Monday, August 31, 2009

Lord of the Procrastinators

The summer has ended and school is here. Wha' happen!? It all went too fast, like it always does. I didn't get the writing done I wanted to, I didn't get all the reading done I wanted to, and I certainly didn't get all the traveling in I was hoping to. But such is life, I suppose, and there were some unexpected surprises in there that I'm pretty happy about, so I can't really complain.

I will only be teaching at the Orange County High School of the Arts this term and most of the classes I've taught before. I'm hoping this means I'll have more time to write, but that remains to be seen. The only new class I'll be teaching this term is an author study class on J.R.R. Tolkien and that has dominated most of my summer reading and research. I can't think of a better way to be humbled as a writer than by learning about Tolkien. The guy, no doubt, was a genius. He could read and write dozens of languages, many of them extinct, he was an Oxford don, he helped write a dictionary, and of course, he wrote one of the most famous pieces of literature of all time in The Lord of the Rings. I think any writer who has tried his or her hand at fantasy fiction is probably daunted by the breadth of scope and epic brilliance of The Lord of the Rings (any writer who isn't daunted is either an egomaniac or an idiot, probably both). Tolkien had an amazing imagination and the mythology he developed to explain the origins of his created languages—which eventually became The Silmarillion—was so pervasive in his mind that he couldn't help but set the stories he wrote into the world he created. I've yet to see a fictional world by any other writer that has come even close to the complexity and depth of Tolkien's Eä and Middle Earth.

So yeah, I feel pretty small and insignificant in comparison, but there are a few encouraging things to take from Tolkien's life. For one thing, he was a chronic procrastinator when it came to writing. It took him twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings (granted, he wrote a lot of it by hand and it was over 1,000 pages long). For another thing, he was a little insecure about his writing and might not have published The Lord of the Rings if it weren't at the urging and encouragement of his publisher and friends like C.S. Lewis. So the guy was at least partially human and that makes me feel a little better.

Although I am in the process of writing my own fantasy novel, Dreamwielder, I am taking pains to try and veer from the path Tolkien blazed for fantasy writers over fifty years ago. My story is much less epic in nature in it is not so clearly a tale of pure good vs. pure evil. In addition, whereas Tolkien's work was very much a fictional mythology for the ancestral inhabitants of the British Isles, I see my own novel very much as an American fantasy.

The one area where I am taking a page from Tolkien, is with his narrative voice. As C.S. Lewis said in his review of the book, The Lord of the Rings is a heroic romance. Its formal prose and conspicuous, omniscient narrative voice is a stark contrast to what was being published at the time. This was the era of Hemingway's minimalist style, Faulkner's stream of consciousness, and the shocking first person narrative of Nabokov's Lolita, and more than one critic took issue with Tolkien's almost archaic form of writing. Today, it seems to me that the conspicuous, omniscient, third-person narrator is almost entirely gone from literature with the exception of in children's fiction. Today's fiction, especially genre fiction, is dominated by either first person narratives, limited third-person narratives (i.e. limited to one character's point of view), or what's called “best-seller point of view” which is essentially a limited third-person POV that jumps around from one place or time as necessary to advance the plot. Maybe I'm crazy, but goddammit I am writing my novel in a very conspicuous, very omniscient narrative to try and capture the feel of the heroic romance. There are POV changes within the same chapters and—fuck it—I'm not even using section breaks to denote the POV changes.

I haven't gotten back to writing yet (like I swore to do in my last post), but I have gone back over the first few chapters of my manuscript and I think it works. Who knows, I might change my tune after the first draft is done or when an agent or publisher waves money in my face, but for now I'm pretty determined this is the right type of voice for this story. If Tolkien had anything, it was persistence and conviction, and at the very least, I can take that from him.

There's not much else to mention in the way of writing news. I misread when my flash fiction piece comes out in Zygote in My Coffee. The piece should actually be out any day now, not back in early August like I initially stated. Other than that, there's nothing too noteworthy. I've got all my unpublished stories and articles out for consideration with editors, the Dark Days script I'm writing with Eric Tryon is more or less finalized until we get to the live readings, and there still have been no bites from publishers for Baldairn Motte. School starts tomorrow, though, and I'm confident that'll remotivate me to get back to work. Here's to it. Cheers.

-Garrett Calcaterra

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to the Machine

Several years ago I was swearing up and down that MySpace was a juvenile waste of time and that I'd never join up. Shortly thereafter, I joined up. I was right, of course. MySpace is juvenile and a monumental waste of time, but so are most things on the Internet and, besides, I allegedly created my account to be a homepage for my writing career, so why not? I solaced myself by insisting that was as far as it would go. When friends started joining Facebook a year or so later, I said to them that Facebook could go to hell and die. I certainly didn't need to be part of two social networking sites. Yeah, that time I held out for about a month before joining.

Considering my lousy track record at avoiding on-line conformity, it should come as no surprise then that I'm now writing this blog. This from a guy who up to a few months ago was still ranting that blogs are pointless. Oh well, a guy is allowed to have a change of heart, right?

Despite my previous railing against blogs, I hope this particular blog does actually have a point, even it is an entirely self-serving one. Here's my thoughts for the purpose of this blog:

1) Like many writers, I am a notorious slacker. I set grandiose goals and deadlines for myself and rarely meet those deadlines. I figure if I use this blog to publicly announce my goals, then maybe it'll hold my feet to the fire, so to speak, and I'll actually be more diligent. Consider it an experiment, if nothing else.

2) If I commit myself to posting a new blog entry at least once every two weeks, I'll at least keep my writing chops somewhat honed. In addition to the fiction and screen-plays I write, I like trying my hand at non-fiction articles and travel-writing and I suspect a blog can be a fertile breeding ground for new non-fiction ideas.

3) There is an off-chance that someone other than my parents has a passing interest in my writing. If any such people exist, this is the place where they can come to learn about new publications I have coming out as well as the projects I'm working on and shopping around.

So, let's get started. Number 1: my goals. Right now I'm finishing up a large book-editing project for another writer and I haven't looked at my own writing in two months are more. I hope to remedy that soon and get back to writing my own book, a dystopian high-fantasy/steampunk novel tentatively titled Dreamwielder. The book is entirely outlined and I've got about 100 pages written thus far. My goal is to get back to writing by the end of August so as to gain some momentum before September rolls around and I start teaching classes again. I'd like to sustain that momentum through the semester and have a working first draft of the novel done before Winter Break. There I said it, now I just have to do it.

Number 3: Upcoming publications and active projects. (Yes, I'm aware I skipped number 2. I'll get there...) As of tomorrow (August 6), I should have my flash fiction story “And the Winner is...” coming out in the on-line publication Zygote in My Coffee. The story is an unwholesome, hopefully funny, little piece that'll fit right in with the irreverent nature of the webzine. This publication is the second of three flash fiction pieces I sold this summer. The third comes out in October, I believe, and it sort of marks the end of the nice little stockpile of short fiction pieces I had accumulated and was sending out these last few years to editors. Incidentally, this is the reason I pulled all of my short fiction pieces from my MySpace page. Nearly all of them have been published or are pending publication now, and enough of them are available for free on-line that I don't feel it's necessary to keep them posted on MySpace .

Let's see, what else? Fellow writer Eric Tryon and I continue to collaborate on writing a script for a short horror movie that is slated to be filmed this upcoming winter by film maker Pete Vander Pluym. I think we are on revision twenty or so now, and we're both beginning to realize that short scripts need to be much tighter than full-length feature scripts. The other collaborative project I've been working on, The Roads to Baldairn Motte, is more or less wrapped up now. Ahimsa Kerp, Craig Comer, and I have all finished the separate novellas and mini-stories that make up this historical-fantasy mosaic novel, and Craig is in the process of spearheading our effort to find a publisher. It's a fairly unique type of novel, so it's not going to be an easy sell. The writing and stories are great, though, and I'm hoping some small publisher out there will give it a shot.

And lastly, number 2: some writing miscellanea. I know Comic-Con is two weeks gone now, but I still have some lingering thoughts after attending my first ever comic convention. In one of the panels I attended, DJ MacHale (author of the Pendragon series of fantasy books) was asked if his characters ever seemed to take on a life of their own and he finds himself having to rethink his plots while writing. MacHale acted almost offended, and spouted off that any writer who let that happen was a horrible planner and that, by god, he was the boss of his characters and they would stay in line with his master plan. This seemed rather disingenuous to me. I plan and outline as much as the next writer, but the fact of the matter is, as much as you plan and think you know your characters at the outset, those characters don't become real until the writing process actually starts. I think good writers are flexible and allow their characters to grow and develop as the story grows. This requires rewriting and revision, of course, but that's all part of the writing process. I've not read anything from MacHale and I don't mean to criticize him prematurely, but I have a strong suspicion that his characters might come across as flat and contrived. Anyone that's read his stuff, please weigh in on the matter and let me know what you think.

In stark contrast MacHale, I saw Ray Bradbury speak the following day at Comic-Con and was duly impressed. Bradbury is 89 now, in a wheelchair, and more than a little kooky, but he's still got fire left in him. When a high schooler came up to the mic and asked him what advice he had for aspiring writers, Bradbury went off for about ten minutes. He spoke passionately about how you have to let your characters grow and become real during the writing process. To illustrate his point, he said that he didn't write Fahrenheit 451, but rather that Clarisse, the little girl at the beginning of the book, wrote it and that the whole thing started as a conversation between Clarisse's character and Leonard Meade, the protagonist from his short story “The Pedestrian.” Bradbury has a penchant for over-romanticizing the writing process and giving his muse all the credit, but I have to say, he seemed much more genuine than MacHale and a helluva lot more inspiring.

Another thing Bradbury talked about was his love for comics. He credits comics for teaching him to read and understand stories long before he could ever read words. He's been a huge proponent of comics forever and even argued during his talk at Comic-Con that comics should be used as educational tools for pre-kindergarten students. Might seem crazy to some, but I'm not entirely convinced he's off base. Another of the panels I attended was specifically focused on using comics as a teaching tool. It was moderated by three university professors and they all argued that studying comics is not any different than studying cinema.

I never really had any exposure to comics until this last school year when I decided to learn about them and teach a course on comic book script writing. I realized while doing my research that I had no idea how to read comic books. After reading several books and articles on the history of comics, sequential art, and visual story telling—including this great article on how to read graphic novels written by a librarian: —I realized that the comic is a unique form of story telling that actually dates further back than cinema. I'm certainly not well-read in the realm of graphic novels and comics, but from the modest sampling I've read thus far, I have to agree with Bradbury and the profs who were arguing for their usage in education. One of my favorite graphic novels so far is The Walking Dead, written by Robert Kirkman. I've only read the first two volumes so far, but in my opinion the writing and character development is as good, if not better, than anything you'll find on TV or at the movies these days. Plus it has zombies, which is always a plus (although, I have to admit, I fear zombies are getting over-saturated in popular culture at the moment...).

Well, this is probably already too long for your typical blog entry, so I'll quit my yammering. For those interested in following this blog, I'll be posting it both at and on MySpace at If you have any thoughts, comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Until we meet on the machine again,

Garrett Calcaterra