A critter in her habitat

The article that led me to this whole getting-up-early thing suggests changing your schedule incrementally, going to bed and getting up a few minutes earlier, getting used to that, and then edging it back a little further.  In this spirit I got up at 5:45 a.m. this morning.  I am surprised at my success thus far.

It also recommended putting the alarm clock on the other side of the room.  That has made all the difference.

This morning has been spent working on an overdue crit for a friend.  Reading each other's work is an interesting challenge, because neither of us typically read the genre that the other writes in.  The story I'm reading is a mystery in first person, with a narrator who has a very hard-boiled voice.  I don't really know what one can and can't get away with in that form, so I'm afraid I'm going to give bad advice.  But we've all received crits where we knew the critiquer was simply wrong — well-intentioned, but wrong.  I'm sure he'll weigh his own expertise in his genre against my notes.

The FM folks (Clam and Camilla especially) might remember a crit I had a couple of years ago that resulted in the most painful edit of my life.  It was a fantasy short story about a dryad.  The guy led with “When I read the first paragraph and it was set in a baroque setting I thought it was going to be about vampires.”  Three pages later he added, “I still want vampires.”  This should have tipped me off that this was not the guy to listen to.  But the carrot in front of me was that he was friends with an agent I particularly liked, and he said that if I made these changes he would make sure it ended up on the agent's desk.  So I tried to shoehorn his suggestions in.  

That guy may have been a great critter of another type of fiction, but he didn't read spec fic (and said so.)  His exposure was limited to Anne Rice.  When I didn't produce that, he wanted me to write a different story.  

I went to Forward Motion, kicked, screamed, snippeted bits into chat where he wanted something that I just couldn't choke down.  Usually the FM folks were on my side.

Never again.  I had to undo almost everything I did in that edit, because the guy was just plain wrong.  Now when I get a comment that I strongly disagree with, first I check my ego to make sure that it's not just resistance to being told that I'm wrong.  If, after that, the gut still says 'no,' I listen.

By contrast, though, Mike V. (whose story I'm reading now) is not a sci-fi reader, and because of that he was able to point out some very serious flaws in one of my stories, flaws that all of the spec fic readers I've shown it to have blown right past.

Time to get everyone up.  Have a great day, all. 

This is almost a habit

I am on a roll.  Not so many words this morning, only 280, but that's still more than a page, and they were not easy words.  I am satisfied.  

My youngest daughter starts kindergarten this morning.  I do not yet feel weepy, but that is subject to change without notice.

Not much of a post this morning, but there's a better one coming.  

Let's all have a good day.  

Good morning

Woot!  I'm up, and I have written.  415 words, in fact, and I know what happens next.  I am closing in on the end of a story that I read at the conference.  I think I'm about 800 words away.

It is said that Hemingway wrote 400 words a day.  Holly Lisle writes 6000, and that could do a bit of damage to one's self-esteem, but Cory Doctorow has pointed out that writing 250 a day will produce a full-length novel in a year.    

Off to wake children and get the household moving.  The day is off to a good start.  

Beginnings, middles, and ends.

I suck at beginnings.  My god, do I suck at them.  I cannot seem to crack the code on this one.  I read the beginnings of the stories I love and I marvel at them.  I see what the author did, how they sank us in at the crucial moment and delivered just the right amount of information to put us firmly in the story instantly.  I just can't seem to do it myself.

I went back over a couple of stories I had worked myself to the bone on a while back, and had even done a fair round of submissions/rejections on.  The middles and ends are not bad.  The beginnings suck.

So I'm going to just accept the fact that I'm the remedial kid in this area and study.  I have a book on my shelf for exactly this purpose, appropriately titled Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.  I will consult it and see if I can't fix these things.  One of these older stories is important to me, and I am reasonably certain that it's the first page that's killing it.  The first page, of course, is the most important one.  I've had the occasional editor read past it and give me notes on the rest of the it, but when I read it today it's page One that makes me flinch.

Oh, and that 6:00 a.m. thing was great for a day, then the weekend happened, and I don't think that really counts.  We'll see how it goes this week.  My target is actually 5:00 a.m. — when the girls go back to school and our new housemate/ Helmsman/ Love of my Life arrives, much of the extra time I gain will be lost in the whirlwind of getting everyone prepared for the day.

I'm experiencing my own story right now, one that began thirteen years ago with a beginning that didn't suck at all.  It started in media res, with the protagonists right at the crucial moment of change.  I know I've said I'm going to keep this blog focused, but frankly it's hard to focus when there are six weeks in between visits with Patrick and one of them is approaching in twelve days.  Also, it's the last one.  The next time he's here it will be for much more than a visit.

The middle of this story has been at times brutally unpleasant, often meandering, and for a time we lost the narrative thread entirely.  We seem to be closing in on a satisfying ending.

And the best endings, I think, are really beginnings in disguise. 

Yawn, stretch.

It is 6:00 a.m. and I am up.

This is unheard of.

It's a change I've been wanting to make for a while, and it's only the first successful attempt so far.  But I have not been the least bit productive or useful at night lately, and I have these goals that are just not getting accomplished.  So I'm up.

The sky is still lightening — it's actually clear, which is pretty amazing given my hometown's tendency to be socked in by fog pretty much daily.  I have my half-caff brewing and now it's just a matter of what task I'm going to tackle for the next hour.  I am torn between the crit that I owe and getting a little of my own writing done.  Perhaps I'll do a bit of both.  

I'll report back.

When I wake up I know I'm going to be…

My readership is much better read than I am.  I've had two people — Finn (di di) and Somebody post about the Last Camel issue.  Clearly I need to do some reading.  Thank you both for weighing in.

John Gardner's The Art of Fiction has been on my book shelf for at least five years.

Okay. Weird.  Seconds after I typed that another anonymous Somebody posted a quote from that very book in the comments on my last post. 

So.  As I was saying.

I've had it for years.  I tried to read it once, but I got annoyed with it early on and quit for reasons that I couldn't quite recall until last night.  I have so many books on writing, many of which have been and will continue to be very valuable to me, but this one kept getting mentioned at the conference, so I figured I'd best pull it off the shelf.  I decided that I will read this book, and I will blog about it.  

I started it two nights ago.  I got to page 'x' and remembered why I had put it down.  It was this:

“Whatever is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists.”

Five years ago I think my internal dialogue went something like “Bite me.”  Not so much, today.  Today it produced a series of questions.  

Is that what I want to be?  A “serious literary artist?”  

I'm not sure.  

Who are my heroes?  Who do I want to emulate?  Those are easy questions to answer:  GaimanBradburyAdamsEllisonCard.  They are, hands down, my heroes, the pinnacle of what I aspire to.  But are they “serious literary artists?”

What leaps to mind is an episode of “Inside the Actor's Studio” with Mike Meyer.  Do you remember it?  He said something that changed my attitude toward every form of art there is, up to and including the art of fiction.  He said (and forgive me if I paraphrase slightly due to my notoriously porous memory): 

“There is no high art, there is no low art.  There's just art.”

I think that I fundamentally agree with this position.  It's “Austin Powers” vs. “Citizen Kane.”  Arthur Dent vs. Jean Valjean.  Michelangelo vs. Mark Ryden.

I do not think that Douglas Adams would normally be considered a serious literary artist, and perhaps neither would his forebear, P.G. Wodehouse.  But in my view, comic art is no less important than “serious” art.  Art of all kinds describes and reflects the human condition.  Sometimes it pushes boundaries, sometimes it shines a spotlight on our darkest traits, and sometimes it makes the intolerable tolerable. 

So what do I want to be?  

I want to be competent.  I want to have the skills required to tell the stories in my head and heart, whether or not they are considered “serious literary art” by anyone or not.   Whether or not I am ever one of “the elite.”

I'm not closing the book this time.  I am certain that I have much to learn from it.  It's certainly got me thinking already.  But I suspect that I am one of the “others” that Gardner mentions.  

I'm comfortable with that.

So.  What do you want to be?

Just a passing phase

Okay, so now my confidence is in tatters.  It was bound to happen.  Sol reminds me that I'm tired, and therefore should not draw any sweeping conclusions from my current mental state.

I got back a crit on a story that I have worked very hard on and I thought was almost there, and having read my friend's comments I know that it is just undeniably not.  And I don't know if I have what it will take to fix it.  I don't know if I should try to fix it.  The problem of diminishing returns occurs to me. 

I can take critique.  That's not the issue.  The issue is that this one has been through critique multiple times already, and I believe that it is very, very close to as good as my skills can get it at this time.  And that is not good enough.   

I'm going to stop whining now and go watch the DVD of Ray Bradbury speaking at the conference.  Ray always helps.  

And I'll try again tomorrow.

Immersion

So I tacked the first two pages back onto 'Habitat,' incorporated Matt's edits, marveled at his ability to turn a wimpy sentence into a powerful one, and fired the results off to a new friend for review.  I think I can carry what Matt did forward.  I can't believe how much I've forgotten over the past couple of years.

In other news, it is very possible that I may get to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame at the end of the year.  I was a charter member, having read about it on slashdot before it opened, and just had to support it in principle even though I live nowhere near it and wouldn't likely get there any time soon.  We have this reunion of old friends happening the last week of 2007 and one of the tentative agenda items is the museum.  Even though it's months away I'm still incredibly excited at the prospect.  It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, and the idea of doing it with Sol, Bri, and Finn (and maybe J) is just about as good as it can get.  (Maridius, we'll have to connect when I'm there!)

The novel is in a binder now, and I've tacked up a bunch of cheat sheets on writing in the kitchen, along with a few notes and reference pictures specific to the novel.  I'm trying to surround myself with the story.  I still need to get these other three shorts off my desk before I really apply myself.  My personal deadline for the shorts is whenever Patrick gets here, because let's face it, I'm not going to be able to think about much else for what we've agreed is a period of no less than two weeks.  :)  

I need to get back to FM.  I know I keep saying that, and not doing it.  But I need writers, and there are some good ones over there.  Maybe I'll drop in tonight and say hi. 

The last camel died at dawn.

So Matt Pallamary gives “The last camel died at dawn” as an example of a first sentence that does a metric shitload of work, and I'm still reeling.  

I mean, look at it.  Six words, and we know at least this much:

Camels live in the desert, therefore our setting is the desert.  It's the last, so there were at one time more of them.  One or more camels have already died.  Since this *is* the first sentence, these camels must have been damned important, and the conditions the camels and the humans associated with them are in must be dire.  We are in *somebody's* POV, and that somebody was around to see it die, and they are, in a word, fucked.

That is one damn good first sentence.

For what it's worth, I can't actually attribute it as a first sentence —  the nearest I've found is The Last Camel Died At Noon, by Elizabeth Peters.  I have no idea whether or not it's actually the first sentence of the book.  I also may have written it down wrong during the workshop.  

The inherent lesson remains.

This is on my mind.  I have this story I need to send out at the end of the week and frankly my first sentence sucks.  I'm working on it.  I will probably never acheive Camel Status but I'm going to apply myself to the problem. 

Day Five, SBWC

I'm at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for my fourth year in a row.  I'm rooming with Dallas Woodburn this year, who is both a gifted writer and an extremely tolerant roommate. She's currently finishing her dinner (at 11:15 p.m. — it is Conference Week) while I type this up.

SBWC is a week-long conference, which I'm given to understand is pretty exceptional.  We have a great faculty, and there seems to be something for everyone.  My cousin discovered the poetry workshop today and she was so happy she actually cried.  Personally, I count Matt Pallamary's 'Phantastic Fiction' workshop as Home Base, and have since I started attending.  This year I added Lisa Lenard-Cook's afternoon workshop on Revision.  I'm also a volunteer, so I get to do some work for the conference as well, which I truly enjoy.  I love being a part of this thing.

And next year will be even better, because Patrick will be here, and we will do the conference together.  Along with everything else.

It is the fifth day of the conference, and everyone is getting tired.  I didn't workshop at all today, opting instead for poking at the keys a bit, trying to finish a short story I started around this time last year.  I have three short stories I need to get off my plate and into the mail so that I can turn my attention to my 2005 NaNovel, which actually says “The End” on the last page and could use a year's worth of work before I even run it through a crit.  That's this year's goal, though, getting that piece into a crittable state.

A lot of people are leaving tomorrow morning — today was Agents Day, the day on which people can spend 15 minutes with one or more agents, pitching a book or picking a brain.  Many people only come for this opportunity, and when it's over, they go home.  Which is kind of a shame — there are two more days of workshops that they could attend, six more chances to make their work better.  

I missed Ray Bradbury's talk this year, but it was recorded and I have the DVD.  I look forward to seeing it.  He reduced me to tears four years ago, the first time I heard him speak.  He is inspiring as both a writer and a human being.  

I've written a page today.  Only a page.  I'm rusty again — it takes so little time for that to happen, for my brain to lose its flexibility.  I need to get back to discipline.  It is tricky for me, as it is for all of us.  So many things require our attention, it is hard to know where to fit writing in.  I realize it can't fit into my nights anymore, so it's going to have to fit into my mornings.  This is going to require a major lifestyle adjustment.  But I am motivated.  

For now though, it's about time to sleep.  I've got workshops to attend tomorrow.  I want to get everything I can out of this week.  

In other news, tomorrow night I'm fulfilling a standing date made last year (one year ago tonight, actually) with Lisa and Fleet.  We had sushi downtown and made plans and predictions, some of which panned out and some of which didn't.  The plan for my writing did not, at least not in the way that we had intended.  But I'm satisfied by the way in which it did.

And lastly,  today I heard from an old friend, another member of the old AOL/IRC crew from Back In the Day.  It was great to hear from him (hi, Doug!)   He is also a writer.  Maybe I'll be able to convince him to attend SBWC in coming years, too. 

I hope that you're all well and happy.   Imma sleep now.

Cheers.