Monthly Archives: September 2013

Books I’ve Failed to Write: Excerpt 1

This is the prologue of my jumbled first attempt at a novel, almost ten years old now (she says, distancing herself immediately). Apparently, prologues are unpopular among editors, but I think this one serves as a helpful red flag. Yes, I did write the book the prologue suggests is coming, and no, it didn’t make much sense.

 

He wakes, heart galloping, from a flash of some dark creature pinning him. Her hand has fallen across his chest. Already it is slipping away, the glint of teeth, the unfeeling animal stare, as he takes in the dim room and her sleeping form next to him and his heart slows, terror melting into relief and then forgetfulness. He rolls from struggle to embrace, away from his nightmare and into her arms, the morning. His mouth finds her ear. Her ear finds his mouth. The creature sits back on its haunches and waits.

 

 

             Later, when she realizes that he is gone, she will set about finding him immediately. She isn’t close to her family, doesn’t have many friends, and so there will be nobody to tell her that rescue is a myth, that she should just let him go. She doesn’t think of herself as the type who needs a guy, she doesn’t think she needs anybody, he is the one who needs her. She will be full of doubts, but she won’t doubt for a moment that she is the hero of this piece.

 

             He reaches to turn off the alarm before it rings and the day just slides in next to him, all innocence. Her voice is still raspy with sleep.

            Good morning.

            Mm.

            Hey, you didn’t get up last night.

            Good.

            Those pills must be working.

            Mm.

            Are you awake?

            Yes.

            Open your eyes.

            They are open. Aren’t they?

            No. God, Leo.

She props herself up on her elbows and looks carefully into his face. She wants him to wake up but there is always some regret in her too—he is never more hers than when he lingers between the distractions of his dreams and the distractions of the day. Tenderly, she pries his eyelids open with her fingers.

 

 In the mahjong parlors of Kabukichō and the plaza of Roppongi Hills, making her way across the neon-lit city squeezed between her father and Dr. Rose in the back of the cab, she will think of all the things she wants to say to him which she will never say. Like: you never even noticed when I did your laundry, folding your boxers into squares and putting them in your drawer afterwards, you never even said thank you. You left your little empty pill packets all over the goddamn place. You left my CDs out on the counter without their cases. You knew I hated it, but you did it anyway, just because you’re lazy. But that’s not really what bugs me. It’s that the way you love me is lazy too.

 

“Did you dream?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer. Wrapping his arms around her naked torso he remembers the animal that nearly crushed him. A horse? Fields spin out around him and then vanish. No, something fiercer, something dangerous.

“Are you really awake?” she asks again, and to prove it he pulls her closer and kisses her. She is always so much warmer than he is and he wonders why this is.

This is her favorite thing, love in the morning, when her mind is still pliant with sleep and there are no daytime thoughts or anxieties between her and total self-abandonment. She crawls on top of him, murmuring, “you’re not too tired.” She means it as a question but it comes out like a statement. She pulls his boxers down and he lifts his bum obligingly, like a toddler used to being changed.

 

Despite the litany of complaints, despite her anger, she will go looking for him. She will tell herself he is a weak person and not worthy of her. She will stand on the bridge hung with lanterns, familiar in the strange way that scenes from a dream are when they suddenly appear in reality, and she will think that she has to find him just so she can tell him this, that every day is a choice between joy and despair, and if you don’t choose, something will choose you. There will be a house at the end of the bridge. She will walk towards the house, but it will stay in the distance.

 

            They lie facing each other, heads together on the pillow, foreheads almost touching, their bodies curled away from each other and then almost touching again, but not quite, at the knees. Only their feet are in contact, clasped together at the bottom of the bed. He is beginning to twitch. She feels it and her eyes flick open.

            Do you want coffee?

            Mm.

            I’ll make some.

            OK.

            Don’t go back to sleep.

            Won’t.

            You fat idiot.

            She is giggling. He watches her through his eyelashes, padding naked out of the room. Then soundlessly his dreams sweep over him again.

 

            And when in the dark place she has searched for the unexpected, unimagined amber eyes meet hers, she will give him up at last. Her song will seem a poor gift then and she will almost believe, when she is told, that she didn’t come for him at all, that this is a place we come to only for ourselves, and only when invited. There is no song to get you in. There is no dance to get you out.

Books I’ve Failed To Write Part 1: Another Dance for Amaterasu

Dear Blog,

While I look back with great fondness on my years in Tokyo, at the time I had no affection for the city. I arrived there by accident and stayed as long as I did for love (That Guy had entered the picture, and a friend of the rare sort you don’t let go of easily).

Before that, I was living on a gorgeous island in the Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo, and teaching English at the little island high school. It was one of the happiest years of my life, but that’s another story. The active volcano erupted a year into my contract and, along with the entire population of the island, I was evacuated to Tokyo. While I had spent my first year in Japan with a view of Mikura island across the bright blue water, ambling along black sand beaches and hiking up the volcano, now I was in a bleak suburb with a long commute to work. Later I moved to a slightly less bleak neighborhood with a long commute to another job. I spent much of my time in Tokyo plotting my escape, how I would take That Guy with me and not lose my dear friend. I’d been there for nearly three years when a few different ideas came together, along with my general sense of dislocation, disorientation and wonder, to form the premise of Another Dance for Amaterasu.

I wrote it in fits and starts between work and studies and travel. I meant to write a book in which Tokyo, the city, was sort of the villain of the piece. In fact, I’d barely gotten past the outlining stage when I left Tokyo, dragging That Guy to lovely, fascinating Kyoto (hometown of the friend I wanted to hang onto). I wrote most of the book there, in this beautiful, temple-filled town where I could ride my bike along the river to work, so maybe I’d lost the mood a bit. Then That Guy dragged me to Beijing, where I finished it (and honestly, pre-Olympics Beijing would have made a far better book-villain than Tokyo, but whatever).

The novel featured a young Canadian man called Leo, who suffered from a real sleep disorder I’d read about in a magazine. He was unable to enter the deep sleep stage and remained, when asleep, mainly in REM sleep. As a result, he dreamed vividly and nearly constantly when asleep, and when awake, he was exhausted to the point of being barely functional in his real life. At first the book was supposed to be about this guy navigating his half-real half-dream world as an expat in a city that often felt like a bad dream, his dreams drawing him deeper and deeper into a hellish place made up of fragments of his own past, leading him to confront his guilt about his long-dead twin brother. But as I wrote, the novel became just as much about Leo’s girlfriend, Reina, picking up the pieces, holding him together, and trying to figure out her own place in the world, and about Reina’s father confronting the emptiness of his life following a friend’s suicide and his ex-wife’s remarriage, and about Leo’s doctor, a foreign sleep specialist and a widow, a brilliant perfectionist barely managing to balance her daytime career with increasingly self-destructive nocturnal adventures through Tokyo’s underworld (which I, of course, knew nothing about). Then it was also about the ghost of a Japanese artist reliving his failed marriage and memories of his mistress and the collapse of the world he knew after the war. Add to that a nonsensical blending of Greek (Orpheus and Eurydice) and Japanese (Amaterasu and Ame-no-Uzume) myth. Obviously, there was way too much going on, and my novelistic foray into magic realism ended up in seriously surrealist territory.

Somehow, out of that mess, I managed a pretty good fake-out of a query letter, and the first few chapters were not bad. When I sent queries and samples to editors and agents (under the delusion that this was a good book I had written) I got a surprisingly high request rate. However, nobody who requested the full manuscript wanted to take it on once they had read the whole thing. Everybody said some version of the same thing (“Lady, this makes no freaking sense at all”) but nobody said it as eloquently or with as many specifics as Geoffrey Ursell from Coteau Books. He sent a wonderful three-page letter that somehow managed to be kind and encouraging while completely decimating my book. At first, his letter inspired me to rewrite the novel. Later, rereading his letter, I decided to shelve it. But it sold me on Coteau Books as a good place for a book of mine, and Geoffrey Ursell invited me to send other work. Fortunately, they liked Shade and Sorceress better.

Looking at the synopsis I wrote and my outline makes me laugh now, but when I look at the manuscript itself, I don’t cringe or roll my eyes. The main problem with it is not that it’s over-written or immature or nonsensical (though it is, in places, all of those things). The problem is that it’s not really a novel. At its best, it is five character studies masquerading as a novel. While I’ve shelved it, I haven’t discarded it. I’d like to revamp the sleep disorder premise and keep a couple of the characters and attempt a YA magic realist novel with an actual plot. Or something. It’s possible I just have trouble letting go.

Eric Sipple tweeted recently: “Thought: a first novel typically an extended parade of the author’s fetishes” and I was struck by it in part because I think that really does sum up my own first attempt. While I tell people how laughably bad my first book was, in my secret heart I still love it and want to rescue it from its own confusion and excesses. There is so much more of me in that book than in anything I’ve written since.

The things I learned: I need to focus on plot and hew close to it, because if I don’t, I will wander into some very strange places and lose my focus. Once the scaffolding is firmly in place, I can start to let things bubble up – peculiar, ugly things, little demons I adore but must cut out of the story with abandon wherever they threaten to take over with their chattering nonsense. The balance of control and inspiration is one I am far from perfecting. I love Another Dance for Amaterasu because it is pure inspiration… but it isn’t a book. Not really. Not yet.

Next week, if the prospect of doing so doesn’t make me wither with shame, I’ll post an excerpt. Until then, blog, I am

Yours, still-tinkering-with-how-best-to-do-this-writing-thing-and-what-exactly-I-most- want-to-write-about,

Catherine

 

On Failing To Write A Book

Dear Blog,

I have done a lot of things badly in my life. I don’t remember my brief soccer career when I was a tot, but my family tells me that the coach suggested I was not really a “team player.” At age ten, I frightened off a prospective piano teacher by duct-taping the keyboard shut when he came to visit and sullenly producing a hammer and a set of screwdrivers when he asked where my piano books were. I can’t sing. I was kicked out of my jazz dance class for mutiny (or something like that – jazz dance coincided with my pirate obsession and if you got on my shit list I’d give you The Black Spot). I got average-to-terrible grades in school depending on the year. I was in the math-for-dummies class. There was a time when I was a good runner but my knees couldn’t match my stamina. In high school I was a pothead but couldn’t roll a decent joint. I can’t draw. I can’t mix cocktails. I am barely computer-literate. I still can’t cook except from a recipe. I am a bad driver. I was a bad waitress. I am a passable but not very good parent. The list goes on.

The point here is not just that I am terrible at most things. What I’m getting at is that I am moderately good at one thing. My interests and talents are narrow. Very narrow. It comes down to stories. I love stories – reading them, watching them, writing them. That’s about it.

When I began my first novel, it never occurred to me that I might not be able to pull it off. This was, after all, The One Thing I Could Do. It was a few years before I had to concede that the novel I’d written was, in fact, a failure. By the time I came to that conclusion I had moved on to YA fantasy and was having a wonderful time, so it was sort of a relief, choosing not to attempt another rewrite. I thought “finding my genre” was the answer. Then I failed to write another book. And another. And then a couple of books were published, and I wrote some things I am proud of and excited about, and I started to feel like I had this writing thing worked out. So, if you were writing this story, you’d probably decide this was a good moment for your hubris-filled protagonist to fall on her ass again, right?

***

This summer I had more time to write than I’ve had in years. We were staying with my family in Vancouver, the weather was lovely and cool, and the adult-to-child ratio was suddenly such that I had time to write in silence and solitude every day. No dinosaurs shouting “Heeeeeelp Mommyyyy,” no lego towers collapsing, no sudden shrieks of rage or distress. I was excited because I’d just finished a big revision and I was going to start something NEW for the first time in a long time. I figured I could pound a draft out over the summer. I had about twenty pages of notes / outlining done and on July 18th, I started to write. Chapter One.  Every night for three weeks, Rin has been setting herself on fire.

Almost immediately, I knew it wasn’t working. I figured it was because I’d been revising and rewriting other projects for so long. I’m in perfectionist mode, overthinking the mechanics of it, overthinking everything, and nothing kills a first draft like perfectionism. Just write the thing, I told myself. So I wrote a few chapters, and they were no good. That’s nothing unusual. I write terrible stuff all the time. I deleted the chapters and started over. I wrote six chapters this time, trying to move forwards, but as one day of crap writing followed on the next, I had to admit this approach wasn’t working. I deleted everything, started over again. I wrote, doggedly, and deleted, and wrote, and deleted, and so it went, for the rest of the summer. Then we came home, and I still can’t figure out if the problem is the idea, or me, or what.

***

I have a four year old and a two year old, which means I don’t have tons of free time for writing and really hardly any quiet, focused time. What that means, mainly, is that I can’t slog endlessly at something if I’m not feeling the love. It has to be fun. So I threw in the towel on my awesome idea, hoping I’ll figure out how to write it another time, maybe next summer, and moved on to something else (there is always something else, thankfully). So far, it’s going OK. I think.

But I realized, when I Officially Gave Up on the book I’d spent my summer failing to write, that my failure-to-success ratio is kind of alarming. For every book I finish that actually works as a novel, I have either failed to write a book or written a bad / unpublishable book. I am not sure what it means that I consistently fail at the one thing I consider myself good at, but I had the idea for a blog series about it. I thought I’d call it “Books I’ve Failed To Write,” talk about each failure, maybe what went wrong and why in cases where I think I know the answer, and if I’m feeling brave enough, offer a brief excerpt. (I don’t think brave is quite the word I’m looking for there…). Next week: my first attempt at a novel and What Went Wrong.

Lest I sound too negative here, let me assure you, blog, that I am generally a glass-half-full-of-readable-books kind of author. I might dwell on my failure rate when I am in the middle of failing to write something, but there is still nothing else I do with anything like the same success rate (if success in this case = complete book that I like and which other people might also enjoy, I’m not talking sales here, people!), and it would take a lot more than hundreds of terrible pages or the pinching of self-doubt and disappointment to outweigh the exhilaration of a story clicking and the words being the right words and the moment she slips over the wall and you know who she is and you know where she’s going and you know how it’s going to pay off.

Yours, mostly-at-peace-with-failing-at-the-only-thing-I’m-any-good-at,

Catherine

The Gold Bikini Is Not The Point: My Girlhood Heroes

Dear Blog,

It is supposedly some kind of conventional wisdom that girls will read books about boys but boys won’t read books about girls. I have no idea if this is true, but it is probably partly or sometimes true and we can all guess at what the reasons for this might be. For now, my four year old counts Pippi Longstocking and Mulan and Merida among his heroes. I hope that as he gets older, he’ll continue to like stories about girls as long as I am putting good ones in front of him. I guess we’ll see.

The boys-snubbing-“girl”-stuff is something most of us don’t want to be true, but here is my true confession: I have always preferred stories about girls, particularly when I was one. This is less true as I get older but even now, if I list my favorite authors, the majority are women, and if I list my favorite characters, they are almost exclusively so. I don’t mean to sound anti-boy, and especially now that I have sons I think I ought to broaden my horizons, but this is just how it has played out so far.

Pippi Longstocking was one of the first characters that I fell head over heels in love with. It wasn’t the stories, which I barely remember. It was Pippi herself. The stories were just the scaffolding she clambered around on. Here was a girl unlike any other: totally independent, eccentric, unflappable, and preternaturally strong. Like generations of girls, I insisted on trying to sleep with my feet on the pillow and my head under the covers, wore mismatched socks and spray-painted red braids for Halloween, and sat around in kindergarten wishing I had a horse (and was strong enough to carry it). Pippi was pure wish fulfillment for a kid like me.

I hated anxious, mousy girls in stories, probably because I kind of was one. I liked the mouthy oddballs. I wanted to be Anne of Green Gables, and then I wanted to be Harriet the Spy. The Prydain Chronicles were all about Eilonwy for me. The only straight-up superhero story I remember reading back then was a ridiculous French series called Fantomette, about a pretty superhero with one fat friend and one thin friend. It was stupid and appalling in many ways and the only reason I can think of for why I devoured them the way I did was that Fantomette was a girl with superpowers, and I was hungry for stories about powerful girls.

When I was in primary school, my favorite toys were the three different Princess Leia action figures we had. Princess Leia might have been the only woman with more than three lines in the entire early Star Wars trilogy, but she was enough for me and remained a great hero all through my youth. She was the star, this brave revolutionary facing down Darth Vader in the opening scenes, not whiny, confused Luke or blustering Han Solo. Yes, they put her in a gold bikini in the third movie, but what mattered to me was that she came to rescue the man she loved, strangled Jabba with her own chains, and went on to lead the rebels to victory. There is plenty to be said about the gold bikini, I guess, and plenty has been said, but when I was seven years old, the gold bikini was totally beside the point.

I also had a thing for tomboys, which was often the way a “strong” girl was presented when I was a kid. George from the Famous Five was my favorite, though I’m a bit depressed by that now. I loved the Arthur Ransome books mainly because of ferocious, swaggering Captain Nancy of the Amazons. I wanted my girls brave and loud, while I shrank to almost nothing in the back of the class, striving for invisibility.

As an adult I have a particular weakness for sharp-edged, complicated, dissatisfied, badly behaved characters in books and on the screen, but I still find myself most drawn to the female characters. Exceptions abound, of course, and I won’t bother listing all my favorite male characters here except to say that yes, I do have some. Still, I often think, when I hear that boys don’t like “girl” books, that they are probably just reading the wrong books, and this might be true for me as well. So I’ll close with a request for recommendations. Movies, TV, books of any genre for any age. Tell me your favorite male characters.

Yours, still-sort-of-longing-to-be-Pippi,

Catherine