Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the awesomeness of small writing goals: a NaNoWriMo heresy

So, in this month of NaNoWriMo (which has now surpassed Thanksgiving as November's premier event), I offer this totally non-NaNo advice:

Set small goals.

If 1,700 words a day, or 1,000, or 500, or any damn number sounds like way too much, I say, how about one page a day? That's what I've been doing for the past few months, and it almost always works. Some days I do 2-3 pages, and some days, dammit, I still don't do any. But I'm finding this the best and only way to work right now, with my brain and my time as fragmented as they seem to be. It's pretty easy to squeeze a page, or half a page, in between conference calls. And instead of looking at word counts, I'm concentrating on the digital ink spreading further down on the page, which just feels more satisfying.

I read somewhere recently that another writer had set a goal of three sentences a day. That's great. Or do twenty minutes a day, even if you spend that whole time staring the page and not writing a word (I bet you can't keep from writing something, though).

The point is, I think most writers need different writing strategies at different times, depending upon external and internal circumstances. Yes, you need to move forward, but the pace is far less important than the movement itself.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Understandings gleaned from heavy bouts of novel revision

What I think I've learned recently:

1. Making a character likable/relatable does not necessarily mean making readers feel sorry for her. This tactic often creates the opposite effect through sentimentality, overt authorial pleas for sympathy, general mushiness, doormat-ism, etc.

2. Evil is different from mean. Evil is interesting and requires intelligence. Mean is knee-jerk (h/t CZ).

3. If you are writing for publication, your book is not 100% yours.

4. Altruistic punishment (a.k.a. comeuppance) is something readers really want in fiction. Perhaps especially because it doesn't seem to happen that often in life.

5. I hate/love revising.

Monday, October 12, 2015

New fiction in two places

New fiction, about impending and past catastrophes, up at Monkeybicycle and Queen Mob's Teahouse.

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(Drought: a current catastrophe)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

About girls and women and confidence

I have noticed in recent years that schools seem to be intentionally working to promote confidence in students--and especially in girls. But this isn't a post about educational trends specifically. It's more about cultural trends generally, and about my own experience in particular.

To get right down to it: in my day (growing up in the 70s and 80s), and in my world (upper-middle-class suburban Cleveland), confidence in girls was not a feature, but a bug. A bug to be swiftly and fully stamped out as soon as its little feelers began to wave. I grew up surrounded by women and girls constantly saying self-deprecating things like I'm so dumb, I can't do math, I can't (fill in the blank). Whether by overt intention or just widespread cultural norming, I'm convinced that the reason so many of us were were taught from a young age to think and speak this way was to make sure we could snag a husband. If we were too confident, too independent, too opinionated, too competent, we would not obviously need a man to help us get our helpless selves through the day. Feeling useless (and therefore offended), they would reject us, and we would live out our lives bitter and childless and unfulfilled and alone.

Clearly, this reflects a rather dim view of men as well as of women, because if one really succeeded through this particular strategy, one got to spend one's life with an insecure asshole. But I remember distinctly being told that men didn't like women who were "too smart." I remember being told that by a boy I had asked to a homecoming dance (in a perverse twist, the tradition at our school was for girls to ask boys to dances). And so, being a dutiful sort, I adopted the language and the practice of self-deprecation. And I have struggled against it ever since.

I feel reassured that this way of thinking and being has at least begun to change. But I still see evidence that the bad old ways hold sway, especially in certain parts of the country. What to do? So many things. But one easy thing we can do today is to stop talking about ourselves as stupid and incompetent--not only but especially around young women and girls.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Everyone in your novel should be working more.

Today in harnessing horrible Republican ideas for artistic purposes only:

I recently tweeted a discovery I'd made about revision:

I would now add that this process also involves winnowing down the number of characters, so that fewer people take on more responsibilities. I find that after a first draft (or even several drafts), I often have two characters essentially performing the same function, and one of them is performing it less well--and doing nothing else constructive. Therefore I have to give one's duties over to the other, which a) gets rid of a boring character and b) creates a more interesting character out of the one remaining.

As you go through this process, think of yourself as the Bain Capital of fiction: swooping down on a perfectly nice, quiet but inefficient little novel, and ruthlessly getting rid of dead weight--who fortunately are not really people in your case. Presto: your novel is now leaner and more productive. Or, as Jeb Bush would have said, had he been an author instead of a really bad politician, everyone in your novel should be working more.

Monday, August 03, 2015

A new interview online

If you have a half hour sometime, you can watch me be interviewed by Pete Crooks of Diablo Magazine for the Walnut Creek Library. Includes footage of Bigfoot, pictures of Queen, and some intriguing library patrons wandering into the frame.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another brief rant on the issue of likable female characters

As these posts attest, I've been hung up on the "likability" issue for years, even before Claire Messud brought the issue to the fore in 2013. What Messud made spectacularly clear in the now-famous interview is that readers seem to judge female characters as "good" or "bad," depending on whether one would want to be friends with them. Male authors--and their male characters--aren't subject to the same norms. Men, in fiction if not in life, just have to be interesting.

A more recent book, Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, has a lot in common with Messud's The Woman Upstairs. And while the latter is classified as literary fiction, and the former a thriller, I think their similar titles tell us something. The main characters of these stories are "shadow women," existing in the periphery of society and of our notice. That's because they don't embody normal expectations at least for white, middle-class women: they've failed to become wives and mothers, as well as, to some degree or another, in their careers.

I would point out, however, that in both these stories, it's the first failure, to marry (or stay married) and produce children, that seems to pain both women more. Their envy of women who have achieved this status seems boundless, and produces rage and recklessness. And that's why both novels, to my mind, still subscribe to the conventional notion of the "likable" female character. Ultimately, they validate traditional notions of womanhood by showing how awful it is for women who have tried desperately, but can't manage to attain it. Ultimately I believe we're meant to pity these characters and be grateful that we've escaped their fate--assuming we either have or at least desire what they don't.

Mind you, I liked both these books quite a bit, especially Girl on the Train. But for an antidote to their conventional mores, I might recommend Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, where the female protagonist is simply ragingly selfish and vengeful--but also intelligent and anything but passive.

Or, if you don't think not craving kids and marriage automatically makes you a villain, try The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick--the real-life story of a woman who never really wanted either, and has lived quite a fulfilling life, thank you very much.

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