Month: July 2009

Writerly ramble: Current status of the toolbox.

So I’m working on revising the Short Story that Wouldn’t Die, the Thing in the Box story, which has survived 13 rejections (and one acceptance/’zine tank) to date. (The name started out as “Things You Don’t Want but Have to Take” and changed to “Fragile” when I thought it would sell better that way and has now gone back to the original name, but it is, essentially, a Thing in the Box story.)

I’m not very good at short stories. This was the one I liked the most so far – but it’s still hasn’t been published. But I have another short story drafted that I like, and I have another one rumbling around in the back of my head…and I really, really like short stories. Horror shorts, mostly.

I promised myself I could get this one revised and sent out before I got back to Alien Blue, both so I could feel a sense of accomplishment and so I could have more time to ruminate on AB issues before I went back down in the weeds.

Revise, revise, revise. I curse myself for not being able to know whether I’m writing brilliantly or with great sucktitude. Suddenly, this morning, I think, “Why not use my novel writing tools on it and see what I get?”

Hrm…

What are my current novel-writing tools? What ARE novel-writing tools? Versus other writing tools?

Well, writing tools in general are anything that help you write. Improv exercises, character sheets, programs that highlight adverbs, etc.

What I think of as my novel-writing tools are the quick checks I’ve been making before I start something difficult in a novel–either drafting or revising, even just revising a specific scene, to make sure I’m heading where I intend to go (rightly or wrongly).

Here’s the current list, which I can get through in a half-hour when I’m in the middle of a project, longer if I’m trying to work something out:

  • Log line. A short (25-word or less) description of the story, in the format of Main character [adverb + verb] tries to ________. Notes: Between the adverb and verb, one of the two must change before the end of the story. Also, the attempted action must reflect the focus of the story–not the ending. Don’t reveal the twist at the end. (Via general PPWC goodness.)
  • Character web. Write the names of the characters on a piece of paper and draw lines to show the relationships between them, checking for any missing relationships or characters. Yours truly, writing about mysterious things (although not necessarily mysteries) often finds hidden connections or parallels between characters this way. (My own invention.)
  • GMC. Goal, motivation, conflict. Take the main characters and write at least their main goal, their motivation for the goal, and the conflict that stops them from immediately achieving their goal. You can do two versions, one for their internal goal, and one for an external goal. (Got this from Pam McCutcheon.)
  • Plot as Joke. Write the ending down. Working backwards, include all the steps needed to set it up. Make sure each unit (story as a whole, each chapter) includes a beginning that sets up the end, all of and only the necessary steps to set up the end, and only the ending necessary. (For some reason, this usually breaks into 4-part sections: Beginning, Thing 1, Thing 2, End-which-leads-to-new-beginning.) (From Daniel Abraham. My hero.)
  • The Clue grid. With any mystery, there are red herrings. Make a grid like the game Clue: Character, Method, Opportunity–add a column for motive. Do this for each mystery (subplot). You may want to set up a Joke plot for each red herring, too–Plot A looks like Mrs. White did it in the Conservatory with the lead pipe; Plot B looks like Professor Plum did it in the Library with the Revolver. If you’ve seen the movie Clue, you’ll know what I mean. (Adapted, obviously, from Clue.)
  • So what? The most nebulous tool. What was it you had in mind when you sat down to write this particular story? What was the point? “A rollicking good time” is so vague as to be meaningless. (I pulled this out of the general “how to write a story” ether.)

Here’s AB:

  • Log line: An ornery barkeep tries to save his town from alien invasion using a mysterious blue beer.
  • Character web: In progress, actually–I’m working out where the Good Doctor fits in, and how everyone has different relationships at the end of the story. Different types of relationships.
  • GMC: Goal–Bill Trout wants to save his town from alien invasion. Motivation–A failed ex-cop, Bill wants to keep people safe and prevent his best friend, Jack Stout, from making a fatal mistake. Conflict–Jack’s too !@#$%^& smart for his own good.
  • Plot: Not going to give it away here!
  • Clue grid: Have to rework this again, re: Good Doctor.
  • So what? AB’s about what makes stories–and, by extension, memory–important. I also wanted to mess around with the question of what makes a monster.

So here’s my trying this stuff on the Thing in the Box story (spoilers):

  • Log line: Defeated housewife tries to hide a long-lost monster from her lonely husband.
  • Character web (as close to the picture as I can get): Madeline (wife)—>David (husband) (relationship: cold, proper, a “good marriage”). Madeline—->Doreen (relationship: sucking the lifeblood, rules, expectations) (phone survey note – adding insult to injury). Joe (delivery man)—>no relationship to anybody, but reminds Madeline of an ex-boyfriend (parallel). Monster—>Madeline. The curiosity that killed the cat. M thinks the monster came because of “who she is really.” Old BF—>Madeline (relationship memory, he found out who she was and left).
  • GMC: Madeline G: Hide the monster. M: Husband will leave if he finds out. C: Monster won’t stay hidden. David G: Find out what’s going on. M: Tired of the excuses. C: Hurting Madeline. Monster G: Keep Madeline as she is (i.e., tied to the monster). M: Only way of existing, as parasite. C: Madeline betrayal (punish?).
  • Plot as Joke: 1) M tries to hide monster from D but fails. 2) D tries to destroy monster alone. 3) M comes clean to D. 4) M & D face monster together. –Ah, I was missing 3, and 1 needs to be refocused.
  • Clue grid: One of the few stories I’ve written that doesn’t need one, although I did write down the clues (what is the monster?) and decided to remove one, because the story (see below) is about something that means I need to keep the monster purposely vague.
  • So what? The story is about living with something you can’t live with (but is at least somewhat your own fault), and how you cope. M has coped poorly, hiding the truth and even her personality in order to keep things under control, not asking for or accepting help from outside sources in the fear she’ll be pushed away totally (again). The story shows how that breaks down and what she does about it. People have given me fascinating comments, trying to find out what the monster “really” is. I don’t want to lose that.

Results…well, I’m going to have to read it again tomorrow, but I think I might have it. We shall see.

Recipe: Pesto.

Among other things, summertime is about eating yourself stupid on fresh vegetables and fruit from the farmer’s market.

And basil.

Pesto

1 large bunch basil
4 cloves garlic
1/3 c (pre-grating) freshly-grated, extra-good Parmesan or Romano
1/3-1/2 c. pine nuts
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar (optional)

I like rougher pesto; the smooth stuff just doesn’t do it for me.

So here’s what you do: go to Sam’s Club, Costco, or what have you, and buy a block of Parmegiano-Reggiano and a package of pine nuts. Don’t bother buying this stuff at a grocery store; you’d be stingy with it, and that would be sad.

(Do you really need the pine nuts or cheese? Well, no, you could make pesto without them, but it wouldn’t be sublimely yummy; it would be chopped basil – you would be better off just snipping basil leaves into your dish at the last second, to save time and sparkly basil freshness. Pesto is greater than the sum of its parts.)

Then go to the farmer’s market and buy a bunch of basil, a big one that masses about as much as a bunch of leaf lettuce. Or two or three bunches of basil, if you want to freeze some pesto for winter (this works very well; see below). Get some fresh garlic, while you’re at it. It should go without saying that if you can’t use fresh garlic or basil, don’t bother; get pre-made pesto in a jar instead.

Strip the basil leaves off the larger stems and wash the leaves thoroughly. Drain and drip dry.

Pull out your trusty nut chopper, the one with the springs and the W-shaped blade. Or a food processor, I guess. A blender is right out. Chop the leaves into largish flecks without pureeing them – standard crossword-puzzle box size or so. If you care whether your basil turns dark, I suppose you could chop it by hand – I’m too lazy.

Crush about 4 cloves of garlic through a garlic press and stir into the basil.

Grate (use a Microplane-style fine grater, if you have it) about 1/3 cup of Parmesan into the basil mixture.

Put about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of pine nuts in a dry saute pan, and toast the nuts over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are brown. Chop the nuts and add.

Start adding the best extra-virgin olive oil you can find. Add enough oil so the basil clings together smoothly in a paste (think tomato paste, only not as stiff), about 1/4 cup. If you like, add a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar (I know, I know, it’s not standard).

The flavor should be fairly mellow, except for the garlic. That’s okay. The best way to bring out the full flavor of the pesto is with a gentle heat – add the pesto to hot dishes AFTER you pull them off the heat.

To freeze: fill an ice cube tray with pesto and freeze, then pop the block out and put them in a freezer bag, removing as much air as possible (to prevent freezer burn).

Angel hair with pesto and tomatoes

1 recipe of pesto (see above)
3-4 good-quality ugly tomatoes, chopped to bite-size and seeded
1 lb. angel-hair pasta
feta cheese
capers (optional)

Cook pasta al dente in WELL salted water and drain, reserving a little pasta water. While still hot, toss with pesto and tomatoes, adding a little pasta water if it’s too dry. Top with feta and capers, if desired.

Sheer gluttony.

Do the Next Thing.

I realized a couple of days ago that I’m good at my job.

Sad, isn’t it?

I can sling commas with the best of them. I can argue quotation marks until I’m blue in the face. I can stand toe to toe with rocket scientists (well, engineers) and tell them they may not include metaphors in formal documentation. I can juggle a schedule, I can negotiate delays, I can determine whether requirements have been met and whether the reviewers are full of crap. I can make judgment calls and stand behind them later. I can back down even when I’m right (sometimes).

I found out someone was moving to a different job doing something similar, but with new things to learn – and I burned. Not right away, mind you. But an hour or two later, it hit me. I’m good at my job. I’m more than good enough at my job.

There are still more things to learn, but they mostly involve meta functions, like audits and process engineering and stuff like that. Nothing that I work on a daily basis.

I’m not bored yet – but I will be, soon.

My plan had been to work at this job until I could go freelance (not just fiction writing), but I don’t think I can wait that long. I’m disruptive when I’m bored.

Bored now.

So now what? What’s the next thing?

Well, I do know that I want to be some kind of guru. For me, TMI = state of bliss. I like meta functions, but as a whole job? I don’t know. I did QA for a while, but someone else designed the program, I just ran with it. Something databasy? I like to design things, but I’ve never made serious money at it. Something Internetty? I don’t want to get into food; there’s not enough money in it, and I’d rather keep it as a hobby. I don’t want to go back into health care, unless it’s as some kind of geek. I keep coming back to doing something computerish. And I don’t want to have to get another degree to start doing it – although some certs would be okay.

So I keep noodling around. I’ll be surprised if I make any changes before a year goes by – and shocked if I do anything before the year is out. But there it is: I can’t fit my brain back in the same box.

Tomorrow…

I’m tired of waiting for my daughter to come home. –I was doing just fine until about half an hour ago, when I saw some pictures of her fishing with Grandpa & co. And now I am not doing fine.

Done being patient!

Independence Day.

Happy Independence Day.

While a lot of people will be exhorting you to remember the sacrifices other people made to make this country what it is (usually so you will shut up and stop disagreeing with them for five minutes), I would like to exhort you to remember to be independent.

You are not your religion (or lack of it).

You are not a political party.

You are not a company or a job.

You are not even a family or a relationship. You aren’t your parents – you aren’t not your parents. Or your kids.

You aren’t tallness, you aren’t shortness, you aren’t healthiness, you aren’t illness, you aren’t wealth, you aren’t poverty, you aren’t happiness, you aren’t sadness.

You aren’t a sexual orientation. You aren’t manhood, womanhood, or anything in between.

You aren’t an unhappy childhood. You aren’t a privileged childhood.

You aren’t where you live. Or where you grew up.

You aren’t failure. You aren’t success.

People try to tell other people they are these things, that they should do things based on who they are. “You’re a ____. You should do _____.” I, for one, find myself doing it all time (e.g., “You’re a conservative. CONSERVE.”)

But it’s exactly that kind of thinking that leads to the ends justifying the means – Christians killing abortionists, gay people making fun of “breeders,” out-of-work fathers killing their kids so they don’t grow up hungry (and never grow up at all), environmental activists supporting biofuels that cause farmers to chop down rainforests, Libertarians who sell their liberty to corporations (to keep Liberty away from the Government), people who let their families fall apart because they can’t walk away from the jobs they took to support their families.

So take a step back from your ideals and ambitions today to smile more often, listen more, laugh at jokes, and do what you love (and not what you should do). Don’t put your nose to the grindstone. Don’t make sacrifices. Don’t be noble.

Taking it all with a grain of salt is also part of what makes this country great.

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