About Writers, writing technique

Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems like the most important thing in the world. Even when I’m laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I’m doing is vital and rich and worthwhile.

The final product is never quite what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect. I’m enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye to your little book, wish it well, and start your next book, full of the fresh misguided conviction that this time you’ll see it through all the way and it will be perfect and magnificent.

That’s how it is for me, anyway. And probably it’s for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

Probably to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is a frolic. It is, in its own way, trifling. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first professional review (all right, it was from Publisher’s Weekly, but it was only a contest, and the book was never published) called my book “sprightly”—it had a “sprightly tone.” At first, I wondered if that wasn’t just a bit belittling. Sprightly isn’t, perhaps, the most dignified adjective to apply to work of literature. But eventually I appreciated it. I even came to embrace it or at least the playful energy it implies. Even in a serious story, prose can frolic a bit. Nabokov could be sprightly. So could Melville, not to mention some of my other personal favorites like Delany and Tiptree. It implies, I think, both facility and agility.

Or maybe I’m just trying to put the best face on it.

Consider Spark. It’s certainly got a light feel to it, but structurally, the novel’s tone is inverted. Even subverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the pocket universe, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd, almost parodic.  And it’s ultimately trivial. It doesn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, the apparent trivia of day-to-day life—boyfriends and basketball and friendship and loyalty— that is what the story is really about. That, obviously, is what really matters. That is what lasts.

Said another way? (big theme here, watch out):  The great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark is a Great Book, worthy of term papers and Spark(ahem)Notes? Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.

But this sad truth does nothing to quell or belie the impulse behind the writing. I don’t set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I may hope for greatness, but mostly I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I start writing.

But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It’s amazing that we want to do it. It’s magical that we can. We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulssvechae means messing around with greatness, with divinity. My goofy novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Moby Dick. In those quiet, passionate moments, when we’re dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of an immortal face, we hear the nonsensical muttering of the muses.

How can we come away from that experience untouched by greatness?

Those muses, those angels, do have a message you know, a very simple one:  We are here. We are real. And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame’s worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we are passing on that message.

They are here. They really are.

 

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Welcome

It’s a Grand Game.

That’s what I keep telling myself.

Thoughts on a gray, ugly afternoon, when I long to be out in the garden. I’m not in a cheery mood.

 

images-3I never thought my book could be published, for a number of reasons. I’ve gotten past that. I’ve finally found a solution for what I always saw as my major problem, radically different tones in books one and three. I’ve nudged both sensibilities to a middle ground, and I think it works.

The marketing will be as hard or harder. What can I say except: we have to try to enjoy the experience in and of itself, as a game. Because, we all know it, the odds are heavily against us.

Here we are, on this crazy train, right? Maybe we’ll end up in a sweet place, maybe not. Set your sights too high and you’ll have your heart broken, I’m afraid. My definition of high would be a genuine career, earning anything (and I do mean anything) remotely akin to a living.

I hope none of us has paid one of the rebooted vanity presses for a (very likely) iffy edit, a formatting, a cover, and a few POD hard copies. I have a neighbor who bought such a package. At first I thought she had been legitimately published. I was thrilled for her. Then I googled the name of the small press publisher. Their charges run four hundred to well over a thousand dollars. I doubt she’ll make her money back. I asked her, what are you doing to promote it? I got a blank look in return.

Actually, a thousand ain’t bad. My father paid to publish his autobiography in the early eighties. The story in my family is that he spent ten thousand dollars to get himself in print. (Ten thousand thirty years ago. What would that be today? At least double.)

He may have sold a few books through the Swiss-American Society (his family immigrated from Switzerland when he was a child, and it was rather an interesting story, hardscrabble homesteading in Canada, mine disasters in Washington state, rough, they had it rough) but he had to give most copies away.

There is a ton of stuff on the web about promotion. I’ve been gathering it, for years, into a file. I’ll fish out the most useful items and dribble them in here from time to time. But my best advice is, have fun with this. Honestly, that’s my very best advice.

Here’s a more nuts-and-bolts tip: I’ve read again and again, take it slow and steady, keep writing, publish multiple titles, grow a following. That’s how Hugh Howey (Wool) did it. He initially offered his book in serial form. And, of course, he had a great story in a popular genre, and a lot of luck. I’m not writing in a popular genre, and I’ve never been particularly lucky, so I’d better settle for having fun. Frankly, that’s been my game plan all along.

I’m right now googling a book written by a former housemate. My brother told me twenty years ago that he’d walked into the Harvard Coop on a visit to Boston and found the guy doing an author signing of Murder in the Combat Zone. I lived in a group house with Herb for five or six years. Now I find on his Linked In profile that he studied creative writing at Cornell.

He never breathed a word about an interest in writing all the time I knew him but, neither did I. Rae was a computer person at MIT, Christopher was the perpetual PhD candidate at Tufts, I was making stripper costumes for the Combat Zone (which is why I remember the title of his book exactly, I had jotted notes for a thriller set in the Zone myself and I was jealous, and bummed). No writing went on in that house that I was aware of, but for Chris and his never completed dissertation. Herb and everyone else (we had many transients) were working for a computer-paper recycling co-op that my brother started. I’m curious as hell to know how well he writes, now that I see, my God!, he studied creative writing at Cornell. Maybe under Nabokov. Hold on. I’ll check on that.

Nope. Nabokov was there until ’59. Herb would have landed on campus in the fall of ’64. Vladimir wouldn’t have been teaching undergrads anyway. I can’t find a mention of Herb’s book anywhere. He apparently never wrote a follow-up. I guess the first didn’t sell. Big surprise, hey? This would have been the eighties, pre-ebook. Damn! You’d think a reseller would have a copy listed.

Well, we have ebooks now and they don’t disappear. This is something of a nightmare for those of us trying to get a toe in the door. I pump myself up with the idea that a hundred years from now someone may discover my nonsense and I’ll be a sensation.

I mean to be encouraging. Is it working?

This venture shows signs of developing into a formidable resource. GD’s first post contains very useful information, in Jousting Windmills. Thanks, GD. I may use a variation of that phrase on a piece comparing goofball me to Miguel de Cervantes and goofball Sly (my fast-talking cat) to Don Q. Who’s roly-poly Sancho? Sly’s own sidekick, my roly-poly froggie, of course.

We’ve got some good heads here (mine the least of them, providing comic relief). Dip a toe in every now and then. You’re going to be glad you did.

 

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