Monday, May 24, 2010

LOST: A Reflection

Last night I attended a LOST series finale party at a friend's house. From the beginning I loved the show, but then I stopped watching the show around season.... five.... or six.... because it became too many plot threads for me to keep track of. There was this giant stone foot, and a smoke monster, and a polar bear, and a cult, and and and.... I threw my hands in the air and decided I'd catch up with it on DVD one day. But with everyone in the world (read: my friends on Facebook) buzzing about the finale, no way would I miss that party.

As they ran the recap of the previous seasons, I began to feel very nostalgic. It was not long into the first season when I started writing "Desperado City," having fallen in love with this concept of a large cast of disparate characters thrown together by circumstances that force them to become interdependent. While theirs were adults on an island, mine were teenagers in a failing mom-and-pop theme park. From this LOST-inspired experience, I learned several lessons, one being that elements which work visually (i.e., a cast of two dozen mostly-attractive individuals) don't necessarily work as well textually. The most common gripe with "DC" is that readers have a hard time keeping the characters straight-- a factor I'm sure wouldn't be an issue if they were actors on a screen, so live and learn.

When I read query letters that newer writers post for critique, they very often say their story has "screen potential." I think this speaks to how most writers' process works, in the mental sense: we see the story playing out in our minds, and translate it into words on a page. Sometimes-- often, even-- this process can be very intense. When I was in high school we read a story called The Veldt, in which the walls of a home's nursery become a virtual-reality setting for the children's imaginations and, at the end, manifest a pride of lions that devour the parents. While I haven't yet killed anyone with my imagination, the act of imagining a story-- bringing the characters to life in one's mind-- has the power to evoke intense emotion from the writer, great sympathy for people who don't even truly exist, great longing that is often the source of the inspiration. We're in the veldt, and we act as translators to turn all that into simple English.

But the reader's process is to translate in reverse. The words must turn into pictures in their minds, and so, much like putting a foreign phrase through translation software and then back again, the end product is often different from what you entered in the first place. If one writes well, it's an innocuous issue-- the debate, for example, on whether actor Robert Pattinson really looks like the Edward of "Twilight," or nothing like him. The relevant aspects of the story remain intact. But as we excitedly envision our wonderful stories making their way to the big (or small) screen, it's important to remember that what is being produced right now is a novel, and a novel is a script for the story for which reader's mind ultimately acts as "producer." It must be written with that in mind, and the words we choose must pay homage to that process, which is not visual but imaginative and subjective.

As far as the series finale is concerned, I wasn't delighted with how its writers chose to end it. Was it what its fans wanted? Well, I'll have to catch up with the series on DVD to decide that for myself. After all-- much like the characters in "Desperado City"-- I couldn't keep everything straight. Maybe some elements are just too confusing, no matter what your medium.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On Mood

Today a Facebook friend posted about how the "mood" of a certain song brought on a feeling of loss and longing. I found this intriguing because-- maybe due to the fact that I'm not someone who knows much about music-- overall "mood" isn't a subject I think about very often. I think about craftsmanship or nuance and subtext (that, quite a bit), but it's rare that I step back and think about mood.

Yet when I consider what was on my mind as I wrote "The Kingdom of Childhood," mood has a major role to play in that. Several long and critical scenes are set in Bavaria in the 1960s, during the protagonist's childhood, and many reviewers commented on the "magical" feeling evoked by the time and place. I gave credit for that to Bavaria itself-- naturally magical-- but upon consideration, of course I painted it that way on purpose. While framing up the scenes I thought back to my own childhood experiences in Bavaria (in the '80s, not the '60s) and pondered how I could capture the feeling of that place-- the fairytale wonder of it, with both the mystical overtones of the area's deep Catholicism and the darker ones of history and of the Black Forest.

That's mood. Everything I put into those scenes needed to pay homage to that overarching feeling I needed for it to have. I don't think it was a terribly conscious decision, but without it the book would lack a solid core.

"Loss and longing"-- why, my friend asked, do we feel these things about a past we can't relive? Usually we know the feeling is deceptive-- that the past as we remember it is not the same as how we lived it. And yet we feel that longing anyway.

At the top of this post is a photo of me in Berlin in the summer of 1992. I was on an exchange trip with a group from my high school, and the picture was taken by a boy I befriended on that trip and then barely spoke to again once we returned to the States a few weeks later. In it, I'm wearing a shirt I had bought within the past couple days, and would lose at the house of a friend-- under circumstances that would make for a hell of a story in and of themselves-- within a couple months of returning. So the elements of the photo alone capture a singular moment in time: a foreign country, an article of clothing, a smiling gaze on a person who passed in and out of my life in a matter of weeks. But what you can't see, and I do, is the overarching mood of that moment in my life-- of the summer I turned 16. At the moment this photo was taken, I was caught up in more toxic relationships than I could count on one hand; I was lonely and profoundly insecure; I was hurting people, some of whom have never quite forgiven me, and being hurt by them, some of whom I have never quite forgiven. It was, objectively speaking, awful. Yet do I feel longing for it? Of course I do. Not to return to those days and repeat those experiences-- oh, no. But for the girl being formed right at that moment by that place and time, tied to the woman today by the fact that we both want to be writers when we grow up? Well, how could I not?

Without longing, I doubt we'd have fiction. Fiction is composed of all we have ever suppressed and hoped for and wished could have come out differently, polished up, glossed over, tweaked here and there until it looks a little less crooked. Fiction is us wading out into the water of what we've longed for and feeling glad to have it swirl around our ankles for a little while. And if we're lucky-- and we do it right-- we channel that into an experience the reader takes away as "mood."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Praise of Profanity

This morning I read about Joe Biden's apology to a Kentucky teen for dropping an F-bomb about the passage of Obama's healthcare bill (to wit: "This is a big F-ing deal"). The kid, Brandon Halcomb, had written an open letter criticizing Biden for his language. Kudos to the teen for standing up for what he believes in. That said, I would like to say a few words in defense of the one that starts with F.

I'm in complete agreement with those who bemoan the abuse of that word in everyday conversation, in the media, etc. I don't like hearing it all the time, or in polite company, either. Because the F-word is a word of marvelous potency. Unlike most words in the English language, it sounds like exactly what it means. An angry swear. An order. Coarse and guttural, with a hiss at the beginning and a clipped, abrupt end. Used sparingly, it manages to pull into itself a much greater atomic weight than its four letters would naturally possess, and in a single use can convey the depth of frustration and aggression and anger. Or immensity, or urgency. Four little letters that can do all that. I use it a lot when I write, only when I need it, but always when I need it. It's a wonderful word.

A while back I read a study about how profanity can inspire teamwork. If you save your swear words only for people with whom you work closely, then they function as social cues to let the other person know you let your guard down with them; they're part of your in-club. Should Biden have sworn with his mike on? Well, no, but he got his point across better in a succinct five words than any television pundit did in a thousand. We knew he meant it off-the-record, so it carries the function of "teamwork swearing" in terms of letting us into his private little moment of happiness.

I hear comments all the time from people who don't like to see profanity in novels. Sometimes they'll even haughtily say, "Just use another word. Sheesh." Curse words can be distracting in large doses, and are sadly overused by many writers as a way to substitute for real use of voice. But sometimes there is no other word. Characters are supposed to talk the way people do, but with less stammering and more brevity and precision. And while some readers might wish people spoke in the language of prime-time television characters of the 1970's, as a writer I'm not willing to fog my lens for you. So if my character tells me to tell you he's fuckin' exhausted, that's what you're going to hear. But rest assured, it's the writer's job to make every single word on the page earn its keep, and the F-word is no exception.

And so on that note, let's all work together not to spoil the potency of our very small store of serious curse words. Please don't put them on bumper stickers where my kids can see them. Please don't grate on my listening ear and finer sensibilities by using them in line behind me at the pharmacy. Save them for your friends, and for when you really, really mean it. Because unlike most things politicians say, you can count on those few little words to, as the caterpillar exhorted in 'Alice in Wonderland,' "say what you mean."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Janice Hardy's "Seven Deadly Sins"

A couple weeks ago I did a library presentation called "Novice to Novelist" that focused on how to polish writing for publication. In it I included a list of "don'ts," such as "stick your character in front of a mirror," "assume you'd make a great protagonist," and "begin with a scene in a confessional." YA author Janice Hardy (THE SHIFTER) has nailed that and more with her fabulous post about how *not* to write a first chapter. Here's her list of cliched openings:

"Someone waking up in the morning.
Someone looking in the mirror and describing themselves.
Someone getting a "message," be it a phone call, letter, or arrival of a mystical person with information.
Someone leaving on a trip.
Someone writing in a journal to "tell you about what happened."" (from her blog)

I admit I've toyed with these things myself (there is-- I'm sorry to admit-- a mirror scene in my first novel, "In Stereo Where Available"). And sometimes some of them can work, like the "going on a trip" one, if they're done well. But originality is crucial, and there's no way to overstate how important it is to really nail those first ten pages if you hope to attract an agent's attention. When my Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest excerpt made it to the quarterfinals and became a downloadable Kindle item, I began getting one review after another in which people said, "Good writing, too bad nothing happens in it." At this I was a little miffed, so I went off to my office-- also known as "a nice hot shower"-- and thought, "what do I need to do to get their attention, have my protagonist spit in the face of a corpse?" I thought about that for a moment, my mind blustering in full Yosemite Sam mode, and then I thought, "Not a bad idea." So I changed the second scene to my protag spitting in the face of a corpse. After that, I got an agent.

With regard to first chapters, the one bit of advice I'd add is not to agonize over it too much in the early stages. Get past it and write the rest of the book. Your first chapter needs to show your "A" game like no other in the whole manuscript, so you're better off refining it once you're done-- when your skills are at their most practiced to date, and you have a full knowledge of what Chapter 1 needs to do to prepare the reader for what's in store. Write everything else, then come back and rework the beginning. And for the love of all that is good, don't start it with "Dear Diary."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Secret Anatomy of a Young Girl

"The Secret Anatomy of a Young Girl" by Elsita. She is a Cuban-American artist whose work is available at her Etsy store. This amazing, evocative image hangs on my living room wall.