Monday, April 29, 2013

Building a house of cards, part five: Novel submission and novel rejection

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

We've all heard those stories about writers with award winning books having to endure dozens of rejections. Or even more tragically, Patrick Kennedy O'Toole and The Confederacy of Dunces. He got so many rejections that he finally checked out. Sometime after his suicide, his mother submitted the book to an English professor and The Confederacy of Dunces became an instant classic. If only Mr. O'Toole could have seen it. The point is, there are rejections and rejections and rejections.

I've had my share of rejections. And sadly, my work with Umbrella Factory Magazine, I've dished out my share of rejections. Incidentally, I hate giving a rejection more than I hate receiving one. I suppose I feel like this because I don't ever want to hurt anyone's feelings. That and, a rejection does not hurt my feelings.

A big part of writing is the inner conflict. The self-editing, the self-censorship, the self-doubt mixes so very wonderfully with the balance of work and life and family and the desire to write. So much of this happens at the desk at home or in the office. So much of publishing is the waiting game which leads to self-doubt, insecurity and this leads to nothing good. At the end of the waiting game, almost without fail, there is rejection.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Building a house of cards, part four: The Subsequent Drafts

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

As I explained last time, I benefited from the writing four manuscripts before I began work on Undertakers of Rain. This experience made it easier for me to work and I was more efficient at it too. Also, it is my belief that anyone can write a novel. Even though I had developed a system of writing three drafts concurrently, see The Novel, Guerrilla Style series, three drafts are just not enough.

I set the manuscript on its side like a bottle of wine and locked it away somewhere dark. I wish that's the way it went down. Truth is, I had to leave Undertakers of Rain aside because of all the novels I wanted (needed) to write.

By the time I looked at the manuscript again, so many things had changed. Life with Umbrella Factory Magazine had begun, namely. I taught a semester of basic college skills at an early college. I begun work as a screenwriter at Rocket House Studio. Basically, I grew up as a writer between the time I finished Undertakers of Rain and the time when I opened it back up to work some rewrites.

Why the time was good.

Time and distance between me and Undertakers of Rain was good. Sure, the whole fresh eyes thing. Sure, I could easily spot problems and idiosyncrasies more easily. These things aside, the most important aspect of time and distance: I had no emotional hangups with the manuscript. With a lack of emotion to it, I looked at the work very objectively. For instance, in the initial manuscript I had nearly 20 pages of Sam and John beating the hell out of some Southeast Portland hippies. Directly after the manuscript was finished, there was no way I would have cut one word out of this scene, despite the fact that my closest colleagues and confidants told me it was excessive and boring. A few years later, I agreed. The hippie beat down scene is absolutely crucial to the story, just not 20 pages of it. This is one example. There were dozens of places like this. Working free from ego and emotion is refreshing. Only time and distance could do this for me.

How many revisions are enough?

Don't ask me. Ask Walt Whitman. He revised Leaves of Grass every so often for his entire life. Rewrite it, revise it, rework it, redo it. This really is what it means to be a writer. There comes a point when it's just masochistic to continue revising something. Although I have never been around dead horses, I'm told that beating once it's dead doesn't do anything. With any project, there is a time for it to leave you. Whether it is perfect on not, you just have to own it. After the initial three draft procedure, Undertakers of Rain weathered 32 revisions for a total 75 hours.

Next time: Rejection

Monday, April 15, 2013

Building a house of cards, part three: The process of construction.

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

The moment I set foot on the Goddard College campus that cold January morning in 2007, there was one statement I heard chanted like a mantra: trust the process. Oddly enough, I didn't really understand the statement then, nor did I for the remainder of my time at Goddard. I mean, yes, there is a process, and I'm told a creative process; for me I was, and still am, just about doing something. I suppose I can trust a process, but I would rather just get to work.

When I left Goddard two years later I had a few things to show for myself. I had what I would consider a hefty student debt. I had several new thoughts about how I wanted to work and who I wanted to be. I had one manuscript, From Ansbach to Color, and that was saying something. I spent the full two years of grad school on that one manuscript. I had three advisers telling me, oftentimes, three different things. I had good direction, yes, I had a process, I got through grad school. Please see my ideas of graduate school here, here and here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Building a house of cards, part two: Images and the construction of story

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

I love small tableaux. I love the notion of a snapshot too. Small constructions of scene, whether or not they are embedded into a larger work of theater or film are wonderful things to me. For instance, and this stretches back some time, in the film Barton Fink the Barton Fink character and the Charlie character are sitting in Barton's hotel room. The scene is a very quick conversation between the two characters and then they're off in different directions. But in that one instant, the composition is stunning. It's at least very stunning to me. The tableau is two men so close to one another that they could probably smell one another's breath, but they cannot communicate. If this example is too esoteric, forgive me.

I was mired in the yet to be named novel, Sand and Asbestos when one night I had a strange dream. It was the summer of 2009, I think. Already, and this post is yet to come, I had developed a method of novel writing that was in full swing by the time I began Undertakers of Rain. I had completed three manuscripts that spring and summer. The story that would become Sand and Asbestos was a strange thing I worked on between other projects. But the morning of the strange dream, I put down everything else to write one single image.

The dream, as with most dreams, made very little sense. It will make even less sense should I try to explain it now. The important piece of the dream was this: it was wartime, I was in a small town where everyone was a spy and I hid under a stairwell with a woman. The image was this: she had a pile of jewels (probably stolen) and she had to protect them until the end of the war. In the dream, I vowed to help her. The two of us were cramped under a stairwell, a space smaller than a closet and we were to be there indefinitely.

How the hell do you write a scene like that? Two strangers, wartime, stolen jewels? I struggled with the image. I kept trying to write a vignette using these two characters and this situation. Believe it or not, it got stupider and stupider as I continued with it.

Finally, I came up with something. I thought it was good. Ultimately, the scene did not make it into the novel. Rather, the image, and all the hassle of trying to make it work became nothing more than the springboard for the project.

Undertakers of Rain is the product of a disjointed dream and a poorly conceived idea of an image. But, perhaps that's what it's all about, this game of writing is the process between the initial spark and the final, readable product.

I think all writers have the initial spark that leads them to something. But like the image I've shared with you, that initial spark is just what it is, a spark. It takes more than an interesting image, or an interesting tableau to get a reader into a story. Next time you watch Barton Fink I wonder if you'll even notice the scene that is so etched into my mind.

Next time: The process of construction

Monday, April 1, 2013

House of Cards, part one: The Return from War

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

I assure you that I am much less rough than I once was. I suppose age tends to mellow people out, age or possibly life experience. Who knows? I am not the angry man that I once was. I wander through my days, sleepwalking if possible, and I mix with the world around me. I do not easily stir to anger anymore. Yet, occasionally, when I'm in a certain mood and I see the “support our troops” bumper sticker, it takes everything I have not to boil over. The first thing I want to do is throw a rock through their window. No, not a rock, too passive. I want to throw a fist through their window. Support our troops? What the fuck does that even mean? I'll tell you what I think it means. It means that the older than dirt, blindly patriotic, I-wish-it-were-still-1952-return-to-family-values asshole who put the sticker on does not support our troops but rather supports the government that sent our troops abroad. I know this because if someone really wanted to support our troops it's a support that comes years later, long after the war is over.

I have my own thoughts about war. We all do. These thoughts along with same sex marriage, gun control, capital punishment and abortion help keep us polarized. We are welcome to think all the thoughts we want to think and we can speak our thoughts (in theory, please see the First Amendment). My thoughts on war? War is oftentimes completely unnecessary. It is always costly both financially and physically. There are no winners. And those who do come home do not come home the same.

I left the military in 1992. I left the middle east a year before that. I came home, rejoined my friends who had spent the interceding years smoking pot and partying. I started college and I did what all the rest of everyone was doing in the 1990s. There was never a second thought to things for me. I graduated college, and I got a job.

Only in retrospect do I understand how long it took for me to really recover from the war. Keep in mind that my war was not nearly as nasty as many other wars. But, it took just about ten years for it to catch up with me.

In my late 20s, I was a suit and tie. It was a stressful job. My relationships with others both personally and professionally were superficial at best, and disastrous generally. I was unhappy and just could not figure out why. It wasn't until 9/11 and the war that began in Afghanistan the next month that I began to put things in order. I protested the second war with Iraq. My heart broke everyday the war in Iraq continued, and it breaks continually when I think of Afghanistan. What kind of world do we live in? This is a simple view on it, I know.

But this is not about war. It's about combat soldiers. It's about Undertakers of Rain. This is a novel about two combat soldiers ten years after the war. There are two main characters: John and Sam. They work high stress jobs, they drink heavily, they have disastrous relationships. This begs the question: is this novel autobiographical? No. I repeat, no. It's fiction. I write fiction. However, like all fiction, there is a certain level of autobiography in it. In the preamble, it was Chris who I missed so much. Chris and I worked a stressful suit and tie job together many years ago. Chris, like me, is also a veteran. This is about the end of the autobiographical aspects. As I explained last week, I modeled John and Sam characters on aspects of Chris and me. What I really wanted to capture was the returned to society combat soldier.

Returned from war. Add ten years. I think I captured the feeling, the confusion, the anger.

Next time: Images and the construction of story