Thursday, August 26, 2010

Captive Readers

Last evening I was in the hot seat at one of my writing groups. We reviewed the second chapter of a novel that is long in the tooth, but coming to a conclusion this year, finally. The advice I got was varied and helpful, encouraging and stern. That's what I need from a review of ongoing work. What got me thinking this morning was the interest these readers expressed in a pair of characters whom I have seen as plot elements, secondary, maybe tertiary. One of these characters dies in the next chapter, and the other  storms off the stage, never--till now--to be heard from again. I've devised a way to deepen these paper people and satisfy the readers' interest in those two characters' backstory.

But I have also spent much of my journal time this morning thinking about our relationships to characters, and realize that as a reader, I don't do well with tragic stories in which fictional people whom I have come to care about suffer. I just read most of The Cellist of Sarajevo. It's a wonderful novel, well written and bearing important information into the world. But it's relentlessly dark, as it can only be, given its wartime setting. I closed the book before the end because I just could not watch these people suffer and die, and it was clear that they would. I was helpless. I could not be a rescue hero or a good Samaritan to them. My choices were to read on and suffer with them, or turn away by closing the book.

What then, do I make of the writers' relationship to characters with whom we live for months or years, watching them grow and take life from the wimpy little letters we type? How does a writer find the courage to see the story to its one true conclusion, even when that end means the death of these characters? This sense of inevitable loss, an ongoing lesson in mortality, casts light on the comfort of series books. As a reader, I know that no matter how tight the fix, Kinsey Millhon and Stephanie Plum will survive to delight another day. Evanovitch and Grafton know that too. It explains my delight in the TV--now DVD--series Monk. I know that Adrian Monk is immortal, like Hawkeye Pierce. I can get involved and know that I don't ever have to say goodbye.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Floppy prose

I love finding books at thrift stores. The problem with that approach to shopping is that I lose my perspective and tell myself that because a book is cheap/used/mildly interesting, I should take it home. And that decision has no major effect on my life. It just clutters up the coffee table until I decide to read and discard, read and keep, or just throw the darned thing out. Of the four books I brought home last week, three are readable, two of which will probably stay here, one will go to a friend. The fourth is a white elephant and weighs about the same as the real beast. It's about journaling, something I believe in and practice daily, rarely missing my morning pages, a la The Artist's Way.

This new/used book, though, promises deep revelations about my inner self. No, not lungs, liver and pancreas, but psyche, soul, an investigation of that amorphous but fascinating stuff that keeps escaping from my to-do list. And this tome showed me how to set up a cross-referenced notebook. Well, I always have spare binders and I found notebook paper on sale--back to school time--so I happily labeled sections and stocked the whole thing with crisp, clean paper. Ready, set, write. No, wait, read the directions. Ah, the directions are buried in repetition and redundancy, loose prose that tripped me up time and again. I consulted, briefly, a friend who leads journaling workshops. Yes, she had heard of this method but thought it too compulsive for her taste. Compulsive? How about maddening! I never figured out just which section I was supposed to use for what purpose. I would think that someone who means to teach writing could write. Silly me.

Today I stripped out the few pages that I had scribbled on, threw them away, stuck the binder back in the bin of unused supplies, and went back to my blessed morning pages. Ah, it's good to be home. Even when home is a slim paper-bound journal that will get tossed once it's full. The other journal textbook will make a good doorstop, for someone else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Slog, slog, slog

Why did no one tell me how much paper work gets in the way of writing? I've spent hours today tracking poem titles from the various computer files where they end up, in theory a system that lets me know what's been where. Hah! Then there's the list of poems still out there in the big, bad world, waiting for someone to notice them. Or someone to take them out from under the wonky corner of her/his desk and say, "Oh, we got this submission a year ago. Too bad" and replace them with some other frustrated writer's pages. I've just queried eight editors who have held work for six months or more without a response. It takes a lot of teeth gritting to be polite, to avoid deletable expletives and judgmental comments about their ancestry.

No doubt about it, online submissions make life easier, cost less, and often get a much quicker response, but inevitably the day comes when the submissions notebook looks like a badger's nest and just has to be cleared, notes scribbled on each page of guidelines, lists of places that it's safe to approach again, lots of tea, much movement back and forth from the desk to the counter where I can spread out the papers. I'm not done yet. There are 22 potential markets on the safe list and I probably, between short fiction and poems, have enough material to send something to each one. Tomorrow is another day, which means writing another four pages of fresh material for the novel, rewriting the weekly poem for my online group, and drinking another gallon of tea. The romance of writing!