Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Work Alone

You ever go to a meeting, and it’s a long meeting because all meetings are long – or at least longer than you’d like them to be -- and right at the end of the meeting, just when the meeting is finally about to adjourn and you’re getting all hopeful like a dog dancing around at the front door, about to go out for a walk (“The meeting is ending! Soon I will be able to leave this room!”), the person leading the meeting says, “Is there anything else? Anyone have anything to add? Questions?”

And there’s that one person who raises his hand and asks a long, involved, completely irrelevant question. Worse, the “question” isn’t even really a question at all, it’s more a thinly disguised way for the question-asker to demonstrate their superior knowledge on the subject at hand in front of the boss or otherwise show off in some way.

Or my other end-of-meeting favorite is when someone asks a question that pertains only to their unique situation, and they hold everyone else in the room hostage while the question gets answered in detail. And meanwhile everyone is sending these throbbing laser rays of hatred at the person, who is, of course, oblivious, because if they weren’t oblivious, they would have never asked their self-referential question in a group setting to begin with. And it’s all you can do to not leap across the laps of those sitting near this person and grab hold of his tie and scream in his face, “SHUT UP. DEAR GOD, WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP SO WE CAN ALL GET OUT OF HERE? WHAT HELL DIMENSION ARE YOU FROM EXACTLY?!! OH, WAIT. I ALREADY KNOW. CLEARLY THE ONE WHERE PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHEN TO SHUT UP AT THE END OF MEETINGS!!!!”

Well, as I say so often, maybe it’s just me.

I hate meetings. All meetings. I think this is because I’ve never been to a meeting where anything was actually accomplished. This has created a deeply held bias in me, and as you might imagine, that bias has kept me from participating in any number of activities, like the PTA. I’ve never been to a PTA meeting. I know I should go. I should. But I can’t.

It’s not that I don’t like crowds. I mean, I like parties. I’m an extrovert … or maybe an extrovert with introvertish tendencies. It’s just when it comes to getting things done, I WORK ALONE. That’s my preferred modus operandi. Large groups of people, in a room together, trying to accomplish things and come to decisions -- that makes my skin itch and my throat close up like I’m going into anaphylactic shock.

How about you all? I realize that we all write because (of course) we have stories to tell, but do you also have a personality trait, natural inclination, deep aversion of one sort or another that makes writing a logical choice for you?*

*Having a lot of time on your hands while you await a decision from your parole board would, for example, count.

** Have you seen The Incredibles or was the Mr. Incredible allusion lost on you?
***And, yes, I’m well aware that I’m probably violating some copyright law by using the picture of Mr. Incredible on my blog. I’ll be happy to take it down if I get a call from the general counsel at Pixar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Em Eff Eh?

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while. That is, the writing MFA. I see this question come up regularly on writers' forums. To get one, to not get one. Bottom line: are they worth? And by worth it, I assume people mean, will this get me published?

I have to say, most writers seem to think they are downright worthless, total waste of time, won't get you anywhere. I’ve read agent comments to this effect as well. Some agents seem to take special pride in form-rejecting any query in which an MFA is mentioned.

So let me jump right in and answer the question, was getting an MFA worth it? Actually, I should probably rephrase it to, was getting an MFA worth it to me?

Easy answer there: Absofreakinglutely.

Now, when I went to get my MFA, this was back in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t this thing I’m seeing of late: the low-residency writing program – which is an idea that I find intriguing and probably an option I would have chosen if I’d been able to. My MFA was a straight-up graduate program, meaning we had requirements outside the writing department. I took graduate classes in literature and philosophy, and we had that standard post-grad language requirement, so I also had to finish a class in translation. This is perhaps a long way of saying it was hard. (And for the record, don’t mean to be all secretive here, but I went to Columbia.)

Next question: Would I recommend other writers get an MFA?

Yes, I would. I mean, come on. Devoting a couple years to studying writing, getting the unvarnished truth about your work, and meeting fellow writers who can become life-long friends and critique partners? That is a pickle barrel full of awesome.

But you know what else I would recommend every writer do? Oh, let’s see, how about you take a trip around the world by catamaran. Travel alone through Asia on horseback. Spend a summer as an apprentice to the world’s greatest butcher in Tuscany. Spend a year painting landscapes in Tahiti. And while you’re at it, be sure to get your hands on the new Ferrari Scuderia F430, cuz it is sweeeeet.

Let’s be real. The average middle-class, post-college human cannot afford an MFA. And that’s really what’s at the heart of the “should I get an MFA” question. The MFA is undeniably a luxury item. And when we get to the point of saying such luxury items are required to be a writer, then we’re venturing into the Realm of Wrongness, a realm that is already stuffed-to-brimming, mostly with people who wear track suits and say “it’s all good.”

How was I able to do it? Loans. Lots of them. That I am still paying off and will be for a long while. Even considering that, I still think it was worth it, but that’s probably because I’m someone who doesn’t fully understand how money works, and someday I will probably end up living in a nursing home that bears a striking resemblance to a ditch.

So to be clear, my opinion on the MFA is this: Anyone, in any situation, with any life experience, and any degree of education, who is devoted to improving their craft can become a writer -- and probably a darn good one. Art is nothing if not egalitarian. And frankly as much as luxuriously cool experiences would help build your chops as a writer and artist, so too would living in a trailer park working your way through a series of husbands or spending a decade in a Turkish prison because your roommate stuffed opium into your backpack as you were heading through customs. Do you need an MFA to become a successful writer? No, of course you don't. But if you CAN get one, why wouldn’t you?

Of course if you had to choose between MFA and that Tahiti thing I mentioned -- Tahiti would be a perfectly lovely substitute. The Turkish prison thing? Well, I suppose it would be a lot cheaper and probably far more impressive in a query letter. You got me there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Take Me For Granted!

What is going on here today, folks? I don’t think I’ve ever done TWO blog posts in a single day. Obviously it's a most exceptional day.

The good news is officially up on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators' (SCBWI) website so I’m now free to squee.

I’ve been awarded the 2010 Work-in-Progress grant from SCBWI in the Contemporary Novel for Young People category.

*cue the squeeing*

This is for a novel titled, “The Miracle Conspiracy,” which is the very same novel that I was moaning about in this recent post, about how I put it together all wrong and backwards.

Here be the linky proof.  They called me on Monday to tell me I'd won, but I had to stare at the website a good long time to reassure myself it was real.

Stunned. Happy. Amazed. Stunned.

That’s me.

Off to the store for some champagne now. Stop by after work and hoist a tankard with me if you can.

Goldfish Theory

You ever have a pet goldfish when you were a kid? Something like this, maybe? 

I had one. Someone gave it to me for my birthday. It was in a plastic bag when I got it, and I transferred it to a small glass bowl and stuck it on my nightstand.

That goldfish probably wasn’t going to last out the week in that bowl because basically what goldfish are best at is keeling over. My father saw this sad, oxygen-starved thing and thought, this will never do. So he bought a tank for it. With an air filter and some plastic plants and colored pebbles. The whole shebang.

As time went on, he thought the goldfish might be getting lonely, so he bought a couple other goldfish to keep it company. The goldfish seemed to be thriving in their new aquarium, but then he noticed that they were starting to look a little cramped in their tank, so he went out and got a bigger tank for it. (I can’t remember at what point these goldfish ceased to be mine, but let’s face it, this is always what happens – fish start out as a kid’s pet and end up a parent’s responsibility. Also, my Dad projects a lot of feeling onto fish, apparently.)

So the thing about goldfish is that they do what? They expand to the size of their tank, now don’t they? The bigger the tank, the bigger the fish. With each upgrade in accommodations, these goldfish got bigger and bigger. I think after about 18 months, those suckers were as big as my hand and qualified as registered voters.

The moral of the story? Don’t pity the fish. That’s how they get you. You start out with one meager fish in a glass bowl, and the next thing you know, you’re shelling out for Barbie’s Dream Underwater Goldfish Condo.

The main reason I bring this up, however, is to compare goldfish to writing. Because here’s the thing I have learned: however much time you have to write a book, that’s how much time it takes.

School is back in session and in theory my writing time has just quintupled because my girls are now out of the house 6 hours a day, but I know full well that somehow, I’m not going to get that much more done than I did over the summer when I had four nanoseconds a day to write. Why? Goldfish theory, my friends. Projects swell to the size of your allotted time to work on them. Your progress will be exactly the same, whether you have two hours to work or twenty hours to work.

While this is an annoying fact of life, it’s also good news for anybody who thinks she doesn't have enough time to make headway on a novel because of work, family responsibilities, or nonspecific STUFF that gets in the way. Goldfish theory requires us all to recognize that we should never waste time wishing for more time, or heaven forbid, we should never plan to write only when we finally have more time at some magical point down the road. Even if you’ve only got 45 minutes a day or a few hours a weekend, you can still get a lot done. Because that’s what Goldfish Theory allows for.

So just keep writing wherever, however, and whenever you can, and never succumb to pitying that fish.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Aw, Hell

That’s it. That’s about as far as I go in terms of cursing.

OK, sure, I also use the word crap fairly regularly. Maybe the occasional damn. But really, that’s about all. At least when I’m writing. In my day-to-day life, well, let’s just say I’m not afraid to drop the f-bomb when the situation warrants. Like when the alarm clock goes off, for example.

Granted, I write for young adults and upper middle grade readers, but I don’t mean to play the “Oh! Think of the children!” card. Maybe that has a little bit to do with it. I do hope my own kids will read my books in another few years, and when they do, I don’t want to have to redact anything. But I also know that that isn’t the sole reason why I shy away from profanity on the page. And really, you could make the argument that writing for young people demands you use a lot of swear words. After all, who is more profane that your average teenager? Authenticity would seem to require a cuss word in just about every paragraph, wouldn’t it?

It could be I spent too many years working in D.C. Here you can say anything you want, but when you put something in writing? Well, you better be careful. Writing is forever. You’ve got to hew to a different, higher standard if you’re committing something to paper. Especially if there’s a possibility that subpoenas might ever become involved.

Really, though, it may be simpler than that. It might just be a function of age. As I’ve gotten older, I find the use of vulgarities kind of unnecessary. They seem like the cheapest short cut to portraying intense emotion, and I guess I’ve found other ways to get the job done. This is not to say that I prudishly turn away from books full of swearing. Not at all. The occasional WTF can be perfectly amusing. It’s just that too much cursing is like using too much pepper -- distasteful when overdone. At least to my palate.

I saw a very funny bit once by comedian Nick Swardson, about how our grandparents’ generation listened to big band music and all this gentle, lovey crooning, but in another 50 years, nursing homes are going to be filled with old people listening to profanity-laced rap music. Kind of funny to imagine some 88-year-old granny fondly singing Lil’ Kim lyrics. But kind of gross, too. The image of elderly people with really foul mouths is kind of disturbing, don’t you think? At some point, aren’t we supposed to be too old for that sh*t?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Flight of the Bumble Bee

I worry that my writing process is really, really dumb. That I go about everything all wrong.

Like I’m similar to one of those major league pitchers who throws his arms and legs all over the place, and no one can figure out how he throws the ball at all. Or I have some kind of unorthodox tennis serve style that’s going to land me in rotator cuff rehab eventually.

This is why I'll never feel it’s my place to dispense writing advice. My giving writing advice is like a bumble bee lecturing on aerodynamics.

You’ll probably see numerous references in your writing blog journeys to the question of whether you’re a pantser or an outliner. But what if you outline things and then you create your characters and then nobody does what the hell you tell them to do? What's that called? 'Cause that’s me. That’s how I write. I am out on the ranch, herding cats every day.

And in terms of a sensible creative process, here’s what my latest WiP experience has been like.

Yeah, I know. It’s a house.

My neighbor around the corner is doing some radical home renovation, and it requires moving his house. They picked the thing up with a crane, held it up on these tall stacks of railroad ties, and then they built a new foundation underneath the house. When that was complete, they set the house back down again.

This strikes me as a weird way to go about constructing or renovating a house. Normally it seems like you build the foundation first and then frame the house in. Add the roof. Put in some windows. And then pick out the door knob pulls for the kitchen cabinets. In other words, you build a house by following a logical, orderly progression of steps, starting with the big concept and working your way down into the details as you near completion of your project.

This is how I imagine I should be writing. But finishing up my latest manuscript has been more like the house moving experience. I feel like I did everything out of order, inside out, and backwards.

Well, once again I’ve started one metaphor and ended with another. How did I get from bumble bees to house moving?

See. This is exactly what I’m talking about, people. I’m just a cat herding cowgirl.