Friday, July 20, 2012

Sea Salt

I have a new conceptualization of how my stories should end. I used to view my story endings as opportunities to wrap up a series of events. In a sense, it was an "external" process: get my character down the tree, that sort of thing. But as my stories got more complicated, I found that this strategy wasn't working for me. My attempts to wrap up multiple story lines resulted in me feeling like I had to end my stories multiple times, and each of those endings diluted the impact of all of the others.

Now I'm seeing my endings as more "internal." They will be focused on the mental state and emotional state of a character, rather than the outcome of events. Moreoever, that ending snapshot of the final mental and emotional state needs to carry the resonance of all of the storylines I was developing with any sort of depth. The ending should touch on how the character has concluded on each of these storylines--not necessarily how she is going to act on them, but how she will internally process them. She could be obsessed with some elements, she could freely discard some elements, but I feel like a reader should feel that emotional response accompanied by some sense of forward projection. If a character is changing in some specific way throughout the story, then the ending should handle how that change finishes and reaches some sort of equilibrium, even if the equilibrium is oscillating somehow.

A long time ago, some writing teacher used a wave as a metaphor for an ending. I don't remember much more than that, but now the wave comes in handy for me again. I imagine a character walking out of the ocean, and all of that character's baggage from the story is the ocean itself. A wave builds behind the character--this is the shape of the journey. Then, in the end, the character can stop moving, but the wave will continue and crash past the character and spread along the sand. The water will be blocked by where the character is standing, but the rest of the water will move forward and spread and interact with the sand and sink into the earth.

What's Peanut eating? Rotisserie chicken. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Free Shrooms

Remember when we were kids and those sketchy guys would hang out at the playground and offer us shrooms in little baggies for free? Remember when they would push their stuff to us through the chain link fence with their smudged fingers and how cool our sand castles got after we ate some of it?

The goal of the drug dealer was to turn these little appetizers into big addictions. They believed that a small drug problem would grow into a bigger drug problem and that the bigger drug problem would control our lives and make them rich.

Well, life doesn't always work out that smoothly, does it? We would grow up to create our own problems. We'd let them diverge and overlap. And rarely would rehab fix everything.

I realized today that I was viewing my protagonist's life trajectory as simplistically as a drug dealer. I was mapping out her journey as an escalation of a single problem--maybe a misunderstanding of love; honestly, I hadn't quite decided--instead of a conglomeration of mismatched problems and partial solutions. (For the B-meister, I think this was the sort of simplifying that I was warned by you to avoid.)

To put it another way, I saw Diana as having a problem, and this problem could be represented by a 1 in the beginning of the story, and maybe a 2 at the end of the first quarter, and a 3 at the end of the first half. By the end of this story, Diana's problem would be a 6, and her solution would have to be something that was -6 to take away the problem.

But now I'm seeing Diana as someone who has a set of incompatible life experiences that can't really be added together. It's apples and oranges. She has to handle each one on its own terms, and the ending will have to be a best attempt at reaching multiple good-enough solutions at once in a constrained amount of time, like the way the drug addict has to deal with his own unemployment and lack of car and sock-eating dog in the same week that he has to raise $5,000 to pay the dealer before that dealer cuts him from ear to ear. (I know, this drug metaphor is really convincing, isn't it?)

What's Peanut eating? Nothing. He had to fast for his dental cleaning. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Deconstructed Apple Pie

Okay, I admit it, the apple pie isn't really an appropriate jumping off point for this post. But, hey, I baked a pie, and, hey, it didn't suck! I think the art of pie making (and by pie, I mean pie crust) requires gentle guiding, the way one might hold a butterfly in one's hand, rather than strong steering, the way one might hold a Killer Terminator Razor-Wing Butterfly in one's hand. I also think my hands are too warm, and they melt the butter. At any rate, I was given a fool-proof recipe*, and I stopped working the dough when the butter chunks were pea-sized, and it came out well. And, I used two kinds of apples. TWO! Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

I wasn't really cutting like that. This is a pose.

The skillet was all I had. We make do.


Speaking of apple pies, I'm working on a book called The Pagani Project, and I'm continuing to analyze it as a pre-step toward more drastic revisions in the hopes that I'll make a better book. At the moment, I'm dealing with big picture stuff, and I feel like I have to try and articulate the main "life perspective" behind the book, even if my answer will possibly change later.

I don't completely know what I mean by life perspective except that I think it has something to do with whether or not a book is character driven, or plot driven, or chaos driven--which I've talked about before and will talk about again.

There aren't, of course, any clear cut lines between these different types of books. I'm sure it's fairly arbitrary. But, for me, it comes down to the question of what makes a book "work." And, often, a great character can make a book work, just as a great plot can, and just as a broader view of life can. I'll not talk about plot-driven books here, only because I can't think of any that I'm familiar with. For me, I can think of plenty of books that have great characters. Whenever I stumble upon one, I'm so delighted. There's Brod from Everything is Illuminated, Joachim Mahlke from Cat and Mouse, and Patience Quince from The Last Guest. There's all the characters from Anna Karenina! For me, part of what makes these jump-off-the-page characters so impressive is that I've never managed to construct anyone like this. (I'll say I came close with a character called King in my first novel.) Whenever I write a story, rarely do I remember to construct a great character. Maybe that sounds stupid, but!

Then I'm reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri or Cormac McCarthy, both of who have written beautiful books with characters I can't recall for the life of me. I'd argue that, for them, the characters take a back seat to a perspective that's more fixated on what I called before HTU, or How Things Unfold. Lahiri's stories like "Nobody's Perfect" (which, okay, has a decent character) and "Hell-Heaven" and "Only Goodness," for me, don't transfer themselves into brilliant works until near the last paragraph or the last line, when the story I've been reading is suddenly elevated from something singular to something universal. I remember being quite disappointed by "Only Goodness" until I read the very last line. That last line somehow multiplied the story by 6.8 billion for me.

I'm not making a value judgement here. I end up writing more of this HTU stuff instead of character driven stuff, I think, based on how I view the world. Mostly, I see people as the same. We all have similar biochemical components. I don't believe in a soul, so I attribute most emotion of chemistry--which is kind of depressing! So, what makes us individual has a lot to do with the environment, or life, the impact of How Things Unfold all around us. Yes, this is completely simplistic. I'm not saying there's anything right about this; it's just my mindset. And, I wonder if it explains my general shyness. I like to sit off to the side and watch instead of participate. Maybe the participators write plot-drive work, and maybe the people who like to make good friends write character driven work. And, maybe, people look like their dogs. That would explain why I'm so cute.

So, enough about that. All I'm saying is that it rarely occurs to me to write a good character or a good plot. Whenever I try to do that (and I do) it takes force. My more natural tendency is to write about more universal things, somehow. And, to take it one step forward, something I'm realizing, partly as a result of finishing The Pagani Project, is that I believe the world to be completely random. If ever there is a message in my work, I think that message should be that the world is random. I'm not sure I've ever understood that until a few weeks ago. That's where I am now in my life. It's nihilist.

I do see a problem with my nihilist fiction. I think, in general, nihilists aren't that fun to hang out with. So, for me, I need to bring in other components to complicate this attitude. I try to tap into what perplexes me. Because I want to live. Some force is making me want to live. Lonesome George spent a hundred years walking around and eating stuff because of something. That's a fascinating thing to me, and I think if I communicate that clearly it would be fascinating for other people. So, that's probably where I need to get. I need to be clear on this conflict between the nothingness and the driving force to live. That's something that I didn't get until after I finished TPP, and I'm wondering if that's better left for my next book or if I should work to make that clearer in this one.

And how does this affect the end of a book? If things really are random, then the story should be able to end anywhere, right? And, yet, I tell myself that there must be more of a shape, a build up leading to a climax. To me, my most successful endings are those for my short stories "Red Man, Blue Man" and "The Wild Grass." In both of those, somehow, I feel like I hit a balance between stopping anywhere and creating the sense of meaning and completeness.

Okay, I'll stop now, because it's my blog.

What's Peanut eating? The cardboard booties that were protecting our new fan.

*Fool proof pie crust from finecooking.com. It's even easy to memorize!

1 cup butter
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Jawbreakers

A moment of vagueness to protect the innocent: A while ago, I applied for a writer's program that I was hoping would really push me to be a better writer. I didn't get in.

So, here's where I am now. I have a book written, The Pagani Project, and I'm going to try and work through my own program of intense self-investigation in an attempt to make my book as meaningful to me as I can make it. I am going to do my best, but I know that I could learn more from others. So, anyone reading this should feel free to jump in at any time to criticize or to confirm. I want a better book, not a bigger ego.

Step 1: I'm going to stop belittling my book. I always say how random and actionless it is, how incoherent and pointless it is. No more. If I really feel that way by the end of this, then I'm just wasting paper.

Step 2: My starting point - I want to remind myself (and others?) of what the original inspiration of this book is. Why? Well, for two reasons. (A) Quite possibly when I'm done with this investigation I'll be reminded that the starting point was a good one and where I should have stayed. (B) Quite possibly when I'm done with this investigation I'll learn that the starting point was a bad one and I should work to erase all traces of the original intent that aren't actually serving the new intent.

So, where did I start? Well, a big part of my inspiration comes from a book called Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book is about a group of kids who are being raised as organ gardens. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I pretty much hated this book as I was reading through it. It annoyed me. Then, months after I finished it, I was walking down the aisle of a book store, and I saw the book there on the shelf. It filled me with this immense sadness as the point of the book, the fragility of life and the meager possessions anyone actually needs to find happiness suddenly hit me. That weight was something I will never forget, and I realized that it came out of a holistic accomplishment that was bigger than the sum of its parts. In writing my book, I wanted to try and do the same thing. I wanted the pieces to add up to a bigger whole. I haven't accomplished that yet. I also wanted to use the mundane components of life to emphasize how magical the world truly is. I think I was more successful at that. The other consideration is that my book explores the "opposite" of Never Let Me Go.  My book is about people who live a long time, people who are able to take their life for granted. I didn't explore that part very well. For now I'm not sure I have to.

The other inspiration for me was my past work. As I was "trying to find myself" as a writer, my first belief was that I needed to depend on my Thai-ness. I thought that was the thing that made me unique. But, really, I was born in East L.A. I'm Thai, but I'm also many things that aren't Thai. So, this book was my attempt to write about my life in a broader sense. One way this came out was through the six main characters, five of whom are intended to be some form of me.

First, I decided to narrate the book from the POV of a woman as an exploration of my sexuality.

Second, I decided to make the narrator's love interest an Asian man to explore my own physical judgments of myself.

Third, I included a kid to explore that fragile time in my life.

Fourth and fifth, I decided to include two scientists representing my analytical view of the world, divided by a transition between classical techniques and new technology.

Sixth, I decided to include another female character loosely based on a friend of mine who I admire and who made me question society's self-abuses.

These six characters are sitting in a circle, and I view this set up as the light of me passing through a prism and refracting into individual components that can be independently examined. Personally, I think this is a wonderful set up. I managed to make it work for me for some of the characters, but not others. I need to strengthen and explore my scientist characters especially, including that division in technology and, thus, the changing world, which I ended up neglecting completely.

So, that's that for day 1.

What's Peanut eating? A Milkbone after he successfully closed both cupboard doors at my command. Go, Peanut!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cashews entwined

On Saturday I had the supreme pleasure of going to visit my good friend and ex-co-Lit Lab-blogger, Michelle Davidson Argyle. She was doing a book signing in Layton, Utah, and--thanks to an extraordinarily helpful friend at Southwest Airlines--I was able to fly out there to surprise her.

This was something I have wanted to do for some time. I've been able to meet a few blogger friends in person, including Tara Maya, then Scott G. F. Bailey, then C.N. Nevets, in that order. Meeting Michelle in-person finishes off the set, in a way, although of course there are others I'd still love to meet.

I showed up at the B&N where Michelle was sitting at a table behind her stacks of beautiful books. She flashed me a nice smile, but I don't think she recognized me right away. I just kept walking towards her, trying and failing to come up with something clever to say, until the recognition hit and she gave me a big hug.

Of course, Michelle was working, so I didn't want to interrupt. (It had occurred to me that I should tell her ahead of time that I was coming so that we could plan more time together, but Mr. Bailey insisted that I do the surprise, and it sure was fun!) And, Michelle and her hubby were able to reorganize their schedule so that we could all go out for dinner together. We didn't have cashews, even though that's what I always had in mind whenever I thought about meeting Michelle. Cashews and tomato and peanut butter sandwiches and curry, maybe. Instead, we went to a nice seafood restaurant and chatted for a good amount of time.

Then, we said our goodbyes. Then she called me to say we forgot to take a picture, so we met up again and took this:



Then, we said our goodbyes. Then, I remembered that I left my signed copy of The Breakaway in her car. (She's kindly mailing it to me. (I blame the heat and excitement.))

What's Peanut eating? Aged cheddar.