Sunday, August 30, 2009

Title and Theme

Note to self: and tip to up-and-coming writers: do not rely on Spellcheck. Otherwise you may end up keeping a dairy, as I apparently do. And I know nothing at all about cows. Though I did quite a bit of research on this for my last novel, which you will hear more about as we go.

If there is not a Murphy’s Law for writers, there should be. And it would state: Much like invisible ink, certain mistakes will not appear until after it’s too late to change it. Corollary: such mistakes will be an embarrassment.

Not that I would be embarrassed to say I keep a dairy. If I did. What embarrasses me is that I am a stickler for typos that slip unnoticed into professional work, from business letters to publications. I’m the one who will email a website to point one out.

But I digress.


The working title of my novel is Current Events, because originally each of the main protagonist’s family members were employed in one way or another with news or the media. That has changed, and so will the title – I already know that. But I’m sticking with it for now.

Here is how the storyline came about. Some years ago I went through a stressful, even traumatic, work-related situation that caused me to quit my job. Each time I spoke about it, it became clear to me that no one – not family or close friends – really understood. Tea and sympathy didn’t cut it. At one point I remember following my aunt around a shopping mall trying to tell her about it, just needing someone to listen, but she kept moving away from me, from one store display to another. I didn’t see it at the time, but later I realized either she really was more interested in men’s socks, or else she was choosing not to involve herself in her niece’s private business. And there I was, following her around, practically picking up my tale in mid-sentence each time she moved away. Aware of what I was doing, i.e., talking to a wall. But so in need – not of sympathy, but of making a connection. Of feeling that I was being heard.

Out of that experience came an awareness which proved itself again and again over the years. How the people who profess to know us best, often don’t know us at all, and don’t even want to. How they are not all that interested in knowing us. Easier to assume we are still the same child who pushed her cousin into the lake (brat) or spoke out of turn (know-it-all). The family dynamic is set when we are that age; in their eyes we never grow up.

When this work incident was still fresh in my mind, I began a short story about Caitlin, a woman who returns to her parents’ home, needing, as Dr. Phil calls it, a soft place to fall. She has just gone through something like I did. Note: beyond this, there is no parallel here to my own experience. Caitlin spends a week trying to get her family to understand why she had to quit her job, why she is moving, why she is having such a hard time. In the short story it is her mother she follows around a store because she cannot pin her down at home, cannot get her to sit still for half an hour and do something so simple: just listen. Like so many mothers of that generation, hers didn’t know how to listen. She only knew how to talk.

I never finished the short story. I could never bring it to a satisfying conclusion. But the idea of working with that family dynamic stayed with me.

That became the core of the novel, the theme, the central concept around which the plot hangs. The core, the theme, isn’t always obvious to me while I am writing. Sometimes I need to put some distance between me and the finished piece before I can say what it is about. I could tell you the plot. But when a person says, “What’s that novel about?” I never know how to answer. Is it about a boy from a dairy farm who goes away to find himself, only to wind up back on the farm? (Plot) Or, is it a cross-generational exploration of the different ways a man can value a piece of property. (Theme) Both happen to be true of my novel with the cows – the one with the four close calls.

Sometimes it takes someone else to point out your theme. Sometimes when that happens I think they are out to lunch. That’s okay; I don’t have to agree. And I don’t really care if a person gets something else out of my work – it’s a compliment, in fact. When there is more than one way to view something it can imply a depth – and that is a good thing. I only have problems when that person tries to tell me (and it has happened) that theirs is the only interpretation.

In the case of Current Events, the novel, the theme has been strong from the beginning. Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about it for so long, and because I did work on it as a short story. So I find myself writing to the theme, aware of it at all times. My concern now is to not make that obvious.

So now we have a title: Current Events.
And a theme: how we are misperceived by those who should know us best - our families.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Intro

Ever wonder what goes on inside the deep dark recesses of a writer's mind? About the process I mean. Where it all comes from. How one idea leads to another, sometimes unleashing a flood. Or at other times, remains a solid wall of black.

When I wrote my first novel -- but wait, I'm getting way ahead of myself already. Get used to it. I do that.

A bit of background.

Yes, I am a published writer. What that means at this point is that I have had a few short stories published in Canadian literary magazines -- no small feat -- and a few other pieces, notably a children's story-poem, and essays in The Ottawa Citizen and Chatelaine magazine. Two of my stories have appeared in anthologies of short fiction. My work has risen to final judging in a couple of national competitions, and has been rewarded with a couple of grants for emerging writers. And as I write I actually have - Yay!! - a signed contract for my short story collection which is slated for a launch in spring 2010.

So I'm not, I think, without some credibility.

That said, I don't have a novel out -- yet. But we live in hope. My last effort garnered four very complimentary rejection letters. Two of them very close calls -- but still a "No" in the end. Two others sit in a drawer where they, no doubt, belong. Much like reincarnation, their bodies are beyond help, but there is yet a soul in each of them that could one day be worthy of resurrection.

At present I am working on a "new" novel -- something which has been percolating in there for a long time -- years. I have a few "chapters" written in a solid first draft, and a lot of "scenes," scenarios, and little bits.

See, I'm not one of those organized people who start at page one and know exactly what is going to happen. My process is more organic. I usually start with an open concept, a feeling almost, although it can evolve into something totally different. Especially characters. Because, as many writers will tell you, you don't create a character. A character emerges fully formed. Just like meeting a stranger, sometimes you feel you "know" this person immediately, and other times you know them for a long time and suddenly learn something shocking. But I find my plot and theme and anything else related to the work -- I don't like using these terms -- they are so rigid -- evolve as well.

So I will go back now and finish the statement I started with: When I wrote my first novel what really interested me was the process. Not as in write so many words a day, commit to writing for ten minutes, or start with an outline -- no, none of that. I am talking about the process of my own mind. How things bubble away on the back burner and come to the surface as if out of nowhere. Ideas that, when you read them later, are so good you cannot believe you wrote them. Ideas that come up like molten lava and it's all you can do to keep out of its way and let it flow.

Since then, I've started collecting notes for what I thought might one day become a book for writers. Because most of what I've read in that vein falls into one of two categories. Either is it about the Rules of Writing: Plot, Theme, Character, yada, yada, yada ... like we learned in school. (Am I dating myself? Do they even teach grammar in school anymore, let alone composition? You might as well know upfront -- chronologically I am 58 -- going on 25.) Or else it's someone's personal journey into the world of writing. There is merit in both of these approaches, certainly. But I felt that by paying attention to process, I had something else to offer, not the least of which is to give permission NOT to follow rules.

With this current novel I am doing something new. I have been keeping a dairy (sic) for a few months to keep track of my process with this project. And then last night, sitting in the theatre at Julie and Julia, I thought. Duh! Join the new millennium! Don't keep a diary, Dana, write a blog.

So here we are: Entry number 1.

Already this little intro contains a number of points that I can expand upon. Because while I hope to use the current novel as a springboard, I can already see that there is a part of me dying to share my thoughts on process in general. And I do intend to share some of my writing.

Two true confessions: 1) Dana is not my real name. Chalk that one up to life lessons. And 2) I am the world's second worst procrastinator. So don't look for daily entries.