Happy Halloween everybody! Wanted to put out just a bit more spookiness in honor of the holiday. This little story won a 100 word short story contest a few years ago back in San Diego and it seemed appropriate.
Who knows, maybe there was a time when that was even valid, back when TV was a kind of cultural wasteland, but without a doubt it no longer is. I honestly think if you want to see the best dramatic writing going on right now you are more likely to find it on TV than in a movie theatre or on a stage.
In the last few years we've seen, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Fringe, Breaking Bad, Lost, Terriers. On the comedy side there's 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Show, Arrested Development, Modern Family.
This is just off the top of my head, but the point is this--there is, and has been for awhile, some really great stuff out there. Work that is ambitious and detailed and superbly well written.
How did this come to be? Why so much quality TV now? I think the biggest reason is because of the huge segmentation of the viewing audience. With hundreds of niche channels on cable plus the internet, we have more choices now than ever. People who produce TV shows are scrambling for our attention and to do that they're more likely to try something a little off the beaten path. Gritty dramas will get a shot as will darker and more absurd comedies. They might not all last but they at least might get a shot. And because it's understood that viewing audiences are smaller now a show can survive on ratings that would have killed a show ten or fifteen years ago. So let's kill those culture snobs dead people! Let's talk TV with abandon! What are you guys watching and loving? What am I missing?
I was studying theater and the program wasn't quite as rigorous as I had hoped. Also I had no friends. Seriously. No friends. It takes me awhile to get comfortable with new people, something I've made peace with at this point, but back then I hadn't and it just made me uncomfortable and standoffish, which pushed people even further away. I was far from home for the first time in my life, unhappy and isolated.
Who knows, maybe that even played into what happened that night.
The picture above is of Lincoln House. It was torn down in 2006 to make way for a shiny new state of the art theater center, but back then it was the theater department's costume shop. Like most theater departments, JMU took a multidisciplinary approach to theater and that Fall it was my time to do a tour of duty on the costume crew.
That night, we were at the theater integrating costumes into a show for the first time. We were kind of overstaffed so I was standing around backstage with not much to do until the costume designer threw me a set of keys and asked if I would take the van over to the shop and pick up a load of costumes someone had forgotten in the drier.
If you've ever been involved in college or high school theater you know what it's like back stage leading up to a performance. The place is packed with the high energy collisions of attractive and creative young people. There's flirting to do, cigarettes to be smoked, parties to plan. An astonishing amount of backrubs. Faced with that sort of thing at a painfully introverted time in my life I was more than happy to leave.
It was early evening when I climbed into the van and started it up. The street between the theater and the costume shop was empty, lined with the shadows of trees. A rapidly fading sunset was on the horizon, all orange and yellow. It was short trip to the shop, not more than a few minutes. When I got to Lincoln House I pulled the van around to the back and walked up the drive to the front door.
That's when I remembered that the costume shop was haunted.
I don't remember who was supposed to be haunting it, or why, only that it was. No big surprise though, is it? I mean, look at the place. Of course there are stories that it's haunted. It would be more shocking if there weren't.
By the time I climbed the small hill out of the parking lot the sun was gone and it was fully night. Still and empty all around. If you look at the picture above, I would have been walking from the bottom left corner up and around to the front of the house. You can also see in the picture that on the left side of the house, a gable sits peaked at the roofline with its one window looking into the house's attic.
I knew the building was empty, the entire crew had left together and locked the place up, but as I walked up that drive I became convinced that if I were to look up at that gable on the roof I would see an old woman standing silently in the window, watching me as I made my way to the front door.
Even as a deep dread settled in my stomach, I dismissed the idea as a product of my over active imagination, and refused to look up and feed into it. I'd get this over with and get back to the theatre. I took the stairs, fishing for the keys. My hand shook a little as I unlocked the door and felt blindly inside for the light switch.
The light settled into what would have been a parlor back when the place was built. Old ladies would have gathered there in the afternoons to drink tea and play bridge, but now it was crowded with dress forms and piles of fabric. Racks of hats and lines of shoes. Directly ahead of me was a narrow corridor that led back to what would have been the kitchen, but was now the room where they dyed fabrics. Beyond that lay the laundry room.
To my right a large mahogany staircase wound up into the darkness of the second floor and, beyond that, to the attic. I stood there for a moment looking at. The heavily polished wood shone. The bannister curved like a collarbone, graceful and smooth.What would happen if I followed it up, I wondered. Part of me wanted to, felt drawn to it and whatever I'd find at the top.
I pushed that aside and made my way through the debris in the parlor and into the corridor. It was cramped inside, not much wider than my shoulders and on either wall were corkboards covered with a forest of index cards, sketches and scraps of fabric, each one secured at the top with a pushpin.
I reached into the kitchen, fumbling until I hit the light switch. There was nothing inside but an old table covered in spatters of paint and dye. Piles of fabric. Two windows sat above the stained sink, closed and painted shut. I crossed the kitchen in two big steps and made it to the laundry room. I didn't even bother to turn on the light. I darted in, threw the squat drier open and grabbed the warm pile that lay inside.
As I stepped back into the kitchen something cold brushed against the skin of my arm.
I stopped dead in my tracks. The house was quiet. Still. My skin prickled. I felt it again, like a cold wind blowing from the laundry room out towards the parlor. I turned and looked up. There were two windows, both high up on the wall of the laundry room. Each one was shut tight and locked. There was no door. No gap in the wall or crack in the ceiling.
Was I imaging it? Where was this coming from?
The wind blew again, lightly, and then I had it. I had left the front door open and it was simply drawing air out of the house, creating what seemed to be wind. I nearly laughed at myself, relieved, and then turned to go, fixing my eyes through the corridor and on to the front door.
It was closed. There was a big window just to the right of it and it too was closed tight. Pinpricks of fear tingled along my arms and back.
The wind kicked up again, stronger this time, crashing into my back and over my shoulders.Who cared where it was coming from? I just wanted out. I blundered past the Ritt stained fabrics and into the corridor. As I did a sound, like playing cards being shuffled, was at my back. It grew louder, like it was gaining on me. I was halfway through the corridor when the it overtook me and I watched, horrified, as the loose corners of those hundreds of scraps of paper rose in the wind and began slapping fitfully against the corkboard. Convulsing. For a split second I saw them not as notecards but as a flock of birds pinned to the walls, all of them thrashing their bloody wings, desperate to escape.
The wind was howling through the whole house now. Beyond the front door were streetlights, headlights, the lights of the school. All I had to do was make it through that corridor and this whole stupid thing would be over. I would be backstage again, surrounded in tile and linoleum and people.
But I had become convinced that I'd make it through the corridor, but just as I stepped into the parlor I'd see the old woman from the attic descending that mahogany staircase just out of the corner of my eye, moving slow and dreamy, but in the twisted physical logic of dreams, still fast enough that she would catch me at the bottom before I could escape.
I surged forward and my hand found the doorknob. I threw the door open and stumbled down the stairs and along the driveway to the van. The black rectangles of the house's windows rushed past out of the corner of my eye. I had to fight the desire to turn and look. It was like I was standing at the edge of cliff and there was a tiny part of me that wanted to lean forward just a hair too much, that wondered what it would be like to go tumbling down into the darkness and never come back.
I don't remember getting into the van or starting it up. I just remember pulling out of the driveway and onto the road, heading back to the lights of the campus and that theater full of people, all of them dancing on the tips of their toes as they prepared to throw themselves as one into the stage lights.
I thought of them and I thought of how I would go to bed that night, and likely move through the entirety of the next day, without saying a word about what had happened to anyone. After all, who would I say it to? I was surrounded by people, but I had managed to make myself as fleeting and transparent in their eyes as a sudden breath of wind. A ghost.
So that's my story. 100% true! How about you guys? I know one or two of you must have a good ghost story to share. Let's hear 'em in the comments! Happy Halloween!
Apparently, we here in NY are the proud owners of budget deficits that will reach 60 billion in the next 5 years and--best of all!--there is no plan in place to deal with this. None! Experts are saying this crisis will actually be worse then the ones we saw in the 70's because we're currently living in a time when our economic reality is changing faster than our politics can change to deal with it.
Basically, we're so locked into partisan squabbles and outmoded thinking that our politicians either don't see it or simply can't muster the political will to do the first thing about it. Cutting services if off the table. Raising taxes is off the table. Doing anything that may hand the other side a victory is off the table. So what do they do? A time-tested mixture of nothing and the occasional budgetary trick that papers over the problem so we can get from one year to the next while solving nothing. Yippee!
I really try hard not to be alarmist, but in the last few months it seems like we've convinced ourselves that the worst of our national budget crisis is over, but is that just wishful thinking? Is there really a bomb ticking away in our future and we're just running full speed towards it?
As you all know I wrote a post-apocalyptic book recently. I don't mean to be dramatic but it's hard not to think about that when I hear this stuff. Is this how we go down? Not because of a bomb or a virus or an asteroid from space, but because we sit twiddling our thumbs and looking the other way while our government grinds to a halt and then slowly crumbles around us.
It's easy to imagine a time in the near future when all of us are wearing some very puzzled looks on our faces as we realize that all the things we came to take for granted are gone because there's no money to pay for them. The police and the firemen are not coming. Your social security check is not coming. The schools are not open. The roads are not fixed. The water does not flow. Your drugs and your food are not inspected. The garbage and the sewage does not disappear as if by magic.
We think it can't happen here. We think we're above things like that. We're the USA! But that kind of thinking invites complacency and disaster. It begs for it.
If you listen to the second story on the show you hear the tale of what happened when the island of Barbados had problems like this. What did they do? Like the good adults they were, management joined together with labor and they hammered out a fair deal that made things a little tough on everyone equally for awhile while they did things to improve their situation. They're booming now.
So I guess what I'm asking is, are we not capable of the same?
What do you guys think? We've never gotten political before so please assume that everyone has the best of intentions and is not an evil Commie/Fascist and comment away.
I would also be more than happy to hear that I'm out of my mind and everything's going to be ok! Talk me down out of this tree if you can! Please!
When I was a kid I was obsessed with Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series. I suppose I was a reader before I started them, but it wasn't until The Dark is Rising that a book really grabbed me. Now that I'm writing books for teens myself I thought it might be interesting to go back and reread the book that set that initial reading fire. I was a little nervous going back to it. My memories of it are so intense I feared it just wouldn't stack up. And honestly, at first, it really didn't. Mostly it felt slow. Really slow. I made a couple false starts, reading a chapter or so before putting it down. It was like I had to reacclimate myself to the world of the book.
The thing is, it's just not remotely like books being written for kids today...
For those of you who don't know, the story is basically this… Will Stanton is an 11-year-old boy living in rural England with his large family. Around Christmas time (which is also his birthday) it is revealed to him that he is actually one of the Old Ones, an immortal servant of the Light, dedicated to fighting the forces of the Dark. He is brought into the fold by a kindly Old One named Merriman and told that his quest is to find the six signs of power which will be instrumental in fighting off the Dark.
I know what you're thinking, "But that sounds exactly like books being written for kids today." Yes, it does. Plotwise it's a very familiar Chosen One fights evil story. It's what Cooper does with that story that's so unusual.
These days we're used to plucky, often snarky, heroes who go through a complex series of challenges which lead them to self-knowledge and their ability to defeat the enemy. Power and growth come bit by bit as a character struggles and fails and struggles again. The story is often psychological (Lots of mommy and daddy issues obviously. See Harry Potter.) but is also full of plot twists and turns and derring-do.
The Dark is Rising has none of that.
Psychologically, Will is a normal, well-adjusted boy before he receives his calling. Mom and Dad are alive and present and supportive if a little clueless. When he receives the calling there's no real questioning of it, no rejection, he accepts that this is who he is and these are his new responsibilities. He is fully vested in his powers, which happens very early on, by simply sitting down and reading a special book. No wizard school. No awkward fumbling with spells. Soon, he seems to not really even be Will Stanton anymore. He acts very adult like, even thinking of himself as an Old One who just looks like a little boy.
His quest for the signs is just as straightforward. For the most part, Will is led by Merriman to where he will find the sign and Will takes it. There are no riddles to be solved, no secrets that need to be unraveled, no monsters to fight. There are no startling reversals. The Dark does try to stop him at a couple key points but they are repulsed by the collected power of the Old Ones and the quest moves on.
Throughout the book it feels as though all of the characters are playing a role and that most of the story points are more or less pre-ordained.
Go to any writing class or seminar, any critique group, and you will be told that all of these things are deadly to a book. Where are the complications? Where are the psychologically rich and conflicted characters? Where are the surprises?
Another thing. Who is this book for? Is it middle grade? Teen? It's a little unclear to me. Yes, it's stated that Will is 11 but I can't imagine anyone would read this and think of him as being that young. He seems far too mature. The book has the simplicity that you might find in a middle grade book (but really you're seeing plenty of psychological realism and narrative complexity there these days) but a darkness and intensity that you're more likely to see in teen lit. It's pace and length also feel meant for a more seasoned reader.
(as a side note, I have an inside source that tells me a new bindup of the whole series is being planned and it will be marketed primarily to teens)
So all of this combined means that by any current thinking of how to write a book this one should be a loser. A boring slog. Too simple for teens. Too dark and slowly paced for younger kids. I should have hated this as a kid
But I didn't. I loved it and so did a lot of others. And once I got reacquainted with the world I loved it all over again.
For me, a lot of it has to do with atmosphere. Cooper does an amazing job of conjuring this small English village in the dead of winter that's surrounded by magical forces. It's rich with mythology, foreboding and mysterious. Reading it is like floating like an incredibly detailed dream/nightmare. I loved inhabiting that place as a kid and still do today.
Rather than being psychologically complex as is in fashion now, the characters are iconic, elemental, larger than life. The forces of the Dark are vicious and legitimately scary. The forces of the Light are kind and forthright, but in their seriousness and determination a little frightening in their own way. The story is the same. Maybe it's not complex but the stakes are high and believable. It's immense forces clashing together over the fate of the world in the way you'd see in a storybook or a fairytale. Maybe we forget how powerful stories told in this way are. I mean, there's a reason that Grimm's fairy tales lasted as long as they have.
I also wonder how much my love for this book at the time had to do with the shifting expectations of today's readers. We come to any book, especially genre books I think, with expectations based on all we've read before. This book came out in 1974 and when I first read it it was still way before the recent renaissance in children's books. Pre-Harry Potter. Pre-Twilight. Pre-Hunger Games. These books are exemplars of the kind of storytelling that is most popular today. (Nothing against them. I love, well, three of them) Have all these books radically changed what young people want and expect in a book? If I was a kid today and I was inundated with big splashy books with fast paced plots and complex characters, would I be able to see the value in this dark, slowly paced fable? I wonder.
It'll be very interesting to see what happens when this series is re-released. Will kids of today accept it? If it was written today would it be more like this abomination?
What about you guys? And Cooper fans out there? Any favorites from childhood that you've recently gone back to? How did they hold up?
It's interesting how much writers talk about what their process is when approaching a new book. Go to any place where writers are talking and there will be a thread about people who are "by the seat of their pants" types vs those who do lots of outlining and planning before heading out, vs people who do some sort of mix. You'll hear, "I do this in draft one, then do this in draft 2, finally saving this for draft 3." It's all interesting, seeing how different folks approach the same thing, but I've recently been thinking alot about how establishing a writing process can not necessarily be a good thing. Maybe that sounds crazy. Let me explain. With my first book, Long Walk Home, I wrote the first draft very quickly with little to no advance planning. I plowed ahead and I didn't look back. I told myself that this way I was constantly surprising myself, that figuring out the story so it was neat and tidy in my head before writing it would somehow blunt my drive to actually write the book itself. It would blunt my creativity too, by not allowing for happy surprises along the way.
I remembered hearing about a famous sculptor (Michelangelo?) who said that his process was to look at an unfinished piece of stone and simply remove whatever was not the sculpture. I decided that this was my process too, the only difference being I had to make that stone first, in all of it's raw chaotic possibility, and then start chipping away at it.
This is how you write a book, I told myself, and I felt good and writery for having thought all of this through and arrived at The Way I Work. (Cue triumphal horns)
I think you can see the danger here. Obviously, I was seriously romanticizing the process--I mean, I was invoking Michaelangelo for Christ's sake--but what I was also doing was setting the process in stone, as if I had discovered some kind of formula for writing. Do this and this and this in this order and you get a book.
Now, I think this is incredibly tempting because as writers we live in a constant state of uncertainty, (Will I keep having ideas? Will I be able to write tomorrow like I did today? Will it get published? If it gets published will anyone buy it?) and any little bit of solid ground we can make ourselves is an incredible relief. It feels good to say "This is how I do it." It feels good to think that there is this one thing, your process, that you can count on, that's a road you can follow.
The thing is I think it's, mostly anyway, an illusion. You change. Your writing changes. Your needs change. And it think it's important to remember that your process sometimes needs to change in order to account for these things.
What I'm saying is, don't set your process in stone. Don't romanticize it. Don't make it who you are. Do things that work for you but don't forget to listen to yourself and your instincts. If you are a seat of the pants type writer and something is telling you it might help to plan a little, or alot, don't let your ideas about process trap you. Same if you're a planner. If you think you need to be let go a bit, do it. Be flexible.
The way I'm writing my second book is totally different from the way I did my first. I'm planning things out a lot more. I'm doubling back and fixing things before I move on. I'm discovering some things in the moment. It was weird at first and I totally second guessed myself about it (this is not the way you do things) but I guess I realized that I don't know the way I write a book because I don't think there is a way that doesn't change to meet my needs and the needs of the book. I wish there was, I'd love more solid ground, but I think the reality is that I'm always figuring it out as I go and in a way that may be, at least for me, the best way to do it. And that could change tomorrow.
What do you guys think? Have you come to a set process that doesn't change? If so, how did you get there? Does it change according to project?
I spent a good bit of time after my deal with Scholastic obsessively checking Publisher's Marketplace and Publisher's Weekly to see the listing for it. After so much time looking at other folk's deals I couldn't wait to see my own there. When it finally happened it was just as awesome as I expected. Except for one thing.
I scanned the list of deal that were made around the same time as mine and all I could think was....is everybody in the entire world writing a post-apocalyptic novel?
So what do you all think? Why is this a trend now and what do you think of it?
Hi Pals, No big long post this week, just a little thing I'm struggling with, one that I'm sure the writer folks in the audience will get. The above mentioned tyranny. Some of you might remember that my current novel, The Long Walk Home, is out on submission. While I waited for news I thought the best thing to do was to get back to work on the new novel, currently called Magisterium.
The problem? I'll tell ya the problem...
I just can't seem to get myself moving on it again. Before I left it to do pre-submission rewrites on Long Walk Home I got about 50 pages done, so the page is not entirely blank. Maybe the problem is I got it to the end of a major section of the book, a nice clean stopping point. I've read about other writers who, when they stop for the day, make a point to stop right in the middle of a scene, or even in the middle of a sentence, so that when they come back to it they can just pick that train of thought up and keep going. That seems like a great idea about now, since in some way I feel like I'm starting all over again. I'm fighting some serious inertia here.
There's also some fear I think. Ok, to be honest it's probably mostly fear. Fear that it's no good. Fear of diving into a new project. I mean, I've got some people's attention now. Is this the right project to be working on to capitalize on that attention? Am I sure? What if it's not and I spend a year plus writing it without realizing it and then have nothing to follow up the first book with? I know. I know. I'm totally over thinking it. I like the main character alot, (she's this sort of brainy, pain in the ass that's fun to write) I like the world and the writing I've done on it so far so I should just go back to setting the old alarm clock for 6am and getting some stuff done. There's no way to know if it's a workable idea until I write it. I've tried some other ideas out without any of them clicking like this one has so that's probably the best sign I've got. The only way to get over inertia is to push and push until you slowly get moving again and inertia starts working for you, making it hard to stop.
I also have to remember that a new book is going to be bad before it gets good. No way around that. Long Walk Home was definitely worked into being good, it didn't just happen. So if this book is bad for awhile, that's just how it it.
Ok. I think I just needed to give myself that little pep talk. Monday morning! The alarm shall be set to 6! I shall be bleary and cranky but what're you gonna do? Got to get moving!
Hi pals, Did you guys read this article in the Guardian with all the writing rules from big time authors?
Interesting stuff, huh?
I have to say my favorite is the Joyce Carol Oates quote, the one I used in the title of this post. "Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst." I think that attitude is the only way to keep from going nuts as you slog through a rewrite or wait to hear back from submissions. It's these sorts of "writing rules" that I like, the ones that sound like a writer's little reminders to themselves. You can almost picture them on a post it note stuck on the corner of their computer screen as they work. They give a little window into the writers themselves and let you feel a fleeting solidarity with someone that you usually just idolize. It's the piddling and overly proscriptive rules that make me bristle. Don't use adverbs. Only use "said" in dialogue. Don't bother describing things. I mean, I like Elmore Leonard and all but his rules are like this. I think a book written to his rules would be something I'd admire but could never really love. Too dry for me. (As an aside, is it me or do his rules also kind of read as tough guy posturing? What? Describing things is for pansies? Please.)
Anyway I got to thinking what my writing rules would be. What are the little reminders that I'd stick on the corner of my screen...?
1) A book is characters, story and language. In that order. (Quick aside. Story and character are and should be intertwined. Characters are defined by their choices. They're choices are the building blocks of a story. My slight emphasis is on character because books that emphasize story over character are like these Elmore Leonard books, I may like and admire them but I'll never love them.)
2) I had an acting teacher once who told me that my only responsibility during rehearsal was to find one new thing each night. That's all. Ultimately, he said, a performance is the sum of these small discoveries . Same thing with writing. Accomplish at least one positive thing for your book each day. Craft a revealing character moment, write a particularly nice bit of description or dialogue, discover an unexpected or illuminating twist in the story. Hang in there long enough and these small moments will eventually build a book.
3) No matter how hard you think you have to work, you always have to work harder.
4) Almost anything can be made better by being made shorter.
5) Consume stories in every way you can. Yes, you must read everything, that goes without saying, but don't forget to also watch good movies, see plays and dance and opera, go to museums, watch quality TV.
6) Have the courage to find people who are smarter than you and get them to read your work. Listen to them.
7) Sometimes the best thing to do for your writing is to step away.
8) When faced with the necessity of cutting what you're sure is the most beautiful, poignant passage you've ever written, have faith that if you did it once you can do it again.
9) Sometimes you have to write very badly for a very long time before you ever get any good.
10) Yes, there are people for whom all of this comes incredibly easy. These people are freaks. Don't compare yourself to them.
So that's me. Anybody care to share a few of theirs?