Let the Chain Be Unbroken: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ali: Today’s our first joint accountability post.  I’ve been doing well with my calendar chain strategy.  One week of X after X on my calendar and no gaps.  When I started, I was nervous.  I’ve been on a long slacker stint and I was going to have to get back into a groove that I’d been out of for a while.  Luckily, the beauty of the chain is that it’s not a question of quantity, but consistency. 

Each day, if I write (or revise, or transcribe) I give myself an X.  Some days, I think about skipping.  One skipped day isn’t the end of the world, after all.  Then, I remind myself that I just need to do a little.  I tell myself, “Don’t worry about it, just do a paragraph and you’re good.”   One paragraph?  That’s easy enough.  So, I sit down to write one paragraph.  It never ends up being a paragraph, though.  I write my paragraph, then I figure that wasn’t so bad, I’ll write another one. 

Yesterday, I sat down to write one paragraph and ended up with almost three pages instead.  Okay, so they’re three pages in a small notebook, but three pages is better than a paragraph, and a whole lot better than nothing.  I’m liking this chain approach.   It’s deceptively simple.  Even better, it’s helped me finish a first draft of Chapter 2 and start Chapter 3.  I think that’s pretty cool.

Jenny: I’m with Ali. Totally digging the calendar chain. However, having been at this for only one week – gasp! – there is already a gap in my chain:



Behold! The Gap of Doom!

I know, I know. I’m so ashamed. But let’s not focus on the single negative, gigantic circle that resembles a zero.

Let’s look instead at the stuff that was accomplished. For example, I now get to say that I’ve written an opera. You can read it here if you wanna.  (A mini-one, but it’s still a libberetto!)  The low-down on this particular project is simple: Neil Gaiman, Will Self, and A.L. Kennedy are the judges for the script portion of the English National Opera Mini-Opera competition – they get the links to the blogs that have posted scripts, they read them, judge them, and pick the top ten to move onto the soundtrack portion of the party. (Announcements will be made by June 4 for the book portion.)

When the top ten soundtracks are picked, the finalists then move onto the film portion and winners are picked from there.

I saw this via Neil Gaiman’s twitter feed and thought, “I never thought to write an opera. Wouldn’t it be cool to write an opera?” So I did. And let me tell you…it was tough. I feel like a better person for it, sure, but it was still pretty wracking, even before blogger refused to accept any of my formatting. Grrr. That gap there on the 18th is actually where I was banging my head against the wall for trying this.

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad. I also managed to get through Chapter Four on rewrites for La Llorona.

AND GREAT NEWS! The littlest kidlet just got into preschool! So I just have one more summer to make it through and then there will be MORE WRITING TIME. Fear me!

So all, in all, I guess that circle looks less like a head-banging zero and more like a hug surrounded by kisses:

Behold! A hug on a bad day.

Gotta love it.

(P.S. Ali – see? Pictures.)

Good Omens/Collaboration

*This week’s Monday post is brought to you early by Really-Busy-Tomorrow Cereal!

In a post the other day, Jenny asked me what I thought of our new collaborative adventures. To Jenny, I say, Good Omens. Oh my, how I love when things sync up like that. The book in question is a delightful collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In a copy I read, or maybe an interview, Gaiman reflected on the process of collaborating. It’s been a while since I read it, but the jist of what he said was that as they went along writing, their main goal was to write something that would make the other laugh. So, it was kind of like a game/conversation. I thought that was pretty cool

Now, to talk about me and Jenny. So far, we’re still early days, so a lot of the collaboration is focused on questions like, “How do we want this process to work?” Piece by piece, we’re working that out. For those of you who are interested, here’s how we’re tackling it:

In the book, we’ve got two timelines that relate to each other. I really liked the stuff and characters in the earlier timeline and Jenny had cool ideas about the later timeline. So, we decided to divide and conquer. We had an outlining/note making session to get on the same page about who the characters were and what our major plot points in both timelines would be. Now, we’re working on the drafting stage.

For our respective timelines, each of us is responsible for writing the rough draft. Then, as we get a chapter or two finished, we e-mail the draft to each other. The other person reads the draft and tweaks it, adding what they think should be added, re-wording, etc. Then, it goes back to the drafter to review and see what they’d change about the other person’s tweaks. I think the process should work well, and it’ll help with things like consistency of voice & character and all the other logistical things that get tricky when you have two people driving the boat.

The blog follows a similar process. We’ve got an outline of mentors and we’ve divvied up the posting schedule and features, i.e. Tuesday Accountability posts are Jenny’s domain, the Saturday Pages are my pet project. I think we’re getting our rhythm, and it’s fun to have someone to have a conversation with as I write. It’s all about that idea of the Ideal Reader, and Jenny fits the bill nicely.

Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you’ll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I’m not talking about that. No, what I’m talking about is Gaiman’s willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you’ll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it’s totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, “He looks so natural there.” Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that’s actually a woman. Because, obviously, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you’ll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word “like” in descriptions. And, for most of us, that “like” is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I’m trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren’t obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the “likes” that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone’s seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what’s easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won’t leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn’t 😉 The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they’re not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

Story and Poetry – Why Aren’t They Together?

In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, there is a wonderful poem called “Instructions.” As Gaiman says in the introduction this poem is “Quite literally, a set of instructions for what to do when you find yourself in a fairy tale.” While he might not come out and say so, I say that the poem is also a pretty clear set of instructions for what to do in life as well.

It is also a mini-story. Even though the main character is ‘you,’ there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you follow the advice throughout the poem, you will arrive safely at the end…just like a character growing through a novel.

Reading this poem got me thinking about the disconnect I sense between ‘poetry’ and ‘story’ in today’s poetry. I’m no professional poet, I haven’t had poems published in any big name magazines, and I’ve only had a couple workshops but I am a reader. I love to read poetry and short stories and plays and novels. You name it, I’ll read it. (Or at least give it a good shot.) And what I’ve noticed in a lot (not all! there are exceptions everywhere) of contemporary poetry – which I’ll call poetry after the 1920s – is that there is a horrid tendency toward, um, navel gazing.

Oh yeah, I said it.

A huge amount of the poetry I have read made me go: so what? (Again, not all! No need to list ad nauseum the exceptions – if it made you feel something, then it wasn’t a poem of the navel gazing variety, agreed?)  The poet shot a deer. Big whoop. The poet watched a baby being born. Sweet, sure, but millions of women have babies every day. Again, I say big whoop. My reaction has run the gamut between “huh, that’s okay” to “why did the poet just waste two minutes of my life with his self-satisfied, political whack job view on a subject I care nothing about?”

Then I read Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions.” My initial reaction was of the elitist, poetry workshop variety. Enter Snooty Jenny: these line breaks are sloppy, there’s not a high level of ‘telling detail,’ and so on.

But, ya know. I liked it. A lot. And I told my snooty self to shut up and re-read the poem again.

I did.

And I thought of something. Contemporary poetry, in my general unscientifically-polled opinion, does not embrace story. Sure, something generally happens – a deer gets shot or a baby gets born or whatever. But there’s not a story within it. There is no beginning, middle, or end supported by the things that make poetry work: line breaks, stanzas, meter, rhyme. The genres of fiction and poetry have gone their separate ways and it seems like it’ll take a miracle to mush them back together.

It wasn’t always this way. Poetry used to be The Method for story, political essays and commentary, and a whole host of communications. Part of that is because meter and rhyme make stories, commentaries, etc., easy to memorize and repeat. (Thus easier to ‘go viral’ back in the day.)

While by no means an absolute certainty of the future of meshing the two, there are signs that story is returning to poetry with really incredible popular results – especially in the YA field. Ellen Hopkins, for example, with Crank, Impulseand her new adult release, Triangles. Karen Hesse with Out of the Dust. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. And the list is growing.

I think that’s good news. What do you guys think about poetry, just in general? Do you enjoy reading it or hearing it? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Have you read any good poems that tell a story?

And now, here’s Neil Gaiman reading “Instructions” at Cody Books (Pay attention to the intro, the crowd’s reaction, and Gaiman’s questions – what do you think about that?)

Saturday Pages

“Somewhere in the night, someone was writing.” ~Neil Gaiman, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire

Today I bring you the first of a new feature on the blog. From now on, we’re going to be giving you a writing prompt or exercise each Saturday. I hope you’ll take a bit of time to stretch your writing muscles and play along. If you have a blog of your own, and post your Saturday pages there, please let us know by leaving a link in the comments. We’d love to check it out!

Without further ado, I present you with a line from a story called Closing Time which you can find in Fragile Things, a collection of stories and poems by Gaiman.

“I should have run then. My heart was pounding in my chest. But the devil was in me, and instead of running I looked at the three big boys at the bottom of the path, and I simply said, ‘Or are you scared?'”

This is the start of your next story. Now, go write.

Talking to You

Hello there, reader. Here goes my first post on Place for the Stolen, and I’m thrilled to be here. Also, I’m blushing a little from Jenny’s kind introduction. Jenny’s one of those cool people who is wicked smart and clever. Not to mention that she can, and has, straight up told people in our writing group that, “No! Ali’s totally wrong about that!” while still making me feel loved. Hard to do, my friends, hard to do. In short, there’s no one whose blog I’d rather be crashing.

Now, time to spread the love a bit more. The timing of joining the blog is great, because Neil Gaiman is high on the list of people I want to be when I grow up. Okay, so maybe I’ll take a pass on the hair and the part where he’s a guy, but otherwise…

My favorite Neil Gaiman book is American Gods. I love it so much, I even wrote about it in part of my thesis. Tonight, I’m going to focus on voice, i.e. the thing that makes an author memorable. It’s what drags us back to their spot on the shelf, eagerly scanning for something new. Voice is the thing that makes us think about what it would be like to sit down over coffee with that author and imagine, “Wow, we would get along famously!”

What I love about Gaiman’s voice is that he always seems like he’s talking to you. In her post about Anansi Boys, Jenny mentioned folk tales. I think it’s a very apt comparison, because Gaiman, at his heart, is really a story teller in a very traditional sense. His work feels like you’re listening to an actual person talk. That’s why you should check him out on YouTube and watch some clips of him reading his work. And, like every person who’s great at telling stories, he even does the voices of the different characters. Consider the very first paragraph of American Gods, which introduces the main character (asterisks are mine, not his):

“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-f***-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”

It’s easy to get a sense of this character, even though we’ve only got two sentences. Two sentences which tell you a lot of information and yet are incredibly simple. There’s no beating around the bush here. Now, for those of you who haven’t read the book, you should know that throughout the book there are a series of short stories and vignettes that tell of people coming to America and bringing their native folklore with them. Shadow’s POV is pared down, Spartan. The “Coming to America” passages are more lush. These are the parts that are larger than life and steeped in myth. The voice reflects this. Here’s an excerpt from a “Coming to America” passage The passage is dated 1721 and focuses on a woman from Cornwall who’s connected to Celtic folk lore:

“Essie’s eyes lighted on Bartholomew, the squire’s eighteen-year-old son, home from Rugby, and she went at night to the standing stone on the edge of the woodland, and she put some bread that Bartholomew had been eating but had left unfinished on the stone, wrapped in a cut strand of her own hair. And on the very next day Bartholomew came and talked to her, and looked on her approvingly with his own eyes, the dangerous blue of a sky when a storm is coming, while she was cleaning out the grate in his bedroom.

He had such dangerous eyes, said Essie Tregowan.

See how the language changes? And yet, the one thing that remains the same is it’s so easy to feel like there’s an actual person telling you the story as you sit next to the fire at night.

Okay, so this first post has turned lengthy, so it’s time to wrap it up. One of the things that makes Gaiman great, and one of the things that makes him work well in many different genres, is that his voice on the page feels like he’s talking to you and only you.  In his poem “Instructions” he’s literally talking to you. He uses his voice to create a space that’s just you, him, and the story. That’s what we talk about when we talk about getting sucked in.

Create the story space, my friends. Nail that, and the rest will follow.

Neil Gaiman Selected Shorts Interview

Poking around YouTube, I found this very fascinating interview with Neil Gaiman from Selected Shorts. All the questions came from Selected Shorts viewers/listeners. Gaiman himself just pulls them from a bag and answers – you can’t get any more straightforward. Whenever you have about ten minutes to spare, check it out. He talks about truth in fiction, characters, and his desire to write for the theatre (which I found particularly interesting and I immediately started daydreaming about what a Gaiman stage project would look like).

Expect the Unexpected: Turning

“…he could see the blackbirds, and small hedge-hopping sparrows, a single spotted-breasted thrush in the boughs of a nearby tree. Fat Charlie though that a world in which birds sang in the morning was a normal world, a sensible world, a world he didn’t mind being a part of.
    Later, when birds were something to be afraid of, Fat Charlie would still remember that morning as something good and something fine, but also as the place where it all started.” ~from the end of Chapter One, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

In poetry, at least in my understanding of poetry, there is the idea that each line’s responsibility is to either reenforce or to alter the meaning of the preceding line – it makes the poem surprising, leading the reader in one direction and then moving it somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.

To give a far too simplistic example – Shakespeare Sonnet CXXX:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red

These two lines reenforce each other. The chick is not that awesome.

But sonnets hinge on a turn – the final lines switch up the meaning of all the lines that went before. The first sets of lines create this snowball effect: my mistress ain’t that good lookin’, she’s not that sweet, and so on.

Then Shakespeare turns the meaning of the poem:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.”

Meaning she’s the rockinest rock star because she’s herself.

I think of this as a ‘turn’ because, well, it turns. (I’m a simple creature.) This kind of thing is easy to see in poetry because that’s one of the simpler ways in which poetry works.

Fiction, by it’s nature a different beast, can still benefit from turning. It’s not something that a fiction writer can do with every sentence because, damn, that’ll hurt a reader’s neck from all the back-and-forth.

Neil Gaiman is very, very good at the fiction turn.

Take the opening quote from Anansi Boys. He talks about birds as a normal piece of the world. And they are. But then, to add intrigue, there’s that awesome clause “when birds were something to be afraid of.” He contradicts everything that he’s describing around that. It’s jolting. It’s effective. I read that sentence over and over again, wallowing in the idea of birds turning into something to be feared.

You find the turns throughout Gaiman. He’s all about throwing in the unexpected note. Even his main character, Fat Charlie, is not fat. There’s a show dog named Goofy. Little splashes like this wake the reader up, make the reader focus. And you want your readers paying attention.

Have you guys come across any instances of turning? Any authors or stories that you remember because of the way it shifted?

The Second Reason to Read Widely: It’s Probably Been Done

*The First Reason to Read Widely: because reading is fun.*

And now on to the second: because what you’re writing has probably been written already.

I give you Exhibit A:

It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” ~opening line of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Seems innocuous enough, right? It’s a very intriguing opening…and Gaiman riffs on for about half a page on the importance of song, the way it interacts with human emotion, the way song tells a story. All very beautiful.

So now, imagine, if you will, that you have a great idea for a novel. (I have many of these, and there’s a long list of novels-to-be-worked-on.) Imagine further that you have gone so far in your plotting of said novel that you’ve constructed a title, an opening sentence, a final sentence, and the general structure of the book itself. You know how you want it to work – and the opening sentence and the closing sentence resonate for different reasons.

Now imagine that you’re reading a book by a very famous author, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman for instance, and the first sentence of your brilliant book – which you haven’t gotten to write yet because you’re busy working on other novelistic projects – is syntactically identical to said famous author’s opening line.

Say it with me now: AUGH!!!!!!

(By the way, I despise using exclamation points. But this feels like  the only accurate way to express my melodramatic sadness.)

I do not begrudge Gaiman his sentence. Obviously, I think opening a story with such a sentence is a good idea. Genius even. That’s why I wanted it.

My planned opening sentence was this:

It begins, as all things do, with a gamble.”

Perhaps not as brilliant as riffing on song. Perhaps I could even convince myself to still use it…but I would feel like a copycat.

Because, look, though I talk a lot about stealing/borrowing bits from successful authors (even going so far as writing blogs about it) I don’t actually want to lift sentences in such a direct fashion. That is not the art of concealing your source. And the art of concealing your source is important.

So, in spite of my frustration – and my frustration definitely slowed down the reading of the first pages or so of Anansi Boys as I came to grips with the opening sentence – I’m glad I’ve read wide enough to catch this kind of thing. Having seen where Gaiman went with his opening and having followed it all the way to it’s conclusion (a.k.a.: I read the book) made me rethink what I was trying to do with my own story-to-be. (Because, oh yes, it will still be! I lost a sentence, not a book.)

Anansi Boys is a mass of folk-tale telling skill. The opening sentence is lovely and puts the reader in that frame of mind. The book that I want to write is not that, and so now I’m wondering, as I go back to the drawing board, if there isn’t something a tad serendipitous to the reading widely idea – that you come across what you need, when you need it, and learn what you need from it.

So…

1. Read widely. Because your Brilliant Original Idea is not. And you need to figure that out but quick. This is important for things like plot and whatnot, that goes almost without saying. But it’s also important for small things. By reading Anansi Boys I figured out something else about the story I want to tell, just from reevaluation of the first sentence; it made me think about the tone and how similar or different I want it be in relation to Gaiman’s book.

2. Write fast. Because if you do have a Brilliant Original Idea, you’d better lay claim to it before someone else does.

3. You should read – because reading is fun.

Chapters in Which Something Happens

My daughter, who is three, is on her way to being the next Neil Gaiman.

Bronwen likes to tell stories. The other day we were driving somewhere, the destination is unimportant, and she asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Always open to the possibility of stealing my children’s ideas and using them in a story of my own, I said, “Sure.”

She began like she always does: “Okay, here I go.” (Because she’s learned the hard way that we need to know she has started.)

She goes on for a period of time describing a situation with dragons and knights in shining armor and Peter Pan and dinosaurs before she noticeably runs out of steam. But lack of a sequential, logical plot point is not a deterrent to Bronwen, master of the first draft that she is – oh no, she says “And then something happens” and we’re off to the next portion of the story in which Captain Hook saves the day when he turns into a ninja and slays Shredder.

Subject matter is not the only way she is like Gaiman. (Joking. Don’t yell at me.) Note the auspicious use of ye olde literary device: And Then Something Happens.

Ah-ha!

Now we get to why Gaiman is a really kick-ass storyteller. He has embraced the Something Happens. Which means he is not a boring storyteller. To tell a good story, stuff has to happen. Whether it’s in logical order or believable is beside the point at this moment. With Gaiman, just assume that it does make sense – or, rather, he will make it make sense to you (the key!).

And I knew I was in pretty darn good hands when I picked up Anansi Boys just from the chapter titles. Chapter titles are risky things, as we talked about before with Margaret Atwood – who also gets away with titles – because they can give away too much. But what’s interesting about Anansi’s chapter titles is that they reassure the reader that something does happen.

A sampling:
Chapter One: Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships
Chapter Two: Which is Mostly About the Things that Happen After Funerals
Chapter Three: In Which There is a Family Reunion 

From that tiny bit, I can assume that there is a family dynamic heavily at work in the story and that Point A leads to Point B because Something Happens. The first chapter is telling the reader who the family is, the second chapter takes place at a funeral – and I can assume that a family member has died (Something Happened), and that the family reunion after the funeral will not run smoothly because of the Something that Has Happened which will cause Something Else to Happen. It’s all very dramatic.

So here’s a possibly interesting way to apply Gaiman’s storytelling to our own work, if you’re so inclined: title the chapters “In Which __________ Happens.” If nothing actually happens in that chapter, then you need to reevaluate what you want that chapter to say…and if it doesn’t say anything, I think you’ve found some pieces to scrap/think heavily about cutting. (And don’t forget to delete the chapter titles before you submit your book around – you don’t want to give everything away.) Hm, come to think of it, that could be a cool way to help you write a synopsis too….