Venus on Mars

Excellent Sentences

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 29, 2009

Wrexie's typewriter

I found this typewriter in the historic Slipher Building at Lowell Observatory; it used to belong to Wrexie Leonard, Lowell’s secretary and more. It’s a Hammond portable, in a sleek wooden case, and its innards look uncharacteristically light and airy (unlike most vintage office machines). It was the unusual keyboard, however, that set my mind spinning off into fictive possibilities.

This typewriter keyboard features weird scientific symbols instead of letters. When Wrexie’s boss told her to take a letter and she pushed a series of these keys, did she understand what she was saying? Can someone actually “type” science?

Some quick web research revealed to me that Hammond typewriters were among the first to feature interchangeable fonts (presumably the scientific font was one of the variations) and that it was the first office machine to be designed to be aesthetically pleasing, more like a musical instrument than office machine. I remembered that when I first came across the machine at Lowell Observatory, it was closed up in its curvy case – my first impression was that there was a music box inside. I was surprised to open the box and find a typewriter.

Many have described music as the universal language, one we all “speak” to some degree, and one we all respond to. Typewriters are considered more mundane in terms of their language output, but what if the typewriter’s language variations allow the typist to “speak” not a verbal language at all, but a series of symbols whose meaning extends far beyond any earthbound language barrier?  What if an everyday act like typing became a creative act in itself, with the symbols on the keyboard combining in unusual and inventive ways?

I have spent the last year and a half typing on my laptop, hoping my output is more than mundane. I have a more or less complete first draft of my novel and now comes the work of trying to figure out what I am saying. The cumulative meaning of all the words and sentences and chapters is my guide as I rewrite, trying to make all the meaningful elements connect in some inventive way.  The editor who didn’t fall in love with my writing said something that I have found useful, that sometimes he found my writing to be very good (“excellent sentences,” he called some of them), but sometimes he felt I was only using words to get the next part of the story told. Sustaining excellent sentences throughout an entire novel  is difficult, he said, but otherwise the writing falls short.

Now I’m going back through it all, spending hours sometimes on one chapter or even one paragraph, considering each phrase, each word, and possible variations that might result in more excellent sentences. I have to keep working until the excellence exists throughout. No words as slackers allowed. No errant passages that don’t fold and blend into a meaningful whole. A well-composed novel should reveal its meaning like a piece of music, each note working its magic in combination with all the others carefully chosen and thoughtfully arranged by the musician.

The rewriting, editing, polishing, finessing that I’m now facing is an arduous task, and my laptop is not a magical machine like Wrexie’s typewriter.  I have no mysterious keys to push in order to create the kinds of cosmic truths I’m trying to describe in my book.  Just the workhorse language I know and use everyday, but I’m trying to turn my composition into excellent sentences that ultimately become exquisite prose.

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Happy Holidays to All

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 25, 2009

Percival Lowell as Santa outside Baronial Mansion

The photo is from the Lowell Observatory collection of historical photos, used with permission.

Structural Integrity

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 11, 2009

The Baronial Mansion - click to see how it grew (you have to wait 5 seconds)

The 16-room structure that came to be known as “The Baronial Mansion” at Lowell Observatory began its life in the 1890’s as a modest 4-room “observer’s house.”  When more house was needed, more house was built, piecemeal fashion.  The house grew larger but its structural integrity diminished as the original frame, beams and foundation were forced to support more walls, floors, ceilings, doors, windows, furniture and fireplaces.  Eventually the building failed and had to be torn down.

The inhabitants of the house – including Percival Lowell and his assistant Wrexie Leonard – most likely did not concern themselves with structural integrity, since this was not the part of the house they saw as they slept, dined, danced and worked in the library (a cozy room added on much later, and the only part of the house still standing).

Like the folks who once lived in the Baronial Mansion, I have been ignoring for the most part the structural integrity of the story I’m writing about them.  When my story needed a new part, I came up with it and added it to the existing story, thinking only vaguely, if at all, about the overall structure of the novel.  I think I resist structuring my writing in an early stage because I’m searching for what poet Denise Levertov calls “organic form,” a structure that  exists within a subject or experience from the beginning.  It is the writer’s job, she says, to “discover and reveal” this intrinsic structure.

Sometimes structure seems intrinsic: a journal is structured over time, each entry a neat subset of the overall span of time covered in the journal.  Historical fiction at least has some structure as its basis is in actuality – events that happened at precise times in the past.  Balancing a story on such natural structures can be a good way to start, maybe even to get through a complete first draft, as I have just done.  But eventually the writer has to judge for himself/herself whether the story can support itself, or whether its structural underpinnings need to be made stronger.

We write however we can get ourselves to write and keep writing.  Writing without attention to structure, I firmly believe, is far better than not writing at all, or writing in a constipated way, trying to force content into a rigidly defined, pre-ordained form.

Like the ramshackle Baronial Mansion, my narrative has grown over time from a few unorganized notions into 250 pages I find difficult to manage because I can no longer keep the entire narrative in my head all at once.  I can no longer read it all in one sitting, and now I have to attend to its structural integrity.

Aristotle wrote about what he called “magnitude and order,” the scale of any story as relative to its presentation:

“the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.”

I had to look up the word “perspicuous” – it means “plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation”)

In other words, the larger a structure, whether house or narrative, the more important that it have “good bones,” a well-constructed form on which the entire story can live.  The bones are not readily visible and may not ever be consciously experienced by a reader, but without them, the entire piece can fail.

“There is something else new about the mansion,” my character Lulu writes after the building is expanded and renovated in 1903.  “When the new rooms were added, a passageway was carved out of the cellar, running diagonally underneath all the new rooms, with narrow stairs and a trap door at each end…but its purpose from its inception had eluded me.”

Rumors have circulated over the years about why the secret passage was built, most alluding to Percival Lowell’s need to be discreet in his ongoing relations with his assistant, but no one has been able to say for sure.  It’s a part of the Baronial Mansion that cannot be explained, built underneath the rest of the structure, but not an integral part of the whole, and, quite possibly one of the reasons the building ultimately failed.

“For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.”

Aristotle again, who pretty much had an argument for everything.  The unity of construction depends not only on all its parts working together, but also on the builder being able to judge whether each part actually serves a purpose.

Which brings us to structure as metaphor.  In my story the underground passage serves a narrative purpose, an alternate route for getting from one place to another, wormhole style, birth-canal style, its precise structure unknown because it’s down there where it’s dark.  Illumination is necessary for seeing, but all my characters have to spend some time in the dark before they see the light of day.

I think this metaphor may run underneath my entire story like the actual underground passage ran beneath the Baronial Mansion, either providing structural integrity or contributing to structural failure.  This is the part I have to figure out.

The End of Fiction

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 5, 2009

Stepping into the publishing future

I got close to it yesterday.

While browsing through the stacks at Borders, I heard someone nearby saying, “it’s at the end of fiction, right over there.” It was a clerk, of course, assisting a customer looking for a novel written by an author whose last name falls near the end of the alphabet (Welty?  Woolfe?  Yoshimoto?)  But stuck in my current writing morass I took the statement as more.

What happens when we reach the “end of fiction,” or more pertinent to my own situation, why keep writing fiction if the end is near?  What’s the point in trying to get my novel published as hard copy when ebooks and online media offer the same stuff, cheaper and easier to access (as in “click to download now”)?

Friend and sculptor Douglas Holmes recently suggested to me that the book that still deserves to be created on paper should offer more than text alone, like hand-crafted elements – pages or covers that are works of art in themselves.  These devices are not merely add-ons, but merge and blend with the story itself to create an experience for the reader that cannot be downloaded from Amazon or displayed on Kindle.

I bought a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Lacuna yesterday, and after I brought it home, I realized that even Barbara Kingsolver uses a device from time to time.  This time it’s not only a small die-cut oval in the cover; inside she’s used different fonts, different formats to represent multiple voices.

What’s so wrong with devices?  In my story, Venus inherits a journal written by her great aunt, who was the actual person Wrexie Leonard, who worked at Lowell Observatory.  While researching Wrexie’s life, I discovered a 10-week gap in which she took a leave of absence without offering a word of explanation either before she left or after she returned (she rarely took a vacation; she rarely left her boss’s side).  It’s been one of my issues while writing my novel how to explain the highly unusual 10-week gap in her life, and I’m feeling uncomfortable with any scenario I’ve come up with so far.

Now I’m thinking about leaving a gap in my own novel – purportedly Wrexie’s journal – and letting the reader figure this out on his/her own – or left wondering, as I am.

I’m also creating little Photoshop collages as a way to work through my writing issues: a Victorian lady’s boot and skirts step onto a desert (Venus on Mars), a sixties-era living room with tacky seashell tv lamp and even tackier paint-by-number art framed and hanging on the wall (what Venus’s mother saw just before she died).  I don’t know yet whether these devices will end up in my book or not.

But I am thinking that the end of fiction must be the beginning of something else in which the traditional novel evolves into some form that retains its essence as story, characters, progression, escalation, resolution, but offers something that cannot be found in books as they now are constructed and marketed.

I’m looking for a publishing future that is comprehensive.  Augmentations, additional narrative materials that serve to enhance the story without stalling it out.  Interactivity should be discovered and chosen by the reader, not forced by the author or publisher.  A good book always leaves me wanting more, and perhaps its defining the “more” that will enable fiction writers to take the next leap forward.

Not Falling in Love With the Writing

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 4, 2009

Recently I was upended by a twit of an editor at Soho Press, not the person to whom I’d submitted my work – must have been handed off to an underling.  “I didn’t fall in love w/ the writing,” he penned back on the otherwise proforma rejection note, and signed a name I couldn’t decipher.  Like most writers, I’m prepared to be rejected, over and over; slings and arrows from editors, agents and publishers do even less damage now that I’ve learned how to self-publish.

But this one I couldn’t let go, so I fired back:

“I think you should know how this kind of flippant comment affects its recipient.  I know you receive volumes of manuscripts.  I realize my work may not be the best fit for what you publish and make money on.  I know these are hard times for fiction writers in general.  But after spending two years on this novel, and after researching and determining that Soho Press may be interested, hearing that my writing does not thrill you, with absolutely no details on why, makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong – but of course I have no way of knowing what you meant.  I’m going through my manuscript, examining different pages and thinking, does this part suck?  It’s demoralizing, frustrating and sad.  If you are going to say something like ‘I didn’t fall in love with the writing,’ I think you really should offer a few constructive suggestions.  Otherwise just say it’s not right for us, leaving my good mood and a reasonable level of confidence intact.”

The editor emailed me back:

“Honestly, I admired it, which is why I wrote a note on the turndown, which 95% of the time I don’t.”  (note: this is what writers call a “good” rejection)

He went on to tell me I was a good writer and then proceeded to make this sound like an insult:

“but in the end VoM (his shorthand for the title) didn’t build, sentence by sentence, in a powerful enough fashion.”

So being a good writer is not nearly enough – that’s my take-away from our email exchange.  Really, I appreciated his follow-up comments and told him so, but now I’m struggling to fall in love with my own writing all over again.  I can’t stop reading my manuscript as though I were someone else (the Soho editor, editors and publishers at large, the reading public), and wondering how this insight will help me finish my book.

It’s always where I got stuck as a filmmaker.  I am my audience, I remember saying out of one side of my mouth, but the other side was busy pleading for public and critical acclaim.  The “independent” filmmaker wasn’t supposed to care about fame, fortune and glory, but at some point an audience of one is not enough of a reason to keep going. I used to go around “presenting” my films to audiences, which gave me a chance to explain whatever wasn’t clear.  Even more useful were the times when audience members explained my films to me.

I was a good filmmaker.  Now I’m a good writer.  Discouraged but still writing, wondering if I’ll get better than good some day.