Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Calamari del Diablo

From today's NY Times:

Giant Squid Has Biggest Animal Eyes in World, Scientists Say
"When caught, it measured 26 feet long and weighed about 1,000 pounds, but scientists believe the species may grow as long as 46 feet."
Possible responses:

A) A couple dozen cloves of garlic, a gallon of olive oil, a mop, and the world's biggest grill are all we need.
B) What's it looking at down there in the darkness?
C) Imagine the spectacles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We grind, we grind, we grind so sharp

It occurred to me the other day that editing is like sharpening a dull knife: you have to grind away the useless metal to reform that bright sharp edge. The tool is improved by the taking away of material.

And don't we want to slice up July tomatoes nice and thin with our stories? Uh, wait a second.

A knife is meant to be sharp; a story is meant to be taut and clean and meaningful, even the quiet meandering ones. Maybe it's just me, but I hardly ever add text when I'm editing. Mostly I remove fluff; grinding the story down to that sharp edge.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I like to scare children

At a corporate retreat yesterday (no trust falls or sumo suits) we were asked to draw a picture to show a little-known-fact about ourselves. Since I am very mild-mannered and secretive at work, I have lots of little-known facts. But which of them could I draw?

I ended up drawing an angry open-mouthed stick figure (eyebrows, exclamation points) gesturing and shouting at a smaller stick figure that, thanks to my mad art skilz, appeared to be screaming and bawling its eyes out in soul-breaking terror (scrunched eyes, gaping mouth, tears).

It went a little overboard, as my stick-figure sketches tend to do, but the message was supposed to be: I like to scare children. As in: hide in the bushes at Halloween, or -- this would be great -- arrange to burst out the ground in front of a fake gravestone.

Or my personal favorite: write my characters into situations that are simply very frightening or very bad or both. I think we forget as adults how scary the world is when you're a kid. We hadn't developed the certainties that we have now. We know a plane probably won't land on our houses, we know something soft and algae-green and buzzing with flies probably won't slurp up to our house from the creek, we know our cars probably won't come to life; we know fish don't talk and that dogs always die and that sometimes people are cruel for no reason.

But kids don't. Their world is wider than ours in some ways.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Ring. RING."

There's a scene in the totally awesome movie Staying Alive (is too!) where John Travolta is waiting to hear about a show he's auditioned for. He paces pack and forth in front of his apartment building's only phone, in the lobby. Tight black T-shirt, slim-hipped dancer's pace, thuggish strut, skeptical blanket-clad extras watching him from ratty armchairs. Each time he passes the phone he glares at it in that non-ironic 80's way, and says, "Ring. Ring."

Pace out, pace back, glare. "Ring. Ring!"

I have queries out to agents.

Ring. Ring!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rotten tooth

Last night I dreamed of a rain-filled night after a rain-filled day. The ground was flooded; creeks swelled. In the dream I came home after work and stood in the hallway, dripping, when I heard a whining, buzzing noise from outside.

I took a flashlight and went out into the rain. The buzzing got louder and I realized soft things were hitting me like raindrops, but they were coming from in front of me. Ahead in the flashlight beam a black river poured up into the air from a rain-carved hole in the ground: hundreds and hundreds, thousands, of angry hornets streaming into the night. There were so many they were bumping into me as they swarmed the hole.

I ran back to the house but the rain had softened the ground and sinkholes opened up in what I had thought was solid bedrock, rooty darkness below. I got back inside -- the power was out -- and the hardwood floor buckled, sagged, and collapsed. Holes opened in each room like empty tooth sockets, and I stood in the hallway and shone my light down.

Below the house was an old basement. It must have been sealed off when the old house was refurbished: armchairs with doilies pulled around a footstool; a table with a brown cloth and dishes and silverware, waxy lumps of candles; a Victrola; water-pulped books in Zs on ornate shelves. The whole place -- it was as big as the ground floor of the house -- was knee-deep in rainwater and still filling. Our clean, rebuilt house had been sitting atop this old, old room with everything still in it but the people, and it rotted away under the house like an abcessed tooth, until this night of Old Testament rain had finally washed off the smiling mask of the house above it and it gaped open to the world.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nearly 8,000 American dead

In three days at the Battle of Gettysburg. Anyone who doubts the tragedy should visit those quiet green fields and silent cannons. This is not just grainy photographs and Social Studies: it's the fabric of our shared history.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I've seen. It's worth reading every word:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Monday, April 7, 2008


Writing a synopsis is ... difficult. I was going to launch into a metaphor of hammers and fingers, noting that our vital organs are all neatly packaged into our centers, rendering our extremeties ... superfluous yet still pretty dang nice to have.

But A) that's disgusting; B) it goes a bit too far; and C) why not quit thinking of metaphors for how hard things are and just get down to doing them? Honestly, if we took even part of the energy we use in talking about writing, and put it into actual writing, there would be fewer complaints of "not enough time."

Here is my challenge: the draft synopsis reads like a condensed, superficial, rushed version of the real story. Which, of course, it is. When in fact it should read like a short story treatment of the longer novel. The good news is that once the synopsis is ready, I can begin sending this to agents., so I have real motivation to work on it.

And to complain about it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Check and check

Kristin Nelson has an interesting list of fantasy "don'ts" on her March 28 blog, from a fantasy editor. I was pleased to see that The Turning Away comes out looking pretty good. Though I am a bit biased.

Among the turn-offs: The protagonist is The Chosen One. There is a lost magical item and the search for it drives the story. Characters must pass through a portal to begin the story (like a wardrobe, ahem). The protagonist wakes up and begins his or her day in the opening chapter. The protagonist is an orphan who must live up to their dead parents. ("Living up to" dead people is an odd phrase but just go with it.)

I was going to list all the ways The Turning Away deftly avoids all these, but you'll just have to read the book. Extra credit for anyone who remembers the Time Life ad from the 80's that gave us that phrase.