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dispatches: January 2006

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28 JANUARY 2006
Easy pieces, hard pieces: I was lucky enough to see Oprah Winfrey grill "A Million Little Pieces" author James Frey on TV this week. She could barely contain her anger and embarrassment after promoting the memoir, which, as we all know now, was fictionalized. What surprised me was that such a media-savvy talk-show host could be so shocked.

Reality side up? Sunset, 16 January 2006
(See clips at Salon.) All writing is, to some degree, a lie - or less than the whole truth. From the "creative nonfiction" genre ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") to memoirs that re-create pasts more distant than Frey's, even books billed as nonfiction create their own reality. Histories, too, can only interpret known facts that also may be subject to argument. And those of us who try to portray as much of the truth as possible in journalism know that we can't get the whole story, all the subtle shadings and feelings and layers, even if we get the basic facts. In articles, I strive to get as close as I can to the truth, but I'm not arrogant enough to think I can capture a life in 15 inches of copy. Memoirs are, of course, a special case. If fact-checkers went to town on any number of the memoirs and nonfiction books in the store, they'd go crazy with the untruths they'd uncover. The fictions likely wouldn't be as egregious as Frey's, whose lies go far beyond the bounds of emotional interpretation or sexed-up dialogue. His fabrications were deliberate and immoral. Perhaps he realized that facts are harder to write than fiction, and the plain facts, apparently, are harder to sell. Publishers, above all, want to sell. It's the same syndrome that makes "reality TV" fake and documentaries misleading. Storm documentaries are some of the worst; I've seen so many lift images of multiple tornadoes to tell the story of one, because some producer thinks the real thing isn't good enough. I enjoy writing fiction - I can lie and call it storytelling. Maybe memoirs should be filed under fiction, too, or somewhere in the middle - non-non-fiction. No matter what, all prose runs through the filter of the writer's imagination. Faulkner said: "A writer is congenitally unable to tell the truth and that is why we call what he writes fiction." At least, the Internet says that's what he said. I don't know if it's true.

22 JANUARY 2006
Revising my thinking: I went to a writers' conference this weekend that was a mix of motivation and a crushing, grinding stone rolling over the top of my head. I thought I was done revising my novel. It's one of those dilemmas that visual artists also have; at some point you have to walk away from your painting. You have to decide it's done.

Pencil holder, unleashed
The same goes for books. I'm willing to do the work. I'm a perfectionist and could revise forever. But I want to revise for the right reasons. This weekend, one editor really liked the pitch for my novel, even though there's no way it will fit that publishing house's guidelines, but two agents had disheartening advice. Agents say the novel must fit a genre, and probably the conventions of that genre, to get sold. It has to be literary or romance or suspense, not a mainstream novel with elements of all three, and if it's "commercial," it really must fit a genre label and can't end in an unexpected way. (One thing I am sure of - my ending will satisfy the reader. But in a 10-minute pitch, you don't get to elaborate upon the ending.) So does the novel have to fit a definition? Or will my book actually improve if I make it fit a definition? I think it depends on the definition. To make an extreme analogy, to tailor your book to "women's fiction," you might have to give it a boob job. Mine already has "women's" tendencies anyway. If it looks natural, maybe it's OK. Other observations: I was vexed by the Writing 101 advice to avoid too many "-ly words" with dialogue. First, I know what an adverb is, and second, I used only one adverb that way in the first two scenes. But if that nasty little word is going to make an agent throw my book into the SASE and mail it back, I will delete the friggin' adverb. I also was tickled by the agents' frustrations with how writers start a book, cliches they shared at a Q&A panel session. Don't start a book in a car, they say, with the protagonist thinking and driving. My characters are chasing a tornado and driving. Storm chasers - the subject of my novel - spend a lot of time driving. (So do most people who have cars. There's a reason for cliches; some of them are truths.) I'll probably write a new first chapter for other reasons anyway. What's funny is a year ago, before the novel was complete, my first scene was not set in a car. One of the main characters was ruminating about storms, and an agent who literally glanced at a couple of pages told me that nobody wants to start a book reading a weather report. The chapter was more than that ... since the character is a meteorologist, and the metaphors went a little deeper than "Partly cloudy, chance of tornadoes." It's hard to convey the complexities and justifications of a story in a very short pitch, even though this weekend, the mantra of all the published genre authors, mostly romance and thriller writers, was that you have to be able to sum up your novel in 25 words to sell it. I can sum it up in 25 words, but it might lose some of the subtle shading you'll find in 300 pages. Oh, well. To be a writer these days, one must be a kind of Barnum & Hemingway. Some of the advice I got this weekend rang bells that had been jingling dimly in my subconscious, and I can follow it with a whole heart, but I also have to ponder what I really want out of this writing biz. What I really want is to write novels I like. I would also love to get them published, but I don't want to write to formula. I want the book to be good, and I will do everything I can to make it so, but I'm not going to sell its soul ... or else, why bother?

19 JANUARY 2006
Stop thinking about it: You know when you really, really want something to

A patient paphiopedilum
happen, and then you think about it really hard, and you hope, and you sweat, and your stomach gets all funny, and you can't sleep, and you stress out, and you slam the door and pound the pillow and mope and yell at people from the safety of your car, where they can't hear you? I feel that way sometimes about rocket launches, like the one I've been writing about, so I'm not going to say anything else about it for fear it won't go today, either. I also feel that way about making orchids bloom, and getting a novel published, but I am trying to exercise patience above all. A friend who's an excellent writer as well as a Theater Person says actors know that their job is not to act. It's to go to auditions. My job is not to get published. It's to spend a fortune on postage sending out queries and manuscripts. Otherwise ... have you seen the cool portrait my hubby commissioned of me and our dog, Gracie? It happens to be by Lorene Prell of the Black Dog Gallery, and it was commissioned months ago... long before we talked about my photos showing there! My photos, mostly storms and skyscapes, will be on display at the Black Dog throughout February. See my calendar for details.

18 JANUARY 2006
Go? The New Horizons launch team (see below) will try again today. Launches are a lot like storm chasing, with all the waiting around, except you know where they will happen, even if you don't know when. I just want the rocket to go before the writers' conference I'm attending this weekend.

17 JANUARY 2006

Atlas 5 poised for launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida
Risk and reward: Today's the day. New Horizons is poised to launch to Pluto aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. With five solid rocket boosters, it should haul outta here. We all hope so, anyway, since the plutonium "battery" on the spacecraft makes people nervous, no matter how safe we hear it is. I'm hoping for a quick and successful launch with long rewards for the scientists.

It's been a surreal week. It started with "Full Force Nature" on The Weather Channel, which used some of my video - and video of totally unrelated tornadoes - to tell the Attica story. Why do "documentaries" feel the need to pump up stories that are already dramatic with borrowed images that amount to lies? I guess fiction is better television than truth. Reality TV, my butt.

8 JANUARY 2006
Metamorphosis: A new year provides us with a handy excuse to change.

Emergence: monarch chrysalis
We make resolutions and plans and look back and evaluate the past year. At least I do. I'm not like an emerging butterfly, whose changes and indeed life span are dictated by biology and - given the warm spell and subsequent cold snap we've felt in Florida - temperature. I've already broken one resolution, to stop saying a certain aggravated version of my favorite curse word, an offensive multisyllable phrase I picked up from some New Yawk storm chasers I know. I swear, I never said that word before 2004, but it's handy around the house when cursing tomato sauce that splashes my white shirt or lambasting machinery that doesn't work. However, I believe resolutions are progressive, and I don't have to give up on them just yet. They are little gems, the jade green chrysalis of a monarch, flecked with shiny gold, waiting to unfold. Of course, I have larger ambitions, and they continue along the lines of the resolution I made last year, to finish my novel and at least try to get it published. I did finish it. I've been sending queries and, when requested, excerpts to agents. I guess my real resolution this year is to continue this quest with more hope and patience, because I believe in the book, and I believe it will have a receptive audience. I also resolve to work on another book, show more photographs and generally pump up the search for self-improvement and fulfillment. Sure, it's hard. Holy cow. My husband and I were just watching hilariously dramatic readings of celebrity biographies on TV, and I thought, "This is why I haven't had my book published yet." If I were a celebrity with nothing to say, the editors and ghostwriters would be very interested. I know, there are some wonderful stories published - I've read some delicious stuff in the past few years that's made me hopeful about literature. But that's not what one sees in the big displays at Barnes & Noble.

From words to visuals ... I'll be showing my storm photos at the Black Dog Gallery in Cocoa Village in February. Details are on the calendar page.