Archive for January, 2010

Still Alive, Kinda

Sorry, just a slapdash howdy this week. I’ve been down with a nasty flu bug the past several days.

Novel manuscript all typed up. Into revisions now. Woot.

Read The Backslider by Levi S. Peterson. Great, as promised. I think that was the first cowboy-themed novel I’ve ever read, and it was refreshing, a nice break from the vampires, boy wizards, Jane Austen fan fiction, and tales of neurotic city-dwellers that constitute my normal literary diet.


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Manuscript page from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Kind of what my manuscript looks like right now (from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, via Wikimedia Commons)

My first draft of the new novel is done, at a little over 84,000 words.

*pats self on back*

Now I’m typing it all up from my handwritten manuscript (as I explained the other day, I write first drafts out longhand so as to keep my writerly loins girded up against the temptations of internet shopping and Facebook). I’ve already got nearly 60,000 words typed. Once it’s typed, it’ll be time for revisions. Lots and lots of revisions.

A couple of shoutouts. Thanks to a blog I like called LitDrift, I came across How to Write Badly Well. Besides making me laugh my pants off, it’s also a full of great insights into what makes writing bad or good.

Also, I made the (virtual) acquaintance of an interesting and talented (ex)Mormon writer, Holly Welker. She had a great short memoir piece a couple of months ago in the New York Times “Modern Love” series about her time as a Mormon missionary. I’d love to see that memoir of hers in print. She’s also organized a group of Mormon women writers on the internet.

Oh, and by the way—a friend sent me a link to Authonomy.com. It’s an interesting idea—writers upload manuscripts or partial manuscripts, and they get voted on by readers. The most popular manuscripts get publishing contracts. I’m not sure what to think, although my first reaction is to imagine it’ll be more a popularity contest than anything to do with good writing. Anyone else have opinions on it?

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Image from 1978 film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which introduced the concept of pod people. Via CraveOnline.com

This week, retired baseball player Mark McGwire finally confessed to steroid use, and it got me thinking about the relationship between social stigmas and lying.

Although I normally have no interest in or awareness of anything baseball-related, I feel a personal connection to this story, because I happened to be there in the same room with McGwire during the 2005 congressional hearing on steroids in baseball. If you follow baseball, you’ll probably remember it—the House Government Reform committee called in McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Curt Schilling, and Jose Canseco and grilled them for hours about their steroid use in front of the TV cameras.  I was working on Rep. Waxman’s staff in a  junior-level position at the time, mainly doing editing and proofreading. Whenever there was a really important hearing like that, it was considered one of the perks of the job for the junior staffers to be able to come in through the back door of the hearing room, sit on the steps to the dais, and watch the proceedings. So I came out and watched the baseball hearing for a while.

I remember feeling really, really sorry for McGwire. I couldn’t help thinking those must have been some of the most stressful moments of his life. Imagine being called out on something you’re not proud of, something that puts your whole career and all your accomplishments in doubt, that’s illegal on top of it and that you could go to jail for admitting you did—in front of your family, your friends, and the entire world. Imagine congressmen saying to you, “Oh, and by the way, the parents whose kids killed themselves because the kids were imitating you and using steroids are sitting right behind you.” I kept thinking he was about to burst into tears. It was like seeing someone having their fingernails torn out in front of you.

The stigma attached to steroid use almost necessitated that he lie (if only by omission). Of course, he could have just admitted it and faced the consequences, but his lawyers had advised him against it, and as he says in the interview,

Here I was in a situation where I had two scenarios: Possible prosecution or possible grand-jury testimonies. Well you know what happens when there’s a possible prosecution? You bring in your whole family, you bring in your whole friends, ex-teammates, coaches, anybody around you. How the heck am I going to bring those people in for some stupid act that I did? So you know what I did? We agreed to not talk about the past. And it was not enjoyable to do that, Bob. Let me tell you right now, sitting up there and listening to the Hooten family behind me and the other families behind me that lost their loved ones, and every time I kept on saying, ‘I’m not talking about the past,’ I hear these moans. It was killing me. It was absolutely killing my heart. But I had to do what I had to do to protect myself, to protect my family and to protect my friends. Anybody who was in my shoes that had those scenarios set out in front of them would have done the same exact thing.

Which pretty much confirms my impressions of what he must have felt that day. So he had a choice between hurting people by lying or hurting people by telling the truth. The kind of moral dilemma no one ever wants to have to face.

An online comment someone made on an essay I wrote got me thinking further about stigmas and lies. My essay was a humor piece on dating, and there was a part where I made fun of people who love being single, implying they’re like the pod people in that film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The commenter wrote he was concerned by the way I was stigmatizing the happily single people. He drew a comparison between needing sleep and needing to be in a relationship:

Most people, in order to be well-adjusted and happy, need an amount of nightly sleep that’s around 8 hours, give or take. But there’s the rare person who only needs around 5 hours of sleep. With those lucky few, it’s natural to ask “Are you SURE you’re okay on so little sleep, or are you forced to due to circumstances, and maybe there’s some denial on your part?”

If they were to say “Do I SEEM like I’m in denial?” and indeed they appeared as well-adjusted and happy as any person, you could respond in one of two ways:

a) Tell them “Wow – so you just need 5 hours sleep and you’re good? That’s not like most of us. Good for you!”

b) Say “What planet are YOU from? Go back to pretending you didn’t grow out of a pod.”

You see, the latter response assumes a person is worthy of ridicule by virtue of their being in the minority. And that’s the tone you seem to have adopted towards those who are happily-single. This derision towards voluntary singles, besides not being a valid basis on which to judge someone, can be harmful in that many singles feel pressured to enter into a relationship that’s not right for them, simply to avoid being stigmatized.

I thought this was a good point, and in my response I agreed with him. But the comment brought back some traumatic memories from my single years. A big part of what I hated about being single and dating was that you never could tell who was a “pod person” in the sense that they didn’t feel the need for a relationship. They didn’t look that different from the sorts of guys I wanted to be dating (the relationship-minded ones), although if you looked closely enough there were warning signs.

Social stigmas played a role in the concealment. As the pod-person straight guy, you couldn’t admit what you were without sending the non-pod women running off screaming. (And it seemed there were not as many pod women as pod guys.) But as the non-pod, relationship-minded girl, you couldn’t be too straightforward about your intentions either for fear of being stigmatized as marriage-obsessed. So it generally took a while to figure out who was what, leaving plenty of leeway to get your heart squashed in the meantime.

Trying to put myself in the pod guy’s shoes and understand where he was coming from, I could see he had a moral dilemma, if not quite as poignant as Mark McGwire’s. As I wrote in my response:

If you’re, say, a straight guy who doesn’t want an exclusive relationship with any one woman, and you’re honest and upfront about this, you might not get a lot of takers. So your choices are (a) be honest and sexually unsuccessful or (b) be dishonest and end up hurting people’s feelings. Neither of which is really appealing, or at least it wouldn’t appeal to me.

But maybe if there weren’t so much stigma attached to the genuine desire for non-exclusivity, the person wouldn’t have that sucky dilemma. I don’t know.

So I was wondering—how much are social stigmas to blame for hurtful deceptions between people? Whether it’s baseball or dating or what have you—would people be more honest if you didn’t have the stigmas? When are the stigmas rational? Would it be better to rid ourselves of them if it fostered more honesty?

Or does the stigma come from the deception itself? I don’t think I would have minded the existence of the pod guys so much if they had been easier to avoid. And at least part of what has made steroid use in sports so shameful is the idea that athletes use them while pretending not to, presenting themselves as if their achievements were wholly the result of their hard work and natural gifts. So we can turn the earlier question around: Would fostering more honesty help us get rid of the stigmas? I don’t know. Jews in the Third Reich wore yellow stars to identify themselves, and this didn’t exactly help against being stigmatized.

Fun facts: The original plural of “stigma” is not “stigmas,” but “stigmata.” The word comes from classical Greek, where it means “the mark of a pointed instrument, a tattoo-mark, brand,” according to Liddell & Scott. And if you didn’t already know, stigmata is also used to refer to the wounds of Jesus on the cross—St. Francis of Assisi is said to have received them on his own hands and feet after having a vision. Which is interesting, given the sorts of wounding moral dilemmas social stigmas can give rise to.

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TJ's Macarons

TJ's Macarons, via Diana Takes a Bite (http://dianatakesabite.blogspot.com)

Starting to see a light at the end of the long, dark first draft tunnel. My heroine is still struggling with despair, but she’s traveling, seeing the world, and having epiphanies right and left. Things are looking up for both of us.

I’m at 72,o00 words, and I really don’t want my first draft to go above 90,000. (The agent/publishing industry blogs I read all agree that debut novels can’t be overlong these days, unless the pacing is really, really exciting. And mine isn’t. It’s not that I set out to write a boring book, but with a philosophical Bildungsroman, there’s only so much you can do. Your best bet, it seems to me, is just to keep it from getting overlong.) Only three chapters and a brief interlude to go, reasonable within my word-count limit. At the rate I’ve been going I could be done in a couple of weeks.

Which means I’m thinking about editing. I spent last night after Amandine went to bed reading over the draft of Part II of the novel, and it’s clear this puppy is going to need a LOT of tweaking, tinkering, and massive top-to-bottom overhauls before it’s ready to meet another pair of eyeballs. I don’t even want to talk about transcribing. I’ve gotten into the habit of writing first drafts in longhand, because if I try to do it on the computer, I invariably wind up shopping on the internet, hanging out on Facebook, reading blogs, or answering e-mails when I should be taking advantage of precious toddler sleep time to write instead. I’ve been trying to transcribe as I go, but am way behind. I only have a little over 40,000 words typed, and will have to finish up the typing before I can get into the meaty edits. Of course, the nice thing about the typing up part is that I do a bit of editing as I type, too.

Natalie Whipple’s last few posts on editing were inspirational. I realize I’ve got a lot to learn about that part of the process.

I’ve been consoling myself with macarons from Trader Joe’s. They’re all light and melty in your mouth, almost like the real ones you get in France. Alas, in the continual battle with my post-childbirth muffintop (the one that peeks out over the top of my jeans), the muffintop is winning, thanks to its new alliance with the macarons.

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Mormon Chick

Sorry, this image was just too funny to pass up, even though it doesn't have much too do with my post. Via The Good Atheist (http://www.thegoodatheist.net)

Apparently this summer there was a mini-brouhaha over the question of whether “The Great Mormon Novel” would ever be written, and if so who would write it. A non-Mormon writer named Wallace Stegner said he thought it hadn’t been written yet, and it would probably be written by someone who’d left the Church and then come halfway back to it.

I came across that mini-brouhaha in the course of looking for examples of literary novels about people leaving the Mormon Church. At one level, that’s what my current book in progress is about, and I thought it might be helpful, or at least interesting, to see what else has been done in that vein. It’s a drag to spend a lot of time writing a book that someone else has already written, so it’d be good to make sure I wasn’t doing that. I’ve looked high and low and haven’t turned up much.

A number of blogs, as well as Stegner himself, mentioned The Backslider, by Levi Peterson. I keep seeing it called things like “an unjustly neglected regional Western masterpiece.” I have it on order from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it, but I hear that it ends with the main character repenting and finding God, i.e. staying Mormon, like in The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, which is not what I’m looking for. What I’d really like to find is something like the (ex)Mormon equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus wrestling with Catholicism, lust, and philosophy, chasing truth, beauty, freedom, and art.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to write the ex-Mormon equivalent of Portrait of the Artist, because good as it was—gods of literature forgive me for this—I thought that book also had a lot of faults, both artistic faults and personality faults. Dialogue often confusing. Too much local Irish politics that doesn’t carry well into future times and other countries. Too much untranslated Latin. Too many boring parts left in. You could probably have shortened that sermon. And so on. And as for personality faults, you get glimpses every now and then through the fictional veil into the author’s psyche, and you have the sense he’s this sullen rebellious teen who’s not that great at interpersonal relationships, has a bit of a superiority complex, and needs to get a sense of humor. But I’d definitely want to read such a book, if it existed.

I’m surprised it doesn’t exist. You’d think it would be an obvious thing that someone out there would have wanted to write. I’m still wondering if maybe I’ve overlooked it—if any of you out there on the internet knows anything about it, please tell me. It seems like Mormons (and ex-Mormons?) write sci fi (Orson Scott Card of course, of whose books I’ve read maybe four or so and was a bit creeped out by that one where the girl has sex with a big snakey monster-type thing), vampire books (Stephenie Meyer), YA fiction involving ninjas (Natalie Whipple, over there on my blog roll), mysteries, and so on. They write inspirational books, and they write books that aspire to be literary, in which the characters stay Mormon. But they don’t write that many books about leaving the Church, at least not that see the light of publication and that have serious literary aspirations. I did come across a novel, Exmormon, by C.L. Hanson, that was published serially on a blog and then self-published via Lulu.com, and I’ve started reading that. [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who are not faint-hearted about such things, there is a very funny bit about teenage Mormons having sex in an empty baptismal font.]

As for my book in progress, it would be nice if it turned out to be The Great Exmormon Novel, but mostly what I’m aiming for at the moment is for it to be done soon and for it not to suck. That’s my big New Year’s Resolution, I guess—to write A Nonsucky Literary Exmormon Novel.

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