July 25, 2014 – New Book! (Not Mine.) And formatting!

You know, I don’t want to brag but I’m going to. Just for a minute. I promise. My husband is (in my obviously biased opinion) the most amazing person ever. He came home from work last night with a Barnes and Noble bag in hand. In that bag? A beautiful, crisp, fresh, new copy of The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones which he had the store order in for me because apparently, none of the B&N stores in New Jersey wanted to carry the book and he knew how much I wanted it. That’s a good partner right there. So friends, when you’re in a romantic relationship, I hope you’re with someone who will buy you the books you want because he/she knows it will make you happy. Because love is nice but so reading. I haven’t started reading the book yet because I have a new draft of my short-story collection to read over before sending it back to my editor but the book is sitting right next to my computer, whispering softly, “Alana, come read me, Alana.” And I will, book. I will.

Yesterday, I was trying out some things with my writing. First I did the abstract line breaks. Here’s a line break. There’s a line break. Everywhere is a line break. But I didn’t like all the white space around a line or two of text. It bothered me. So I started merging the smaller lines into larger bodies of text. That led me create giant blocks of text running between 2,000-6,000 words. For a moment, I was pleased. Then I frowned and considered the fact that there are many readers who might have some trouble with all that text squished together. It’s understandable. If it makes editing difficult and I wrote the damn thing, I should be sympathetic to those who have never encountered such a hodgepodge of words. So I went back through it and made smaller paragraphs. The only criteria was that they couldn’t be less than 500 words.

Then this morning (well, it’s still morning so earlier this morning?) I was paging through some books on my shelf, which is something I often do for inspirational purposes, and I started thinking of tabs and such. So now I have the year’s manuscripts formatted a little differently. Imagine, if you will, that I keep my document single-spaced, until it’s formatted for submission. And imagine that each paragraph is indented, while also being joined. And so I have a block of text broken up slightly, while physically being connected, allowing for the long text stretches to be more bearable because I allowed white space, but still having line breaks between each separate section. That might sound confusing so here’s a visual graphic:

     This is a little demonstration of the new way I’ve decided to format my work which is probably standard for a lot of other writers but is completely new to me.

     And it’s sort of fascinating that it’s taken me so long to write this way but what can you do?

     And so I’m going to continue rambling for another line just to demonstrate this little idea before stopping.

.

     La la la la. Here’s the new paragraph section, thus continuing the pattern. Paragraph section with smaller paragraphs, then a new section with more paragraphs. I guess you could it’s almost like an outline, with the paragraphs being the main points, and the smaller paragraphs the details of those points. Kind of.

     You get the picture.

Anyway, that’s sort of what I’m doing now. Also, imagine that in that example, the smaller paragraphs are closer together. Since indenting doesn’t really work unless I use the html codes (and I don’t want to), I used five spaces to denote each indentation. That’s the old standard from when tab keys weren’t common. Five spaces. It’s also useful for writing in an online form that won’t accept indentations. When you’re typing in a word processor, go to the paragraph formatting section of the program and check the tab settings. Sometimes, the indentations are set at a little less than .5″ (half an inch). I believe that my word processor has the default indentation set at .49″ (it might be .47″) so change that to .5″ that way you have a full half inch. It’s more even.

There’s a reason for my obsession in trying out different forms. I’ve been very concerned with reader experience. I’m trying to strike the perfect balance between what I want to create as a writer and how people read the book. When Hooks and Slaughterhouse came out last year, my mom said she never read it because the paragraphs were so long. My own mother, people! And if my mother says that the visual elements are a little much for the reader, then that’s something that must be pondered. Because my mom can’t be the only one who thinks that. I would ask my dad but he doesn’t open my books. Literally. He likes to keep them in mint condition. No one is allowed to open the books because he doesn’t want the spine being broken. He’s a weird dude. Anyway, I love my long paragraphs but I also recognize that a writer must have readers. It’s sort of helpful. So my new process (let’s hope this one lasts because we all know how wishy-washy I can be with formatting things) seems to strike the right balance between long paragraphs and brief breaks of white text to rest weary but still-reading eyes. As I continue writing today, I’ll work more on the form. But so far, visually speaking, I like how it looks. It seems like a nice balance. And maybe the formatting isn’t ground-breaking but it’s still new to me.


July 24, 2014 – Hello again

I know I haven’t really been around during the last couple of weeks but I have a good reason. I was technically on vacation. Well, it was more of a staycation really but does that matter? There were adventures. There was relaxation. There was a lot of fresh air and clarity. We walked 200+ feet above the Hudson Valley. We went to the beach and the aquarium. We walked through a lovely garden at twilight. I found a bunch of books I thought I had lost. Even better, I found a never-been-used-except-for-a-few-doodles-my-mom-did Moleskine notebook in the basement of my mom’s house. It’s now my new planning notebook, because it’s not so large that it’s unwieldy but not so small that I can’t write comfortably. Long story short, I barely did any writing since I wasn’t really home. And when I was home or in the midst of a car ride, I was either reading or daydreaming while looking out the window. So I didn’t have very much to report in the meantime. And the writing only began in earnest on Monday.

I was having some issues with the new novel the other night. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in. I wanted the book to sort of be a portrait of loneliness but also not. Since I find art to be so evocative when I’m writing, I made a file of inspirational pictures. It consists of photographs concerning the subject matter (more of the physical subject than the emotional) as well as paintings I thought I could work off of. Then I took out my planning notebook and started mapping out what I wanted to happen. Right now, I have about 18 plot points, which seems like a good amount to start with. Last night, I came up with a new section and wrote it down, then as soon as I put my notebook away, I came up with a better way to incorporate the idea and had to write that down. The whole purpose of being on vacation and not really worrying about writing was to just relax and let the novel’s purpose come flooding. I’ve also been really inspired by the idea of “singing sand” as well as music made from the frequencies emitted by the planets and sun. The sounds are eerie but meditative and I’ve been doing a fair bit of my writing while listening to that otherworldly music. I like the effect all these bits of inspiration are having on my writing.

Since I’ve been terrible at posting, here’s a piece for the novel that I started the other day. The piece is inspired by a trip I took to Montana in 2006. My cousin and I were exploring a ghost town partially-open to tourists. At one of the stores that was boarded up, I peeked through the smudged glass and saw a porcelain doll staring back at me. Only the doll’s face had been painted white, including its eyes, so that what I encountered was a face entirely blank except for the slightest hint of features. There’s also a little inspiration drawn from La isla de las muñecas, which is the super creepy doll island in Mexico. If you haven’t seen the pictures, look them up. The entire island is covered in dolls. Dolls hang from trees. They’re arranged everywhere. Why are they there? Their purpose is to appease the ghost of a little girl who drowned and has been haunting the island ever since. I’ve been wanting to incorporate those stories into something for years and I think this is the best way I can. It’s about dolls but not about dolls. The end result is a 2,700 word block paragraph with dolls present but not taking over anything they shouldn’t.

“Beneath one of the motel room beds, I find a porcelain doll with its eyes painted shut. Really, the eyes are painted white, smeared with what looks like whiteout to keep there from being retinas or pupils. If I tilt the doll just the right way, the eyelids close together in mockery of a blink. Out in the clown cemetery, there is a cactus overgrown with abandoned doll bodies. I didn’t put them there. They were nailed on long before I came trudging through the dunes. I keep a white sheet draped over the dolls so that when I look outside, I don’t have to see their gnarled faces. Their cheeks are cavernous, broken around the mouths so that their lips look too large for their faces. The doll beneath the motel room bed has suffered the debilitating loss of its rubber cheeks weakening. The infrastructure has fallen inward, creating a sunken quality to the face. I hold the doll by its right ankle and carry it through the hallways until I reach the kitchen. I go directly to the oven and throw the dolls into the back of the metal cavity. I turn the oven up to 475ºF and walk away, leaving the doll to melt into a coagulated mass on the oven floor.”


July 19, 2014 – Excerpt

“(5) I stumbled upon a landscape cut directly in half—one half, the top half, was a brushed on steel gray, and the other half, was a black so black there was no bottom I could see or feel; (6) the equivalent of three full city blocks was made entirely of thick red meat slabs and no matter how I tiptoed or shifted my weight, the meat squeaked whenever any part of my body fell upon it; I met a man who was stripped of all his skin and when he saw me, he demanded that I say, [What big eyes you have, what big teeth.]; (7) I wore a red hood thinking it might protect me from the carnivorous clouds but even with my hair tucked into the fabric, the nebulous forms still found it easy to nip at my nose; (8) Because I was hungry and the only items available to me were windows or curtain rods, I took my chances eating glass, which cut up my tongue but the damage was nothing a needle and thread couldn’t mend in the future; [...]“


July 11, 2014 – Writing at a moment’s notice

Sometime around dawn, I dreamed about writing. In my dream, I was packing for a trip (I believe I was going to England) and my bag was pretty much packed except for one important thing: my writing. I couldn’t figure out if I should bring a notebook or my NEO. I pondered this while running around the family home trying to find socks and a pair of boots I had forgotten in the closet. I packed the notebook, then took it out again. I replaced the notebook with the NEO, then took that out. I put the notebook back in. At this point, I was dangerously close to missing my flight. I had to make a decision but I couldn’t. I considered the options of both writing methods and just felt confused. The notebook was lightweight but whatever I wrote would have to be typed up. The NEO was considerably heavier but I could just transfer the file to the computer, making things easy on myself. While all of this was happening, I was arguing with the owner of a pizza place for giving me sass when I got upset that there were no pizza slices without meat. Also, there was a guy in the basement who wanted to start construction to make three apartments in what were formerly tiny closets. I don’t think I ever made it to the airport or finished packing my bag.

The struggle is real, my friends. I’m fantastic at packing for trips with the exception of figuring out what to do about my writing and reading. Should I bring a notebook? How many extra pens should I pack? What about the NEO? How many books should I bring? The questions are endless and I rarely have the answers. Case in point, the following writing setups for a series of trips I’ve taken over the last 15 years (not in chronological order and only including trips I distinctly remember packing for):

  • Montana/Wyoming trip, 2006 – two anthologies published by The Paris Review, pocket PC.
  • Miami, circa 1998-2000 - Jurassic Park by Michael Crighton, pad of paper
  • Family reunion, Miami, 2011 – pink Moleskine, NEO, book I can’t remember the title of because I never touched it
  • Bermuda, 2013 - One by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place, Anatomy Lessons by Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick, Sky Saw by Blake Butler, collected poems of Allen Ginsberg, NEO
  • Boston, 2012 – NEO
  • England, 2008 - The Tormented Mirror by Russell Edson, The Rooster’s Wife by Russell Edson, Tunnel by Russell Edson, notebook, pocket PC
  • Spain, 2001 – two notebooks (one purchased in Barcelona)
  • Hypothetical family trip, future – notebook, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

The trip set-ups are always various and never perfect. On the trips that used the pocket PC? Most often, I didn’t bother touching the device (except for Montana when I used it as a travel journal and even that was a pain because the battery never lasted). The notebooks? They weren’t used at all in Miami. The NEO? I didn’t use it in Boston. On the trips where I had a notebook, I wished for a typing device. For the trips where I had the NEO, I wished for a notebook so that my bag wouldn’t be as heavy. For the trips that had only books? I was desperate for a notebook. In my experience, here is what I figured out: for trips that involve a lot of sitting around with other people and the potential of a travel journal, a notebook is the best. For trips that are all downtime and you might not be talking to your travel companion for extended periods of time, the NEO wins (or whatever device you like to use for typing). For trips were you might be sitting around waiting but don’t want to commit to creating anything? Books. While the NEO is wonderful for typing on, there’s something to be said for actual handwriting. Part of the reason why notebooks weren’t really successful for me during some of the trips listed was because the notebooks weren’t the right size. I was using notebooks that were too small or had sewn bindings, making it hard to write on the back of the page. So I would use a larger (not too large) spiral notebook in the future.

On the subject of notebooks, I finished my latest project last night but felt a little uncertain about the final paragraph. Then as I was getting ready to do some before bed reading, a new paragraph jumped into my head. I ran for my notebook and scribbled fiercely. What resulted was an ending I was pleased with. Plus it explained the project’s title. Then I worked on my list of potential titles and considered each one. In the end, I scratched off about a 1/3 of the titles and was left with the ones I felt were strongest. I also picked the title for my new project, which I’ll be starting today. So friends, I hope that when you’re traveling, you have a writing setup that works for you. If you don’t, keep switching things around until you have a setup that works. For me, my theoretical family vacation setup seems the most ideal. But whatever your setup entails, make a point to write something. And if something doesn’t work, experiment with a different set-up the next time. Have a great weekend, everyone.

 


July 10, 2014 – Freeing the mind

When I was originally saving my writing drafts as pdf files, I put an editing mark at the beginning of each paragraph. Copying directly from a pdf doesn’t usually maintain line/paragraph breaks and by using the editing marks, I could just use the word processor’s find and replace feature to make editing easy on myself. So for awhile, part of my process involved putting the editing mark down, then starting the actual paragraph. And it was fine. But I almost looked at the editing marks as more chapter/story breaks than anything else. I didn’t like writing a series of paragraphs building off one another and having them physically broken up. To reduce that, I started doing excessively long paragraphs just to keep the text connected.

The process was fine for awhile, until I started reading Seiobo There Below. The style of the book itself was what drew me to it. It was written in the same way I imagined writing my own work. Long, elaborate, winding sentences. It was exciting. The thing is, it was hard to read. I only got a dozen or so pages in before I felt like my mind was melting. I read an article yesterday that spoke about the necessity of blank space in a work of art. The idea was that while the image was important, there was also something significant in the parts of the canvas/paper/whatever that were untouched. I think that was the problem I had while reading the book (and admittedly, editing my own work). All the lettering squished together without end sort of did a number on me. It was overwhelming. Visually, it needed to have a bit of white space to break up the text. So thinking about my experience with reading a book that was visually similar to what I’ve been trying to accomplish and then reading about visual art, I stared rethinking things.

When I mentioned the editing marks before, I said that they essentially signified the start of a new piece. Every novel I’ve been working on was a series of separate pieces. One piece after another. I wrote them with the intention of being able to use the pieces independently of one another. I almost turned the novels into an odd sort of short story collection. And while that isn’t necessarily a problem, it was stressing me out because I wanted to have those separate pieces. I couldn’t have a piece that was 10 pages long and then a piece that was a sentence. They had to be relatively similar. And so there are some scenes that were extended far longer than they should have been. There were some pieces that I stopped abruptly because I got bored.

On Tuesday, I removed the editing marks from my 2014-2016 master file (keeping the writing in three-year spanning documents instead of separate documents for each year makes things visually easy for me—I just prefer to see a small amount of files) and started writing the last part of my current project without worrying about editing marks. The editing marks were somewhat redundant in the actual document because the formatting is maintained. The document isn’t fixed like a pdf. It’s just a word processing document. Thus, the marks aren’t necessary. A paragraph is just a paragraph. But by eliminating the marks, the paragraphs became shorter. The writing seemed tighter. While the paragraphs were all related, they were still separate enough.  But writing them is easier. And reading back over them is easier. And to be honest, I don’t feel as stressed about writing the pieces. I placed unrealistic expectations upon myself with my writing and now I’m trying to return to a creative mentality that won’t feel oppressive.

But so far, the writing I’ve done has been pretty good. I’m happy with it. At the very least, I feel freer. When I feel like I need to start a new paragraph, I do. I let the story guide me instead of me trying to force the story. I think I was so used to my old mentality of doing super long short stories for chapbooks that I almost forgot that a novel needs a different process. It’s too difficult to maintain the energy on a project of 40,000+ words that I do on a project that’s only about a quarter of that size. And now, an excerpt from what I came up with after my creative upheaval:

 

“[When you left the garden, you took something with you,] the first woman says. [You took something that should never have left. Adam knew this. He lamented the loss. He called the losses your kidney stones. But they weren’t that at all. They were smaller things, egg-like. They were all the eggs Adam wished to fertilize. And he screamed and screamed. His screams echoed around Eden. They melted our wings. We screamed in response and that was the time of the screaming. The screaming wouldn’t end. Adam tore a hole in his throat from so much screaming. We came close to tearing our skin but we stopped the screaming much earlier. We weren’t screaming for you or for the lost eggs. We were screaming because Adam couldn’t stay quiet…”


July 7, 2014 – This and that

I was having some issues printing a page from my master file. I had the margins set to 0.1″ to conserve paper but because the margins were set so close to the paper’s edges, the printer kept cutting text off. So I changed the document’s margins to 0.5″ which did the trick. So when you create a file for your records, don’t be like me and create impossible margins. It’s not worth the aggravation. Use at least half an inch. Your sanity will thank you. I finished all the pending edits I had for my current project so now I can focus on adding some material to the end of another project. I thought that the newly current project was finished but I wasn’t happy with the end. The story came to a finish too abruptly and I couldn’t help but feel like there was something more to the storyline that I was missing. So I did some outlining yesterday evening and I’m pretty happy with what I came up with. There’s even a little part on the outline that my husband so helpfully inspired. He commented on something I said and the comment was so wild and so exactly what I needed that I had to scribble it down. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to get out of your own head and talk to someone you trust about a project you’re working on. You don’t have to get into detail. You just have to mention what it is that’s bothering you. Sometimes it’s really helpful to talk an issue out. You can end up really surprised by what paths the conversation leads you down. Or the person you’re talking to might say something completely innocuous that ends up being exactly what you were missing. That’s pretty much what happened in my conversation. And now I have the book’s ending mapped out. I should be able to finish it by the end of this week and then start working on the next project. I can’t wait to start something from scratch.

The planning actually went better than I had anticipated. Part of it was due to how quickly the ideas were flowing but another part of it was more physical. By that I mean the notebook size. When I did planning earlier in the year, I was using a pocket-sized notebook. I was used to all the planning being done on small pages that were cramped. I’d write a few words, go to the next line, write a few more words. A series of ideas took up several pages. Writing in the larger notebook (I mentioned last week that the notebook I’m using is about 6″ by 9″) gives me more room on each line, and thus, on each page. Yesterday’s outline took less than a single page. I know that it isn’t anything groundbreaking but sometimes I’m amazed by little realizations like that. Sometimes it’s about the little things.

I spent part of the weekend going over possible titles and adjusting some of the current ones. I’m still on the one-word-title kick but I didn’t want use words that are generic. So I ended up falling down a rabbit’s hole of dictionary words. I would come up with an idea, find the definition, click on a word in that definition, and just keep getting farther and farther away from the first word until I finally had something that was charged with energy. It’s the idea of finding the best word. And admittedly, not all the words used are in English. There are few that are in German and French because, why not? One title I originally had seemed kind of bland when it was in English but then when I found the German translation, it was music to my eyes. Anyone who doesn’t believe that words have power has never actually spent any time thinking about words. Because, friends, words are beautiful and otherworldly. They’re dangerous and seductive. They’re pretty perfect. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has encountered a word that almost seemed to speak to the soul. Granted, it would be a shame if words didn’t have any emotional effect on the writer. What’s the point of writing then?


July 2, 2014 – Excerpt

“At night, I hear the dogs whispering in your ear. I thought you had put them away a long time ago but it’s safe to say that they’ve just been hibernating. Their voices are clearer than I could have imagined. They are whining in your mouth, panting into your ears. They surround you while you watch television and eat a midnight sandwich. Their voices come from the ceilings, the walls. This house is old and so the acoustics are better than in the houses back home. When the dogs speak to you, their voices are so loud that they seem to be speaking to me. And the dogs howl into your tonsils, [You have to kill her. She's walking around, flaunting her womb. Have you noticed how golden it is? Have you realized how shining she is? It's like she carries a flashlight under her skin. She glows. It's unnatural. If something is unnatural, it is mankind's obligation to destroy it.]“

 


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