Revising Myself

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The Boot (little Tosca dog added for cuteness)

So let me tell you about the mental deterioration caused by having a boot Velcroed to your foot. The emotional arc runs like this. First, anger and self-pity. (“Why did I have to break my stupid foot AGAIN?” “Why am I the only one who has to drag this heavy boot around?”) Which segues into a sort of grudging acceptance. (“Well, my foot does feel better with the boot on.”) And, perhaps, even occasional glee. (“What a great time of the year to have a handicapped placard!”) But as time and patience wear on, the boot feels less and less like a help and more and more like an anchor. By the end of six weeks, I was ready to chew my leg off. Plus, it is pretty much impossible to sleep with the damn thing on so by the seventh week, I was not only depressed but severely sleep-deprived.

Which turns out to be the perfect state for doing a final reread of a novel because a) it keeps you from thinking about the Boot and b) your internal critic has fallen asleep in a corner.

Now I’m not recommending that anyone who is having trouble revising a novel should run out and break a foot. I’m just saying that rereading stuff you wrote years ago is much easier when you are semi-conscious.

Oh, sure, certain parts are fun. There are whole sections that are fine and then, suddenly, there’s an inexplicable scene, something so off the wall that you don’t even know why it’s there.  Then you spend several hours trying to read your past self’s mind. Failing that, you take the scene out and put it in the discard file. Not the trash, mind you, but the discard file, because sometimes, half a book later, you realize why you needed that inexplicable scene so you have to dig it out, dust it off and put it back in. Much easier to do when you aren’t totally sane or well-rested.

But then I got the Boot off.

About the time I hit Book Three which, well, needs work. A lot of work. First twenty-six pages are great, page 27 is a mystery to me.  Then there appears to be some important stuff missing which I didn’t notice when I wrote it originally but realize I need now. And as the pages go up, so do the places that need shoring up or rewriting or discarding or something. And I begin to wonder if maybe I should just abandon Drac and company and go see what’s on TV.

You know, like normal people.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie Oliver! where Fagin, master fence and pickpocket, has decided to give up his life of crime and work like everybody else. He is confidently walking into a brand new sunrise when suddenly, from behind a pillar box, out steps his prize pupil the Artful Dodger, all decked out in top hat and tails, holding up a stolen wallet. Fagin hesitates, reviews the situation, and decides that maybe he’d been a little too hasty about tossing aside his old profession. He takes the wallet from the Dodger and off they go to look for more.

That’s kind of how revisions are for me. I work until I’m frustrated, hip deep in the spaghetti of intersecting plotlines, no idea how to get out from where I am. I decide I hate everything, that none of it is good, that no one wants to read it anyway. And the burden of making all the little pieces fit together right falls away. I’m free, released, heading off into the sunrise. But then I turn a corner and there is Drac, a little smirk on his face, holding up a shillelagh.

“Bet you wonder what I’m doing in Ireland.”

“No, I don’t give a damn what you’re doing in Ireland. I’m done, I’m finished, I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

He twirls the shillelagh. “You know, it’s not actually my shillelagh.”

“I don’t care whose shillelagh it is.”

“And after the Ireland story, I think there’s one about Texas.”

“I’m not listening.”

He pulls out a Carney’s chili dog. “And, of course, there’s this story.”

I hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I like that story.”

He takes a bite of the hot dog and smiles. “I know.”

“All right, all right. Gimme that.” I tear the hot dog out of his hands. “So what happened in Ireland?”

“Hell if I know. You’re the writer.”

Good thing he didn’t give me the shillelagh.

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Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.

Dark Shadows Burton-style

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was one of those kids who raced home from school to watch Dark Shadows every single day. I could hardly wait to get my daily dose of vampires, werewolves, witches, shaky sets and boom mikes.

Which explains a lot really.

Years before Lost, Dark Shadows was playing with alternate timelines and shape-shifting villains. Which was why you couldn’t miss an episode. You missed an episode and you wouldn’t know who the heck was possessing Caroline this week. (Actually, it was Caroline in the Past, AKA Charity Trask, who was always getting possessed by a dead dancehall girl named Pansy Faye. Who was more fun than the real Charity Trask so when Charity was singing and dancing it was a dead giveaway that she was someone else.)

Barnabas was always Barnabas, no matter what time period they were in, because he was old as dirt, but occasionally someone from the Present would run into Barnabas from the Past in the Past and he would have no clue who they were. Because he was Barnabas, but he hadn’t gotten to the Present yet. People from the Present were always getting mistaken for witches in the Past and then they’d have to be rescued from hanging or stoning or something.

Luckily, all those time travel paradoxes did not apply in the Dark Shadows universe. You could go back in time and visit yourself and the world would not implode.

I worshipped Jonathan Frid with his plastered down bangs and David Selby with his fearsome sideburns (When you think about it, werewolves really should have fearsome sideburns). Did it matter that the sets moved every time someone closed a door? No. Did it matter that the boom mikes got almost as much screen time as the actors? No. Did it matter that the actor who played Roger once did an entire scene with a fly crawling over his face? No, but that was pretty funny. So it was with much excitement that I waited for the new Tim Burton version of one of my all time favorite shows.

Then the first trailer came out.

And it was a comedy.

I wasn’t sure how to react to this. I mean, the original Dark Shadows could be hilarious at times, but only by accident. That was what made it funny. Making Barnabas a laughing stock when he ought to be a tragic figure seemed sacrilegious. I was prepared to be appalled.

Only I wasn’t.

Because there were funny bits, but the core of the story was true to the original series. Johnny Depp’s Barnabas is perplexed by the Present which the original Barnabas never was. That seems more realistic although realistic has never been a word used to describe anything involving Dark Shadows before. But Barnabas’s core angst is the same. He still hates being a vampire, he still longs for Josette, he still suffers at the hands of Angelique.

So I’m in.

And while Johnny Depp will never be Jonathan Frid, he will always be Johnny Depp which turns out to be almost as good.

Dark Shadows logo © Warner Bros.

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So what did you think of the new Dark Shadows movie?  Post your comments below!

Useless Writer Mode

So I’ve been stuck in Useless Writer Mode the last three weeks or so. I got a sudden urge to reread Books One and Two, do a little editing, make them presentable for public consumption, that sort of thing. A simple little plan.

That has rendered me utterly useless for the duration.

Oh, I look functional. I get stuff done. I go to work, I make dinner, I take showers, I pay bills, all the requisites.

I just don’t do them willingly.

Because inside, I’m just jonesing to get back to the stories, back to my characters, back to that dream sequence that may be a little too long, back to that scene where I want to switch the first two paragraphs, back to Page 123 where I need to take out the word “the.”

Yes, it’s that bad.

Of course, when I’m actually working with the characters, it’s heaven. We are literally on the same page and, if we aren’t, a tweak here and there puts us back in sync. All the little flaws jump right out at me. Take a word out here. Add a sentence there. Better, much better.

Damn it. I need to go do something else. Okay, okay. Just until the end of the chapter then. Because I want to see if that last scene works. And then I can go.

Maybe.

And life sort of goes on and I sort of go with it, but in a vague sleepwalker sort of way. Because no matter what else I’m doing, my mind is still working on ways to clean up the end of Chapter 7.

Years ago, after my mom died, I went to see a therapist for a while. And I remember one session where I just sat on the couch and cried. “I don’t want to be a writer. I want to be a normal person.”

And Dr. C would say, “But you are a writer.”

“But people don’t have to be writers, right?”

“What do you think about when you’re driving on the freeway?”

“My characters tell me stories.”

“But don’t you see how wonderful that is? Most people have to settle for working on their grocery lists.”

I never did see the wonderful. And I spent a great deal of time trying not to be a writer (of course, writing all the time I was supposedly not doing it). I was supposed to keep a journal, but that never happened.

Because it’s not my life that I write about.

Shoot. Now I’m late for work.

Maybe Drac can write me a note.

The Content of One’s Characters

A New Post!

So I had a disturbing conversation with my friend Mark. It wasn’t meant to be disturbing. In fact, he was trying to be helpful. “Why don’t you publish your vampire stories as e-books? You have a lot of content.”

Content.

And my first reaction was “My characters are not content.” Well, okay, my first reaction was “Really? That’s all they are?” in a heartbroken, sudden revelation of the ways of the world sort of way, but then later, I got a little angry. Not at Mark, who was just trying to be helpful, but at the whole concept of characters as content. I mean, this blog post, that’s content, or writing a power tool manual, that’s content, but a character who shows up unexpectedly and whispers stories in your head? That’s not content.

It may be mental, but it’s not content.

A good character is like the Pied Piper, leading you along with beautiful words, but with no idea where you’re going. You might try to put on the brakes (“Wait, no, you can’t do that!”), but if you deviate from the path, the character will just get sulky and refuse to tell you any more.

Or at least that’s the way they always are with me.

It’s kind of a drawback from a practical point of view. Docile, puppet-like characters who do what you tell them would be a lot easier to work with. But if you know what’s going to happen in a story from one end to the other, where’s the adventure? Instead of following your characters down hidden trails, you’ve got them building walls, brick by brick.

I think that takes all the fun out of it.

Content is very passive. I could delete this whole post without repercussions. Except for the part where I’d have to write another post. But when I did write that new post, I wouldn’t have a character glaring over my shoulder telling me “That’s not how it goes.”

I suppose the reason I find this content stuff disturbing is because I put a lot of myself in my characters. Not in a Mary Sue sort of way. For those who have never read a fan story, let me quickly explain the term Mary Sue. A Mary Sue story is one in which you literally put yourself in the story, not so thinly disguised as someone else. You and Captain Kirk save the universe. You and Edward Cullen kick Bella to the curb. You and Doctor Who do whatever it is that Doctor Who does.

You get the picture.

(Yes, I have written fan stories; yes, some of them are still lurking on the Internet; no, I’m not going to tell you where. The point is that I’m not in them.)

So in the end, they may not be content, but I do have a whole boatload of vampire stories. Maybe they would make good e-books, I don’t know.

I’ll have to ask my characters.

The Obligatory Zenyatta Story

Zenyatta’s Farewell, December 5, 2010

So last year at this time, I was recovering from major surgery.  It was supposed to be minor surgery, but one tumor turned out to be seven tumors (named after the 7 Dwarfs or most of Santa’s reindeer, depending on which friend you ask) and instead of three little holes, they sliced me open like a watermelon. The nurses in the recovery room were very excited about the whole thing and had to show me photos the minute I woke up.  (Sadly, I never got any copies of said photos or else I would inflict them on you now.)  But even lying there carved up like a jack o’lantern, I was happy about three things.  One, I’d actually made it through the surgery, two, even split open I felt better than I had all year, and three, Zenyatta’s farewell appearance was still three weeks away.

Ironically, a year earlier, I probably wouldn’t have cared one way or another.  Not about being cut open, but about seeing Zenyatta.  Because I’d lost my horse racing mojo.  You see, back in high school, I was all about horse racing.  My friends Bruce and Kathy had introduced me to the sport back in Junior High and you know how it is with addictions, it just escalated until suddenly I was writing and illustrating an entire newspaper about horse racing called The Weekly Turf Freak.  (It wasn’t so much weekly as bi-weekly and later on more monthly, but weekly was what we aspired to.)  But it wasn’t anything boring like actual racing statistics.  We had our own racing world with characters loosely based on actual racehorses.  Cougar was the smart one, Royal Owl was the innocent one (he still believed in Santa Claus, but then he was only a three-year-old), Manta was the “red light horsie” who owned a stable of ill repute on the edge of the backstretch and Buzkashi was the dumb one who could never win a race.  (To be fair, the real Buzkashi did win at least one race.  His real claim to fame was the race where he threw his jockey, fell over a sawhorse and took off across the infield.  He even had a poem in his honor.  “Buzkashi’s not a slow horse, Buzkashi’s not so fast, but Buzkashi is consistent, he always comes in last.”  You see why I gave up poetry.)

Kathy and I published Turf Freak for several years, but eventually real life intruded on our little horsey paradise.  Royal Owl, the real one, broke his leg and had to be humanely destroyed.  He was Kathy’s favorite and she sort of lost interest after he was gone.  I moved on from talking animals to vampires who can turn into talking animals.  (Maybe in another ten years or so, I’ll move on to actual human beings who can’t turn into anything, but don’t hold your breath.)  Bruce and I still kept in touch.  He’d call the first Saturday of May to ask “So who do you like in the Derby?”

And then Bruce died.

It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty and it happened when he was way way too young.  And when Bruce died, so did horse racing.  For me anyway.  Derby Day was particularly painful because I knew I wouldn’t be getting that phone call ever again.  It was like part of my heart had withered up and dropped off.  I didn’t even write about vampires anymore.

But vampires are more persistent than racehorses.  After ten years, my characters started nagging me to start writing again.  And I did.  I cranked out that first story in three days.  Locked myself in my room with a spiral-bound notebook and wrote the whole thing out longhand.  Filled the entire notebook.

Probably not a coincidence that the plot involved the death of a major character.

So fast forward a few more years.  I started hearing a lot about a mare named Zenyatta who was tearing up the track.  Undefeated.  Special.  All the usual hype.  Zenyatta’s last race was going to be the 2009 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.  I’d only been to a racetrack a handful of times since Bruce died, but I decided I needed to go.  I talked my friend Barb into going with me.  (Barb and I have different approaches to horse racing.  Barb likes to study the Racing Form.  I like to bet on the ones who are related to horses I knew back in the day, or, failing that, the gray ones.)

Barb didn’t really know what she’d signed up for.  Because when I go to see a racehorse, I mean I want to be front and center in the paddock looking at it as long as humanly possible.  Which, in this case, meant missing the race before Zenyatta’s entirely because we had to get our spot on the rail before anyone else got there.  (We actually made it onto the national broadcast of the race.  You can find us if you know where to look.  It’s a little harder than Where’s Waldo because I’m not wearing a red and white striped top and a beanie.)

So the horses finally come out.  The crème de la crème of thoroughbred racing.  There’s Mine That Bird who just won the Derby, there’s Summer Bird who won the Belmont, there’s Einstein who won the Santa Anita Derby.  Then out steps this gigantic dappled bay mare, so big that tiny little Mine That Bird could almost walk under her belly.

And suddenly I was in high school again.

Not only is Zenyatta gorgeous, she’s a rock star, posing and prancing around the saddling enclosure.  And she’s noticing everything.  Most of the other horses are just marching around in a circle.  She stops to study the big posters on the back wall advertising the sponsors of the race.  She stops to study the people standing at the rail.  Smart horses notice things.  Less smart horses don’t.  (Insert appropriate Buzkashi joke here.)

She’s doing some weird kind of move with her right front leg, like maybe she’s favoring it, only not quite.  But people cheer when she does it so she does it again.

By this time I’m in love.  I’m so in love I’m ready to start up Turf Freak again.

She’s the only mare in the race and the professional handicappers are saying there is no way she can win.  But they would still like her to.  She’s last coming out of the gate, last on the backstretch, almost last coming into the far turn.  Trevor Denman, the track announcer, says “It would take a miracle for Zenyatta to catch them.”

Miracles happen.

The crowd is jumping and screaming and waving signs.  The roar is so loud you could probably hear it on the far side of town.  And it doesn’t stop.  They keep cheering until she has circled back around to the winner’s circle.  They keep cheering as she enters the winner’s circle.  They are still cheering when she gets ready to go back to the barn.

And Barb is done.  “Okay, let’s go.”

But…but…

“Cash your ticket and let’s go.”

“I don’t want to cash my ticket.  I want it as a souvenir.”

“It doesn’t even have her name on it.  In a month, you won’t even remember which ticket it was.”

I succumbed to peer pressure.

Damn it.

That was supposed to be Zenyatta’s last race, perfect, undefeated, 14 for 14.  But then she came back for one more season.  And I made it to almost every one of her races.  I had to keep dragging different friends along with me because I was the only one obsessed with Zenyatta, but I’m sure all that fresh air was good for them.

Meanwhile, I had this tumor which was growing faster than it should have been.  I felt like I was wearing too tight jeans after Thanksgiving dinner with no way to open the zipper.

All the time.

Zenyatta lost the 2010 Breeders’ Cup by a nose.  Her only defeat ever.  I had surgery the following Friday.

Three weeks aren’t as long as you think.  And going to the racetrack involves a lot of walking and standing and I was not very good at either.  On top of that, it was supposed to rain.  But I convinced my good friend Elaine that I was perfectly capable of standing next to the paddock for hours waiting for one last up close and personal glimpse of Zenyatta before she went off to Kentucky to make baby Zenyattas.  I wasn’t able to drive, I was hardly able to walk, but there I was, leaning against the paddock fence at Hollywood Park, hoping I didn’t pass out in the daisies.

She came out before the seventh race, huge and dappled and dancing, stopping to check out the crowd, posing for the cameras, and I forgot I was about to fall over.  When she walked through the tunnel to the front of the grandstand, I ran up the stairs to meet her on the other side.  They paraded her around, played Bob Hope singing “Thanks for the Memories” then she started back toward her barn.

I was standing by myself down toward the middle of the grandstand so I could get closer to the fence.  As she walked past, I began to clap.  She turned at the sound and I realized that her kind curious eyes were looking straight at me, watching me clap as she walked past.

I followed her down past the white sawhorse marking the end of the vital part of the ancient grandstand, down into the closed area where no tote windows were open, where no monitors blared, where the ghost of Seabiscuit still ran.  Followed her with a handful of the faithful, watching until she turned off the track and disappeared from view.

The rain held off until the Queen reached her barn, then even the skies wept.

I Liked Vampires Before Vampires Were Cool

No, really.  I have the rejection letters to prove it.  Back when the years still had a 19 in them, I sent out queries to a bunch of agents.  Here’s what I got back:

“Great characters, but I can’t sell a vampire book.  Would like to take a look at your next book.”  (Sadly, the next book also had vampires in it, the same vampires actually, just doing different things.)

“No market for vampire fiction.”

One agent just sent my original query back with “Vampires are out” scrawled across it in blue ink.

Disheartened, I took the next logical step.

Trying to figure out how to turn my vampire characters into something else.

But turning vampires into something else isn’t as easy as it looks.  Since my characters can become wolves, making them werewolves seemed to be a perfect alternative, but it wasn’t.  Werewolves breathe, vampires don’t.  And being dead is an important plot point.  So they could be zombies then, zombies are dead, but a little too one dimensional for my taste.  Once you’ve discussed their obsession with brains, there’s really nowhere else to go.

And decomposition is never sexy.

So my characters remained vampires.  I became reclusive, writing vampire stories for myself, not showing them to anybody.  I was very reluctant to admit that I wrote at all, let alone my subject matter.

“Oh, you write stories?  What do you write about?”

“Oh, stuff.  You know, stories about stuff.  How are those Dodgers doing?”

Then Twilight happened.

But instead of feeling liberated, I suddenly felt trendy.  And embarrassed.  Not that my vampires sparkle, but suddenly I felt everyone expected them to.  Years and years of work reduced to a fad.  I didn’t want to be accepted just because I had written a vampire story any more than I wanted to be rejected because I had written a vampire story.

I want people to care about my characters because they’re good characters, not just because they have fangs.  Yes, they’re vampires, but I can’t change that, heaven knows I’ve tried.  For my characters, being a vampire is an inescapable feature, like having a third arm.  You can’t ignore it, but if you take it away, everyone is going to notice the hole.