How Christmas Traffic Inspired Me

Just like Christmas traffic, this post may seem convoluted; but bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Really.

One of my favorite movies is Empire of the Sun. Another favorite of mine is Rescue Dawn. The two movies have a great deal in common; and I’m not talking about Christian Bale, who stars as the main character in both of them. They are both about war and the strength of the human spirit. When these two concepts become the backdrop for a story, that story often captivates me. (‘Captivate.’ How apropos, eh?) Strangely, it doesn’t have the same effect on me to watch movies drawing upon the human spirit when winning sports matches or surviving expedition challenges – you know, where the underdog team finally gets the victory or the wilderness wanderer makes it back to civilization. I guess, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “You signed up for it. What did you expect?”

Yeah, and people sign up to go to war. Dieter Dengler, the true-life hero on which the Rescue Dawn protagonist is based, even wanted to give his life for a nation that wasn’t his native country. That’s partially what made the movie so incredible. In war, people can become like animals. The lines of black and white are so blurred that ethics are thrown out the window. The situation is so extreme there is only reaction. In all candor, I often wonder what I would do in extreme circumstances – if I would make the right decisions. I have a nagging doubt that, in a desperate moment, I wouldn’t. It’s the little clues that bring me to that conclusion.

I started thinking about this when I ran a red light a couple of days ago. It’s that rotten Christmas traffic. I justified it because of the long lines of cars, the long wait, and because my light time was shortened by the cars that previously ran the light for a good twenty seconds. As I passed under that blaring crimson reminder, I saw the line of cars ahead, waiting to enter my lane. Seconds later, I slowed down and signaled for a car to take the place in front of me. Why? Why did I just hammer through the traffic light to decide to wait behind yet another car? Simple: Inside that car was a person. I could see him. I think he was in his seventies. His white-haired wife was beside him. The red light was an emotionless mechanism to direct me, and a horde of other cars, into systematic obedience. While I happen to take issue with systematic control, I do believe in submitting to a greater, collaborative cause to protect and help those around me. That’s why it bothers me when I’m not keeping my part of the bargain, even in seemingly insignificant things like running a light.

That system to protect and aid each other is what is lacking in war. Even countries that don’t consider themselves at “war” know that when there is no peace – no agreement to coexist together – the situation is dire and intense. The environment is hostile, and the mind has to work within tightly constructed boundaries that are never clearly delineated. It’s an ever-shrinking prison that comes down to little option for escape without harming self or someone else for survival.

Empire of the Sun has a scene where Jamie is making his way across the British/American prison camp trading and winning certain items to obtain other items that, in having this delivery service, grant him privileges. His ingenuity and perseverance makes me shake my head in wonder, while his dusty, angular face and empty expression depict the telling signs of his harsh life. His actions become more and more like a mouse being chased by a cat, scrabbling to survive, than a boy around his own kind. The end of the movie makes me bawl every time. Jamie’s eyes go from stony, dark lifelessness to a glimmer – a small window – of recognition. It’s hope. It’s a chance to feel again, to know where he belongs. He closes his eyes slowly as his mother embraces him. He can’t go back to the child he was, but he’s no longer alone. There is someone there to take his part, someone to see he has what he needs. And he closes his eyes, finding peace at last after his long journey.

The same day I ran the red light and let a car go ahead of me, I finally made it to the store for toilet paper, soup, and cough medicine. I didn’t try to make conversation; I was trying my best not to cough on the cashier. I looked behind me, and the next shopper was a woman whose hair looked like it had been fixed three days ago. Her makeup was dried to her face, and she had raccoon eyes. Her one purchase was a case of beer. It wasn’t her appearance that was startling; she didn’t seem to notice anything. Even the cashier was making note of the woman’s manner. Her eyes darted places, but never looked at anyone directly. It was like she existed in an inner panic with some kind of mental monologue going on.

I wanted so badly to catch her eye. I wanted to ask if she was okay. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t find the courage to insert myself into her world.

I think the worst wars are the ones going on inside. There the battles of the mind rage, where the captive stares out upon a hostile world created by events of the past that cannot be put to rest until someone comes who knows who that person really is, where he/she belongs. Why does the human spirit rise above? I think it’s because of hope, the tenacious belief that somewhere there is help and peace.

In the spirit of the season, I’d like to give you the gift of a quote from three men who wrote that their words were given to them directly from the Spirit of God. Their names were Paul, Peter, and John, and they often began their letters with this greeting:

Grace and peace to you.

Grace means divine help. May you find divine help and peace. And may you have the tenacity and courage to rise above the wars you face.

The Charm of All Vortices

“You should publish your story.”

That’s a nice compliment. It is also a minefield, when you consider what it means to publish nowadays. The term ‘publish’ has taken on totally different facets of definition and expectation. The options for publishing a book, especially when considering self-publishing, are breeding faster than rabbits. I’ve discussed the whole “self-publish or go for the gold” with fellow writers. That’s really how writers look at it, isn’t it? Self-publishing isn’t the crowning moment for a writer. I’m being honest here.In reality, the writers who’ve self-published are far superior in thought and action. It takes moxie to put yourself and your work out there. It also takes money.

The ‘helpful advice for writers’ blogs I’ve been reading continue to discuss self-publishing, and I’ve found some of the suggestions suspect. While advertisements for self-publish-assisting services flash and glisten along the sides of the article, it benevolently advises writers to opt for these services to make one’s book look professional. Does anyone want to present his/her story with an unprofessional aspect? Obviously not. Nor do many writers enter this vortex with funds in hand. Isn’t it a writer’s object to take as much financial risk out of the equation as possible, so that he/she won’t end up a Starving Writer Wraith in the Land of Author Discontent?

I’m new at this, you know. I don’t know what I’m doing. I think that’s why self-publishing sounds more like a casino game to me at the moment. Whoever doles out the cash gets a spin around the e-book world. Here and there, someone claims, “Look at my book! It hit the jackpot!”

I’m beginning to wonder if anyone really has a grip on the current publishing frenzy. But that’s the charm of all vortices, eh?

Dealing with the Bean Burrito

I did it. I sent my first query.

Manuscript Rejected.

Here are some excerpts from the rejection letter and my responses (which I didn’t email back or anything – I wasn’t feeling that indignant):

Agency: Your manuscript isn’t right for us at this time.

Me: But you only saw the first 50 pages! Are sure? Are you really sure?

Agency: There are numerous agents that might be the right fit for your manuscript.

Me: Well? Who are they? Do you have a list?

Agency: “Don’t give up!”

Me: That’s nice. I can’t dislike you as easily now.

So, what am I doing? Am I jumping in with both feet, composing query letters like a madwoman? Nope. I’m reediting the editedly overedited, edited-again version of Dragonfly Prince. It must need sprucing up, including the 350 pages the agency never set eyes on. And I know this is wrong. I know I need to let it go and concentrate on researching literary agents’ backgrounds to find that perfect fit. But… it… has… to… be… perfect!

Obsessed. I’m completely obsessed at this stage. I want to present the story, but I can’t present the story because it might be rejected if I present it with its current flaws. So I don’t present the story to anyone, and it haunts me like a bean burrito. This stinks.

Let Them Do All the Talking

Suppose someone uncovered a never-before-seen manuscript of Charles Dickens and posted it as a serial novel in an online magazine, or sold it on Amazon. Would it become one of the top-selling best reads of the year? I doubt it. It’s my belief that only a small percentage of readers today would hang around long enough for a story to unfold the way Dickens painted it. The decision to read a story by Charles Dickens is like drawing up a business contract to begin a relationship. It starts out as a chore and slowly evolves into a pleasant, satisfying friendship. Well, at least that’s how I feel about his first works; The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a bit of a gyp.

When I began reading the first chapters of The Pickwick Papers, I admit, it was a trial of perseverance. But by the end I was laughing, crying and inspired to expound on some of his sketches. Dickens, the master of characterization, merged detail and personality in a way that seemed effortless. A reader doesn’t consciously notice the character is being described at all. That’s finesse. I think it helped that he had a larger palette of words to use in painting his masterpieces. The writers of that time, such as Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell, were ‘free-penning’ concepts, aware that the culture was under fire. The Industrial Revolution was changing their world.

In comparison, our culture’s paperless venues are affecting the printed word to the point of confining literature to an often déjà vu-heavy shadow of what it once was. But while the vocabulary remains somewhat static, sometimes merely requiring one to invest in a growing repertoire of clichés, the expectation of the reader is greater. He/she is becoming acclimated to game, movie and graphic novel-driven forms of media. Books are in a mean competition with this accelerated thinking that allows the description to be mapped out in a few blinks. Is it any wonder some readers don’t want to waste time on descriptive prose, unless it’s a love scene in slow motion? Within this limited scope a writer is expected to create unique, relatable personalities, entrancing environments and novel plots.

With movie scenes replacing setting descriptions and animated images replacing character descriptions, what’s left to work with? Dialogue. Dialogue becomes the given for carrying a storyline. One must wield well-mastered dialogue to effectively capture readers. Instead of thoughtfully inhaling the perfume of a multi-worded garden of script, a reader looks for the description to make an appearance incognito between the humorous, oftentimes cynical, remarks of the characters. That’s why best-selling authors of young adult fiction avoid descriptive scenes that explain things organically and employ more flashbacks.

This is our Information Revolution to which we have responded with our own Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism. The yearning to stop and smell the roses – even the ones created with words – may be forgotten for a time in the bustle of the day-to-day; but it will emerge again. The times change, avenues change. People don’t. Neither should the integrity of a good story. Keeping that integrity is the challenge, I think.

I have to go now. The How It’s Made marathon is about to begin.

When Tolkien Met Ivanhoe & Turned Me into Doctor Frankenstein

When I began writing Dragonfly Prince, I was recovering from an abysmal first attempt at fantasy. I was 25 chapters into a story set in a medieval times alternate universe sans Catholic influence. (Ever tried omitting Catholic influence from the Middle Ages? Ha!) My challenge was to merge the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel archetypes into a seamless tale of tragedy, mystery, sorcery and heroism. My mission was to follow multiple male and female protagonists of different races who would discover their strengths and rise above their harsh circumstances, forming alliances to bring a new era of peace. I named it, “Daughters of the King’s Forest.” I fed the story with a caboodle of research, and it grew and grew to epic proportions. Then it wanted more.

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff - Frankenstein (1931)

It wanted created languages and descriptive background stories. It wanted clever riddles. It was like Tolkien meets Ivanhoe, who saves Little Red Riding Hood. I even developed a renga for the dwarves – which were giants because that made them more intimidating to the Snow White character. If you’re not familiar with a renga, it is a genre of social poetry; it requires more than one participant. And there I was, writing a poem by myself that relies on the filters and experiences of multiple contributors to make the transitional passages unique. I was becoming Doctor Frankenstein, mad in my drive to make my story-monster live.

I pushed back from my desk one day and realized I was not enjoying the story anymore. So, I quit. I think it’s okay to quit. Mainly because I did it. And you can do it, too. (This is the motivational portion of my blog today.)

Then I panicked. I’d just devoted hours and hours of my busy life to what I’d planned to be my magnum opus, only to find it was epic alright: Epic fail. I couldn’t even read through it myself, so you know how bad that is. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, I was staring into the sluggish, burping pit of Mordor, watching the story I’d been lugging around for months melt away. I was painfully aware of the emptiness it left behind; my mind kept returning to it out of habit. What could I do to make it go away? Give up writing?

It was around October when I went back to the drawing board to revamp my goals. For this I am very thankful because most of the writers’ forums were ablaze with “Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?” Thank you, NaNoWriMo, for existing because, though I’ve never participated in writing a 50K story in one month, you gave me an idea. I decided to try my own NaNo-like challenge. I thought it would be more reasonable for me to try for 40K by writing a 5-7 pages twice a week for 2 to 3 months. My story was going to be set in an author-created environment – no research required. There was to be no background story. My main characters were going to be normal people – no valiant knights and magic-wielding witches. Immediately, I thought, “I can handle this.” The challenge was to keep it simple and hit my goal, forget about that greatest-masterpiece-ever-composed stuff. I just had to write, like the NaNoWriMo site advises.

To keep myself accountable, I posted it in a generic category on Fanfiction. Those who contributed to the 400+ reviews for the rough draft chapters of Dragonfly Prince know what happened. And if that’s all the recognition my story ever receives, I’m really okay with that. Some of the most intelligent, supportive reviewers picked it up and ran with it. I started seeing traits in other stories in that category, obvious spin-offs of the environment I’d introduced. How cool is the influence of being a writer? Very.

So, the moral is: If at first you don’t succeed, you might be overcomplicating things. Consider a quick check in the mirror for telltale signs. Have you been sporting the mad scientist look lately?

The Query Beast & the Pitiless Synopsis

I grabbed a copy of Writer’s Market in diligent anticipation of something wonderful happening to my manuscript. I had the impression WM was more of an instruction manual for building a catapult that would launch my book into some bookmaker’s factory, where it would serendipitously deposit it for cloning, duplicating hardbound editions of my lovely child of script to reach millions of consumers, one delicious copy at a time. But no, Writer’s Market had the audacity to be realistic and list all these weird, freakish tasks for me to do. I feel like I’m applying for knighthood here or embarking, like Jason, on the maiden voyage to return with the Golden Contract, taking on the Query, the Summary and the formidable Synopsis in just the first leg of the quest.

Ship Garthsnaid, ca 1920s

Before now I’d only heard about the Synopsis, the Greek monster found near the churning Charybdis of Literary Works that Failed. Her ghastly, steely teeth take your beautiful creation and smash it down to 5-ish pages; her razor-sharp scales torture and twist it into 3 helpless sheets to the wind; and her five hundred lashing tails chop and mutilate it into 1 to 1 ½ pages of ground up chicken feed. She knows no mercy. She returns to finish the job, leaving you with a huddled, whimpering paragraph. That’s the Synopsis. Don’t be confused by her sister, Summary, who lures you in with her wily vices, telling you, “This is just a teaser.”

Yeah, I’m still trying to write a one-paragraph synopsis of my story. I return again and again and can’t seem to conquer it. Of course, I will be diplomatic when sending it to the literary agent. My query letter will say something like, “Oh, that was so much fun! You’re fabulous for wanting me to send you this synopsis! Can I grovel at your feet to read my manuscript? Thanks!”

And yes, you read correctly; the singular of ‘agents’ is ‘agent.’ I have only mustered the courage to send a query to one agent. I might as well drown in the aftermath of the Synopsis.

Jane & Michael Had It Figured Out

As the quintessential, bury-me-in-my-sweats and “Do I have to leave my house for my funeral?” scribbler, I knew this day would come. I wrote something and want to do something with it. Preferably publish it, not burn it. Am I deluding myself? The probability of finding that publisher who will take a chance on my story is… not high. Not that I’m a pessimist. I’m a realist who believes in the inevitability of Murphy’s Law. If you don’t know the difference between these two disparate positions, then you’re not in denial like so many of us.

It’s rather intimidating to realize that completing a novel is only the beginning. I can’t just go outside and yell, “Hey! I’ve finished my book! Where’s my contract?” I mean, I could, but what good would that do besides publicly proving how crazy I am? No ad in the Times is going to culminate in a line of publishers at my door the next day, like all the nannies that come to interview at Jane and Michael’s house in Mary Poppins.

But… if I were to write such an ad, I would write this to the tune of the Nanny Song.

Wanted: a publisher for my fantastic book

Here, I send this choice submission
With a cheery inquisition.
Write me checks; add perks.
Want more? That works.

Let’s talk covers, one that’s witty,
Very sleek and fairly pretty.
Make a million copies; you treat.
Royalties? Let’s meet.

I’ll never be cross or cruel,
When you want to
Publicize my book.
I’ll love you as an author oughta,
If you try to get a movie offer.

If you won’t scold and rudely irritate,
I can write the sequel by the due date.
I won’t make a spectacle
Of you or me;
I’ll even try to follow
Your itinerary.

Hurry! Sign me!
Many thanks
Sincerely,

A delighted Rilla Z

Yeah, naiveté just oozes from this post. How long will this idealistic bubble last? I don’t know, but it all started with the challenge of writing – and completing – a novel.

Win.

If you’re in your Pursuit-Of-A-Dream bubble right now, don’t forget to tally the wins along the way.