Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturdays, Bob Dylan, ashes

Bob Dylan was Saturday music. Often we had chores to do; I remember shoveling out the fireplace on an April day, working on a poem in my head, with "Tangled Up in Blue" coming from the living room.

Things like that lay the groundwork for all the creative work you're going to do later. You just don't know it. You might try to plan it differently, if you knew; but there's no way to predict what will be the triggers, what will lay down the pathways in your brain. You don't even find out until much later, when you hear a song and you recognize something and it hands you the missing piece to a story.

This is part of my father's legacy to me: a childhood of music, and embedded in it, a library of sensory details and emotional states.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I get such nice rejections. This one was a personal note telling me that my story, although not right for their publication, was beautifully done, and inviting me to submit others.

Apart from acceptances of course, this is the best kind of letter to receive. (Even better than the ones from my grandmother containing money, in fact.) It gives me confidence that this story (which I myself also thought was beautifully done) will find a home in the near future, and it encourages me to continue with my other stories, one of which will surely find favour with the editor in question. I cannot imagine a kinder thing to do for a beginning writer. Thanks, editor!

I am possibly anomalous among writers in that even form rejections are a pleasure for me to receive. Firstly, they relieve the anxiety that stems from having a piece on submission, if only for the few days it will take me to put it back in the mail to someone else. More importantly, though, they're tangible evidence that I am taking steps in this, my profession. Real, businesslike steps. I've learned so much from my many failures in my other profession that I've stopped seeing them as anything other than steps on the path to success.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In which I receive a twenty-year-old hug

Today I got back the first of several rolls of film I found in my dad's old cameras.

Three rolls: one containing only a single shot (a tree); one from our holiday two summers ago, during which he was afflicted with extreme cold sensitivity due to chemo, and could not go in the lake, but photographed it from the porch; and the final one, which had apparently been kicking around the camera bag for twenty years.

It was shot on our first hiking trip in Killarney. In the last two decades the film seems to have been rained on and x-rayed and liberally dusted with sand, so all of the shots are grainy and streaky and strange. But I'd recognize those white mountains anywhere.

Halfway through the roll, I came upon myself: myself at twelve, in my green tunic and ponytails, sprawled grinning on the rock. From my outfit, I think it was taken the day we climbed Silver Peak. I remember that day as the first day I was self-aware, in the sense I am now. The first day I was something other than a child.

I already knew my dad was watching--I have another image he took of me that day--but somehow this one, with its grit and distance and lack of contrast, is like a postcard from him, from the unimaginably far place. A memory that is his, as opposed to the other image, which is mine.

Twenty years since the trapdoor first opened in my mind. I hope I've learned some things. The feeling is the same, though. It's the feeling you get when you climb up a ridge and see above you another, higher peak, and below you, green branches and blue distance.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

In which we make people

Sarah Monette and Justine Larbalestier both posted about characterization recently. It's always interesting to me to hear other writers describe their methods, because sometimes they are so different from mine, and sometimes very similar. Also--since these are real writers--it's very, very helpful.

I think of myself as a character writer. I usually begin work with an image of a person in a place, doing something. For example: a guy crossing a vacant lot, stopping to look at a caved-in jackolantern. The guy is maybe seventeen, he's Caucasian and he's carrying a backpack. He's wearing running shoes and jeans. The vacant lot is stubbled with grass and the busted-up jackolantern has been there for some days.

This image tells me a lot of things about my setting and my character, if I look at it long enough. The time of year must be November, because of the rotting jackolantern. That means the guy must be in the first semester of his senior year, because he doesn't look quite old enough to be in college. That means his pack likely holds school books. He's wearing running shoes: maybe he likes to run. Maybe he's on the school track team. He stops to look at the pumpkin: maybe he was one of the people who busted it up and left it in this vacant lot. Or it could have been his friends, who like to get drunk. He goes along with them sometimes but he feels bad about it because it might affect his track performance.

...And somehow this image has become the jumping-off point for a lot of information about Guy and his life.

Now that I know Guy is a white teenager dressed in the clothing of the early nineties, I can give him a name suitable to that culture and period. And once I have a name, all this occult stuff in my brain starts churning: associations and meanings and directions start falling into place.

The next step Guy takes will be the first plot action in the story. I don't need to know where the story is going, and I probably won't know until I'm around the two-thirds mark. All I need to know right now is who Guy is, and what else is happening around him. Since he is Guy, he'll act and react only the way Guy would, not the way I would.

Since I like to write this way, rather than play God and suck Guy into another dimension or make zombies chase him, my next step is to create another character whose life is somehow connected to Guy's life. She'll start acting and reacting too, and before I know it, I have a plot that consists of the tension between the wants and needs of Guy and his girlfriend, or Guy and the zombie queen, and whoever else I bring into the picture.

Why do I need to tell myself about this right now? Well, I keep doing it wrong in the Not-a-Werewolf book. Part of me wants to introduce some new people, so I keep trying to wedge them into various scenes. It's the wrong approach. All I really need to know is who Maksim would call. And if he wouldn't call anyone, then the only way these people can get into the book is if they're the kind of people who would follow Maksim around and get in his business, and I don't think they are. That's why this chapter isn't working. I need to get myself out of the action, and let Maksim do what Maksim would do. Full stop.

Thank you; and now, to follow my own instructions.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

You get your transmissions at your front door and then you get old

I've spent a quiet morning reading the news. It was blissful at the time; and then I realized the whole thing had passed, and I hadn't written a word, and I'd wasted hours of sunlight that I could have been pretending to be a working writer (or at least buying groceries).

Self: do better! This is the year of striving.

(As if all those other years were not. Still.)

I have four more vacation days this winter, and--happy coincidence--four stories I owe myself by the first day of spring. Go forth!

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I don't really do New Year's resolutions any more, due to (a) my own repeated failure to comply with the ones I felt were self-punitive and (b) my tendency to obviate all the less punitive ones by doing them anyway, upon the moment they occurred to me, instead of waiting until the New Year to implement them.

I do, however, use the New Year as an occasion to think about my progress over the last twelve months (if any) and my intentions for the next twelve.

This year a number of friends and acquaintances have positively humbled me with the things they've done for others.

I've learned about the science fiction community's ethos of paying forward. I've been welcomed by that community, along with a number of my peers, and blessed with everything from distilled knowledge to good humour to medical texts to a warm embrace against a chilly wind.

I've watched my best friend vow, in memory of my own father, to avoid taking lives in her home, and instead transport bees and flies outdoors.

I've witnessed the generous spirit of my mother's small town, helping her out with everything from lawn care to baked goods, and I've witnessed their astonishing tribute to my father, as every member of the Fire Department passed before his coffin and offered their salute.

And I've witnessed my father's own generous spirit, as he found loving and wise things to say to me in the last days of his life: to me, the one he'd always found contrary and frustrating. He took care that his last words to me should be "I love you."

I've been loved by my little cat, too: with every ounce of her being, for every day she was with me. All I did in exchange for that love was to keep the food dish filled and make some space on my pillow.

That's a lot to pay forward. I could spend the rest of my life trying, and never be done. But I have some things to give. I'm not living on instant coffee and stale pie, not for some years now. I don't think I've been selfish with my resources in the past--I hope not--but I can do better, and I must, and I will.

And at my feet, eternity draws ever sweeter plans for me

I began the New Year this way: scribing words upon myself and my friends. My own word was "Strive", from Tennyson: "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."

And now, to go forth and publish.