Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Those three numbers will eventually all line up.

Convinced today that most of the problem relates to how a character is composed. If you make someone up in service of a storyline, it goes like this: I know person X has to do the following things, and I know thematically he should change some way, and then you hang traits off him like clothing on a scarecrow. The other way is to say "How would I feel if...?" And that's more frightening, because it makes your characters equal to you or, if you're firing on all sixes, they're slightly better than you are. You have to trust that they'll bend to the plot (or the other way around). You also risk looking like an idiot. Not that you weren't risking it already. You risk looking like an especially vivid, nude idiot.

But this error can lead to moments where a character vanishes and all that's left is spectacle. Spectacle is the refuge of those afraid of emotional engagement. It's profoundly safe, in that the noise and the light seem like they should distract the audience into forgetting they aren't enjoying themselves. "My word, that explosion was tremendous" is rarely heard outside the theater, or the moment the book is put down. If you have the emotions alone, that's good enough, but if you feel them and THEN thrill through a spectacle, that's much more satisfying.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


I am honing in on my fears. There's this continuum of what you feel for your characters, and it runs from sympathy to contempt. "Contempt" makes you seem like a genius, because who wants to feel compassion for losers, anyway? But sympathy is always the way to go. And always the harder way. Right now there's a hard candy shell that if I crack will solve, like dominoes falling, about 75% of my problems. I think. I fear.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I am thinking of George Franju: "What is artificial ages badly and quickly. Dream, poetry, the unknown must all emerge from reality itself...What pleases is what is terrible, gentle and poetic."

Currently, there are a dozen people on stage and one of them in particular is of perfectly good character in many lights, but made of plywood. You can hardly tell except when it's important. When he moves, his limbs vibrate like plucked strings and wood shavings cascade through the spotlight. His conflicts are not that of son and lover and hero but puppet versus bundles of straw.

I'd say I'm not sure why, but that would come from the same place my character's shortcomings are generated: fear

Monday, December 17, 2007


How the drafting process works:

1 "He gave her a diamond"
2 "He gave her a 16-caret, swing-beveled, dazzling blue diamond whose bezels shone with grace, and he did so generously"
3 "He generously gave her a 16-carat, swing-beveled, dazzling blue diamond whose bezels shone with grace, and he did so generously and with much forethought."
4 "He gave her a dazzling blue diamond."
5 "He gave her the clap, generously and with much forethought."

I'm somewhere between 3 and 4 right now.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


A year ago today, I was holed up in a hotel, working on a pivotal scene, and when I finished, I wrote this:

I am a little sad as if from a parting of ways. I feel loss, and resolve, and aching, and knowing that nothing will ever be enough, but that in itself is enough: it is good to want. Desire is what makes us accomplish things, it is the way we move through the universe. There will be this small burst of chaos wherever I go, the unknown, the ways I could not know so many things -- where are the limits, what do I not know about the life? It is safe to want. It is also dangerous to want. I am awake. Because the point isn't fulfillment but desire, alive.

This goes counter to the Taoism I needed to embrace to write before. What happens when you wake up to ego and desire?

Saturday, December 15, 2007


And I never thought those numbers would end up looking so complex but really, they're working for me.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


The flipside of confidence is that every draft has at its heart a question mark. Even with the ego it takes, what you want is the response "I'm with you." And if not that, "I'm with you except where the king spills his chili. If it were Saltines, then -" and it's like a lightbulb. Of course! Saltines!

What's hard is the burning red-faced shame at having thought and then written "chili" at first. The urge to always remember it as "Saltines" from the first draft. Years later, remembering how well the King spilling his Saltines scene reads, why can't you write that way anymore? "Well, of course, the Saltines came from deep in my psyche, a childhood moment of desperation and melancholy brought to the surface by--" when No it didn't.

So here's the vulnerable moment: I'm writing "chili" right now and I'm doing it underlined because I have to believe. When in fact there's a question mark because I'm not sure yet.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


A teacher once told me, of developing storylines, "You dance with the girl you brought to the party." If you start with a romantic comedy, and you've established that you're working that particular room, if you suddenly go Cassavetes in the last 20 minutes, it might feel right to you. But maybe only to you.

But I am now thinking of books and movies where a sudden breaking of the rules is liberating. Perhaps what they all have in common is boldness and declaration, so you know you're coloring outside the lines. No matter how ridiculous the landscape, if you trust the guide, the journey will be worthwhile. If you are led through the jungle and feel led then a romantic comedy with an unresolved ending might be okay.



This is what it's like: painting a house, inside and out, with the brush fastened to the tip of my nose.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Today was about fractals (again). If you cross cut between two scenes it's human nature to anticipate a final collision. Even if there isn't one. The brain will sometimes cause a spark to leap from God to Moses's finger.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


In one image, Mr. Steve Ditko expresses it all. Thank you, Steve.

Friday, November 2, 2007


Two years ago, I lived in a small farm town near Santa Barbara. People there were highly attuned to the patterns of weather, which were always dramatic. One day in spring I was walking downtown and I looked in the sky and saw the clouds blowing from east to west. It was easy to tell east and west, as the valley ran that way. I wasn't the only person noticing. People were stopped on the sidewalk and staring. The reason is that the clouds only blow west to east. The ocean is west, the wind always blows from there. Always. I mean: every day for the last four thousand years. You could have heard a pin drop.

Beginning that moment I got a knot in my stomach that has never gone away. We had no rain, then 11 inches one night. There was a four-day-long frost that killed everything. A 400-year-old oak tree toppled over. Most of the other oaks grew a mysterious fungus that killed them. At the market, all the farmers said they no longer knew what to plant -- nothing made sense. I could feel the weather fighting with itself, blasts of hot air coming in where there should have only been cold.

I still feel this every single day. I write here about fractals and keyboards and accumulation and I am also battling with a fairly dark question. I can only not ask the question for a few hours at a time; I can't actually lay it to rest.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Floating paper boats into the ether (is that how that works?)

Taking 100 pages and deciding to insert a double line break roughly every ten pages, just for the rhythm of it. It leads to a sense of fractal geometry. I'm not smart enough to understand the ins and outs of quasi-self-similarity, but I recognize the concept of stochastic processes at work.

A month ago I was thinking about how I was intimidated by the idea that the release of information was determined by a set pattern and if you deviated from it, you'd fall off the mountainside and plunge into darkness. But: no. It's infinite. And, depending on how you think about this word, "random." The eyes are brown, the hair is blonde, because I said so. Boy meets, boy loses, boy gets because I said so. And isn't me saying so essentially random? Governing principal is psychology, storytelling, accepted practice, but aren't those just recognized divots in the snow? We are familiar with the patterns, which is why they're the footprints you can follow. But looked at geometrically, boy meets, boy loses, boy gets is just as likely as anything else.

It turns out what I thought was strength in a unified landscape was actually strenghtened by taking the puzzle pieces apart and looking at each on on its own. Micro-climates. Turning the last line of a paragraph into a cliff-hanger. Unexpected, and ending up fractal: taking a scene into smaller and smaller pieces, where every exchange of dialogue ends up having both its own weight and the cumulative weight of the scene. This is a good surprise. The bow of many small rope bridges rather than the parabola-in-growth-spurts of the jungle chasm-spanner.

I don't know if that has practical value.



I have been thinking all day long "a year ago." A year ago I sat in an after hours bar on Ludlow and Canal, drinking vodka martinis and writing "Alacriter Profer Liberaliter" in my journal. I am always going to be grateful for the fact of Halloween.

And now: perfect night for new beginnings. And terror.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007



I need to add a horn section near the end, on the ship.



Removed the popsicle stick and the dead mouse. Am now figuring out the keyboard that remains.

Sunday, October 28, 2007



Returned the pitchfork. Making sure the whole second thread points in the right direction. Seeding it with une fausse idee claire, my current favorite phrase that I can't pronounce correctly.

The feeling is like barreling through Bach's English Suite No. 4, the Prelude, and it turns out one of the piano keys is actually a popsicle stick with a dead mouse strapped to it. Like: I know it would probably sound a lot better if it were a normal piano key and there were no dead mouse strapped to it. Even as I was making it up the first time and the second time, I knew it was wrong and yet there it is.

Two fears: one is "'I would like to buy you a necklace,' he said, extravagantly" writ large. This has to do with trust of words. The other fear? Dessert. Here is, for dessert, creme brulee. And then, to top it off, ice cream. With fudge sauce. And then, next, when all that is cleared away: a perfect raspberry tart. And then! Cookies! Luscious, gooey, crisp chocolate chip cookies. Or: a 37 minute version of Pump It Up.

I also walked into a bookstore and thought I overheard someone say "Yes, do you have How the Irish Invented Your Mom?"



Connected the second thread, and removed a pitchfork.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007



Palimpsest is a piece of paper (or papyrus or parchment or the like) partially erased to make way for new text. It comes from the Greek for "scraped again." It's also not the title of a memoir by Lillian Hellman.

Pentimento is the underlying image on a canvas over which something new has been painted. It is the title of a memoir by Lillian Hellman.

They're great metaphors, especially when you are six years into a project of some large scale. You are working on a different book all the time, but a book that works well shows the progression. You pose questions that are answered later, surprising you (because if they aren't a surprise, you aren't writing but you're setting up straw men). As you edit, you realize that stuff you thought would be important isn't, and vice versa. Then there are also glimpses of an ur-book below it, the book you didn't write, and that's always sad.

James Joyce wakes up the night after he has turned Ulysses over to Sylvia Beach and he cries, "Goddamnit, I forgot to put in a yacht race!"

On the other hand, as you rewrite, you start to feel glimpses of something else peeking through. You start to address the obsessions you didn't have when you started. And these are either part of the book, or they're your next book beginning to be overlaid, badly, on the current one. So the palimpsest works both ways, trying to make sure the old book is integrated with the new one, and that the next book hasn't colored it too much.



Monday, October 22, 2007



You write a scene and it's about encroaching darkness. And when you rewrite, you realize that logically, you have to move some action around. And you described it pretty well the first time, but when you move it, you realize that it reflects atmospherically the wrong thing. If the movement is from infra-red to ultra-violet in tone, suddenly you have slapped gobs of paint over the middle. Action is right, but the the center of it is unaccountably dark, then goes back to lighter.

That's sort of it. Also, that diminuendo thing. Closing the doors, drawing the shades, making sure the windows are latched. Have I spent the right balance of time with everyone? Does one scene feed into the other, now that I've chopped out the center of the rainbow, flipped it, and taped it vertically to the bottom 1/3rd? No, of course not.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


There's now, courtesy of that John Berger quotation below, a ghost. It feels right, which either means it is right or I'm wrong.

I have a 3X5 card that says "Trotsky/ My Official Wife/ "The Devil gave us a sense of humor"/ tenesmus" which is part of something, and then the rest is as follows:

He seemed innocent and helpless and that this man would so soon be tickled to death made them feel sorry for him.

Attempting to navigate surprise and inevitability. Happily surprised by the view. Oh, there's an old stone wall. Oh, it has graffiti on it. Who knew?

Friday, October 19, 2007



A friend of mine told me what when she was little, she thought that falling asleep was the result of a specific narrative of going to bed. In other words: fluff the pillow, put hands beneath it, turn to side, draw knees up -- and if that didn't work, she would try a different order, throwing back the blankets and getting back into bed, then turning to her side, fluffing the pillow -- all the various combinations. And of course the next night, going to bed, she couldn't remember what had actually led her to sleep, so she had to start all over again.

This reminds me of writing. It's about the release of information. It's also about the awareness of the rewards of certain combinations of motion. When I started writing, I was crippled by the idea that there was one specific way to tell a story, and I had to find the right order. Reader needs to know a bunch of things at once: time, place, character, conflict, details, relationships. Or so I thought. It turns out there are an infinite number of paths, and each one has its benefits and its hazards and failures.

And there's a balancing act between information and omission. You have to have faith that the reader is inferring all that you imply, because that bond is a great pleasure. Right now I'm drawing back on the overt and ratcheting up the implied. If you decide, while writing the 97th draft of a scene, that it should end with an orangutan swinging in from the shadows, you have the choice of either telegraphing that or letting it be a surprise. If it's a surprise, you might want to make sure you're writing the kind of book where an orangutan can appear without puzzling the reader too much. Or it's THE puzzle. The scene I'm working on needs foreshadowing. An ook ook here and mysterious almost human forms lazily walking with saddle strides in the distance. So I'm inserting those even as I'm taking out other hand holds.

Thursday, October 18, 2007



From Ways of Seeing by John Berger:

...the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies...its object is always exterior to the man....
By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes...indeed, there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence...
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping....She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

I hadn't read this book before. This morning, I found it on the shelf while looking randomly at things, which is sometimes helpful when you're stuck. You never know when you'll pull a book off a shelf, see a guillotine illustrated and think, "I know! My scene needs a guillotine!" And the quotation above (there's a lot more to it than that) reminded me of what I'm working on.

It also reminded me of a 1916 book on film theory which is concerned with what this brand-new iteration of "seeing" meant to the world. The argument in that book was that audiences identify so completely with actors on film that even in moments where a stunt double has taken their places, we don't notice, or don't want to notice the substitution, because we have become part of what we're surveying. We don't want to be jarred out of it by recognizing bad edits, illogical leaps, and most importantly new actors taking the place of old. There is some link that I don't yet understand between those two ideas: film theory and Berger's observations on "presence." I think it has to do with movie stars.

Added: one ghost. This is either a good idea or a bad one.



Finished the side project. Sometimes projects you have little talent for end up being highly satisfying. Relieved of both convention and worry, you can plough out humorous little things. So I gave it a shot. Done!

Tomorrow: finishing my scene with Princesses, crossbows, et al...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007



Attention is turned two places: the dismount is one. I see the end of a scene like the end of a gymnastics routine. And I am conscious of that moment where the saw horse has been conquered, gravity returns, and with lovely and full extension, both feet go to the ground, the arms begin to raise in that Y of triumph, and then one leg skids out on some chalk, the arms make cartoon-like circles in the air, the gymnist hops three times on one foot for balance, then returns to form: TA DAH. So much of the performance beforehand vanishes, even as the crowd applauds for him regaining composure at the last minute.

Henry James said at the end of The Wings of a Dove "We shall never again be as we were," and scenes should feel like that, in either major or minor key, don't you think? Reader finishes scene, realizes book has changed, wants to read next scene. Endings usually show up around the time that beginnings do, and a lot of work is just cutting a furrow from one to the other, while making sure no one can see where the furrow is heading (unless it doubles back, or unless you give them a brief sighting of Oz in the distance).

Here's an ending: diminuendo. And another: kaBLAM, with someone giving someone else a kick to the head, Chris Sims-style. And another: the reveal -- ah-Ha! And the single melancholy figure walking away down a dirt road, iris drawing shut. Turns out you can't make a wax mold in one of these shapes and then pour your ending into it. You have to listen, instead, to the scene, and to be prepared that at the very last second, it will announce itself. You have to be good enough to listen. Otherwise, you miss your stop. You're looking for a fanfare of brass, the scream of an F-16 across the sky, and it turns out what you just wrote was a muttering epigram in untranslated Coptic. You cross it out and -- wrong! -- that might have been exactly where to get off the train. Forcing it to fit always feels wrong. I wrote something in a last draft that worked really well; now it's another draft and even though I like the writing, it's like the slip in the chalkdust for the poor guy getting the 5.4 from the Romanian judge. So that's on my mind.

And second place for attention these days: learning new skills. Side project, working in a form I'm not that good at yet. But I'm lucky in that I'm collaborating with someone who makes me look good. I finish it tonight, then back to the fade-out, a bottle of chartreuse, a crossbow and a pony sleigh.

Sunday, October 14, 2007



A better writer could figure out how to keep Thoinot Arbeau. Today marks his excision, alas.



Bringing in Cadbury chocolate, a progression of dress uniform from military wear to something more slapstick, removing extra bodies, making the process of falling in love faster, eliminating the statement of ideas. You don't need to show your work -- you have to trust at some point that if you throw A, B, C, D up there, you can skip E, include F, and then go G J L P S, and if there's momentum, people feel like they're flying over buildings -- with you!

Here's a trick to making a scene move faster by slowing it down at first: your character has a single penetrating desire all the way through a scene. But, upon meeting another character, he wants something different. A kid wants a goldfish for his birthday. He meets a bigger, cooler kid who convinces him he wants a piranha. Now the kid wants a piranha. He gets the goldfish at the end and is disappointed. Okay, that's fine. But: you also in rewriting figure out that the big kid wants the kid's goldfish, so he can feed it to his piranha -- but he isn't going to say that. So the interchange isn't just about what one character wants but two and how they interact and what secret agendas are on the table. That makes it seem faster even if it's slower.

Next: same stuff as above, plus: parents will save us; bridge; chocolate, again; propaganda; timing Wod reveal; "ally mate Mary B," the last of which I don't know what it means. My handwriting is terrible.

Thursday, October 11, 2007



Maneuvering slowly, cutting and simplifying, through a showstopper, from Aarne and Hugo to die Königin ist fünfzig Fuß hoch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


And the crowd goes wild.


Edited Archangel from "Cowboys of Verst 38" to meeting Aarne in "Hugo's Fairy Tale."
Smoothing things, feels right. Fearful of what the next two days will bring, as they requires I actually be good. I am more comfortable with striving toward adequacy.

The photograph above is of Miss Hope Drown, from the 1923 film Hollywood. The plot was diabolical: she comes to California with big dreams of acting. Her whole family follows. And one by one, everyone from her grandpa to her baby brother, they all become famous movie stars. But she can't get a lick of work. Not one. The movie costarred everyone. Chaplin, Fairbanks, Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Mary Astor, Anna Q. Nilssen, Agnes Ayers, William Boyd, Viola Dana, Pola Negri, the Demilles, every Pickford within a 100 mile radius...everyone. And it was a success, and then it was forgotten and then every single copy of it (nitrate) went to dust. Contemporary reviews were both positive and cruel, in that they praised the film but didn't want to give anything away. "We'll not explain what marvelous ad libs Mister Chaplin performs at the train station," and so forth. It was a bit about ecclesiastical Buddhism by the end. So this is a photo of Hope Drown sitting on her bed, back to us, awaiting the break that would never come.

Oh, by the way: Hope Drown? That was her real name. Graduated from Beverly High in 1919. Worked on the year book. And after "Hollywood," the film? Never worked on another movie again.