Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hero Worship I: The Lady

Everybody needs a hero(ine) but why, as a child, mine should have been Anne Boleyn, is something I’ve never quite sorted out. I assume the original interest came from a long-forgotten historical novel. Certainly it was fed by them, and by “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on Masterpiece Theatre. And yet, I’m not entirely convinced by this explanation, mainly because the Anne Boleyn that so heavily occupied my thoughts when I was ten years old was not the ready-made villainess that generally crops up in fictional accounts of the Tudors. Historical novelists love to go to town with Anne, loading her with every negative feminine characteristic in the book: shallowness, immorality, deviousness, bigotry, cruelty, and so on, at least until the end of the book, when they generally admit she was innocent of adultery and treason and write a scene in which she goes to her death on the scaffold bravely. My Anne Boleyn – the Anne Boleyn I created in my head – was none of these things. She was misunderstood. And I think that this idea – that she struggled, and that I had to struggle, to clear her name – was the crux of the matter for me. No doubt some of her wildness appealed to me and no doubt I saw her as someone immensely powerful, someone who could be my defender. But I could also defend her – and I frequently did, mostly to people who couldn’t have cared less. (Although I believe my classmates did enjoy hearing that after your head was cut off your body could continue to move.)
I’ve long since passed beyond being interested in Anne Boleyn and yet I still shy away from any book that seems to be “against” her. (Take that, Alison Weir! Take that, Philippa Gregory!) And I still want to lecture people on what an unusual figure she was for a 16th century female and how the main contemporary record of her life was written by the Spanish ambassador, so naturally it’s biased, and… And sometimes, looking back on the whole thing, I’m kind of intrigued that somehow out of the welter of historical women I picked such a weird one.
Anyone else out there have an unusual childhood hero?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Rainy Season

The week before:
Did you hear? It's going to rain every day next week.
They said we might get four inches.
I don't believe it. It'll probably rain for half an hour and we'll get a tenth of an inch.

Day one:
It's raining.
Is it?
[The entire office assembles to look out the front window.] I hope it rains a lot. We can use it.
I love the rain.
So do I -- I love cuddling up under a blanket and hearing it on the roof.
Wow, it's really coming down now.
I hope it keeps up.
[an hour later, when someone comes in from outside] Is it still raining?

Days two- four:
Oh man, the roof's leaking.
Sorry I'm late -- 215 was flooded.
I hate the rain.
This is why I left Cleveland/Minnesota/England.
I wanted to stop by Walgreen's after work but I guess I won't since it's raining.
Did you see that accident? No one here knows how to drive in the rain.
We can use it, that's for sure.
It's freeeeeeeeeezing! I had to wear my winter coat!
Does anyone have an umbrella?
I don't know know if I'm going to be able to make it to Lake Las Vegas/Summerlin/Boulder City. The roads might be closed.
I hate the rain.

Day five, white clouds and bits of blue sky.
Did you see all the snow on the mountains? Aren't they gorgeous? Hey, I hear its going to be in the 70s next week.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reflections on a disaster

One of the books I read this past year was A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit. In this book, Solnit looks at major disasters, both man made (like the Blitz) and natural, starting with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her argument is that, contrary to government and popular expectations, during disasters people largely display benevolent behavior. They rush to rescue each other and often band together to provide food, shelter and other help to complete strangers. Far from taking advantage of disorder to indulge in lawless behavior, she writes, people try to re-create it, working together in ad-hoc communities. Though the book is a little repetitive and choppy, her evidence is persuasive and it gives me a little hope in the wake of Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti. The terrible irony of the earthquake there is that in previous natural disasters (like hurricanes) it was the poor who were mainly affected while the government and upper classes marched on indifferently. Now the government is gone and the poor are in the streets. I can't imagine what the future holds for Haiti, but Solnits uses the Mexico City earthquake to show how disasters sometimes bring about real social change. Perhaps the lessons learned in the rubble of Port Au Prince can be used to help Haiti turn a corner.
When you write historical fiction you get used to looking at difficult times in human history and the complexities of human behavior, and partly you try to find some hope in such situations.
In the meantime, I'm terribly proud of my country for taking charge of the rescue efforts. It's good to see people respond so unselfishly.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My new blog

Since last year I've been collecting YA novels of a different era -- mass market teenage girls' books from the late 50s/early 60s. I've started a new blog, The Paris Hat, to take a light-hearted look at some of the ones I have. Most of them are fun to read, and quite often they have something kind of unexpected to them. Who would think that a popular teen author would write a book about machine politics in a small town? Or that a date with the town's handsomest boy would lead to a spree of pyromania? Or that the self-esteem raising phrase "we're all winners" was actually in use in 1961?
Check it out if you're interested. I will probably update it once a week or so. (I wrote some of these posts in draft versions, and now Blogger is using the draft dates, from last week, so the dating might be a little screwy.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Judge not...

As part of my job I'm part of a team that decides on admissions to the medical school I work at. Once every couple of weeks I sit on the other side of a desk from a kid in a suit, asking him or her questions and trying to get inside his or her head, while I make what is (from his/her point of view) the most important decision of my life.

I find this experience informative for the process of querying and submitting - a taste of what it's like to be on the other side of the desk, as it were. I've learned a couple of things from it:

1. Rejection isn't personal. Some of the people we reject will get into other medical schools. They just weren't the right fit for us. Maybe they don't know much about our programs and our situation, or maybe they just don't seem very interested. I'm sure we sometimes let good ones get away. It happens.

2. Rejection isn't easy. I often feel a great split between my compassion for a candidate with a compelling story and my better judgement, which says that they do not have the academic background or maturity to make it through medical school. This decision, directly and indirectly, affects many lives, including those of future patients. It's often a relief to turn to the other person on my team and the admissions committee and let them bear some of the burden.

3. The best thing a candidate can do is give me a reason to want him/her to succeed. It can be a story, an interest, a goal, but I have to see a reason to say, "Wow, this person will be a great doctor."

Interestingly enough, I think this last reason really connects to writing. Long ago, I went through a phase in querying when my queries were not very long and were couched in formal language. I liked this approach because I thought it was "professional." "They'll see I mean business," I used to think, "I don't waste their time with fluffy stuff." I know now why this approach didn't work. A candidate who is formal and polite and nothing else comes across as uncommitted -- someone just putting up a front but who probably doesn't really want to be a doctor. (It may seem odd, but we do actually get people who apply to med school because they're not really sure what they want to do with their lives, or because they want to please their families.) Likewise I think with a query you must sort of give the agent a reason to want to see your book or want to see it succeed. The trick is to do this without sounding like a danger to yourself and others, of course.

I can never quite get out of my mind that somewhere someone is looking at my dreams and judging them and I only hope that they weigh their decisions as carefully as I weigh mine.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

D for Done

The WIP is no longer IP. No longer W, either. A year ago I was about 5 chapters into a nice romp through the first draft. So that's not so bad. I think its going to be called The Poison Hill. Some details:
Setting: St. Paul, MN. Summer 1924
Protagonist: Gertrude Leskow, 18
The Nutshell: Gertrude falls in love with another girl, breaks her engagement and begins to take charge of her life.
Actually, a large part of the book fell into place when I encountered Andrew Lang's Pink Fairy Book (and all the other subsequent Fairy Books) in my library. I kept reading the same story over and over -- variously called "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," "The Hoodie Crow," "The Brown Bear of Norway," and so on. It's the story of a girl who marries an animal and discovers he is a man under a spell; she betrays his secret and he leaves her but she wins him back, often by traveling long distances and undergoing trials. Several things about this appealed to me, but I really felt that I could use both the theme and structure in a novel. I'll never write fantasy -- I just don't have that kind of mind -- but I liked the idea of incorporating mythology this way. And when I found, in the course of my research, a quote from G.K. Chesterton, to the effect that all fairy tales are spiritual exercises, I felt I was on a good track. As I've tried to express it in Chapter 1:

All her life she had believed in fairy tales – in books. Sometimes in real life certain events – a shabby man speaking to her on the streetcar – seemed almost to imitate the beginning of such stories, but if it never went any further she did not mourn, for the books were enough.
Even so, she should have learned something. Not just that magic might be hidden in a walnut; that one must be kind to dwarves; that the cat you freed from a trap on page 2 would do you a good turn on page 4. No, the lessons were meant to be much deeper than that. Heroines must be passionate about the truth, for instance. They must grab it with both hands and hold on in spite of torments and temptations; they must seek it far away, even go into exile. And if they must humble themselves in the service of this truth, and perform some terrible, impossible task to free someone, humble themselves they would, and then, with horseshoes on their hands and feet, climb the hill of poison, utterly alone.
But though she knew all this, she did not believe in it beyond the page itself, and so everything she would need to know lay unheeded on her bookshelves.

How to See the Elephant - Part IV

Seeking her father, Thetis slips past the guard and enters the camp.

I went swiftly through an area of darkened tents. I was leery of everyone I saw, pausing and waiting and moving on only when I thought there was no-one about. I still had the gun but I knew it would make no difference now. I walked through the labyrinth of tents and stumbled down a hill into a creek and up out of it again, falling over someone’s dinner mess and scattering metal utensils in the dark. And the whole time words, terrible words, from a part of the Bible I had read in secret and never understood: We have a little sister and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver, and if she be a door, we will enclose her… I am a wall, and my breasts like towers, then it was that I found favor in his eyes… My face was wet, and I had not even known I was crying. And then I came out on a road again, and there was a horrible smell and I thought I must be near the latrines, but there was something else in the smell: not just latrines but a rotten smell, like the dead fish in the river, and something acrid and chemical. If there was a hospital in the camp, this was it. I saw a large tent, a marquee-like structure, with flaps pulled back, and a lantern at the door. I moved forward until I could peer inside. Two women sat around a packing crate with an oil lamp on it. One was reading aloud; the other, listening, held a handkerchief to her nose. As I watched, the one reading paused and passed the book to her companion. She took her handkerchief away and began reading, while the first lady sank back in her chair and applied her own handkerchief to her nose gratefully. On the other side of the tent was a group of three or four men. I could not see well enough to tell what they were doing, but they seemed ambulatory. I saw a pair of crutches leaning against a makeshift wall of packing crates.
I hesitated a moment before I went in. I licked my palm like a cat and smoothed my hair. I shook my skirts out and brushed at my clothes. I dried my face completely. The hospital smell made me think of the last days at home, of the filth of the sheets and the desperation with which we washed and even burned them (our second-best set, but by that time no-one cared), and of my mother, who had never paused in any activity, never asked for any kind of mercy or reprieve, vanquished, bone-thin, her face blue, barely able to turn over in bed.
I stepped forward steadily, crunching over gravel and dried grass. I don’t remember what I said to the two ladies. I may have tried to walk past them entirely. I remember being held by the arms. But it did not matter, because one of the men stood up and even with his hair so much longer and his beard so much grayer, even with the crutch, I knew who it was, though my brain did not want to recognize him. But I did not cry. I let him put his arms around me and pat my back and I leaned my head against his chest and I heard him ask, Where did you come from? and How? and say, My God, Thetis! I let everybody talk, and said nothing. There was not point in thinking about any of it. It was all over and done with.
And though they made me sit down and brought me soup and found me a place to sleep, I thanked no one, and when my father tried to look me in the eye I turned my head away.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year - Now Get to Work!

Most writers hate synopsizing. There’s a meat-grinder aspect to the process of cutting your novel down to its essentials and yet not losing the spirit of the thing. (Constructing a synopsis also has a tendency to reveal the smallest structure flaw or missing character motivation in your novel – which is always discouraging if you think you’re done writing it.) Writing/publishing blogs and guides suggest a synopsis should be no more than 2 pages and should only refer to the 3-4 most important characters by name. As soon as you sit down that seems impossible. But I can't leave out the part about the car accident...and then there's the old lady -- she's an important character... And before you know it you have 4 pages of explanation rather than synopsis and your prized work sounds like the trashiest trash since Harold Robbins. (Wow, that reference really dates me.)
Having said all this, I have found a method of synopsizing which works for me and I thought I would share it. I use an Excel spreadsheet but you could do it longhand as well.
The first column I make is called “What Happens.” Under it, for each chapter, I note only the biggest event(s). I keep this very short – not even full sentences. For Part 3 of How to See the Elephant, the entire “What Happens” column reads:

T. crosses PA, OH with Sheba. Changes mind about S. Convinces S. to go on.

Part 3 is actually fairly long and has quite a bit of adventure. But that’s not what I’m trying to set down at this point. I’m trying to focus on the most important thing in Part 3, the event that underlies all the drama – and that’s the changing relationship between Thetis and Sheba.
The next column is “Drama.” Here I number the particular events and points of conflict in the chapter – basically what keeps the reader interested. For Part 3 I broke this down to:

1. T. decides to take S. for selfish reasons.
2. Conflict at Altoona and on train.
3. T. decides to abandon S.
4. Convent. S. defends self. T. dislikes but begins to respect.
5. Rejected. Peddler, Josiah, Cincinnati
6. Disappointment in C. S. breakdown. George. T. convinces S. to go on.
7. Boat to Louisville.

This pegs out for me the most important events, but even so it’s probably a little more detailed than it should be. That’s OK – I’ll make the decision on what to include/not include when I do the final column. Now, this is where it can get tricky. You may not use all the points you just listed. Likewise, you may want to introduce some introductory information. You may rewrite it a couple of times, moving stuff in and out. But keep it short and simple and stick to what you've outlined. When I come to actually write the sentences, I usually attach each one (or part of one) to the pertinent conflict point in the previous column. The final column for Part 3 is below. I've put the points from the previous column in brackets. Notice that I didn't end up using 1 and 2. I decided that neither was important enough to go in.

The two girls flee from Delaware to Ohio by train and on foot. Thetis wants to find her father, while Sheba, who has no experience of the world, simply wants to get away from Miss Veda. Sheba attracts attention everywhere for refusal to be treated differently from Thetis. Thetis, who finds Sheba spoiled and insufferable, decides to abandon her as soon as she decently can. [3] Travelling across Ohio over four days the two girls sleep out in the open, ride with a peddler, outrage the laws of hospitality and are nearly shot for chicken thieves. [4-5] A tense partnership emerges, with Thetis respecting Sheba while still not liking her. [4] In Cincinnati, where Thetis had hoped to get help, no riverboats are running and Louisville is rumored to be under Confederate attack. Sheba breaks down but Thetis persuades her the only thing she can do now is to go on. [6] The two girls find a boatman to take them downriver to Louisville, which is under military rule. [7]”

The above lines condense 21, 686 words and balance the underlying theme of the chapter with the actual events. Even so, I will rewrite it as it goes into the final document, condensing some of the longer sentences and redundancies and giving it a narrative flow. Ultimately, using this method, the synopsis for How to See the Elephant was under two pages and mentioned only the 4 most important characters.
I think the key here is keeping an eye on the bigger theme of the novel (in this case, what the two girls learn from each other) while not leaving out the smaller events (the ups and downs of the journey) which hold the reader’s attention. This method helps me find that balance. I thought I’d share it in case it helps somebody else.

How to See The Elephant -- Part IV

Following a line of Army wagons with wounded soldiers, Thetis finds a camp on the outskirts of Louisville.

From the top of the hill, as I sat down to rest, I saw a small city, seemingly, with lamps and lights spread for hundreds of yards, and the glimmer of tents, their sides stirring in the breeze, and the sound – that mixture of roaring, singing and snoring – of men in camp, that I would come to know so well in the future.
When I had regained my breath, and found my way to the gate of the camp, I saw a sentry. Now, I had a feeling, it would begin all over again – the trek from captain to major to general, the same refusal to commit to any action, the same doubts and dissuasion – and then back to Louisville, or across the river. I had to get by him. He was no young fellow who might be bamboozled, either. He was crooked and ancient, with a sparse beard made up for by over-sufficient quantities of nose and ear hair.
“I’m going to the camp hospital,” I said, “I have supplies for my father.”
Of course I had nothing with me, except the gun, which I tucked unsteadily into the band of my skirt, far enough back to be out of sight.
He looked me up and down. “Camp hospital!”
“Yes, sir. My father’s in the 95th Ohio.”
“No 95th Ohio here.”
I took a deep breath, then reached up and tried to pull out my hair so it would flutter in the breeze. I bunched it over my shoulders, and then I pulled up my skirt on one side, just enough that you could see to the knee, and stood with my leg thrust out, turning it back and forth in the lantern light. I had put my stockings back on, in anticipation of arrival in Louisville.
“See that?”
“Hmm,” he said, staring at my leg as if it were some sort of curious animal that might have to be killed.
“Do you see that, sir?”
“I see it.”
“Well, what do you think?” I let the skirt drop and put my hands on my hips. “I’m one of Miss Tamara’s girls. General Gillmore—” I had heard this name in one of the hotels we passed through “—requested our presence, sir, at a small entertainment he is hosting for his officers. Do you understand me?” I felt I could not afford to let him pause and think through anything. I showed my leg again.
“Do you think the general will like me, sir?”
It sounds almost harmless: a lark, a high-spirited joke, a wiggling of the shoulders and a saucy wink to get me into the camp. It wasn’t. I felt terrible. I knew that my mother, if she had ever watched over me from heaven, would surely abandon me now. It was not a case of enduring something for the sake of something better. It was a willful choice I had made. I could feel a cold shame, like the reverse of a blush, creeping from my knees to my head; my innards, constricting, doubling upon themselves, rising; my head light and my own voice unfamiliar in my ears. I stood without trembling only by will – a will I’d not had enough of when it might truly have helped me.
I turned my head and leaned forward and let my hair swing out, and he touched it, first clumsily, and then playfully he wrapped it around his finger and it pulled a little and finally I laughed, a high false sound that I had not known I was capable of making, and said:
“Now, now, sir.”