Deaths in a Dream
4237 words long, 3.00 hours of revision
Some NaNoEdMo Procrastination, or Why I Won't Be Buying Swain's Book
- 4,237 wds. long
- 3.00 hrs. revised
It's March. That means, if I've got my ass in gear, that it's National Novel Editing Month and I'm doing it. I got two hours in today on the revision of Deaths in a Dream (working title, may change) which was what I wrote back in November; that's the good news. The bad news is, I've only got three hours in total and the goal is fifty. Hee hee?
(The low word count refers to the rewrite. I'm taking the rough draft side-by-side with a new outline and notes on each scene, and I'm rewriting the novel into a new yWriter project.)
Doing a bit of procrastination today, I went back to an old standby, Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" for writing a novel. His method involves starting with a single sentence, then fleshing it out to a paragraph, then writing out a page of summary for each character, and so forth until you've expanded your single ice crystal of an idea into a snowflake of a novel full of all the detailed pointy bits you'd expect. It's a sort of fill-in-the-blank that gets you to write the shape of the blanks out first. It's a neat idea, but I don't think I've ever really found an occasion to use it. I go into a rough draft with a rough outline, but nowhere near the level of planning Ingermanson suggests, mainly because I write the rough draft to find out what the hell it is I'm writing. And now that I've got a rough draft and a much better idea of what the final should look like, I'm not sure his method goes the way my brain goes. Maybe I'll try bits of it here and there. The character page summaries seem useful; I seem to have less of a grip today on the character of Lia than I did back in November.
I've also discovered I... don't really like Ingermanson's writing style. I'm sorry! But I don't. He keeps inserting jolly comedic bombast that, as a joke, gets old quick. In my opinion. It's not so bad in Snowflake, where he mostly gets it out of the way in the first couple paragraphs and then gets down to business. But I clicked over to his other free article, "Writing the Perfect Scene," and the bombast was something like 40% of the content.
This may seem obvious, but by the end of this article, I hope to convince you that it's terribly profound. If you then want to fling large quantities of cash at me in gratitude, please don't. I'd really rather have a check. With plenty of zeroes.Yes, this is an example from the beginning of the article. No, he doesn't stop doing it there. I couldn't finish reading the section on "Small-Scale Structure of a Scene" because he would just not stop MY FUNNY LET ME SHOW YOU IT about "writing MRUs correctly." (What's an MRU? Coming to that. Momentito, amiguitos.)
He's also got a little problem with sexist language:
Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience. If you're writing a romance, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is falling in love herself. If you're writing a thriller, you must create in your reader the illusion that he is in mortal danger and has only the tiniest chance of saving his life (and all of humanity). If you're writing a fantasy, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is actually in another world where all is different and wonderful and magical. And so on for all the other genres.OK, so, he's got the idea down of alternating "he" and "she" in order to avoid unconsciously treating Male as Default Human. Except... see what he does with the pronouns? Female pronouns for romance and fantasy; male pronouns for thriller. Bets on which pronoun he would have used had he gone on to describe the emotions of science fiction? Bets?
It's a small thing, but it does bug me. Put it together with a tendency to overload every new section with a fresh shmear of LOOKIT ME IN UR ARTICLE BEIN FUNNY before getting around to making actual informative points, and I fall right off the page.
OK so well but anyway he recommends this book, says he's stealing all his scene-building ideas from it. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. This is where he gets MRUs, or "motivation-reaction units" ("such an absurdly ridiculous term that I'm going to keep it, just to prove that Mr. Swain was not perfect") from. "If you don't have this book," Ingermanson says, "you are robbing yourself blind." All right, already. I go look at the Amazon page.
Would you like to know why I will not be buying this book, robbing myself blind though I might be? Would you like to know? My problem with Swain, let me show you it. Let me rip it straight from Amazon's "Look Inside The Book" feature and show you it:
And each authority is dangerous to the very degree that he's correct, because that's also the degree to which he distorts the actual picture. Put four such specialists to work as a group, designing a woman, and she might well turn out like the nightmare of a surrealistic fetishist, all hair and derrière and breasts and high French heels.So. "Man" equals "person" equals "writer." Are women writers? No! They are what Men Writers create. Also, they're nightmares.
So . . . no magic key. No universal formula. No mystic secret. No Supersonic Plot Computer.
It's enough to plunge a man to the depths of despair.
This is, perhaps, not entirely unusual given the book was published in 1965. Except no, wait, here are a bunch of other books published in 1965. Some of them are on my shelf. Many of them have caused me less pain, cover to cover, than these few paragraphs did. Swain! More sexist than many of his contemporaries, and possibly proud of it!
According to reviewer T. Velasquez from Beaverton, Oregon, this is no simple unfortunate exception. He goes on like this throughout the book. Says Velasquez,
On the downside, the very dated presentation in the book can made for hard reading to the modern PC crowd. Swain writes very clearly from the POV that his readers are male. He never says that women can't write books but he mentions only one female author and she is used in a negative example. Swain uses the terms 'man/men' interchangeably for people. Of course, Swain was a product of his times but his style of writing borders on the unintentionally insulting.That single female writer he brings up as a bad example? Let's grab another quote from the first chapter of Swain's book. Meet "Mabel Hope Hartley (that's not her real name)...."
He refers to a black woman as a 'negress' at one point and his examples portray all wives (and women since this is the only thing he can allow women to be in his examples) as cheating on their husbands the moment that their husband's backs are turned: The understanding being that women are weak and mindless submissive creatures that are easily influenced by other men and must be constantly supervised.
...queen of the love pulps thirty years ago.... Old and tired now, she turns out just enough confessions to support herself.Ah, yes. Ye olde "old and tired," code phrase for "Woman who is no longer sexually interesting to me, and should therefore get out of my face, preferably by hiding herself away in a retirement home or maybe dying so I don't have to look at her." Old and tired. Which has what, exactly, to do with the profession of writer? In any case, old and tired Mabel Hope Hartley's role is to give the hypothetical (male) newbie (his name is Fred) bad advice so that manly Dwight V. Swain (Swain! I swoon) can rescue him and other newbie writers like him (alike to him right down to the male pronoun) from her old and tired badness.
"Modern PC crowd," nothing; Swain's book is painful for me to read as a woman. As one of those female writers that don't exist in Swain's world. As one of those terrible bad-advice-giving female writers who is probably cheating on her husband if he isn't nailing her fins to the floor. And is causing surrealist fetishists nightmares or something, I dunno. Clearly, if Swain were still with us today, I would be causing him nightmares just by existing. And writing. And publishing.
I should note that out of all the reviews on Amazon, most of which are 5 star and say "The writing Bible!" and "Should be required reading for all writers!" (because, Gods know, if women find Swain's writing painful they should just suck it up in the name of Becoming A Writer), Velasquez's review is the only one that mentions Swain's problem with slightly more than half the human species.
Anyway, valuable lesson learned. If a writer with an unfortunate tendency to fall into unconscious sexist language from time to time recommends a book about writing, and recommends it very very strongly as the book he got all his best ideas from, it is not unlikely that the recommended book will be full of a lot more sexist language that's a lot less unconscious. If your mentor is mouthing nasty bigoted stuff about women, or about people of color for that matter, and you learn a lot about writing from that mentor, well, it's hard to come away without having unconsciously internalized some of the nasty stuff.
Choose your mentors carefully to the extent you have a choice, right?
That said: If someone has taken Swain's good ideas, such as still apply today (Velasquez says he has a lot of ideas that don't pertain to today's publishing industry either), and has repackaged them within a writing style that, I dunno, acknowledges women as human beings who might have something worthwhile to say, maybe? then I'm all ears. I have a list, it is currently one author long, that author is Ingermanson. I should like the list to be longer. Suggestions?
Day 30: A Winner Is Me!
- 53,268 wds. long
And not just in the conventional 50K sense. But I have finally gotten to a point of completion with this draft.
Wellll... OK. I haven't yet written the denoument. But I'm forgiving myself that for now, mainly because I'm still unsure of its shape. Its rough shape is clear, but not the details. I need to think on it a bit more.
That aside, I've written each of the three major layers of conflict in which the book culminates. There's the Earth conflict, involving what the Earth antagonists were after and how they are finally stopped; I'm not entirely satisfied with it. I didn't really give it the development it needs. But it's there enough for now, hinted at and then resolving in a very large house fire. Then there's the Uberreality conflict, in which Chender's scheming comes to light and must be stopped, and is stopped. Even that rings a little shallow, but this too I'm going to throw at the rewrite. If a first draft is an act of discovery, a first revision is about implementing all the things I discovered on my way to the end of the first draft.
Then, finally, there's the... spiritual conflict, I guess. To use the classic literary terms I learned in high school, if the first two layers of conflict are Man versus Man, the final is Man versus Self. Well, Woman versus self, really; Jet may in fact be genderless, but I've been writing her as a woman this whole book long.
(Huh. How appropos. Tangent! I'd only today been reading about the distressing tendency in Hollywood to take genderless characters, for instance most of the cast of Monsters Inc., and give them male names and voice casting; the "default person" is male. I took a genderless character and gave it a female presentation instead. I was mainly rejecting male-as-default-action-adventure-character, and het-as-default-romance; I ended up subverting male-as-default-person while I was at it. Tangent ends!)
Anyway, I'm really not sure of the outcome of Jet's Woman versus Self conflict. Except roughly. I can see it as I used to see things when I was near-sighted and I wasn't wearing my glasses: the shape is discernible but the details are blurry.
And that's pretty much all I'm going to say. I want to publish this thing in the near future; someday, this will be a book you can purchase (or download) and read. I wouldn't like to spoil the ending.
At least, no more than excerpts to this point already have.
With a harsh, involuntary laugh, I salute Chender with my left fist, a motion that pretends to punch a hole in the ceiling. Then I sit up, toss the five stones into my mouth like so many aspirin tablets, and I simply swallow them. As I suspected, no sudden transfiguration happens, no mystical effect. They drop heavily into my stomach and sit there, undigestible. I hope they receive a damage from their new location. Whatever power Chender expected the gems held, he was wrong.And that's it for now. The draft goes into the metaphorical bottom desk drawer for a month, during which time, as they say, the crap is allowed to mellow out of it. During that time, hopefully, my brain will do the lovely composting things it does when I'm trying not to think about a work in progress. Then, in January, I hope to do some of the major restructuring required before pickier points can be wrangled.
Then I lay back down, eyes still open, and allow my human body to be human once more. Human sensation returns, animal need. The lungs breathe because they must, and thick black smoke rushes in. The skin sweats and reddens and finally chars as human skin does when engulfed in flame. It's like nothing I've ever felt before. Strange, that in all my assignments I've never exited the dream by fire. It's worth doing. Everything is worth doing, once. Living, loving, dying-- some things are worth doing more than once.
The pain is briefer than I had feared. It sharpens and contracts into a singularity of pure agony wherein nothing exists but itself. I am engulfed and snuffed by its utter self-absorbed existence. Then, abruptly, it drops to nothing. Maybe my nerve endings have all been destroyed, and I am incapable of feeling more pain. Or maybe I'm simply succumbing to smoke inhalation and leaving the body behind. For whatever reason, the pain vanishes and leaves a blank behind it, inner darkness foglike swallowing the smoke. There I find a point of clarity that I mistake for waking. I allow myself to rush toward it, a being without a body going home at last.
But something interrupts me on my way there. The darkness flashes to lapis blue and the motion of my being halts in the center of that sky. The stones relinquish their power, or their message. A familiar presence wraps me round and shares with me an intimate space of awareness.
So familiar-- so much like the being I wove my being with while my human disguise sat grieving on a motel floor. But something about her is different, strange. Unearthly. What a strange word to think; am I not un-Earthly myself? Unexpected in a way that creeps over me in shades of awe and growing wonder. I venture a thought forth: Lia?
Meantime, through December, I mean to hit the queue of stories awaiting revision. And I hope to keep up this daily pace of fiction and blogging. At the very least, I'd like to maintain a five-day work week, just as I've intended all year. The beautiful thing about NaNoWriMo is, it normalizes dailiness. Let's see how long I can continue at a comparable pace through December and into 2011.
Lastly, I should mention that these musings are coming to you live from the lobby of Boulder's St. Julien Hotel. I'm here with seven other local Wrimos, a couple of them already sporting happy purple WINNER! bars on their profiles when they arrived. The rest of us sort of cascaded at a rate of one per half hour or so. It's really neat, attending the Final Push Write-in and hearing "Fifty thousand and one! Yes!" and "OK, word count verified! I'm a winner!" followed by eruptions of applause. It's also really neat to cross that finish line in such circumstances oneself. And yes, I did cross 50k yesterday-- but I didn't get my word count verified, didn't get my word count bar to turn purple, didn't get to watch the congratulatory video from NaNoWriMo Headquarters or download my web badges and certificate, until I was here with fellow Wrimos working hard into the evening. It's a good place to be.
Day 29: Let It Be Known That On This Day
- 50,267 wds. long
I did indeed reach 50K.
Now, NaNoWriMo.org does not believe me, and indicates that I have used roughly 300 em-dashes in my manuscript thus far which have fooled its word count validator into believing two words to be one. But this does not worry me. I have one day left, that day having 2 write-ins in it, and I have two or perhaps three scenes yet to write before I can consider this draft ended. I expect it'll be another 1500 words or so. That should take care of the NaNoWriMo.org/yWriter discrepancy.
Yesterday's plot hole? I meant to fix it going forward. Not go back and edit; just, whenever referring back to the previously written scenes, pretend like they had gotten the appropriate amounts of Plot Plaster smeared on. Then what did I do? I took the plot hole and ran with it. I suppose the Muse did not approve of the quality of the Plot Plaster I had on hand, and sent me shopping for a superior brand. It's not evident from this excerpt. You'll just have to take my word for it that not only are the men Jet raised from the dead still walking around, but apparently she also can cause other profound changes that make the next conflict after this one seem increasingly artificial.
I think I'm onto something though. I'm hoping it'll solidify in my head while I sleep tonight.
You're disarranged. Deranged. You're mad. You think you can swallow a pill in the dream and wake up as a Commander of Adjustments? It's not I who am in danger of mistaking dreams for reality; it's you. My thoughts only make him chuckle. In humans, laughter is an effect of interrupted breath. In Chender it comes of his being, the thoughts that are his body; they are skipping like one of Lia's scratched CDs. What I am hearing is the sound of Chender making love with his own obsessions. The realization horrifies me. It's not possible. And even if it were, it would not be allowed. Regardless, I swear you will not be allowed the attempt.In other technical news, my Puzzle Pirates Blockade Database is coming along nicely. Today I learned how to use the PHP Simple HTML DOM Parser. Now I have a page where I choose an Ocean and immediately all the islands on that Ocean get automagically inserted/updated into my database table. Name, size, colonized or not, everything that the Ocean's Yppedia page can tell me. Also, I can add a new flag to the database with just a URL; the script scrapes the flag's name from the page. (It was already extracting Ocean and flag ID from the URL.)
But my words are mere helpless babble for all the effect they have on Chender, who continues chuckling at me. The skipping, looping, hiccuping thought shifts to new words: who could who could poss possibly possibly stop me?
Without thought, without a plan, I attack him. It is not so much in answer to his question as to make his insane giggling stop. I have the notion that, were I to listen to his madness long enough, I would be sucked into it, wrapped up and bound up and wound into this weird psychosis. So I attack.
This is all really geeky and possibly esoteric. It's very, very cool, however.
Day 28: Plot Holes Ahoy!
- 48,848 wds. long
OK, so. Jet has her "there is no spoon" moment. It involves a certain amount of hyperlucid dreaming, in that she has to arrive on Earth with her awake/reality mind and memories. But it also involves a certain amount of treating Earth as part of what is real, such that she can manipulate physicality for the illusion it is.
If this all means that she can now shapeshift, pass through walls, travel in time, and bring people back to life whom she regrets having killed, why then is she powerless to stop one particular death?
...Maybe she doesn't get to bring people back to life after all. Because people aren't illusions; they're people. People are real.
That's enough Plot Putty to keep me sane until January, I guess. Unless I end up buying a different brand of Plot Putty, the following will not survive to the next draft. This excerpt is official an endangered species! Which is just as well, because it's sort of blue and red at the same time. Which is to say, purple. With Sueish overtones. Gah.
Time, of course, is an illusion. But so is death. I remember the pictures in the monitor room, that smiling boy with the missing front tooth. In an earlier dream, I killed his father. And was it really necessary after all?
In this dream, I will bring him back.
I kneel beside the body, unzip the gym bag, pull the poor man's head onto my lap. I place my right hand over his unmoving chest. Right now, in this moment, my disguise is not precisely human. A human cannot do this: lay a kiss on a corpse's brow, then pound my fist once over his heart, then hold the man tight by his shoulders as he gasps for his first breath in hours and struggles to resume his fight with the small, fierce woman who overpowered him in the doorway.
His struggles cease in a moment. "Who's there," he rasps; "who are you?"
I lean down to whisper in his ear. "It's me," I say. "I killed you, just a moment ago--no, wait, wait--but I've brought you back now. Because I was wrong. I am sorry."
Day 27: You Use The Time You've Got
- 47,198 wds. long
I managed to use up almost the entirety of today's write-in time doing administrative stuff. It's a bit of a danger of being a municipal liaison: there are events to organize, emails to send, forum posts to submit, and on busy days the only time to get it done is at a write-in. I had about 20 minutes left when all that was done... and discovered I didn't know what to write in the next scene.
I know what happens: a series of scenes in which Jet shows up to foil every action Chender attempts to take on Earth. But I don't know what actions those are. What kinds of Adjustments does a nonphysical being attempting to force his way up the hierarchy make on Earth?
So I spent those 20 minutes babbling to myself in the scene description box.
And then today continued the way it did, all in a happy nonstop of activity, until finally 11:20 PM came around. I know it was 11:20, because that's when I checked the time, regretfully realized I must tear myself away from a fascinating conversation, retreated to my room, and opened up the laptop.
I still didn't know what Chender was up to. But yesterday I had Jet waking up in Lia's apartment. I suppose he was looking for the
macguffin lapis lazuli stones.
When you don't have a lot of time, you use the time you've got. I used about 20 minutes to jot down 400 words. What follows are most of them.
I hear a sound in the kitchen, and my heart beats faster even though I know it can't be Lia. Habitually, I reach under the mattress. The pistol is there, already loaded and waiting. I move silently from bed to floor to open the door, to slip out the hallway.
Chender is rummaging through kitchen drawers, pawing through kitchen cabinets. He hits his preposterously blond head once on a cabinet door he'd left open a moment before. He does not utter a word, only ducks sharply from the impact and straightens again more carefully. So intent is he on what he's doing, he does not even turn around, not until I cock the gun.
When he sees me, his eyes go wide.
My aim is perfect.
For a moment I worry about getting blood all over Lia's kitchen counter. It's a horrid mess. But in moments he vanishes, awakens from the dream, takes his bodily bits with him when he goes. I am alone again in Lia's apartment.
Alone, and feeling very human. The apartment is just as we left it the morning that I shot Hackforth. Her favorite coffee cup, the white one with Wile E. Coyote on one side and the Roadrunner on the other, still sits in the sink. The residue inside is a kind of calendar, telling by its decay how long it's been in Earth time since I last left the dream. If I could calculate its age precisely, then subtract the days of Lia's captivity, then subtract further the days on the road since Lia's rescue, then what remained would be the hours since I watched her blood soak into the motel carpet. Her blood would still be there, a rusty stain that would not disappear the way Chender's did from her kitchen counter. My vision blurs. My eyes itch. Both sensations ceases, briefly, and I watch the tear detatch and falls away from me into the cup. With an involuntary release of saline I help to erase Lia's presence from this world. After the first, the tears all fall together, each indistinguishable from the next as raindrops blur into raindrops in a summer storm.
Day 25: Counting My Blessings
- 45,059 wds. long
In the U.S. we celebrate a day called Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday in November. It's a national holiday for being mindfully grateful for "our blessings," a term which may be understood religiously or secularly thanks to semantic drift: the ways in which we are fortunate. The apocryphal origins of the holiday involve early explorers being grateful for not starving to death. In modern times, the day has accrued into its rituals the conjoined twin phenomena of religiopatriotism and sports. All of this together means we eat a lot, we watch some football games, and the sportscasters visit with soldiers stationed abroad and tell them and their families thank you on behalf of the nation.
In the spirit of Thanskgiving, here are the things I am most conscious of being grateful for today:
I and my husband are well off enough never to wonder where our next meal is coming from, or where we'll shelter for the night. We stayed home, slept late, and had a casual lunch in front of the TV--leftover pizza for him, crock pot field roast with veggies for me. For ease and comfort and leisure time, I am grateful.
My husband and in fact all my family, both original and chosen, support me and believe in me as a writer. I can stay home and be a full-time writer rather than clocking time in corporate office because of my husband's support. For the freedom to pursue my chosen career, and the unwavering encouragement I receive in that pursuit, I am grateful.
Today, I went to the local IHOP to meet with other NaNoWriMo participants, those who had no other Thanksgiving evening plans, to work on my novel. I clocked over 2200 words today, having inched my way over the past week up to a point where I felt I could finally skip straight to a scene of drama and energy, and that scene came out almost effortlessly. For times when the work flows like play and I remember on a gut level why I chose to do this with my life, I am grateful.
Also, today, the Saints beat the Dallas Cowboys in their (the Saints') first Thanksgiving Day appearance. For Garret Hartley's 50-yard field goal; Drew Brees's incredible accuracy; awesome catches made by Colston, Henderson, Moore, Meachem, and Bush; and for a kick-ass take-away by Malcolm Jenkins that put the Saints on the path to their winning touchdown, I am grateful. Who dat!
In all seriousness: For me, the concept of "count your blessings" functions not just as a reminder to be consciously grateful for the help I've received along the way, but also as a reminder that many people need that help. While I'm picking up groceries, others are going hungry. While my family have always stood behind my life choices and helped me pursue them, others have painful memories of being told "Writing? Waste of time. What do you really want to be when you grow up?" More and more each year as I return to the volunteer position of NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for the Boulder Region, I realize I take the job on in the same spirit that I'd donate to the local food bank. I feel like it's my responsibility to pass along, in some form or another, all the encouragement I received to the aspiring writers I meet today. The impact of that is by no means on a scale with what Actual Published Authors can do, of course; they have a lot more capital than I do, both monetarily speaking and not. I mean, Stephen King can personally fund scholarships for high school graduates in Maine, and when he writes that scholarship winner a letter of encouragement, it means a hell of a lot. Imagine! Stephen frickin' King telling you "I believe in you. Go forth, and write!" Wow. My name doesn't have that kind of impact. My funds certainly don't have that kind of plasticity. But I can give a small amount of money and a large amount of time to NaNoWriMo. And I can hope that somewhere along the way, some starry-eyed pep talk I babbled into a regional email will help someone receiving that email feel that much better--that much more justified--about giving writing an honored place in their life. If only for November.
So there we go. Happy Thanksgiving.
...Oh yeah. Novel excerpt. Like I said, I got enough of the point-A-to-point-B crap figured out that I was able to skip ahead. The bit I skipped ahead to is the bit where everybody dies. Whee! After that, this happens.
Usually when I wake I remain in human form for some little while, lying in a human bed inside a human habitation. The persistence of the illusion helps to ease the transition from form to formlessness. But after this dream, I rise fully myself, fully incorporeal, fully furious. And the object of my fury is present already, providing a space of mutual awareness into which he murmurs There you are, took you long enough. I am to have no privacy, no space to grieve. He watched my every moment in the dream, and he haunts my existence now that I am awake. The semblance of his presence is like unto a human's shit-eating grin.
I launch myself at him, ripping at his thoughts with thoughts of fire and wings and claws and teeth, a formlessness formed of pure wrath. I am seraphim-at-war, I am the glory that devours, I have five hundred throats each of which scream Chender's full name like a demon chorus pronouncing a curse. This and more I assault him with, a cacophany to bruise his consciousness.
He doesn't resist, doesn't contract his awareness to exclude me. Instead he allows me fully into it. He seems to take a sensual pleasure in allowing me to vent like this. Not that I could hurt him anyway; reality is not so fragile. Nevertheless, as my rage subsides, his lewd enjoyment leaves me feeling oddly violated.
Jetta, he thinks at me, you were going Nephil. It had to stop.
Day 24: In Which I Contemplate the Conversations I Cannot Have With You
- 42,641 wds. long
OK, so not a 2K day. Today sort of got away from me. It was full of Wednesday stuff, and also distractions. So just about 1K, and that in the last hour and a half.
Again, this being a 4th Wednesday, one my Wednesday stuff things was going to my writing class. In addition to critiquing a couple more chapters from a classmate's novel, we got to talking about NaNoWriMo. Two of us in the class are participating, so everyone else wanted to know how we were doing.
Is that how we got on the subject of...? No, wait. Let me go out and come in again.
We got to talking about critiquing novels, and about people who can't quite bring themselves to finish their novels. About the tendency to go back to the beginning and edit rather than writing the last chapter of the first draft. Or, worse yet, to throw the whole thing out and start over.
Melanie put forth the idea of having one's sense of identity bound up in the process of writing a novel, such that the author can no longer imagine themselves not writing that novel. If it were ever finished, who would they be? Someone else, inspired by the idea of having your novel be your identity, suggested that there's sometimes a fear of letting the novel have its own identity. Fear of letting the novel stop being an extension of yourself and just be itself.
Which is where I volunteered the information that I have indeed been putting bits of my novel's first draft onto my blog, "you know, just to tell the world I showed up on the page today." The connecting thought was this: Finishing a work of fiction means the author can no longer enjoy the exclusive privilege of saying what that fiction is. Once you put it out there, you open it up to the act of communication, co-creation, redefinition maybe, that takes place between the reader and the text. The author, having had her say during the writing of the piece, is now cut out of that conversation. One might understandably have a fear of ending one's role in the creation of a novel, of turning it over to the readers act of creation which is totally out of the author's immediate control. And that fear is something I do in fact confront when I put up another snippet of Jet and Lia's story.
"And you're comfortable with this?"
"Not really, no," I said. "But that's kind of why I'm doing it."
"To encounter that discomfort?"
"...yeah. To push my boundaries, step outside my comfort zone. Something like that."
Which was, for all that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about, something I hadn't really thought about before. I mean, yes, I was absolutely aware of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, but only in that I was presenting something imperfect to the world. What I'm challenging myself to do is to allow unpolished, imperfect me out into public. (Yes, I do a quick polish before I post. But it's not finished novel. It's still pretty rank rough draft.) That, and, yes, the whole showing up on the page thing. The whole "blog every day or the world will know you didn't write today" stick, in terms of carrot-and-stick motivation. (The carrot is going back and reading my blog entry, and knowing I wrote something new today, something that didn't exist when the sun rose this morning. "Put something silly in the world / That ain't been there before," as Shel Silverstein wrote. It's a good feeling, knowing I have.)
But I hadn't thought before about how everything I put up here immediately leaves my hands and goes out into the world and has conversations of its own, conversations in which I can have no further input, with anyone who claps eyeballs to this page.
Quite frankly, it's scary. I'm not entirely sure how I keep doing it.
He wore blue jeans, a plain white T-shirt, and, against the chill of a desert winter, a plaid flannel overshirt. His feet were bare. And he did indeed resemble an angel, at least one of those in a racially myopic children's picture book: tall and muscular, his skin the colorless color of the moon straddling the highway to the east, his hair one shade too blond to seem real. At any moment he would begin to glow, she thought, exuding a soft golden-pale light that, though invisible under the moon, would be detectable like napped velvet to the touch of her hand on his flesh. Her fingers would come away coated in fine dust as from a moth's wing.
When Lia said, "What are you doing here?" she could have slapped herself for the naked suspicion in her voice. But why shouldn't she be suspicious? Just because he'd startled her so excitingly, just because she inexplicably wanted to get him into a dark bedroom to see if she could read by his light, that was no reason to forget he had startled her. She folded her arms, a gesture intended more to remind herself to stay on her guard than to advertise her distrust to him.
"I might ask you the same." He stepped closer, but not so close as to engage Lia's instinct to back away. The choice appeared to be deliberate, but whether respectful or manipulative she couldn't say. His bare feet coming down onto the sand made the grains roll away in small avalanches. "It's late, and you're inconveniently far from town. If you shouted for help, I don't think anyone would hear you."
The distance between them kept the implied threat in his words from slamming into her at full force. Her alertness sharpened: flight or fight decision coming. Be ready. The sensation was more spine-tingling than spine-chilling. Lia took a step closer and shivered.
Day 23: It's Crap, But With a Beat You Can Dance To
- 41,688 wds. long
OK, so much for skipping ahead. Somewhere between then and today, I sort of got an idea of the shape of the in-between bits. How X and Y and Z happen, and how they're all related and internecessitated, I mean interdependent, and how I might get there from here. So I rearranged the order of some scenes, dropping some of them into different chapters, and babbled to myself in yWriter's scene description blocks, and moved other chapters firmly toward the end in a group of unused and unusable chapters... and finally placed the editor's cursor right where I'd left off Sunday morning.
I'm still not sure I like it. The whole thing feels very contrived: while Jet's supposed Monitor, Chender, is slipping secretively onto Earth to mess with an emotionally vulnerable Lia, Jet just happens to run into Lia's asshole brother Jack and get involved with him because she, too, is emotionally vulnerable in her own doggedly determined way. Again, there is only so far I can push Jet's dream's synchronicity. It begins to feel like a get-out-of-disbelief-free card for me, and that card's getting decidedly shabby around the edges.
But the plot had begun to feel claustrophobic in this section, containing as it did nothing but Jet and Lia and Jet's angst and Lia's scared boredom. They're getting out of the house for a bit--er, motel of the week, whatever, they're getting out of the motel for a bit, and they're meeting people and doing things. Which gives me an opportunity to tie things together, if I'm observant enough to take advantage of the opportunity.
And even if I'm not--sing it with me, now--this is only a first draft. It's amazing the connections that arise after the draft has been set aside for a few months and the author comes back with fresh eyes to evaluate it.
So. Trusting the process, trusting that I am unconsciously providing myself with opportunities to make really stunning things happen to this book in January, I continue writing a whole buncha crap. At least it's crap with a direction again.
She couldn't blame Jet for not knowing. She hadn't told her. She had never told her about her so-called family, about her mother's near-psychotic insistence on control and "civility" (because no matter what terrible things are going on in the dark, we must never be uncivil about it), about her father's stern, warped oblivion (because Lia was only a girl, not worth his time or concern), about her brother's--shit. Of course she'd never told Jet. She'd have to think about it then. Not just because she'd said, but because Jet would ask for more details. Whatever Lia chose to say, Jet would her interrogate her for more. Jet would probably think it had something to do with her infernal "assignment."There now. And speaking of crap, I'm done with crap daily word counts. Tomorrow will be a 2K+ day. Just watch.
Lia sighed and turned toward the TV. She wasn't really watching it. She'd left it on so that its play of light and shadow would make the room seem active, less empty, its puppet show holding back the night. The volume was off. Lia's own thoughts, where they might go, that was bad enough, but the TV's chatter was worse. The TV was her mother's constant companion and a foil against which civility might be enforced. Civility meant keeping voices down so that the TV could be heard. And if Lia shouted, or screamed, or cried, Lia's mother would slap her. And Lia's father would say nothing. And Lia's brother would do whatever he liked, which was usually why Lia had been screaming, which was something Lia did not want to think about right now. TV. The TV was mute. It was better that way. And it was better for Lia to think instead about Jet and her putative assignment.
It wasn't that Lia didn't believe Jet now. She had no skepticism left, at least not about the supernatural stuff. She had accepted Jet's claims into her own understanding of existence. She accepted that Jet was not of this world, that Jet could die and return to her on the third day--or even on the next day, one-upping everyone's usual go-to example for resurrrection. She didn't accept that Jet's world was the real one and hers was not, but she accepted that there were more worlds than one. And she accepted that Jet arrived with assignments to piece together and perform, and that she received her instructions while she slept
But what Lia wasn't sure about was Jet's insistence that every random thing was a message from beyond. Jet could be a being from another world and still be a bog-standard paranoid conspiracy theorist. Lia though it highly likely, and it was pissing her off.
Day 22: On Taking One's Own Advice
- 40,471 wds. long
Mondays are often hard. (This has come up before.) I get home from my morning shift at the farm, I take a shower and a nap, and then if I get anything else done in the day I'm lucky. Usually I take care of whatever I feel strongly obligated to do, like a load of laundry, but the things I want to have done for my own sake often don't get done at all.
Add to the general Mondayness that the novel is at an "I don't know what comes next" place, and the motivation to write decreases further.
One of today's obligations was to write up a regional email--an email that goes out to everyone in the Boulder region--on the occasion of NaNoWriMo Week 4 starting. These weekly emails usually contain a round-up list of events for the week, reminders about extra special events or about the ongoing book drive, and some little rah-rah pep talk about writing novels.
Since it's Week 4, I wrote about what to do when "The End" feels far too far away: Skip right to The End and write it first.
After sending the email, I let more time pass until writing today at all felt futile. It was already 11:00 PM - what could I possibly get done before the end of the day? Besides, I had no idea what to write...
"Hello, Niki. This is Your Own Advice calling. Yes, yes, I am off to visit your friends like you suggested, but it seems I've forgotten my keys and my wallet, so I had to come back for them. And while I'm here, I thought maybe I'd offer you a little help with your daily noveling task."
So I set a timer and wrote one of the end-of-book scenes while it was ticking.
As it turns out, it really is good advice. It can come home to visit any time.
And this is where I give up.(Though the advice is good, the writing is not necessarily good writing, except in that it is on the page now, which makes it by definition better than any writing that remains solely in the head.)
I have tried. I have tried as hard as anyone from any world can try. Since the beginning of memory, I have fulfilled every one of my assignments faithfully and to the letter. I have not questioned them. I have set my conscience aside, making every Adjustment required of me regardless of my personal feelings. If I have not obeyed every tradition to the letter, I have followed it to the utmost according to its spirit. But it is not enough. It will never be enough.
Yes, I got involved. I began to care. When reality ceased to hold my interest, I found love in a dream. And why not? Am I not assigned to the dream often and often? Don't get attached, Chender said--damn him, damn him forever--or it will impact your assignment. But it didn't--I did what I was sent to do, every time. Except now, when I can't figure out what it is. Even when I am awake, my Employer tells me nothing. And in the dream it seems all guidance is gone. This, after every attachment has been broken, every tie loosed. Look at me! Every day I practice forgetting her. Every night I ignore the loneliness. I have given myself entirely to the assignment--and still there is no guidance. You give me nothing.
So I give up. I take the lapis stones in my hand, letting them fall on my palm into different arrangements, trying out of habit to see clues in demonstrations of random chance. I clench them in my fist until the pressure against the flesh of my palm is painful.
Then, one by one, I swallow them.
Day 21: Well, Tell It To Stop Doing That
- 40,018 wds. long
The all-nighter write-in at Bighorn Mountain Lodge in Estes Park ended very well. The morning dawned sunny with a dramatically pink snow cloud looming behind a nearby peak. By 9:15 or so that snow cloud had reached us. It dumped its contents on us for about two hours, during some of which time it nevertheless persisted in being sunny. As the snow cleared up and I was about to drive away, I realized that the couple of elk I'd scene towards the bottom of the hill was now a huge herd of elk grazing their way right up to the parking lot. Huge, like thirty elk or more, of all ages.
They're very big, elk. But since you can't get that close, you don't always realize how big they are. Not until they pose for your camera right by a picnic table do you get a sense of scale.
About the writing--look, I really don't like what I wrote today. After meandering from idea to idea yesterday, I have Jet wandering around town trying to figure out what she's supposed to be doing, in about the same way I'm wandering around with words trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be writing. She'd like to examine the
MacGuffins mysterious gems more closely, so she wants a microscope to look at them with, so I had her meet a guy in a pub, a guy who'se in pharmaceutical chemistry. And because random convenient guy is too convenient, I decided he was Lia's no good brother. What followed was a bog-stupid drunken seduction scene that will not survive to the second draft, thank you.
This is from the bit where he drives her from the bar to his lab, which she finagled by giving him to understand that she was totally hot for chemists in situ. Like I said: bog-stupid. And, hey! note the angst. Gah.
I'm nervous the whole way there; he's too drunk to drive, he's speeding, and he runs a few red lights. Usually I wouldn't worry. Death just means waking up, after all. But waking up prematurely isn't useful to the assignment, and who knows how I'd get the stones back if I dropped them here. I try to calm myself with the thought that the dream led me to him and I'm only doing what I'm told.
But I can't get rid of the doubts. Doubts are like stray animals; once you begin to feed them, that's it--you've got a new pet. It's remarkably the same on every world I've been assigned to. There are planets with methane atmospheres where the young of the dominant sentient species are told, "Don't give that crixxith your leftover stwthyl or you'll never get rid of it." And so with doubts. I began entertaining them back at the hotel, asking myself: did the dream really send me to Lia for a purpose beyond recovering the gems? Or am I just too attached to her? (You are, my thoughts think in Chender's voice. You are too attached. They die, you know. They die and they're gone as if they never were. Don't fall in love with fictions. It is indeed a remarkable imitation of Chender's voice. I can almost hear it. With my fictional ears.) The doubts cause me now to be unsure I'd recognize the dream's cues even if a ten-foot sacred clown materialized in front of Jack's car at the next red light and beckoned me to get out, go that way, do this.
The dream wants something. And I am here. That's all the certainty I can manage.