Tuesday, April 6, 2010
I have decided to reboot "Swim Against the Grain." New location, new name, new look. In other words, it's a new-and-improved version of this blog, only now I'll have my trusty sidekick iggi. Or am I iggi's sidekick...? No one will ever know.
As graduation from my MFA program creeps closer to the present, I have come to realize that this blog needs more structure, more focus, more direction. The new blog will feature regular weekly columns including book reviews, tips and news, a weekly writing challenge and more.
Thank you to all my readers for following my adventures and misadventures thus far. "Swim Against the Grain" will continue to exist on the web, but starting today I will be posting exclusively at the new location. Please join me at the new site: iggi & gabi.
Monday, April 5, 2010
This book has given me the courage to try writing a little poetry of my own. OK, so most of the time, the poems morph into prose, but that's beside the point. What this book has done is open my eyes to the gracefulness of language, the beauty of gesture. I have fallen in love with language all over again.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
She's the part of me who comes up with all the stories and makes me write them, often at imaginary-gunpoint. Whenever my mouth gets me into trouble, it's usually because iggi's out of control. She's the one who decides "today I don't want to write a serious post, I want to write a story about vicious bunnies." iggi doesn't *do* serious. Funny and silly... definitely. Even loopy sometimes. But not serious.
iggi is a curious creature, one of many moods and temperaments. Since her writerly inspiration is often tied to her moods, I've come up with a handy-dandy guide. The iggi-meter at right will let you know which iggi is around today.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
My brother, sister and I were stuck in ski-school for the day with an instructor who was a total dope. He had no interest in teaching us anything and instead, brought his girlfriend along on the lesson so she could cut to the front of the lift lines with the class. Even worse, his girlfriend was one of those snow-bunnies who had no clue how to ski so our class had to wait at the lift while our skiing Casanova helped her up when she fell and guided her to the bottom of the run.
At lunch, we lost our patience. Even though the snow bunny had decided to call it a day and go home, we were still frustrated at having lost a whole morning of good skiing. So we decided to pull a prank. While our love-lorn Romeo went into the lodge to get a table, we grabbed his skis and poles and buried them in a snow bank. When he came out after lunch he went ballistic.
His precious skis! How could someone steal his amazing-top-of-the-line-super-expensive skis? He was even on the brink of calling the police to report them stolen. Worse yet, since the lodge where we had lunch was at the top of the mountain, how was he going to get back down? And his boss was seriously going to kill him for not finishing our lesson either.
In the end, we caved and gave him back his skis. We may have lost another half hour on the slopes while he threw the hissy-fit over his skis, but it was so totally worth it. At the very least, I don't think he ever brought his snow-bunny girlfriend on a lesson again.
In honor of April Fools, I'd like to know... what's the funniest/silliest/SO-most-worth-it prank you've ever pulled?
And in honor of it being the first day of the month: Rabbit rabbit!
Monday, March 29, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The play opens and already, the audience wants to know: how long until these characters lose it? Everyone seems so civil at first, except not. And then at a pivotal moment (courtesy of Ms. Liu's character Annette) and after that all bets are off.
This play is a great example of plot structure at work. The first section is restrained, though we know it's only a matter of time before these characters snap. Then there's the second section, when the civility quickly unravels. Finally, we get the last segment, where everyone--the characters and even the audience--is gasping for air, like kid retreating after a playground brawl.
One of the other elements I much enjoyed was how the writer (Yasmina Reza) doesn't feel the need to explain every detail. Annette's perpetual nausea, Michael's refusal to let Veronica have a drink. The story could have been heavy-handed and explained all these moments, but Reza holds back, and I think the play is stronger for it.
Overall, a great night out and a fabulous performance.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Soothsayer: Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
--Shakespeare (Julius Caesar III.i)
Some may find the Ides of March depressing. A death-day of sorts. I, however, find this day empowering, as a day when I can bite my thumb at all the naysayers to my writing life.
I try not to complain about writing or publishing, because generally, there isn't much to complain about. In Portuguese, there's a saying that roughly translates to: "If you run because you enjoy it, don't complain about being sore." Writing is sort of the same thing. If you feel the need to complain about it, then really you should ask yourself: why are you writing in the first place? If it's such a pain in your backside, why not take up something you like better? Like basket-weaving or ceramics.
Even the most upbeat and optimistic of writers, though, find themselves up against a wet blanket or worrywart once in a while. These are the people who pester you with irrelevant questions like: "When do you think you'll actually 'make it' as a writer" or "So, do you think your book could be the next Harry Potter" or, my favorite, "Why don't you stop this silliness and get yourself a real job."
Well, once a year, we writers get a special day when we can turn to these people and say:
E tu Brute?Today is that day. Enjoy it while you can because it only comes around once a year.
And to those writers out there who get soaked by wet blankets and just shake the water off, like a dog does after a bath: keep doing exactly what you're doing. Write on!
Sunday, March 14, 2010
This is the day when we celebrate that most beautiful of ratios, called Pi (AKA 3.141592...etc).
So tell your friends. Celebrate all things circular. And while you're at it, eat some pie.
p.s. Mark your calendars for five years from now because that will be Super Pi Day! Woot!
Saturday, March 13, 2010
What if it's not really a dot, but a huge swamp of despair that seeps off the page and into your writing space and swallows up your floor, your furniture and everything around you? What if that swamp turns into an enormous black hole, a vortex of nothingness that eats up life as you know it until all that's left is you and a blank screen.
That's when it's time to smack some sense into myself.
Seriously, it's just one stupid dot, one tiny splotch of ink on the page that is my outline. It's just a dot. I can write a dot. That's, like, the size of punctuation. It's no biggie. Maybe I can't write a whole book today, but I can write a dot. I'll even throw in some words for good measure. And it doesn't even have to be a good dot at that. Just a dot.
Julia Cameron wrote in her book Supplies that when you run into a wall in your creativity, don't try going up over it. Instead, do what those characters in prison-break movies do: they make a hole under the wall and wriggle their way under.
So that's what I'm going to do. Just one tiny dot, and it can be a lousy dot while I'm at it. And maybe, just maybe, when I've written a handful of lousy dots, I'll have the beginnings of a real project.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
First, it probably didn't help that I've seen the movie version a gazillion times and I was constantly comparing book Mary Poppins to Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins. While Mary Poppins in the movie is stern but kind, whimsical but sensible, Mary Poppins in the book is vain, mean and self-centered.
Second, the use of magic in the book seems somewhat backwards to me. In the movie, while she's sometimes reluctant to use magic, Mary Poppins makes wonderful things happen. The magic is a way for Mary Poppins to relate with the children: Jane and Michael. In the book on the other hand, she happens to have this magical thing about her but she constantly denies that anything magical has happened. Rather than the magic bringing Mary Poppins closer to the children, she uses it as a way to push the children away. Magic is supposed to be what makes Mary Poppins such a wonderful nanny, but book Mary Poppins seems reluctant to share her magical world with Jane and Michael.
Die-hard fans of the book may argue in favor of the book's superiority to the movie because it includes so many scenes and elements that the movie omits. A few examples:
- Only the two oldest Banks children appear in the movie. The book also includes two toddler twins: John and Barbara.
- Mary and the children go shopping and meet Maia, one of the Pleiades.
- Mary has a birthday party in the Zoo with the animals. The children attend.
- Mary takes the children around the world using a magic compass.
- The children and Mary go to Miss Corry's shop to buy gingerbread square.
In the end, I'm sorry to say that it would take a lot more than a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Thankfully, I know a few writers who aren't afraid to talk some sense into me, no matter how much I hate to listen. It takes courage to talk someone down when they're approaching a writing precipice. But these are courageous folks and to them I'm so grateful.
What I'm realizing, though, is that if I don't figure out a way to keep myself accountable, as soon as school is done and I have no more deadlines, I'm at risk for losing all writing discipline. This is why I've decided that I need to implement a daily quota regimen.
Here's how it's going to work: I write one dot per day. By this I mean, I write one scene (or group of small scenes) each day. No word quota but I'm shooting for at least 1K. The rules are as follows:
- Writing anything that's not my book is a bonus and won't count towards the quota.
- Outlines, character sketches, doodling, brainstorming, etc. don't count either.
- I get one day off per week. If I make it through a week without needing a day off I get double kudos.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Here I am, writing away at my thesis and I've got these two monkeys on my shoulders. (Why monkeys? Check out the Infinite Monkey Theorem. It will make sense, really.) One monkey goes by the name Prudence, the other Maverick. They don't agree on anything, especially as regards my thesis.
Prue: Write something safe. Write something easy. Write something where you know you'll succeed.
Mav: Safe-schmafe. Write whatever makes you happy.
Prue: This isn't like workshop. You have to hand it in For Real and your graduation depends on it.
Mav: Who cares if what you hand in isn't great. The important thing is that you learn something, right?
This argument continues ad infinitum. The main point of contention always comes back to the issue of my POV characters. Prue thinks I should choose one protagonist and write just that side of my story--at least then I'll finish something. Mav says that the dual POV is more interesting, not to mention more fun.
The thing that really gets me, though, is that a lot of my readers (including my adviser) seem to be more in agreement with Prue and I'm siding with Mav. Which brings me to my dilemma:
If a writer decides not to follow a critique or piece of advice, is that hubris on the writer's part, or is that the writer being true to her vision?On one hand, I don't want to be that writer. You know the one--that's the writer who makes everyone read her stuff and give critiques, then completely ignores everything they say. Or worse, it's the writer who makes a point of defending his work against every critique point the group makes. All I know is, I've been on the "group" side of this equation and it stinks. Not to mention that the folks advising me to take the safe road may be totally right. They might see something I just can't see and I'd be committing thesis suicide if I don't listen. (This last part is Prue whispering in my ear.)
On the other hand. In my heart, I know I have a plan for this little book. It's taken until this weekend for this plan to fully crystallize , but it has, and it now means writing the story according to my "artistic vision." (Besides, as Mav puts it, this way's much more exciting.) But it might also mean that I careen off the road altogether and end up in a ravine.
So, my question is: Can anyone explain what the difference is between ego and artistic vision when rejecting a critique? This is really important because I need to know which one I have.
Also, does anyone have any monkey repellent?
Friday, February 26, 2010
Then there's the additional problem of how poetry often intersects with pretension. Sure, not all poetry is hoity-toity, intellectual-with-a-capital-I, but it's a lot easier to sound smart when you analyze poetry than it is, say, when you discuss sci-fi YA thriller. With poetry you can use fancy terms like "post-modern" or "onomatopoeia" and be embraced by other verse lovers. Try doing a post-modern analysis of a picture book and you'll get a lot of eye-rolls. In short, poetry lets you get away with acting literary.
This reminds me of the poetry unit we did in high school. My English teacher--a brilliant woman who made my college professors look like wimps by comparison--relied on Socratic method so if she called on you, you'd better have something smart to say or you were toast. If our analysis of the assigned text was not up to snuff, she'd pace around the room shaking her head and muttering "pearls to swine... pearls to swine..." And every time she was about to say something truly ingenious and life-changing, she would rap her bony knuckles on the blackboard and say "Ladies. Pearls of wisdom are spewing from my lips. Write them down!"
Which brings me to the point of this post: lately, I've also become oddly obsessed with poetry. I've been reading it compulsively (which I never did before) and even--dare I say it?--trying my hand at it a little. I know that nothing good will come of this clandestine love affair with language, but I keep at it all the same. It's kind of like watching a scary movie... I know it's going to make me scream, but I can't bring myself to switch the channel.
I'm sure you're wondering what has made me reconsider my aversion to verse. That's easy. It was this poem: Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins.
I'm not going to beat poems with stick until they bleed meaning and metaphor. While I'm at it, I'll stop taking poetry and literature and myself SO seriously. I'm going to have a little fun.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
In design, there are two basic approaches to representing an object in three dimensions: isometric perspective and vanishing point perspective. While objects appear "3D" regardless of which perspective we use, there is one key difference between the two approaches.
In isometric perspective, size remains constant regardless of how near or far away an object is. This type of perspective is especially useful in drafting, where measurements and distances must be precise. Below is an example of a cube shown in isometric perspective. Notice that while our eyes recognize it as a cube (all sides are equal in size=the definition of a cube), the three-dimensionality looks a little "off."
In vanishing point perspective, on the other hand, objects appear smaller if they are farther away. Look at the cube in vanishing point perspective below. Notice how the sides of the cube appear to be different sizes, the closer they are to the vanishing points, yet our eye still reads the cube as a cube (i.e. we perceive all the sides to be equal size). In fact, this perspective appears more "real" to us than does the isometric perspective, where sizes remain constant.
Writers talk a lot about POV. There are tons of fancy labels you can memorize: first-person peripheral, third-person limited, omniscient, objective... the list is endless. Books on writing dedicate entire chapters to defining and understanding all these categories.
Thing is, when we get hung up on 1st-person versus 3rd-person, omniscient versus limited, it's like we're looking at the world of our story in isometric perspective. Sure, it looks 3D but there's something rigid about that doesn't feel quite right. This is where Narrative Distance comes in.
Narrative Distance (or Psychic Distance, as John Gardner called it in The Art of Fiction) is "the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story." Gardener uses the following examples of third-person narrations with varying levels of distance.
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
Zoom Lens Exercise (inspired by an exercise from Now Write! Ed. by Sherry Ellis): Select a short section of narration from your current project (2-3 paragraphs should do the trick). Now rewrite it three times, keeping it always in third person. The first time, zoom in so close, you can practically see your protagonist's pores and skin cells. The second time, zoom out and give us a bird's-eye view of the protagonist and her world. Finally, choose a middle ground between these two extremes.
[Note: if you want to make it really challenging for yourself, try doing this in 1st person. I would advise against trying this exercise in 2nd person, unless you feel like giving yourself a migraine.]
Questions to Consider:
- What kind of information does the reader have access to when you're in birds-eye-view mode? What about in pores-and-skin-cells mode?
- Which of the three variations in narrative distance did you find most challenging? Which came easiest?
- Who's telling the story in each of the 3 versions? Who's the audience? Do either of these things change as narrative distance changes? Why or why not?
Axiom #3: If POV is the telescope through which we view a story, narrative distance is the lens that pulls the image into focus.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Maybe it's because I've been hit with a case of the sillies, or maybe it's because I've always found Valentine's Day to be the lamest, stupidest, most idiotic holiday ever invented, or maybe it's because deep-down, I secretly want someone to send me a valentine after all...
Regardless of the reason, I've decided today is the day to start my first contest and the category is: Funny Valentine!
- Who gets to play? You, that's who.
- What do you have to do? Write a silly valentine from one fictional character to another. Originally, I was going to limit it to children's book characters but now I've decided to leave it open. Go wild, go crazy. TV characters, movie characters, comic book characters... they're all fair game. The only "rule" is that the characters must be fictional.
- When is all this craziness going down? Between now and Valentine's Day (submissions close at 11:59pm EST on Feb 14th). I'll select the winner using the very scientific method of pulling a name out of a hat
- Where do you send your valentine? Post it as a comment to this post, so we all can read it and have some giggles.
- Why? Now there's the rub. Maybe it's because you too have been feeling a wee bit silly lately. Or perhaps you agree that Valentine's day is the lamest, stupidest, most idiotic holiday ever invented. Or maybe you're in the mood to send a silly valentine. Oh, wait... you mean prizes... Alas, there won't be fame and there won't be fortune, but I can promise some good ol'-fashioned fun. And you'll be crowned Grand Poobah of Funny Valentines.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Gabi's Tension-Expectation Theorem: Tension =
When we write, we establish patterns for the reader. These patterns--if repeated enough times--will raise the reader's expectations. When we raise expectations but then turn around and give the reader something she wasn't expecting, we create tension.
And Here's a Corollary: There are no accidents in writing. If you're going to create tension, do it with intent.
This Theorem will come up again and again as we look at "Book as Experience." The writing techniques we will discuss are all tools we can use to raise the reader's expectations, and break these expectations if we so choose.
Which brings us to our first technique...
Today's Topic: Space (Part 1: Positive and Negative Space)
In design, we talk about positive space and negative space. These are not value judgments; positive space does not mean space that it is "good" and negative space does not mean "bad" space. Rather, positive and negative space refer to the space occupied by an object versus the space around the object.
Positive Space: This is the space occupied by the object.
Negative Space: The space around an object. Note that by looking at the space around the object, you can gain information about the object itself.
A great example of positive and negative space at play, of course, is the faces/vase picture (shown below). Do you see two white silhouettes on a black background or a black vase in front of a white background? It all depends on which object is the positive space and which is negative space. Notice also that it is virtually impossible to see both as positive space at the same time. In order to see the vase, you have to let the faces disappear into the background, and to see the faces, the vase must become negative space.
At this point, you're probably thinking: "Thanks for the design lesson, Gabi, but can we get to the writing now?" Here's the thing: whenever we write a story, we have to take positive and negative space into account. Think of the positive space as the space occupied by the story; this means the negative space encompasses all the other "stuff" that never makes it into the story proper. As writers, we need to be ever conscious about the interplay between positive and negative "story space," making active decisions as to what we will include and what we will leave out.
Axiom #2: Negative space can tell you as much about your story as does positive space.
Rosencrantz-&-Guildenstern-Are-Dead Exercise: (A study in positive and negative space)Select a minor character from your story. It doesn't matter which character it is, as long as it is not the POV character. Follow this character "off stage" and write a short scene (2-3 pages). The idea here is to examine the negative space around your story with an eye to better understanding the story itself.
As for the Theorem from the beginning of this post, when we write a piece, we establish rules for the reader regarding the positive and negative space of the story. If, however, we flip the positive and negative space, this creates tension for the reader. If we pull this swap artfully, we can create conflict and increase the reader's interest, but if we are not careful this type of switch can confuse the reader and be disastrous to our story.
The key is to understand how positive and negative space work and make them work for you.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
In the movie, the protagonist Gigi realizes that the reason guys weren't calling her back or asking her on a second date was not because of some bizarre male dating strategy she must decode. The ugly truth was: they just weren't all that into her. The movie's title, based on a line of dialogue from Sex in the City, becomes a mantra for Gigi as she makes her way through the ups and downs of dating.
So what does the mantra "He's just not that into you" have to do with writing? Well, oftentimes, I find myself getting obsessed about the craziness of writing... and eventually getting published. How is it that a story I wrote "on the fly" gets accepted for publication within 24 hours but another story I've polished for months keeps getting rejected. Conspiracy theories immediately pop up in my twisted mind. This is when I reread a passage from one of my favorite books on writing: Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost.
According to Provost, if you're not writing well enough to get published, then you are not qualified to judge the merit of your own work. "The writing's just not good enough" is the aspiring writer's version of "He's just not that into you." Sounds harsh, I know, but this concept is actually very liberating.
In Provost's own words:
"If I told you that your writing is fine, but that the peculiarities of editors and other machinations of the publishing world have conspired to leave you out, I would be telling you that there is no hope... But I'm telling you that constant rejection means you are not writing well enough yet, and that means you have control of the situation. You, not them. All you have to do is work harder and study more and keep an open mind about your writing. Be persistent, be humble, and be curious, and your writing dreams will come true."
In other words: the publishing world isn't out to get you, or me, or any of us writers. It's just that the writing's not all that good enough. Yet.
The only thing you have to do is make it better.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Today's Topic: Devices. Literary devices are perhaps one of the easiest ways to superimpose an experience on a book or story. Using a non-traditional format (diary, play, screenplay, letters, journalism, etc.) the author can alter how the reader interacts with the story.
Exercise: Select a character, situation and prop at random (or using our handy-dandy booklet). Write a 1-2 page piece in a nontraditional format, using a literary device of your choice. Literary devices can include (but are not limited to) poetry, epistolary form (letters), journal/diary format, song lyrics, play or screenplay, an interview, etc.
Questions to Consider:
- How does the author create a unique reading/listening experience for the reader/audience?
- What is this experience?
- How does the literary device play a role in creating this experience?
- How does this piece redefine what it means to “read”?
- Does the format of the piece force the reader/listener to adopt a particular role in relationship to the text? (Audience, voyeur, investigator, etc?) If so, what is this role?
Axiom #1: Stories are not just written or told, they are designed.
But now down to business. This week I began a mini-lecture series for my writing group. This lecture series sprung out of a term paper I wrote last semester on the idea of Book as Experience. I've designed several different mini-lessons, along with companion writing exercises that illustrate them. As my group meets weekly on Tuesdays, I will be posting my lesson notes on the blog after our meetings.
Today I kick off this sequence of posts. Check in every Tuesday for a new post and writing exercises.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Then I read the latest post (Hello, New Year) by fellow writer and blogger, Ghenet, and it inspired me. So this year instead of making resolutions, I will set a few specific goals. Goals are good. I can do goals. They're specific. Compact. Manageable.
Goals for 2010:
- Yarn Diet. Yes, it's that time of year when I need to stop acquiring more yarn than I can knit. Yarn diet works on one simple principle: before I'm allowed to get new yarn, I must complete a project of equal size and scope and either gift the item or find room for it in my closet. Easy right? Considering I have upwards of a dozen half-finished projects right now, I'm not sure "easy" is the right word.
- Writing. The idea is to start by writing 500 words of something every day. Once this starts to feel easy, I'll gradually increase the number by 100 words until I've come to 2,000 per day (which is the actual goal).
- Blogging. This blog needs a schedule. The idea of "blogging whenever I can" makes it too easy for me to procrastinate and leave the blogging for tomorrow. I need figure out a schedule and give myself deadlines so that my posting stops being so erratic.
- Healthy Decisions. I'm resorting to self-bribery on this one. I know myself and I'm fully aware that eating right and exercising is not going to happen if I do it just for the sake of "being healthy." So from now on, every time I make a healthy decision (choose a healthy food option, go to the gym or running, walk instead of taking the subway, etc.) I can take one coin from my loose change and put it in my piggy bank. This bank is my yarn fund and it trumps the yarn diet.
But that's the point of these New Year's goals after all; I only need to worry about one thing at a time.