Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book pitch haiku

I am trying to figure out how to distill the themes in my book down to a one-sentence pitch. This is the result.

Amnesiac girl
Is taken on a road trip
By new undead friends.

Her resemblance to
a strange man's blood relative
left her bleeding out.

She doesn't complain
about her predicament;
her tongue has been tied.

Having ingested
the blood of a vampire,
she glimpses the past.

Her dreams indicate
that her poor career choices
created this mess.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Progress on August goals

Well, believe it or not, August will soon be over. It's time to check in with my goals for the month and see how I'm doing so far!

Goal One: Edit five chapters
I have edited SEVEN chapters! That's about half of the book. Gold star!!

Get the word count down by at least 5k.
I think I was insane when I made this my goal. I have only managed to cut out a little over 4k words. Still, that's almost enough to reach my goal. Silver star!!

Research how to write a good summary.
I haven't worked on this at all! No star!!

Write a pitch.
I've thought about this a few times and haven't written anything down. Demerit!!

Blog regularly.
I've blogged more than I've ever blogged before in my life-- at least once a week. Unicorn sticker!!

Read a book about vampires.
I read one book (Dracula) and started on another (Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite). A+!

I still have a few days left to attempt to do something about the summary and the pitch. Notice how I have a mental block about the stuff related to submitting this book for publication? Hmm.
I have a feeling that both the summary and the pitch are going to be difficult.I think condensing the plot to a summary will make it sound like all my characters are on speed or PCP. It is not a dreamy, atmospheric book. It is a book in which many things go down, and often.
The pitch is even scarier. For one thing, the book has two non-concurrent storylines and two(ish) protagonists. Do I just pitch the "main" storyline and have the other one be a secret? Even if I do this, the concept of the main storyline is sort of odd. The idea of condensing it to a sentence or two makes me apprehensive.
I didn't set out to write something so complicated, but I've come to find I am like the King Midas of complication-- everything I touch gets ambiguous and intricate and obtuse.
Oh well. I'm certainly overthinking this.
Are any of you lovely readers out there good at writing snappy copy? Any advice?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mini progress report

The second draft of Chapter 4 is done. Yay! Now I get to work on Chapter 5, which, in my opinion, was one of the best chapters to begin with-- it has two of my favorite scenes in the book. I am excited about getting to work through it again.
So far I have managed to cut 3033 words from the manuscript and I don't miss any of them. I've only been cutting things I'm 100% convinced are extraneous; I could probably cut more in the long run, but I'd have to really start thinking about what I was doing. I don't want to cut too much and leave the text feeling dry and anemic.
I have been getting some great feedback from my test readers. It's so helpful to have more eyes on the manuscript. They tend to catch things that have blended into the scenery for me because I have read this stuff so many times by now.
It is, of course, never too late to become a test reader!
I am considering putting some excerpts up on the blog, but I'm not sure how that works vis a vis the submission process-- I don't know if it would affect my chances of getting published. I will have to look into it. Dear readers, do any of you know?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The urge

I saw this quotation today in a Facebook post by Otep Shamaya:

"If it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it -- If you're doing it for money or fame, don't do it. If you're doing it because you want women in your bed, don't do it -- If it's hard work just thinking about doing it, don't do it -- If you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently. If it never does roar out of you, do something else."
-Charles Bukowski

Reading this, I realized that I have only experienced the phenomenon Bukowski describes once in my life, and it has been with this book. Never before have I felt like I had to make or do or accomplish something despite all common sense and reason. Never before have I felt like I would be driven insane if I let a creative urge go unrealized.

I don't completely agree with Bukowski's quote; I think that sometimes creative work feels like pulling teeth, not giving birth, but that doesn't necessarily mean the results won't be compelling. Prior to now, I think most of my creative endeavors have been like gardening: planting seeds and watering and watering and watching carefully and hoping to God that something worthwhile will eventually emerge from the dirt. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's usually not very exciting, although it can be gratifying in a quiet way.

I didn't start writing because I've always wanted to be a writer, or because I wanted to have the experience of writing a novel, or because I wanted to make money selling stories about vampires. (Although, if I could make money doing this, I'd obviously be ecstatic.) Nothing about the book was premeditated or contrived or forced.
I started writing because I had an idea that was clawing at the insides of my skull, desperate to be born into the world. If this hadn't been the case, I would have stopped before I was halfway done, I'm sure of it. Writing is a pain in the ass. It's hard. Writing a 100+k-word novel is a ton of work and I am really not the kind of person who would stick it out just because. The only reason I stuck it out was because I had to. The characters were holding me hostage.

This isn't to say that I didn't plant seeds for the story, but I planted them all by accident.
As you might already know, I'm a big tabletop RPG nerd. I love playing roleplaying games, mostly because I love creating characters and interacting with other people in a way I wouldn't do as my own self-- character stats and combat and experience points or whatever are just icing on that cake for me. I become totally involved with creating my characters' back stories and imagining their hidden motivations.

Last year I created a character for a Vampire: the Requiem game. His name was Adam and he was a socially awkward Ventrue.
At first I hated playing him. He was crap at mostly everything he tried to do because I had spent all of his points at character creation on things like the Medicine skill (as it turns out, vampires don't need first aid), and it wasn't super fun playing such an introvert. I almost decided to ask the storyteller to kill him off so that I could start over, but instead I decided to try working on his story and psyche so that I could feel interested in playing him even knowing that he'd probably continue to suck (no pun intended). So I worked on giving my soulless (in V:tR, vampires do not have souls) character some kind of spark.

I'm not exactly sure what I did, but it worked. It worked all too well.

I went from disinterested to obsessed. I started thinking about my character while driving, while at work, while cleaning, while I should have been sleeping... I started thinking about my Vampire: the Freaking Requiem character more than I was thinking about my bellydance career.

What a flagrant disregard for creative priorities.

Soon I came to resent the arbitrary restrictions the rules of the game were placing on my character-- not because I wanted him to be able to accomplish whatever he wanted and shoot lightning out of his fingertips, but because I was sick of being told how he should behave or what he should want by some stupid book.
My character was becoming too autonomous, too independent of my own control, for me to try to impose the rules of the game on him. I tried to make him conform, but he wasn't doing what I was telling him to do any more.
At some point, I stopped thinking of him as "my" character any more, since I'd lost control over him. Shortly thereafter, he started telling me what to do.

This is where my account starts to really make me sound insane.

He started keeping a journal. I was only the scribe; he told me what to write and I wrote it verbatim. I had some downtime at my babysitting job while the baby I was caring for was taking her nap. I'm sure I could have been reading or doing whatever else during that time, but, instead, I let Adam write in his journal. Terrifying vistas of reality began to emerge.
Based on these entries, I started to realize that my initial design for his character was almost completely inaccurate, based on a series of assumptions that no longer made any sense whatsoever. The rules of the game had started to seem less like arbitrary fetters imposed on him and more like vestigial growths full of cancer.
Still, my obsession deepened. I was watching it happen from the outside, powerless to call an end to it. I tried to stop caring about the character-- the level of devotion I'd developed was starting to seem pathological-- but I couldn't. I felt frustrated and at a loss, having dumped so much energy into what seemed like a creative dead end.

In early May, I accidentally found a release valve for all this obsession. In game, my character had just "purchased" an human assistant by means of experience points (yes I know this sounds ridiculous. perhaps because it is.) and I decided to write a short story about the two of them-- just for fun, since the scene wouldn't be something we could play out at the table.
This was either the best or worst thing I could have done. It took writing this silly little story to realize that I could actually just keep writing and not stop --and OH MY GOD I wouldn't have to adhere to the rules any more. I could rewrite the rules! Oh, my God, and I could create an entire cast of characters and a setting and a storyline...


I ruminated on this for about a week and a half. I wasn't a writer, I told myself. I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time on something that plagiarized elements from previously published work, either.
"This is a terrible idea," I said to myself. "It will be a huge waste of time and I already feel totally overwhelmed by my life."
Then, like magic, I suddenly found myself with enough free time to proceed with my nefarious deeds. I lost 3 ESL clients in the same week and I got a sinus infection, forcing me to stay home from the rest of my jobs.
"Well, okay," I said while high on cold medication. "I'll have to start by making an alternate vampire mythology-- otherwise it'll all be wasted effort. But I'm still not a writer, and this is all probably stupidness, so I won't tell anyone about it."
"Fair enough, Sara," I agreed with myself. "We'll keep it secret for now."

I started planning. I found other characters inside my head to become autonomous beings who bother me with their capricious demands. I came up with my own unique vampiresque undead type of thing to write about. At the time, I couldn't figure out what to call them, but I pressed on with the faith that I'd eventually figure something out (which I have, and which I am very pleased with).
Soon, I started writing the first chapter. That was in mid-May. I finished the first draft in late July.

Now-- I can't say whether or not what I have written is "worth anything" or if it is "good" or even "publishable". I put all these terms in quotations not to sound prickish but because they're totally subjective qualities and I'm not sure I'll ever be qualified to make those judgments. What I do know is that I would have lost some or all of my sense of self if I had refused to write it.
It seems totally absurd to say that this, my embarrassingly hack-y first novel-- about VAMPIRES, for Christ's sake-- is the purest and most authentic creative work I have ever produced, but it TOTALLY IS. It came into my brain from out of the ether, as if by magic, and all I had to do was force myself to shut up and write it.

Even if it never gets published-- even if I never finish the editing process (perish the thought!)-- the experience of birthing this weird thing that was clawing at my insides, begging to be brought into the world, has been one of the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life, and I will always be grateful for it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Progress report

I just finished the second draft of Chapter Three. Yay! So far, in my opinion, it is the most improved of the chapters-- it went from being one of my least favorite chapters to one of my most. Go Chapter Three!
I also submitted a micro-short story (1000 words) to a publication yesterday-- well, it's sort of a publication. It's actually a podcast-- a horror fiction podcast, to be specific. This isn't the first time I've submitted a short story to be published, but it's the first time I've submitted something I'm actually proud of. I'm proud enough of it that I will still like it if and when it gets rejected, which I'm sure is the likely outcome here. Of course I'm hoping it won't get rejected, but I won't mind if it does.
I'm hoping to write some more short shorts soon. They're fun to write. I like the challenge of trying to create a compelling story within a tiny wordspace.
All this and I also worked on some choreography this weekend. That's why my house is so hideously messy! Yay!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Questioning Tribal

Above: The author in Indian drag

I guess I'm a tribal fusion bellydancer or something, so I will write about that now.

I have been grappling with my label and genre for years. The depth of my identity crisis is abyssal. I have enough creative angst for seventeen dancers.

I cannot seem to find any nomenclature for what it is that I do that doesn't feel grating. Most of this is because I spend too much time thinking about what it is I'm doing-- with dance, with my work, with my life-- than actually doing it, which I know is a problem; but some of it is also due to the fact that the genre is based in some weird ass historicopoliticocultural stuff, of which I have seen too much.

What has been seen can never be unseen.

I find the word "tribal" to be particularly problematic. Frequently I drop it entirely from my bio, and refer to myself as a "fusion bellydancer" instead, but I can't decide whether this the right thing to do or just confusing for the audience.

I feel compelled to share my questions about the genre with you, dear Interwebs, not because I can claim to have found answers-- but because I can't.

Please feel free to disagree with me, leave comments disagreeing with me, send me emails disagreeing with me, become resentful of my pseudointellectualism (I know I am), throw things at your computer monitor, etc.
Just remember, I'm not trying to tell you want to think, just to think about what you think.
I think.

Question One.
What do we mean when we say "tribal"?
It seems like, in using this word, we could be referring to one of three things:
-tribal in the sense of community-oriented;
-tribal in the sense of ethnic;
-tribal in the sense of primitive.
It seems reasonable that American Tribal Style and other group-oriented forms of Tribal can claim to be using the word in the first sense, at least in part (although this doesn't explain our costuming; see below for more about that). However, if we are talking about solo-oriented Tribal Fusion bellydance performance, it's clear that the word is being used in either the second or third sense.
Which brings me to my next question.

Question Two.
Can the word "tribal" do justice to the roots of our dance?
If we are using "tribal" to mean "ethnic"-- well, what ethnicity are we talking about? (Assuming there is no such thing as an a priori, essential "ethnic-ness" that we can refer to. I think it's a fair assumption.)
Well, let's look at our dance.
We are doing a conglomerate of movements from North Africa, Turkey and the Levant, assembled in California, while wearing shit (I mean-- beautiful textiles and jewelry) from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (And China, and San Francisco, and elsewhere.) Slapping a simple label on this complex melange seems to obscure the actual origins of its components.
Do you have any idea what you are wearing, where it came from, and what it meant to the people who wore it (or things like it) there?
Do you have any idea where the movements you are doing came from, and what they meant to the people who danced them there?
Do you care? Should you care?
I have noticed a trend in interviews and discussions with various 'top name' Tribal Fusion dancers towards claiming that Tribal is an inherently American dance form. This is, in my opinion, both so true and so false. Many of our movements came from American dance forms like hip hop, sure, but the base of our style, as far as I can tell, came from Jamila Salimpour and other American dancers in the 60s and 70s-- whose dance came from the Arab (and Turkish) diaspora in the twentieth century. It was not created from whole cloth in America. Can we stop talking as if it were?
Now, dance is art. Art can't survive if it can't evolve. I am NOT suggesting that we all need to be doing only "traditional bellydance" (what's that mean, anyway? whose tradition, from where and when?). I am NOT suggesting that Americans haven't contributed to the dance form. Of course we have-- even if not everyone can agree over whether what we've contributed is positive or negative. (I think it's positive, because I like diversity.)
What I'm saying is that we didn't manufacture all the building blocks we're playing with, and there's something a little icky to me in obscuring their various places of origin, even when done unintentionally.
What are we hiding and why?

Question Three.
What if we just mean 'primitive' when we say 'tribal'?
Let's say we do mean "primitive" and not "ethnic". Let's say our dance has nothing to do with any specific culture, but rather an aesthetic and a state of mind. To me this is a stretch from the outset, but I'll let it slide for the sake of this argument.
Is primitive a time or is it a place? Or is it a state of being?
Who is more primitive than whom? By whose measure?
Why are we using Near Eastern and South Asian images, ornaments and movements to convey this meaning? What are we saying about those cultures when we do this, intentionally or accidentally?
Do we really mean "atavistic"? "sensual"? "primal"? "spiritual"? "feminine"?
If so, this is modern Orientalism. In supporting this legacy, we are summarizing, simplifying, stereotyping and in many cases fictionalizing things about a complex and very real group of cultures. Not too far down this road lies a subtle and silent kind of racism, one that's all too acceptable in American culture.
I know, I know, you're not trying to represent Arabs (or whoever else) in your dance. But do you think your audiences understand that? Sure, your bellydancer audiences do, or at least they probably do. What about the rest of the world?
I'm not so sure. Are you?

The question from here is, are these the images we want to continue to portray in our dancing and in our discourse about our dancing-- or do we want to come up with something that doesn't lump our dance's cultures of origin into one faceless, voiceless gestalt? Knowing that we can't control how our audiences interpret what it is that we say, do we want to call our dance by an ambiguous and possibly inaccurate term?

I believe that what we call our dance matters, and it has implications.
I'm not sure I want to call mine "tribal" any more.

Title change

As you can see, I've changed the title of the blog. The new name came to me in a flash as I was washing dishes.
I'm happy with it. I think it describes what I have been doing for my entire life.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chapter Three progress report

I started attempting to edit Chapter Three on Monday. I found that some of the scenes really seemed to drag and that they didn't feel real or authentic to me. The exchanges between the characters lacked energy; one of my characters did about twelve data-dump style explanations of various plot points; there was no tension.
You'd think I would be upset, coming to the realization that what I had written was crap. At first, I totally was. However, after mulling the issue over while driving (the best thinking time for me), I managed to figure out what I think is a great way to restructure the chapter. As I've started on the rewrite, I find myself really excited about the opportunity to do this over and do it right.
I'm not getting rid of everything. Some of the later scenes in this chapter are actually some of my favorite in the entire book. I'd like to think I can bring it all up to that level.
In any case, I think that my intuition regarding what works for my story and my characters is improving, and I'm excited about it.

Talking about myself

I have just been interviewed for the first time! Olivia Kaplan at
Under the Sun Bellydance Bazaar kindly asked me to participate in her monthly interview series, and of course I said yes.
I was so enthusiastic about being interviewed that all of my answers are super long and I spent way too much time on many of them. They are my real feelings and opinions, straight from the heart, and thus ever so slightly awkward. I actually talk about performances of gender at some point and how I'd like to be a drag queen. If that's not savvy self-promotion, I don't know what is.
Some of the other dancers interviewed for her digest include Ariellah, Maria Hamer of Zafira, and Frederique; you can read their interviews at the link.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Chapter Two Draft Two done

At this rate, I may be able to edit more than 5 chapters in August, but I am not going to kill myself to make that happen. I would rather spend more time with each chapter--although not too much time with each chapter. I have learned that there is absolutely such a thing as too much editing. There seems to be a critical threshold which, once I pass it, I start looking at the words and they no longer make sense and then I think that everything I have done so far has been a colossal waste of time.
I am my own worst hater.
So far I have managed to delete a little over 1400 words from my manuscript, so I am hoping I won't have too much of a problem meeting my goal of 5000 words deleted from the book as a whole.
It makes me happier than it probably should to delete stuff from the manuscript. It's really not difficult to find things to delete, either. It seems I am a big fan of adverbs, especially those tacked onto speaker attributions. I used them to excess in the first draft and most of them so far have gone right into the trash because they read really badly. I am also a fan of stating the same thing twice or three times in different words-- basically I am the literary equivalent of Mojo Jojo-- which is to say that I like to rephrase my main idea several times to get my point across-- and, again, it reads really badly. Delete key happens as a result.
So far I have sent the first chapter out to four test readers. Oh man, it's nerve wracking!! I want to think that I will be able to take it when, inevitably, one of them gets back to me and tells me they think the chapter is crap, but only time will tell whether or not this is the case. If you want to be a test reader, it is totally not too late! You can always email me at skbeaman (at) gmail (dot) com for info.
In other news, I have started reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. HOLY DAMN. It is extremely weird so far-- and extremely entertaining. Maybe I will try to put my thoughts about it together in some coherent fashion later, but for now I am just going to enjoy its spastic, unintentionally hilarious charms.