Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Funny thing about productivity.
A couple of weeks ago I was on a tear, writing every day, producing words, moving along with my WIP. I knew much of it would never make it to the final draft, but along I plugged anyway. I'd made an appointment with the muse, and even if she didn't decide to show up, I would, and I'd work alone if I had to.
Then life hit again, and it coincided with doubt, and let me tell you, for a writer that isn't the prettiest combination. Its offspring, in this case, was twins: self-doubt and lethargy. Not the cutest pair in the nursery.
I needed to get back to the basics. Plot. Story. Characters. I didn't really have enough of any of them, more a situation for some cardboard cliches. Situations might be interesting, but they don't make a novel. I needed a refresher course on how to write a book. It showed up in the most obvious of places.
Books, of course. I read, and with the mindset of a writer. It helped that the novel I'd happened to grab at the library earlier in the week had realistic twists and turns, new information that kept me guessing and just a step ahead of the protagonist. (I love feeling smart that way.) Plot! I thought. Story! Not to mention characters. I finished the book and immediately thumbed through it, chapter by chapter, outlining its trajectory.
Then I put down my pen. And started thinking. I thought on the treadmill; pondered as I waited between appointments and in carpool lanes; noodled my way through long walks in the new crisp air. Thought about my book. Its plot, story, characters. I allowed myself to abandon what I thought it should be about, and let my mind decide anew. I think some of the characters had a word or seven to put in as well, not all of them suitable for a family blog.
But: I fell in love.
I'd had an idea and trudged out some 12K words from it, but the heart wasn't yet there. My heart wasn't there. Not only had I just placed some characters in a situation rather than a story, I was also ambivalent about committing to this project. My brain kept meandering to other stories (ahem, maybe situations), other characters. I felt unfaithful, even as I showed up each day right on schedule.
Taking the time, giving myself that gift of it, to think, made the difference. I saw how the first chapter would play out, tied it to the central theme of the book. I invented peripheral characters with the big job of advancing the story. I made decisions about the challenges my characters would face, helping tap the elusive-for-me plot into place. I saw how the book would end, how it would break my heart in doing so, only to staple it back together. I felt those characters' hopes rise as their stories unfolded, and crumbled beside them with their disappointments. I found the excitement I'd been missing.
So now I'm ready to get back to work, scribble out words that might stand a chance of surviving revision and critique. I'm ready to show up and see if the muse meets me, and my guess is that this time she'll be there more often. If not, I'll survive. I've got a real story now, and a plot. I've got the enthusiasm. I've got some people with a story to tell, and they're counting on me to do it.
Monday, September 28, 2009
When I was growing up, the dream of my traveling around the world seemed as likely as my looking like Bo Derek. But several years ago, I did go (though I didn’t arrive in Dallas looking like Ms. Derek). Although we made a full rotation, if you tracked our route around the globe, our trail would be a thin rubber band leaving 99% of the world left unseen. Even so, my eyes have been around the world and they were opened to new cultures, new food and new characters.
My eyes have seen the spot on Mykonos where Shirley Valentine’s dreams (and mine) came true. They’ve seen the Istanbul bazaar and the Acropolis from a nearby hilltop restaurant. They’ve seen dainty painted eggs in a Salzburg shop, Mount McKinley on a rare clear day, Pope John Paul II's coffin in the crypt below St. Peter's Basilica, and the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam (another dream come true).
I’ve yet to put together a collage of saved ticket stubs, museum literature, menus, beach pebbles and coins, but we have over 3,000 pictures from our trip, photos of the rich landscape of cobalt seas and white columns, of glaciers and rocky beaches.
Of us eating fat raspberries in The Netherlands and toxic foogoo in Japan.
Of a cow staring us down from the middle of a winding Swiss road.
Of Greek gods hovering around us.
I treasure the pictures of my guys, the backs of their heads offering me a view of the world from their perspective. Of my dear friend Joy and her big Greek family and our adventures in Athens and Delphi. But I've always been fascinated by the faces of nameless people.
I gathered a lifetime of stories, my mind spinning like the globe we circled, so it’s no surprise I see those nameless people cropping up as characters in my dreams, wheedling their way into future novels. One day maybe I’ll write about the couple on the steps of a Tokyo temple, a bride and groom as stunning as their costumes. Who are they? What twists and turns has their life taken since that day?
Perhaps I’ll write about the surprise and wonder in exotic children, about where they fit in the family tree or what secrets they will learn about their ancestors.
Or maybe I’ll tackle the people whose faces tell stories without words. Will I write about the older woman whose life is laid out in her stature, or about the only English speaking resident in the tiny town of Montefelonico who shared homemade limoncello and tales of his stint as a college professor with us?
No matter where my travels have taken me, I've studied a world of faces. They tell stories enough for their characters to jump off the globe, hopefully carrying suitcases of plots with them.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Last week I was fortunate enough to see Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, at a reading in Dallas to discuss their new memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates. When I got home that night, I pulled out my newly signed copies of her books, including The Secret Life of Bees, and I thought about the first time I read it. And the second.
Around the third time I read Bees was when I had decided I wanted to write fiction, not just read it.
I began looking beyond the story of Lily and the Boatwright sisters, and looking more into her use of epigraphs, the themes employed, and the author’s symbols and motifs. I noted that there were 14 chapters, and that Lily Owens was 14 years old at the end of this coming of age tale.
Hmmm. I wondered if she did that on purpose? All of a sudden, I realized I was seeing something here, something beyond the story, beyond the meat and flesh of the narrative and plotline. With my newly trained eye, I could see the bones.
Every writer knows about the bones. At least, perhaps, they believe their bones exist. Yet in the writing of it all, I think there are times that we get lost.
I’ve written about the story and the importance of telling your tale, in It’s The Story, Stupid. I still believe that telling the story is most critical to your reader. Yet in pumping up the muscles of our plotline, we’ve got to remember that unless supported by a good structure, it will all fall apart.
At the end of the question and answer session with Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, a beautiful elderly woman came to the podium for her questions.
“This is a thank you, not a question,” she began. “In all of my 57 years of teaching, I wanted to thank you for The Secret Life of Bees. It’s been a joy to teach, and the best book to teach to my students, in all of my years. Thank you.”
I was touched. Kidd placed her hand over her heart, bowed to the teacher, and said, “You’re welcome.”
Was this novel the best book to teach because it was a great plot? Or, as I suspect, was this teacher responding to the bones of the story, the overall structure and joints, from themes to symbolism and context?
I went back to my WIP, a novel I call The Angel’s Share. I looked at it through new eyes, and I decided that it has a touch of osteoporosis. Nothing that a little calcium can’t help, but my bones had gotten weak. So I pulled back, indulged in a week of “bones camp,” as I called it to myself, and started focusing on some basic ideas and questions. I went back through and reminded myself of all of these elements, and I answered the questions that I felt were unanswered.
Here are the basic bones to a story:
Context and Setting
Point of View
Protagonist, antagonist, and full character analysis
Themes, motifs and symbols, epigraphs
Chapter by chapter analysis
Rising action defined
Falling action defined
The use of foreshadowing
Key quotations and their meanings
Revisit your work in progress, and see what you have created. Does it have a full skeleton or just meat and muscle? Visit Sparknotes to look up novels you admire and learn from their bones too. They are all laid out on the table. Then go back to your own autopsy and see what’s needed.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
The main purpose for my stay was a three-day Immersion Master Class taught by Margie Lawson out of her beautiful log home above Denver in Coal Creek Canyon.
The class was a great opportunity to dig deep, one final time, into my current manuscript, to take it apart, bit by bit, and put it back together shinier than it's ever been. I'm still applying what I learned, but hope to be querying again soon.
My visit was also an opportunity to reminisce -- to see some of the neighborhoods I roamed when I was developing my love of reading and writing, and to catch up with not only old friends who influenced the person I am while I lived there, but new friends I've made in recent years via the Internet.
It was bittersweet at times. My years in Colorado were not the easiest ones of my life, but there were also good memories made there, and I recognize that my writing is largely a product of that time.
Driving through Cherry Creek, the neighborhood where I lived while attending high school, was a true test of my memory. Most of the businesses from those years are gone, replaced by trendy shops, offices, and lofts.
Developers had bulldozed the odd little house where I lived with my mother and brother, together with the house next door, the lots covered now by a small, but beautiful condominium complex.
The sign for the one of the original Village Inn Pancake Houses, which appeared in the first novel I attempted to write, still hangs outside the building, but the windows are dark. Perhaps the owners found more opportunity in their suburban locations, but I remember a time when a trip to the Cherry Creek Village Inn was a special treat.
My hostess for my visit, a friend and fellow writer I met through an online writing class more than three years ago, lives in a neighborhood that used to be an Air Force base. "Back in the day," we had to drive miles out of the way to get to anything on the other side – now you can drive straight through while admiring the modern, multi-use community.
The librarians watched me arrive each week, nearly collapsing under the maximum number of books I could check out. They'd ask if I really read all those books, mock disbelief on their faces, but I knew they were delighted I was there. I suspect this influenced my decision to obtain my master's of library science degree eventually.
Strangely, I have no memory of the mountain that forms the backdrop for the building. As one of my classmates said that night, it was probably just wallpaper at the time. It took me completely by surprise.
I could go on, but it might take all night and a day besides to take you on the whole sentimental journey. Instead, let me ask you: What visits have you made to places years later, when they were hardly recognizable to you, yet as familiar as ever? Have these places appeared in your writing? Did you find, as I did, that not only have the physical locales shown up, but also the emotions you experienced during those times? Leave a comment and share if you'd like.
If you take one of her Immersion classes, you might just get to see this view (which I used this week to make a new header for the blog!) on a quick hike to clear your brain from all the hard work you're doing.
Check out her website: www.margielawson.com
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
That’s a pretty bold statement. And obviously, I learned grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary—the nuts and bolts of writing—very early in my life. I owe a lot to great English teachers.
But when it comes to crafting story, developing characters, building suspense, defining plot and creating a story arc, much can be learned from watching movies.
Since every great movie begins with a screenplay, it makes sense that movies can tell us a lot about how to formulate a story. Unlike a novel that might take days to read, a movie can usually be watched in two hours or less. Gone is the text that describes the scene, sets up the back-story or tells us what a character is thinking. A movie must show us, not tell us—an important element to keep in mind when writing a novel.
I’ve attended two writers’ conferences where NY Times best-selling author Bob Mayer gave lectures on fiction. In one class, he showed movie clips to help illustrate certain elements of great story telling such as symbolism and foreshadowing. “Whenever you finish watching a movie,” Bob said, “go back and watch the first scene again.” He said we’d be surprised at how much the opening scene ties into the final one. Now, I do this nearly every time I rent a movie.
My son recently developed an interest in writing screenplays, so I figured reading one might help him. Since he loved the movie Juno, written by Diablo Cody, I bought the screenplay for him. I was surprised at how much I learned by reading it as well.
Elements I didn’t initially catch while watching the movie became clear when I read the script. I enjoyed the movie mainly for the snappy dialog and quirky characters, but what remained below my radar were brilliant uses of symbolism and foreshadowing. “It started with a chair,” Juno (Ellen Page) narrated. And in one of the final scenes—spoiler alert!—Vanessa (played by Jennifer Garner) was shown in a rocking chair with the baby as Juno intoned: “It ended with a chair.”
Two separate basements were used for scenes that provided life-changing moments for Juno. Fingernails were used as a repeating element. (Juno is reminded outside an abortion clinic that her unborn baby already has fingernails, and Juno’s step-mom is a nail technician.) When I went back to writing my work-in-progress, I discovered the potential for a similar technique was right under my nose. I just had to change one minor detail.
So now when I watch a movie, not only am I enjoying the moment of escaping into someone else’s story, I’m paying attention. Whether I’m watching Disney’s latest installment with my six-year-old, a bro-mance or comedy with the boys, or something just for me, I learn something. Whether it’s clever dialog (“This is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet.”) or a well-placed symbol (a chair) or a repeated component (the basements), there’s craft.
And you don’t have to leave home to find it.
Movie Lessons 101:
1. Use the scene selection option on the DVD. Think of each scene as a chapter. Watch one scene at a time and note how it starts and ends. Is there a hook to keep you watching?
2. Watch the first scene and then the last one. How have the characters changed from the beginning of the movie? (character arc) The main character must have experienced some sort of growth (or decline), maturity or gained some sense of awareness over the past two hours.
3. Notice how much time has elapsed. Is it an epic story that covers a lifetime (Ray, Walk the Line) or one that encompasses a much shorter period of time (Sliding Doors, 27 Dresses)? Your story should have a definite beginning, middle and end.
4. Pay attention to dialog. Great dialog is hard to nail. Ever think of a great response to someone—but it came to you hours or even days later? When you write a story, you have the luxury of time. If a line you’re writing isn’t working for you, let it sit a day or so until you have the brilliant revelation. In movie dialogue, chances are the words have been altered until they really fit. One of my favorite lines from Juno: Nah, I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into? isn’t in the screenplay. I’m assuming Ellen Page threw that one in herself; maybe after a few takes, Diablo “heard” it.
5. What did you gain from watching the movie? Watch the trailer of the movie and that’s the elevator pitch. The movie’s plot? (for Juno: Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, an offbeat young woman makes an unusual decision regarding her unborn child.) That’s an example of a logline, one you should be able to rattle off at the drop of a hat when someone asks, What’s your story about? The back of the DVD case paralels what you might read on the back cover or inside flap of a novel. It’s the story (plot) but not the whole story—just enough to pique your interest.
6. Watch the movie with the commentary option. You’ll learn as much as you might if you’d read the screenplay. Directors, actors and writers love to talk about their movies. I’ve watched several this way, including Walk the Line, and learned so much about why certain scenes were added/cut/adapted. Great advice when you have to ‘kill your darlings’ in your own story.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Two years ago I read The Underpainter, a novel by Jane Urquhart. The protagonist, Austin Fraser, creates a series of paintings depicting the people who touched his life and then erases the details by applying progressively lighter shades of paint. Over the course of the novel, the paintings become a metaphor for how an emotionally crippled man has avoided life. Jane Urquhart herself said in a June 2001 interview with January Magazine that she ‘hadn’t expected [
The Underpainter is the first and only book I’ve ever thrown across the room in disgust. After hearing the satisfying clunk against the wall, I promptly retrieved it and kept reading. As despicable as
Around this time my aunt discovered a box in her attic containing eight drafts of a biography that my great-grandmother, Madonna, wrote about her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. While I had a copy already and didn’t expect to find much new there, I skimmed page after page of onionskin paper, struggling to decipher the handwritten notes in the margins. My reward: ten pages worth of recollections that never made it into the version Madonna bound and donated to libraries back in 1945.
Learning of my discovery, several of my contacts from historical societies around
The drafts are a series of portraits of the same man, some flattering, some severe. The image Madonna clearly wished the world to see is reminiscent of a Bronte hero – tall, dark and brooding. While she alluded to his temper, she emphasized his gentleness in reverential tales of Carl engineering a prosthetic leg for his rooster or delighting his children by reviving a failing honeybee. She declared him a ‘wonderful and steadfast lover and a faithful husband,’ describing their relationship as companionable, passionate, with a few storms thrown in to keep things interesting. As a painter, Carl was a frustrated genius, worn down by constant illness and pain, unfairly ostracized for his individuality and his divorce from his first wife. Yes, he was cantankerous and sometimes difficult, she admitted, but with cause.
My aunts confirmed my suspicion that Madonna placed an airbrushed version of Carl on the highest pedestal she could find. They said my grandmother lamented that her childhood home was anything but harmonious. Her parents’ love for each other was obsessive, all-consuming, their arguments equally as passionate as their reconciliations. While I knew Madonna carefully concealed Carl’s warts out of love, I was intrigued by the thought of just where those warts may be and how deeply they burrowed.
I got my first clue when I found the following handwritten passage tucked inside the last draft, as though Madonna knew I would unearth it someday: He was afraid of my youth, my [singing] voice, even my appearance, and wanted to make sure of keeping me all for himself by shutting out every aspect of my life which he could not entirely dominate. It was quite understandable. He had changed the whole course of his life because he loved me…and said that so long as he had me, he did not need anyone else to make up his happiness. As he gave his love freely and without compromise, entirely to me, he not only wished, but demanded the same in return. He must be first, before the children, before music, before anything at all, and not only first, but second and third as well.
After I read this, I glared at a photo of my great-grandfather, arms crossed over my chest, and declared, “Explain yourself, please.” I heard no reply, of course, but my eyes drifted to his cane, and I empathized enough to imagine myself in his place. If I were afflicted with a crippling and excruciating illness that left me unable to care for myself, would I not cling to the one person on whom my survival depended? If that person were half my age, attractive, and had many admirers, would I not live in constant terror of being left alone to die?
Madonna’s version of events would only show Carl through the eyes of a woman in love. The narrative would be rosy and sweet, but it would also only tell half the story. As a wife, mother, and historian, I couldn’t gloss over the fact that Carl abandoned his first wife and their three children, no matter what his motives. The stories passed down by Carl’s son may have been exaggerated out of (justifiable) bitterness, but I believe Carl’s first family often faced the cruel streak that even Madonna admitted he possessed. I took careful notes, thankful that he was merely a verbal tyrant, not a brute, and agonized over how best to work in some of his most despicable behavior.
Writing those scenes infuriates me and it often takes a few days for me to forgive Carl enough to move on. Did I ever consider leaving them out? Not a chance. The most satisfying moment of my life as a writer was when one of my critique partners wrote at the end of one paragraph that she didn’t like Carl very much and, six sentences later, claimed to love him again. This contrast not only makes him a memorable character, but it’s likely a more accurate portrayal of the real man than those given by accounts from people with motives to protect or condemn.
Do I hope that readers will someday throw The Oak Lovers across the room? Sure. I hope to make them laugh and cry as well. Writers can’t have this sort of power over the emotions of strangers without taking risks, without unflinchingly exposing the flaws of the characters we create and letting them be judged accordingly. In the case of Austin Fraser, I’m still not sure of a verdict after two years of deliberations. That says a lot about the power of Jane Urquhart’s pen.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
I make a pretty good scone; if you don't believe me you can scroll down to my bio where the information is repeated. It's on the Internet so it must be true. Besides, I worked hard on that recipe alongside a friend as we fought the tedium of "the witching hour." Long afternoons with kids too old to nap but too young to desert to the neighborhood. After lunch, before the evening routine set in, a stretch of time when Russian roulette seemed reasonable. Instead we baked (and ate and gained weight).
So the scones, like I said, are pretty darn good. Good enough for a bakery even, better than many I've eaten at a hoity-toity tea house with a cup of Earl Grey and a twenty dollar price tag. So my plan is this: I'm going to send the recipe to a few local pastry chefs, ask them to mix up a batch, tell them to let me know what exactly they think I need to do to improve it (as if!), and then I'll make said changes before picking a different one and letting them put it on the menu. They're cooks, right? That's what they do: cook. It's perfectly reasonable to ask this of them, because they're in the food business and have the knowledge and experience to help me figure out how to perfect my baking.
Another thing I plan to do, and soon, is to talk to the counselor at my kids' school. No worries, thanks, all is well in their academic lives. But at home, yikes! The bickering is getting on my nerves, so I figure I'll talk to the counselor about the situation, have her outline a plan for what can be done to cut down the home front squabbles, and I'll finally get some peace. She has a master's in this stuff, so she should know exactly what I should do and, as the school counselor, this is what she does after all.
Before that, though, I need to get my medicine cabinet ready for flu season. I figure I'll call my doctor and have her meet me at the drug store so she can show me precisely what OTC meds I should have on hand in case the flu shot doesn't keep illness at bay. She's a doctor, so she ought to know, right? And as my doctor, one who calls me to remind me it's time for my annual, thus soliciting my business, it seems right to me that her wealth of knowledge is mine to plunder.
As I drive home from the drug store that day, I'll probably pull into the local auto repair shop. There's a pesky light flashing on my dashboard, and I figure I'll pop in and have the guys there decipher its meaning. I'll even give them some paper to jot down the steps required to fix the problem so my neighbor kid can do the repair. Finally, the dang light will go out and I can remove post-it blocking its unsightly glow. Those repair guys have the information, and since I've gotten mailers from them proving they want me to visit, they must owe it to me. Just like the doctor and the counselor and the baker.
Like the agent.
Except that's ridiculous. The baker owes me the cake I order, not the knowledge behind his years at school and thousands of measured cups of flour. The counselor works hard every day, but what happens at my house, unrelated to the schoolhouse, isn't her problem or concern. And when I make an appointment with my doctor, I can ask whatever I want but the co-pay does not extend to house calls. Not in 2009, anyway, and certainly not to my local CVS. The auto repair guys? They learned to fix cars so they could make a living, not so they could save a cheapskate like me a thousand bucks having a teenager change my timing belt.
Yet I read complaints from writers, over and over, that agents should explain their query rejections. (Jessica Faust at Bookends posted about this on Monday, and Nathan Bransford with Curtis Brown and Janet Reid of FinePrint and WordServe's Rachelle Gardner and plenty of other generous and helpful agents have blogged about the topic in various ways.) The writer spent hours crafting the letter; the least the agent can do is to explain why it's a no. And furthermore, some writers seem to think, a line of fur rising huffily along their spine, the query isn't enough to really judge, and the agent should just read the book and if they still don't want to rep it, tell the writer why. Explain what's wrong. Give the writer the benefit of the agent's experience. Agents know books, they know manuscripts, and the writer knows, he knows the agent has the knowledge and skills to figure out what's keeping the work from publication so they should spend the time--it's only a few minutes!--and tell the writer. Agents are in the business, they are soliciting clients, so how dare they be so duplicitous to ask for a query and then not bother to explain their rejection. They owe us.
Except they don't.
Flip it around and now we are the successful published authors. We are out there shilling books, selling our writing--soliciting readers--so we owe it to the audience to be writers. If some lady needs a Dear John and isn't so good with a pen, well, surely this writer owes it to the reader/insistent customer/unfaithful girlfriend to write it for them. Because hello, writer, that's what you do. You have the skill, so it's incumbent on you to share it with...whomever asks.
The fact that someone has a base of knowledge you value means squat as far as what they must do for you. If an agent is gracious enough to offer a comment or suggestion or even a reason for a rejection, it's a gift. A form rejection is a gift. You are not their client. You applied, you were turned down, that's it. Just as the HR guy at Microsoft doesn't owe you an explanation when your resume doesn't garner an interview (and just as Bill Gates certainly doesn't owe you a personal Windows primer session), an agent doesn't owe you anything more than "not for me" and a click on send.
And honestly, maybe not even that. Agents are deluged with queries, and even if it's nice to get a response, the "no response means no" is still a response, no matter how many times you cross your fingers and check your email each day.
This is a business, a query is an application, and it got a no. Plenty more opportunities out there. Let's all grow up and concentrate on those, shall we?
That's my plan. Right after I finish my scone.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Sarah Stonich’s first novel, These Granite Islands, became a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, a Book Sense 76 Top Ten Pick, and a “2001 Friends of American Writers” Best Novel. Her second book, The Ice Chorus, is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the alternating backdrop of a scorching Mexican beach and the cool, stony cliffs of Ireland. Perhaps it’s the tragic love story shot through a lens shrouded in misinterpretation and family secrets. More likely it’s the tightly-woven plot and multi-layered characters.
Just in time for the paperback release, Sarah Stonich joins us for Q&A.
JOAN: The Ice Chorus enthralled me when I first read it three years ago, and now upon second read, even more so. What do you think makes a book both timeless and memorable?
SARAH: Compelling characters – more than the story, I remember the voices that touched me, upset me, amused, shocked, or in some way pulled enough emotion up to make me think of them a month later, or ten years later. I still think of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Francie Nolan, the character that inspired me to become a writer, or, the thief in The English Patient, etc. I think for any story to be timeless it needs to be evocative of place and time without being set down too hard with details such as street names or dates or factual references. It’s the story and people, and the sense of place.
JOAN: In addition to a strong sense of place, your books often feature themes of secrets and women conflicted between desire and responsibility. Do you think we all imagine our family to be full of secrets?
SARAH: Perhaps it is the nature of women to be conflicted between desire and responsibility – at least for many of my generation and those before us, raised to conduct our lives the way we should, not necessarily the way we would choose. I imagine most families do have secrets – some better kept than others (how would we know?!) If not secrets – at least stories that simply don’t get told. After a beloved aunt died recently, I discovered that as a field nurse in WWII, she’d been one of the first to staff a German hospital after liberation, treating freed Jewish prisoners right alongside injured German soldiers – all the while working closely with the surgeon she was falling in love with and would later marry. There’s a story – alas, no one thought to tell it…
JOAN: That’s definitely a book I’d read! I fell in love with Ireland through Maeve Binchy, captivated with its selkie lore through Regina McBride, and disheartened through Frank McCourt. How do you reconcile these different Irelands? Do you have plans to write another book set in Ireland? (Please say yes!)
SARAH: I miss Ireland, and I miss the characters I wrote in The Ice Chorus, particularly Remy and Siobhan, who very much represent the different Irelands I know. Ireland isn’t an easy place to be, but I feel more at home there than anywhere else. Like family, it has good and bad all mixed in. Will I write another book set there? Perhaps, yes…maybe… We all miss Frank McCourt – he was a tireless advocate for young writers, a real teacher, and avuncular in the best way. In a pub in the Aran Islands he told me that the title for These Granite Islands was a mistake. “It’s awful”, he said, “a dirge of a title” – he, of Angela’s Ashes. We had a good laugh over that.
JOAN: Any plans for either The Ice Chorus or These Granite Islands to be filmed? They both seem perfect for the big screen. Who would play Liselle in the movie if you got to choose?
SARAH: My first novel was considered, and then abandoned (twice) during bad times for the film industry. But now, The Ice Chorus will circulate to production houses, and These Granite Islands may again. Who to play Liselle? If Hollywood were my oyster I’d pick any of these three: Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, or Emily Watson. I feel any of these women have depth, are authentic and easy to relate to. Rather than ooze sensuality, they seem to harbor theirs, carrying it more naturally, privately, as Liselle does - as a thing to be uncovered.
JOAN: Great choices. (Readers: Coincidentally, Emily Watson was in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.) I was encouraged to see you agree with the motto, “Write what you don’t know.” What advice can you give on making sure a story is authentic? Do you research before or during the actual writing?
SARAH: I research constantly, it’s one of the joys of being a writer, getting to delve into what subjects most interest me. I’m learning things now that I might use in a year or two, or maybe never. I researched hat-making and iron mining while writing These Granite Islands, and film-making for The Ice Chorus. I think a story reads authentically when the writer knows a lot about the subject, but only writes what is essential for the reader to build upon and construe in their own minds. The more you research, the more confidence you have in your subject, allowing you to say less. It’s always obvious when a writer has gone too far, making the reader feel lectured on a topic or bored by the minutia.
JOAN: Art plays a strong role in The Ice Chorus, and you weaved Charlie’s paintings of Liselle brilliantly with the climax. Did you research the craft of painting as you did with hat-making and film-making?
SARAH: I research most things, but I had first hand experience with painting - as a failed painter. There are two strong visual artists present in my work – Charlie, in The Ice Chorus and now Meg, in Vacationland. Through them, I have succeeded as a painter, albeit vicariously! Most of my characters are compelled to create in one way or another, and often their art or craft is essential to their character – in my unpublished novel, Love’s Tender Loins, the troubled protagonist, a Chicago housewife, emerges from her stasis by penning a rather bad romance novel. We need art.
JOAN: I enjoyed your book trailer. What’s involved in making one? Is that your voice?
SARAH: Thank You! I’ve turned to the Internet to market and promote, since traditional publicists do less these days, given shrinking budgets, and book tours are practically a thing of the past (and for good reason - they are mostly ineffective). A book trailer is a way to introduce a book to readers and to booksellers in a way they might not hear at a sales conference or in an ad or review. My computer-savvy husband put the thing together, and even wrote and played the music. The voice was supposed to be that of an Irish friend, but we couldn’t schedule, so yes, alas, that is my voice (doesn’t everyone hate their own?). We watched a lot of bad trailers on YouTube to learn what not to do – some were 5 minutes or longer, most didn’t describe the story in any compelling way. Surely they will evolve into a tool to sell a manuscript to an agent, a book to bookseller, or the story to a reader.
JOAN: When can we expect Vacationland and Shelter to hit the shelves? You’ve written mostly fiction. What inspired you to write Shelter, your memoir?
SARAH: I’ve just placed Vacationland with an agent, and since it’s short fiction it could take a bit, though I have renewed hope, since a similar book of stories, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, just won a Pulitzer. Shelter should be on the shelves in late autumn of ’10 by Borealis Books. Writing a memoir wouldn’t have occurred to me until I was inspired by my own questionable decision to hew out a writing retreat in raw wilderness. My grandparents immigrated to a small town near the Canadian border, and their experience is fictionalized in These Granite Islands, but now the name Stonich is fading from memory there, and so I returned. I was inspired by them, and by the ups and downs taking on this project, and how the ensuing experiences (and pratfalls) have provided endless, colourful, painful, hilarious material. In Shelter I wanted to emphasize the importance of “place” and how we often romanticize the concept. I also wanted to examine how we are affected or imprinted by our places, whether drawn to them, conflicted by them, or trapped in them.
JOAN: Fantastic news. We’ll look forward to reading both when they come out. What advice can you give an aspiring author in this strange and uncertain publishing market?
SARAH: Keep writing, keep your expectations of traditional publishing low and think outside the book – at least the book as we know it. Consider alternative publishing – zine, online, on-demand, writing cooperatives, etc... Consider publishing as much a creative process as the writing. That said, don’t lose sight that it’s the writing that matters, not the potential audience your writing might one day have – that will come, if the work is good enough.
JOAN: Do you have favorite books on writing?
SARAH: I’m a dyslexic high school drop-out – which more or less defines me as a writer who works intuitively and organically, and I’ve never read a book on writing. I learned to write by reading, paying close attention to the methods and techniques of authors I admire, then promptly endeavoring to forget their techniques so that I’m not over-influenced. I have a healthy fear of such books – afraid they might mess me up, or suggest that everything I’ve done so far is wrong.
JOAN: Tell me about your writing schedule now that summer is over. How do you manage the intrusion of the Internet?
SARAH: Since I work at home and my son is grown, the seasons and weekends all blur into one lump called time. My husband’s schedule actually structures mine – I work all day while he’s gone and when he comes home at 4pm it’s dismount! for both of us. Up until recently, I’ve made my living as a writer, but have found myself essentially unemployed. I’ve started a writing and editing service (wordstalkers.com). So, now I write fiction from 7am 11am. Then I do the business-business of writing. I rely on the Internet – but do not turn it on until my “real” writing is finished for the day. That one non-act (not pressing the Firefox button) takes much more discipline than sticking to a writing schedule.
JOAN: I noticed you’re writing in a new genre. As someone who is currently writing in two genres, how do you suggest approaching agents with two completed manuscripts?
SARAH: If the two manuscripts are both fiction, I would press forward with the one you want published first while making the agent aware you have another. My agent has more traction with publishers knowing he has two works of fiction to sell, Vacationland, and the next novel I’m planning, Fishing With RayAnne, for which I supply a synopsis and sample. Many publishers want a two-book deal (in case the first takes off) so it’s always good to show you have a follow-up book. As far as genres, nonfiction doesn’t always require an agent. After researching potential publishers I sold my memoir myself by submitting a chapter and a synopsis to the one house I thought was most suited to the work.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing a bit of an author’s life with us.
Friday, September 11, 2009
A dear friend reminded me of a great poem this week, The God Who Loves You, by Carl Dennis. It’s about the choices we make, our potential paths, and regret at roads not travelled. It always reminds me that in 1994, I chose not to follow my original career choice of being a journalist, instead going into advertising sales. At the time it was a practical decision: I liked to eat and put gas in my car instead of write and starve. Now, 15 years later, I am back to writing after a career in advertising that took me from ad sales at a newspaper to vice president of sales for an Internet marketing company. I still work in sales, but not at the demanding level of my former life. I consider myself a writer again.
What, exactly, does being a writer mean? For me it means that I write every day, I research every day, and I learn more about writing as a craft every day.
Now, back to Carl Dennis’ poem. If I hadn’t amassed 15 years in business, would I be the writer I am today? If I had remained a newspaper journalist in 1994, where would my career be now? If I had stayed on that road, would I have married my sweetheart and had two wonderful daughters? Or would I be a news correspondent in some far-flung outpost of the world, hanging out with rebels, shooting tequila and longing for a nice suburban home and a family? When I look at it that way, I can’t regret a single choice. I see where and what those choices have brought me.
My writing is a thread of words that have sewn themselves into the fabric of my life. Do I regret that I wasn’t published more, or do I look forward to being published in the future? Sometimes the tapestry is full and colorful, other times it is pale. Yet now, in my evolving time here on earth, I see the pattern taking shape again—a balance of motherhood and career, being a wife and a writer. I can’t imagine taking another path and ending at this same spot. It’s a place I wouldn’t trade for the latest story and a bar full of warlords. It’s the path I choose; therefore I choose to love it.
I am excited about my next decade and see the opportunities ahead of me taking shape in an amazing and magnificent way. For the God who loves me? I acknowledge that there was another life for me that could have easily been mine if I had made a few simple decisions differently. I may have been happier, or I may have been miserable. And so today, I decide to be happy and live this life without regrets. I am thankful to be writing again, back to this original me again, back to myself. I like who she is, and I love the path that brought me here.
How did you find your writing path? Was it always with you, or abandoned then found? However you got here, embrace it and look ahead to the wonderful writing that you have yet to produce. The best is yet to come!
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
In June, I was thrilled when Jacquelyn Mitchard selected me to be an early reader for No Time to Wave Goodbye, a sequel to The Deep End of the Ocean, Mitchard's bestselling debut novel and Oprah Winfrey's first book club selection, later brought to life on the big screen.
We were also lucky enough to have Jackie stop by What Women Write for an interview with Pamela in July. As promised then, I'm posting an early review of No Time to Wave Goodbye.
I received my copy in July and couldn't wait to jump right in, but decided to revisit Deep End first. It had been nearly 15 years since I read it. I found a copy at my local library and took my time reading, enjoying the second time even more as I explored the story from a writer's perspective.
The level of detail and layering in Deep End is much more noticeable to me now, and the suspense wasn't any less, even knowing how the book ends. I remembered the main plot points, but was surprised at how much my brain (weary from raising three children!) had forgotten. I highly recommend you read it again, too, or read it for the first time.
On the other hand, No Time to Wave Goodbye could probably stand on its own. It's hard for me to say considering my recent re-acquaintance with Beth, Pat, Vincent, Ben/Sam, and Kerry Cappadora.
What I can say, without hesitation, is I was unable to let this new story rest. I couldn't wait to get my hands back on it no matter how I was distracted by the responsibilities of my own life. No Time to Wave Goodbye is a relatively short read, coming in at 240 pages, maybe half the length of Deep End. I've been a slow reader this year, but I polished it off in less than two days after only a few sittings.
Mitchard brings the reader up to speed on the lives of the Cappadoras and various beloved Deep End characters, revisiting their emotional fallout after experiencing the kidnapping and eventual return of a child, while introducing a new supporting cast of other families who lost children through abductions and participated in a documentary filmed by Vincent.
It is especially gratifying to find out how Beth has reinvented her life, how Vincent climbed out of the quagmire that went along with his guilt at losing his younger brother, and how Ben, who still prefers to be called Sam, is also still pulled between the family who lost and found him again and the innocent father created out of his abduction. Mitchard brings the reader along on the Cappadora's continuing journey to make peace with what happened so many years earlier.
If Deep End was suspenseful in a taut, finely drawn way, No Time to Wave Goodbye is a slam to the chest. Once again, Mitchard deals with the subject of child abductions, but this time, pulls the reader alongside the characters in a heart-pounding race against time to save a child. My adrenaline was as elevated as it was last year reading Jackie's most recent release for adults, Still Summer.
I found a twist at the end slightly unsettling, as certain other readers might, but reminded myself that readers and writers bring varied experiences and backgrounds to the table, which affects how we read and write, and Mitchard is no different. This twist, though incidental to the main plot, may bring about some lively discussion for book clubs or other forums, and that isn't a negative thing. It's the rare author who's disappointed when her books create a stir and get readers thinking.
No Time To Wave Goodbye offically goes on sale September 15 and is available for pre-order. That means, if you're so inclined, you have less than a week to get your hands back on Deep End and prepare yourself for another wild ride, compliments of Jackie Mitchard's skillful storytelling.
From the publisher:
New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard captured the heart of a nation with The Deep End of the Ocean, her celebrated debut novel about mother Beth Cappadora, a child kidnapped, a family in crisis.
Now, in No Time to Wave Goodbye, the unforgettable Cappadoras are in peril once again, forced to confront an unimaginable evil.
It has been twenty-two years since Beth Cappadora’s three-year-old son Ben was abducted. By some miracle, he returned nine years later, and the family began to pick up the pieces of their lives. But their peace has always been fragile: Ben returned from the deep end as another child and has never felt entirely at ease with the family he was born into. Now the Cappadora children are grown: Ben is married with a baby girl, Kerry is studying to be an opera singer, and Vincent has emerged from his troubled adolescence as a fledgling filmmaker.
The subject of Vincent’s new documentary, “No Time to Wave Goodbye,” shakes Vincent’s unsuspecting family to the core; it focuses on five families caught in the tortuous web of never knowing the fate of their abducted children. Though Beth tries to stave off the torrent of buried emotions, she is left wondering if she and her family are fated to relive the past forever.
The film earns tremendous acclaim, but just as the Cappadoras are about to celebrate the culmination of Vincent’s artistic success, what Beth fears the most occurs, and the Cappadoras are cast back into the past, revisiting the worst moment of their lives–with only hours to find the truth that can save a life. High in a rugged California mountain range, their rescue becomes a desperate struggle for survival.
No Time to Wave Goodbye is Jacquelyn Mitchard at her best, a spellbinding novel about family loyalty, and love pushed to the limits of endurance.
Monday, September 7, 2009
I’m often struck by how different they are. Given the option, Jacob would take only music and drama classes and hasn’t played organized sports since grade school. Ben constantly keeps a soccer ball between his feet (there’s one under my desk right now), plays on club and school teams, and completes his homework days before it’s due. Even on the outside—from the way they dress to their haircuts—they are polar opposites. They share parents, upbringings and a love of funny movies and Taco Bell, but the similarities trail off from there.
We encouraged them to pursue their passions and only directed them toward a few common interests including Tae Kwon Do (they both have black belts)—nature and nurture collided. While studying the photo, I wondered how much heredity plays into shaping who we become.
I’m pretty creative when it comes to sewing, crafts, baking and other domestic arts. But prop me in front of an easel, and you’d probably swear a first grader has taken over my body. Art lessons might help, but I doubt my work would ever generate any interest outside my family.
I know a woman who plays the piano and took lessons for many years. Even though nearly every note is played correctly, you can hear effort. The music is only tolerable.
As an avid reader, I’ve finished novels that continued to haunt me for days afterward. Others, although not poorly written—every word spelled correctly, every sentence formed completely—didn’t leave an impression on me.
Certainly artistic talent can be nurtured, but are we limited in scope by our genetics? Are true musical, artistic, dramatic and literary talents born? Stephen and Tabitha King's two sons, Joe and Owen, are both published authors. But are they the products of amazing genes or did they learn from their parents' examples? Or both?
I posted this idea of nature vs. nurture on Facebook and several writer friends commented.
Kim: I’m pretty sure I was born this way…
Philip: You can learn technique, but you can’t be taught creativity and imagination.
Robert: I would say born. I can’t see myself any other way. If it were ‘made’ there might not be the same pleasure I get from writing.
Then I asked around some more.
“For myself, I do feel that I was born to be a writer, in the same way another person is born with the innate capacity to sing well, or to do higher math, or to play pro sports,” said Therese Fowler, author of Reunion and Souvenir. “My own interest in and ability to express myself through the written word seems to have been built into me.
“That said, every innate talent needs to be nurtured in order for its owner to succeed. You can be ‘born to write’ and string together the most marvelous sentences or paragraphs without much effort, but until you've done it repeatedly and studied craft and put your skill to use in service of entire cohesive stories, you may as well not have the talent to begin with.
“I think there are innate levels of ability (same as with singers, dancers, athletes, etc.)—sort of a spectrum of talent, if you will. Some natural writers have the capacity to become great, others just good.
“So, I say nature has more to do with writing ability than nurture does. It's like this: a person may love to sing, love it passionately, do it all the time, take lessons, dream of a singing career—but if that person is tone-deaf or has a grating voice, no amount of practice or instruction is going to turn that person into someone we all want to hear.”
I asked NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer if he always knew he would be a writer and whether he viewed writing as a natural or learned skill. (Bob also teaches writing workshops and has authored a book on the craft: The Novel Writer’s Toolkit.)
“I think you have an innate desire to create,” he said. “But, no, I'm not one of those people who always thought I'd be a writer. I read a lot as a kid, and escaped in my own head with stories. I do think writing can be learned—or else why would I be teaching writing? But 95 percent of students don't really want to learn—they want validation. The few who really want to learn and are willing to, make great strides.
Like anything in life that brings you joy or satisfaction, if writing is your passion, then by all means pursue it. Write often and treasure what you produce. If your dream is to be published, then devote the time necessary to achieve that goal. Read others’ works, take classes, attend workshops and book signings, learn the business and, along the way, grow a thick skin. Improving requires putting yourself out there for others to judge and accepting the resulting criticism.
Be realistic in your expectations. Only a handful of painters became masters. Many musicians play for only their friends and families. Very few writers become best-selling authors. You don’t have to become famous to be successful. But you do have to write to be a writer.
Friday, September 4, 2009
If you lived in
My great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, did just that. After attending an 1899 lecture in
I owe my existence to Elbert Hubbard.
If Carl had not spent five miserable months locked in a battle of wills with the Sage of East Aurora, a young artist named Martha Niles would never have walked into his studio. Had my great-grandparents met in any other location, it would have proved scandalous for a thirty-eight-year-old married man to so openly befriend a seventeen-year-old girl.
Hubbard is now often regarded as the ‘original hippie.’ He believed men and women should work and play together on equal terms. The result: people fell in love. Some, like Carl and even Hubbard himself, were married to others at the time. Hubbard fathered a child out of wedlock, his wife divorced him and he married his mistress in 1904. Carl worshipped his ‘Madonna’ without seduction (according to her memoirs) until after he left his wife in 1905. (Emily refused to divorce him). It’s possible he never secured a legal divorce, but he married Madonna anyway. Twice.
Before I started writing The Oak Lovers, I knew nothing about Roycroft or, for that matter, the arts and crafts movement. I scoured eBay listings trying without success to find Carl’s pottery or any books into which Madonna had hand-painted designs. Over the next year my research garnered me the ability to easily recognize art by Jerome Connor, Alexis Fournier, Dard Hunter, Karl Kipp and W.W. Denslow. Still, I felt I was missing something vital to the quality of my work and felt compelled to see the place for myself. In September of 2006 I booked a ticket and set off on my own ‘little journey’ to
Boarding my plane for
So many tourists flocked to Roycroft in 1900 that, in a moment of entrepreneurial genius, Hubbard decided to build the Roycroft Inn for them. Even without tourists, the campus bustled with over a hundred workers. Adding to the confusion, boulders littered the campus lawn and the construction of the Second Print Shop caused a constant racket. Conditions were, in other words, a fair echo of the past.
As for creative energy, I can honestly say there’s no place I’ve ever been that boasted such abundance. I wanted to write, to paint, to try my hand at the potter’s wheel, and I wanted to do these things at the same time. Oh, the things I could accomplish were I to set up an office in the
As I retraced my great-grandmother’s path up the stairs from the reception room to the
As if that weren’t enough excitement, part of my reason for coming to
As often happens when traveling for research, luck was with me, people were incredibly generous, and I got to share wonderful experiences with my cousin. Within an hour of my arrival, Christine Peters of the Roycroft Campus Corporation invited me to submit an article on Carl for their yearly magazine The Fra. Don Meade gave us a private and detailed tour of the
The group photo above is from the collection of Robert Rust and Pam McClary. Carl is the tall man in shadow to the far left. Eleanor Douglas is beside him. If you can identify anyone else with certainty, please comment and let me know. I believe Jerome Connor and Lyle Hawthorne are in the photo, but I am uncertain.
If you would like to learn more about Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters tune into the PBS documentary Elbert Hubbard: An American Original on November 23, 2009. The preview is posted here.
To read a more detailed and informal journal of my time at Roycroft, click here.
To read my 2007 article in The Fra, click here.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I didn't write a word.
And why? Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, I'll tell you why: because I kept trying to work in a way that just doesn't work for me.
I've got two finished manuscripts under my belt, and I'm a few thousand words in on my WIP, and of those hundreds of thousands of words, probably fewer than ten thousand were written directly to my computer, or even in my home. I have to leave my house, lugging a spiral notebook and a clutch of pens to some coffee joint, buy myself office space in the form of a two dollar cup of coffee, and then stare into space until the first sentence forms and gives me the impetus to pick up the pen and begin.
That's how I write. It's how I've written for the past four years, since my daughter was in pre-K and I eyed the bagel shop across the street from her school and committed to getting serious, and finally writing instead of thinking about it. I know this about myself: if I get to the bakery, if I buy the coffee, if I plunk my rear end into a chair, I'll stab out words. Maybe not the famed two thousand words a day we all dream of, but what I think of as a section. Sometimes that's a whole chapter, sometimes it's not, but it always begins with a sentence and ends with a sigh, usually accompanied by the triumphant fling of the pen onto the notebook, a satisfying clatter that has come to mean accomplishment to me.
And then my day is made. Doesn't matter what comes next, it's a good day: I wrote. I can clean my house, exercise, read, go to a movie, volunteer at school, indulge myself in half a dozen markets--whatever comes next, I've done my work.
So why the heck didn't I do that even once last week?
The only answer I have is that I tried to do it differently.
"I'll write at home," I thought.
"I should be able to write from home," I said.
"I can do this," I shouted to the empty room.
But I didn't.
What's wrong with doing what works? Ten bucks a week is pretty cheap real estate, and it comes with free coffee. It's the opposite of shame, having a successful method, so why am I reluctant to pull on my yoga pants and just do what works?
Yesterday and today I did. While the kids ate their waffles, I threw on street clothes so I'd have no excuse to return home. Headed directly from school drop-off to the closest coffee shop, and sure enough, two good sections emerged. Which pretty much always happens when I sit down in the right place, ready to work.
This is what I have to remember: Do what works. And then repeat and repeat and repeat and guess what? One day you've completed a manuscript. The rewrites I'm able to do at home, yes, on my desktop in my green swivel chair--in fact, the transformation from notebook to computer is my second draft. But the work of writing, for me, is out, away, over a cup of coffee I did not brew.
As writers, we know what works. It must sound so self-indulgent to non-writers, the fact that we don't always just do that. I can't say I understand how I regularly manage to forget what works, or why I try to convince myself to do something else, but my new goal is simply this: do what works. And repeat.
* You know how most women love the mall? That's how I feel about grocery stores. We have an awesome store here in Texas called Central Market; it's so amazing I literally take out-of-state visitors there to show it off--including an agent I once ferried to a conference. Plus there are a number of small ethnic grocery stores nearby. And of course a day without Target is like a day without...Target. It's a sickness, really.