Saturday, October 3, 2015

Days Late, Dollars Short (September update)

I realize that it's the lamest thing in the universe to post late and then apologize for posting late, but I really do apologize. This should have been up about a week ago.
Things are going well, here. I was just invited to do a workshop at a college's literary conference, which was great. I decided to walk them through a modified "interview your character" exercise as a way of creating an active first chapter. One of my biggest pet peeves in a book is when the first chapter is a disembodied monologue from the character. That's just lazy writing, like starting a movie with a voice over before we've even met the character. I despise that stuff (and yet, freely admit that there are novels I like quite a bit that do this thing, like Donna Tartt's The Secret History).
The twist of the exercise came at the end, so they had to create a person who had done something inexcusable. Then I asked them to play the psychologist or detective and sit across an imaginary table and interview this person they just invented. Now, they could start writing a piece with that--many do. But that is safe. Staring across the table at the monster from the point of view of the predominant culture is safe. I nicknamed it the Mariska Hargitay problem, because I think that's one of the pleasures that people derive from shows like Law and Order: SVU--they get to get close to the monster and examine it from the safety of the point of view of the "sane" character. If someone's going to write transgressive fiction, though, which was the goal of the workshop, they have to take the safety away. Hence my sort of subtitle for this exercise, which was "taking the safeties off." I'm thinking of that scene from "The Hunt for Red October" where they're talking about torpedoes. If you leave the safeties on, according to the logic of the movie, then the torpedoes won't explode until they're far enough away that they won't blow up in your face. But sometimes you have to take the safeties off, the movie tells us, if the enemy is very, very close. There, you run the risk of your weapons causing harm to you. Not exactly the most elegant metaphor, but it got the job done. The next step for the workshop was to take the safeties off--to remove the comfortable position of being the one to examine the unforgivable monster they created and instead occupy that character by imagining the "monster" (now in quotes) doing something mundane like buying milk. The kicker was the erasure step--to erase the questions that the interviewer was asking earlier and to adopt the answers as the main characters unprompted thoughts. Instead of playing Mariska Hargitay's character sitting across the table from the "monster," they have now adopted that "monster" as a character and must deal with the consequences of living in the "monster's" head.
Not the most elegant of exercises, I agree, and certainly not designed to produce anything close to final draft prose--but enough to get the wheels turning, I felt. Many of the participants felt uncomfortable, and a handful really kind of just stopped at the erasure part, unwilling to go any further. This is totally okay, by the way. Transgressive fiction isn't for everyone, nor should it be. Remember it is exactly that wall between what is acceptable in the definition of the self and what is outside that wall that produces what I consider to be one of the greatest works of transgressive lit, Palahniuk's Fight Club. Still, some really did engage, and I am excited to see what might happen. One young woman seemed to be working toward something similar to Craig Clevenger's Dermanphoria, which is a magnificent novel.
Still no work on Drowning Narcissus to give you. I think some part of that may be my fault--the publication date I asked for was very optimistic. I can admit to that. The press has also moved from Maine to New Orleans, so it's going to take a while to finish the move and get back up and running.
All the beta readers have returned their notes for the current novel in progress. The good news is that they all report that it's a page-turner (independently of each other, they all used words to that effect, which makes me happy). The bad news is that, as to be expected, there's still a lot of work to do. That's okay, though--that's what winter breaks are for. So, I'm going to hunker down over winter break and start through their truly excellent suggestions (I have some of the best readers on the planet, I swear). Then, after the first of the year, I'll get it done and then start shopping it around. I have my eye on a few places that I think might want this one. I may even get an agent involved (not my idea, but something 2 of the 3 beta readers suggested).
I just finished reading an incredible novel, John Scalzi's 2012 novel Redshirts
Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for meta-level storytelling, and this one delivers like crazy (and even makes reference to all the same movies and novels that you're thinking about right now that do something similar, so it's even meta about being meta-level). At the same time as it critiques television science fiction, it's also a wonderful love letter to that genre. I can easily see why this one won the Hugo and the Locus. Go snag a copy (plus, bonus, if you get it on audio, it's read by one of my earliest crushes, Wil Wheaton, which adds another level of meta).
So, again, if you're someone who was at the recent literary conference and picked up my novels, thank you so much for the support! As always, catch up with me over on twitter @iamnotecho, and I'll see you in a few weeks when, Great Intergalactic Squid of Forgiveness, I post the next blog update on time.

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