Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Five-Word Drill

I've been texting with someone who's working on her first novel, and she asked me for five words. So I sent them, and two days later she sent me a quite imaginative story inspired by those five words. When she sent me five words back, I at first balked - being in the middle of a rather enormous novel - but later that day I realized I had brought my most recent conflict to an unanticipated resolution and my novel desperately needed the kind of "left turn" that enlivens any good plot line. So I took those five words on a lengthy beach-walk and mentally composed a fascinating little story that became a dream in the novel, that supplied the spark for a wholly unexpected new conflict - just the left turn I had been looking for.

You never know where the next inspiration is going to come from. And I'd certainly recommend the five-word drill as a good way to keep the faculties loose.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hi! There's a story about me in the Tacoma News-Tribune. Check it out at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fiction Writing as an All-Purpose Skill

A friend of mine introduced me to this woman I'm going to meet in person on my impending book tour to Tacoma, and we've been texting to get to know each other a little. Suddenly, this morning, I started getting these weird texts - about how she's got a live-in boyfriend and needs to break it off with me, and then apparently the boyfriend gets a hold of the phone and starts texting to me directly about how she's a cheating, lying so-and-so, and he discovered her texts to me, etc.

Problem was, there was something about this narrative that was terribly phony. Very obvious use of exposition to plant ideas in my head. Unnecessary facts. And, for a guy who's supposedly just been cheated upon, way too much concern for his rival's feelings. As fiction, it just didn't hold up - it was like a really poorly written novel. So I didn't respond.

Turns out, the malicious ex-husband stole Lady X's cell phone and was trying to spread every lie he could think of to all her friends. But he didn't count on the super-psychic skills of Editor Man!

So see? Writing fiction can be useful in all kinds of ways.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chasing After "It"

I am fond of comparing my writing experience to that of a parent preparing his children for the world outside. Because no matter how careful and thorough you are, once they're out that door, you don't really know how that child will do, and you especially don't know if they might have that "it" factor that brings success.

When compared to a baseball player, I've had a pretty good average, "it"-wise. My first two novels were... my first two novels. My next two - the opera novel "Gabriella's Voice" and "Frosted Glass," a mid-life crisis set on the Oregon Coast and written in first-person female - had "it" in scads. (The response to "Glass" was almost religious, and I suppose you could call it a "cult favorite.") After that, alas, three beautifully written autobiographical novels with nary a shred of "it."

I was extremely excited when I found out about Billed as a sort of Sundance Festival for self-published authors, the site offers the kind of screening process that deserving authors desperately need to set themselves apart from the growing crowd of self-published titles. I naturally sent in my most recent work, the karaoke-set "Outro," and included "Double Blind" almost as an afterthought. I shouldn't have been surprised, however, when they decided to feature DB on their fiction page, since this recognition is only the most recent on a growing list of the novel's "it" parade.

Lord knows, I never expected this one to be a hit. But I had a longtime desire to take on the giggly Puritanism of American culture, and my friend Katrina Galway sealed the deal by loaning me novels by Milan Kundera and Leonard Cohen that were much nastier than anything I was liable to dream up. So I kicked that parental voice out of my head, and embarked for the dark side.

The instigating thought for the book was the confession of a close friend, on his wedding night, that he did not love his bride-to-be - that he was just marrying her because he didn't think that anybody else would ever put up with him. So astonishing was my friend's insecurity that I had to dream up a much more plausible reason for putting my narrator/protagonist, Hopkins Grinder, into the same position.

With the consultation of my geneticist pal Robert Pesich, I also made Hopkins a scientist, so that, in addition to talking about sex the way a guy would, he could talk about it the way a scientist would: as a perfectly natural part of life. Thus outfitted, he does what any guy in a loveless marriage would do: he has an affair, with Kelly, a single mother who just wants someone to come around once a week, screw her and then get the hell out. Their initial tryst - in the back room of Kelly's bead shop - has been called "every straight man's fantasy."

I wanted to give Hopkins some redeeming quality, though, and I landed on a good one: he loves his kids. So I created Laura and Marcus, based on my own passel of beloved nephews and nieces (notably my nephew Steven) and crafted endearing and complex attachments between them and their attentive parents.

But here's the complication: Hopkins is a child of divorce, one who would never allow his own children to suffer the same fate. Quite a quandary, then, when his wife Jessie ends an argument by "accidentally" almost cutting one of Hopkins' eyes out with a paring knife. Hopkins decides to recruit a hobbyist seducer, Damon Karvitz, to placate his frazzled, unloved wife (to keep them together no matter what) and is elated with the results - until he finds his wife being merrily boinked by Damon on a hidden-camera website.

This constant process of painting myself into and out of corners is exactly how a shameless sex book developed a deliciously dark sense of humor and a series of surprisingly poignant family situations - a quality only deepened when Hopkins develops an unexpected friendship with Stanford doctor Lisa Pisarro. The intensity is cranked up by an extremely tight, fast-paced writing style - a discipline I learned during the editing of "Frosted Glass" with my drill sergeant/publisher, John Rutledge.

The popularity of DB has come from an audience of male readers, who appreciate Hopkins' tell-it-like-it-is sex tales and then find themselves identifying with his many conflicts. A typical example is Paul, a bar-buddy who doesn't read much but has read DB three times over, and expounds on its qualities like Billy Graham testifying about his Savior. Or Joe, who expected the lurid aspects of the story but also found it "uncomfortably insightful about the male libido." But DB's "it" quality is perhaps best summarized by a female reviewer, Molly Zoe, who wrote, "If you have ever read anything like 'Double Blind,' it would surprise me greatly."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poetic Ambiguity and The Killers

The first time I heard the song "Human" by The Killers, I was astounded - not just by the group's new techno sound or Brandon Flowers' artfully slippery vocal attack, but at the the use of actual poetic language in a pop song. I was highly amused, a month later, when I found a story in Rolling Stone reporting that Flowers' lyrics were drawing a lot of flack - particularly the song's central question, "Are we human, or are we dancer?"

Although poetry has a long tradition of the intentional misuse of words (check out e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town") the simple reassignment of the word "dancer" from noun to adjective (gasp!) had apparently blown the minds of the pathetically linear rock fanbase.

What bugged them even more, I suspect, is that they didn't know what Flowers was trying to say. Much to his credit, at least in the Rolling Stone story, he refused to explain himself, other than saying the line was inspired by a quote from Hunter S. Thompson ("We are raising a generation of dancers"). By doing so, he was preserving what can often be a powerful weapon: poetic ambiguity.

I am a great fan of poets who do not explain themselves, and who apply surreal flights to their works. This is what drew me to Charles Simic, our recent Poet Laureate, whose breakthrough collection of prose poems, 1990's "The World Doesn't End," is virtually packed with the stuff. I use surreal imagery and language in my own work, and when someone asks me what a particular passage means, I respond, "What do you think it means? Because that's what it means." By incorporating ambiguity and mystery into my work, I am ceding responsibility for the ultimate determination of the work's full meaning to the individual reader, who must then become a more active participant - and a more active reader is a more involved reader.

Flowers is not the only songwriter out there who has pulled off this trick. I recently saw an interview with Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, on "60 Minutes." In talking about the band's first hit, "Yellow," he said, "What's it about? I have no idea what it means. I still think about that every day." He also inadvertently revealed a list of band rules posted in his studio, one of which was, "Always Keep Mystery - not many interviews."

"Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah they were all yellow."

Regardless, it's a beautiful song, the word "yellow" evokes a myriad of meanings within the lyrics, and people respond to it in ways that they often can't describe. I sing it sometimes at karaoke - and was thrilled, the other night, when I finally found a karaoke track of "Human." After giving it my best shot (no matter how well you know a song, singing it the first time is always a leap of faith), I brought this very subject to the attention of my cohorts, singers Mack and Cicily. Always looking to be cautious in poetic conversations with non-poets, I offered my most on-the-surface interpretation of Flowers' question: Are we human - what we are - or are we dancer - what we do? Mack came back at me with the interpretation I had always felt (much as I felt the the emotional images I had received from the Martin's use of the word "yellow") but never actually put into words: That the idea of a dancer evokes creativity, expressiveness and freedom. Thus, are we human - in the pedestrian, coldly scientific sense of that word - or are we dancer - spiritual, energized, expressive beings?

In that case, I said, I hope we're dancer. Perhaps yellow dancer. In a pretty how town.

Image: What Chris Martin meant by "yellow"? Photo by MJV.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Little Touches

At my book release party at Books, Inc. in Mountain View, CA, one of the staff members reproduced a portion of my cover in chalk to publicize the event. I was mightily impressed that they would go to these lengths. I wish the photo quality were better, but I wanted to share it with you.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Old Flip-Flop

A friend who's into me being a writer asked me how things were going. I joked that I had my head into three novels - selling one, editing another, starting a third - and wasn't always sure which one I was talking about at any particular time. And I told him that the new one was really coming to me strongly, was threatening to take over my life, and that I was purposely slowing it down a little while I finished my editing on the previous one.

"Oh, you shouldn't do that!" he said. "You've got to strike while the inspiration's there." And then launched into a five-minute talk on the art of writing, involving some movie with Sean Conncery a few years ago ("Finding Forrester"?).

I was actually highly amused, because this happens all the time - amateurs giving advice to the 25-year veteran novelist. So I just listened until he come to this understanding himself and said, "Well why the heck am I telling YOU all this?"

I think it's mostly projection, but it is funny how much advice I get sometimes. People are always telling me about books I should read, and I feel like saying, "Shouldn't YOU be asking ME about good books to read?"

Image: The last line, final draft of "The Monkey Tribe," novel number ten.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Case of the Imposter Novel

I was talking with a friend last night, and asked her how she was enjoying my book, "Double Blind," which I gave to her a few weeks previous.

"Well, the setup's taking a little too long."

"Wow. That's curious. No one's mentioned that before."

"Well, it's all that stuff about the sheriff, and his relationship with the married woman."

"But my novel doesn't have a sheriff."

"Of course it does!"

"I swear, honey, I wrote the book - there's no sheriff."

When she checked the book that night, she discovered that IUniverse had somehow sent me a book with my cover but somone else's text! A check of my inventory revealed that, thank goodness, this hadn't happened with any of the other copies. But my friend had been plodding through this story, thinking how different it was from my previous novel, for almost a month.

"Well why didn't you say something?" I asked.

"It wasn't very good," she said. "And I didn't want to hurt your feelings."