Saturday, July 25, 2009


Time to add another row of tabs...

So I've been accepted to the Viable Paradise writer's workshop. Been snooping around, started to exchange Twitters with a few people. Yesterday, just for shits and giggles, I decided to make a post about some of the reasons I was feeling nervous about attending. Nothing like a comprehensive list, just a self-mocking bit of humor.


There was what might reasonably be called an outpouring of empathy, sympathy, and support in response. Some people offered advice and comfort, others were glad to see that someone else felt their trepidations.

Of course you know me -- I am all about the paradoxical reaction. The message that I got from this was that my joking about my nerves? I wasn't fucking joking. I actually am terrified. I've never ever done anything like this in my life and I am gonna be vulnerable. And I don't trust vulnerable. Vulnerable gets you fucking hurt.

I've been reading blog posts by people who have been through experiences like Viable Paradise or Clarion. Yesterday I went through two particularly good ones -- here's Julia Dvorin on Viable Paradise and The Ferrett on Clarion -- and as a result my growing sense of unease came to full fruition and I plunged into the depths for a bit.

This was because some of the writing advice, particularly that in the Ferrett's piece, made me feel tremendously insecure. Lemme be honest. I've got a lot invested in my novel. I have spent four years on it so far. I've written literally hundreds -- probably well over a thousand -- pages of material that I've had to discard. I am in what we might call a financially untenable situation -- quite literally hovering on the brink of penury, and rather than focus on finding a way to make a living I have devoted the majority of my energy to the novel. (As an aside, this is a decision that is fully supported by the missus, my friends, and my family -- everyone around me is in agreement that I'm doing the right thing. I'm still scared.)

And recently I've started to feel that it's close to finished.

Well, the Ferrett wrote of how he'd been told that he relied too heavily on plot. "Silly fellow," I thought. "Such a thing could never happen to an inept plotter such as myself." And then later, he wrote about how characters needed to have goals and needed to consistantly make decisions in order to achieve those goals.

It would be at that point that my pathetic house of cards collapsed.

Shit, shit, shit. I thought about some of the criticisms I've gotten on the novel, thought about the number of people who started it and didn't just read the whole thing straight through the way they were supposed to. People who have finished it have been uniform in their praise, but a lot of people just sort of drifted...

And that was why. Because my character drifts through much of the novel.

I recently read a novel by Charlie Stross called Saturn's Children. I had to force my way through it, never really got into the thing. It was clever, it was funny, it was full of interesting details about his future society and I just didn't like it. When I was done I spend a few minutes thinking hard and I was quite pleased with myself when I figured out why.

The drama in the story was derived from the perils faced by the lead character. Physical danger. She was fighting to save her life.

And she had a shit life, with no visible redemption on the horizon. Yeah, the book has a happy ending -- but it falls flat, because that happy ending hadn't been promised to the reader.

And that dynamic is at work in my novel. It's not as bad as it is in Saturn's Children. My lead character does have friends, does have pleasures in his life -- but...

A big part of the problem is that the book is a fusion of two seemingly-incompatable genres, the confessional autobiography and adventure fiction. It has the flavor of a horror novel and I do work the fear nerve here and there, but at its heart horror derives from victimhood -- as long as characters are standing up and fighting, you've got adventure rather than horror.

Confessional autobiography is dependant on the hook of the protagonist's issues. Whining and suffering are par for the course. In my novel, the whining and suffering are the result of mental illness. Fairly heavy stuff -- agitated depression and so on. When you're depressed, whining is the sickness itself. So there's no way to write honestly about that experience without portraying some whining.

But whiny heroes are anathema in adventure fiction. So writing honestly and writing compellingly are at odds here.

The story is about the lead character's process of healing and maturation, about him going from a completely bleak existance where the thing he wants most is death and it is denied him, to a place of strength and purpose. Writing this story has changed everything from my sense of self to my relationship with the missus. It has been tremendously healthy for me. It has become the central focus of my life and I'm the better for it.

So when I realized that the lead character's miserable passivity at the start of the novel was going to drive away a lot of readers -- that it was a flaw, not a feature and that it might well have driven me-the-reader away -- it hit me on a very root level. It's not just a book, it's my fucking life. And I'd turned my life into a book that sucked.

"But, but, but," I whined to myself, "the way the tension jacks up one step at a time and by the end of the book he's not passive anymore and..." Dependence on plot over story.

"But, but, but," I whined to myself. "The start of the book is funny! The same person in my writing group that said he wouldn't want to read about a suicidal character changed his mind when he saw how funny it was!" Dependence on humor over story.

Dependence on style over story. Dependence on detail over story. Unless the character wants something and works for it, there isn't a real story!

Oh, christ, I'm fucked. I thought of all the books I loved that didn't have a real story and you know what? Didn't help me. That wasn't the kind of book I was trying to write.

"But, but, but," I said to myself. "I was totally helpless at that point in my life. I didn't have any hopes. I wasn't working toward any goals..."



Holy shit. Could it be that that I'd underestimated myself? Moi?

Well, ask the missus about that one.

I thought back and I realized that even at the worst of times -- and they were bad -- that I had still struggled with art. I had a typewriter set up on a desk in my room. I went through sketchbooks like they were floss, you just use some up every day if you don't want your teeth to rot out of your head.

I knew that I sucked, but I still showed my stuff off. And I'd go to a friend's house and find that some doodle I'd done on a notepad had been put up on the refrigerator. The artists I knew seemed to regard me as being of the tribe.

And I also realized that what I'd written in the novel was true enough to life for the traces of that ambition and that effort to be right there.

The lead character can feel hopeless -- as long as the reader knows there's hope for him.

And all of a sudden I saw how questions that some readers have had about motivation were neatly answered. And how this could be made to dovetail perfectly with the fantastic elements of the story -- how he is drawn into the other world as a direct result of his goals and decisions rather than just falling down the rabbit hole. How there were scenes already written that just needed to be tweaked to take this into account.

I'm not going to have to tear the whole structure down. I just need to go in and retrofit the foundation. It's doable -- hell, it probably isn't going to be that hard now that I understand what's what.

There are a few phrases that come up over and over again when people talk about workshops. My writing pal Allison (who's the current reader who is most prone to point out these root issues in my work -- she drives me crazy sometimes but I generally wind up coming around to her point of view) is in Nebraska going through it right now and it's an ecstatic thing for her, a real pleasure to behold.

People talk in terms of boot camp. In terms of tribe. There's a culty vibe going on here...

I'm thinking it's an initiation. A time of trial. A rite of passage. This is one of the fundamental human activities, and it's one that many of us have been denied. I've certainly felt as if I've missed out on something important. To find your purpose, hone your skills, have the elders put you to the test and force you through the rituals --

I want this. I need this. And what I went through yesterday, from smirky post to the voices of unmet friends to the pits of self-loathing and despair to a renewed sense of strength... I think that was a taste of what's in store for me. I think I've got a better idea of what I'm facing.

I can hardly wait.

And now for something completely different.

I'm not a photographer. Never took snapshots. But the last couple of years I've started using photography as part of my artistic process. Yesterday I took a shot of Amanda so as to have a quick graphic for my post. Here's what I started out with.

It took me less than five minutes to get this. Crop, convert to LAB color, add three adjustment layers -- Curves, Brightness & Contrast, and Levels -- throw down a little Unsharp Mask, and done. I even had the thrilling realization that you can adjust the opacity on Adjustment Layers, which makes them much more flexible and subtle -- I'll use that concept a lot in the future.

What I mean is, my illustration skills also work on photographs! When I start taking Digital Photography this fall, I think I'm gonna hit the ground running.

1 comment:

Allison Landa said...

I was nervous as hell when I went off, as you know, and I came back feeling triumphant. I have reason to believe you will have a similar experience.