I Found A Pulse

I spent the last week working on revising just the first 25 pages of my novel. I’ve been focusing on the “heart” of the story and I’m happy to report that I think I’ve found a pulse.

Let me give you an example.

I have a scene where a young version of my character is being picked on by her uncles. In my draft as it read last week, she was all cool and calm about it. After some delicate tweaking, she is vulnerable and scared. Now when I read the scene I get tense. Even though I of course know she pulls through just fine, I actually feel what my character is feeling. That must be a good sign.

Another thing I’m trying to do is give my character room to grow. I’m used to short stories, where my characters don’t have that much time (in terms of pages at least) to change. Realizing that I have hundreds of pages to let Talulah mature, has allowed me to go back and hone who she is at the beginning of the story – and, like in the scene I mentioned above, she starts out more timid. She may very well become a sassy bitch by the end (I don’t know yet), but she definitely doesn’t start that way.

So this approach of taking one 25 page chunk at a time and looking (scene by scene) for the heart seems to be working for me. I’m hoping to turn in fifty revised pages to my advisor next week. Hopefully she will feel the difference in the story. We shall see.

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The Heart

I had my first thesis meeting of the semester today.

My advisor, having read the first 80 pages of my rewrite, was scratching her head, trying to figure out why my story doesn’t seem to have a heart. She seemed genuinely stumped.

The structure is good, she said, as is the writing, and yet something is missing. Once I got over the shock of hearing that my story (the story I pour my blood and guts over every day) has no heart, we got busy brainstorming about why that might be.

Again, it seems to come down to my main character. Talulah has no flaws, and she doesn’t have any strong reactions. Life just kind of happens to her. That’s not to say that the things that happen aren’t interesting. I feel I’m being plenty hard on her, it’s just that I’m not getting much reaction out of her, and therefore, I’m not getting her onto the page effectively. As my advisor said: “if this were a screenplay, it would be perfect. The actor would fill that in.”

But it’s not a screenplay.

So the second thing I’m dealing with is fighting off discouragement. The pep talk in my head goes something like this: I am in the process of revising. This is a draft. I never had any illusions about this being my final pass. This is the process of writing a novel. Take comfort in the fact that so much is going right.

Then I just think it’s time for a glass of wine and at least one episode of “Lost.”

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The San Francisco Writers Conference

If I learned one thing this week at the SFWC, it’s that there are a million things a writer can do besides write.

In two and a half days I sat in on eleven seminars and three key note speeches, and every one at least touched on how to utilize Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, LinkedIn, internet radio, you name it. It’s very exciting, and very distracting.

Ultimately the thing that matters the most (and this came up many times over the weekend as well), is that your writing be good. No, not good – excellent. You can tweet your heart out, and gather thousands of followers, but if your novel sucks, all the networking in the world simply won’t matter.

This brings up a swell of anxiety in me that only the Maverick surfers would dare ride, because I did very little writing this weekend. True, I wrote a few posts for my other blog (if you haven’t seen it yet check out www.monthwithoutmonsanto.com), but after going three days without touching my fiction work, I’m surprised how distant it feels. I guess it was a busy three days, but still, I’m having trouble even remembering where I left off.

So I need to exercise a little time management today. I can blog, and tweet and book my face off, but I also need time to turn off all those distractions and sit quietly with Talulah Jones, because really, it’s all about her.

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Forty Years

I’m thinking about making a (semi) major story adjustment. I’m considering moving the whole tale about forty years into the past.

Here’s my thinking: All stories basically come down to some really simple idea (as George Lucas said of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “it’s a father son story”). The thing that makes them interesting is the setting (for instance Italy during the second world war).

Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the late sixties/early seventies in California. I’m particularly drawn to how the role of women in society was changing; the birth control pill was introduced and Row v. Wade was passed, woman began stepping into more powerful roles in business while still juggling children, the divorce rate in the US doubled between 1965 and 1976,

So in telling my ultimately simple story (girl trying to save family farm), it seems to me it might be more interesting if I set it in this tumultuous time period. A young woman running a farm by herself is a little more interesting in 1969 than in 2010.

There’s also the appeal of the party scene in 1969. From what I understand, kids today ain’t got nothing on the sex, drugs, and rock & roll craziness of the hippies. That could be fun to explore as well.

The one downside to this time jump is the increased amount of research I will need to do. If you have any thoughts, especially if you happen to have been a young woman in 1969 in California, drop me a line. I’d love to hear them.

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Why Ostriches?

When I tell people that my novel is set on an ostrich farm in the southern California desert, the question inevitably comes up: “why ostriches?” but watch these two videos: RACING and FARMING and you’ll have to agree, ostriches are both powerful and dumb, which makes them hilarious as far as I’m concerned. There’s something about those big eyes, connected to those tiny brains that appeals to me. Did you know their knee joints bend backwards? Or that they mate three times a day? Or that they can run up to 50mph? The more I learn about ostriches, the more fascinating I find them, but that was not the reason I originally set my story on an ostrich farm.

The real reason was that I wanted to tell a story that was (very) loosely based on my mother’s experiences growing up on a dairy farm near Sacramento, but I love the desert and wanted to set my novel somewhere in or around the Mojave. While googling, trying to find a dairy farm in the vicinity of Kramer Junction so as to justify plopping a fictional dairy farm in the there, I came across the OK Coral Ostrich Farm website. It occurred to me that an ostrich farm is like a dairy farm, except a little odd, and somehow magical.

Before committing to the idea I contacted the proprietor of the OK Corral, a man named Doug Osborne (that’s him in the Dirty Jobs clip), and arranged to take a tour of his farm. Half a day walking around his forty acres convinced me.

Since embracing this aspect of my story, it has lost all resemblance to my mother’s childhood, but I was expecting as much to happen. It is becoming a story all my own, with the Mojave desert and a flock of three-hundred pounds birds as a backdrop.

I’ve been working on this story for over a year now, and I just get more and more excited about it as I go. On Wednesday I am heading back out to the OK Corral to grill Doug on some of the finer details of ostrich husbandry, and I’m very much looking forward to the visit. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

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The Winner Is

Thank you all so much for your input. Many good arguments were made, as were many interesting suggestions for that matter, and I’ve made my decision. My main character’s name will be Talulah Jones. Thank you Summer for the suggestion. I think MMC’s comment about the misspelling being distracting is less of a factor, given that it’s an unusual name, and I really like Anne’s point about choosing something a little ghetto. Still, keeping it on the simple side of ghetto feels right (as opposed to Tallooolahg – with a silent g). Thanks again to all who gave feedback, online and off.

In other news, you may have noticed a new feature on the page this morning. At the top right up there is a little drop down box where my readers can rate my blog. If you have a second, let me (and the surfers at blogcatalog.com) know what you think of The Unfolding Tale. You can also click here to go directly to the blogcatalog website and leave comments along with your rating.

This leads me to the larger theme of this week which is time management. I’m feeling a little frantic, because I’m not working on anything but the novel. Before I started this project I had a few short stories in the works, a screenplay I wanted to do revisions on, and more blog work I wanted to do, but now, when I sit down at the computer, if I’m not working on Taulah Jones I feel like I’m not moving toward my goal of finishing it in time to graduate. I’m feeling stressed.

This week I’m going to try to give myself some time to play around with some other ideas, maybe polish up a short story I’ve been working on so I can start sending it out. There just never seems to be enough time in the day. I feel like I could write for ten hours straight if life didn’t intervene, but then again, that’s easy enough to say. If I actually had ten hours, I’d probably develop a sudden need to paint my toenails, weed the garden and clean the closet.

Thanks again to everyone for the feedback, I’m going to get to work now. Catch ya next week.

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Tal(l)ula(h) Jones

Okay faithful readers, I need your help. A very important question has been plaguing my brain.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, my main character’s name is Talula. Talula Jones. She is the daughter of a teenage runaway named Sharon Jones. Sharon wanted to be an actress, and ended up waiting tables in Hollywood.

At sixteen she found herself pregnant. I’ve always imagined her walking down Hollywood Boulevard, on her way home from work day after day, strolling over the star for Tallula Bankhead (a little known starlet from the early 1900’s – she started in silent films and moved up into talkies, though she was known more for her steamy love affairs and drug addictions – not that Sharon knew any of that). Sharon just liked the sound of the name. She thought it glamorous and unique. She rolled it around in her mouth. It tasted good.

When it came time to squeeze that little love child out, Sharon remembered the name, but not being the brightest bulb in the maternity ward, she just spelled it phonetically, which is how her daughter came to be named Talula.

Talula Jones or Tallulah Jones. I’m really torn. I think the original spelling (Tallulah) is more interesting, but given the history I’ve created for her, Talula is a far more likely spelling.

It’s something I need to decide sooner rather than later, as it is also the title of my novel. So let’s hear it. Talula OR Tallulah. Show your work. (and thanks)

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Learning To Shoot, In the Name of Fiction

shootI’ve hiked to the top of half dome in Yosemite four times. It is one of my favorite places on earth. I love to dangle my feet over that 5,000 foot drop and just bask in the bubbling sensation that swims around in my stomach. It’s always a little scary, because, you know, I COULD jump, and then, very life affirming to realize that there’s no way I ever would.

I was reminded of this sensation last night at the LA Gun Club. With the help of my friend (to whom I owe many beers) I picked out a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun. It was just how I pictured it with black metal barrels and a grainy wood stock. It was the closest thing they had to the gun that my character uses. That was why I was there in the first place: to fire the gun that my character fires, to know what it really feels like.

The proprietor tried to talk me into a fancier version, with a pump action magazine and rubber butt (to help with the kick back), but I went with the cooler-looking, more old-school gun (even though, I will admit now, I was terrified of the kick back).

We spent about twenty minutes firing off rounds, taking turns with each reload. By my second turn my nerves had calmed down, and I actually managed to pull the trigger without squinting my eyes. By holding the gun tightly, and keeping my knees bent, the kick back was not as bad as I expected (I didn’t get knocked on my ass), but it was still pretty powerful.

The fear diminished, but my sense of how powerful guns are found a new, solid foundation.

What I found most interesting were the other patrons at the range. There were three couples there on what I presumed to be a date, and the rest of the range was full of men of all shapes and sizes. And that’s what got me to thinking about Yosemite.

Guns can be dangerous, just like sitting on the top of half dome can be dangerous, but as long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll most likely be just fine.

The thing about the gun range is that it’s kind of like a whole group of people sitting on a very high cliff, all with their hands on each other’s backs (I know the logistics of that are a little tricky, but go with it for a sec). You all trust that you’re not going to push each other. You don’t have any choice but to trust it, but then you stop and look around and think “I don’t know the first damn thing about any of you people.”

Then you go home to your safe, gun-free home and count your blessings that your guy’s idea of a date night is more likely to center around ice cream than firearms.

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Where Inspiration Waits

Last week I worked on my outline. By laying out a sequence of cards, and forcing myself to work all the way through to the end, I was able to see where the weakest part of my story was. It was a little disheartening, because the spot I struggled with was the part I’ve always wrestled with and I felt like I’d made no progress at all.

Gritting my teeth I jumped back into my rewrite. The problem in the outline was with the resolution, and I desperately hoped I’d figure it out before I got there (and that when I did figure it out, I wouldn’t have to rewrite the first 200 pages – AGAIN).

Later in the week, I was tucking my daughter into bed. She looked up at me with those perfect blue eyes and said “don’t go, mommy.” So I sat with her while she fell asleep, with thoughts of my story bouncing around and around my in my head. That trouble spot felt like a hangnail. I physically felt uncomfortable. I put my head down on my girl’s bedside and gave up – and that’s when it came to me.

That’s what I love about writing. I never know when or where the answer will come, but it always seems to. I’m starting to trust it, and the more I trust it, the easier it comes. I’m sure there’s some deep philosophical or Buddhist precept here. Perhaps I have an emotionally damaged muse who only wants me when I don’t want her, who knows. I’m going to release it from my literary mind this once and not name it. Just let it be.

I think this is part of learning to be a writer.

Every day feels like an adventure.

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Scene By Scene

To my great disappointment, I wasn’t able to get to the gun shop last week. We had friends and family in town, threw a fabulous New Years Eve party (if I do say so myself), and spent the whole weekend cleaning up.

At said fabulous party, a good friend encouraged me to skip the gun shop and go straight for the shooting range. Dive right in.

I did my best Marge Simpson (rrrrmmmm, I don’t know), but he and his wife insisted. Being from Texas and Utah respectively they have experience with this kind of thing. So I agreed, and we will go shoot some stuff (paper targets?) next week. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, my goal for this week is to rewrite the first chapter (which I have spent the last month envisioning), and to outline the rest of the story, scene by scene, reorganizing as I go and chanting the following basic rules of scene work:

A scene is one place, one time.
Something must happen in a scene.
If nothing happens in the scene – cut it.

In the past couple of weeks I have re-read everything I’ve written on this project so far including the draft, some back-story explorations, and about thirty pages of a different version that I wrote last winter.

In each pile of pages I found a little something I can use in my revisions, but the scenes ramble and run together. Some of them have no point at all – I was just writing – which is fine for a first draft, but this is round two and the bar is much higher.

I’m going to work with flash cards, and outline each scene as a discrete unit. I’m hoping this will help me focus and make the task of rewriting so many pages less daunting.

While staring down the double barrel of rewriting 250 pages, the shooting range suddenly doesn’t seem so scary.

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