Friday, March 31, 2006

Artistic Choice: Is Nothing Sacred?

A writer friend of mine claims that when a writer plans his story, all of the elements should be open to debate. The writer must scrupulously scour every inch of his idea for inconsistencies or extraneous content and be prepared to cast aside whatever does not fit. Nothing is sacred. He says that the final product may look nothing like the original idea, and that's okay.

I'm not so sure.

I should state up front that his ideas and mine are more alike than different. For example, I agree that most of the hard work in writing a story is in planning it. I also agree that a writer must be scrupulous about consistency. Everything must fit within the theme, and whatever does not fit should either be cast out or changed. But a couple of dangers lurk here in these murky waters, dangers that I am only beginning to understand as I spend more time in the craft. I'm talking about dangers that can actually kill your story.

First, there is the risk of being wrong. Planning a difficult story can sometimes seem analogous to performing brain surgery on a fetus in utero. Your mind's child is still just a potential. If you do something wrong now, it may not live to be any more than that.

"No problem," you might say, "just think very carefully about what you're doing." Yes, but therein lies the difficulty:

One of the greatest challenges for a writer is that the real engine of his productivity is not his conscious mind but his subconscious. Notice I said engine, not architect or captain. I'm talking here about the specific faculty that must be relied upon to produce 90% of his output. While the conscious mind queries, suggests, waits, and prods, at the end of the day it is the subconscious mind that must actually deliver the goods. This is important for the writer to understand, not just for practical reasons but also for spiritual reasons (which I'll explain in my second point).

The practical difficulty here is that the writer doesn't always know why his subconscious has delivered what it has. The writer may come to believe that an inspired idea does not fit within his story when in fact it does (or should). Sometimes his subconscious is actually giving him a very important clue and he's not listening to it. In other words, the captain, or the conscious mind, remains unswervingly committed to a plan despite his subconscious's realizing (implicitly) that it will not work. In such a case, he would do well to pay closer attention to what his "heart" is telling him before he starts snipping out pieces. This is not to say that the captain should ever abdicate his responsibility to discern between one idea and another, only that he might learn something by listening more carefully to his own responses to values.

This brings me to my second point, which is the greatest danger of all: that of not caring about the story anymore. This is where I have reservations about my friend's ideas. I do believe that some elements of an idea are in fact sacred. Some aspects of an idea should never be cast aside. Why? Because they represent the very reason that the writer fell in love with the story in the first place, and if a writer does not love his stories, then he'll either die an unhappy martyr having failed to write anything worthwhile or he'll quit writing altogether.

Consider these two interesting drawings over at Rational Art. The first sketch represents an idea for a painting (maybe a late revision of an idea, but an idea nonetheless), while the second represents a noticeable improvement over the first: the man's posture is more prideful, the woman more elegant, their relationship more dramatic, the champagne glass angled more appropriately, and the city sized to evoke more of a distant view rather than an imposing presence. There's even a bit of commentary about improving the piece by adding fireworks instead of snow. But notice something important: The spirit of the piece remains intact, and by spirit, I do not mean something floating in abstract space like a disembodied idea. I mean the stylized idea in concrete form. Specifically I mean a loving couple staring at some kind of cityscape on a special occasion.

I am willing to bet that if this artist were to cast aside these key elements, he would probably just as soon slavishly illustrate the cover for some technical manual as complete this painting. (I do not know this as a matter of fact, so don't quote me on that.)

Writers and other artists are not just theme. We are mind and body. Our values are inextricably tied to what we know in fact, not just in theory. For this reason, we should not be too quick to discard particular elements of a story on the basis of theme alone. At the very least, great care should be taken to understand the purpose and value of each element before we make a change.

Here, then, is some advice that I myself must follow more carefully: When evaluating an idea for a story, ask yourself what it is about the idea that you love most and why. Do you love the main character? Do you think he's especially sexy, smart, or courageous? If so, don't be too quick to run away from these notions just because they seem "shallow" or non-thematic. Your interest may be a clue to what your theme ought to be.

Did you first come to this story by imagining a single, glorious sentence that appears at the very moment of the climax or perhaps some little vignette that happens in an epilogue? Hmmm, I wonder: Could this be the one, key element that will make you care more about this story than anything else for the next three years? If so, then by god don't snip it, or your story just might die on the vine.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Moleskine Update

I stand by my review of the Moleskine tablet for all the reasons I gave. However, it has been brought to my attention that some people have a slight quibble with them — or I guess it's a pretty big quibble depending on who you talk to.

Anyway, the paper is a bit on the thin side, so if you write with a dark pen, especially one with gel or india ink, it will show through the page pretty badly. I tested this and found it to be true.

I don't have this problem, mainly because I only write on the odd pages. This leaves a blank page for making notes and revisions later, which I often do in pencil. Also, I would prefer to have more pages crammed into a smaller booklet than to have thicker paper. And finally the bleed doesn't really bother me. To each his own.


Noodlefood, which happens to be my current favorite, one-stop shop for Objectivist news and commentary that's feisty and smart, recently added my page to their blogroll. I'm a bit surprised, in a way, because I only write about writerly stuff (Yawn!) and because I rarely comment on Objectivist issues. Make no mistake: I have no illusions that my blog is somehow fascinating, exciting, trendy, and clever. I know it's not. If it had to be, I'd stop blogging.

The reason I've been blogging so much recently is totally self-centered. I've been struggling through a difficult story, and every day I find my mind wanting to wander far, far away from wherever I happen to be working. Ayn Rand called this unpleasant condition "The Squirms". It's frustrating as hell. Thinking about my blog at least corrals my mind and keeps it inside of fiction-writing-land when it would otherwise want to go off and pay bills, call friends, rearrange the furniture, remodel the basement.... You know what I'm talking about, any of you who have ever struggled with an intellectual problem. Of course, I also have to make sure that blogging doesn't become an end in itself, but so far it seems to have done more good than harm.

So it's no surprise that after an initial explosion of visitors thanks to Noodlefood (yes, Diana, you're really that powerful), my site traffic seems to be back to a trickle, by comparison. I kind of like it that way. Besides, if my blog were to ever go crazy with activity, I would prefer to see it come from the popularity of my yet-to-be published, run-away bestseller.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Moleskines - Joy of Man's Creation

It is not uncommon to like and to want what other people have. To a happy man, this desire is nothing more than the discovery of a new value to be gained for his own selfish pleasure; he's simply happy for the person who already has it and he looks forward to having one himself. But to others, the wanting is more like a disease.

Having said that, I recently ran out of pages in my writing journal, so I went to the art store looking to buy a new one. There on the shelf was the fabled Moleskine writer's tablet. It was neatly tied in a paper ribbon and wrapped in plastic. I had never seen one before. I was mesmerized by its look, feel, and promised features, but also by its price. The lovely little thing looked like Falling Water next to my worn-out (but functional) trailer-park notebook.

I have always wondered whether Moleskines were just another way for a writer to keep up with the Hemingways, by that I mean, just another part of the costume worn by litty-snoots in order to be seen among the cognoscenti. In other words, does everyone who spends a small fortune on Moleskines have a social disease, or do some really appreciate them for the way they're made? If it's the former, then I certainly wouldn't want to have one since I prefer to operate within what I call the Tragically-Uncool Zone (TUZ), which is a place of anonymity and better friends. But if it's the latter, then I would be denying myself a great pleasure unless I bought one.

Needless to say, I dropped a hefty $10 on a tiny blank book that day. The result? Take it from a writer who loves his notebook even more than most Christians love their Bible: Oh joy of man's creation! Moleskines are absolutely divine!

If you already write in bound notebooks, spoil yourself and buy a Moleskine ruled notebook, or if the price offends you, tell Santa that you want one for Christmas.


• They open flat and without a coil running down the binding to interfere with your hand;
• They have a small pocket that opens toward the binding so loose papers won't fall out;
• An elastic strap keeps them closed;
• The paper has a calm, earthy-white tone;
• The tooth is dense and smooth but not glossy — just perfect for writing;
• Rules run all the way across the page, front and back, and are a pleasant soft gray color;
• A ribbon in the binder marks your page;
• They're practically indestructible thanks to the woven binding and faux moleskin cover;
• They have lots of pages;
• And they look beautiful and feel pleasantly heavy in your hand.

I'm sure that some people like them because other people like them, but who cares? Clearly they earned their reputation for all the right reasons. In other words, writing in my new Falling Water notebook makes me happy, and that's all that matters to me.

[Editor's Note: If you're visiting this page and you have absolutely no idea what the big deal is with a Moleskine, here's some background: Moleskines, or tablets like them, were used by some of history's celebrated writers, who went out of their way to procure them — sometimes at great cost — and to praise them in literary circles. That's why the notebooks have acquired an almost legendary mystique among fiction writers and journalists. Of course, that alone is no reason to like them. Thus, my little post on the subject.]

Monday, March 20, 2006

How to Deal With the Slushpile

So you finish your masterpiece, then you hand it over to an eager agent who gushes, "This is a slam dunk!" He assures you that publishers will fight for the rights, and they do. Overnight your salary quadruples. Soon you find yourself struggling to find time to write in between trips to see your new pals who live and work near a lovely beach in Antigua.

But before that inevitability comes to pass, you may want to check out this podcast from Poets & Writers magazine [the one titled "How to Publish Your Short Story"]. It's a panel discussion between several editors of lit magazines and a live audience of aspiring writers. The results are sobering, but also insightful. You get to hear from several bigwig — and probably slightly jaded — editors (The New Yorker and Paris Review) and from a few who seem to be a bit more hopeful and enthusiastic. A theme that runs through the dialog is the vast, vast, vast ratio between manuscripts they receive and manuscripts they print — basically the dreaded slushpile. [Speaking of, thanks to Slushpile for the link.]

But before you listen and weep, I'll offer my own perspective on the chances of getting published:

When I was in college and I told my father what I wanted to do for a living, his response didn't make any sense to me. The words that came out of his mouth didn't even process in my young-adult mind, as if he were speaking a foreign language. He said, "How many people get jobs in that business?"

"Well, I don't know," I said. "Probably not a lot."

He was nonplussed.

So I asked: "Do you think that's important?"

He looked at me like he'd suddenly discovered that he'd raised a stupid child. Well, I'm not stupid. I could see that this conversation wasn't going well, so I decided to take a bold approach. That usually works better with good old Dad, anyway. So I said: "I know that some people make money in the business. Probably not very many, though. In fact, probably only a tiny handful actually make enough money to live on." — I paused. — "Only the very best make it, I think."

He looked cautiously interested.

"I'm going to have to be the best, Dad. That's all there is to it."

He smiled. Nothing more was said. It didn't need to be.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Brokeback Rant

Remind me never to do this: Brokeback Author: We were robbed. (From AP Wire)

There's just something about this kind of response after not winning a contest that always makes a person come off as a sore loser whether he's actually a loser or not — and I would energetically disagree with anyone who says that the people who worked on "Brokeback Mountain", including Annie Proulx, are losers in any sense of the word. That's what's so unfortunate about her rant. It makes her look like one.

Why? I suppose it's partly because no one can possibly believe in a writer's objectivity when her tone sounds more like a rant than a refutation. To be fair, Proulx does make some interesting points in her commentary. For example, I do think it's most odd that Brokeback seemed to win so many other awards (and nominations), while Crash received only a few. If the Academy were so keen on Crash all along, one would expect them to have shown the reasons behind their appreciation by selecting Crash as the winner of more awards. Or perhaps they did exactly that and no one was paying any attention to the signs.

To that end, I checked the nominations and winners listed on the Academy's website, and it turns out that the score was more even than I thought:

Crash — 6 nominations, 3 wins
Brokeback — 8 nomination, 3 wins

Maybe too many people simply had the impression that Brokeback received more nominations than it actually did, perhaps because it had quite a winning streak leading up to the Academy awards. Maybe it was because Ang Lee won best director. Or maybe it was just all the media buzz surrounding the film. If it was this last point — the popularity of the film — that made so many people expect a winner, then perhaps that tells us something unexpectedly positive about the Academy: that they chose a winner they believed in despite knowing that their decision would upset a lot of people.

The real trouble for Proulx is that she evidently hasn't considered any of these possibilities. Here's where she betrays her membership in one of the worst intellectual "cults" to have ever infected the great liberal tradition: the Cult of the Ad-Hominem Blowhards. Let me explain what I mean:

Proulx says of the Academy: "It was a safe pick of 'controversial film' for the heffalumps." Okay, so the folks at the Academy are heffalumps. They're pickers of safe films. They're choosers of faux — and therefore non-controversial — controversial films; in other words, they're shallow-minded. Elsewhere she calls them "conservatives." Ouch! There you can see just how angry she was. Just imagine if you were to rail against a bunch of card-carrying liberals (like the ones who voted for Crash, which is hardly a family-friendly Disney flick), what name would you call them in order to do the most damage? Why, a conservative of course.

Ad-hominem, character it what you will; this woman is following (or leading?) a trend that has all but overtaken the dialog coming from the Left. She's an Ad-Hominem Blowhard.

Imagine, for a moment, what a conversation between these types of people might be like: "Okay, my fellow Leftists, the world is just crawling with conservative conspiracies, so let's team up and start tearing them down. But remember: We intellectual superheroes don't actually have to understand anyone else's ideas. All we have to do is accuse the people we don't like of 'selling out' or 'having business relationships' or 'wanting attention' or some such thing, then we're done with them. Never mind that they may have reasons for their actions. We simply refuse to recognize anyone else's ability to have any real ideas whatsoever. Only good, cynical Leftists like us can have reasons, and that's because we're always so sophisticated no matter what we say or do. Everyone else is stupid. Isn't it great to be a superhero?! Everything is so simple."

That's what's so shocking about Proulx. She does have something constructive to say. Since I first read her work at least ten years ago, I always thought she belonged in a class far above the blowhards like Michael Moore even when I didn't agree with her, which was more often than not. Maybe she just plays it best when she sticks to writing stories about other people; maybe that keeps her honest. I don't know. All I really know for sure about her is that I'll never see her in the same light again.

[Reposted 17Mar06 because yesterday's edition was a mongrel mass of mixed metaphors and muddled messages, i.e., it sucked.]

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

In a Word: Benighted

Here's a word you don't see every day: benighted.

I bet you can't guess the meaning of it just by looking at it (if you don't already know it). I couldn't, anyway. For starters, forget about being knighted, as in beknighted. That isn't even a word. If you break it down, as in benighted, you could imagine being turned into night or being covered in night. Now we're getting somewhere.

According to the good people at Houghton Mifflin, benighted means: "1. Overtaken by night or darkness. 2. Being in a state of moral or intellectual darkness; unenlightened."

So there you have it. Those of us who just learned a new word should consider ourselves hereby enlightened, brought up to date, set straight, and otherwise educated by Her Majesty the American Heritage Dictionary. (You could also say that we've been unbenighted, but thankfully that's not a real word.)


Monday, March 13, 2006

Which Lit Classic Are You?

Here's another one of those pointless web quizes: Which Classic Are You?. I'm supposed to be:

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four. You are the classic warning against the threat of totalitarianism. To you, politics and philosophy are inseparable, auchtorities [sic] suck and the reality might not exist outside our imaginations.

I can't fathom how the author of this quiz got the line "reality might not exist outside our imaginations" from Orwell's 1984 or from my answers. That would be an idea called solipsism, and it would be the exact opposite of my view—probably the opposite of Orwell's view, too, but then I don't really know about that. And then there's the impressive spelling and grammar in the answer...

Ah, well. What do you expect from a harebrained web quiz. I should just be satisfied that I got 1984 and not Farting Fred & The Dog Show or even worse, Ulysses. I'm only posting the results here to promote Orwell's book. Everyone should read it.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Long-distance Pen

Margaret Atwood is certainly a clever woman. Check out her idea for a long-distance pen (brought to you by LiveScience: The Science of Fiction):
Margaret Atwood has fans on five continents; those book signing tours must be exhausting. Not content to merely write science fiction, she has created a device she calls a LongPen, which allows her to meet and sign books for her fans all over the world from her own home. And in doing so, she has brought into being the telautograph/telephot combination, about which Hugo Gernsback dreamed almost one hundred years ago.

The fan sits down at a desk at a bookstore near his home, and presents his book. He can greet the author via the Internet video chat setup. The author sits in the comfort of her home and greets her fans, signing the book via the Internet-connected LongPen. Once the author has decided what to write, she writes it out on a touchpad.

The LongPen makes use of an old-fashioned pen for the signing; it faithfully reproduces the author's comments and signature on the fan's book.

My first reaction to this was, "Well that defeats the purpose of a book signing, doesn't it? You don't really meet the author." But then after thinking about it for a while, I decided that my reaction was altogether wrong. Sure you meet the author. She's looking at you, talking to you, asking you questions about your experience with the book. Then she writes a note to you reflecting what you've said, like "Gook luck on your own writing career, Jeb." That's pretty neat, especially for a writer who is getting old or otherwise has trouble traveling. In fact, I think it's great.

Think of all the other uses for the pen, such as your personal doctor writing a prescription for you while you're on a long-distance vacation, or a group of distant family members signing documents for a will, and so on. What makes it so unique is that the "pen" can print on any document, even a bound one. You can't do that with a fax machine. Neat stuff.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Writer's Moment

I'm sitting here in my office with my usual hot café latte in-hand; my story pages spread out in front of me; my brand new Mac Mini not humming at all, just sitting there silently by the way like a patient scribe, its cloud-white LED glowing softly as if to say, "I'm ready whenever you are."; I'm warm and comfortable and quiet; and it's snowing like mad outside!

The world looks so pure and new. The trees are draped in sticky, white frosting. Five inches cover the ground, and it shows no sign of stopping (yes, I'm starting to hum Christmas tunes).

Have I ever felt so completely writerly as I do in this moment? I don't think so. Bye, bye, world! I'm slipping away into Writer's Land and I'm not going to be coming out of it for a while. If you need me, leave a message.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

About Jack

Jack is like a soulmate, although if you were to meet him (and if you knew me), I doubt that you would even notice the similarities between us. What he and I actually share is a particular quality. Call it a perspective on life.

I can't come right out and tell you what this shared trait of ours is, but I will tell you this much: Jack and I both know a technique for finding one's way out of those dark times in your life, those times when circumstance leave you feeling down and struggling to find your will. It's like a compass that stays true even through the darkest of days.

I learned this technique on my own many years ago when I was a child growing up in what were sometimes difficult circumstances. This discovery of mine became like a talisman of such great worth to me in those days that I have since come to treasure it and often contemplate it the way a priest might sit alone inside a sanctuary and meditate on some aspect of his theology. This knowledge has also proven useful to me even on those days when life has been, not so much black as merely overcast and dreary.

It's a little thing really, a truth that seems no more precious on first discovery than a dull rock buried in the mud along the shore of some farmyard creek. It is, in fact, not a magical talisman at all; it is in some ways the simplest thing in all the world, a technique that is so inglorious that most people cannot see it. When I have offered this insight to others who needed it, they have nearly always smiled, thanked me for the token, then promptly forgotten all about it, not realizing that inside that plain, gray stone lay something powerful, a hidden truth of deep philosophical import—an almost sure way out of their troubled times.

Truth is, Jack doesn't actually exist. Not yet, anyway. He's an imaginary character in a novel that I'm working on.

The idea came to me several years ago when this important spiritual value of mine suddenly decided to manifest itself in the fully-formed body of Jack (in my mind, of course). In a flash I saw his entire story: his past, his present, his future. He was my Athena, and at that point I knew what I had to do.

When I am finished, I am sad to say that still, no one but a very, very few will ever be able to see the treasure buried in the telling. That's okay. I will see it. And so will Jack, wherever he may be.

[P.S. Don't bother to ask for my technique. I won't tell you, and it wouldn't do you any good if I did. So you'll just have to wait and hope that someone decides to publish my story. Even then, I won't explain it. As with all fiction, only the readers who already understand the message (at least at some level) will appreciate the meaning of the tale.]

[P.P.S. Edited on 10Mar06 for clarity. I basically clarified what I meant by 'darkness'.]

Friday, March 03, 2006

Café Society

Sartre did it. Hemingway did it. Today, the lovable Miss Rowlings does it. So how about you? Do you do it? That is, do you ever write in cafés?

I do. In fact I love to. You'll find me sitting in one of several locations around town for at least five or six hours every week. I call these places my East Side, Downtown, and Pearl District offices, respectively. The servers know me and they leave me be, so I spend generously on lattes and treats while I'm there for the privilege of owning a table.

On that note, I bring your attention to this interesting article in the Toronto Star:
Café society
You see them holed up in coffee shops across the city: people writing in journals and on laptops.
Feb. 26, 2006. 03:13 AM

She sits at the back of the café with her lined notepad, her books — poems by Billy Collins, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead — and a look of dreamy possibility.

Where will her thoughts take her today? To the unfortunate man, head drooped in sleep, at a nearby table? To thoughts of love, for she is young, pretty and unattached? To a play she will soon be acting in?

What matters is that Tracy Michailidis writes, three pages every day and often in this café, Alternative Grounds. "I'll write about anything," she says, "anything to get the pond scum off the top of my brain."

She's not alone. Other writers are nearby, as well as couples meeting over their laptops. Since 7 a.m., Marianne Apostolides has been sitting in the front window of the Roncesvalles Ave. café, with its ochre walls and racks of rummage sale mugs, the orderly pages of her novel spread before her.

Across the city, novelists, artists, architects, musicians, playwrights, screenwriters and poets abandon their homes for café society — the whiz and hum of espresso machines, the murmur of conversations, the distraction and inspiration of fellow beings. They plunge into zones of concentration, somehow magically encountering their muse while music — Motown, Cuban revival, Patti Smith, the Pixies — roars around them.”

And apparently this has been going on for a very long time. Back to the article:
Writers have fled to these comforting, strangely freeing public places for centuries. Of course, the cafés most steeped in literary history are in Paris, and it was there that the template for writing in cafés appears to have been set.

Some are places of legend, such as the Le Procope, opened in 1686, where Voltaire and Rousseau were regulars, and where Diderot first conceived of his famous Encyclopédie.

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises drinking café crème at the Closerie des Lilas. The Café de Flore was associated with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals of the French resistance, who warmed themselves, smoked, argued and wrote at separate tables during the '40s.

So it seems that some writers enjoy the camaraderie of working with or against (competing with?) other writers. Maybe they enjoy being part of a movement. I don't know. Maybe they simply benefit from each other's enthusiasm and also share insights. I know from my own experience that this can be motivating. But that's not at all why I go to cafés. In fact, I'd rather not speak to anyone while I'm there.

Here the Toronto Star quotes Hemingway:
'Then some fool would stop by the marble-topped table and say, "Hi Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?"

Then, "Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen."'

That's exactly why I like to find my quiet corner and pretty much ignore everyone else. My favorite spots serve exactly that purpose. (It also helps that I'm an unknown.)

So why do I go to coffee shops? Like this article says, I go there “for the movement and sound and liveliness [that I] find there every day.”

I don't ever go there to write prose that will stick. It's where I go when I'm struggling through ideas, answering questions, drawing out ideas, maybe even doing a little character sketching and that sort of thing — what I call pre-writing. This process actually comprises most of my writing, and it's a long and often arduous process. Sometimes it's fun; other times it's numbing. Going to a coffee shop rescues my brain from those worst times, from the dreary solitude and distractions that mount when things aren't going well.

(Note that my office doesn't seem dreary to me at all when I'm writing prose. That's the reward for all the hard work that I've put in up front.)

[Special thanks to Randex for locating this article.]