Friday, September 12, 2014

Grammar, Mutts and Coming Attractions

I have decided that this blog should be more than just random musings on the writing life. So, instead of--or perhaps along with!--nattering on about publishing and craft, I am going to structure some blog-shops on writing topics dear to my heart.
     Warning: I am not a Grammar Warrior. I am a storyteller, and I will happily murder the English language along with anyone else who gets in the way of my telling a story! Then I will have a few smart, educated people go over my book and point out my grew-up-in-rural-Louisiana mistakes. I may or may not listen to those fine people. The responsibility, along with the name on the cover, is mine.
    Language is not sacrosanct. The English language has the pedigree of a junkyard dog. You look at the ears and think one breed, look at the tail and think another.

     "English is the result of Norman men-at-arms trying to make dates with Saxon barmaids, and no more legitimate than any of the other results."
                    --H. Beam Piper, "The Other Human Race"

     So get thee gone, Red Pencils! I'm here to instruct--and natter on about--the only thing that matters to me.
     The Story.
     Coming next week: Chiaroscuro and the Art of Characterization Part 1. (Yes, it's a word. Wiki it.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

On the art of the Roomba and writing through paralysis...

Like many creative people, I do not truly understand my own brain.
Case in point: My backyard had gone to the dogs over the summer--quite literally. My two bored dogs had trashed my container garden, pooped copiously and torn up various pilfered items.
The mess was so daunting that I stopped going outside. Deadlines loomed, negotiations distracted, family drama boiled over.
On National Dog Day, I decided to do something about the problem. I hired a poop service.
Then miracles happened. By the simple act of having a SINGLE chore removed from my life, I found myself able to attack the dead plants, the litter, and exercise my poor bored fuzzy ones.
I could have done those things at any time during the last two months. Bathing a dog takes 20 minutes, max. Replanting a pot takes 10. A game of ball will have a dog panting in 5.
But I suffered from Overwhelm. When matters degraded past a certain point, my brain and will and inborn compulsiveness melted down and I was paralyzed by the simple act of THINKING about the back yard.
I felt like a glitchy Roomba, repeatedly butting against the wall, forgetting how to turn and tackle things from another angle.
Now, the way in which this tale of poop and vacuuming robots pertains to writing a novel:
I have written 20 full novels and some other stuff, too. However, it never fails that in the beginning of a book, at some point I will stare in terror at that blinking cursor and think, "500 pages. 500 EMPTY pages. I can't fill that! That's a whole goddam ream of paper! NOBODY can fill that!"
"Who the hell do I think I am???"
Fortunately, I am neurotic, but teachable. I have learned over the years to do a few basic things. I back up and come at things from a different angle. I plot. I make notes. I draw characters. I daydream (so glad to get my pretty patio back!). And then, slowly, tentatively, I begin to write. I try to do so without judgment or editing. After all, it's just "practice." I probably won't use any of it, I tell myself. If I don't like it I can toss it.
Sometimes, in the depths of the deepest paralysis (which has only happened a few times, thank heaven!) I write longhand--just to prove to myself that it doesn't matter. Crayon is very convincing in this instance. Or chalk on a chalkboard might do well. I will keep that in mind. The ephemeral nature of paper and pen convinces my panicked consciousness that it doesn't "matter." If it doesn't matter, it can't fail, right? Or worse, perhaps, succeed?
Then I warm up. The characters start to show up. The settings become real rooms, real landscapes in my mind. The movie starts to play.
Suddenly, I am impatient with the plotting and the notes and the pen and paper. Words are pouring out and the only way to get them down efficiently is to sit down at the computer and make that damned cursor my bitch. I often don't even realize that I'm doing it until I finish and look around and realize that I am in my office--remember that place of dread and fear and imminent, hideous public failure?--and my hands are tired and I have to pee. And there, filling page upon page that shrink the blinking cursor into pallid insignificance is Chapter One. Or maybe the climactic end scene. It doesn't matter. I never write in order.
I write because that is who I think I am!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the nature of simplicity in good writing...

The Geek God and I are finally watching The Wire. Yes, I know, a decade behind the rest of you. At any rate, we recently watched that famous moment in "Old Cases" where McNulty and his partner, Bunk, are investigating an old crime scene. It takes place in an apartment that has since been cleaned and repaired. They crack the case with nothing to go on but a few crime scene photos and the F word. Seriously, the dialogue of the entire scene consists of them conversing in Vulgar Dude. The F word, and only the F word, for a solid 5 minutes. It is hilarious, gripping, and absolute genius.

Truly, this brief scene attained a level of Haiku-esque minimalism that made me writhe with simultaneous ecstasy and envy. I instantly wanted to watch it again. And again. It will remain with me for years, glowing in memory as a shining beacon of "Less is more."

Yes, I realize that this example is visual and therefore not the same as written fiction. As writers of books, we are forced to set our stage and dress our actors with nothing but our fingers on the keyboard.

My point is that great writing isn't about big words or heavily detailed description ("Excuse me, but your research is showing.") or even perfectionist grammar. Yes, knowing all this is important. Proving that you know it is not. Great writing is about connection. Without connection--that direct line feed, that intravenous transfusion from creator to audience, that freaking divine thread of communication made by tapping your soul like a Vermont maple--well then, you are just scratching lines and curves into the sand before the incoming tide. Your work won't be remembered by anyone but you.

So, the next time you feel stirred by a sesquipedalian adverb you stumbled upon in your Synonym Finder, remember that isn't the size of the word, it's how you use it that counts!

Here is a link to the aforementioned scene from The Wire. Warning: Adult Effing Content. It is an HBO show, after all!