Archive for the ‘Process’ category

triplets, triptychs, trinities

December 31, 2018

My high school English teacher had assigned Lord Jim as my reading and term paper project in my senior year. That turned out to be a watershed moment in my (eventual) creative life because it introduced me to Joseph Conrad, whose novels I’ve read throughout the ensuing decades. Some I’ve read more than once. Lord Jim I’ve read thrice. (Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping good records in my callow youth.)

When my reading turned to Philip Roth, and I read some of his nonfiction, he discussed the influence Conrad had on his own writing and teaching. What I specifically remember was his respect for Conrad’s use of threes in a sentence: three examples, three clauses, three points.

I had long noticed by that time that I was commonly using threes in the sentences I wrote, and I was delighted to learn their apparent influence from my extensive reading of Joseph Conrad. Normally I don’t want to know too much about my creative process since I fear familiarity will lead to analysis, which would slay creativity. (Have I really been writing this blog for more than a decade?)

So here is a sentence I recently wrote for a story I’m working on (with the apt title “Three Small Words”*):

“Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a limited number of days as all men do.”

By my count, there are three incidents of threes in that sentence. I did not do this consciously; it just rose from the murk of my creative subconscious and flowed through my fingers onto the keyboard and then onto the screen.

I realize that it may be one of those darlings you’re supposed to kill, and that my yet happen since I’m only in the first draft stage.

But for the present I’m going to wallow in the perceived influence of Joseph Conrad.

*The three small words in the story are “Don’t tell Mom,” and an argument in the story is conducted with a series of three-word sentences, but the title harkens to some other threes in One-Match Fire including the three notes of the whippoorwill and the words “I love you,” a feeling that permeates that novel in many unspoken ways, so the whippoorwill is given the job of saying it.

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whence good ideas?

December 10, 2018

In a past life I wrote a lot of copy for a woman who was publishing a magazine that focused on a lucrative but hitherto underserved market* of big spenders in my town. Her magazine was slick and successful, but her pockets were not deep enuf, and she had to walk away from the venture after two issues. (It was subsequently taken up by other publishers in town, including the local fish wrapper, and continues in various forms to this day.)

I had sustained my writing relationship with her for a while after when she took a job with a propane company, producing newsletters. (This was back in the days of print.) She and I developed a professional friendship that included a few business lunches and chatty phone calls. And one bit of wisdom I gleaned from this was her offhand comment once that the good ideas always come back. Her point was that if an idea keeps presenting itself to you, then it must be good in some way you don’t yet recognize and it is probably worth your pursuit.

And thus is the case with the latest story I’m working on: “Icarus.” A little sleuthing showed me that I had begun this story nearly four years ago, and while I continued to keep notes in the ensuing years and even made an ill-fortuned attempt at writing it (making it a running story, which didn’t have legs), I never achieved the critical mass to really get it underway. (Yeah, I just split an infinitive! Fight me!)

I guess for me, critical mass can be achieved in different ways. Sometimes just the accumulation of notes can be enuf to get me going. In the case of one story, “When We Were Young and Life Was Full in Us,” I had the story in mind but didn’t have some controlling feature I needed. It turned out that what I needed was the correct tone, and once I settled on that (playful innocence), the story flowed. More recently I spoke of my story “MTWTF” (still not found a home, alas) and how once I found the structure for telling the story — the passage of a work week — the story came forth easily.

So it seems with “Icarus.” It’s based on a colleague I knew back in my (dark, dismal) teaching days and a misstep he made. The story is as old as time, or at least as old as men and women have been pursuing relationships, and I saw early enuf how the tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun was apt as a metaphor for the man’s foible. But there was something missing that was keeping me from telling the tale.

Once again, tone to the rescue. I am now trying to tell this man’s (fictionalized, Greek-tragic) story from the point of view of a bemused best friend who tries to help his buddy understand the doom he is pursuing. I’ve made them teachers in an English department so I can toss in some clever words. I think it’s going to work this time.

Of course, half the tale is in the telling.** I know the plot; I can see the end (flames). But getting there is what I have to do. I am lucky to know that kind of tone I’m reaching for, and I think that will guide my word choices, my syntax, the birth of the metaphors, the flow of sentences, the congealing of paragraphs, and all of that.

So, I’m flying forward on what I hope are reliable wings with this story. (And I’m boasting perhaps too confidently, having only amassed a few hundred words so far.)

 

*Weddings

**A saying that I think I came up with on my own (though I am willing to concede that I read it somewhere and don’t recall)

writing is rewriting

November 26, 2018

and I much prefer writing.

I mentioned before that an editor liked a running story (with a hint of leprechaun) that I had submitted and asked for a rewrite, enhancing the (possible) supernatural element of the tale. I’ve been struggling with that task ever since.

I’ve found that actual rewriting — taking a “finished” piece and reworking it — is different from the ongoing rewriting that is part of the normal editing and evolving of a story in progress. The latter is in flux in my mind, and I can wrap my head around its shifting nature. Not so with the former.

I suppose when I consider a story “finished” I lock it down in my little mind. Its words and sentences and order and development are all in their proper places, and any change to that, especially directed from the outside, is a kind of violence to the settled system. Each word had stood in its exact place in the “finished” work, the right flow was achieved, the right order led to the inexorable end. But with a rewrite I have to rip much of that apart and try to piece it all back together, with new, added parts that also need to find their places.

The story deals with a man asking a wish of someone whom he drunkenly thinks can grant it. This happens, but cautionary tales through the ages have warned of the need to be careful and specific in phrasing wishes to supernatural wish granters, and my character learns this lesson.

So I have the basic rewrite cobbled together now. It’s not finished. It needs a lot of love and a fair amount of cosmetics to smooth the clumsy transitions where I forced parts together. But it’s something I can work with. I’ll give it time to gestate and return to it to see what can be done.

 

editing jockstraps

September 12, 2018

 

 

*no image today*

 

 

I’ve long been a trifle smug about the fact that no editor has ever corrected the grammar in the stories I’ve had published. Once an editor suggested I add a hyphen (which I did), and twice editors requested fundamental changes to the endings of two stories (which I also did), but never has an editor told me to fix the sentence fragments or lengthy sentences or my enthusiastic use of semi-colons and em dashes. All of these things have become parts of my narrative style over the years, and all of these things have survived into the published stories.

I take that as evidence against the prescriptivists who insist on “proper” grammar and punctuation and how “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” (For the record, I know the rules, but I try to forget them. Also, I’m speaking of creative writing, not term papers or legal documents or such.) I’m not really out there, but I’m not interested in being timid and writing within constraints. Nor, I have seen, are most of the writers I admire playing by those rules much either. (My big bugbear is the insistence on only using some form of “say” as a dialog tag, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few dozen times before. Who decided that? And why are so many writers so automatic and vehement in their adherence to it?)

But lately I’ve begun to wonder what editing these editors actually do with the stories they receive. I spoke the other day of my using the incorrect spelling “jock strap” in One-Match Fire. Where that occurs (three times) is in the chapter titled “Runaway” and that story was published last year in a journal devoted to the intersection of sports and literature. Yet this incorrect two-word spelling appears in the printed journal. If it is truly wrong (and I yield that it is), then shouldn’t the male editor of a sporting lit mag have caught and corrected it? Had the editor been a woman and I had used the word “brastrap” I suspect it would have been corrected. Granted jockstrap is a rarified word and usage, but in that context it wouldn’t have been.

And so this makes me question my own (aforementioned) smugness. Are editors truly respecting the brilliance of my writing, or are they just not taking much time for fine tuning the works they accept. Or is there a third path I’m not seeing?

(And this leaves out discussion of the many rejections I’ve received for submitted stories. Maybe some of those were rejected because of my cavalier approach to “the rules.”)

“Old School” is now online

March 21, 2018

My story “Old School” is now up at Bull & Cross. You can read it here.

I based this story on several things: a conversation with someone who made the basic assertion in the story (I was never certain whether or not he was serious about it); some bosses I have had through the years; and an accounting professor at the second college I attended whose appearance (and perhaps name) I used for the main character in the story.

This story is similar in spirit to my story “Velvet Elvis.” They build to an unexpected yet should-have-been-obvious conclusion.

Enjoy! (but only if you wish; I’m not trying to impose any response, really)

who uses Scrivener (or anything like it)?

March 8, 2018

The One-Match Fire short stories that have occupied my crusty creative self for the last few years eventually coalesced into what could be called a loose novel form. I consider (most of) them stand-alone short stories (and some have gotten published as such), but collected in the novel format they feel more like episodes than an attempt at a continuous narrative. That’s fine, of course, and I think it works well enuf.

But now I’m working on that cozy mystery novel (Finnegans Fogbound) and I’m finding that I must give a great deal more attention to plotting than I needed for One-Match Fire. Events must happen in a certain order at certain times in certain ways. And I am out of practice in conventional novel construction.

A commenter here recently asked if I used Scrivener to do whatever it is that Scrivener does. I don’t. I’ve never considered it. Looking at the site, I see how it could help a writer organize the grand effort, but I wonder if I need such an involved tool. (One I would have to pay for.) Would it do anything for me that drafting an outline and keeping a list of characters can’t?

Do you use Scrivener or anything like it? I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts or recommendations.

#28

January 29, 2018

I am currently working on journal #28 in my 35+ years of keeping a handwritten journal. Thousands of pages. Hundreds of thousands of words. Countless ideas. Complaints, moans, thoughts, musings, copying, trying, dreaming, scheming. These journals have been my respository for inklings for article ideas (earlier in my writing life) as well as for story ideas now. I’ve worked out themes and characters and plots and whole novels on the pages of these journals. In the dim days before I had my earlier blog, Roundrock Journal, I would write pages-long, detailed accounts of my trips to my woods (because I had this idea that I would need the notes for the great account of my life in the woods I would eventually write). I make entries to voice my complaints with the universe as well as complaints with the quotidian. I’m all over the place in my journals.

I certainly don’t even remember all of the things I have written in my journals and certainly couldn’t find most of the ones I do remember. And why would I as I reflect on it. In those decades, I have changed a great deal, not only in my writing but in my general view of life, the universe, and everything. Whatever I had to say about anything thirty years ago would probably make me cringe with embarrassment today.

I sometimes wonder what will become of my journals. I can’t imagine there is anything particularly insightful within them. The world won’t be a better place because of my musings. About the only thing I ever imagine happening from someone reading my scribblings is these words being uttered: “This explains everything, Your Honor.”

My middle son has said he can hardly wait to read my journals after I have died. There is so much he will want to learn about me then. (Why doesn’t he want to learn about me now?)

I’ve thought about having a cleansing fire sometimes. Burning all of my journals to be rid of the weight of them. I’ve begun burning the notebooks I kept in graduate school. The next step wouldn’t be so hard.

So why do I keep them? Some sort of mental health break, I guess. I do like the feel of pushing a mechanical pencil across a page. I even spent a day scouring Kansas City for exactly the right mechanical pencil for the job. There is some catharsis from holding the pencil in my hand and making marks on the page, marks that form themselves into words that collect into sentences that flow into paragraphs that begin to have meaning.

But maybe the meaning is in the act itself, not the results.