Friday, October 23, 2015

Title Trauma

Yesterday I wrote two poems. One has no title at the moment. The other has a title, but it’s completely wrong. Less than a page of verse, and I managed to drift away from the glint of an idea that started it—so utterly that I’m not even sure now what I meant when I wrote that title at the top of the page.

And so it goes.

The story I’m working on right now has a working title, because I have to have something to call the computer file. Apparently Windows doesn’t like you to name everything ‘damnitall.’ But I loathe the working title. It’s boring. When I see it at the top of the screen, it makes me want to delete everything, and then crush my laptop with a steamroller. The only problem is, I don’t have a better title . . . yet.

For me, titles come in two flavors: there are the awesome titles for which I can’t think up a good story or poem, and there are the projects I love for which no name seems a good fit. Either way, I can’t win. I have scraps of paper all over my desk with tentative titles, like ghosts waiting for a body. There’s one I’ve had at the back of my mind for over a decade now. I probably should just share it with you. At least then maybe someone could get a good story out of it.

This is the title: Librarians at the Gate.

That’s it. I’ve started a story to go with it half a dozen times, and none of them are right. Not one of those snippets of action and character do the title justice. So if you can come up with something better, be my guest. All I ask is that you let me know when you do. For too long that title has been like a headless ghost wandering my countryside.

At least as often, I start a project and then change the name a half-dozen times, trying each one on like a prom dress in the hope that I’ll find one that doesn’t make my story’s butt look big. I can tell this new story is going to be one of those. Some tales just have trouble written all over them.

Sometimes I worry that my trouble with titles is hampering my career. Is “A Requiem for the Sons of Kings” too fancy for a short story? Too unwieldy? Yet it captured the elegiac mood I was looking for when I wrote the tale. I suspect “The Hand of Nephthys” makes some editors scratch their heads. Maybe not everyone is as much of a nerd about Egyptian mythology and mortuary practices as I am? I don’t know.

It’s possible I’ll get to the end of the new story and think, “Nope, I was wrong to doubt. Out of the Past is exactly what it needs.”

But I doubt it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Snippet: Out of the Past (from Chapter 1)

For the first time in too long, I felt at home.
            But that sensation fled when I rounded the last bend and saw the house, or what was left of it. A fire had gutted the old stone mansion, staining the outer walls with soot that winter snows and summer rains had not erased entirely. The roof had collapsed; I spotted the charred remains of the heavy beams jutting out of the ground floor.
            My heart ached, ribs grown too tight to hold it comfortably. I stumbled forward and found an old bucket overturned beneath one of the front windows. When I stood upon it, I saw the scorched remains of the heavy velvet curtains that had once blocked out the sunlight. A few shattered, blackened sticks of furniture were scattered across the broken floor. It looked as though, when the fire had taken the house, much of the contents had been the same as when I was a child.

            Had someone been living in the Somerville house when it burned? Or had Ben’s family simply abandoned it, as he’d abandoned me?

I finished chapter one this morning. Like Evelyn, it's been too long since I've felt at home with the work, and it feels good to look forward to writing time again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Do What Works (and Don't Quit)

I tell people I only have two rules for writing. First, do what works. Second, don’t be boring in the final draft.

Aside from having the advantage of being vague and therefore virtually impossible to refute, these rules cover just about anything you need to develop as a writer. You just have to figure out how to define them in relation to your writing process.

I’ll discuss the second rule at another time, like maybe when I’ve finally mastered it. In the meantime, here’s what I’m talking about when I say ‘do what works.’

When you start out as a writer, you’ll get a lot of advice. Maybe you’ll buy writing magazines at the bookstore, or have the opportunity to talk to more experienced authors. You’re going to hear lots of suggestions, many of which will be presented as rules to write by, but here’s the thing: many of them will not work. Some of them will be utterly wrong-headed, offered by well meaning people who do not know enough about the business, or who work in a different genre, or who like to be considered An Authority.

So here’s sub-rule #1 for ‘do what works’: Beware of anyone who presents their method as the One True Way of becoming an author. The truth is that there isn't any One True Way. In fact, when you’ve talked to a bunch of writers, you’ll find that every single one does things a little differently. And that’s okay. We’re making stories and poems. We’re making art, not Buicks and swimming pools.

Talk to lots of people. It may take a while, but you’ll learn whose advice you can trust, which authors have work styles most similar to yours. Even then, you won’t be able to do everything exactly as they do and have the same results, but you’ll have some ideas of where to start.

Of course, it would be reassuring to have a handbook that would give you precise directions on which steps to follow to be a success. Instead, you have sub-rule #2: Find out what you need to do your work well. I have friends who make intricate outlines before they start chapter 1, and others (like myself) can’t plan more than a few scenes ahead without losing the thread of the story. I envy my plotting friends, but it’s not a method that works for me.

I have friends who participate regularly in NaNoWriMo to draft novels, and others who find so much concentrated creativity overwhelming. I’ve met writers who churn out thousands of words per day, every day, in rough draft material, and others who save their writing for a few hours on the weekend. Some folks never suffer writer’s block, others struggle with it regularly. Buying in to the ‘write EVERY DAY’ rule can be a crippling source of guilt. Recently Daniel Jose Older wrote a terrific essay on that subject, and its main idea is an important one.

Sub-rule #3 is related to that: Be patient with yourself. You’re learning. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’re learning, and that’s a good thing (a good thing, but sometimes also uncomfortable and awkward and frustrating). Yet if you persevere, sooner or later you’ll see the growth you seek. One of my track coaches in high school used to talk about plateaus and quantum leaps. His thought was that, with any worthwhile endeavor, you work for long periods of time without seeing much improvement. Those plateaus can be hard to endure, especially when you know you need to reach that next level to get to where you want to go in your career. But as my coach said, if you continue to strive, sooner or later you’ll have a quantum leap in ability, that moment when you suddenly understand some aspect of the craft that eluded you before. And that moment is pure magic.

On a related note, here’s sub-rule #4: Be willing to experiment. Be flexible. You might think that there will be a point where you’ll know everything you need, and it’ll just be a matter of plugging those words into the computer day after day. (Spoiler alert: ahahahaha NO.) Many authors will tell you each book they write is a new challenge, and each one imposes new demands on them. And after all, wouldn’t you get bored if writing turned out to be just the same thing over and over?

If there’s a secret to writing, it’s this: We all get frustrated. We all have those moments where it doesn’t seem we can go on. Last week, I emailed a friend and said, “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t bring myself to sit down and write any more. It’s pointless.” Today I started a new story. Well, okay, it’s a new draft of an old story that wasn’t working, but my point is that those difficult moments will come. Ride them out. Sub-rule #5 is simply, Keep going. Don’t give up. Step back if you need to, write only for yourself, scribble a few words a day on the back of a grocery store receipt. But don’t quit.

The world needs your voice.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Inspiration Point #1--"Cover Her Ghost with a Feathered Cape"

This is a picture of St. Helen, patron saint of archaeologists, painted by Michael O'Neill McGrath. It's on a postcard my friend Francesca Forrest sent to me years ago. I'd been having another one of those periods of doing more flailing than writing, so every day for a week she sent me a postcard with a cheerful message. It's been on the bulletin board behind my desk since it arrived--like Francesca, I really liked the idea of saints portrayed as modern people. And I love archaeology.

Then, about a year and a half ago, a call went out from Eric Reynolds at Hadley Rille Books. He wanted to put together an anthology featuring archaeologists--specifically, archaeologists who also happened to be women of color. This picture, and a book I'd recently read about the world of the Anasazi, and a visit to the Grand Canyon all combined together, and the result is a story called "Cover Her Ghost with a Feathered Cape" that will be in the Ruins Excavations anthology, due out at the end of the month.

Inspiration is a strange thing. Writers collect bits of shiny things and make a nest of them: artwork, a line of song lyrics, an overheard conversation. Somehow--and I think many writers will agree with me, that it's all a little mysterious--all those disparate pieces come together and make character, and place, and events. Ideas curl up beside us in the night, or they jump out of the shadows and hit us over the head. The best ones have the feeling of a blessing, something outside and beyond us, It's one of the things non-writers most often ask us about (aside from the ever popular "Will you write down my amazing life story and split the profits with me?"), and it's a question that often stumps us. Maybe there's a bit of fear, too, that if we look too closely at the magic, it will fade away.

Or maybe it's like an excavation, brushing away what you don't need, piecing together the bits that bring a whole world to life.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's National Poetry Day

And if it's National Poetry Day, I'd be remiss if I didn't share a poem with you, so here's my offering:

The Book of Longing

When you've read my poem, if you're still in the mood for more, there's this one:

To A Dying Friend by Dominik Parisien

Or this one:

Biting Tongues by Amal El-Mohtar


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Coming soon from Hadley Rille Books!

My latest short story, "Cover Her Ghost with a Feathered Cape," will be in the new anthology from Hadley Rille Books. Due out later this month, it features an introduction by Nisi Shawl and stories about some amazing women archaeologists.

A little cover art

The cover art from my poetry collection The First Bite of the Apple. Original art by the fabulous Marge Simon.