Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

Writers brain and other bits andpieces

I’ve got writer brain: that fuzzy, deep-in-the-world-of-the-book existence where it’s sort of hard to remember real people’s names and where I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to do–unless it’s connected to the book. When I’m spending this much time in the story, it’s sometimes harder to connect to reality than to the stuff I can see in my creation. I was driving across town in really heavy, slow traffic, having just polished an action sequence, and realized… I’d stopped… in the middle of a busy intersection. No reason, other than the fact that I just had a thought about how to do something in the book and got distracted. Completely stupid, and I was lucky the oncoming traffic had to wait for the light to change and the guy in the first truck was patient. (For the record, I’m normally a great driver — years of being made to drive obstacle-course-type of situations by my dad, a champion driver, forced me to learn. However, no more driving for me while brainstorming.) I immediately turned around and went home, getting my unsafe self off the damned street.

It’s weird to think that there are people out there who don’t carry whole fictional worlds and sets of people (with complete interactive histories) around with them all of the time. Worlds that they are busy manipulating and orchestrating and controlling. That would be so… quiet… in my head. I’m not sure I’d know how to handle that much quiet.

Once, when our kids were little, I’d taken Jake (the youngest) to a mothers-day-out program so I could write. I was supposed to be there at 2:30 to pick him up. As I was writing, I got completely in the zone. It flowed, it worked, it rocked. I could ‘see’ the whole world in 3-D surrounding me; I was ‘in’ the moment. And the phone rang, this distant sort of jangling and I suppose I answered it (it was to my ear); a woman was asking, "Honey, are you going to pick up Jake?"

I swear to you, I scanned the page in front of me, looking at the names there, so immersed in that world, I asked, "Who’s Jake?" Because he sure as hell wasn’t on the page.

And she said, "Um… your son?"

I was two hours past due to pick him up.

The times I’ve called the kids by the wrong name are legion. (The standard joke around here was that if they walked in the room and there was a computer on, they’d instroduce themselves with, "Hey mom, it’s Luke." (or Jake) (there are only two of them) (I still got their names routinely wrong when I was writing.)

Please tell me I’m not the only one. What have you done that was absent-minded or nutty or a little crazy when you were so deep into writer-world (or so deep into a good book) that it had taken over your brain?

diagnostic vs. prescriptive

This has been making the rounds lately–what work-in-progress feedback can sometimes look like:

Which is a radically different experience than what I have now in publishing. (Thank God.)

The best way of phrasing how to deal with notes that I heard once was given by a young writer, a big 6’6" football-player-sized man who’d just had his first hit movie (an Adam Sandler comedy) and was one of the featured authors at the Austin Film Festival–Steve Franks. Steve sat sprawled in a chair clearly not designed to hold a man so large and I half-expected to hear him discussing the shot-gun formation or defensive end stats. The other members of the panel Steve was on discussed receiving notes from studios: how they dealt with the hell of having sometimes upwards of twenty execs and assistants hand them copious notes, many contradictory, often not clear as to who gave what note (so no way to put them in a hierarchy). They commented on how the studio expected the writer to incorporate all of the notes. Steve laughed, a little embarrassed, and when they asked him why, he explained he hadn’t realized at the time that the studio had expected him to do the notes. Instead, he thought everyone was just trying to be helpful when they first gave him the piles of suggestions. He’d never received studio notes before–he’d been working at Disneyland the day before his script sold as one of the "ride engineers" — the guy who made sure you were buckled in before hurtling you past your own brain cells.

He had looked through the notes they’d given him and, since they were contradictory, realized there was no way to do all of the notes. And, since these were relatively smart people, he concluded (you’ll see how naive he was) that they clearly hadn’t meant for him to do them… they were just trying to give him the tools to determine what needed to be done. He decided that these notes were diagnostic tools, not prescriptive. He mentioned, for example, how several people noted the story slowed too much in a certain section and wanted him to change only that section. Others had wild ideas about how to change the beginning of the story which resulted, ultimately and most specifically, in that slow section being changed. Others had problems with the characters or reactions… somewhere a little after that slow section.

Steve, though, used the notes not to change the section, but to analyze what was making that section slow to begin with. And the problem, he discovered, had actually occurred in a decision he’d made about twenty pages earlier. The readers hadn’t realized this, because it took them a few pages for the cumulative effect of that one decision to start resonating through the story–and the readers were reacting. Had Steve made all of the changes they requested–which was impossible anyway–he’d have had a mess and they would have ended up having the same disquiet, only now they would attack something else (probably whatever he’d changed the section to). Instead, Steve changed the earlier section, left the old one as it stood, and when the execs received the script back, they were enthusiastic (it was greenlit at that point) because they were convinced he’d done all of their notes. And he’d done almost none of them.

Now, I’m not claiming Steve’s a great writer–I’ve never read anything of his, and judging a writer by the finished product of a movie is a bit like judging an alligator by the shoes a woman’s wearing. He did, however, manage to stay on the film, get the credit, get the back-end production bonus and start his career. Not bad for a guy who’d been pushing a lever to send people up a rollercoaster just a few weeks earlier.

One last (possibly apocryphal) story. John Sayles has had a quiet-but-successful career in Hollywood as a script doctor and (from what I was told) often did not ask for arbitration in order to take credit away from the original writer; he would, instead, just ask for a fee, do his job, make the original writer look better in the process, and walk away so that the writer got the credit (and back-end). An exec who worked with him closely on a couple of projects told me the following story, swearing it was true.

One day, John was hired to fix the characterization of a woman. This character, let’s call her Mary, came off as extremely bitchy and unlikeable, even though later on, the audience was going to have a great reason for liking her and rooting for her. The problem was, the execs couldn’t get any actress of any stature to read that far because the character started off so mean. They hired John to rewrite the beginning of the script, (with permission to toss out everything there), and to change her character throughout so that she was still the tough-as-nails type of character she needed to be to accomplish whatever it was that was her goal… but to be more approachable and likable. So John took the script, kept it about a month, and turned it back in. The execs loved it. Raved. He’d solved the problems, they were ecstatic. They paid him and went on their merry way.

Now the executive telling me the story said he’d had a copy of the original script and when he started reading John’s rewrite, he couldn’t see what was different between the two versions. (He was not an exec on the project.) Since John was a friend, and since his curiosity got the better of him, he called the man and asked him, "What the hell did you do here? It works, I like Mary now… but I can’t see any major changes."

John (reportedly) said, "Notice when you first meet Mary?"

The exec flipped back to the beginning, and read the line (something like):  Mary, a stubborn woman, sometimes, bitchy, but you’re really going to like her later…

And that was it. The first few times Mary was introduced, he simply changed her description, point blank telling the reader what their reaction to Mary was going to be. Clearly, that bit of directness won’t usually do in prose, but it amuses me that he dealt with it so simply, instead of tossing out the script. He went to the root of the problem: Mary hadn’t been introduced well.

Sometimes, we get feedback during the writing process and it seems on the surface to not be helpful. Maybe like the YouTube example above, it’s so contradictory as to lead nowhere. Sometimes, the person reading just does not like the genre of your material and when that’s true, that’s just all there is. There’s almost nothing a writer could have done to change that sort of natural individual preference, and the writer shouldn’t try. (You cannot please everyone, nor should you.) I respect reviewers / commenters who shy away from something that they know ahead of time just isn’t their cup of tea because they don’t wish to do harm to a work-in-progress.

If the response you’re analyzing is true of only one person, and everyone else universally feels differently, then toss the aberrant opinion as just that–a random opinion–and go with the general responses. But if the general consensus is confusion–when it’s clear that the note-giver means well, likes you, likes the story, but has vague or non-helpful or even contradictory suggestions–line those suggestions up and use them as a diagnostic tool to see if you can’t ferret out the real problem.

I have been exceptionally lucky with my editor–she’s smart, funny, and thorough, and it is crystal clear from everything she does that her goal is to help make the book–my vision of the book–better.  She asks questions, doesn’t impose (except when I’m loading the gun to shoot myself in the foot), and her ability to push me to be a better writer is one of the single finest gifts I’ve received. That isn’t to say I agree with her 100% of the time, or that I always accomplish the ideal, but she’s a joy to talk to and receive notes from because I know I’m going to come away with a better book.

Then again, I love the editing process. For me, that’s when a work really starts to form into a whole, a final image.

What sorts of helpful advice have you ever received when editing your manuscript? Or, heavily disguised as to the culprits if you like, what was the worst advice?

pushing the limits

Short blog today, but I’m wondering, how do you draw the limits of how far you push the boundaries in your writing? Do you decide the limits based solely on your characters? Or does the genre / potential audience affect your choices? How, then, do you define gratuitous?

I wonder about this, because I think we’re seeing a change in what’s expected and acceptable in fiction, and simultaneously, we’re also writing for a culture which has become more politically aware, which has narrowed down the definitions of what’s acceptable. There are writers I know (some who comment here regularly) who’ve gotten nasty emails due to language. (Something I thoroughly expected to happen with Bobbie Faye, but which didn’t… and I wonder if that’s because I have other characters reprimand her already?) We see more and more thriller writers including sex scenes (or more descriptive sex scenes instead of merely the suggestion of sex), more detailed crime scene descriptions, and, I think, more elaborate descriptions of violence in the moment instead of just the lead up to and then the repercussions of. I know writers who wouldn’t hesitate to use curse words, but who shy completely away from certain word choices / epithets because they are no longer acceptable by society… even though their character, in that world, would have used them. The writer’s worried about offending a segment of society, (i.e., potential readers), whether they admit to the concern or not.

Trends in fiction are not new, of course, but we cannot ignore the fact that TV, film, and video games (Warcraft, Halo, etc.) have affected what’s now acceptable… or at least, tolerated. There’s a divide, though, between those who grew up with the video world on 24/7 and those who grew up before. When I googled readers median ages, there were several studies which suggested a median age anywhere from 35.8 for one study to 45.3 for another. I look at the generation of the 20-year-olds and the iPods and iPhones and constant community-gaming scenarios (playing Halo with a guy in Japan, another in DC, another in Australia, for example) and I think… that generation doesn’t just accept more violence / directness / explicit language or scenarios… they expect them, and are bored without them. So… if readership is declining, is it because we’re failing the younger reader? Failing to keep up with what they demand from story? And if we aim at that group, do we do so knowing we’ll alienate an older—and more likely to read right now—audience?

It’s a slippery slope, I’ll grant you. If we start writing to an audience, we’re going to prostitute story. Prostitute ourselves in the pursuit of story. Or… aren’t we, already? Because the slippery slope / prostitution theory depends on the a priori notion that adherence to character, being true to the creation and only that, should drive the story. Which begs the questions, who created the character to be true to in the first place and didn’t we tailor the character from his or her inception?

I think about limits when I’m writing because I don’t want to shy away from challenges.  I chose to write a character who breaks rules, who says what she thinks, who pushes the limits of acceptable behavior, but I did so within a caper genre, which allows me to poke fun at her at the same time. I know some who refuse to have any character curse, for example, but I find it hard to believe that no one in their world curses, not even the villains. Other writers avoid sexual tension and descriptions, when sex (having, not having, wanting, desire, lust, love) is a big part of our world. That writer, though, has a limit, they’ve made choices, and maybe it’s due to genre, maybe it’s due to their audience. There is a famous author I respect tremendously whose audience is firmly anti-cursing, anti-taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain. She sells well, and I like her—we’ve become friends, and I love her books, though they are so different from my own. I respect her choices, because it works for her audience… but it doesn’t work in my world. We’ve each set limits based both on character and story… and genre.

How about you? How do you set your limits? Do you actively push across a line, pushing what’s “acceptable” or do you rein in? If you’re not a writer, what book shocked you in it’s breaking-of-limits, and did you love it or hate it?

the knob theory of the universe

I have a theory of the universe. And that theory is, apparently, that if I change the butt-ugly doorknobs on my kitchen cabinets, the entire universe as I know it will somehow have to be remodeled. I am not exaggerating here. I’ve been knowing this since the year 2000, and I have been killing myself to not change them to save you all time and expense.

You’re welcome.

Here’s how it goes: Every so often, my husband will forget that he’s married to a relatively introverted person and, without warning me ahead of time, he will volunteer our house for a party—usually a big one which entails about sixty or so people all in our living-room and kitchen area. Now, individually, I like all of the people. And, individually, I like having them over. I’m just not so great at the whole crowd thing, though I can do it from practice now. He typically announces that he has already volunteered the house for the time and date (usually within two weeks of his pronouncement—he doesn’t like giving me much warning because the head spinning might get a little intimidating… short notice means I have to suck it up and deal). (After twenty-five years, he’s unreasonably confident that I’m not going to kill him.)

At any rate, this announcement of a party starts a dead panic for me because (a) I typically haven’t visited the kitchen for anything except for diet cokes and to use the microwave (I think I used the stove top twice this year, and that was only because the microwave was busy) and (b) since I am usually buried in writing or reading, I have no clue what the house looks like and am appropriately appalled at all of the projects that didn’t magically finish themselves. (To hell with the tooth fairy, why can’t there be construction elves?)

About this point in the process, I start worrying about how the house looks and I want to get it back up to speed. What I can see in my head—its potential—is sadly lacking in the reality and I know that I could make a few small changes and it would be greatly improved. We’re contractors, after all. We should have a finished house (you’d think). This is when I zero in on one of the main offenders: the kitchen knobs. (These are some of the ugliest knobs on the planet. I swear to you, the people who built this house went to the Ugly Store and picked out the cheapest looking crap knobs in the place and then thought, “Hey, why just ruin the kitchen! Let’s make the bathrooms as ugly as we can, too!”) I typically focus on them because I think, “easy fix!” and inevitably, my husband sees me looking at them and sighs, because he knows what’s coming next: the knob theory of the universe.

Or, better known as, “When Toni loses her mind.”

Because in spite of the fact that there will be sixty or so guests showing up at our house about two weeks from the point of the discussion, I decide I can go buy new knobs. But I don’t want cheap knobs, I want something pretty. Something that will make a statement. Something stylish and current, I think, and then I go find knobs that I like (online, because I hate to shop) and that’s about the point that I realize that the knobs I like are $10 each. Which wouldn’t be bad if there weren’t 78 knobs. This is when the adrenaline has started to pump (because there are PEOPLE coming OVER and the house is a WRECK) but I am ignoring the adrenaline, happily skipping into denial because this is an opportunity to fix the damned knobs. This is the part where Delusion piles on… I really look at the kitchen cabinets and think, “Gee, you know… if I’m going to spend that much money on knobs, I don’t want to put them on these doors the way they look. They need to be painted. I could paint them.” Then, because I am very good at painting, I think, “And age them! A couple of layers of paint, sand one off a bit to make them look like old furniture!” (Yeah, because that’s a lot simpler.) Which then leads to, “I also need new hinges, because these look out-dated.” About five seconds later, up pops the, “But those countertops are ugly and won’t go with the new knobs or the new color of paint (which I haven’t picked out yet, but I CAN because I am INSANE)” which of course leads to me saying, “but if we’re going to put in new countertops, we’ve really GOT to replace that stove top because two of the burners can no longer be resuscitated,” and almost immediately, next, is “that oven has got to go because it’s just too damned small for anything bigger than a postage stamp” which then has me scampering down the road of insanity to “but if we’re going to get new appliances, we might as well go with the range option with the six-burner top instead of the four burner top, seeing how we’re always having people over here for parties” which THEN leads to “but that means we have to enlarge the opening in the cabinets to fit the range, which means some demo and construction,” which then further leads to “but if we’re going to go ahead and do the range, we might as well redesign the kitchen and put the pantry over there and the range over here so that we can put an opening in this section, which means chipping up and replacing the tile floor” which forces the next idea of “but if we’re going to have an opening there, we might as well go ahead and build the porch off the side of the house that we’ve always been wanting,” (which then means changing the roof and the driveway and the back door entrance) at which point my eyes have gone glassy and my head is spinning and I am probably frothing at the mouth because I am somehow trying to figure out how to get it ALL done in two weeks before people arrive. Not to mention the minor little detail that instead of spending $780 for knobs (which is, I will admit, nuts), I am now contemplating work that will cost upwards of fifty grand and I am, at this point, COMPLETELY CONVINCED it can be done in two weeks before the party. It has to be all or nothing, because my entire identity is wrapped up in those fucking knobs and how my kitchen looks (when everyone who’s coming to visit knows me and knows I don’t use the damned thing) and when my husband tries to point out that I could just go get knobs, it’s as if he’s yanked the rug out from under my demented little world and I’m usually furious with him that he won’t go along with this terrific plan. How dare he be practical and pragmatic when there are PEOPLE coming OVER.

This is about the time he makes me margaritas and I calm down.

(Okay, there may be a little more ranting on my part about how I never ever get the stupid knobs I want, which we now refer to as the “great knob debate,” the reference of which cuts off about two days of me being annoyed.)

Here’s the thing I will tell you: it’s dumb. The whole process of stalling out and not doing anything because I can’t instantly have the whole thing is dumb, and luckily, confined mostly to the knob argument.

The thing is, as dumb as this example is, it’s not that far off from what a lot of people do when they’re trying to write. I see the parallel in people every day who hope to accomplish something with their writing, who feel overwhelmed, and as a result, they don’t move forward. They are deeply fearful of something (people coming over)(or the writing equivalent, worried about what people will think of the finished project) and so they sidetrack themselves (construction projects)(or the writing equivalent, listing all of the reasons they can’t write “right now.”) I’ve watched over the years as people have discussed online why they’re having trouble writing and there are always some good reasons mixed in there: work constraints, kids, family, tragedy, depression, financial… There are always obstacles. Big obstacles. You can let them stop you or you can find a solution. The solution is rarely, if ever, magically done in a moment. It’s step by step, bit by bit, or as Anne Lamott would say, bird by bird.

Books don’t happen overnight. Careers don’t happen in one move. It takes whittling away at it, a little each day, to create something like a book or a script or a career. Every single day you don’t do a little bit toward your dream is a day you lose.

We aren’t getting these days back. They aren’t a dress rehearsal.

I realized early on that in spite of my frothing over the whole knobs issue, that the bottom line was, I didn’t really care. The knobs aren’t important to me because if they were, I’d have done something about them long ago. I recognized the whole debate over them was really over fear; focusing on the construction was a way of keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t have to face the reality, that having a crowd here made me a little apprehensive and wanting to flee until it was over. Ultimately, though, the only real choice I can make is to deal with what’s at hand: clean up the house, do what I can, get ready for the party.

Then enjoy. And no matter how traumatized and fearful I am prior to a party, I always end up enjoying the people, once they’re here. Not a single one of them cares about the knobs or the countertops or the kitchen; they’re typically having fun, eating great food. As much as I feared these times, I look back on them now and know my husband was really the smart one: he kept our friends and family together through these events. He kept us all interacting and part of a bigger family unit than my introverted self would have managed. These memories I have of everyone laughing around the table, people eager to come over… would have been lost, if I had waited until the kitchen was “just right” for guests. These people would have been absent from my life. And I am glad to have been pushed a bit out of my comfort zone, to have these memories.

It’s the same thing with the writing. Sure, there’s the Platonic ideal in my head that I fear I’ll never live up to, but there would never be anything to show if I don’t start somewhere, keep working and strive to improve. No matter how afraid I am for the reception of my writing, I am always glad I did it, that I stuck it out, gritty detail after gritty detail. I do what I can, to the best of my ability, day by day. I’ve been lucky in the reception of it, for the most part, but the bottom line is, I love what I do. I wouldn’t have accomplished it if I had waited to have enough “time” to write, or the right office or money or work circumstance or calm and quiet or lack of pain in my life. Maybe it’s insane to plug along every day, not knowing what the outcome can be, but I’d rather think of it as tenacity. I know sometimes new writers sort of look at published authors, wondering what the secret is to getting from there to here. Maybe tenacity is a big part of the answer. Maybe, though, the secret lies also in recognizing that we all have fear, and we do it anyway.

So tell me, what accomplishment are you glad to have (besides writing), in spite of what it took to get there?

baseball and art

by Toni McGee Causey

I love baseball.  Not the way that a lot of people love it, where they can reel off stats of this player or that team and one-up each other on trivia.  I love baseball for the poetry and motion, for the hope it gives, for the way it makes you believe again in wonder and miracles and faith.

Both my sons played and the beginning of the season was always fraught with tension. The first day — the nerves, the missed balls, the frustration. They practiced basic skills and watching them come back to form after a whole year off was like watching a retired musician struggle to finesse an old tune, once familiar, now only awkward. They had a difficult time dealing with their lack of grace, how how hard they had to work at it. Then it happened eventually: the skills worked, something ignited, and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. In one of my son’s first double-headers, he played second base and caught two line drives and got the man out on first both times. I think he floated off the field. He didn’t even seem to notice that they lost the game — all he knew was that the ball didn’t get past him. 

I remember playing softball at his age. I remember the shock of the first line drive of each season, stinging in my glove. The smell of the grass, fresh cut on a spring day.  Praying that someone would please hit a fly out to you so you have an excuse to out-run the mosquitoes.  (Well, maybe that’s more of a Louisiana tradition.)

You’d have to understand just how much of a non-athlete I usually was in school to grasp the freakishness of the fact that I pitched, first string. It was my one cool moment, my one grace during the hell years of junior high. We were a championship team, unbeaten, with a coach who believed in fair play. Everybody got a turn, everybody played and we always won. When I had nothing else, I could pitch.

I zoned on the mound. I wasn’t this skinny, scrawny kid. I couldn’t hear the crowd, the chatter; it was me, that ball and that catcher’s glove. Rhythm. Motion. Rhythm. Motion.  Strike.

When my oldest son was eight, there was no one to coach his team at the Y except this really sweet college girl who had been assigned to us, but who had never thrown a ball in her life. I volunteered and dragged my dad into it as well. My dad and I were still at the point in our relationship where I hadn’t quite forgiven him from being the royal pain-in-the-ass to live with that he had been and he couldn’t quite accept the fact that I wasn’t still the most-stubborn-child-on-earth, so it was an uncomfortable, prickly, strange sort of relationship between the two of us as we set out to coach this poor little orphaned team.

There were teams in this league who had already been playing together since kindergarten — most with the same coaches every year — and they worked with beautiful, efficient precision.  Let me tell you, that was scary. They were over there saying: Here’s how to do a squeeze pay while we were saying: This is a ball. Here’s how to hold your bat. Here’s how to swing. 

When we practiced, we worked with each and every kid, equally. We taught them everything from how to bat to how to slide to how to steal to the art of catching the fly ball… all the plays and the nuances of the game. They were shaping up into a fine little team.

Except for Michael. 

You would have to see Michael to really understand. He was a tall, thin black kid with a sweet, cherubic face, but his eyes were just… vacant. Nobody was home. Every single time Michael drifted up to bat, I had to go over there and show him how to hold it all over again. He never swung at the ball. It whizzed past him, splat in the glove. Not only did he not catch anything in the field, he never really even seemed to know that he was playing baseball. I’m not sure if we heard him utter a single word during all those practices. 

His mom and sister were there, day in, day out, cheering Michael on. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they were the only family who stayed for the practices. And Dad worked with him every day, drilling on those skills, giving him extra attention when the other kids had learned it and Michael was back at square one.

Michael played every game. That’s when I really saw my dad. That’s when I saw the man. He believed in fair play. He believed that each and every kid deserved their chance to try. He believed that the second string would improve greatly with game experience, and they did. He believed that it was more important what you teach the kid about life than how they do at baseball. 

Michael had no clue. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have to call out to him to get him to turn around and face our field. I watched my dad keep encouraging Michael, both on and off the field. I watched him tell his mom how much Michael was improving, in front of Michael, so that they both could be proud of him. It would have been a lot easier to let Michael sit on the bench; I wasn’t entirely sure he’d even notice.

There are moments in your life when something clicks, when you hear the tumblers in the universe settle into place and you know — you know this was what it was all about. This was a moment you were meant for, because it changes everything.

We had split the team into two and were playing a scrimmage. Everything seemed exactly the same. Michael was up and I had to show him how to hold the bat again, remind him how to swing it. My dad shouted, “Hit me a home run, Michael,” from the first base line where he was coaching the runners. The pitcher released a fast ball and Michael pumped the bat around. It was the first time I can remember him swinging. I mean, actively swinging, with the bat going all the way around in the right kind of motion and momentum like you’re supposed to do when you swing at the ball.

He hit a home run.

I’m not sure who was more shocked: me, dad, his mom or Michael. Dad was so beside himself with joy, he was jumping in the air, shouting for Michael to run the bases. He said later that Michael’s face was so wide with shock and his mouth hung soooo far open, that he’d have made it around the bases faster if it hadn’t been for the wind drag. He ran the bases and came in to the entire team cheering. His mother and I went completely hoarse. 

After that, he hit home runs just about every game. He started catching the ball, making plays. His eyes weren’t vacant any more. His mother told me he had started participating in school. They were able to move him up a class. 

Michael was talking.

My dad and I were, too. We figured out some stuff, forgot and forgave some other stuff. We got to know each other then.

Now some would say that it was just a little league team, an unimportant game in the grand scheme of things. Possibly entertainment. Maybe the expression of craft, but never art, as if art has to be validated by others and hung in a museum or voted on by esteemed committee. That’s cynical, really, and it’s easy to be cynical. None of what we did was out of the ordinary–thousands upon thousands of coaches and parents do this every day. There was never another season like that one. But that moment, when Michael connected that bat to that ball, that moment of unadulterated joy… that was art.

I think, sometimes, we miss too much of what actually is art while we’re waiting for someone to label it so. I read a few things this week that transported me. They connected. This came at a time when I was exhausted and needing something to entertain me, to rebuild my faith, to energize me and it worked. I’m ending the week feeling happy and at peace and in the face of some of the things I need to accomplish, that’s pretty amazing.

Lately, I’ve been noticing the deprecating term “guilty pleasure” when referring to genre works as if there is some sort of literature police out there who are going to arrest us if we declare something worthwhile that isn’t on some sort of aesthetically acceptable list. I don’t have a clue whether anyone else would consider any of the books I read this week art. It doesn’t matter. Art arts. It creates within us a response. Our world changes.

They were art, to me. Like that baseball game was to Michael.

Michael changed that day. There’s hope in the arch of that ball, the swing of the bat, the beauty of a story. This is what I love. This is art.

What has changed you?

Stuff

  Doll_2 There’s been a lot of purging of stuff going on around our house for the last few days. We’ve got a couple of events coming up and we need room for tables and chairs, which meant moving out furniture, which meant moving crap out of the way in the spare room which meant purging stuff.

I have a dual personality thing going in relationship to stuff. On the one hand, I’m a big fan of clean lines, open spaces, zero clutter. I want things airy and sparse and roomy. On the other hand, I’m equally a big fan of items that resonate with story, which have some history or sentimental value. You see the problem. There’s an art to finding a balance between the hanging onto and the letting go.

There are things I can’t part with, no matter how silly they seem. One is the item I’ve had for almost my entire life – a tiny baby doll my mother found hidden in my fist at the end of a day where we’d been to various stores. I was not yet one year old, and had managed to shoplift. When I happen upon it on the shelf, it reminds me to expect the unexpected, and to not assume the innocence on the surface is the truth.

In the kitchen, there’s a green ceramic frog (wearing tennis shoes) I made when I was about eight—my grandmother let me paint it and sign it and we had it fired somewhere near where she lived. It’s just a dumb ceramic frog and I’m sure I drew things or made things before it, but it’s the first clear memory I have of creating something and signing it.Frog_2

Just a shelf away is the thirty-ought-six (I think) casing which I pierced through the center, shooting it with a twenty-two rifle at thirty yards. It was the day after I’d been terrorized in our home and had managed to elude a (later convicted) murderer/rapist. My husband had brought me to the range to teach me to shoot; he lined up the casings on a board and I hit nine out of ten. I never dreamed I’d be able to shoot a gun, much less hit aCasingnything. Whenever I’m afraid, I’ll see that casing and realize that while fear and bad things are always going to be a part of life—I’m capable of more, if I try.

As I look at these shelves and get rid of stuff I no longer want, I wonder how these things I have define me. I wonder, sometimes, what someone else would think if they came in here and saw an odd cBullhunk of silica. Or the cast-iron bull castrating tool. It amuses me that they may wonder why a decidedly non-Catholic has a red-beaded rosary hanging near the computer area. Or where the Mardi Gras mask came from.

The people who know me know the stories. These things are a part of my history, of my oddball reality. My relationship to my woMaskrld, my family, my friends, my history—is documented by what I choose to keep and what I choose to toss.

It’s a simple thing, really, this relationship to stuff. And telling. It’s why I had my main character, Bobbie Faye, lose almost everything she valued right at the beginning of the book, especially the scrapbook her mom gave her. She became severed from her world, from her history, from what grounded her and thrust into this caper, chasing after the only thing left to her that had personal meaning, the one thing she’d have to surrender to keep her brother alive. As you learn what these things mean to her, I think the relationship grounds the humor.

It makes me interested in a character if there’s some implication as to how he relates to his world. Does he keep everything? Or nothing? I don’t want to see him move around in a vacuum; I want to see him finger the dumb framed sketch he drew on a napkin when he was first dating the woman who would later become his ex. I wonder if he’ll throw it away.

I wonder if he’ll use it as a weapon.

Stuff. Expression of personality, of a person’s space in the world. What have you kept? Or do you toss it all?

Voice Lessons?

What is this thing we call voice?

When Crimepace was first up and running, there was an interesting discussion there about voice – whether or not it could be taught. I weighed in on the side that a writer could be taught elements of voice and that this type of knowledge could help them speed up the process of creating it. (I don’t believe anyone could teach the specific voice any specific writer should use.) Others argued that none of it could be taught, that it absolutely was something a writer had to find their way to, through trial-and-error or maybe just blind luck, but that it wasn’t something which could be dissected and analyzed and then created.

That’s when it occurred to me that maybe we were making some basic assumptions that everyone actually knew and/or agreed as to what voice meant.

Is voice a style of prose, and approach to story-telling created by and author which is his or her way of expressing story—any story—insomuch as you would recognize the author if you read just bits of the story out of context? This would be the Hemingway or Faulkner type of voice, where their styles were immediately recognizable, no matter the book.

Or, is voice supposed to serve a specific story—is it the voice of the world, the tonal / language combination which is very specific to that world of the story and characters therein insomuch as it conveys something about the story itself and it (the voice) wouldn’t fit any other story? (One example which leaps to mind which is a mystery set in an SF setting is Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog which is nothing like her other books’ voices. It also happens to do first person POV and voice brilliantly.)

If voice is story-specific, then logically, a story’s needs help to shape the voice used. An author can look at their own intent (is this supposed to be funny, dramatic, said, etc.) and tonal need, they can look at whether multiple POVs or a single one is needed, they can decide how much authorial distance they want (do they want to be commenting on the world or shoving the reader right up into it), they can take into consideration the world of the story (upperclass, poorly educated, rich, destitute, post-war, etc.) and use these needs to influence how they want to tell the story. An author who wants the readers to be up close to a poorly educated, steeped-in-crime sort of main character isn’t likely to choose ponderous, oblique six syllable words which would have the readers running to a dictionary. (And sometimes, choosing the voice is knowing what not to do.) Likewise, a story with an attorney at the center isn’t likely to be filled with the latest rap phrases and expletives every other word. Paring away at what won’t work leaves the author a much smaller subset of choices and then the characters influence the rest.

The above tools are handy… but none apply if what we mean when we say voice is an overall perspective / approach of an individual author—a.k.a. style.

So… what do you think it is?  Are we using it to mean overall authorial style? Or specific style for a specific story? Do you think it can be taught? If not, why not?

-toni

p/s… Murderati is not turning into the Toni show, I promise. I just happened to substitute this weekend while everyone was away. Pari and Alex will be back next week.

Letting Your Freak Flag Fly

First, congratulations to Naomi! Such terrific news!

Alex is away at RT this weekend (and I’ll bet having a blast) and asked me to post today, and what’s been on my mind lately regarding writing is how much (or how little) we push ourselves to push our own limits. Or the limits of the genre.

Many times when you hear or read advice to new writers, the old cliché write what you know is generally hanging in there, tenacious. It’s not bad advice—it’s just that it skims across the surface of the issue, creating tiny ripples atop the flat expanse of what’s possible instead of plunging in, fishing the deep.

Taking the risk.

Exposing ourselves, being vulnerable in front of the world.

Not necessarily because the characters think or do what we’d think or do, but because we’ve pushed some internal boundary we have, we’ve flown in the face of convention, or we’ve reached for some level of writing and maybe we didn’t quite make it (and we’re waiting for the world to agree). And sometimes, we have to push past our own comfort level to grow and that’s difficult, I think, because we’re flying our freak flag and people are going to see. It requires a lot of bravery, this thing we do.

Maybe the better advice is to mine what you’re afraid of; write not only what you know, but what you fear.

There is an attraction to sticking with what we know, feeling comfortable in the world we create, feeling comfortable with whatever level of ability we have, because if we’ve done it well at all at least once, maybe we can stay there and not embarrass ourselves. The problem, of course, is that staying in one place digs a rut, and we’re not surprising ourselves anymore, and in all likelihood, we’re not surprising the reader.

I was thinking about that recently as I wrapped up the first draft of the second book in the series, and I wondered just what in the hell I’d gotten myself into. I write capers. Comedy. Have you ever had one of those weeks where everything just goes all to hell and back, absolutely nothing works, Karma is not only putting out the banana peel, but greasing the floor for extra measure? And when you’re flat on your back, you hit a point of incredulity where it’s just damned funny, this absurd thing we call life. Yeah, that’s the kind of comedy I write. (We are so not going to get into comparisons between my life and my character’s. Thank you.) But to write that kind of comedy, I have to push the characters emotionally into hard places, bad moments, and the comedy has to be organic. There has to be real fear or heartache or worse underneath the comic actions, beneath the laughter, or it would all just be slapstick. Surface. And ultimately, common.

The problem with this is carrying it forward in book 2—pushing that suffering. Making the choices the characters have to make more heartbreaking, and still finding the absurd, keeping the reader laughing. I found myself hedging on a particular emotional point because it was not only difficult, it’s stretching the boundary of that particular genre. It’s saying, “yeah, caper books can be funny, but sometimes, they can also make you ache.” If I pull it off. I’m not convinced on this draft I have, yet. Part of me wanted to pull back a little, make it a little easier on myself, because seriously, I have set myself up for a fall with this one if I can’t make it work. I know it. I feel it. I see where I’m heading into book 3 and I know I could have made my life a lot more sane with a simpler emotional choice. I could cheat that choice and have something happen to one of the characters to where the choice becomes slightly simpler. It would still resonate, it would make sense, it would still have a gut-punch. And since I write caper, it wouldn’t pull the story too far off-track, tonally.

But it would be the coward’s way out.

Damnit.

So I’m trying to push there, find the way to make that choice heart-rending because, I hope, by that point, you really care about that character and the choice she’s facing and you realize, she’s never ever ever had this sort of moment in her life and she does not have a clue how to make this choice. Or how to live with it, once done. And there are ramifications for that. Meanwhile, I’ve got to watch it, tonally, and make it work within the genre. Or throw over the conventions a bit and say screw it, this is the story and I’m sticking to it. Somehow, figure out the balance, while still flying the freak flag.

What are you afraid of?

What have you read lately which feels like it pushes the genre? Reaches for something and accomplishes it? Takes a risk and makes it work?

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