Fiction

Write While Your Car is Being Towed: The Fishing for Fiction Method

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Today The Readdicts, who have been quite generous in featuring my work in the past, ran an interview as part of the Angel Virtual Book Tour.  To read the full interview, follow the link above.  In the interview, I talk about the inspiration for the novel Angel, the character Ian (you can also find a link to a character interview of Ian that I did earlier with Readdicts), my decision not to publish a sequel and my attraction to British literature.  Here is one question and response to whet your appetite:

Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule?

(how often you write, any specifications you follow, a particular writing area you have, etc.)

The folksinger Arlo Guthrie tells this story about inspiration being like fishing.  You sit by the river and you put your rod or your net in the water, but the fish has to come to you.  (The punchline is that he is downstream from Bob Dylan and so he can only catch the ones Dylan throws back.)  

My process is that I simply write a lot.  I don’t let ideas keep swimming downstream.  I keep pens and paper around and I get out of the shower and I write down what came to me in there.  I honor writer’s block as a message that I need to stop working consciously and go away and let my subconscious do its thing for a while.  

Even when I have an assignment for something like a corporate speech, the process is essentially the same.  I write down my initial thoughts and ideas and then I go away and do something else and at some point while I’m taking a nap or driving I’ll have that lightbulb moment.  I think of it like the subconscious oven timer going off.  It delivers up the thing that brings my disconnected ideas together and then I write very quickly after that.  

With a novel, I never write in order, I just write scenes and dialogue and bits as they come to me, and then later when it seems there are enough pieces I put them together.  I guess I learned the technique of writing earlier to the point that it is highly internalized and so the key at this point is just catching the fish.

I am on tour with a ballet project five months of the year and spend a lot of time driving.  A lot of ideas come to me then, and I scrawl them in little notebooks.  Most of Angel was written this way.  Part of it was scrawled in notebooks as my car was being towed, broken down in West Virginia.

I am a full time writer when I am not on tour with the ballet project, so I write pretty much constantly.  Whenever I can.  I never have a problem making myself write.  I have the problem of way more text than I will have enough years of life to develop.

Interviewing in 140 Characters or Less

In case you missed it, this is a transcript of the “twitterview” I did yesterday.  This visual version was prepared by Novel Publicity.  I did want to point out that a couple of my answers, which were across two tweets, were combined in this transcript and a few of the questions and answers were omitted.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

On the question of whether aspiring writers should look for an agent or try to find a publisher directly I replied:

Initially, I just sent proposals using Writer’s Market. My biggest seller (85,000 copies) sold that way. After that, got an agent

Once you have a track record you can get an agent. Yes, it is a Catch-22.

Upsides and downsides to working with agents. They get you things you won’t on your own, and it is good to have someone in it w/ U. (I ran out of characters on this tweet.)

But if your agent doesn’t like a proposal and you really believe in it, don’t take it as the last word.

—-

Also after the end of the official twitter view I answered a question about whether there will be more from the characters in Angel.  (Short answer: Maybe.)

And I added on the question about the inspiration for the character of Ian:

A bit more on the inspiration for the character Ian, see the third question in this interview: http://bit.ly/ukwTv6

How to Write Dirty Books Without Even Trying

“By taking communion, he was acknowledging the divine nature of his immortal soul. His inner and outer beauty merged and became one, inviolate, complete. Of course, a person’s soul can never truly be possessed either. But unlike physical beauty, it can be shared: a pair of souls in holy, holy communion.”

Is this erotica? Amazon believes it is. So does Google Books. So do a lot of book selling sites.

My novel, Angel, is the story of a Christian minister whose assumptions are challenged when he finds himself falling in love with another man. Not only does Amazon categorize it under “gay erotica” it sometimes comes up with the tag “gay sex” even though the only sexual activity described on the page is kissing.

It never occurred to me that this was what constituted “erotica.” I admit that I don’t have first hand experience of gay male sex, which explains my confusion. In the straight world, for a book to be considered erotic, it has to contain descriptions of actual sex. I had assumed that the same principle would apply when the protagonists were two men. I didn’t know that it was considered explicit sexual content when two men’s lips touch.

Every time I turn around I find another site calling Angel “erotica,” so it must be true. Book sellers are in the book categorizing business, after all. They must know what they are doing.

“Paul leaned in again, and this time their lips touched, tentatively at first. Ian responded, gently teasing Paul’s lips with his own. An invitation and an answer.”  

Erotica.

I have not yet figured out how to capitalize on my salacious infamy. Some friends have suggested that now that it has been explained to me that I am a writer of erotica, I should embrace it—- go all “Fifty Shades of Gay” and make a million dollars. I should build up a following of avid erotica fans and churn out volumes of hot man-on-man action like:

“So they unfolded the futon, pulled out the afghan, and curled up to watch whatever was on TV. Ian rested his head on Paul’s right shoulder with his arm draped across Paul’s chest. Paul lazily ran the fingers of his right hand through Ian’s hair.”

I have been trying to decide what my porn name should be. My name is already Laura Lee. What can I come up with that is better than that? The thing is, I’m just not sure I can handle a gay porn writing career. Why?

Because frankly, gay men, I’m disappointed. All my life I’ve heard so much about your promiscuous sex lives, your freaky three-ways, your glory holes, bondage dens and anonymous encounters in the baths. Who knew that all it takes to get you off is resting your head on another man’s shoulder while you flip through the channels on TV?

You guys are boring! The straights get steamier in the Biblical epics on the Family Channel.

So a career writing gay erotica is not for me.  So let me take one more stab at getting your juices flowing before I retire from my pornography career:

“My personal feeling about why the church tries to promote sex
only within marriage is that ideally it preserves the real life-affirming
kind of sexuality. It’s not just about sensation and your own pleasure, it’s
about connecting to someone else on a deep and serious level. Maybe
churches are clumsy in how they express that sometimes.”
“Clumsy, like saying only straight people can have that.”
“Yeah, clumsy like that.”
“You think two men can have ‘life-affirming’ sex?”
“Yeah, I do. Of course they can.”

Are you breathing heavy?

Now it occurs to me that maybe I am not being fair.  It is possible that it’s not you, gay men, it’s me.

I read an article today on Indie Reader in which author Pavarti K. Tyler discusses the steamy texts of Anais Nin and Henry Miller.

“It isn’t surprising that Nin found it necessary to self publish. Art which challenges peoples’ notions of sexuality is always difficult to find funding for, especially the type which deals with women’s sexuality,” Tyler writes. “Historically in the US, erotica has had tremendous difficulty finding an audience… When she moved to America with her second husband, she found her titles had almost no market and were unavailable to the general public. Meanwhile, Henry Miller’s infamous works ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ (also initially self-published) were achieving critical and financial success. What is interesting is that as crass as Miller’s prose can be, it was always considered ‘literature’, while Nin’s much more poetic style carried the less commercial label: ‘erotica’.”

A couple of years ago I read a novel by a male author.  It was the story of a gay male divinity student.  I can’t recall the author’s name or the title any longer, but what I do remember is that the book opened with the protagonist waking up in the morning after a particularly successful night cruising, and unable to remove his cock ring, still on from the previous night, he wears it to devotion under his robe.  I learned about that book through a review in the gay press.  It was reviewed there, in exactly the way “erotica” is generally not.  It was labeled as LGBT fiction.

So maybe it all comes down to that porn name of mine.  Angel by someone named Laura Lee just sounds like erotica.  So it must be.

What Does Writing LGBT Literature Mean to Me?

Blog Hop“You wrote a novel?  That is so exciting.  What is it about?”

It’s an experience that I, as a straight person, hadn’t really faced before but one that has since become familiar. 

It’s that moment when you look at the person making friendly conversation, asking you about your life, and you stop and size her up.  How do you imagine she is going to react?  Do you know her to be a conservative Christian?  Will she think of you differently after you respond?  If you work with her, might her feelings about your response affect how she views you as a client? 

My book is about a Christian minister who falls in love with another man.  It’s about how his faith and relationship with his congregation evolve as a result.

Do I say this directly or do I speak around it?  “It’s a bout a minister and his relationship with his congregation.”  “It was inspired by a trip I took to the mountains.”

Coming out.

No, I can’t claim to know what it is like to have this come up about everything: your weekend plans, your family situation, “Who is that person who brought you lunch?”  But writing LGBT literature, that is to say, writing one book about gay and bisexual characters, has given me a small taste.

Before I wrote the book, I had the luxury of holding but not voicing my opinion when it was not convenient, of keeping quiet and letting people assume I agreed with whatever they believed.  Like most luxuries, it came at a high price: fear and inauthenticity.

I have friends who have reacted with— let’s call it surprise at the topic of my book. They love me anyway.  My worries were unfounded. That realization spills over into many areas of my life.  Trying to avoid offending anyone is a great way to avoid saying anything worth expressing.

I have a theory that social change happens not when the first trail blazers take a stand— as important as they are.  The change really happens when average people stop nodding in agreement to things they don’t believe.  I do think we’ve reached a point in history where a lot of people have stopped nodding.

I read a poem once with the title “Unlearning Not to Speak.”  That is what writing lgbt literature has been for me, a process of unlearning not to speak.

Review of the novel Angel by Laura Lee: Fighting Monkey Press

This is a love story.  Written with the depth and insight of  The Prisoner’s Wife by asha bandele or Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson, Angel is a surprising piece of literature…

Angel is an exploration of faith, an exploration of the nature of love, and forces the reader to think about the difference between private and public identity.  I have to admit, this one made me cry a number of times.  The raw emotions, the lyrical writing and the unadulterated adoration Paul felt for Ian was overwhelming at times…

Angel is a book that needs to be read a few times.  It should be essential reading for Gender Studies and Seminary in dealing with issues of Sexuality. It’s deep, it’s thoughtful, its beautiful and evocative.  Angel challenges the reader to look at themselves, their lives and re-examine their preconceived notions.

Most of all though Angel is a love story.  And you should read it.

Discuss: Why Are There No Female Peter Pans?

From the article Who is Peter Pan? by Alison Lurie in the New York Review of Books:

Girls in children’s books often visit other worlds, but they seldom want to stay. Though Wendy enjoys Neverland, she is the first to suggest that they leave. Alice is uncomfortable in Wonderland, and in the first few Oz books Dorothy Gale keeps trying to go home to Kansas—though in later sequels both she and her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em end up in the magical world, where they will never age or die.

There are, further, no Lost Girls in Neverland. Barrie explains this by telling us that the Lost Boys were all babies who fell out of their perambulators, and that girls were always too clever to do any such thing. Today, perhaps for a similar reason, there are few female slacker films. Women in popular culture are often shown as upset and depressed by the idea of growing old, usually because age will make them less attractive to men, but they seldom seem to long for a permanent adolescence in which they can hang out with other lazy, unemployed females, get drunk, and talk dirty. Usually they want the traditional perks of successful adulthood: good jobs and expensive clothes and attractive lovers and husbands. Possibly, after being treated as irresponsible children for so many years, they have no desire for that role; while men, with a long history of pressure to grow up and take responsibility, are still dreaming of escape into perpetual youth.

The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.

I Hate Book Marketing!

There, I said it.

You hold the first print copy of your novel with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  But after a few days in the self-promotion trenches, you start to feel about as dignified as a telemarketer who calls during dinner hawking herbal Viagra supplements shipped from Uzbekistan.

I hate those rah-rah, go-get-‘em, book marketing web sites. You know the type. It’s run by a cheery expert whose claim to fame is his circular ability to sell himself as an expert on how to sell. His only book is an ebook on how to sell an ebook. Each page is framed by six different ads for the product. Every article (“7 Ways to Market Your Branding,” “10 Ways to Brand Your Market.,” “6 Surefire Ways to Get everyone Buzzing about Your Book Buzz!”) is embedded with at least three references to it: “As I mentioned in the third chapter of Marketing Books for Book Marketers….”

I roll my eyes and then get back to work.  I fire off a guest article pitch to a popular book blog.  The article is focused on a subtle lesson I learned while writing my novel. (Angel by Laura Lee available wherever fine books are sold) That’s when I start to wonder if there is really much difference between me and Mr. Buy-My-Book-Marketing-Book.

But I want you to read my book.

You see my problem?

The process of writing a novel was as selfless as anything I’ve experienced. After a lot of effort and trial and error, when I finally came to what my story should be, I felt as though I had discovered it whole. In the past when I wrote fiction I labored. This time, once the pieces fell into place, I wrote in a complete state of flow. I felt as if my characters were real beings.  Because I was the one who had found them, I had a responsibility to them to get the story right and to work on the craft of writing to the best of my ability.

In the best possible way, I did not matter. I wrote in order to lose myself and to see life through someone else’s eyes.  By so doing I hoped to have an intimate conversation with far away people I would never meet. My role was matchmaker. I would introduce my characters to someone in Boise, Idaho, and with any luck they would be meaningful to his life in some way.

Once the writing was done, though I had to shift gears entirely. I had to talk myself up to potential publishers. I had to think of my fictional world in terms of sales and market niches.  I had to boast about my resume.

Now I’m in the awkward position of asking people to drop what they are doing in their busy lives and to pay attention to what I have to say. Buy my product! Listen to me! Listen to me! This part feels anything but selfless.

I’m trying to find a way to overcome this feeling and see the shameless book plugging as part of the matchmaking process too. I can’t introduce my characters to the world by being quiet and hoping people discover the book on their own. This part does not come as naturally or comfortably to an introverted literary type like me, but I am trying to persuade myself that it is the next responsibility that I have to my characters.  I must do enough talking so that the people who are supposed to meet them have the chance. 

Don Quixote, Da Vinci and the Invisibility of Children in Literature

In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

I found this to be quite thought-provoking.  I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is.  He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”

If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged.  His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.

This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel.  Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds.  Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement.  The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over.  (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)

Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated.  Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.

The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy.  He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment.  There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote.  But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.

It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman.  Imagine Donna Quixote:  A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality.  She would have a hard time.  If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her.  Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing.  She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic.  Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women.  Neither makes for a great hero.  If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind?  Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.

Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters.  I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.

Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs.  This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life.  He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.

Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir.  The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship.  If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present.  In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.

I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus.  The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man.  It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been.  The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.

Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children.  The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question.  Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?

This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?

We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds.  He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers.  Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?

It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic.  If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern.  Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less.  Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.

It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.