Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quality, Quantity, or Quiche?

This post comes on the heels of two slices of spinach and Gruyère quiche and a bowl of asparagus and goat's cheese pasta, so not sure how coherent I can be on such a full and deliciously satisfied stomach thanks to my hubby.  But I'll try nonetheless...

I have prolific writing moments.  There are notebooks in my garage full of stories, novel starters, and random one-liners.  I also have have a formidable rejection pile, stories gracefully declined from Glimmer Train and The New Yorker.  Zoetrope and Esquire.  (My favorite one, actually, includes a personal and deeply complimentary note from the editor at the time of Esquire :-)  When I'm not feeling so prolific I wade through the sorry Sally stories - yes, my students are studying alliteration, I'm sort of obsessed - and this brings me to the topic of today's blog post.

Is it better as a writer to have our name out there any which way we can, or should we exhibit a conservative hand and reserve placement solely for the glitz and glam of the big names?

As always, I don't know on which side of the line I fall.  There are thousands of online destinations where a piece can be published these days.  I ran my own online literary magazine for two years, and on any given day I toy with the idea of starting another even though I'm already sleeping fewer hours than I'd prefer.  There are also a multitude of author's personal websites.  And hubs for fan fiction, role playing scripts, and blogs.  Ahem, yes I said it.  Blogs like the one you are reading right now.  

Literally I could send any of my previously failed stories out to one thousand and seven places and not begin to scratch the surface of the internet's wide grasp.  Of course I'd re-edit them first.  Not to pat myself on the back, but I'm guessing someone would pick up these stories.  Somewhere.  If not, I'd finally get my own site running and place it there myself.  The question that begs to be asked, though, is "does the process become too easy?"

Does instant publication make us more likely to release our pieces into the wild before they are ready?  Sure there are thousands of authors out there, but if there are thousands of sites looking to populate their spaces with work, can it all be sustained?  Or do editors find themselves dropping standards and accepting more than they should?  And do authors build a quick and large resume of publications that don't necessarily represent their best works?  As we all know painfully well, not all stories are good enough to be published.  Or frankly to see the light of day.  But in the digital age have we lost the outside filter that differentiates quality from fluff?

Of course we now find ourselves racing head-first down the slippery slope of investigating the meaning of the word quality, and the last thing I want to do is come off as a lit snob.  I like my comic books as much as my classics, and I believe that all genres, styles, voices, etc. are unique and could easily be championed by a Lady Gaga song touting their beauty.  I'm thinking more of polished and finished versus draft and sloppy.  I can best liken the core of my question to Project Runway.  I have no issue with the purple pleather maxidress with a red leopard print boa and granny bloomers beneath if that's the designer's masterpiece.  BUT had the designer been given more time, wouldn't he or she have edited and finessed more?

Do we as writers need to force ourselves to keep revisiting and sending our works to the best of the best until something crosses through the magic gate into substantial publication?

Playing the devil's advocate, several incredible authors and literary phenomena have emerged from the internet.  Authors can connect with one another.  Critique groups defy state and country lines, and the idea of a global literary community has never been more possible.  Youngsters are encouraged to write because they believe their voices will be heard more now than ever before.  And authors are nudged into being more prolific and connecting with readers, a once shaky at best path of communication.  I emailed quite some time ago with Jodi Piccoult and got goosebumps that authors are that accessible.  I remember the first short story of hers I read in Seventeen Magazine back in the late 80's.  

Perhaps my real question isn't quality versus quantity of publication but instead a concern with how the art of writing is evolving.  Is the line between draft and final copy so blurred that the fine art of editing isn't a must anymore?  I can't imagine how hard it must have been for writers to work with typewriters and little tabs of white out.  (Who am I kidding?  I'm thirty-five, and when I was a kid I did it, too.)  You didn't race to type a word unless you were deeply invested in it.  A wrong keystroke meant aligning the little white square, backing up the machine and paper, and retyping *if* you manage it in the right spot.  Now, we have undo icons, quick deletes, and buttons that let us publish in under a second.  Is the ease and convenience of immediate and mass publishing hurting the art and craft of writing?

I write this while eyeing the tempting orange publish post button.  It's late, but I think I'll read back over the post a few more times.  Just in case.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to swipe the title from Oates' iconic short story featuring uber villain Arnold Friend.  Great story, great question, no answer when it comes to my writing.  I've blogged before about my struggle between the young adult and mainstream adult literary worlds.  I'm attending a fab conference at Rutgers next month for children's writers (scholarship to boot!) which is gently nudging me back into the young adult world.  But that's actually not what this blog is about.  Instead I'm facing an organizational issue of sorts.  I wonder if it's permissible to start at my destination and walk backwards through my story.

Am I wrapping a straight jacket around my narrative by sussing out the outcome first?  This certainly wasn't my original intention.

Normally I don't work this way at all.  I begin with a vague at best understanding of where I'm headed.  The protagonist is ironed out for sure, maybe with a few other characters sketched in.  To be honest many, many times I start with a first line and go charging off into the darkness with a foolish optimism that things will just, for lack of a better word, happen.  The story grows and thrives or dissolves on the paper.  The strong stories survive.  It's a Darwinism fiction thing, I'm fairly certain.

In the past when I've tried outlining or doping out the entire piece before plunging into the execution of it, the story feels more like drudgery than fun.  And yes, I demand that writing feel fun.  Perhaps I should treat it more like a profession, and I do work exceedingly hard when I write.  But the best and most successful stories never feel like work.  They write themselves (start to finish in a neat chronological order), which is why I'm at a loss.  This story, this idea that started out as a strange little drawing of crooked houses on a piece of scrapbooking cardboard already has an ending, and I'm racing like a madwoman to keep up.

When it first reared its ugly head, I tried to put the ending out of my mind.  For days.  And days.  My husband's been traveling (back recently, and I am tickled pink.  It may be horribly cliched, but he is indeed my other half and his presence is sorely missed) but while he was gone I often woke up and wrote in the middle of the night.  Two a.m.   Four a.m.  Once our psychotic dog's barking woke me.  Another night had an odd dream.  The next a creak in the basement unsettled me.  Regardless, I couldn't help myself and wrote the ending in the pitch black of night.  The last chapter, more accurately, wrote itself.  Vaguely fantasy, vaguely a throwback to the 80's teen movies that always satisfied me with their honest, sincere closing scenes, the ending emerged raring to go in all its unusual glory.

This should be great news, right?  I have the beginning and the end.  Isn't the middle simple, like pouring a filling into a pie and packing it in to ready it for the oven?  Not really.  I fret, now, that the story is a maze and every phrase or motion needs to definitively move the reader towards that ending.  I worry that those light moments, those quirky sidebars, aren't happening so much anymore.  Instead the narrative is a machine with a mechanically clear purpose, an assembly line chugging right along without me.

Even worse, I'm afraid the final pieces won't fit.  What if I hit the end and it doesn't make sense and suddenly the ending, which I love, won't work.  I know I could change it, but I don't want to.  (Please imagine me stomping my feet and sticking out my tongue.)  I'm a fickle writer, and I frequently ignore the advice I give my creative writing students and dig in my heels when I shouldn't.  But I love my ending.  The heroine's life is made better.  Bottom line it makes me feel good, too.  Sometimes I think we've become a ghoulish society dining on the ashes rather than building anew from them.  Without getting too deep or existential (as Cher from Clueless might say, twirling her hair and eating chips), I'd like to think whatever I write, whatever genre, will be a positive contribution to the world.  Full of sarcasm and such, but positive at the end.

I guess I ought to stop worrying and start filling in those missing pieces.  As I've said before, if my worst worries are how and what to write, I'm pretty darn lucky.    

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It's all about me...

Actually, it's all about 'I'.  And that's the problem.  I'm sort of drowning in a first person narrative this evening, and I've made up my mind not to go to bed until I manage to reconcile myself with a point of view I rarely use or stick with.  (Does this mean that I'll watch the sun rise?  Those who know me well realize I'll probably throw in the towel around 11.  Unless of course the rain continues and the house may just float away.  Counties nearby are already in states of emergency.)

Normally I'm a third person omniscient  or third person limited kind of gal.  I enjoy stepping back and setting up my fictional worlds as I see fit.  With a critical eye.  And let's be honest, it's much less risky than first person.  Crawling solely into any character's brain  and adopting the 'I' risks over-indulgences and blinders galore.  Why plant myself in there when instead I can construct all of the characters with an even hand, push and pull all of their emotions and actions like clay until everything grinds together?  Third person gives me a distinct level of control.  

First person, on the other hand, can (and I say can because for many authors this isn't an issue) but it can cause the other characters in a narrative to wither and suffer.  The focus  of the 'I' is a laser.  And when an authors shines the floodlight on that that one character, he or she must be spot on.  He or she either has the voice that pulls readers in and grips them by their collars for the ride of the novel, or else the voice is mediocre and no matter how masterful a setting, how intriguing a storyline, how compelling the conflicts, it's nearly impossible to reel the reader back in once a lame voice has reared its ugly head.

And maybe that's where I'm struggling.  I am bound and determined to write a young adult novel.  Something about the genre has been calling to me for a long time, and even though I've been published more in the adult arena, I've snagged a few scholarships and awards for my young adult literature, spurring me along.  It's absolutely time to take the plunge, and while my husband is traveling with his uber cool band Alarm Will Sound, I am determined to get it done.  The entire novel.  Beginning to end.  That may be insane in just under two weeks with a full-time job and two children at home, but if not now, when?

I'm working on embracing my teenage angst, my general feeling of not knowing anything and knowing everything all at once, the absolute brilliance that I swear we lose the older and more cynical we get.  It's fun.  It's refreshing.  But it only works in first person.  The 'I' is the best way for me to intimately portray the character even though my inner critic incessantly reminds that that I am knee deep in the voice and it's make or break.  It also probably doesn't help that there's an element of magical realism already placing a twinkle on the heroine.  Sixteen.  Vaguely supernatural.  Distinctly confused and lost.  How do I avoid the 'I' trap and make sure the rest of the novel's world is fully formed and beautiful?

If I had an answer, this probably would be a blog about something else.  But as writers, I think we're always supposed to bring up more questions than answers.  We're supposed to move outside of our comfort zones and hopefully get our readers thinking outside of theirs as well.