Saturday, May 30, 2009

Swill Time & The Suffering Of A Belletrist

I actually like the way I had to distort this piece to get it to fit in magazine format. It helps make the eye move around the picture properly. And note the subtlety of the fill in the Swillogo -- it's a wee bit transparent.

So at this point I've got a solid start on the next issue of Swill. I've got to fine-tune the typesetting and details on the interior, produce five more images, and prepare the interior illustrations. This morning I did this initial version of the cover and went to the store to fetch art supplies.

But I wound up being useless in the afternoon. I've been sleeping poorly (like this is news) and after lunch I wound up with my ass glued to the couch watching Mythbusters and Monsterquest. Bad oaf!

I'm not sure whether or not I'll try to do much work tomorrow, for that matter. We shall see; we shall see.

The novel has been a real... well, I'm not going to say drag. It's moving in the direction I want it to move in. But the revision that I thought was going to be easy-peasy is turning out to be a butt-wrenching nightmare of self-examination and 0h! my aching artistic soulenisma.

My pal Allison has been cracking the whip and as a result the book has started to take on a lot more depth, but it's been forcing me to ponder some of my personal issues in a way that's made me a real pain in the ass to deal with. I've been finding scenes that have been in place for literally years aren't doing what I need them to do.

One of the hardest tasks a writer has to face is going back and re-imagining scenes and characters -- taking parts of an organic whole and radically reworking them without having to rebuild the entire work from scratch.

And I'm facing a particular problem in this book. I have a great deal of impatience with our culture's obsession with backstory -- as an example, in the remake of Willy Wonka, they insisted on giving the audience details from his childhood that explained why he was so cruel to children. I mean, fuck that. That isn't what the story is about. Yeah, the story of Willy Wonka's life would be interesting -- but do we need it inserted into the story of Charlie Bucket?

But one of the criticisms of my novel that I've heard more than once is that people don't understand why the protagonist -- who is pretty much me -- acts and thinks the way he does. Well, that's a pretty fucking involved question. To answer it in full would be to write an entirely different book than the one I've been working on for the last four years.

Still, I obviously do need to provide more information on the protagonist's history than I have so far. My goal is to give a hint here and a hint there, enough to make his current behavior seem understandable.

But I feel that in a work of fiction, you don't see a character exhibit behavior and say, 'I don't buy that because I don't know why he or she is doing that.' As a reader, my reaction is, 'Huh. That was a weird thing to do,' and then to read the character from that point on as the kind of person who does that kind of thing.

Of course that probably has something to do with the fact that I regard people the same way in real life -- I have no idea what would compel someone to have children, buy a car, attend a sporting event, or watch American Idol. The behavior of the average human being mystifies me and all I can do is accept it.

But as a writer it is my job to make my characters convincing. Frankly, I don't care how well my characters are understood as long as they are believed -- but readers seem to feel differently about that. I'll tell you what, someday I'm going to say, "fuck a bunch of readers," and write something without worrying about how accessible it is.

I'll use the full range of my vocabulary and intellectual interests and hideous obsessions and obscure humor and cultural references and scientific terminology and obliquity and if someone doesn't understand that dark matter and dark energy are entirely separate phenomena, if they don't know what a Pristichampsus is, if they don't get the references to the Ramayana and the works of Tove Jansson and Li Po, if they can't make the connections between line twelve on page eight and line seven on page three hundred and sixteen, well, they will be perfectly welcome to go fuck themselves. Hell, I'll replace every comma with the word 'fuck,' so as to duplicate my own mode of speech. I'll produce something with bones and guts and sinew instead of the simple-minded monosyllabic pabulum I've produced thus far.

And then nobody will read it. Hey, it worked for Pynchon and Joyce.

Anyway, I'm hoping things will lighten up after I get the first couple of chapters nailed down and the book starts to become more plot-oriented. We shall see.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In Which I Consume

I was a little disappointed to find out that the 6400 dpi scans were kinda fuzzy when viewed at full size... These images are ten inches square, by the way.

And the amount of visual data they contain is amazing.

The tarnish, the dust, the irregularities of the casting... Honestly, this scanner isn't far from being a digital microscope.

And the initial scan only took a couple of minutes. I've got to say, I really like the new scanner.

Well, yesterday I was doing some work on Swill. (We've got some exciting developments on that front that I'll be writing about soon.) For a variety of reasons, it strongly behooves me to get Swill finished pronto, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.

I've recently complained about my scanner; well, I realized that since scanning the inkblots for a print was taking me half a work day or even longer, I was dealing with a real bottleneck. So yesterday I ventured out and purchased a new scanner, an Epson V500.

It is a freaking monster; it has more than five times the resolution of my old scanner and is fast as hell. I'm already thinking about all kinds of crazy uses for it -- and I'm going to be buying a couple of pieces of glass so that when I scan things like metal and stone I'll be able to avoid scratching the plate.

I made another purchase as well. As mentioned before, I've hit a stage in my life where I need to dress like a grownup every so often. The sportscoat I picked up from the thrift shop didn't cut the mustard -- it didn't fit and it made me look... I'm tempted to say like a plainclothes cop or a substitute teacher but that isn't fair to either of those groups of people. They all dress better than I do.

I'd mentioned this to a friend. Last week he gave me a phone call and told me about a sale on men's clothes I should check out. So yesterday I convinced the missus to check it out with me. (When I bought my last outfit the missus rent her garments in woe and cried, "Why did I let you buy clothes by yourself?")

We found a very nice charcoal gray number with tasteful pinstripes. Comfortable and quite square -- which is what I wanted. It cost forty bucks; I hate to spend money on clothes but it was marked down from eighty.

Actually, that wasn't true. When the clerk rang it up, it turns out that the original price was three hundred fucking dollars. I bought a three hundred dollar sports coat for forty bucks -- turns out that since I hit up the sale so late they'd slapped another sale down on top of the first.

The missus pointed out that there's a corolary to the fact that I'm hard to fit -- the stuff that does fit me is gonna be hard to sell to anyone else. Sweet!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More On The Novel

This is a straight-up totally unmodified inkblot. I used it as the basis for an illustration in the first issue of Swill but honestly, it works fine on its own. I'll probably color it at some point, though.

So yesterday I did two big writing chores. I'm trying to polish the end of the story that's going in the next issue of Swill and I think -- I hope -- I've made a little progress. Rob has been quite finicky (and rightfully so) but up until the last email I thought his trouble was with the physicality. Not so -- the plot was unclear.


But I hope it's better now.

My big chore was one I've been putting off for the last few days. Of course once I set to work it only took me six hours or so to knock it out.

I went through a bound manuscript of the novel with colored stickers and hi-liters and marked up all the big-picture issues that I need to address. No doubt more will surface as the revision progresses but now I have a solid overall game plan. I marked things on four basis.

1. Time. How many days are covered by the novel? If you'd have asked me before I started this part of the revision, I'd have said about a month, maybe a couple of weeks more.

Nope. It takes place over the course of about ten days. This worked to my advantage -- all of a sudden two subplots linked in a particularly pleasant fashion. One dealt with a busted knuckle that was the result of sexual frustration, the other dealt with a magical healing that was a gift from a feminine principle. Thusly, one of the subtexts of the novel was strengthened and made more overt.

2. Continuity -- where do subplots start and stop? A number of subplots (including the above-mentioned knuckle) came and went in a herky-jerky way. Now I've figured out how to link them together so that A happens because of B resulting in C.

Again, the story is at the stage of development where it's not a matter of, "Oh, jesus, this doesn't work. I need to dump it." Instead, there's an intuitive pattern underlying the whole shebang and there are always simple, organic solutions to plot issues.

I hope; please, o mysterious forces, do not smite me in my arrogance.

3. The Crazy. I've labeled the parts of the novel where moments that seemed agonizing to me when I experienced them (again, there's a great big chunk of autobiography here) are written of in a casual, dismissive fashion. I'm going to be hitting those full-on and bringing out the real emotions and thoughts with which I had to deal.

4. And, finally, I'm going to be expanding on the magical world in a few places. Going over the manuscript that part was in better shape than I remembered but there is still room to make it bigger and weirder and more involving.

So today I'm back to the chapter-by-chapter revisions. With any luck I'll have the rest of that crucial first fifty pages ready for submission to the writer's groups by the end of the day. Which means that before I send them to an agent they'll have been through both groups. Which really makes me feel more confident -- what I'd done to the first three-now-two chapters is going through some real changes based on Monday's critique and I have no doubt that Thursday's will have a similar impact.

's funny. While the growth of this work was very organic and intuitive and knotty and gnarly, the end product is almost a shopping list of what I best like to read, a real cross-genre scramble where literary fiction, confessional autobiography, humor, surrealism, Forteanna, quest fantasy, horror of both the MR James and the Clive Barker variety, crime, and old-school SF are forced into a hideous free-for-all pit fight. Hell, there's even a wee tiny sprinkling of westerns in there.

I think it's gonna be a hell of a read when I'm done.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Working On The Novel & A Nephew Art Pizza Box

I've had this sitting in the studio for a few months now. In a moment of weakness, I ordered a takeout pizza. In the Bay Area that's a really stupid thing to do -- pizza ranges from the disappointing to the appalling and it's hell of expensive. You're better off, financially and gastronomically, if you just sit down and start eating dollar bills.

This pizza was merely disappointing -- but the box is a perfect example of what the sainted cartoonist Kliban called Nephew Art. To put it briefly, someone says, "Hey, I need some art," and someone else says, "I got a nephew that can do that real cheap." The more I looked at this box, the more I was impressed by its ineptitude.

Click on the images for a larger view of the snark.

So the Monday Night writer's group gave me my first response to the current start of the novel. Whew! While there is some fiddling to be done -- they had some great suggestions and corrections -- they gave me the impression that I did what I tried to do. The lead character is now more understandable, more deeply flawed, and much more dramatic. I didn't add a lot of backstory -- just a pinch, a soupcon -- but it was enough to help bring ol' Matt to life. By eliminating everything that didn't directly pertain to the actual story things flowed better and made more sense. And there's still enough humor to make it fun to read about the sufferings of a victim of psychotic agitated depression.

Of course that's what the Monday night mob said. When I hear from the Pros from Dover who gather on Thursday I might hear something different...

Right now I'm going through a bound copy of the manuscript with little multicolored stickers and hi-liters. I'm marking the places where I need to dial up the protagonist's insanity, the places where I need to foreshadow later developments, anything that I can safely cut, wound continuity (What's worse -- the fact that I'm tracking wound continuity or the fact that much of that is straight autobiography?), and calender dates.

Since the Monday night group is taking a summer break and the Thursday night group can't take more than ten or fifteen pages a week, I won't be running the whole of this draft through a group before I start trying to get an agent. Here's how I'm gonna work things.

Once the current preparatory desecration of the manuscript is finished, I'll revise two or three chapters a day until this volume is done. I'll also do ongoing revisions of the chapters I submit to the Thursday group, one chapter a week.

When I've gotten fifty pages through the group, I'll send a letter of inquiry to Christopher Moore's agent. Moor writes humor novels with horror themes, most of them set in either San Francisco or what I suspect is his version of Big Sur. His work is gentler and sillier than mine (those terms are descriptive, not pejorative), very different in tone and intent, but there's enough overlap so that it makes sense to try and work with people who work with him.

Then when I'm done with the main revision of The Ghost Rockers, I'll start in on an outline for The Boneland Rovers. When I started working on this, outlining was useless. When I tried it I wound up paralyzed. But now that I know what the story is, outlining is vital. Interesting how that works -- and I wonder if my next novel will follow that pattern or if I'll be able to start off with outlines from the start.

While the new version of the first chapters is a vast improvement, I had to cut a lot of stuff that I really liked. On Friday or Saturday I'll be posting the for-now finished versions of chapters one and two so you'll be able to get a real taste of the work. But for now, here's something that I wish I hadn't had to cut -- mainly because it really happened to me and the memory bothers and amuses me this day. Yes, I really am this lame.

I went back to where Karen and Melanie worked. Melanie always made me think about the farmer who goes to the circus for the first time and finds himself outside the giraffe pen. He stares and stares and stares, then shrugs his shoulders and walks off saying, “There ain’t no such animal.” Her features and coloring were Asian, the delicate perfection you’d see in a brocade print, but her body was Scandinavian. Broad, deep shoulders and hips, narrow waist, strong limbs with delicate wrists and ankles. She wore her hair in a bob and favored punk outfits with rips artfully revealing flashes of smooth caramel skin. A few inches of thigh, the trembling underside of her breast…

Karen smiled sweetly at me, then gazed at the work in her hands. She was so quiet, so self possessed. It killed me that I’d never know what she thought about.

Melanie stretched her arms over her head and took a good five years off my life. “Hey, Matt, you doing okay?”

“Doing all right and yourself?”

“I had a little too much fun last night, you know?”

I made a motion towards the can under her table. She didn’t move. I was going to have to get close to her to empty the trash. As I reached under the end of her table I was able to avoid touching her but I could feel the warmth of her body with my cheek and arm. I wanted to push her out of my way. Was six inches of room too much to ask? It seemed cruel. Intentional.

“So there’s such thing as too much fun?’ I said, then stood up and poured a murmuring cascade of foam peanuts out of the can.

She looked up and grinned at me, wrinkling her nose. “Maybe not.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back On Track

I'm starting to experiment with the illustrations for the next issue of Swill -- I've got to have it done by the start of July...

As I mentioned before, I'm going to be taking samples from the print series I'm doing and rendering them as black-and-white images suitable for xerography. Here's the source of the above image.

Well, the missus is out of town for the next few days. Her mother fell and wound up in the hospital for a while; it's a worrisome situation but so far things seem to be going as well as possible.

Before the missus left we patched things up. I got two days of a serious cold freeze -- I tried to kiss her goodnight on Wednesday and the look she gave me convinced me that I should keep my face away from her mouth for a while -- but Friday morning she yelled me down from my studio and huffily told me that she needed me now so I couldn't be distant and sulky. I have to admit, two nights of going to sleep hated had, in fact, put me in the mood to be distant and sulky but I hadn't gotten the opportunity to act on the impulse.

(And in a neat about-face she went from pissed-off to overly-solicitous -- she realized that my transgression indicated that I've been unhappy lately. No shit, Sherlock.)

Being good meant attending some social functions associated with her daughter's graduation (a doctorate in biology from UC Berkeley is indeed worth celebrating) and making a nice dish to bring to one of them. Normally hanging out with that crowd leaves me emotionally strip-mined for days -- they're perfectly nice people and some of them are working scientists, but they're...

Well, not the kinda folks I hang out with. They talk about things like sports and stereos and awesome snowboarding. I feel as though I have nothing to say to them, no subjects of conversation. I withdraw and start hating myself for being a loathsome pariah. As I said, the emotional hangover from this usually lasts a few days.

But it didn't turn out that way. I was bored as hell, I didn't do a lot of talking -- but the self-confidence I've developed over the last year or so seems to have had an effect on me. I got out of there with my mood no worse than it was when I came in. Nice progress, oafboy. Keep it up.

And the food I brought seemed to go over quite well. It was a strata, a dish I think of as a savory bread pudding. Usually I use it as a vehicle for leftovers. Since it has dairy in it, the missus hadn't eaten any until this Christmas. (Dairy is one of her innumerable imaginary allergies. She's got personal definition of 'allergy' that doesn't have much to do with the medical condition.) I'd brought one to the celebrations at my sisters and it was the hit of the season and she's been fixated on it ever since.

So when the missus's older daughter commanded her to make a contribution to the party, she decided that her contribution was going to be having me pay for and make the damned strata. It wound using sixteen eggs, a very nice sourdough baguette, a half-pint each of heavy cream and milk, fresh sage, fresh ground pepper, shallots, roast red and yellow peppers, cauliflower, brocolinni, garlic, mustard powder, bacon, ham, breakfast sausage, Canadian white cheddar, Swiss Gruyere, and shiitaki and crimini mushrooms.

Everything that could be sauteed first was sauteed first so I could make use of the fond. (For those not in the know, the carmalized crispy bits that form a sort of crust in a cooking pan are called the fond. It is the mother and father of flavors. Go google Maillard reaction and prepare to have your world rocked, you ignorant scullion.) All the dry ingredients were mixed in a bowl, dumped in a pan, covered with the custard, and left overnight so the bread could totally absorb the custard.

Then yesterday part-way through the cooking process a little voice in my head said that this dish wasn't going to be worth a shit without a crispy cheesy crust, so I mixed up some cracker crumbs with some more aged chedder, some fresh-grated parmagianno reggianno, and a bit of havarti to make the whole thing melt together, then laid the resulting gratin down on top of my symphony of pork.

When someone at the party asked me what was in it I cut to the chase and said it was death on a plate.

I'm of the opinion that if food doesn't elicit little involuntary noises of pleasure it isn't worth eating. This is probably why the missus puts up with me.

Anyway, I got two good moments of abject pleasure from the whole debacle. One was when the missus was at the computer going over snapshots and she made a squeal indicative of hysteria. She called me over to look at the family photo. Since most of them are either Ashkenazi Jews, Phillipino, southern Italian, or some mix of the above they are a thumb-sized people. As result, the photo made me look like Gulliver in Lilliputia.

The second occured when the missus was complaining that her younger daughter was bullying her the same way her older daughter did. She did not appreciate my pointing out that they'd gotten that trait from her. She liked it even less when I started giving a point-by-point lecture on how she does the exact same thing to me but the evidence I presented was both detailed and overwhelming. A good overwhelming every once in a while is good for her, though. It's also kind of fun.

But the real reason I'm feeling as if I'm back on track is that I've gotten back to work on the novel. I've revised the single most problematic area, the start of the thing. I've clarified the lead character's mental illness and if what I've done works, the result is that his motivation -- what he thinks he wants and what the reader knows he needs -- is a hell of a lot clearer. I've also layered in a bit more backstory so hopefully he won't seem as mysterious/confusing.

And by rigorously getting rid of everything that isn't absolutely necessary I was able to combine the second and third chapters into one much shorter chapter.

The result is a much more direct narrative flow, but the emotional tone is a hell of a lot grimmer and much of the humor wound up being cut. I may need to go back and see if there's any way to funny it up. I've submitted it to both of my writer's groups and am now on tenterhooks waiting for reactions.

So today I'm going to at least start, and hopefully finish, going over the whole manuscript with multicolored hi-lighters and Post-it notes and so on, getting all the continuity lined up, figuring out where to beef up the protagonist's crazy, figuring out what foreshadowing is there and shouldn't be vs. the foreshadowing that should be there and isn't.

I'm really anxious to start my search for an agent.

And I'm gonna spend some time with my brother-in-law this evening. In an expression of her newfound concern for my emotional state, the missus made me promise to find some company while she was gone and I haven't seen ol' Aubrey in way too long. So when I get to quitting time I'm going to walk up to Telegraph and hang out with him during the last hour or so of his T-shirt sales, then who knows what'll happen. I'm gonna prep some pizza ingredients in advance (I'm thinking a bacon/gorgonzola pizza with buffalo mozerella and an herb & ricotta mix instead of tomato sauce) in case he's into coming here for dinner.

Heh. I may be a miserable bastard, but when I can get myself to eat at least I eat well.