Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cutting Out Fish—A Process

Intercut vignettes weave my texts into a whole. For me, it was a common device, long before my novel. I even wrote about it in my dissertation. I’m certain other writers must go through similar processes, and yet I’ve never read about it. So here’s a brief attempt to describe what I do.
I write story after story. Sometimes they are parts of a single monologue, sometimes parts of a novel, sometimes parts of an academic argument I am making. But I start with parts. I don’t plot or outline. I write. With fiction, from the writing emerges the characters. I get to know them, go for walks with them, take them to lunch. I discover what makes them tick.
At some point, I have the body of the work drafted, and I start figuring out what goes where. This is where we get to cutting out fish. I can do all kinds of editing on the computer screen–large and small order. I sometimes have several documents open at one time and cut and paste among them to revise.
But when a text is truly composed of independent pieces which I want to intercut–meaning cut each apart and then paste them back together with part of story A followed by the beginning of story B followed by the middle of story A and then the opening of C, etc.–then I have to print them out and physically cut them into chunks.
I start that process by reading each vignette and selecting possible cut locations. When I’m smart, I do this on the computer before printing so that I have space to cut stories apart or even so that I have to cut fewer individual lines from one sheet of paper to tape to another. Though I often have to do that because I can’t always focus on the computer at this stage. It becomes visceral and I need to hold the pieces, to lay them out across the counter, to scan across quickly rather than read closely.
Once I have the cuts identified and completed, then I number them in a way to keep track of which piece came from which story. So I might have story A pieces 1, 2 and 3 or A1, A2 and A3. Though typically I label them with a word or name that makes sense to me rather than A, like Hawaii or Cho and Hosuk (a story location and the characters from that story in my novel, Isolation). Hawaii 2 makes more sense in the middle of assembly than A2 does.
To assemble the pieces, I read the beginnings and endings of chunks of text (the numbered aspect) to look for connections. The connections are not direct. I’m not looking for one character to talk about eating E. Coli-laden spinach and the chunk next to it to also mention spinach, though that sometimes happens fortuitously. I look for a connection–content is possible but so is mood, language, or activity. This is more intuitive than conscious.
To be honest, while I call this connection, it creates a kind of dissonance for a reader. With the spinach example, a reader might anticipate that she is still reading about the same character and situation because spinach is mentioned, but in fact, it’s a different character and place. The combination of connection and disconnection builds readerly engagement.
I don’t want readers to struggle with this too much or they could get frustrated. So once I have all of the texts cut up and ordered, I read the beginnings and endings again and ensure that I signal where the reader is after each break. I usually do this by mentioning a character by name in the first sentence or two though rather than character, it could be setting or really anything that situates a reader clearly in the particular story and not the former one.
At several places in this process I read the entire section of text I’m working with–all of the combined stories being cut apart. To be more accurate, I read until I stumble upon something I don’t like. Then I either stop and revise a bit of text or reorder again. This might happen repeatedly, or I might put them all together in a readable order the first time. Though even then, if stories change, I might need to redo the entire process–which is why this happens late in the process.
For example, I’d been “done” with Isolation for nearly a year, giving readings, seeking a publisher, sending out shorts to contests and literary magazines. In the process of getting it ready for self-publishing, I received feedback which suggested a massive cutting was in order. In the first section of the novel nearly 50% was cut. Needless to say, I had to re-order the cut pieces which now often started and ended differently than they had in the earlier version.
As I hit the end of page two of this blog entry, I think, wow, this must be complicated. But it’s really not. And it’s lots of fun. As humans, much of the meaning we make in the world comes from juxtaposition. You know the saying: "It’s all context"? Well, that means that the juxtaposition of “things” whether they’re stories or the contents of your refrigerator or the objects on your desk create meaning. Well, the things' juxtapostions don’t really create the meaning, we do—as we look, contemplate, rearrange, reconsider. For me, it's the essence of writing, the essence of creativity.
Somehow, the print I made several years ago “Cutting Out Fish,” which accompanies this article, provides a visual for this writing practice. Rock, paper, scissors. With more than two choices, randomness enters the equation. From the way I see it, that means we all win! Play with cutting up and reordering text. See what happens. And let me know.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Hard Choices

You'd think that choosing character names and plot lines and ways to kill off characters would be the hard choices. They were. Once.

Currently the hard choices are about whether to read through the manuscript one more time, even though other writers have read it searching for error. Even though it's been professionally proofed. The hard choices are where to spend my marketing dollars and what to do myself.

Hard choices move around. They often have time lines. Consequences.

In writing, funding, and publishing Isolation, I've found hard choices at each stage. In writing, most of the hard choices were at the starting gate. In setting up and running a successful Kickstarter, what was hard wasn't so much the choices as the amount of emotional energy needed each and every day. In publishing, the hard choices have been surprisingly frequent. In fact, almost every choice seems hard. Maybe that's because there is no immediate reward. And though I pride myself on my love of delayed gratification, perhaps things are harder when there is no perceivable positive in the moment of (in)decision.

As I move into marketing, the hard choices just keep coming. Spend money online? Traditional routes? Perform social media tasks myself or hire someone? Do a little? Do a lot? 

Maybe it's a matter of perception. Everyone around seems to think I should be overjoyed: I'm publishing my novel. I am. Happy. But there are seemingly endless hard choices, and I let those feel heavy. I languish amid them. I become enervated. (Yes, passive voice. It's not a choice. I don't boldly get enervated. Obvious once I write it, right?)

"Habits learned early are habits for life." At least the characters of my novel find this cultural imperative begs repeating. 

It's not early for me, but it's time for a new habit of perception: choices are energizing. Good things come to those who make choices! I love questions, but it's time for exclamation points!!

Balancing Act

When I was on sabbatical, I wrote every day. It was easy. I was on sabbatical. It was my focus. Isolation. It was what I was doing. Every day.
After returning to work, writing every day fell away as other tasks replaced it. Then the Kickstarter emerged and everyday I promoted the KS campaign. I was charged. Dollar values went up when I marketed. It was visible. Exhausting.
Now I need to market again. I need habit. Energy.
I must balance.

I must not let the ball roll off the pile. But how to do that? How to write material? How to post material—to FaceBook, LinkedIn, GoodReads, Twitter? Regularly. Daily.
All of this and work too. Friends. Family. Eating. Exercise.
I think I can, I think I can…return to childhood. Play at it. I think I can…be confident. I think I can…

It Really is All About Size

I'm from Iowa, State Fair home of the Butter Cow. Every year a new one. Every year news. Butter cows are life-sized and thereby newsworthy. 

My favorite butter is at the other end of the size spectrum. It's the tiny gold-wrapped pat of butter you get in any mid-range restaurant in America. It's a single serving, or at least a single ounce of butter. Sometimes it smooshes as you open it, liquifying butter oozing out. Other times it's cold and hard and smooshes your bread. 

But when it's perfect, when the foil-lined paper pulls back easily and a third of the pat slices cleanly away from the rest and then spreads smoothly onto the slice of baguette, I delight in that butter. The delight is not only the sweet, salty, richness, but also the apportionment. It's not that I'm attentive to having only one serving. Rarely is it that. Rather, I like taking a little at a time and knowing there's more. It's something I've done since childhood. It's not an OCD thing. I don't have to do it. But there's some weird pleasure I derive from eating a favored food in small bits. 

Now that I've revealed more than I ever should have about my inner workings, let me point out that the smallest of details is a key to believable characters. It's not that they must teeter on the edge of pathology, though the intriguing ones sometimes do, especially the antagonists. No, it's that the attention to human detail is crucial to creating characters that aren't cardboard cutouts serving a plot. 

It's possible to observe such detail in ourselves or in others. In private or in public. It's possible to do this with intention, collecting tidbits of lives lived to place in fiction.

For me, it's been an accumulation. I've been observing as long as I can remember. And evidently, remember I do. I've never kept these observations in a notebook. I haven't catalogued them or arranged which ones would go together. But when I'm writing, I find that the character appears not just in actions, but in the delight of a pat of butter, or the delicate balance of a favored wine glass, or even in the preference not to wash organic spinach.

It could be that the person who takes a photo through a glass window of the butter cow is just such an observer/collector. The web is filled with these photos, some with a member of the photographer's family, some with the sculptor of the butter, some with a protest painted on the window. But that's not been my method. I always stand unobtrusively off to the side, the voyeur observing those so fascinated they needed a souvenir.

I have no such photos. Only memories. And characters who emerge from those memories, like so much butter, cooled to just the right temperature for sculpting.