Late Word

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."

~~Robert Benchley

The Moment

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Do you ever have the Moment?

You know the one where a flood of self-doubt arrives from nowhere and washes your ambition away?  Where writing three original words in a row looks like a physical, emotional and spiritual impossibility?  Where you think to yourself: "Self, you don't have it in you.  You never did.  You'll never write like those other guys."

I had the Moment last night.

I threw one of my shorts out for a critique and it came back covered in red ink.  And everything they said was right.  That was the hardest part.  Every criticism was on target.  And it stopped me dead in my tracks and I couldn't breathe for awhile.  I lay awake most of the night trying to recage my gyros.  Can I really do this?

Robert Collier said: "Sooner or later there comes a crisis in our affairs, and how we meet it determines our future happiness and success."

This morning, an epiphany.  There are a hundred Moments between me and my publishing deal, maybe more.  I'll have to struggle through every one.  Somehow I have to learn to live with the idea that constant self improvement and criticism is a part of the process, this wonderful terrible beautiful painful passion called writing.

And I can do it.  So can you.

What about it?  How do you deal with your Moment?

Friday Link Love: Just What The Doctor Ordered

Friday, January 29, 2010

If you didn't hear, Moonrat over at Editorial Ass put up a post about "Write Your @ss Off Day." The idea is to choose one day and devote it completely (as completely as you can anyway) to writing. My pick is Saturday, February 6th. Bonus: they put together an interactive map.  What could be more fun?  OK, well I can think of a couple of things, but I signed up anyway--and you should too.  If you go explore the map, I'm the little guy sitting all alone in Baghdad. :D

I decided to start a tradition here at WSMG--my first! Each Friday I'll post the best of what I've seen around the intertubes recently--everything from hardcore writing tutorials to items that make me laugh. If you have a post you'd like me to include, drop me a note and I'll put it in!

But first, a joke. Note: I said "a joke," not a funny joke or good joke, but a joke. I tend toward groaners, puns, and humor dry as the desert, so consider yourself warned.

The Doctor's Visit

A writer goes to a doctor. The doctor eyes the man with concern because the man looks dog tired.

"What seems to be the problem," the doctor asks.

"Doctor, you have to help me," the man says. "I haven't slept much lately, and it's killing me. I haven't been able to write a word."

"Why haven't you been sleeping?"

"Nightmares keep waking me up."

"Nightmares?"

"Yes. First, I dream I'm a wigwam. The idea scares me so much, I wake up in a cold sweat."

"Go on."

"After I finally fall back asleep, I dream I'm a teepee. Again I wake up in a cold sweat."

The doctor smiles knowlingly. "Ah, I see."

"What it is?"

"It's very simple. You're too tents."
:)

And now for some fun Friday Link Love:

  • Hello, Hello? Query As A Phonecall: Diana over at Writing Rollercoasters--who is not, as it turns out, a fairy :)--wrote up this revealing and hilarious discussion about the etiquette of query response.  Reading the post, I was laughing so much my fellow cubicle denizens were giving me funny looks and I knew a lot more about the subject when I was done--and you can't beat that, in my book!
  • Adverbs Are Evil: Heather let loose the Ninjadillo (like the Dogs 'o War, but oh so much more vicious!) on all those stinking adverbs over at her blog, See Heather Write. I tell ya, after reading this post, my adverb-laden verbiage doesn't stand a chance.
  • Grub Street Fiction Course: Carrie has a great series of posts on her site Heim Binas Fiction detailing tips from a recent six-part fiction course at Grub Street. The posts give awesome pointers in a ton of different areas.
  • What Point of View? Sophie Masson, one of the many hard working writers over at Writer Unboxed, writes up a fantastic outline on the things to consider when choosing a POV for your WIP.  Thanks Valerie for pointing that one out.  Valerie's site, Something To Write About, is also a great place to stop by and hang out.
  • The Road: A Comedic Translation: Jacob Lambert at The Millions masterfully parodies Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." This is an older link, but I was rolling on the floor laughing as I read it, so I couldn't bear to leave it out.
Enjoy! And, as always, thanks for reading.

EDIT: I just heard that J. D. Salinger passed on Wednesday. Full obit. You can find some of his other work, including Nine Stories here.  The man wrote with such an authentic voice.  I'm still chasing it after all these years.

Key to Solving Gridlock

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody's head."

~~John Updike

Remembering Miss Mandible

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Before we get started, don't forget about Heather at See Heather Write's contest--with confetti! Win a signed copy of Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day" or Anita Shreve's "The Pilot's Wife"!

And a super special thanks goes out to Liza at Middle Passages who put up the nicest post about me yesterday.  For a sampling of her great work, go read this post about a recent trip she made to an Italian Food Emporium.  Her writing is so visual, I promise you you'll be hungry all day.  I'm getting peckish now just thinking about it.

Now down to business.  There's a great old story by Donald Barthelme that I love called Me and Miss Mandible (story at the link).  The story tells of Joseph, a 35-year old former insurance adjuster who, through a clerical error, is mistaken for an eleven year-old and ends up in Miss Mandible's sixth-grade class.  The other kids know the system and have the day-to-day routine down pat while clueless Joseph struggles to make sense of it all, despite his maturity.

Looking at my TBR list last night, I realized I'm a lot like Joseph.  The "A-ha!" moment happened when I noticed how many older works are in my queue.  For example, I am about half-way through re-reading John Knowles' "A Separate Peace".  The copy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" I ordered last week arrived from Amazon yesterday.  Other recent conquests include "Catch 22" and "Requiem for A Dream" (my review here). 

I know, I know!  I need to update my reading list!  But I don't know the first thing about what's hot right now.  The best seller list has never been a good guide for me.  I hear lots of talk about young adult (YA) fiction, and I have to admit I don't have a clear grasp of what's good and what's not in that genre.

Can you guys stear me in the right direction, both for YA and for other genres? 

If I wanted to get a good picture of what constitutes cutting edge publishable fiction right now, what novels should I pick up?  What have you read recently that you liked or thought was noteworthy?

The Sea Underneath

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes."

~~William Makepeace Thackeray

Foreshadowing

I'm getting my feet under me on this whole blogging thing and--let me tell you--it's been nothing but fun!  It's not an understatement to say that reading all your blogs (if you're reading this, I'm probably reading you too!) has been a great source of inspiration.

I thought I might take a second to introduce myself.  I'm a graduate of the University of Texas English Program, with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Playwriting (Playwriting was fun and will provide some good fodder for future posts). 

By day, I'm a helicopter pilot, although it's been a few years since I've actually flown anything other than a desk.  By night, I'm a corny husband to my awesome wife, heretofore known as Furnacegirl, and father to my precocious and smarter-than-me two year old, who I will call Muffin.  I'm all about protecting the guilty. 

(As a funny aside, when we were first pregnant but didn't yet know Muffin's gender, we decided we'd call her Biscuit.  You see we wanted to keep her real name secret from the family until after she was born.  So we decided if she turned out to be a boy, we'd call him Sausage Biscuit. :P Since she's a girl, it's Muffin.  Aren't we clever?).

Currently assigned in Baghdad, Iraq as part of the military staff at the U.S. Embassy, I've been away from home for nearly a year.  Although the staff work has been interesting and sometimes exciting (in both good and bad ways--the recent explosions here being exhibit A), I am ready to go home.  I have about two more years before I retire and a second career in fiction would be just the ticket, if I can make it happen.

Mainstream fiction is my first love, and my tastes tend toward classic authors like Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ayn Rand to name a few.  There's a simplicity there that I enjoy.  I do like magical realism--Borges does a number on me--and I've dabbled in sci-fi, but I keep returning to the middle of the road stuff.

I am not one of those folks who insists that I will write what I want and hope to hell people like it.  In my opinion, no writer should be inaccrochable in their work (for the record, I choose the second meaning for inaccrochable, namely writing that can only be understood by the author, vice writing that has no market because of controversial content), and so one of the big challenges I face is updating my feel for what is fresh and marketable to today's reader. 

You see, I have every intention of getting published.  It is not a question of if, but when.  No doubt, this sentiment is familiar to you.

{steps down from the soapbox, deposits said soapbox in the closet, and throws out a wan smile}

A dozen or so short stories are in my writing queue so far, and I'm working on a novel treatment (more to follow on that).  I'm not short of ideas, which is good news, but I am still perfecting my process and knocking the rust off. 

It's been over five years since I wrote seriously.  I spent most of this last summer alternating between quitting writing altogether and trying but failing to write.  As a result, I am ecstatic to now be producing and my current goal is around 1,000 words a day, give or take.  In the next weeks, I'll tell you more about my projects and also share some plans I have for this blog.

I do have one question: who are you people following me?  :D  I am so very curious, and I want to know all about you.  So I throw out this proposition: if you're reading this and the mood strikes, introduce yourself in a comment below.  Tell us a little about your background, where you're from, what you like to write, and so on.

I look forward to hearing from you.  And once again, thanks for reading.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

Monday, January 25, 2010

"You may delay, but time will not."

~~Benjamin Franklin

Follow A Great Blog, Get A Signed Book (If You're Lucky)

I'm new to this blogging game, so I'm still learning my way (obvious, ain't it?).  As one of my drill instructors once said to me: "JP, you need a tissue, because you're just crying for leadership."  :D

After spending the last few months searching for good places to learn a thing or two about writing, a few blogs stand out.  One of those is See Heather Write.  Heather has been regular reading for me lately.  She's done a fantastic job, day in and day out, of putting up great posts filled with smart content like these:

Critiques: Turning Your Plot Upside-Down Since 1485
I learned, I learn, I will learn: Things got in-tense!
On beginnings

Bottom line, I think this girl is going places.  To put icing on the cake, she is now hosting her first contest and has a couple really nice prizes lined up:

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve (signed paperback)

or

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (signed paperback)

Personally, I have my eye on the Pilot's Wife, a book I've been wanting to read for awhile now.  But I'm sure The Given Day is a great read too, and a signed copy of either one would be a nice addition to anyone's library. 

So waddaya say?  Why dontcha mosy on over and subscribe to Heather's blog right this instant.  And enter the contest while you're at it.  All the instructions on how to enter are here:  See Heather Write Signed Book Contest

I tell ya, there'll be some good reading in it for ya in the days and weeks to come, courtesy of Heather, and if you're lucky, you'll get your hands on a nice signed book as well!  Good luck!

Identity Crisis

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will."

~~Goethe

The Job Interview--Part Two

***If you haven't read Part One, you can find it here.***

Jon inserted the new tape into the tape recorder and pressed the record button.  "Testing? Testing?"
JP looked on with concern.  "I have to say this is very odd, Mr. Paul."
"Excuse me one moment, Mr. P.  I must make sure the tape recorder is working properly.  Testing.  One, two, three."
"But I'd rather we not record this conversation."
"Not record it?"
"Yes."
"It's standard procedure."
"I don't care."
"I told you: no one will hear it."
"No one?"
"Not a soul."
"Because I don't want to embarrass myself."
"Too late for that, I think."
"What does that mean?"
"Oh, nothing.  Let's get back to it then, shall we?"
"OK."
"We were discussing your qualifications."
"Yes."
"What other work have you completed besides this 'novella' we discussed."
"Not much, really.  In previous years, I wrote a few short stories, and I started probably eight novels."
"Let me guess: ten pages in and you quit."
"Yeah, something like that."
"What else?"
"I wrote a play.  Several, actually.  But one in particular got some attention."
"Some attention?"
"Yes.  A reading.  With actors."
"And you want to write fiction?"
"Yes."
"Hmm."
"Have you been published?"
"No."
"Have you submitted anything to a publisher?"
"No."
Jon frowned.  "Hmm."
"I know it doesn't make sense, but...well...that's how it is."
"I'm sorry, Mr. P., but I don't think you're qualified.  Let me speak plainly.  Being a helicopter pilot does not in any way qualify you to be a writer.  These other works you speak of--"
"I know."
"You know?"
"Yes.  I mean, that's the point, isn't it?  I'm a helicopter pilot.  I want to be a writer.  It's the craziest idea in the world.  It doesn't make any sense."
"I think you're on to something there, Mr. P."
"I am?"
"Yes.  If you've no qualifications for the job and if you've already quit then--"
"But I didn't quit!"
"What?"
"I didn't quit.  I almost quit, but I didn't."
Jon blinked at JP.  "We discussed this at length, did we not?"
"Yes.  I thought it was clear."
"You said you quit."
"I almost quit.  But I didn't in the end."
"I'm quite certain you said--"
"Remember when I said "I almost quit" and you said "what was I doing before I almost quit?" and I said "not writing" and you said "let me get this straight" and wondered how I could quit when I hadn't even been writing?"
"No."
"Well that's what we discussed and I clearly said I didn't quit."
"OK.  I'll take your word for it, shall I?"
"Thank you."
"So, what did this "not quitting" look like?"
"I've been writing."
"That's a good place to start."
"A lot.  At least by my standards.  I've started over fourteen short stories."
"Let me guess, you got about ten pages in and--"
"I know, I know!  But I am working at it.  It feels like progress.  Maybe from where you sit, Mr. Paul, it doesn't look like progress, but it feels like it.  I feel like I'm actually getting somewhere."
"But it sounds like you start things and never finish them, Mr. P."
"Yes, I know.  I have to work on that.  I have to get better organized, and I'm writing a novel too, so--"
"Another novel?"
"Yes.  I have about 25 pages of a treatment, but that counts as progress too.  And I understand how I tend to start new things and not finish, so I have to focus on that.  The endings I mean.  I'm good at beginnings but I need to work at endings.  But nobody' perfect."
"Indeed."
"I don't think you're taking me seriously, Mr. Paul."
"How can I?"
"It's all different now.  I've been working so very hard!"
"Oh really?  How much have you written since you quit?"
"Almost quit."
Almost quit.  How much have you written since you almost quit?"
"Nearly 20,000 words in the last six weeks!"
"You can't be serious!"
"I am.  I don't know what's gotten in to me, but being a writer is what I want to be.  More than anything.  It's always been my dream, truly, but I stumbled somewhere along the way.  I lost track of what was most important to me.  I lost that feeling I get when--"
"Don't get all sentimental on me, Mr. P."
"You're right.  I'm sorry.  But I really want this job.  I know I don't have all the qualifications.  I know you must think this is some kind of joke, but I am serious.  I can work hard.  I can put the time in.  I promise you that if you give me this one chance, you won't be sorry."
"I see."  Jon flipped through the pages in the file, looking up at JP from time to time, frowning, looking down, shaking his head ever so slightly.
When he finally spoke, it was almost a whisper.  "Are you any good?"
JP looked at his dress shoes.
"Mr. P., are you any good?"
"No."
"You're not?"
"No."
Jon closed his file.
JP stood up.  "But I could be.  If I work at it--I mean really slave over it, day in, day out--I really could be!"
"Sit down, Mr. P."
"But this isn't fair.  I came here--"
"SIT DOWN!"
JP froze, stunned, then sat down, afraid to look Jon in the face.
Jon cleared his throat.  "If you had given me a second to explain, I was going to say that that's very good."
"What is?"
"The fact that you said that you are not a good writer."
"What?  Why?"
"You can tell the truth, Mr. P.  And you don't seem afraid to tell the truth.  Above all other qualities, that is the one most sought after in fiction writers."
"How do you know that?"
"I read it in a fortune cookie."
"Oh."
"But it happens to be true."
"I'm not sure I can always tell the truth."
"Perhaps not."
"I just want this job."
"Can you do something for me, Mr. P.?"
"Yes?"
"I want you to imagine ten thousand people out there, as if you were standing in a darkened stadium."
JP looked around, gazing hard into the darkness.
Jon continued.  "These people are looking at you, looking at nothing but you."
"OK."
"Do you have that picture in your mind?"
"Yes."
"Can you see those people, make out their individual details, the color of their eyes, the roundness of their faces?"
"Yes.  I think so."
"Now you have to write like they aren't there, even though you know they are."
JP looked confused.  "What do you mean?"
"Even though those tens of thousands are out there, you can't write for them.  You have to write for yourself."
"I have to write for myself."
"Yes."
"So I have to imagine that the people I'm imagining are not real, and pretend that they're not there even though they really are?"
"Exactly."
"This is a very confusing conversation, Mr. Paul." 
"That may be so, but do you think you can do it?"
"I don't know.  I guess I could try."
"Good."  Jon stood up, closed his file and started walking off across the concrete floor.
"Where are you going?"
Jon stopped and looked back.  "The interview is over, Mr. P."
"It is?"
"Yes."
"But............did I get the job?"
"We'll see."
"What does that mean?"
"We'll start you on a full-time, probationary basis.  We won't pay you anything.  More like an intern actually."
"Oh.  But I got the job."
"I guess you could say that."
"Really?"
"Good luck, Mr. P."  Jon turned and walked away.
JP stood with one hand on the back of his chair, watching Jon disappear into the darkness.  He looked around, a new light dancing in his eyes.  A tentative grin started at the corners of his mouth.
Then he yelled into the darkness: "Look out world.  Here I come!"

Blood Test

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

~~Walter Wellesly "Red" Smith

The Job Interview--Part One

Friday, January 22, 2010

A door creaked open and then slammed shut.  JP walked in, dress shoes echoing on the concrete floor.  "Hello?"
Jon Paul was sitting behind a desk.  "Yes?  May I help you?"
"I'm here for the interview."
"The interview?"
"The job interview.  I'm here for the job interview."
"Ah yes.  Mr....?"
"JP.  I'm JP."
"Ah yes, Mr. P."
"You can call me JP." 
"Very well.  Pleased to make your acquaintance Mr. P.  I'm Jon Paul.  I'll be interviewing you today."
"Great!"
"Please take a seat."
"Thank you."
The two men sat, then Jon looked at his watch.  "You're late."
"What?"
"It appears that you are late, Mr. P."
JP looked at his watch.  "But it's three 'til."
"Didn't anyone ever tell you to be fifteen minutes early?"
"Well yes, but I--"
"Then you're late."
"I don't know about that.  I mean the interview was scheduled for--"
"It doesn't matter anyway.  Tardiness doesn't bother me."
"It doesn't?"
"No."
"Good."
"It's only a very poor way to start an interview."
"I thought you said you didn't care?"
"I don't."
"Then why did you point it out?"
"I don't care, Mr. P., but others might.  You can't be too careful."
"No, I guess you can't."
"So you're here because you want to be a writer."
"Yes."
"You've come to the right place then."  Jon pulled a file from a desk drawer and flipped it open.  "Now.  Let me see here.  Hm hmm.  Hm hmm.  Uh-oh.  Hmm.  So what are your qualifications?"
"For the job?"
"Yes.  For the job."
"Well, I like to write."
"You like to write."
"Yes, I mean I really like to write.  I've been doing it off and on since I was a kid, matter of fact.  I haven't always been writing, mind you, but it is something I keep coming back to."
"I see."
"The way I feel about writing is so different--you know?  It's this urge to tell stories that really move people.  This feeling just won't leave me alone.  It keeps me up late at night sometimes.  You know what I mean?"
"No, uh, no I don't."
"Well it's been pretty strange, especially lately.  I thought about giving it up.  In fact, I had given it up.  Recently.  This summer, in fact."
"How does one go about giving up writing?"
"I don't know.  I guess....I guess you just stop.  Writing, that is."
"And you were writing before that?"
"No.  Not really."
"You weren't writing."
"No."
"So let me get this straight.  Even though you weren't writing, you decided to stop."
"Yes, that's it.  I decided to quit because I wasn't writing."
Jon stared blankly at JP.  "And this makes sense to you?"
"Yes.  You see, I couldn't go on like that anymore."
"Like what?"
"Not writing.  I couldn't go on not writing anymore."
"I don't understand."
"It was just something I had to do."
"Quit?"
"Yes, I had to quit."
And that makes sense to you?"
"Yes."
"Well it doesn't make any damn sense to me."
"What?  What do you mean?"
"Well if you aren't doing something already, how can you quit?  Don't you see?  If you're not doing it, you have, in a sense, already quit.  Not doing something is the same as quitting."
"But it's not."
"It is."
"Let me explain."
"Please do."
"It was this dream I had, from when I was a kid.  I wanted to write stories.  I started my first novel when I was eight years old."
"How far did you get?"
"I wrote...ten pages."
"Ten pages?  Typed or handwritten?"
"Handwritten.  On Big Chief paper with one of those giant pencils with the fat erasers."
"And the giant pencils helped with your writing process."
"Not really.  I always got lead all over the heals of my hands."
"Did you ever finish it?"
"What, the novel? No."
"What was it about, this ten-page 'start' of a novel?"
"It was about a boy who sets out to sail around the world on an old iron ship."
"Let me guess, he did all the sailing and navigating and exploring himself."
"Yes."
"Not very realistic, was it?"
"Well, no.  But realism wasn't really my strong point back then."
"What was your strong point?"
"I don't know if I had a strong point."
"Everyone has a strong point."
"They do?"
"Well, yes of course.  Think for a minute.  What was your strong point?"
"I don't know."
"Hmmm."  Jon looked at J. P.'s file for a long moment.  "So, why are you here?"
JP fiddled uncomfortably.  "I told you.  I'm here for the job."
"You want to be a writer."
"Yes, very much so."
"Although I can at least admit that your first, shall we say, novella, sounds very intriguing, why do you think you have what it takes?"
"To tell the truth, I'm not sure I have what it takes."
"You're not?"
"No.  Truthfully, no."
"I see.  That's very intriguing."
"It is?"
"Actually, no.  I was only trying to be kind Mr. P.  It's not intriguing at all."
"Oh."
"Do you have a job now?"
"Yes."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a pilot."
"Really!  A pilot?"
"Yes."
"You're 'dangerous'?"
"What?"
"Everytime you go flying, you're 'dangerous'?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You're 'writing checks your body can't cash'!"
"Oh, I see."
"Like in Top Gun!"
"No.  Actually it's not like that at all."
"Maybe I'll call you Iceman!"
"Please.  No.  Please stop."
"But why?"
"It's...embarrassing."
"It is?  Why is that?"
"Those are the same jokes everybody makes, and frankly, I'm really tired of it."
"OK."
"Thanks."
"So you fly jets?"
"No.  Helicopters."
"Oh."
"What?"
"Nothing."
"Hey, helicopters are cool too!"
"Perhaps."
"Perhaps?  Have you ever flown in a helicopter?"
"Well no, but--"
"You see there.  You're just making assumptions."
"Am not."
"Are too."
"Am not!"
"Are too!"
"Mr. P., may I point out that if you were applying for a job as a helicopter pilot, you would be in a very favorable position at this moment.  Get my point?"
"Uh, yes.  I see what you mean."
"So perhaps you should stow that flyboy bravado and come back down to planet earth for a moment."
"I'll see what I can do."
"And while you're at it--uh, hold on a second.  We have to change tapes."
"We have to do what?"
"Just a moment.  We have to change tapes."
"Change tapes?"
"Yes."
"You're recording this?"
"Yes, Mr. P.  It's standard--"
"Aren't you supposed to tell me first?"
"We find it makes the applicants nervous."
"I wonder why!"
"Now no need to worry, Mr. P.  Not another soul will hear this tape.  I promise."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes.  I promise.  This is simple record keeping.  I forgot to change the tape after the last applicant left."
"I don't know about this."
"Hold that thought, Mr. P., while I put in a new tape."
Jon pushed the eject button on the tape recorder and the casette tape popped out.

***Part Two here.***

No Excuses

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they're yours."

 ~~Richard Bach

Gift of the Gab

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I leave my luggage in the entry hall.  The kitchen is just as I remember it.  I put the kettle on.  Once the day gets going, I'll walk up the lane to the hospital. 

The air in the room feels stale, like the mood in a house where the family has gone away for the summer.  I close my eyes.  I can see Grandma sitting alone at the table, humming to herself and listening to the announcer on the radio, the back garden light shifting in through the curtains.

I remember sitting at the table with her once before. I was fourteen. We had breakfast: tea and brown bread with butter and marmalade. She buttered a thick slice on the top side with the wide blade of her knife.

How is school? she asked. How have your studies been?

I rolled my eyes--I had not yet learned my own impatience--and coughed up one word answers like "fine" and "good."  To my teenage ears, the questions sounded like the ones my parents always asked.  My shortness must have left her wanting, but at the time she only smiled and nodded. 

Now her chair stands vacant in the corner.  I sit quietly nearby and wait for the kettle to boil, thinking of all the things I didn't say.

Time Off For Good Behavior?

Friday, January 15, 2010

I just realized this morning I'm exhausted.  Not from the writing, certainly.  In fact the writing has helped me stay focused.  No, I think we can blame nearly eleven months in Baghdad.  I've had four days off in that time, and frankly I'm pooped.

So I'm taking a break, taking the weekend off.  From writing and a host of other things.  See you Monday.

Book Review: Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Requiem For A Dream"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hubert Selby's "Requiem for a Dream" is the story of four people--three young and one old--and what happens when they get trapped in their addictions. Harry and Tyrone, occasional heroin users, decide that they need to keep their nose clean, "off a pound of pure," make a big score and retire--and Harry and his girlfriend Marion dream about using their windfall profits to open a coffee house. At the same time, Harry's mom Sara gets a phone call telling her she's to be a contestant on a game show.  Wanting to fit into the red dress she wore to Harry's barmitzvah, she goes to the doctor for diet pills.
As the novel progresses, their worlds begin to unravel.  Tyrone, Harry and Marion can't quite keep from "having a tase" of the product, and as summer turns to fall then freezing winter, their efforts to stay ahead of the ever present "sickness" become increasingly desperate.
 "At first Harry and Tyrone stayed on the fringes of the devastation, seeing the campfires in the hollowed buildings from a distance, but it became progressively necessary to go deeper and deeper into the desolation to fulfill their needs, the urgency of the need being the first concern of their lives.  At first their forays were tentative and timid, now they were cautious but assertive, realizing the necessity of getting to where the action was as rapidly as possible before it was just no mans land with empty bags, broken bottles, unconscious bodies and an occasional corpse.  Whatever chances they had to take they took automatically as their disease ordered and they obeyed, a small part of them wanting to try to resist, but that part was shoved so far down that it was no more than an ancient dream from a previous life.  Only the insatiable and insane need of the moment had any bearing on their lives, and it was that need that gave all the orders."
Similarly, Sara isn't happy with the slow pace of her weight loss.  She begins drinking pots of coffee and taking all her diet pills in the morning, then downers in the evening to sleep.  This odd behavior is accompanied increasingly by a ruthless obsession for being on TV--what gameshow will she be on?--and her downward slide begins as well.

Written in 1978, the novel stands the test of time.  Both the writing style and the content are still so dramatic and telling that Selby could have put the words down yesterday.  In particular, Selby's stream-of-consciousness prose conveys the turmoil and desperation faced by the characters.  Though his writing style might be off-putting to purists who prefer the shape of conventional prose, readers patient enough to stick with it will see a rhythm of language start in the first chapter and carry through, and will ultimately understand the characters in a visceral way not achievable with conventional language.

What sets this book apart is the immediacy of the action.  This story is not told in civil tones or painted from afar in kind colors.  Rather this book is a slow-motion car accident, like one of those sickening over-exposed films shown to driver's ed classes.  The reader knows from the first moment that someone is going to get hurt, maimed or killed, but they can't stop reading.  Somehow, even understanding the collective fates of Tyrone, Harry, Marion and Sara, the text binds us up in their days and destruction, until we all reach an inevitable and disturbing end.

This novel was made into a film of the same name by Director Darren Aronofsky, in 2000, and I am a big fan of the film.  In fact, I was not aware until recently of the existence of Selby's novel.  Typically, I am disappointed with books I read after having seen the film, but this book is an exception.  While the film follows the book rather closely, Selby's attention to detail and clear voice allow the reader to look at the story in a new and enjoyable way.  I thought it was great read all the way through, and I highly recommend it.

The Days Count

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thirty days ago today, I finally started back at writing.  I am still not certain how I did it.  Looking back, overcoming a fallow summer of trying to write but not actually writing, looks to me like a minor miracle. 

Maybe it was the planning.  Making up a schedule, laying the days out on paper--or in my case on a laptop screen--tends to knock things loose.  Maybe I finally got so sick of myself that I had to do something.  I both hate and love that feeling.  I think my deep-seated need to write comes from that restlessness, that feeling I get late in the evenings where I need to get out in the night, see something, feel something, where I can't stand to lay in my bed and go quietly to sleep.

Whatever it is, it's been a productive month.  I wrote two pieces of micro-fiction and put them out for comment.   I have several other short stories in work.  All told, I wrote over 40 pages of fiction.  I am about 30% through the treatment for my novel.   I created this blog, got up 11 posts, and made a slew of comments on other blogs and message boards. 

This is in addition to the reading I did.  I digested a forest of short stories, finished a novel (review to follow) and a couple books on writing craft (will review as well).  Most importantly, I made a few new friends in the writing community and their encouragement and comeraderie at this early stage has been essential.  If you're reading this now, you might be one of them, so I thank you.

This trumpeting of my recent work may seem braggadocious, and perhaps it is.  But I find that marking down what I have accomplished is a way of pushing away the thought of all those things I haven't.  After thirty days, my work feels so tentative and unreal that I think this post is a way of reminding myself that, yes, progress is being made.

The new fear I face is the fear that I believe any artist faces, the unreasonable dread that it all might end, the panic of waking one morning and finding the well dry, of discovering the favor of the muse withdrawn.  This is an artful way of worrying that this willingness to dig in and work--this certain work ethic I've unearthed in the last month--won't long remain. 

In response to this fear, I have introduced a new alertness.  I watch myself closely.  I struggle with distractions.  I avoid excuses.  Sometimes I can't sleep.  Sometimes all I want is sleep.  I try to live only in this moment and the next, never raising my eyes to look farther afield, for fear of losing my way.  And strangely, this is making me happy.

My next goal is clear: write for another thirty days--10 pages a week minimum.  Not a lot, yes, but enough for me.  I am like "The Little Engine That Could": I think I can. 

One word in front of the next, baby.  Wish me luck.

Kid

Monday, January 11, 2010

For a blazing moment, the young infantryman was the only soul in sight.  The Sergeant Major and the Captain faded like ghosts.  Their grey faces washed into the sand and the sky and the tan canvas tents behind them.  The Captain studied his boots and smoked a cigarette.  The Sergeant Major cleared his throat and tried to think of something more to say.

The Battalion had been deployed to the desert six months now--feverish days under a baking sun, channeling defensive positions out of the stew brown caliche, erecting tents, stacking sandbags.  They weren't due to rotate home for another eight months.  With no television or radio station within a hundred miles, news of the rest of the world was rare.  But bad news travelled fast.

The young Private shouldered his rifle, coughed several times, and looked away.  His pool blue eyes settled into a thousand yard stare.  He had known it would happen sometime.  The timing was lousy is all.

He was a good kid.  Tall, popular, with broad linebacker shoulders perched on a wiry frame, he was born the son of a Texas preacher and he carried himself with a relaxed confidence--unusual for his age.  Still, he looked too young to be wearing body armor and carrying an M-16.  Despite the muscle he'd put on in boot camp and infantry school, he could pass for a fifteen or sixteen year-old, easy.  The other guys in the company had taken to calling him "Frisco Kid", or "Kid" for short, on account of his being from the west coast.

The Private coughed again, shook his head, shrugged.  On the far side of tent city, the clattering rumble of a departing helicopter cracked the air.  

Eyeing the aircraft as it lifted off, the kid spoke: "Will I...you know...can I go home?"

The Captain and the Sergeant Major exchanged glances.  They were down two men already.  Only yesterday they'd cancelled a combat drill because Battalion was short-handed. 

The Captain stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt.  "I'm afraid not, son." 

The Private looked at the Captain--stared right through him--then looked at the ground.  His shoulders dropped and he squinted at the sand.  "But my sister, she--"

"We just can't afford to lose you now.  That's all there is to it."

The Private turned away.  He put his hand to his face, rubbed his thumb along the side of his nose.  Gravel crunched under his boots.  He looked out from the compound, toward the low hills to the west, as if someone might appear there.  The Sergeant Major considered putting a hand on the Private's shoulder then decided against it.  The Captain fidgeted and looked at his watch. 

"OK," the kid said finally. 

"Good," said the Captain.  "Sergeant Major, see that this man gets some time off.  He deserves it." 

"Yes, sir."

The Captain turned on his heel and started off across the compound.  The kid watched him leave.  Then something shifted in his eyes, in the way he gripped his rifle.  His jaw set.  He leaned down and clumsily grasped the strap of his assault pack. 

The Sergeant Major grabbed his sleeve.  "Look, I'm sorry man.  You know there's nothing we can do.  We--"

The Private wrenched away, bringing the older man up short.  Their eyes met.

"I said OK."

The Sergeant Major dropped his arm, stepped back, let him go.  The kid put on his helmet, turned, and left him standing in the dust. 

How To Write Badly Well

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Good for some chuckles: How To Write Badly Well

The Shortest Distance between Two Points is A Piece of Fiction

I came across this article yesterday and I thought it was a good read: The Secret of a Separate Peace

If you don't know, this John Knowles book is a staple of high-school freshman English classes in Texas and in the rest of the United States.

"A Separate Peace" affected me profoundly as a teenager probably because I finished it.  Were you to stumble across my copy in a used bookstore today (it has long since been lost to the sands of time), you'd discover underlined lines of dialogue and description, notes scribbled in the margins.  This was unusual.  When it came to class-assigned texts, reading all the way to the last page--and certainly being engaged enough to comment--was rare for me. 

At the time, my public school upbringing felt pedestrian and ordinary, a world away from the uppercrust, entitled student lives depicted in the novel.  To my teenage sensibility, school days lacked even a hint of glamour. By contrast, Gene and Finny appeared put together, bigger than life.  The story provided me an escape I think, and thus got to me somehow. 

The "separate peace" of the title refers to the military service the main characters face following graduation.  Sitting in Baghdad as I am now, the idea of war looks different to me (Not that I am really "at war."  For the record, I make Powerpoint slides for Generals.  Not exactly Battle of the Bulge, action hero kinda stuff).  When I consider my current occupation and look back toward days spent in literature classes and drama workshops, a certain nostalgia floods in.  I wonder if I had it better than I thought.

I don't necessarily agree with Metcalf's comments on the homosexual undertones in the text.  The relationship between Gene and Finny, as I recall, revolved around an intense sibling-like rivalry, and the inexplicable but all too understandable guilt and disastrous consequences associated with that competitiveness--not the brand of affection Metcalf describes.  Time may have colored my appraisal on this point, or I may never have understood the text in the first place, but that is how I see it.  Nonetheless, having not read the book in twenty years and likely making these comments out of ignorance, I think it advisable to investigate further.

So yesterday, quick as lightning, I flashed over to Amazon and ordered a used copy of "A Separate Peace", plus a copy of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" (long on my TBR list) for good measure.  No doubt, they are winging their way around the globe as we speak.  A report, in greater detail, will follow.

Found Objects

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stumbled upon this today:  Cool Short Story Meta Page

Dig in.  There's good pages there.

Leopard Spots

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mike the Senior Manager shook his head. "Sorry, Phil. The CEO has made up his mind. The economy's bad. We have to let you go."

The older man stood up and placed his hand on Phil's shoulder in solidarity, then went downstairs for coffee.  Phil sat motionless and stared at the wall. The rattle of distant laughter drifted in from the breakroom. He gritted his teeth.

Fuck.

He'd worked for the company for five years, slaved for them. He'd stayed late when Mike needed him.  Worked weekends even. He put his time in.  These guys couldn't just put him out on the street.  They owed him more than that.  I mean, who the fuck does that?

When Phil's coworker Monica walked in, she found him hammering on his keyboard, cussing.

"What's going on Phil?"

"Those fuckers!" Phil exploded from his chair and threw the desk phone across the room. It slammed into the wall and crackled to the floor. "I can't believe they did this to me!"

Monica smiled. "What are you talking about?"

"My job. They fucking fired me!"

Monica started to make a wise-crack when she caught sight of the computer screen. A blue bar ticked up in one percent increments toward one-hundred percent.

Open-mouthed, she glowered at Phil. "What the hell are you doing?"

Phil grinned in the corner. "I'm crashing the servers. All of them. Every fucking one of them."

Monica grabbed him by the sleeve. "You know it was a joke, right?!"

"What?"

"You know it was a joke? April Fool's Day?"

Something for Nothing

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

One last note before the day fails.  The path to writing has taken me far from my original course.  Not too long ago, I felt like a lighthouse keeper in a fog, caught out in a storm.

That's changed.  I can't remember the turns, the places where I might have paused to reflect, the dead-ends and the jaunts and the switchbacks.  But it seems like this spot is a pretty nice one.

I think I'll stay awhile.

Itaska, can you hear me?

I only just now walked home from a viewing of "Amelia," the new flick about Amelia Earhart starring Hilary Swank. 

Movie Link Here

For me, the film was very take it or leave it.  The script suffered from a lack of character development, a typical flaw of recent historical dramas and a phenomena I see cropping up more and more in recent Hollywood films.   

Though the acting generated some heat and the directing was acceptable, "Amelia" needed a heartbeat--a longing or desire or life's dream (beyond the generic and formless "I really want to fly!")--to make the story go.  Unfortunately, the writers (Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan) didn't install one.

The truth is they don't make 'em like they used to.  Anymore, we never see characters like George Bailey or Rose Sayer that walk, talk and sweat character.  Even our old friend William Wallace of "Braveheart" fame showed more promise than Amelia, trying to wing her way around the world.

So I grade the film average.  Worth a viewing if you have nothing else going.  That, class, concludes our movie review for today.  And I won't give away the ending.  Promise.

Early To Bed, Early To Rise

OK, well I didn't really go to bed early last night, but I did rise early this morning.  I bagged some time working on the short story: "The Last Word"--and that's a working title.

I did spend a few hours last night fiddling with this blog, getting the pistons moving, working layout and template.  I am happy with it so far.  I was looking at it again now and I think my landing photo is too large.  Outsized, say I.  Enormous.  But that's an easy fix.

I also banged out two posts (which you will see below) and that made me happy.  I like.  In the immortal words of that guy from the A-Team whose name at this moment escapes me: "I love it when a plan comes together."

So the warm blanket of sleep and the overcoat of dreams (like that?) were thrown off promptly at 7:30 this morning--a full two hours before my butt needed to be at work.  Blood flowed on the short walk to the grab-n-go to get coffee, then, were you to drift into my CHU under the crack in the door around the eight o'clock hour, you would have found me tap tap tapping away at my laptop, snug as a bug in a rug.

The writing comes.  That's the important bit.  Slowly at first, haltingly, like a car with an old motor chuggin' the steep hill of literary progress.  What's at the top, waiting?  I wonder.

Little Things

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Read this story.  It should only take you two minutes.

          Little Things by Raymond Carver

This is one of those amazing short pieces of fiction I love.  Carver shows his mastery of storytelling here.  The description is spot on, especially when he foreshadows with this line:

"The baby was red-faced and screaming. In the scuffle they knocked down a flowerpot that hung behind the stove."
And the way the end comes up short nearly takes your breath away. Have a read and tell me what you think.

And He's Off

So the writing is going.  Not sure where it's going.  Not sure how it's going.  But it's going, so that is good news.

I started writing on the 13th of December.  My goal was moderate: 10 pages a week.  At this moment, I am--by my count--nearly four pages ahead of target.  That's great news.

When I first started back to writing, my prose lay on the page like a Friday night stiff, cold and lifeless on the exam table--naked, wounded, and absolutely unbearable to look at.  I tell you, the situation was dire.

It was terrible.  Really.  Terrible.

Now, if my prose has life, it bears a striking resemblance to one of those horror flick zombies, arms and legs stitched together, not exactly lifeless, but alive without a soul.  Not where I want to be, but I'll take it!

Er go, staying on the clock is paying off.  Improvement pops up its shiny little head at every turn.  Words bubble to the surface easier than before and the confusing pain of editing (in the past, my strong suit) is now at least bearable.

In light of this progress, I am working two parallel efforts:

Exhibit A:  Novel.  Working Title: Daisy.  I will not reveal the details now, but suffice to say that it is a story that's been rambling around my brain for years, so motivation is high.

Exhibit B:  Short Story contest.  I've scratched out a few planks of fiction, but not an entire short story yet.  I figure setting a deadline to enter a contest will light a fire.  Details are here.

So, here I go.  Wish me luck!

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