you need tip only the first domino to set off a chain of toppling dominoes. "And when the last domino has fallen," you say with some measure of triumph, "the story is finished." Thus do you add "domino effect" to your description of what propels a story along its way, impelled by the momentum of energy from the goals of one or more characters.
Now you may begin discussing sub--for under, text for the narrative of the story. Subtext. Hidden agendas, What a character says as opposed to what she feels or thinks. Texture: the simultaneous procession of agenda and appearance in story, which present themselves to the reader through direct action and--another lovely word--implication.
You wish story to have a more significant inertia than mere episode. No wonder love triangles seemed attractive. No wonder the good and evil sides of serials became more opaque, bordering on blurry. No wonder Mounds bars gave way to U-no Bars. No wonder selling newspapers or delivering them gave way to thoughts that you could pay your way, whatever the cost, to a bookstore of your choice or a theater of your choice, on monies realized not from selling coat hangars two for a penny, rather from stories you'd written and published.
Leap ahead to the year 1956, after you'd toppled many, many dominoes. You are in one of the Fox flagship theaters, the Carthay Circle, where Mike Todd had showcased the movie Around the World in Eighty Days. You are with a number of friends who have their own individual dreams of being a writer. Each of them is employed as a writer in a field many consider more honorable than fiction, which is to say they were at the time all technical writers.
As a result of a still memorable week in which each day brought you a special delivery check from your then agent, Forrest J. Ackerman, for the first serial rights to one of your stories, you've purchased a ticket to the Carthay Circle, stocked up on Mounds bars, a box of candy-coated licorice pellets, and a tall Coke, you are sitting among friends, closing your eyes in the dark, then falling down the rabbit hole of adventure as the first chords of music sound from the monumental stereo, and lights from the Todd-AO special lens light up the screen.
You are in story and out of episode. You are buoyed by the most up-to-the-minute technical reaches of story. You have not only paid your way in, you have opted in to the sense of ongoing change in which you were surrounded.
You'd seen Fantasia in that theater. You'd gone there to see a story spectacular set in India, called The Rains Came, unmindful your father was pranking you when he advised you to sit under the balcony so that you would not get wet.
You were at the last film shown at the Carthay Circle in 1969, The Shoes of the Fisherman, after which--things change--the theater was, as so many things in Los Angeles are, torn down, replaced with an office building.
You have changed.
Episodic and domino theory are only steps on the way to the unvisited attics and solaria of story.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Sometimes, you can tell a book by its cover. More often than not, you can tell, for instance, if the book is self-published. You can tell in the way most diagnosticians can pinpoint a particular symptom.
Disclosure: You do have a number of prejudices about self-published books, starting with the cover art. You by no means have prejudice--singular or plural--against all self-published books nor, in fact, the concept of author as publisher. A number of self-published works have gone on to wider-than-anticipated readerships, wider, in fact, than many of the more conventional publishing projects.
Additional disclosure: You are aware of any number of books published in conventional channels that have been disasters which should never have been published in any form. Additional disclosure yet" You have been the acquisitions editor (and thus sponsor--godparent, if you wish) of more than one book you hereby acknowledge with whoops of cheer should not have been published.
So where does this leave you in terms of argument about self-published books? It leaves you at the doorway to a state of mind and spirit called hubris, a state with which you also have familiarity because there is a time between your completion of a work of your own with which you are pleased to the time when the work has managed to wangle an invitation into the ongoing process of publication.
After you've finished a work of any length, the work is certain to have undergone several revisions, recasting, and critical examinations focusing on such matters as use of language, emotional resonance, fact, clarity, cadence, and voice, to name a few of several potential targets. On some primal level, you consider yourself finished with the work--done. What more can the work need? And who is better qualified to judge than you, who were once hired by a New York publisher because of the way you described your taste? (Even now, you shudder at the memory. Try defining that word, "taste," and see what it gives you. Hint: It gives you a leg up on the horse of hubris.) And haven't you been editor in chief or director of a number of publishing venues? If nothing else, you should understand the process.
Indeed, if nothing else, you do understand the process, which you admit does on occasion produce an individual with such clarity of vision and ability to articulate that their projects need little of any editorial support.
You also understand the process to the point where you understand there are writers today, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, and Michael Connelly come to mind, whose work sells with a steady vigor, giving each of these worthies an extra leg up on the horse of hubris to the point where they consider themselves the final arbiters of their work. As the acquisitions editor of one of them told you, "He doesn't take edits. He doesn't think he needs any, which is why I stopped providing them."
You also understand the presence of men and women whose work sells at about the same level as this band of others, men and women who give full ear and trust to their editors, in search of that holy grail of artistry, the yet better product.
When an editor points to a passage of some weakness, softness, perhaps even obscurity, you feel squirts of defensiveness in much the same manner you'd feel adrenaline rush into your bloodstream when a driver makes a precipitous lane change in front of you or a motorcyclist appears from behind, then passes you. If you'd had previous concerns about such a passage, the defensiveness is all the more virulent.
Learning to listen is a time-consuming process, every bit as necessary as learning such basics as point-of-view or how to turn conversation into dialogue. You begin the writing process by listening to yourself and your vision of things, either as they are or as they ought to be. After a few hundred thousand words or so, you begin letting your characters in on the conversation, listening to them, in particular if they wish to do something you'd not intended them to do. You in effect loan the family car to the kids. A few more hundred thousand words and you discover you've let the characters in on the planning stages, meaning your beginnings have to do with getting to know the quirks and limitations of your characters, in some cases allowing some of them to be smarter than you. A few more hundred thousand words and you'd down with all of them being smarter than you.
After treading this path for a time, you're ready to learn how to listen to a qualified literary agent (by which you mean someone who's served time in the editorial trenches) and editor. You understand that neither is using you as a foil in some revenge fantasy where they are asking you to pay for their past frustrations.
So, okay; you're past the amateurish cover and inside the book, where such things as type face, copyediting, and general format cry out, "Amateur. Amateur." This can be something as basic as the use of italics in the text or exclamation points or sentences in all-capital letters, or something even more egregious such as the obligatory weather report and travel writing descriptions to prove to the eager reader that this book was written by a professional.
You can tell.
True enough, you can also tell if the writing is remarkable for its amateurishness in the more conventional books. Then, nothing, not a spiffy cover design or a pleasing layout can cover the fact that it was not only the writer who was not on his or her game but the editor, the art department, and the sales department.
You can tell.
And you can also see how much an act of hubris it is to believe you can do it all on your own.
Friday, March 15, 2013
After all these many years, you can still see the Chairman of the English Department, standing before the lectern, his notes spread, his hands brought together in a dramatic clap as he asked a question that seemed to come from the world of Lewis Carroll. "How did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?
You well know the answer. You've fallen through a great many rabbit holes and into worlds of odd, eccentric, driven characters who were the rival of those Alice discovered. Among the rabbit holes were passages into unbelievable worlds of television, worlds of publishing, and perhaps the most rabbit hole rabbit hole of all rabbit holes, the world of the university.
You had no particular thoughts that portals would play such an important role in your publishing career, your university career, or your writing career when Dr. Ewing stood before the lecture hall, vested, flamboyant in his elegant jacket and trousers, sporting everything except perhaps a pocket watch on a chain that linked its way through his vest.
The more you read fantasy fiction, the more examples of portals, doors, rabbit holes, store fronts, and most recent of your fantasy reading ventures, a bench at a fanciful version of Oxford University, complete with dirigible service to London.
Like Alice, you were at the time of your exposure to the rabbit hole an innocent abroad, although you think the better metaphor is sponge. You tried to soak up knowledge, wisdom, whiskey, music, certainly girls, and certainly what it meant to be a writer. In a sense, you've failed in your quests, although you did think, while working on your last book, that the recognition of Wile E. Coyote as embodiment of all characters represented a nice level of awareness. You saw--and still see--traces of the coyote within you. As well you see Sir John Falstaff, but the one who has begun to haunt you these days is that gentleman from La Mancha, Don Quixote. Perhaps--and this is a hope--as your meditations on character and counterpart (there, you see; you've just tumbled down the academic rabbit hole with those two terms, allowing you entry visa into the world of scholarship and scholarly publishing as well as the world of self-satire. Character and Counterpart: A Postmodern Vision of the Writer in Text. What a splendid title for submission to a fictional scholarly journal in a novel about life in the university rabbit hole.) will lead you to additional and yet more revelatory descriptions of your seeking self.
Two of your closest chums had themselves tumbled down rabbit holes, each of his own, complete with a cast of Wonderland-like sidekicks (of which you were one) and agendas. No question that this provided an attraction. Your surviving friends are indeed occupants of rabbit holes, some found on the literary equivalent of Craig's List, other rabbit holes stumbled into by accident.
From time to time, you find yourself telling your cranky, notional, control freak dog, Sally, that you are each other's life vest in a swirling sea at the bottom of a rabbit hole. Not to overindulge anthropomorphizing Sally, but she does tend to reflect to you that this may be a rabbit hole but it is one of your own choosing and of your own making. The order takers at The Habit seem to know which to-go order is for you and which for Sally. Ditto Carlos, the chef at Cafe Luna, who presents you with two containers, specifying as he does, "Thees ees for jhou, ahnd thees one is for aSally."
Thus portals as doors to other worlds, perhaps even other times, A student of yours just sold her novel in a genre you'd not heard of before, nor even suspected, until you read it. Perhaps, in your attempts to find your way home--into your own rabbit hole--you on occasion stumble into the rabbit hole of steam punk.
You have looked for any number of things on Craig's List, including one adventure of high whim, a ladyfriend. To date, there have been no listings for steam punk venues or sensitivities, an observation that brings you full circle to the understanding--and perhaps wisdom--that you are not suited for just any rabbit hole; you must make, maintain, and populate your own. From time to time, certain of your friends and acquaintances will invite you to visit their rabbit hole. This is often pleasing.
But when you return to your own...
For all the years you commuted to Los Angeles, sometimes twice a week, sometimes more, there was always a special moment when you'd have been back into Santa Barbara County for about five miles. The ocean was on your left. At Loon Point, you often saw it, a slice of moon in the night sky, perhaps even a moon at full orb, both in the sky and shimmering in its reflection in the water. You could feel your breath, a slow hiss, a tire with a slow leak, a sigh of relief at being home.
Your own rabbit hole is a notional, eccentric world, populated with individuals who make Alice's world of wonder seem demonstrable in weak comparison. Few rational things happen herein, and you are most glad of the fact. For these years, you've been trying places and things and ideas held before you as beau ideals and conventions of your time.
Alice got into and down her rabbit hole by the accidental design of a charming man. You found your rabbit hold by listening to the likes of Sir John Falstaff, Don Quixote, and Wile E. Coyote. Quite snug here. Quite to your liking.