Venus on Mars

Why a Writer Needs a Penis!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 29, 2010

You can actually buy a "penis pen" - comes in three colors!

I’m ready to turn my manuscript over to an editor.

Reading my own words these days makes me nervous. I can no longer work for hours on end (even if I had hours on end); somewhere along the way I get really antsy and then so anxious I can hardly press the scroll key to move forward or the select key to make a change, and I think I’ve figured out why. Three hundred or so pages requires an enormous attention span and at the same time rigorously applied microscopic attention to detail. Trying to choose the right words, put them in the right places, and keep the overall flow and content in my head. My head can’t handle all that.

Plus, it’s time to give my eyes and brain a rest, and for someone else to take a serious and critical look at what I’ve created. Despite my tease-y little quotes sprinkled throughout these blog entries, no one else has laid eyes on my text. That’s the scary part. I like what I’ve written; I must like it, to have spent the past two years with it. But what if it’s not nearly as brilliant and engaging as I think it is? What if that smugly opinionated editor was right, and my words and their arrangements fail to reach their full and breathtaking potential? What if my carefully nursed notion that I’m a gifted writer is mere self-delusion?

I’m not done yet, my inner voice screams quietly. I still need to go back through all my notes to see if there’s anything else I want to add. I want to go though a huge file of “outs” nearly as long as my novel itself, to see if anything needs to go back in. I’m still trying to decide whether this is a novel or a “novel-plus.” This week I took the first chapter only and formatted it as an interactive PDF file, embedding links – graphics, audio and video, additional text files. It’s cool, but really not taking me a step closer to my goal of finishing this story and getting it out there in one form or another. I’m just moving chunks around, playing with pagination, fonts and formatting, putting off the next step – to get another, professional opinion.

I keep thinking of an old, old quote from Erica Jong, something along the lines of “it’s a mistake to confuse the pen with the penis,” which I read in a long-ago Ms. Magazine article describing a female writer’s fear of finishing, because finishing implies judgment – in those days the judges were mostly male.

Now I’m thinking of Jong’s words anew – and in a less gender-specific way. The pen (or laptop) is something a writer uses – a personal tool to help her express her ideas, to reach her literary goals. The thoughts, the words, the tools are all part of a lovely creative flow that blossoms from within and eventually makes its way into some form that seems complete.

Enter the penis. Not literally; the “penis,” for a writer, is a tool she lacks, an external device, an objective opinion, a clever and possibly ruthless editor who will carve and shape the manuscript into its final, presentable and hopefully marketable form.

The moment the penis comes into play, however, the lovely bubble the writer has created with her pen bursts, no longer protected, no longer safe. An outside agent has intruded, offering its own possibilities, its own criticisms. Like that swarmy editor who nearly sunk my fragile ship a few months ago.

Where does the confusion come from, then? I trust my pen, but I shouldn’t trust the “penis,” no matter its gender? Don’t I need that item I don’t possess, that objective judgment? Is it possible that someone else’s words, inserted by someone else’s pen, will actually improve my story (as in “you complete me..”)

I realize I’m back to gender specifics. For a woman writer, the only way to “get” a penis is to locate one willing to lend its services – it’s an external device employed for the eventual gratification that seems so necessary for an artist. I can masturbate forever with ideas that come from within, but when it’s time to finalize and export, a penis, a coupling of my words and my editor’s contributions, may result in the actual birth of my novel.

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Three (or more) Sheets in the Wind

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 18, 2010

Venus the cow watches the universe unfurl

OK, I’m now actually reading the book Reality Hunger, instead of just reviews, and it’s talking to me.  The idea of a narrative not as a blended smoothie but as a chunky mix.  The chunks retain the essence of their origins, which means they can be pulled from the mix and used again, perhaps within another context, most certainly to generate another meaning.  It’s the old (by now) analog vs. digital comparison.  Analog has no separable pieces – its homogenous content cannot be deconstructed and reassembled at will.  Digital material, on the other hand, is the sum of its discrete parts, and these parts are nothing if not easily separated from its larger mix, and infinitely reusable.  A blue lego will always be a blue lego, even if it becomes part of someone’s castle, someone else’s farm or submarine.

Digital narratives, according to author David Shields, will become more relevant precisely because their parts can come and go.  He forsees our literary future as a virtual deep and wide free-flowing Amazon river of digitized text/images/sounds/movies. Each item in the library is still an original chunk because it’s digital. Future readers/users will be able to dip into this stream, coming up with pieces of meaning that are useful, inspiring – perhaps these become chunks of this user’s next creation.  Shields’ entire book is composed of such chunks; he cites their origins only because his publishers made him.  Presumably he doesn’t mind (since it’s not his to begin with) if we “re-reappropriate” some of these chunks into our own creations:

“In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”

“Technology will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Is this where fiction is headed?

“ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer–electronic books aren’t bound by physical constraints–and they’ll be patchable and updatable, like software. We’ll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don’t linger on the language; you just click through. We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.”

(Lev Grossman in Time Magazine article “Books Gone Wild”)

It would be a downright shame, argues Shields, for silly things like copyright laws to get in the way of this kind of progress. It’s the old hippie worldview upon which the world wide web was launched – everything belongs to everybody (web inventor Tim Berners Lee thinks it should still be this way).

Legality aside, I’m more interested in the idea of co-mingling books.

From Lulu’s diary:

What if the pages could be released from their binding and allowed to float freely? The loosened pages from one book might choose to march alongside the pages of an entirely different volume, fiction and reality combined, or fanciful poetry settling down next door to serious prose.

My book has chunks that leave the book and end up elsewhere. Sometimes we see pages from the book, sheets of paper, blowing around in the wind. Sometimes new sheets find their way into the very book we’re reading. It’s a very unusual book in that its pages do not stay put, and I’m not yet quite set on how I want to present its free-flowing parts, but if I tell you more, I may ruin it for you.

Now I’m recalling phonemes and monemes from the days when I studied linguistics. Discrete pieces of words that themselves have meaning, even before combined into words with yet another meaning.  We may not even be aware that a sound, a mark on a paper, has its own meaning, until we create the combination. Now I’m thinking of  Lulu’s typewriter, based on Wrexie’s actual typewriter in Flagstaff, a futuristic design whose keyboard displays scientific symbols; in my book, pressing a key sends a meaningful signal out into space. These discrete signals combine to become even more meaningful cosmic sheets (also known as membranes, “branes”) separating one from universe from another (yes, we have multiple universes – I thought we’d already established that).  Then “string theory” must be the clothesline the sheets hang from. Don’t question it.  It’s not my reality.  It’s what the chunks are adding up to.

When I was researching Wrexie Leonard (my character Lulu is based on her) at Lowell Observatory, I was intrigued by her handwritten letters in which the cursive characters go both horizontally and vertically across the page.  I took one look at it and nearly dismissed it as unreadable, but then realized when I looked only at the text going in one direction, I found I could read it easily.

I can’t imagine the need existed at LO to conserve paper – as the boss was a wealthy man and freely spent on his private observatory.  Why write this way, except for some need to break up the linearity, the meaning, the flow?

Then there’s her book, published after Percival Lowell’s death, An Afterglow, beginning with a “poem” (unattributed) in which the first letters of each word, when separated from the word and recombined, compose the initials “PL” and “WLL,” names of the star-crossed lovers in real life and in literature.

What Wrexie would do with her words in the digital world?  A delicious notion.

Thirty-nine minutes – Speed reading?

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 8, 2010

A Rejection Record!

It’s easy to get upset when you don’t get what you want.

Earlier this week I got really upset when a literary agent rejected me a scant 39 minutes (!) after I’d emailed her my materials (cover letter plus bio plus 25-page excerpt).  Mind-numbing speed reading followed by a swift decision-making conveyed electronically?  I think not.  More like drawing a conclusion without reading anything at all: “Sorry, this is not for me.”  Push “send.”

Perhaps this is a self-reflexive sign of the times – literary agents who don’t read reflecting a public at large that reads even less. Fiction? Never heard of it; this story is all too real.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of writing and publishing, how it’s evolving as we become an even more digitally networked culture. This blog is a good example; I write it, I push “publish” and there it is for the world to see and possibly read.  I could publish an entire novel this way; I could serialize it chapter by chapter; I could illustrate it with images and media linked to the text; I could annotate it with fact and fancy I’ve collected during the research and writing process; I could read it to you as an audio book, send it to your cell phone or e-book it direct to Kindle, Sony reader or the new iPad.  Wouldn’t any of these choices serve me just as well, if not better, than getting my book published in a more traditional way?

I read a Time Magazine article by Lev Grossman, “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature,” that reminded me of something I already knew: the book publishing industry is set up to benefit publishers, not authors, which means an author can get published only if the publisher thinks he/she can make a profit by publishing it. The “worth” of a novel is tallied in its commerce, not its artistry.

Grossman peers into the future of fiction: “The novel [is] about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.”

That sounds like me all over! I was thrilled to find my new niche, until I read this next part: “novels are becoming detached from dollars.”

Why can’t I get paid for being cheap, wild and trashy? What’s so new and innovative about that? Artists have always been free to express themselves in outrageous ways – in fact we expect this kind of behavior – but the bottom line is most often zero, as in dollars.  Meanwhile “commercial” artists can earn incomes with health benefits and a pension fund.

No wonder writers still yearn for a traditional publishing contract offering a generous advance payment, revved-up publicity engine and monthly royalty check.  In-demand self-publishing – what I chose last time around – bridges the gap part-way – at least I get paid, a little, every time I sell a book.

Does it sound like I’m just whining about money? No, I have other ways of earning a living, and I do get at least a modest royalty check from Amazon every month (thanks to all who have purchased or will purchase Screwed Pooch).

What I’m whining about, self-righteously, is two-tiered respectability.  I can’t even get recognized as a “real” writer on “redroom: where the writers are.” The book reviewer at the SF Chronicle will not respond to my emails.

There’s got to be a reasonable future for “independent novelists,” one that allows bizarre styles of expression in a plethora of forms, but with the possibility of finding an audience, of gaining respectability, and yes, even possibly, earning an income.

Earlier in my life, as an independent filmmaker, I clawed my way to respectability – good reviews, excellent citations in film books and articles, invitations to screen my work in prestigious venues – all without ever asking for or getting a penny from the folks at MGM, Warner Brothers, Sony Entertainment.

Now as a novelist, I guess I’ll have to do this all over again. Sigh.

I want back inside the box!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 1, 2010

Wrexie's suitcase, Lulu's universe (they are the same!)

Too much outside-the-box thinking lately. I’ve lost my focus; I’ve misplaced my intent. My eyes are no longer on the prize; moreover, the prize itself has shape-shifted into something I can no longer identify.

It all started when I read a bad review of a book by David Shields called “Reality Hunger,” in which he writes, “Bold new forms of prose are out there,” and also proclaims, “the novel is either ‘moribund’ or ‘dead.'” I’ve since read a more positive review of the same book, in which the reviewer agrees with Shields:

There is an artistic movement brewing, Shields writes. Among its hallmarks are the incorporation of “seemingly unprocessed” material; “randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; . . . criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity; . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.”

The operative word for this blended process is collage – pieces of reality combined to create new realities – but this is not a new concept at all. Filmmakers have been doing this for more than a century – it’s called editing. Visual artists like Max Ernst also did it long ago, as described in his essay “Inspriation to Order:”

I began an impartial exploration, making use of every kind of material that happened to come into my field of vision: leaves and their veins, frayed edges of sacking, brush strokes in a “modern” painting, cotton unwound from a cotton reel…Then I saw human heads, many different beasts, a battle ending in a kiss…vaccinated bread, conjugal diamonds…the meal of death, the wheel of light….a solar coinage system.

So what would we call a collage when using pieces of text rather than paper or celluloid images to create new realities?

It’s the essay, says Shields, not the novel, that points the way to our writing future: “a container made of prose into which you can pour anything.”

The substance of writing, the content, has always originated from multiple, far-flung sources. We get ideas and process them; our mental efforts often lead to another idea, and another. Meanwhile the substance of the world around us is continually battering our eyes, ears and brain, forcing ideas of its own to blend with what we still pretend is sacred and original. By the time a story is written, its an amalgam of facts, notions, quotes, not-quite quotes (or unattributed quotes). We can call it a novel, or an essay – but the lines between these literary forms have become increasingly blurred.

A traditional novel is driven by its narrative; all characters, all events must embrace and advance the plotline all the way to its climactic fusion. An essay can meander more; its elements can be more diverse and less connected – but it still must carry the reader forward and ultimately must offer a sense of completion.

I’m not sure whether I’m writing a novel – which I set out to do – or whether I’ve created a 300-page essay.  Although based on some actual characters and their histories, I’ve smoothed and blended the realities I’ve researched with fictive characters and made-up events in their lives, never satisfied that my “blend” is successful. At one point, I added a series of “tidbits” (that’s what the computer file is called where I saved them), morsels of reality from which my story arises – facts about astronomy, Victorian mores, space exploration, women’s liberation and more.

But I wasn’t sure whose “voice” this was.  Mine, the author’s? Some authoritative asshole trying to explain more than is necessary? Some remote, omniscient narrator who can’t help but be our “tour guide” through this story? Or possibly even a commentator who cannot be trusted, sometimes offering truth, sometimes not. Taken as a whole, the tidbits may be considered as a “meta-voice,” annotations compiled from here and there, coupled together as an open umbrella curving above the entire narrative that makes its way down below.

For a while I thought these disparate tidbits were the key to my novel. Soon, however, I stopped thinking that and removed them all. Why annotate a novel unless I want to cite the pieces of reality as something separate and apart from my narrative? But what if the annotations are themselves fiction? Does that change the shape or color of my umbrella? Is the narrative journey below still assured?

Here’s a tidbit I love, for instance, based on a phone interview I conducted:

The space-themed beauty contest was an actuality at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the sixties and seventies.  Retired JPL employee Thedra MacMillian recalls several versions over the years, including her favorite, “Miss Guided Missile,” which she refused to enter.

And here’s another that I just made up on the spot:

History provides far more examples of male explorers than female “adventuresses.”  Whether cultural role modes, biological limitations or degree of financial independence are responsible for such disparity is not known. Reproductive distinctions may provide provide a viable argument: the male disseminates his sperm and the female receives it.  The entire space exploration program might be interpreted as a series of ejaculations.

But back to my original metaphor, the box – the container. Is it a novel or an essay? Either, neither, or both? And why does it even matter?

Both are baby steps only toward our writing and publishing future, which I see as a collage-strewn, erratically winding, more-or-less nonlinear pathway leading to a destination that may not yet exist. My tidbits may or may not belong in my narrative. Maybe that’s a choice I’ll give the reader. Maybe the story takes in multiple forms with infinite meanings, depending on how the pieces are assembled along the route.

Quoting my character Lulu:

I will travel on faith alone, believing with all my soul that the place where I will terminate my journey will be built in time for my arrival.

In the expanding universe of fiction and reality, how should a writer pack her suitcase – which is really  just a traveling box – for the journey?

Don’t leave anything out, I say. You’re liable to need it along the way.