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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Born Ugly: The Ragged Edge Retrospective (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part 1

Now my front right fender smells like tomato soup. It was either that or ketchup.

Well, tomato soup and skunk. Apparently the skunk should have had a V-8.

But, I've had some time now to reflect, and sort a few things out, within reason.

So, what were some of the tangibles?

Well, there were a lot.

Eric Wilson* has written eleven books (including a pair of novelizations - I certainly thought of brb's infamous experience in that area) and had an absolutely riveting presentation on the financial and spiritual realities of the working novelist.

Two numbers stuck out - $250,000 and $25,000. The first was the deceptive eye-popper: lifetime earnings for a relatively new author. The second was the jarring reality: annual income for the past decade - no health insurance included. I'm not telling his tale out of school, however: it was a deeply moving and educational tale that he has written briefly about some time ago at his site.

Bob Liparulo** made an extremely strong case for writers to take acting classes and to block out scenes, esp. action scenes. He put this into practice, using volunteers to demonstrate all the details an author will miss if he/she only plays scenes out in the theater of the mind.

He also shared a very early ARC of his next book with the attendees. It opened with an absolute heartpounder of a sentence - one of those rare ones you memorize on first sight.

It may not make it through editing. There's a lesson in that, too.

Steven James had the best curriculum and presentation style for the writing art that I've ever seen. He taught on the structure of producing tension-driven fiction. He basically taught a structure that he wished someone else had taught him before he got into the novel-writing game. What really helped is that he has the pleasant demeanor of a court poisoner.

Precise, warm and thoughtful, you don't realize the mickey's been slipped until it is way too late. I could go into the mind of James for hours, but I might come out the other side as an extremely polite serial killer. Good teacher, that guy, and his lesson's are borne out in his books. I haven't read them all, but the antagonist of The Knight is worth the price of admission (i.e. $11.89 retail + sanity and handling.)

Tosca Lee?*** The lady is like the Chuck Norris of poetic prose. [And that simile makes me the Chuck Norris of terrible similes.] She focused on using strengths to finish long works, instead of constantly trying to improve on weaknesses. She's a big believer in momentum - skip the parts that take you off the page.

Ted Dekker presented most of the time in bare feet. He's collaborating with Lee on a massive series called the Books of Mortals, and she presented in five-inch heels. This confirmed a long-held suspicion: the publishing industry is footwear-blind. I could dedicate an entire post to Dekker's lessons, but for now I'll sum him up this way. Imagine the Joker. Now throw in cannibals. I would guess that he takes caffeine intravenously. As a sedative.

An alpha novelist on stage, he's soft spoken and thoughtful in one-on-one conversation, and he knows how to host one explosive show. I hope he writes a writing book. His thoughts are Favresque: they shouldn't, by all rights, end in touchdowns...and then they do.

Enough about what I learned. You are here for the fistfight.

Imagine the Inklings onstage. In honor of the group's slant towards strange suspense and in the tradition of this lesser age, let's add a technological vowel at the beginning and call them the Eeklings (Lousy, yes. Better than Inklings 2.0). It took places "onstage" but was not staged, certainly not in the sense of a performance. By the middle of the panel discussion in a leather furnished mock-up of Ted's personal writing space, they held a regular meeting, with an audience, yes -- but one sworn to silence. That made a difference.

This begs a question: how can I possibly convey an episode that I can't detail? I guess I just have to tell you to trust my judgment, kind of like the skunk did. For you, I recommend some dodging.

Dekker served as warden to an asylum consisting of the above authors, with a few guests from other parts of the publishing industry sprinkled in (more about them in part 3).

They had settled into to a rollicking discussion about the state of the industry and the meaning of art, when all of a sudden, the discussion went spectacularly off the rails. The writers got into a big fight over a very common, very personal dispute that arises on occasion between artists. If it had been a television show, it would have been called "When Introverts Attack."

But it was really beautiful to see. It was heated, deeply engaging, personal and gave a rare glimpse into the competitive differences of friends in art. It was as if everyone in the room was brought into one of those "crosshairs" moments, silent witnesses to the inner workings of that old bogey known as "creative differences." It was good to see it, and, despite my more sanguine nature, it was really good to see the dispute resolve itself within the community. It occurred on the first day, began to be resolved onstage, and then likely boiled over that night, the echoes of its resolution fading by the next day of presentations. The Eeklings remained, bonded and even more deeply rooted with one another, and, yeah, the rest of us, than before it started.

I could say so much more, but I feel your eyes have grown weary, and I value my fingers and tongue too much to go into much more detail without crossing the invisible Promise Line of Death.

Allow me a brief final thought here that I hope doesn't come across as too heavy or political: the infamous near-fisticuffs, and its passionate but deliberate resolution was testament to a deeper chord of community that was rightly struck last weekend. Lunatic writing artists had gathered for two potboiling days in an abandoned stove factory in Tennessee, and they did not kill each other, nor harbor bitterness over personal differences. There was not one official thing said that identified the event as a gathering of disparate Christians, but brothers and sisters, I'll say this and leave it at that: it was church, in the best, most natural sense I know.

I probably said at least one stupid thing to everyone I met at the conference, including the hosts. Alas, stupid is my milieu. Fortunately, they did not reciprocate. I learned something important from every one of them.

In part 3, I'll finish up with a few insights on the state of the publishing business, from authors, agents and a diminutive Jedi master.

*whose Jerusalem's Undead books were tragically mislaid on the bookshelves when they came out - at least when I stumbled across Field of Blood. Some poor clerk mistook the bloody thorns on the cover for a pitchfork, and put it in with Amish fiction! Yes, this begs the question: what was I doing in the Amish romance aisle in 2008? I was looking for a book...for an elderly friend. Yeah, that's the ticket.

**Although possibly most famous for his Dreamhouse Kings YA series, it is his Comes A Horseman that ruined me for public bathrooms the same way Hitchcock ruined the shower. Not kidding about that one bit. For the last five years or so, since reading it, I am intimately aware of the restroom entry points and blind spots, to the point where, if there are too many of them, I don't even go.

***If you haven't read her horror novel Havah: The Story of Eve, or her touching romance Demon: A Memoir, you are missing the good work of one of the last living wordsmiths. Her stuff is twitter-proof.
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