Happy New Year!

I’m a little late with my first post of the year. I’ve been busy writing new short stories, four in the past three weeks. I had anticipated they would all be between five and eight pages. I can normally tell because I write a lot in my head before it goes on paper. Most were, but one surprised me and is twenty-two pages. I also did a once over of literary journals to decide who to submit to, I’ve queried another fourteen agents for my novel, that takes me up to 102 agents queried (NEVER GIVE UP), and I also revised a couple of other stories that are a part of the collection I’m working on, and I revised the beginning of my novel again. As you can tell, I’m unemployed, however, I like to say I’m being paid to write while also looking for full-time employment (as a writer with an agent and a book deal.)

We’re in the middle of the second polar vortex and the second week of the water crisis in West Virginia. Luckily, even though I’m directly in the middle of the “No Use” area, the little town of just under 11,000 people that I live in happens to get its water from the Coal River, not the Elk/Kanawha confluence where the spill occurred. Even so, I had friends coming over for showers, filling containers, and my husband and I also took water to my brother-in-law and his family. We also got our fishing licenses and went fishing last weekend in 25 degree temps with 20 mph wind. We’re a little die-hard, and so are the trout because we didn’t catch any.

In the amount of writing/revising that I’ve been doing, I decided on my next favorite word – anemic. I fell in love with it when I was reading It’s So Easy: and other lies by Duff McKagan of Guns & Roses fame. If you haven’t read it, you should. You can tell Duff is an avid reader. We share a love of Cormac McCarthy. I was really very impressed with the fluidity and beauty of his memoir. Anemic in the sense Duff and I use it is the lacking vitality, listless, weak anemic, and, like Duff, my use so far as been to describe light. I use it only once in my novel and once in my short story collection. It’s very effective in scene setting, but I use it sparingly, like adverbs. Ha. Happy writing!

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It Was Me

Sometimes your characters surprise you by making your write words you can’t believe you’re writing, when they admit to something you didn’t know they had done.

“It was me.”

Gasp! He did? He’s going to be in so much trouble! Conflict drives the story, not the mushy moments. Whether between characters or within characters, conflict drives the story.

“It was me,” popped up during revision. I’m not even sure I wrote it. It’s on the page, I was in charge of the keyboard, but to say I have a conscience recollection of making this decision, I don’t.

This confession comes from the most level-headed, logical, mature character in the book, Elena’s lover, Sasha. Not only does his confession cause conflict with Elena, as my son would say, She. Flips. Shit., but I think it also causes conflict within the reader because that confession may cause the reader to want to take sides.

I’ve brought the characters through extreme physical, emotional, and mental stress, they are at their breaking point, stretched as thin as I can stretch them. Almost every character, even the reader, knows something Elena doesn’t. And I’m proud to say this happens on page 300 of a 316 page novel. I don’t really cut them any breaks until page 308. Stepping back from it, I can also say that Elena has an opportunity at that point, “It was me,” to make a change, but she resists, again.

“It was me.” Three of the favorite words I’ve written

The Guitar Solo

I love music. I wrote the first 200 pages of my novel to Alice in Chains. If you’re not an Alice fan, it may seem strange that I would have written 200 pages of a WWII drama to a grunge band from Seattle. I would argue that theme had a lot to do with it. I didn’t pick the theme or think about theme, but it worked for me. The reality was, I couldn’t write to anything else.

During the time that I was writing and revising my thesis, one of my advisors, Ryan Boudinot, published his book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, a dystopian cynical look at a future world in which Manhattan is being rebuilt on Bainbridge Island and much more. Whether in a class, an interview, or through our process letters, Ryan mentioned that a chapter that sat close to center of the book, “Neethan F. Jordan,” a satirical romp down the red carpet, was the “guitar solo” of the book. I knew immediately where the guitar solo in my novel was – Chapter Five. It was a departure point for the two main female characters in terms of how they approach their role in the resistance, not only resisting the Nazi forces, but also resisting the restrictions placed on them by other characters. It also has A LOT of action, explosions, a train derailment, machine guns, and a thunderstorm. I wouldn’t say this is where my ladies gain their strength, it’s where they realize their strength which comes in handy later in the novel.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” Elena whispers, the vibration is heavier, white light like a dusky dawn flows into the woods. Any second the train will crest the hill and round the short bend. The detonator still refuses to engage. Elena breathes deep into her diaphragm like Jakob taught her. Her eyes fly open as she is silhouetted by the myopic beast. Her finger catches the edge of a rock. Flipping it away, she slides the detonator in and releases the spring. 

 Elena stands to run, and the air rends with the sound of brakes and gunfire. Crying out as a bullet catches her, she stumbles into a mess of brambles and thrashes like an animal caught in a snare. Bullets whistle by and smash into the trees above her head. Her arm on fire, Elena pulls herself away from the tracks on her forearms and elbows. She can hear boots crashing into the woods, shouts, then the world explodes.

The “guitar solo” involves four separate groups of people and it is shown from all of their perspectives, Elena, her co-conspirators Janina and Joachim, the resistance group they belong to, and the Nazis. Aside from when Elena, Janina and Joachim determining their first course of action, to blow a particular set of rails, no one is in communication. The resistance group doesn’t know what Elena and the others are doing, Elena and the others don’t know the resistance is there. I wrote it in a linear fashion so time progresses with very little overlap. What I like about it is that it moves very quickly, there’s a sense of urgency, it is intense, and there’s an element of breathlessness.

 I also like that afterward I dove directly into a confrontation between Elena and Janina with two other characters, Paul, Elena’s brother and Janina’s love interest, and Sasha, Elena’s lover.  Paul is one of the most complex characters I’ve ever written. The greater war for him is within himself. The subplot involving the evolution of his relationship to himself, Janina, and his place in the world is something I’m very proud of, and this confrontation is a part of the “turning of the tide” in the novel, where the stakes raise exponentially for everyone involved. 

Do you have a “guitar solo” in your work?

Revise, Revise, Revise

Despite having an MFA, despite having read countless articles on how to revise, how to write query letters, etc. (ad infinitum), it has become apparent that the beginning of my novel, and subsequently, the entire novel, needs another overhaul. I once wrote this sage piece of advice in my notes from grad school – curiosity, pay off, curiosity, pay off. The first time I heeded this advice the plot of my novel was like a roller coaster. It launched, it twisted and turned upside-down, and at the end you were breathless, and maybe you threw up along the way because you were hollow and devoid of any character development. Sometimes it takes a while to realize that you’ve forgotten the curiosity aspect and have fallen into information overload.

“Kill your darlings,” another sage piece of advice from Stephen King. Sometimes that means dispersing or deleting the first seven pages of your novel. It’s balancing the curiosity and the pay off, and remembering to always start with the curiosity. Don’t withhold information from the reader, but make them work for it by reading the next word and the next word. It isn’t that the first seven pages don’t have any curiosity, it’s that they have very little – more pay off than curiosity. Is it beautiful prose? Yes, it is, and I’m proud of it. The first chapter that usurped the other first chapter was a departure from the roller coaster plot and delved into the emotion behind the story. It was my first attempt at true prose devoid of intense plot movement and dialogue. It was my first trip inside my characters influenced by a rabid reading of Imre Kertesz’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child.

 I was cheating on my grad school reading list with Kertesz. I had run across Kertesz’s work while researching Nobel prize winners, including the amazing Herta Mueller – The Hunger Angel, read it! Kertesz listed Borowski as one of his influences so I decided to order two of his books, the aforementioned and Fatelessness. I read the first five pages of Kaddish, laid the book down, and said, “I want to write like that. I can write like that!” I liken it to when Harry conjures the patronus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He knew he could do it because he had already done it. I did have those elements in my work, but I needed to step it up, and I did. Now I’ve realized it gives my readers very little work to do, and leaves very little mystery to keep the reader moving from word to word to satisfy their curiosity. To the first seven pages of my book, I bid adieu.

To Read Is to Dream, Guided By Someone Else’s Hand

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, published after his death and put together by assembling notes that he left behind, was the first book I read about what it meant to be a writer. Not how to write, no, no, not even mentioned. I’ve quoted this particular passage many times.

“One of the soul’s great tragedies is to execute a work and then realize, once it’s finished, that it’s not any good. The tragedy is especially great when one realizes that the work is the best he could have done. . . So why do I keep writing?. . . I have to write, as if I were carrying out a punishment. And the greatest punishment is to know that whatever I write will be futile, flawed, and uncertain.”

 

He goes on to lament, “Why do I write, if I can’t write any better? But what would become of me if I didn’t write what I can, however inferior it may be to what I am?. . . For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”

And this is what happens when you don’t write. “For a long time now I haven’t written. Months have gone by in which I haven’t lived, just endured. . . haven’t even existed. I hardly even seem to be dreaming. . . For a long time now I haven’t been I.”

It’s not just the trials of imperfection that Pessoa’s writer/character Bernardo Soares endures, but it’s the understanding of dreaming and daydreaming, birth and death, and what it means to live. It’s about the process of writing. “When I write, I pay myself a solemn visit. I have special chambers, remembered by someone else in the interstices of my imagining, where I take delight in analyzing what I don’t feel, and I examine myself like a picture in a dark corner.” I suppose today we call that “hitting our stride” or “being in the zone,” and I before have described it as that special place inside of me where the story resides.

Another thing I love about Pessoa was his creation of “heteronyms,” his word for multiple personas, each with their own personalities and writing styles. It was his style to create a different writing style for each of these heteronyms. What freedom! One, Ricardo Reis, was the subject of another book, A Year in the Death of Richardo Reis, by Jose Saramago, in which the Pessoa heteronym learns that Pessoa has died. Wrap your mind around that. A made up character discovers the man who created him is dead yet lives on. But isn’t it so true?

The introduction to The Book of Disquiet details more in-depth the relationship between Pessoa and Soares, as they are one in the same, but also that the book is much more autobiographical. It does have that feeling. Although The Book of Disquiet is plotless, seriously, no plot, it is more like a stream of consciousness about what it means to live as a writer, the desolation of this solitary pursuit, self-doubt, compulsion, depression, detachment, and seeing the world through a writer’s eyes as he examines life, “I never sleep. I live and I dream; or rather, I dream in life and in my sleep, which is also life.”

The Book of Disquiet continues to intrigue me. Although I don’t suffer from the extreme detachment that Soares does, nor the isolation, if you’re a writer, or love a writer, I highly recommend having an affair with this book. A long affair. This isn’t a book that begs to be read all the way through in one sitting, or chapter to chapter. You can start at the beginning (I would read the introduction first to understand how the book came to be), but also feel free to start on page 444 or 200 or 287 or 122. In opposition to Pessoa’s own words, “Pray for me by reading it, bless me by loving it, and forget it as today’s sun forgets yesterday’s, as I forget the women in my dreams that I was never very good at dreaming. . .”, I cannot forget it.

Welcome

Welcome to Favorite Words I’ve Written. Writers are notorious for being extremely critical of their work. Some days we have more deletions than words, but there are some words that beg to be read over and over, even if we did write them. This will not only be my favorite words, but also favorite words of other writers and what their work means to me and their influence on my work. It may be one well placed word, but more often it will be sentences, entire paragraphs, perhaps even entire chapters, rarely, an entire book. I’ll begin tomorrow with my love of Fernando Pessoa.