The Kindness of Strangers

I have an odd phobia around my writing: I don’t like to show it to people I know.

I think this has always been true, but one incident that stands out in my mind took place in a college fiction writing class, for which I wrote a short story. It was about a young woman dealing with her mother’s suicide. It was two, maybe three pages, and I had to read it aloud for the class. When I was finished, the room was dead silent, and I looked around to find everyone staring at me with big, round eyes.

“You understand,” I said then, “that MY mother is alive. This is fiction.

At that point the class got back to its regular job of critiquing; but it did make me realize that people who know me – even a little – might be inclined to read my fiction and wonder how much of it was made up, and how much of it was me.

Strangers do not have that problem. Strangers have whatever nom de plume ends up on the novel, and perhaps an absurdly flattering, over-Photoshopped dust jacket photo. If I have written the book I want to write, strangers are not going to be thinking about me, the author, at all. They will be too absorbed in my story to wonder if Character A is based on that bitchy girl I knew in college, or if Scenario B is a retelling of some awful childhood incident, or if I ever have, like my heroine, thrown anything through a plate-glass window.

Mind you: if I write the novel I want to write, my friends and family won’t be thinking about me, either. I remember reading my cousin’s romance novels, and I never, while I was in the middle of the book, thought about her at all. I did, sometimes, picture her at her typewriter, thinking academically about euphemisms she could use for sexual acts; but that was after I was done with the book, and I’d started to wonder about her construction process.

So I suspect this is my concern, and nobody else’s.

Over the holiday, my mom and I had a brief discussion about my NaNoWriMo novel. I told her if I finished it she could, of course, read it; but that she might not want to. I explained that I wrote in some detail about sex here and there, and perhaps it would be more than she wanted to know. Fundamentally misunderstanding my worry, she said blandly that she’d been around a while, and I was unlikely to shock her. It didn’t occur to her that I’d worry she’d be wondering if I was writing about myself.

That’s the thing about fiction, though, isn’t it? It is me. Of course it is. How could it not be? At the same time, it’s not me at all. It’s people I dislike, or people I would like to be, or situations I would find interesting to read about. I write what I would like to read, and although my own life – and my ambitions, such as they are – are fascinating to me on a daily basis, I don’t (to quote a lovely movie) expect that to be contagious.

That’s part of why I write happy endings. They may not be perfect endings – boy gets girl, they live happily ever after – but the good guys (mostly) win, and the bad guys (mostly) lose. Justice is done on some level, privately if not publicly. My characters have their little microcosmic wins, even if the universe around them does not change.

Maybe that reflects how I see life. We have absolute control over so little, it seems to me we ought to celebrate the things we can. Even the small things – because the big things are so often made up of many, many small things. And when I write, I can decide which small things to celebrate. I don’t write autobiographies – I write fantasies.

(Of course, as long as we’re on the subject – yeah, Character A is that bitchy girl I knew in college.)

 

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The Rules

This afternoon, I was chatting with my parents about the state of my daughter’s spelling. She is seven years old, and is a pretty crackerjack speller for her age. My father, bemoaning his own spelling, says she’s learned rules in school he never learned. I pointed out that my daughter

  • has a fabulous memory; and
  • is completely OCD about rules.

And I remembered trying to learn the rules of grammar in school, and being frustrated, because although I could tell you if a sentence was grammatically incorrect, damned if I could ever tell you why. I learned grammar from reading, not from studying rules.

Fiction writing is a funny thing from a grammatical perspective. The rhythm of the words sets the tone and the pace of the story. Grammatical correctness is a guideline, but it’s not a requirement; and in fact strict grammatical correctness often makes a story read dry and lifeless. To a certain extent it’s not proper grammar that makes good fiction; it’s properly choosing when to ignore the rules.

Part of being a writer – of carving out your own identity – is deciding for yourself when rules work, and when they don’t. I get into a sort of altered state sometimes when writing, and I drift into run-on sentences, and sometimes fragments. Often it needs some editing afterward; but there is a rhythm to the prose that wouldn’t be there if I corrected it for grammar instead of flow. (Whether or not any of these passages are any good I couldn’t say; but I know I’m often pleased with them when I read them later.)

That’s what bugs me about “advice” I see flying around on places like Twitter. “Don’t use ‘because’ – break the sentence in two.” “Never use anything but ‘said’ or ‘asked’ with dialogue.” I can see the value of rules like these if you’re a beginner, if your prose is rough, or if you weren’t raised writing in English. But it’s hard for me to read these sage bits of wisdom without feeling a flash of irritation: Don’t tell me what to do.

The funny thing is that it’s generally good advice. “Because” is overused. It really is better to stick with “said” and “asked” if the alternative is tying yourself up in knots trying for variety. But sometimes…”because” is perfect, and “said” and “asked” screw up the rhythm.

I guess that’s my bias: when I’m writing, I want to be thinking about writing, not about the rules. Editing notwithstanding – prose and poetry are not so different, and it’s rare someone would explain to a poet how they ought to be structuring their sentences.

Having said all of that…I have bad habits. I have structures – grammatically correct and otherwise – that I overuse. Remember that post where I said I’d hire an editor before I self-published? I fully expect that editor to point out a lot of overuse in places where I simply didn’t see it. I fully expect to get defensive, and fall back on the “It’s ART!” excuse, and to eventually recognize that the editor is probably right.

I took a life drawing class once. The instructor was a fairly successful artist. He had moved through a lot of artistic phases, and was currently doing a lot of abstract work in watercolor. He told us that we might look at his current work and wonder at the lack of structure. Why should we learn to draw a realistic human figure, especially from a live model, if “art” meant our own internal interpretation?

He said we needed to learn the rules first, before we could effectively learn when to break them. And so it is with writing.

But you know? I’m still using “because” wherever I damn well please.

 

Life Intervenes

…or, Why Lizmonster Hasn’t Been Writing.

It’s not because I haven’t had anything to say. I have more stuff rolling around in my head than I know what to do with. That’s the wonderful thing about being a writer: No matter what happens, good or bad, it’s story material. And when I’m really stressed out, I tend to drift mentally, thinking about writing, where the story parameters and the outcome are under my control.

From my Christmas list

Work has sucked. There, I’ve said it. I won’t go into details on a public blog – but work has Just. Plain. Sucked. for a while now. It looks like it might ease up over Christmas, but no guarantees. (Actually, I don’t care about guarantees. I am taking the week after Christmas off. It’s my vacation time, and I’m entitled to it, so DON’T EVEN THINK about making me change it.)

I wonder, sometimes, if I became a writer because it’s such a useful coping mechanism. The first time I remember making up a story I was probably not even reading much yet – I was maybe 5 or 6, and I had insomnia. (Or possibly I just had trouble going to sleep – I’m not sure you can really call it “insomnia” when you’re talking about a little kid.) (Sorry, slipped into Mom-mode there for a second.) My parents told me to tell myself a story, possibly because they were so tired of sitting there with me while I lay there wide awake. (Instead, my brother became the victim – but boy, he was pretty damn good at falling asleep while I was talking.)

Since then, it’s become what I do when I need to pass the time. And sometimes I need to pass days and days and days of really unpleasant, unavoidable time.

At these times, I write a lot about people fighting. I think this is because I am so bad at fighting in the real world. I never think of the right things to say, and I let myself get dragged off point when I’m supposed to be making a reasoned argument. When I write, my characters always say exactly what is needed for the action to move in the direction I want it to. I have one character who is, consistently, a real jerk when he loses his temper – but when he gets over it, he is genuinely sorry. I actually enjoy writing him when he’s mad, because he’s otherwise kind of a nice guy. When I write, he can be briefly awful – and then forgiven, if it makes sense.

But honestly? Sometimes he turns his nasty temper on people who richly deserve it. And even if he’s sorry about it later, I’m not sorry I made him yell at them. He is who I would like to be, sometimes, apart from being fictional (and a guy). He may say things he regrets – but he always comes up with the best words to express his thoughts.

Me? I mostly fume, and keep quiet, and think of great comebacks a day or two later. (Some of those end will end up in the novel.)

The writing I have been doing since my laptop recovered has been therapeutic, mostly. I still haven’t gone back to my NaNoWriMo novel. I think I may leave that one until January. I’ve gone back and re-read some of it, and there is a fair amount of it I think is usable. I find myself pleasantly surprised, despite the fact that there is also an incredible amount of dreck in there. I still need to do the outlining and finishing before I can really say I have a finished first draft – but it’s got more life in it, I think, than my 2010 work.

Except I am so sentimental, and I’m feeling a little sad about my ending. It’s the right ending for the story, but…still. Sigh. I’m never going to publish anything if I don’t learn to let my characters suffer a bit. In the real world, happiness and contentment are great (and I look forward to having them again). In the fictional world, they are your last 5 pages, if they are part of the story at all. Nobody is going to read it if there is no conflict.

Four Words No Novelist Wants To Hear

“Catastrophic Hard Disk Failure.”

On Saturday, I came home from the morning errands to find my laptop frozen. No mouse movement, no Cmd-Q to Quit – basically, she was unresponsive.

I suppose this should have fazed me – but it didn’t. I’ve been working with computers in one capacity or another for 33 years. These things happen, even to Macs.

So I power-cycled it, and waited for it to come back…except shortly after the pretty little gray-on-gray Apple logo showed up, I got the Translucent Curtain of Death. Kernel panic.

Uh-oh.

I restarted a number of times, and that nasty panic never went away. So I booted into single-user mode to run fsck.

Except…single user mode never gave me a prompt.

UH-OH.

Booted from the install CD and ran Disk Utility. Why yes, Disk Utility said cheerfully, your hard drive is, in fact, completely hosed. Do you want to repair it?

Why yes, Disk Utility, I do.

Can’t repair it. You need to reformat. Have a nice day!

Now, of course I run Time Machine. With which I backup my iTunes library, which lives on another external drive. I’ve been meaning to change that, now that you can re-download videos as well as music – but I didn’t.

I had lost my boot drive – my photos, my documents, my notes, my passwords – and I had no backup.

This makes me an idiot.

I made a pilgrimage to the Apple Store on Sunday (about an hour’s drive), where the guy at the Genius Bar (young guy, not big on eye contact, cheerful enough but not a salesman like some of them are) gave me the bad news. It looked a lot like hardware failure. He said I could try the reformat, but even if it worked, the drive was likely on its last legs. Replacing the internal drive in my unibody 17″ MacBook Pro would cost $215 plus tax. (At least that quote included labor.)

I took my baby home, took a breath, and reformatted the drive. So far, so good – but you can bet Time Machine is now faithfully backing up my internal hard drive, as it should have been all along.

I hope the dentist remembers to call me before my appointments. I lost iCal too.

On Saturday afternoon, when it became apparent that my computer was not coming back, my husband approached me tentatively and said “I hate to ask…but what about your novel?”

The novel was on the iPad. It was sweet of him to ask; but really, doesn’t he know me well enough to realize that if I’d lost my novel, I would have been curled up in a ball under the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably? I mean, it was only a first draft and all, and rewrites are in its future – but if I had lost those 50,000 hard-won words, I would have been truly devastated.

Plus I would have had to send my winner’s t-shirt back.

My laptop is almost back to normal. I’m actually amazed to discover how much of my life is available in Cloud-land. All the software vendors – from Adobe to MacGameStore – had my serial numbers under my account name, and allowed me to re-download my stuff. Even iTunes, although it threatened to overwrite all my iPad apps and their data, left my Pages documents alone (although, yeah, you bet I backed them up first). As for my photographs? Most of them were duplicates of pictures either my mother or my husband has. (Those are getting backed up when I get them back, too.)

I did lose some documents. I had some Scrivener docs and some Pages stuff that hadn’t been iPad-ized, but most of it was obsolete. I’m a big believer in the value of re-writing – it rarely gets any worse if you’re forced to regenerate it from scratch. So really, I came out of this astonishingly stupid mistake relatively unscathed, apart from headaches and the time sink of redownloading and reinstalling stuff.

The next steps for my novel involve:

  • outlining what I have written so far
  • outlining the parts that are not done
  • FINISHING IT (no, really)

But tonight…I am going to watch that Time Machine icon spin gently once an hour, and be grateful my carelessness did not screw me over worse.

BACK UP YOUR STUFF, PEOPLE. FOR REAL.