Dissecting the Frog

I recently read The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, which I recommend for any sensible person who loves the English language. It debunks so many of the crumbling rules for writing that drag down our prose, and leaves intact the scaffolding that any writer needs to make herself clear. But the best and most useful things were his examples of beautiful prose, and the scalpel he took to them. Some very pretty passages were dissected to show off their moving parts; something my husband has suggested I do to our library on a few occasions.

With my husband’s encouragement, and Steven Pinker as guide, I’ll try breaking down a few of my favorites. With any luck, the process will train my subconscious to an inert sense of style, and limit my need for eighth, ninth, eleventeenth drafts. More likely, I’ll be just as fussy as I’ve ever been with any draft after the first, but perhaps I’ll know better what to do with it.

This is my favorite book. Ever.

I loved The True Deceiver. It was the winter book to contrast with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and while Summer is kindness between a grandmother and little girl, Deciever is a frigged story about two women from the opposite sides of everything finding a mutually beneficial relationship that utterly ruins them come spring. Their polar personalities can’t survive a shift in either direction, and the end leaves them both lost in themselves. It is a very quiet book, hung expertly together in a tiny snow-locked town, and the language is so tight that any excerpt will be wanting the rest of this book. (It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, so I’m super impressed with him as well. This book has no seams, no out of sort passages that might remind the reader that English was not its first language.) That being said, I’ve chosen this one near the beginning of the book as it illustrates the town and Katri Kling’s place in it.

“Inside the snow banks were deep, narrow tunnels where the children had dug hideouts for themselves during thaws. And outside stood their snowmen, snowhorses, formless shapes with teeth and eyes of bits of tin and coal. When the next hard freeze came, they poured water over these sculptures so they’d harden to ice.

One day Katri paused before one of these images and saw that it was a likeness of herself. They had found shards of yellowish glass for eyes and given her an old fur cap, and they’d captured her narrow mouth and her stiff, straight bearing. Attached to this woman of snow was a large snow dog. It wasn’t well done, but she could see that they meant it to be a dog, and a threatening dog at that. And crouched at the hem of her skirt, very small, was a dwarfish figure with a red potholder on its head. Mats usually wore a red wool cap in winter.”*

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin this experiment with a translation that I’ve already declared needs the rest of its parts to be truly beautiful, but I love the simplicity of this. It is very tempting to cloud every part of the story with as much poetry as possible. That can be done well, that can be very pretty, but in this the beauty comes from the story itself, not the lens through which we see it. Katri is a cold woman, this is a cold book; everything is ice. The only spot of true color is in the red cap worn by her brother’s tiny effigy; and in Katri’s frozen heart he is the only person who can not be reduced to numbers and yet he is a very small part of this story. (The yellow eyes do not count. Yellow is the color of sun through ice, and the “-ish” lessens its impact. Yellow in this passage is not a color.)

Dwelling on this small scene so early in the book is more than a bit of passive interest in the scenery. It sets Katri’s place in the story as an icy witch feared by children, and when the thaw comes with spring at the end of the book, we see her whole world crash through the ice.

*Jansson, Tove. The True Deciever (New York Review Books, New York)

Body in the Subconscious Mind

I wrote a fantasy story recently about a woman who wards mermaids off from ships but it was really about women’s bodies. That surprised me, because my subtext is usually about the formation of stories and I was pleased that another facet of my interests had subconsciously taken hold. I’ve been stuck on mermaids for at least three short stories now (and countless abandoned paragraphs in WordPad; I use it because it doesn’t distract me with my own atrocious spelling errors), to the point where I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to write anything but mermaid stories, but I see now that they were a distraction to ween me away from my compulsion to flay open whatever story I worked on to see all its still moving parts. Thanks, subconscious!

I am almost Thirty. I apologize to the people I’ve casually lied to, claiming the age Thirty since I was twenty-eight: I had no real reason to do so, other than it offered fewer syllables and seemed to carry more weight. I am still twenty nine, but close enough to thirty that my doctor used it as explanation for why my back was suddenly misaligned (she also kindly assured me, without judgment, that random joint pain is very rarely cancer). I have considered thirty as a marker since deciding in high school that I want to write, to be published, and to be read, preferably on a mass-market scale, well before I turned Thirty, because of some magazine article I’m probably misremembering that claimed most professional authors did not publish before they were thirty. It was an arbitrary number then; something to beat. As it’s closing in, nothing about it really feels arbitrary.

I went through some major revisions from first draft to second with this fantasy story. The protagonist in my story is in her forties. (Apologies in advance to the people I will inevitably lie to, claiming Forty at the tender age of thirty-seven.) She is very tall, her features are very broad. She has albinism, and trouble with her eyesight, but she is comfortable in her body, well settled in, and that confidence spreads into every part of her life. I liked this character, and I tried to draw her several times to get a better handle on her personality for the second draft, but nothing looked right until I started to think about my own body, its softness that I hated through my twenties for subverting the quills I try to wear in public, my ankles that are still mismatched in strength even though the sprain was months ago. My cheekbones that only now are starting to look a little like my great grandmother’s when I smile. (Noice.) And I realized as I was going through the stretches that keep my back aligned and the pushups that just get me amped for writing that I was okay with my shape. Well, it was more the pushups and Abby Hoffman’s awesome comic about being fat at a doctor’s office that inspired this acceptance.* My body’s weird, yeah, but it’s livable and sturdy (except for that ankle.) And it struck me as a thought my protagonist might have, so I returned to my character sketches.

I actually got it right this time.

tuulikki-and-vic

I did not draw myself. I am a convoluted mess that could never survive a short story full of murderous mermaids. But I was more honest with her look and she took on a real shape that was closer to true than most of my character sketches have come before. And as I sketched her counterpart, a twenty year old with an indefinite prettyness about her that she did not work for or care much about, I realized that the underlying conflict, beyond “how do I keep these mermaids from eating my crew?” was between these two women, and ultimately my life between these two perspectives. Thankfully all of that is running background to the story. Inner cogs are spread here on the blog for examination, and are carefully tucked away inside the narrative to hum along and keep momentum. Wouldn’t want anyone reading a high seas adventure and have to think about the author huffing and puffing on a yoga mat.

The second draft replaced almost every one of the four thousand words in the document, which may not seem like much, but when you have a completed story it’s pretty hard to reject all of it in favor of the unknown. That’s what first drafts are; the unknown. But the first draft of this story was obsessed with this character’s body, how it fit on the ship, how it loomed on small islands, all without reason. Second draft, after I balanced her with the counterpart to my own inner conflict, the story took a real shape.

It is not finished. It requires some real editing to make it presentable. But then, that’s often how I feel about myself.

I am still a long ways off from this idealized forty… I can hardly imagine what I’ve managed to get wrong!

,,,

*my excellent doctor has never suggested I eat more vegetables as a solution for my ankle turning black for all the bruising around a sprain. She’s the best. Also, read Abby Hoffman’s Last Halloween because it is also the best.

I am an old sea witch

My brother gave me a box of totems for Christmas. I strung most of them together with white crochet thread and hung them in my office and a few of the others are resting under my monitor and the last, a small white vertebrae picked clean by fish, is in the pocket of my winter jacket and it will live there until spring. He also gave me a story about collecting magic things that will one day be useful for stories.

Already it has started working. I found the monsters in my novel riddled with wood-beetle holes worn smooth like the driftwood lung that is hanging behind me, and they are made of void-stuff now, like the physical manifestation of dementia, because that is what scares me most and couldn’t bear to write a monster that doesn’t scare me.

I am afraid of many things, but I am more inclined to identify with fictional monsters than I am to fear them. Monsters are too human now. And the unknown is an unreliable source of fear because I faithfully believe in the spirit of inquiry and its endless capacity to carry us forward. What scares me are the Hattivatti and the Grokes. The familiar entities appear consistently, reliably, and are impossible to understand because their very nature is antithetical to humanity.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke. -Tove Jansson

It is remarkable that a box of totems that my brother collected have already taken hold in my fiction. I carry a totem to have a focus when my head is out of sorts; it is an object to keep me in the world. But these have me in another. I like it. This was a very good gift. It makes me wonder what sort of power in a totem comes from the person who discovers it, and how that is passed on.

The story my brother wrote had me as a witch who could turn to sand and grass and sit by the side of the sea until cities were built atop my head and that was very kind of him. I am completely human but when I write I do feel like an old sea witch. Sometimes I think I have to be. I am not strong enough as a human to make new worlds.

I drew a map the other day and when I finished I wanted so badly to draw what was happening in every room of every building, and then became exhausted by the very thought.

Happy New Year.

Character Sketch

Sometimes (many times) I need to draw a character in order to understand her. Particularly if I’m going to spend more than 10k words with this person, it is good to have a visual on her quirks of dress, composure, size… all those fiddly things that I’ll need reference for after an obscenely high word count. Obscene being over 30k because Woah man, novels are cruel to the memory. I am not super great at capturing everything I want (that’s why I write; I have a slightly better net made of words than I do of sketches) but I was really pleased with this character sketch of a girl called Fio in a fantasy story I’ve been working on.

sweet shades, ja.

sweet shades, ja.

I doubt I’ll really need to describe her kickass tutu and cape combo, but messing about on the page until I had it really helped to solidify this person in my mind. Knowing that she could feel totally comfortable in a tutu (i so wish i could…) helped me write her interactions in the opening of the story, opened up the world… yeah all that good stuff. I also drew her mermaid neighbor who lives across the street.

mermaids are terrifying.

mermaids are terrifying.

I already knew the mermaid wore a tie because she is a proper business lady with an entire short story kept at a merciful 3k words, but I sketched her anyway. It was fun. And it is surprisingly hard to find references of women with translucent skin and jellyfish tentacle hair.

Sometimes (not as many times) I make objects from stories. Not only my own, although it’s easier to make the objects I’ve got in my head than the ones I have limited reference for. I know if I don’t keep planted at the desk and continue this story through completion I will end up making those dang glasses Fio’s wearing. The lenses are red. Red lenses, guys. With hand wrought wire frames. I want them.

Sometimes I think the only reason I write is to torture myself with the things I can’t have. Whatever. I’m a go buy a tutu.

Already got a cape.

🙂

Making Pots: A NaNoWriMo Story

Once upon a time there was a pottery class that was divided into two equal number of students. The first group was told that each student in that group would be graded on the quality of a single piece of work for the entire quarter. The second group was told that they would be graded on the quantity of finished works produced. (A note about pottery: if you don’t do it at least a little bit the right way, the whole thing blows up in the kiln.) And by the end of that quarter, the artist-professor found that the group being graded on quantity was consistently turning out more technically brilliant and innovative pieces of art.

I read a tweet that made me a little mad last night and then I spent the next twelve hours dwelling on it because I am a parody of myself. The tweeter claimed she hated National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” for those of us spending every spare second on writing a novel from beginning to its bitter end by November 30th, because it took her years to write her novel, she had an MFA, she was published, and how dare these kids call themselves writers. She has obviously never seen Ratatouille*. My first thought was “Why are you mad that your neighbors are enjoying the above ground pool they set up in a weekend? It doesn’t make your concrete saltwater lap pool any less impressive.” Should have said that… L’esprit de l’escalier fo’ LIFE. And yeah, I can understand that the word “writer” has been put pretty high up on this crazy pedestal when it’s really just another noun-enized verb. Like “carpenter.”

Do you write? You are a writer. It’s not hard to be one. The difficulty is in recognizing all the ways you could be better and then pressing forward and forcing yourself to improve. It is difficult to receive six different rejection letters on the one thing you are most proud of, and finding that bit of deranged confidence that’s tucked away behind all of the self editing and shame over whether that was the correct use of a semicolon; to send that story out again semicolon be damned.

NaNoWriMo is not for your manifesto as a novelist. You enter NaNoWriMo to make a lot of pots as fast as you can. You can learn so much about the craft of writing by reading and studying the best writers, your favorite writers, but you don’t have their hands and you can not make their pots. NaNoWriMo strips away this time for stewing, for wondering how Murakami might have painted the glaze, and as you blaze furiously along to beat the clock you have no option but to paint it sans frontal-lobe influence. At the end of November, you’ll really hear your voice. And isn’t that what you are writing for?

All that being said, if she’s just mad that come December 1st the market is flooded with unedited 50k word manuscripts full of plot holes and f-bombs, then I sort of get the reason for her animosity. Edit your manuscripts! First drafts are only half the battle!

*I haven’t seen Ratatouille since it first came out but the lesson “Anyone Can Cook,” has lodged itself deep in my soul. My writing background is humble, but a pedigree does not tell the story, nor does pedigree present a dish. If I had waited for permission from someone in the writing world to tell me I had a chance at being published, I would have never sent anything out. In another dimension there is a depressing little shoebox in another megan’s closet with a few mediocre short stories that might have been great had she worked a little more at her craft. I try not to visit that dimension very often, and whenever I encounter someone in this world who tells me she’d like to write, I am thrilled. Everyone needs everyone to write a novel. Imagine a world full of people who have the sort of introspection it takes to write a whole flipping novel. Sounds a lot like love, right?

Keep Writing.