Thursday, July 31, 2008

The in-between

The idea of liminal or in-between spaces has been discussed in anthropology for a hundred years. The basic idea, first outlined by Arnold van Gennep and then expanded by Victor Turner, is that rituals tend to go through three stages: a “before,” and in-between, and an “after.”

This originally described rites of passage such as the transition from child to adult, but what excites me is the idea of applying liminality to other things: locations, people, states of awareness. (This is triggered by the interesting discussion on D. M. Cornish’s blog.)

I should point out that although once I was an aspiring academic, I have long since come to my senses. So it may be that there exists a whole body (or “corpus”) of work (or “text”) that studies this phenomenon (or text. That’s right, you use texts to study texts. How glad I am to have escaped that Ouroborean madness.) Point is, this may not be an original idea.

A liminal space or moment exists in between two normal places, or normal periods. These liminal spaces are places of danger, ambiguity, potential, uncertainty. The normal rules that govern everyday behavior and our expectations ... have shifted. The world pauses, power crackles in the wings.

Look at a passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses, one of my favorites. We’ve just spent several stanzas reading about the narrator’s quiet and boring home life, the looming threat of old age and weakness, and the wildness of the world outside his door. A thought tickles his mind: “Some work of noble note may yet be done...” And then the poem pauses from the narrative.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices.
Something is about to happen.

In the next line we learn that he’s decided to leave the comforts of home and return to the wild. He’s leaving, and that liminal moment is when he made the decision. The in-between moment when anything is possible.

A frontier on the edge of an empire is a liminal place. Beyond here be monsters. Something that looks mostly like a person but which is not quite human: liminal.

It is the moment of freefall as an acrobat goes from one trapeze to another. Tidal pools between ocean and rock. The quiet whispered exhalation just before a thunderstorm.

When I stand in the bookstore and get pulled into a book and lose all sense of time and place and who I am ... and then straighten up, rub my eyes, and look at the shelves of books and the world I knew and they seem completely foreign: that “book madness” as I pause between the book and returning to my own world, is liminal.

Like almost everything, this can go too far. My pencil is dull, so it’s in a liminal state between sharp and unused. My liminal sandwich is half-eaten, hovering between existence and non-existence. Come on.

But the idea that these in-between moments (or places, or people, or anything potentially) have special significance, special power, fascinates me.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The story beyond the book

Interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about literacy and online versus print reading or something. I don't know, I didn't really read it.

Ha! Yes I did, and I was going to write a cogent and logical response, edit it, and then post it here. Then I realized I could prove my own point by allowing this online medium to be less formal, less polished, and -- let's face it -- less "rich" than the printed word.

Not that there's not crap printed. We all know there is. And not that there's nothing good to read online, we all know there is.

But it got me thinking about the generation growing up with the Internet (and not only do I remember the existence of typewriters, I remember using one) and what they may think about books. As if "a generation" thinks about anything all the same way anyway. But never mind that: the wheels of argument are greased by generalization. Off we go.

One point the article made was that people who do all their "reading" online seem to be not reaching the full richness of story that's possible in print, whether by their short-attention grazing nature, the myriad of online distractions, or some other third thing.

Except books aren't quite perfect either, are they? The story that we as authors tell, and the story that a reader creates with us through the act of reading, that story isn't just ink on a page. It lives outside the book, just like feelings are outside of words or the rules of a game are outside a pack of cards. The words or the cards or the printed pages are just the tools we have for telling the story. Imperfect expressions of that story.

Now. I believe that printed books are the best way to get as close as possible to the story that floats out there between reader and writer. And there is something undeniably special about the act of reading from a printed page, whether it's the whispered scrape of a page turning, or the pause and renewal at the height of action when a chapter ends and the next begins, or the sheer weighty joy of a stack of new books denting your arm as you carry them over to your comfy chair.

There is something special about that that no other medium can match.

But if we accept that story -- meaning -- exists beyond its medium, then there must be other ways of expressing that meaning. Including, for example, online. OMG, right?

Point being, reading a book has its own intrinsic worth in and of the act of reading itself. But reading a book is not just an end in itself, it's also a means to a different end, a way to reach the story.

Maybe someday we'll look at this print-versus-online debate and laugh at how misguided it was. Or maybe we'll mark it as the beginning of a great divide in literacy and the imagination. Either way, there are stories to be told.

What do you think? (Keeping in mind the irony of reading this online instead of in print.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Micro book

Friday morning I printed out a tiny version of my manuscript and got to work identifying problem spots.

Compressing 61,000 words into 40 pages took some font- and margin-monkeying, but 7-point Times New Roman is about as far as I can go without a magnifying glass.

The beauty of this method -- besides just alarming the cats by spreading paper across what is usually their hairy realm -- is that I can see the rhythm of problems. I can (literally) visualize not just the balancing counterpoints of scene and tension but, for example, the surprising fact that most of my scene issues are in the first half of the book.

Or maybe that shouldn't surprise me, given the amount of dilly-dallying and meandering I tend to do in a draft before getting down to the business of telling the story.

The good news, I suppose, is that the second half is fairly clean.

My main problem seems to be an over-reliance on dialogue to tell the story, rather than narrative telling the story. I like writing dialogue; it's fun, and it comes easily to me. Too easily, it turns out.

Now: to work.

p.s. Now I can post pictures. Ho ho ho.

Friday, July 25, 2008

When Animals Almost Attack

I do not live in the wilderness, though I suppose it can feel that way when visitors put on their wading boots to come visit us from the shining land of Oz we call the big city. But we do have a wooded neighborhood that is filled with animals at dawn, when I run through it.

On Tuesday morning I saw a deer in a bush so close I could have reached out and touched it (the deer). Why didn't I? After all, how often do you get to say, "I touched a deer this morning"? Well, I was afraid it would attack. Just a herbivore, you say? Ha! Have you seen a deer up close? Their heads are the size of dog's heads, with long lean snouts and mouthfuls of fangs and/or regular teeth. It could also (I reasoned to myself) spring from the bush and beat me with its head. Or stomp on my ears with its wicked little hooves. No thanks!

Yesterday morning things got even more exciting. I'm always delighted to see bats fluttering in the blue light of dawn, but yesterday one flapped so close I could hear its wings. It sounded like someone shuffling a deck of cards. Then it came back, looped around and came back again. This, quoth I, is not normal bat behavior. Had I become some sort of bat-magnet? Was I emitting bat pheromones? 'Cause it just smelled like sweaty running clothes to me but you never know what's going to activate mad bat lust. After all, perhaps my overwhelming attractiveness cannot be limited to just humanity.

Just as I was feeling pretty studly, it occurred to me that if the bat decided to clamp onto my face, hook its little prickly claws into my ears, and start chewing on my nose? I'm not sure I could stop it. And what if it squeaked a triumphant summons to its bat-friends, and they all fluttered around me like a cloud of dark butterflies and carried me away?

Running is such a calming, meditative time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cold Light of Day

Or is it the dawn of a new day? Stay with me.

When criticism comes back on a draft, professional, highly qualified criticism, and it's right, should the response be despair, defensiveness and intransigence? Or a getting down to the slow lonely business of making the story better?

There's only one right answer.

It's easy to ignore advice I don't agree with. And it's easy to convince myself that I don't agree with anything, especially if it's difficult. I think often writers convince themselves that anyone criticizing their draft simply didn't get it. Didn't appreciate the hard work, the vision, the insight, the genius. O the Philistines we must contend with!

But what if it's right? What if when I look at criticism in the cold light of day sometimes I have to admit: yes. This will make the story better. And my reaction changes from "Why must the world thwart my brilliance / fail to recognize this thing of beauty I've created?" to "Crap. Crap crap crap. Why didn't I see this problem before?"

It's been said before, but I think what separates published from unpublished writers is not talent -- though that helps -- but the willingness to work. We cannot be be so in love with our creation that it makes us resistant to improvement. That's not faithfulness to the story, it's stubborn brittleness.

If the change improves the story, it must be made. Simple as that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Being Dead"

[This is a whip-quick writing exercise triggered by Sunday Scribblings. These are a great way to do some writing without all the pressure of Working On The Novel.]

The first thing is that there's no such thing as "being dead." That's like saying "I'm being born." It's a doorway to ... well, to something else. Not a tall doorway with a brass knob and a breathless sense of excitement. But like those bad dreams where you're crawling on your hands and knees in the dark, and you elbows brush the walls and you realize you're in a cave, and the floor is sandy and hard and your head scrapes the ceiling, and it's getting smaller and smaller, and you stretch out on your belly and grind through the sand, feeling it on your chin as you inch forward on fingertips and toes, the ceiling pressing against you. You exhale to narrow your body and press forward. You can't back up.

Dying's like that. It's not easy, but I suppose neither is birth.

And then you pass through something, and it's different. There's no special powers and it's usually very quiet. Remember that scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus goes down into the darkness and fills a bowl or something with blood, and one by one the ghosts of people he knew come shambling toward him? They smelled the blood.

How did Homer know? That red-rich bowl brimming with the thick salty fluid of life. Oh. Oh, oh, oh. Everything that we left behind, everything that we once were. And we feel its warmth and helplessly drift toward it, knowing we'll never be able to--

But never mind that. We're not evil. Where was I?

The worst part is that most people, living people, don't hear you, even when you scream at them. It's like being underwater. Most people.

Maybe it was the way I screamed, but finally, finally, a little girl sat up in bed and stared at me. She took her thumb out of her mouth for one word.


"You can see me?"

She nodded.

"Why are you still sucking your thumb, how old are you?"

"You're not my mom." And she made a gesture she shouldn't have known.

"Listen," I said. "I need your help. I'm always cold. I can't get warm and I need to get warm."

"Are you a ghost?"

"I think so," I said. "But it's not ... it's not like what you think. I'm not scary." I moved toward her. "I promise," I said.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The End of the Boat

Most boats have two ends, a pointy end and a not-pointy end. This week I'm building the not-pointy end, or transom. The transom is where the rudder attaches, and the boat's name is written, and what people will see when I'm sailing away from them, ha ha!

It's exciting because until now I've been building the frames (sometimes and incorrectly called "ribs") of the boat, which define it's broad-bellied shape in cross-section but which won't really be visible in the completed boat. The transom is different, though. That vaguely oval shape of pale marine plywood, dark with pencil lines and notes ("PORT AFT UP") will actually be in a real boat someday!

It's always a surprise when a stack of lumber transforms from a long woodworking project into an actual boat. And when I prop the unfinished transom up to see how it looks, somehow I can envision the curving shape of the finished boat. It's not easy holding that ghost-shape in my mind when I bend back to the minutiae of cutting and drilling and scraping. But it's good to be reminded of what this is all for.

Can I resist a writing metaphor?

No I certainly cannot. It's like writing a rough draft with the finished story held in your mind. I don't mean the words and chapters and scenes, but the meaning of it all. How I want people to feel while they're reading it. What it's all for, in other words.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Steps in the dark

I get up early to run before work two days a week. In the summer months it's usually just breaking dawn, though the sky is still dark blue enough for bats to flit over meadows. Bats at dawn; who knew?

Getting up early to write is tough, but at least I have the consolation of coffee. Getting up early to run is nearly impossible some days. Especially in the winter, when it's pitch black outside. Full-on, middle-of-the-night darkness. If I'm lucky it's clear enough for starlight; once or twice a year the moon is just right. But for the most part it means waking up in the middle of the night, leaving a warm bed, dressing, and stepping outside for that first shock of cold. Walk down the driveway swinging my arms to warm up, hating every minute of it. Every step. It is so dark and so cold and it is just. pure. misery.

Then I take a few steps and all of the resistance melts away and I'm just running. I'm still sleepy, still cold, still groggy ... but I'm running. Steps in the dark.

Road races are the same way: a few weeks or a few days of anticipation, the trembling adrenaline feeling making my fingertips throb I'm so nervous, shaking my hands, standing in the crowd at the start, nerves jangling into a crescendo. And then the gun goes off and it all melts away and I'm in the race, just running.

See, I realized it's all the stuff before the effort that's most difficult. The effort itself is no picnic, don't get me wrong -- the pounding gasping merciless last miles of a race can be almost transcendentally painful. But all the badness, all the getting-ready, all the self-doubts and uncertainty and wishing I was somewhere else ... just melts away once I begin. Once I commit.

This is where I am with writing. The starting is hard. Don't get me wrong: enduring through the shifty flaccid mealy-feeling mediocrity that plagues all first drafts is not easy. But something clicks into place when I start and I think: Okay. Now you just write.

And so I find myself coming up with reasons not to start the next book. "More research!" I tell myself. "How cold is the Baltic Sea in March? How do guns work? Why don't birds have four wings like dragonflies? Why don't dragonflies have tiny feathers? What if they did? Quick! Off to the Internet!"


I think one of the tricky things about writing fantasy is that the "fantasy" aspects of the story can distract us from the human issues at its core. Certainly I can feel that pull to always add more details, always pursue other ideas, always to do anything but sit down and write the dang first draft already.

Because a first draft is not a road race, with mile markers and a certain protocol and things you can expect at certain points. Heck, a first draft isn't even linear, much to my frustration. It's a great swirling jumble, a mess of false starts and dead ends and meanderings. Laini Taylor has a great metaphor for this: the exploratory draft.

Thinking of it that way -- as an exploration -- is a great way for me to lighten that crushing pressure of having to forge the absolutely right path, the right story, the first time. How could anyone do that?

And so I know that the first draft is an exploration. And I know that all the uncertainty and doubt and need to do just-one-more-bit-of-research will, to some extent, melt away when I begin to write. And I know that writing is work, it's just hard hard work, like building a stone wall or hoeing iron-hard ground or training for a marathon.

I know all this and still I delay. Surely there's some more plotting I can do, right? Or research. Or map-sketching. That it, I have to figure out ocean currents!

But then comes the whispering, as it always does. The flicker of an image or a snatch of music, a twinging emotion and I know: there is a boy fleeing over the mountains. I can see him. I will tell his story. And it will be hard.

But not as hard as starting in the first place.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Big and Small II

I've been thinking more about big and small, not in theme or story but actual physical details. This is one of the magical parts of writing (and reading): the way we can squeeze very, very close in and then, almost in the blink of an eye, rush out, way way out.

Things that are big:
  • "The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls." The sea, the heaving grey sea, so broad and deep that at first it doesn't even seem to move.
  • Thunderclouds that rise like blue castles to blot out the sun.
  • A hurricane viewed from space, that delicate furious spiral.
Things that are small:
  • A drop of salty water flung from an ocean wave onto your lip.
  • Hairs on the leg of a spider.
  • Flat facets and mineral cleavages on a single grain of sand.
  • Salt spilled on a slate floor.
  • An individual wood pore.
We don't just read stories, they take us places, help us change size, direct our gaze. I love that this means the scale of the story -- epic, personal, and everything in between -- as well as what we're experiencing -- a speck of dirt, the thunder of war, a bloodred aphid, the trade winds.

P.S. Extra credit for anyone who -- without Google -- can identify the source (author, work) of the quote in the first bullet point. Extra EXTRA credit for anyone who can recite the work from memory. Don't worry, it's very short. And very cool. Comment ... away!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sieve Mind

Blast and crap and cripes and criminy. This is not the first time I've pounced on a nugget of wisdom and then forgotten where I found it. Curse my sieve-like mind! This is why I write things down. In this case the nugget is this: Plan cold, write hot.

That is, be merciless, even surgical in researching and whatever level of planning is appropriate before writing. (I need a skeletal outline to keep me on track; even then I tend to meander. But the key is that it's just the highlights. 6-10 words would describe the whole book.)

The writing is magic: write hot. If only it were as simple and poetic as releasing the fire of the story onto the page! Ha ha, what a concept. Since that happens very rarely, I think what "write hot" really means is: glance at the outline every once in a while, but plunge into the story and write the first draft with fervor and energy and heat.

Plan cold, write hot. Who said that? It's brilliant.

It's similar to something I think Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird: You have to hypnotize yourself in order to do the writing and truly, truly sink into the story. And then you have to un-hypnotize yourself to get back to that cold merciless place to revise it.

Plan cold. Write hot. Revise cold.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Right now

Right now in Scotland, far in the north where the light lies long and cool and no trees grow, there is an empty beach. Maybe gulls cry in the distance, maybe the brown moor is dotted with sheep droppings. The seawater is so clear that it's turquoise but Arctic-cold. The wind hauls in from the west and there is no land on the horizon.

On that beach, maybe, a waterfall drops from a cliff, spilling peaty water onto the sand. Maybe the waterfall has scoured a deep pool on the beach. Maybe at the back of that pool there is a dark fissure in the rock, little more than a cleft but reeking of seaweed and wet sand and the cold dank exhalation of underground.

And maybe in that cave is ... what? Who? An old man made of feathers? A gleaming cup? A floor spongy with dead fish? The smell of heather and sunlight? A doll made of bones?

Somewhere else there is no land to be seen, nor water, nothing but towering snowy clouds and the blue muscular edges of a thunderstorm. The air smells of rain and electricity, and whistles past your ears as you flutter like a dry leaf through darkness and light.

Or maybe it's a thin, thin, gleaming trickle of water across a verdant stretch of cropped grass, a bright meadow on a sunny day with a gurgling creek. Songbirds fill the trees and you shade your eyes with your hand to see ... what? Smoke behind the mountains? Something in the creek? Dark birds?

A whale dives and bends his dripping tail to follow the sinking curve of his body; a wooden ship drives up on shore with a rattling scrape; a tree bends in an autumn gale, pale with leaves in the rain.

I have no lesson; no Words of Wisdom® to impart about writing. Just scenes that flicker through my head and which I alternately -- depending on mood -- call inspirations or distractions. We do, after all, find various creative reasons not to write!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Conditions improve on the Chesapeake

From this morning's NOAA forecast:


I do TOO have a day job!

Few phrases make my heart jump more than "Small craft warning." Or "advisory," in this case. They save the "warning" for even stronger conditions.

I have on my desk at work a stainless steel bolt with a pronounced arc to it. This 1/4-inch thick piece was stressed and bent solely from the pressure of the wind on the sail of my small boat. Partly that means that even a small boat in a fresh breeze can generate surprisingly high stresses.

But it also reminds me of the real world outside the office, where wind bends steel and bats flutter and herons stalk the shallows. Is it any wonder my characters often end up in boats? That's me bleeding through into the story.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Big and Small

Once upon a time there was a furry blue monster with oddly thin arms named Grover. In one memorable scene, Grover leans close in to the camera, nearly filling the frame.

"Near," he says, and then huffs and puffs back, back, back until he's just a far blue dot.

"And ... far!"

That's the image that occurs to me as I work through the ideas of big and small. Big concepts and small examples. Big stories and little characters. I mean the elastic springiness that any good story must have to deal with large, universal themes on the one hand, and the characters through which those themes are explored, on the other.

It's easy -- well, as "easy" as writing can ever be -- to write a sweeping epic, full of noise and battle and ... shallow characters. Conversely you could also write a very tight, focused story dealing with nothing but character development. Both are good, and everything in between.

(As an aside, this is one of the many things I love about books: nothing is off-limits. Everything is possible, from cell phone novels to novels in verse to nine-word stories. Everything.)

What I want to do is take some of those universal human themes -- courage, guilt, betrayal, defiance -- and bring them to the reader through the characters, to the extent that it's possible. When I can show a twelve-year old character grappling with guilt, or making the right but hard decision, or struggling to understand a world -- and a story -- beyond his understanding and which doesn't patronize him, when I can do all this I'll be pleased.

I've been thinking some more about D. M. Cornish's Foundling and this is one of the things I loved about it. The main character, Rossamund Bookchild (how can any writer not love that name? we are all children of the book) finds himself in a rich, vibrant, and very dangerous world that does not make things easy for him. Neither the antagonists nor Cornish himself patronize Rossamund ... which means as readers we also are not patronized. Plus the illustrations are incredible!

It's difficult to explore these larger themes yet still make the characters and the story approachable. As a reader I want to see this, as a writer I want to build it. In close where the characters think; then swoop far, far out to issues that resonate beyond the characters and even the book itself.

Otherwise we'd just watch trash TV.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

S Winds 10 to 15 Kt. Waves 2 Ft.

That's from the NOAA coastal marine forecast for the lower Chesapeake Bay. 10-15 knots is a handful of wind, enough to feel and hear on your ears. It's about what you'd feel while riding a bike; enough to swirl leaves along the road; enough to press behind a small boat with sails outstretched like the broad wings of a gull, water foaming alongside all the way north.

"There come thoughts now..." This imaginary voyage isn't that of fog and icebergs and the "whale's path" I mentioned earlier. No, it's a Chesapeake Bay trip in a smaller, one nimble enough to shove off a sandbar when you run aground, but large enough to carry a stove and some supplies and a sleeping bag.

Luckily, I'm building that very boat! (Pictures here; scroll down.) It's a daily ritual of cutting plywood, calculating numbers, the acrid stickiness of epoxy, the scrape of a plane. But someday it will be a boat and I will pray for days like this with good strong winds out of the south.

The idea, you see, is to circumnavigate the Eastern Shore of the Bay, encompassing portions of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Why not? There is no better way to see that low watery landscape than from a small boat, and wind is free and inherently better than puttering along with an outboard. There are miles and miles of marshy inlets to explore, blue crabs and herons and the sweet smell of mud, and miles and miles of open Bay to sail across.

Starting at charts is what sailors do in the off-season. Or when their boat is still just a pile of parts in the garage that hasn't been assembled yet.

Though I have to admit: as idyllic as S winds 10-15 sound, this sets me afire:
Now that is a handful of wind. And it gets much stronger than that.