Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Urge to Merge

I am by nature a very organized person. This is a trait that I think has kept me employed, but it's not necessarily a great quality for a creative type. In fact, I personally hesitate to even call myself "creative" because I self-censor so much even before it is done ticking out of my brain (also, I am overly critical...).

There are two urges I must fight when I write. The first is to talk about zoning. No, really -- I have been a journalist so long that I feel I want to explain things to the audience, and I can't just drop in a concept without an explainer clause. Taking a few lines to bring the audience up to speed is just fine in places like this, but not so much in fiction. The only slightly-less-awkward work-around is to have a character ask about something. I can wield this tool here and there, but I'm still working on my technique.

Another tendency is my need to neaten up my files by combining stories. Often, this takes the form of trying to jam a short thing I wrote about one character into a longer story or novel about the same character or another character who knows the first character. While I have to give myself a thumbs-up for trying to keep my mind open to how I use what I have written, I also know myself well enough to realize that I am really just looking to neaten up my desk, so to speak. Also, writing is hard, and if I can stuff a random scene into a novel, call it a "flashback" and add ten pages, I'll try my damnedest to do it.

Because I have chosen to write about one fictitious location with the same cast of characters most of the time, the second tendency flares up a lot. This morning, I talked myself out of shoving a short-story-in-progress about one character into a novel-in-progress about that character's good friend. It seemed like a good idea as I was falling asleep last night, but this morning the timelines of both stories did not match up, and I would have had to stretch and bend the novel to make the story work in it. After awhile, the work I would do to avoid work just, well, wouldn't work.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Supposedly Valuable Experience I Will Never Do Again

A recent post mentioned the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference I attended earlier this month. I used to love conferences, and I want to expand my writing-world contacts, so I thought I could handle it. Also, it was downtown, so I didn't have to fly to Boston, and I received a good deal on the fee through my participation in the Chicago Women in Publishing group.

Yes, I used to love conferences -- when I was 25. Early in my career I was part of one of those jargon-laden industries where we gathered every few months in some middling city to use our words. The group that came together was really great. Fun people who liked to party after the meeting ended, but not hookers-dead-in-the-bathroom party. Just some beer in the hotel bar, or maybe an excursion to the local craft brewery. One of my favorite work memories is taking the Monongahela Incline to drink some indigenous northeast beer while perched over Pittsburgh. The same group went to find the grassy knoll after choosing our own steaks at a restaurant in Dallas. Great times.

So I was excited to go to the Chicago Hilton and Towers to meet with like-minded people in a room where we could nod knowingly when relevant points were made. Alas, I am not the same person I was in Pittsburgh. 

First, I have figured out the best way for me to get information, and it is not in a stuffy room with 84 other people. Some believe that despite the amazing connectivity allowed by the Internet and various social media, conferences still have a place in professional development. Not me. I'll keep my Tweeps and blog pals and stay away from the water pitchers and directional signage and lines for the bathroom.

Speaking of lines for the bathroom, the AWP conference was attended by 10,000 people. I bumped into about 8,437 of them in the super-crowded hotel hallways, and sometimes only got in the elevator because I am still relatively nimble. All of the sessions I attended were overcrowded, which meant you were either boxed in the corner by your fellow writers or sitting with them on the floor. This seemed like an odd situation to allow in Chicago, the home of the Great Fire as well as the Iroquois Theater fire, as well as the Eastland disaster.

Having done all of this complaining, I can tell you that my fellow attendees were a nice bunch. A special thank you goes to the young lady who ferociously guarded the six square inches of floor space I claimed, then had to leave to use the bathroom, during the Friday 10:30 AM panel.

If you like conferences, that's awesome. You can have my place at every one of them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The B-minor Blues

Guitar gods are mostly men, I believe, because men have big hands and long fingers. One needs these things to play certain chords, especially bar* chords, well. Bar chords, for those of you who have never known their special agony, require placing one whole finger, usually the index, over the width of the neck of the guitar and then using the remaining fingers to make a pattern. Change the pattern and move the finger, and you've changed chords.

If this sounds easy to you, congratulations. You are a man. If your fingers cramp just at the thought of the contortions, welcome to my new life.

In the picture at left, you can see me making a B minor. Oh, sure, I make it look easy. But check out how my wrist is bending there. And placing that middle finger on the bottom E string is no fun.

I took this picture to stimulate my mind to do the same, so that when the chord comes up in a song I immediately imagine my fingers this way, a trick to get my mind to dictate what my muscles should do. Developing muscle memory is key to acquiring an expert working knowledge of many chords.

I am still trying to do the same thing with query letters. Yes, I am going to bitch about query letters again, but because I want to also create some muscle memory in my brain. Query letters are cover letters aspiring novelists send to agents. This is how I describe them, but this description has been misleading me for some time. Query letters are NOT cover letters, and this has been tripping me up.

My query for my teen paranormal novel Northwind has been problematic for some time. How do I know? Seven Nine rejections, that's how. Time to re-tool. I have been re-reading it and scribbling down notes on how to change it, but I was coming up with nothing that I liked as much as the letter that agents didn't like.

Still, the letter bugged me. So I just asked myself "Why does this suck?" And I responded: "Because the letter sounds nothing like the book. The tone doesn't match."

Of course. I wrote a cover letter. It was too formal, too didactic. That's fine for a job, where prospective employers have to establish that you can form a complete sentence and carry on a conversation. But for a teen novel -- death by 1,000 ill-chosen, stilted words.

So my query letter's opening line went from this:

"Standing on what was once windswept prairie, Avalon Grove North is a new high school in a booming suburb."

to this:

"Kids today. Give them a brand new high school and all they want to do is talk to dead people."

Suddenly, those fingers just got a little more limber.

Here is a young Jeff Tweedy (joined by the late Jay Bennett and the rest of one incarnation of Wilco) playing "Far, Far Away," which I will soon be able to do better.

*also often spelled barre.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

And Then So Clear

My husband was away last weekend. I wasn't lonely or bored, though, because I attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago. The short version is that this thing kicked my ass, which I will address in my next blog post. Here's the longer version of how, despite biting sleet and aching feet, I achieved a big goal this weekend.

On Friday, I ended up in programs that focused on specific writers. This was planned, and I'm glad it was, because there were so many writer-types circulating like some kind of cartoon depiction of fluid dynamics all over the Chicago Hilton and Towers that I couldn't think. I had to put myself on a course and GET THERE, preferably 20 minutes early. So it was quite a lovely thing to spend an hour listening to scholars talk about nature motifs in Emily Dickinson's poetry. I need to get a big volume of all 1,800 of her works. If church consisted of sitting while people read her poetry aloud, I would be very religious.

Then, I was crammed into a room to hear a dissection of how short-story writer Alice Munro constructs her sentences. I realized that I already knew most of what I was told about her, but I didn't know I knew what I knew until some PhDs told me I did. I guess that's why we pay academics.

Basically, what I learned was that the literary voices we remember have a singularity that cannot be taught. But more importantly, I received an idea for how to deal with my problematic novel, The Last Days at Bargain Faire.

This idea did not, however, come from anything I heard in an overheated conference room. It came from a very specialized combination of inputs that resulted in a dream that gave me a new idea for how to reconstruct the novel. It is as thus:

1) Physical exhaustion from walking to and from Union Station to the Chicago Hilton and Towers in fashionable but cheap boots, occasionally in that hard sleety rain that we love so much in March in Chicago.
2) A dinner of Trader Joe's Pork Carnitas and a bomber of Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale
3) A few episodes of Season 1 of American Pickers
4) A viewing of The Universe of Keith Haring
5) A viewing of various songs/videos on YouTube, including Talking Heads and Alan Parsons Project
6) A segue way to a viewing of Patty LuPone singing songs from "Evita," then Elaine Paige singing songs from "Evita", then Elaine Paige singing "Nobody's Side" from "Chess."

I can't guarantee that this formula will help you solve your intractable creative issues, but it worked for me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

In Praise of Older Men

As a woman, I like to learn from other women. But I have discovered that men are half the population, and strangely cannot be ignored. So here are a few older guys that have taught me a thing or two.

From Jacques Pepin, I am learning how to cook. My mom and my husband have tried to show me how food goes together with fire to make edible things, but I think I am finally at a phase in my life where I really care to know how this cooking thing works. And Jacques comes on my television a few nights each week with a style that seems very, well, French. He makes generally simple food with that typical French attitude: this is how you should be doing it. I don't find the French to be snobs -- they just know better than you. Merci, Jacques!

I have met E.L. Doctorow in person, as I was honored to be part of a group that hosted him during a celebration of his book The March. He behaves exactly how you would expect a New York literary gentleman to behave: gracious and reserved but not afraid to suffer fools (albeit by prefacing it with a "My dear..."). I believe him to be our greatest living writer as well as a future source for information about how the 20th century went down (shorthand: not well). As a writer, I often wonder what I have absorbed from him. Hopefully, someone in about 2150 can tell me.

The guys at the open mike I attended last weekend (including Steve Justman and Merv Collins) kicked my guitar-playing ass and put me in my place. My place: at the feet a host of great Chicago musicians, most of which are not legends but should be. More importantly, they continue to play anywhere they can and show us newcomers how it's done. That is to say, keep playing.

Finally, my dad, Peter Kania, celebrates a birthday this week. I won't tell you how old he will be but I can tell you this: next year, he will be 80. Blessedly, he is a prime example of how to age well (perhaps because his only daughter gives him little trouble, but I guess you'd have to confirm that with him). Because he has always been healthy and active, I never really realize he is "older" than my mom (a Baby Boomer) until people point it out. From my dad I learned some great American immigrant values, like how to look mostly forward and how to be independent and why to save your margarine containers and any old screws you pull out of the wall. I also learned about Johnny Cash, Teresa Brewer, the White Sox, Ealing Studio comedies, how neighborhoods work, how buildings work, how to bait a hook and clean a fish, why to never own a boat or a second home, that you should do your own taxes, and why Dick Cheney is evil. He still has yet to properly teach me to appreciate westerns, The Mills Brothers and football or how to sand down and paint radiators, doors and windows. So we have a few things left to do, dad. See you later this week for tax time!

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Bit of Prompting

Some days, I sit at the computer with words ready to spill out of my ears. Other days, not so much. For those days, I look for writing prompts, or, for you civilians out there: ideas.

I have been getting daily writing prompts from Figment (not the dragon from Epcot...). They are usually along the lines of "describe a moment in painstaking detail" or "write in a dark room." While I rarely actually do them, I like at least processing them, letting my brain churn.

Other prompts, and ones that require more work, come from Terrible Minds, the blog written by author and "freelance penmonkey" Chuck Wendig. Be warned: his style is, ahem, a little salty. But under all the "unmerciful" profanity lurks great writing advice, and, once in awhile, a contest. I don't always do these, either, but I always contemplate doing them, and often spend a few days pondering. His latest is to compress the seven acts of a story (intro, problem, initial struggle, complications, failed attempts, major crisis, resolution) into 1,000 words. This one I bit on.

I have an idea for a novel whose first incarnation was as a blurb or a pitch, rather than a scene or an outline, as I usually do. So I took this and pushed it through the seven-act Play-Doh mold and came up with what follows. It is in no way perfect, but a great start on something. Thanks Chuck, you brilliant motherfucker!

Thousands of years ago, early Americans constructed a bustling city along the Mississippi River. But the city disappeared, leaving very little evidence of it's existence. In 1984, graduate student Christine Kasevich is part of the team trying to uncover the mystery of what happened to the city at an archaeological dig in western Illinois. Spending her time in the dust has made her dirt poor, so she takes a summer job at a camp that brings eighth-graders to the Westville Dig. Christine was on the lookout for a big find, something she could stake her archaeology career on. Wrangling hormonal pre-teens was not it. Her group of boys and girls brought only their lip glosses and filthy sneakers, rather than an interest in the past, with them.

The boys are at least interested in looking for something big, and there’s always the chance that the former garbage dump they're digging in – this kitchen midden – will give up something interesting, like an animal jaw. This usually satisfies them, although some are determined to find a human jaw. She tells the girls that garbage tells a lot about women’s roles in the community, as they were the ones in the kitchen and they cooked the food that the men hunted. A few girls find this interesting but many just chew their hair and ask questions about how much childbirth hurt when there were no hospitals. The boys have the imaginations to go a little longer than the girls, believing that they’re just one trowel full away from an amazing discovery. The girls soon move to the side of the dig, sit in the grass and talk, or braid each other’s hair and fan themselves with their notes.

Chaperoning the group is Matt Markert, a social studies teacher whose lack of seniority dooms him to camp duty. He'd rather spend the summer volunteering for his father's friend's Senate campaign. But the extra money for the summer gig makes dealing with the gangly limbs and dramatic pouts of his charges almost worth it. Almost. It's the camp director who really drives him crazy. Christine's loud liberalism really grates on Matt's solid Republican personality. And, she likes going braless, which embarrasses Matt. It's hard enough keeping young boys' eyes away from the gaping areas between the buttons of her madras blouse, but he has to walk the walk. Unfortunately, part of him also thinks she's brilliant, eloquent and more mature than the women he's used to.

The adults at first try to be, well, adult about their differences, contradicting each other in the most polite way possible. Christine tried not to hold her expertise in Illinois archaeology over Matt, and he refrained from reminding her that his school could decide on another summer activity for the students next year. Their battlefield started to occupy the local diner/bar, where Matt settled into the rough-and-tumble ferry worker's table and Christine held her ground at the bar.

Matt and Christine's attempts at tolerating each other are not fooling the students, who are working harder on playing their chaparones against each other than on uncovering history. The kids' favorite game was to tell Christine that Matt wouldn't let any of the girls work in the laboratory. The boys would reverse the gender roles for their complaint to Matt. As it turned out, most of the kids hated laboratory work, so waiting around as Matt and Christine argued sexual politics was an outcome they all worked toward together.

To prove to Matt that her way of dealing with the kids is the right way, Christine agrees to violate camp rules and take a two girls to the nearby college town for a concert. The two geeky girls have endeared themselves to Christine because they remind her of herself. Her bond with the girls, however, causes a severe lapse in judgment on Christine's part, infuriating both Matt and the camp director. While most of the camp is in an uproar over the missing girls, one of Matt's students – one of the few who actually likes working in the lab – drops a clump of dirt on the laboratory floor. Thought to be a piece of pottery, the dirtbomb breaks open and reveals the remnants of a clay pipe. One of the graduate students supervising the lab starts to hyperventilate – apparently, this is evidence that proves the former inhabitants of the camp were more sophisticated than originally thought. Christine had hypothesized this based on other discoveries and some research she had done, but there was no concrete evidence to support her – until now.

Christine returns home to face a frantic screaming fit from the camp director. Just as he is about to put her on probation, Matt and the students bursts in his office with the pipe fragment. The camp director recognizes its significance immediately, and appreciates the irony that the discovery might not have been made if the day had proceeded as scheduled. Christine gets credit for the discovery but asks for a week of probation. Matt realizes that she's more responsible than she seems and as smart as he thought she was. While he will recommend bringing students back to Westville next year, he and Christine plan to meet again to tour the natural history museum and watch the state senate in action at the state capitol.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

At This Stage in My Life

I'm the one in the middle, in the goofy wig.

One of the reasons I became a writer, besides the fact that it's the only thing I know how to do, is that I was certain I could never be in the "performing" arts. So acting, music and ice skating were all off limits to me (also, I was a terrible skater).

I had one acting role in high school (the scheming wife Beline in Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid" -- read it online, thanks to Project Gutenberg!) and I remember the terror that choked me during the three days I had to perform on stage. I had one shot at each word and each line, and I had to "act" while remembering these words.

Writers, by contrast, get to revise. If you are organized enough, you can write what you need to write well ahead of the deadline, giving yourself the chance to edit and polish and find potentially embarrassing mistakes.

Of course, to exclude writers from the "performing" arts is not a truthful move. Writers perform at readings and lectures. And this aspect of writing does not bother me. I have no problem talking in front of people, whether from notes or extemporaneously. Yes, I say "um" too much, but I try to say it with a little French accent, as if English isn't my first language.

For the past two years, I have been fulfilling a lifelong dream (and doing something I should have done ages ago) by learning the guitar. I have a wonderful teacher who has not only the musical and artistic ability but also a psychology background, so she is able to guide me through not just the mechanics of making a chord but also the brain work behind performance. I am not the same sixteen-year-old blinking in abject fright at the stage lights, but I also don't nail every note every time I play, and this bothers me. Nevermind that my attempts at being a musician have come more than twenty years apart.

Despite the fact that I have just revived the musical part of my brain, I am way more forgiving of my progress as a writer than as a musician (and clearly, this issue has been on my mind lately). Only recently has my fiction become something that I think is worthy of an audience, even though I have been writing fiction on and off since grade school. And while I wish I could have or would have spent more time trying to write novels in my twenties, I know that I was just not in a mental place to do so, and I don't flog myself with this realization.

So why can't I cut myself the same slack with the guitar? The explanation that makes sense to me is based on something I have often said as kind of an aside or a joke: that writing is my baby. I don't want children, but I want to write, and I hold my writing abilities close to me and protect them, giving them the time and sustenance needed to blossom. I can also throw the old cliched gardening metaphor in here too, but it is an apt comparison as well. I don't get mad at my tomatoes for taking their time to fruit and ripen. I don't hate myself for not having a book published yet. Spreading some of this patience around to my other activities sounds pretty good.