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.

Do you know where your towel is?

Douglas Adams changed my life several times, and always for the better.

I was introduced to the work of Douglas Adams (who I always think of as just “Douglas”) in 1987, by a friend of mine at boarding school. (Paul, you remember Carson?) She had Restaurant At the End of the Universe on an LP, and we listened to it every day in her room. We all have our dark days, and 1987 was full of them for me. But from that time forward the darkest of days could be mitigated a little bit by Douglas. I could open to any page in any one of the books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” and find a reason to smile. Before long you couldn't catch me without a tattered copy of Life, the Universe, and Everything somewhere on my person.

In 1988 I actually took to carrying a towel with me, in a blue duffel bag that I painted with the raspberry-issuing planets from the early paperback covers.

He taught me to love language, and he pushed me to learn to use the right words. I used to sit with one of his books open and a dictionary beside me —Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in particular, which I read shortly after it came out. Words like 'crenelated' and 'promontory' I learned from him. And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I would never have written a word of my own fiction without him.

In 2001 he lived in my home town. He was going to speak at the university there, on his book Last Chance to See, which I had never read.

I had something going on that night. Nothing I couldn't get out of. I thought: he lives here. He'll speak again.

He died shortly thereafter. That was, in fact, my last chance to see. I never got to meet him, even though he was right there. This, too, changed my life. I haven't been able to shrug off an opportunity the same way since.

It took me another five years to read Last Chance to See, and when I finally did, Douglas did it yet again. This time he made me cry as well as laugh, and the world has never looked the same. My understanding of my place in it changed. I learned how very small I am, and how beautiful and important our non-human neighbors are. I now buy multiple copies of it at a time, just so that I have them on hand to give to people.

Salmon of Doubt was published posthumously. In it are two or three chapters that cover why Douglas was what he called a “radical atheist,” by which, he explains, he means that he just really, really means it. In one of them, he speculates regarding why humans are so determined that the world is Ours, and not Theirs, and why we feel so special about everything.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”

And for the fifth time he changed my life, and this time he was dead when he did it.

May 25 is Towel Day, which may seem a little silly, but look who we're talking about here.

So tomorrow I'm going to do what I used to do in high school. There will be plenty of other people doing it, too. And maybe I'll pick up Last Chance to See, read a chapter on the Kakapo, and laugh, and a chapter on the Baiji dolphin, and cry.

And I will know where my towel is.

I miss you, Douglas. Thank you for everything.

Ugh.

Time is just not my friend right now.

But fortunately, my actual friends are forgiving.

I have fallen out of the practice of writing, haven't done a lick of work on any fiction in weeks, haven't submitted to my writers group in a month and will miss tonight's deadline as well because I'm about to go the hell to sleep.

And there is this story that *must* be done, in a matter of days. It is absolutely vital that it be in a tolerable state by June 1. This weekend, maybe? I don't know.

The conference is coming and I have to pull out my binder from last year and do some math, and email the right person, and then think about Merchandise for a couple of hours.

This weekend, maybe?

I've gone back to the Corporation and somehow that nine hour work day is really cramping my style. Though the paycheck is sure nice.

I owe two critiques, one to Ian and one to Sol, both of which are overdue (Ian's only by a week, Sol's by multiple months.)

Maybe this weekend.

When I have some writing experience to talk about, I'll post again. Until then…

*zzzzzzzz*