Monday, June 22, 2009

Taking Umbrage

I'm not one to take umbrage at every little thing, but when I saw this sticker on the back of a van this weekend I just about shouted out loud. It is an insult not only to the creator of Calvin, Bill Watterson, but more importantly to serious followers of Christ, who can hardly take validation from seeing a comic strip character bending before the cross.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Deep into sixth draft something unusual happened: the manuscript inhaled. Not in the Clintonian sense of doing something it shouldn't have, but filled its lungs and gave voice to how I should proceed. Some crucial details were missing in a scene I was working on and the manuscript told me what I should do to rectify the lack. At first hesitant to follow such advice, I overcame my reluctance and tried it out and you know what? it brought the scene together in a fresh way. Sounds weird, I know.

The earliest drafts were tough because they were a collection of disparate scenes without plot threads to connect them. Subsequent versions have brought new hurdles, the latest of which is making the text lift off the page and come to life. Plotting is done and scenes I've got by the truckload, but breathing life into the words and transforming the story into an enjoyable experience has been difficult.

Then this happens.

I had come home from work and as is typical lately, I was looking at some pages before cooking dinner. The pages did not look good. Something was missing. The section I was editing had basic features in place but... I couldn't put my finger on what the problem was. Then it happened: the page seemed to speak and describe what was needed to complete the scene. At once I sat down and started writing some rough descriptions and dialogue. Next thing I knew an hour had passed and I had a passel of notes that brought a significant new dimension to the book.

Soon after I found myself thinking of Philip K Dick.

A science fiction writer who has no equal in the 20th century, PK Dick has long been an inspiration to me. For many years I devoted myself to learning as much about the author as I could, collecting his entire catalog of 43 novels in paperback editions and bundling them away in a suitcase that I kept by my desk. He is fascinating both as artist and man. The suitcase has since then been donated to a Seattle bookseller, but his influence continues.

Phil, as he was known to friends, would routinely churn out novels quickly and efficiently. After typing out a manuscript over a benzedrine-fueled weekend, he would collapse with pneumonia. Some of these books are quite good, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner) and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; others are not quite up to snuff.

The Simulacra suffers from the author making it up as he goes. Though Dick was known to do this, part of what makes his writing crackle is the headlong energy investing it with a sense that what is around the corner is a mystery to both author and reader. There is a weird sense of shared discovery that is totally unique to reading PK Dick. This sometimes gets out of control and ruins an otherwise good story. In The Simulacra there are so many twists and reversals they obviously exist for no reason than to keep things moving, and move they do -in all directions. Too much inspiration!

This came to mind the other day after I'd experienced a bout of inspiration. It is easy to be convinced that a burst of insight is sufficient cause for committing words to the page, but this conviction has risks. Though I wish an editor had seen fit to rein in PK Dick, what failed in some of his books is uncontestably great in others.

This reminds me of the musician PJ Harvey, who says that every successful song she's written has 9 bad ones preceding it. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the process. When creating, the expedient feels no different from true substance, from the stuff that actually makes words come to life. Discovering which is which is out of creators' hands and must be determined by the audience, a hard truth to come by.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Why Flying Casual is a Bad Idea

Some days I argue with myself. The inner provocateur rails against my decision to finish a science fiction novel, castigating and berating me in a south shore New Jersey accent that contains not even an ounce of compassion. Fighting back sometimes absorbs energies that otherwise might be more productively used, but what am I supposed to do? Rope-a-dope doesn't work so well when the opponent is in your head.

Here's a recent example: What is the best way to present future history that doesn't come off like Star Trek, which is to say, so fantastical as to be irrelevant? (I'm not taking the position that Star Trek lacks relevance, per se, but that the far-flung context renders it palatable only to a narrow audience.) I go back and forth on this, wanting to lay out my grand scheme on the one hand but on the other wanting to maintain focus on characters without diverging into a wide lens view. But this is scifi, rants my nemesis, you have to create a galactic context!

It's so different to be a writer of this stuff, when most of my life has been spent as an avid fan of scifi. Rather than having the luxury of sitting back and throwing darts whenever an author does something I don't agree with, I struggle with ways to keep the audience engaged. The risk is that by going too panoramic, the novel will become an exercise in space opera. We already have Dune, the peak of the genre, and I'm not interested in presenting every historic detail of how we came to the present moment in which the novel is set; though I have created this history, every time I veer into descriptions of these events it completely derails the narrative and makes the book out to be something it is not, namely space opera.

But this is scifi! How else are we to know the story isn't unfolding contemporaneously? (My nemesis likes them big words.)

Another question is how to present the villain of the piece without revealing his badness. I want him to be a part of the story and for intimations of his malevolence to come through in small things, not to be writ large. In posing this particular problem, my inner provocateur is not only unsympathetic but devolves into mocking me with quotes of bad dialogue:

I don't know, fly casual.

This is every bit as helpful as Han Solo's advice in Return of the Jedi: not at all. In that instance, our favorite smuggler is telling his Wookiee pilot to disguise the fact that they are approaching the bad guys in a stolen space shuttle. He tells Chewy to "fly casual", which ostensibly means to blend in with all the other Imperial craft zipping around. Apparently in the Imperial Flyer's Handbook, a pilot's success is rated by how casual they are.

Though this approach is successful for Han Solo and friends, it doesn't work for writers of novels.

What I have to fall back on is my experience as a reader. Looking at effective storytelling in such books as, say, Dune, it is clear from the start who is bad. Though it seems a good idea to be tricky and lure the reader into a false sense that all is well, what truly works is the opposite. This is not just about following what has come before but in understanding that presentation of a clear protagonist assists the reader.

A friend once proposed creating a conflict-free story, in which basically nothing happens. It would be an experiment in style and push the frontier of narrative structure -but would it be storytelling? Ultimately you come up against this problem when crafting a story: it has to adhere to basic rules. By taking away conflict, you remove structure and are left with writing that is experimental, yes, but better relegated to a notebook. My nemesis would like nothing better than to keep me at that level, and in fact for many years has succeeded in doing so.

To "fly casual" is to write what I want and eschew standards of good storytelling, a method I've followed for a long time. Funny how I never used to have these arguments in those days, things were simpler then!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Remembering the Fallen: Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989



Tuesday, June 02, 2009


The five volumes of Doris Lessing's Children of Violence follow a protagonist over the course of her life. At the start we meet Martha Quest in her youth and over the course of the books see her develop well into adulthood, the entire work hung together by the consciousness of the heroine. This is a revolutionary work. Lessing has broken through the boundaries of the traditional Bildungsroman form, extending the central character's journey well beyond what has come before.

What, you may ask, is a bildungsroman? It denotes a work of self-development, a fictional tale along the lines of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations wherein we follow along as the central character grows and develops within the context of a defined social order. It can be described as a quest tale the object of which is to find meaningful existence within society. Typically such a tale is limited to a single novel; what's more, coming into the twentieth century it applied exclusively to male protagonists.

Lessing has done more than change the gender of the hero. She has also made the development of the heroine's self contingent on relation to the greater collective. Whereas the dominant motif of the bildungsroman has been that by the novel's end social values become manifest in the individual, Lessing leaves the question open; an undetermined future remains open to Martha Quest whereby she will continue to pursue education and experience.

Beyond Doris Lessing's invaluable contribution to novel forms, there is more to the "female" bildungsroman yet to explore. Circularity, according to Helen Paloge, is foundational to the evolution of the form, "cyclical" time characterized by non-linear events. What is not remembered from the protagonist's past, and how is memory manipulated to create the sense of a fresh start? Events are revised as they are repeated, thus laminating the self over history. Without incorporating these new features to the form, a bildungsroman is doomed to being chained to the dusty past.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Manuscript

The manuscript is in a good place. It has come together in the latest draft and my efforts now are focused on polishing up dialogue and chapter transitions. It doesn't help to have a scattered approach, an hour each morning before I start work and evening editing sessions when there are no other obligations -considering the state of my social existence, there is rare competition for evenings. Nevertheless, progress is at an excruciating, glacial pace, which thanks to practical concerns cannot be helped.

What I've noticed happening is a shift in focus. Whereas in prior drafts I worried over plot developments, now that the story requirements are established I am using my ears to find proper rhythms for the story to unfold. If this sounds more like musical than literary composition, perhaps that is the best analogy. An unpublished author can settle for plodding movements on the page. These are less demanding on the reader and service the plot in necessary fashion, allowing it to unfold logically if not musically. I avoided doing this is in earlier drafts, to my detriment. As an insightful reader so aptly put it, I was too "precious" about my words. I've learned to let go of phrases I find clever, because they are obvious to the canny reader and all but obliterate the rhythms that allow someone to settle in and enjoy a story. By letting go, I was able to complete a draft and be totally miserable with it -which is not as easy as it might seem!

Being miserable with a creative effort is part of the process. I've had to put aside preconceptions of existing in some kind of blissed-out, creative zone when writing. Sessions like that produce a usable line or two, at best, and if I expect more (as I all too often have) the natural result of looking at what I've written is a screaming depression. By allowing part of the process to be harsh criticism of your own work, this actually enables forward movement far better than anything else. Mistakes provide richer fuel than success.


Saw Up this weekend and enjoyed it more than anything else I've seen this year, with the notable exception of Coraline. Heart-warming and -wrenching by equal turns, I laughed, I cried, I laughed again, all the while amazed that Pixar has yet again outdone itself. The Incredibles and Toy Story leap to mind as representing what Pixar does so well, marrying great story with awe-inspiring imagery to create films that stay with you well after you've left the theatre. Up deserves to be ranked with their best.