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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  Continue reading

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Off the Treadmill

The first two-thirds of December was a treadmill system of processes. Do some grading. Step off that treadmill to go to a meeting. Work with a student freaking out about finals. Back on the grading belt. When all those belts reached their termini, jump on the neverending deal-with-those-piles-of-papers-littering-your-office treadmill, on which I do what I can, make a little progress, then happily leave. All of these things had to get done, and I got them done.

In the second third of the month, I’ve been in vacation mode. It’s usually a pleasant time of maintaining daily/weekly chores, making sure I exercise, and otherwise figuring out what to do with time that is as yet unscheduled. I’m grateful for this time and understand most people don’t get so much; I’m not going to whine about that. But the openendedness messes with my head. I spend most of my life wishing I had time of my own, then when I do, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not unusual in this way; lots of us feel this frustration. We’re too busy being busy to plan what we’ll do when we’re not busy.

Having more time has not resulted in spending more time on the novel, but I’ve maintained my daily time commitment, occasionally putting in a little more. If anything, I feel less optimistic about the project, which has become a small city of treadmills–imagine That OK Go Video but filmed on a backlot. The process is enormous. I know what I want to do, and it takes as much time as it takes. Having a windfall of time doesn’t speed things up. It’s like winning a $5000 scratch-off and thinking you’re going to buy a house with it. It’s a good thing, a minor boost, but when you land, you’ve got to keep pace so you don’t get tangled up in the conveyer belts.

Actually, the treadmill metaphor fits novel writing only if I add that I have to simultaneously ride the bike that powers the conveyance for the entire small city. I toss people on the belts, and they move along them, between them, among them, straight line to straight line. So much complexity devolves into tedious complication over years of this process, interesting like a puzzle, but where’s the story? Continue reading

MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

MyNoRevMo, Day 7: Performing Minor Surgery

During the first week of NaNoWriMo, I’ve been getting good news from my writer friends, who have either kept up the 1667-words-per-day pace or sprinted along to give themselves some room for days later in the month when they won’t have as much time to write.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing my daily 1.5 hour of revision. I’m wandering around in part two, doing whatever I feel needs to be done. And there are basically two things that need to be done: add or cut. But it’s not quite that simple. Cutting involves slashing a paragraph here, then performing minor surgery on a paragraph there. Adding involves extending this sentence, adding that completely new sentence, and keeping a list of scenes to write later (and, some days, writing one of those scenes).

The process comes dangerously close to being aimless, but it’s more accurate to say it’s a necessarily flexible way to explore the structure I laid down in planning and writing the first draft. I’m figuring out how the story works. Working in Scrivener is crucial to this process. The application allows a writer to create individual text files as large or as small as necessary, so I can drag-and-drop the parts to explore the possibilities of the whole.

For example, I had a set of scenes that felt connected, but for months I didn’t know how they would fit together. On Friday evening, the time came to play with them. I started trimming the big, chunky scenes into pieces and began weaving them together. With a little cutting and adding, I think they tell a story now as two chapters that keep the bigger story moving. Maybe they’ll need more work (I’m certain they will), but I’ve done all I can do for now. I may get the urge to work on them again tomorrow, or maybe months from now.

I’m relieved to have freed myself of the notion that I can only revise a piece of writing so many times without damaging its integrity or that I must impose a deadline on the writing I do for myself. As if writers must attend to time and material the same way an ice sculptor does. As if writers’ processes still revolve around writing longhand with a quill instead of taking advantage of technologies that allows us to take our time. I don’t mean that I’m going to smush together whatever crap I’ve written, admire it for months, and call it brilliant. I’m just going to trust my process. And I’m going to enjoy it. I’m surely not in it for the money.

The most important part of the process is putting in my time every day, which I haven’t done yet. It’s amazing to me how much harder it is to fit writing in on the weekends than during the workweek. Working on my novel this evening will be my reward doing everything else I’ve got to do today. Seeing writing as reward (rather than a setup for punishment) is the biggest change in my process in the past few years. Everything about writing takes longer than I think it should, but since I feel it’s worth the time it takes, that’s about all that matters.

Take-it-to-the-next-level-ness

I’ve been reading Ethan Mordden’s Buddies about queer life in 1970s Manhattan. It’s inspired  numerous guffaws and clutch-the-pearls moments because, to be sure, I’m an easy mark for stories that involve queens dishing. But that’s a small part of what this book involves.

Mordden develops the characters fully, and their banter peppers conversations that go much deeper than sit-com chat. He uses dialogue not as redundant commentary but to push his stories forward; the characters are talking because conversation is the activity they do most. Exposition works into the dialogue through characters’ lines and narrative comment. To put it in rather simple terms, the balance of showing and telling is about perfect.

That’s pretty much exactly what I want my dialogue to do, and the whole of my writing. But more often than not, my dialogue doesn’t. Dialogue happens to be where I begin in my process of building a scene. I suppose what I do is transcribe what the characters say and note what goes unsaid. In a first draft, when my characters aren’t talking, they’re pointing, raising their eyebrows, turning away–all kinds of pedantic attempts to show, not tell.

It’s potentially interesting stuff, but doesn’t make for engaging reading. So in revision I take out excess words (there are many) and add information that’s missing, gradually shaping it all into something more, I don’t know, full-bodied, maybe. But something about the writing still seems kind of empty. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they feel their work is strong, but it’s lacking a zing or a punch or a something-or-other-to-take-it-to-the-next-level-ness. That goes for me, too. Continue reading

I Kissed a Book

Last night I finished a book I’d been reading for a few weeks. I held the book to my lips and kissed it goodbye, then tweeted that fact to my 194 followers and the world.

Just finished the novel I've been #amreading. So beautiful. Will miss the characters. Had to kiss the book goodnight/goodbye. #bookgrief

I was having a moment. And I told the Twitterverse. And I'd do it again.

Two people I don’t know (they’re not in my galaxy of the Twitterverse) RT’d me to their thousands of tweeps. Of course, my really clever tweets go ignored, but the moment I let my guard down and admit it, I’m at risk of trending.

The kiss and the tweet were impulses I don’t regret 24 hours later. The arcs of character and story are complete. The author definitely did his job. (Yes, I’ll tell you who in a bit. The point here is love of books. Patience, gentle reader.) So I have no right to want to know what happens to the characters beyond the ending even though I understand that for practical and artistic reasons books must have endings. I mean, I’m a writer, dammit, not some sentimental ignoramus. But if a book is good to me, I’m loyal, and I grieve not getting to read it anymore.

I’m curious to know if Mattia invites his parents to visit them and if Alice follows through with the divorce. It seems damn likely those things will happen, but can’t I read on just so I can stay connected? It doesn’t matter to me that the characters are honestly dysfunctional and that the author (Hold on! I’ll tell you soon!!) doesn’t let them off easy.

My wonderful writing coach Elizabeth Stark would admire the way the stakes keep increasing in this novel. Continue reading

Compulsory Heterosexuality (But You Knew That Already)

In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe writes about how depictions of sex by the “Great Male Novelists of the last century” have changed since the 1960s. Although she mentions that all of the authors she writes about are American, she says nothing of them in regard to other aspects of identity, e.g., (duh…) sexual orientation.

Given that all of the examples Roiphe offers are of male characters having sex with female characters, it would seem that the changes she describes say something about heterosexual male characters and the writers who create them (who, in these examples, are also het). Her essay is published in the straight-white-male-canon-worshipping NYT, so apparently the straightness of all involved is supposed to go without saying.

What should go without saying is that such a default position is bullshit. If my gay ole opinion isn’t important enough (but, oh, it most certainly is), consider that not all straight dudes are alike, not even sexually. (Duh…)

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