Monday, February 23, 2015

Weather as a character

by Joan

As I write this, ice taps the windows and wind batters the chimney cap. I’ve just come in from helping my husband raise the exterior shades on the two-story window and my fingers are still numb. A snowflake icon shows up on my app for tomorrow (or today, as you are reading). No, I’m not in the northeast; I’m in Dallas, where last week it was 75 degrees.

Maryland house, 1991 - 1999
For forty-five winters in Maryland, there was a particular dread I’d feel going into November, knowing that I wouldn’t be warm again until mid March. The jewel-toned October trees would strip naked and stand brittle and grey. The sun would slink away earlier and earlier, sometimes not showing up at all. I shivered constantly, no matter how many sweaters I crawled into. Some years were worse than others, but in my memory the winter scene looks just as it does now: temps in the teens, imminent or piled-up snow, wind that whips chill into your bones. 

Elmore Leonard said, “Never open a book with the weather.” But what if your book features haunting, beating, relentless weather. The problem with writing advice, particularly when it involves the word “never,” is that there are brilliant stories that defy the rules. Beautiful prose, tension, engaging characters; these are the elements which lure readers into a story.  

Kim just reviewed Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains, which takes place during a deadly Kansas blizzard. A while back, Julie reviewed Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise, set in Galveston, Texas, in the weeks leading up to the devastating 1900 hurricane. In Weisgarber's novel, a scandalized woman leaves Ohio to marry a widower in the south Texas town. She’s expecting a fine city house, but instead he leads her to a sweltering, rustic home and a skittish child. Her new husband’s housekeeper doesn’t trust her and is fiercely loyal to the memory of his late wife, even as she harbors her own feelings for him. When the hurricane arrives, her husband goes out to help neighbors and the animals, and she is left to protect his boy from the powerful storm that literally rips apart their house. It’s the weather that destroys everything, yet it also bonds them. 

In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” weather is the story. Over the course of a day, a man attempts to walk over thirty miles of Canada’s Yukon trail to meet his boys by suppertime, despite an old trapper’s warnings. It’s seventy-five below freezing, snow as far as he can see, and he’s carrying nothing more than bacon-stuffed biscuits, nuzzled against his skin to keep from freezing. With only his husky for company, he is oddly confident. Both his and the dog’s beards have turned into crystal muzzles from the moisture of their warm breath. Soon the man’s cheek bones and nose are frozen, and his hands and feet are beginning to numb. The spruce under which he attempts to light a fire is so weighted with snow, its branches cause an avalanche. In wonderful foreshadowing by London, the man feeds the fire “with twigs the size of his finger” and “branches the size of his wrist.”

As I write my current story, I’m looking for places to introduce weather into an already dangerous climate: The Depression, prohibition, divorce, poverty. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe, warm and dry, reading or writing a book with all the right elements.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Review of Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains

By Kim

About The Virgin of Small Plains (from the book jacket):

Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987: In the midst of a deadly blizzard, eighteen-year-old Rex Shellenberger scours his father’s pasture, looking for helpless newborn calves. Then he makes a shocking discovery: the naked, frozen body of a teenage girl, her skin as white as the snow around her. Even dead, she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. It is a moment that will forever change his life and the lives of everyone around him. The mysterious dead girl—the “Virgin of Small Plains”—inspires local reverence: In the two decades following her death, strange miracles visit those who faithfully tend to her grave; some even believe that her spirit can cure deadly illnesses. Slowly, word of the legend spreads.

But what really happened in that snow-covered field? Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the Virgin’s body was found, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds? Why do the town’s three most powerful men—Dr. Quentin Reynolds, former sheriff Nathan Shellenberger, and Judge Tom Newquist—all seem to be hiding the details of that night.

Seventeen years later, when Mitch suddenly returns to Small Plains, simmering tensions come to a head, ghosts that had long slumbered whisper anew, and the secrets that some wish would stay buried rise again from the grave of the Virgin. Abby—never having resolved her feelings for Mitch—is now determined to uncover exactly what happened so many years ago to tear their lives apart.

Three families and three friends, their worlds inexorably altered in the course of one night, must confront the ever-unfolding consequences in award-winning author Nancy Pickard’s remarkable novel of suspense. Wonderfully written and utterly absorbing, The Virgin of Small Plains is about the loss of faith, trust, and innocence…and the possibility of redemption.

About Nancy Pickard (from the book jacket)

Nancy Pickard is the creator of the acclaimed Jenny Cain mystery series. She has won the Anthony Award, two Macavity Awards, and two Agatha Awards for her novels. She is a three-time Edgar Award nominee, most recently for her first Marie Lightfoot mystery, The Whole Truth, which was a national bestseller. With Lynn Lott, Pickard co-authored Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path. She has been a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Prairie Village, Kansas.

My Review:

I don’t remember the last time I read a mystery/suspense novel, but The Virgin of Small Plains was one I felt compelled to pick up after Donald Maass spoke about it at length during his 21st Century Fiction workshop. (He’s not her agent.)

The praise was well deserved. The opening sequence of events, though not a surprise after the workshop, still kept me glued to the page. I read this book until two in the morning one night and picked it back up at seven. I read it while I made breakfast, while I ate lunch, in the car waiting for my daughter to get out of dance class, and every spare moment in between. Pickard is a master at letting out just enough information to keep a reader going, yet withholding the rest until the most devastating moment. I did figure out one key element long before it was revealed, but the “how” and “why” questions were equally compelling and not answered until the end.

Writers could learn a lot about pacing and point of view from dissecting this novel. It is also a prime example of a genre novel with literary elements. 

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Say What You Mean

by Elizabeth

I'm the mother of non-drivers (one close!), so I spend a significant amount of time in the car toting kids from point A to point B, both my own kids and their friends and schoolmates. Carpooling makes life easier for a lot of us in this boat, and modern technology makes carpooling even easier. Most of the time.

One recent afternoon near the final bell I group-texted the girls in my afterschool carpool that either both or neither could stay for tutoring that day. I got back two replies--both from my child--the first saying "Not going? (Friend)?" and the second, "Never mind. I'm staying."*

Look, a communication device! You'd think.
Me: "Is friend staying?"

(Call friend. No answer.)

Me: "2 or 0."

Me: "I am in car coming. You both need to come home."

Me: "I need you both to reply you got this."

Me: "No tutoring."

Me: "I expect to see you both at the curb. I really need you to communicate with me."

(Call daughter. No answer.)

Me: "I'm here. Why aren't you? This is not okay."

(Call daughter. Finally answers. Explains they both were staying for tutoring. I explain back that they had better get outside on the double.)

Daughter: "I am finding (friend)."

Me: "I am angry.**"

Daughter: "We are running."

You can use your imagination to supply the conversation that ensued when the girls got in the car a few minutes later. More than once I wondered if my daughter's silent friend would complain to her parents who would then nix the carpool. (I doubt it. I think they need it more than I do.) Let's just say there was some loud talking involved and the atmosphere was less than pleasant.

But then again, why should you use your imagination for this? I'm writing something intending to be understood, and you are reading something with the general hope to get something out of it. Just like the texts I sent, hoping to get some clear communication, so are you reading this with a similar goal.

My daughter at first defended her use of "I" to be understood as "we," but after some reaming she acknowledged that it was indeed some lousy communication. What I was angry** about was that this was a repeat offense, and what I was really angry** about was that the other kid who had apparently communicated with my daughter inside the school had failed to simply confirm that she, too, was staying. It was at best careless, and maybe even lazy, and certainly inconsiderate. (Though in the end, hardly a big deal, I know.)

It also reinforced the fact that good writing matters, and why good writing is fairly rare. It's easy to peck out a couple of letters on a keyboard and get some idea across. It's a lot harder to get a precise idea across, but for a writer, that's the job. Add elegance and style to precision, and suddenly it's clear that the writer's job requires far more than making sure "I" doesn't replace "we." It's clear that writing clearly and well takes both attention and respect.

We are living in an age of heightened communication, and this is surely not the first place you've heard someone lament that our increased communication perversely decreases our connections. My worry today is for what this will glean a generation from now. (Though history records that pretty much every generation, going back thousands of years, sighs at the thought of the next one's deficiencies.) Are we truly finally raising a population whose carelessness with writing might extend to fiction and formal writing? Or am I just "angry"** that I was inconvenienced and am illogically extrapolating a world of lazy novels and confusing biographies?

*I added punctuation. The serious deficiency of such is a rant for another day.
**Okay, I used another word.

Monday, February 16, 2015

50 Shades of Motivation

By Pamela

This past weekend marked the release of the film adaptation of the titillating best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Full disclosure: I did not read the trilogy, other than a sample of book one on my Kindle, so I refuse to comment on the quality of writing other than to say the opening was fairly unremarkable. It's been a while and I can't recall anything noteworthy about it. So there's that.
Mr. Grey will read to you now!
Flickr image by Mark Hillary

But, when you sell greater than 100 million copies of your books, no one can deny that you've done something right. From what I've read, James wrote a piece of fan fiction based on her adoration of the Twilight series and fans responded so encouragingly, she gave them more; first self-publishing her book before landing a publishing contract.

I've never met James nor read her interviews, but I can't help but wonder if she's at all bothered by the criticism her works have received. Does the phrase 'laughing all the way to the bank' fit her take on her publishing journey? Or does it sting a little to be so widely panned as a writing hack that parodies and mock readings abound online?

We've all read books that make us wonder why publishing gatekeepers felt moved to offer a book deal to the author, and how many readers prior to publication kept their collective pie-holes closed regarding the content. But like any viable industry, publishing houses are in business to turn a profit and if the readership seems poised to purchase, they print.

As writers, we have options for how we respond when we see authors achieve greatness we perceive to be based more on luck than talent. We can virtually flog them with our criticism. We can join in with praise we say but don't feel. We can leave our 'helpful' reviews on sites such as Amazon or GoodReads. We can keep our own pie-holes shut and say nothing at all.

Or we can see their success as motivation to keep plugging away at our own manuscripts. Because, to me, 100 million copies in sales means people are reading, and as long as we haven't lost that, we've all won.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine's Day to all of you from What Women Write!
Here's hoping your weekend is filled with chocolate covered strawberries, wine, and books.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women

by Joan

Megan Mayhew Bergman
“I’m interested in anyone’s particular sense of control and autonomy — control over their own life. Traditionally and across many cultures women’s desires and careers often take a back seat to the men in their lives and I’m fascinated by cultures or particular women where this isn’t the case. I respect the difficulty and complexity in stepping outside of those lives. Especially when we’re talking a hundred years ago.” Megan Mayhew Bergman, in an interview with L.A. Review of Books  

Bergman’s Almost Famous Women has earned a starred Kirkus review, impressive reviews from NPR and the New York Times Book Review, and made several "books we're looking forward to" lists.

I pre-ordered Almost Famous Women from Battenkill Books and so received my signed copy on January 7th. Although I wanted to devour the collection in one long sitting, instead I savored the stories over a few weeks. I knew from reading Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, that to rush over her words would be akin to dashing through the Met in ten minutes. I’d snatch glimpses of brilliant color and style, but would miss the elegant narrative, subtext and symbolism crafted into each masterpiece. 
Bergman’s fascination with these women began at an Oxford summer program when she came across a book by Natalie Barney, an American author who held a literary salon in Paris, was a great patron of women’s art and happened to be romantically involved with some of these women. The stories formed in Bergman’s mind over the next ten years of reading and researching.

Inside the lyrical cover are stories “born of a fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” These women hail from different social classes, races and continents, but they have a few things in common: tragic lives, fierce spirits, and a desire to be seen; though most would greet you with a punch, not a slap, for pitying them.

Many of the stories are narrated by close bystanders: a lover, a caretaker, a friend. This construct prohibits us from understanding the almost famous one’s motivations, but lets us view the tornado in progress—and its inevitable destruction.

In “Romaine’s Remains,” an aged, suffering artist spends her final days under the care of an Italian mama’s boy named Mario. Romaine Brooks is an enigma; she sleeps with her “body curled like a prawn, her head lolled to the side,” and yet she “tries to control the afternoon sun by slapping a yardstick against the blinds.” Romaine is bitter and bedridden. She calls Mario a brute, even though he’s gentle and kind with her, bathing her and carrying her down a flight of stairs on her whim. 

He half wishes she’d die, but then worries he’d have to return to busing tables. Romaine, now nearly blind, has led a daring bohemian life, painting “androgynous women in various brave poses or nude recline,” drinking wine, and living with her lover Natalie in a Tuscan Villa. This last bit Mario learns from snooping at her letters, and he is struck by the idea that he “has never been explicitly himself.” When Romaine confides in him details from her tragic childhood, he imagines she will set him up with an annuity. But she is fickle and “more stubborn than blindness itself.”

“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” gutted me. Lord Byron’s three-year-old illegitimate, unwanted daughter is sent away to an Italian convent of Capuchin nuns. Despite her tragic circumstances, Allegra is not an easy child to love. She throws tantrums, is spiteful and difficult. A peasant woman who sought refuge in the convent after her own child and husband died of typhus, is the only one who can calm Allegra down. “It had always been my intention at the convent to be nobody, to go unnoticed, to punish myself until I could no longer feel the weight of my dead child in my arms.” When she becomes too close, the grieving woman is warned: “When the children you’ve taught go home, they will hate you as if you’re the one who kept them here.” 

During one of Allegra’s particularly wild tantrums, one nun threatens to call for an exorcism. But Allegra’s new guardian coaxes her into the bath and offers to help her write letters to papa Byron. Both of these lost souls need affection, to be held and soothed. But we learn early, “The convent was not a place of peace.” 

In “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch,” Beryl Markham is broke and alone, “hungry to feel something every day,” even if it’s fear of riding a wild stallion, the “one who’d killed a man with his hooves and teeth in the corner of a stall in Nairobi.” To make her money back, she will ride him. “I will have you, she thought, locking eyes with the regal horse.” When she says, “You will respect me,” it is all of the women in these pages speaking.

In a Rutland Herald interview, Bergman shares what she hopes her daughters will learn from reading this book: "I do hope they have the courage and intellectual curiosity to live a satisfying, full life. … I want my girls to have the option. I don’t want them to feel like a traditional domestic existence is a foregone conclusion. I want them to feel that the world is wide open, that gender roles are fluid and they can chase passions and dreams and professions and they can really be the hero of their own life story."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Does Your Manuscript Have a Soundtrack?

By Kim

It feels odd for me to write a post about manuscripts having soundtracks since I’m one of the few writers I know of who must compose in silence. It wasn't until quite recently that I realized music still plays an integral part in my writing process.

A little backstory: I spent most of the summer *cough* and fall *cough* stuck on the same scene. I knew what needed to happen and I knew that writing it would force me to go to revisit places in my mind I'd have done just about anything to avoid. I hate fight scenes. Bickering is fine. Name-calling and any sort of violence, no matter how mild, is highly troubling to my Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Prospecting (INFP) personality type. Those who share that profile are called ‘diplomats’ for a reason, but I had to let these characters battle it out unhindered.

Back in November, a Facebook friend posted a music video by The Family Crest, a group whose song “Love Don’t Go” was played at the opening dinner for the Writer Unboxed UnConference. I remembered having liked that song, so I clicked on the video for “Beneath the Brine.” Halfway through, I paused it and went over to iTunes to buy the whole album. The song is unsettling, to say the least. An orchestral tempest of raw emotion sung by a man whose voice soars to highs few humans could ever master. My mother went so far as to compare listening to it with watching the movie Moulin Rouge. (I admit that film mesmerized me from beginning to end.)

I had probably heard “Beneath the Brine” several dozen times before I realized why I kept hitting ‘repeat.’ The mood was exactly what I hoped to replicate in the-scene-that-refused-to-be-written. It had all the waves and lulls of a storm at sea, yet even the calm parts were rife with tension. With lines like ‘all of my love, and all of my life, given to you, sacrificed’ this is a song I could well imagine Madonna singing to Carl if this scene were part of an opera. Living with him was indeed like enduring “a steady squall” where she must choose between her ambition and an obsessive love that both sustains and slowly drowns her.

Once I connected the song to my scene, the words all flowed out in one exhilarating rush. (Thank you, Sean Walsh!)

This experience made me think of other songs that have influenced my manuscript over time. There are the obvious ones, such as "Amazing Grace", "Ave Maria", Tchaikovsky’s "Warum Op.6", and Alfredo Barili’s “Cradle Song”. All but the latter are ones Madonna sang in her recitals or at other key moments in the book. Barili, one of Atlanta’s most prominent composers, was Madonna's voice teacher in the summer of 1921. He surely would have played her his most famous piece.

Two songs from Cinema Paradiso (one of my favorite films of all time) are ideal to listen to before tackling a romantically nostalgic scene. The first is the lilting main theme (by Laurent Korcia) and the other is called “Se.” Josh Groban did an amazing version of that song. It can turn me into a weeping sap in less than thirty seconds even though it's in Italian.

So She Dances,” also by Groban, perfectly illustrates Carl’s feelings for Madonna during the Roycroft section of my manuscript. Christina Perri’s “Distance” sums up Madonna's side of the relationship well, at least until it escalates to something more like “You are all I see, sweet obsession in my soul. Fill each moment with your voice, breathe your beauty into me.” – from Tara MacLean’s “For You.”

Other songs in my manuscript’s soundtrack:

After the Fall” by Cary Brothers
MyImmortal” by Evanescence
Gravity” by Sara Bareilles
I Should Go” by Levi Kreis
Last Train Home” by Ryan Star
Set the Fire to the Third Bar” by Snow Patrol
Crack the Shutters” by Snow Patrol
Shattered” by Trading Yesterday

As you can see, very few of these songs existed in the early 1900s. That doesn’t matter, because songs from Carl and Madonna’s era would hold little emotional meaning for me, the author of their story.

What about you? Which songs have influenced your manuscript? Have you ever heard certain songs play in your mind while you read someone else's stories?
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