Snow and Thoughts

The snow blew the dog’s mind this morning. He kept putting his whole face in it and I could tell he kind of wanted to roll around in it but wasn’t sure how that would go. He kept looking back at me like “Is this really real?”

Then he got himself stuck on the porch, so it wasn’t his most shining moment. But it was still, for him, obviously, pretty cool.

I know you guys don’t really care why I’d move on to another novel without having sold either of my other two. First, if only for one reason–my writing has taken a dramatic leap forward in many ways from novel-writing. Two, though I would read a book like the Ben & Sue book and love it as it is right now, clearly it needs something more/else that I’m not in a position to identify.

If I have a book that works, that someone wants, maybe that someone will feel compelled to help me figure out how to make the Ben & Sue project cross the finish line.

Or maybe not.

The truth is that I don’t know. And I’ve talked to a lot of writers and no one knows. There isn’t a path. You don’t do x,y, and then z in order to make “being a writer” happen. Even if a bunch of people all look like they’re doing or have done x,y, and z, the other things they did that didn’t work but that they still needed to do in order to do the things that look like a “typical” writing career aren’t visible.

Plus, I can’t really move forward on the Nashvillains book until I’ve reckoned with how much Isaac Franklin bothers me.

More Snow

They’re predicting the kind of weather tomorrow into Thursday that makes me concerned I’ll be sitting here on my couch Thursday and Friday. Maybe I’ll get ambitious and clean the kitchen, which the Butcher informs me is not part of the dishwashing duties. This comes as a great shock, because, since he’s my brother, I grew up in the same house as him and hung out with his grandparents and I can assure you that we are at least the third generation of people who clean up the kitchen as we do the dishes.

Or at least, we were when I was doing the dishes.

It always makes me feel like a dumbass when I think about how chores happen in our house, because the Butcher could live in a junkyard and be fine. They always advise that roommate (or spouse) harmony comes from respecting the level of filth the other person in the house is willing to live with and, if you need it to be cleaner than that, doing it yourself.

They never explain how to keep from being the only person who cleans in that scenario.

And I’m not an incredibly clean person. I just have standards like “Maybe we shouldn’t just leave the garbage the dog took out of the can on the floor.”

Anyway, I’ve gotten off track because the thought of being here, trapped in this house again, is setting me on edge.

What I came here to say is I think I want to do it–write a ghost story. I mean, I’m old and I’m apparently not getting any more successful as a writer. I want to have written something genuinely scary and unsettling. So, I think I better do it.

Done?

I’m going to look at it again this evening, but I think my big thing is done.

I don’t know that I will ever want to do that again. Not that quickly, anyway.

I’m pretty frazzled.

Nose to the Grindstone

I asked the Butcher to make sure that I didn’t leave this house until I had this thing done. His strategy for making that happen seems to be to have left in my car for… I don’t know. I did laugh, though. The fridge is filled with Dr. Pepper and he’s gone.

There’s no clearer “You have no excuse not to write” signal.

Walking

The Butcher claims that the loop the dog and I did was only a mile and a half and he can’t explain why it took me an hour and a half to walk it. I just don’t think it’s physically possible to walk a mile an hour. I think you could roll that fast. Now, granted, I did have to take pictures and fight with the dog and traverse a huge canyon and a lot of mud, so I guess that built in some time.

But I also think it’s pretty obvious that I fell into some kind of time anomaly. I thought I was taking a forty minute walk, but, bam, sucked into an alternate dimension.

Ha ha ha. You can tell I’ve been listening to Welcome to Nightvale while I crochet. I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to realize that podcasts are the perfect thing to listen to while crocheting. I’ve been putting documentaries on in the background before now.

I’m really pleased with the octagon afghan so far. It seems to be working up fairly quickly. My only concern, and it’s minor, is that I’m using up a ton of the border color and may need to go buy more.

And the walk, I think, knocked loose some things. I think I know what my Grassmere story is going to be. And I think, maybe, I’ve found a historical figure that will take me thought the part of the Nashville book I’ve been stuck on.

So, who knows? Maybe I was sucked someplace where writing ideas happen. Who can complain about that?

Structure

Last night, I was reading about book structure, at least the book structure this thriller writer swears by. And I love shit like this. Tell me there’s a formula, a pattern, and I will learn it and then riff off it. I crochet and cook. I can do what you tell me to do and still feel the end result is mine and something to be proud of.

His argument was that a book should have a structure that goes something like–introduction for 1/4 of the book leading up to the first pivot point, when we meet the problem the protagonist faces and it sets him off on a new course. We then go through the second fourth of the book where the protagonist retreats from his problem and tries to solve it, but cannot. Halfway through this second fourth, we should directly see the full power of the antagonist. This leads up to the mid-point, where something happens that moves the protagonist from reactive to active. Then the third fourth is spent dealing with the protagonist’s demons (which I guess should have been established in the first fourth) and getting his shit together, leading up to a point where it seems all is lost. Then there’s a point halfway through this part, right after it seems like all is lost, when we see the full power of the antagonist again. All this leads up to the second pivot point where the protagonist learns the last bits of information he needs in order to act in the last fourth.

One thing he said, which I really appreciated, is that no new information should come into the book as the story is resolving. Even if it’s information we didn’t know before was important, it needs to be there before. So, the killer cannot gain a twin brother who was really doing the killing all along in the last 30 pages unless there’s been hints to this before the last fourth of the book.

I don’t think that’s a hard and fast rule, but it’s definitely one I prefer. Otherwise, I do kind of experience it as cheating (unless done to humorous effect or to make some kind of commentary).

But I think you can pretty immediately see how this can’t be some “universal” structure that underlies all stories. For one, it presumes a really specific kind of protagonist–one who is able to learn more and more and who then is able to act on it. A lot of horror depends on the tension between learning what’s going on and not being able to act on it.

It also assumes there’s “a” hero or protagonist.

It strikes me as a pretty heroic set-up, with the hero being male and singular.

But I do like the idea of thinking through how your protagonist is going to change throughout the book and building up to those changes and dealing with the fall-out from those changes.  (And I also love the “keep new things out of the end of your book!”)

On a related note, I read this incredible short story yesterday about Elvis and Jesse Presley, which does not follow that kind of structure at all. Because, if it were just a matter of plugging things in to a pre-existing form, it wouldn’t be so hard.

Stuck in My Craw

I had a thought, last night on the drive home, about turning the material from the first part of the Nashville book into something fictional. Just let Isaac Franklin flourish and bloom into the monster he is and see what happens.

I don’t know where that fits into my goals for the year. I guess I’ll mull it over for a little while longer.

Keeping Things Moving

I think one trick to being a writer (I don’t know, really, I just have some superstitions) is to have things at various stages. What’s being shopped. What’s just about ready to be shopped. What things are still in some kind of draft form. What’s being mulled over. Oh, yeah, and what’s been sold. Ha ha ha. That’s a thing I’ve learned. Being published can start to seem almost like an afterthought. It happens so much less frequently than submitting things that it’s really easy to come to believe that the cycle of submission and rejection is the end result of all this writing.

A local artist and I are mulling over a children’s book about the sisters who gave the land for the zoo. I was at the TSLA to see what kinds of things I might think about the sisters once I knew a little bit about them. It’s nice to discover that you like the “eccentric sisters” you might come to spend some time with.

But one thing that struck me about their “eccentricities” is that the biggest one is that they tried to run a farm on the land where there’d been a farm for 200 years, even once it was surrounded by the city. And, in order to preserve the farm in the face of urban encroachment, they had to become very, very modern in their own understandings of themselves–they really ran the day-to-day life of the farm–in ways that certainly seemed strange to outsiders. But nowadays, other than having cattle in the middle of town, what’s so weird about a female farmer?

But now I need to go to the zoo and just hang out at the house and get a feel for it at that end. The Butcher and I have been tossing around ideas, but I want to see that house for myself.

Thoughts for When Your Thinker’s Thinking

I have set some goals for the year. Some writing goals. I’m going to attend a con. I’m going to submit my stories to SFWA-qualifying markets first and not try a couple, get frustrated, and then flounder around for someone to publish me. Because otherwise, I’m not getting full membership. I’m going to start keeping my eye open for reprint opportunities.

Then, I feel like, with the movie and potentially full SFWA membership, I might have better luck selling Ben & Sue.

I just want to see my book, published by a publisher who is not me, one the shelves of the bookstores around town. I want to look on my shelf and say “Yep” when I see it.

I don’t quite know how to make that happen. But I’ve got a plan. I can try some stuff. I can see how it goes.

Cutting

One of the reasons I think you need to write a lot–like in a space like this–while and before you’re doing other kinds of writing is to develop the habit of trusting that the words will come. Because sometimes you need to cut, a lot. I cut the whole final 2/3 of my parrot story and went another direction from the place I made the cuts. And I did that because I trusted that I didn’t need those words, that those were not the only words I might get for the story.

When the only writing you do is the writing that really matters, how do you trust in your ability to prune judiciously? I mean, obviously, people do. They’ve developed some other way of trusting that the words will come.

But for me, a lot of it just is that I have to pull a lot of words out of my ass all the time. Even if they suck, even if every bunch of words isn’t a winner, I figure I can always revisit it later. That knowledge, pulled from blogging, has served me well. On accident. Because I certainly didn’t know how useful that shit would be when I started this blog.

Let’s Look at Cool Things Together!

Lesley Patterson-Marx is working on her illustration for The Wolf’s Bane. She’s got photos up at Instagram!

Here are some early sketches.

Here’s the final drawing.

Here’s some artsy stuff I don’t understand, though I love the orange glow.

And here’s a wall of prints.

Her picture illustrates the herbal of Mrs. Overton. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Overton, for comparison (I love everything about that portrait. The look in her eye that the painter captured just warms my heart.)

Perhaps a Song The Band Did Back in the Day?

I’ve been at an impasse with my pirate story for a few days. Not a writer’s block impasse, thank goodness. But that kind of impasse where you kind of know what happens next, but you’re just not sure. Characters aren’t quite standing in the right places for them to get to the places they seem to be going. But you don’t want to go back and move them if you’re not sure about the destination.

So, I wait. I just mull over different possibilities–do these people get along? Do they not? If not, why not? And I go back and read what I’ve already written and I reconsider what that information means. Sometimes, it suggests something more than it did when I first put it down, especially once I have the conflict more firmly settled on the page. Those details might now tell me more about how the story ends.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing with the pirate story. Just waiting to see what was going to make sense.

This morning, when I opened the garage door and let the dog out into the night, I started singing “Sweet Pauline, the Pirate Queen. Prettiest gal that I’d ever seen. Mean and tough and quick with a knife. She wouldn’t be a gentleman’s wife.” And I laughed, because it was totally a little bit a rip off of “Amanda,” though faster, but also because I knew it meant that the ending was almost ready.

I Make Myself Happy

My story about Andrew Jackson’s parrot is now called “Sweet Pauline the Pirate Queen, Governor of Tennessee.” It’s about how Andrew Jackson’s parrot briefly was elected governor of Tennessee. And how she’s really Pauline Lafitte, the pirate sister of Jean and Pierre.

The only part I’m stuck on is how one would say “Sweet Pauline” in French.

Well, not the only part. The only two people who would come to her inaugural ball were Mrs. Polk and Mrs. Acklen. So, that’s kind of a bummer. And she had to murder the assassins the other Governor of Tennessee sent after her. Also kind of a bummer. But her eggs know the answers to all questions, so that’s nice.

My First Anthology!

You can now pre-order the anthology, Faed, in which my story, “The Letters Laurel Left Maggie Regarding That Thing in the Woods” appears. It’s a story about how a botched human sacrifice affects generations of a family. Also, there’s singing.

I am Already Learning a Lot from the SFWA

1. It’s cool to remind people what stories you sold last year right about now. All the stories I sold last year were, weirdly enough, about Harpes and their heads. Ha.

–“Sarah Clark” at Eurynome 

–“Zilpha Murrell and the Third Harpe’s Head” at Beyond Borderlands

2. It’s not weird to send your stories back to markets you’ve already had success with.

3. Some people incorporate. Somehow. I haven’t read up too much about that.

4. I should probably be going to conventions. Well, I know nothing about conventions. So… yeah… I don’t know how that’s going to go.

But, as the Red-Headed Kid once so famously said, “I’m going to have to use self-promotion to promote myself.” So, I’m going to have to learn some of this stuff. Even if it makes me nervous.

On the other hand, reading through everything, I have apparently been doing everything wrong and I’ve had fun and gotten some things published. So, fucking up’s consequences–at least in this case–aren’t that dire.

Beyond, Behind, Below

I realized this when I was walking yesterday (oh, hell no, I didn’t walk this morning!): “Beyond, Behind, Below” is the story that I always think about when I’m walking this time of year–when it’s cold and the grass sparkles as the first light hits it, when I’m alone for most of the walk, because it’s too early for cars. I just always have this sense that something could happen–a man could emerge from the mist–and, in this weather, I just wouldn’t be surprised.

Some Thoughts on Writing

–Thought Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms could not be more different in all other respects, they all have weird issues with their fat characters, and assuming that “fat” is some kind of shorthand for “in need of betterment.” It’s weird because most people in our country are fat. And regardless of your opinions about it as a health issue, how could you be a person in this country and interact with people in this country, again the majority of whom are fat, and still be under the impression that being fat is some kind of moral condition a writer can give insight into? It’s just weird. It doesn’t even piss me off so much as befuddle me. I have a lot of friends of all shapes and sizes and I truly don’t perceive the thinner ones passing any kind of judgement about my morality based on my fat. But it makes me wonder if there are great swaths of non-fat people who somehow have separated themselves off from fat people and really don’t know or understand what our lives might be like, especially if we don’t perceive of ourselves as being morally deficient.

–I am trying to join the SFWA. I feel like I need something to happen with my writing and I am at a loss as to what that is. This seems like something I can do. So, hopefully, they’ll accept my application. I’m also going to commit this year to trying to sell two more stories to the markets you have to sell to in order to become a full member, instead of just floundering away at Duotrope going all “Oh, this looks interesting. These are some cool stories. I’ll send here. Oh, they don’t pay? Well, but I like the work they’re doing and I like being published.”

–I was talking to Elias last night (not just about how much the Mandela effect website freaked me out because I am too prone to those kinds of thoughts in the first place, but we did talk about that) and I referred to Project X as “that stupid werewolf book.” He laughed at me–which, you know, it’s important to know people who will laugh at you when you need it. But here’s the thing I have learned about this process. I can’t sustain enthusiasm for anything indefinitely. I need to feel like things are happening and that I have some ideas what I need to do next and I need to feel like there’s some known, recognizable end.

–I can apply to the SFWA for an associate membership because of “Frank.” Okay, but here’s the thing. Apex published “Frank” in 2011. Like, seriously, what have I accomplished since then? I’ve been doing things. It’s not like I wrote “Frank” and then was like “Yep, that’s as good as it gets. I’ll just do like Norman Greenbaum and do whatever the fuck Norman Greenbaum did with his life and coast on my one awesome thing.” I’ve been working. I’ve written some things that I just love the shit out of. That I’m proud of. But I guess I’m still Norman Greenbauming it up.

–While I was writing this, I got an email from the SFWA and I’m in! So, Goal 1 of the new year accomplished.

–I have to try to find an agent for the Ben & Sue project. I’ve just been disheartened a long time about it. I still really love it, though.

–“Norman Greenbauming it up” appears to include growing an awesome mustache and making a trippy music video, so at least that part will be fun.

Procrastinating with Keeping Busy

I’ve been avoiding work on the Nashville book by writing short stories. I’ve got one about a woman who discovers she’s got a small-scale replica of Memphis in her belly, and one about the only girl in a family of seventh sons and her memories of her grandfather, and one about fortune telling and kidnapping and a failed studfarm. I’m working on one now about a woman who challenges a beaver to a dam building contest.

I keep writing about families, even when I don’t think that’s what I’m writing about. I’m just obsessed with how much of our current lives are the way they are because of choices and patterns set by our dead relatives long before we came along.

But I’m also kind of fascinated by just how little strangeness has to happen in a story for me to feel like it counts as fantasy.

I’m also kind of obsessed with writing stories about being working poor or maybe just recently out of that. A lot of these stories are, in part, about how a lack of money constrains you in ways that even having super awesome powers–psychic abilities or magic or whatever–doesn’t really help.

I don’t know if they’re any good, but they’re coming and, sometimes when you’re writing, that’s all you can ask.

I Have Hopes

I hope the Butcher is spending the last day of his vacation doing some cleaning or I’m going to end up spending the first day of my vacation doing all the cleaning. That will not make me happy.

But, in related news, I’m about to have a week off.

In unrelated news, I ate too much for lunch and now I am full and happy.

I don’t quite like how my short story has shaped up, but at least it has a shape. It’s funny. This writing stuff never gets easier. Like, you never just spit out a story that is wholly perfect. Each one, at least in the first draft, fails in some new and spectacular way.

My writing lately even has me wondering if now might be the time when I go make my peace with Hemingway. My sentences have become so ungodly, just full of commas and parenthetical asides and dashes and, well, anyway, I could use some practice writing simple, straightforward sentences that pack a punch.

Talent

Yesterday, I was having this same conversation in three different iterations, basically about how someone who did something really detestable in the course  of his job, is now doing something else in the course of his job that seems like it needs to be engaged with and should we engage with it or not?

Like, imagine if Jame O’Keefe discovered some government corruption. Does anyone have any obligation to keep checking back in with O’Keefe to discover that this time he was right?

I say no.

But one thing that I find really striking and, I admit, very confusing is that part of the reason it seems like bad actors never go entirely away is this idea that there’s no one else to take their place. Like, it’s better to have a shitty, toxic writer who occasionally writes the things we want written than to not have him or no one will write the things we want written.

Even at lunch yesterday they were playing this interview with this guy who wrote a biography of Richard Pryor and, even though it was obvious that the biographer adored him, Pryor comes across like a nightmare jerk. And I get it–really. Because he was a genius. And his nightmare jerk-dom cost him some. He’s not in Blazing Saddles, for instance.

Eh, maybe Pryor’s a bad example because racism does keep the number of opportunities for black people limited.

But here’s the thing I have learned living in Nashville. Everybody has talent. A lot of talent. The best guitar player you ever heard is not even the best guitar player you might here that night. Being able to do the thing you want to do is just the bare minimum requirement. You need to be lucky and work hard and show up and be lucky some more. Because there are always ten other people who have as much talent as you–but maybe they’re sick today or hungover (or still drunk) or too scared to show up or don’t have the support they need or whatever.

I genuinely don’t get why the media doesn’t seem to get this. You don’t want to work with that Johnson guy because he seems too intense and loose with the facts? There must be fifty conservative young people who can write who would love his opportunities. I mean, I think I could find fifty and I have almost no connections to conservative young people.

I don’t like a world in which people get cut at the first sign of wrong-doing. But every conversation I had yesterday with this in the background, it seems like a lot of editors believe that there’s just not that much good writing out there–that no matter what the issues with person X are, no matter how big and prolific their fuck-ups, if person X is a known quantity, it’s better to work with person X than to not have anyone who can do it.

But there are other people who can do it. I don’t think I’m wrong about this. I see so many fucking talented writers in my life every day. There are at least five of you who comment here regularly whose books, which, as far as I know you’ve not written and maybe have no intention of writing, that I want to read and be able to fan-girl out about. But I believe, if you turned your attention to it, you could write a kick ass book, because I see your talent here.

There are an almost  unlimited number of guitarists. You wouldn’t believe a band in Nashville who couldn’t find a guitarist. And being a guitarist has start-up costs–you have to get a guitar. To be a writer, you just have to write.  The number of writers out there is enormous, mind-bogglingly enormous. If even only a fraction of us are talented, that fraction still represents a sizable number of people.

It simply can’t be true that there’s no one else to do the work. But the assumption that there aren’t enough talented writers seems pretty wide-spread.

(I need to get in the shower, but I find this attitude especially frustrating when you stop to think about how grossly underrepresented women and minorities are in writing. It’s like, dudes, stop looking for writers in just this one place and you will find a ton of them.)

My Thinker is not Thinking

You guys, I have been staring at this blank screen for like five minute. Just staring and thinking of nothing. It’s been quite refreshing.

I knew this was going to be a busy month. But I really had no idea.

This morning, on my way into work, they were playing Cheech and Chong’s Santa and His Old Lady bit. And wow, I hadn’t heard that since I was a kid and, when I heard it when I was a kid, I bet you a million dollars, I didn’t get it.

But, wow. It’s fantastic. It just a really well-written story. And listening to it, I felt this growing suspicion that I might be hearing something that, even if I had consciously forgotten about it, I hadn’t ever really forgotten about it. Because I think how I tell stories is pretty heavily indebted to this: