Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Claiming the Title

As I write this, I’m sitting in a quiet space with nine other writers in the meeting room of a large grocery store. We have a three-hour writing session once a month and each time we meet we share our immediate intentions and a short description of whatever project we are working on. This morning we are a diverse group ranging from fiction to fact, from memoir to a letter to a local editor about a national issue. The variety of projects and backgrounds shifts from month to month, but the most important thing here is that we all dare to call ourselves writers. Claiming the title has little if anything to do with publication, money, or publicity. I’m looking across the table at a man with his eyes on the ceiling and his hands over his mouth, classic signs of inspiration. Good for him.

Our newest writer left early. She had announced that she finally stopped cleaning her house and came to a place where her only goal and responsibility was to put words on paper. Good for her. She has taken the all-important step to declare publicly that she’s writing. I may have reported this before, but my greatest inspiration in taking that step was to have met and spent a day with Harlan Ellison, whose business card bore his name, phone number, and the words “I write.” A simple declaration, no frills, just the brazen truth. Claiming the right to write can be hard. The consumerist society demands that we sell what we write, and it measures our success by earnings, sales, fame. Truth is, few writers meet these criteria.

Being a writer means diving in without promise of worldly success. It means staring at the ceiling and leaving domestic distractions behind for a few hours. Messing with early drafts and focusing on punctuation and paragraphs, clever lies and startling images. It means that you love/hate the results, but  just can’t stop the trickle or the deluge of language from head to fingertips.

Distraction vs Research

How do I manage to waste so much of my time? I make lists of things to do, writing things, but seldom complete the checking off, often moving a task to the next list. Aargh! I was efficient in my professional paid work for over four decades. Now I fritter away an hour or more with crossword puzzles or tidying the clothes closet. Meanwhile the characters in my novel-in-progress grumble among themselves: “She’s ignoring us again. Maybe we should rebel, take over the plot, or escape with the next writer she meets in the coffee shop.” Sitting here with the blog before me, I know I should start the day working on the scenes I’ve scribbled all week and now must decide where to insert them in the storyline. You see, don’t you, that I know what to do, but I’m not doing it, am I?

The deep reason is fear. It’s all good to scribble on scrap paper and congratulate myself on another 800 words, but committing those words to print, ah, I lack courage. Who do I think I am writing poems and novels? So those lost moments contribute to my excuse of research.

Sometimes I go to the Union Station in Denver and watch people for hours, sketch their appearance on the scrap paper I keep in my work bag. Yesterday I went to the library and spent an hour or so studying a travel atlas for routes that my protagonist might drive, small towns that would suit the plot. And darn it, I thought I was doing something worthwhile, but those details are window dressing, not substance.

Maybe I was ignoring my left brain boss who says, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Giving full control to my “big-picture” right brain where observation is approved. Then again, both brain hemispheres earn their keep. Slowly, slowly, the narrative takes shape. And then I worry all over again that the reader will toss the book aside and do crossword puzzles to pass the time.

How I Get Things Done

As someone who takes on too much, I can go from zero to excess in a day. And some days this catches up with me and I freeze. What am I supposed to do next? I keep lists and index cards, journal entries about what I want to do, but sometimes (maybe once a week?) I just have to pick one thing and go for it. Like revisions on the first draft of my fourth novel.

In order to focus, I packed my work bag with just that draft, no other word work to use as an escape. I did not take my iPad, and my phone is too small for writing. I took a stack of messy pages, some blank scribble paper and sat down with four other writers who were intent on their own work. Group pressure, however subtle, helped. If they were working, I would work.

I got out my red pen and went for it, adding detail–what I call plugging the holes–correcting sloppy syntax, questioning the factual bits and making a list of what needed fact checking, like what route the character is traveling. It wouldn’t do to have her on I95, which runs from Maine to Florida, when she’s driving from Montana to Louisiana. And circling typos, which apparently slip in like cockroaches while I sleep.

By the end of the writing session I had thought of a visual tool that has already proven to be useful. The first draft I had printed out on blue paper. (Yes, I work best on paper.) This second draft I’ve started to print on yellow paper. It’s a vivid measure of how much I’ve progressed. Quirky, but we writers all have our quirks, thank goodness.

Writing by Recipe?

Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.

Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.

Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!

I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.

If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.

Dare to Love a Book for Its Cover

I just posted a review on Goodreads: Stefan Mancuso’s The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior. Weighty title, but an argument for good book design and for a wonderful library that fronts new books. The cover literally drew me to this book, which is, as I said in the review, a lovely item with heavy, glossy paper, full cover photos, and a daring black cover with three bits of vegetation to draw the eye.

One of the things I do occasionally is help other writers, most often poets, to create their own books for self-publishing. The design of the book matters, although a fine cover cannot excuse a boring book, clumsy writing, or poor editing. But eye candy helps, especially if it reveals its connection to the content. Recently, I read a novel that claimed on its cover that the book was “hilariously funny.” It wasn’t. In fact it was serious and poignant. I was angry with the author for misleading me, until I thought about it. Likely, she had no control over the cover design. Someone in publicity slapped that misleading phrase on the cover.

Good, honest design can assure the reader that someone cares, be it a commercial publisher or an author determined to avoid the delays and complications of traditional book production and distribution. Gone are the days, I hope, of vanity publishers who provide no editing, slipshod design and extortionary expense to the author.

We are, thanks to the internet, able to make choices about offering our creative work to readers. I’m not partial to either option, selfpublishing or traditional. But I am in favor or a sell designed book that delivers what its cover promises.

The Wisdom of Donna Leon

Friday morning, sitting in a coffee shop, I’m back at work. My work is writing, although I spent yesterday, a snow day, reading crime novels, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Leon is prolific having written over 24 books in this series and several more in other categories. My intent was to binge read and let my own fiction, poetry, non-fiction rest and ripen. I know that if I take an occasional break, I go back to work with renewed energy. But Leon’s fiction is not escapist. Sure, it’s set in Venice, a place I’d love to visit, this Armchair travel, an excuse to read, drink tea and not worry about production or driving on snowy roads in Colorado.

Here’s the thing, though. In every “crime novel” that I’ve read in Leon’s oeuvre there is a large issue that affects the plot line and the reactions of her characters. The plot of the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, develops around issues of homophobia and sexual child abuse. In Blood from a Stone the issues are immigration and racial inequality. Yes, in the lovely tourist-filled city, issues rise that challenge us all. Plot lines etched on the page are set like rough jewels in the middle of a nuclear family with reliable parents, believable offspring, domestic issues of homework and grocery shopping, a solid, sexy, loving marriage. And any of the characters, whatever their involvement in bringing the villains to justice, might reveal a concern I share, like polluted air: “What Redeemer could come and save the city from the pall of greenish smoke that was slowly turning marble to meringue?” (Death at La Fenice, 148)

The real message today is this: categories for literature are not absolute, can be unreliable restrictions. If I want to read more of Donna Leon’s work, I have to go to “Mystery” or “Crime Novels” in the library or bookstore. She obviously exceeds these labeled categories and reassures me that whatever we write might be just what the reader needs. Fiction, poetry, memoir—any genre can inform and inspire us. And as writers we have the privilege and responsibility of deepening our understanding of reality even as we “make it up.” If one reader is enlightened, reassured, challenged, or distracted from grief, a writer has done the world a favor.

Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.