Writer at . . . Work?

It’s easy to tell when a plumber or an electrician is hard at work.  They’ve got parts and equipment all around them, they’re doing things to other things with tools and things, and you can tell when they’ve finished because there’s a working thing where there wasn’t one before.

It’s still fairly easy to tell when a teacher or a scholar or an accountant is hard at work.  They’ve got piles of books and papers, or they’ve got lots of computer files, and they’re writing on them or typing in them or reading them, and you can tell that they’re finished because when they’re done, they stop.

Writers, though . . . writers may have piles of paper and lots of computer files and lots of books scattered all around, but at any given moment they may be staring out into space, or playing Solitaire on their computer, or putting together the world’s longest paper-clip chain, and maybe they’re just goofing off, but on the other hand maybe they’re off somewhere inside their own heads working out the final twists on the plot, or trying to come up with the perfect opening sentence.

And there’s no way to tell from the outside which is which.

It’s a wonder our friends and family and household pets put up with us sometimes, it really is.

Thought for the Day

Try not to attach your writing to a particular habit or tool — no matter whether it’s alcohol (the classic writer’s trap) or caffeine or chocolate; or one specific fountain pen and color of ink; or absolute silence; or the perfect comfy chair.

Because this world is fickle, and chairs break and pens and ink go out of stock, and silence is easy to get when you live alone but a lot less so once you decide to go through life in tandem or (God help you) reproduce.  And as for self-indulgent habits . . . they have a nasty way of either turning on you or becoming forbidden fruit, just when you think you need them most.

When the day comes that one of your favorite things either goes away or has to be given up, your life is going to be ten times harder if you also have to figure out how to get your writing done without its aid and support.

Avoid attachment . . . that’s the ticket.  Easier said than done, but then, what about this writing thing isn’t?

Getting Acquainted

So you have the idea for a novel — you’ve got a compelling theme you want to work out, or you’ve got a nifty science-fictional or fantastic conceit that you want to play with, or you’ve got the outline for a marvelously well-fitted and dovetailed plot — and now you need characters to fill it.  Unfortunately, all you’ve got so far is a list, if you’re lucky, of names that you think might work.

It’s time to get acquainted.

There are a lot of ways to get to know your characters.  None of them work for everybody, because writers (and characters) are persnickety like that.  But there’s a chance that one of them may work for you.

Some writers fill out detailed character questionnaires for all their characters.  (There are lots of these available on the internet.  Just google on “character questionnaire” and there you go.)

Some writers have their important characters write letters to them, or to each other, or keep a diary.

Some writers make musical playlists for their characters.  Others scour the internet and other resources for visual references for their characters’ physical appearance, clothing, and home decor.

Some writers draw up astrological charts for their characters, or do tarot readings for them.  (This approach, oddly enough, can work just fine even for writers who think that astrology and the tarot are pure hokum.  It gives the writer a way to think about the characters in symbolic terms.)

As always, there isn’t a right way to do this.  Whatever works, works.

Tales from the Before Time, Part the Next

Or, One of the Ways I Knew I was a Novelist and not a Mathematician.

(Other than, you know, the fact that I sucked at basic arithmetic.)

It was the logic puzzles — the kind that feature islands occupied only by liars and truth-tellers, or by sane and insane vampires and non-vampires; or streets of varicolored houses occupied by persons of various nationalities who own zebras, smoke cigarettes, and drink tea; or all the variations on the one about the man with the drawer full of black and white socks who wants to know how many times he has to pull out a sock from the drawer if he wants to find a pair of matching socks in the dark.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t work them; I usually could, if I put my mind to it and followed out all the lines.  (Though I mostly found the process not entertaining enough to be worth the trouble.)  It was that I kept getting distracted.

Who on earth, I would wonder, keeps a zebra for a pet, anyway — and what do the other people on the street think about it?  And how does day-to-day social and economic life function on all those strangely-populated islands?  (If a liar and a truth-teller get married, how do they raise the kids?  And if they have four kids, do they get one liar, one truth-teller, and two kids who sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth?)  And for heaven’s sake, why doesn’t the guy with the drawer full of mismatched socks go ahead and turn on the light?

Those aren’t the sort of questions that logicians and mathematicians ask; but they are very much the sort of questions that are going to occur to novelists and other storytellers.

I know why he only has black socks and white socks in his sock drawer — he’s in the Navy, and those are his uniform socks. And maybe he’s dressing in the dark because he doesn’t want to wake up his significant other. But I’m still at a loss as to why he hasn’t done the normal Navy thing and rolled his pairs of socks up into tidy little balls, so that all he has to do is make at most two dips into the drawer.

Now That It’s Cooled Down Enough to Cook

Here’s another dead-simple recipe for the deadline-beset or otherwise brain-dead writer:

Beef Ribs Cooked In Vermouth And Herbes De Provence

3 lbs. boneless beef ribs
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 carrot, sliced
1 rib celery, diced
1 tsp tomato paste or ketchup
2 tsp herbes de Provence, crushed
1/2 cup vermouth
1/2 cup double-strength beef stock
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. vinegar

Put the sliced veggies into the crock pot.

Put meat into crock pot.  Sprinkle herbs, salt, pepper over meat.

Mix the stock, vermouth, honey, vinegar, and tomato paste.

Pour liquid mix over meat and seasonings.

Cook on low 8-10 hours.

If you want, mix a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch into some cool water and stir it into the crock pot 30 minutes or so before dinner.  (Turn the crock pot on high for that bit.)

Serve over egg noodles.

Usually (as it is in the blend sold at our local IGA) a mix of savory, basil, fennel, thyme, and lavender. Sometimes there are other herbs, such as rosemary; sometimes there isn’t any lavender. I buy it pre-mixed, but there are numerous recipes on-line for the googling.

Making the Rounds

One of the things I tell myself, when I’ve got a short story out somewhere on submission, is that submitting a story to a market doesn’t mean that you’re asking for an absolute up-or-down verdict on its ultimate worthiness.

When you submit a short story, you’re doing the equivalent of sending it out on a blind date.

And we all know how blind dates work.  A few of them are utter disasters, of the “I’ll never trust So-and-So to set me up with someone ever again” variety; most of them are the sort of forgettable evening that ends with a “let’s not do this another time” handshake and a taxi ride home; and every once in a while, you get fireworks.  (Also, sometimes your best friend has a date with Mr. Forgettable Number 17 and meets the love of her life, because the chemistry between two people is a strange and unpredictable thing.)

So when your story comes back to you with a note saying “We’re sorry, but your submission does not meet our needs at the present time,” for heaven’s sake don’t take it as a polite hint that you should stop writing and take up train-spotting as a hobby instead.  It was just another blind date that turned out to be a dud for reasons that were nobody’s fault.

What to do?  Find another likely market, and send the story out again.  Because — who knows?

Maybe next time, the fireworks.

Hold the Cheese

This past weekend we saw Pacific Rim, and — unsurprisingly — I have some thoughts about the movie.

At this point, I don’t think it counts as spoilery to say that the plot of Pacific Rim involves using giant armored fighting robots to defend against monsters invading Earth through a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean.  As concepts go, it’s exceptionally well-suited for a treatment featuring  a heavy layer of cheese — consider, for example, what Michael Bay did with a similar premise in Transformers.

Michael Bay, though, is the King of Cheese, and Guillermo del Toro, the actual director of Pacific Rim, is something else altogether.  The man who directed Pan’s Labyrinth may do genre, but he does not do cheese, and Pacific Rim is more than just a loud and flashy mecha-and-monsters movie.  At the same time, it doesn’t for a moment pretend that it’s something else —  the film is dedicated to stop-motion animation artist Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla director Ishiro Honda, for heaven’s sake, and contains references and shout-outs to more famous monsters and monster-fights of film and legend than can be conveniently listed here.

What keeps it from being cheesy is that it takes the initial admittedly silly premise–that the obvious and appropriate response to monsters invading from the deep is to construct giant armored robot suits to take them down in single combat–and plays it straight.  It never goes over the edge into parody; and it never gives the audience that “look at how clever I’m being” smirk.  It does give the audience moments of genuine beauty in the midst of all the action (I don’t think there’s an accidentally ugly image in the whole film.)

In short, the movie respects both its audience and itself, and that’s the best way I know of for all art, and not just film-making, to avoid turning into a pot of Velveeta fondue.

Still Too Hot.

There’s a reason why I don’t read romance novels set in exotic tropical climes:  I hate hot weather, and the tropics have almost nothing else.

I spent three years in the Republic of Panamá, back when my husband/co-author was in the Navy, and every year we spent there, I moved my ideal location for permanent settlement another tier farther north.  One more year down there, and right now I’d probably be living in the Yukon.

Some good did come of it, though.  Get hot enough and bored enough, and you’ll start writing fiction to keep yourself occupied, and the next step after that is selling some of it, and after that, you’re doomed hooked.

I really will post about Pacific Rim real soon now, I promise.  Just not tonight.