Monday, December 20, 2010

Soloist or thief?

Back in October Lev Grossman did a post about writers who read fiction while they are writing their own, vs. those who read no fiction. He calls these two groups Thieves and Soloists. He himself claims to be a thief, and I'd put myself in that camp as well.

Grossman seems mostly to "steal" stylistic or otherwise intangible elements of the fiction he reads (such as the "pure wonder" he finds in C.S. Lewis). That is also my experience. To put it another way, I use previously published fiction as a kind of permission slip to do things I wasn't sure it was OK to do. Oh, you can go on at great length about the childhood of a minor character. You can switch point of view in the middle (provided you do it with clear intention) and then switch back again. You can include drawings and diagrams. Etc. I think this is related to what Grossman says about reading Neal Stephenson to "raise my own game." You're shooting yourself in the foot (I believe) if you avoid authors you believe are truly great, because you fear they'll intimidate you into not writing at all. I say, read them, and raise your game.

Sometimes my thievery is even less direct. Kind of like playing the radio in the car, the "sound" of another person's prose in my head seems to skim off my excess intentionality--which is maybe the same thing as the superego/editor voice we're all supposed to stifle until much later in the process. Anyway, it's that urge to try too hard, to labor over the surface of the prose, to show off, even. The other author's prose drowns that out--so that, as I'm reading, suddenly I'm reaching for my pen and notebook to jot down an idea that's completely unrelated to what I'm reading. I'm not stealing an actual plot point, or character trait, or even a metaphor. Rather, some notion--some concept or sound or emotional experience--has been freed, by engaging my overly conscious mind with something sufficiently challenging. I think it goes beyond distraction, but that's a thought for another time.

All this is why I don't worry to much about what exactly I'm reading at any given time. Just because I'm writing a (sort of) mystery doesn't mean I feel I should be reading Raymond Chandler. Although maybe I should. I figure whatever I'm reading at the time is something I need to be reading, for reasons I may not consciously understand.

I think in the past I made more of an effort to avoid reading fiction while writing (and because I was writing most of the time, I read little fiction). I suspect this was a sort of juvenile fear about not being "original." But I actually think the Soloists steal too; they just have better memories for what they've read in the past.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Turn of the Screw: Dialog that does things

First, before we delve into this week's writing lesson from The Turn of the Screw, two fascinating and unrelated points:

1. You may be the sort of person who's relieved to know that, unlike in the first post, I've settled on italics for the novella's title.

2. While searching the e-text for the word "arm," because the section I want to focus on contains that word, I counted six instances of the word "charm" or its variants (charming, charmed, etc.). Mind you, that's in the first fifteen pages, which seems like a lot of charm(ing) in the early going. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest this is significant. The concept of "charm," I think, is an interesting and complex one, and I think everyone should take some time and reflect on its potential as a generator of fiction. That is to say, the intersection of beauty and creepiness should produce a lot of generative tension for storytelling. OK, done?

Anyway, my interest this week is in dialog, especially dialog in mystery-type stories. I myself am now writing a mystery-type novel, and am finding that these things seem to require large quantities of dialog. About 3/4 of the movie Murder on the Orient Express, I seem to recall, is a series of interviews between Hercule Poirot and a parade of famous actors in the dining car. In general, I suppose this is the way evidence gets uncovered in the real world. People get talked to, and they reveal stuff--whether they're witnesses, perpetrators, or some place in between that the detective has yet to determine. But the question--at least for the literary author using the detective story as a vehicle--is how how to make all these different dialogs interesting in their own right? In other words, how do we keep the conversations from simply becoming sources of information--though we need them to be that--and use them to develop character, tease out themes, ramp up conflicts, etc.? How do we make dialog (as some writing guru once said) do more than one thing?

One key, which Henry James does especially well, is that both characters in the dialog want something different. While they may, on one level, be on the same side, still their desires--particularly their hidden desires--come into conflict. And this plays out not only in the way they express themselves verbally, but in other behaviors that become part of the dialog.

Here's an early example. The narrator, a young governess, has recently arrived at her new post, where she's in charge of two exceedingly charming children. She has just received a letter explaining that the boy, Miles, whom she has not yet met, is being expelled from his school. Here, she describes the contents of the letter to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.

"They go into no particulars. They simply express their regret that it should be impossible to keep him. That can have only one meaning." Mrs. Grose listened with dumb emotion; she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be; so that, presently, to put the thing with some coherence and with the mere aid of her presence to my own mind, I went on: "That he's an injury to the others."

At this, with one of the quick turns of simple folk, she suddenly flamed up. "Master Miles! HIM an injury?"

There was such a flood of good faith in it that, though I had not yet seen the child, my very fears made me jump to the absurdity of the idea. I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically. "To his poor little innocent mates!"

"It's too dreadful," cried Mrs. Grose, "to say such cruel things! Why, he's scarce ten years old."

"Yes, yes; it would be incredible."

She was evidently grateful for such a profession. "See him, miss, first. THEN believe it!" I felt forthwith a new impatience to see him; it was the beginning of a curiosity that, for all the next hours, was to deepen almost to pain. Mrs. Grose was aware, I could judge, of what she had produced in me, and she followed it up with assurance. "You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her," she added the next moment—"LOOK at her!"

I turned and saw that Flora, whom, ten minutes before, I had established in the schoolroom with a sheet of white paper, a pencil, and a copy of nice "round o's," now presented herself to view at the open door. She expressed in her little way an extraordinary detachment from disagreeable duties, looking to me, however, with a great childish light that seemed to offer it as a mere result of the affection she had conceived for my person, which had rendered necessary that she should follow me. I needed nothing more than this to feel the full force of Mrs. Grose's comparison, and, catching my pupil in my arms, covered her with kisses in which there was a sob of atonement.

Notice the volatility in the dialog (which the narrator attributes to Mrs. Grose's being a species of "simple folk," perhaps telling us something about herself--or about James, I can't be certain--in the process). It does not flow rhythmically back and forth, in a smooth, cooperative, boring Q and A. Even though the two women are apparently in agreement, the dialog moves in bursts, and Mrs. Grose's "flame-up" lights the governess on fire, too. But notice, also, what is not said, what is omitted: "she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be," "I needed nothing more than this..." The governess and Mrs. Grose are both hiding certain feelings or suspicions, not only from each other, but from themselves.

Then, in the very next line:

Nonetheless, the rest of the day I watched for further occasion to approach my colleague, especially as, toward evening, I began to fancy she rather sought to avoid me. I overtook her, I remember, on the staircase; we went down together, and at the bottom I detained her, holding her there with a hand on her arm. "I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that YOU'VE never known him to be bad."

She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh, never known him—I don't pretend THAT!"

I was upset again. "Then you HAVE known him—?"

"Yes indeed, miss, thank God!"

On reflection I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is—?"

"Is no boy for ME!"

I held her tighter. "You like them with the spirit to be naughty?" Then, keeping pace with her answer, "So do I!" I eagerly brought out. "But not to the degree to contaminate—"

"To contaminate?"—my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. "To corrupt."

She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. "Are you afraid he'll corrupt YOU?" She put the question with such a fine bold humor that, with a laugh, a little silly doubtless, to match her own, I gave way for the time to the apprehension of ridicule.

But the next day, as the hour for my drive approached, I cropped up in another place. "What was the lady who was here before?"

Though it's a long way from ending, this dialog stays compelling because of all the ways it gets interrupted. It stops and starts over the course of several days, as the narrator steps back, regroups, and "crops up" again in a way that turns Mrs. Grose into her prey. Also the speakers interrupt each other and themselves in this second section. The whole thing proceeds by fits and starts--it's action. It is also exposition, and it does reveal clues, but it does so obliquely and unpredictably. We see that the narrator is conscious of her own motivations--she likes Mrs. Grose and already senses she'll need her as an ally, but she can't stop herself from coming back after her--going so far as to clamp onto her arm, and tighten her grip as Mrs. Grose tries to get away. For her part, Mrs. Grose seems more desperate; since she can't get the governess to release her physical grasp, she resorts to a kind of verbal jiu-jitsu, which both of them seem aware of, but are unwilling to openly resist.

So, a few take-aways here for improving our dialog, especially dialog functions as exposition:

  • The characters in the dialog have hidden desires that run at cross-purposes to their apparent desires.
  • The dialog may productively be interrupted by action, internal monologue, etc., so that the pursuit and/or avoidance of the dialog (by one character or the other) becomes part of the drama.
  • Physical actions can and should be motivated by the content of the dialog--as opposed to "beats," like smoking a cigarette, taking a sip of coffee, or--god help us--"pausing a beat."
I'm sure there are more.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What your novel requires of you: reflections on junior high school architecture

As I've said before, writing my second novel has so far been much easier. One reason is that I've set it in the suburbs of Cleveland, in a thinly disguised version of my hometown, which makes it just a hell of a lot faster to locate objects and events in space. I spend almost no time wondering about what someone's living room, or a street, or an afternoon sky might look like--it's just there in my mind. Even better, it's in the form of memory, so I get plenty of layers of emotional varnish for free. (Well, not for free. I paid for it.)

Another reason is that I've come to expect that the novel will make unexpected demands of me. I've learned to welcome (for the most part) these surprises, rather than fear them. I no longer assume that I'm going off the rails; instead I'm following a trail of clues that the story, from the future, is leaving for me in the present. Or something like that.

So anyway, today I found myself reflecting at length on the architecture of my old junior high school. I actually don't even know what has happened to that building in the intervening years, since the "junior high" concept has been superseded almost everywhere by that of "middle school." The difference in philosophy is almost entirely contained in the names. Junior high is a stepping stone, a "junior" version of high school. Middle school is meant to recognize these ages as a unique developmental period in themselves, both/and and neither/nor. Junior high is two grades and middle school three, and all the fundamental differences between twoness and threeness apply here.

The architecture of my junior high really embodied the stepping-stone philosophy. The design reflected two (of course!) basic concepts: aspiration and revelation. Aspiration in the high ceilings that tended to draw the eye upward (toward high school, your future career, or the eighth graders' floor if you were a lowly seventh-grader) and revelation--in that what you saw in those high ceilings was, as I recall anyway, a tangle of exposed, brightly colored pipes. You see? What was once hidden--plumbing--was now revealed. By education.

I wonder what has happened to that building. It can't have survived in the above form; it would be such a relic of the seventies, outmoded in both design and educational philosophy. I do know the middle school is now housed in one of the really old elementary schools, which I hope has been refurbished inside. Because before aspiration/revelation, we had the school-as-factory concept. And boy, did they look (and feel) the part.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My physics fantasy

I want to be a physicist! Physics is so cool! Why am I not a physicist?

Oh, yeah. For two reasons.
  • One: I was always very, very nervous around numbers. Also symbols, like sigmas and such. I took calculus in high school and again in college, and did OK, but the very thought of those classes (particularly the college one) causes my esophagus to seize up. Actually a secondary fantasy of mine is to take calculus again but in some setting where there are no tests. Or no-pressure tests. Like, I would take a test if I knew that if I screwed it up I could take it again till I got it right, because isn't the point, really, in the great scheme of things, to learn math, not to be made to feel like a moron who will never understand anything just because you didn't catch on the first time?

  • Two: I forget what two was.
But anyway, at some point during high school (it had to be), some enlightened teacher--and I'm terribly sorry, I've forgotten who you were, sir--took us to a lecture on cosmology, which I think was at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Out came this guy with a bushy brown beard, who paced back and forth on the stage for an hour and showed slides of curved space with grid marks on it, and a little picture of a spaceship riding the curve. And he said that ship could travel to a whole new universe, or our universe at another time, or... And that was SO COOL! And then in college I took Astronomy for Non-Majors (or whatever it was called) with Robert Kirshner, and that was SO COOL TOO!!

So I've always gobbled up books and TV programs about physics and astronomy in particular. In a way, I can't understand why anyone thinks of anything else: this is what the universe is made of. Where it came from. What it is. Why would a person spend their time, I don't know, writing stories and fucking around on the Internet when there is physics??

My favorite popular physics writer, as of about three weeks ago, is Brian Greene. Greene as a writer is a recent discovery. I was not a huge fan of the TV version of The Elegant Universe. Now, it's not awful. There are far, far worse things on television, even on PBS. But it seemed to be aiming a little too hard for the attention-impaired brains of adolescents. Lots of CGI thingies zipping and zooming around, and--worst of all--every scientist interviewed appears in front of a strange assortment of glowing, blinking panels, which seems to suggest that what they're saying is too boring just to, you know, listen to, so you must instead be flashed and strobed to the brink of epilepsy. If you are looking for the successor to Cosmos as the awesomest intro to the universe ever, I recommend Brian Cox's shows--the recent Wonders of the Solar System, and a couple of earlier Horizon shows, both from the BBC. Cox tends to eschew CGI and create models using rocks and lines drawn in sand, which is both more charming and more effective. (Of the physicist-Brians with one-syllable last names, we must mention in passing Brian May, who, like Cox, is a [former] rock star.)

But back to Greene. I just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos, and in terms of explaining really complex stuff, really clearly and engagingly, this blows away everything. Sorry, S. Hawking et al! I now *get* why nothing can travel faster than light speed, why time slows down when you travel close to that speed, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've heard before but had to just accept, because there was no explanation forthcoming. Greene's particular gift is for anticipating exactly what the non-expert reader will be wondering about after an initial explanation, and then filling in the gaps with really effective analogies (though his fondness for The Simpsons is maybe a bit too cute).

I'm almost done raving, but I'll just say that somehow I came upon this book at exactly the right moment for my new novel. I wanted to say some things about time and order and uncertainty, and this book just poured itself into all the gaps. I'm now making my main character a physicist--though a troubled one, of course.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Turn of the Screw: The storytelling setting, then and now

At long last, roused from a torpor of varied and largely uninteresting origins, I am ready to begin dissecting Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." For readers new to the Borrowed Fire series on this blog, my goal here is to read works of classic literature, not primarily for their themes or meanings, but to learn the craft of fiction writing. There are techniques these old guys use that I suspect contemporary writers, including me, haven't thought so much about--or never really thought of as techniques. So I'm hoping to awaken and inspire new (old) ways of writing in us all.

Here we go with James.

The Turn of the Screw is a framed story (actually a novella), meaning that a storyteller and his listener(s) are introduced to us before the story itself actually begins. We've seen this before, with Wells's "The Door in the Wall," which is also a fantastic tale. The frame offers the writer a couple of opportunities. In "Door," Wells plays up how the narrator (to whom the original tale was recounted by a friend, which is also the case in "Turn,") struggled with whether or not to believe the story, because it is so fantastic. He also mentions, tantalizingly, that the friend has since died under mysterious circumstances--which we must assume are connected to the story. The story killed him! We have to read it now! So, Wells has built up our desire to read on, while also calling into question whether the story is true.

For Turn, James creates a more elaborate set-up. It's Christmas Eve, and friends are gathered around a fire, telling each other scary stories. Two tales have been told already by the time we get to the party, and we get the gist--only the gist--of one of them:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation that drew from Douglas—not immediately, but later in the evening—a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce and that we should only have to wait. We waited in fact till two nights later; but that same evening, before we scattered, he brought out what was in his mind.

"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?"

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."

Rather than just plunking him down in front of us (as Wells does), James has his storyteller emerge a bit more slowly, from the shadows. This is one way in which James's storytelling scene is more psychologically complex that Wells's from the get-go. The narrator and his friends, first of all, are sophisticates--too clever for sentimentality on Christmas Eve, they insist on "gruesome" tales for the occasion. They're also aware that they are such clever people, and are pretty pleased with themselves for liking awful stories about children. In addition, they're critics; they like some tales better than others.

Douglas, the storyteller-to-be, takes this self-awareness to another level (or gives it another turn):

I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it."

"For sheer terror?" I remember asking.

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. "For dreadful—dreadfulness!"

"Oh, how delicious!" cried one of the women.

He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. "For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

"Well then," I said, "just sit right down and begin."

Douglas is playing to his audience "with quiet art." He knows that they know he is playing them; they expect it, and play their own parts knowingly. At the same time, though, we get the sense from Douglas's gestures and facial expressions that he really is disturbed by the story. It has the power to overwhelm his playful sophistication. Our anticipation rises, as does our sense of Douglas (and the narrator, to a lesser extent) as complex human beings with stories of their own.

We soon learn that the story actually exists as a manuscript, written down by Douglas's sister's governess, with whom--his listeners glean--Douglas had been in love. But Douglas needs to send for the manuscript by post before he can tell the story (which he will read aloud to the group), and after announcing this disappointing news, he goes to bed. So there is literally a postponement, and the listeners use the occasion to ramp up their anticipation even more:

From our end of the great brown hall we heard his step on the stair; whereupon Mrs. Griffin spoke. "Well, if I don't know who she was in love with, I know who HE was."

"She was ten years older," said her husband.

"Raison de plus—at that age! But it's rather nice, his long reticence."

"Forty years!" Griffin put in.

"With this outbreak at last."

"The outbreak," I returned, "will make a tremendous occasion of Thursday night;" and everyone so agreed with me that, in the light of it, we lost all attention for everything else. The last story, however incomplete and like the mere opening of a serial, had been told; we handshook and "candlestuck," as somebody said, and went to bed.

But then James turns the screw again: the narrator tells us that these events--the telling of the tale--happened long ago, that Douglas is now dead, and that he gave the manuscript to the narrator before dying. We then return to the storytelling scene, which is in fact two days later (and which we now know is in the distant past), and Douglas begins to read the manuscript aloud. The narrator says, he "read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author's hand." In other words, he's become a ventriloquist for the governess, and that is how we are to hear (and read) the rest of the story. Which is kind of odd.

Like Wells, James creates a frame that both sets the story in relief, and blurs it. In both stories, we are warned not to fully trust the tale or the teller, because origins and motivations are obscure. James gives us a more complex setting for the tale to be told in than Wells does; the setting itself implies relationships and motivations that we may or may not fully understand later. But we do anticipate that Douglas's story will have bearing on the setting in which it's told. It will not only affect the listeners and the teller outright in some way, but it will comment upon the whole social situation into which it is emerging. The frame is no mere device in James; it's something we are meant to pay attention to and integrate into our experience of the story.

So: suppose we writers want to create a framed narrative like this one. How would we go about it? First off, how would we create a credible contemporary scene of people sitting around trying to scare each other with ghost stories? Does it even happen at summer camp anymore? Or would it only occur in the event of some drastic failure of technology, like the power going out so other forms of entertainment weren't available? Where and when, in our time, would such a storytelling situation arise? Then: what would the story itself be, and how would it reflect back, in complex, interesting ways, on the setting in which it's told?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Breakfast of champions (by non-champions, for non-champions)

We are trying a new experiment in being really, really healthy. The experiment is: make a sh*tload of quinoa (4 cups quinoa + 8 cups water = sh*tload), and then leave it front and center in the fridge, where you have to look at it every time you open the door and realize it is going to go bad unless you eat it.

But just what the h*ll are you going to do with a sh*tload of quinoa? I mean besides the "pretend-rice" bed for stir fry, and the pretty-good-but-ubiquitous black-bean-mango-cilantro salad? Well, there's muffins (banana-quinoa is a pretty good combo, or almond-quinoa muffins from Veganomicon). There is quinoa with corn and potatoes from World Vegetarian.

Then there is this sort-of invention of my own: quinoa for breakfast. Take a large dollop of cooked quinoa (however much you want to eat, I am not good with measurements), add (soy) milk, sweetener (such as agave or brown sugar, and trust me, you will want sweetener), dried fruit (such as raisins or cranberries) and walnuts. You might also add cinnamon or cardamom. Heat in a saucepan for about five minutes.

I am even mulling quin-chocula, i.e. heating quinoa, soy milk, and chocolate chips. But maybe not.

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Some (graphic) perspective on agent queries

Courtesy of Tahereh.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A little post on big ideas

So I have been meaning to get back to the long-neglected Borrowed Fire series, in which we learn lots about how to write, from people who are (I think) all dead now. Yes, Dracula knocked me down for the count (ha!), but it didn't kill me. And I'm just about ready to tackle some more upscale literary horror in The Turn of the Screw.

But somehow my mind is vapor-locked, and so, instead of doing that work, I spent a rather long time looking for this interview between Steve Almond and Patrick Thomas Casey on The Rumpus. I finally found it. The thing is comic gold, but the part I really wanted to remember was this advice to aspiring writers from Casey:

I would also say not to be afraid of ambition, which is not the same thing as being a jerk-off and showing everyone how smart you are, but is in fact the simple idea that you may be both worthy and capable of engaging straight-faced and straight-forwardly with the big, important truths. Of course, you will always fail, but this may be the one human endeavor in which proximity to success counts.

I just think that's great. How many of us writers are shying away from "big ideas" because we somehow don't think we can handle them? Dostoevsky was a wreck and he could handle them. Why can't we?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The opposite of joy = query letters

I am engaged in another round of mortal combat with my agent query letter. After reading a wonderful, inspiring example (thanks, KW!), I am sort of off the three-sentence rule. It just made for some rather long, rather convoluted sentences. I'm also reminded that one thing--among the many, many things--your letter must convey is enthusiasm for your own project. Wouldn't you love to read this? Who wouldn't? I mean, damn, I wrote it and I'd love to read it! I'm gonna read it again right now! What are you waiting for?

Being from the Midwest, as well as a trained academic, I find exuberance extremely hard to muster, especially for my own work. But I can copy it, in the way autistic people can learn to copy facial expressions. Others of the dry, deadpan persuasion might try the same...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On not not editing

Finally, finally, someone in a position to know these things is backing me up. Nathan Bransford says you can't just barf out a whole first draft of a novel, then edit it later. Yes, you need to free yourself from the "inner editor" enough to get something down. Enough to write a novel as opposed to, say, flash fiction. BUT you can't build a house on a shaky foundation, as Bransford says. And that's what all these "just do it" people (e.g. NaNoWriMo) don't mention: if there's a termite of a bad idea when you start, by the time you're done, that termite will have devoured your novel. If there's a twist on the track at the outset, it can throw your train off the rails and it might never get back on. And so on. Analogize at will.

So it seems to me the process of beginning must be process of writing, stopping, thinking, rewriting, rethinking. You can't rush this process, nor should you despair if you aren't just plowing ahead, vowing you will fix everything later. Some stuff, if you get it wrong, isn't fixable. The key is to recognize what is fixable later, and what isn't. Before you've had time to make these distinctions, I'd argue that a NaNoWriMo-style sprint isn't worth it--unless you are so blocked that you won't write at all unless you do this. There is too much advice to writers that advocates powering through at all costs, and dismisses all noodling and hemming and hawing as procrastination. Not so, or not always. Again, you have to learn to tell the difference, and that takes some practice. In the early stages, the bottom line is not if your novel is getting bigger, but only if it's getting better. Once you're satisfied with the foundation, then, yes, write like crazy.

There's a Paris Review interview to back this up, too. See Peter Carey.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Donald Barthelme vs. sentimentality

So, as you've probably read, the Paris Review has made all its author interviews available online. This means some of us can stop beating ourselves up about not getting any writing done, and instead tell ourselves that we are not procrastinating but learning useful stuff about the craft. So far I've read Jonathan Lethem's and Donald Barthelme's interviews. Both are great, in that both made me feel that I'm groping toward some worthwhile aesthetic in my own work. But today I'll talk about a few things Barthelme said, back in 1981, my god, so long ago...

I'm especially interested in his points about a certain fuzziness in our perception. Barthelme suggests it's fuzziness, rather than clarity, that gives us the sensation of reality. I don't mean reality in the sense of some objective world we may (or may not) all see around us; rather the sense that a character's emotional response is true to life.


Apparently the Yiddish theater, to which Kafka was very addicted, includes as a typical bit of comedy two clowns, more or less identical, who appear even in sad scenes—the parting of two lovers, for instance—and behave comically as the audience is weeping. This shows up especially in The Castle.


The assistants.


And the audience doesn’t know what to do.


The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.

We've all been at this funeral, right? We may be saying goodbye to someone we love deeply, yet we sit there thinking: couldn't the minister have at least combed his hair? We're inappropriate creatures; we can't help it. Of course, the way to ensure sympathy for this critical funeral-goer is to have him or her notice her own "wrong" reaction and fret about it. And it's totally fine, as Barthelme almost always is, to be funny.

In the same vein:

If I didn’t have roaches big as ironing boards in the story I couldn’t show Cortes and Montezuma holding hands, it would be merely sentimental. You look around for offsetting material, things that tell the reader that although X is happening, X is to be regarded in the light of Y.

I think this notion of X in light of Y is crucial to fiction. It's a variant of Norman Mailer's "noble shit" theory, which I subscribe to, but never like having to describe (so follow the link, if you must). The idea is that if you're going to aim for lofty abstractions or emotions, you need to tarnish them by putting them right next to ugly, stupid, obscene, or silly stuff. Noble must be close to shit; giant roaches must march by as two enemies hold hands. There must be offsetting material. Otherwise you end up with pomposity, sentimentality, and so on.

The real strength of certain authors is in the choice of that offsetting material. The brilliance of Art Spiegelman's Maus books is his decision to portray the Holocaust--a subject that seemed untouchable, except with pure reverence--as a cartoon involving mice and cats. He brought the topic down to earth, where it could hurt us.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two possibly related questions about dreaming

1. Do animals wake up from dreams and think, "Oh, phew, that was just a dream?" Or what?

2. Is our love for stories related, on an evolutionary level, to dreaming? John Gardner famously said fiction should produce "a vivid and continuous dream." If dreams help us organize and interpret our daily experiences, does fiction do the same thing?

I am thinking of how some dreams are more absorbing and more memorable than others. Sometimes I have dreams in which I seem to be doing real work in real time, like preparing a lecture or editing a document, and wake up frustrated that I have literally nothing to show for my labors. I have dreams in which I'm utterly frightened, and some in which I'm sad but also interested in what's going on--for instance, my dad's still alive and sort of hanging around while the rest of us go about our business. I know he's not supposed to be there, and he seems to know it too, but I'm still terribly glad to see him.

Often, as when I read novels, I don't retain the plot of the dreams for very long, only an emotional impression. But this impression can be very strong.

My point is, dreams and fiction seem absorbing in similar ways, and might fulfill similarly complex purposes for our brains. We have a little more control over what we read than what we dream, though maybe not as much control as we think. But the fact that we crave stories, and the fact that all of us dream, suggests the two experiences are deeply connected.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dracula: An E-pilogue

Having just bid a fond (and somewhat relieved) farewell to Dracula, I see Bekka Black has taken the novel's fascination with communications technology, and run with it. iDrakula retells the tale via email, text messages, and web pages. (What, no Twitter?) As Black points out, this is entirely in the spirit of the original. Also, she's given Mina more agency.

The original really does seem to cry out to be rewritten for contemporary times. While reading it, I continually had the feeling it was on the cusp of our own age, both aesthetically and culturally. It seems clear that a sense of radical change in the air inspired Stoker's story in the first place, and Dracula embodies the inchoate fears of same.

Interesting that societal change is represented, in Dracula, by a being who cannot change, i.e. age or die--though he can take different forms, which means one must constantly be on the lookout for him. The fear is: he will change us; he will make us the same as him; but he is so radically "other" that we can do nothing to bring him into "our" fold. New technologies inspire those kinds of fears. Technology makes us less human, we think; we seem less sure that we can humanize technology. Maybe racial or sexual otherness sparks the same horror in some: if we intermingle, we'll turn into them. It's a one-way street, always leading straight to hell. "They" can never be like "us."

So the vampire is the threat of change, but also the wish that things never, ever will change. Maybe it's even an acknowledgment that the fantasy of changelessness--immortality--is dangerous and monstrous. In fact, change is human. But no one wants to admit that up front.

Today's terrified Tea Party casts Obama in the vampire role. The fact that his campaign made great use of new technologies probably made him even more frightening to those on the wrong side of history. Never mind that the Palins of the world, true parasites, have also mastered these communications tools. What's really scary is the combination of implacable fear plus access to technology. Information, reason, appeals to our common humanity--nothing seems to stop this kind of fear. Maybe a better economy would help. But the fear is still there, buried, but not dead.

Anyway, I really just meant to note the Black book in this post. But now that I think about it, I'm more convinced than ever that Dracula is a book for the ages, literally.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The somewhat disappointing demise of Dracula

It is done. Dracula is finished. And what an ending it is, or isn't, for the title character.

Our heroes have been racing toward Castle Dracula, trying to intercept the cart bearing the Count's coffin before the sun sets. They've split up into various parties, and the actual death scene is narrated by Mina, who's watching from a short distance away with Van Helsing. Here's how Dracula dies:

By this time the gypsies, seeing themselves covered by the Winchesters, and at the mercy of Lord Godalming and Dr. Seward, had given in and made no further resistance. The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well.

As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.

I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.

I dunno. I guess I was expecting a little more drama. The racing-against-the-sunset thing is all right, but I was sort of expecting Dracula to at least say something before crumbling into dust. Or to present a greater danger to his killers, to put up some kind of fight. Earlier we got a hint of this, during an unsuccessful attempt to do him in:

Harker evidently meant to try the matter, for he had ready his great Kukri knife and made a fierce and sudden cut at him. The blow was a powerful one; only the diabolical quickness of the Count's leap back saved him. A second less and the trenchant blade had shorn through his heart. As it was, the point just cut the cloth of his coat, making a wide gap whence a bundle of bank notes and a stream of gold fell out. The expression of the Count's face was so hellish, that for a moment I feared for Harker, though I saw him throw the terrible knife aloft again for another stroke. Instinctively I moved forward with a protective impulse, holding the Crucifix and Wafer in my left hand. I felt a mighty power fly along my arm, and it was without surprise that I saw the monster cower back before a similar movement made spontaneously by each one of us. It would be impossible to describe the expression of hate and baffled malignity, of anger and hellish rage, which came over the Count's face. His waxen hue became greenish-yellow by the contrast of his burning eyes, and the red scar on the forehead showed on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound. The next instant, with a sinuous dive he swept under Harker's arm, ere his blow could fall, and grasping a handful of the money from the floor, dashed across the room, threw himself at the window. Amid the crash and glitter of the falling glass, he tumbled into the flagged area below. Through the sound of the shivering glass I could hear the "ting" of the gold, as some of the sovereigns fell on the flagging.

We ran over and saw him spring unhurt from the ground. He, rushing up the steps, crossed the flagged yard, and pushed open the stable door. There he turned and spoke to us.

"You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!"

With a contemptuous sneer, he passed quickly through the door, and we heard the rusty bolt creak as he fastened it behind him. A door beyond opened and shut. The first of us to speak was the Professor. Realizing the difficulty of following him through the stable, we moved toward the hall.

This promises much for the ultimate showdown. But now, at his long-awaited death scene, all he gets to do is glare, and then zip! All over. He is not granted so much as a "Bah!," let alone a threat to make the lot of them his jackals when he wants to feed.

One reason for this may be the choice to show the scene through Mina's eyes. As I've repeated to the point of tedium, Stoker seems to recognize Mina as both the smartest and the bravest person on the whole team. Van Helsing certainly says as much, though he tends to do it in a patronizing tone, neutralizing the threat Mina presents. For instance, after the men have lost the trail, Mina uses logic to figure out where Dracula is going:

When I had done reading, Jonathan took me in his arms and kissed me. The others kept shaking me by both hands, and Dr. Van Helsing said, "Our dear Madam Mina is once more our teacher. Her eyes have been where we were blinded. Now we are on the track once again, and this time we may succeed."

Like one of the characters said on Mad Men when Peggy came up with her first slogan: "it was like a dog playing the piano." Mina, far more than a simple victim, comes close to rendering the whole posse of men irrelevant--she's smart and physically brave; only her weakness from the "vampire baptism" would seem to hold her back from being able to destroy her attacker herself. So I sense that in having her narrate the killing of Dracula, Stoker is somehow trying to give Mina her due, while at the same time making sure the male heroes have something important (and traditional) to contribute. Because of her social position, she can't do the actual deed, but she can at least tell the story of the deed.

But because she is an observer and not a participant in the action, she's not engaged in the life-and-death struggle with the vampire. This means the opportunity for any kind of existential struggle is lost--for example, Dracula looking into his killer's eyes and saying, "Zo. You are like me after all. I didn't think you had the guts..." Or, had it been Mina who killed him, he might have made an almost persuasive appeal to her latent desires for power and freedom: "We shall rule the night. We shall fly together through darkness, through fields of stars. These twerps here shall be our jackals. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life proofreading Jonathan's legal prose?"

Again, I realize the book is not intended to be psychologically challenging on this level, but it almost is, in so many places. Even here, as Mina sees the "peace" on the Count's face, we're reminded that this hasn't been a simple story of good and evil, that it's had to be squished a bit to fit in that box.

Also, my theory here is not airtight. Why couldn't Mina observe and narrate a more complex scenario? Maybe she could even have wanted to intervene, to help Jonathan, who always needs her help? She could try escaping from the holy circle Van Helsing has set up around her, throw herself again and again against the force field...

I don't know. Maybe Stoker just wanted the whole thing to be overwith. Or he didn't want to risk giving the Count any final statements that could lead to doubts about the rightness of his killers' actions. But I think the ultimate issue is this: like Mina herself, the novel is far more intelligent and interesting than its tradition--in this case, its genre--allows it to be.

Anyway, what can we learn from this, as writers of contemporary literary fiction? A genre frame--like the Gothic novel, the detective novel, the romance, etc.--can give you some wonderful creative constraints. But if you're going to challenge those constraints, you really have to break all the way through. Don't just mosey up to them and poke at them, or your readers might not realize what you're doing.

Friday, October 08, 2010

30th Anniversary (+ 1 week) of Cosmos

OK, so apparently the official 30th anniversary of Cosmos was last week. But think of it...thirty years! I am re-watching the whole series to celebrate.

To my mind there has never been another series like this, weaving all branches of science together with history, culture, beautiful scenery, and great writing, all orchestrated by an intellectual/charismatic/goofball host in a red turtleneck. To think that back then, Sagan was already warning us about global warming (more often called "the greenhouse effect")--in fact, his studies of the atmosphere of Venus helped lay the groundwork for understanding the whole concept. Of course the more immediate worry was nuclear war and the possibly resulting nuclear winter, another idea drawn from studies of Venus. The series's ultimate purpose really was to SAVE THE WORLD by showing us everything we had to lose.

For me, the show continues to inspire a form of secular awe that I imagine other people get when attending church or reading sacred texts. Who are the scientists, artists, and intellectuals who can inspire us this way today? Will pseudo-intellectual religious demagogues continue to fill this vacuum?

Yes, I know Sagan was a jerk in his off-hours. I know the set of Cosmos was an unpleasant place to be much of the time (sparkling ocean/Mediterranean Sea notwithstanding). The book below tells some of those stories. Such are the contradictions we must often hold in our minds in the presence of masterpieces.

Anyway, you can watch it on Hulu.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

The perfect vs. the alive

Jeanette Winterson, author of one of my favorite books on earth, The Stone Gods, says in yesterday's NYT Book Review:

[Michael] Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.

I completely agree. I haven't yet read the new Cunningham book, but I just had this exact experience reading Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut. This book's received a lot of attention, and much of the criticism has been a kind of lament: the Sam Sheppard section is so good, so moving, so real...if only Ross hadn't felt the need to frame it inside a gimmicky, video-game-inspired meta-narrative.

Leaving aside the issue that I myself wanted to write about Sam Sheppard, and am now feeling rather kneecapped, I too had misgivings about the larger framework, at first. One problem is that the Sheppard story is, in and of itself, so powerful that virtually any fiction could seem wobbly next to it. There is a reason why people continue to get sucked down the Sheppard rabbit hole. It's a genuine American tragedy, which also delivers the disheartening news that information is not the same thing as knowledge. There is a ton of information about the crime, some of it horrifically lurid--but none of it adds up to knowing for certain who did it. The event demands answers and thwarts them with equal energy. So Ross's inclusion of a long narrative section that straightforwardly recounts the crime, from various individuals' points of view (including the victim's), is already daring in the extreme.

As for the framing meta-narratives of Mr. Peanut: yeah, probably we do have enough Mobius-strip-shaped books about writing books about writing books...but why not have one more? And why not end the book with two academic lectures on women's roles in Hitchcock films, and in 1950s suburbia, which dovetail into essentially the same thing? Hitchcock himself glued pedantic psychological disquisitions onto his films, notably Psycho, and we all agree this was a mistake, right? So why does Ross, who's specifically writing about Hitchcock, do it too--is it just a parody, or does he believe there's something important about the clunkiness itself? I have begun to think the latter. This is an aesthetic decision, to destroy the "waxwork" illusion of a transparent world and knock readers upside the head: this stuff's important! This stuff kills! Understand this! Such urgency in getting the point across is, in its own way, as moving as a deeply absorbing scene.

True, as I read along, I did keep thinking...I don't know about this Mobius figure. I don't quite like the video-game analogy. I don't see why we're spending so much time in Hawaii. Yet I kept reading, and while I thought I could come up with better solutions at first (No Mobius? Less Hawaii?) they kind of fizzled by the time I got to the end. Yes, the book's imperfect, and the imperfections got me riled. I wanted to argue, and, as Winterson says, this is good. In the strange and fascinating case of Mr. Peanut, much is attempted--and the attempt itself is the accomplishment.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Show, don't tell, for God's sake, Bram

Yes, it has been a great many days since we last checked in on Dracula and the valiant attempt to finish him off. I speak of the book's heroes' attempt, not my own. My efforts have been less than valiant. It's true that I have been unusually absorbed in trying to get my novel finally, finally out the freaking electronic door (nearly there! so close!). But it is also true that as I look at the battered paperback waiting for me on the coffee table, I see not a classic of Victorian literature, but a football-sized field of wet concrete, on the other side of which is...more wet concrete.

This should be the most thrilling part of the entire novel--the pursuit of the arch-villain back to his homeland--but there is just. too. damn. much. blabbing. There's interesting stuff going on, including Mina and the Count's psychic connection, which turns her into a sort of broken office intercom that allows the evil boss to eavesdrop on his rebellious employees. But every time the momentum picks up just a tad, we are treated to paragraphs like this:

"What does this tell us? Not much? No! The Count's child thought see nothing, therefore he speak so free. Your man thought see nothing. My man thought see nothing, till just now. No! But there comes another word from some one who speak without thought because she, too, know not what it mean, what it might mean. Just as there are elements which rest, yet when in nature's course they move on their way and they touch, the pouf! And there comes a flash of light, heaven wide, that blind and kill and destroy some. But that show up all earth below for leagues and leagues. Is it not so? Well, I shall explain. To begin, have you ever study the philosophy of crime? 'Yes' and 'No.' You, John, yes, for it is a study of insanity. You, no, Madam Mina, for crime touch you not, not but once. Still, your mind works true, and argues not a particulari ad universale. There is this peculiarity in criminals. It is so constant, in all countries and at all times, that even police, who know not much from philosophy, come to know it empirically, that it is. That is to be empiric. The criminal always work at one crime, that is the true criminal who seems predestinate to crime, and who will of none other. This criminal has not full man brain. He is clever and cunning and resourceful, but he be not of man stature as to brain. He be of child brain in much. Now this criminal of ours is predestinate to crime also. He, too, have child brain, and it is of the child to do what he have done. The little bird, the little fish, the little animal learn not by principle, but empirically. And when he learn to do, then there is to him the ground to start from to do more. 'Dos pou sto,' said Archimedes. 'Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world!' To do once, is the fulcrum whereby child brain become man brain. And until he have the purpose to do more, he continue to do the same again every time, just as he have done before! Oh, my dear, I see that your eyes are opened, and that to you the lightning flash show all the leagues," for Mrs. Harker began to clap her hands and her eyes sparkled.

First, and least of all: if you are going to do info dumps like this, please, please, not to do them in the voice of a guy whose command of the language is imperfect, and who nevertheless (Newt Gingrich-like) enjoys quoting from The Ancient Sages and The Latest Sciences to reveal his own amazing learnedness!

But why is this happening in the first place? Of course Stoker's was less of a show-don't-tell age than our own. Not bombarded by glowing, rapidly moving images every second of their lives, his audience most likely had both the patience and desire to slog through...I mean, peruse lengthy accounts of esoteric subjects. It is also likely that the desire for such information was stronger in them, certainly on the topic of vampires, which were not nearly as familiar a subject as they are to us. Insights not only into vampire lore, but into the makings of this particularly dangerous example of the type, were probably welcomed rather than skimmed.

However, this raises the more general problem I have with lots of genre literature: the overemphasis on world-building. Many people (Tom Clancy fans, say) love genre fiction precisely for the information it delivers about unfamiliar places, procedures, and times. Ultimately, reading such novels, for these readers, is just a more fun way of learning than studying a technical manual. Nothing wrong with that; I'd just rather learn the stuff by watching characters interact with these worlds. And I don't think much would have been lost had all this information been shown to us through the course of Dracula's misadventures in England and on the high seas.

And that's the other key issue. We have multiple points of view in this novel, but never Dracula's. I get the reasoning: he must be mysterious and therefore opaque. We also must not be tempted to sympathize with him in any way, although Mina herself, at one point, suggests that any decent Christian ought to try. (If what Van Helsing says is true, he really must be suffering something awful.) BUT. An inventive author could certainly present Dracula's point of view without demystifying him--in fact, one could make him far more mysterious that Van H's dry treatises (which he even admits are dry) turn out to be. Our sympathies with him, if invoked, could make the story even more disturbing.

The fact is, we don't quite see enough of Dracula. Yes, he has to be shadowy, and a little of him goes a long way.* But thus far we have really had too little, apart from his very entertaining scenes in the beginning. (Remember climbing down the castle wall headfirst, dressed as Jonathan?) He has become less of a being than a scholarly project of Van Helsing's--and Van Helsing clearly does not possess the gift of bringing the subjects of his inquiries to life.

Nevertheless, I press on...

*In the course of writing my novel, I have also learned that this is true of Bigfoot. I now no longer tell people my novel is "about" Bigfoot. However, he is a significant minor character.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


There's an interesting piece by Laura Miller on Salon about present vs. past tense in fiction. Evidently judges of various literary prizes are up in arms about the present tense. Too much contemporary literature is written in present, they say. It's too trendy, to MFA-y, and too wishy-washy--i.e. unwilling to commit to stating that something actually happened. Present supposedly creates a greater sense of unreliability, which I guess MFA types (especially girls) prize. The judges long, as it were, for the past.

As I am always a step ahead of the herd (usually because I am lost and have wandered into a farmer's field), I have already transposed my novel from present into past. I don't think it was because it seemed too trendy or wishy-washy. I wanted the story to seem more like a tale, a bit more mythical. If anything the past tense seems more flexible in the did-it-really-happen department. Present tense consumes the storytelling; there is no perspective, nothing outside the present moment, no wiggle room to say, wait a minute... Whereas the past could be someone spinning a yarn. It could be a tale told a thousand times already, by a thousand idiots, or liars, or tricksters, or people with poor memories. At the same time, it does have this oracular quality, but I think, in this day and age, that quality can be usefully played with.

Past also allows you to move closer to and farther from the action at will. There's room to insert reflective passages, but then you can dive back in and get really close to what is happening, for all intents and purposes, now.

As Miller says, if the writing is good, you'll get caught up in the story either way. You might not even notice the tense unless the writing is bad in other ways.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma

On Saturday night we went to the public viewing program at the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which is in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma. In addition to the observatory's telescopes, the docents set up about a dozen telescopes in the parking lot. We got to see the Andromeda Galaxy, Jupiter + 4 of its moons, a couple of globular clusters... I'll go out on a limb and say this is the best stargazing opportunity this side of the Sierra.

The next public viewing night is Oct. 2. It's $3 very well spent, in my opinion. You'll feel extremely small, in an extremely good way.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Short Fiction Series: March 13, 2011

Change in plans. An evening of my short fiction will be performed on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. (The previous date was October 2011.) So it's coming up! Save the date! Come to LA! The evening is called "What the Witch Wants, and Other Stories."

Borrowed Fire: Does Dracula have a psychology (part 2)? Or: the Gothic John McCain

As we make our way toward the final confrontation with you-know-who, we are once again treated to one of Van Helsing's patented info dumps, i.e. stuff it might have been good to know earlier. I suppose I should not complain. After all, I've been on Van H repeatedly for always going off to do research at the very moments when he ought to be vigorously pursuing Dracula with a stake. So now he's found out something kind of interesting about Dracula's psychology, and I guess it's better late than never. Besides, don't we all have the same problem--preparation vs. action? Research vs. writing? No matter what we're doing, it seems like the wrong thing at the wrong time, doesn't it?

Anyway, here's what he's learned:

"I have studied, over and over again since they came into my hands, all the papers relating to this monster, and the more I have studied, the greater seems the necessity to utterly stamp him out. All through there are signs of his advance. Not only of his power, but of his knowledge of it. As I learned from the researches of my friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth, he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist--which latter was the highest development of the science knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse. He dared even to attend the Scholomance, and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay.

"Well, in him the brain powers survived the physical death. Though it would seem that memory was not all complete. In some faculties of mind he has been, and is, only a child. But he is growing, and some things that were childish at the first are now of man's stature. He is experimenting, and doing it well. And if it had not been that we have crossed his path he would be yet, he may be yet if we fail, the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life."

As before, this is not exactly a psychology. We're learning this info primarily so we can see what a formidable enemy Dracula is. He's extremely smart, and, for the first time, we understand he has a Plan.

Interestingly, vampirism seems to be akin to a brain injury--it causes faculties usually present in adults to vanish. I'm not quite sure what the reference to his being childlike means, but we might assume it's a radical narcissism, which doesn't recognize the existence of others as others. That obviates the need for any conscience, and explains his desire to populate the world with mini-Dracs. In his mind, everyone is either him, or should be him.

Yeah, this is overstated. Van Helsing's insights don't raise Dracula beyond the level of extra-scary monster. However, this description put me in mind of another character who could become a truly tragic monster, if someone wants to write that particular novel. I am thinking of John McCain. I have no evidence one way or the other to indicate whether he once was smart. However, like Dracula, he was a proud warrior. He was laid low by his enemies. At some point--perhaps as a result of torture, or that combined with years in the strange and stultifying castle of the U.S. Senate, plus two (or more?) failed runs for president--he developed a burning desire for vengeance. What he may once have been, he is no longer. He bides his time, learning and plotting as his conscience withers away. Until one desperate day, faced with what could be his final defeat, he makes a bargain with the devil. And unleashes a red-suited, bee-hived demon upon the earth...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

My walk in the hills

Falling behind in my Dracula reading again...but not because I am bored! Or fed up with some of the kind of stupid stuff, like Jonathan, and Van Helsing's accent! Classic literature is wonderful and good for us, and I will get to it soon. But a week has gone by, and one feels one should post something. So I give you:

My Walk in the Hills

On Monday, Labor Day, Trev and I spent the afternoon at Costanoa. For those of you who don't know, this is a campground for people who hate camping. You can bring a tent and sleep in it if you really want to, or park your RV, or you can stay in a tent-cabin, or a cabin, or the lodge. Or you don't have to stay overnight at all, just hang out and pretend you are a camper. No one will know. There's a pretty nice restaurant with pretty good food and completely unpredictable service, and you can dart across Highway One to the beach. In the other direction there's a trail leading up a hill, with nice views of the Bay.

So after a fortifying campers' meal of pizza and pinot noir and a roast artichoke (OK and a banana split...IT WAS A HOLIDAY), Trev and I set off up the hill. This was about 5 p.m., prime hunting time for various grassland creatures. We saw a bobcat, which was a beautiful russet color with spots, and which looked at us with supreme boredom and contempt. Then we didn't see anything for awhile, other than deer and birds. Which are fine, nothing wrong with deer or birds. But in their very familiarity they can lull you into thinking that nature is benign and predictable, when in fact it has you in its cross-hairs...

On the way back down I was walking ahead, not in the moment as usual, probably thinking about my novel or reminiscing about the banana split, when I saw something waving in the grass. Maybe it was an unusually large tuft of pampas grass? Except it was black and white, and suddenly Trev was yelling and pulling me back. So it was a skunk. I came this close to getting sprayed head to toe. But I didn't. I guess it would have been a better story if I did.

It's all I've got, folks. I've been preoccupied. Back to Dracula.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How character can help plot

So Dracula has been a bit of a slog this week. How can this be, when this week's reading culminated in the still-somewhat-shocking scene of Dracula forcing Mina to drink from a vein in his chest--like "a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink"?

Well, to get to this point, we have to slog through some pretty tedious plot logistics, which are rendered necessary by faulty characterization. If I may be so bold. Yes, I get that this is a horror novel, not a literary novel, and so characterization is secondary to plot. But in this case the plot problem is actually a character problem. Or maybe even a philosophical problem that hampers characterization.

Stoker, perhaps deliberately, misunderstands the nature of heroism. Dracula is fundamentally a story of good vs. evil, but Stoker mistakes "good" for "perfect." His male heroes, in order to be heroes, all have to be indisputably wise, brave, diligent, strong, and solicitous of the weaker sex. But his plot demands that all these perfect guys fail utterly to discern that Mina is being attacked by Dracula while they are out looking for Dracula. This failure would suggest that they are at least somewhat deficient in wisdom, bravery, diligence, strength, and consideration.

But in this understanding of heroism, that can't be. Therefore, we need elaborate explanations as to how this failure occurred that don't entail personal failings in the characters. These explanations are convoluted and ultimately not convincing. Contrary to the author's apparent intentions, they even make the characters look dumb and callous. After all they've been through--all the research, all the collating and comparing of documents, not to mention the wasting away and then the bloody murder of Lucy, which they all saw and participated in...they still have no idea what is happening to Mina.

To be fair, Mina herself seems to have no idea. She, like her husband and the expert Van Helsing, insist on seeing her problem as womanly nerves. She is more tired than usual, pale and weepy--which suggests being "visited" by Dracula is like getting your period. These symptoms confirm for both Mina and the guys that they were right in having her stay at home alone while the men went out to not find Dracula. The fact that it is unusual for Mina to behave this way does not raise any red flags--if anything, it seems to bring relief to all concerned (including the author) that Mina really is (just) a woman. We were right not to bring her along--just look at how exhausted she is from merely thinking about hunting vampires! Whereas we sort of suspect that Mina, if she had gone along, would have found and staked Dracula in a second, while the guys were still leafing through UPS notices, debating the whereabouts of the boxes of earth that Dracula has had shipped to England.

But what if Stoker had a different definition of heroism? Let's say Jonathan is a bit dumber than his wife. Say he's uncomfortable with this--it threatens his sense of manhood, which is already under threat because he's not brave, or at least thinks he isn't. This is understandable. He lives in an age in which women aren't supposed to be smarter or braver than their husbands; moreover, Jonathan has been through some serious trauma in Castle Dracula. We would understand if he were scared and confused, and perhaps too quick to attribute Mina's pallor to a stereotype that he knows, deep down, is wrong. And let's say Van Helsing was once a great vampire hunter. But the years, and the grisly nature of his business, have taken their toll. Some part of him just doesn't want to deal with Dracula. He doesn't want to cut off another head and stuff the mouth with garlic. He's old and tired. Maybe he even has some sympathy for the creatures he has to kill--cast out by God and man, and it isn't their fault, really...Can't someone else take over? I could even see Mina and Dracula having an interesting conversation before know. Mina can't help being drawn to the Count--she knows he's bad, really bad, but so much more interesting than Jonathan, with his endless nattering about real estate and office politics...

So the scared young guy and the exhausted old guy and the smart but frustrated woman make a series of mistakes. Their psychology causes them to willfully misread Mina's illness, allowing Dracula to almost do her in. But they pull themselves together, despite their fear, exhaustion, revulsion, and stupidity, to do what they have to do in the end. Isn't that a more compelling definition of heroism? Overcoming one's flaws to do the right, and hard thing?

On the other hand, who am I to criticize? Dracula has, you know, done all right as a novel. It will no doubt outlast us all. It's a classic. And, again, I know Stoker didn't set out to write a literary/psychological novel. It's just that he almost did. And while I don't write genre novels, and can't really presume to tell others how to do it, it still seems to me that *even* genre novels benefit from having complex, flawed characters. It would make at least this plot more interesting and believable.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The joy of query letters

I'm not quite at the stage of sending out queries for my novel yet. But I am drafting the agent query letter, which has turned out to be a pretty enlightening process.

The guidance I've found most helpful so far comes from agent Noah Lukeman, who has written a free e-book on query letters. He advises keeping the summary of your novel to one paragraph, three sentences long. Seems like an extremely tall order, but, with the help of some swift comparisons, it's actually doable. (The Brothers Karamazov meets A Canticle for Leibowitz! OK, I didn't use that one...)

I remember the agonies I went through trying to write the abstract for my dissertation, and it's safe to say I *never* succeeded in getting at the heart of what I was writing about. But maybe that's because I had 1-2 pages to work with, instead of three sentences. Actually writing it in one sentence first is even better (this is called the "log line" or "hook," I've learned).

Yes, your novel is complicated, but if you can't summarize it in one or three sentences--I mean literally cannot, after weeks of effort--you do have a problem. It means your purpose in writing your novel is not clear to you. And that means it will be unclear, not only in your synopsis or log line, but in the novel itself.

For me, the process of drafting the query has involved a dialog between the novel and the query. Between query drafts, I've found myself returning to the novel and revising. Not massively, but enough to clarify issues that caused the synopsis I was trying to write to sound false. In other words, I'd write a synopsis that seemed like it should be true, but I realized in the novel that it wasn't. I asked myself why not, and often decided the synopsis version was the better one. Writing the synopsis helped me figure out something that didn't yet make sense in the novel.

There must be a point when it is too early to try to write a synopsis and log line, but it seems to be a very helpful tool in later-stage revisions.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Borrowed Fire: What do authors know about their own intentions? Or, Jonathan, you idiot!

I have said it before: Keanu Reeves was the right choice to play Jonathan Harker in Dracula. First, a highlight reel to prove my point:

And now this week's reading. He and the boys have been out looking for the Count, and--amazingly--not finding him. Instead they have just managed to "count" (ha!) the boxes of earth in the chapel, and play with some schnauzers. From Jonathan's journal:

I came tiptoe into our own room, and found Mina asleep, breathing so softly that I had to put my ear down to hear it. She looks paler than usual. I hope the meeting tonight has not upset her. I am truly thankful that she is to be left out of our future work, and even of our deliberations. It is too great a strain for a woman to bear. I did not think so at first, but I know better now. Therefore I am glad that it is settled. There may be things which would frighten her to hear, and yet to conceal them from her might be worse than to tell her if once she suspected that there was any concealment. Henceforth our work is to be a sealed book to her, till at least such time as we can tell her that all is finished, and the earth free from a monster of the nether world. I daresay it will be difficult to begin to keep silence after such confidence as ours, but I must be resolute, and tomorrow I shall keep dark over tonight's doings, and shall refuse to speak of anything that has happened. I rest on the sofa, so as not to disturb her. (Emphasis added, because Jonathan is too dumb to see it.)

Two things. Thing One: after all the vampire-induced horrors that everyone, including Jonathan, has been through, he still misinterprets Mina's pallor as nothing more than womanly nerves--even though Mina has proven time and again she is not subject to womanly nerves. Jonathan is. Which leads us to Thing Two: IF Jonathan had given Mina her due and let her come out with the boys to look for Dracula, she would not have been left alone to be fed on by same.

Overtly, Stoker seems very keen on stifling any hints of feminine strength--bravery, sexuality, taking charge, knowing stuff. Witness Vampire Lucy's punishment when she makes the moves on Arthur. And maybe getting drained by Dracula is Mina's punishment for even vaguely wanting--without forcing the issue in any way, mind you--to be considered an equal. Surely the endpoint is the same: she will need to be rescued and redeemed by men. Still--Stoker seems to be making repeated efforts to reveal Mina's intelligence and strength in contrast to her husband's relative obtuseness and ineffectualness.

If this is the case, and not just me imposing my own beliefs on the story, my question is, does Stoker intend for us to read the story this way? I know, for readers, it ultimately does not matter: we see what we see. But for writers, is it incumbent upon us to recognize our latent intentions and draw them out? Is Stoker's treatment of Mina and Jonathan actually subversive because he did recognize the situation, and decided not to hit is over the head with it? Or do Mina and Jonathan's more nontraditional qualities come across as unintentional?

My Signet Classic version of the novel has an introduction by Leonard Wolf, who asserts that the novel "has embedded in it a very disturbing psychosexual allegory whose meaning I am not sure Stoker entirely understood." If Lucy were the main female character, I would tend to agree. But the dynamic between Mina and Jonathan suggests another level of awareness, if not full consciousness, that men sell women short. In fact, the way Jonathan always has to keep his wife down for her own good makes him a kind of author-insert. Stoker sometimes clumsily reins his female characters in--he may think it's necessary, but he also may suspect it's stupid.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The fear tax

Via The Daily Dish, here's Seth Godin's take on "fear taxes" that we pay in all kinds of ways. For instance, airport security. We pay in time, money, aggravation, and humiliation, to go through it--and we are not reassured. We feel more anxious.

We pay the fear tax every time we spend time or money seeking reassurance. We pay it twice when the act of seeking that reassurance actually makes us more anxious, not less.

Ah, how easily extensible the notion of this tax is. Let's much time every day do I spend seeking reassurance about, say, the political future of this country, on, say the Internet...and feeling more anxious as a result? What are other supposed sources of reassurance that actually--maybe by design--increase our fears?

Should I be worried about this?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Dostoevsky does Dracula?

It is high time we got back to Dracula.

The vampire hunters band together to kill the title character. In her diary, Mina quotes the inspiring botched English of Van Helsing:

How then are we to begin our strike to destroy him? How shall we find his where, and having found it, how can we destroy? My friends, this is much, it is a terrible task that we undertake, and there may be consequence to make the brave shudder. For if we fail in this our fight he must surely win, and then where end we? Life is nothings, I heed him not. But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us forever are the gates of heaven shut, for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all, a blot on the face of God's sunshine, an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. But we are face to face with duty, and in such case must we shrink? For me, I say no, but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music and his love, lie far behind. You others are young. Some have seen sorrow, but there are fair days yet in store. What say you?"

Whilst he was speaking, Jonathan had taken my hand. I feared, oh so much, that the appalling nature of our danger was overcoming him when I saw his hand stretch out, but it was life to me to feel its touch, so strong, so self reliant, so resolute. A brave man's hand can speak for itself, it does not even need a woman's love to hear its music.

When the Professor had done speaking my husband looked in my eyes, and I in his, there was no need for speaking between us.

"I answer for Mina and myself," he said.

"Count me in, Professor," said Mr. Quincey Morris, laconically as usual.

"I am with you," said Lord Godalming, "for Lucy's sake, if for no other reason."

Dr. Seward simply nodded.

The Professor stood up and, after laying his golden crucifix on the table, held out his hand on either side. I took his right hand, and Lord Godalming his left, Jonathan held my right with his left and stretched across to Mr. Morris. So as we all took hands our solemn compact was made. I felt my heart icy cold, but it did not even occur to me to draw back. We resumed our places, and Dr. Van Helsing went on with a sort of cheerfulness which showed that the serious work had begun. It was to be taken as gravely, and in as businesslike a way, as any other transaction of life.

This scene is rife with Dostoevskian potential. Because he is not Dostoevsky, nor does he care to be, Stoker breezes through the whole vampire-hunting dilemma in less than a page. Now, if he were Dostoevsky, he--in the guise of someone like Ivan Karamazov--would dwell awhile on the fact that if one is killed by a vampire while trying to rid the world of his evil presence, one gets damned by God for one's trouble. You might think it was the bravest, most selfless act of all to risk not only one's life, but one's immortal soul, to protect others from the same damnation. One might think God would want to offer an extra special reward for such a risk. Apparently not. However, apparently "duty" (as Van Helsing puts it) goes beyond the duty to God--the duty to humankind takes precedence.

Perhaps there's a reason why Stoker blew through all this rather quickly. It's a knotty theological problem. Our heroes have, sort of quietly, renounced God, or at least God's blessings, and we admire them for doing so. It can't have been Stoker's intention to reveal the limits of God's love, to suggest that by making the greatest sacrifice of all, you could end up damned forever. Then again, maybe that is what sacrifice really means--giving up God's love voluntarily for the sake of humanity. Leaping without the net, and never expecting the net to appear. It won't, because you are beyond it.

Or is that wrong? Because you give up God's love when you do bad things, also, so...

Anyway, here's a fun writing challenge. Put Van Helsing (minus the accent, please), or Mina (who would be more interesting)* into a dialog with, say, Jesus. Model it on the Grand Inquisitor, and let it explain the role of the vampire in leading us to or away from God.

*Note that in the scene above, Mina is afraid--not of what Van Helsing is describing, but that Jonathan (I will always think of him as Keanu Reeves) is losing his nerve. The touch of his hand reassures her that he is indeed a brave man. But we don't need that reassurance from Mina; we know she's brave. Stoker then has her clam up like a good wife, and let Jonathan answer for her. Too late: she's gotten out of her cage again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Short Fiction Series

I just learned that a selection of my stories will be performed at the New Short Fiction Series sometime in 2011. By "performed" I mean by an actual actor, not by me in my droning, deadpan voice. The series is in LA, so those of you planning to be within a 2,000 mile radius of the area in 2011 should clear your calendars now. I think we'll finalize the actual date this week.

UPDATE: The date is Oct. 9, 2011. The evening is called "What the Witch Wants and Other Stories." So a kinda Halloween theme.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back from vacation, with volcanoes

No, Swerve and Vanish did not vanish. We were on vacation. For the last few days we were at Mt. Lassen National Park, which is extremely beautiful and not crowded and full of fascinating, bizarre, somewhat creepy vistas. Also wildflowers, lots of them this year--probably due to global warming, but that is an old worry.

Because vacation is a time of reflection and renewal, I have discovered something new to worry about. Volcanoes. As it happens, Lassen is still technically an active volcano, and the park is riddled with evidence of past and present vulcanism.* However, Lassen is quite a small potato on the world's volcanic buffet table.

We have been watching How the Earth Was Made, a surprisingly informative documentary series about geology from the History Channel. Well, given that it is the History Channel, they feel obligated to scare the hell out of you at least once an episode, including a description of a gruesome demise that could be yours if you play your cards wrong. So what volcano should you be worrying about? How about Yellowstone? But there's no volcano in Yellowstone, you may say. That's because the whole thing is a volcano, or as they say on the HC, a "supervolcano." Which apparently erupts every 640,000 years. The last eruption was, oh, about 640,000 years ago. And they--i.e. geologists, who all seemed remarkably chipper, considering--are picking up increased signs of an approaching eruption, like rising land and earthquakes. If that thing goes, man, it is not going to be good.

Also Krakatoa has a son, which is ready to blow.

*That word is a keeper, isn't it?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Creating realism through the problem of other minds

I've already mentioned how impressed I am with Stoker's use of detail in Dracula. His landscapes are truly stunning and immersive. Because Stoker is committed to making us feel present in his heightened reality, in which vampires roam both Transylvania and England, he provides a wealth of details that are both realistic for those places, and also "off." As it turns out, the stranger your tale, the more detail you actually need to make it believable.

In the same vein (ha!) Mina's attention to detail is one reason we trust her, and also, I think, believe in her as a character. She seems to have a complex mind, so much so that she threatens to go beyond the boundaries Stoker has set for her. In fact, maybe it's that threat that convinces us a character is "real"--you sense him or her straining against the prison of the medium. Still, Mina ought to have a little more room to begin with.

The other characters, especially the men, don't make it out of their cardboard boxes, in my opinion. Stoker spends a little too much time insisting on their bravery and goodness, as reported by other characters.* Their primary role is to coalesce into a collective force of good, fighting the singular but multifaceted evil that is Dracula.

Still, there is considerable complexity to their thoughts, if not to their emotions. Defeating Dracula is not just a matter of physical bravery--he must be outsmarted, and he is really smart. We get a sense of the kind of mental agility that's required in Dr. Seward's encounter with the madman Renfield, who is...well, let's just say he's a minion. So far he's mostly just been eating bugs and birds, and it's not yet clear how this is preparing him for his role in Dracula's scheme. But he is up to something:

I found Renfield sitting placidly in his room with his hands folded, smiling benignly. At the moment he seemed as sane as any one I ever saw. I sat down and talked with him on a lot of subjects, all of which he treated naturally. He then, of his own accord, spoke of going home, a subject he has never mentioned to my knowledge during his sojourn here. In fact, he spoke quite confidently of getting his discharge at once. I believe that, had I not had the chat with Harker and read the letters and the dates of his outbursts, I should have been prepared to sign for him after a brief time of observation. As it is, I am darkly suspicious. All those out-breaks were in some way linked with the proximity of the Count. What then does this absolute content mean? Can it be that his instinct is satisfied as to the vampire's ultimate triumph? Stay. He is himself zoophagous, and in his wild ravings outside the chapel door of the deserted house he always spoke of 'master'. This all seems confirmation of our idea. However, after a while I came away. My friend is just a little too sane at present to make it safe to probe him too deep with questions. He might begin to think, and then… So I came away. I mistrust these quiet moods of his, so I have given the attendant a hint to look closely after him, and to have a strait waistcoat ready in case of need.

What's interesting here is the complexity involved in trying to keep pace with Renfield's state of mind. Seward recognizes he is "too sane" to be probed "too deep"--because then he will figure out what Seward is up to. I don't know about you, but this scene reminds me of Jane Austen. You know, all the minute parsing of what so-and-so meant when he said such-and-such, and how maybe one should employ this strategy in order to elicit that reaction...These characters are not as nuanced as Austen's (although they are not that far off, the more I think about it), but all these layers of conjecture ultimately stem from a similar source: we cannot know other minds. At the same time, Seward's conjectures imply that both Renfield and he have minds--say what you will about the condition of Renfield's--and Seward struggles with the same fundamental problem real humans have: knowing for sure what others are thinking and feeling.

In other words, real humans spend a great deal of effort trying to fathom other humans' minds, and failing at it. Depicting your characters engaged in such a task, revealing both the nuances and the ultimate impossibility of the effort, is a good way of making them, or at least your story, more palpably realistic.

*This is especially the case with Jonathan. The characters keep insisting on how brave and unusually smart he is. For me, this protesting-too-much only proves that Francis Ford Coppola was right to choose Keanu Reeves for the role.