Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Writer's Geography, II

Life at Hollywood studios disagreed with many fine writers, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. The studio heads wanted their writers to work in offices at the studios, where the passing producers could hear the typewriters banging away as a song of productivity. Neither of these folks were inclined to produce on schedules, nor to hammer at the keyboard unless they had something to say.

Legend has it that Faulkner once found himself blocked, and finally asked if they would allow him to work at home. Since having Faulkner wokring for the studio was a matter of prestige, they reluctantly agreed.

One day director Howard Hawks needed him. After a series of frantic phone calls, they finally reached him at home--back in Oxford, Mississippi.*

Some writers, like Faulkner, seem to be rooted in a place, and need to be there to work at their best. Others are stimulated by places, but can write about them from a distance; think of Flannery O'Connor scribbling away about the South while ensconced in snowy Iowa, Wodehouse nattering on about Jeeves and Wooster from New York and Paris, or Willa Cather telling tales of the prairie from her apartment in Greenwich Village.

I find that new or unusual places generate ideas and enthusiasms, but if there's any linkage between where I live when doing the actual writing and the quality of that writing, I haven't found it. In fact, I seem to write best in featureless environments with minimal input. If I'm placing a scene in, say, Santa Barbara, California, then doing my writing in Santa Barbara only complicates matters by giving me extraneous details. The truth is, the Santa Barbara in which my story is set is not the Santa Barbara of the real world, but the Santa Barbara of my mind, and I have to believe that the concrete details my mind has stored up as representing Santa Barbara will be the best for evoking Santa Barbara in the mind of a reader.

At home, one of my desks faces a wall, and the other faces a window with the shade and curtains drawn. Much of my writing has been done in hotel rooms--the more generic, the better. I need to be looking inside my head, not around at the world.

Georges Simenon had the same approach, but to a more pronounced degree. To write his novels, he came up with a sketchy outline; visited his doctor to be pronounced healthy enough to tackle a novel; and then booked himself into a random hotel room where he proceeded to hammer out the book in anywhere from one to four weeks. (The fiery pace--and his concern about whether or not his health could sustain it--was at least partly owing to the steady use of amphetamines during these writing jags; his speed was at least partly due to, well, speed.)

I'm not sure it matters where on the globe I reside while doing my scribbling. In many cases, there seem to be advantages to being in a place unlike the one where the novel is set. This shouldn't be too astonishing; after all, writers set their stories in other time periods, in worlds that don't exist, or on undiscovered planets. It would be inconvenient if they needed to be in those environments to do their work.

But that's just me. There are writers who can't work well unless they are immersed in the bustle of Manhattan, and others who can't work well unless they are shut up in some hut in the Great White North. Some, if they are writing about modern Rome, need Rome right outside their doorstep so they can dash out and examine the cobblestones so as to better describe their shape and texture; others do best at describing Rome from afar.

Do you have a best environment for writing? Does it matter where you live?

Do you write well in hotel rooms?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Writer's Geography, I

Over the weekend, we drove a visiting friend up to San Luis Obispo. It was a disastrous drive--indeed, nearly it nearly became a fatal drive when we blew a tire at high speed in the fast lane of Interstate 5 in a section where ongoing construction had eliminated both of the road shoulders in favor of waist-high concrete barriers. But I digress.

While we were making our painfully slow way to San Luis Obispo--known as SLO to the locals, possibly becasue it can take so damn long to get there--we began discussing the virtues and drawbacks of the town. By the standards of Coastal California, SLO is relatively isolated; it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which means it's about 200 miles from either of them. It's a charming little town of about 40,000, with a good-sized university located on the outskirts and a decent beach not too far away. Much of the old-town section has been preserved or renovated, and it's a great walking-around town, with good restaurants, laid-back neighborhoods, and eclectic shops. It's smack in the middle of Central Coast Wine Country, so the supplies of big, fat, loud reds (Zinfandels, Syrahs, and Petite Sirahs in particular) are plentiful. (My palate isn't subtle, so I say big, fat, and loud by the way of compliment.)

A nice place. Would I want to live there? I'm not sure. It's a long, long way to any major symphony orchestra, and I wouldn't count on Death Cab for Cutie* or King Crimson swinging through town on tour, either. The movie theatres aren't exactly cutting edge, and the university is better known for agriculture and engineering than for the arts. And, although the restaurants are wonderful, it wouldn't be long before a resident exhausted all they had to offer.

It's the kind of town I think many writers imagine settling in--quiet, civilized, walkable. But it ain't Manhattan.

This got me thinking about the whole issue of the fantasy of the writer's life. One of the key elements of this fantasy is that, if you were supporting yourself well from your writing (I'm not), you could in principle live anywhere on the globe. This might mean retreating to a rural town with a hermit's writing hut out back of the cottage, ala JD Salinger, or staying in the metropolis to write in the mornings and emerge as man-about town in the evenings, like Noel Coward. As soon as they had the means, some writers--Somerset Maugham and Patrick O'Brian come to mind--immediately headed for the South of France, while others, like Stephen King and John Grisham, haven't budged from their native haunts (Maine and Mississippi, respectively).

Where would I live if there were no constraints? Heck if I know. I like seclusion, so way off in the country has an appeal. I like human-sized, walkable towns, so a small city might be nice. But I'm a sucker for cultural amenities, and I like having grocers nearby that can supply, say, seitan, natto, and garam masala.

In other words, my perfect fantasy city doesn't exist. This presents no real problem, since I'm not in a position to move there anyway, but says something (probably something unflattering) about the way my mind works. Or fails to.

Where would you live if making a living weren't an issue? Are your fantasies as confused as mine?

I'm not asking, mind you, where as a writer you ought to live. We'll get on to that in the next post. I'm asking about your fantasy.

*Factoid: It's reasonably well known that the band "Death Cab for Cutie" takes its name from the title (and chorus) of a Bonzo Dog Band song. Less known is the origin of that song title itself, which was inspired by the title of a story in a trashy American true-detective magazine from the early 1960s.

The Bonzos planned on doing a second song based on the title of another story in that same issue, but unfortunately Stanshall and Innes never got around to it. Too bad: the title was "It Was a Lovely Party Until Someone Found a Hammer." One can only imagine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Famous Dictators and the Cave Of Caerbannog

BROTHER MAYNARD: It reads, 'Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Aramathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of...uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: '... the Castle of uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: He must have died while carving it.

SIR LAUNCELOT: Oh, come on!

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, that's what it says.

KING ARTHUR: Look, if he was dying, he wouldn't bother to carve 'uuggggh'. He'd just say it.

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, it's what's carved in the rock.

SIR GALAHAD: Perhaps he was dictating.

KING ARTHUR: Oh, shut up.


But with all due respect to the King, perhaps he was. It's not unknown. Henry James dictated much of his later work, as did Joeseph Conrad; and Mark Twain dictated his memoirs and other minor pieces.

The topic comes up because, as the result of Repetitive Stress Injury, the estimable MFW Curran is using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his work-in-progress.

Now, talking a book into existence has always seemed like a great idea to me--and has also seemed impossible for someone constituted like mine own self. I mean, the way I talk and the way I write are certainly somehow related, but so are Conrad Hilton and Paris Hilton. That doesn't mean anybody would confuse the two.

On the other hand, Tim Stretton pointed out that Jack Vance used speech-recognition software for his later novels, and that there is no discernible change in Vance's inimitable style (and Mr. Stretton, who is something of a Vance scholar, would know).

I do my thinking on the page; the page reflects my sentences back to me, and my intent and the sentences continue to interact until I get at least within shouting distance of something that satisfies me. Dictating has always seemed impossible because my words would be spilling out into the ether, and would only be retreived to be scrutinized (and mumbled over and over under my breath) well after their utterance.

But then I realized that dictation, in the classic sense, and speech recognition are not really the same thing. Dictation is speaking to a person or a recording device without any immediate feedback. Speech recognition software, on the other hand, spills your words onto the computer screen. Dictation is impromptu composition, while speech recognition might be thought of as typing carried out by other means.

Dictating seems to me an impossible form of composition, but I can begin to imagine composing by speaking and seeing my words appear on a screen--though Matt's posts on the topic make it apparent that there can be many frustrations (many flocking frustrations) built into the process. And with the endless in-process revision I do as I write, I shudder to think what it would look like as I tried a sentence first this way, then that way, then upside-down and in reverse...

For the moment, I'll continue to write in my standard hunched-over, gnarled-shouldered, sweaty-tense fashion--but it's nice to know there are viable alternatives.

Alternatives that don't result in ...uuggggggh...being carved into stone simply because I said it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Imagination Is Powerful--An Average of 13.5% More Powerful

Okay, we're fond of talking about the profound power of imagination, how daydreaming can lead to great things, et cetera, but when pressed for concrete examples we are liable to come up a little short.

I'm not sure how I missed this one back in 2001, but here's a solid, blissfully mundane example at last, and an odd one at that. At a Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic reported that people can increase their strength by visualizing themselves exercising.

The initial experiment was done with people visualizing moving a muscle in their little finger (sounds like the opening for a joke of some sort, doesn't it?), but they've moved on to bigger and better things. Volunteers were asked to spend a little time five times a week visualizing flexing their bicep muscles as hard as possible. The subjects wore electrodes during the visualization to ensure that they weren't unconsciously flexing their muscles while visualizing; the goal was to have it be a purely mental phenomenon.

The strength of the subjects' biceps was measured every two weeks. After a few weeks of purely mental exercising, the visualization volunteers had increased their strength an average of 13.5%--and they kept that increased strength for three months after they stopped the visualization exercise.

This has obvious medical applications for people too enfeebled to exercise, or for people who are constrained in their movements by temporary restraints like casts or stitches. Whether or not you can also get aerobic benefits by going for a mental run hasn't been determined. ("Shhh! Stop rolling around in the bed! I'm running a marathon!")

It's a bit of a leap from stronger biceps to better novels, but I suppose it can't hurt to picture how brilliant your next book is going to be, can it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do You Need (Or Even Want) An Agent?

(More to the point, do I?)

Frances Garrood raised this question over on the MNW blog. Frances has two fine novels to her credit, and, of course, "two" is the magic number for the Macmillan New Writing imprint, the number beyond which you must move to another imprint within the Pan Macmillan family. On the other hand, if you make that move, it's expected that your editor will go along with you, so the net change may not be all that great.

Back in the golden age of publishing (back when all editors were Maxwell Perkins and all authors were Hemingways, Wolfes, Fitzgeralds, or similar cultural icons; back when 'advances' were just that--a way to keep a writer fed and out of the rain while they finished their latest opus), an author's primary relationship was typically with their editor, and there were many cases of author's moving with their editors, not only between imprints, but from one publishing house to another. Editors nurtured their writers, acting as guide, confessor, friend, drinking buddy, banker, and, I gather, sometimes even doing a spot of editing on the side.

That's the legend (and, like the Arthurian legends, it's more fun to enjoy it without looking too closely into the specifics). Certainly editors dominated the literary landscape and agents played only a minor role. For those of us who have worked with a good editor, this would seem to be the logical state of affairs; after all, if an editor is doing their job, the editor has the most intimate relationship with a novel of anyone excepting the writer.

So, if you're lucky enough to be published at a house where you have an ongoing relationship with a good editor, do you really need an agent?

I'd answer with a definitive maybe yes, maybe no.

When do I think an agent would be useful to someone who has a good editor? Under any of the following circumstances, an agent might be in order even if you're already happily published:

1. You wear many writerly masks. Editors have many jobs beyond gently pointing out our more egregious blunders. One of them, crass as it may sound, is to develop writers as saleable commodities for their publishing houses. Sure, Iain Banks may be able to maintain an identity in two unrelated genres, but I'd bet no editor encouraged him to "branch out" into a wholly new identity. (Ken Follett has said that be received stiff resistance from everyone in publishing when he decided to switch away from his thrillers and write his first historical novel. Hardly surprising.) An editor needs to convince a house to publish a book in the first place, and then needs to cultivate that writer’s success (if any) by building their brand. Encouraging a writer of, say, military fiction to try their hand at a Harlequin romance doesn’t really make much sense for the house, the editor’s career, or most probably for the writer’s career.

Now, to be fair, no agent is likely to greet a writer’s desire to adopt a second genre with cheers of encouragement—unless the writer’s career in their first genre is flagging. But the agent is more likely to be able to go along (perhaps quite grudgingly) with the writer’s mulish, wrong-headed determination, because the agent is in a position to select from all the possible houses and imprints in the wide world to place the book (possibly under a pseudonym); the editor has no such luxury.

So, if you’re foolish enough to have novels in more than one genre, you most likely will need to seek an agent.

2. You have a novel you believe in that has been rejected. If your editor has said no to a book, that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be published. It might mean that the editor can’t convince the house of its commercial prospects; it might mean that it doesn’t fit with the way they hope to build you as an author; it might mean that the editor is simply wrong about the book. The why of it doesn’t matter. You have three options open to you: a) Forget about it; b) Get an agent to shop it elsewhere; or, c) Send it over the transom to another publisher.

Forgetting about a book you think deserves a chance is an uncomfortable decision to live with. Tossing it over the transom is fine, but there aren’t many publishers who are open to unagented submissions. If you believe in the book, getting an agent is probably the best course.

3. You need more guidance. The MNW crowd is lucky in that Will Atkins is a flexible, generous editor who is willing to kick around ideas and even offer advice about what you might try next, but he still has to view matters from the perspective of what is possible within the (admittedly large) Pan Mac empire. An agent can take a broader view of your career…if you are so lucky as to acquire an agent whose perspective harmonizes with your own. (Good luck on that.)

4. You just want someone else to talk to. Hey, it’s a lonely business.

5. You want to be able to drop the phrase, “I was talking to my agent the other day…” into conversations. In Southern California, this hints at a connection to the movies and makes you seem more glamorous. In other parts of the country, however, people will probably assume you are talking about your insurance agent.

Note that I prefaced this with “even if you're already happily published.” If you aren’t happy with your publisher, or you feel you could get a far better deal that you are receiving, then you probably need an agent--if nothing else, as a reality check..

In my case, if I wrote only thrillers, I’d be only too happy to avoid the process of seeking representation; so far I’m an instance of Case #1, above—though, living here in the Belly of the Beast as I do, #5 has some appeal.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some perfectly good reasons. Feel free to supply them.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Defeated by spam...

Okay, I thought that turning on comment moderation might discourage all the Chinese-language spam. I was wrong. Either it is sent out by automated programs, or it is sent out by someone who never checks to see if their comments get posted, or it is sent by someone who relishes the fact that I have to log on to Blogger just to say, "No, don't publish this."

So, from now on it's no comment moderation. But you will have to type in one of those verification words to post comments.

Oh, well. As many have noted, sometimes the verification words are fun.