Friday, July 31, 2009
I had an “ah-ha moment” recently that has made a huge difference in how, and why, I write. It’s nothing new, and I am not the first to figure this one out. It’s no secret, but by making a small shift in my approach, I am able to look at writing in a totally different light.
It’s all about the story.
Now, that may not seem too earth-shattering. Why else do people read, but to uncover a new tale, something fresh and insightful? Yet when I started my first attempt at a novel, I got lost in the words and forgot what I was writing. It went something like this: I had an idea. Then I added characters, built a basic plotline in my head, and started, with furrowed brow and calloused fingers, to write it down.
The problem was that I obsessed about the verbiage and phrasing, the rewriting and editing, instead of focusing on just telling the story. I was paying attention to the words, not the plot. I wanted each sentence to be perfectly crafted, each paragraph a song. I could see pretty little chapters, wrapped like gifts to form a succinct and flawless novel. In my head, it was all about the writing of it, not about the plot. And it was painfully and shockingly bad.
I never finished that one, with all my obsessions about word choices and sentence structure. Somehow I lost the thread of it in all my high-minded literary attempts at ‘being a writer’. It unraveled, turning into a long journey with no destination. It was the perfect example of trying too hard and going nowhere.
I am a member of several writing groups, and I am lucky to get to listen weekly to other writers read their work aloud. All of them are good writers. And by that, I mean each sentence has a subject and a predicate. No one is too flowery with adverbs, and everyone knows about ‘showing not telling’. There is always good dialog to move the story along. The problem, as I see it, is that not everyone has a solid and interesting story idea. And that’s what will make or break you.
I don’t think that that is a matter of opinion or genre choice, because if the writing is gorgeous and the story is dreadful, no agent is going to take it, because no publisher will publish it, because no one will read it. A good story needs to have some basic elements that I forgot about when I got too caught up in writing and not aware of exactly what I was writing.
Here are some basics to keep in mind when crafting a good story.
1) Stay open-minded, but don’t spin off into the stratosphere. I like to follow where my hand takes me and not always chase my pre-decided plotline, because often I end in a much better place than my original plan would have taken me. However, I have also driven off cliffs with my plot and completely lost whatever I was trying to say. Prolific author John Irving says he plots each book entirely before writing it, and then sticks to his plan. Stephen King claims to have never plotted a book in his life. I believe that there has to be a happy medium. Find your sweet spot between structured and free-form, I say.
2) Remember your protagonist and antagonist, and never forget their motivations. Always keep the motive for their actions at the forefront, and stay true to their personality (hopefully you have given them personality). To do this, you have to know your people pretty well. Why is your protagonist acting the way she does? How does she change throughout the novel? What is her goal, and how does she achieve it? Who is trying to stop her, and why? Some call it character arc and it’s a good term to know.
3) Take me somewhere surprising. Please don’t introduce me to people and then bore me with where they go. Teach me something new. Surprise me with their back-story, something delicious that changes everything. Shock me with a decision they make, but make sure I understand why it makes sense. Pat Conroy did this to me in The Prince of Tides. Every time I read it, I am amazed at what those crazy Wingos do. And I love it every time.
All of this is not to say that a great idea and a great plot will hold up terrible writing, because it won’t. By starting with a great story and good characters who do surprising things, your writing can follow their lead. Just don’t attempt it the other way around.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
I wrote this piece a year or two ago as a timed writing assignment for a class with Barbara Samuel, now also writing as Barbara O’Neal. A fabulous author, Barbara also teaches occasional online classes about finding your writer's voice and about the emotional aspects of writing. We spend most of our learning time as writers focused on craft, when nurturing the soul and discovering our calling and place in the world of writing is just as important. I highly recommend taking one of Barbara's classes, joining an Artist's Way class in your area or online, or finding something similar that works for you. I tweaked this a bit, but most of what I originally wrote remained true.
I write, simply, because I have to. When I don't write, I feel as if I’m wandering, lost in a cloud that hovers over a grey, drizzly world. Sometimes even when I write, I feel as if the world is grey and drizzly, but the writing helps me cope.
I write because I'm good at it. It makes me feel like I have worth as a creative, growing person. I read what others write and think, “Yeah, I can do that. Maybe I can even do it better.”
I write because my brain is like an auditorium full of people chattering, crying, and laughing about what’s going on in their lives, and writing helps me get it down. In the middle of their noise, I find stories crying out to be told. (Nope, I haven't been diagnosed yet.)
I write because I get bored in my world. It can be routine and repetitive, and I need stimulation. My brain needs to be actively engaged in thinking about people and who they are and why they do the things they do.
I write because I want approval, often. I'm trying to get past this, but there it is. When I write, I want to show it to someone and hear them say, “Wow! This really makes me think. You're very talented.”
I write because I'd love to make enough money to do this job for the rest of my life. I’d rather write for a career than anything else I can imagine. Anything else seems like putting in time until I die or the world comes to an end, whichever comes first. I’d rather do something that keeps me interested and engaged than something just to receive a paycheck. Paying the bills with writing money would be a nice perk.
I write because everything seems to come across the lens of my brain as a framed photo or a vignette of sorts, telling me I need to record it. I believe most days I notice things many others don't have the capacity to notice, or would just as soon ignore. It makes me happy when I see that chunk of type, telling the story nobody else might have bothered to write down.
I write because objects and events are rarely simply things I can take at face value. They make me think of other things, that make me think of other things, that make me think of other things. Everything is a catalyst. I see one shape, and it reminds me of another. I hear one story, and I’m off and running with another. The only way to make sense of any of these things is to capture them with my pen.
I write because it keeps my monsters at bay. The ones that tell me I’m not talented enough or gifted enough or that I’m not much good at anything else. The ones that tell me I should sleep all day.
I write to live, and live to write. It's nearly as easy as breathing, though some days, I wonder why the words won't flow. On those days, or in those weeks or months at a time, I feel as if I’m holding my breath, floating just below the surface, when I’m supposed to burst from the water in a brilliant ray of light.
I write because I write, and the more I write, the more I write.
Now you. Why do you write? Take ten minutes and write without stopping. Be honest. It's for you! If you want to post it on your blog, leave us a comment with a link.
Monday, July 27, 2009
In 1996, I was a mother of two young sons, one four years old, the other nearly two. So when I picked up The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, I felt a special connection to Beth Cappadora. She, too, was a young mother, trying to keep it all together--work and family and find a little time for herself. When her middle child, Ben, gets abducted from a hotel lobby, my heart felt every tug of anguish at each turn of the page. (Magnified by the fact that my baby was also named Ben.) The book stayed with me for months, even years, after I read it. Any time one of my boys slipped his hand from mine in a store to hide inside a rack of clothes, or wandered off without my noticing, I felt Beth’s panic.
I remained a fan of Jacquelyn Mitchard’s writing over the years and recently connected with her on Facebook (along with a small army of others). When I read she was bringing Beth and her family back to life between the pages of a new book, I leaped at the chance to find out more. Ms. Mitchard graciously agreed to answer some questions for our blog readers, and I know you’ll enjoy learning more about her here.
I have a confession to make. I pulled The Deep End of the Ocean from my shelf, fully intending to skim through it before No Time to Wave Goodbye comes out. But I found myself drawn back into the story of the Cappadoras and the lovely writing and couldn’t skip a word. Now, with this new release, we get to revisit the family after all these years. Why did you wait a dozen years before returning to this book?
It was sheer cowardice and the fear of someone saying that a “sequel” was the last resort of a scoundrel. In fact, I wrote entirely another book that someday will be published. But it is true that one day, I realized that I knew the answer to the question that people had been asking me, which was, “What ever happened to Vincent?” And then my challenge was to write a story that could stand beside that story in terms of power and also incorporate what I’d learned over writing a dozen other novels. When a reviewer wrote to me before the review was published to tell me that the book had blown him away, I knew that I had succeeded. And then I made a nutty choice--which I love.
I decided that my next book would be drawn from this universe, and that I would write as many “West Side stories” as I felt like writing, along with stand-alone novels. Louise Erdrich has gone back and forth between writing the continuing story of a certain Ojbiway clan--as well as other books such as The Antelope Wife and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse. Faulkner returned to the universe he had created. (I’m not comparing myself). But the exhilaration I felt was unexpected. It took five rewrites to be sure, but I’m sure it’s good. It’s not a “series.” It’s a universe in which this family will be part of a community in which the Cappadoras take a greater or lesser part.
I love it when authors take this approach. Because you can fall in love with a story and, even though the book ends, you don’t grieve as much since they’ll return to you. How many books do you have planned for this universe?
Well, we are in the process of trying to adopt two kids from Ethiopia – which means six more kids to put through college--so at least 234. Or until I’m 83, whichever comes first.
Lucky for us; more to read! The success you achieved with your debut novel plays out nearly like a fairytale—amazing sales, a nod from Oprah, a movie deal. Obviously, it was life changing for you. Did you worry that your future novels would not measure up? Any astute advice for aspiring novelists out there?
Yes, and they did not. Critically--yes. Many of them outshined The Deep End of the Ocean. But in terms of sales (millions worldwide, 3 million in the U.S.) not so much. I did myself a disservice by changing publishers, which I will do again only if Random House hatches a plan to shoot my dogs.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen! Promoting this book certainly must be different for you than your first. In addition to your Web site, I know you use Facebook to stay in touch with your readers. Do you find any one method more effective than others in reaching your audience? Will you do a book tour? Any word from Oprah?
No word from Oprah. But it’s July. Oprah? Hello? Facebook is amazing. I’m learning to Twitter like a birdie and the download email of the “presenter” is going to be amazing for this book--short and hugely exciting.
We’ll look forward to that. On the flipside, the electronic age has made a difference in reviewing opportunities too. The adage that everyone’s a critic certainly applies now more than ever. How do you handle negative reviews on Amazon or other sites? Do you find it best to not respond? (I’m thinking of the recent Twitter debacle with Alice Hoffman.)
I try not to read reviews but I end up reading them--of course. And I learn from the negative ones. In all the vitriol, there’s a grain of caution and wisdom, almost without exception. I can think of only one truly nutso bad review, in which a reviewer castigated me for using food as a metaphor for sex--without which device every one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels would have been a pamphlet.
I love Alice Hoffman, as a human being and as a writer. A great lady, she had a bad day. I would never respond to any review or accusation – with a single exception. A writer for a local newspaper once made bold to enumerate and describe my children, including their best guesses about which ones were “really mine.” I went completely bonkers. I asked the newspaper never to review my work again, never to write about me again, in a complimentary way or a negative way.
I can’t imagine someone being so completely unprofessional in their job. I’m glad you took a stand. Speaking of other print media, I enjoy coming across articles by you in Readers’ Digest, Wondertime and Good Housekeeping, to name a few. Plus you’ve successfully published in various genres including young adult and picture books for children and essays that appear in numerous anthologies. Any plans for a non-fiction solo title? Perhaps a guide to life, parenting or a book on writing? (Personally, I vote for the latter.)
Oh my gosh, I would never attempt to advise anyone on parenthood beyond loading lives with laughter, books, organic groceries and the occasional antibiotic. And I discourage my own students from reading “writing books,” the exception being Stephen King’s and Eudora Welty’s because their reading time is so much better spent on the prose of Louise Erdrich and Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote and Charlotte Bronte and Jodi Picoult and Denise Mina and Edgar Doctorow...I have to pause for breath. But I’ll always, always do reportage and personal essays (though not as personal as, for example, Joyce Maynard’s! My family demands and deserves more privacy than that!)
I love the real word sense and the economy of language. I’d also love to write more children’s books (I have an idea about a ferret that gets trapped in a store filled with mink collars and scarves…) and definitely more YA books. In fact, I would say that All We Know of Heaven, a YA novel about two best friends mis-identified in the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident, is the best book I’ve ever written.
That’s one I haven’t read but now you’ve sold me. And we’ll watch for the ferret story. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with our readers.
And now, readers, if you’d like to leave a comment, we’ll enter you in a drawing for a first-edition hardback of No Time to Wave Goodbye. But hurry; we’ll only take entries from people who comment before midnight on Thursday, July 30, so check back on Friday to see if you’ve won. Everyone who comments has an equal chance of winning, but be sure that your comment links us to contact info for you. Otherwise you'll need to include your email address with your comment or contact us at wwwtx6 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Also, unless you're willing to spring for postage, winner must live in the U.S. One of my kids and possibly the dog will be the witness to said drawing. You’ll have to trust us to be fair. At least the dog has never cheated at anything. I take that back--he’s constantly getting caught sleeping on the good sofa.
If you don’t win the book, watch for its release on September 15. Pre-order your copy today through Amazon.com. And be sure to look for Julie's review of No Time to Wave Goodbye here in late August.
UPDATE: The winner of No Time to Wave Goodbye, from those who commented, is Jennifer Ivy. Congratulations!
(Ms. Mitchard's photo by Liane R. Harrison)
Friday, July 24, 2009
A few years ago I had an informal chat with an agent about my current work in progress, which I had not yet started. She was intrigued by the story of Carl Ahrens, a pivotal yet often neglected painter from the early 20th century. After I admitted I’m Carl’s great-granddaughter, she leaned forward in her chair and asked about my sources of information on him. I replied that I have a stack of newspaper and magazine articles, obituaries from four different countries, exhibition catalogs, family photographs, works of art, correspondence with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and about a dozen drafts of an unpublished memoir written by his wife, Madonna. “Why on earth would you write this as fiction?” she asked. “Narrative nonfiction is so much easier to sell.”
Having won a grant from
I soon began to question the wisdom of my genre choice, however. How do you tell the ‘truth’ when your sources all offer different versions of the ‘facts’? Many of the reporters who wrote articles on Carl were his friends; they pieced together stories he had told them over the years, exaggerating as they saw fit. Or, perhaps, the ‘faction’ came from Carl himself, as he was not above telling a few whoppers (he remained forty years old for about twelve years). Madonna, a newly converted Catholic at the time she wrote the memoir, had incentive to gloss over details the Church would frown on. She states her relationship with Carl was platonic until he left his first wife. Several other sources, including a rather suggestive poem written by Carl himself, make me question whether she just didn’t want to admit to having an affair with a married man at seventeen. Can I prove either version? Nope.
I began writing, ignoring the nagging feeling I violated some ethical code every time I included dialogue, and worked in every fact I could find to ease my guilt. The result was good though mildly strangled prose, and I was stuck at page 125. I knew that if I survived writing the whole book in that manner, I’d edit the thing to death because I’d never be satisfied enough to submit it. As agent Jessica Faust stated in her July 20th blog, ‘good enough is never enough.’ Good enough is all it would ever be as narrative nonfiction. Perfection required a leap of faith.
The first thing I had to face was that my book was not, in fact, a biography. Carl and Madonna were like the tree lovers he often painted; fused at the root, wrapped so tightly around each other that it’s impossible to tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. The book would have no soul if I separated them long enough to chronicle the first forty years of his life. Yet that’s exactly what my proposal said I was going to do.
So I started over.
I was writing ‘faction’ before and I’m still writing ‘faction,’ only now I can transform characters back into the flesh and blood people they once were. I don’t want to simply engage the reader during passages of intense restraint between Carl and Madonna. I want to make them physically ache. I want to give Carl’s first wife a voice and show a marriage shattering rather than demonize her just because the only information I can ‘prove’ is tainted by Carl’s hatred of her. I can now skim over the mundane bits of their lives and focus on the conflict. I stick with the facts when I have them and no longer lose sleep when I don’t.
The time I spent writing a nonfiction proposal and building my platform was far from a waste. I visited the Ojibwa reservation where Carl lived. Like Carl, I’ve now heard the native drums and the hypnotic sound of the Anishinabe language, smelled the sweet grass and sage. I’ve stood where Carl and Madonna met, felt the creative energy that still haunts the Roycroft campus. In just a couple of weeks I’ll once again stand in the studio where he created the paintings that hang on my wall.
Google Carl’s name and mine is linked with his on nearly every site. I’ve found over three hundred pieces of art and my website has caught the attention of collectors, art galleries, painters and curators. I’ve gained public speaking experience and been paid for it, learned the importance of networking, and made very close friends along the way.
The moral of this story is to go with your gut instinct when it comes to your writing. Just as we should not write for a trend, we also should not go for the “easier sell” if we must sacrifice the story to do so. After all, if we can’t believe fully in the product, it likely won’t sell anyway. If it does, we will always be disappointed that we settled for “good enough.”
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Have you gotten here yet? Your first (or sixth) manuscript is finished, critiqued, rewritten, polished, and off to your editor or to agents in the form of a query letter. Now it’s time to get back to the drawing board, and the ideas...are not necessarily flowing.
Well, perhaps you aren’t in quite the spot I am. I hope your new story has prickled at the edge of your mind for a while, ready to be born, no need for twelve hours of Pitocin to make the stubborn thing move and no epidural in sight—oops, that’s another story. My point is, if your work-in-progress is flowing from your fingers at an easy two thousand words a day, I hate you. No, not really. (Well, maybe a couple of you.)
But if it’s not—well, then some thinking is in order. And some danger avoidance.
Most of us who’ve been in a critique group longer than an hour have seen sometimes wonderfully written manuscripts about a boy lizard and his two loyal buddies at their enchanted pool; or an impossibly attractive high school umpire with, um, really big teeth, who can’t help but notice the fire chief’s daughter newly arrived from Phenix City, Alabama—you get the picture.
It’s tempting. Here you are, time on your hands, pencil sharp and paper clean, and you can see what works, what sells. It’s natural to think “Well, I could write that”—but guess what? She already wrote it. Game over.
A few thousand words into my new work I got the sinking feeling that my premise might be a little too similar to—well, let’s just say a working title was skating close to My Sister’s Beeper. (Okay, not really, but you get the idea.) I emailed my critique partners, who assured me that my style is far different, my work is known to veer away from my original intentions anyhow and by the way, nice confidence on that talent assumption, Sister. So go for it! With some changes, of course.
The point is to write what screams at you, not what you think will sell. Mercy Jackson and Whatever-the-Heck-Mountain-Is-in-Italy isn’t your golden ticket to publication. Speaking of golden tickets, that’s been done, too: Marley and the Mock Lead Factory ain’t fooling nobody. Nor is sticking the word “wife” or “daughter” in your title (as I learned when I was forced to abandon my earlier WIP, The Janitor’s Common-Law Wife).
What is it that screams at you? So common, nearly a cliché, this advice bears repeating: write what you know. That doesn’t necessarily mean computers or lattes or kids or whatever it is you do during the day. It’s what you do in your heart, the truth that beats there, the quiet shouts of the lessons you’ve learned that demand to be shared. And since we are indeed all unique, the worry that there are only seven stories really doesn’t matter. Those seven stories times seven billion people means that how you write what you write will be different and fresh and new if you trust yourself enough to make it so.
It might take courage to put it in ink. (First danger, now courage? Who knew writing was so adventurous?) What if you try to write that which is dearest to your soul, and you fail? Well, that’s the chance you have to take—I have to take—if we are going to produce our best work, if we are going to share with the world that unique perspective we alone possess. It’s called good writing, good storytelling, and it’s out there waiting to be chased.
So steer away from The Rat and His Flat, and trust yourself. Write the book that scares you the most. Put down those words that want to fly from your pen, the ones that make you clap your hand over your mouth for the sheer baldness of the truth they tell. Your story. Your truth.
Followed by your success.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Our experiences affect our writing, not just in scenes and description, but also in emotion. If you were brought up in the south or worked as a bartender in New York, your writing might reflect charm and lunacy and wit. If you’re from Italy or Montana, you might have quite a different story to tell.
In 2005 I visited Japan. I fell in love with its serene gardens, its tea ceremonies, its culture and people. Yesterday I saw Departures, a stunning movie about a young Japanese man, Daigo, who loses his cellist gig in a Tokyo orchestra and moves with his new wife, Mika, to his hometown in a northeastern town facing the Sea of Japan. He answers a want ad for something in “departures,” thinking it’s a job in travel but he soon finds out there was a misprint. His new job involves preparing the recently departed for encoffinment (a word I didn’t know existed until yesterday—I thought I’d learned them all when writing The Cemetery Garden). At first Daigo is mortified, too embarrassed to tell his wife about his new career, but eventually he learns that, like playing the cello, there is an art to his new profession, as beautiful and peaceful as a tea ceremony.
In addition to loss and failure, the themes of love and redemption weave through the film. The actors’ expressions and actions show us all we need to know. In poignant minimalism, in what is not said. From the time he returns to his childhood home and finds his first cello and a large black rock wrapped in sheet music, we are hooked. Later, the narrator tells us, “Long ago, before writing, you'd send someone a stone that suited how you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they'd know how you felt. From a smooth stone, they might get that you were happy. Or from a rough one that you were worried about them.” In a truly touching—wordless—scene at the end, we realize the importance of this stone.
It got me thinking about how the very concepts of theme, mood and symbolism apply to writing. Our words are an outpouring of our souls at any given time. It’s why one can feel immediately the dark disposition of the Edgar Allen Poe or the lightheartedness of Emily Dickinson. The words we use, the tone, the cadence, all impart a mood to the reader. A skilled writer will paint a picture with her words.
What feeling does your writing invoke? More importantly, does it invoke a mood? Use symbolism to help tell your story—if you plant a rock early in your book, it should reappear at the end, anchoring your readers to an unforeseen conclusion, by placing the rock firmly into their outstretched hands.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Sometimes, if I get lucky when I’m writing, something happens and I am in The Zone. It is hard to explain what this means: I just know that my pen flies across the paper, as though possessed. My hand can’t keep up with the images in my mind. Some times, when I read it later, I have no real memory of writing it.
On other occasions, I might wake in the middle of the night with a dream on the tips of my fingers and get up and write without a thought to what it may mean. I curl into my biggest chair and scribble away. Or if I am driving alone, I may be overtaken by an idea—a bud of a flower that demands instant water, food and sunlight. Sometimes it’s a fleeting thought, sometimes a complete sentence. Regardless, I am compelled to stop and take notice.
Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) refers to the Greeks and their daemons, to the Romans and their genius. Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) called it The Spooky Art. Stephen King, the master at modern creative fiction, writes, “Your job isn’t to find these ideas. It’s to recognize them when they show up.”
So what is this thing, that when captured, can pour out of writers like magic? And what is it, that when absent, quite stereotypically drives writers to drink?
Therein lies the problem: it’s another story altogether when you summon the muse and she refuses to speak. Your fingers become clumsy, as though this is the first time you have ever attempted such a thing. I’ve sat for nights on end, waiting for something to appear on the page. I think back to my creative writing classes from 20 years ago, trying to remember a nugget of instruction to help me summon inspiration.
I buy books on writing (I have a full shelf of writers telling me how to write). Yet reading about writing, I have found, is not writing. Reading about not writing is never the cure for not writing. Just like the only cure for obesity is eating less and moving more, the cure for writers block is whining less and writing more. Just write.
Here are some exercises and suggestions that have helped me. (See? I am now a writer talking about writing to writers who are having a difficult time writing). Keep in mind that the key to all of this is just doing the work. You can write longhand or type, sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words out.
1) Begin a paragraph with the following sentence: “In my mind I see…” and take it from there. If you are working on a specific piece, put this in your character’s point of view. Write at least 200 words, more if you catch inspiration by the tail. One of my favorite pieces that I ever wrote started with this exercise.
2) Go stand outside and describe what’s out there. How’s the weather? (Hemingway said, “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book- weather is very important. “) How does the air feel: heavy and sticky, or brittle and cool? How will the weather affect your scene? If you are writing about a hurricane, don’t tell me it’s raining. I want to smell it, hear it and feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck with the electricity of the storm. Don’t shortchange your readers by leaving something this crucial out of your work.
3) Working Papers- The Artist’s Way recommends journaling three pages each morning before you start the work of the day. Three pages of purging, I call it, shaking the leaves from your trees, shedding the dead skin cells before getting to the flesh of things. “I need to go to the store today,” Or, “I am worried about my mother.” Get these things out of your system before really working on your project. De-clutter your brain matter of all the things that are on your mind. Then you can find your story.
These three simple exercises may help, or they may not be for you. Remember that your writer’s block is your own—not mine, not Hemingway’s or Virginia Wolfe’s. Remember that your muse, too, belongs to you. Welcome her and don’t let her pass you by. At the same time, don’t curse her when she is somewhere else. Show up for the job whether your inspiration is there or not. And the words will appear, sometimes like blood from the pen, sometimes flowing like a Colorado stream. But show up. There is no easier way to fail at your novel than simply not writing it.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Cindy, please send an email with your mailing address to:
wwwtx6 (at sign) yahoo dot com
We'll get your copy in the mail as soon as possible!
Thanks to all for participating, and big thanks to Quinn's publicist for providing us with a copy of the book for our very first What Women Write drawing.
Now, the rest of you -- rush right out and buy a copy of Notes from the Underwire, and don't forget to support your local independent bookseller whenever you can.
(If we don't hear from Cindy in a reasonable number of days, we'll notify a backup winner.)
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges a writer faces is creating memorable characters, avoiding stereotypes and clichés along the way. For me, the best formula for an addictive story is a relatable main character and an unfathomable secondary character. Not quite, but almost.
The supporting role in a novel or screenplay gets to be everything the main character isn’t—and probably wishes she were. She’s Rhoda to Mary Tyler Moore or Kramer to Jerry.
He’s not just a doctor who runs an orphanage, (The Cider House Rules) but he also performs abortions and is addicted to ether. He’s not just a kid brother, (Beach Music) he’s also a gun-toting, paranoid schizophrenic who stops traffic on the town bridge and makes his brothers strip naked and jump over the side. Almost too crazy to believe!
Remember rifle-wielding Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain? Had she been meek and mild, would Renée Zellweger have won an Oscar for her performance? Probably not.
The trick in creating an outlandish sidekick, kid sister, co-worker or man-down-the-hall is not allowing them to overshadow your main character. If Penélope Cruz (as Maria Elena) had shown up in the first scene of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the movie would have been renamed. Just like habaneros in salsa, a little goes a long way.
So, when it comes to creating memorable characters, let your main characters establish the story and devote limited scenes to your more colorful, crazed supporting roles, lest they take over the manuscript and start demanding their own book or movie. Sequel, anyone?
Now, you tell me: What secondary character from a novel or screenplay put the kick in your salsa, sending you scrambling for a cold beer?
Sunday, July 12, 2009
ATTENTION READERS: WE HAVE A CONTEST! Check out the interview, then leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to receive a copy of Quinn's book. We'll select one name, drawn randomly from a plastic cup imprinted with a local restaurant logo in a totally unscientific and non-audited method. I'm reading it first, so please take no offense at dog-eared corners or cracker crumbs.
From Quinn's publisher: In Notes from the Underwire, Quinn's smart and hilarious debut, she tackles the domestic and the delightfully absurd, proving that all too-often they're one and the same. From fighting off a catnip-addled cat to mortal conflict with a sewing machine, Quinn provides insight into her often chaotic, seldom-perfect universe--a universe made even less perfect when the goofy smile of past celebrity shows its occasional fang. The book, like the author herself, is good hearted, keenly observant, and blisteringly funny. In other words, really good company.
Let's talk to Quinn.
WWW: Forget the thirty-second elevator pitch. Imagine you're sitting across from a fairly new acquaintance at a great Mexican food restaurant (probably with Margaritas or iced tea flowing freely), and she says, "What's your book about?" How do you answer? You can stumble over words and even give the long version! (This happened to me last weekend.)
Quinn: Oh, this has been happening for two years and I have yet to get better at it. The book is about how I'm an idiot, about how I try to live way up here (waving arm around my eyebrow), being a good person, but usually end up right about ... here (slapping hand against nearest table, usually breaking a nail in the process). What's it about? It's about two hundred and seventy pages of, ideally, your most lunatic friend pushing a cart next to you in Target, telling you the embarrassing thing she did that morning. I serve that purpose for a great many people.
WWW: A common grumble among writers about "celebrity books" is that the celebrity didn't have to do any writing before they got the deal. Your publishing story is quite different and pretty unique in how it went down as a result of your blog. Tell us how your book deal happened.
Quinn: The blog began because I was writing to multiple friends at once, filling them in on the details of my life and I noticed I was cutting-and-pasting freely. It was starting to feel as if I were regifting my emails. So as not to feel regifty, I decided to write a single blog, tell my friends about it and let them get caught up with us as they were inclined. Two months later, a friend suggested it to Newsweek "Blog of the Week" column and they included it. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Sometimes, in a moment of hallucination, I imagined getting a column in a newspaper out of this, which is adorable because even in 2006/7, papers were already starting to look really unwell. And then I was in a story in USA Today and an editor at Hyperion saw the story and found the blog and an absurdly short amount of time later I was being offered a book deal. For the person reading this with the MFA and the file full of polite turndowns from agents and editors, I know. I'd hate me, too.
WWW: No, no. I think they'll be delighted to learn you got the deal based on your actual writing. Quinn, you've said one reason you quit acting was to start a family and raise your daughter out of the limelight. We've definitely seen a lot about celebrity kids being in the limelight lately with Michael Jackson's death. Was your decision to go forward with the publishing deal difficult in this respect? Did you worry about being back in the spotlight and how it might affect your child? What does she think about mom having a book published? Has she read the book? (So many questions! You pick and choose.)
Quinn: She has read a chapter; she would be happy to tell you that her mom is mean and won't let her read the whole book. Well, guess what? It's not for kids. Not even mine. She's so terribly proud of me that it makes me grin to think of it. This is what her father and I had hoped for when we had long and exhaustingly self-reflective discussions about whether I did this at all. It came down to him saying, "She gets to see you create something and that has to matter." She won't be part of the publicity, I'll promise you that.
WWW: You'll have to give her an autographed copy on her 18th birthday. (Or maybe 16th? Please, Mom!) I've heard it said two people could write a book with the same title, same subject matter, and same chapter headings, and they'd still be completely different. What about Quinn Cummings made you the "only person" who could write this book?
Quinn: I can agree to that premise right up until the time I fell up a flight of stairs and landed on my own fencing foil, removing a chunk of shin bone. I really believe I'm the only person who can tell that story. But as far as the book goes, I'm a special stew of eidetic memory of my own foibles, acute self-consciousness, and a weird habit of standing in the middle of the worst situation and being really happy because it's going to make a great story.
WWW: Ouch. That sounds painful! Pamela here at What Women Write ended up with stitches from going down the stairs and falling over her dog. And I sprained an ankle once falling off the edge of a bathtub. I guess what we're trying to say here is that weird falls and morbid curiosity are the perfect combination of experience/personality trait to be a writer. So, Quinn, give us the short skinny about the book cover. Our readers can also browse to Sara J. Henry's post to get the long version and see the other hilarious covers you and your publisher considered.
Quinn: It's glorious, isn't it? Brenda Copeland, my editor, remembered the "I dreamt I..." ads from Maidenform and found the one where the woman appeared to have made the most amount of bad choices. You'll note the car is off the tracks.
WWW: Now that you've written one book, almost by accident, have you thought about writing another in the future? Have you thought about writing fiction?
Quinn: There might be another book in me. There might not. There's a blog, that's for sure. I doubt I'll write fiction.
WWW: I've noticed many writers seem to be animal rescuers by nature. Your blog posts about your rescue animals are moving, entertaining, and often funny. (Gassy cat, anyone?!) How did this particular obsession begin?
Quinn: My mother's nickname for me was Saint Francis; we'll overlook the gender issue. I've always kept a leash in my glove compartment, in case I saw a dog running down the sidewalk. Thank God for Consort and his allergies, which will keep this a mere quirk and not a character defect.
WWW: What's your favorite deadline snack?
Quinn: Whatever causes me to have to get into the car and leave the house and that horrible computer with all that empty space.
WWW: And we can't get away from here without at least one more child star question. When I was a kid, I wanted to BE Quinn Cummings (and Melissa Gilbert, Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol, of course. Am I dating myself?). When you were a little kid, who did YOU want to be? Quinn: By the time I was in "The Goodbye Girl," I wanted to be one of the reporters on "60 Minutes." Yeah, my dream was to be an old white man.
WWW: Wow. On that note, our interview comes to an end. (Really, it was just my last question.)
Thanks so much for stopping by What Women Write, Quinn, and best wishes for great success with Notes From the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Lovely Life. Here's to a life filled with much happiness and more crazy stories to share.
Readers, don't forget to let us know you stopped by to be entered in our drawing. After we select a winner, we'll announce it here and obtain your contact info so Julie can mail her "like new" copy to you!
EDIT: Forgot to say, we'll leave comments open through Wednesday, July 15 at 5 p.m., North Texas time. That would be Central Standard Time! I'll draw a name Wednesday evening and announce our winner Thursday. Thanks for all the participation so far. We're enjoying your comments.
From Hyperion: Quinn Cummings is a former child actor. By the age of ten, she was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Her blog, the QC Report, has received accolades from publications like Newsweek and USA Today. She is the creator of the HipHugger, a stylish sling for carrying a baby, and a full-time mom. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I’m an accidental genealogist. I know it’s a strange hobby for a thirty-five year old, but compiling a family tree can be as much about stories and the characters who lived them as names and dates. What better raw material for a novelist?
Yes, your query would be rejected immediately if you begin with I’ve written a 150,000 word novel about my great uncle; but if that uncle happened to live a compelling life you can always wow an agent with the story first and casually mention your relationship to the protagonist later.
Still not convinced? While researching for my current work in progress, I’ve found Eleanor Douglass, a fiercely independent artist at the turn of the last century (and a minor character in my current book). Then there’s Edgar and Sarah Niles who left New York for the western frontier in the 1880s in a desperate attempt to cure Edgar’s consumption. The level of detail about pioneer life in their letters to family back home is enough to make any novelist salivate. Just last month I discovered that no one has ever written a book on one of the most famous Indian agents during the Revolutionary War. That’s three potential books right there, thanks to my second cousin, my great-great grandparents, and my 6x great grand-uncle.
I never had to search for the subject of my current work in progress. The most cherished fairy tales of my youth all featured a rather colorful character named Carl Ahrens. My grandmother, Tutu, used to entertain me with stories about Carl running away from home to live with the Indians or making a catastrophic attempt to fly off the barn roof. (My daughters cringe when I recite the flying tale, but always ask to hear it again.) As I grew older, the stories multiplied. Carl was a cowboy in pioneer Montana, befriended Calamity Jane, traveled the California coast by covered wagon, and spent an afternoon hiding in a buffalo hollow while warring bands of Indians shot arrows over his head. She never explained how he did all this while suffering from a crippling form of tuberculosis, and it seemed an unimportant detail.
Of course, all good heroes must have a heroine, and Carl found his while working in the Roycroft arts and crafts community. To keep the story interesting, or so I thought, Tutu complicated their relationship in deliciously scandalous ways. Carl, then 38, already had a wife who despised him but wouldn’t let him go. The “Madonna” he worshipped was all of 17. He was a genius with a paintbrush, but cantankerous and destitute. Irresistible as well, apparently, because Tutu occasionally slipped and called them Daddy and Momma.
Having grown up surrounded by paintings of trees that laughed, grieved, danced, and even embraced, I never questioned that my great-grandfather was both a real person and an amazing artist. However, it wasn’t until I was about seven that I began to associate the adventurer with the frail old man in the family photographs. One day my mother saw me playing with a small antique basket that has always fascinated me. She mentioned she believed it was Indian made and had likely been Carl’s. Running my fingers reverently over the basket’s intricate designs, I peered at the nearest old photos. They were candid snapshots instead of the dour portraits that were the vogue of the day. Madonna not only laughed as she sat beside Carl, but leaned into him, sometimes touching his arm or his hand. Carl gazed at her rather than at the camera, an expression of naked adoration on his face. Even then, looking at them made me smile.
We later inherited the photo of Carl I have included in this post. It was the first image I had seen of him as a young man. The resemblance between my real life hero (Dad) and my fictional one (Carl) was so striking that I could no longer doubt even the most outrageous of Tutu’s accounts.
After years of intensive research, I have proved the fairy tales true.
Now, obviously, not everyone has been blessed with such a character in their family tree, and some of you may be reading this and quaking at the idea of committing to a historical novel. I was, too. I fought the inevitable for years, going to college and graduate school and getting a “real job.” When I finally settled down to write something, I spewed out a contemporary and largely autobiographical novel I refer to as “literary vomit.” It is condemned to dwell in a box in my closet for eternity. My next attempt was better – some concepts can be recycled. The third novel was better still and will be worth resuscitating someday. As I typed the last few lines of it, however, I panicked. I minored in history. I took research classes in graduate school. I enjoyed being trapped in a room filled with nothing but old documents that no one had looked at in a century. I had written a novel with an artist protagonist. In short, I had spent the last ten years of my life preparing to write Carl’s story and had no excuses left. Gulp!
Even if you would rather run a mile barefoot on broken glass than look at eighteenth century census records, you can ask questions. Talk to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Don’t listen simply for the names and dates, but wait for a character to speak to you. Look at those old family photos and study the faces. Some stories can be updated and others will remain firmly in the past. If nothing else, you can probably find some interesting character names. Think about what a conversation piece surnames such as Bottenhagan, Cuthwolf, Dunfrund and Frithogar would be. How about Godfrey Lothier III? He happens to be my 24th great-grandfather, but I’ll share.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The library makes me greedy. Confronted with thousands—probably hundreds of thousands of choices as my city's vast catalogue can be delivered to my neighborhood branch with the swipe of my card—confronted with unreadable-in-my-lifetime options, I check out tons of books. Books I’ve hankered for; books friends recommend; books with nice covers. Books I doubt I’ll read but will try a few chapters. Books my kids bug me for; books I think my kids ought to read. The sheer abundance makes me greedy, nearly ready to throw my acquisitions on the bed and roll in them like Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal.
And then I hear of people who don’t read. At all. Not just some unfathomable fake person invented by politicians or the media, but actual humans. With no effort I can conjure the names of two I know personally. And again, these aren’t underprivileged people with sad or scary back stories—no, these are both college-educated, middle class women much like me. And yet they don’t read. Now, that’s not strictly true. Both happen to be magazine readers. But reading for enjoyment? Novels? Nope—not interested. Not even once, in one woman’s case. Not one book read for pleasure, ever.
Reading has been perhaps the single most sustaining delectation of my life. I was in the third grade when I dethroned my sister as the family bookworm. I well remember Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett. I still have a copy of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, by E.L. Konigsburg, and all the Little House books. (And if you’re detecting a hint of narcissism in my choices, I might as well admit that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s middle name is Elizabeth.)
There’s been only one exception in my ongoing read-a-thon since then. The year after my very needy son was born, I literally had no time to read, and I missed it horribly. I remember holding my baby and glaring with envy at my husband as he read the newspaper over a bowl of cereal, my hungry eyes denied by my own silly mother guilt. Long nursing sessions should have provided time for dozens of books, but I was derailed by an awkward two-handed technique. (Seriously, don’t ask.)
After that first year, I couldn’t bear the loss. Somehow I found time, even when I had none. I polished off Harry Potter one through four in thirteen days when my son was two and my daughter under a year—the first movie was coming out, I knew I’d want to read the book before I saw it, and then couldn’t put them down. I find my eyes roving for the printed word when I have nothing to do, like an actual physical craving. So far this year I’ve read about fifty books, mostly novels—and it’s been a busy year.
My son became a bookworm in a single day. Mother’s Day, to be exact: 2006. We were at my mom’s house, and she had twenty or so Secrets of Droon books, Tony Abbott’s chapter series. My first grader picked up book one and about ten days later put down the last, and we barely saw the kid’s nose in the interim. From reluctant reader to addict in one afternoon. Because he found the right book.
It’s no secret there’s a fair bit of snobbery about genre fiction. I still puzzle over my husband’s fondness for fantasy and sci fi, and literary readers are stereotyped for rolling their eyes at bodice-rippers. But clearly all these books have passionate fans. Fans who read.
Not everyone is going to love my books. I know that. But I think of my two non-reading friends, and consider one’s interest in fitness, and think she might like my manuscript about kickboxing women. The other is the mother of a young girl, and I wonder if my middle-grade work would be something they could enjoy together. Just one book. One chapter, one day, and the library can morph from another big box to a bottomless treasure chest, the source of a lifetime of delight. And that book, that life-changing tome, might one day spill from the labors of my pen.
That’s not why I write. That’s a much more complicated issue, and not something I’m sure I could even explain. But it’s a really nice by-product to contemplate.
One book, one life. Changed.
Monday, July 6, 2009
You have the perfect idea for a novel and complete your first draft. You revise and tweak it, conjuring the perfect concoction. You’ve instilled your magic voice.
Before you submit, you test it on your critique partners and anxiously await the results. Then your agent and editor scurry into the lab and Voilà! Out comes an even more alien brew. With enough riffing, the creation you deemed nearly perfect is saturated with remarks that read like Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary: “You forgot the eye of newt,” or “No, your monster wouldn’t spare the girl. He’d chomp off her arms,” or “Turn back!”
Why didn’t I think of that? you reflect, and accept the change. Brilliant! you think, and incorporate another. I was going to write it that way, you justify.
Most likely, none of your advisors are mad scientists, just benevolent associates who want to see your book on the shelves. But, writer, beware! Pretty soon the concoction is theirs, not yours. Pretty soon you’ll need line-by-line credits in your acknowledgments.
If you’re lucky, your beta readers will suggest revisions without making it their own. My writing is better because of my brilliant critique partners. Even if I don’t agree with all they suggest, I learn from their input and I hope they concur. But sometimes I make a suggested change because it sounds better, only to discover later that the line or word sticks out. It’s not my voice.
My advice: Don’t write by committee; retain your story. Know when to turn back, take the intent of well-meaning suggestions, and mold them into your magic voice.
Save the riffing to the guys who brought you Mystery Science Theater 3000. (For hilarious new commentary from Michael J. Nelson of MST3K go to Rifftrax.com)
Friday, July 3, 2009
I have always loved writing but, more than anything, I enjoy writing for an audience of one—me. Without the pressure of writing for newspapers (which I used to do), I have been freer in my words, less bound by rules, and basically happier in pushing words out on paper than if I am working on a deadline. This year, as I dove back into writing as a discipline instead of just as recreation, I changed some processes. Certain things, like scheduling times to write, joining writing groups for feedback, and increasing my time in research and study, have been clearly positive steps in my progress. Other process changes have been more difficult. Switching from handwritten to hard drive was one of them.
My current work-in-progress was originally bound in six Moleskin notebooks, wrapped in elastic bands, and completely handwritten. When I got serious about the manuscript (for example: calling it a ‘manuscript’ instead of ‘stuff I’m writing’), one of the first things that I did was to transfer it to hard drive. It just made more sense, I reasoned, to type the novel once I decided to stop dabbling and start really writing it. Yet there’s something to be said for the handwritten word, and I will always prefer it.
As a writer, I prefer longhand for creativity and the glowing screen and keyboard for efficiency. Efficiency won out in the creative battle in my quest to complete the novel. Even now, when I work on my own manuscript, I call tell by the flavor of the scene where I originally wrote it: at my desk, hunched over a screen, or in a park, sitting in the shade with my pen in my hand.
I have a journal that has been buried for the past four years, and yesterday morning I dug it up from the bottom of a hope chest. From my own handwriting, I could see love, pain, loss and hopefulness. Each entry was in its own ink, smudged with time, pencil lead, sometimes chocolate and sometimes tears. I could feel more from this journal—the few months of time that I captured in its pages, because it was handwritten. It reinforced to me how much I love the written word—the hand-written word. There are surprises there, emotions, and the stories are richer to me when I read it straight from someone’s hand, even if it is my own. It’s as though there is a piece of the author with the words. As though the wrapping paper is better than the gift itself.
My own handwriting tells a story to me. Reading it, I feel the anger or happiness or despair that forced the words onto paper, frustration in quick jabs of ink, entire paragraphs marked through, scribbled out—my old fashioned “delete” key. Pages ripped, folded down, torn out. That tells me more than the thread of the plot ever will—it tells me about myself.
This just shows me that there is no “right” way to write. Every writer finds their own passage and process to writing fiction. Is it more creative to write by hand? For me, sometimes yes. Yet Hemingway wrote for hours every morning at a typewriter, agonizing over each word. Did this make his words less heartfelt? I doubt it. My story continues to be a love letter, written by hand, regardless of its transfer to the keys. As for efficiency? I’ll take the keys any day—for editing, organization, and spell check. Will that mean it takes me twice as long to complete the manuscript than if I only wrote it once? Maybe, but I doubt it. It will be better this way, as a love letter, a story, and a novel. I need to see it in my own hand first. Then, if I’m lucky, I can share it with you.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Remember the comedian known for his Here's Your Sign routine? Bill Engvall described people who asked questions with obvious answers and then said, "Here's your sign," handing them a metaphorical I'm Stupid sign to declare their status to the general public.
It's easier to identify when to pick up the stupid sign than the writer sign.
In my college days, I became a grocery checker the day I passed the test, sat in front of the register, and began keying grocery prices as I slid items from my counter back into a cart.
After college, I became a welfare eligibility worker the day I walked on terrified legs to the lobby of the Old Courthouse in Abilene and called my first client, a sweet little old man who probably received only ten dollars per month in food stamps, but appreciated the annual conversation with his caseworker.
Years later, as a newly single mom returning to the workforce, I became a customer service rep, at least in name, weeks before I perched a headset over my ears and pressed the call button for the first time to help a purchasing agent order supplies for ophthalmic surgery. And probably long before I learned the correct spelling for ophthalmic.
But when I started writing, I wasn't sure when I could officially give that answer to people who asked:
"What do you do?"
In our uncertain economy, anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself or herself a writer. Literary agents bemoan how query numbers have increased exponentially in 2009. Apparently, when the economy's bad, everyone decides they have a book in them. It's a get-rich-quick scheme, right? Uh huh. Refer back to Pamela's post.
But, seriously, when are you officially a writer?
Is it when you pick up the pen or pull the keyboard snug against your wrists, realizing two decades after college that you really did want to be a writer after all, cringing at all the years you've wasted, but accepting that you probably gained some great material in the interim?
Or when you're sending query letters to literary agents for your First Novel, though you have two or three trunk novels quivering in shame beneath your bed, too embarrassed to emerge ever again?
Maybe it's when you begin calling the novels you're writing by strange acronyms, like LOTH. Or B/O, the Manuscript Formerly Known as LOTH. Or acronyms that make nice nicknames, like St. Woy (my current work in progress).
Maybe the true signs are more subtle.
Maybe it's when your husband pulls the naked checkbook from your handbag to tear off carbons and record your purchases, and he asks, "What's this?" and proceeds to read aloud the first two paragraphs of your current manuscript because you wrote them on the manila backing while you were out and inspiration struck and you had nowhere else to write and thank goodness you only had two checks left.
Or it's when you're in street clothes at the pool in 101 degrees of Texas heat, scribbling in a notebook while the kids swim. You look up at your 11-year-old, bobbing by the side of the pool when you hear her friend ask, "What's your mom doing?"
"She's thinking of phrases she can use for her book and writing them down. Like . . . I can hear the slap of the water against the side of the pool like I've never heard it before . . ." She flings her arms dramatically on slap and never.
"No," you say. "That was last time. This time I'm thinking about Austin."
"Okay, then . . . I can smell the pollution . . . I can hear the traffic . . . I can see the college students as they drink and party . . . oh, wait . . . I can hear the college students blasting my eardrums with the sounds of . . . no, wait . . ." She wrinkles her forehead, and her gaze drifts to the side.
"Pretty close, actually," you say, and her friend regards you like she might regard a new insect species, but they shrug and swim away.
It's likely the moment you see an email from a prospective agent pop up in your inbox. You open it and feel a momentary, painful clenching of your stomach muscles as you read the phrase "Not right for me." Then, you tap the keys to file it away in a remote folder and immediately create another query.
It's definitely the day someone asks, "What do you do?" and you reply:
"I'm a writer."
No dry throat, no flushed cheeks, and no sweaty palms saying you might need an I'm Stupid sign for calling yourself a writer.