17 January 2010

Tough Love

It's been way too long since I've had an example of my critique group's biweekly vivisection of my writing (Holy shit--August? Really, Don?). If you'll recall, the latter portion of 2009 was spent rewriting. But, one of my 2010 goals is to write a story a month, so I had to have something to bring this time around.

I brought Act I of the story that I hope will make people dance for me.

Here's what the group had to say...

For the Win
  • One reader was drawn to the main character. She "loved her voice."
  • Another liked the description of the internet communications between the main character and the supporting character--an alien.
  • A few readers liked the opening hook, which let them know what kind of story this was, and more importantly, what kind of story it wasn't.
  • One commented on the "pop culture/sci-fi mix" I worked into the story. cf. the film Contact, except for the immediacy of the meeting between human and alien in my story.
  • Everyone thought one aspect of the story--which I'll keep secret for now--was a really good device.
  • Overall, the story was called "fun" and most of my descriptions "good."
  • The main character had a bit of skepticism in her, which she should've shown during her first alien encounter...
  • In particular, one piece of evidence I invented for the alien to convince the MC that he was an alien wasn't all that convincing (this is why I hate writing sci-fi ;)).
  • One reader had a different opinion of the way I wrote the initial internet communication between the MC and the alien (emails and chats). He saw what I was trying to do stylistically, but wondered why I just didn't write the emails like emails, and the chats like straight up chats.
  • My description of the alien, while generally clear--except for the alien's clothes--raised questions as to certain mechanics (especially regarding the aspect of it I need to keep secret right now :)).
  • There were some beats missing in the last scene of Act I--readers questioned the way things escalated between the MC and the alien.
I don't mind telling you that the whole thing went a lot better than I thought it was going to go. I was able to come up with (what I believe to be) quick fixes for most of the problems the group pointed out to me. In the end, though, I'm glad the problems seemed to be in the details, rather than in any fundamental story flaw.

There's a first time for everything, huh? :)

14 January 2010

Up a Slipstream Without a Paddle

Because I'm perpetually behind on my blog-reading, I only just found out that the proprietor of Lobster and Canary is going to attend Arisia at Cambridge, MA, the largest sf/f convention in New England.

The items on L&C's particular schedule are of particular interest...
  • Non-Standard Fantasy
  • The Undefended Borders of SF
  • Interstitial Fiction: Dancing Between Genres
  • Inherent Darkness of Fairy Tales
  • The City as Character
  • Myth and Folklore in Fantasy
Of course, Daniel is scheduled to read as well, but I wanted to focus on the panels listed (I assume they're panels).

(Oh, and yes, Calista -- I now regret not coming and will plan to come out next year.) :)

Anyway, picture the sort of fiction that comes to mind when you hear those topics--love it or hate it--and you'll have a good idea of the sort of stuff I aim to write. Aim, and still fall quite short of the mark. Still, unless the "please feel free to send us more" is part of certain markets' form rejections, I remain hopeful. In any case, it brought to mind a conversation I had yesterday which dislodged a memory of a blog post from writer Steven Barnes...
You should read ten times as much as you intend to write. Want to write 1000 words a day? Read 10,000 words. Furthermore, this reading should be BETTER than your current ability, and BETTER than your intended goal, if possible. Want to write comic books? Read pulp fiction. Write pulp fiction? Read popular fiction. Write popular fiction, read bestsellers. Write bestsellers? Read classics.

And you want to write classics? Well...pick your grandparents very carefully.

I've internalized this advice to the point where it actually took me a second to remember where it came from. But it begs the question, what do I read that's "better" than my intended goal if I want to write what I say I want to write?

Now, I've done or am doing most of the "required reading" -- Feeling Very Strange, Interfictions and Interfictions 2, Conjunctions 39 and 52, Tin House 33, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, (edited to add:) Trampoline, and most of the individual short story collections published by Small Beer Press, and others. But there are times when I feel like I'm being shown how to do the breaststroke before being taught how to properly do a front crawl. Don't know where the swimming analogy came from, but it's as good as any.

And I guess the main reason I'm thinking about all of this--assuming it's not a symptom of the Andromeda Strain I've been fighting off the past few days--is that I seem to be feeling a bit of existential angst about my writing. I don't even care about, Will this pay off in the end, or not? I care more about, Am I doing this right or just spinning my wheels? Are my goals reasonable? What am I doing as a writer?

Also, Who the hell am I as a writer, anyway?

13 January 2010

Motion in Poetry

Last Sunday night, I attended a poetry workshop by the current Broome County (NY) Poet Laureate, Andrei Guruianu at Buffalo St. Books. He did a reading from a few of his collections, including his latest, and nothing was sacred anymore, and then guided willing attendees through an exercise.

Guruianu did a brief lecture on poetic elements, which was very useful. Up until now, I had no criteria for judging any piece of poetry other than, "I know what I like." And Guruianu's words about the elements of what he considers to be good poetry gave me at least one way to evaluate the poetry I read from now on. To him, the best poetry uses words to depict an environment or invoke images that are concrete, significant, meaningful, and which resist the mind's tendency to go off on tangents and lean toward abstractions.

Afterward, I went back through the five or six books that I laughingly call my "poetry library" and I'll be damned if I didn't go back to the ones listed as my favorites and found just that. Not one poem about "war" or "time" or "space" or "that girl who broke my heart." Poems on those sorts of topics, yes. But not about the abstract concepts.

And of course, I went back through what I laughingly call the "poems" I've written thus far. Now, I knew most of them sucked, but now I know at least one reason why! And the few (well, one... okay two or three) that "worked," did so because they generally had more concrete elements.

So, to answer the questions that are undoubtedly on your mind...
  1. Yes--I'd like to write more poetry. Maybe see if I can salvage the stuff I've written so far. Maybe write something like the work I heard at the poetry panel I attended at Astronomicon 11.
  2. No--I'm not posting any of it here. Maybe at Fictionaut, but even then probably not for public consumption. Because I care for you all, far too much. Maybe once I've learned a few more things.

06 January 2010

"Too Many Voices"

I like song lyrics. Sometimes, they get me thinking and then I like to dissect those thoughts like the Zapruder film.

I don't wanna wait
For our lives to be over.
Will it be yes, or will it be
Let me tell you something about my Muse, the little shit.

My relationship to it is best expressed on the Tumblr I use as a notebook of the things I feed it. I call it the place...
Where I strap my muse to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, pin its eyes open, and force-feed its brain until it does what it's fucking told.

Yes, I brainwash my Muse, typically by waterboarding it every so often. Not too much, though. Like Nice Guy Eddie says in Reservoir Dogs, "If you fucking beat this prick long enough, he'll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don't necessarily make it fucking so!"

Some might say that's harsh. I know there are folks who feed and care for and cradle their precious Muse. They are not wrong to do so. And if it works for them, I'm very glad! But call me as delusional as the folks who think the "enhanced interrogation" techniques at Gitmo actually work--I'll be damned if they don't work on my Muse, at least as well as cradling it ever did!

I've made a lot of progress with my Muse over the past few years. It does need a bit of "encouraging" every now and again, but it seems to be spitting out ideas when I want them, and a lot of times, even when I don't want them! The important thing though is that I do not wait for my Muse to give it up before I write. That'd be stupid.

As Octavia Butler noted, "...habit is more dependable than inspiration." I've learned that ideas really are a dime a dozen and that what my Muse will not do most times is form those ideas into actual stories for me. Once in awhile, maybe. But the hard truth is, my little bastard of a Muse really doesn't care if I finish my stories or not! No, that's squarely up to me, and the only way that's done is by sitting down day after day and writing, with my Muse's waterboard right next to me, pouring and writing, whether it gives me reliable and actionable intel or not!

Because I absolutely do not want to be one of those writers who bitches and moans about being uninspired and who get no writing done because of it.

04 January 2010

Any Given Sunday

I was drunk enough to agree, but not drunk enough to deny remembering I agree. Leave it to Mercedes to strike at exactly the right time! She wanted a throw down with the loser to re-enact one of my fantasies: to be Jesus, serenaded by Yvonne Elliman, complete with jazz hands:

But that wasn't enough. Oh, no. The more, the merrier, we said, so we invited Harley and Jason.

Yes, we Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are going to be engaged in mortal combat, with a theme chosen by a neutral party, one Boudreau Freret.

The Theme: A sci-fi/fantasy short story describing, "The first contact of two species with a mutual attraction betwixt them."

Story Deadline: We have until February 1, 2010 to come up with an original story based on the theme, to be simultaneously submitted to a SFWA-approved market.

The Stakes: First person to be published in the chosen market wins.

The losers will video themselves performing a song of the winner's choice ("Everything's Alright" in my case), complete with jazz hands!!

These are all worthy adversaries. I don't underestimate a single one of them. I've read their words. We're all at various stages of our writing careers, and yet a contest like this--well hell, a lot of publishing in general--has an "any given Sunday" feel to it. It could very well be me on video, jazz-handing along to someone else's tune.

This is going to be a first. I've never written to avoid humiliation before! :)


Edited to add: Harley's and Mercedes' understandably skewed opinions on the matter.

02 January 2010

Because Reading is Fundamental

An author I met at Astronomicon, Daniel Rabuzzi (The Choir Boats), has been blogging a multipart Year-in-Review of his favorite speculative and fabulistic art. His review of short fiction was of particular interest. I'm in the process of reading most of the anthologies he listed, and can personally second his opinions of two particular pieces: the short story "Rats" by Veronica Schanoes (from the Interfictions anthology) and Benjamin Rosenbaum's collection The Ant King: and Other Stories.

My list of favorite short stories of 2009 won't be half as comprehensive. While I've certainly done my share of short-story reading, it's basically been in service of my writing education. My primary focus was dissection to figure out what made them tick. Still, certain stories and collections stuck out in my mind in 2009--though this is not a comment on the quality of everything else I read, unless where explicitly stated.

We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle. Rarely do I enjoy each and every single story in a given collection. It's only happened three other times, with M. Rickert's Map of Dreams, Howard Waldrop's Howard, Who?, and Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room. I saw a lot of similarities in theme between Beagle's collection and Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories (Daniel cites Millhauser's story "Dangerous Laughter" as a favorite. I liked it a little less.) but Beagle's stories resonate a little better with me.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God by Etgar Keret. The novella "Kneller's Happy Campers" alone (on which the film Wristcutters: A Love Story is based) is worth the price of the book. There isn't much I could add to RJ Burgess's review on Strange Horizons other than, "Just read it."

Black Glass by Karen Joy Fowler. I have yet to read any of Fowler's novels, but I've opened their covers at bookstores and it boggles my mind that I've seen no reference to her short fiction. Okay, that's a lie--I'm not all that surprised there might be those who'd rather not know the Fowler who wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit's End, and Sarah Canary is the same one whose stories still appear every so often in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

"Pride & Prometheus" by John Kessel. Why does it seem that a lot of my favorite writers do Jane Austen riffs? In any case, it was a deserving 2008 Nebula winner.

"Absalom's Mother" by Louise Marley. This was a real diamond in the rough that I discovered in the anthology Futureshocks. Don't even get me started on what I thought about it, but it was worth finding the single story with strong emotional resonance. Because few things resonate more than a mother's love for her child.

01 January 2010

"We must set brand new goals/ We must not lose control..."*

(This is from my new planner--nifty, huh?)

Like just about every other writer's blog out there, this is where I get to talk some about my 2010 writing goals.

This is mostly brainstorming, really. It's thinking at what's known in the GTD-world as "horizons of focus." Specifically, the things I'd like to see for my writing future at the "30,000 foot level" (i.e. 12-14 months from now).

I'd like to network better. In 2009, I made some strides in connecting with other writers (online and in person) and with other artists. Playwrights, poets, filmmakers, and musicians. But I passed up a lot of opportunities, too. I was shoulder to shoulder with Joyce Carol Oates for a split second, but said nothing, not even when she was signing. Legendary comic book writers from the 70s & 80s come through this town once or twice a year. One of them even lives here, and I haven't introduced myself to him.

The reason is my dread of the thought of being that over-eager writer who gets told by a seasoned master, "Go away kid, you bother me." Time for me to get over that. And I'm going to at Readercon 21!

I need to get my lit/flash fiction back on track. This is sort of related to the networking goal. Between here and Twitter, I need to make time to get back into Fictionaut and Zoetrope. I briefly connected with some writers whose work I idolized before I focused on genre stuff, but lost touch. Plus, I learned so much there from the critiques I got from my flash pieces. I was kinda dumb to let that slip away, but you know what? My accounts are still active, and it's never too late, right?

12 is the magic number. That's one story per month, written, submitted and kept in circulation. If none of them sell by next December, fine. But they will be in circulation.

I need to move a bunch of back-burner non-fiction projects up to the front. I confess, stubbornness is part of what motivates this goal. I'm irked that I haven't been able to repeat my McSweeney's success of five years ago--though I admit, my efforts have been lackadaisical at best. But it's not just humor I'm interested in.

I've mentioned my "seekrit #wip" on Twitter. It's secret because--again, this is a pride thing related to my networking fears, I think--the whole thing could be a wash at any time, and I dread the thought of answering questions like, "Hey, what happened with that [seekrit #wip]?" with "Eh, nothing."

Suffice it to say that it's going to be a researched non-fiction work, and if I can pull this off, it would be quite the feather in my geek cap.

Okay, I think my brain is sufficiently dumped. Maybe today I can actually do something about some of these.

*The title's from here, btw...