Blood Letting

Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, whose debut YA Fantasy Beautiful Creatures has been published in 30 countries, are happy to write as a team. They feel the collaboration keeps them honest. Every chapter is passed back and forth between them and edited with such ruthless disregard for the other’s attachment to a scene or a phrase (they call it a “very bloody process”) that by the end they often don’t know who wrote what.

I can’t imagine writing a novel with anyone else, but I have to say I admire these two women. Currently, my wife is the only one to whom I show my work before it goes off to my agent, and I think she has come to dread the delivery of my latest draft. This is entirely my fault. I was not always that gracious when it came to receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise. By the time she was done telling me what she thought of what she had read I was often wondering why she had bothered marrying me.

But I have mellowed over the years, and the protectiveness I once felt for every sentence has fallen away. The beauty of Kami and Margaret’s process is that if a line or scene doesn’t serve the story, it’s gone, no questions asked. After all, that’s the only reason a line or scene was written in the first place. The trouble comes when a line isn’t written to serve the story but the writer. Not surprising in this case that a writer might snarl or crumble when someone criticizes it.

As I have said before, our work is not us, and the editing process is where we must be most clear about that. And if you have suffered the confusion of mistaking your work for you—trust me when I tell you it is a great relief to end that perception.  Not only does the work flourish, free as it is now to shed its precious but unwanted trappings, but you may rest a little easier as well knowing there isn’t some second you bouncing around New York, vulnerable to all the knives of other people’s taste.

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When I was twelve, I got to watch my father hit the bottom. He was a smart man from a conservative, upper middle-class mid-western family with a degree from Harvard Divinity, who at 42 found himself broke and having to move into a slum. He had become the thing his own father had long assumed he would be—a failure. And I was there the moment he understood this.

It couldn’t have been easy for him, breaking down in front of his twelve year-old son, but the momentum of the realization was too strong for him, and that’s what he did. In a way, I lived my life from that moment forward determined not to be him. Not all of him, just the part of him that went broke and got divorced again and again and wound up living in a slum.

I discovered writing and believed I had found an antidote to what my father’s life became in his forties. And in a way, I had. When I allowed it, I would disappear through the experience of writing. When I allowed it, I forgot about me entirely, becoming an open window, and whatever came through seemed bright and interesting and far more important and useful than anything I had ever suffered or worried about.

Unfortunately, one cannot live not to be something. The harder you try not to be it, the more the thing you are running from fills your days. And so of course, disappearing wasn’t enough. Of course, I must also be a success so I wouldn’t worry about myself. Eventually, instead of disappearing, I tried to grow bigger, grow into a success, and in the process wound up living exactly what I said I mustn’t, though in my own writerly way.  And then, like he himself must have learned even that very day, that awful moment you live in fear of comes and then goes and there you are still standing and so what next?

You need only experience the bliss of disappearing once to know that it is the only thing worth seeking, but then you look in the mirror and you forget and seek yourself again through praise or reviews or letters from agents and find nothing worth keeping. Throw it all away and forget what you have seen. The mirror can only reveal what you look like looking at yourself, the very part of you you will forget when you disappear through the open window of you.

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The Living

Midway through my senior year in high school, our principal dropped dead of a heart attack. I was the co-editor of the yearbook, and it was decided we would dedicate our edition to him, even though Mr. McCarthy, our principal, had been a strangely out of place man, a mild-mannered, tweed-jacket wearing WASP overseeing a largely black and Hispanic student body, who drifted quietly through the halls not bothering us as long as we didn’t bother him. Still, our previous principal had been imprisoned for insurance fraud, so a step in the right direction. Until he died.

It was also decided that I should present his widow with a special copy of the yearbook at our graduation, and that I should say something in honor of this somber occasion. I wrote words to the effect of, “So many of the names of the faces in the yearbook would be forgotten over time, but no one would ever forget Mr. McCarthy.” I don’t know if this would have been true if he hadn’t died, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

And so it was that I found myself standing on stage behind a podium before the entire graduating class and all their available relatives, when not three words into my little speech my graduation cap slipped from my head and fell to the stage. Apparently I said, “Oops,” quite loudly into the microphone, which inspired a big, relieved laugh from the auditorium. From the darkened seats beneath me I heard one of my track teammates call out, “That’s all right, Bill!”

And it was. The whole thing went quite smoothly after that, and when I was done I ceremoniously handed the engraved copy to Mrs. McCarthy, a small shy woman who seemed sort of dazed, as if she were still learning what life was like without Mr. McCarthy to go home to. She appeared quite touched by our gesture, which depressed me a little—but what could be done? None of us had wished him dead, and we were all trying to make the best of it, and now it was time to graduate and begin the rest of our young lives.

I think everyone was grateful that cap fell off my head when it did, even Mrs. McCarthy. Before that moment, the ceremony was in danger of becoming a dry reflection of our own stiff and uncertain relationship with death. But then life popped through, and everyone breathed, and we were allowed to enjoy ourselves again, because life still belonged to the living.

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Alone With Mr. King

I have been told that solitary confinement is the closest humans have devised to hell-on-earth. This does not surprise me. My wife recently read of a man who had been thus confined while a POW, and that he and a neighboring prisoner had worked out a means of communication by tapping on the wall that separated their cells. This meager exchange became the prisoner’s lifeline, what helped him endure the eight years alone in a tiny chamber.

Humans need to communicate with one another as badly as we need to dream. We are creatures that live by our imagination, and the world, and all the other creatures in it feed that imagination and is in turn fed by ours.

The insomniac’s bed is a kind of solitary confinement. If you choose not to wake your husband or wife or lover or call a friend, and if you are determined to stay in that bed until sleep comes, you are left only with the circling emptiness of the very thoughts which are keeping you from falling back asleep. I had just such a bout the other night. It was a particularly vicious round, following a particularly vicious day. I was not going to wake my wife, nor did I feel like pacing my darkened living room. Yet every time I tried to turn my attention toward any thought other than those that haunted me, I found myself, as if lost in a hedge maze, back in the center of the nightmare again.

And so I asked for help. The first person I thought to ask for help form was Martin Luther King. King began telling me that I had nothing whatsoever to worry about. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to help people and he said he felt certain I’d be able to do that but that being afraid was not going to help anyone and that there was nothing I needed to do other than what I already could do. He told me this over and over until I fell asleep.

I suppose I could have told myself these things, and I have in the past, but on this night I needed to hear it from someone else. I was tapping on the wall of my soul, and what I heard back reminded me that my loneliness was a misperception. Somewhere my imagination had come untethered and had begun to convince me I could neither hear nor be heard, and yet alone in my bed I was both.

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Playing By The Rules

Two of the authors I recently interviewed for next month’s issue – Alice Hoffman and Jonathan Evison – are not only our first returning guests to the magazine, but have also both released novels set in fictional American towns. Hoffman’s The Red Garden is set in Blackwell, Massachusetts, and Evison’s West of Here is staged in Point Bonita, Washington. What’s more, both novels (The Red Garden is actually connected short stories, but it feels like a novel) span at least a century, looking in part at how incident becomes story becomes myth.

Both Port Bonita and Blackwell felt as real to me as a fictionalized Seattle or Boston.  Such is the job of all writers, of course, to make wherever our characters roam feel real. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about Middle Earth, Port Bonita, or Washington D. C., all writers must to some degree straddle what we call real and what we call imaginary.

But this is what human beings must do every day. Look around you. Look at the clothes you are wearing, the table you might be sitting at, the words you’re reading, even the grass if you are outside. We made it all up. Even a mowed lawn was an idea we made reality. Nearly everything we call “real” is actually something that we dreamed up and then somehow constructed. Which is to say, everything in our lives that we call real is only real because we decided it should be real. Language, marriage, cities, laws, countries, buildings. All of it. Human beings quite literally live in their own imaginations.

“And so what?” you may ask. Mostly, nothing. Mostly, we must forget this. It is like the baseball player pausing on his way around second to remind the shortstop that he doesn’t have to catch the ball if he doesn’t want to. We catch the ball and we run the bases because we want to play. But do not be duped when someone beats the drum of reality. It would have been easy to tell the Egyptians that the reality was they would be living in a dictatorship into the foreseeable future. Now that reality appears to be changing.

All of life is like this. Ideas have momentum, and sometimes we cannot see how to turn that momentum, but reality in the end is whatever we say it is. Play the game, by all means, it is fun to do so, but even the Major League Baseball changes its rules sometimes, and so can you.

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A Meaningless World

Let us say I decided to pull the giant plastic bin of Lego pieces out from under my son’s bed, and from that vast soup of variously shaped and colored plastic build a racecar. What would that racecar mean?

I would have to say the racecar itself would mean nothing. That is—the car has no inherent meaning. The only way for the car to have inherent meaning would be if every single person who beheld the car felt exactly the same about it, felt it was cool, or inspiring, or too red, or not red enough. But we know this is not the case.  We know that if we show this racecar to 100 people, we will get one hundred opinions on its value. Many of the opinions will be similar, but none will be exactly the same.

This is why everything, from the flowers to the moon to toy racecars, are meaningless—in and of themselves. They are inherently neutral, for only then can each of us find our own meaning in everything.

Nearly every time I feel the most crushing despair, it is because I have sought meaning outside of myself. It is as if I were asking a dictionary what I should write. All the words are there, after all. But the dictionary is waiting for me to decide. It does not care what I write. Those words may have definition, but their true meaning, for me, will only be found once I arrange them beside one another in a way that pleases me. Nothing means anything, which is the only way for us to create meaning in every decision we make.

Shakespeare said, “Joy’s soul lies in the doing,” and so it does. Phillip Roth, who has written a lot, says he does not reread anything he has written. This makes sense to me. His pleasure, his meaning, will always be found in what he is doing now, not what he has already done.

And likewise, as we search the great soup of life for what to make next, we will draw from all that has been made—all the words invented, the shapes found, the colors mixed. From this great creative mass will come our own unique meaning and creation, creations we leave in turn for others to make meaning for themselves.

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The Narrative

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the difference between “plot” and “narrative.” This friend – Chris Kelley, to give full credit – toils in the television industry, and was the one to use the word narrative to name what I am about to describe. For Chris, it is a particularly important distinction, as television can seem, almost more than any other story-driven art form, particularly fixated on plot.

Or is it? What we are calling narrative is very much like what I have called the “intentional arc,” that unifying feeling or idea to which all action and characters are beholden. The narrative, however, is more about the flow of the story. What is the difference? The plot in a story is what happens, or the “physical arc,” as I have called it. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. That, on the very surface, is what happened.

But the narrative is what it felt like within the story from moment to moment. That is, what did it feel like when the boy got the girl, and then what did it feel like when the boy lost the girl, and so on? What does it feel like to be scared and then safe, in love and then alone? The narrative is the flow feeling, from high to low, from quiet to noise, chaos to peace, that forms the actual movement of any story.

In other words, what happens does mean as much as the feelings these portrayed events stimulate in our readers. It does not matter that our heroine is being chased by a knife-wielding killer, it only matter what it feels like before she was chased, while she was chased, and after she was chased. Without the feeling of safety, danger, safety – the event is meaningless; in fact, it doesn’t even exist.

In this way, our job as writers is much more to find events that match feelings, than to figure out what it feels like to experience certain events. At the end of the day, every living person wants to feel good. Some of us feel good after we’ve been scared; some of us feel good after falling in love; some of us feel good learning to cope with loss – regardless, we are always seeking that which allows us to feel as good as we can feel, both in life and our stories.

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What Isn’t There

During my brief tenure at Concord Films, B Movie King Roger Corman’s tiny but profitable film company, I had one opportunity to get close to the great one himself. His personal assistant needed two hours for a doctor’s appointment, and I was recruited to man the desk. Now was my Big Chance. Corman and I would fall to chatting, and being an insightful, streetwise Hollywood mogul he would spot my intelligence and moxie—and the rest would be history.

It turns out my job was to sit at a desk ten feet from his closed door and answer the phone. The assistant whose job I was filling explained to me that unless the person on the other end of the line was one of Mr. Corman’s children, I was to apologetically inform the caller that Mr. Corman was “in a meeting.”

For two hours I answered call after call, apologized for Mr. Corman’s indisposedness, and recorded the callers’ names and numbers in a kind of ledger I suspected would never be read. I felt as if I had been recruited into the role of soulless gatekeeper in a Kafkaesque drama. The assistant returned from the doctor and reclaimed her chair. The door remained closed.

Just this morning I was flipping through my son’s copy of Top 100 Horror Movies, whose forward, lo and behold, had been written Corman, who waxed nostalgic for the days when filmmakers were forced to frighten their audiences with what wasn’t there. “It’s [the audience’s] imagination that does the heavy-lifting,” he wrote, “not some digital effects house in Hollywood.”

I have to agree with my old boss. Our imaginations will always be more frightening than what filmmakers or writers show us. Why? Because in filling in what isn’t there we will summon whatever frightens us most. We always frighten ourselves in this way—filling in the details of an unwritten future with nightmares we dream today. When the nightmares don’t come true, we usually forget we ever dreamed them.

I can’t think of Corman and not see that closed door. Like so many executives, editors, and agents, he can easily become one of those monsters hiding in the shadows of his early films, a cold closed door of a soul, uninterested in the aspirations of new talent—not a busy man, hoping for a call from his children.

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It was a slow Tuesday night, and I was scheduled to get the first table.  The restaurant, an upscale steakhouse, was empty, all 100-plus seats of it.  Finally the doors opened and our first guests arrived: a tall older gentleman, the first of a party of two. Katherine, our host, asked if he would like to be seated while he waited. He would.

She led him down the stairs from the front desk and straight to table 33. This was always where we seated the first table. It was the most popular table in the restaurant—a booth, of course, centrally located. Better to seat it first, so the next and the next and the next won’t ask for it. Yet it was also situated by the corner that led to both the bar and the restrooms, a fact I had never considered in my ten years at the restaurant until that night.

Katherine dropped the menus and began scooping up the extra settings. The man, however, did not sit. He looked once around the empty restaurant, and then back at his table with an expression of disappointment and defeat.

“Do you have to seat me at the worst table in the restaurant?” he asked.

Katherine, a recently divorced suburban housewife who always spoke to each guest as if she were offering them cookies, began to stammer. “I—I’m sorry.” She snatched the menus from the table.

“I mean really,” moaned the man. “It’s right by the bathrooms.”

Katherine was already on her way to table 23. “How about this?”

“Well, yes,” said the man. “Yes, that’s better.  I mean why would you sit me at that table?”

Katherine began to formulate her response, but the man was not done.

“Why me?” he implored. “Why me?”

Katherine was not at that moment equipped for such an existential request. She seated him, apologized, and wished him a nice dinner. Fortunately, in moving from 33 to 23 he had also moved from my station to my friend Blake’s station. Blake emerged from the kitchen, surprised to see himself seated first. I was supposed to have been seated first. Seating order mattered to waiters.

“What happened?”

“Didn’t like 33,” I said.

Table 33?”

I nodded.

“You want to take him?” Blake offered.

“No, thanks.”

Blake eyed me suspiciously. “What’s wrong with him?”

“We’re all against him.”

Blake sighed and rolled his eyes. “Why do I always get the crazies? Huh? Why is it always me?”

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A Simple Guy

When I was a boy, I was accused once or twice of having too simplistic a view of life. This stung. It seemed my simplicity would deprive me of whole layers of life available to complex thinkers. And so, being fiercely competitive and pathologically goal oriented, I set out to complicate myself and the stories I was going to tell.

Nothing could be easier, really. Fear, for instance, complicates things immediately. Try to argue with your fears and you find yourself wrestling with an octopus that grows a new tentacle for every rational escape route you discover. Eventually, your octopus has hundreds of arms and is very complicated indeed as life becomes a great ball of yarn you were commanded at birth to untangle.

In this same way, I often resisted letting my stories be about one thing. If I did this, they would be simple and predictable and boring. What I have found, however, is that by allowing the stories to be about one thing—one theme, one conflict, one resolution—my stories are actually less predictable.  Why?  Because I have more command over the material. When I have tried to do too much, the stories simply haven’t made emotional sense. They weren’t complicated, they were just jumbled.

I still have to remind myself to keep my stories simple, and as always it is a matter of trust. When I’m searching for the story, and I’m in that murky place where the pieces haven’t lined up, the temptation is to keep throwing more ingredients into the pot hoping that by having enough it will add up to a story. But every good conflict has within it a satisfying resolution if you allow yourself to find it. In the end, I must return to the simple but interesting idea that drew me to a story, and trust that within it is all that this story needs.

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