Thursday, November 29, 2001
Today I returned to work on "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" and managed to write about 400 words in roughly five hours. Which is fairly average for me and explains (to all those who have felt the need to ask) why it takes me so long to write a novel. I expect there are oodles of witty quotes by writers on the difficulty of making the words flow, but I don't feel like digging any of them out right now, so you'll have to settle for whatever I can scrape up.
Sitting in a small and windowless room, staring at a computer screen, alone except for the voices coming through my headphones (Tanya Donelly today), trying to find the story and having found the story trying to find the words to tell it with, the right words, the only words that will do, to make it sound the way it has to sound. Have you ever fallen in a bunch of prickly pears and had to pick all those spines out of your skin afterwards? Well, it's a lttle like that. Only much more irritating. At least prickly pear spines draw blood; writing is a singularly bloodless injury.
But it pays the bills.
And I was thinking, earlier, how there's this stigma attached to "writing for money" and how odd that is, as though writing is akin to sex (another "creative" act?) and writing for money is akin to prostitution in the minds of so many people. Whoring with adjectives, so to speak. Do I give good prose? Look up the definition of "hack." So, there must be the perception that writing, like the priesthood, comes with some higher purpose in tow. Getting paid well somehow sullies the purer cause. I've heard writers dismiss something or another that they've written by explaining, "Oh, yes, I know that sucked, but I only wrote it because they paid me so much money." And then we might even forgive them a piece of crap, because we have a sensible explanation. That wasn't a real orgasm. I was only faking the plot. Dorothy Parker and F.Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner in Hollywood.
And I've lost track of the times that someone's been rattling on at me about one of my novels or short stories and I bring up The Dreaming and either their eyes glaze over or they ask, suspiciously, "Comics? Oh, really?" But then I tell them how much I get paid to write comics and suddenly that puts a whole different spin on things. "How wonderful," they say. Does this mean we think more of well-paid whores?
So, I sit in my room, which has no windows, and wonder if it's raining outside or the sun's shining, and try not to think about the fact that this is how I have to keep the bills paid, whether I feel like writing or not. How I'd better not get sick because I have no health or life insurance. "But don't you feel driven to write?" And what if I say no? What then? Is it the work or is it the author's attitude towards the work? Does it ruin it for you if I'd rather be picking pricky pear spines out of my ass? Well, I hope not.
So, this is me after a typical writing day. It is not "fun." It is rarely fulfilling. It sure as hell isn't easy. It only leaves me dreading tomorrow and all the blank space that has to be filled again.
What she lacks in enthusiasm she more than makes up for in [fill in the blank]. There. Now we're interactive.
And what's funny about all this (well, hell, I laughed) is that I can still manage to suspect that it's just something wrong with me, another way I get to play the freak, and that most writers live for the process. They find joy in the endless, lonely hours of composition. They do it for the pure artistic integrity of the thing itself, not some worldly reward. They believe they are among the luckiest people alive, because they actually get paid to make stuff up, to entertain, and surely it's better than a day job, right?
"But Cait, before you made a living as a writer, you wrote then, didn't you? Before there was any money. Why did you write then?"
Wait. I'm trying hard to remember.
Tuesday, November 27, 2001
I'd better do this early tonight or it won't get done at all because paleontologists have to get up a lot earlier than writers, and writers stay up a lot later than paleontologists and, lately, my dual life (Are there possibly only two of me? Really?) is seeing to it that sleep seems like an indulgence.
Neil called tonight and told me that it was snowing at his place. Not here. Here it's Christmas lights strung in trees that haven't yet lost their autumn leaves, and it's only raining, not snowing. Neil told me about drinking cobra wine with Poppy in a Korean restaurant in New Orleans and I told him about the night Voltaire and Lisa Feuer took me to the Milk Bar and they gave us free drinks. Neil and Voltaire are writing a circus together; I've never written anything that involved fire eaters or trapeze artists. There were orcas on television while we talked.
Eight hours with the mosasaurs today, just me and my calipers, cameras, the iBook, a microscope, and four beautiful specimens of a new species of Clidastes. Time flies when you're doing the one thing that makes your life genuinely bearable. For me, that involves sea monsters that have been dead for 75 million years. Today I spent most of my time measuring flipper bones and trying to figure out if there were minute serrations on the teeth of these beasties. Serrations are important. Just look at a steak knife sometime. You'll see what I mean.
I found a poem last night, written in the mid-19th century by a Scotsman named Robert Dick. He was a baker by trade, but spent all his spare time collecting fossil fish in northern Scotland and writing poems, and sometimes writing poems about collecting fossil fish:
Hammers an' chisels an' a',
Chisels and fossils an' a';
Resurrection's our trade, by raising the dead
We've grandeur an' honour an' a';
It's good to be breaking a stone,
The work now is lucky and braw;
It's good to be finding a bone —
A fish bone the grandest of a'.
Well, I don't agree with him on that last line, about fish, but the rest is dead on.
I've just finished with the page proofs for the Meisha Merlin trade paperback of Tales of Pain and Wonder. Actually, the indespenable Jennifer just finished them, but I helped. So that should be out before much longer. I'm really quite useless when comes to proofing my own work. I can't see the typos. I've stared at those words in those configurations for so long that obvious mistakes may as well be little chameleons made of vowels blending into consonant bushes. I mean the really dumb, big typos, such as "Edward Cayce" instead of "Edgar Cayce" in Chapter 4 of Threshold. Fortunately someone was there to catch that one for me. Writers are only as good as the people who pick through their pages for stupid typos. And sometimes we're not even that good, jiggity-jig.
Has anyone else noticed the ads for the Burger King LOTR glasses that light up? Life is short, but tacky just goes on forever. Somehow I don't think Tolkien would have approved.
Meanwhile, in another place and time . . .
Tomorrow is a museum day. I get far too few of those. Wednesday will be another.
Then it's back to work on "Cabinet 34, Drawer 6." But there was Significant Progress today.
Tonight's not going to be much of an entry, as I have to be up very early and, having written all day long, there's not much left to say at the moment. I run short of words and need recharging. That's how Christa Faust used to put it. "You have to recharge sometime," she'd tell me, trying to lure me west for adventures in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Tijuana. She never managed to lure me to Tijuana, but then I don't lure easily. One night or another I will tell you a very good Christa and Caitlin story, but not tonight, because all those stories are long. But she's right. Stories, no matter how fantastic, come from life and life does not happen in the small, white room where I sit all day and write stories. This is why the stuff I wrote as a teenager was awful, and why the stuff I wrote in college wasn't much better. Fiction does not arise from will alone, the will to make things up. That's necessary (maybe), but it's surely not sufficient. I try not to write about places I haven't visited firsthand. Like all my rules, that one gets broken from time to time, but I do try. I've never been to Johnstown, for example, or Milligan, Florida for another. If I ever have to teach a writing seminar (and I hope it never comes to that) I could say something absurd like: "The eye, the nose, the tongue, the tips of the fingers, the ears, all these are the lens of the writer's camera. The mind is the darkroom of the soul." And, of course it sounds like shit, but it's true, more or less. I think a lot of things that sound like shit are true. That's what we get for living Now, instead of Then. That's probably always been true, too. But I've been to Storm King and Sydenham and Hollywood, which is a pretty good start.
Rambling means it's time to go to bed, Caitlin.
Sweet dreams. Or whatever you prefer.
Monday, November 26, 2001
Today I did not make any notes for Low Red Moon, but I did spend hours and hours searching for Innsmouth Harbour. That ought to count for something. This all ties into that story I'm trying to find the ending for. I'd hoped that it would be no more than about 6,000 words, but now it's looking like nine or ten instead. At any rate, proceeding from the belief that HPL did have an actual locale in mind when he conceived of Innsmouth, and following his description in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," as well the speculations of S.T. Joshi and others, I have narrowed it down to a short stretch of Massachusetts coastline south of Plum Island and west of Cape Anne.
Lovecraft indicates that the narrator's bus, after leaving Newburyport, is traveling southeast, following the coast. HPL writes: "Out the window I could see the blue water and the sandy line of Plum Island, and we presently drew very near the beach as our narrow road veered off from the main highway to Rowley and Ipswich." This definitely indicates that the direction of travel is, in fact, southeast. A little father along, "At last we lost sight of Plum Island and saw the vast expanse of the open Atlantic on our left." At this point the road on which the bus is traveling begins to climb to higher ground; at the crest of the rise, the passengers ". . .beheld the outspread valley beyond, where the Manuxet joins the sea just north of the long line of cliffs that culminate in Kingsport Head [another HPL invention] and veer off towards Cape Ann. . . . but for a moment all my attention was captured by the nearer panorama just below me. I had, I realised, come face to face with rumour-shadowed Innsmouth." The narrator must, at this point, be looking to the east or southeast.
For me, the key is finding the Manuxet River. Of course, there really is no Manuxet River, per se - it's yet another of HPL's geographical fictions, but there are many rivers between Plum Island and Cape Ann, winding, swampy things that eventually empty into Plum Island Sound or Ipswich Bay. The river closest to Plum Island (and the bus doesn't seem to travel very far from the point where the narrator loses sight of the island before reaching the crest of the hill from which Innsmouth is visible) is the Ipswich River. A little farther on, there's the Castle Neck River. It's the mouth of this river that I'm favoring at the moment as the location of Innsmouth, based on HPL's statement that the Manuxet ". . . turned southward to join the ocean at the breakwater's end." Now, as the sea lies to the north, most of the rivers along this part of the coast do not make southerly turns, but flow north and east to the Atlantic. Notably, the Castle Neck River does have a distinct southeast kink just as it enters the estuary at the northwest end of Ipswich Bay.
Of course, HPL obviously took considerable liberties with the local geography, and I suspect that he may have also shortened the distance between Cape Ann and Plum Island in his head, recalling some excursion or another and compressing or expanding distance as we all tend to do. So, blah, blah, blah, and in my story at least, Innsmouth Harbor is at the mouth of the Castle Neck River (i.e., the Manuxet). And that should give you some idea how my day went.
And speaking of Massachusetts, I just heard on CNN that the first human cloning has been successfuly performed there. I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of cloning humans (or anything else), but I have to question the need for any technology that produces more of us. Making babies is about the only thing for which our species seems to display a more or less universal talent. We hardly need any help.
Maybe tomorrow I'll actually get around to at least talking about the novel. Don't hold your breath, though. You'll wind up dead and I'll feel duty bound to feel responsible.
Sunday, November 25, 2001
Today I did not work on the new novel. This past week, I've been trying very hard to make myself devote at least an hour or two a day to making notes for the prologue and first three chapters (which is a marked departure from my usual habit of working without a net). As a result, I now have nine pages of notes. But there's nothing new from today.
Instead, I slogged dutifully ahead in a search for the ending of a short story. I used to write short stories that were, in fact, short. The last year or so, they've been getting longer and longer, even spawning the "novella" (God, but I detest that word, though not quite as much as "novellette") which will be included in Trilobite: The Writing of Threshold , "Les Fleurs Empoisonnees" (and, yes, I know there ought to be an acute accent on the next to last "e" in "empoisonnees," but I still haven't remembered how to place an acute accent in HTML, and yes, this is being written in HTML, groan).
Very rarely have I thought of the ending to a story before I began writing it ("To This Water" was a notable exception). I seem to have to find it. When I was inclined to be a little more romantic about my writing, back before deadlines and rewrites and proposals and such, I would say that I was, essentially, following fictional events as they unfolded in my mind, as they led me to their logical ending. Or at least the place where I would stop the narrative. I remember trying to explain this process to my first editor at Vertigo when I was trying to write my first story proposal for her. "How can I tell you the story," I said. "I don't know what's going to happen." "Why?" she asked. "Because I haven't written it yet," I said. She didn't buy it and since then I've written dozens of proposals for Vertigo, though my scripts often do not follow them very closely. It seems to make editors happy just to know that you understand that the story has to lead somewhere and end somewhere. There are proposals I've rewritten seven or eight times. I think this is why I was able to have a tooth filled last spring with no anesthesia.
Anyway, I started this particular story on September 14th, and two months (and 5,000 words) later I still haven't found the damn ending (I have written other things in the interim, thank goodness). I need to finish it in the next two days in order to get it to London before the deadline, and also because I have to spend most of next week in a museum collection photographing and measuring mosasaur bones, and then I have to write the second part of Bast: Eternity Game for The Sandman Presents, and then, finally, it'll be time to begin the new novel. The name of the story, for future reference, is "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6," and it's a bit of Lovecraftiness (Thank you again for that, Clay) involving old monster movies and misplaced fossils. I've given it up for dead several times, this story. It keeps coming back to life. It keeps insisting that I finish it. It has determination, even if it doesn't seem to have an ending.
Oh, before I sign off for the night, I should plug Wrong Things, the collection I did with Poppy Z. Brite. It's out now, available directly from the publisher, Subterranean Press, and online, and probably even a few bookstores. One story by me, one by Poppy, and a collaboration, with exquisite black and white illustrations and cover art by Richard Kirk (who also illustrated Tales of Pain and Wonder and my second solo collection, forthcoming from Subterranean Press, From Weird and Distant Shores). It's a very attractive little book of which I am extremely proud. The only bad thing the Publisher's Weekly reviewer had to say about it was that our collaborative story should have been longer. Which is to say, I guess, that she thinks we found the ending too soon.
Saturday, November 24, 2001
A very long time ago, when I was a child, I thought how it would be a Very Fine Thing to spend my life writing books (whenever I wasn't thinking how it would be a Very Fine Thing to spend my life digging up dinosaur bones). I imagined how the covers would look, how my name would look on the covers, what it would feel like to walk into the library or the drugstore or the Five and Dime (there were no bookstores in the town where I grew up) and see my book waiting to be read by someone. I would write lots and lots and lots of books, I imagined. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, I would be a veritable fountain of words to be bound neatly between very professionally designed dustjackets.
As much as I wanted to visit Loch Ness or find a Diplodocus skeleton, I wanted to make books. I found an old Writer's Market at a yard sale somewhere and used to pour over its pages as though there were some magical secret and if I just looked long enough, I'd know how it was done, this business of writing books. I typed out fairly awful fantasy and horror stories on an antique Royal typewriter that my mother had picked up somewhere. I experimented with carbon paper. PCs were still a decade or more away. Correction tape seemed pretty high tech at the time.
And since I was growing up where I was, when I was, writing novels was frowned upon as a career choice and virtually every relative, except my mother, discouraged me at one point or another. They told me that only people from New York wrote novels (people from New York were generally frowned upon). They told me I should be practical. They told me to stop spending so much time reading or I'd go blind (which has almost happened).
Anyway, what they never told me, because they couldn't have known, was that if I ever got my wish, I'd discover that writing books was not fun or exciting or romantic or any of the other things I imagined it to be. It's simply hard. Mindnumbingly hard. That people who write books spend most of their lives alone in small rooms staring at blank pages or, as it would turn out, computer screens, for hour upon hour upon hour, occassionally getting lucky and finding a sentence to fill some of that damned white space with. They couldn't have told me about the stress or carpal tunnel syndrome or writer's block. How you start to forget that there's a difference between day and night because you rarely go outside. How you ultimately reach a point where that one thing that drove you to ruin your life and your eyes and your nerves, the simple joy of reading, would itself become annoying because, after all, it's really work.
I sat down a few minutes ago to write something straightforward like, "Hi. I'm Caitlin Kiernan and this is the journal that I'm going to keep while I write my next novel, which might end up being called Low Red Moon," so that people wandering in would know whether to click the "Back" button on their web browers. And then all this came tumbling out.
And I can't figure out how to place an acute accent on an "i" in this program and, if I did, that would just be another annoying thing, so never mind.
I think what I'm getting at is how wonderful it would be to have been Harper Lee. Write one book that everyone will love forever, see it made into a movie with Gregory Peck, and then never have to do again. Ever.
But that's not the way it works.
And the hardest part is the beginning (though the middle seems much harder, but only when that's where you happen to be), and starting full in the knowledge that this isn't the last time you have to start The Next New Book. If you're lucky, there is no fixed number and you will be doing this for a very, very long time. After Silk was released in '98, my agent called and asked how the next novel was coming along and I asked "You mean I have to do that again?" That's exactly how I feel about writing most of the time.
But here I am, anyway, and I got to be a paleontologist as well, so at least there's that. Here I am and, as usual, I'm months and months past the time when I should have begun a new book. I've put it off until there's no more time left to put it off and in another couple of weeks I'll sit down and write the first word that will hopefully lead, many months later, to the last word, and my agent and my editor and my landlord and all the credit card companies will stay happy. A novel that might be called Low Red Moon , and yes, that was a Belly song, which I happen to be very fond of, by the way.
Before I can start the novel, I have to finish a short story for a British horror anthology (a story I've been trying to finish since October) and write a script for Vertigo - then I can start the novel.
I'm not sure how this is going to turn out. The journal, I mean, not the book (though I have no idea how that's going to turn out, either). I've always kept the process of writing to myself, for the most part. Occassionally, I'll call some other wretched soul who, as a child, didn't listen to her or his disparaging relatives and he or she will listen to me bitch and moan and try to be patient or tell me to get back to work. But I've never much talked about the nuts and bolts with readers. I'm not going to be saying much about what's going on in the book, since that would pretty much defeat the purpose of anyone reading the thing. I'm sure there will be clues along the way. Maybe.
Meanwhile, please buy Threshold, the book that almost killed me (I'm not joking, but I'll save the explanation for another time). Every time you buy a copy, a mosquito gets its wings.