Yes, But From Where…?

sculpture of man with his head in a wallA week ago, I saw a painting of a giant hand with a snow leopard standing on the palm (or perhaps it was a normal hand with a really tiny snow leopard). The painter was nearby, and when my girlfriend commented on the painting, he said the idea for it came from waking up in the Himalayas to find that a snow leopard had been walking around outside their tents.

Yet even if you woke up and stepped out of a tent on a chilly morning in the Himalayas to see footprints of a large cat, how would you go from that to the idea of such a painting?

For almost a week I didn’t write anything on the current novel, in large part because I was gone for several days last week to Charleston, South Carolina, to the Spoleto festival. When I don’t write for a while, I find that it takes more effort to get into the flow of it again, so one night this week I was looking at notes I had previously made. Puttering with the notes is less effort than actually creating a text, but it gives me the feeling I’m somehow working.

After a bit (I do this all the time), I thought, “Enough putzing around. Time to face that demanding void and write something.” I always approach the writing process with the idea that what I write doesn’t entirely matter, because it will be revised anyway, and no one has to see it. Just write something, I tell myself, even something stupid.

So I did. Slowly, I described my character in a yoga class, then on his way home he stopped to talk to neighbors and learned that the woman had made a banana pudding. Gradually, a piece of the world came out of nowhere. I often find that once a scene is written, though I will probably revise it, what is there begins to seem like a real place, with real events. I get a feeling as if I’ve gone from a demanding blank void, where there is nothing, to a place that truly exists. Everything ahead continues to be a void, but what has been written now exists for me as if it was always there.

Sometimes I wonder how this is possible. I know I wrote it, obviously, yet after it’s done, there’s a kind of magic about it, as if I merely uncovered what was simply hidden. Where do these creations come from?

It was in Charleston last week that I went to an art gallery and saw the leopard painting, and while we were there at Spoleto we also attended a modern dance performance by Dorrance Dance. The show was partially tap dance, but combined with very modern choreography, to make a performance that was fascinating and at times strange.

If you have an idea to write about a man talking to his neighbors about banana pudding, or you decide to paint a hand holding a snow leopard, or you want the legs to move in a certain way as the foot rhythmically taps the floor, where does all this come from? From about 30,000 years ago we have examples of both carved objects and wall paintings, so humans have been imagining and creating for a very long time. Even though I am one of the creators, even as I’m inside that process doing it, it still mystifies me.

I also think not only about where acts of creation come from, but why are we compelled by that demanding void to fill it?

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Exactly How to Write a Query Letter

Didgeridoo

Waiting for Elvis

If you’ve been wondering how to write a query letter to propose your book to literary agents, you can get books that talk about it, or you can find advice online, or you can even talk to literary agents at conferences. Or you could read this.

For those who are not actually interested in being published, or being taken seriously as a human being, or entirely avoiding jail time, I can help you out with my convenient guidelines—see below!—on how to write a query letter.

  1. You have two choices for how you begin the letter. One possibility is a formal, business-like approach, which will read thus: “Dear Sir or Madam or Whatever (who am I to judge?).” This shows your open-mindedness. The other option is to emphasize your friendly nature and show how easy it will be to work with you. Then you will take the informal approach and begin your letter thus: “Hey, babe.”
  2. At the beginning of your letter, it’s important to tell how many words are in your book. I’m not sure whether this includes the articles “a” and “the” but it definitely includes “an” because of the final consonant. Therefore, when you write your book, try to use as many nouns as possible that begin with a vowel, to increase the number of times you use the word “an” and increase your word count.
  3. Use several paragraphs in your query letter, as paragraphs tend to be popular, so the more the better. Make sure to end each paragraph with the phrase “We’re not done yet!”
  4. Say things about your book to make it sound interesting, even if you’re pretty sure it isn’t. In this context, saying things that are not true is not called “lying” but rather “verbal malfeasance”, which sounds so much better, and is therefore OK. Here are examples of interesting things you might include: (1) After dogs take over the world, human beings learn to carry sticks in their mouths, and it turns out they are much happier than before. (2) Elvis Presley is reborn in Australia, where he learns to play the didgeridoo. (3) A really stupid person is elected President, but it is hard to tell the difference.
  5. Just use your imagination when writing the query letter. That’s what being a writer is all about. Make sure you use plenty of exclamation points. They make your book sound more exciting!
  6. Mention the names of your characters, and give every character a middle initial. Most people have a middle initial, so giving them to your characters makes your characters seem more real. If your character is rich, the middle initial should be W. If they are foreign, it should be Z. If you happen to have a humorous character, then of course the middle initial will be J.
  7. It’s important to let the literary agent know that you did not hire someone to write your letter, so your last sentence should be “I wrote this entire letter by myself.”
  8. And very importantly, don’t forget that being a literary agent is a business. They are doing this to earn a living, so include a twenty dollar bill with every query letter you send out. Doing this will indicate your level of professionalism.

Good luck with your letter

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Comma Up to My Place

peanuts cartoon on commasIf you happen to be the kind of person, hopeless, that is, desperately deranged, who would go looking for the history of a punctuation mark, you can find that on Wikipedia. But rest your fingers, rest your heart. You don’t need to waste time thinking about actual facts when I can give you the secret history of the comma. What makes this secret is that I never wrote it down before. Or thought of it. That’s how secret it is.

As everyone knows, most commas these days come from South Korea, and with modern Korean production processes, commas have become very cheap. I buy large boxes of commas at Target, and the kind I buy come with free semicolons. As a writer, I have a use for semicolons, but if you happen to run across them, you can just throw semicolons in the trash. You don’t need those. If you need a few commas in a hurry, I’ve also seen them in packages of a dozen, for sale in service stations, usually near the beef jerky.

The comma was invented by a medieval monk in Portugal, who was copying manuscripts that he found dull (legend says they were love poems from one of the first popes), and the monk grew sleepy as he was writing. He continued to work in a drowsy state, but when he tried to make periods, his pen slipped a bit on the page. At first the other monks thought these marks were strangely written periods. They liked the way they looked, however, so that every time they came to one, they would pause to look at it. This is how the comma came to represent a pause in the sentence.

Commas became especially popular in Europe in the court of the French king Louis XIV, where commas were worn on the clothing of the courtiers, often decorated with jewels, so that a combination of a comma with an added pearl inadvertently invented the semicolon. The comma was so popular at this time that many illiterate people wanted to learn how to write, just to have words they could put on either side of the beloved comma.

One of the interesting offshoots of the comma in the 19th century was that it gave rise to a visual metaphor that meant “Shut up. Just shut up right now.” That message was conveyed by holding one finger out in front, then curving it downwards as if drawing a comma. The symbolic intent was “I’m inserting a pause here, and I’ll tell you when to continue, which will be never.” A number of duels were fought over that downward-curving finger, and quite a few writers lost their lives this way, as they were quick to insert an air comma, but less quick with pistols afterward.

In more recent history, back in 1986 a cargo ship full of commas sank in the Indian Ocean, and for the next year sentences all over the world were faster to read, though at the same time many of them were less clear for lack of punctuation. Toward the end of the 20th century, commas began to lose their popularity in the west just as they were gaining in popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan and Thailand. In some Buddhist sects, the curve of the comma came to be seen as implying part of a circle, so that every comma was thought to remind us that at any given moment, we are only part of the way through the circle of life.

And of course we all know about the recent upsurge in the popularity of commas because of pop bands who have named themselves after the comma: Commas and Whiskey, Red Comma Revolution, The Night Commas, and others.

And while I’m thinking of it,

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The Invisible Wall Between Worlds

old couch

Just put it on the front porch

One day this week I was working on an article (if you have been sadly deprived of reading this blog until now, I’m a copy editor for a medical journal in rheumatology), so anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, and you know some of those articles are like alphabet soup. That’s not a perfect metaphor, since you might actually want alphabet soup, whereas a piece of writing full of HAQ and PsA and WOMAC and SF-36 and . . . you get the idea, it ain’t no day at the beach. Or even a day at one of those weird indoor fake beaches.

So anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, which I have to hunt down and clarify (as much as they get clarified in this kind of writing), wondering what HCQ means, when it suddenly occurred to me to walk over to the cafe for a cup of coffee. I stood up from my desk, and the very moment I walked out of my office, it was like a switch had flipped. Almost instantly my thoughts turned to the scene I was writing in Moonapple Pie.

The ten minutes it took to get a cup of coffee were like this:

From my office I headed down our stark grim stairwell, because our building is like most modern buildings. If you want to waddle over to the elevator, it’s in plain view in the middle of the building, but if you want to walk because it’s healthier, you have to search for the stairs, and when you find them they have the ambience and charm of a hallway in a prison. Nevertheless, as I walked down the stairs, I was seeing my character Oleander, who was fifteen years old, riding with her father up to the north Georgia mountains to see his parents. I wondered if she should say more in the car with him. I also decided she should be looking forward to going, because her grandmother makes biscuits.

Leaving my building, I went out to the park between us and the ATT building, where the cafe is. I think the park is pretty fabulous, and at the bottom of a long grassy hill is a small lake with a fountain that shoots up rather high in the middle. As I turned from the park to walk up the long flight of outdoor steps to a second garden, I was thinking of the scene that follows Oleander in the mountains. This would be her brother Eston, an artist, in a flashback when he was in college. He goes to a party with his friend Karl, and it occurred to me that since they’re at a college party, someone might drag the living room couch out onto the front porch. So Eston and Karl could sit there later in the evening.

I went into the ATT building, to stand in line at the cafe. I always order a medium coffee, and by now the guy who works there just hands me the cup, and since I know it costs $2.09, sometimes I hand him exact change, without either of us saying anything. We do talk on occasion, however, and I know he’s an artist. As I was waiting in line this time, I was thinking about my own artist, Eston, and his friend Karl talking about art, having a disagreement over what the purpose of art is.

The barista gave me my cup, I added milk and filled it up with coffee, then left the cafe. When I walked over the weather had been wanting to mist us with rain, so I decided to take the covered route back, through the parking garage. I walked down the stairs, which are far more hidden in the ATT building than in my own. It took me more than a year to find them. Walking down the stairs, I decided that Eston and Karl will have their conversation late at night, after being at the party for hours, and they will be drunk on the front porch couch.

In the parking garage, I passed a woman who might have had dreadlocks, and who might have been wearing a dress that had flowers on it, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her. Instead I was thinking about Eston and Karl, about their conversation on art. It occurred to me that it would also be interesting, and would fit the college scenario, if they were to just fall asleep on the porch and wake up there in the morning.

Then I came back to my office, sat down at my computer, and in a minute I found that the acronym HCQ stands for hydroxychloroquine. I was back in the medical editing world.

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Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

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Waking Up Slowly

Slavery memorial from Savannah, GeorgiaDown in Savannah, Georgia, a very popular riverwalk runs along the wide Savannah River, where you can to stroll along looking at the water or stop to gaze up at the huge paddlewheel boats preparing to take tourists on their adventure. Facing the water are restaurants, pubs, candy stores, and souvenir shops, and on the railing that lines the walk are plaques commemorating various aspects of Savannah’s history, while in among the trees and flower beds are a few sculptures. The most surprising find among the sculptures is a memorial to people freed from slavery.

A statue of a father, mother, and two children, all dressed in 20th century clothing, stands on a stone pedestal. Around their feet is a chain, and on the pedestal is a quote from Maya Angelou. Last weekend I was in Savannah for a night of vacation, and since I knew beforehand that this memorial was there, we made a point of finding it. As I’ve read about the memorial on multiple websites, I see that it appears to be officially called the African-American monument.

The Savannah slavery memorial interests me because the book I’m working on now, Moonapple Pie, which will take place in Gainesville, Georgia, involves two brothers who decide that instead of building a memorial to one of their ancestors who fought in the Civil War, they want to create a monument celebrating the emancipation of people from slavery.

Because racism is still an ocean we swim in, even if most white people do not see it, I can imagine someone asking why two white men would build a memorial to freedom from slavery. The fact that such a question even theoretically makes sense indicates how deeply racism runs in our society. How many people, in fact, will perceive commemorating freedom from slavery as a “black” memorial? I make note, for instance, that the name I found for the Savannah memorial (“African-American monument”) refers to race, not to slavery or to freedom.

I’m asking the question differently. Why wouldn’t two human beings create a memorial to celebrate the fact that fellow human beings were freed from the horror of slavery?

In doing research for Moonapple Pie, I looked for memorials that celebrate freedom from bondage (I was looking specifically in southern states). You can find some things that show our history, such as saving old slave cabins. In Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, there is a small, not very unimpressive museum in the Old Slave Mart; or in 2016, a new memorial for African American history was dedicated in Austin, Texas; or in Wallace, Louisiana, the Whitney Plantation is effectively a museum devoted to slavery.

We certainly need to recognize our true history—for a change—but acknowledging the facts of history is not the same as commemorating the profound and joyful change from enslavement to freedom. How many memorials of that type are there? It depends on how you define such a memorial, but in the historical states of the south, I count perhaps two (yes, 2). Besides the statue in Savannah, there is a large well-done Freedmen’s Memorial Arch in Dallas, Texas.

Of the very few celebratory memorials that I’ve found (of any type), almost none of these things existed until the 21st century, and even now, it isn’t much. Just from curiosity, I also investigated how many Confederate memorials of any type exist. The estimate I’ve seen is around seven hundred (yes, 700). I mention this number only for comparison, as my subject here does not concern Confederate memorials. I’m writing here about putting up memorials.

As you read this blog, I would like your opinion on two questions:

1) What memorials celebrating freedom from slavery are you aware of, and do you know of any in the south?

2) For future memorials that will eventually exist, what do you think they should include?

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