Monday, September 29, 2008

Once upon a time

I've been thinking a lot about the role of storytelling in a community, and (quite easily) convinced myself to go spelunking around the university library stacks. There is a whole field, or several fields, of study on this, ranging from folklore to English theory to anthropology and all sorts of academic self-congratulatory pap. But mixed in is some good stuff.

I stumbled across John D. Niles's Homo Narrans, flipped through a few pages, and checked it out. This is a fascinating exploration of the role of storytelling disguised as an academic piece on Beowulf and oral narrative.

Seriously, this is good stuff, and has helped focus some of my own thoughts. For example:

I believe that a group of people needs stories like they need air and love and nourishment. That stories help place us in our own history; help define what is right and wrong; explain why good things and bad things happen. They pull us together; they are a link to the past as well as the unimagined but optimistic future.

Stories are the way we breathe with the world outside our own immediate experience, and I think when people stop telling stories their society becomes stale and dried up and brittle. Stories breathe as they are told and read and remembered and re-told. They change. They're alive.

Somewhere I read that prisoners in a concentration camp in WWII would recite, from memory, entire passages of Shakespeare or the Odyssey, scratching the old words on bricks or wood. Something about that gave them strength, I like to think: the idea that a character and his or her misfortunes and fortunes, choices, villains, adventures ... somehow endure beyond the life of the storyteller, even beyond the life of the society that produced the story.

So why tell stories? I can't help it, though often they are thought to be "lies" (Recently I tried to convince my wife that a "goat" is just what we call a recently shorn sheep. Same animal.) But it's not just elements of stories I'm talking about. Not just a magic bean, or a three-legged ox or a green-faced monster that lives at the bottom of a fog-shrouded pool.

It's the story. The what-happens-next? The listeners or readers or watchers of this spun reality who are somehow drawn into it until they feel the chill of the characters in winter, they feel the hot anger or betrayal or fear. The thing that happens when a story is "experienced," for lack of a better word ... well, this, as Gordon Gecko would say, is good. It works.

Storytelling is what makes us who we are, from fur-clad proto-humans huddled around a fire to sailors passing the graveyard watch, a circle of kids listening to Where the Red Fern Grows.

Light the fire and dim the lights. Close the door against the dark and the rain. Step closer, children. I'm going tell a story.

Once upon a time...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Weak is the flesh

Brain say run, body say no way.
Brain say stay awake, body say sleepy time.
Brain say stop coughing, body say TICKLE TICKLE TICKLE.
Brain say why head hurt? Body say you sick, bro.

So I drink lots of water (sorry kidneys!) and tea (Lo, I am become Peppermint Man, enabler of cat hysteria, as the used teabags drive him bonkers) and bundle up and do nothing. None of my normal activities, such as boatbuilding or woodchopping or elephant taming or pit-digging.

Then I realized what I could do was write. Disaster! Suddenly I found myself without excuses ... except this realization:

Writing a book is like building a sandcastle. One grain of sand at a time. You have a pair of tweezers and a tube of sunblock. And the tide's coming in. Off you go!

Whereas reading it is like walking through the completed sandcastle (you have to be a fiddler crab for my metaphor to work), admiring the balustrades and arches and corpuscles and whatnot.

So I wrote. And thought. And scribbled notes. And wrote. Weak is the flesh but the story knows no mercy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pace and story

Back from a week at the beach, where I consumed mass quantities of food and books and salty ocean wind, twenty-five or thirty knots from north-north-east.

And as I struggle with the beginning of my next book I had an interesting idea. I've admitted before -- though this will come as no shock to anyone who's read one of my drafts -- that I have trouble with beginnings. It's hard to present characters, their relationships, their setting, etc. without putting readers to sleep or confusing them. My tendency is to go slow ... too slow. Thus when I trimmed 9000 words from my last draft, most of it came out of the tendentious first half.

But! Think about how many stories open with action. Then there's a pause for backstory, characterization, etc. Then back to action, but this time readers are armed with deeper knowledge of what's going on and so the action -- the sweeping movement of the story as it rolls to the climax -- can be that much more nuanced, deep, and resonant. Which is the goal.

Huh, I thought, pulling up to a light and frowning in a swashbuckling manner (Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack; iPod), could this really be right? Because it seemed like a trick or a cheat to catch readers' attention with that opening action scene -- necessarily less deep than the rest of the book -- and then, once you have them, taking a breath to introduce them to the rest of the story. It seemed ... like cheating, somehow. Like a real author shouldn't have to resort to sleight-of-hand. Or appetizers.

Okay, I thought, trying a slightly different rakish sneer in the rearview mirror, let's test this.

Raiders of the Lost Ark starts with an independent action scene that has very little to do with the rest of the story, before slowing down into the story-building of Indy at college, meeting dubious Army guys who didn't go to Sunday School, etc.

Star Wars opens with Vader's ship overtaking and capturing the smaller Rebel ship. We have no idea what's going on, and the pace then slows once the Tatooine story opens.

Master and Commander: the curtain rises and we are in a concert hall watching two people in the crowd interact. It's not visual action, but it's very strong emotional action, and we don't know what's going on or who these people are (Aubrey and Maturin) until the scene ends and O'Brien treats us to a slower series of scenes sketching out each of them.

Lord of the Rings: A bit of a cheat since many readers had already gone through The Hobbit. Except remember that LOR is deeper and more complex. Tolkien had an introduction and we
still open with the bustle of a birthday party, planning, guest lists, etc. In fact, there are a couple of chapters of action -- Bilbo leaves, Gandalf vanishes to investigate things, and years (if I recall) go by before Gandalf returns and things pick up again.

Blackbringer: Noted here because I just re-read it and it's fresh in my mind. It opens with immediate action: Magpie and her crow compadres swing down from the sky to a deserted fishing boat. Mystery and the echoes of dark violence follow. But then things slow as we travel with the character back home ... at which point mystery trickles back in again.

Hey, wait a second. Pirates of the Caribbean: A little girl is on board a ship that comes across the flaming wreckage of a pirate attack ... and a half-drowned boy! The pace slows -- briefly -- as we see scenes of life in Tortuga or wherever they were. Then things pick up again.

Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling. We first meet Rossamund literally in the middle of a fight. The names of weapons and moves, even of characters pass by in the blur of hand-to-hand combat. Never mind that it's a sparring session in school: the immediacy of the action hooks us and convinces us that it'll be okay to take a breath in the following section, where we more slowly learn the beginnings of the story.

What else? I 'll check the Odyssey and the Iliad when I get home. And for some reason -- post vacation mind-blank, most likely -- I can't remember any other books or movies. Any other instances of this?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Away Ere Break of Day

I know it seems like all I ever do is go on vacation, but to me it seems like all I ever do is not go on vacation. Either way, we are packed and hope to be away before 7AM for a week at the beach.

I've given up packing books in with other things and have just piled them all into a cardboard box. Books on writing, some good fiction, some nonfiction for research. Notebooks for story ideas, the laptop with story notes. All sorts of good stuff. Oh, and food and clothes and things too. Not to mention the French Press, since I'm dubious about rental house coffeemakers to produce appropriately thick coffee.

I'm also dubious about Internet access from vacation, so this may be my last posting for a week. Fear not! I will return revived and energized and sandy.

I'd been hoping to get up and leave before 6; there's something magical about starting a trip before dawn. That suggestion did not get a good reaction from my wife, thus the 7AM compromise.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This is not more like it

News flash: I did not get blown away while running in the hurricane last weekend. And by "hurricane," I mean sprinkling rain, and by "running," I mean sitting on the couch squeezing cookie dough into my mouth. Kidding! I waited until after the run for that. Kidding! It was during the run.

Okay, enough. I'm in New York for business this week and OMG it is soooo awesome, the hotel room like has its own sweet mini-bar, and even tho there's nothing in it it could totally hold like six Zimas and whatnot. My cousin's friend works with this guy whose ex-girlfriend that he's still like with, but not with-with, is gonna get us into this club and...

Okay, enough. I've been in meetings all day WEARING A TIE and apparently there's some sort of side effect of saying things like "proactive" and "identity is a dialogue" and "shutuppa you face." Kidding!

I tend to become grouchy and cynical in New York; I find the setting claustrophobic and the people proudly cruel. But that can't be right! Some of the most interesting ideas in the world come from this city. Some of the best books, food, etc. So I try to remain open to the bustling mad wonder of it all. Most of the time I succeed but nine hours of wearing a tie tends to strip off my civilized veneer.

Worst of all the schedule leaves no room for writing, so I scribble notes to myself all day, like "avalanche of bones" and "cod cheeks" and "soot on snow; blood?" Trust me, these will (mostly) work their way into a draft someday.

So forgive the spotty posting for now; I'm paying bills.

Friday, September 5, 2008

This is more like it

Here comes Hanna. The forecast of gusty wind and rain bodes for an interesting Saturday morning run. But then I get to say I ran in a hurricane. I know it won't be a hurricane anymore but everyone knows I tell lies anyway. Wait until I describe the possums and crow's wings and oil drums tumbling past me.

But this is why I labor in the garage with iron-hard locust lumber. Because it's thick and dense and will not rot, and if I put in the hours and sweat to make that wood part of my boat, the boat will, maybe, better withstand weather like this.

And this is more like it. 35 gusting to 40! Apart from the high likelihood of catastrophic structural failure on my poor old boat (not the one under construction), that is the sort of weather I should be sailing in. Or very much the sort I should not be sailing in, if you listen to my mother.

626 AM EDT FRI SEP 5 2008




This is why thoughtfulness and care in building -- writing too, for that matter -- is so critical: the world is dangerous. Bad things happen. Has anyone ever been lulled into a real sense of complacency? No! It's always a false sense of complacency.

Let's build our boats strong for they may be in danger someday. Our stories may be read in a world very different from the one we live in. Imagine the books published on December 6, 1941. Or September 10, 2001.

Write strong!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stop thinking

When I'm writing, am I thinking about writing? No -- at least, not when it's going well. Ideally I'm in the story, experiencing it just before it appears on the page.

It's not until revisions that I'm thinking about the story. In fact, the magical and not-to-be-understood moment of story creation requires, for me, a sort of relaxed effort, the hanging pause in a cathedral just after the organ's last thunderous chord, a very very quiet space where I can hear the high thin singing of the story.

It is very quiet but it is there, way up there, way up there, up the narrow dank spiral staircases and out above the clerestory to where dust motes drift like milkweed and swallows wheel. Up there is where the story lives.

And then I climb back down to revise, bringing -- I hope -- that quiet singing down to earth where I can look at it and try to refine it, shape it, see it in the harsh light of judgement. Not-thinking and thinking.

Now, then, a question. With "more" people buying books online, is it less important where a book is shelved in the store? Believe me, I am heartily in favor of actual stores with actual people and actual chairs and even actual books, but it would be unwise to ignore the growth of online bookstores like Amazon.

Junk mail is junk mail. Ads are ads. Listen to me on this: I work in marketing for my day job, and I know of what I speak: most marketing budgets are wasted on things that look flashy -- ads are a great example -- and are great to point to as "marketing" but which fail to actually get people to buy the product.

So why do people buy the book? see the movie? attend the college?

Word of mouth. We hear about stuff from other people, people we trust, people we don't know, it almost doesn't matter as long as it's not the manufacturer itself. If I'm a high school senior, which is more convincing: a slick ad from a college, or somebody not affiliated with the college marketing office who just talks about what it's like being a student there?

We are a skeptical society. Rightly so, given the tripe masquerading as objective news and information [rant narrowly averted here]. What this means is that we don't trust salesmen as much as we trust "users." This means other people who have read the book.

A word of mouth "campaign" is hard to track and nearly impossible to assign a budget to, so the corporate world tends to get twitchy when it's mentioned. But if you can get people talking about a book, reviewing it, discussing it on blogs ... that is huge.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the economics of book promotion, and certainly there are other important factors, such as bookstore reps, catalog sales, etc. All I'm saying is that the thing we -- ironically -- talk very little about is how important it is to talk about books. Better yet, to get other people talking about our books.

The Internet has revolutionized this, with blog tours, guest interviews, reviews, comments, links to other sites, on and on and on -- and all of it completely independent of the traditional publishing house marketing campaign. Let that continue, as it should: it is not without purpose. But let's also warm the smoldering energy of a conversation about good books. Because that's how you reach skeptical readers and buyers.

p.s. I am trying and failing not to be turned off by the word "marketing." Maybe it's because so much of my day job involves it, but more likely I'm not comfortable with the business and promotional aspect of book-making. Better get over that, huh?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wind Freshens

Well, after five days away from the blog and home, I'm back. The best part is that I accidentally didn't think much about my manuscript at all during those five days! I don't think that's happened since I started writing it!

I did many great things on my vacation, not the least of which involved sailing a screaming reach twelve miles down the Chester River as dusk fell and the wind rose. I had no idea my little boat could go that fast, and I'm now reconsidering plans to give it away to make room for the new boat. Can't I keep them both in the garage? Where would the plywood go? Where would my tools go? Where would I go? Etc.

I'm serious, this was like doing a wheelie on a bike. Downhill.

At any rate, this accidental holiday from the book means that I've started to forget all the little dips and bumps and can think more broadly about the overall shape of the story. It's not there yet, but it's close. So I've found, to my delight, that the freshening wind provided an unforgettable couple hours of sailing and the distance I've so badly needed to look at the book critically.

And now, even as I wonder if I can take a few more days away from it, I remember the sound of the boat running up onto the sand in the twilight rain, how warm the water was, the shaky-leg feeling when we walked up the hill to the yacht club bar. Part of me is still there.