Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fiction III: Physiology of Phun

"Writing is fun sometimes," Felix assured Pearl as they trudged across the wet parking lot toward Has Beans.

Pearl glared at him. She had become a bottom-dweller in writing's black hole, a hack. Everything she produced was crap and she'd rather clean her bathroom fan vent than sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper.

"Name once," Pearl challenged him. "One time that you grinned at your computer screen and meant it."

She pulled open the café's heavy glass door, letting go of the handle as she plodded through.

"I do it all the time," Felix said as he scooted in behind her.

Mike was already inside, at the end of the order line-up. When they joined him he asked, "Do what all the time?"

Twenty pairs of ears swiveled in their direction. Thanks to Mike's foghorn voice, all the café’s Sunday-morning regulars already knew many things about their little group, including that one reason Barb didn't have time to write was because she and her husband had sex every day. Now the patrons waited for more steamy details.
"I have fun," Felix said.

"Barb already used that excuse," Mike said. He and Pearl had confessed to envy; their reasons weren't nearly as creative. Or as enjoyable.

The line shuffled forward a foot as a blast of cool, damp air hit Pearl from behind. She checked over her shoulder.

"What are you talking about?" Barb shook her umbrella as she came through the door.

"I have fun writing," Felix said.

"That's impossible." Barb smacked the end of her umbrella and it collapsed obediently.

"You want to come to my house and watch me?"

Pearl thought about the four of them crouching in Felix's tiny apartment, the smell of mildew seeping under the door from the hallway and his upstairs neighbour Bud charging around, slamming doors and demanding to know where the fuck were his smokes.

"Prove it here," Pearl said. "Grab us a spot and we'll get your coffee."

Felix shambled off to loom companionably over a couple at a window table.

They quickly picked up their keys and mobile phones and left. They were probably finished anyway.

Mike ordered the coffees and went to collect them while Barb and Pearl selected the food that would fuel the good times ahead.

"Talk about Mission: Impossible," Pearl said as she paid.

Barb picked up two of the plates. "If we could get Johnny Depp to come along it might be fun."

Pearl was stilling grinning as she carried the other plates to the table.

"See?” Felix beamed at her when they arrived. “I told you it's fun."

"We haven't even got to the writing," Pearl pointed out, wondering why Mike was setting up his laptop in front of Felix.

Felix dismissed her grumpiness. "It's all part of the total experience."

"Where do you get that ‘total experience’ crap?" Barb dropped a slice of lemon loaf in front of him and when he started to answer, she said, "Never mind. Get to the fun."

Mike sat down, sliding the mug away from Felix’s wrist as he tapped at the keyboard.

“I just found this the other day and it’s totally sweet.” Felix reached for his cup and cradled it in both hands, making Mike twitch, as he read off the screen.

The medial forebrain bundle of nerves, which lies deep in the brain, is known as the reward centre, Felix explained. Doing something pleasurable activates it and makes people want to repeat the action.

"Writing does not stimulate my medial forebrain bundle." Pearl bit into her chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookie.

The trick, Felix explained, is to make yourself have fun.

"That sounds like one of my mom's old threats," Pearl said. "'If you don't stop that snivelling, I'll give you something to cry about!'"

"Exactly!" Felix beamed at her. He looked at the screen again.

According to neuroscientist George Stefano, he continued as the caffeine jockeys at nearby tables tipped their heads toward him, pleasure is the brain's way of subconsciously ranking what is most important to us. And physiologist Michel Cabanac believes pleasure is the transient result of closing a gap between what we feel and what we want to feel.

He raised his eyes and gazed brightly from Pearl to Barb to Mike. "So all we have to do is make writing more pleasurable than the alternative!"

"Thumbscrews, for example," Barb said.

The eavesdroppers leaned slightly away.

Pearl broke off another chunk of cookie and asked Felix, "So what do you rank writing against?"

"You know Bud?" Felix sipped his cappuccino.

They all nodded.

"He's very sociable. If he finds out I'm not writing, he comes to visit."

Pearl thought about it: thumbscrews, Bud, cleaning the bathroom fan vent. She licked chocolate off her fingers and picked up her pen. "All right. Stimulate my medial forebrain bundle."

Around the room, twenty pairs of wide eyes snapped in their direction.

Felix got this idea from Bonni Goldberg's Room to Write (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1996). He figured that since everybody loves a holiday, they were bound to enjoy this exercise.

The federal government, Goldberg says, has granted you one day to declare as a holiday. What will you name it? What is being honored? How is this holiday celebrated? Which businesses stay open and which close? What doesn't happen on this day? Be whimsical, cynical, humorous, serious, or outrageous.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fiction II: Critiquing without bloodshed

"He was a bank robber, wasn't he?" Felix set the pastries on the table and pushed one toward each of his fellow writers.

"He was an addict." Barb shoved pens and notebooks out of the way.

One thing they all agreed on, Pearl realized, was that when there was a choice between eating or stimulating their creativity, brain function took second place.

Pearl quickly slid a plate toward herself. "You didn't have to do this."

"I like to," Felix said. "It's part of my hospitable nature."

Mike rolled his eyes.

"Are you a chronic pleaser?" Barb’s question was a little muffled by her mouthful of éclair.

Felix seemed not to hear her. Instead he went back to her earlier statement. "Stephen Reid was a junkie?"

"Not when I met him," Pearl said. "At least, not that I noticed."

"You didn't notice that guy passed out in front of the door when we got here." Mike forked up a chunk of walnut loaf.

The manager looked over nervously as Mike's booming voice carried to every customer in the place.

"I still say he was just tired,"
Pearl protested.

Mike's shoulders twitched.

"Anyway, that's not the point," Pearl continued before Mike got more wound up.

"What is the point?" Barb wanted to know.

"He had a good critiquing system," Pearl said.

"Stephen Reid the convicted felon?" Barb did not give up.

"Stephen Reid the writer," Pearl said. "He filled in for his wife in this creative writing course I took years ago, and when the time came to share our efforts, he suggested we use this critiquing thing."

"Was it brutal?" Felix looked worried.

Pearl assured him it was very balanced. "Sometimes it's not even criticism.”

Barb rolled the hand not holding the remains of her éclair. "Tell us already."

So Pearl explained the most useful thing she’d learned in Susan Musgrave's creative writing class – from Stephen Reid.

“First he told us to choose a particularly good sentence or phrase or maybe a bit of dialogue and quote
it back to the writer. Like, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.' You could repeat that to Jane Austen as a nice bit of satire that made you laugh out loud.

“Then find something you can honestly compliment. 'EB,' you might say, 'your character work on Charlotte and Wilbur is brilliant.'

“Next, ask a question. This one makes the reader think. You can ask, 'What's Bridget Jones's motivation for sleeping with Daniel Cleaver?' or 'What's the symbolism behind John Coffey's name in The Green Mile?' You can ask about anything that puzzles you or about something that you believe the writer needs to think about some more.

“And finally you make a recommendation. 'Flush it' is not acceptable. 'Play with the similes and see if you can make them fit with your hockey theme,' would be better.”

Pearl looked around the table to gauge the reactions. Mike looked doubtful, Felix’s forehead had smoothed, and Barb’s lips were slightly pursed and her eyes narrowed. Pearl hoped she was considering the idea and not lining up a sharp comment.

"Let's give it a try," Pearl suggested. "Who wants to read first?" 

"No!" Mike bellowed.

The manager looked nervous again.

Pearl turned to Felix, but he was at the counter ordering more treats. Pearl raised her eyebrows at Barb, who said, "All right."

"Lab dog," Mike said.

Barb glared at him.

"Compliment.” He quickly raised his hands. “I admire your guts, letting us experiment on you."

Pearl interrupted Barb's response to shove dirty dishes out of the way because Felix was on his way back with four cinnamon twists. With one hand Barb delicately brushed éclair crumbs off the front of her blouse as she took a plate from Felix with the other.

"Go ahead," Pearl told her. 

Barb read her short story about a woman who tries to paint but her two young kids think her paints are 1) tubes of icing, which they squirt onto bread before she can stop them, 2) face paint, which she has to scrape off their skin with a trowel, and 3) a sign that Mom is bored so they decide to entertain her. It was very funny and touching.

"That's not fiction," Mike said.

Quote, compliment, question, recommendation, Pearl reminded him.

"Okay," he said. "That's not fiction, is it?"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fiction I: Muse Yourself

As Pearl sipped her non-fat mocha, she looked over her mug at Felix and Barb and Mike. She’d met them a couple of weeks ago when she started taking a class to increase her creativity and they’d shown up too. The course was going pretty well and they all wanted to up the ante on their writing so they’d decided to meet once a week at the local coffee shop, Has Beans, to work on it.

This was their first session outside of class, and they’d agreed to bring a couple of pages to read aloud and discuss, but Pearl hadn't done the work. She was a communications specialist with a big outdoor-equipment company and once she’d churned out press releases, monthly reports, the internal newsletter and cheery updates for the website, she didn’t have much energy at the end of the day to put more words on paper. Hence the class to stimulate her creativity.

"I have a confession." Felix met their eyes in turn.

Pearl, Barb and Mike lowered their cups and leaned forward.

"I didn't have time to do any writing this week."

They slumped back.

"Me either,” Barb said. “The store's been crazy with half my staff off sick and then my son had a hockey tournament all weekend."

She looked at Mike and Pearl, who wondered if she should confess.

To what? Laziness? Dearth of inspiration? Before she could come up with a good excuse, Mike spoke.

"Haven't finished my room yet."

In class, he’d said that he had to have a proper writing room, painted stimulating colours and furnished with the perfect chair and desk and God knows what else.

Barb shook her head; Pearl knew she was lucky to scrape a clear spot on the kitchen table or pry a kid away from the computer for half an hour a week.

"Haven't found quite the right Aubusson carpet?" Barb asked.

"You're snide now," Mike’s baritone overwhelmed both the espresso machine and the stereo. "But you'll see."

"Maybe I need a different chair." Felix looked thoughtful. "If I'm more comfortable, I'll be able to write better."

"That's bull," Barb said. "Do you think Jane Austen was comfortable sitting in those damn eighteenth-century dresses in her family's parlour? And Stephen King, balancing a typewriter on his knees in the laundry room?"

"What I need," Pearl decided, "is a muse."

Mike the engineer sat up straighter, an acquisitive glow lighting his brown eyes. Felix nodded slowly and Barb rested her elbows on the table and raised her eyebrows at Pearl enquiringly.

Originally there were nine Muses, Pearl explained, women who were half memory, half divine.

“Sounds like a mom,” Barb said.

Even Mike cracked a smile.

They sang or danced, wrote lyric poetry or tragedy, discoursed on rhetoric or astronomy, Pearl continued. They made some people write, although not everyone did it well. One poor guy said that some of his neighbours considered him a poet but that compared to real writers he was just a goose honking among swans. But that was Virgil for you.

Virginia Woolf took a practical approach to inspiration. A room of one's own and £500 a year made a darn good muse in her opinion.

“I told you,” Mike said.

“There’s more to it,” Barb snapped. “You have to read beyond the title of the essay.”

Mike’s ears turned red but before he bellowed back, Pearl interrupted.

“My theory is that a muse is like Jeannie in the old TV show – or okay, the djinn in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves for you literary types.” She grinned at Barb. “Except instead of rubbing a bottle–

"You'd be better off drinking the Scotch," Barb said.

“–the Muse responds to the friction between a bottom and a chair.”

"You might be onto something." Felix’s face brightened. "I go to all the workshops and conferences and I've got every how-to book ever published and this is ringing a bell."

"Well, we're here and our butts are in chairs," Barb said. "Let's see if it works."

Rats, Pearl thought. The truth is, it wasn't the lack of a muse that kept her from creative writing. Nor was it a shortage of energy or even bad feng shui. It was fear: What if she couldn’t do it?

Felix pulled a paperback from his courier bag.

"I have this cool book," he said, letting it flop open on the table. "It's got the best writing exercises."

Pearl harrumphed. In the great Texas Hold-'Em game of life, the Muses had just called her bluff.

Well isn’t that just great, she grumbled to herself.

And, to her surprise, it was.

Felix's exercise, from Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998):
Being Gorgeous: Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect ­ any kind of sound effect, but not rhyme or meter.
Have fun with this, Le Guin urges. Don't aim for perfection, just put the words down as they occur to you. Then, if you like, read your piece aloud, either to yourself or to your writing buddies.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Road of Life or The More Things Change

One sunny day in 1985 when I was cycling in the Scottish Highlands, I was faced with a long climb along the side of a glen. The road was probably an old drove route for livestock so it wasn’t terribly steep but my quads didn’t care: all they knew was my relentless nagging to keep pedaling. They retaliated by starting to burn.

I forced them (and my bellowing lungs) to go on, and on, and on because I had looked at the map before I’d begun the ride and I knew what they did not: at the far end of the valley, at the top of the climb, was a place called Rest and Be Thankful.

As there was in every other village in England, Wales and Scotland, there would be a café where I would sit with a heavy china cup of strong hot tea the colour of chestnuts and pour in a swirl of cream. I’d split a scone (or two) and spread it with butter and strawberry jam and savour every rich mouthful because I had earned it, riding up that hill.

Meanwhile, I shifted down and ever downward, forcing my pedals around one revolution at a time, looking ahead at the slope that now seemed less like a gentle grade and more like a mountaineering route. But that might have been my quads talking.

I kept that tea and those scones (which had multiplied to three) firmly in mind and finally – finally! – I came to what had to be the last push. Surely there couldn’t be another hill beyond this curve.

And there was not. I had reached the top of the glen. As I sucked in huge gulps of clear air that rushed into my blood like shots of bubbles, I looked down at the silvery thread of a stream in the valley far below. I gazed at a loch at the base of the mountains ahead of me.

All that was missing was the village.

I checked the map. It was still there – and not marked “Rest and Be Thankful: visible every hundred years,” like some Ordnance Survey Brigadoon.

I hauled my bike across the road and leaned it against a bench, and before my quads could drop me onto it, I saw the sign. Rest and Be Thankful.

On the bench.

I have much the same relationship with the publishing world as I did with that road in the Highlands. Constant work, ongoing effort, digging for stamina, searching for the right gear/craft/story that will carry me to my goal: publication (oh, and money).

As part of my journey, last weekend I went to the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle and I felt like I’d finally found the granny gear. You know, the one that’s easy, that lets you ride almost comfortably into mysterious mountain ranges or home with a load of groceries.

The agent and editor panel on Friday night gave me a much better idea of the industry professionals than a website can. The workshops were informative – I learned something important in each of the eight I attended – and I usually laughed, as well.

And of course, there’s the all-important camaraderie and support of other writers. As Alyssa Day pointed out in her laugh-out-loud keynote speech (which also brought me to tears three times), the friendship of other writers is so very important.

Just as I craved afternoon tea in Scotland as a reward for my cycling effort, now I want publication as an acknowledgement of my writing effort. However, as authors tell me all the time, getting a book in stores is not the end of the road. It’s just the bench where they get to pause for a minute to enjoy the scenery and catch their breath.

In the same way I had to forego those scones in Scotland and instead appreciate the view and my own strength in getting to it, I might have to do without New York’s stamp of approval and simply enjoy the ride with my colleagues.

I'm glad they're such good company.

Big Damn Sidebar:

Here’s a smattering of what I learned at Emerald City Writers Conference, October 2010:

Ann Charles and Wendy Delaney: writers who are left-brain dominant are more likely to look at the fine detail in our own work and our critique partner’s, while right-brainers are more likely to be able to focus on the big picture of the story.

Robert Dugoni: Write a great opening sentence (that raises a question) for every scene; write a great closing sentence (that raises a question) for every scene too.

Kristina McMorris: Give agents and editors a reason to say Yes: ask if you can query them, tell them about your awards, and even get endorsement blurbs from other (known) writers before you query.

Theresa Meyers: in a query, include the same kind of information and power words that make compelling back-cover copy in order to intrigue an agent or editor even before you’ve got a deal.

Laura Navarre: Dark heroes (men or women) are often strong and compelling, although female dark heroes generally must show a caring, nurturing side in order to appeal to readers.

Deborah Schneider: Don’t just have a booksigning; have an event. It sounds like a party and people will show up.

Amber Scott: Make dialogue show the change in the person, like Jack Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man” in As Good as it Gets or Hugh Grant’s “I’m an idiot” in Notting Hill.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Banning books

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I wrote horror stories. My mother came across one of the more gruesome examples and while she espoused many liberal leanings, now she was faced with a barely adolescent daughter who penned pretty twisted stories. Well, one that she knew of, and that was one too many. She called me into the den to have a chat.

We perched on the sofa across from the TV set, which was set in an alcove that was also stacked with loaded bookshelves. There were more bookshelves – six or seven, I think – on each side of the window.

“The story was very disturbing,” she said.

Well, yeah. That was pretty much the point, I thought.

“Your dad and I have decided,” she continued gently, “that we’re going to have to censor–“

I flicked a horrified glance across the ranks of shelves. Carrie, The Exorcist, Marathon Man. The Curve of Time, Little Women, A Man Called Intrepid. Goldfinger, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, The Hobbit.

“–your television choices.”

Was she kidding?

I could have laughed, I was so relieved.

So when I heard that last week was Banned Books Week, I checked out the US’s 10 most challenged books of 2009. The list includes To Kill a Mockingbird and My Sister’s Keeper.

When I told my sister, who had just finished Harper Lee’s novel, she gave me a “you’re joking” look and passed the information to her teenage daughter, who had just read My Sister’s Keeper.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” was my niece’s response.

I’m so proud.

So to the people who challenge a book’s presence on library and bookstore shelves, I say, “Yeah, let’s get all those stories out of there. Let’s get them in readers’ hands and minds, where they belong.”