Thursday, December 29, 2011

Free Indirect Death

So I promised some actual writing today.

Well it turns out this book I'm (still only sort of) writing, is definitely about death. The first one was in a lot of ways, but it was mostly about fucked up love. Like, 90% fucked up and twisted love and 10% death. I have a feeling this one is more like 90% death and 10% fucked up and twisted love.

I don't usually consider myself particularly morbid, but that's only because I actually am quite. I'm fascinated, intrigued, curious and to be honest, not the least bit scared of death. But it does upset me, and so I write about it (see my earlier post).

Also, I am attempting to use elements of free indirect style in this book, opening and closing the psychic distance of different characters perceptions. This is something I've never tried before but it seems to be working quite naturally so far. I've always had trouble with third person, but then first person is quite limiting. By using free indirect style and playing with psychic distance I can get the best of both. And it makes it far less complicated to switch character perspectives whenever I need to.

Anyway, here's a nice little chunk of deathy stuff...

So, when, after nearly eight years of breathing tubes and oxygen tanks and catheters and staring at the same four walls and never putting her feet on the floor, let alone standing up or going anywhere, Wendy’s grandmother finally died on that vulgarly sweet spring afternoon, Wendy was justifiably nervous about following her mother up the stairs to her grandmother’s bedroom cum sick room to ‘say good bye’. Wendy’s grandfather, as liberal leaning as he was for a man his age, still thought it was inappropriate to bring a young girl in to see a dead body, but Rose, the hippyest of his three hippyish daughters, insisted it would bring closure and that it would be much more scarring if suddenly Wendy’s grandmother was just gone. Wendy was just worried that there’d be maggots undulating in her grandmother’s open mouth and flies alighting on her open eyes. The thought scared, but also intrigued her. And even though she loved her grandmother more than anything and had always known that to her, Wendy’s presence had never once been a burden, (which was not true of any of the other adults Wendy knew), and she didn’t necessarily want to see her grandmother in that kind of state, she knew that whatever she was about to see was no more her grandmother than that mass of insect and rot had still been a baby bunny. And as with the bunny, she’d be hard pressed to pass up the opportunity to get a glimpse.
When she did finally enter her Grandmother’s perfumed bedroom a few steps behind her mother, she was both relieved and disappointed to see her grandmother, there on the bed, just as she’d always been, if maybe a shade or two paler, skin slightly translucent.
Wendy didn’t cry often and when she did, it was usually big gulping wails over skinned knees. But she cried then. Silently. Standing beside her grandmother’s deathbed. Stinging tears marching steadily down her cheeks and under her chin, before dutifully plunging to the threadbare carpet.

After the funeral Wendy’s grandfather left his three daughters to squabble over their mother’s jewelry, furniture and keepsakes, and moved down south to a cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. He instructed them to sell whatever they didn’t want and split the profits. What he took with him only just filled a Volkswagen Rabbit. One box of books about astrology, ornithology and sailing knots, a suitcase of socks and underwear, a portable record player and about a dozen records of depression era songs about hobos, trains and dead dogs. And a simple brass urn holding her ashes. He was going to buy a sail boat, take her way out into the bay and leave her there among the crabs. He imagined the ash of her flesh mixing with the sandy silt and sifting through an oyster, irritating its mucusy muscle and becoming a grey-black pearl.
He never did though. He just got older and more used to being alone. Until sailing became unfeasible. And she just sat on the mantelpiece gathering dust. An urn full of dust, covered in dust. Becoming less and less a person and more and more furniture. And Wendy and Rose only ever saw him at Christmas. 

I haven't written much new in the last week but I have written an outline. Something I used to swear up and down against. The last time I tried to outline a novel I did it in such great detail that by the time the outline was complete I was so bored of the story I couldn't bear actually writing it. But that was before the first novel.
This time, I had this very broad, general idea, with only a handful of scenes. By writing each scene up in simple one phrase lines in some kind of passable order, I was able to conjure up all kinds of ideas for other scenes and characters and narrative development as well as get a better view of the piece as a whole. I've purposefully left it very simplified and easily altered so I don't feel it's written in stone or too detailed.

It's definitely calming to feel like I've got a better idea of where I'm going with it. Will be trying to get some new words on the page tonight and tomorrow. Am thinking of giving this a go. Will let you all know how it works.

And two, if you're interested in blogs by writers struggling to get words on the page through the daily mayhem of tedious jobs and online chess, please check out the two blogs I've linked to on the right of this post...two, my blog title is not very Google friendly (as there are about a kazillion articles/blogs etc dealing with SNS out there) so any and all ideas welcome for a new blog title that still incorporates the base struggle of living with Second Novel Syndrome.

If I choose your idea, you'll get a prize (which may or may not just be a name check in this blog...and by that I mean it will be). 


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Birthdays and Stephen Fry

So my posting has dropped off completely over this holiday period but I am now coming up for air, gasping for breath after having been plunged headfirst into booze and food for a solid week. My 29th birthday was last Thursday (22nd) and I have not written a word since then. Which is probably not the best way to start off my 30th year on this planet, however, drop in productivity is one of the many downsides to a birthday so close to Christmas.

Turning 29 has felt surprisingly normal. Perhaps it's because I went through a bit of existensial crisis when I was 27 so I've gotten it out of the way for awhile. I am proud of having published a novel by this point in my life, but it feels so far away already and changed so little in my actual day to day existence that sometimes I forget that it ever happened.

I have managed to squeeze in some research on SNS over the holiday and am actually surprised by just how similar the experience is for so many writers.

Don DeLillo explains the 'first novel writing itself' feeling with his usual grace and brevity...
"A first novel comes to the writer as a gift and he doesn't necessarily know how he wrote it. It's the second novel that teaches him how to write."

This makes me feel better about the fact that writing the second one feels like it's actually physically harder than the first. Like I never wrote one before. Like I have no idea what I'm doing.

Jefferey Eugenides (a poster child for second novel syndrome) explains the panic...
"No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You're suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you're just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that's what creates the panic."

It's like you're inside my head, Jeff. It's hard to explain to people the pressure that builds up after you've done one. And it's not even necessarily from an agent or editor, but from your friends and family. How it feels like every time they ask you 'are you writing?', 'what are you writing?', 'how's the writing going?' what you hear is 'well, you've done the hard part now, where's the next one?', 'you're a writer now, so why aren't you writing? Isn't that what you do?'
And of course that's ridiculous. They ask you those things because they're genuinely interested in what you're doing, and the process. Ah, but the panic...the panic.

And last, but certainly not least, my favorite SNS quote from one of my (and everyone's) favorite people, Stephen Fry.
"The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. ... If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course. ...The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult."

Bingo, Steve. My first novel, is SUCH a first novel. Semi-autobiographical, short, first person, present tense, and all the other cliched first novel-y type things. Everything I've ever written since I was twelve. Every scrap of diary-esque prose, every angsty teen poem, every attempted short story, all somehow, in some way, found it's way into that first book. Each was a stepping stone, a brick in the wall of the right voice, theme, structure, to that first book. Now that that project is completed, it feels like I have to start the next one empty...without any reserves of words or thoughts or feelings.

It's why I am trying to keep a notebook while I write it. Why I am trying out this blog to see if any writing is all writing. the very least, it's nice to know I am not alone, that far greater minds than mine have struggled just as hard with novel number two.

a snippet of actual writing...I promise.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tom Robbins and the Art(?) of the Simile

I've recently finished reading Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. The first book I ever read by him was years ago, Still Life with Woodpecker, and I adored it. I find it hard now to remember quite why I loved it so much. I remember feeling like it was somehow different from anything I'd read. It managed to be funny while making you think about life in a slightly altered way. At least while reading it. It didn't take itself too seriously and yet felt incredibly sincere.

What I don't remember are the outrageous similes. Which litter JP and Another Roadside Attraction (which I've just started). And if the number of blogs, essays etc out there on the subject are anything to go by, they must have been all over SL with W as well.

Here are a few of said similes (all from JP) for your perusal...

"The sky was a velvety black paw pressing on the white landscape with a feline delicacy, stars flying like sparks from its fur."
"LOUISIANA IN SEPTEMBER was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing."
"Hips swaying like mandolins on a gypsy wagon wall..."
"The LeFever twins had been small boys during the Nazi occupation of Paris, but they recalled it as an adult recalls the breaking of a bone in childhood: the sickening crack, the fear, the pain, the sadness, the sudden ooze of blood that shows itself like the black blush of fairy-tale witches."
"She tried to drive the smile away with thoughts of her sorrowful experiences, her disgraceful behavior, her insecure situation, but this was one smile that didn't scare easily, it hung in there like a tenant who knows his rights and refuses to be evicted."
"Almost immediately the wind fell quiet, like a drunk who has passed out in the middle of a rage."
"A few flat clouds folded themselves like crepes over fillings of apricot sky."
"Shaking like a wedding announcement in a misogamist's fist, Alobar examined the shoe, unfolded and reread the note."
"Like a baby grand in a town without piano movers, Ma-dame had settled firmly into place, her bulk as transfixed as a wild hog in truck lights. A jazz funeral could have marched through the gates of her corset, and she wouldn't have squirmed."
"She walked down the path feeling like three-fourths of two pieces of slug bait."
"Like a fertilized condor egg, filled with blood and promise, the bald head of Dr. Morgenstern split open. He died instantly."

I'm torn on these similes. While reading this book, they sometimes made me laugh. And the best ones made me imagine what he was describing in such a specific way that no other image would have worked. Other times I found them jolting, like they were trying too hard. When taken all out of context like above, and grouped together they seem like bad writing exercises.

I wonder if my students handed in stories with this kind of writing in it would I consider it overwritten or playfully adventurous (like I do when Robbins does it)?

I think Robbins makes it work because his writing is so saturated by them. If they only appeared occasionally (like I imagine they would in an undergraduate short story), they would seem forced. When they are everywhere they become part of the writer's voice; a tool to keep the reader suspended in an unreality. A reality like ours, but that isn't. It works to make the mundane, strange.

And, as I attempt to write, I have to give him credit for taking old language (for isn't all language old if the words have been used before?) and making it new, by putting the words together in ways you would have never thought of yourself. That's all prose writing really is. Finding an order to put the words in that is somehow more interesting than any order those words have been put in before.

One word after another...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Maggots, Rot and Visceral Imagery

1,372 words today. Which is encouraging. Although, the words at the beginning are the easiest. If I can make it to the end, that's usually fairly easy too, it's all the words in the middle that get daunting. Basically I am at 1,864 in total, which is really just a drop in the bucket. If I can make it past 10,000 without wanting to throw the whole thing out, well, that'll be the true test.

It turns out I'm obsessed with maggots, rot and visceral imagery. Maggots played a big part in the climactic scene of my first novel, and they've found their way onto the opening pages of this one.

"She thought about the time the cat caught a baby bunny and left it twitching on the oriental foyer rug like a pagan offering. How, after her mother nearly stepped on it in bare feet, she stormed off cursing to find some newspaper she could dispose of it in. And when she got back, it was gone. ey Thehdkafnjjjjlkklk
They looked under every piece of ancient mismatched furniture. Or they thought they did. It was over a week before the flies started. They were just there, suddenly, in the house and no one could figure out why or where they’d come from. Then there were more of them. Too many to ignore. And they were coming from under her mother’s bedside table. Climbing and buzzing out from the two inches of blackness created by its stubby legs. And as her ever swearing mother steeled herself for moving the offending piece of bedroom suite, Wendy stood in the doorway, her nose, eyes and fingertips only just curling around the door frame, so she could easily pull her head back and obstruct her view if it was too much to bear. Because she knew what was under there. She knew where the flies were coming from.
            “Oh for fuck’s sake.” Her mother said only to herself, flapping at fat flies, before holding her breath and lifting. Whatever it was on the carpet there, it was not a baby bunny. It was a writhing mass of black and white and red. Like a twisted children’s joke. It hummed as though it were one being, a communal hive mind of maggots, flies and rotting meat.
What’s black and white and red all over?
A fly infested carcass.
Wendy didn’t pull her head back. She didn’t obstruct her view. She peered around even harder. She crept forward slightly. Staring."

I don't know why but it seems that if what I write doesn't make me cringe slightly, I consider it a failure. Like it's too safe or comfortable. I don't want to write things that make people comfortable. But then I suppose it is writing as catharsis. Maggots upset me, so they fascinate me, so I write about them. Rape and bizarre sexual relationships upset me, so they fascinate me, so I write about them.

This section isn't my favorite of what I've written so far, but that's ok. I think if you're able to share the stuff you're least proud of you'll only be stronger for it in the long run.

Anyway, everything's a first draft, so, compliments, insults and pretentious literary criticism, all welcome.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Adjectives , adjectives everywhere...

It started like this...

"The floral scent of spring drifting in through the French doors of the wrap-around porch seemed wholly inappropriate. It was a sickly smell and so overpowering it felt as though the garish begonia pattern on the synthetic fabric of the couch cushions had come to life beneath her and was swiftly decaying."

Too many adjectives! Why do so many of us instinctively overwrite in an attempt to write well. I tell my students so often, less is more. Take out all the adjectives and marvel at the beauty in the simplicity of what is left over. Although, I think it's better to write everything that comes to you first, then go back and hack out all the offending descriptives.

Anyway, it ended up like this...

"The scent of spring drifting through the French doors seemed wholly inappropriate. A smell so overpowering it was as if the garish begonias on the cushions had come to life beneath her. Sickly, as if they had come to life only to start decaying. Inappropriate because her grandmother was dying upstairs and it should have smelled like wood fire or rain. Not fat blossoms making love to the bees."


If I have to do this for every four sentences, I'll kill myself.

Two years and counting

I published my first novel, The First Law of Motion, over two years ago. This is what happened. After the novel was accepted for publication I spent a year on editing and blurbs and author photos etc. Once it was published I spent six months celebrating and doing readings from the book and attempting to market it. The next six months I spent 'taking a break' from writing as I was so saturated with this book I'd written and had had to read over and over and over again. Once it had been out for a year I decided it was time to start writing the second one. Well, instead of the exuberance I felt while writing the first one, I was crippled with anxiety. I would cry and throw tantrums whenever I was 'supposed' to be writing. I started three different novels and abandoned them after 10,000 words.

There are a few different reasons for this, I believe.
1. The first book I wrote while doing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. This meant I was surrounded by writers and expected to turn in 5,000 words every few weeks. I was working a part time job at the time, but the main thrust of my life was directed towards writing. Once I was finished my MA, I had a full time job and only had myself to motivate myself to write.
2. While writing the first book, I truly believed no one would ever read it. Which meant I wrote in a brutally honest way. And as much as I tried to recreate that, the knowledge that there was an editor out there who had 'first dibs' on the next thing I wrote, made it incredibly difficult not to self edit as I went.
2.1 Speaking of self editing, I also wrote the first book with the help of a lot of marijuana, which at the time I felt helped me stop self editing. By the time I started trying to write a second one, I had stopped smoking and was slave to my undulled self doubt.
3. The first book came out of me in a way that felt separate to me. Like it was writing itself, and was just using my hands to do it. I mean, it was very personal book in a lot of ways, but it didn't feel like hard work to write it. When this same natural flow didn't happen immediately with the second attempt, I panicked. And once you start panicking, it's hard to stop.

Anyway, after all this time, I feel perhaps I'm starting to get into the right mindset and life space (ew, did I just type 'life space'?) to really get something started. I've gone back to one of the previously abandoned second novel starters and have decided to start writing it again from scratch, in a different voice/tone than it was originally. I've also started to tweak the story so that it is easier for me to get a grasp on.
I'm not necessarily going to be documenting my progress here, so much as using it as a bit of notebook, if only as a tool to help keep me going along. I'll note down things that strike me as interesting or relevant and try to use it as a space to work through any problems I'm having.

There is part of me that feels like, if you're taking the time to blog about writing, you should be using that time to actually write. So we'll see if it helps or hinders me.