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The word came back on my most recent revision that, yes, I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.

The story arc is fine, the tension appropriately taught, the characters in place, but it appears I need to give the antagonists narrative arcs as well.  Actually, they do have their narrative arcs, I simply haven’t illuminated them all yet.  And as characters ebb further from the main character it becomes crucial that these narratives be seen and observed in a way that both the reader and the main character can draw their conclusions together.

I’ll admit, despite working until the last minute on this packet deadline, I secretly hoped the story could be closer to being finished.  Hoped, but not realistically.  There was a time – maybe six months ago? – when I wasn’t sure if this would ever be finished, if these goofy middle grade boys I had created were simply too elusive for a novice writer like myself.  As recently as July I was still considering abandoning them if I had even the faintest hint that their story was beyond my reach.  And mind you, this isn’t a complicated or particularly challenging story, but its shape and tone had been elusive to me.

But only a few months later and it keeps feeling closer to being done.  The way the horizon keeps moving ahead of you as you walk toward it is a little how this feels.  A year ago I would have said, with the completion of the first very rough draft, that I had reached the mountain top, could see the end destination across the valley below though the path was obscured by dense foliage.  The analogy works on another level for me because I remember, hiking the Sierra’s as a Boy Scout, how many times we reached a peak or a pass and could see our destination ahead of us but there always seemed to be one more peak perpetually in the way.  Finally, we would reach our camp for the day and be surprised because we hadn’t seen it coming, there was no “one last peak” to measure it by.

So that’s where I am right now.  Somewhere in between that last peak and the final destination, somewhere in the valley foliage unable to see how close I am to the end.  The light is shifting, I can tell progress has been made, and it all seems easier than when I first was getting my mountain legs, but I have no idea where camp is.

My chief antagonist is waiting for some scenes of her own to chew on.

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res/write #2

Today was my day for workshop, and for the first time I wasn’t nervous about it.  They were a pair of short stories and I didn’t really feel I had a handle on the short story.  I still don’t, though I do feel a lot better about them after hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Today’s writing assignments in workshop didn’t exactly spring from anything specific in my stories, but they were a nice reminder about the idea of point-of-view.  The three connected exercises were adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. We were first asked to write a short first-person narrative describing an accident.  In the second, we were to tell the same story from the point-of-view of a friend of the narrator in the first exercise.  The third version was to be from the viewpoint of an outside witness.  It went something like this:

You know that crusty old fart next door, Mister Higgins?  Well, I broke his window.  We were out in the street playing baseball with Rudy and Mark and some little kids and I shot a line drive right into his living room window.  Only it didn’t go through the window because of the screen.  The ball just sort of hung there like a fly caught in a spider web while all the glass flew into his house.  I ran home to hide before he could see me – we all scattered – and I tripped on my front stairs, which was how I broke my arm.  Then Mom was crying and yelling at the same time for me not having my shoelaces tied, while Dad and Mister Higgins yelled at each other about who was gonna pay for his broken window ’cause Dad got Mister Higgins to admit that he didn’t actually see who did it…

So did you hear about Jake?  Yeah, he broke his arm, but did you hear how?  No, no, not just the fall, it was because he he’d just broke Old Man Higgins’ window with a baseball.  Or a softball, he didn’t say.  The thing is… the thing is, he didn’t get caught because his dad asked Old Man Higgins to say who he saw hit the ball into the window but he said he didn’t exactly see Jake hit it… Yeah, I know, his dad probably knew Jake did it but they had to take him to the hospital and there wasn’t anything Higgins could do about it.  He probably went home and cackled about the whole thing, like somehow Jake’s broken arm was worth a broken window…

I didn’t realize anything was going on until I heard the Melbak kid screaming bloody murder.  Before I could even get out of my La-Z-Boy to check out what was going on I head two kids running through the back alley like they were on fire.  I peeped out the bathroom window and saw that boy Jake was holding his arm close to his body and his forearm was practically purple from bruise.  I wasn’t surprised when he came home from the hospital later with his arm in a cast.  But that Sam Higgins, he was there when that boy was screaming, flapping his arms like a scrawny chicken, yelling something about some broken window.  I couldn’t make too much sense of it beyond Sam not looking so pleased that the Melbak’s were more interested in taking care of their kid than listen to anything he had to say.  That old man’s always making such a nuisence of himself, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t his fault that boy Jake got his arm broke…

It ain’t Updike, but then I’d be a little put-of if I could be compared to Updike.  Maybe.  Only a little.

The thing is, this sort of opened up a door to an older story I read at my first residency back in January of 2008, a three-part YA novel with three unreliable narrators.  I’d been stalled out because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to really capture three different voices and was sort of hoping that somewhere along the line while I was here at VCFA that I’d get a tool for my writer’s toolbox that would help me bring it in from its rough-hewn state.  These exercises gave me a finger plane, something to really hone it smooth.  That story isn’t on the horizon, but I’m happy to have a better idea about what to do with it once I get the chance.

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The incoming class is already starting to filter in, their first official meeting is tonight.  The faculty is already there.  The rest of us will be filtering in as well, arriving in time for orientation just after lunch tomorrow. Time again for that thing we call “the res,” or simply “res,”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults bi-annual residency!

So part of me wants to promise to keep regular updates, but I know that’s contingent on any number of factors.  Last time I managed to snag a solo room, so I was able to stay up late at night writing and blogging without worrying about keeping anyone else awake.  Single rooms are incredibly rare, but still, one can hope.

I suppose I could try and Tweet.  But that’s not what I feel like doing in the brief moments between faculty lectures and studetn lectures and all the other good stuff scheduled for the coming scant two weeks.  But all of that is still to come because, as of this moment, I am still maing lists of everything I need to do, and some last minute packing, and everything else I need to wedge into the day before a nice mellow pizza and movie night with my Suze before leaving early tomorrow morning.

It’s a little like camp, where you can’t wait to see the people you haven’t seen since the last time you were at camp.  It’s like summer camp but all the activities are indoor, because if we added outdoor activites we’d end up there for a month instead of two weeks.  It’s a summer camp with a graduation and a prom attached.  It’s a writer’s retreat, and a battery recharge, and a reunion with community, and dorms with cafeteria food.

And I am a little excited.  But not so you’d notice.

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I have spent the better part of the day – maybe six hours all told but it could be pushing eight – writing a total of five pages.  They obviously did not come easy.  Every word in every line feels wrong, every motivation stilted.  It’s pushing 1 AM and I am reluctant to quit for the day despite my fatigue because I don’t feel I’ve done enough to justify sleep.

I  write a few lines, I back up several paragraphs to regain momentum, scrawl another line, stop.  I read and reread.  I see where I’ll have to go back and work dialogue, make the characters voices distinct.  I spot details I will have to back-fill.

I so want to quit this story.

I cannot beleive this simple story doesn’t want to be told, at least not at this time.

I feel like one of my freakin’ characters, trapped in the darkest part of their journey, steeped in bleek and certain I’ll never find my way out.  All well and good, because I need to be able to feel that in order to properly convey that same feeling through my character, but why the hell can’t I get the characters into this spot?  Why am I on the inside and they’re on the outside?

These are the moments where we go in search of the impossible, the ridiculous.  I want a mysterious stranger to deliver the magic pebble, or secret map.  A little personal deus ex machina, if you will.  Just this once, just to get over the hump.

I know, I signed up for this.  No one said it would be easy.  I know.  I know.

Crap.

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This is neither about the legality of former slaves or about the senior President Bush.  This is about deadlines, and re-envisioning the middle grade book, and the panic of feeling like I cannot write.

Third semester in a row now on this middle grade novel and fourth entirely different approach.  The more I revisit this story, the more I whittle away at it, the less I know it.  Perhaps there’s a wisdom in there somewhere, about having to forget everything I know (or think I know) in order to regain what is lost, or to find the true heart of the story, but for the life of me all it makes me feel like is failure.

Everything I read suggests my problems come from a lack of conflict, that instead of my main character wanting something the story is, as one person described it, One Damn Thing After Another.  But the models don’t fit the story I want to tell, the story isn’t about a character who knows what he wants.  In fact, it’s precisely because he doesn’t know what he wants that he figures it out in the end.

It’s always bothered me when character set out on their journeys with so clear a desire.  As humans, we do that for the big picture, but so much of our lives are shaped by the little picture, the things that happen along the way that add up down the road.  We’ll cut some slack on an adventure story, or a mystery, because we know that the pieces will be filled in along the way.  But when it comes to a string of unintended consequences adding up to a true-but-unsuspecting sum of the parts, boy, we don’t like to talk about those plot structures because they don’t work.

Except I don’t believe that.

When I was training to be an art teacher I had so many adults wish me luck because they felt art wasn’t teachable, it was some mystical talent you were born with, and good luck.  I’m not going to lay out how incredibly false this notion is except that I understand how people could come to that conclusion.  Tweens and teens are fond of expressing how impossible their homework is, how their soccer coaches demand the impossible, how no matter what they do the just don’t get it and never will.  It is a simple but no less true fact that the only thing we are born knowing how to do is laugh and everything else along the way must be learned.  There may be any variety of impediments along the way that prevent one from becoming, say, an Olympian athlete or a nuclear physicist, but no one is born a natural archaeologist or a natural gardener, and really, everything must be learned.

Along the way we gather bits and peices of those things that will make us the people we are, except those pieces don’t control us; we chose those things that define us and we combine them into our personal narratives.  So as we read those narratives – in real life and in books – we tend to believe in those stories that resonate with our experience.  If our experience is limited to several hundred years’ worth of unrealistic goal-centered journeys where every action is in support of the main character’s prime objective, then any story that falls outside of that track is foreign territory, it’s off the map, and as a consequence, we see it as ‘wrong.’

I recall being in sixth grade and thinking I wanted to be an animator for Disney when I grew up.  Knowing and vocalizing that didn’t send me on a journey to meet a famous animator, or spend my days obsessively drawing flip books, or get me in trouble at school for handing in book reports that were really summaries of Disney cartoons.  In sixth grade I was busy writing and illustrating puns and puzzle books, modifying my Stingray into a low-rider bike, reading books on magic, and spending my summers taking oil painting and ceramics classes.  Perhaps if I had been more obsessed I would have ended up an animator for Disney, but clearly that wasn’t my destiny, and so any story of my life written as a middle grade novel wouldn’t work.

But here I am, and things happened during these years in between, and it seems sometimes that maybe life really is about the random elements that add up to something you couldn’t see from the beginning.

I know this story backwards and forwards.  I know these boys and how they think, how their field of vision is blinkered to the point they can barely see their own feet, and I know the trouble they get into because of it.  I know what they’re up against, and what they think they’re up against, and all the key players.  I know all these things and yet I cannot seem to express them in a way that makes narrative sense in any traditional format.

I wrote a solid new opening.  Then a second chapter came slower.  I’m weeding elements from previous drafts and making it breezier, but now it feels artificial.  I found the inciting incident and wrote four more chapters and then, just an hour ago while lying in bed unable to sleep, realized I didn’t need it.  I thought I had to give these boys I’m writing about a reason to spin off and make these mini comics that piss people off – but they don’t need a reason.  They’re boys, this is what boys do.  They become the inciting incident.  Fellow students react to them, they in turn react to the reaction, chain reaction sends everything spinning off into space, story ends when everything comes crashing back to earth and the boys are left with a bunch of smashed pieces to deal with.  They don’t want any of what happens to them, their desires are almost selfish, and if there can be said to be anything resembling rising tension and set-backs they aren’t object based.

I’ve been having to fight this Aristotelian view of the craft for some time and haven’t really found anything that makes me feel comfortable with my writing.  It may simply be I have become much too stubborn to see that the story is impossible because I will not (or cannot) cram the story into the mold.

It’s not supposed to be easy, I know that.  Does it have to feel so impossible?

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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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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.

Zip.

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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