Thoughts while vacuuming

Thoughts while vacuuming, one week after the election of a misogynist xenophobe to the presidency

Cleaning things is how I deal.  So, today, while I ran the machine over the carpets and wriggled the hose past a puppy who thinks everything in the house belongs to him, I wondered why I’m feeling sad.

I really am sad, that pain in the chest, burning in the stomach feeling that comes when something awful has happened. I unfollowed someone who posted a meme laughing at those of us who are grieving the result of this election. That was cathartic, in its way, but I still needed to identify the source of this sorrow.

It’s not just that I wanted a woman president, though I did. It’s not just that I think the president-elect is utterly unsuitable to lead or represent our country, though I do. It goes deeper. And while my humming machine sucked up bits of broken dog toys and stray autumn leaves from the floor, it came to me.

I’m grieving the loss of my belief that a standard of civilization in the United States would prevent this disaster. I was certain the majority of us were too well-informed, too historically aware, too good-hearted to vote in favor of misogyny and xenophobia and racism and prejudice, to say nothing of rampant vulgarity. I’m in pain because a tenet of my faith in my fellow citizens has been proven invalid.

No one laughing at young, passionate people weeping at this loss remains my friend. No one perpetuating this misogynistic culture or these racist views, can be on my list.

When I posted the picture of the 1920s suffragettes in their white dresses, one of my commenters said, “I wouldn’t grab one of them.” Is that vulgarity going to be the new norm? I won’t stand for it.  I can’t avert my gaze and pretend it’s not happening.

I wish I could vacuum up the rage and resentment and fear that drives the people who voted for that man. I wish I could come close to understanding it.  Instead, it fills me with despair.

Four years of this? Wow. I’ll have the cleanest house in the country.

Writing on the Edge

Recently, I heard a choir I’m familiar with, a lovely and accomplished group of sixty or so voices.  The director was new to me, and though the performance was nearly perfect, I was disappointed.  The former conductor—whose performances were never nearly perfect—brought something different to the music, a passion and energy that pushed the choir right to the edge every time.  When I listened to them under that director, I never knew what might happen, musically speaking.  What always happened, without fail, was that I was engaged and moved.  I felt a deep connection to the music and its message, perfection notwithstanding.

I’ve been pondering that, and thinking about how it might relate to writing.  Tastes are vastly different, of course, but for myself, perfection is not the element I seek.  I love beautiful language, but still, I’d rather read something that feels as if it’s pushing the envelope.  I like stories that teeter on the cliff, plots that might go either way.  I like unique characters, the ones who take chances, who surprise me as a reader.

This may be why I love writing villains, real bad boys (and girls), who are capable of all sorts of disturbing actions.  Heroines and heroes are hard, because they tend to be generic.  You expect them to make wise and virtuous choices, to be the sort of person we can all admire.

Villains can be much more fun.  They operate from a different context.  More than one reader has said they hated being in the mind (which is to say, the point of view) of Preston Benedict, the antagonist of my Benedict Hall series.  I loved it!  For me, his scenes were the most fun of all to write.  Antagonists are, in many ways, easy.  They’re already on the edge.

Creating protagonists who are capable of surprising readers is much more difficult.  A likable protagonist with an edge is much to be desired, and not at all simple to achieve.  I’m going to try to remember how affecting the choir was when it was less perfect and more adventurous, and apply that same effect to my fiction.

Publishing as Showbiz

 

In recent days a self-published author has been excoriated for arguing with someone who gave his novel a one-star review online.  The author doesn’t claim the book doesn’t deserve the one-star review; his argument is that it is unfair to him for the reader to have posted it because it could hurt his sales, ruin his life.  Because, come on, this writing thing is hard!

Herein lies the great deception in the many shortcuts to publication now available.  Is the goal to see your name on an Amazon page?  Or is the goal to create something worthy of being seen on an Amazon page or elsewhere?

Before it’s my turn to be excoriated for giving indie authors a hard time, let me say that I’m fully aware, as are lots of folks, that there are some good ones who are succeeding brilliantly at publishing their own work.  They have created something that appeals to readers enough that they will spend money on it.  Some have even created a solid revenue stream.  They have no doubt worked really hard at that, because writing something good is not easy.  It takes perseverance, discipline, study, ambition, and talent.

It takes talent.  Talent is something that is scattered unequally over the population.  In itself, it is no guarantee of success, but without it, success can be all but impossible to attain.  Edison said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but as others have pointed out since the Wizard of Menlo Park spoke, without the 1%, the 99% is wasted.

A nice singer I worked with tried out for the New York Yankees before turning to music.  He said to me once that baseball had been kinder to him than singing had, by which he meant, he learned early that he didn’t have the talent for a career in baseball.  It took longer for him to learn that he didn’t have enough talent for a big career in music.  (Of course, then we have to define success, which is fodder for another discussion entirely.)

Baseball is, in its own way, a form of showbiz, and many yearn to be professional ballplayers who end up disappointed.  Many people long to be movie stars, too.  Only a few will make it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise so many people.  We understand the showbiz effect, that strange system that makes Tom Cruise is a huge star and someone better looking and more talented only moderately famous.  (Greg Kinnear, not that I’m naming names . . .)  That’s showbiz, and we get it.  Baseball, ballet, sculpting, newscasting—all of these have elements of showbiz.

So does writing.

What bothers me about the anecdote I started with, a writer complaining to a reviewer that it was unfair to negatively review his work, is the sense of entitlement the writer evidently possesses.  That entitlement is not justified.  Publishing is hard, as is every creative field—or perhaps I should say, every field.  There are no guarantees of fame and money, no matter how hard you’ve tried.

We all know plenty of fine writers who work day jobs because their excellent novels and short stories don’t earn them a living.  Are they failures?  I don’t think so, because they’re doing what they love.  Are they justified in whining about that?  Nope.  And they don’t do it, either.

We can’t know ahead of time whose work will catch the zeitgeist and whose won’t.  Despite what lots of books about writing try to claim, no one knows what the next bestseller will be, just as no one knows what actress will turn out to be a top draw at the box office when another one doesn’t.

I have a hard-and-fast rule that applies here.  I learned it in my first career, and it is this:  Never, never respond to the press.  Even the amateur press.  Suck it up, know that everyone gets the occasional bad review, and move on.

In the meantime, as I’ve said to many students, let this one go and go write something new.  Try to write better with each new project.  Everything we publish is a tryout, in a way.  An audition.  And when you audition, you take your chances.

The great 19th century contralto Elisabeth Schumann-Heink said, “To be a singer you must have the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It’s true for all of us who put our work out into the public eye.  We are performing artists.  It’s our job to entertain the public, and the public owes us nothing.  We have to earn it.

Finding the Zone: a Writer’s Guide

Nothing is headier, to a writer, than being in the zone.  Words and thoughts flow in a steady torrent.  There are no doubts, and no fears about where it’s all going.  Nothing seems to matter but getting the words onto the page, tapping into that mysterious source of creativity.  It feels powerful.  The writer believes in the work at that moment, and has confidence that her story will unfold in the best possible way.

Sadly, like other intoxicating moods, this one is both rare and short-lived.  It really is a sort of high, and for most writers, it’s not easy to achieve.  The obstacles are legion.

What obstacles?  Oh, work, laundry, kids, television, dogs, the telephone, the internet, the radio, sunshine . . . in short, the elements of life.

Who doesn’t dream of the perfect work space tucked away in the woods, or at the bottom of the garden, or the edge of a cliff, where no one is allowed to go except you?  Mine—completely imaginary—overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  It has minimal furniture, but windows on all sides, and a steep stone path down to the beach.  In this dream space, I sit at my desk with my computer in front of me and my research books at hand, and I write by the hour while gazing out at the waves, undisturbed by anyone (who would dare come up that path?)

The reality for most writers is that bills have to be paid and messages have to be answered.  Groceries have to be obtained somehow.  There don’t seem to be any brownies popping up to fix what gets broken.  We get sick, or our partners or children or pets do.  Our work space may be, if we’re lucky, an actual study or den.  More likely, it’s similar to the one the late, great Erma Bombeck, author of The Grass is Always Greenest over the Septic Tank and other marvelous books, began her career on:  a board set across cardboard boxes in her garage.  Jean Kerr, writer of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, did all her writing on a notebook in the car while she waited for her kids to get out of school.  A friend of mine wrote most of a novel on a yellow pad while he rode the bus to and from work.

Every writer’s process is different.  Some listen to music while they’re working.  Some of us can’t.  (When I listen to music, I listen to music.)  Some work in coffee shops, where the bustle around them is nothing but white noise.  Some shut themselves into a room for hours, in a manner the late and much-missed Jay Lake called binge writing.  Some work in bursts, like a sprinter.  Others work on a meticulously organized schedule.

Whatever our process is, we need to find it, and find it regularly.  Practice, and practice on a regular basis, is key to every art form in existence.  (Please see “Five Music Lessons for Writers” for my thoughts on the virtues of regular practice.)

I’m revisiting this topic as much for myself as for any of the rest of you who might find something of worth here.  2014 was a year of enormous events for me and my family:  moving house, losing a family member—yes, he was a dog, but he absolutely was one of us—celebrating a wedding, taking an extensive overseas trip.  For the first time in my publishing life, I fell behind on my writing goals, and I know—as the veteran of two different careers in the arts—that I need to rediscover the zone in which I do my best work.

I’ve been thinking back on the times in my life I’ve been most productive, and about the projects which seemed to flow most smoothly.  There are some similarities.  There are some things I can do to put myself in the zone, and I think they’re worth noting, and noting in order of importance:

1.  Eliminate distractions.

Yup, that means turning off the wifi.  It means going where no one will talk to me, whether that’s in my study alone or a coffee shop where no one knows me.  It means letting the telephone go to voice mail.  It means—gulp—putting my cell phone out of sight and out of earshot.

I think turning off the television and the radio are fairly obvious, but the internet is insidious.  How many times do we break our train of thought just for a quick look at our email or Facebook or Pinterest or other lovely, entertaining, time-sucking creation?  I remember, in the midst of writing The Glass Harmonica, discovering eBay for the first time.  Talk about distraction!  It was irresistible.  I had to give up my membership, delightful though it was, for the good of my Art.

2.  Prioritize projects.

Most writers, despite what many in the nonwriting public seem to think, have brains teeming with ideas.  We don’t need folks to tell us theirs!  We have plenty of our own, needing only the time and the energy to develop them.  As an example, I have two sequels in different series simmering in the back of my brain.  Boiling along next to those is an idea for a cozy mystery, something I’ve wanted to write for a long time.  I also have a brand-new book, two-thirds finished, which my agent is eager to see, and a short story due in a terrifyingly small amount of time.  The problem, as each day’s writing begins, is choosing which of these possibilities to work on.

Some writers excel at compartmentalization, and can work on more than one project at a time.  Others can’t.  Every writer has to find what works best for her.  The important thing is to be able to focus fully on the project in hand at any given moment.  Jumping from one story to another, or spinning in circles because we can’t decide which should come first, doesn’t get the work done.

Deadlines are great for prioritizing the list of ideas.  If there doesn’t happen to be one, however, there are other ways of determining the order of importance.  The best is when a story is burning inside you, demanding to be explored.  Another is when you feel the need to take a break from, say, a long-running series, and play in another space for a time.  It can be energizing to spend time with different characters, different scenery, different plot lines.

I keep files of ideas on my laptop.  If a great line of dialogue or twist of plot occurs to me that’s not in the current project, I make a note in the appropriate file (having learned long ago that otherwise it could be lost forever) and then put it out of mind.  If something occurs to me when I’m out walking, or shopping, or riding in the car, I make a note on whatever comes to hand, and transcribe it later.  I keep a notebook beside my bed as well, to write down anything useful that comes to me when I’m reading or trying to sleep.  Ideas will keep until the time is right to put them to use.  They don’t need to distract us from the work-in-progress.

3.  Don’t abuse the muse.

This is a quote from the great Greg Bear, who I was privileged to study with.   Most artists are a bit obsessive.  That’s a good thing, because it gets the work done, but it won’t help the work to pump the well dry.  Work, and work hard.  Then take the time you need to recharge.

For me, this means exercise.  I walk, I do yoga, I get up in the middle of a writing session and stretch.  For some writers, it might mean coffee with a friend, a ramble with the dog, a visit to the library.  Everyone needs their own way to unwind, and, as the wonderful Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, to fill up again.  (And by the way, if you haven’t read Anne Lamott, you’re missing out on a rare treat.  I think every contemporary writer should read all her nonfiction.)

Jay told me once that although he was a binge writer, after a session—which could run for many hours or even days—there would be long periods in which he wouldn’t write at all.  That wouldn’t work for me, but it did for him, clearly, because his bibliography is extensive.  I always imagined Jay’s idle periods as his unwinding time, his chance to let the well fill up again.

We wouldn’t expect a ballet dancer to practice only when she felt like it, and still turn in beautiful performances.  It’s no different for writers.  We have to go in search of the zone.  We can’t wait until it finds us.

Do you have any other tricks that work?  Feel free to share.  Me, I’m going to go practice these until I learn some better ones.

We Still Need to Write about Feminism

I first wrote on this topic two years ago. In light of recent events, May of 2014, I felt a need to revisit and update it. I’m sorry to say very little has changed. Here are my current thoughts:Terrorists of Irustan e-release cover

Ten years ago I did extensive research on twelfth-century France, centering particularly on Eleanor of Aquitaine. There was a nascent proto-feminist movement at that time, with the great philosopher and writer Hildegard of Bingen influencing both church and secular leaders, and the indefatigable Eleanor using her enormous inheritance of the Aquitaine as well as her nimble wits to become Queen of France and then, surprising everyone, Queen of England. There were other notable ladies of that period as well, rising above a social structure which kept most females in thrall to their male relatives. It was a culture in which rape was a legitimate and common way of forcing a girl into marriage.

Two years ago I researched the American and British 1920s for a novel which will appear in 2013. Again, feminism was on the march. Women had finally acquired the right to vote in the United States, but the numbers of women professionals, particularly physicians, were dwindling. People like Margaret Sanger, working tirelessly to make contraception available to all women instead of just the wealthy ones, were hounded and harassed by church and state alike. In defiance, younger women bobbed their hair, threw away their corsets, and wore skirts that showed their knees. They were flappers, and their existence was blamed on a liberal movement that was destroying the moral fabric of society.

When I was a girl in the sixties, the great feminists of the mid-twentieth century dominated my consciousness. I read The Feminine Mystique and believed fully in second-wave feminism, also known as Women’s Liberation. In fact, I recall the use of “women’s lib” thrown at me—a young, idealistic female seeking my own identity—as an insult, especially when it was uttered by my first, briefly tolerated husband. The term was meant to convey that I was unfeminine, even threatening to the insularity of male privilege.

Even my father, who I’m sure loved me, believed in male privilege, and continued to expound upon it until the end of his life—this despite the clear evidence his four smart, educated, self-made daughters provided. My icons of the time—Gloria Steinem in particular—quite literally gave me the courage to leave that abusive early marriage and set out to live my life on my own. There was no one else to do it for me, and I still honor Steinem as a seminal influence in my life and that of other women struggling against a paternalistic society.

I’d like to point out, also, that I subsequently married a fine man who cares about and respects women. He became, young though he was, a substantial male influence in my family of women, and a guide for the sons we brought up. Nevertheless, he, too, had to struggle against the preconceived notions he grew up with, and as a married couple, we had to work out a new paradigm together.

I thought we were done fighting. In 1999 I wrote The Terrorists of Irustan, a science fiction novel about a woman rebelling against the veil, but I never thought the issues the book addresses would still be cogent fourteen years after it was published. Yet here we are again. The war on women of 2014 is not just a slogan—it’s being waged around the country.

A young woman said something profoundly perceptive to me not long ago. I was having dinner with two women friends, and she was our server. We were talking about some of the outrageous laws that have been passed recently, which are clearly meant to control women and their bodies. This beautiful girl paused, water pitcher in hand, and said, “I understand why these men are talking. But why is anyone listening?”

Why indeed. Why are we fighting this same battle again, the one Sanger fought nearly a hundred years ago? I didn’t have an answer for the young lady I’ve quoted, and I don’t have one in general. Sanger’s opponents are surely safely in their graves. Where did these new ones come from? Why do they not see how closely their efforts to control women resemble those of the Taliban who inspired my novel?

All I really know is that we need—still, and again—to talk and write and march. And vote from informed positions!

We’ve had proto-feminism, first- and second-wave feminism, even third-wave feminism, but we’re still not there. Complacency would mean reversal. We can’t risk it.

One-day workshop, January 15, 2012

Louise will be teaching a workshop for Clarion West January 15th, 2012.  You can read details here on the registration page.   The workshop is called AVOIDING REJECTION.

Here’s the class description:  “Agents often only read the first ten pages of a novel before deciding if they want you as a client. Slush readers for magazines decide within a few paragraphs whether your short story is right for them. We’ll practice techniques to make your manuscript grab the attention of an agent or editor from the first paragraph on. Students will provide a one-page sample of their writing for the instructor.”