Monday, December 17, 2018

Time off


On Friday, we went and picked up the Catbird at college for her college recess. It's nice to have her home. My wife figured it out, we're down to four more round trips to do this, maybe as little as two or three if we can get her to take the bus (taking the bus cuts more than half the time from our trip, turning ten hours of traveling in a day into maybe three). Four years goes fast. At any rate, I thought I'd take this opportunity to take a couple of weeks...off! My next post will either be on December 31 or January 7, depending on how I feel. Or, I could post next week. You never know. Whatever I choose to do, I hope all of you have a lovely couple of weeks and enjoy the holidays!

Monday, December 10, 2018

"I think there's a play there!"

Monty Python's Flying Circus once featured a skit in which a well-dressed, professional looking young man named Ken (Eric Idle) returns to the home of his parents, where he receives a warm welcome from his mother (Terry Jones), but hostility from his father (Graham Chapman). What starts out looking like a tale of a college boy coming home to his working-class parents is quickly turned on its head, as Ken is a coal miner, while his father is an award-winning playwright and novelist. "There's nowt wrong with gala luncheons, lad!" sneers the father. "I've had more gala luncheons than you've had hot dinners!" The father suffers an attack of writer's cramp and kicks his disgrace of a son out, and then--the punch line: "I think there's a play there!"



It's the blessing and the curse of writers to see 'the play there' in all kinds of situations. A few years back, while driving through a hurricane to pick the Magpie up at a friend's house, I watched a normally placid creek boil through a culvert, and I asked myself, "What if I couldn't get to the house to pick the Magpie up?" This question was followed by opposite, but equally compelling thoughts: "That would be horrible!" and "Ooh, that might make a good story!"

Since I was actually able to pick up the Magpie and get her home safely, it was a case of 'no harm, no foul' and I was able to let my imagination run wild over the scenario I had imagined. And it was a good story. But sometimes, it's not always 'no harm, no foul.' One of the first ideas I ever had, though one I did not see to completion, as I wasn't seriously writing then, came about after hearing about two different, but related stories: one was a radio interview with the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center about the rise of hate groups, and the other was a particularly chilling story of a midwestern militia group that was planning on killing a state trooper, then ambushing the funeral. Pretty horrible stuff, but potentially the basis of a good story (and one that keeps coming back to me).

At the end of last week, I learned that a local man, someone I know through the school system, someone who was the Catbird's track coach for two years in middle school, someone about whom I would say, "He's a good guy!" was accused of a pretty nasty crime. You don't want to believe it when it's someone you know, when it's someone you think of as "a good guy." Hoping that it was some kind of mistake or misunderstanding, I found the criminal complaint attached to an online story. Innocent until proven guilty, yes, but this seemed pretty damning, and disgusting. And yet.

And yet, even in all of that, I find that Monty Python punch line coming back to me. "I think there's a play there!" There is, of course. There's a story there, in this man's crime; in its impact on his family, on the community. There's also the story of the victims, and the detective who discovered it. I don't know if I'd ever use this local man's crime as the basis of a story or not. It might never feel right, either due to the nature of the crime or because it's too close to home, but the story's there, just as there's a story in pretty much everything we see around us: the mother and child at the bus stop. The old woman who meticulously rakes her lawn every morning. The fender bender at the gas station. There's a story there. In fact, there are myriad stories in every instance, it's just a matter of which part of it we choose to tell.




Monday, December 3, 2018

Elevation: A quasi review

Well, a little late today, but better late than never, right? Let's hope so, anyway.

I actually had some partially-written posts going, but when my alarm went off this morning I turned it off--then woke up forty minutes later and ended up short of time. I've had my alarm clock for probably twenty-five years (seriously!), maybe more, and I still never hit the snooze button. I always swear I'll get up in a few minutes, and usually, I do. I must have been a little tired. Anyway, on to today's post. Be  warned, there may be mild spoilers for Stephen King's Elevation ahead. Not like I give away the ending or anything.

I don't know what surprised me more: Finding out in early October that Stephen King had yet another book coming out in 2018, or finding out how very small it is. Seriously, when my librarian handed it over to me last week (first one to read it, too!), I almost asked, "Is that all there is?" King's last two books, Sleeping Beauties, co-written with his son, Owen, and The Outsider clocked in at 702 and 576 pages, respectively. Elevation is, by contrast, a slip of a book, a novella, really, of just 146 pages, a book that can fit in one hand and is barely thicker than that hand (pretty cover, though).

It's like a little notebook!

Elevation is the story of a middle-aged man who finds himself inexplicably losing weight--with a catch. When the story opens, he's already dropped 28 pounds, but he looks exactly as he did when he was weighed 240. As his weight continues to drop, at about two pounds a day, there is no change to his outward appearance. The book hearkens back to King's 1984 novel, Thinner (written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, in which an obese lawyer loses weight uncontrollably after being cursed) and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, in which a man shrinks by 1/7" a day. In fact, Elevation's protagonist shares the same name, Scott Carey, with the hero of Matheson's book, and the dedication for Elevation reads "Thinking of Richard Matheson." King wears his influences on his sleeve. (NOTE: I now find myself wanting to re-read both Thinner and The Shrinking Man)

It took me about a day to read, and the surprises kept coming, though. For the first time in a long time, I found myself wishing that the book was longer. That's not something I've said about a King book in a while. Now, for the record, I like long books--when they're good. King has put out some really long books (1138 pages for It; 1074 pages for Under the Dome), and I mostly really enjoy them. But both Sleeping Beauties and The Outsider felt way too long for me, full of extraneous characters and too much...well, something. Elevation has none of the bloat, but I found myself wanting more backstory for our main characters, more of the sketches of small-town Maine and the quirky folks who live there. Not this time.*

But the thing that surprised me the most? Unlike Thinner, or even The Shrinking Man, Elevation is suprisingly optimistic. King is well-known for torturing his characters, for putting them through the wringer, for always asking himself, "How can I make things worse for them?" Here, however, the worst thing happens in the first ten pages. King's version of Scott Carey quickly accepts what he thinks his fate will be, and unlike Thinner's Billy Halleck and The Shrinking Man's Scott Carey, King's Carey actually seems to gain from losing: he gains perspective on his own life, and on that of his beloved town of Castle Rock.

Over at Stacy's blog last week, Stacy asked me what genre I thought Elevation fit into. It's clearly not horror. Nor does it fit quite into fantasy. The phrase that came to my mind was "magical realism," even though there's no magic in the traditional sense. Thinking about it some more, it almost has the feel of a fable to me, so that's what I'll go with.

I'm kind of lacking a concluding paragraph here, so I'll turn it over to you: Have you read Elevation? What did you think of it? Have you ever been surprised by something an author did in a book the way I was surprised by Elevation? Please share, and thanks for reading!

*In hindsight, given the style of book, its length is probably a good thing. If King started coloring in the back pages in his typical King way, it might have shifted the narrative in a direction he didn't want to go, maybe even turned this into more of a horror or science fiction novel. Keep true to your vision, Stephen!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Gone Fishing

We're still picking at the remains of Thanksgiving dinner here at my house, still delighting in turkey and stuffing (a once a year thing), sweet potato casserole and apple crisp. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the loveliest of holidays, both because of the sentiment and the fact that you never have to ask, "What're we eating tonight?"

We had a nice time here, though we were bothered with the coldest weather of the year on Thanksgiving morning--the thermometer on the backside of my house registered about -18F at 6am, and I don't think it ever got into double digits on the day. Brr. So much for making that new tank of oil last! On Saturday, we went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. Good film from a film's perspective, though I'm not sure how accurate a biography it is, and it had a curious way of dealing with Freddie Mercury's homosexuality, but more on that next week, perhaps. I also read (in a day) Stephen King's newest book, Elevation. I enjoyed it, wished there was a little more of it (something I haven't said about King in a while), but also more on that in another post.

I haven't spent much time writing this past week. Of course, part of that is just being busy. Picking up and dropping off the Catbird burns two days out of the week, Thanksgiving itself can be hard to write on, going to movies, etc. (oh, the Bruins had a couple of games this week, too). There's not a lot of time. But the other issue is I haven't quite found my way in to the next project yet. Over the course of the week, I've been dropping a hook in the water and jigging it around, looking for a bite. I've written 3200 words, but there's nothing cohesive there, not yet: a single paragraph description of the overall plot, a couple of scattered ideas for scenes, with dialogue between nameless characters. I'm waiting for something to really grab the hook and run: the right voice to tell the story in, the character who will assert themself as the hero (or Great Enemy), the scene that will really kick the whole thing off. So far, only the barest ripple on the water, the slightest movement of the hook to indicate that something might be nibbling. But I think there's something there, just beneath the water. I hope it's a big one.


How do you get yourself into a new writing project?

 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Finally

It finally happened.

On Saturday morning, after inserting and feathering in an 810-word sequence, I sent off my manuscript to that "one more reader." I kind of wanted to feel like Rocky running up the steps while training; I felt more like these two guys:

I'm not sure which one's the manuscript and which one's me!

It's amazing how tiring it is, isn't it?

So, for reasons I can't explain, I do keep stats on this sort of thing. As I have stated, when I started the revision process way too long ago, I had a 138,000-word, 426-page monster on my hands. My revision process this time was to start with a blank page on the screen, and marked-up, printed pages on the desk in front of me. I copied off the printed pages. When I finished that version, I was down to 124,000 words, 415 pages. Better. Not ideal, but I thought I might be able to live with it. My spell check run through netted six words cut, but added two pages. Location is everything. Over the next three weeks, I went back through and tightened and trimmed (and added). The result is what I hope is a sufficiently-sleek beast, standing in at 119,500 words and 'just' 402 pages. I am happy with it right now.

On Sunday, I started noodling a bit, chewing a little over an old idea that might just be able to have new life. I opened a new document, asked myself some story questions, even wrote something of a scene. Will it go anywhere? I don't know yet. I hope so. Also on Sunday, I spent some time resurrecting the query letter for my now out-of-my-hands manuscript. Query lettering is hard. Ugh. The good news is I'm off all week, so I might have time to make some headway on both.

This and that

*John Oliver's Last Week Tonight continues to be one of the best things on television. Last night's piece on authoritarianism, like the best segments on that show, is funny, timely, and scary. The world has been shifting in an uncomfortable direction for some time. It used to be, America at least made a show of standing up to strongmen and standing up for freedom (when we weren't selling them arms or propping them up in the name of strategic interests, that is). That time now seems to be over. If you haven't seen the segment, you can find it here.

*I'm not sure what it is, but over the last week or so I've had unusually vivid dreams, and been remembering them more than usual (or remembering that I had them; aside from one in which I was being chased around a lake by a small snapping turtle, most of the rest are really kind of fuzzy). At least they're not nightmares.

*The Catbird comes home tomorrow. It will be nice to have everyone here for a short time.

*At the grocery store yesterday, while wandering up the cereal aisle, I realized they were playing Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?" I thought, "This is grocery store music now???" Especially because I'm pretty sure he says, "I want to fuck you" through his guitar talk box at one point. If you're a certain age, that album was pretty inescapable. Still is, on a lot of classic rock stations (and, apparently, in grocery stores).

*Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States. Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans, have a great week to all!






Monday, November 12, 2018

Almost there

I'll admit it, I'm a little disappointed in myself.

I was hoping to be done by now, but when I finished working on The Weighty Tome yesterday, I was on page 376 of what is now just 400 manuscript pages. So close! But I had put probably close to four hours in over the course of the day (it occurs to me I might want to log my hours on these projects, because why not?), and when last night's Bruins game was over, I couldn't go back to it, even though there were still a couple of hours left in the day. I just didn't have anything left in the tank, and I've learned not to force it when that's the case.

It's funny how you get to a point in the day when you're just done, isn't it? When I'm running hot on writing, I can interrupt myself to go to the bathroom or get something to eat, but rarely does that interruption really break my flow. I can come back a few minutes later and get back into it pretty easily. But when I'm done, I'm done, and walking away for a few hours doesn't do the trick. There's just nothing there until the next day.

So, I sit on the cusp of 'finishing' this manuscript again (though I know I have to go back to a point somewhere in the middle and add a tiny bit), but am just not quite there. And November is half over which means it's really WAY to late, because I'm getting to a point where I would have to average over 2500 words a day to 'win', and that's too much. And that's also okay. As much as it would be nice to join the NaNo masses, everything has its own time and the next project will come about on the schedule it needs.

Disappointed? A little. But I also know enough to listen to myself.

How about you? Can you push through those moments when you're 'done', and how does that work for you?

***

One note: the Bruins had a good weekend, winning both games after turning in a horrible performance against Vancouver. The fans are very skittish this year, which I think is a product of the team being unexpectedly good last year. Funny how that happens.

Second note: I really screwed myself by posting that "McCafferty's Bib" song by They Might Be Giants last week. I can't get it out of my head! I think it's because I can't get the melody and lyrics to match up quite right, no matter how many times I listen to it. Help!

Third note: Yesterday was Veterans Day here in the US, so let me take this moment to express my gratitude and appreciation to all our veterans. Thank you for what you do.

***

Monday, November 5, 2018

More Revising

Hoorah, hoorah! Two weeks ago, I finally reached the last page of my WiP! When I pushed back from my desk two Mondays ago, I had cut some 14,000 words from my bloated epic. Perhaps more important than pure word and page count, I was also able, I think, to shorten the 'ramp up' time in my story. Two of my trusted readers told me they didn't get really interested in things until between 40 and 60% of the way in, and that's way too far in to make readers wait.

At the time I 'finished,' I had been thinking I'd send it out to another couple of readers by the end of the month. During the time they have it, I'd get back to work on the query and redo my synopsis, with the goal of sending it out either late this year or early next. Also, I thought I just might actually be able to ~gasp~ do another NaNoWriMo. An old idea of mine has been starting to kick up a bit of a fuss in the back room lately, and, given the way things are in the world right now, it seems topical. For the first time in a few years, the timing for NaNo looked like it might actually work out.

Three days after 'finishing,' I had the day off of work and sat down with the manuscript and ran spellcheck. Rather than use features like 'Change all' or 'Ignore All' (the grammar checker in particular has no understanding of nuance, artistic license, or even grammar), I looked at each highlighted word, each flagged sentence, even though my eyes wanted to roll up in my head. Miracle of miracles, when I was done, I had managed to reduce six words from the total (but, strangely enough, I had added two manuscript pages--location is everything).

And, of course, I discovered a bunch of things that needed to be fixed.

This is how it goes, isn't it? We tell ourselves we're ready, and then we find something else that needs fixing. On October 27 I went back to page one and started fast reading. I was aiming to do that sort of sentence-level tightening to pull extraneous words ('that' and 'just' tend to be big on extraneous usage), but I've also found enough 'big stuff' to fix that it makes me call into question my entire process! So, now I'm waiting to send this out to readers once again, my dream of having it off my plate by Halloween gone, and NaNo definitively on hold. The good news? I've already cut over 3000 words, which has shaved about ten manuscript pages off the whole thing, and I'm more than halfway through.

A recurring theme for me, indeed for any writer, is how hard it is to wait, and how often we have to do it. We're always waiting: for betas, for agents, for editors. We want to get on with it. We want our works out there in the world, to sink or swim on their own merits. But I've stayed my hand. Frankly, I was embarrassed when I saw the hot mess I subjected my betas to. They don't expect perfection, but they deserve better than what I gave them, and agents will need better.

Do you give in to the temptation to 'send,' or do you force yourself to make 'one more pass'?

***

Fun stuff

The same day I ran my fateful spellcheck, the Magpie and I drove a couple of hours to Ithaca to see They Might Be Giants in concert at the State Theater. My kids loved They Might Be Giants when they were little--really, why wouldn't any kid? They're quirky. They employ clever wordplay in their lyrics. They sing funny. And they use odd instrumentation. They are also far from a novelty act. The two hour plus show was a treat. TMBG is an energetic band on stage, with lots of funny banter and lots of great music. I was a little nervous about not knowing any of the songs (I only actually have the one album myself, 1990s Flood), they played widely from across their 30-year catalog, and I knew more than I thought. I recommend catching them if they come to your town on this tour (It's also nice to see a band in a 1600-seat theater as opposed to a hockey rink or football stadium). So, here are two selections from TMBG for your listening pleasure: 1990's "Whistling in the Dark" (which seems appropriate to our current times) and "McCafferty's Bib" from their newest album, I Like Fun.