Archive for October, 2009

Road trip!

Last weekend, P and I went on a little trip to Madison, a belated anniversary celebration. The twist, though, (there’s always a twist!) was that I didn’t tell him where we were going. For two weeks, I made him guess what we were going to do.

Unfortunately for that big old corner of my soul that loves pranks, P could care less about anticipation. He figured we’d have a good time wherever we went, so he was pretty meh about guessing. “A cabin?” he offered. “A boat ride?” I’m pretty sure his next guess would have been “a three-ring circus?” So of course I spent the remainder of the two weeks asking him again and again where he thought we were going. After a while, he just stopped answering.

Since I spent the two weeks before our trip taunting my husband, I forgot to plan anything for us to actually do. I’d booked hotel rooms; we spent Friday night at Hotel Ruby Marie, a Victorian themed bed & breakfast and Saturday night at Arbor House, where the focus was on being eco-friendly. (Advantage, by the way, to Arbor House, and not just because they had a dual-flush toilet.) And thanks to Erica, I knew we were going to eat at the Eldorado Grill. But other than that? Nada.

Well, there was one thing I wanted to do. A few weeks ago, Christine Merrill posted about going to see dioramas of stuffed albino squirrels in the basement of a funeral home in Madison. I immediately became sick with jealousy. I wanted to see those squirrels and there they were, less than two hours away. So when we woke up on Saturday, I called the funeral home, since the squirrels are appointment only. Sometimes there’s an actual funeral, I guess, and they don’t want giggly, gawking tourists wandering through. So I called up at 8.30 Saturday morning and found out the terrible news.

The squirrels weren’t available on the weekend.

I know, I was shocked too. Who closes their tourist attractions, especially one in such demand as albino stuffed squirrels, on the weekend? I wiped away my tears and grabbed my phone to find the nearest used bookstore, as used bookstores are guaranteed to cheer me up. We spent a pleasant couple of hours at Avol’s Books, got cupcakes (and failed at transporting them,) went to the SERRV store (fair trade heaven, and I got some more tiny bird sculptures,) had an indoor picnic, took a nap, and ate fried macaroni and cheese with BACON at Bluephies. It was a busy day!

The next morning, we were kind of at loose ends. We weren’t ready to head home, but it was cold that day, and I’m afraid of nature, so we skipped the ten-minute walk to the arboretum. Instead, we decided to go to The House on the Rock. Apparently this place is super well known throughout the Midwest, but I never heard about it before I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where it’s the setting for a pivotal plot point.

Here’s the basic history of The House on the Rock, told in dramatic form:

dramatis personae
Frank Lloyd Wright, super famous architect and a member of the Prairie School design movement.
Alex Jordan, Senior, total nutbar.
Alex Jordan, Junior, son of total nutbar.

ALEX JORDAN SR: What’s up, Frank Lloyd Wright? Look at this awesome building I drew, that I traveled all the way to your summer home, Taliesin, to show you.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: I wouldn’t hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop. You’re not capable.*

ALEX JORDAN SR points at spire of rock.
ALEX JORDAN SR: I’ll show him! I’m going to build a house right there that he will have to look at forever.

Much later:
ALEX JORDAN JR: I will complete your spirit journey, father, and blast on that spire of rock, even though I don’t yet own it.
ALEX JORDAN SR: And to assist us, I will hire bums from Madison and pay them in bottles of whiskey and checks which I will later burn so it will seem like we did this blasting on our own.


*This line is, reportedly, actually true.
**I pieced this history together from the Wikipedia page. Any mistakes are the fault of that page’s authors.

So he built this house up on a rock. And, you know, from the outside it’s absolutely gorgeous, especially in fall.

The House on the Rock

And once I got inside, well…

It was completely terrifying.

There was this eerie, creepy music floating through this house, where the walls were made of rock and the carpet was red and looked original to the place. And it was a house — at least, there was a teensy kitchen and sunken living room and loft. But the music was from instruments — piano, violin, organs — that just played on their own; apparently these were one of Alex Jordan’s (many, many, many) obsessions. Throughout the tour there were lots of these automated music machines, some as big as ENTIRE ROOMS, that played on their own or started after putting in a token or two.

There were antiques everywhere! And lovely scrollwork and weird little nooks and let’s be honest here I got more than a little claustrophobic. Luckily we found a little open space in a place called THE INFINITY ROOM.

Here’s what I saw when we got to THE INFINITY ROOM:

Entrance to... Infinity room!

Here is the picture on the wall we missed before going into The Infinity Room. Do you see something missing there? Yeah, I didn’t notice until we got out toward the end AND THE ROOM STARTED BOUNCING.

View down from Infinity Room.

This is from the end of the room, where there’s a window IN THE FLOOR. Notice my Chuck Taylors — this is also the trip where I learned I’m too old to walk around for hours in shoes without appropriate insoles.

After we escaped, thankfully unharmed, from THE INFINITY ROOM (okay, I promise I’ll stop with the caps now,) we continued on with the tour of the house. There were lots of lovely antiques and books stuffed everywhere, which you know I approved of, and the walls were closing in on me so luckily, luckily we finished that leg of the tour and headed outside to end up right where we started, ready for leg number two.

Which I will get to next time.

To amuse you till then, here is the full set of photos I took.

Posted on October 31st, 2009 by Eliza  |  No Comments »

Throwing the baby out, or why social networking is important and how to keep it from taking over your life.

I read this entry on Editorial Anonymous the other day, about whether unpublished writers should do things like create Twitter accounts for their characters as a pre-emptive publicity strike. The blog post and comments have varying opinions on that tactic, but what I found most curious were comments from people that said that unpublished writers shouldn’t blog at all! Because they should be writing instead! And also Twitter won’t be around in a year so why bother.

I have a few problems with that line of thought. First, I guess, is that I look at social networking as an honest attempt at building community. If you only blog or tweet or post on Facebook to try to sell books, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve been connecting with people online for fifteen years — I was very young when I first went online, okay? — but I am still in contact with some of the people I chatted with then. I kind of think of meeting people online like a snowball going downhill — the group of people you know just keeps getting bigger. Yes, I’ve lost touch with some people along the line, but my online social circle has only gotten bigger since 1995. I’ve met a LOT of those people in real life, too. I even met my husband online. I am a fan of online commnity.

Twitter has been an amazing tool for meeting other writers, none of whom, on my follow list at least, are there just to sell their books. Every day, I get a near-constant stream of articles and conversation about craft and about business. Twitter can be totally, totally overwhelming, though. I’ll get to that.

Why not blog, especially if you enjoy it? I subscribe to something I call the Apprenticeship Theory. I think of being a writer as, well, being an apprentice. Every word you write counts, even if it’s not for the all-important novel. Blogging is great writing practice — you learn how to organize ideas, what works and what doesn’t. And if you’re not communicating clearly, you get instant feedback, usually from a comment that says “What the hell are you talking about?”

I know, honestly, that social networking can be a great procrastination tool. It’s easy to log on, fall down the rabbit hole, and look up three hours later with that precious writing time gone and only a string of “Me too! That makes so much sense!” blog comments to show for it. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up completely so you can slave away in your unheated garret, only emerging to eat a mealy apple and stare through a plate-glass window at all your productive friends drinking champagne and laughing at you.

Some tips:

Write first. That makes sense, right? But maybe you’re like me and would never be able to do that. (I just had to be honest.) I write to a timer. 45 minutes writing, 10 minutes internerding. I started out with 7 minutes writing and 5 internet and moved up from there. My eventual goal is to write for an hour straight. Also, if you’re really moving, it’s okay to ignore the timer that says stop writing. Stopping internet time, though, is compulsory.

Too many Facebook emails? Turn them off. (Settings –> Account Settings –> Notifications.) You don’t need to know every single time someone comments on that picture of your college roommate dressed up as a sexy nurse four Halloweens ago that you accidentally clicked the like button on when she uploaded it last April. Besides, all that shows up when you log in to Facebook in the bottom right corner. It’s more exciting to have like ten of those when you load the page than one or two, anyway. The only Facebook emails I get are when someone contacts me directly by posting on my wall or commenting on something I’ve posted.

Loop emails clogging your inbox? Switch to digest mode. If something happens and you must monitor emails as they come in, just go to the group’s main page. Busy loops might have several digest emails a day, but it’s still fewer than you’re getting now.

While you’re at it, don’t check your email obsessively. My iPhone beeps at me every time I get an email, which, let’s be honest here, is a lot less often than I would actually check it if it didn’t let me know, oh frabjuous day, someone thought of me. Unless you’re waiting for something specific, it can wait the 45 minutes you’re writing on the timer.

Do you have too many blogs to check? Google Reader. Use it, love it. Just search for the name of the blogs you check regularly, add them to your subscription list, and boom. The blogs come to you when they’re updated, saving the time you’d normally use loading all of them, futilely, hoping that someone posted in the six minutes since you checked last. I used to use Livejournal’s syndication this way but frankly Google Reader is much easier. (You could always search for ‘elizawrites’ on there if you wanted to add this blog (hint hint.))

Twitter threatening to crush you? It’s super easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you have even a modest number of followers. Leah Jones, social media consultant, came to speak to my RWA chapter about social networking a few months ago, and said something that stuck with me: you don’t have to read every single tweet. You can jump in and jump out when you have a few spare minutes. It’s okay to miss part of the conversation. (This is very difficult for me, by the way.) If there’s something you really must see, the person posting will @msg you. Using something other than just the plain web interface can help, too. Lots of people rave about Tweet Deck but frankly I found it frightening and hid when I opened it up. I use Brizzly on my computer and Tweetie 2 on my phone.

I have not yet discovered a cure for watching three dozen music videos on Youtube or reading six month old flame wars.

I’ve been fighting the internet’s procrastination siren song for a long time, but I’m sure there are many other tips out there to keep focused. Do you have any?

Posted on October 22nd, 2009 by Eliza  |  5 Comments »

Trusting the back brain

In the fiction writing program I attend, there’s an assignment in Advanced Fiction classes called the Steeplechase. The Steeplechase is dangled over students as something terrifying, a rite of passage that only the strong will survive.* In fact, the Steeplechase is a twelve step writing exercise, that, as it turns out, is excellent for building novel backstory.

One of the steps is called Overall Storyteller, which is meant to focus on the narrator’s voice. I’ve been working on commercial fiction for the last five years, though, so I’m much more accustomed to writing a really close third person POV. Which means that I pretty much dreaded writing that bit. We’d done some similar in-class writing that I really struggled with, fighting against my conceptions of head-hopping the entire time, so I really wasn’t looking forward to writing that short section.

But I soldiered on, and wrote a couple of pages about the town where my novel’s set. At the beginning of the story, my heroine returns (after a twelve-year absence) to the small Midwestern town where she grew up. I thought it would be a good idea if I could get an idea of the town’s history. I started in 1897 and wrote up to the present day.

Frankly, I hated it.

That’s okay, though. I turned it in anyway because I’d fulfilled the assignment and also because I don’t have to love everything I write. I got a bit of good backstory out of it and that was enough.

The other night in class, though, it was my turn to have some of my work read. Including, of course, that section I hated. As I read aloud, I worked very hard to keep my pace slow — I have a tendency to read faster when I think the writing’s not working, trying to get to the parts I think are better, I guess.

Afterwards, the class participated in a bit of Recall. Recall is another thing we do multiple times every classroom meeting. It’s simply retelling what we remember from a story, whether we read it the week before (typically at the beginning of class) or just heard it. It’s a quick way to get feedback on what’s working. It’s a very positive environment; there’s not a lot of criticism. The Story Workshop method is 180 degrees from the typical environment in creative writing classes, where the student presents a story and it’s torn to shreds by classmates. Personally, I think there are times for both approaches — Story Workshop when a piece is in the draft phase, the other (which I call Iowa method, after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had a Vague Idea that’s where this system developed, but the internet doesn’t seem to agree with me.) when you’re getting ready to send the work out for publication. But at any rate, my classmates did a little Recall about my work.

Imagine my surprise when almost all of the Recall came from the two pages (out of about six) that I hated the most. There was a comment about how, by writing about people leaving and returning to this little town, I was echoing the theme of the rest of the story.

I was? Oh, I totally meant that. Well, at least my back brain did.

Jenny Crusie calls her back brain The Girls in the Basement. I’ve heard it called the mud, among other things. It’s the subconscious, doing its own little thing back there, writing the story while our ego up front flails around, writing and deleting the same scene or avoiding writing altogether by searching Etsy for tiny bird sculptures.***

We know the stories we’re trying to tell. The novels and short stories and poems are all there, just waiting to be dug out. I once wrote about how my process felt like floating around on the bottom of the ocean, in the dark, scrabbling with my hands and hoping that I’d find a treasure chest. That much, at least, hasn’t changed in the last ten years. But I am learning to trust the back brain to sit up there on deck and steer me.

*Possibly exaggerated for dramatic effect.**
**New blog title, y/y?
***That last bit might be just me.

Posted on October 17th, 2009 by Eliza  |  6 Comments »

Contest winners!

The winners of personalized copies of According to Jane are #3 heather and #7 Ann Victor.

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone! I hope to have another giveaway soon.

Posted on October 8th, 2009 by Eliza  |  2 Comments »