Friday, October 31, 2008

Oh Yeah, It's Halloween

It's not that I forgot what day it is. I even spent the last couple of days working on scrounging a costume for a Halloween party tonight, so it's certainly not that I forgot. It's just that the realization of today has been rather on the periphery of my mind.

This morning, as I was writing some more of a Cass story in my notebook, I had an "Oh yeah," moment where I thought it was kind of relevant to be writing a supernatural story on Halloween. That's when the connection between the two actually clicked in my mind. Last night I was reading a Vodoo book, and it didn't connect then. Earlier this morning I sat down next to a book titled "Voodoo, Devils, and the New Invisible World," and it didn't click then. I guess I'm a little slow on the up-take today. At least, Halloween or not, it's Friday.

In other news: In honor of the day, I'm passing along an article I just read, "Why We Believe" which is interesting because it gives scientific rationale for why our brains are hardwired in a way that makes us likely to believe in the paranormal. Fun stuff, and very cool.

Otherwise, happy Trick-or-Treating tonight, I hope you get nothing but good candy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

By Tuesday

Monday was CWC night. I got lots of feedback on the second part of my thesis and everybody got to talking about how it all fight together. I admit, I walked out of the meeting bummed. After all this work on the stories, I was kind of thinking how soon I'd be done, and the gang reminded me I still had a far ways to go.

Tuesday I met with Juan and we talked timeline. The jist being that I'm running out of time to get the whole thing done. The conversation ended with him saying, "It's your call."

If I want to try for getting my thesis defended this semester, I need to have it all completely written and revised in time to distribute to my thesis committe incredibly soon. I told Juan I'd have my answer for him at our next meeting. This gives me just over four or so days to decide if I'm ready. Can I get it done in time? Do I want to try, or would it be better to just ease up on myself and allow more time?

I'm starting to really feel the stress. I'm not liking it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Writing the (Cass) Bible

I love making charts and lists when it comes to stories, even though they usually prove useless in the end. Still the physical act of drawing diagrams often proves fulcrum-like in moving my thoughts around and getting them focused.

In TV shows they often create a Bible, a rulebook that holds details about characters, the mythology of the show, etc. Today I pulled out a fresh binder and started making title pages for each of the dividers - things like "monsters/creatures" and "magical lore" got printed out, hole-punched, and plugged in. It made me feel brilliant, important, and productive.

I'm digging the orderly vibe going on here, though I admit the binder is pretty skinny thus far. Gotta write more stories so I have more details :)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I'll Take The One About Demonic Forces, Please

In order to aid my work on the new stories, I've started to hit the library. Today I went to the branch by campus and picked up a few to get me started. I've gotta say that checking out a handful of books with things like "voodoo" and "witchcraft" in the titles made me feel like I was an angsty goth teen. I was slightly embarrassed.

I had to fight the impulse to loudly announce to everyone in earshot, "It's not what you think! I'm a writer. It's research."

I'm hitting the main branch tomorrow to pick up a copy of a nifty book called Lucifer Ascending. I should wear black lipstick to do it, don't you think?

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

I heard about a character test, designed to judge if your character is a "Mary Sue," or in danger of becoming one. Since I'm in the midst of working on the new stories about the new character, I ran her through it. Her score: 18 (probably not, but be careful).

It's an entertaining test, to be sure, but far from the be-all, end-all on character construction (as the authors themselves point out). For instance, the test-writers don't like characters who are too unique. You get strikes against you if your character is a tom boy, has special abilities, is something other than pure human, or is the best at something. Oops, my bad. Then again, also Joss's bad (or anyone else's who I like). Angel, one of my favorite genre characters, isn't human, is incredibly powerful, saves the day more than anyone else, etc. Shame on him.

Now, toward the end of the test there is a section of de-Suifiers, which can help make up the difference. This is the spot where you get to click on character flaws. There are far fewer options for flaws than for perfections. Feels a bit weighted. If your character is overweight, middle aged, and a wuss, you're in good shape. Angel is none of these. Bad Joss. Angel has other flaws, some of which are listed on the test, but most of which are not. Flaws like arrogance, vanity, a savior complex, etc. But, since they're not on the test, they don't count, right?

Anyhow, the test is fun. Take it for one of your characters, but take it with a grain of salt.

For me, I'm thinking now about my character. She's the hero in an urban fantasy world, so there are certain things that go along with that - she's a bit special, she's not purely human, and she tends to be the one to save the day. I've done my best to make her personality flawed, but now I'm thinking of how else I can make life hard for her. I think I need to take some time to think about what her vulnerabilities really are. What are her weaknesses? Her vices? What's she most afraid of? What abilities/virtues does she have that could get pushed too far and turned into weaknesses? Good questions to have answers to.

Along with/instead of running one of your own characters through the test, I also recommend substituting some of your favorite characters from your favorite story tellers. I wonder how their hero does? If, according to the test, said character is a Mary Sue, what is it that the test doesn't account for which redeems them?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Thesis Plan

I just got out of a thesis meeting with Juan. I gave him another story, which leaves us with one left before he's read all of the fiction. He keeps telling me that if we need to push back the mid-November deadline, that it's not a big deal to defend next semester. It's good to know, but if at all possible I want to do it before then.

In order to do so, here's what I've got to accomplish:
Revise all of the fiction based on feedback I've gotten thus far
Draft my preface
Give the preface to Juan
Revise preface based on Juan's feedback
Give whole thesis to my committee members (by the last week of October)
Revise based on committee feedback (which is a lather, rinse, repeat kind of process until they're satisfied)

In order to do this all, I'm on a tight schedule. Next week I'm giving Juan the final installment, and revising the fiction with great speed. Then I'm giving Juan a complete & revised draft of the fiction probably a week or so after that. The week after next is a good week to give him the full draft of my preface.

All-in-all, I'm looking at roughly two weeks to have a complete draft of my thesis, including revisions on the fiction.

Tick tock.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The New Stories

The new stories I'm working on right now run through my head more like the episodes of a TV show than anything else, so I'm rolling with that kind of framework. I've got a greater plot arc in mind (the season arc) and then littler ones for each story/episode. I'm only a few in, but already I can see how it's tricky to balance out the stand-aloneness of the stories and the cohesion of the overall arc.

I'm digging it, though. It's like a game. I get to do research, too, which is also fun. I know a new word now: Molybdomancy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

'Cause It's Fun

I'm liking the direction this month is going in. Last night I was watching some TV on my computer and started working out a new character, who's kind of a spin-off from my thesis, oddly enough, and then a new series of stories about that character, and then I stopped watching TV and started writing the first story about her. All the while, I was thinking how these stories aren't going to help my thesis, nor do they fit in with the bar novel which I have to keep working on for the CWC.

In short, they're not part of any mandatory project I've got going on right now. There's is no practical reason whatsoever for me to be writing this. In short, no pressure for me to do it. I'm just doing it 'cause I've got the ideas and I want to.

This morning I finished off the first story, which is feeling kind of like the "pilot episode," though that may change. Then I started another story about the character. I'm at about 4,500 words about this gal. She's fun to write, her world (urban fantasy) is fun, and I get to pull out some interesting folklore-y stuff about the supernatural and basically keep running with my thesis themes, but play with them more.

I am really liking October. In the midst of thesis pressure, the challenge of seeing a novel through, and coming off a heinous word-count bet, I'm goofing off. It's nice.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Perfection Problem: Part 2, Responding to It

This morning I pulled out my newly printed & compiled thesis (which has its own dedicated binder) and a purple pen.

One of my new stories, "The Honeymoon of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Roux" was one that just kept getting longer as I wrote it. It's the longest of the collection, coming in at about 25 pages. As I wrote it, I had things I thought I needed to go back to and write more on. There was a moment when I wondered to myself just how long this thing needed to be in order for it to work.

This morning, I started with that story. It took me a while to read through it and make revision notes. However, I tackled this revision differently than I have in the past. For starters, and I have a hard time admitting this for fear of sounding silly, as I read, I imagined how Neil Gaiman would read it. I kept his voice, his pacing, his intonation in my mind. Because, let's face it, a good reader can make just about anything sound good.

As I read through the story with Neil's voice in my head and the mindset that I ought to ease up on myself, a lovely thing happened. This story, which I kept thinking was so sketched and rough, didn't seem so bad. I could see some the machinery behind the story working (i.e. plot points that connect like they ought) and I was able to lean back a little and just like my work. It was cool.

That said, I made notes on every single page about things to edit. When I get my critiques on it from the gang in the CWC and Juan, I'm sure there will be more things that need my attention. So, I'm not saying it's perfect as is. Rather, I'm saying that I'm letting myself like it for its own sake instead of focusing so much on what's wrong with it.

Part way through October, and I find myself applying my "nuts & bolts" fiction study having different results than I expected. Instead of giving me some technical, or stylistic, thing to try, it's giving me a different kind of mindset. The biggest thing I'm getting out of this so far is to trust myself more.

It's refreshing, to say the least.

The Perfection Problem: Part 1, Naming It

I'm about half of the way through The Graveyard Book right now, and I keep thinking about the reading Neil did. I'm also beginning to buckle down on my initial thesis revisions. I like having the two in my mind at the same time.

I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan, and I've been asking myself why. The thing is, it's not really because of how elegantly he writes. Let's face it, he doesn't write all that elegantly at all. Neil's prose is pretty simple and straight forward. On the way back, Deb and I were talking about how bad he'd get dinged in a critique group for his frequent use of "was." But, that's the thing, sometimes "was" is the right word, passive tense or not.

In a critique group, we're so focused on trying to make things perfect that we sometimes work too hard on finding things to fix. There have been plenty of times when I've talked with someone about something that was not only published, but even acclaimed or award-winning, and we've talked about the fact that said author would have been criticized in a critique group for one thing or another in that piece.

"But, it's a prize winning author!" You say. "They've done it just fine." And you're absolutely right.

The critique group danger is always thinking there's something to fix. Don't get me wrong, there's often plenty to fix and many ways to make something stronger. But, as soon as we work too hard to make something "perfect" we start squeezing out the character of the thing we're writing/revising/critiquing.

Right now I recognize in my own writing this struggle for the perfect. I've wandered away from the land of the happy medium and into the land of "if it isn't perfect, it's not worth it." Time to make a figurative U-turn.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Thesis Title

After the second push on thesis pages, and my change in direction, I realize that my initial title no longer fits. Thus, I'm faced with finding a new thesis title.

I don't like not having a title for the thesis. I'm in the process of playing around with some, making lists, trying to decide what I want to use as a focal point. I wonder, would it work to call it Falco Sparverius, or would that be all wrong? What about The 250 Year Molt? I almost feel like I'm coming full circle back to my very first ideas about the thesis, like I want the word "totem" to fit in the title somehow.

I'm taking it as a good sign that I've circled back around, maybe it means I was on the right track all along. Maybe I should look all the way back and see what my first thoughts on title were, maybe I've already named the thesis exactly right, but have just forgotten.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Neil Night

Deb and I made our way up to Boulder last night to see Neil. Way fun. You can tell he's very at home standing in front of a couple hundred people (which makes sense for as long as he's been doing book tours), and he's a great reader. You can see some of what we saw on Neil's blog. (Just imagine seeing it from the other side and farther away.)

We even got to see bits of Coraline, have Neil answer audience questions, and then we got a bonus of him reading us his new upcoming picture book. Nifty stuff.

And we both snagged autographed copies of The Graveyard Book, which tells you what I'm reading as soon as I get home today.

(Side note: It was especially interesting to go and see him right now, when I'm focusing on paying close attention to how writers do what they do. I never before noticed how often he uses metaphors/similes in his descriptions, for instance.)

Though I am quite tired today, thanks to the late night, I am very glad I went. Neil's as much fun in person as I had thought he might be. Besides, it's always nice to prove to oneself that:
1. That person you so look up to really is flesh and blood
2. Writers really can have fans
3. Not only that, but people will pay money, dress up in goth gear, and wait in line outside of a church just for the chance to see a writer

And, did I mention that I got an autographed copy of the book? He signed in purple ink.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Thesis: The Compilation

During my last meeting with Juan, I told him about having hit 22,000+ words in two weeks. He asked me if I felt like that and my earlier pages were about what I wanted, or if I planned to add more. I said I felt like I had enough.

As of two minutes ago, I've put everything together in the order it belongs in and cut out the stuff that I don't feel quite fits, and got it all together in one place.

106 pages of fiction. 30,247 words. I just may have a book, guys. Plenty of revisions ahead, no mistake about it, but it's all there. That makes me smile.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Feel the (Book) Burn.

In keeping with my writing study, I've made two trips to the library in the past few days. Now that the bet is over, I'm in high gear for productivity and have burned through a couple of short books.

I gave up on the Kim Edwards The Secrets of a Fire King when it proved to be too literary for my tastes (pretty, but little happens). The title story was probably my favorite, but I couldn't make it further than my half-way goal. Then I burned through a Batman comic by Frank Miller, also not my favorite (way too much stuff going on all at the same time, sorry Frank). Since I've heard lots about The Vagina Monologues that was next on my list. Eh. I get the political & feminist stuff behind it, but it was only okay. I opened a book about the Bell Witch, but made no progress at all because I didn't like the first paragraph. Then I remembered I had a half-read issue of Realms of Fantasy in the clutter on my couch, and that held my interest infinitely more than the others had. Nifty mag. However, with only a few stories per issue, I was soon needing more stuff to read.

Since one of my influences/supports for my thesis is Sherman Alexie (let's not forget that I named my dog after him), I decided it was time to re-read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I'm a couple stories in right now, and remembering why I like him so much (poetic language and stuff happens). Meanwhile, I stopped by the library again, picked up some new books, and flipped through Nocturnes, a book of Chris Faust photography. I'm debating whether I'm going to stay focused on the Alexie or hit my library books next (as library books have due dates and I own the Alexie). Either way, I'm doing lots of pages reading-wise, which nicely balances all the pages I just did writing-wise.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Back to Basics

One of the things about writing so many pages all in one go is that it makes it very clear to me what my writing does, and what it doesn't do. I'm talking mainly style here.

My writing style is pretty spare. In high school I was reading something and I kept getting fed up with all the exposition in the narrative, especially with regard to characters. It's that classic "show don't tell" idea, and the thing I was reading was all about telling. Then I read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Hemingway and with the two experiences together, I latched onto streamlined writing like nobody's business.

Now I find myself with a problem. My reaction in high school has influenced me ever since, and it also ultimately led to over-correction. So, I've come to the point where it's time to start swinging the pendulum back. While I can never imagine myself getting into really elaborate or expository prose, I can admit that I have a leaning to make my writing more skeletal than spare. I already know I'll need to go back over the pages from the bet to put some flesh on them, and to help that I'm turning to more reading.

One of the best places to look for help is examples, ergo that's what I'm doing.

Which leads me to this month's challenge. However long you've been writing, chances are it's been a while since you've really broken down the nuts and bolts of it and taken some time to closely analyze how other people's stories work. And I'm not talking in a critique group context, here. I'm talking published work which is presented to you as the best version of that novel/story/poem.

This month I challenge you to pick out a few pieces, maybe even focus on one of your favorite authors, and break them down. Look at the different parts of that writing. How do they fit together? How do they talk to each other? How is it that when you put them all together, you get something of publishable quality? Play around with it, a bit of mimicry is encouraged at this point. See what you can learn from it and take for your own repertoire.

September's Over

The challenge this month was a pick your own. I ended up going the competitive route with my bet with John. Boy howdy, talk about productivity.

Overall, this month has been all thesis, thesis, thesis. It's been interesting. The thesis has entailed some firsts for me. This is the first time I've ever written so many pages in so little time. The first time I've been so consumed by a writing project, and it's the first time I've done such a full and complete single project. It's been a while since I've had so many firsts in my writing. It's groovy.

September was good for me. How did yours go?