Places Between Places

Lately I’ve been trying to get out and see more of Richmond that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Part of this is going to neighborhood, businesses, and attractions I’ve never visited. Part of it is seeing the places between the places,  scenic or otherwise. This past Sunday the sky was changeable, the city felt quiet, and the air was soft.

trees by roadside


wall with creeper


paved lot


Place, Art, and Fiction @ James River Writers

This month James River Writers has some great events lined up, particularly if you’re interested in the role of place in fiction or the intersection of art and fiction. Want to write a more authentic RVA? Longing to mash up art and writing? Look no further.

April Writing Show: Coloring Between the Lines: Using What you Know and Where You’re From in Fiction
Veteran novelists and professors—and husband and wife—Carrie and John Gregory Brown talk about mining your own geographical and personal history as writers, as well as tools and techniques for finding out more about what you already think you know about your place—or places—in the world. Moderated by Virginia Pye. Thursday, April 24, 6:30-8:30 p.m., The Broadberry (a new location for this month!), 2729 W. Broad Street, across the street from the Children’s Museum. $10 in advance, $12 at the door, $5 for students.

Learning to See: A Master Class for Writers on the Art and Practice of Looking with Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown
Carrie and John Gregory Brown offer a shared presentation on writing and art: how art informs and inspires the writer, and how learning to “see” shapes and enriches writing. Short writing exercises and shared reading of those exercises will follow the presentations. Friday, April 25, 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., St. John’s Church Parish Hall, 2401 E. Broad St. $60 for members, $100 for non-members.

James River Writers logo

When Worlds Collide: Writing, Art, Academe, and the Story at the Heart of It All

Writers, in 5x5 Format

Writers in Plain Sight

The plan to rekindle my writing flame proceeds apace. I’m returning to writing and reading more steadily, with all the concomitant gains you’d expect. I downloaded Scrivener, am using it in turn with Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictation, or Sound Pilot (Smith-Corona scheme) when typing, or I’m writing by hand. I’ve had one co-written short story sale, I have another story in progress, and I’m getting the first chapter of Knife Fighting with Mondrian into shape, a novel I prematurely abandoned last year. And last night I finally re-hung my inspiration board, which has been sitting in a corner for far too long.

A funny thing happened, though, between now and my writerly productivity peak of a few years ago. When I got into the visual arts, I kept making analogies to writing, thinking about how one affected the other, etc.. All that time, however, I still thought of each as one thing affecting another. This is pretty much in keeping with how my life has often gone: on parallel tracks only occasionally overlapping.

Lately, I see story everywhere. It’s tempting to think this is part of the leveling-up process of writing, and that it’s an aspect of my personal teleology, but whether or no, I think it’s accurate to say that I’m thinking about story more than I have at any other time in my life. Not just plots for stories or scraps of prose running through my head (they’re still there), but everywhere I look, ties that feed into narrative. Different parts of my life seem to be usefully intersecting in ways that they didn’t previously. I’ve written about why librarians should write, and I’ve written about how librarianship informs my thinking about SF, but this seems to be a new strain of intermingling.

As such, I’ve added the category “whenworldscollide” to my blog. I may have more to write about this down the road, but for instance:

  • Back in February I attended the College Art Association conference in Chicago in order to co-present a poster. I attended an excellent panel there about finding common ground among museums, artists, and art historians, and many of the speakers framed their experience in terms of the overall story of the institution.
  • A couple weeks back, a symposium on the digital humanities was held by my university’s interdisciplinary program in media, art, and text. One of the presenters, Amanda Phillips, spoke about teaching literature majors to design games, and what everyone learned in the process, from social justice to the technical aspects of building games.
  • My work with James River Writers is expressly connected to story-land, but what I didn’t anticipate was how many RVA folks would talk to me about JRW and their interest in writing, the broad range of types of writing that my fellow members of JRW do, or how strongly some of the membership would respond to my work as a librarian.
  • Last weekend I helped run an unconference about the New South, social justice, and technology. One of the threads that ran through it was new ways of telling stories, and while I did have a part in weaving in that particular thread, I didn’t do so for creative writing reasons: it just fit.
  • And, of course, I work at James Branch Cabell Library. This wasn’t the reason I applied for the job, but it’s an ineluctable part of my daily existence, as is the extent to which we construct narratives around our collections, whether circulating, archival, or otherwise.

Examples could be multiplied. These days it seems like storytelling flows through just about everything I do. My avocation shows up in unlikely places at work, and my thinking about libraries shows up in association with my writing. That kind of interaction used to seem strange to me, but these days I tend to expect it, and it feels only natural.

Update on Statistics, Lies, Stagnation, and the Human Heart

t.rex model

Lumbering Forward

Since my self-analysis with graphs last November, I’ve done both more writing and more reading than I have for some time. No charts & graphs until the half-year mark and the end of 2014, but the current breakdown looks like this…

Write at least 100,000 words of completed or truly “in progress” fiction rough drafts by December 31, 2014. I’ve managed something like 8,729 words of new fiction. Peanuts to some, victory to me. I didn’t keep as close track as I should have, and the total count is probably higher, on account of measuring final drafts instead of bloated first drafts. Would that I’d written more, but I was out of commission for several weeks for health and other reasons.

Place six pieces of fiction for publication. Nothing accepted yet this year, but I have six things floating around in Slushlandia, two of which are new short stories since November.

Get back to blogging. 13 posts since November. At my current rate, that’s going to amount to around three-and-a-half times what I did last year. Given my blogging here is largely tied to reading, writing, and art, I’m gonna count that as a “win” in terms of deeper engagement with what matters most to me.

Read at least two books per month. On target. Plus sundry articles and general internet dreck. I’m falling back into my old habit of having too many books going simultaneously, but trying (!) to keep it under control.

How’s your writing/reading/creating year going?

Writing Books That Work

If you’re reading this, the odds are that you are a writer, have considered writing, or like reading about writers. Most writers (perhaps fewer than should) read an awful lot, and into every writer’s life must come at some point a book about writing. Whether it’s Strunk & White or The First Five Pages, that book is the first in a long series of epiphanies and disappointments.

A book about writing that resonates with you can change your writing life, especially early on, but most books about writing suck. Not the “your favorite band sucks” kind of suck, but the suck that comes from being average and not striking lightning. Some writing books are better or worse in terms of their prose or organization. Some are targeted so excruciatingly close to the current market that they’re useless ten years later, let alone twenty. Many of them won’t resonate with you because the author is a hack, prude, panderer, aesthete, jackass, moralizer, nobody, or other type that just doesn’t jibe with you.

What books work for me? I listed a pile of these in a comment to a post on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog several years ago, and if you’re looking for a survey of writing books, check out that post. Of the long list there, I regularly go to John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing. Both are complex and opinionated enough that they reward rereading, and they get me to rethink my own opinions, as well as helping me past rough patches.

wonderbook by jeff vandermeer

Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer

To my long list of writing books that work, I would now add Jeff’s new book about imaginative fiction, Wonderbook. (Amazon; companion website). Whether I’ll be going to it ten years from now, only time will tell, but there are many features to recommend it…

  • Difference. This is not like other writing books you’ve read. It looks more like an art book, or (to some extent) a graphic design book than a writing book.
  • Multiple voices. Sidebars, comments, etc. feature conflicting viewpoints. I value having my writing assumptions challenged, and this book does that. The list of contributors is long, but includes a host of people, such as: Joe Abercrombie, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, George R. R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor, and more.
  • Well made. How many badly typeset, illustration-free writing books printed on pulpy paper have I read? Reader, you don’t want to know. Every one of these pages, however, is a delight to the senses.
  • Visual richness. The web can be blamed for many, many things, but we can thank it for the widespread dissemination of new ways of displaying information. Wonderbook has this down pat, from diagrams to sidebars to layout to lists to “recurring characters.”
  • Recommendations. Many suggestions for authors to read more of, from non-fiction to fiction.
  • Multiple levels. This is a book I could have gotten help from at age ten… and from which I am getting a lot of useful stuff right now, in my current superannuated state.

I’m not an unbiased reader of this book, but my comments above are made with a clean conscience. This is a good book about writing, and frankly it’s good for you regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing. What didn’t I like about it? At this point, nothing. The one thing I’ll say that could throw some people off is that is is a dense book, physically and otherwise. There’s a lot here. If you’re looking for a quick, mono-focus book about how to do X writing task more effectively, this ain’t it. Instead, it’s a book that attempts to say a little about everything in creating imaginative fiction, from many different perspectives. I think it’s beautiful, I’ve learned things from it, and I intend to keep it nearby for rereading. Here’s a trailer, if you’d like to know more.