Saturday, October 25, 2014

On Genres

30-30 Writing Challenge

It is the end of October. You only have a few days left to donate on my page for the 30/30 Writing Challenge. I have been writing for at least 30 minutes every day, and much time spent thinking about writing.

The leaves are turning their brief Autumnal flirtations, of sparkle and crash, the red lipstick of a Friday night, the purple of painted toes left bare and open to the rain, and the jaundiced view of Saturday mornings. It does not occur that there are ends to these things. The ends will occur.

Does an oak grow a maple leaf? Does the sweet gum take on the foliage of the magnolia? Even in the wide and ruddy family of Acer, we see different sizes, colors, shapes. To ask any of them to grow other leaves requires skillful grafting and cruelty, if not hubris on the part of the arborist.

How helpful is this extension of a Fall metaphor? It weighs on my mind now, because I am nearly ready to release The Nightingale's Stone. "What genre is it?" This is the question I am most loathe to answer. "What kind of book?" is easier to answer with smartassery: "A good one."

Let us be clear: a genre, like any category, will multiply its contradictions, its exceptions, its grey valences. The piling up of predicates to explain certain books sounds like one of the laughable coffee orders Seattle was once famous for:

"I'd like a split shot YA/vampire-steampunk, with 2% zombie, chicklit-crossover, please…"

But the basic idea I recommend is to think of them as guidelines, especially if you are a writer who reads many different kinds of work. And you are, aren't you?

What sorts of books do you read, and which do you prefer to read? This consideration becomes very important when you are setting out to write. If you are "just starting" you will often write in the genre-styles that interest you. This is an ancient and well respected means of becoming an artist. In the old days, this was called an apprenticeship.

Do you prefer books about undead lovers who need the nourishment of living human blood? Do you feel more comfortable setting your story in current day Manhattan? (Perhaps because doing research on 19th Century Manhattan does not fit in with your schedule?) Did you ever receive delivery of a pair of really kickin' heels obviously meant for someone else? Did they fit? Did you keep them? Did misadventure occur, or did you wish for it to?

That subjunctive part is where the story may start and at the end of it you may have your vampire romance chicklit crossover novel. I'm not sure where the zombies come in; perhaps they are being used as non-union delivery driver/drone labor?

My friend Kristen tells me a lot of chicklit covers have artwork like this.

Most writers, agents, editors and publishers I have spoken with caution against writing in a genre just because it "makes a lot of money." There are probably more rejected romance novels  than any other genre. Why? It makes the most money and so attracts people interested in that sort of thing. Again, there are doubtless expert ventriloquists out there who can write a romance novel according to formula and make it work. But they are vastly outnumbered by those writers who tried it "even though I don't like romance." Writing is a personal sort of job: as I have said elsewhere, if you don't actually like what you are writing no one else will either.

One of the best ways to find out about a genre that you may be writing for is to ask a professional bookseller! For example, if you walk into Elliott Bay Books at Seattle, they will be more than happy to chat a bit about what you may be writing, where they may shelve it, what sort of blurbs and covers grab attention. This is their job, their career, their field of knowledge and you are all part of the Greater Text World. (Just go when they're not so busy.)

A few words on poetry: poetry has had different genres or forms since its very beginning: lyric, epic, tragic, prose, and so on. However, poetry, in general is much more flexible and fluid with regard to its subject matter. The application of something like a "fantasy" to a poem is quite recent and somewhat ridiculous I think. Fantasy has always been  a potential subject matter for poetry!  Science? Parmenides described a spherical earth in a poem 2500 years ago.

So what sort of genre am I working in? What is The Nightingale's Stone? Why it's a magical-realist, historically fictional memoir of course. And there is a nice pair of shoes, a problematic man, and skeptical troll so it can be considered philosophical fantasy chick lit. See? Easy, isn't it?

And don't forget to donate!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Love and Darkness

Cover Art: Ludwig and I discussing matters

The Hugo House 30/30 Writing Challenge is nearing it's last week. David and I have been collaborating on a project called "Love and Darkness:" a ComicZine. As with this blog, the words are mine and David illustrates it.

But what's it about? Pico Iyer's has a deservedly quoteworthy observation that "writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger." When you consider how often we don't choose the right words when communicating with a loved one, the choice of the right word, used in the right way to a stranger becomes even more important.

I have some idiosyncratic attitudes and uses for Love and Darkness, as two subjects, metaphors, domains, etc. and so do all of you! Yet somehow the mutability of language allows us to get what each other is thinking and feeling. Metaphorically speaking, I prefer to think of language as a liquid and not a structure. A while back I wrote a rather opaque little syllogistic piece, I hesitate to call it a poem called "The Knight." This comic explicates and expands on my initial idea.

But it is fundraising time, so I am excited to say that from now until October 29th, 2014, if you donate more than $50 to the Hugo House 30/30 writing challenge, my illustrator and dogsbody David will send you a copy of this Zine.

Sample of the 4th Page
It's a handsome little 7 page folio Zine, and it is a direct result of me writing at least 30 minutes every day. David also claims this is "funnier" than most of what I write. This statement doesn't surprise me, since I think he often misses the more subtle and drier aspects of my humor. His sense of humor "never really made it past Junior High" and well, I don't need to explain it any further than that, other than to translate one part into "Middle School" for many of you.

The details.
The First Giving page will inform me when you make a gift to Hugo House over $50.00. You can include a comment and email address when you donate through the secure web page. We can contact you through the email address, or mail it to a physical address if you leave it in the comment. Either way we can get you the Zine, but we will need some way of contacting you. You can always email me directly at ada (dot) ludenow (at) gmail (dot) com if there are problems.

I would like to thank David Lasky, Laura Shoemaker and Hugo House for their support and insights through this time, and in general. Especially when I have to deal with quarrelsome illustrators to meet deadlines.

30-30 Writing Challenge

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Memory Part I

Dear Mercutio,

Does it surprise you that I shall make a copy of all the letters I send you? From a professional viewpoint, it is very easy for me, since copying letters is how I am frequently employed. It is not for reasons of aggrandizement. If there is any sense of pride or hope for posthumous fame, it does not intrude upon my mind while I copy the letter.

No, quite simply it is because I want to remember what I have said before, and my mind, crowded as it is as a woman of A Certain Age, is not always up to the task of immediate recollection. I do not wish to bore you with a repeated argument. There is some vanity at work here. I do not want you holding your hand in front of your beard and whispering "she's become old already, the flame is still bright but it keeps shining on the same place."

I have earned such vanity, I believe, for I long felt myself unworthy of it. Yet the topic of vanity is for another letter.

This letter concerns memory, at least in part, for that is a vast topic of thought. It is, perhaps the one thing that makes us so much ourselves. You know of my adventure with the Troll in the Harz Mountains, and memory was the central point around which Anton and I danced. Quite simply, it is only a fool who thinks that memory recreates the past. The bigger fool is one who thinks someone drenched in memory "lives in the past." Memory makes a past, at any one time, such as when I sit at this desk and write you. I believe that this present aspect of memory is what makes certain times last so long, while others are the eye-blink moments we strive to stretch out in desire, in regret, in confusion.

I shall not discuss Time, here,  directly, although that building plan may drift in and out of my words. If I return to this copy, I may see the previous sentence and write you a more detailed view on the subject, yet of course it will be only one view, and the one I am in at that point.

Memory reminds me that I must come to an end, or a beginning at least: the teeth of Jormungandouroboros who consumes himself. He must be a tasty morsel, and why not? He is the world after all. But a circle, like a snake, is not memory although it may be useful to conjure that geometric figure to understand what we are doing. Yet a shackle is also circular.

What can I remember? I am echoing Michel deliberately here, since a good memory is often (wrongly) conceived of as leading to better knowledge. What makes a good memory though? More apt descriptions may be a useful memory, a quick memory, but what of a fortunate memory? Many would say it is one that is never right, since forgetting is often held up in diametrical opposition to memory. In some places I have been, forgetting receives the fetishistic worship that remembering something "accurately" does in this City.

You know my skepticism runs down past the ink beneath my skin, below the bones and down into the unnamed, untouchable places that I am.

Memory, like language requires agreement to be effective. I will write you more when I remember it.

Of Furðerseeing
Ada Ludenow

Speaking of Memory, don't forget to donate to the Hugo House 30/30 Challenge!
30-30 Writing Challenge

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Where to write?

30-30 Writing Challenge
The 30/30 Challenge Continues! As a gentle reminder (or a harsh, dominating one, for those of you into that sort of thing) please come by my page and drop some tax-deductible change into the donation jar for Richard Hugo House.

The first thing I am compelled to write in this posting is that the only real thing you can be sure of in writing advice is that you will get conflicting writing advice. Previously, I tried to just give an example of the conditions that compelled me to write. When to write involves the times you are the most productive and then manage your life around getting those precious minutes. Your results and conditions will vary.

But where to write? Aside from paper or your computer, I mean to tackle the thorny topic of physical locations.

Not all of us are blessed with the privilege of a writing office, finely appointed with luxurious furniture and perhaps some oak paneling. I do think good light is important, and that could mean a darkened hovel where the rich and sordid world of your subconscious may feel at home. But home is useless if it is full of people who will bother you.

Some writers prefer to work in barren, empty rooms. Some need to have a full range of fetishes and icons around them to bring the Muse. Finding this ideal is a heuristic enterprise, coupled with a deep hermeneutic of your own ontology. Those with short attention spans should not work near a television. I would also argue that turning off your Internet connection is useful, so perhaps finding a place away from WiFi is necessary.

Places outside of your home? Well, one of the secrets of finding a good writing place, I think: it must be free of distractions.

Here I am in the Café at Elliott Bay Books. I adore Elliott Bay Books. They have carried my work and always have something of interest that I stumble over; no Internet Algorithm can supplant the serendipity awaiting you at an independent bookstore. Whenever I am in Seattle I stop in, and on extended visits I try to write there as much as possible. It just feels like a place where good books are conceived.

However, there are sometimes when Elliott Bay Café does tend to attract… distractions.

And of course I have written an essay or elegiac poem or two regarding a handsome man while enjoying coffee at Elliott Bay, or other Cafés too numerous to catalogue. I should know better by now, but it's the least indulgence I can give myself.

Thinking about just how nice that person's hands would feel on your shoulders is a pleasant pastime.So is imagining their wonderful hands touching your hair. But it usually means you aren't thinking about your plot, putting words down on the page, or writing that synopsis.

Invasive (meaning unwanted) distractions are even worse. It does not matter whether it is a bar, a library, or even the office break room. Those places and their inhabitants will make themselves painfully obvious in a matter of minutes.

Must I even discuss places that have animals? That Cat (you know the one) who finds your keyboard or notepad an irresistible bed just when you started writing? The Dog who is now suddenly hungry for what ever you may have as long as it isn't the food sitting right there? You know that ignoring them will result in acts of repugnant (and usually messy) vengeance.

Writing is, essentially, a solitary activity. The secret I recommend is figuring out a good empty place with everything you need: WiFi, if you can stay off Facebook; good coffee or alcohol, if you can actually write like that; and chairs that don't lull you into sleep. I personally prefer an establishment that does a lot of business when I am not there. This way, they won't go out of business and send you looking elsewhere. The staff are not as keen to get you out the door for new cycles of paying customers and don't forget about actually buying something while you are there and not just one parsimonious cup of low-end coffee that you perch on your table for legitimacy.

Look for places around theatres or nightclubs and go in the morning. If you are church goer, see if you can use a room when no services or groups are there. Many cafés  in business districts do heavy business in the morning but quiet down in the afternoon. I would stay away from anywhere that has regular, steady clientele, unless you are there to study people. If you do that (I am fond of Feldsham's great plaza restaurant in Hagen for this) just go in with the determination and single focus that you are there to sketch characters, not compile great plots.

I think this is most important when you are on vacation or holiday. The great advantage of travel is that you are not yourself, or don't have to be. You are allowed to bend your habits, and this can bring on all manner of wonderful creativity, but again, don't expect to get a lot of work done in a busy restaurant in a tourist town on Saturday night.

Going to an off-season hotel lobby might be just the trick. And don't worry about not having subjects around you. Imagine all of the people who have sat at those "empty" tables. Imagine the clandestine loves, imagine the bitter partings, imagine the droll sameness of it all for those moments when you are feeling like relating the crushing weight of the everyday. It is all there, happening around you in your mind.

Just start writing.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why write?

30-30 Writing Challenge

Why do I write? I could say of course that right now, I am writing for Richard Hugo House, and the 30/30 challenge. Someone recently asked me how I "got into" writing. I was forced into it as a child of course, but it was not a difficult matter of persuasion.

I was lucky to be born with two advantages: for some reason I have a natural faculty with words, languages and symbolic systems, and that predisposition is endemic to both sides of my family who presented sterling examples of narrative practice.

My father, as I have said elsewhere was a notorious storyteller. My mother was also quite adept at fictionalizing: some people may call it revisionism, but the great pains she took to put me in the story and make the plot work out for everyone were often quite ingenious.

There was always a lot of dialogue in my mother's stories

My mother's brother was not as adroit at outright falsehoods, but he did enjoy telling a tale or two especially if it involved any excuse for egregious verbal side trips into the divers interests of humanity.

I have heard writers say "I come from a family of storytellers!" I could of course say the same thing, but it would be a lie, and yet in that lie, I am still telling the truth, for what are storytellers but liars?

How dreadfully dull it must be to grow up in a factual household, where everything from grandfather's legitimacy to current, observable weather conditions is not the subject of speculation, elaboration and falsification: where inveterate hyperbole and chronic paronomasia are not congenital diseases!

In this environment, learning the following was unavoidable:

Plot: It's good to know the details of your lie up front. Familiarize yourself with causality, and know that in the beginning, you must hide 90 percent of the story from your audience. Actual truth is irrelevant and often gets in the way.

Characterization is vital for good lying. The characters must  be  believable in motivation, and appearance. Be careful of using anything that seems fictional, like an outre name (even if it is the real one) because the name draws attention to the essential Untruth of it all. This is a complex magic, and you want to distract the audience away from the strings supporting your levitating assistant.

Sincerity: if you approach your lie with a lie, the lie will get you in the end. For example, don't try to write in genres that are not genuinely appealing to you. The real trick is to convince yourself of your own lies. Once you can do that, everyone will believe you.

Language: It's important to know the language your audience is expecting to hear. I am being someone "loose" in my use of the word language. I don't mean you write in different jargons or slang, unless jargon and slang is important to the people you want to reach. But when addressing a lie to a general audience, I have noticed that spoken fireworks are often more effective than rhetorical pyrotechnics. But also remember that every rule predicates the existence of its counter-example, and so occasionally, for just the right lie, it might be necessary to dust off that Greek.

Competition: My lie will be better than yours, and in fact, if my story isn't good enough, if I detect the slightest advantage you may have owing to interesting narrative devices, whether it is an importune bowel-movement, a three-legged dog, or an enemy's distinctive catch-phrase, know that I shall appropriate these any or all of these advantages and wield them far better than you could ever dream of. (And yes, Yuletide at the modest Ludenow household was full of nonsense like this. Family tradition holds that a particular grandmother of Celtic ancestry was the font of all of this fabrication).

Structure. This is different from plot. It has to do with masses, and shapings and metaphors stolen from sculpture. It is a good idea to know just how much space you will need to write out your majestic screed, just as my father knew how long enough it took me to fall asleep when I was a little girl and oh how endless the details of Polyphemus's island were! I also believe he convinced my mother she was Calypso, when she was really Penelope, and I only learned to understand my father's sly irony when I was grown and given to waiting for Odysseus myself.

Can you learn all of these things from a book? Perhaps, if you read other books and observe how writing is crafted and with what art lies behind it. But you do not have to.

My father never read a word of Aristotle, but his stories always contained a beginning, middle, and end. Mimesis and peripateia came to him naturally. He concocted a mythos better than anyone I have met (with the exception of another Troublesome Man, but you can read my memoir about that). My uncle had read Aristotle and impressed upon me the importance of lexis and the ethos of characters. My mother was a master of both hamartia and anagnorisis.

Look for teachers in the world, beginning with yourself, for they, you, and the world may offer the explanation for why you write.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Otho The Unfortunate

30-30 Writing Challenge 
October means it's time for the Hugo House 30/30 Writing Challenge. Click now to donate!

But for many people it also means a time to celebrate the "customs" of my homeland. I should first point out that I do not come from Bavaria, nor Swabia. But while we eat a lot of seafood, (and we don't wear leather shorts) some of the more familiar forms of Teutonic cooking can be found.

Otho The Unfortunate may seem like a strange name for a common meal that you will see on menus in Hagen, but like Hagen Halibut, there is a story.

Upon a time, there was a man named Otho. Otho was not a farmer, nor a carter, nor a sailor, nor anyone with a trade. He made his living off of others telling outrageous stories and generally impressing the stupid enough to either take their money, their wives or often both. This is not to say he was without charms. He would often talk people into cutting down a perfectly good alder forest, fill in the swamp and sell the land. The people would then build houses with the alder wood and give all the money from the sales to Otho.

While I don't understand all of the details, I should point out he was very handsome.

One day, he chanced upon a beautiful land ruled by an equally beautiful queen. There was a magnificent apple orchard near her lands which Otho mistakenly thought was hers. He desired nothing more in the world to cut down all of the apple trees and develop the empty land. And so without too much trouble, he seduced the queen, but after the climax of his first effort at securing the property, he found out from her that a tribe of Dwarves actually owned the orchard.

So he persuaded the Queen to buy the orchard from the Dwarves. While the queen was in lengthy negotiations, (armies of lawyers were engaged on both sides) Otho took the opportunity to begin cutting down trees. The Dwarves perceived who was really behind it all and with a great spell they turns Otho into an enormous pig.

But the Queen still loved Otho dearly and gave him protection and her bed while she tried to undo the spell. She allowed him to roam at will and so in time he took to eating all of the apples of the Dwarves. When they discovered this, they caught him and gelded him, thinking it would put a stop to his deprecations.

Yet in spite of his mutilation, the queen loved him still and gave Otho shelter. Having nothing better to do, he returned to the orchard, determined to cut it down in an idiom suitable to his new nature and so he began rooting up the trees with his tusks, which were now the only dangerous thing about him.

But the Dwarves had had enough of Otho and so they caught him and killed him. The queen swore revenge, but the Dwarves were craftier than she reckoned. They invited her to their court where they served Otho in all manner of ways but always with the source of his downfall. And the Queen was won over by this combination of pork and apples, and so decreed that it should be eaten every Fall.

At least that is how I understand how the Autumnal dish called Otho The Unfortunate got its name. A breaded pork steak represents the Queen's unfortunate lover, and the apples are of course the cause of his downfall. The red cabbage symbolizes his blood and the blood of all mortals who attempt to understand the gods. The potatoes are a late accompaniment. Hagen is a Heathen culture that does not shy away from suggestive culinary presentations, and so some imaginative cooks will place a bratwurst between the potatoes and underneath the pork steak to represent the real source of Otho's troubles. A crisp lager is the best accompaniment, although its full soporific powers come with a liter of strong Märzen.

Whether you choose to believe this tale or not is up to you, but it is a delicious dish to enjoy on a cold Fall day. I should warn you that getting anything done after eating it is an impossibility. I recommend a good, comfortable couch and a blanket as the most fitting means of bringing the entire endeavor to a close.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


30-30 Writing Challenge

Today is the First Day of the Hugo House 30-30 Writing Challenge, and an excellent day to make a donation. This is not one of my official "30 minute" sessions for that, but is a prolegomena which, to my mind suggests writing prompts.

In many ways writing prompts are like exercises, which I dislike, stinking as they do of self-improvement and discomfort. Although doubtless some great stories grow out of prompts. I was recently asked if I have a favorite writing prompt I like to use.

I am somewhat sheepish in my answer and if you want to flummox me, just ask me that question in front of a group of other writers. The truth of the matter is I'm not all that fond of them.

Why am I embarrassed about this? I am afraid it is my fear of the labyrinth of vanity; because I do not wish to appear like some Grand Panjandrum of self-regard. I know that at best, people will think I am lying, and as the boy who cried wolf will tell you, the pain of telling the truth when everyone thinks you are lying is excruciating.

I feign back and offer up the actual truth. I am usually obsessing or over-thinking something or someone anyway. A writing prompt, like Asterion's maze, will always turn back in upon that idée fixe.

At other times something has captured my attention in an unnatural way; I may try to write out why the sound of a dead fish being slapped down on wet marble makes my stomach turn. For a writer, the world is one gargantuan writing prompt. Often I find inspiration begins in retroactive subjunctive mode:

For example, you may want to write down what you wished you had said to your fiance when he told you he was moving out and in with his teaching intern. I am sure you have some eloquent ripostes to make now instead of stammering for words, a limited color palette of obscenity, and "I can't believe you're saying this." 

But if you need a little shove, here is something called a MacGuffin.

No, I didn't open that briefcase, since I was late for an important appointment. I suspected that untold adventure lay just beneath its cut and broken surface. There would be a chase over the roof-tops of this City, a car chase of course, and a difficult conversation with Jacques Derrida. Fortunately, since this is my story there will be no trace of a middle-aged male MFA professor finding a rejuvenating praxis of creativity thanks to some magical female student who is young enough to be his daughter.

Of course you might also suspect that the briefcase represents the non-linear "end" of a very long and sad story. Amongst a few old fashioned rejection form letters rests a laptop computer that is full of emails to agents and publishers that remain unanswered. Perhaps a tall and broken woman is sitting somewhere nearby and the entire world is as grey and hopeless as March in Seattle. Or perhaps it is her boyfriend's briefcase which she threw out of the window while waxing wroth over the fact he found a rejuvenating praxis of creativity by screwing his manipulative little teaching assistant.

Indeed, I find there are so many situations in which the desire for revenge is the best writing prompt. I like to imagine the ignominious end of that prick in front of me who took the last raspberry chocolate doughnut at Mighty O.

But if you need additional help, imagine yourself as a Conservative Christian, because while I dislike making generalizations, the creative output capacity of a Conservative Christian is staggering in breadth, complexity and depth. Having read the Christian Bible, I can strongly recommend it as a source of writing prompts for everything under the sun. And then some. It is small wonder the title is so popular amongst writers.

So there you are. Imagine you are a male Conservative Christian. You discover a briefcase defenestrated by a tall, sensually wrathful pagan woman who has also just tossed out her useless college professor fiance. She knows you because you took the last raspberry chocolate doughnut one morning when it wasn't a very good thing to do, but you didn't know that. There will be parkour, an old Dodge Tradesman van, and a maddening discussion with Jacques Derrida regarding Saint Augustine. There will be pilchards on wet marble, but this is your story and you have never been more alive.