Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where Have the Birds Gone?

October is a decision month for me. This is when I decide, quietly, whether or not I'm going to feed the birds this winter. When I was growing up, we fed the birds throughout the worst winter months but never in the summer, since we felt they had plenty of food in the natural world. So, October and November were a time of getting the bird feeders ready and choosing the appropriate bird seed. But with the change in the species frequenting our backyard, I no longer feel the same way about feeding the winter birds.

I don't know if this is part of global warming, but the species we now see around our house have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. We've had an influx of flocks and flocks of sparrows. They're everywhere. When I walk in the early morning, they flutter up from the ground and hide in hedges until I pass, chirping in annoyance until I'm well beyond their feeding ground. Unlike most other birds in this area, they don't quiet down when humans approach; instead, they get louder and louder, as though warning us off.

When I look out the window in the late afternoon I no longer see the pairs of cardinals that have lived on this stretch of our street for years, nor the occasional junco or chickadee or gold finch. I haven't even heard the mocking bird recently, and I haven't seen a cowbird in years (I don't actually miss that one, considering its behavior). I don't look for barn swallows, since there aren't any real barns around here anymore either, and I miss their distinctive flight pattern and forked tails.

My backyard now consists of hundreds of sparrows swooping and diving, forking and rejoining, rising as a single mass, scattering and reforming; a blue jay that insists on pecking at the door frame on the back porch; and a lot of crows that make as much noise as they want, thank you very much. Last weekend a flock of turkeys wandered down a nearby side street, and have since crossed several streets and found their way to the front yard of an old estate on the water, where a small dog chases them.

Last winter we had a flock of mallards march stately across the frozen snow to our back terrace to eat all the seed we had put out for the regular winter visitors. They drove off all the other birds and filled the terrace. Even when I went out to drive them off, they didn't go far. Watching them approach inexorably, over snow drifts and snow piles, slow step by slow step, in a straggling line, was the most disappointing part of the winter. I don't want them back again this year.

I miss the birds of color and, I think, independence and grace and variety. The cardinals were a bit skittish of people and hid among the bushes, but their color and thoughtful movements were a delight. The chickadees, juncos, and others came and went and all shared their space on the terrace. With the influx of mallards and sparrows, the quieter, more colorful pairs are gone, driven away by both other species and climate.

With the onset of winter I am becoming reconciled to the permanent loss of the more colorful birds and the new residency of the sparrows. I probably won't feed them, since that will only encourage them to stay, and will certainly attract the ducks. But I am thinking of planting a garden next summer just to attract the kinds of birds I have come to miss. I have all winter to plan.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Little Nostalgia (Very Little)

I'm feeling nostalgic today. Perhaps it was the rain yesterday and today, which kept me inside staring at my computer and feeling morose, or perhaps it's because I just finished the first draft of another novel and now I have time to let my mind wander in a different way.

My nostalgia around writing takes one of two forms--thinking about my earlier work and recalling those who helped me along the way, beginning with teachers from way back when. Today I'm thinking mostly about the stories from years ago that were never published.

I have dozens of stories and articles locked in limbo on floppy disks. A couple of years ago I got a disk reader for my iBook, but it would only read disks of a certain color (black was in, everything else was out). Granted, these disks are old and the work stored on them older still but I was curious to find what was there. The titles on the labels didn't ring any bells, and the one or two articles I really wanted to find weren't listed on the labels. I had recently had a request for an article I'd written and discussed on a panel, so I set about finding it. I couldn't find a paper copy, but I knew I had a backup. After all this looking, all I can say is, I believe I did at one time have a backup.

My confidence in digital records was never very great, and it diminishes with each passing year. I have stacks of floppies with once treasured work that I will probably never see again in any form, having thrown away paper copies for the blissful delusion of preserving rare storage space by relying on disks. I have two old backup systems that I never use now--and I would need a different attachment to read them. My MacBook Air needs an attachment for just about everything.

Work composed before I got a computer is still accessible because the paper hasn't yet turned to dust, so I occasionally come across something I wrote in my teens and twenties and even into my thirties. Two things catch my eye. First, there's an occasional phrase or insight that feels new to me and I ponder this and think about reusing it. Second, the earlier nonfiction pieces have an underlying confidence that amuses me--this is youth at its most obvious and annoying.

I once decided to rework an earlier (much, much earlier) story and began by ruthlessly cutting out everything that was mediocre, unimaginative, a cliche, etc. After a few hours of this--rereading, cutting, rethinking--I was left with two paragraphs I considered acceptable. I still don't know what to do with them, but the experience taught me how much my writing has changed over the years.

Except for the days when I have a little extra time on my hands, or it's raining like a monsoon, I rarely think about my old work. It's done, published or put away, and no longer relevant to what I'm doing now. I'm one who believes that life is a series of rooms that we should inhabit fully as we pass through, then turn off the light as we leave and move on. I may never find out what's on those old floppies, but I know I'll never care beyond a mild curiosity, and if they're stacked on the desk when I have a wastebasket in my hand, they may disappear and I will never think about them again.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing in the Moment

I've been working on a new series with a plot that seems to grow more complicated every time I start typing. At first I thought I had the basic idea worked out--who the murderer was, the motive, the mode of investigation, and the back story that would fill out the novel. I worry every few days over whether or not the story will be long enough, or complicated enough, to satisfy the discerning mystery reader. I worry I'll be left with a ho-hum novella. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's not working out that way.

I am not someone who can outline a plot and write from the outline. I've read plenty of how-to books that recommend this, especially for a first novel, and for several years I even felt like I'd never get anywhere if I didn't learn to outline. Of course, I was writing and publishing the entire time I was lamenting my inability to outline. But still, this seemed like such a good idea--so practical and goal-oriented, and recommended by very successful writers that I really felt I should master this skill. Writers who work from outlines can use one to produce a summary or a synopsis on demand, find exactly the right place to add a clue or complication, and can always tell the editor waiting for the final draft where they are in the story and what to expect as the writer moves forward. In the end, however, I gave up trying to learn this technique, and I remain in awe of those writers who have mastered it. But I'd rather have a root canal than compose an outline and follow it.

For me, writing a novel or short story is a process of discovery. I have to be in the story, living each scene and discovering connections between characters and events from their past as I go along. By the time I reach the end of the first draft, the identify of the murderer has changed three or four times--it's amazing to me the number of characters I create in any one book who are capable of murder and make quite reasonable villains. The victim doesn't change, but his or her character deepens, and I learn more about who he or she is and how this person could do something that would inspire murder.

By the time I'm two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I have so many clues and loose ends to tie up that I worry I have made the story too complicated, perhaps needlessly so, and won't be able to finish it. This is when I start thinking about whittling down the number of characters, perhaps combining two minor characters into one and making this composite more interesting or effective. If the novel feels it has gotten away from me, that's all right. I'm willing to let the book have a life of its own--as long as I can steer it to a satisfying conclusion. And of course, I have to have faith that I can steer it anywhere.

I liken my technique to the experience of a vacation. I don't expect the same experience twice even if I visit the same place twice. Life doesn't work that way. Each day is new, with its own set of challenges and discoveries, no matter how much sameness we think we are encountering.

Whenever I try to explain my approach to writing--one of the more popular questions at writers' panels--I think of John Updike and his contrast between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. Writing nonfiction, Updike said, is like hugging the shore, the term for sailing always in sight of land. Writing fiction is sailing away from the shore, away from the safe markers of the world, to discover what is out there. It's risky and it can be scary, because the waves are higher and the wind stronger, but the chance is much greater that you'll find a new land.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Discovering Francetta

Recently I finished a manuscript about Anita Ray, the Indian American woman photographer who lives in India at her aunt's hotel, but through the last few days of working on the manuscript I kept hearing the voice of another character. This is the kind of thing that often happens to me when I'm finishing a book--I hear the voice for a character in the next book, see the story idea starting to cohere in my imagination, see scenes that will show up in the story. The problem is, the character's voice is entirely different from everything else I've written. Her name is Francetta and she is totally unlike any of my other protagonists in many ways. Nevertheless, I kept listening.

I finished the Anita Ray and sent it off, and then sat down to hear what Francetta had to say to me--who was she and what was her story? In the first few pages, she was mostly a very hard-nosed woman pretty angry about life. She had lots to say and her language wasn't always pretty. But she had a wry sense of humor, a laser sharp eye for the phony, and a fearlessness in facing life that I admired. I listened.

Francetta has quite a story--about her murdered husband, her months in prison, and her friends who aren't really friends. She looks on her past as a foster child with acceptance, and stays focused on the present--her friendship with her mother-in-law, her growing son, and her husband's memory.

Francetta tells her story with verve and a sly sense of humor. I don't know the whole story yet, but she's letting me in on it in bits and pieces.

I usually write as a process of discovery, uncovering the plot and clues, getting to know the other characters and their lives, but usually I know the protagonist pretty well. But this time I'm discovering just about everything--a new character, a new setting, a new kind of crime, a new language. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, April 11, 2011

eBooks and the Slush Pile

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across lots of discussion about eBooks, the future of publishing, and how the career of a writer is changing. Most of the time I come away from these discussions confused at the amount of information that is out there and needs to be absorbed just to begin to understand the problem. But then it dawned on me:

Ebooks are the new slush pile.

Now, this may not mean anything to most writers today because over the last thirty or forty years most publishers have given up the slush pile. The slush pile was a long and honored tradition of publishing houses accepting for review manuscripts that arrived unsolicited. No agent had sent them and no editor had requested them. They arrived because the writers had enough confidence (or demented ego) to believe that a stranger would buy their work if just given a chance to read it. And sometimes they were right. Thousands if not millions of mss went through the slush pile, but rarely did any one stand out enough to be read from beginning to end, and then to capture the reader’s attention so thoroughly that he or she decided to pass it up the line. If you know how the slush pile works, you know why surviving it is a rarity.

An editor assigned to manage the slush pile was usually new to the business and had many other duties. Her job (and it usually was a she) was to glance quickly through the mss (read page one, check page 200 to see if the author is still on the same topic and can still write, and read the last paragraph to see if the writer is still sane) and select an appropriate rejection letter. The editor signed this, usually with a pseudonym. (Unless you’ve actually worked in a publishing house, you have no idea how many people will show up uninvited and unexpected, insisting on seeing “their” editor.)

If the editor happened to come across something that seemed truly remarkable, she might read more, and if she read the entire mss and liked it, she then had to persuade a number of other editors, all senior to her, that here was something worth looking at. Considering the known writers the other editors were working with, the slush editor had her work cut out for her. And this is where eBooks come in.

There is no longer a need for a slush pile. Any book published in eBook format is in essence sent out into the world’s largest slush pile. Many of these books will die or disappear after selling half a dozen downloads to the author’s friends and relatives. These results are in essence kind rejection letters (“Thank you for letting us review your mss; I’m sorry to report that this isn’t for us”).

Few novice writers will reach the heights of Amanda Hocking, who sold upwards of a million ecopies through her own efforts. But she is proof that there still is a slush pile and that it still works—by word of mouth, she sold her books one reader at a time, working her way up the scale of readership, until she had an audience that would return again and again.

Tags: editing, slush pile, writing, Amanda Hocking