Trying a novel: If at first I don’t succeed…

Anna_Brassey_438-victorian-woman-writing-jornalA couple of years ago, I made an attempt at starting a novel. Not the first I’d started, but this time I was determined that I would keep on and actually finish a completed manuscript. I was resolute. I was ready.

It never happened.

So after several months of complete writer’s block, during which time I’ve started and abandoned several short stories, I’ve decided to give it another try. I’ve got part of a novel that I workshopped a couple of years ago, and which I think I can finished. Maybe. Perhaps.

The first thing that I realized was that I had a dozen or more versions of the beginning, and several stray bit and pieces from later in the story. Before I could write, I needed to at least isolate which segments I wanted to use. I needed also to track the characters and the culture. And I finally realized why some people used writing software such as Scrivener.

So I’ve spent the last two days going through the Scrivener tutorial, finding the versions of the first chapters that I want to keep, and entering all my characters into a list. What I hope is that I’m not doing all this as busywork to justify the fact that I’m not actually, you know, writing. Or to justify the fact that I’m not querying for more freelance work, or getting several phone calls a day from publications eager to hire me as an editor. That I’m really doing this as a preparation to finish at least one goddamn novel.

We’ll see.

Of bookcases and editing

bookcases in basementThere is something very satisfactory about building, say, a bookcase. On Monday, my cousin, his daughter, and his future son-in-law came over to help Jim and me assemble some bookcases that had been delivered from Home Depot (to replace some of those that had been ruined in the basement flood). We got four done; I started work on the fifth this morning, and Jim and I will probably finish that one soon.

The satisfaction is that, when you’re done putting in the dowels, and assembling the pieces, and turning the screws, you’ve got a bookcase. Sometimes you may not turn a screw correctly, or there may be a ding on the edge of one of the shelves from where you accidentally dropped it, or the quality may not be quite as high as you’d like. But you’ve got something to store your books in, and you put it together and it works.

I feel the same way about editing. Once I’m settled into a job, I know exactly what I need to do: Decide what stories are needed, assign them, get them back, edit them until they read well and are as factually and grammatically correct as possible, and then use online tools to build them and make them live. Hopefully, the result will be an article that, will enlighten or inform or amuse (or all three). Sometimes the article will need more work than I expected, or there will be glitches in the online tools used to put it online. But in the end, it will work.

Now I’m about to jump off the cliff into something new. There’s something exciting but a little frightening about that, especially after nearly a decade of employment in the same company. I’m hoping to land somewhere in the same continent I’ve been exploring for most of my career: That of the latest technologies — consumer or business — and the intersection of tech and human interaction. This has been what has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to earn my living reviewing and/or reporting on its various permutations. I’m hoping that will continue and that I’ll be able to build more interesting and up-to-date bookcases (as it were).

Meanwhile, I also write speculative fiction. But that’s grist for a somewhat different mill.

Some thoughts on co-workers as family

Years ago, when I had just graduated college and had been hired into my first real, adult, full-time job — as an editorial assistant for a travel publication called Signature, gone for lo these many years — my father took me aside and gave me this advice (not in these precise words, but this is the gist):

“When you start a job, somebody there — your boss, the personnel director — will tell you that the company is one big family, and that you’re now a part of that family. They may be very nice people, and say that with all the good will in the world, but it’s important that you don’t believe them. Because unless you’re married to the owner’s son, you’re not family.  And no matter how hard you work, how much time and effort and good will you give them, if they need to — for reasons that have nothing to do with you — they will get rid of you.”

Sounds a bit dire, doesn’t it? Not really. My father was an extremely astute man, and that advice has been a balm to my ego whenever I hit a bump in my career — I knew I had done my best, and while I deeply regretted the loss of the job, I didn’t waste time blaming myself. But he was not completely correct, either.

Because while he was right that corporate executives are wrong when they describe the company as family, he was not right when it came to the way the employees of some companies deal with each other. While there are organizations in which there seems to be a general sense of every person for themselves and screw everyone else (see: Uber), there are others where you have a group of people who sincerely like each other and the work they do.

What happens then? Then you have people who are more likely to enjoy starting work each morning and pushing to do the best they can. You have people who are truly dedicated to their work, not just because they are getting a salary, and not just because they want to get a raise and/or a new title, but also because by doing their job well, they make things easier for their friends who are working with them. They are more likely to collaborate well, come up with good ideas and carry out useful projects, and adjust to the changing demands that invariably come down from upper management.

They are more likely to stay in place, because they like and value the people they work with. And they are more likely to mourn when one or several of their members leave.

As with families, as the years go by, people will go their separate ways, make new friends, attach themselves to other families, and even lose track of those they were once close to. But the memories will always be there, and there will always be those times when two people meet and one says, “Hey, do you remember so-and-so? Did you know she moved to Washington and is now working for XYZ Corp?” “Omigawd!” says the other. “We haven’t talked for ages! Do you have her email address? I’ve got to get back in touch!”

And that’s what family does.

Camera-shy and on camera

I’ve always been camera-shy. It was impressed upon me years ago, when I was a teenager, that I didn’t have the type of features that were considered attractive — or, at the very least, that if I did, they didn’t show up in photos.

Now that I look at some of the photos of me in my 20s, it occurs to me that things really weren’t as bad as I thought at the time. But it was what I did think at the time, and that is what has kept me a writer who only presented herself for photos or videos with some trepidation.

graduate_barbara
Caught off-guard at age 21 wearing my college graduation head-gear.

A few days ago, I actually was able to overcome that shyness somewhat to do a “journalist covers new technology video” for IDG, the company I currently work for. It was quite an experience — both for me and for the poor people who worked with me: the director, a young woman with infinite patience, and the photographer, a young man with equal patience (although he didn’t say much, and I have no idea what he was thinking).

They wanted me to talk to the camera, explain why I thought the product was important. I thought that, at worst, I’d be interviewing the vendor, and wouldn’t have to utter more than a sentence or two at a time. (“And what usership is the focus of your product? Do you think you can compete against, say, Google? )

Instead, I was asked to give my “expert opinion” on why this was an important product, a task that I failed at utterly. I am used to being able to play with a product and then write it up, going back to check an impression or do a bit of research. Asked to describe or pontificate on a product, and I get completely tongue-tied; my entire store of vocabulary dries up.

I was constantly apologizing; for stumbling over words, for saying things like “today” and “currently” (we weren’t supposed to date the video); for forgetting what the product was supposed to be about (and for becoming so flustered I forgot the name of the product itself). “Smile!” the director would constantly remind me. “Be more lively!” Finally, I said, “I’m from Brooklyn — we don’t smile there!” (Obviously not true, but it was all I could think of saying at the time.)

So here’s the result: More of a complement to the talents of the director, the photographer and the editor than to me. I still don’t like the way I look on camera — and I think the way I pronounced my “s” sounds a bit off.

But still, I think it’s rather neat, and thought I’d show it off.

My moment of media glory.
My moment of media glory.

Finding Private Hargrove

See Here, Private HargroveMy parents always had at least one bookcase in our apartment (not a very big one, because most of their books came out of the library) that held the books they had amassed over the years. As soon as I was able to read, I started going through them and absorbing as much as I was able to. While I was originally most interested in a book on home medicine (and especially with the parts — illustrated — about how to deliver a baby and prepare a body for burial), I eventually read almost every book there.

Last year, when my mother moved out of the house and into an apartment, we went through those books. Some went with her, some were given away to a local charity, many of the Yiddish books went to the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts. And a few I took home.

One of the books I claimed was a stained paperback titled See Here, Private Hargrove, a World War II-era collection of humorous essays on Army life. I kept it because I remembered enjoying it as a child, and because it was obviously old and would otherwise probably be pulped.

So last week I started reading an interesting book entitled When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. It tells how important all types of reading materials were to the troops that went overseas — offering them with a portable means of escape — and about the efforts made to provide them with books, first by holding huge donation drives and then by printing lightweight paperback books especially for their use.

This was just after the paperback was introduced to the U.S. market (according to Wikipedia, the first mass-market paperback, published by Pocket Books, was Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, published in 1938). But, according to Manning, it was during WWII that the paperback really came into its own.

IMG_20151118_081541281To enable soldiers and sailors to have lightweight reading material that they could easily carry with them — and to accommodate the paper shortages that were endemic during the war — thousands of volumes were published. There were many published in a special format just for the troops, but others were “regular” paperbacks. Made of very thin paper and cut with almost no margins at the sides, they were sold at low cost to the public and given out free of charge to the soldiers.

I read about a third into Manning’s book and went looking for Hargrove.

My father and my mother’s brother were both soldiers in WWII — the former in Europe and the latter in the Pacific — and I realized that See Here, Private Hargrove may be have been something that my father carried with him. At the very least, it’s a book that he bought at the time and treasured enough to keep.

The book is well worn, but in better condition than you’d think. On the front, above the title and a photo of the author, it proclaims “Army-Humor Best Seller” and below “Pocketbook Edition Complete & Unabridged.” (Something that the publishers of the new paperbacks felt obliged to emphasize, because otherwise people might not believe that the little paperbacks had everything the “normal” hardcovers did).

The back has the usual blurb and publisher’s logo. In the lower right-hand corner, a little square section reads “Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere for only 3¢.”

The binding is still in fairly good condition (which isn’t the case with some of my father’s other books — a copy of Richard Wilson’s 1950s collection of humorous science fiction stories, Those Idiots From Earth, fell completely apart after I’d reread it countless times). And yes, the print is so close to the edges of the paper that in some places the last letters at the right margin are lost.

IMG_20151118_081518522In fact, the frontispiece reads, “In order to cooperate with the government’s war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials.” (The WPB was the War Production Board, which was concerned with turning civilian industries into war production.) The book itself is the third printing of the paperback edition, dated March, 1942.

And there are other interesting indications of the times. A page in the back headlines “Our Boys Want Books!” urges people to donate the book after reading it, while another titled “Help Win The War!” promotes recycling.

So there it is. Something that I’ve taken for granted all my life — a little paperback that I read before I even fully understood what I was reading. And knowing its background, it is more than just an old, historically interesting series of humor essays — it’s actually something that tells me just a bit more about my father and the times he lived in.

Thoughts from a porch

From the porch of a seaside house on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, near the end of the Starry Coast Writers Workshop:

From a porch

The sound of the waves against the shore is constant and changes only slightly with the tide. Unlike the waters north, the waves are smaller, quieter, perhaps appropriate to the South.

Butterflies On either side of the boardwalk that leads from the house to the beach, there are bright yellow-orange flowers at which butterflies, usually at least five to ten at a time, stop and drink before proceeding along their migratory route. The butterflies, dark orange wings lined with black and with black spots, flutter to each, stop, pump their wings slightly as they drink, and then travel on.

Small sandcrabs, the same color as the sand in which they live, wait until the humans pass, and then scutter from their holes, quickly scuttering back if there is any noise or vibration to alarm them. One has fastened onto a smaller black crab and drags it along the sand; the black crab struggles uselessly. Food? A mate? I’m not sure. The predatory crab is the only one that doesn’t move when I shift my stance; it has its prey and is reluctant to let it go, even when danger threatens.

SanderlingFive Sanderlings skitter across the sand just at the point where the water occasionally flows into their path. They completely ignore the humans walking around them in a way that I’m not used to; it’s as if they were pigeons in Washington Square, so bored by the presence of humans that we’re no longer part of their landscape. They only dance a short distance away if our feet get too close. The birds pick at the surface of the sand for food; when the tide comes in, they probe a little deeper in the wet sand. One obviously thinks of himself (assuming it’s a male) as the alpha Sanderling; he occasionally chases the others away from a treat he wants, and they hurry away, looking a bit like actors in a silent film that has been accidentally sped up.

The beach is lined with large houses, big enough for a family, or for a group of friends. Two people alone wouldn’t be enough; they would rattle around like marbles in a can. People wander along the beach, either alone or in pairs or groups; walking their dogs or walking their kids. A few yards into the water, people stand on surfboards and paddle themselves along, only occasionally riding a slightly more enthusiastic wave into the shore.

I love porches. I love sitting on a porch and writing (and occasionally grabbing my binoculars when a Brown Pelican flies by, and no, I haven’t been able to get a good photo and probably never will). I wonder if I would get bored if I could spend the rest of my life like this.

Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

I just realized something about this novel that I’m supposedly writing.

I need an outline.

A woman writesThis evening, I went to the Word bookstore in Brooklyn to hear N.K. Jemisin read from her latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book of her new Broken Earth trilogy. The reading was wonderful (not surprisingly; since she is high on my list of the best specfic writers around today), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But what struck me was something that was said during the Q&A session, when Nora mentioned that she had started with one outline and eventually realized she needed to drastically change it. All the long-form writers in the room nodded knowingly.

And I thought to myself, “Oh, hell. I need an outline, don’t I?”

Now, you have to understand that I’ve never worked with an outline before. When I write a short story, I usually do one of two things: I either start writing and wait to find out where it’s going to take me, or I start with an ending in mind and build the story to reach that ending. Very often, the story that develops has little to do with what I started with — but if I’m satisfied with it, that’s fine.

Now, however, I’ve realized that I may have been doing the whole novel-writing thing all wrong. I’ve been approaching it as if it’s a short story: Begin at the beginning with a general idea of where it’s going and then start writing. If I hit a wall, move to a different part of the story and write that, and then see how (or if) I can connect the two.

But that won’t work in the long form. For example, if I create a character in the third chapter that will disappear until the 15th chapter, I’d better damn well track what that character’s name is and what they’ve been doing in the meantime. And there’s the whole world-building thing; if I’ve established a society that’s just discovered the combustable engine, I can’t have somebody pull out a smartphone four chapters later. And by the way — if characters change by the end of the novel, shouldn’t I figure out how and why?

In fact, it may be a good idea to have a vague idea of where I intend to end up — especially if I’m going to have a workshop full of writers reading (and critiquing) it.

So, despite my increasing desperation about getting this thing actually done — or, rather, getting enough of it done — I’m going to have to take at least an evening or two and make myself an outline; some kind of textual map of where I’m going with this. I may end up going totally off that map, but at least I can pretend I have some idea what I’m doing.