The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

29 May 2010

Facets of Character

My weekly blog post is a bit late for several reasons (such as preparing for my husband's art exhibition), but the biggest setback was having two days eaten up by a lab retreat at Umina beach. Normally, driving one and a half hours out of the city to stay in a cabin by the beach would be a great thing, but winter is closing in (so no snorkeling) and this was a work get together--which means no free time and no fun.

I spent both days listening to talks, giving one of my own, and engaging in scientific discussions. I was forced to eat too much food, but that's another story. Afternoons were spent in group bonding, which, with icy rain pelting the tennis court, meant board games in the boss's cabin.

There's nothing like the fish out of water scenario to reveal whole new facets of people's character. Most of the group banded together for a game of "Cranium", similar to charades, except people can draw, sculpt, act, or sing the clues. It was a surprise to learn who could sing well and who couldn't even hum. One girl had a talent for guessing, getting "James Bond 'Goldeneye'" from an abstract line sketched on paper. And apparently everyone has seen the dead-body-being-dragged-around episode of "Fawlty Towers". There was lots of laughter, and the fun sides of people (who are normally severe and composed in lab) were revealed.

I was not in the "Cranium" group. Somehow, I ended up playing "Scrabble" with a bunch of Type A personalities, including my boss. I tried to tune out all the jokes and laughter behind me so I could focus on the serious business at hand--winning a game I'd never played before. Yes, odd that a writer has never played Scrabble, but I've seen it on TV, so I at least knew how to set up my tiles.

My boss is a kind and supportive person, and he helped me learn the rules and get going. Cranium is not the only game to bring out different facets in people, however. Once I did start winning, my boss's ruthless side emerged. He was constantly questioning the scorekeeper, making sure every point was properly credited to him, and he insisted that the oddest words were "in the dictionary". Whatever. I like to win, but I don't get crazy about it.

Still, luck was on my side, and I was the first to use up all my tiles, after composing "Zen" and "grout". The points were on my side too--I'd won! No, the boss quickly demanded a recount. Even upside down he could see the addition had an error. OK, he won by three points, and all was right with the world. Calm, friendly boss man was back. I had a hard time stifling my mirth but shared a few rolled eyeball looks with the scorekeeper.

I also saw a whole new side of our usually perky, resident chemist. He lost badly and refused to play again, preferring to sit cross-armed in a childish huff.  I smothered my grin and slipped away to my cabin at the earliest opportunity.

There's nothing like competition to bring out people's true character. When you're writing your next story and creating protagonists, ask yourself whether they're the Cranium or Scrabble type and how they react to winning or losing. You'll understand them a whole lot better.

22 May 2010

Donate a book!

Another post already? I know, my head is swimming too, but I just wanted to link to this site where they will donate a book to a needy child, if you leave a comment describing a book that changed your life.

Go on over.
Uhm...that is all. See, this is why I only post once a week, I'm all out of ideas. Hats off to you who do it everyday!

21 May 2010

Nature of Imagination

We are so fond of being out among nature, because it has no opinions about us. -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900)

There's nothing more inspiring than nature. Ask Frost, Walden, Thoreau... even Nietzsche (who I otherwise abhor). Whenever I need to recharge, I take a walk in the twelve acre park right across the street from where I live. There's a million breathtaking sights every day, whether it's a field of crows hunting insects in the green grass at dawn or a sky full of fruit bats soaring across an orange sunset.

As a writer, or maybe because I'm an imaginative person, I tend to anthropomorphize. Give me a teddy bear and I automatically assign him a personality (a beanie bear I got for my anniversary inspired a series of picture books for my niece). I do this with trees too. I have about six or seven favorites I pay a visit to when walking through the park or on my way to work. I don't call them "George" or share my day or anything, but I acknowledge their existence. Sort of a casual nod to acquaintances. There are wise-looking ones, beautifully shaped picture postcard-worthy ones, ones that hold a birds' nest every year, one the possum climbs at night, a long branch where a line of fruit bats dangle... So many trees, so many personalities.

Then last week I was on my way to work and ran across a scene like this:

A massive tree I'd often admired was suddenly on the ground in cedar red chunks and piles of sawdust. The workman were still sawing as I watched open-mouthed. It felt as though I'd stumbled on a murder scene. George!

I wanted to do something, but it was too late. And it's not like you can report arboricide to the police. I know there are reasons to chop a tree down--power lines, too close to a building, etc--but this made no sense. It was a waste. I mourned him for days.

I lost another tree friend last year, which was an even bigger shock at the time. He'd been around forever, and I thought he'd last forever. I take these things too hard. It would be easier to stop anthropomorphizing, but I can't. Instead, I gaze on my favorites a bit longer now, touch their bark, and imprint them to memory...and I buy more ebooks. Anything to save the lives of a few leafy friends.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. - William Blake (1757-1827)

And don't forget to Green Your Blog !

Did you? It's easy, and the tree they plant for you just might be named George!

10 May 2010

Too Much Drama

Fiction is full of impossible things: magic, international conspiracies, convoluted murder plots in sleepy little towns, Armageddon...but at what point does it become unbelievable?

I know I can accept pretty much anything if I'm introduced slowly. When I first started watching "Buffy", I had no idea that by season 7 I'd be saying "they've averted their fifth apocalypse, and she's died twice, but this time I'm really worried because they're descending into the mouth of Hell, and she's had tearful goodbyes with both her vampire boyfriends, including the one she killed and who came back and got his own show...". Pretty crazy stuff, but I accept it because I was there for the journey.

As long as a book lets me know early on that there are monsters or whatnot, I'm prepared to go further. I don't like being plunged into the deep end.

Whenever I deal with my family, it's like being air-dropped into the middle of the pacific. My childhood was such a drama that I stopped telling the stories to my friends because I think they were starting to believe I'm someone with too much imagination (like a writer). My brother is one of the few people who knows it all--he was right there with me from the start. We share everything. So it was a shock when I call home for Mother's Day and my mom answers using a different name (that wasn't the shocking part--I didn't even ask her what that was all about as I really don't want to know), and she's too busy to talk, so she puts my sister on the phone. My sister, relishing the chaos like some demonspawn, joyously tells me that she knows something bad about our brother but can't tell. "I want to know," I say. There is one more token protest before she spits out that he's having heart problems, a hole in his valve, and the doctor says he can't even climb ladders at work anymore (he does alot of that at work too).

The deep end alright. I hastily research the subject and learn there are medications to treat it and valve replacements with high success rates (although I'm worried about how good my brother's insurance is). Armed with this information, I call him and immediately jump down his throat for not telling me. We had talked for hours on the weekend (he's one of my best friends), and he hadn't mentioned a word! With no way to hide it from me anymore, he becomes doom and gloom. He doesn't want to change his career and lifestyle, yada yada, and I say he'd better because he has a daughter to raise and a family that cares for him.

The admonishments out of the way, I get all optimistic and supportive. There are tears and "I love you's" then I hang up the phone, talk things over with my husband, then call up the computer repair people and deal with that drama (they're going to replace it finally). Next day it's my friend's mammogram scare, my injured toe, antibiotics, an early meeting to decide the course of someone's professional life... Sometimes you just want to scream "stop!" and order the whole world to take a break.

I would never put so many disjointed dramas into one story and one character's life. It's too confusing. A series, where you've had several books or tv episodes to build up the web of interactions and problems, is another matter, but even then you want your various storylines to intersect and form a greater theme.

A character can have dozens of different failed relationships, for example, but it should accomplish something or give insight into the protagonist. Why is he driving these people away? Is there a part of his psyche and upbringing that's causing him to make bad choices? Is this his real problem? (aside from the bad guy and a nuclear bomb to diffuse or whatever)

It's hard to see themes in fiction or real life (and some argue there aren't any), but I believe it's a writer's job to find them, to choose the dramas that fit into a larger, cohesive story and make sense of it all.

As for my personal story, I'd like my main character to always be there for the people she cares about and never give up, overcoming all obstacles to be a published author and showing her beloved brother his name on the acknowledgments page. Love and dedication are the themes I want in my life.

What's the main point of your story--either fictional or real? Do you think story is meant to reveal underlying themes and make sense of it all? Or, do we merely sample the chaos for entertainment, as a means to distract us from our own unsolvable dramas?

04 May 2010

Going Luckless

I've always been able to feel "the luck groove" as I call it. It's sensing the right time to leave the house for a walk so I avoid the rain and run into an interesting person in the park to chat to yet still make it to breakfast before they stop serving at 10:30. I thrive on that feeling. It's how I win pool games. But I also know there's a universal law that luck never holds. That's why I've lost as many pool games as I've won.

When I feel the needle bump out of the groove and hear that screech like fingernails on chalkboard (those of you old enough to have owned a turntable and seen chalkboards will know what I mean), I choose to lay low. I putter and carry on with activities set in motion when the luck was there. I've been wrestling with a new computer, setting up a home network, promoting my husband's art exhibition, researching IVF, learning to read guitar Tab, and troubleshooting my Western blots at work, but the hardest thing has been keeping my writing and revisions from grinding to a halt. I know its not working. Everything I write is crap.

My writing is too important to me to rely on luck, moods, or the weather. I want to perform whether I'm in a comfy chair with my favorite coffee mug and writing tiara or scribbling with a leaky pen on a bumpy bus ride. I've been good about pressing on through the ups and downs for the last two years (since I fully committed myself to this life), but the last month I've stumbled. I'm not feeling the luck or much of anything. The writing mood starts to build then drifts away. I keep going with the edits, but now everything I've done before looks like it needs to be redone. Have I accomplished anything? Am I the Sisyphus of writing?

I work on my manuscript for at least an hour everyday, aiming for 500 new or revised words. It's agony, but I do it (most of the time). I'm too stubborn to give up. And now, here I am posting again! I've redecorated the blog and put up a photo without a speck of cat hair in sight (it took a while to find one). I'm feeling the first trickles of returning luck, so I hope the writing fever comes back too. If not, I'll learn to do without, because, even when the writing aches, I'm happier with it than without it.

What about you? How do you live without the luck groove? What keeps you going when the writing doesn't work? Are you an optimist or just plain stubborn?