Back Story

I learned to tell stories in the film biz. The school of thought that shaped my education was pretty firm that flashbacks are (usually) unnecessary, that everything the viewer needs to know should come out in dialogue between the characters, or in their actions.

Novels are a totally different beast. When I’m reading a story and dialogue is used for exposition (example: “you know I hate sea food”) I cringe. If it happens over and over I’m likely to put the book down and forget to pick it up. Likewise, flashbacks in fiction writing are not at all frowned upon. Most stories are structured around a current through-line, interspersed with scenes from one or more character’s back story/history.

My story has three main sections of backstory, let’s call them A, B and C. A takes place when Talulah is 13, B when she is 15 and C when she is 18. Here’s the questions I’m struggling with – do they need to come in order?

Right now my draft goes like this:
Current day story, C, current day, A, current day, B, current day resolution, end.

I like the way this unfolds, but I wonder if my readers will be irritated that I jump into the back story near the end. Should I tell it chronologically? I just don’t know. I have a bunch of cards up on a cork board, with all the current day scenes in blue and the flashbacks in yellow, and I keep switching them around, over and over, trying to decide. I think, given that this is my first novel, it might make sense to keep it simple and tell the back story in order. I might be biting off more then I can chew by mixing it up.

Should I go the humble route and lay it out real simple-like?
Or be bold and tell it in what ever way seems right to me?

I’ve never been one for simple.

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On Genre

My new edition of Writer’s Digest arrived and it’s all about genre. I’ve been hearing a lot about genre lately and it’s got me questioning my own categorical preferences. How do I want my own story to be classified?

I think of “Talulah Jones” as literary fiction. The stories that I love, and that have influenced me so far in my writing of this particular tale, are other works of literary fiction such as The Secret Life of Bees, A Thousand Acres, and Winter’s Bone.

Second to literary fiction comes magic realism – Jitterbug Perfume, House of the Spirits, the short stories of Gabriel García Márquez’s Leaf Storm. I find my self absolutely swept away by the whimsy of these works. I strive to incorporate subtle magic and almost-impossible angles into my own story because I love the dynamic they add.

Third, since my story takes place on a farm in the American southwest, the genre my story could be stuck into is (eep) western. I love GOOD westerns. My favorite book of all time is Lonesome Dove. The reason I dread the label of western is that most genre western, with the cowboys and the fainting women on the cover, are filled with tired cliches and predictable stories. Believe me, I know. When I first realized that my story is western-ish, I forced myself to read a bunch of the westerns from the rack of the supermarket. Ug. At least they taught me what not to write. While I guess I have to accept that on some basic levels my story is a western, there will be no whore with a heart of gold, no misunderstood Chinese man who saves the scarlet fever-stricken child with acupuncture, no tall, handsome stranger who rescues the town from El Guapo.

If I had to label my novel (in its current, uncompleted state) it would be “a work of literary fiction with touches of magic realism, set in the American Southwest.” When agents ask, I simply say “literary fiction.”

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AWP

I just got back from the AWP writer’s conference, which was held this year in Denver. For three full days I went to panel after panel about publishing, writing, and making a living as a creative professional. At night I went with my friends to the AWP sponsored reception where folks let loose. If you’ve never seen a room full of writers dance their asses off, you’ve missed out on one the worlds most ridiculous and fun occurrences.

As much as I learned about the practical elements of writing (grant writing, cover letters, etc.) what I took away from the experience was how much I love the writing community, and how we as writers have to actively nurture it.

What we do is a solitary endeavor. We sit at our keyboards, typing furiously day after day, hoping to pay the bills while creating art, but with our heads down and our fingers tapping away, it’s easy to forget that there are so many of us out there doing the exact same thing.

What I come away from this conference really cherishing is the community that I am so privileged to be a part of. I am seriously lucky to work on the staff of a literary journal, have a kick ass writing group, and know other fun-loving writers who will not only give occasional feedback, but also celebrate with me when there is cause to.

I may not be any closer to finishing my novel then I was five days ago, but I’m loving being a writer, and somehow that makes the journey all the more fun.

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Reading As A Writer

I recently received word that I have been accepted into the New York State Summer Writer’s Conference at Skidmore University in Saratoga Springs. The first thing I did, after accepting of course, was to go online and order the books written by the instructors I will be studying with.

I’m about half way through Netherland, by Joseph O’Neil. The New York Times Book Review called it “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.”

The hardest part of reading this book so far has been not falling into it. I am trying to learn from it, but I keep getting swept away.

Right now, in my own writing, I am working on scene transitions. While reading O’Neil’s work I have to keep stopping. How did we get back into the apartment? I muse. I flip back a few pages and find that eloquent sentence that lifted me from the Hudson Valley and dropped me back into the main character’s Manhattan abode.

This, I’ve been told, is reading like a writer. It is both a blessing and curse. While I actually learn a lot from the books I read now, part of me misses the experience of just losing myself in a story.

Maybe when I get a little further along in my evolution as a fiction writer I will be able to occasionally put my analytical mind aside, but for now art is life, life is art. Every novel I pick up is both pleasure reading, and homework. I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Delicious Pride

One of the hardest parts about being a writer is taking feedback. Usually my first response to notes (in my head at least) pretty much matches this photo.

When I was younger, my wining, crying refusal of criticism ran rampant. It wasn’t that I thought my writing was infallible, it was more an uncontrolled, defensive reaction to suddenly realizing more work needed to be done on a piece I thought was (if not completely, at least close to) finished.

I was just a baby writer. These days I can say with confidence that I am solidly in my tweens.

These days, when I get feedback, I still FEEL like that little, baby writer. My face flushes, my throat tightens, and sometimes I even want to cry, but here’s what I figured out; in absolutely every case – I ASKED FOR IT.

It just doesn’t seem right to lash out at people who have taken the time, at my request, to read my work and prepare notes. It’s no small task. They are doing me a serious favor. So when I feel that tantrum coming on I just keep quiet. I shut my mouth. No matter how badly I want to speak in my defense – I don’t.

Usually by the time I’ve heard about half of their thoughts I start to realize they are right. My creative brain starts spinning on how to incorporate the feedback to improve the story and I forget all about melting into a pile of tears.

On the rare occasion that I think the feedback is dead wrong I just say thank you (they still put in the time after all). Then I go home, thinking “that was a big waste of time,” sleep on it, and wake up with the sudden realization that they were totally right. It happens every time. The more wrong I think someone is, the grander that midnight revelation will be. (This, I think, speaks largely to the caliber of writer that I’ve been privileged to work with. I have been very fortunate in deed.)

So I’m getting better at taking feedback, and as a direct result, I’m improving as a writer. Who knew that pride could be so delicious?

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Such A Long Road

“The Feathered Tale of Talulah Jones” is a brilliant masterpiece. Told by breakout sensation April Dávila, this charming story of adventure, love and ostriches sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages up until the very end.

This is how my first book review goes – in my head. I think every artist has a fantasy of being the next big hit. We rehearse what we want say to Oprah when she has us on the show, we think about what to wear in our head-shots, we even carefully word the advice we will give to youngsters who are just dying to stand in our shoes.

Of course, no one is going to pay any attention to you at all unless you’ve told a damn good story in the first place. So for now it’s work, work, work.

As I continue to move through this process of writing my first novel, I feel I’m making good progress. I have 120 pages of a decent second draft that reads like this:

Lovely prose about whatever survived the first draft. Painstakingly chosen words, good imagery, all that.

THEN A SECTION WHERE I KNOW WHAT HAPPENS BUT HAVEN’T WRITTEN IT YET.

Then back to the prose. And so on…

When I finish replacing the sections that are currently in all capitals, I’ll have a completed second draft. The scary thing is, I’ll still be far from done. I fully expect to do about fifteen drafts. When I actually stop to think about how long that could take, and how sick of this story I may be by the time I’m done with it I get overwhelmed.

No wonder I avoid these thoughts, and instead chose to mentally peruse my wardrobe for what I will wear for my first visit to The View.

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Ostrich Races Here I Come

On Friday morning I am flying to Arizona for the Ostrich Festival taking place this weekend in Chandler.

I am so excited. In addition to the races, there is also an ostrich parade, and a whole mess of other events such as stunt shows and petting zoos. I’m not exactly sure how many of these are ostrich focused, but I can’t wait to find out.

My hope is to soak up as much ostrich culture as I can. I want to know if there are slang words people use for ostriches. How does one get into ostrich racing? What are the finer details of racing or even just raising ostriches? Why would one want to race an ostrich?

I am so curious. I feel like a kid on Christmas eve.
If anyone out there is, by any chance, attending the festival, please let me know. I would love to meet up and talk some shop.

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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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