Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Flying Without a Net

Oh, gosh.  Last night at about 3:30 AM I took a closer look at what I need to bring to my Read and Critique session at the Pennwriters conference Friday night.  And yikes! It's not just a cover page I need, but a half-page, single-spaced synopsis.

Okay . . .  This will be for the work in progress, Singing Lake Farm.  Blessedly, I know exactly how the story will come out.  But distilling it down to a half page?  When I've gotten maybe three hours of sleep the past three nights?

Well, four hours last night.  I overslept.  But the synopsis still has to be written today, or never.

Immer zu! immer zu!  Ohne Rast und Ruh'!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Who Brought the Fleas?

How responsible is an author for the preconceptions and associations the random reader might bring to her book?

Certainly, there are known cultural assumptions that the writer ignores at her peril.  The prologue of my first (unpublished) novel begins with the sound of a child knocking at her father’s study door.  I dared not render that as “Knock! Knock!” because readers inevitably would think of the knock-knock jokes they traded in childhood, guffaw, and close the book.

But what of the ideas and tendencies individual readers bring in?

A would-be beta reader for the same novel told me she was turned off by the opening of the first chapter.  It begins,

“She was glad Eric was out when he came.”

My reader told me she immediately assumed that “she” (the point of view character) was glad of “Eric’s” absence because it would allow her to get up to no good with the “he” of the sentence.  The beta clung to this impression despite the very next paragraph’s revealing that “he” was a total stranger whom the main character found to be annoying and creepy.  It made no difference.  The opening, she said, had “given her” this idea and she could or would not let it go.  Ergo, I should change what it says.

But should I?  Who is responsible here, the reader or the author?

At a yard sale a few years ago I picked up a book called Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards.  One story, “Newark Job,” by James Van Kirk, is set in the 1950s and begins with a twelve-year-old boy preparing to accompany his apartment building maintenance man father on his rounds for the first time.  Reading this, I immediately tightened up.  I was sure his father would get him down in one of those dark dank basements and molest him sexually.  Why?  Because I’ve internalized certain assumptions of my culture.  Authority figures can’t be trusted.  People who seem good on the outside are inevitably hiding some dark secret.  The sexual urge can’t be controlled and must and will be expressed in the most perverse ways.  I don’t live my daily life thinking that about people, but with literature it’s what I’ve been trained to assume.  I remained apprehensive as I read, continually thinking, “It’s coming.  It’s coming.  Now, pretty soon, he’ll do it.  He’ll attack his son, there’ll be a disgusting scene, and the boy will be traumatized for life.”

It never happened.  Instead, the story turned out to be one of positive enlightenment, where a kid who’d taken his pop for granted learns that Dad really is a principled unsung hero, and begins to aspire to the everyday greatness that will be required of him as the son of such a man.

These days when I think of “Newark Job,” I remember the hope and pride the author meant me to feel.  But I can revive all too easily the gut fear of my initial assumptions.  Who is responsible for them?  In this case, surely not the author.  As Sam Llewellyn once wrote, “Oney fleas in ere is wot you brot with you!”

But even though that story was written fairly recently, in 1992, maybe it’s different now.   Should we contemporary authors assume that in an ambiguous situation our readers will inevitably assume the worst?  If the worst is not what we mean, should we go above and beyond to prevent their thinking it?   Or should we as good readers, despite our personal psychologies, be willing to hold our initial impressions lightly as we follow the clues to the true meaning of the work?

You can probably guess where I come down on it.  Assuming, of course, that the writer doesn’t open with an unintended knock-knock joke.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

My Next Big Writing Adventure

Funny how you can find yourself in the middle of something all-consuming, and not remember exactly how you got there.
That describes me in relation to the next big step in my fiction writing life.  Somehow in the past two months I learned there's a writers' group here in Pennsylvania called Pennwriters.  And I learned they're having their annual conference not twenty-five miles down the road from me.
And after thinking and debating and weighing the relative value of networking and exposure vs. new shocks for the car, I elected to join the Pennwriters organization and register for the conference.
It's this coming weekend, and may I say I'm very nervous?  It's not meeting all the new people; I do that constantly in the course of my job.  It's the fact that I've signed up for a pitch session with an agent and I've never done that before!  And is The Single Eye traditionally publishable at all, seeing that a few chapters of it have appeared on this blog?  How do I keep it out of the Christian fiction ghetto?  And what if I just sit there gape-mouthed and babble?
At least I have my logline written:
Two young architects struggle to preserve their practice, their love, and their integrity when a diabolical would-be client refuses to take no for an answer.​
Then there's the Read and Critique session on Friday night.  I'm submitting the first two pages of the second book, Singing Lake Farm.  What if everyone says the beginning stinks but what I have is so tied in with what I've written after it that I'm incapable of changing it?
What if, what if, what if . . .  ?
Nevertheless, off I shall go to Moon (that's where the conference is, in a town called Moon) this coming Friday and act like I know what I'm doing.  Having spent the money on this little get-together, I intend to get the last dime's worth of good out of it I can.