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.


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.


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…


Writers rule.

My writers group is so frigging cool.

Okay, both writers groups. ;) (I still consider you FM folks 'mine' even though I don't show up much anymore. But you're too awesome to let go of.)

Every other Wednesday I drive an hour to meet with three other writers in a coffee house and lovingly trash each other's work. I come home exhilerated, wanting to produce more. I look forward to it for the two weeks in between.

I've got The Novel to deal with, (now thoroughly demon-infested — the posse has adopted the Too Close to Home demon, and the Personal Transparency demon,) but I've set it aside in favor of getting a couple of other things finished. My self-esteem has suffered a lot over The Novel (it has a working title but I'm not totally comfortable with it yet) so I figured working on a short story where I'll get to write “The End” some time soon would be good for me. So my most recent submissions to the group have been two short stories — both of which remain incomplete (of course.)

“Most people can start a short story or a novel. If you're a writer, you can finish them. Finish enough of them, and you may be good enough to be publishable. Good luck.” – Neil Gaiman

Well, that explains a few things, doesn't it.

But the good news is that at least the second one seems to be working. My first drafts are clearly much, much better than they used to be — what a relief that is, to know that there's progress! My first drafts are looking the way my third drafts used to look. That feels good.

And working with such great people and great writers feels so good. It's really a bit miraculous — one of us started a Meetup group and the four of us showed up. We decided pretty quickly that we are a matched (or very complementarily mismatched) set and — in the 'if it ain't broke' spirit — shut down the Meetup group in favor of closing membership.

And they're gonna work the conference with me. Because they're just that awesome.

It feels good to be writing again. It feels good to be thinking about the conference.

It will feel really good to write “The End” on something soon.

More to come.



Duck alignment, take 2

So now it's time to do some spring cleaning, take out the metaphorical trash, and simplify. You know how it is when you go through a major change — it's hard to know where to focus, and sometimes too much energy gets put into things with zero return while other things fall through the cracks. And then there are consequences. Personal, financial, professional — it's all stuff that needs attention in appropriate amounts.

My friend Patrick pointed me to Getting Things Done by David Allen as the system that changed his life. It arrived today (in another Amazon book binge that also included The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction – Building Blocks, and A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror.) I'm only a chapter in and so far it makes perfect sense. Patrick also pointed me to Remember the Milk, a great (free!) tool which is proving very handy.

So. Ducks are still largely misaligned, and I have a couple of pressing deadlines now: End of March is when I need to have my income stabilized, and then the writers conference is coming up in June. I was |this| close to backing out but everyone in my writers group wants to volunteer, so I can't very well not do it, now, can I. :)

I'm working on a short story that has been languishing for some time; I was stuck again for a week but last night I kicked out a two page treatment that at least describes how to get from where it's at to the end. I'm hopeful. And then maybe I'll return to the novel. Or maybe not. It's still a Fiction Demon, for sure; but I figure as long as I'm working toward getting something finished I shouldn't beat myself up about it too much.

Happy thoughts to you and yours…


Applied Skepticism

I'm sorry, but this is really bothering me.

We're writers. We agree that plagiarism is a terrible thing. It's reprehensible. But given what I have read, I do not believe that this girl is plagiarising.

Why? The words are nearly identical, you may say. Yes, they are — but the skeptical mind must ask, are they all that *original*?

>>In The Princess Diaries, the following passage appears on page 12: “There isn't a single inch of me that hasn't been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturised. . . . Because I don't look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights.”

In Viswanathan's book, page 59 reads: “Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturised. I didn't look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn't own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat.”
<< I've written passages very similar to this in years past, and I've never read Cabot, nor do I plan to. It is not an original rhythm or idea. It's a common experience, in fact -- ask any young woman going to a prom, coming-out party, wedding, theatrical performance... I'll bet any number of them would describe the experience similarly, and if they were feeling jaunty, they'd even state it the same way. The example of the use of "a full-scale argument about animal rights" isn't a sign of plagiarism -- it's a sign of cliché. The most damning examples that journalists can find are all absolutely pedestrian ideas presented in a standard, competently formed paragraph. All of the other examples were a sentence or two, which can be easily attributed to unconsciously imitating style. (I still, in my weaker moments, find myself imitating Neil Gaiman's and Douglas Adams's styles. Does that make me a plagiarist?) Another example was a rhyme that Salman Rushdie used in a book, where he placed it on a wall as graffiti, and Ms. Viswanathan places one very similar on a poster. BFD, Mr. Rushdie. It's scenery. I think it's unfortunate that such a young woman should have her reputation smeared this way. Who, at nineteen, has an original thought? Of *course* she's regurgitating style -- but I do not believe she is consciously stealing. Do I think she deserved to be making truckloads of money? I know too many good writers who haven't been published at all yet to think so. But I don't think she needs to be dragged through the mud and utterly ruined this way. And this I find just plain stupid: >>Both Jack, the love interest in Kinsella's novel, and Sean, the romantic hero in Opal Mehta, have a scar on one hand and “eyes so dark they're almost black”. << Again, the supposedly damning quoted fragment is a cliché. Read Neil Gaiman's thoughts on the identical accusation that J.K. Rowling 'stole' Harry Potter from Gaiman's Timothy Hunter. And here's an interesting coincidence: the paper that broke *both* stories was The Scotsman, a publication I shall now avoid like the plague. (Wait, you've written “avoid like the plague” before, haven't you? I must have stolen it from you.)

This is probably more upsetting to me today than it normally would be because it smacks of scapegoatism, which this week I have a particular distaste for. But that's another post.

As writers we need to be careful about how we treat each other. I think there are two lessons in this: 1) Avoid cliché and 2) there is nothing new under the sun (which I should have avoided writing — like the plague — on the grounds that it's a cliché.)

No new tale to tell…

My latest Amazon Book Binge arrived today:

  • Self-Reliance and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • Biology: A Self-Teaching Guide, 2nd edition
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • Get Weird! 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work
  • Biology for Dummies
  • Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-On Help for Making Your Novel Stand Out and Succeed

I started on the workbook tonight, and just the first exercise has helped enormously. I have a new area of research to pursue and a new opening scene to write. Just thinking about who my heroes are and why was a mind-expanding process that I'm sure will go on for some time.

I really needed something like this to get me moving and thinking about the novel productively. I think only good things can come of going through the workbook. And I can't wait to sink my teeth into the Bio books. :)

Cogita Tute

This should be required reading for all humans. I've sent it to half a dozen people tonight, some who are struggling with what to do with their lives (like myself – most of us are in our mid-30s, still trying to figure that one out) and one or two who actually know and are doing something about it, but I thought they might get a boost out of it anyway.

With no further ado, I give you:

What You'll Wish You'd Known, by Paul Graham. Enjoy.

Art and Fandom

I've been working sporadically on an essay on the subject of Fandom for probably a year now. I still haven't quite cracked the nature of it to my satisfaction, but I got more fodder for it tonight.

I'm a “fan” of very few artists: two musicians (or groups of musicians) and two writers, (one of them dead.) I *admire* many more than that — in some cases admire them deeply — but only those four get inside me and make my heart swell and my vision go fuzzy. I only really lose myself in their work.

Tonight I had the opportunity to see a band called Lapdog play, in a relatively tiny venue, with a significantly limited crowd. Lapdog is the current project of Todd Nichols, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket. I've been a fan of TTWS, and specifically of Todd, since 1987, when I first saw them play in a little coffee house in Isla Vista, the student community outside the University of California at Santa Barbara.

What is it about a certain sound that just gets under your skin and transports you? Why this band, and not a million other bands? I don't know. But they got under my skin 19 years ago, and stayed there.

So tonight I sat about ten feet from the stage, dead center in front of Todd, and got to hear some of my favorite songs played live, and was introduced to a host of new material. It was intoxicating.

And I just can't figure out why that is.

What is the nature of fandom? It seems to me that one distinguishing feature is a sense of *importance.* The fan doesn't merely like or admire the artist (or their work – a distinction I'll have to explore) – the work is *important* in the fan's life. It adds a dimension. There's a relationship between the fan and the work.

I'll have to think about it some more. If I ever get that essay finished, I'll post it here. I certainly welcome your thoughts on the subject.


Edit: I completely forgot to mention that I got a new tattoo today. Hurt like a mf'r. Got it to cover the mess I made trying to give myself one in 11th grade art class. It's my third professional tattoo, and my first one to be done in color. I actually went in with a koi design (yes, a goldfish of sorts) but the artist didn't think it would cover the mess well enough. I figured he's the pro. I'll try to remember to post a pic.

Borders' Reply

BordersStores.Com Ccare to me
More options Apr 5 (17 hours ago)

Dear Christie:

Thank you for your expression of concern about our decision not to carry the issue of Free Inquiry magazine featuring cartoons depicting Muhammad. Borders is committed to our customers' right to choose what to read and what to buy and to the First Amendment right of Free Inquiry to publish the cartoons. In this particular case, we decided not to stock this issue in our stores because we place a priority on the safety and security of our customers and our employees. We believe that carrying this issue presented a challenge to that priority.

We value your thoughts and sincerely appreciate that you invested your time to tell us how you feel about the issue. I can assure you that our management team gave careful deliberation to this decision and considered all sides of the issue before reaching this conclusion. As always, we are interested in customer feedback about our choices and while we know you do not agree with our position, we hope you can understand the challenge of balancing the needs of our customers, employees and our communities.

I hope that this information is helpful. If you should have any other questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact us.


Borders Customer Care

Well it's certainly thoughtful and respectful. I still think it's chickenshit.