Saturday, January 30, 2010

The "I'm Done" Bummers

We all have this image of writers turning the corner of their almost complete manuscripts, hunched over their computers, humming and wiggling (well, I always see wiggling) as all the threads of their tale twine together in a blissfully tight, balanced and functioning braid. It's a wonderful image that counterbalances the imagined nights of agony and hand-wringing that brought the beast to life. I love that image. Someday I would like to see it.

I have just finished the manuscript that will be the second in my series. It had a complicated set of time lines that required me to keep straight who knew what when as characters learned the truth about the cruel twists of fate that had set each of them on their paths. I'll spare you the details. The upside was that my female lead finally got an explanation for the hardships of her youth and, more importantly, got some serious justice for them, including some gruesome boot-to-face contact. Trust me, she needed it. The entire experience was cathartic and exhilarating. To use the old saw, "I laughed. I cried. It was a triumph."

And now it's over.

The story flowed with an almost obscene ease, leaping from the page in less than six weeks with a plot line so tight you couldn't fart within it. (In no way do I credit this with my brilliant writing. Sometimes life throws you a break.) In many ways I felt like I was just plugging myself into it and letting it run through me. And now, it's over. The source is unplugged. I'm feel like the nerd in disguise at the cool kids party who has been discovered and tossed out on my ass. The story is partying on without me. I'm left sitting here wondering what I used to do.

Sooo, the best solution has to be to start another one. Not the third in the series, despite the coaxing, pleading and outright threats of some of the fans of the line. Instead, I'm wandering off into unmarked territory. I'm trying something I've never tried and, like it or not, you all are going to be witness to it.

I'm trying a mystery. *insert evil laugh here* Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Radio and Writing

Here's something I have learned. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. If you want to be a good, published writer, you have to throw yourself hip deep into a dizzying array of books, blogs, websites, pamphlets, handouts and group loops to clutch madly at the information twister that will hopefully suck you up out of your own personal Kansas and drop you safely onto the best seller list. It's enough to make you rage madly or, in my case, lie helplessly on the kitchen floor staring at that mysterious gravy stain that made it onto the light fixture. It is bewildering to say the least.

One of the question aspiring writers are supposed to be able to answer is "What qualifies you to write the book you want to write?" This always seemed to me a strange question to ask a fiction writer. What's the appropriate answer? "I spend a great deal of time pretending this isn't my life?" Somehow I doubt that would be welcomed. Instead, I started thinking about what there is in my life that has made me a better writer.

As many of you know, I have spent the last fifteen years hosting morning radio at WKEE in Huntington WV. It's a great job with just enough absurdity to keep it interesting. It also prepared me for storytelling in ways I would not have expected. Here are a few things I've learned:

1. Your audience is smarter than you. Make no mistake about it. I am an intelligent woman. I have a strong education, a deep vocabulary and an almost preternatural ability to retain information and I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that the audience is smart. And clever. And they don't miss a thing. I've seen more than one radio host flame out in despair by making the fatal mistake of talking down to his audience. Is this intimidating? It doesn't have to be. It's actually very liberating, if you look at it right. It gives you the freedom to stretch yourself, to make the leaps, to push your limits. Never dumb things down. Never be afraid to challenge your boundaries. Not only will the audience keep up with you, they're probably already way ahead of you.

2 Get to the point. That said, you can assume everyone is on the same page as you if not a few pages ahead. Don't dilly dally. Don't linger over describing the drapes and think your audience won't know you're stalling. Your audience, whether for a radio show, a novel, a short story or a poem, has agreed to give you a slice of their precious time. Don't waste it. Reward their generosity with forward motion. I'm not saying I don't like building a little suspense, but time is a pricey commodity. Respect that.

3. Keep it entertaining. I'm a genre writer on a pop station. It's safe to say that "deep" is not the first word that springs to mind when people describe me. This doesn't mean my work and/or my show doesn't resonate with real emotion. What it means is I appreciate the fact that once you fulfill your requirements for whatever education level you pursue, your days of slogging through dry, stultifying books should be over. As kids, we were forced to finish the books to get the grades that would launch us into our 'real lives.' Now there is no gold star for wading through a deadly book. No matter how important your message, how poignant your tale,how heated your politics, your audience doesn't owe you their attention. You earn it by couching even the most tragic story into a compelling, entertaining narrative. On air, we often have to promote charity events for truly tragic happenings - Haiti relief, cancer survivor fundraisers, flood relief for hundreds of displaced families. Not light stuff. Even though the work we do in those cases is important, we still don't have the right to strip our broadcast of its humanity, of its compelling narrative. We are humans talking to humans. Keep it real or keep it to yourself.

Radio has taught me timing, patience, humor and endurance. Most of all it has taught me that an audience is not some great, seething mass of a collective consciousness, like some well-dressed clot of algae on a pond. It is a collection of individuals, each with his or her own voice and dreams and likes and biases. You can't please them all, but you can respect them. Whether on air or on paper, you can give them your best and maybe, just maybe, they'll repay you in kind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two worlds, one body, and a bad elbow

Trying to get this out before my arm rises up in revolt and crawls out the mail slot. I mentioned earlier that I don't believe in reality, but as I sit here, I'm wondering if that's entirely accurate. I think it might be closer to say I have trouble deciding which reality to believe in. (Okay, philosophy majors, relax.)

I just finished a tough chapter in the sequel to my novel and I'm stuck in that weird, throbbing membrane between two worlds. Those of you who are unfortunate enough to be around me after a writing session already know the half-sentence, glassy eyed state I'm in. For those of you who have never seen this Altered States scene, let me walk you through it. Quickly, since my elbow is on fire.

I can't speak for all writers. Hell, I can hardly speak for myself. But there is a sensation that comes from writing that, if I could put it in a lotion or a drink or a sex toy, I would make a bazillion dollars. It is the uncanny sensation of existing in two worlds at the same time. I'm not talking about that all too familiar sensation of having your mind in two places at once. You know, talking on the phone while you answer your email and pretend to listen to one of your coworkers complaining as you scratch your ankle with your big toe. That's not it. That's about as far from it as you can get. That, in my opinion, is not being in ANY world. This is a far different, sublime sensation of touching a live wire in a universe far, far away.

It usually starts like this. I sit down at the computer with all my usual totems in place. I'm not much of a totem person, but even I have a few touchstones. There's a candle lit, mostly to hide the smell of the litter box down the basement stairs. My notepad is beside me to catch any weird little scribbles I need to make and to keep track of my word count. (NaNoWriMo habits die hard! More on that later.) I have a big cup of coffee, now in my Greenbrier mug, courtesy of my sister Monica and bare feet. That last bit I used to think was unimportant, but now I'm not so sure. I have only the barest framework of an idea of where the chapter will go and I start to type.

I would love to tell you I promptly pull an Isasc Asimov and hammer out three hours of solid prose, but that would be a huge lie. I sort of scratch out a sentence. Delete it. Reword it. Swear. Get another line or two down. Bemoan my miserable typing skills. Swear again and then the most amazing thing happens. My fingers take over and I begin to think, not in my head, but from the knuckles down. And then it happens. I am in two worlds at the same time. I can see my kitchen. I can certainly find the M&Ms over and over again and my coffee cups keeps getting refilled. But all the while I'm chewing and pouring and muttering and typing, I'm fully present, fully immersed in a world more real, more colorful, more immediate than any I've ever known.

It doesn't last long. Two, maybe three hours, although the sessions are getting longer the more disciplined I become. Sentences, scenes, emotions, hungers, they run through me like light through glass and even as I'm lost in it, somewhere I'm thinking "Man, this is fabulous!" (Not necessarily the writing, just the sensation. At this point, judging yourself is lethal.) And just as suddenly as it started *pop* I'm on the other side with a sensation I have no choice but to describe to you as squirting out. Believe me, I've searched for another way to describe it but until my French gets much better, there is no other way. I squirt through some sort of membrane and I'm back in my kitchen. Just my kitchen. My feet are on the floor. I have chocolate breath and coffee jitters and, tonight at least, a red-hot elbow from typing.

Save. Print. Reread. Even when the prose is, shall we say iffy?, rereading what happened when I was straddling that chasm is surreal. It's the ultimate leap of faith. It's tunnelling down into the imagination and standing back and watching what splashes up. That sensation, more than any drug or any drama, will make you blissfully suspicious of all the little required toll-booths of everyday reality. Even the reality of needing an icepack for my abused elbow. As I said earlier, if I could bottle it, I'd be a billionaire. But if I had to choose between selling it and feeling it? A billion dollars doesn't seem all that great.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Okay, I'll let THIS MUCH in...

Ah, irony. There is no escape from it. It makes reality look like a child's game. Here's the thing: I really don't believe in reality; at least not the way it was sold to me. I don't believe there is nothing hiding in the closet. I know, as well as I know my own name, that there IS something under the bed and I am almost 100% convinced that my last relationship was doomed because of that mirror I broke. I mean, seven years is seven years, right?

My writing reflects this belief. In my upcoming novel, Storyteller, we stroll directly into a fully formed world of people living secretly among us. Sure they look like us. They go to our schools and date your daughters and sons. They also speak their own language among themselves and live a lot longer than we do. (They have a few other secrets too, but we'll let them tell you about it after publication.) Science fiction? Urban fantasy? Not real? Prove it. How do you prove that something doesn't exist? How do you prove that something you can't see isn't really hidden? How do you stop a dizzying list of rhetorical questions from getting away from you?

Sorry. Back to my point and, yes,I have one. Irony. I don't believe in the hard squared corners of reality as such, but even a dark-corner-surfer like myself has to acknowledge that these days, blogs and websites and Facebook and Tweets are a reality, a blessedly free, mad, public hootenanny of reality and so, here I go! I hope you'll come along with me on my quest to liberate the world from the belief that staff meetings and webinars and legal sized envelopes are no more concrete than time traveling embezzlers and folks living 500 years on chocolate, blood and sex. Hey, if you had to choose your reality, which would YOU pick?