Monday, June 27, 2011

Move Along, Folks...

...there's nothing to see here.

Some days, you just don't have much to say. Today is one of those days. It probably would have been better to post nothing, than to post something that says nothing. If you're unhappy that you've come all the way over here for this, my apologies. I'll do better on Friday. I hope.

This weekend saw me make some progress on my WiP. I'm somewhere around 2/3 through with the revisions. There have been a few substantial rewrites, and I think it's making it better. I hope that I'll be done soon, and then I can decide whether I need to run through it again or can start letting other people read it. I'm anxious to turn it over to others for feedback, but anxious about the results, as I've already stated in other posts.

One thing I'm finding interesting in this revision process, besides the nature of some of the changes, is the way the word count goes up and down. I started out at 317 pages and approximately 95,000 words. Right now it's 306 pages, 88,000 words, after approaching 90K sometime yesterday. It's funny to see this happen because I'm more aware of what I'm adding than what I'm taking away, though I recall gleefully making whole pages disappear.

That's about all I've got for now. Enjoy your day, enjoy your week, see you on Friday.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Genius at Work

“I feel that a straightforward statement of my original intent robs the listener of personal associations and replaces them with my own.” – Robert Hunter
My daughter’s class recently completed a unit centered on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As part of the unit each student interviewed a member of the community they admired, developed two pieces of artwork (which included films, paintings, sculptures, and photographs), a creative writing piece, and, finally, an interpretation/explanation of the artwork. A local gallery exhibited the work and they even staged an opening night event with music and food. It was a great night, and the students really seemed to enjoy themselves.

I had already seen my daughter’s artwork when she completed it, and I immediately picked up on a lot of the symbolism in it. At the exhibit I read her explanation and learned a lot more: why she chose the medium (colored pencils, which she hates); why the pencil lines are rougher in one of the pictures than the other; why she chose to leave faces unfinished in one part of her picture. When I told her I liked reading the explanation, she surprised me by telling me she thought explanations “cheapened” the work. Her preference is to leave it up to the viewer to interpret it themselves. Spoken like a true artist! (She did admit, however, that she liked reading her classmates’ interpretations of their work; she just didn’t like doing it for her own.)

My daughter’s words echo the sentiment expressed by Robert Hunter at the top of this post. Hunter is a poet, musician, and was chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He provided the above quote in response to an extended analysis of his song lyrics (the full text can be found here). Hunter recognized that there are as many ways to interpret song lyrics as there are listeners, and that every interpretation is valid. This applies to any creative piece, really.

I am fascinated with the creative process. I like to hear artists, writers, and musicians talk about what was going on in their minds when they wrote a story or piece of music, the effect they were going for when they mixed the sound in the studio or added a swirl of color to the painting. I'm a sucker for shows like Classic Albums or Behind the Music on VH1, not so much for the dirt -- who was sleeping with whom, how many bottles of vodka were consumed during the recording of this album -- but because it sheds light on how they did it (although I’m sometimes disappointed when someone says something along the lines of “Yeah, I wrote that song in about ten minutes, it was nothing.”). In the same vein I enjoy threads on Absolute Write where people talk about what inspired them to write a novel or story. It’s a window into the minds of others, a way to bring people closer together, and it gets me thinking about my own creativity.

Does interpreting the piece cheapen it, as my daughter stated? Not for me. I find it provides more depth to the piece than I originally experience, and gives me something more to think about. And thinking is never a bad thing, is it?

Monday, June 20, 2011


Another Monday. A bleary Monday. The wife had to run an event in town this weekend. It involved coordinating vendors and setting up a street fair (actually, a parking lot fair, but ‘street fair’ sounds much better) on Saturday. We had ourselves a nice, fourteen hour day. On Sunday we were back, this time she ran a parade. Since I’m married to her, I’m also married to her job. Let’s hear it for forced volunteerism! Woohoo!

There wasn’t much time for writing, and my brain was very much fried – I left a few blog comments and posts on Absolute Write Saturday night that I may look at today and think “Huh? I don't remember that!” I also skipped my Writer’s group Sunday. I hate to do that, but I was really tired, and didn’t think I could muster the energy needed to fight for a parking space in town; come up with anything remotely good in the group; or offer meaningful criticism of anyone’s work.

But I did manage to get a good two to three hours of writing done last night. Two thousand words possibly added to my novel, though it’s debatable whether it will end up in the book or not. I’ve written this before and it didn’t make it in the first official draft, yet it felt like it needed to be written again. We’ll see sometime this week if it makes the cut or not.

So, I got tagged on Friday. Carrie, at So You’re a Writer, tagged me in one of these little games bloggers play, sort of the blog equivalent of a chain letter, though without the promise of fabulous riches and good health for playing along, or the threat of disaster for not doing so. I appreciate being tagged, but I’m not really one for this stuff, to be honest. E-mails like this tend to die in my inbox. I’d much rather spend my time helping the former oil minister of Nigeria get his millions back. I once got one of those e-mails from Yassir Arafat’s widow! Yassir left her penniless, it seems. Scratch that, it was the chauvinist pigs in charge of Hamas and the PLO Palestinian Authority who refused to give it to her. It was quite the fortune. I hope she got what was rightfully hers.

Well, I suppose if I want to be part of the blogging world, I have to be a sport to some degree, so here goes:

Do you think you are hot?
I got a sunburn on the back of my legs this weekend, so I’m alternating between hot and cold.

Upload a pic or wallpaper you are using.
Okay, here’s a favorite. Absolute Writers in the readership will recognize it. This is Morty, the Turkey Vulture; living proof that beauty is both skin deep and in the eye of the beholder.

When was the last time you ate chicken?
Thursday. Chicken cutlets. I loves me some chicken cutlets.

What were you thinking while doing this?
See the fifth paragraph.

What song/songs have you listened to recently?
I listened to the Grateful Dead live at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, June 19, 1976, courtesy of the Live Music Archive. Three hours of vintage Dead is nice to groove to while writing.

Do you have any nicknames? What are they?
O. JeffO (or maybe it’s Jeff-O or jeffo, I’ve never been clear on the spelling). There are others, but that will do for now.

Tag five blogger buddies.
OK, I only have five blogger buddies, so I’m not going to do that. So, anyone who reads this and wants to do this, go ahead. Have fun. I won’t put any pressure on you.

I suppose that wasn’t so bad. Have a happy and productive week, all.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Shadow Man

A few days before I launched this blog, I woke up screaming from a nightmare for the first time in years.

In the dream I stood on a small ladder, my head stuck through a small hatchway as I inspected my attic. In typical dream fashion, it only looked a little like my real attic, and, in typical dream fashion, it’s perfectly normal to accept unfamiliar places as your own. I don’t remember why dream me was inspecting dream attic; given real life that week, I could have been looking for leaks.

So, there I stood, head, shoulders and one arm (that was all I could fit) through the hatch, sweeping a flashlight around, when I heard the thump-thump of running feet. I caught a glimpse of a pygmy-sized, shadowy figure running along the outer edge of the room. The Shadow Man.

The figure was charcoal gray, no features visible at all beyond shape. Stuck as I was on the ladder, my mobility was quite limited. I tried to turn to follow the shadow man, but I couldn’t keep up with it and it disappeared behind some inner structure of the attic.

I didn’t feel the sort of instant dread you get in a horror movie or novel at the sight of the Shadow Man, but I was a little freaked out nonetheless. Who was it? What was it?  And why was it running around in my attic? I also had a strange fear that it would somehow squeeze past me and get out of the attic, and I did not want that. Given the size of the hatch, that wasn’t likely, but dreams have a way of making the irrational rational.

I started calling for my wife, who was somewhere in the house. My voice worked, but it was sort of croaky, and I didn’t think it would carry well. I called her, three, maybe four times, louder each time, trying to project my voice down through the hatchway while simultaneously looking for Shadow Man, whose footsteps now came from behind me.

And then it touched me on the neck, and I screamed. For real.

I woke up, found it was 2:15 in the morning, and I’d managed to wake up my wife. She was probably the one that touched me on the neck, in fact, because real me was calling her at the same time that dream me was. Fortunately, the dream did not disappear on contact with the waking world like cotton candy in a mouth. I was able to tell my wife about it, and felt the residual chill on my neck as I did so.

My oldest daughter said I should go to one of those dream analysts and find out what it means. I told her I could do that myself easily enough.

The attic likely represents my mind, my brain, and I’m poking around in it. The Shadow Man is some part of my subconscious, someone or something that’s been running around up there. I want to check it out, but I’m afraid of turning that piece of myself loose, of letting it out, of letting others see it.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I had this dream when I did. First, I was preparing to launch this blog; preparing to reveal a part of myself to anyone who was willing to follow the link and read what I put up here. Despite this blog, despite the fact I’m willing to use my real name, and write books and stories for people to read (again, using my real name, which is not a super-common one), I am a very private person. I’m not going to be spilling the dirt on my friends and relations through this blog, or Facebook or Twitter or anything. The dream represents a certain fear of letting myself out for the world to see.

Second, the dream happened just before I started re-reading my novel. Re-reading is the first step to rewriting, after which should follow the part where I let the novel out for others to read. There’s no question I’m nervous about that, and it wasn’t just a fear that I would discover my novel was really bad. It’s the fear of what others will think.

I don’t mean that others will think it’s bad. They might, but that's not what's really bothering me to the point of making Shadow Men in my dreams. No, the bigger worry is they’ll  read through it and start to wonder: Is this character Jeff? Does he really think like that? Is this character me? It sounds kind of like me. That bastard! They’ll wonder where this stuff came from, and what it says about me. "Who," my wife will wonder, "is that female MC, and should I be worried?"

I know they will, too, because I do it myself. Or at least I used to until I started writing in earnest this year. I would say, “That Stephen King is one sick fuck.” Or I’d listen to Pink Floyd and wonder, "What the hell is wrong with Roger Waters? He must have had one messed-up childhood!" It’s hard not to do; it can be quite hard to separate the author from work.

I don't think that way as much anymore because I know better. Yes, there's a little (or maybe a lot) bit of the writer in every story, but I also know there are multiple jumping-off points. Maybe this story has elements from a real-life experience, but there's a point at which imagination takes over and turns it into something else entirely. Having cobbled bits of reality and fantasy together to make stories, I'm much more aware of the distinction, much more likely to cut writers slack.

But my family? They don't quite understand this, not yet. My wife read a section from near the end of my novel. She liked it, but found it ‘disturbing.’ She and my kids read one of my short stories. They all kind of looked at me funny afterwards. I tell them that it’s made up, that I don’t always know where it comes from; they nod and tell me they understand, but I know that they don’t quite get it. “It’s not me,” I want to say, “it’s the Shadow Man. He’s the one digging this stuff out.”

They’d better get used to him, because he’s not going away.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Grinding Away

I continued to make headway on my novel over the weekend. I’m approximately 80 pages into the revision work, and now we’re in the sticky part. The first 70 pages or so went well. I was happy with the changes I’ve been making. More importantly, I’m largely happy with my original writing. Oh, there are some big gaffes here and there, but the story as a whole feels good: things are hanging together pretty well; I’m happy with the ‘Voice’ of the novel; and I feel like it’s flowed pretty well. I’ve added sections and segments, and even a possible whole, new chapter, yet I’ve also managed to trim a couple thousand words. So far, so good.

Yesterday I came to a screeching halt.

I was brought short by a chapter that didn’t seem to do anything.

This is A Very Bad Thing.

I spent a lot of time yesterday morning going over the chapter, trying to figure out how to make it Do Something. And I came up empty. There are things in it that I like, things I think are important in terms of the development of the main character and his love interest. That’s why I wrote this chapter. Yet, my overwhelming sense of the chapter is that it didn’t do anything, and I really couldn’t seem to fix it.

I don’t think this was a case of me being afraid to ‘kill my darlings’ as They say. I’ve been pretty good about chopping stuff. Whole paragraphs and sections have gone wherever it is that letters and words go when you hit that ‘Delete’ key. Paragraphs and whole sections I liked and admired disappeared into the vapors at the touch of a button. I’m not afraid to cut. No, the big concern is that I was so stymied in my efforts to fix the chapter. Even if I did axe the whole thing, I was coming up empty on my efforts to put something new in there that would actually do what I wanted.

I think maybe it was something in the air yesterday. At my Writer’s Circle I spent an hour chasing something that I could not quite grab hold of. I squeaked out one paragraph (not related to my novel), that’s it. I had an idea of the concept, but just couldn’t manage to run it down and get it to paper. And I wasn’t the only one in that state yesterday. No one in my group was overly happy with what they wrote yesterday. I guess it was just one of those days.

The funk continued for me this morning. I was still stuck; still not sure how to either salvage what was already written, or what to put in its place. And then I had a single idea, grabbed my notebook and jotted some words down while I made coffee, and the single words turned into sentences that flowed out into a paragraph or two. It was enough to prime the pump. I’ve now managed a complete rewrite of the offending chapter, and I think it works. As I write this the pages sit on the printer tray, waiting for me to pick through them with my pen. They’re not quite ready to get dropped into the middle of my book just yet (and the darlings I’ve been holding out hope for are not in this new version at all; looks like they’re goners) and it may take the rest of the day and part of tomorrow for me to really make it work, but I think this crisis maybe be over. Thank goodness for that.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Name Game

It must be something in the air; or in the electrons. There’s no other explanation.

Last week, while thinking about future posts for this blog, I was thinking about names; specifically, my difficulty in coming up with them. Imagine my surprise to read these two posts this week, plus this thread on Absolute Write. We must all be drinking the same Kool-Aid.

My problem not with naming characters and places. I may cast about a bit, looking for something that's just exactly right, but I don't agonize too much over it. I find something that seems right, start using it, and it either sticks or transforms to something else within a few paragraphs or pages. I may really like the original name, but I end up using what ultimately trips most naturally off my fingertips as I type. No, my big problem with names is what I name my stories. I have a problem with titles.

My 'first story' (it's the first one I remember; I'm sure I wrote others, but this is the one that launched my dreams of being a writer) was called – get this – The House of Evil. Horrible, isn't it? It was about four young people who found themselves at an old house where an evil scientist was doing evil scientist things. I found the story when we were cleaning out my parents' house. My mother kept it for thirty years. That makes me want to cry for two different reasons. Perhaps I will share that story here one day. I can't quite bring myself to burn it. Yet.

The only other story from those days that I remember having a title for was something my  best friend at the time and I were working on together, before we decided we were going to do something else with our lives. That one was called The Assassin's Coffin. I don't remember much about the story, except that it involved a killer who drove a hearse and used a coffin in his killings somehow. Ah, the imagination of pre-teen boys. Title-wise, I think it's a step up from The House of Evil.

Titles became a problem in my professional life, too. I worked for a number of years in the education department at the Central Park Conservancy. Every couple of years someone higher up the organizational food chain came up with a new vision for the department, forcing us to either:

a)      design a whole new set of programs to fit the new vision, or
b)      repackage everything so it looked shiny and new.

Either way, we ended up having to come up with a bunch of new program titles for brochures and the website. Sure, what we were doing was nothing more than an hour and a half long study of pond life, but we really wanted to come up with something sexier title "Pond Study." Not very exciting, though I suppose it told everyone pretty much what the program was about, which is exactly what a name should do. One year we were looking to jazz up the names a bit. I suggested we rename our Invertebrates program "Some go Crunch," since the reaction of most city people when they see a 'bug' is to step on it. Not surprisingly, it got vetoed. I think we ended up sticking with just plain old "Invertebrates." Blah.

Book and story titles give me the opportunity to be more creative than my bosses at Central Park, but it's still important that the title relates in some way to the story. You can't go off the rails with a book title the way you can for a song or a painting, especially if you're a new author. It’s all well and good for Bob Dylan to title a song Subterranean Homesick Blues, but a novel? What do you think it would be about, a homeless guy living in the New York City subway, pining for his old life back in Omaha? Coal miners, maybe? A title is important for catching the eye, but how will people react if they pull your novel, Pirates of the Caribbean, off the shelf and discover it's about wildcatters in Alberta? They're expecting a book on pirates, so it's probably going back up on the shelf.

I've got four novels in various stages of completion. Only one of them has a title, and I'm not all that happy with it (the title, that is; I'm still largely happy with the novel). When I posted a snippet from it on Absolute Write way back in February, I called it Lives in Parallel. Shortly thereafter, I started thinking of it as Parallel Lives. When I printed my first draft in April, I tacked on a cover sheet with the name Converging Parallels. Now I'm leaning back toward Parallel Lives. In truth, I really don't know what I'm going to call it, but I expect the word 'parallel' is going to be involved in there somewhere. If it ever gets to the point of being published, someone is likely to change it, anyway. I hope whoever does that does a better job than I did. And yet, the notion of parallel lives, or lives in parallel (and even the impossible 'converging parallels') makes sense in the context of the story and the novel’s construction. And that's probably why I have it running through my head. I suppose if my story really suggested a title like Subterranean Homesick Blues (or that other Dylan classic, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), I'd try to run with that.

The other three novels, even the completed NaNoWriMo draft, don't have titles to this point, and I think I know why. Each of the three has a story line. In two of the three cases I have an endpoint in mind; that is, I know roughly how I expect it to end (in the case of NaNo, I actually know how it ended). Yet what's missing for me is a real sense of what those books are about. They’re not as fleshed-out thematically as Parallel Lives. Even the NaNo, complete though it may be, was so rushed, the ending so forced, that I never got a real strong sense of what it is. The other two are just not far enough along for me to really know what they're about beyond a broad plot outline.

I don't have problems titling my short stories, but maybe that’s no surprise. The names for my short stories float to the surface like fish in a polluted lake; I often have a title before I've even finished writing my first draft. I expect it's because it's much more evident what the short story is about. Short stories get to the point much faster than novels (and blog posts). The theme, the 'what it's all about,' is easier to grab hold of in a short story. Often, there's one phrase in my short stories that resonates with me in such a way that it suggests itself for a title. The novels like to keep their secrets.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go work on next week's blog post. We'll see if I get trumped again. Have a pleasant weekend.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Weekend Update

Not too much happened on the writing front over the weekend. We left Thursday afternoon for my brother-in-law’s house and returned yesterday. Through the magic of blogger I pre-wrote Friday’s entry on Wednesday and set it up to post Friday morning. Ah, the wonderful world of technology!

I brought my notebook with me, in the event I had some time and inspiration. Indeed, a five-hour drive does provide plenty of thinking time. No matter how much a family of four has to say to each other, you’re not going to fill up five hours of driving with constant conversation, so there was some good turnover time in my mind. I’m quite glad I finished my read-through before we left.

During a normal week at home I typically get up around 5:30 or so, which gives me about an hour before anyone else gets up to read blogs, catch up on AW, go through e-mail, pound a couple of cups of coffee and the like. For most of our visit I was getting up between seven and eight (ah, blackout curtains!). My sister-in-law and I were on roughly the same sort of schedule, getting up within about twenty minutes or so of each other. I wasn’t going to be a rude guest and bury my nose in a notebook so it was socializing time pretty much from the start of each day. But Sunday, that was nice.

I woke around 5:15 and found my mind quite occupied with my book, specifically a key scene near the end. While I lay in bed the scene played out in my head.* I sort of saw it happening while I heard simultaneous narration. Do any of you write like this? I stayed in bed for about twenty minutes letting this play out, then I got up, grabbed my notebook, went down to the kitchen and managed to write it. Last night, after we’d been home for a while, I typed it up, making some changes along the way. It’s a mere 850 words and it definitely needs some work, but it fits. Best of all, I had come to the conclusion that my main character didn’t really exhibit any outward manifestation of changes that I wanted to occur. With this change to the scene, he does, and they make sense.

And so, now I’m back and really ready to get to work. I have a lot of notes to go through, a lot of changes to consider, a lot of rewriting to do, but the break charged me up and I’m raring to go.

*I checked this against Maryn's excellent thread on AW. I think this is grammatically correct, but man, does it look wrong!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Reading, Part II

On Wednesday I finished the first read-through of my novel. It took longer than expected. I got almost halfway through it in a single day; it turned into more of a slog after that. I’m happy to say that it wasn’t slow-going because I had to vomit into a bucket every page or two. No, I didn’t hate my words, didn’t hate my story, and I didn’t try to rewrite it all while reading. It’s just a slow process and life turned busier over the last four/five days.

Before I started the reading I imagined I’d breeze through it as if it were someone else’s book, something pulled off the bookshelf at Barnes & Noble or the local library. Then I’d sit back, puff my pipe, stroke my chin, and say “Hmmm” and “I see” in a professorial manner. I’d let it float around my brain for a few days and then it would all become clear: I’d know how to make the shiny parts shinier and the broken parts healthy. And then I’d start rewriting and have a beautifully polished manuscript for someone to read.

In that imaginary world, the minor things – spelling errors, double periods, and the like – were to be ignored on the first run through. My goal was to focus on the world, the story, the characters. Is it exciting? Are the stakes high enough? Does enough happen? Does it make sense? Forget the minor nitty stuff, I’ll catch it on the next run through.

That lasted until page 2, when I hit my first typo (I’m shocked I made it that far without one!). I found that I couldn’t ignore them, and it really didn’t make sense to ignore them, anyway. Still, the thing that really slowed me down was the constant note making. In the manuscript itself, there are x’s, dashes, words scribbled down, brackets, cross outs and my new favorite, the asterisk. And there’s a notepad with eighteen double-sided pages of notes about the novel, things that wouldn’t quite fit in the margins of the manuscript. Everything from ‘p. 4 tense is/was’ to my personal favorite: ‘p. 142 – NOPE, NOPE AND NOPE again.’ I can’t remember just what was so wrong on page 142, but it must have been a whopper.

The next step for me is to go back and reconcile all the notes in my notepad with things in the manuscript (and to decipher my chickenscratch handwriting). We’re going away for the weekend so I’m not going to have much opportunity to do anything on this at all, but it’s a good time for the professor in my head smoke his pipe, stroke his chin and say “hmm” and “yessss” and “I see.” With any luck he’ll come up with some good insights that will let me attack the problems in my manuscript and turn ‘NOPE, NOPE AND NOPE again’ into ‘YES, YES, AND YES again.’