Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Two nights ago I fell asleep while doing revisions: sitting on the couch, scrolling, checking consistency, chapter titles, scrolling, scrolling ... drool ... hummingbird ... leather ... sandy feet ... and suddenly I woke up.

Then I read about Stephanie Perkins' don't-take-prisoners-unless-you-can-use-them-to-brew-you-more-coffee revision plan on her blog: Come home from work, nap and then revisions until 3-4AM! (Thanks to Laini Taylor for the link.) Holy cow. That is dedication. That is belief. That is the sheer madness that I'm beginning to think must be necessary to succeed.

Story uber alles. Necessity knows no law, etc.

What do you want for dinner?
What time is it?
Do you want to change that shirt?
Here, at least clean your face.
Do you even know where you are?

E.B. White told us to omit needless words. Stephanie Perkins reminds us to omit needless activities. What counts as "needless" will vary! TV? Sure. Sleep? Depends. Food? Probably not.

I'm no longer writing just so I can "be an author." And I'm no longer writing because it's fun (though it is, desperately fun sometimes). I'm writing because I believe in the story and the characters. They own me; I owe them. How I let them remain incomplete?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

I've just finished reading Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, four novellas bound into a single book. This was an edition printed in the 80s and then left, forgotten, in various boxes and shelves. Come on, it had a boring cover and the paper was the wrong weight so it was hard to open. Plus I was too busy reading Robert Aspirin and not talking to girls.

Anyway, I'd seen some references to the haunting quality of Garner's work and tried The Owl Service and then this. The Owl Service is about two kids in Wales -- my memory is spotty here, this was several months ago -- who stumble into a very old story and find themselves playing roles that others had played, generations before. A very old story. And I have to say the book was downright creepy.

The Stone Book Quartet is not easy to read, filled as it is with regional English dialects, references to offstage action and events, and to some extent, a lack of the comforting explanatory narrative I think we've gotten used to in books like the Harry Potter series. Alan Garner doesn't explain, he describes. He observes.

What makes these four interlinked novellas so haunting and compelling is that each of them is concerned with the past and old stories, all relevant and affecting the narrators. And each story has characters and references -- a stone wall, a steeple, a way of shouting -- that echo the other stories, so while reading you feel like you're in the middle of a pond with ripples spreading out and in, all around you. It's dizzying.

It reminds me of when I was little and used to be able to put myself into a semi-trance state by staring at my thumb and saying, "Thumb. Thumb. Thumb." Over and over until my thumb seemed strange to me, and my own existence seemed strange, and the fact that I was sitting on a chair in my grandparents' house, in a country in Earth in the twentieth century, it all felt like a hugely random accident, as if there was so much more in the world than my tiny perceptions. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

It's the same feeling I get when I force myself to remember that, for example, people have been living in this part of the world for hundreds of years. Thousands of years. Right here. Playing and fighting and thinking and wondering, just like I am. And it's not some chapter from a history book or a museum exhibit: I could go outside right now and see the same kind of sky they saw, the same kind of tree.

(One Small Blue Bead has this same dizzying quality.)

AT ANY RATE. The link between my auto-fugue state and Alan Garner is this awareness of the heaviness of the world, all of the things in it besides me, the narrator of my own story. Somehow Garner pulled it off in a "children's book." Check it out.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner
One Small Blue Bead, by Byrd Baylor

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Here Be Monsters

On the outside of my house, to be specific. This afternoon I watched a praying mantis devour a cicada. This was interesting because the mantis was the size of my finger and the cicada was the size of my thumb.

I bravely crouched down and took pictures, but it turns out they are too horrifying to post, so instead I'll try to describe the situation. Remember, nature can be cruel. And warning: this is horrible.

The mantis grasped the cicada in its front legs. One of the sharp legs had gone through the cicada's wing and pierced its back through; the other had clamped across its face. I bent closer and said, "Oh-". The back of the cicada was gone and it was opened up like a bowl as the mantis chewed, scissoring its heart-shaped head back and forth.

The cicada's gossamer wing was fluttering and humming, and its legs twitched and wiggled as if it was trying to escape the great hook-legged horror that was wetly eating out the back of its head with neither haste nor mercy.

I leaned closer. There was a tiny cracking like matchsticks snapping as the mantis leaned and bit, leaned and bit. Chewed. Leaned and bit. Chewed. The cicada's legs crawled, brushing its hollowed head. Tiny cracklings.

BANG! My wife, inside, rapped on the window above me and for a moment the world was ending because I was the cicada and I was the mantis.

Be glad I have not posted the pictures!

How can I sum all this up in some witty yet meaningful writing advice? I don't know. I've been revising all weekend -- it's getting there! I don't hate it! Much! -- and I have nothing left except the capacity to be horrified and drawn in by a trauma, a drama, a small world I'd never expected and which entranced me. There: isn't that what a good story does?

Ugh. I can still hear the chewing.

p.s. The worst part was that six inches away was the brown husk of the shell the cicada had just emerged from. Not the best timing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tinker, tailor

It's not pentameter, but is it iambic?

Tinker, tailor
Soldier, sailor
Rich man, poor man
Beggarman, thief.

I-am, I-am, I-am. Iambic? Someone with an English degree please verify!

As I plow through revisions I waver between large-scale (storyline, revelations to readers and character, plot arc) and micro-scale (imagery, dialogue). The rhythm of writing falls in the latter category.

I try to write musical sentences -- I've actually found myself whispering the words out loud as I write them (I do NOT move my lips while reading). But I have to be careful not to fall into a sing-songy bounciness.

Tinker, tailor, solider, sailor. Both the rhythm and the rhyme make this sentence rest comfortably in my mind. It's the same beat as "ice cream, ice cream, ice cream FREEZE!" -- a clapping rhyme that, somewhat embarrassingly, is lodged in there as well.

Not all sentences have to bounce or rhyme. Depending on the scene, the mood, the point of view through which we're experiencing that moment, a sentence can be languid and ornate (Austen?); short and clipped like a tough-guy mustache (Hemingway); circuitous and repetitive (my early drafts), etc.

The dog barked.
The dog was barking.
The dogs bayed.
The noise of dogs barking filled the night.
Barking were the dogs.
The dog coughed a wet bark without getting up.
The bark of the dog was harsh and tight, a sandpaper sound of rage.

Okay, I cheated a little on the last one. Hear the rhythm? It's almost like riding a horse. Clackety-clackety-clackety.

It's one more thing to pay attention to. Every tiny piece of the narrative must be deliberate: it must communicate a message beyond whatever the words say. There's a second layer of meaning, that comes from word choice and the shape of the sentence. Readers pick it up, even if we're not aware of laying it down.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Last night I dreamed a story, full of complexity and nuance and innovative ideas about the nature of reality, prophecy, choice, magic, fire and blood, flight, danger, heroism. As I was dreaming it I came to realize I was actually reading it: I had found some book that was so much better than anything I could ever write. This realization was upsetting but the story was so good that I kept reading, pulled into it like wind into a canyon.

Then another realization crept in as I was waking up: it wasn't some book someone else had written. I had dreamed the dream myself. It came from me! And I thought, I'd better write this amazing thing down before I forget it.

I did not write it down. I did forget most of it. Except for the important part that it came from me in the first place. It's in there, somewhere.

And it was shocking how engrossing it was, even though I had created it. How surprising and unknown it seemed.

Jan Chipchase, who studies usage patterns of cellphone technology from cultural perspective (more interesting than it sounds, see his blog) took this photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan recently.
This is not what I usually think of when I imagine people reading something I've written. But I would love to have my books in this shop someday; I would love for someone to be that engrossed. Look at how it's pulled him in. Look at how it's not a Barnes and Noble or a school library or even a kid on a porch in the States.

Is it possible to write stories that are so rich with shared human experience that they transcend politics, war, distance, even culture itself? I have to believe that it is.

(Image copyright 2008 Jan Chipchase. Used by permission from

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sharper. Sharper. Sharper.

The title is an allusion to this post, where I likened editing to honing a tool like a knife: it requires the taking away of material to make it sharper. (And why shouldn't I reference my own blog? It's not as self-indulgent as footnotes* and besides, I'll clean it up when I revise later.)

After I printed out the micro-book so I could see the timing and rhythm of larger thematic elements, I just started editing right on the pages themselves. It's almost easy (To read, that is. Never easy to do.)

Apart from fixing typos and rewriting a sentence here and there, here's a sampling of my comments to myself:

good part.
poss. move
Show Tom looking? Would appear before scene on dig (see previous page)
Now we're two layers removed from action.
Note: in micro-format, these details are an interruption of the main story.
Not redundant so much as unnecessary.
Scene really starts here.
opt cut
We already saw this!
Only new relevant info is that Sam forgets....

They're a mixture of impatient criticism and a hard-eyed look at what works and what doesn't. Occasionally I mark "good" sections, but since I already know what I like, I'm really only interested in what I don't like.

Sometimes it feels like I'm disassembling a castle brick by brick, only to rebuild it. But for that metaphor to work, the original castle would have to have been a hulking mess, not thought out, with passages that led nowhere, arrow slots facing inward, half-completed drawbridges, and a moat that couldn't hold water.

I've got grit under my nails and I heave out another brick, toss it aside and it tumbles away. Work on a replacement, fitting it in with the rest of the structure, even if it only exists as a whole in my mind, scraping the flat stone and square edges until it's just right. And I hold my breath and lift it up and slide it into place.


Sometimes it even fits.

*Not that there's anything wrong with footnotes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Remembering books

I went home last night and learned that at least half of the first lines I quoted from memory below were completely wrong. But not because I couldn't remember and just guessed, I actually had remembered them wrong.

Which makes me wonder: what else have I remembered wrong? Does Odysseus not summon a great army of flaming soldiers to help him defeat Vader after all? Is Tuck not everlasting?

Ha ha. Seriously. The gap between what I meant to write and what actually appeared on the page is familiar to me. But the gap between what I read and what I thought I read ... that's a new one. We can't really control our stories once they go out into the world. Every reader will live that story differently; remember it differently.

I like to think that a book is more than a suggestion, but if we accept the fact that readers co-create the story with the author as part of the act of reading ... well, we have to let go.

Monday, August 11, 2008

First lines

It's a shame ... no, it's regrettable that I'm challenged, to put it mildly, by beginnings, since the opening pages are the threshold of the story. That's the one chance we have to welcome the reader in or to turn him or her away. And as I struggle to revise my own beginning (of my book; not of myself) that I think of how others have done it.

Even down to the level of the first line. Here are a few that come to mind ... meaning that they and their books must be memorable since I've accidentally memorized them. These are from my hazy memory and may not withstand a Google search! What beginnings linger in your memory?

When Augustus came out on the porch, the pigs were there.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

The music room in the Governor's mansion was a shining octagon of polished wood....

"Too many!" said Will.

Roger was being a ship.

The small boys came early to the hanging.

I wear the ring.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Earn this

I have a friend who, when Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, remarked that all Americans should be required to watch it. One of the best portrayals of history and something that he felt should help define the bandied-about notions of patriotism and responsibility.

This week I watched a wrenching documentary about homeless children in Bucharest, called Children Underground. It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

The documentary follows five kids between the ages of 8 and 16, who live in an underground subway platform in Bucharest, and who spend their days huffing paint, fighting, begging, and protecting each other. As alarming as it is to see a grizzled homeless man so drunk he can't even form the words to beg for more liquor, it is more shocking (to me) to see a child in the same state.

I know that the badness of the world can become trite when we try to look at it all at once. I've written about it before, and there are tragedies happening every hour, every day, in every city on earth. Bad things happen but somehow there is a blurring when we try to comprehend the jump between a single child drooling out her life on a piece of urine-stained cardboard, and a thousands of children lost to warfare and sickness in the Sudan. Tens of thousands.

I write for children. I imagine ten-year-olds and their older and younger brothers and sisters drawn into a story in the same way that I was when I was young. But there are children all over the world in shattering conditions doing terrible things, with terrible things being done to them.

Who writes stories for them?

Who writes their stories?

How do we, as writers for children and as human beings, address the fact that through no achievement of our own we were born into this society and not that one? This time and not that one? Because I sure had nothing to do with the unimaginable luck of being born in America in the early 70s. Especially when you consider the alternatives.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, the dying main character looks into Ryan's eyes. They had been sent to rescue him, and did so at at terrible cost in lives. But Ryan survives, and Tom Hanks' character says to him: "Earn this."

How can we compensate or apologize or be absolved or be forgiven for our hapless luck?

I think we have to earn it.

Children Underground is at Amazon, Netflix, and other places. Watch it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Write write write
Coffee coffee coffee
Write write write
Research! Serendipity! Google!
Coffee coffee coffee
Write write write
Joy. Despair. Joy.
Revise revise revise
Ideas for next book. Must resist.
Coffee coffee coffee

Monday, August 4, 2008

Q. Why is writing so hard?

A. Because I've forgotten English how speak to.
A. Stories in brain but not come out. Stories laugh. Writer gnash teeth and think caveman thoughts.
A. Writer too sleepy.
A. Writer too caffeinated.
A. Writer decides to check online weather, cuticles, laundry, cats, actual outside weather, e-mail, bookmark location, reading material, shipping status of ordered books, pen colors, ink saturation of various papers, chair / desk alignment, screen angle, font size, notecards, idea journal, thesaurus, revision notes, amount of water left in glass, ceiling fan setting, lint on carpet, lint on chair, lint on leg, location of missing lint brush, healing progress of stubbed toe.

But I've learned a trick. Certainly I'm not the first. You can't make it good until you revise. You can't revise until you write. When you write it doesn't have to be good.

Ha ha! Take that, blank screen! I can write anything I want and it doesn't matter because I can fix it. I can revise it. Trying to make it good the first time is like painting a room before the house is built. Good luck.

So yeah: I got up at 5 since I couldn't sleep, and made my coffee and put on my Writing Glasses and re-read my notes and bled out a few hundred turgid words. Not anything near what I needed them to be. Or what I imagined they would be. Or what I know they could be.

Was it a waste? It seemed to be at the time. But now I can go back and fix it.

If a book is a sculpture, then writing the first draft is like heaving the ugly piece of marble out of the ground with a long pointed piece of steel. The rock sits there, scabbed with mud and pickaxe marks and you think: that is not really what I had in mind. Disaster! But no. Then the real work begins and you turn it into some approximation of the sculpture that floats in your mind. Ahh, revision.

When I'm building my boat, I cut out lots of pieces of wood. I start with a rough cut, then I take a second pass, then maybe finish with hand tools to get it just right. Then the piece is assembled in the boat and attached with bronze screws and epoxy, then it's sanded and sanded and sanded and painted. The finished piece is a far cry from the rough thing I hack out of lumber.

Somehow I thought writing would be different. It's sad how often I forget and re-learn that.