Archive for December, 2007

I can’t remember the last time I had an anxiety dream about school.  It came in two parts, much like the program has a residency section and a non-residency section.

I’m a home for the first part, but home looks more like the crappy post-war urban sprawl of Orange County.  Not The OC everyone sees on TV but the real OC filled with ranch style tract homes with cinder block walls and colored rock lawns.

I’m supposed to hand in a part of my manuscript equal to one-fifth of he final length but like Zeno’s Paradox the more I write the farther away the end of he chapter gets.  I can never get more that two-thirds of the way through. (It’s like a math anxiety dream as well, I can only get two-thirds of one-fifth, but the X in  my equation keeps shifting.) I’m writing furiously, even while standing and walking around.  I’m not even using a keyboard, I’m thinking up sentences and seeing them float in the air above me and physical pages magically appear in my hand.  I think there’s some connection to M.T. Anderson’s Feed going on but I’m not sure why.

Cut to a party.  It seems to be at school, in the cafeteria, a place unlike one I’ve ever seen before.  Everyone’s on a short break but the food’s not ready and probably won’t be before we have to get back to class.  While we’re waiting for the food a teacher is asking me to explain how the tempo of mariachi music has translated into the modern beat of hip-hop. While using an empty paper towel tube to beat out a rhythm against a counter the scene changes — it’s now the private home of YA author John Green.  Everyone is anxious because Led Zeppelin are going to come play but they don’t have a bass player.  Someone remembers that I played viola when I was in high school and that makes me the most qualified to be drafted into service.

It’s a party, everywhere people are drinking nog and piling plates full of food, but I’ll running around trying to find out what songs are on the set list and generally working myself into an ulcer because I’m sure I’m going to be exposed as a sham.  I ask for a bass to start practicing on but all John has around the house is a half-sized plastic electric cello made for video game Guitar Hero (I guess for those 90s indy rock songs?).  While I’m practicing in the kitchen everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves and worse they all have instruments and are taking turns playing songs around the house.  I’m recognizing Irish lullabies and folk songs and then I hear Led Zep in the next room tuning up.

I think it’s clear to everyone else that I cannot play but no one says anything; their silence and pretending I’m not there makes it apparent they are embarrassed for me.  Once I get around to learning some fingering on he cello — and John Green gives me a little encouragement here — the band have finished playing and packed up and left.  With that out of the way I ask around and find out that everyone has their writing ready to hand in the next day and they’ve had it ready for days if no weeks.  I ask around to try and get a sense of how long their manuscripts are, what they’re about, and everyone sort of chuckles and moves on without answering me.

And then I woke up.

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This is it, no more screwing around, time to get down to work.

The holidays more of less over I settled in to read the manuscript excepts for the upcoming Rez.  That’s what the old pros call the residency, the Rez.  Like some native creative sequestered to a colony of useless land away from the rest of civilized humanity.  Hmmm.

Anyway, I was only partly holding off on the reading because of the holidays. Another part of me was dreading the possibility that alongside the writing of my fellow students mine would suck gigantic turdmuffins. In the off chance that my fellow students are lurking out there and wondering if I’m going to name names or lob one-sided criticisms of their work, fear not.  But since I created this blog to chronicle my adventures through the process of school and becoming a published writer I’m going to have to talk about some things. I just will have to keep things… measured.

Being a guy and writing kidlit seems to make me a minority.  At least at school, because there’s a fairly even mix of male and female writers published out there.  But of the ten of us in my workshop group only three of us are guys.  This is only important in that one of the first things I noticed in giving the manuscripts a first careful read is that men and women write differently.  It isn’t a question of our main character’s gender, it’s about what I’m calling our objective.  Our stories deal with action our characters are moving, they’re sorting things out on the fly.

Like guys do.

The other stories, they deal with mood and feeling and thoughts and description.  I don’t say these are bad things.  I don’t mean to suggest the boys don’t include these things.  I’m just saying this is the first thing that struck me.

Another thing that struck me were the stories that were really strong. Strong like they were pulled out of an already published book.  Strong in voice, assured in step, and at least one story was super intense.  I know my little tale is nowhere near as strong, and certainly nowhere near as intense.  I have to keep reminding myself it’s a first draft, my way of preventing my brain from hyperventilating into insecurity. I have to push beyond the I-don’t-belong voice that keeps trying to derail me.

Then I get on the school bulletin board and poke around.  I’m checking out my fellow writers, the ones in my workshop.  I’m checking out ages, combing their posts for clues about the way they think and express themselves.  I haven’t gone hunting to see if they’re running their mouths off in bogs like I am.  Maybe I should.

While I’m there I’m catching little bits of inspiration, little sparks that shoot out of the collective bonfire and swirl around my head.  Do I want to take a stab at that pissed-off teenage vampire story?  Is it time to start hammering out an outline for the sci-fi adventure series? Should I go back to my other unfinished YA novel?  What about that new idea I had today about retelling The Trojan Women (or is it Lysistrata?) set in violent rival high schools?

It’s happening, the writing muse is coming out of hibernation.  This is a good thing, since I like to think of myself as a writer.

I’m feeling the need for a schedule, something to help keep me in focus.  What I think I could really use is a time clock, something where I can punch-in and -out and keep track of the time I’m spending.  Just until I get my routines established.  A taskmaster.  Yeah.

Down to brass tacks.

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We come to the end of the year and find ourselves taking stock.  Family, friends and holiday bring us together, the coming new year allows us to consider the future, goals, resolutions.

Though the calendar date is an artificial reference point we look back at what was, finding it difficult to have predicted the year that just passed; we look forward and set our hopes knowing there’s so much we can’t even imagine.

We make lists, we are a list making animal.  We like order, we like to make sense of things through lists and rankings.  Top to bottom, highs and low, we mark events and accomplishments in preferential order, sequential, like time.

Time. What is it Tom Waits’ character says in Rumble Fish?

“Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. See, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time. You got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, couple of years there, doesn’t matter. You know, the older you get, you say: ‘Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty five summers left.’ Think about it. Thirty-five summers.”

Of course we don’t how many summers we have left, or even the demarcation where we an start measuring what we have and what we’ve got left.  But at some point we start thinking in terms of here and there, now and then, here and gone.  And our lists begin to gather a certain gravity, a weight they might not have had in years past, details and people and things that have come to accumulate noticeably in size.

End-of-year round-ups in the media isolate the bests and worsts and among those lists the passing of celebrities.

It’s a funny thing, that we spend as much time and energy as we do following the lives of celebrities and mark their passing with the same emotional investment as if they were members of our own family.  It isn’t too much of a stretch – at least to my thinking – that this adoration of celebrity is a natural extension of our old tribal concerns.  When we lived in closer knit groups and societies we needed every member to survive.  The cobbler needed the tanner, the farmer needed the cooper, the wrangler needed the smith, and when one member of the tribe or city or village was lost all felt that loss.

Over time the villages grew to cities, towns, states, nations.  The farmer needed the schoolteacher for his children, the tanner needed the merchant to bring tools and materials from overseas.  Now we have new members that affect our lives: the actor, the messenger, the storyteller, the troubadour, the scribe, the artist.  These newer members of our society enlighten and entertain us, the speak to our emotional centers and feed our souls.

We grow older, the number of those who speak to us grows.  When we’re young we lose an occasional hero, and aged mentor.  Suddenly we find each year-end review holding the names and biographies of more fallen idols.  We recognize more names, we scan the birth dates and compare them with our own.  How many more winters before the list contains more people from our own generation, our own decades?  How many more seasons do we have before us?

The daylight vanishes quickly at the end of the year and we long for the days when the daylight seems endless.  We mark those who have gone before us and promise to carry their spirit in our memories into the future.  We resolve to take the lessons we’ve learned and swear to do better, our part of the bargain in exchange for another summer.

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The mail came today. The mail comes many days but today it included the manuscript excerpts for the upcoming January workshops. I was almost afraid to pick it up.

Why? All it contained were the ten excerpts from from everyone in my workshop, that can’t be too scary, could it? Actually, it could, because this the first round of seeing where my writing stands side-by-side with others in the same boat. As much as I tell myself this isn’t a competition or a popularity contest I can’t help thinking of all this work in comparison, me versus them, me and my words against the world.

I think it’s the classic struggle that somehow gets internalized, the writer fighting against the vast expanse of the blank page, to get published, to find an audience once and for all. I now have that audience but it’s a captive audience, an audience of peers, which is what makes it a little more tense.

But I can’t look at all this writing right now. I’m spending the week finishing my most recent set of reviews and getting ready for the holidays with family. Maybe next week I’ll settle in for a first read, a “reader’s read” just to get a sense of story and scope. Let that all sot for a while, read some more books on process and style, then hunker down for the serious workshop read-throughs in January.

New year, new me, new stories, new world.

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Last night Suze and I checked out Tin Man, the Sci-Fi channel’s “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz. Underwhelmed might be a good way to describe where I’m at with it (and what’s with the lame title, guys? The Tin Man’s not the story’s focal point!). It comes across as one of those things where it probably sounded good on paper but neither the writers nor the director have a feel for pacing or character development. You need a way to sneak into Central City — Boom! There’s you’re plot contrivance.

The project has “potential” written all over it, not the least of which is the casting of Zoey Deschanel as “D.G.” the modern day Dorothy. The plot’s not worth rehashing, the point is that on the surface Zoey makes a cute canvas to any character; the problem is she cannot (or does not) act. After you’ve seen her in one film you know all her mannerisms, all her vocal tics and movements. She doesn’t act so much as show up, and for a while she stands out because there is something a little off-kilter about the way she presents. Then it wears off and you get the feeling she’s coasting.

Talking about it earlier with Suze I tossed out the idea that I think she works better as a character actor, a bit of quirky spice in the mix and not one to hold down the anchor for an entire movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think the same of Bill Murry who, except for a couple of standout performances, works better when he can riff on a minor character. For Murry that would be the shyster strip mall lawyer in Wild Things. For Deschanel it would be the big sister in Almost Famous.

So now I’m thinking about the movie Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s biographical re-imagining of his own early teen years, and I’m remembering that Crowe married one of the Wilson sisters from the band Heart. Together they wrote some of the songs of the fictitious band in the film Stillwater, and didn’t I hear that they were eventually going to release the original music as a commercial compact disc?

Now I’m on Wikipedia doing research, and then I’m on Amazon. Yes, I use Amazon as a research site. Between their listings, reviews, and customer brown-nosing I can usually find what I need to know and then continue to buy, research or follow-up elsewhere. Why buy from Amazon when there’s an Internet out there full of proof that they aren’t all that and a bag of chips?

Anyway, I hit pay dirt: The director’s cut of Almost Famous — baring the film’s original title Untitled — contains a third disc that contains the unreleased Stillwater music. Well, I can now put that into my mental wish-list hopper and keep an eye out for it the next time I’m bored and trolling Half.com.

But what’s this? Here are two reviews, an Amazon review — which is, what, ever going to be critical and kill sales, or give you anything substantial? — and one from The New Yorker‘s David Denby who, despite being from New York, has slightly more cred when it comes to reviewing. I’m scanning the Denby review and it’s full of the usual hyphenates that are a critic’s shorthand for description — “stand-in,” “freckle-faced,” “real-life,” “mid-level,” “danger-morally”… huh, what? Oh, that last one was an editing error. One of those en-dash em-dash problems that I wouldn’t expect anyone “copy-editing” at Amazon (are there such people?) to catch.

Wait, what is Denby saying?

Much of the movie plays easily and well as a record of good times, but there’s no particular point to it. William is never put in enough danger-morally, spiritually, sexually, or any other way-to become a hero for us, and the music of Stillwater is not meant to be great. What’s at stake?

Ooo, so many places to take offense! Let’s keep it clear: Crowe couldn’t have made the film using the real names of bands and people because (a) he didn’t want to get sued (b) he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of friends and (c) occasionally, and especially outside of strict documentary, you need to condense information to fit a narrative flow; William/Crowe isn’t put through any unnecessary danger to support a false narrative structure, but for a fifteen-year-old traveling with drugged out 1970s bands he encounters probably more than Denby has ever seen in his life; William/Crowe isn’t supposed to be a hero, he’s a window (or a mirror) into the times he experienced, too young to fully comprehend the history surrounding him but undeniably a part of that history; Stillwater isn’t supposed to be a great band — the point of the movie is also it’s title ALMOST Famous — that the voyage is the destination, and that for all the greats surrounding them there are countless others struggling to make it anywhere among the Pantheon.

Why does this irk me so? Because it’s clear that either Denby has no kids, knows no kids, or at the very least doesn’t have a clue about young adult life. To that end I have to conclude that he’s never read a YA title and would presume that his knowledge of YA stories is limited to what gets adapted into Hollywood’s cinematic format, and by extrapolation, this film doesn’t work for him — “What’s at stake?” — because he can’t imagine that what’s at stake isn’t the kind of thing that is easily captured in a happy Hollywood ending. That Crowe is able to fashion a coherent narrative from his experiences that fits into a traditional movie format is not a feat to be taken lightly, though I do need to point out that the film is far from High Art.

I suddenly realize that I haven’t seen Almost Famous since it was released, since I have decided to write for a YA audience. I occurs to me that there might be more clues within this movie about the possibilities of YA storytelling than I ever previously considered. I might be totally off base, but I’ve been on the hunt for stories that include boys, would play to a general audience, and don’t necessarily feel the need to include gratuitous hero-making danger.

With that, our train has pulled into the depot.

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