Friday, May 29, 2009

Return from LurkerLand

You know that feeling when you return from a long trip and you arrive home again and everything seems so surreal? You keep wanting to grab the normal people you knew before you left, in their normal settings, and say, "But don't you get it? EVERYTHING is different now!"

Right after I graduated college, I moved to the South Pacific to work for a tiny newspaper. I lived in American Samoa, in a little house in a little village way out on the eastern island of Tutulia. My village had maybe 400 people -- maybe 4 of them spoke English. We had a pack of dogs in the village square, and our water came from a cistern up the mountain that collected rain water from the jungle (you can imagine my surprise when I found out what everybody meant by "village water"). My leather shoes rotted, my books fell to pieces. At night, I listened to the geckos chasing roaches across my walls. In the mornings, I woke up, grabbed my snorkel gear and swam in the lagoon, floating over coral reefs toward the reef line where the big, open ocean breakers tumbled over themselves.

The people in the village were nice, but only marginally interested in me and my roomate. Every night, a different woman would send her child over with food -- poi, chicken, rice, bananas -- because that's what you did when someone new moved into your village. But for the most part, they kept their distance on the other side of that language and cultural barrier.

There are many things about this period I remember. The crazy athletic and musical talent of the Samoan people, their generosity, the bars in the fishing district filled with Korean fisherman and dancing girls, the smell of the tuna processing factories, the long-liners coming in with their catch of 1,000-pound bluefin, the jungle ... after the first few weeks, it became hard for me to remember what I had left.

But America was always present. America was like an specter to the expats, always lingering on the edge of every conversation, sometimes fearfully. People don't end up moving to a cottage in the jungle without a pretty good reason. Some of them were broken, people who still harbored a deep hatred of their country and the things that had happened to them there. Some of them were marines from World War II, guys who visited the islands back in the 1940s and never left. A fair share were college students who worked for the government and lived in town, in government housing.

But I'll never forget when I came back to the U.S. I left a steaming island in the Pacific and flew for two days, stopping in Hawaii and San Francisco, before stepping off the plane into a Michigan November. It was brown. The people looked stressed out. I'd never, ever felt so distant from my own heritage. I kept wanting to grab people and say, "But don't you understand? Everything is DIFFERENT now. Everything."

The feeling faded over time, and I remembered that I was a Midwestern guy from a white suburb. I got down to the business of living. But I can still recall that otherworldly feeling, the idea that I had stepped through a door that would never completely close again.

A horizon, once expanded, can never shrink.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Character Change?

My brother is one of those people who believes that you're basically born as the person you will become. Parents can fiddle around the margins, but the essential center—the character—of each person is basically fixed.

Now that I have kids, I see there is at least a grain of truth in it. My oldest son, now 14, is still basically the same kid he was at 18 months. He just expresses it differently. Louder. With a better vocabulary.

The same applies to me, if I think about it. I have pretty huge problems with authority. Always have. I've been violently fired on several occasions (an employer once threatened to shove a spatula up my ass before screaming "GET OUT!"). I've even been fired by members of my own family. I've been thrown out of classes, sat in more principals offices and corners than I care to remember, and generally fought my way through adolescence like a cornered animal. So is it any wonder I'm self-employed? This works for me.

When it comes to writing, the key is growth, but I'm wondering if there's a fine distinction between "growth OF character" and "growth IN character." I think if you're being true to life, your characters enter the story as pretty much the same people they'll be when the exit the story. Their fundamental character, or essence, does not change much. Instead, the story is a tale of how that particular person adapts to the situation they're presented with, and how they learn to apply or suppress character traits to accomplish their goals. Just like life.

I'm thinking now of Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. Darcy entered the story a proud, conceited member of the upper class, but he was also a gentleman and he was generous of nature. He exits the story as the same guy, but I think one of the subtexts of Pride and Prejudice is Darcy's assuming the mantle as the master of Pemberley. And that's what Elizabeth teaches him through her initial rejection of him: that first and foremost, he must be a gentleman to the people whose station is "so far beneath his own," as he puts it. His pride isn't defeated, it is shaped into nobility.

It's an interesting question, and it's a challenge. The question is not "how will my character be different at the end" but "how will my character learn to adapt to a new normal."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Did I Just Jump the Shark?

Anybody of a certain age will remember this scene:

It's a summery day. Arthur Fonzarelli is in his white swim trunks and his flotation belt (!). His leather jacket is in place and his hair is shiny. He's water skiing across a glorious sea, and then he performs the most daring stunt of his career. He jumps--ON WATER SKIS--right OVER a shark enclosure ... and into history.

That was the day Happy Days officially jumped the shark. And ever since, anytime a story becomes so ridiculous, so implausible, so tortured and twisted as to be a mockery of itself, we say, with a knowing nod, that it too jumped the shark.

Personally, I've accused at least a zillion stories of jumping the shark. But here's the chilling thought: somewhere, some poor writer came up with this idea ("I know, he can jump a shark in a motorcycle jacket!") and thought it was a good idea. That poor sap was either under too much pressure, or running too low on coffee, to have any perspective on his own dumbassery. He just ran with it.

I finished a scene this morning, and when it was done, I sat back, scratched a bit, and thought, "Did I just jump the shark?" I tested the scene for logic -- it logically held together. It, you know, made sense. It could happen. Everybody's motivations and histories seemed to line up. But I just couldn't shake this niggling feeling that I'd gone two steps too far.

I've had this feeling in the past. Twice. One time, I was dreading reader reaction to a particular sequence. I was sure I'd gone off the deep end. But boy, was I wrong. Readers loved it. Anybody who read that bit said it was some of the best writing I've ever done. Someone even compared it favorably to Neil Gaiman. The second time didn't work out so well. My readers hit that part and (I kid you not) started hooting and howling. One spluttered, "But ... I mean, it's like a bad musical!" Grrr.

So how do you know when you're the cool Fonzi, the guy who can start a jukebox with his fist and get three girls to crowd around him with a snap, or when you're just looking down between your skis into a tank full of sharks?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rules? I Don't Need No Stinking Rules!

You know how they always say you have to know the rules before you can break them? Ha ha. I've pretty much got the "writer's rules" tattooed inside my eyelids. Yet as a reader, I can't help but notice that authors plunder the rules with impunity. Here are the ones I see broken most often ...

1. Dialogue tags.

"I'm not kidding about this one," I said seriously. "It seems like EVERY author in the world uses dialogue tags. But I can't even tell you how many times I've read editors and agents dumping on authors for using them. Figure it out, people! Yes or no!"

2. Passive voice.

Yeah. Right. Sure, you get rid of it where you can, but loads of books are still rife with passive voice. And these are often books that I like a great deal. They are frequently written by authors for whom I have the greatest respect.

3. Show don't tell.

I've had it up to my eyeballs with this one. How many books do I read that contain a paragraph blurb about every character at some point, pretty much telling us what we should think/feel about said character? OK. So Cormac McCarthy actually follows this rule. But almost no one else does ...

4. Don't shift POV.

This rule is so widely mocked and ridiculed, it needs therapy. And I'm not even talking about authors who write from multiple POVs. I'm talking about the dreaded "head hopping" or shifting briefly into omniscient POV to give away plot points that would otherwise be very difficult to get across.

5. Don't rely on coincidence.

And again, ha ha. Personally, I think it's just lazy plotting. If only my life had so many fortunate coincidences ...

I'm sure there are others, but these are just the obvious ones to hop to mind. The sad thing is, indoctrinated as I am, I'll still strive not to do any of this stuff as a writer, even while wallowing in it as a reader.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pimping Friday

Welcome to pimping Friday ... See those cool covers? Those are two books I think everybody should buy, or at least help pimp. It's OK if you don't. But I will send my guys around to your house later tonight with a lead pipe. Just lock the doors and windows. You'll be fine. Not really.

But there are lots of good reasons you should. You might win a 5-page critique from a great author, you'd get some great reading material, and you'd have the satisfaction of knowing that you helped another writer. Which is always a good thing.

The first book, Magickeepers, is from my friend Erica Kirov (Orloff). I've been waiting to post this until I had a chance to get my hands on the book itself, which I did yesterday. First off, it's just a beautiful book. And it's very good. Of course, Erica is my critique partner so I'm wildly biased, but I've never read this book all the way through in our group, and even after years and years of critiquing each other, she still impresses me. I won't give anything away, but there was a moment near the middle when I stopped reading and thought, "Now, THAT'S how to do theme ..."

The second book is by Maggie Stiefvater, a YA author who's in the middle of a series with Flux and has an upcoming release with Scholastic called Shiver. Shiver isn't due to be released until August, so she's working now to build buzz for it. And my gut tells me it's worth it. The book created an early splash when she sold it at auction way back when, it's Scholastic's lead title this fall, and she's a fantastic writer. Her first book was extremely well reviewed, with starred reviews all over the place and nominations for this, that and the other.

Now, in anticipation of Shiver's release, she's sponsoring a viral blog contest. Here's the rules:

Whoever gets the most people to post about her book on their blogs, and those people hop over to her blog and leave a comment saying where they heard about the contest (here), wins. Each of the posters gets a 5-page critique from Maggie. And I win a new car. Just kidding. I get a signed ARC. So here's the Shiver cover blurb (cool concept, eh?), and here's the Amazon link to Shiver's page. Just in case you wanted to post ...

For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf--her wolf--is a chilling presence she can't seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human . . . until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It's her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human--or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Without a Recipe

I'm a pretty enthusiastic cook ... I often say if I wasn't writing for a living, I'd be cooking for a living. Although I've cooked in a bunch of restaurants as a line cook, I'm not educated. But looking back, I can see how I gave myself an education. Not deliberately. It just happened. Years ago, I used to read cookbooks cover to cover, for fun, and I made it a point every week to try something I'd never done before. I went through phases. I went through an artisan bread phase, when I was making hand-kneaded whole wheat peasant loaves. I went through a pastry phase. A BBQ phase. A grill phase. Pan sauces. Chinese. Thai. Indian. Cilantro (don't ask ...) Fish sauce (magic ingredient).

And I often buy ingredients I'm wholly unfamiliar with, just to see what happens. I love the feeling of circling a bag of live crab in my kitchen, thinking, "Now I got you home. What am I gonna do with you?"

The other night, I was cooking something or another, and I had a minor insight. I hadn't even considered cracking a cookbook. It wasn't that I had mastered the recipe. I actually wasn't using a recipe. I was just ... cooking. I knew what I had on hand, and I had a pretty good idea where I wanted to end up. I was looking for a lemon sage sherry cream sauce over pork with caramelized onions. Or something like that.

I'm not saying I'm the world's best cook. I'm not even the best cook in my family. My sister and my aunt, for instance, could roll me up and smoke me any day of the week. And any professional chef is operating in a totally different league.

Last night, I was thinking more about this rewrite I'm working on. With writing, I'm big on process, on cookbooks and outlines. But lately, I've noticed I'm using them less and less. I still do my detailed outlines, and I still fill notebooks with world notes and plot tricks. But when I'm actually writing, I find myself only rarely turning to my own notes.

"You know your world well enough," my wife said, as we were walking and talking about it. "Why don't you just trust your characters once they're inside it? Let them make decisions. Trust them."

It's like cooking without a recipe.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Speed to Me, Friendly Mailman

So I just did it. I just placed my order for this book. And now I wait ...

On her blog today, Erica asked what people enjoy about being a writer. Among all the many things, here is one small one: I get a little thrill when I'm in a bookstore and see a book and think, "I know the editor!" or "I know who wrote that book!"

Call me infantile, but it makes me feel like I'm in some kind of secret club. Books have been my great love since my earliest, foggiest memories. In high school, I used to skip class to hang out in the school library every so often. (And I still got lousy grades ... go figure.) I can still remember exactly where some of my favorite books were shelved. And I remember riding my bike ridiculously long ways to get to a book store, then just hanging around in the racks. I always pictured myself as that kid outside the ice cream shop, hands plastered to the window, nose smashed against the glass into a little piggy snout, just watching in rapt fascination.

You'd think that some of this goofy enthusiasm would have worn off now that I actually work in publishing. But it totally hasn't. I'm still just gaga for the whole business -- all of it. The writers and editors, the design, the distribution, the marketing, the binderies and the presses, the anal-retentive copy editors who drive me crazy ... I just love to be part of it all.

And it makes it better that writers are just about my favorite people in the world. Find a bunch of smarter, more interesting, more creative and more singular people anywhere. Go ahead. I dare you. So it's my pleasure -- my honor -- to support my writer friends, whether it's buying their books or reading manuscripts or just hoping, and I know that when all is said and done, I'll never look back and regret a moment of living in this business.