Madeleine Robins

June 20, 2011

Ur Doing it Rite

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:24 AM

My friend Janni Simner wrote a great piece last week on finding the writing process that works for you.  Go read it.  No, really.  It’s terrific.  I’ll just wait here.

I am one of those neurotic folks who thinks that everyone else was issued a full set of instructions at birth. For everything–friendship, clothes, housekeeping, parenting, business.   Mostly I’ve learned to background that assumption, or even forget it for long periods of time.  (I am always convinced that people I think are cool must have homes that are tidier and cleaner and better organized than mine.  In fact, not so much.)  There are situations–job hunting, class reunions, etc.–that revive that anxiety, but mostly I know better.

Except about writing.  It’s not that I think everyone else’s writing is better than mine–I have seen enough to know that that’s not true.  There are some kinds of things I will never be able to write, and some writers I outstrip, and that’s just the way it is.  But process, ah, that’s where the neurotic certainty that I didn’t get the memo really kicks in.

There are a zillion books out there that will tell you how to write.  My mother used to give me the more high-flown, literary ones (she wanted to write literary short stories in the Updike/O’Hara style; failing that, she wanted me to write literary short stories etc.).  I never bought any for myself (and I’m sorry to say I never read any of the books Mom bought me).  Why?  Am I too good for advice?  Not hardly.  When a friend says “Oh, I have that problem too; you know what works for me?” I listen.  I’ve learned a lot in just that way.  I might learn excellent things in all the writing books out there, if I read them.  But I have a superstitious, deeply irrational fear of messing with my process, which means I don’t actually look too closely at how I power myself through writing, lest it somehow evaporate.

See, I’m still convinced that everyone else got the memo.  Memo-less, I’ve been making it up as I go along for decades.  You know what? It works for me.

When I was at Clarion, Kate Wilhelm described the way she put a book together, and her husband Damon Knight sat right next to her, pleased but mystified by the process she described.  “I tried it that way once,” he said later.  “It was interesting.”  I guess the burden of this particular song is: whether you got the memo or not, if what you’re doing works, it works.  If you’re writing, and your work is progressing, Ur Doing it Rite.

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May 23, 2011

Distraction and The Sistine Chapel Effect

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:58 AM

Sometimes, when the writing is being uncooperative, you need to do something else. It’s a nice thing when someone asks you to do that something else, so you can pretend that this isn’t a tactic to outrun your inability to figure out what comes next. This is where the cake making comes in. I don’t wake up and decide “hey, I’m going to make a Green Man cake!” or “gee, wouldn’t it be fun to make a Wedgewood Regency cake,” but if someone says (as someone did) “My birthday is coming up and I really want a Regency-themed cake, go wild!” well,  what am I to do?

The cake on the left was made for the band room for Words & Music2, a benefit concert, and was my attempt to replicate the art from the gorgeous poster.  It may be the most photographed cake I’ve ever made–people in the bands, the staff photographers, everyone was taking shots of the cake.  Fortunately the cake also had the most desirable trait of cakes: It tasted good.  So everyone was happy.

Except, just a little bit, me. Because I had this image in my head of what it was going to look like, and it fell short. This is what I call the Sistine Chapel Effect: when my older daughter was small she would draw something and I would admire it, not only because I was her mother and that was part of my job, but also because her eye for color and line was pleasing, and the finished work was admire-able. But Older Daughter, otherwise known as Sarcasm Girl, would crumple it up because in her head she was sketching the Sistine Chapel, but what she produced was somewhat less evolved.  Later, she had something of the same problem with homework: the essay she was writing in her head was sooo much better than the one she produced on the page.  We have had many conversations about this, boiling down to: Perfect is the Enemy of Good.

You want to do your best work, not just because you want your work to be admirable but because doing your best work feels good.  But “best work” is a constantly evolving goal.  If you’re constantly worrying that your best work isn’t measuring up to The Best Work Ever, you’re not going to progress, no matter whether it’s cake-decorating, writing, or science.*

So my Green Man cake doesn’t match up to the celestial perfection I was hoping for.  But it’s a far better cake than any I made three years ago when I started learning cake decoration.  Onward and upward.

* In this regard I refer you to the ever fabulous xkcd.com and the comments of Zombie Marie Curie.

May 16, 2011

Bedtime Stories

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:18 AM
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My younger daughter, a high school freshman, has hit one of those adolescent patches where she can’t go to sleep.  Given that this makes her soggy to the point of uselessness in the morning (getting her out of the house can be a little like rolling a boulder composed of Jello uphill), we’re working with her, as the jargon goes, to help her get her sleep mojo back.  Some of this involves impounding her computer at 10pm and suggesting that she do something quiet and non-screen related: read, play guitar, torment the dog.  She’s been almost cooperative, which is the best you can really expect from a 15 year old.  But she’s been demanding bedtime stories.

I loved reading to my kids.  I loved telling them bedtime stories.  Some of the stories have been enshrined in memory (if I could find an artist and a publisher for the book about the Sandman’s youngest son, or the one about the morbidly shy princess, my daughters would be happy forever).  Others have gone the way of ephemeral art: vanished.  Telling a brand new story to kids is both exciting and stressful, and both for the same reason: there is no outlining, no making a few notes and then doing a little research.  On the spot storytelling is a high-wire act (and sometimes when I was really tired, I’d start dropping off before the kid did, and be wakened by an irate 8-year-old saying “MOM! You’re not making any sense at ALL!”).

It helps, of course, if you don’t try for great art; sticking to the classic well-made-plot (character-problem-attempts to solve problem fail-solution!-resolution).  It helps that most kids don’t want a moral but they do want what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a takeaway.  In my shy princess story the princess becomes less shy–and finds her own core strength.  In the Sandman story the little boy discovers he’s not the only one in the family who ever misbehaved.  (Okay, not War and Peace, but my audience liked them.)  And it helps if you’re willing to put up with suggestions from the audience (“I hate that name.  Can you call her Crystal instead?”).

But my secret about making up stories is that I sometimes use a story I’m already thinking about, and use the panicky-what-comes-next nature of telling the story to find solutions to plot points I hadn’t even gotten to yet.  Last night I started telling my daughter the bare-bones version of a story I’ve just started, and by the time she started snoring o-so-gently, I knew a number of useful things about where the story was going.

And tonight, if she wants me to tell her another story, I’m gonna pull this one out again and see if I can get a little farther with the plot.  Motherhood is all about the multi-tasking.

May 6, 2011

Let Them Have Their Say

Filed under: Craft,Short Stories,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 11:47 AM

In the last year I have finished and turned in two books.  Because the watchword of writing is “What have you done for me lately,” I immediately started thinking of new things to write.  I have ideas for more Sarah Tolerance books; I have a fantasy set in contemporary San Francisco I’d like to write.  And I have half a dozen short stories I want/need to get going on.

I chose one of the short stories to begin with.  Writing a book (for me) requires research and a good deal of forethought, though I very often start writing and see where it takes me, then step back, get my bearings, and then do the research and plotting work.  Short stories are, by their nature, more contained, smaller and more focused in scope.  That’s a mixed blessing, because as a short story writer I’m always aware of the need to cut out the extraneous, no matter how beguiling it is.

So I’m working on this story–steampunk, set in pre-WWI London.  Two key characters have just met, and they’re talking about stuff.  It’s important stuff, but my God, the way these two guys natter on.  I keep trying to rein them in, get them to get to the point, they keep going on and on.  Getting them to stick to the material I need covered by the story is like trying to herd a bunch of preschoolers through the Museum of Natural History.  And I feel like I can’t get on with the story until I’ve gotten them through the conversation, so I feel stalled.

The problem, really, is that I’m being a stick in the mud, and I need to stop it. I need to let these characters have their conversation, say everything they want to say, no matter how tangential to the point I want them to make.  And then, because I have the power of revision, I can go back and take out whatever nattering doesn’t enhance the story.

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