Smashwords Summer Sale — Progress on “Boy”

Just for the heck of it, I’m adding my books to Smashword’s summer sale. So, for the rest of July:

Darkest Prison  .99

Camp Expendable  2.99

Hidden Boundaries 2.99

Crossing Boundaries 2.99

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A big part of what’s been hanging me up with A Well-Educated Boy is trying to decide whether it’s to be first-person or third. I’ve tried the beginning and some fragments both ways, but neither felt right. I’ve been through this before and don’t want to go through the agony again, of writing several thousand words and then having to go through the entire thing and change the focus.

The solution, which finally feels exactly right, is to open every chapter with Harte’s first-person perspective and then switch to third. Also, I’m going to be naming the chapters — a first, for me.

It can be really frustrating to look back and see that I began work on a novel years before, in this case, six years ago, and still haven’t written more than a few fragments. What I’ve found, though, is that the huge gaps between work periods can sometimes generate ideas I might not have thought of if I’d given it less time. So the book I’m working on today is much richer and deeper than the one I conceived of six years ago.

Harte’s parents play a larger role and come through as individuals. The differences between Harte’s life in Burgundy and his cousin Steve’s life in the “regular” world change in ways that make both boys less envious of the other.

 

Still Rolling the Boulder Uphill

In passing: Is anyone still waiting for Trump to become more “presidential?”

Running through the last few months of frustration about not being able to write is a thread that says maybe I just don’t want to write fiction anymore. Or at least not novels. But I don’t want to write straight nonfiction, either. And that isn’t helping me get unstuck with Set Me Free, about capital punishment.

So, the idea of “autofiction” in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/23/drawn-from-life-why-have-novelists-stopped-making-things-up intrigues me. Not that I want to write an autobiography or memoir, even mixed in with and disguised as fiction. (Though I was actually playing with the idea briefly before I even saw this article.)

Writers are playing and experimenting with the forms of fiction; modern journalistic reporting has changed in many ways (In Cold Blood being an early example.) Why shouldn’t it be possible to do the same with nonfiction?

In conceptualizing Set Me Free, I had decided that quotes from prisoners on death row wouldn’t be just an occasional interjection. Instead, they would be part of the structure, regularly strengthening the impact of factual information with the lived experience of being on death row and how it feels. But why not go further? Why not incorporate fiction, as well? “Waiting For the Needle,” a short story that is more or less finished, could be divided into three or four “chapters” and spread out through the book. Maybe I could even organize the book around it.

I’ll be giving that some serious thought. It’s possible that I may have to revise the story so that it aligns with my plans for the book, but at this point, revision of short works is something I can actually handle.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

I’m bound to run out of ways to get back into writing, and I may have nearly reached that point. But once more into the breach, friends.

Morning pages lasted two days, and then I forgot I even had a brand-new notebook to fill. One and a half pages the first day. One and a quarter pages the second day. But my attempt, abortive as it was, to submerge myself in stream of consciousness writing, did get me to thinking. Maybe somewhat productively. We’ll see.

I know very well that one of my major faults in writing — maybe the major fault — is obsessive perfectionism. I was reminded of it again the other day, reading Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, by Liane Holliday Willey. She says of her own writing: that she spends “far too much time selecting which word to use and too much time reworking a sentence so that it looks and feels and sounds right.” She’s a more visual person than I am, so I’m not concerned with how a sentence looks. But it has to sound right in every way. It has to say exactly what I mean it to say, so the reader isn’t dragged out of the story by having to figure out what it means. There’s a place for ambiguity, but not at the word or sentence level. The sentence also has to have a natural flow that doesn’t trip the reader up. If I stumble over it, then the reader is sure to.

For me, perfectionism is a necessity — up to a point. But when it becomes a stumbling block, I’ve gone beyond that point. That’s what came through to me from the two days of morning pages. The free-flowing stream of consciousness doesn’t have to be limited to morning pages. What if I could use it, consciously, in a writing project? It’s tempting to say that’s what I actually did during several years worth of NaNos, but it wasn’t really. All I did for those frantic thirty-day periods was to try to catch myself when I was obsessing about a word or the structure of a sentence.

What I’m trying out now is quite different, thanks to the failed morning pages and Liane Holliday Willey. I’m applying it to A Well-Educated Boy, and will see how far I can get in a novel that’s been stuck right at the start. It’s only been one day, and I wrote only 167 words, but those 167 words look like the key to what comes next. Over the last year or so I’ve made something like a half-dozen starts that didn’t lead anywhere. Suddenly, I know the time and place for the next scene, and why it happens the way it does. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of just 167 words. Right now, it looks as if they’re strong enough to bear it.

Do It Wrong or Don’t Do It.

Whatever the actual cause (or causes) of my inability to work on writing projects for the last year, it’s come down to this: all standard efforts to break through the obstacle have failed. Articles that are intended to help get past writer’s block are mostly irrelevant to what’s going on in my head.

I’ve come up with two possible ways of attacking the problem, to be tried simultaneously rather than one at a time. There’s a possibility that breaking out of the linear, one-at-a-time methods may allow for synergistic effects. One is to take up morning pages again, after many, many years away. The other is more drastic than I think most writers would be willing to give a try.

I won’t say anything about morning pages here because I imagine just about every writer has read about them at one time or another, if not actually tried them. They worked for me, and I don’t know why I quit doing them. Maybe I felt I’d gotten all I could out of them at the time.

The drastic approach is acknowledging that I can’t set priorities and devote myself to just one project, when three or four are constantly spinning through my brain and demanding my attention. Lately, I’ve been working through different ways of setting priorities, and all I’ve achieved is paralysis. I’ve been faithfully making notes for each project, as I’ve done for years, without considering that it’s okay to go beyond just notes and a few scraps of dialogue or lines of a scene. I’ve tied my writing to the rules of everyday life, even though I’m chronically unable to follow those very well. If I can’t keep my daily life up to the standard that requires starting a job and finishing it before starting another, why have I been trying to force that linear way of working on my writing?

Yes, there was a time when I was able to start a novel and work on it until it was finished, but that was usually with the help of NaNoWriMo, which gave me a goal and a deadline. But NaNo hasn’t worked for the last two years, which should have been a warning that something was going wrong, and that I needed to figure out what that was.

The most obvious drawback to skipping randomly between three or four projects is the length of time that it will take to finish any one of them. When you hit your 80s, that’s an important consideration. Poor health makes it even more important. But what it seems to have come down to is either write in this fragmentary way and hope I still have time to finish something, or don’t write at all.

Priorities

Your priorities are a measure of what you value. I couldn’t help but think about that when I saw this article this morning (Memorial Day). “Every Grave in Minnesota Military Cemetery Gets Flag for First Time in 35 Years.” $235,000 raised (that’s almost a quarter of a million dollars, folks), and 5,000 volunteers drafted to put a flag in front of every tombstone. Flags for the dead, who couldn’t care less. What could that money have done for some of the people who are supposedly the beneficiaries of the lives sacrificed in the name of ideals that were actually ignored and degraded by those sacrifices.

Thousands of American lives have been and are still being sacrificed in order to overthrow regimes and install puppet governments, secure other countries’ resources for ourselves, build an empire determined to own and control the entire world. Kind of reminds me of the glorious British Empire. Same priorities. And undoubtedly the same outcome, at the cost of untold numbers of lives.

Getting There Fast — White, Christian America — Under Water

Behind the scenes. Behind your back. Under your nose.

Yes, this is a rant.

While you’re being entertained, amused, distracted — the far-right agenda is being carried out, spreading. In towns you’ve never heard of, on school boards that few bother to vote for, in police departments with new high-tech military toys, and implicit permission from their commander-in-chief — your president.

Deportations of “the bad guys” is now deportation of anyone with a non-white skin or name — with no criminal records, with businesses and families, with medals from serving honorably in US wars.

Black men and boys are dying at escalating rates — at the hands of police. But you can’t kill everyone, or deport them all, so jails and prisons will do very well to help keep American society white.

But you know what? All this is small potatoes. Because nature as we know it is dying, and a good portion of life on earth will be dying with it. It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t believe in climate change. Doesn’t matter who you think is at fault. It’s happening now, and faster than cautious scientists have been predicting. But even the most cautious are now speaking out, warning, letting the facts speak for themselves instead of softening them for popular consumption.

The information is there. It’s always been there. If you want to go on being entertained, amused, distracted that’s your choice. Too bad it won’t be a choice for your children and grandchildren.

Meeting Gatsby

The core fact of the last year, from the end of March 2017, right up to this moment, is that I’ve been unable to write. Whether it’s medications that are acknowledged to affect cognitive processes, or just reaching the stage of too old and burned out, there have been few words since finishing and publishing Camp Expendable. So far, nothing has touched the problem, but I keep trying.

Normally, reading often provides an unexpected spark that gets me to the keyboard. No more. Reading fills time, mostly, so it’s a mix of the excellent and worthwhile, and books that are entertaining enough to keep my mind on them until they’re done and forgotten. Among the former are books that I’ve never gotten around to despite they’re being classics. Most get tossed into the charity/recycling bag before I even finish the first chapter.

I grew up on the classics of literature, so maybe I’m just read out, in spite of the gaps. I could be politically correct and claim my devotion to my gender and reject the old-white-male domination of the written word, but it’s more total boredom with the subject matter. Unhappy families, unhappy people, in general. How many ways can you paint them before they start looking alike despite the addition of contemporary glitter or gloom? I’ve never been much of a family person anyway, so it’s hard to care.

Which makes my recent reading and appreciation of The Great Gatsby somewhat of an anomaly. It’s one of those I never got around to, and after reading years of both extravagant praise and variations on the old-white-man theme, I didn’t feel much inclined to. But I felt sort of obligated, having spent a dime on a very nice used copy. The going was hard at first, and I considered tossing it as just another boring time-waster. Shallow, too too clever narrator opining on his shallow too too clever friends. Why go on? Why did I? Just sheer stubbornness, sometimes.

The shallow cleverness slowly gave way to something very different, but along with that, and really, shining out above it, was the writing itself. Surely there had to be some reason Fitzgerald is still considered one of America’s greatest writers. Plot isn’t enough to earn that kind of accolade. And the characters are nothing outstanding. Fitzgerald didn’t like his characters any better than I did. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

It isn’t a book to force down the throats of the young and immature, or anyone who counts plot above character. Or above writing quality, for that matter. It’s probably that force-feeding that’s pushed it into the category of books meant only for literary snobs. If nothing else, it’s a book for writers. It’s one that worth reading again and again while you work out how Fitzgerald managed to do what he did with so few words.

 

 

 

Pinterest is Easier Now? Hah!

I’m getting less than one book sale a month from Amazon and Smashwords, so it’s time to do something about it, or just pull everything off and forget about publishing. So I’m going to experiment with Pinterest. I was on it a few years back, but got disgusted with not being able to delete members whose pins and boards I didn’t want to see any more.

There have been some improvements since then, but it’s still just about impossible to really opt out of anything. The “Picked for You” feature is particularly obnoxious, filling my front page with crap that I’m not interested in. I think I did subscribe to gardening stuff back then, but I’m not interested in that any more, and I can’t find any way to turn it off.

What makes it more annoying is that the sliders for turning things on and off aren’t labeled. Does the all-white slider that’s the general default for most things mean on or off? In any case, I’ve tried it both ways to get rid of “Picked for You,” all white, and black and white. Neither one makes it go away. And yes, I do save the new setting.

I’m working very slowly on developing some boards, but I don’t have a lot of energy to give to it, and I don’t really know if it will be worth the time I’ll put into it. Running into stuff that just doesn’t work, or seems to be meant to confuse the user, doesn’t incline me to patience.

Cart Before the Horse

You do have to wonder, sometimes. But anyone who can commit four errors in just 111 words, should probably think about doing almost anything rather than being a writer. A request on KBoards this morning, for help with a promotional site, instantly triggered my grammar nazi persona.

In that short space of 111 words, including the title of the thread, this “author” misspelled the name of the site they were interested in (not being able to spell is one thing, but not even being capable of copying something correctly…?). Then they went on to put an apostrophe in possessive “its,” identify the site as a median, and finished up, brilliantly, with a comma splice.

It’s an inevitable outcome, of course, of the mentality that self-publishing can foster. The money’s out there; publishing is easy so jump in with both feet. Do you have the bare basics of writing under your belt? Oh, that! Nobody really cares about spelling, grammar, or word usage these days.

Will anyone on the forum give this would-be author a heads up? Not in public. Let’s hope that someone does it via a private message. No, not me. Anyone with as slippery a grip on the language as that isn’t going to benefit from a polite note. I doubt that he/she even notices that all the responses spelled the site name differently from his/her mangling — correctly.

Beware the Loner

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” Aristotle

Who can argue with the great Aristotle? Doesn’t our own society show us how potentially dangerous the loner is? From regarding the non-social student as a future mass shooter, to the inane preventive measures like #walk up not out, anyone who stands out simply by not being a member of the group is being increasingly demonized. It’s bad enough that befriending a loner is considered a good deed (whether they are or aren’t interested in being befriended), but the most recent angle tossed out by some alt-right idiot is that the Parkland massacre was the fault of the survivors, who are en masse being blamed for bullying the shooter.

The bias — if not outright fear — of loners is everywhere lately. In an article entitled Can There be an Atheist Church, I find the statement: “…the church answers to another deep human need—the need to identify and belong.” It’s become almost a mantra that everyone repeats endlessly and mindlessly. Human beings are herd/group animals. They need to belong. The individual who’s not part of a group of some kind, even if it’s just immediate family, must necessarily be depressed, miserable, lonely, and potentially dangerous.

So strong is the perceived connection between failing to be part of a group of some kind, and loneliness, that Britain has arrived at the solution: a minister of loneliness. In fact, loneliness is now considered an epidemic. Granted that social change, among other factors, means that connections may be easier to lose, and more difficult to create, and is a problem that particularly affects older people. But there seems to be no interest in inquiring as to the difference between those who are alone and miserable and those who are alone and happy, or at least comfortable with their situation.

Whether it’s the young (usually male) loner who we are being taught to look at with suspicion, or the oldster whose only companion is the tv, we are failing to look beyond the simplistic idea that humans are (all) group animals. Maybe what we are overlooking is the possibility that people need to learn how to live with themselves, as individuals.

 

Not Exactly a Review: Wolf Hall

I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a couple of days ago, and it’s still with me. Which means it’s likely I’ll read it again some time in the future. Almost as interesting as the book, though are the reviews on Amazon. An amazing 13% of readers gave it one star, 25% total: two stars or lower, a huge number for any book, really, but not too surprising, considering that most of the reviewers are probably from the US. As I expected, before I even read the first unfavorable review (and I read only a handful) the main complaint was that it was hard, if not impossible to keep track of who was currently the focus, who was speaking.

Reading reviews has told me a lot about American literacy, and it’s an ugly picture, on the whole. Readers want fairly simple storylines, clearly laid out, and characters they can sympathize with or relate to in some way. So you could safely have bet everything you own on Wolf Hall rating poorly.

It is a difficult novel. No question about that. Even if you’re a Brit steeped in your own history, Mantel’s writing style could easily put you off. It’s a book that requires close attention — very close. And a willingness to allow it to draw you in gradually, even if the first couple of chapters are confusing. Context is all-important because Mantel makes minimal use of “he said,” “she said,” leaving you to decipher who’s on at the moment.

The title, Wolf Hall, might be considered a poke at readers who expect the title to represent something going on in the novel. Long past the halfway mark, in my memory, brief mentions start popping up, but it never makes its appearance. It’s actually a setup, a foreshadowing of what’s to come, but in the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.

Mantel’s use of first person and present tense will be off-putting for a lot of readers, but it’s what draws the willing reader deeply into the lives of the characters. Gossip, jokes, the trivia of everyday life, are front and center. Reading it feels very much like following someone around, watching them live their lives, listening to their conversations, including the internal conversations they have with themselves.

It does help to know at least a little about the England of the early 16th century, and to be a lover of historical fiction. But as difficult as the novel can be at times, reading it is a rich experience. And if you’re a writer, there’s a lot here to challenge and inspire.

A helpful review that’s worth reading before you decide whether or not to give Wolf Hall a chance to seduce you:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/02/wolf-hall-hilary-mantel