Category Archives: Process

Looking for miracles in the app store

Posted on July 1, 2011 by

Happy Canada Day, fellow northerners!

I am a firm believer in stepping away from the Internet when trying to write. I think better when I don’t face temptation in the form of a quick check of the Twitter feeds, status pages, Google reader, etcetera blah blah. One part of Cafe Calabria’s allure, for me, is that it hasn’t really got wireless.

Calabria is not an entirely distraction-free environment, but its diversions feel more human and, somehow, worthwhile. I don’t begrudge the occasional moment spent trying to comprehend the italian lyrics of Frank Senior’s eclectic musical choices, for example, or eavesdropping on the other early-morning regulars. As I write this, the fellows I think of as “Chatty Guy,” “Brother of Chatty Guy” and “Their Friend” are chewing over the ethics of hunting. They’re good with it in cases of self-defense, I’ll have you know and mostly all right with the idea of hunting for food. (“There’s something so right about killing something and eating it,” one of them opines.)

The conversation has bogged down, though, over the issue of sport fishing and catch-and-release. It is a typical morning jaw over java, and the longer the conversation goes on, the less sense it makes. Friend Of seems to be saying that you might as well eat fish because you don’t know they wouldn’t attack you if they could.

(Obviously that isn’t what he is actually saying, but it sounds funny as hell. Usually they talk about Celine Dion or Arnold’s Divorce or the Canucks. I find this topic preferable.)

Calabria is across the street from a Starbucks with fairly robust Wi-Fi, which has been tricky as I adapt to writing on my newest toy, an iPad. I can just barely pick up a feed if there are no big trucks parked on the corner. And the pad will sync if I’m online, which is a nice little hedge against data loss. So every now and then I get sucked into checking: is there Wifi after all? From there, it’s a short hop to The Forbidden: checking my Inbox.

In other words, I have not perfected my new regime.

I did write 187 words on Thursday–revising again, and adding as little as possible–which brings me to 35% of my Write-A-Thon goal of 20K words. And not having the 5 pound laptop on my back wherever I go is a very nice lifestyle change. Having got the weight of the laptop off my shoulders, the next goal is to give my hands a break as much as possible, so I’m working to make more effort to dictate things like e-mails and blog posts. I like the iPad version of Dragon, especially the part whereby I don’t need a tangly-corded external microphone to use it.

Of course, though I am trying to make the gadget serve my writing and health needs, I really spent the three months saving for the thing because I wanted a damn TOY. I spend a lot of time in the App Store, looking for the two dollar piece of software that will change my life forever. Have you found it? I am a fan of Simplenote and Dropbox, but I was already using them on the iPod. And though I love Flipboard, and am having fun with Sketchclub, I have yet to find anything, you know, miraculous.

Cafe Calabria

Shaping dreams

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

First: Clarion Write-a-Thon Word Count: 1,417 out of 20,000. (More info here).

“And I do not play this instrument as well as I should like, but I have always thought that to be my fault, because I would not take the time to practice…” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Some of my students have accused me, obliquely, of being too picky. “I see lots of books where writers do this,” they say, when they get an MS back from me and in addition to the structural critique I’ve marked twenty eye bookisms, a bunch of passive verb constructions and noted that one of their perfectly good phrases has been around since Shakespeare, and that while it does the job maybe there’s a way that suits their characters better…

They’re right, to some extent. Part of what I do as a teacher is point out the strengths and the flaws in a person’s writing… even when that writing starts to be of publishable quality. I know new writers want to learn what it takes to sell their fiction, of course, but I hope they also want to just plain be better. There’s a lot of room between just barely salable and outstanding. I have yet to stop finding fault, even with my best students, even as I praise ’em to the skies.

Storytelling is engaging readers in a dream. You are taking them from the here and now and enveloping them in another world. The novel as a work of art offers its audiences the chance to be at once themselves and another person, just as dreams do, as fantasies do.

The thing about dreams is that some are shallow. Think of a night when your sleep was easily broken, by the slightest noise. The dreams of light sleep are the ones that most fleeting, that they’re the ones that vanish like vapor when your eyes open.

Such dreams are just fine. You might say they’re just barely publishable. But I think what most of us want, as writers, is to create deep absorption–compelling, vivid, engaging on a visceral, emotional level, and impossible to forget. It’s a lofty goal, but what I hope people are going for in this racket… not immediately, but eventually, if they’re very good and very hardworking and very lucky, is to be life-altering.

There are a couple ways to instill deep dreaming. One is to have a story so suspenseful that the reader simply can’t put it down–we’ve all devoured books whose line-by-line writing is shaky, because we got hooked; we had to know. Stieg Larsen’s The Girl Who books were like this, for me. This cartoon, My Lost Weekend in the Meyer, says the same about the Twilight saga.

So: be suspenseful. Check! The other way to deepen the dream of a given narrative, once the basic story’s working, is to up the quality of the prose. To have undertow within the words themselves, to be compelling, seductive, to beguile and even drown. We each have our own way of pulling this off, and when it happens, it’s a powerful thing. Heck, there are stories where it’s a superpower in its own right: seizing or changing someone’s sleeping world.

So yes, I’m picky… because I think it’s a skill worth developing.

Thoughts falling like raindrops, in no especial order…

Posted on May 7, 2011 by

It’s pouring, which does not bode well for a Mother’s Day outing with Barb. We may be jostling for elbow room at a brunch place tomorrow if the rain doesn’t let up.

In the meantime, I have finished Josh Lanyon’s The Dark Farewell, which–when I take over the universe and am boss of you all–shall be retitled: “Ha Ha Ha, Bored Now! The End, Suckers!” until such time as Lanyon can be made to sit down and finish the thing properly. Or at all. Just as things were starting to get messy he solved the crime, wiped out the Romantic Obstacle, and finis! I am moving on to Wayne Arthurson, and Fall from Grace, in what might be described as a Profound Reader Snit.

(Which state I do expect Wayne to remedy. I already love how he writes about the Alberta landscape.)

Words, words, words: 1748 words since last time on the current novel.

I am working on a bunch of related shorts, though, and have just had a grand realization about the next entry in that batch. So once I fix up the chapters I drafted this week, I may defect from the novel to the shorties, which I’m calling The Gales, for 8500 words or so. Meanwhile, here’s a snippet from that book; I Tweeted it earlier this week:

At his feet, the gutted remains of the monster were soaking into Sophie’s second-best jeans.

And a sea star. Well, two:
Sea Star

Characterization: getting versus wanting

Posted on May 2, 2011 by

There is a catchy phrase that comes up in various types of motivational speaking:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

I’ve known this one for awhile, and as far as fortune-cookie delivered Life Lessons go, I agree with the underlying philosophy. But K and I were walking in the West End last weekend, and we came upon a commercial sandwich board with this taped on it:

“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.”

Also catchy, and in some ways the exact same message, but I’m fascinated by the difference in nuance that comes with the altered wording. The first has such a freight of passivity: the ‘you’ is getting something–presumably something they no longer want, or maybe never did. My imagination is offering up a steaming bucket of something from a stable-mucking, delivered weekly to your door.

The second, meanwhile is about wanting something new. It’s about running to, rather than running away.

Both get the general idea across quite succinctly–but the latter phrasing is more positive, more of a call to action. In comparison, the first is a bit of a finger wag, a lecture from a judgmental imaginary parent figure. “If you’re just gonna insist on playing your electric guitar in the hot tub, young fella, don’t come crying to me when you do the electric boogaloo.”

It is easy to imagine the one phrase as a draft and the other as revision, the one as good enough wording and the second as a perfected version, as final copy. It’s especially easy because, as writers, we frown on certain types of linguistic passiveness. In reality, they are two different takes on the same idea, gleaned from different sources.

Still. It may be useful to think of them that way, perhaps especially when we talk about making our characters more active. Are they getting what they always got when they’re meant to be pulling a novel forward? Do they want something they never had? Do they want anything at all?

Finally, how do you shift them to chasing their desires, if what they’ve really been doing is just opening up the door every morning to see what life has handed them?

***
On another topic, word metrics on the current wip: Saturday, 450 words. Sunday, 822.

What kind of sexy are we looking for today?

Posted on March 21, 2011 by

On Friday morning, I posted the following on Twitter and Facebook:

Trying to decide on a physical type for sexy recurring minor character. Is he a Denzel Washington? Jon Hamm? Giancarlo Esposito?

I looked at that and thought, I have no idea who the hot young guys are these days.

Rather than actually buckling down to work–I’d slept poorly–I considered Glee, because it’s got the highest profile and the youngest cast of the Hollywood Stuff I watch. Will Schuster, as I’ve recently discussed, is not my thing. Finn? Meh. Trouty Mouth, a.k.a. Chord Overstreet? Ewww, Trouty Mouth!! Kurt and Blaine are lovely and gay and this character is bait for a 24-year-old female extrovert. Burt’s too uncle-y. Kevin McHale, is adorable, I admit, and could totally play the role if I were actually casting a movie–but Artie himself is too buttoned down. And I like Puck the character enormously, but I’d call Mark Salling more charming than cute.

(I’ve also recently seen the vampire boy from Twilight on the cover of Vanity Fair, by the way, and all I can say is a world of no to that action.)

On the one hand, this is the perfect sort of question to throw to the Twitternets just for the fun of it. It was also an insufficiency of information to offer, or it would have been if I were seriously looking for help. Maggieno immediately asked what kind of sexy I wanted. Jon Hamm sexy, she pointed out, does not equal Johnny Depp sexy. She went on to ask: Sexy as in wild, hot, slam-n-g’bye? Sexy as in grab a blanket, find a cozy place, and start canoodling right NOW?

(As I was underslept and set on random that morning, I have to tell you that this made me think: “Must stop using the verb canoodling so imprecisely.” Because I use it to describe a mental process whereby I play with story ideas in my head, or sometimes in e-mails to Snuffy when I need to bounce a story problem off someone exceedingly patient. Bad writer! Wrong usage! Although, considering the uses I’m going to put this particular character to… oh, sorry!)

The thing was, the reason I was going through the mental flip-file of celebrity nom was to decide just that. What kind of sexy?

Anyway. I got suggestions, both of actors and of characters. Spike and Angel from Buffy. (Great characters, and creditably heterosexual, but they don’t rank high on my cute scale.) Hugh Jackman in a utilikilt, from Breklor. Jason Stathum whom I’d never heard of, but whose name reminded me of David Strathairn, which made me think, I really don’t know who the hot young guys are these days.

A smart-ass cousin suggested our Prime Minister, which is to gag. Thank you for that at seven in the morning, Colleen. I will have my revenge.

I do like Hugh Jackman, though. I thought: Is he a hot young guy? But no, IMDB says we were born in exactly the same year.

So far, Johnny Depp is the winner. Because yes, I am thinking rather of a grab-a-blanket now guy, but not so much a keeper. If nothing else, Johnny’s got not a keeper written all over him.