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COVID-19

As a storyteller, I’m constantly telling myself stories about the things I see and hear around me. I’m always eavesdropping, always wondering what that person across the street is thinking or who lives in that strange house on the corner, always storing up sensations because who knows when I’ll need to describe that later in a novel.

Multiple friends have commented to me how surreal the pandemic responses to the coronavirus have felt these past few days. In Michigan, we’ve canceled all public schools for weeks, we’ve closed all bars and restaurants for dine-in, the CDC has recommended no meetings of ten or more people, and I just heard California is on lockdown for everything but food and medication. A coworker who is probably in her fifties was leaving work at the same time as me this evening, and she told me, “I don’t ever remember anything like this.” We’re all on high alert, all paying a little more attention that we usually do.

I’ve even written an alternate history novel about a pandemic zombie bacteria that breaks out in the last days of World War II, so I’ve tried to put myself in similar shoes before, imagining how it must feel to wonder if everyone around you is carrying a dangerous disease, if basic social spaces like restaurants and hospitals no longer worked the way they have my whole life.

So it’s not surprising that I’ve been hoarding up reactions and feelings and stray remarks during this outbreak. How strangely mundane my workdays have felt even while I’m checking the interactive COVID map from Johns Hopkins multiple times every day to see how many people have recovered and how many have died. How I feel like something as everyday as eating dinner with my family should feel more significant or momentous than it is. How I feel like I’ve stepped into a dystopian movie when I’m at the antique mall and several times in an hour the radio is interrupted by a public service announcement about social distancing and handwashing.

I’ve also been curious about how our cultural narratives about crisis and pandemic have affected our real responses to a health crisis of this proportion. When people first started buying out milk and toilet paper from grocery stores in Michigan, my mind immediately went to fictional scenarios like The Walking Dead or Arrival. My assumption that of course I’m still going to see my significant other and my family even during this time of social distancing reminds me of movies like Perfect Sense. It’s become a psychological commonplace that the films and shows we watch affect our “scripts” about how relationships should work, and I wonder how much our concept of what to do in a pandemic has been informed by what we’ve read and seen.

Who knows if all our fictional imagining about disaster and panic has positively or negatively prepared us to weather out a real pandemic. I suppose time will tell. In the meanwhile, I have all of these plot-seeds for short stories about old friends meeting in evacuated restaurants and bored high schoolers walking through abandoned grocery stores percolating in my brain.

Jumpstart 2020

This weekend I was lucky enough to get to Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2020 Jumpstart program. Formerly known as MoveMedia, Jumpstart is an initiative that gives company dancers the opportunity to choreograph and debut their own work. I attended last year, and it was one of my favorite shows of their 2018-2019 season. 

Most of the works are shorter—this year they crammed ten pieces into their show—and with so many choreographers at work, there was a huge range of style, emotion, storytelling, and technique. In two hours, we spanned everything from classical steps set to Saint-Saëns to modern dance overlaying post-rock and industrial neoclassical, from ensemble choreography to duets, from high-production pieces with screens and silhouettes and curtains to stripped-back solos with the whole stage lit. Some of the dances came with extensive notes on the theme and purpose of the piece while others had none. The ballet company also collaborated with DisArt, a local organization committed to raising the participation of disabled people in the arts, so one of the dances included no music at all and explored interview narratives of individuals who have experienced PTSD, limb loss, and ADHD.

While contemporary dance is often an abstract art form and I work in genre fiction, typically with a realist or magical-realist bent, I still walk away from dance performances feeling like I have a better, broader understanding of creative processes and storytelling. I work with words, mental images, actions, dialogue, metaphor, foreshadowing, plot, three-act story structure—but I enjoy watching and studying the mechanics of storytelling that uses movement, music, tempo, equilibrium, balance, bodily interaction, lighting, contrast, facial expressions, surprise, and unison/harmony to convey its meaning. The media and experience are vastly different between a ballet and a book, but I often find that emotion, pacing, narrative arc, characterization, and suspense are achieved through techniques that are parallel in both art forms.

My favorite piece was the duet “Such as You,” choreographed by Matthew Wenckowski and set to a gentle ambient track by Brambles (“Such Owls as You”). The lighting was low, set toward the front of the stage, allowing the two dancers either to melt back into the shadows or move forward toward greater visibility. They mostly danced close together, emphasizing hand and arm movements, sometimes synchronized in unison and other times dancing in harmonized forms. The choreography clearly carried a story, although I couldn’t decide on the relationship between the two dancers. The back-and-forth was intimate but not necessarily romantic, at times tender and at other times violent. I sometimes struggle against abstract pieces, wanting to make a concrete meaning out of them. (Worse, the choreographer teased during the talkbacks that the dance was based on a story, but he wasn’t going to tell us what it was.) But even if I couldn’t “pin down” the piece, the emotion and movement of the dance were simply beautiful. 

I’m already hoping that I’m able to make it to GRB’s 2021 Jumpstart program.

The Publishing Mystique

This weekend I finally followed up with the agencies who have asked to see the full manuscript of my WWII zombie novel.

I had been dragging my feet, unsure of whether I would be breaking protocol to email agents at this stage. I’m not an agent or acquisitions editor, but I sit on the acquisitions committee at the publishing house where I work, and I know exactly what it feels like to have unsolicited manuscripts sitting in my inbox that I haven’t gotten to yet. I may even be excited about the projects, I just have other tasks on my to-do list that take priority.

As I should have guessed, I needn’t have put off writing a few brief follow-up emails. A quick search of reputable publishing blogs confirmed that it’s perfectly normal to send follow-up emails after agents have requested materials (provided, of course, that you’ve waited at least as long as their typical response time listed on their website). One article even suggested following up regularly, say every month or so after the first follow-up email.

Sorting through why I was procrastinating on these potentially very exciting leads, I realized again that I’m afraid of rejection. Reminding them that I’m waiting for a response could (so I told myself) trigger them to review the materials and subsequently reject my manuscript. Still being in the running feels better than not being in the running, and even the possibility of failure can feel defeating sometimes.

The other reason I was procrastinating, though, was the mystique that seems to shroud the whole publishing industry. In few other sectors would I wonder whether it was okay or not okay to send a follow-up email to someone who was considering me as a future business partner. I wouldn’t be asking Google if it was okay to follow up with, say, my real-estate agent or financial adviser. And as one blogger pointed out, I wouldn’t want to work anyway with an agent who wrote back a nastygram to a brief, polite follow-up email.

The thing that struck me is that I work in the publishing industry—I correspond with agents on the other side of the desk as an editor for my day-to-day work—and I feel this uninformed and insecure about the publishing process. I’ve wanted to be a published author since my teen years, I’ve read many books on writing and getting published, and I feel paralyzed by writing a three-sentence email to a person who has already expressed interest in my work.

To be fair to myself, I’ve never been in this exact spot before. I’ve tried to sell novel manuscripts before, but I’ve never had a full manuscript out with multiple agencies before. And as an editor, I’ve never had reason to ask an agent what their process is when they’re reviewing a manuscript under consideration with other agencies.

And yet the feeling remains that I should know exactly what to do at this stage—that if I were inside the magic publishing circle, I would know the right things to say and do to get my work published in a quick, successful manner. For better or worse, though, it seems like there aren’t any magic formulas in publishing. I wish I would remember that more often than I do. 

The Hedgehog

I was visiting my brother in West New York over the weekend, and before I left Michigan he called to make sure I brought some of our favorite movies that we’ve watched together many times before. Among the stack I brought were Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and the 1982 made-for-TV Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. But what we actually ended up watching was Clueless and Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog.

The Hedgehog is one of those rare Netflix finds I stumbled on one night when I just wanted something to watch. In stereotypically French fashion, eleven-year-old Paloma Josse has decided to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday, but only after she has completed a scathing documentary film about how meaningless life is. There are an unnecessary number of cats in the film, an intriguing Japanese man who cooks ramen and watches old black-and-white movies, and philosophical tangents about death as the goal of the game of chess. In other words, it’s totally my sort of movie.

I hadn’t watched The Hedgehog for several years; in the interim I have studied some French, come more to terms with my own existential pessimism, and gained some retrospective distance on my childhood. What immediately struck me on rewatching The Hedgehog was that the questions it asks about privilege, despair, growing up, creativity, and love are questions I have also asked for many, many years, so I better understand now why I resonated so strongly with the film when I first encountered it.

What also struck me was the meticulous construction and economy of the film. Important scenes or images are carefully foreshadowed in ways I had never noticed before. Early in the film, in an apparently throw-away shot, one of the characters cuts a piece of her hair—but later when she gets a haircut, it’s a significant turning point for the character’s growth. Another example is that there is a secret room in one character’s apartment, and shots of the door and references to the contents of the room (a library) are slowly introduced to the viewers before we finally are allowed to enter the room. My brother (who is a musician) pointed out that the development of the main theme changes over the course of the film and responds directly to the blossoming of the characters’ friendships.

The Hedgehog isn’t only existential and intellectual, however, and that too is part of what I love about it. The side characters are often funny (if in a darkly humorous way), and while the film’s outlook engages gently and empathetically with Paloma’s adolescent fears and ambition, the film’s construction is also self-conscious of the melodrama of Paloma’s actions. Somehow the movie walks that fine line between taking itself seriously but not taking itself too seriously, all supported by technical, careful writing and production. That it is a film about living well in connected, loving relationships only makes me like it more. 

There’s a lot of good story-craft for me to still pick up from The Hedgehog, and I hope I keep rewatching it for years to come.

Characters Vis-a-Vis Characters

Lately I’ve been working on scenes that introduce a new character in my manuscript. Other characters have talked about her since the beginning of the book—she’s the mom of one of the main three characters—but she doesn’t actually show up until about page 250 of a 450-page manuscript.

By some happy accident, the first three scenes she appears in are one-on-one conversations with other major characters. She talks with her son on his return home from a long trip, then with her employer (who is one of the major antagonists), and finally with the book’s heroine. They are all very different conversations: they vary in her familiarity with each character, her comfort level, her intentionality, her role. What she wants from each conversation is also very different, and how she goes about achieving that objective depends on how in control she feels in the situation. She is much more direct with her son, much more submissive and manipulative with her employer. She is also manipulative with the heroine, but in a more active, pressuring way.

I didn’t mean to use her relationships with the other characters in the story to help readers get a sense for who she is, but in retrospect, editing through the conversations, it’s effective. This is, of course, unsurprising: in real life, how we interact with our friends, family, coworkers, significant others, or children says a whole lot about who we are. And typically we treat different people in our lives differently—at least, hopefully we treat our friends differently than, say, our children—and how we decide to treat people differently says something about us too. Even (or maybe especially) the way we treat strangers like restaurant servers or the people in line ahead of us at the grocery store is telling information for the other people in our lives.

For better or worse, the ways we interact differently with the different people in our lives are often subconscious and subtle, which can make it hard to observe and even harder to translate into the actions and speech of fictional characters. Despite my best attempts at psychological realism, too often I find my characters acting the same way in all scenes and in all circumstances, which doesn’t come across as character “consistency” but instead as wooden characterization. Or worse, all my characters talk and act the same as each other, complete with the same motivations and dialogue patterns. When my idealism gets the better of me, all my characters start behaving how I think people ought to behave, instead of how people actually respond in real-life situations.

When I’m trying to outline a satisfying three-act plot, it also isn’t necessarily possible to string together scenes that best highlight the characters’ different personalities by playing them off of each other. But having edited these few scenes with this one character, I would like to be more conscious of when and how I can use the dynamics between characters to really bring out the details of each character’s desires, motivations, and values.

Stitching

I think I’m starting to better understand why editing a novel can feel so amorphous and overwhelming to me.

When I’m drafting, I write straight through the narrative. I start at page one and simply add on my word count, building scene by scene consecutively. It’s not all perfect, and I know I’ll have to rearrange the scenes later, change the characters, or cut or add entire conversations. But as long as I stick to it and keep writing in one direction, eventually I have a full manuscript.

Editing, I’m realizing, is actually a bunch of distinct writing processes housed under the same label. In one “editing” session, I may breeze through whole paragraphs that are already pretty much how I want them, lightly touching up the sentences to help them read better. But I may also have to stop and pull apart a few paragraphs, deleting plot points or foreshadowing that no longer make sense with the revised manuscript. Or maybe I need to add a whole new scene, or delete repetition between multiple scenes, or thread in a character who appeared late in the first draft but needs to be integrated throughout the whole manuscript. Somehow these are all “editing,” but they can demand very different questions and decisions: How do I make this prose stronger and clearer? Or, what can I delete from this scene without compromising the characterization or necessary plot beats? Or, where and when and how strongly should I foreshadow this new late-stage plot twist in the first act of the book?

Where I’m editing in my current manuscript, I find myself stitching together a number of descriptions, facts, and snippets of dialogue that are all essential for the book, but they didn’t land in the right order the first time around. They’re all jumbled, and I’m trying to put them together in a way that’s both cohesive and satisfying. Basically I’m building connective tissue, figuring out how to get from one bit of dialogue to the next bit of characterization in a way that makes narrative sense but doesn’t slow down readers too much. I find myself juggling the need for realism—or at least a novelistic illusion of “realism” in the characters’ motivations, actions, and words—with a desire to communicate the plot and character beats in a fast-moving, engaging way.

This “stitching” together takes a different part of my brain than adding or deleting scenes, or copyediting sentences, or differentiating characters’ desires and values and voices from one another. The main questions I’m asking when I’m stitching together material are different: How would a conversation naturally move from topic X to topic Y, both of which need to be covered in this scene? How much description do I have to give of the place or happenings surrounding plot point Z to not make the scene feel rushed or thin for readers? Do I want this line of internal dialogue first or that one?

Editing seems messier than my usual drafting process. But I guess the good news is that even when I’m switching between a number of different kinds of editing experiences, when I put in the time on my manuscript, I still slowly but consistently make forward progress.

Hamilton

I was lucky enough to see Broadway Grand Rapids’s production of Hamilton last week. Since 2015, it’s been hard not to hear about Hamilton, from friends who loved it, in books that quote it, online in articles, even from the pulpit in sermon illustrations.

I intentionally went in as blind as I could, not listening to the music beforehand or looking up reviews, but of course I still couldn’t completely check at the door the expectations that I was walking into something amazing. Especially during the first few numbers, I could feel myself self-consciously setting expectations: This is just a show. A show tons of people love, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be five million times better than Wicked or Book of Mormon.

That said, Hamilton *is* amazing. The costumes, staging, and choreography are beautiful, and as a retelling of America’s founding myth with a focus on immigration, racial justice, and who gets to write history, I quickly understood why American audiences lose their minds over Hamilton. Paired with the heavy influences of hip-hop and R&B and the intentional anachronisms in the lyrics (see: congressional debates as rap battles. If only we lived in a world where Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer worked out their disputes through spoken word), the show helps make the story of America’s founding feel relatable and relevant, and it asks pointed questions about what America was supposed to be, and what we should try to make out of America in the twenty-first century.

In terms of storytelling, what stood out most to me was the deft juggling of different story lines and the snappy pacing between each plotline. The musical weaves together the political concerns of Revolutionary America with the horrors of war as well as Hamilton’s personal life, which included a mass of career ambition, complicated family relations and scandal, and traumatic grief. Most of the songs focused sharply on one particular moment, emotion, or concern (say the Seige of Yorktown, or Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler’s courtship, or the loss of their son), but the show moves briskly enough from song to song (and plotline to plotline) to keep the whole thing moving forward, and the interconnections between all the different aspects of Hamilton’s life are drawn out enough to make it cohesive.

In terms of writing, I was also struck by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of rhyme and repetition. He “rhymes” a lot of words with the exact same word—sometimes three or four times in a row. This was historically considered a no-no in British poetry (the poetry I studied most closely in school), and I typically discourage fiction writers I edit from repeating words too often in their prose. But Miranda uses repetition to create patterns, contrasts between characters, and emotional themes that resonate throughout the show. I’m not sure how one would “translate” the effects Miranda creates with repetition in prose fiction, but there’s clearly a lot about pacing and rhythm that I can learn from his work.

Of course Hamilton isn’t without flaws. Perhaps most frustrating to me was that, despite Angelica’s early declaration of equality between women and men in the number “The Schuyler Sisters,” the female characters in the show are repeatedly relegated to the domestic sphere, their lives subsumed to the men they love, their greatest accomplishments limited to the advancement of their husbands’ careers and legacies. Hamilton doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, unfortunately. However, that doesn’t mean that the storytelling, staging, and music aren’t fantastic. I will be listening to the soundtrack and mulling over the characters and questions Hamilton asks about politics, privilege, and responsibility for a long time to come.

 

 

Drafting and Editing

I’m writing a new scene in the middle of the manuscript I’m editing.

The scene was in the original outline, and when I was working on the first draft, I knew the scene would need to be written. But in the thick of the first draft, I wasn’t sure how significant to make the scene, how much detail to go into, or whether I would be repeating character beats or plot that readers would get from the surrounding scenes.

So I helpfully left a note in yellow highlighter in the draft marking where the scene should appear: “3) Dom: dinner, watches Mads watching Marin and Anaithe.”

I have a hard time switching between editing and drafting, however. They are very different mental processes for me, and getting my head out of one space and into the other takes time. When I’m editing, I’m working with an existing scene. I’m trying to improve it. I’m taking out unnecessary words, streamlining the dialogue to make it more natural sounding, adding content to show more clearly character emotions or motivations. Editing is a critical activity, but I have some distance from the text because the scene I’m working on is typically something I originally wrote months ago.

Drafting is a different practice altogether. I’m sitting there with a blank page trying to pull something into existence. I probably have an outline and specific goals for the scene—I need a character to make a discovery, or decide on something important, or communicate something to another character—but I don’t know exactly what actions or dialogue will get my character to the plot point I need. I have to allow myself the mental space to be messy and to figure things out by trying. Maybe the scene will go somewhere I wasn’t expecting, and that’s fine too so long as I keep writing, the characters are acting within their personalities, and the main point of the scene is accomplished.

Switching to drafting when I’m in an editing state of mind is especially hard because that probably means I’m drafting a new scene in the middle of a preexisting manuscript. I’ve just been polishing the previous scenes, pruning out what wasn’t working and sharpening what remains. So I’m expecting the writing to be good, or at least better than it was. Getting myself to then loosen up and write messy for drafting, just to get words on the page, feels wrong. I’m also able to work through more words when I’m editing than when I’m drafting, so drafting also feels painfully slow. I feel like I’m falling behind where I “could have been” in my editing if I hadn’t stopped to add a new scene.

But at the end of the day, there’s important character work to do in this scene I’m adding, and with the rest of the manuscript in place, I do have a much better idea of how long and detailed to make the scene. And no, I don’t love every sentence of the new scene, and I feel like it sticks out from the surrounding scenes because I know it’s not “original.” But slowly it’s coming together, and that’s what editing’s for anyway.

I’ll just have to come back later and smooth it all out.

Nostalgia and Familiarity

Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I rewatched both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to try to get a sense for the trilogy as a whole. I also brushed up a bit on the critical and fan reactions, curious how Lucasfilm and Disney have responded to the feedback and continued to shape the narrative of the Star Wars film canon.

As many, many other people have already commented, I was interested in how making new Star Wars films is inevitably an exercise in controlled nostalgia. Many of us grew up watching the original films, and for people like me who have been fantasy/science fiction geeks since childhood, Star Wars influenced our games and stories and home videos and family cultures. We had a number of LEGO sets from the prequels trilogy, and my brothers and I spent countless hours retelling Star Wars stories and making up our own.

Fan responses to the new Disney Star Wars seem to divide along the twin fault lines of “too much like the originals” and “too different from the originals.” Force Awakens was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for being too derivative of A New Hope: a lonely orphan on a desert planet learns he/she has force powers, while a desperate Rebel agent secures crucial information (stored in a robot) for overthrowing the bad guys, and the final showdown is blowing up a big space station with the awful power to destroy other planets. Last Jedi on the other hand, was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for forging too much of its own path: Luke’s character arc seemed to reverse foundational cornerstones of the Jedi/Sith legend, the new developments in force powers went far beyond previous films, and the exploration of issues like intergalactic weapons dealing and slave trading was more serious than one had come to expect from the space opera series.

To be fair, nostalgia and familiarity were also a primary rubric I used for evaluating how much I enjoyed the new Star Wars. For me, Force Awakens was actually the perfect amount of nostalgia, grounding viewers firmly in the Star Wars tradition with X-wing fighters and light sabers but making very real changes to the universe: storm troopers are no longer faceless automatons, for instance, and the visible diversity among the main cast is a clear update from the ’70s and ’80s. On the other hand, Last Jedi didn’t feel particularly like a Star Wars film to me, with its extremely time-focused structure and its endless side plots, although I appreciated its ambition and attempt to open deeper questions. Rise of Skywalker, then, felt like a capitulation to nostalgia, literally resurrecting Emperor Palpatine and retreading the halls of the Death Star, delivering storytelling that is safe and satisfying but not challenging.

This balancing act seems to be present in all speculative fiction, or at least I find myself trying to walk it in my novels, whether they are high fantasy, portal fantasy, or alternate history. When describing worlds and magic that don’t exist, I want it to feel grounded and real enough for readers to enter into the illusion, but I also want it to be different enough to take readers beyond themselves and the stories they tell themselves about life. Too similar to what readers already know, and the story doesn’t feel like magic and discovery. Too different, and readers don’t know how to engage with or relate to the story. Somewhere in the middle, and readers will feel the comfort of familiarity but also the pull of the unknown at the same time.

Silent Retreat

I was at a silent retreat at the Capuchin Retreat center in Macomb County, Michigan, this weekend. I had a lovely time reading books, drinking tea, meditating, wandering around their one hundred acres in the rain and snow, listening to a few sessions from the resident spiritual directors and friars, celebrating services in chapel, and sleeping as much as possible.

This was my second silent retreat at a Catholic center, and the silence is supposed to be maintained throughout the weekend, even at meals. The silence is a discipline, to encourage the retreatants to slow down and listen, but it often feels uncomfortable and even impolite, for instance if you’re sitting at a table with a few other men and not making eye contact or saying a word. 

At the first silent retreat I went to, they piped in recorded messages on the teachings of Pope Francis during meals, but at this retreat we listened to music in the dining hall. Without as much to occupy my mind, I found myself paying more attention to the food. I thought a lot more about the sweet, acidic taste of pineapple, or the crispy, golden outside of hashbrowns, or how I actually like oatmeal when it isn’t too sweetened. I also found myself telling stories about the food, already imagining conversations where I was telling other people about the experience of eating in silence and how it changed the meal for me.

I am a storyteller, if not by nature, then certainly by training. And without anyone to talk to during the weekend, I found myself spinning narratives about pretty much everything. How would I digest this conference session and explain it to someone who wasn’t at the retreat? If I were describing this walk through the woods in an email or, say, a blog post, what details would I pick out? I had my first professional massage with a massage therapist during the retreat, and processing the new-to-me experience, I thought a lot about the sensations. What are the words for that feeling of someone rubbing circles in the palm of your hand? What’s happening to your bones and muscles when someone pulls back on your foot and toes?

I’ve stored up thoughts, sensations, emotions, and descriptions for as long as I can remember. I suppose there’s something acquisitive about it. For a writer, it’s imperative that I am able to call to mind how different experiences, conversations, or emotions feel or affect people. And in the endless cases where I’m describing something I’ve never personally experienced before, I need to talk to people or read books by people who have had that experience so I can better imagine it myself and express it on paper.

The strange thing about this writerly impulse—I realized in the middle of my massage—is that it also distances me from my own experience. In one way, I’m not staying with the experience because I’m trying to step back enough to get some perspective on it. Paradoxically, I need that perspective so I can describe to someone else what it really feels like in the moment.

In some way that I still can’t wrap my head around, storytelling seems to pull me closer to experiences and also provides me greater space from them. And these two movements seem to happen at the same time.