Friday, December 30, 2011

Ugh

This post today is coming pretty much straight off the top of my head. I'm shooting from the hip. Working without a net. Pick your metaphor, whichever you like.

I hadn't intended to take a Christmas blogging break, but in truth, I haven't been thinking a whole lot about the blog this week. No big advance plans, like "on Friday, I'm going to write about..." I do have a couple-three half-completed posts sitting around, but getting them up to ready stage would be too much work, and today, I feel like I got flattened by a truck. Or a whole convoy.

Yesterday morning, we took a three hour drive into the depths of Pennsylvania to see a friend we haven't seen in a little over four years. In fact, the last time we saw her, her now four-year-old son was a mighty huge lump in her belly, so it was our first time meeting him. We had a great time, and the young one was not shy at all. We ended up leaving a little later than expected, and found ourselves driving through snow for part of the way, on some windy country roads, with a lot of truck traffic (and now I have seen what gas drilling can do to once-quiet rural neighborhoods, but that's something I won't talk about here, now). It was uneventful, but the first forty minutes or so were pretty tension-packed for me, so I'm a little achy this morning.

Anyway, about the four-year-old. My own kids are a long time removed from that stage, and I'd forgotten how much fun this stage is (especially when the kid isn't yours). Not enough to make me want more kids, mind you, but they sure are fun at that age. And they say some pretty funny things.

We were in a restaurant for lunch, and the little guy looked like he got his foot stuck in the chair. I said to my daughter, who couldn't see what was going on, "He's trying to extricate his foot." The little guy hears me, and says, "No, I'm trying to pull it out." Later on, he was showing us some cars (big fan of cars, he is). One of them had machine guns mounted on the sides, and he started to pull them off. "I can store them under the chassis," he says. I said, "Oh, they're removable." "No," he replies. "You can take them off." As Kenny Bania would say:



I love it.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself trying to write a four-year-old, it's good to remember: they're wheeler-dealers. They try to negotiate everything. They put Monty Hall to shame. Maybe I'm so tired today because of 'sympathy exhaustion' for his Mom.

Forgive the rambling, and have a safe and happy New Year's Eve. If you're out on the roads, be careful. We'll see what's in my noggin come Monday.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas

Thanks for coming and taking a look around, reading my ramblings, and having something to say back. I'd love to say this is my own photo, but I've given up taking pictures of my Christmas tree. They never come out right, the lights are always all blurry and jumpy. Have a great Christmas, or just a heck of a nice weekend, I'll see y'all on Monday.


image courtesy of capl@washjeff.edu

Monday, December 19, 2011

O! Tannenbaum


So, who does it?
If you put up a Christmas tree in your house, who gets the job of putting the lights on it?
Growing up, it was always my father. Now, it’s mine.
Every year I swear that this is the worst job I’ve ever done on the lights. Ever. Seriously, I think this year I started saying this even before I’d finished getting the first string up. And yet, when it’s all finished, it still looks good, and nobody really notices the things that drove me crazy, how I was constantly finding a blue light right underneath a blue light, no matter how I tried to manipulate it; or that half the lights aren’t actually on any branches, they’re just sort of hanging in mid-air, because there’s only four inches between bulbs and the wires are too thick and inflexible, and putting a bulb here pulls that bulb there off the spot where I’d placed it so carefully and….
Calm. Deep breath.
My Dad was a pretty calm guy. It was my mother who had the explosive temper. Dad did the slow burn. He’d grumble. He’d mutter. He’d get a certain look on his face that was hard to explain, but you knew he was getting steamed. Very rarely did he actually explode, though. But putting up Christmas tree lights, we’d often see that steam. As a kid, I could never understand it, it seemed like a cool job. Now I know better. It’s possibly the most hateful job of Christmas, a time-consuming, frustrating activity that leaves your hands sticky and scratched, smelling of pine, and frustrated, needles in your hair and down your shirt... Yet, in the end, the tree always looks good.
This year, as I worked, I watched a story play out in my head, a story of a little boy, his mother, and his grandpa preparing for Christmas. It was perfect, though unfinished, in my head, and I got a decent start of it in my writer’s group yesterday; now we’ll see if I can finish it for next Christmas, ha ha. Anyway, that’s about all. See you on Friday. And I’ll leave you with music from the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which may be my favorite Christmas special ever.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Feel Good Friday, a Pseudo-Blog Hop


When I got my MS back from an excellent reader, I scanned the pages looking for red ink, exhilarated and terrified at the same time. I tingled when I saw positives like “Great imagery!” “Hah, that’s great” or “I like how you…” I cringed at the negatives, but it was more reflexive than anything. In truth, the negatives didn’t hurt that much because they were on target. There’s a lot you stop seeing when you’ve been living with a story for nearly a year. After reading through the comments, I felt good. The good comments made me feel good, and the ‘bad’ comments were either things I had suspected, or were things I realized my critter was pretty much right about. It was a very positive process.
And then the Doubting Writer surfaced.
There were a couple of big sections in the manuscript where there no comments at all. Rather than accept this as ‘no news is good news’, the Doubting Writer whispered in my ear, “Maybe they fell asleep reading this part”, and “Maybe it’s so bad they couldn’t bring themselves to make any comment at all on it.” That Doubting Writer can be a real bastard. So the Doubting Writer went to work. “I notice you didn’t say anything about this,” e-mails the Doubting Writer. “Did you think blah blah blah.” The Doubting Writer has an almost-pathological need to believe his book is awful.
BUT – before you rush to tell me that you’re sure I’m not that bad, rest assured this post is not really about how I did on my crit report. This is really about how we treat ourselves. And I want us all to treat ourselves a little bit better, at least for today, or this weekend.
As writers, we need to be self-critical. We need to be honest in our assessment of our writing, and we need to be able to look at critiques with enough logic and …stoicism, for lack of a better word, to see what’s on the money and what isn’t. That’s how we improve as writers. All too often, however, criticism feels like a negative, because it’s always couched in terms of what we could do better.
But a part of criticism is also acknowledging what we do well, and that’s what I want this to be about.
On Wednesday, Lisa L. Regan celebrated her 100th follower (Cheers, Lisa!). She asked her readers to post questions/suggest topics for future posts. Being an obnoxious sort, I asked her the following question, perhaps the writerly-version of one of the most-dreaded job interview questions out there:
What do you think is your greatest strength as a writer?
I suspect the real value of this question to a job interviewer is less in the answer itself and more in how the respondent handles it. But in this case, I’m asking because I want to be positive. There’s so much negativity associated with writing. We write. We let people read it so they can critique it (which, again, feels like it focuses on what we do wrong). We write it again, and again, and then we face rejections over and over. Yes, we need to learn from what we do wrong, but we also need to acknowledge what we do well, if only to keep us from trying to fix something that ain’t broke.
So take a moment. Or two or three, or however long you need. Think about something you do really well as a writer and tell me – tell everyone – what that is. Bask in it. Enjoy the glow. Don’t get a big head, but allow yourself a little time to say, “This is what I do well.” Put it in the comments here, or write a post on your own blog about it and link it in the comments. I won’t call this a blog hop, because I’m dropping this on you with no advance notice, and no fancy sign-up sheet, and no spiffy buttons. If you choose to do a blog post on it, pop the link in the comments here so we can all pop by. That’s it.
So, I guess I have to start, huh? Well, okay, here goes.
I am very good at descriptions.
Wow. That felt good. I’ll say it again. I’m very good at descriptions.
I hear this a lot. My wife has said it to me on a number of occasions. I hear it almost every week in the little writer’s group I’m in. I’ve even seen it from time-to-time in comments here, so that’s what I’ll go with. For today, I’ll pat myself on the back over my descriptive abilities and sit a little taller in my chair. I’ll keep the Doubting Writer at bay for one day.
So, there you have it. Celebrate your strength, enjoy your success, love yourself and your writing, even if it’s just for a moment. Later on, you can go back to picking at your words, grousing over stilted dialogue, clich├ęd characters and your propensity for purple prose (or an abundance of alliteration, for that matter).  For now, tell us what you’re good at, be happy, and have a great weekend.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Musical Monday: In Dreams

Something frequently listed on Absolute Write as a moment that 'makes you want to throw the book against the wall' is the dream sequence. You know, where Our Hero has a dream of such clarity and significance that he wakes up with a perfect understanding of his problem. “Rubbish!” says the reader – or, at least, so says the reader who is also a writer. We know better. We know that dreams are slippery things, confused images that disintegrate on waking like smoke rings in a stiff breeze. Still, there’s an allure to the dream sequence, isn’t there? It’s tempting to slip one in. I'll do it better. Dream on.
I have a hard time listening to this song without thinking of David Lynch’s film, Blue Velvet. The song was a favorite of the film’s villain, Frank Booth (masterfully played by Dennis Hopper). Much of that film was like a bad dream: upsetting and disturbing, with weird stuff happening at the edges. But the song, divorced of the movie’s images and violence, is beautiful, and Orbison’s voice is ethereal and haunting. Kind of like a dream. Enjoy.


Friday, December 9, 2011

The Back Room


I sometimes think of my brain as being like one of these big, old Victorian houses. The kind of house that has rooms off of rooms, nooks and crannies everywhere, and a surprise around every corner. I love houses like that; they fascinate me, and the brain is every bit as complicated as some of those houses. For the purposes of this post, we’ll simplify things and talk about it in terms of front room and back room.
Most Victorian houses had a nice little parlor. This was on the front of the house, and was where guests were entertained. Someone drops by to visit and they’re ushered into the parlor, where you sit with them in overstuffed armchairs with lacy doily-things covering the arms, and there are lamps with tasseled shades, and dark, striped wallpaper. You sit in the chairs for a while and you visit and eat finger sandwiches and have a cup of tea, and it’s all very pleasant.
When the visit is over, your guest doesn’t say goodbye and go back out through the front door, however; they take the OTHER DOOR.
These old houses are full of doors, but this one is different. Instead of a nice, solid door with a fancy brass knob, it’s a shabby-looking curtain. Occasionally, a breeze stirs the curtain but you can’t really see what’s back there, because it’s dark. All you can see are shapes, some moving, some not, and sometimes, you hear things…and they don’t always sound pleasant.
Your guest says, “See you later, it’s been fun” and wanders off through that curtain, and you sit up in the front room and look out the big windows at the world and go on with your business.
But while you’re looking out that front window and entertaining more guests in the front room, and watching things happening in the world through the big bay window, there’s some sort of party going on in the back room the whole time. You don’t know what the hell is going on back there, and most of the time, you don’t care.
Until something pops out, and it looks like this:

It’s pretty horrible, but if you’re lucky, it’s just perfect for a story.
Very few of my story ideas arrive in the parlor via the front door. On very rare occasions, something happens that is Just Exactly Right, and I’m off and writing. Far more often, things come into the parlor, spend some time with me, and then go off into the back room. There, it spends weeks or months while I think it over. The funny thing is, that thought goes on behind the curtain. I not even aware I’m doing it. The book I’m working on now, which was last year’s NaNo revived, is a product of many months in that back room. It started with an incident two Novembers ago, when an insurance SNAFU got my car towed and nearly got my wife arrested. At the time, I was also watching a lot of the HBO series Oz. For several weeks, I entertained the insurance issue in the front room of my brain, trying to get something out of it. At that time, the writing bug was starting for me, but hadn’t really kicked in yet. I tried to pull an idea out of this, and failed. So, after a while, I said goodbye to the incident and it went back through the curtain.
Fast forward to the following spring. As I drove into town one fine morning, I saw a good-sized Snapping turtle sitting on the roadside, presumably off on her way to lay eggs somewhere. BANG (and this is why that other room needs a door – it’s far more dramatic  for an idea to kick the door open with a house-shaking BANG than it is to fling back a curtain in a whisper of fabric). Just like that, Oz and the insurance incident popped out of that back room, almost unrecognizable. They/it melded with the turtle, and became The Idea. The rest of the way into town, narrative filled my head., and I suspect I was quite guilty of driving on autopilot.
The turtle was a catalyst of sorts. I’m not sure if the other two thoughts had spent the winter cozying up in  that back room and had already merged into some form, and just needed the turtle to complete the reaction, or if it was an instantaneous combination of the three ingredients. I’ve had this happen several times, where something seen, heard, or read right now triggers some reaction among things that you’d forgotten about. Regardless of how it works, I have to say, I love those moments.
Have a pleasant weekend, all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Anniversary to Me!

Eight years ago, my family and I movedto our current abode here in the frequently-frozen hills of central New York. A couple-three weeks (as they say up here) after that we had a chimney sweep come in. We wanted to use the fireplace (it was March, and still cold), but had no idea how long it had been since it had been used, and we were concerned that there might be creosote build up or animals living up there (amusing side note: the following summer, we had Chimney swifts move in. Several nights running we heard twittering from the chimney in the middle of the night. The cats found this quite intriguing).
The chimney sweep was a rather engaging guy, and we had a lot of fun talking to him. While discussing some of the work that needed to be done on the house, he gave us this bit of friendly advice: “You have to be careful up here. Anyone who can use a hammer calls himself a contractor.”
There are laws governing contractors, and plumbers, and electricians, etc., etc. But there are no laws governing writers. We could change the sweep’s words: “Anyone who can string two sentences together calls himself a writer.” Hey, look at that: I’m a writer! And so are you!
But we usually don’t do that, do we? I think most of us don’t consider ourselves writers until we get an agent, get published, get paid to write, or can make a living from it. I’ve been published – I had an article on Turkey vultures appear in our weekly newspaper a few years back, and last year I had an article on the environmental benefits of local foods printed in a guide to the local farmers' market. Two short stories ran in Time Frame (but I know those don’t count, officially). I’ve also been paid specifically to write: I have a couple of trail guides to my credit somewhere out there, which theoretically makes (or made) me a professional writer.
Yet I wouldn’t tell people, “I’m a writer.”
I think of the Chimney sweep's words now because today, December 6, 2011, marks an anniversary of sorts. One year ago today I sat down and committed the ink to paper (okay, cyber ink to cyber paper) of what is currently-known as Parallel Lives. As I look back on it, this date feels important to me. Even though I had been dabbling since the spring of 2010, getting a couple of thousand words down on two different novels, entering short stories in two contests, and even completing NaNoWriMo, it felt like dabbling. On December 6, 2010, some sort of switch was flipped inside of me, and I went from I’m-just-goofing-around-here to I’m-not-kidding-anymore. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there was something about that day that was different. And I didn’t know it at the time, really; like many important dates in history, you don’t always recognize its importance while it’s happening. You need time and perspective. As I look over the last year, I do realize that something happened to me in that time, something has made me more serious about this, and it centers on this date.
I realize how presumptuous it sounds, to say “I’m a writer.” I have no agent. I’m not ready to query, but I’m closer. And, despite the fact that I’m not really hiding it from anyone, I’m not exactly running around telling all my friends and relations, “I’m a writer!” But I’m becoming more comfortable telling people that I am writing. So, I’ll say it: “I’m a writer.”
Wow. That felt kind of good.
Since this is an anniversary, have a piece of cake.


When did you feel like you were a writer? Was there a specific date or event that occurred that made you say, “Today, I became a writer?” Or is my ego running suddenly out of control?


EDIT: Erm ahem. Big time apology incoming. At the dinner table this evening, it was pointed out to me that today, Tuesday, is December 6. My anniversary is December 6. Somehow, I became convinced that yesterday (Monday) was the sixth, thus my post was one day early. So, I'll just give my piece of cake over to someone else and have a bit of crow, thanks.
Oh, what the hell, I'll celebrate twice.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Movies to Books

As a kid, I didn’t realize that many – maybe even most – movies were adapted from books. The first time I really became aware of this was around the time I was ten, and saw the movie, Jaws. We saw it in the theaters. After seeing the action-packed, tension-filled production of Jaws on the big screen, the slow pace and wordiness of Peter Benchley's novel was a huge letdown. Movies are better than books!

The same year Jaws came out, Milos Forman directed Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. What a year for movies! I did not see the movie until a couple of years later, when it came out on cable. Like Jaws, I thought the movie was terrific. Shortly thereafter, I read Ken Kesey's novel. It lost me completely.

In hindsight, it may have been less to do with the movies being superior and more to do with me. While I was an advanced reader for my age, I just didn’t ‘get’ either book. This really hit home for me when my daughter brough Cuckoo’s Nest home last month to read for her AP English. She was loving the book, so I borrowed it from her and re-read it.

It was fantastic. The film itself holds up well (I watched it after reading the book), but the novel really impressed me. Kesey’s book is full of powerful images, and the perspective is so different from the movie that it might as well be a completely different story. I heartily recommend it.

It's possible that part of my problem all those years ago was that I read the books too soon after seeing the movie versions. Maybe I needed more time to clear the image of Jack Nicholson out of my head (I was able to create my own visual image of R.P. McMurphy when I read the book this time around, though Nicholson’s voice still came through); more likely, I was just too young to fully grasp Kesey’s vision. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I read it again.

My daughter is also in a theater arts class this year. Every couple of weeks, the class is assigned a movie to watch at home. They’ll spend a couple of days in school discussing the film. The last film she watched was Fight Club, the 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name.

I've heard a lot about Palahniuk. He’s been recommended to me by a number of people, but for some reason, I’d never walked out of a bookstore or library with one of his books under my arm, I’m not sure why. Until recently (after I watched Fight Club, in fact), the only thing of Palahniuk’s I’d read was his short story, Guts. It was good writing; a very effective piece of writing, in fact, but it was revolting. You can read it here (Ever notice how we always do that? We find something that turns our stomach, and the first thing we do with it is try to push it off on someone else. “How’s your meal?” “It’s horrible! It tastes like crap. Here, try it.”). Suffice to say, I’m not part of the Cult of Chuck (that’s what his website is called. Seriously.)

However, I might become part of it yet. Ten minutes into the film, I found myself sitting there thinking, “I’ve got to read this book.” I don’t think I’ve ever had the reaction before. Maybe I was suckered in by David Fincher’s vision. Maybe it was the acting – Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, and Brad Pitt were terrific – I’m sure that was part of it. But what it really was, was the story, and the Voice, which was strong throughout.

Some time soon I’ll land me a copy of Fight Club, the book. I’ve been told by some of the people who are part of the Cult that Fight Club is not Palahniuk’s best work, but I’ll read it anyway, and hope that it’s not too soon after seeing the film, though I'm much better than I used to be about judging each on its own merits. I hope I enjoy it. I hope it doesn't totally gross me out.

Have you ever seen a movie that compels you to read the ‘source material’? How was it for you?

Thanks for reading, and have a nice weekend.