Archive for March, 2009

I couldn’t sleep last night.  My body was tired but the brain wouldn’t let go.  This has happened before, and it has happened after I have had meals with curry powder in them, and I’m half wondering if I should follow up that with some research in the hopes of developing a safe alternative to caffeine.

So I got out of bed and went to the computer.  I know I should probably be reading more right now, but my brain started turning over some stories in my mind.  Like churning the compost heap, I was hoping to find some nice fertile mulch among the buzz in my brain.  I opened up a short story I’ve been tinkering with and gave it another look-see.

The last time I pulled this story out I had decided there were elements that were just too extraneous to keep.  This was the lingering result of a previous edit where the story needed to be condensed for a workshop submission.  I thought the story was pretty tight before those initial cuts, but after pulling out six pages (of a 25 page story) I was sure it was as lean as it could be.  Then it got workshopped and those holes where I pulled things out were frayed around the edges and showed even more areas that could be cut.  I’ve been sitting on those holes for a long time and finally decided it was time to mend them.

Some more of this was cut, a few sentences to bridge sections were added to that.  Chunks of backstory were reluctantly removed because they didn’t add anything.  Cleaned up some character motivation, rounded out some secondary characters and their actions…

What’s ironic, for a story titled “The Erosion Project,” is the more I take out, the longer it gets.  It’s like a mudslide following a soaking storm where the amount of displaced earth somehow is greater than the hillside it originated from.  In the wee small hours, with wonky synapses quietly imploding like dud fireworks, I had to admit that this story was looking more and more like a novel with each cut.

For now, I’m committed to the story.  I want to reign it in as tight as I can and maybe use it as a competition piece.  Later, when this degree thing is over, I’ll bring it back out and show it to editors and agents as an outline for a book.  All those deleted scenes, all the backstory, all the odd tertiary characters can then come back out of hiding from the recesses of the hard drive and finally get their say. I can already see the first chapter, set on that one spring day when a kid named Glover invites the school out to a parking lot to show them an artful array of rat traps…

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herky-jerky posting

Been a hairy semester.  Not getting time to blog.  Used to be more current.  Used to be able to stay on top of two blogs.  Can’t even speak complete sentences.

Also: Why does it always seem like no matter what book I’m reading everyone is reading something I feel like I should be reading instead?

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Of course there’s a story behind it, and facebook is involved.  Ever notice how it doesn’t seem like you can go a day without hearing or saying something about facebook?

So my friend Mikki posted a lolcat that someone tagged to make reference to West Side Story.  This prompted comments, one of which was someone’s take on the Jet’s song, which I took as a throw-down to write a parody of Cool.  But could I let it go?  Could I stop from thinking about other song parodies while I should have been working on my thesis?  Would I be posting, would I have written my favorite couplet (this week) if I could have let it go?

Thinking about cats, out on the town, hiding from the bulls (police), and about the song Tonight, and then when I was in the doctor’s office waiting I came up with the following:

the bulldogs won’t arrest us
and calicoes in estrus
will caterwaul our names

Man, it isn’t everyday you get an opportunity to rhyme the word estrus. For context, here’s the whole of what I wrote in the waiting room.

tonight, tonight,
we’ll roam the streets tonight
tonight we’ll be perched on the walls

tonight, tonight
we’ll chase the rats tonight
perhaps even cough up hairballs

the bulldogs won’t arrest us
and calicoes in estrus
will caterwaul our names

and though we’ll fight
we’ll hiss and spit ’til morning light

Someone with more time and ambition than I currently have should make an all-cat version of West Side Story.  I’ll be more than happy to help with the libreto.

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This is the “lost weekend,” the last big push before the next deadline in Monday morning.  The week has been a little rocky due to a scheduled visit to the dentist and another to the doctor.  The teeth are fine, mostly, just the same old stuff I’ve always had to deal with.  The other thing is my right knee.  Seems my right knee is inflamed.  Been that was for three-plus weeks now, and for the past week it’s been keeping me from sleeping through the night.  Could stress inflame the muscles and joints?  My doctor thinks not. Just to make sure there’s a blood work-up, x-ray, and physical therapy in my future.  In my present there are anti-inflammatories and fish oil capsules.

But the thesis, ah yes, the thesis.  As I started in on revisions I found myself excising old paragraphs in favor of new one, to the rate of two bad for one good.  My final thesis would be reduced to sixteen pages at that rate, and clearly under the minimum guideline of twenty.  But I wasn’t going to panic.  I reminded myself that I still had new sections to write, and that as I went along the thesis would catch it’s breath and expand.

And, somehow, it did.  At page sixteen I am barely through the first third of my ramblings.  So my fears were for naught.  Except now I have to worry about whether or not I can nail this thing by Monday like I–

Wait a minute, wait a minute.  I said I wasn’t going to push to write a crappy thesis just so I could have it done.  I’ve got all semester to get it right, and as much as I’d rather be working on some story about goofy kids doing goofy things, I’m not going to let the expanding thesis monster push me around.

Still, it would be nice if it started co-operating a bit more and began to write itself the way the fiction sometimes does.

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Things were running slow on the old computer today, and realizing I’d had it up and running for several days I decided to shut it down and restart it.

Uh oh.

It wouldn’t kick over, its chrome apple stared at me like a lobotomized hedgehog, the little bar clock spinning and spinning and chasing its tail like the old Warner Bros. Tasmanian devil.  I did the time-honored tech support maneuver – shut it down, count to thirty, start again – but no dice.  Suze suggested I go about my day for a bit, shop for groceries and take a shower, then try again.  So I did.


I knew there had to be a way to do this, to jump-start it and make sure it was okay.  There had to be.  I hadn’t backed-up my thesis externally and didn’t even want to consider a life of recreating my thesis from scratch.  Brainiac that I am, I realized there were other computers in the house and did a quick Internet search for that thing I used to know but had forgotten: the safe start mode.  Shift + start.  And there it was, all in one piece.  A quick disk check revealed nothing broken so I saved my important thesis docs to a thumb drive, shut it down, crossed my fingers and fired it up again.

So far so good.

The week of my last deadline  I dropped the laptop and got a nice little dent where it landed on the power cord connector.  I spent two days holding my breath that I could get the last of my first draft finished before the internal organs bled to death.  I suppose having a full week to get a full diagnostic repair wouldn’t have been so bad – I probably could have pulled files between computers and worked at the library or something – but I’m beginning to wonder if I’m allowing the stress of this thing to cause me to screw things up.  I can’t  figure out how I managed to mess up the reboot but I won’t write off a crazy errant keystroke combination.

I’ll be glad when this is over and I can work on something nice and sane.  Like fiction.

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behold! a statement!

After a solid week of sorting back through my research, making notes on index cards, rereading source materials, sitting and outlining and thinking really hard, I finally managed to write  thesis statement.

At least, i think it’s my thesis statement.

It isn’t full of rhetorical questions, it isn’t full of unanswered literal questions, it doesn’t have a question mark at all.  Behold! I have made a statement!  Granted, it took me three paragraphs to do it, ut by the end I have drawn a line in the sand and dared the rest of my paper to try and cross it.

So now the fun part: actually rewriting it.

To be honest, I feel like I wimped out a bit.  In narrowing the focus I took a stand that makes me fell a bit like a crusty old man.  It’s a bit conservative.  Not politically conservative, but theoretically conservative.

I didn’t realize I felt this way about biographies, but in defense of my research the fact is, a lot of what is passed off as biography – especially in picture books – is simply not biography.  There’s a lot of fancy “biographical fiction” out there, and some “historical fiction” and some weird hybrids of biography called “faction” but in the end it’s all the slippery end of a greased snake that is creative non-fiction looking for legitimacy under the moniker of biography.

What’s scary is that I went into this with the idea that the research would better inform me for projects I wanted to pursue, biographies I was interested in chasing down.  Now I’m not so sure.  There was a line I remembered seeing once — was it on a button in a hippie head shop in the 70s? — that went “You’re never more dangerous than when you know too much.”  I always took it as sort of a joke, but the truth is that when you know too much there is a danger there.  It is possible for too much knowledge to get in the way of your creative side, to overthink things.  At the same time, once you know it’s hard to ignore what you know. I can never again innocently blunder into a picture book biography without considering and question every statement, every shred of proof of authenticity.  I’ll never consider the word and the image on a page without understanding the distance between the narrator and the events portrayed, or without wondering about the uses of pictorial irony.

They say there comes a point in ones studies where you can never go back and be innocent.  You never fully enjoy the things you study from the persepctive of a novice or even a spectator or on-looker. That’s the day you cross over ad become a journeyman on the road to professionalism.


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That maxim that you learn something new every day?  Seems like these past six weeks or so have been making up for all the days I was loafing around learning nothing.

Here are a pair of gems separated by a few years that got me thinking of non-thesis (but still relevant) ideas.  A researcher found that despite the desire by first-graders in her study for more informational picture books only 3.6 minutes a day were spent on nonfiction.  The problem, apparently, is that teachers and researchers are unfamiliar with the genre (nonfiction) and found the material in nonfiction picture books initially difficult to “manage or discuss.”

In short, the adults don’t have the familiarity, experience with, knowledge or comfort with nonfiction picture books.

This all comes from an article called “A Unique Visual and Literary Art Form: Recent Research on Picturebooks” by Carol Driggs Wolfenbarger and Lawrence R. Sipe, as published in Language Arts in January of 2007. But then I run into this blog post by Marc Aronson published on the School Library Journal website not just a few weeks ago:

Books about, say, Galileo, the Curies, George Washington Carver, and even Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow were all essentially the same narrative — a far sighted individual grasped a truth, battled the prejudices of his or her time, and, eventually led humanity towards a better, brighter, future. We as a society agreed on that master plot line as either true, or, certainly, the kind of truth it was important to bring to young readers.

Because there was a generally agreed upon master plotline for biography… We have precisely the same situation today in epic film where, since Star Wars, we have been in the land of the Hero’s Journey. Because that master plot is so known and assumed, it is as available to be used for a father fish searching for his lost son as a chosen child training at a school for magicians. The shared master narrative makes it easier to craft individual movies.

Ah! So we’ve had a history (since the late 19th century, I’ve discovered) of this shared narrative that only recently has been changed in children’s books, especially picture books.  Aronson points out that since we no longer have this master narrative, since we now feature biographical subjects with a more balanced hand at humanizing them (Aronson’s term), that adults no longer know how to read or decode these new narratives.  The result is that adults say they don’t like nonfiction (or for boys, don’t acknowledge it as “legitimate” reading) with the consequence being that those in charge of children’s education spend fewer than 4 minutes a day highlighting the importance of nonfiction.

What could you learn in 3.5 minutes a day?  I had my youngest daughter work it out.  In the year she learned how to play the recorder at school, dividing that time she spent with music lessons twice a week, from first lesson to spring concert, it would have taken her nearly five years to cover the same ground at 3.5 minutes a day.

When we hear news reports about how the US lags in math and science scores, and about how there’s no interest in science in general, is it any wonder if we give emerging readers and learners short shrift when it comes to nonfiction?

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Was it just yesterday that I came up with that “brilliant” idea for saving publishing?  You know, the idea of author’s selling peeks of their books for a buck and then giving them the option to buy the rest, a la iTunes?

Farking Amazon and their spelunking Kindle.  Apparently they announced yesterday that you can get a FREE Kindle reader app for iPhones, and as part of the whole Kindle shebang that means you can read the first three chapters for free before buying a book.

See how this works in reverse, see how this screws authors?  Amazon and the publishers are perfectly fine with giving away a writer’s property in the hopes they can capitalize on it, but the writer gets paid AFTER Amazon and the publisher do.  They use the work of others (writers) as the free lure that will allow them to snag the dollars and then parcel out what they deem fitting to a writer.  This is upside down, and writers need to get it and get it quick so they can flip the model.

Now I know, you can walk into any bookstore and flip through a book (heck, I’ve seen people read entire books) before paying for it, and Amazon and publishers can argue that they’re just following that model.  Uh uh, no, we don’t live in that world anymore.  People are savvy, and their disposable income is more limited, and the top down models have proven (have they not) a disparity between the corporate leeches and the underpaid line workers who earn them their golden parachutes and bailout retreats. With content delivery becoming the issue it’s a question of who controls the content, who is  deciding the terms.

Writers, we need to seriously crawl out of our caves and think about this.  When Amazon was pushing books (and later other goods) they were providing a supply service that could not be matched by the individual. You could not, for example, publish and ship and process your books on your own, nor could you do it with the speed or volume that Amazon could, without incurring huge costs.  Now that the product — the content, the actual text itself — can be sent and read electronically there is no reason to allow Amazon to do what you can do on your own.  Amazon had to create a proprietary e-reader because they knew that otherwise they couldn’t control the content and would get cut out of their share of your money.

I was going to go with a child sex worker analogy here, but it seemed a bit coarse.  How about this. If you were a farmer (writer), and you could deliver your produce (book) with your own truck (computer) to your neighbors (readers), why would you sell the produce (book) to a distributor (publisher) who would brand it and ship it to a supermarket chain (Amazon) who will ship it back to your local store (Kindle) for your neighbors to buy?

If publishing wants to survive it needs to start partnering with the writer to figure out how to best deliver content; and if writers wish to get paid they need to partner with their publishers before they are out of business and have to start dealing with Amazon directly.  You think Amazon is going to deliver better advances?  If the publishers go under, Amazon and its Kindle will still need content, and in that arrangement between the writer and Amazon, who is going to come out ahead?

I’m still good with what I said yesterday.  Writers need to get theirs up front and everyone else down the line comes next.  There’s a very small (relatively small) window here where this can be corrected, where writers and publishers can help each other and not simply become part of the Amazon supply chain.

One last thought: Back in the day when I was quasi active in the ‘zine community (anyone remember zines?) there was this idea that you never gave away your zines, you always put a price on them.  Even if your main concern was getting the word out the prevailing wisdom was that your effort was worth something, even a nominal charge to cover costs if nothing else.  It’s very simple, really – if you don’t think your work is worth something, why should anyone else take it seriously?  Is there reliable data behind this idea that giving away something for free really entices buyers, or does it only entice those whose primary concern is “free” before “content?”

Anyone have a line on Stephen King?  I wonder what he thinks.

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the paradigm shift

I randomly check Facebook when I’m stumped or need a break during writing and research.  It’s a quick blip.  You look, maybe comment, then jump away.  But Becky Clark linked to her own blog post (which I have now also linked to) about the recent demise of the Rocky Mountain News and whether or not authors should give away their writing for free and suddenly I was tearing into a reply.  You can read my whole screed for yourself there, but as I got toward the end I found myself sorting through things I never really articulated to myself before.

There is a strange paradigm shift taking place in the publishing world as well, and the problem there as with newspapers is that they are trying to fit old models onto the new chassis. “Giving things away for free” is a very 19th century business way of looking at a world that considers this practice “building a market through permission.” In exchange for the “free” content readers are giving the providers “permission” to contact them for other offers, news, information, deals, or to mine their personal data for other reasons. Facebook is a platform we call “social networking” but beneath the surface we are all giving away bits of ourselves to the community and following that up with permission to let others comment and connect. There’s no way to know how that exchange of information is going to connect – indeed, that’s how I ended up here, and neither of us could have predicted it – or how useful that will be down the road. That’s a part of networking, part of the permission, and ultimately a part of what is going to shape how these new forms of content are going to be compensated.

Piggy-backing on my post last Friday, it occurred to me that perhaps I landed on another way for publishing to save itself, or more importantly, for authors to get paid and help save publishing at the same time.

Give it away.  Sort of.

What if I made a deal with the publisher to offer readers the first three chapters of my next book for $0.99 with an option to buy the rest of it if they like it, either hard copy or digital, with a coupon that applies that dollar to the sale price of the whole thing? This is the iTunes model, where you can buy a song you like and then apply that charge to buying the rest of the album down the road. And when you buy the whole album, you get a slight discount that is cheaper than if you bought it one song at a time, so a book purchased after the sample has been bought should be slightly less.

Given that currently an author only makes about a dollar for each hardcover sale I, as the author, don’t lose, and if by offering a prospective reader something they consider to be a deal – a dollar is less of a risk than paying for a book and not liking it – then we’d all come out ahead. I’m paid for the peek, the publisher is paid for the object, and publishing is saved.

Saved!  Publishing houses can be saved!  By writers!

What a novel thought.

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