Friday, December 31, 2010

Writing Differently

By Susan

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. --George Bernard Shaw, 1903




MEMO

To: The Writer in You
From: The Voice Inside Your Head
December 30, 2010
Re: Shaw Quote (see above)

Write differently this year.

Write differently from your peers, write differently from your mentors. Don't be the same as your critique partners, or your fellow students, or your idols. Make it yours. Make it new, make it real, and make it different.

Where can you find your voice? Is it me, this voice that I am inside your head, or is it YOU? What sets us apart, the me and you-ness of us? Step away from me and find out. How can you produce something that "adapts to the world" and at the same time tries to "adapt the world to yourself"? (Read the Shaw quote above, read it again. That's why I put it there. I even added his picture so you would look at him and think of reading it twice.) You cannot do both, you, who calls yourself a writer. You must choose. Choose to either conform to the world or to change something by being different.

You are not Sue Monk Kidd, or Pat Conroy or Rick Bragg. You are not Barbara Kingsolver. Don't try to be. They have broken their own molds, set their own standards, and written differently in their own right --don't take that away from them by trying to be them. Read them, devour them. But do not emulate them.

You--you there, reading this. Don't write like me. I am just the voice in your own mind reminding you to be who you are, and you are not me. Sometimes, I am a voice for good, and I encourage you, push you, praise you. Yet sometimes? Me, this little drumming sound inside your head? Sometimes I tell you that you are terrible. That you are a failure. Once, I told you that you were too young to make a difference. Now, I tell you that you are too old. Do you believe me both times? Don't give me that much power. Don't.

Stand up for yourself in your words. Don't try to please your mother, or appease your father. Don't avoid pissing off your pastor's wife, your spouse, or your nosy neighbor. Tell the truth. There is no formula for this, for what you are doing. Do it your way. Write differently and be yourself. Be unreasonable, but don't do it for me. Do it for you. You're worth it.

Love,
The Voice Inside Your Head

Want to hear more from the writers of What Women Write? Join us at the Richardson, Texas Library on Monday night, January 17, 2011 at 7:00pm. We will be the guest speakers at the Writer's Guild of Texas' monthly meeting. See you there!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This story is told by WHOM?

By Julie

Not to drive voice and point of view into the ground, BUT . . .

Over the last month or two, I’ve read a few different books that really made it clear how selecting the right point of view can make all the difference.

Take a look at these novels if you haven’t already to see how the authors’ unique choices turned good plots and interesting characters into great ones.

A book from a dog’s point of view? Really?

I was resistant to reading The Art of Racing in the Rain. I kept seeing in stores for months and months, kept seeing it pop up on Facebook statuses and bestseller lists. But I had no interest in reading a book narrated by a dog. Pamela basically put it in my hands at our book trade during our annual retreat. This could have been “just” a story about a family struggling with terminal illness. And sure, the husband’s career as a race car driver was a unique twist. But then Garth Stein took it a step further by telling the story from a DOG’S point of view!

I’ve looked at my dog, Sophie, from a totally different perspective since. My mother was in a car accident the week before Christmas and has been in a hospital and skilled nursing facility for going on two weeks now. The first few days, our dog carried Mom’s slippers from her room in our home to the foot of the stairs every time we turned around, and we kind of laughed through our tears, but just patted her on the head. One evening after I returned from the hospital, I found one of Mom’s shoes in Sophie’s bed and I remembered Enzo, Stein’s close first-person … er, DOG narrator. So I took the time to explain to my obviously befuzzled and concerned dog that Mom was okay and would be home as soon as she was able to get around again.

Would I have done this before reading The Art of Racing in the Rain? Absolutely not. Now I think differently, and I keep Sophie informed about what’s happening that she might not otherwise understand. Just in case she “gets” it.

A book narrated by Death? Can a character who really isn’t a “character” narrate a story?

Apparently, Markus Zusack thinks so. The Book Thief is told in omniscient point of view by a character we soon discover is the Grim Reaper, though Death is quick to remind us that humans created that metaphor for his personally heartbreaking occupation. Zusak took things a step further. I bet his publishers were a little on edge sending a book into the world with not only a daring form of narrator, but illustrations that verge on graphic novel. The story has been one of those that pops into my mind frequently since I finished reading it. It just doesn’t let go.

A novel written as a letter blatantly addressed to an internationally feared terrorist?

In Incendiary, the close, first-person voice of a young working-class woman in London whose life is transformed by an act of terrorism is compelling enough for her unique way of seeing and feeling and telling. But Chris Cleave makes it even a little more in-the-face by writing the story as if the young woman -- whose identity is made more universal by the fact that she’s never named -- pens a letter to the one she holds responsible for ripping her husband and young son from her life. The twist near the end of the story is mind boggling, but the voice Cleave created brings the experience in so close it haunts you.

And a story told from the point of view of a five-year-old? Is this adult fiction? I don’t know about this . . .

And of course, you probably know I’m talking about Room, by Emma Donaghue, reviewed here recently by Kim. This story is chilling enough – a young woman who has raised her son in captivity, held in a tiny room where she does the best she can to create a normal life for her son. But by telling the story from the child’s close first-person point of view, the reader really gets an idea of how much he is loved by his mother and how much she has sacrificed to make his life the best she can under the circumstances.

I’ll be honest. It was a little bit of work for me to get into each of these stories, to find the rhythm of the narrators in my own brain, and to suspend disbelief, which shows what a risk it is for a writer to create such a unique voice. But I was hooked before long, and it is also clear that such a risk can pay off, not only in sales that climb lists and create author buzz (see also Cleave’s Little Bee with another gripping point-of-view character), but stories that live on in the reader’s mind for a long, long time. It makes me scrutinize the characters in the manuscript I recently completed as I read it through and begin to make revisions. I have two first-person narrators unlike any I've written before that I hope are unique enough to be a little risky, but real enough to grab my readers.

What about your narrators? How will they wow your readers?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Where am I?

by Joan

Out of all of us, I’m probably the least essay-ish. Elizabeth tells me she can rattle off one of her hilarious blog posts in twenty minutes and Susan has written fascinating posts when her eyes are about to close for the night. Me, I sit at my computer for about three hours trying to come up with a nugget of wisdom I’ve learned or a reflection on a recent experience someone else might relate to. But lately it feels as though everything I write is not quite hitting the mark.

I always considered myself a disciplined writer, one who eagerly sat at my computer trying to weave a story at least one reader other than myself would find fascinating. I consider myself fortunate to have had a few years where I could focus on writing, but now I’m work/working full-time. During the first few weeks after I went back, I found myself sitting at the computer at night and on the weekends, digging into my WIP with gusto.

Maybe it’s the holiday season, and maybe it’s because I had fifty people at my house yesterday for a Christmas open house, but today, when I had the whole day in front of me, I didn’t open my file and start typing. I intended to. I even sat at my computer, but mostly caught up on paperwork and then slinked away. In between lazily watching movies (none particularly noteworthy), I peeked out the window at a plumber fixing a surprise broken pipe in our front yard, admired the cellular shades my husband hung in our family room, and nibbled on leftover calorie-filled treats.

My creativity, discipline and gumption have gone missing. I have gone missing. Where is that person who couldn’t wait to write? Who woke early to hit the gym? Who appreciated time for what it is—a gift.

I’ve had these days before and I’ve always found my way back to writing. I’m just not sure how right now. Anyone have any great advice for kicking back into writing mode after the holidays?


P.S. On an unrelated topic: On January 17, if you find yourself in Dallas, stop by the Richardson Library at 7 p.m. You can hear each of us talk about an aspect of the blog, including a bit about how we got started and where we’d like to go from here.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Ghosts of Christmas Past Reprised

By Kim

Last year at this time What Women Write was a quiet little blog followed by mostly friends and family. What a difference a year makes! We are now up to almost 100 followers on Blogger and 420 on Facebook. Since we have so many new readers this year, I thought any of you who enjoy baking may enjoy my post from last Christmas. These cookies are divine. In fact, I'm eating one as I type.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

As a place to celebrate Christmas Gananoque was ideal. We had a Christmas tree to outdo all Christmas trees, our friends skied over from the island, the turkey was cooked just right; all in all a perfect day. Carl made me cookie cutters for Christmas cookies; I had every known animal, almost, and I made them with a little ring of dough at the top, through which we ran fine wire, and they hung all over the tree. Ducks, reindeer (those took some care in the baking), pigs, elephants, cats, chickens, geese, I could go on indefinitely. Those on the lower branches were the sole property of our cat, Peter. It was funny to see him nonchalantly reach up with his paw and knock one down, then lie under the tree and eat it. His Christmas package was always the same; a box of puffed rice wrapped as any other Christmas gift and tied with a red ribbon. He attended to the unwrapping with perfect ease. I can’t say he cleared up the mess afterward, but neither did the children.

Madonna Ahrens on Christmas in Gananoque, Ontario. (1917)

When I first read these lines written by my great-grandmother, I could smell a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air. I remembered those cookies; my father made them a few times in my own childhood, always lamenting that he did not have his grandfather’s animal cutters. He stopped making them around the time his mother passed away. Perhaps the memory of her rolling out the dough grieved him, though he never spoke of it.

It was Christmas time when I began researching for my book on Carl and Madonna Ahrens. I had a small child of my own by then and craved a way to bring the past alive for her in a way a three year old would appreciate. Aunt Siegie happily supplied me with the Imperial cookie recipe, and mentioned that she had some of Granddaddy Carl’s handmade cookie cutters. She sent me tracings of them so I could see what they looked like and my Dad used the pattern to make a copy of the rooster. I’ve made the cookies every year since.

Christmas is a season of nostalgia, so perhaps it’s not so unusual that I’d feel especially close to the ghosts of Christmas past at this time of year. Making Granny Madonna’s cookies allows me a connection to family I never had the chance to know in life. My kitchen smells the same as Madonna’s would have when she made them. Like my grandmother, I think they taste best after being dipped into hot chocolate. This year, in memory of my aunt Siegie, who passed away this past April after a four year battle with cancer, the first cookie I reached for was the pig. Among the things I received after her death was a box containing cookie cutters in the shape of a goose, rooster, squirrel, camel and pig. The first time I used them I saw a flash of Siegie seated at a table flanked by her mother and Granddaddy Carl. Madonna stood behind Carl, her hands on his shoulders, cheek resting on the top of his head. All were young, healthy, and laughing. While I miss Siegie very much, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad.

In honor of the memories of Carl, Madonna, Tutu, and Siegie, I share this recipe with all of you.

Imperial Cookies
From the kitchen of Madonna Ahrens

1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg (well beaten)
¼ cup milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon

Cream shortening (with fork or pastry cutter)

Add sugar, egg, milk and vanilla and cream again

Sift together remaining (dry) ingredients

Add dry ingredients to butter mixture ½ cup at a time

Cover and chill in refrigerator for 24 hours [Madonna must have put it in the snow before they had electricity.]

When ready to bake, take some dough and roll out on a floured board as you would a pie crust. [Kim leaves it a bit thicker for softer cookies].

Use cookie cutters to cut out cookies. You can re-roll the dough, but try to place the cutters as close together as possible. The dough can get tough if you reuse too much. [Kim adds fresh dough in each time she re-rolls.]

Lay cookies out on a cookie sheet. Cook at 360 degrees until they are lightly browned on the bottom. [Eight minutes works for Kim.]

Let cool and enjoy – especially with hot chocolate!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writing Rich

by Elizabeth

The holiday season is one replete with tradition. In Pamela's last post, she asked for some favorite Christmas reads. One of mine is This Year It Will Be Different, by Maeve Binchy. It is a collection of un-Christmasy Christmas stories, and a book I read pretty much every year. One of my favorite stories in it (though all 20 or so are my favorites, I think) is about a woman with an obnoxious teenage stepdaughter who questions the newer family's tradition of throwing an annual Christmas party. I think something has to be going on for a while to be a tradition, the snotty girl tells her stepmother, who replies that it feels like a tradition to her. And it's been six or seven years, anyway, so take that.

My toffee-making tradition just celebrated its fifteenth year if I remember correctly. I don't have my own little Snow White to contend with, but I think that under any definition, something I've done every year for nearly Justin Bieber's entire lifespan qualifies it as a tradition. I guess some might argue that since the recipe changes slightly year to year (not the candy itself, but the goodies it swaths: this year: pretzels and dark chocolate, cookies and white chocolate, cashews and milk chocolate, and my favorite, almonds and no chocolate), it's not quite a tradition. To them I say butter and sugar: what's not to like? Sing it, Tevye: tradition!

My mother-in-law sighed a grateful "Yes, please!" when I asked if she wanted me to provide candy gifts for some of her friends this year. Turned out to be lucky I did, as a bad back laid her up the day she would have otherwise undertaken her own baking. I'd found some gaudy-if-it-weren't-December gold plastic tubs on clearance, and I layered stacks of toffee in those for her pals. My gift-wrap closet (think of me as the extremely low-rent version of Nels from Frasier, he of the gift wrapping room; mine is two shelves in the guest room closet) yielded found some wide purple satin ribbon, and I wrapped lush strings of it around the metallic tubs. Fat purple bows put, well, a bow on it, and the final product was just this side of over the top. Pretty much the kind of wrap job my mother-in-law would produce, and almost nothing like I the kind I'd do (and later did not do) for my own list: ornate, elegant, and abundant.

My own neighbors and friends got the same candy, theirs stuffed into decorative sacks from The Dollar Store. Same candy, same amount of candy--and yet. Spare, some might think; chintzy, sayeth the less generous. Maybe. But it looks like me, and how I do things: basic, no nonsense, practical. (Kind of like my wardrobe, come to think of it. Okay, now this is getting depressing.) And when I started thinking about it, that's kind of how I often write as well. At least the first draft.

As I stirred the bubbling pan melting goodness with one hand, the other clutched a copy of a book I'd started on CD in the car a few weeks ago. I have to admit, I hadn't adored it. It was maybe just too much, I thought. Too much atmosphere. Too many fine details. And I felt the story paid the price for all that lushness, all that purple ribbon. Reading it instead of listening, though, I think I may have been wrong. It may have been the reader who infused it with just too much. The writing, still boasting abundant description, was not, after all, too much when taken in with my eyes instead of my ears. The story inside, lost when I heard it, was intact as I read, and the characters whose stories I'd begun to wonder about came to life better when I met them in pages instead of speakers.

Still, there's a happy medium. There are books that are gorgeous and opulent, and books that are simply ornate. Books that are wonders of fine spare prose, and books so thin in detail we just never much care. The trick is finding what works for our own story, our own novel (our own candy gifts), and remaining true to the purpose of the story and its characters. Layering, like layers of pretzel then molten toffee then dark chocolate, is key. And honestly, if I'd taken it one step further and drizzled strings of white chocolate on top of that dark stuff, the candy would not have been over the top at all, but rather of gift of voluptuous abundance. Even as I cracked the sheet into bite sized pieces, I knew I should have taken that final step, one more bowl of chips melted in the microwave, a fork dipped into it and swirled over the candy.

It's candy. In a snowman bag or a deluxe golden box, it's still delicious, and still a treat. But with writing, I don't want to make the mistake of skimpiness.

So note to self: break out the second or third kind of chocolate, bring on the metaphors and rich descriptions. Don't overdo it, but make sure to do enough. It's almost always true that a little more chocolate is a good thing. A little more fine-tuning is as well. Abundance in writing, abundance in life. Abundance in chocolate. Just not too much, but rich nonetheless.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Reads

By Pamela

Every December I seem to fall into a media-routine of sorts. I listen to the same Christmas songs and watch the same movies. As I wrapped presents this weekend, I happened to have a three-hour stretch to myself--which NEVER happens--so I slipped Love, Actually into the DVD player and relived one of my favorite holiday movies. Probably not billed as a Christmas movie in the traditional way, but for me it's a sentimental favorite along with When Harry Met Sally. "I have decided that for the rest of the day we are going to talk like theese."

I also pull a few favorite books from my shelves. I'll flip through An Idiot Girl's Christmas by Laurie Notaro or Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris for fun. This year I'm rereading The Handmaid and the Carpenter, a novel about the life of Mary and Joseph by, one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg.

What holiday books or movies put you in the Christmas spirit?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Writing for an Audience of One

By Susan

I want a book that I can’t put down.
I want a book that surprises me, manipulates me, tugs at my heart and my tears and that makes me care about something other than myself. The end of the chapter should surprise me, and make me want to keep reading. The main character should be likable but flawed, and her goals should be attainable yet fraught with obstacles. I want interesting, over-the-top yet still believable things to happen. I want a mystery that I alone can unravel- me, the reader, that is- I want to be right in my assertions but I also want to be surprised.
When I put the book down after the final chapter, I want to reach for the sequel.

That’s also the book that I want to write.

Now that I am coming to the end of my manuscript, I’m changing things. Not the plot or the basic storyline, mind you, but the suspense level, the chapter breaks, and the pacing of the story. I tossed all the chapters in the air and let them fall into place on their own (a lot more work than perhaps I am making it sound here). My story now moves swiftly through three storylines, one in 1950, one in 1968, and one in 2003. And, as a reader, I’ve taken my cues from books that I have loved- not only for their story, but for their craft.

And I’m the first to admit on WhatWomenWrite that I am not a “real” writer. I worked in advertising and marketing for 15 years until flipping careers by taking a move into non-profit work. My full-time job has nothing to do with writing, and hasn’t since college. With that said, I learn as I go. So in the process of crafting a novel that others want to read, and that I want to write, I’ve made decisions based on my gut- not based on a writer’s conference, an agent’s blog, or books on writing. I break all the rules because frankly, I have no clue what they are. And in some crazy way, I’m happy in my ignorance.

What does this mean? In writing the book that I want to write, I’m answering only to me. My audience of one is me alone. I’m attempting, after all, to write a book that I would want to read. When it’s completed in just a few months, I'm the only reader I'm trying to please.

It also means that the book is full of mistakes. Problems with points of view abound. Since no one has edited it but me, my own common misspellings and grammatical errors are sprinkled throughout the story. (Somehow in my mind, this is what agents and editors are for. See? Once again I sit hopelessly lost in my own ignorance.) My ideas may not work for a mass market. Readers may not care about monks and bootleggers and Kentucky families the way that I do.

But then again, maybe they will.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading lo....

by Elizabeth

Around this time last year, I blogged about my reading for the twelve months previous. I'd started a reading log in 2008, but it fell apart pretty early. I vowed to do better in 2009, and I did. It was great to be able to go back and revisit what I'd read all year, and as the calendar turned to 2010, I was hopeful to repeat the feat.

For the first three quarters of the year, I did well with it. Oh, there were some books this summer I had to play catch-up with, adding the synopses maybe even weeks after I read the book, and probably a couple-three I left off altogether. But overall I was pleased with my log, and had even added a bonus feature, all new for 2010: number of pages. As with my older logs, going back and reading the notes I took on each book is a bit like reading the book again. It comes back to me, the details, even the emotion. Well, most of the time. A few books have the label "forgot almost immediately," and the lack of memorability stuck. Those fresh impressions are good, I'm telling you.

But then October struck. Normally, October is a crazy-busy month for me; that and May, I like to say, are the mother's worst months. But this year, October really came in like a lamb. I couldn't believe how non-stressed I was. I couldn't believe how smoothly things were going, how not-difficult life was. But then, bam. The lion arrived, and I'm not sure I've had the chance to stop moving ever since.

I have one book recorded for October, and that one is a children's book. Nothing for November, nada for December. The good news is that it's not that I haven't read at all--I've probably polished off four or five novels in the last month and a half. Not my usual reading rate, true, but not nothing. Yet I haven't managed to record a single one of them, not even the tomes that will stick with me. And number of pages read? Lost.

I'm not making a resolution about logging my books for next year. I didn't make one for 2010; rather, it was something I decided to do. I had good reasons (excuses?) for it falling apart as Halloween approached, and while I regret the lost information, I can't say that I made a real mistake in letting it go. Life intervened, and my attention was required elsewhere. I'm just glad I still had a chance to read at all. Not much, but some, including finally finishing up the book on CD I'd been toting in my car since the summer.

Which doesn't mean I won't log my reading come 2011. As a matter of fact, I likely will, and I hope to do better even in the busiest times, keeping up with what I've read. I'd also really like to see how many pages I read in the year. My raw tally (I'm still strapped for time, so I did a rough count instead of breaking out the calculator, or worse, taxing my brain with addition) adds up to some twenty-thousand-plus pages in about sixty books this year before I fell off the logging wagon. Which is probably more than last year, but it's not about last year. It's not about competing, not with anyone else, certainly, but not even with myself.

It's about reading. And remembering. And as my life has geared up, gotten even busier, that's what I'll keep, if not the logging. The reading. And the writing, which is what the busyness is really all about, even if it seems oblique at best to everyone else. Reading, writing, logging if I can. Hello next year.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Distant Hours


by Joan

I’m looking forward to an upcoming Q&A with Kate Morton because I’ve just finished her most recent novel, The Distant Hours. Ms. Morton wrote, “The novel brings together many of my favourite things. A crumbling castle, a family of sisters, a love of books and reading, the haunting of the present by the past, thwarted love, ghostly shivers, mystery and memory and secrets.”

If these are also your favorite things, you’ll be crazy about this book, or in fact, any of her novels. The Distant Hours builds slowly, unfolding with each intricate bit of plot. But the suspense grows and to the last sentence, the reader is caught up in the mystery of a daughter trying to understand her mother, three eccentric sisters trying desperately to protect their castle and themselves, a family cemetery, and love forsaken.

From Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review. A letter posted in 1941 finally reaches its destination in 1992 with powerful repercussions for Edie Burchill, a London book editor, in this enthralling romantic thriller from Australian author Morton (The Forgotten Garden). At crumbling Milderhurst Castle live elderly twins Persephone and Seraphina and their younger half-sister, Juniper, the three eccentric spinster daughters of the late Raymond Blythe, author of The True History of the Mud Man, a children's classic Edie adores. Juniper addressed the letter to Meredith, Edie's mother, then a young teen evacuated to Milderhurst during the Blitz. Edie, who's later invited to write an introduction to a reprint of Raymond's masterpiece, visits the seedily alluring castle in search of answers. Why was her mother so shattered by the contents of a letter sent 51 years earlier? And what happened to soldier Thomas Cavill, Juniper's long-missing fiancé and Meredith's former teacher? Despite the many competing narratives, the answers will stun readers.

A quote I read on Ms. Morton’s website really struck me. She wrote, “I prefer to write for one person whose tastes are exactly like mine, instead of imagining millions of readers, which would be ‘creatively crippling.’ ”

Out of all the advice on writing, this seems about as sensible as it gets. The interesting part is that her books are not only intriguing to her, but they are huge sellers, in her native Australia and worldwide.

Fellow writers: Do you write with your own tastes in mind, or do you write for others? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Our Best Reads of 2010

By Kim

All of us at What Women Write are compulsive readers as well as writers. As 2010 comes to a close we thought it may be fun to share the books we loved most this year. Have you read any of the books we mention? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Inspired to run to your nearest bookstore and pick one up? We’d love to hear that, too.

Kim’s favorites:

For fiction, our readers probably already know I loved Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, Days of Grace by Catherine Hall, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin and Room by Emma Donoghue. A few more that I did not review were Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and the one I am currently reading, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.

For non-fiction the hands-down winner was Defiant Spirits by Ross King, which was about the Group of Seven, a band of painters who worked and exhibited together in the early part of the 20th century. Much has been written about them before, but more often than not they are portrayed as almost mythical figures in Canadian history. King’s version of the story is meticulously researched and feels much closer to the truth. I picked up this book as research for my own novel, thrilled to find that my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, was NOT reduced to a mere footnote as he so often is in art history books. I was pleasantly surprised that King turned the myths back into men, exposed their flaws, and did so in an entertaining way. (Note that Joan also recommends one of his books in her list.)


Pamela's favorites:

This year I read far fewer books than normal, so my basket from which to pluck a favorite is pretty small. My fiction reading tends to be mostly middle grade, spending time each evening curled up next to my daughter as we share her recent selection. (I'll spare you the titles unless you're a fan of books featuring horses or sassy eight-year-olds.)

As far as adult fiction, my favorite for 2010 is The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle. My sister recommended Kittle, a Dayton resident like her, and I quickly read three titles of Kittle's. The Blessings remains my favorite. (There's a horse on the cover, so no wonder, right?)

My non-fiction reading surprisingly outweighed my fiction choices--by at least five-to-one. Therefore my choice of a favorite is a little tougher. Based on a book I recommended multiple times, I'd have to choose Open by Andre Agassi. I'm not a huge tennis fan but remember Agassi's days on the court and, unlike many pro athletes who make the news, he seems to have kept a fairly low profile, choosing the road of family man and philanthropist today. He has a love-hate relationship with the sport--hated playing it, hated it for robbing him of his childhood, but loves where it's brought him today. And because it's told in present-tense, Open makes for a very compelling read.


Elizabeth’s favorites:

Fiction:

I See You Everywhere by Julie Glass is about two very different sisters who become closer over the years, even as geography pulls them further apart. Compelling, well-written, I have no negative comment for this book. A+. Got from library, will likely add a copy to personal library.

Me and Emma, by Elizabeth Flock shows an amazing mastery of craft in addition to just terrific writing.

The book I might have recommended the most this year is one Joan suggested to me: All Other Nights, by Dara Horn. This is the story of a Jewish Union soldier in the Civil War, and his journey through the war. An excellent and edifying read.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - Eating the chocolate frosted lemon cake her mother makes for her ninth birthday, a young California girl discovers she can taste emotions in the food people make, and cannot escape the gift. Her brother is an oddity, and her mother sad and driven to an affair, her father remote. This was a weird, compelling read, and the end made me cry. Brilliant work, I thought, beautifully written as well. Will likely purchase a copy and be on the lookout for her next.

Non-Fiction

I read a few this year, and the best, and most thought-provoking, too, was this:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Four meals traced back to their roots, from industrial to “organic” and another kind of organic sans government sanction and labeling, to hunted and gathered. Really made me think, a lot. Started at my friends' house while on vacation (they are vegetarians). Engaging voice and though probably an agenda, very fair. Will likely seek out more of Pollan’s work. A meaningful read, an important book, and timeless, at least for the time being.

Joan’s favorites:


I don’t read too much non-fiction, but this year I researched a fair bit. One of my favorites was London, A Pilgrimage, a mid-Victorian tromp through the great city’s fashionable, working-class and truly seedy areas, by Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold. I read a truly engrossing tale, Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome, about Filippo Brunelleschi and his genius design for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore’s Il Duomo in Florence. The book reads more like a novel, touching on personal jealousies, traumatic setbacks, political rivalries, and fierce determination.

For fiction, it was even tougher to choose. I’d have to say All Other Nights, Dara Horn’s brilliant civil war spy thriller was the page-turner of the year. Two others blew me away; the tragic, yet beautiful Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai and Away by Amy Bloom. I book-ended the year with two novels from one of my favorite authors, Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours.

Susan’s favorites:

Fiction:

Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Genius, genius, genius. I also loved Incendiary, his debut novel, which I read after Little Bee.

Non fiction:

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. A brilliant writer. She simply writes beautiful sentences and is a joy to read.


Julie’s favorites:

Looking back at my list of books I’ve read this year, I was surprised to see how many I loved. It was hard to choose. I attempted to branch out in my reading this year, not only to expand my own personal horizons, but also to study the writing in books beyond the usual suspects. I fell hard for a few. Like Susan, I was blown away by Chris Cleaves' Little Bee and Incendiary, and like Joan, I loved Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden.

Right after the new year, I read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. This dark story is genius in its use of setting as character. The creepy old English estate is as active and integral to the story as the human characters. It’s a ghost story of sorts, and I’m a big chicken. I found myself looking over my shoulder a few times while reading!

One of my very favorite professors from college, Dr. Delores Washburn, continually challenges me since we reconnected on Facebook. She mentioned Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding in response to my post about the Dog Days of Summer, which inspired me to pick up a copy. Thanks to Delores’s influence, I can’t get enough Southern fiction, but I also love discovering or rediscovering classics that still have much to teach us. This story was no exception.

I didn’t read much nonfiction this year, but I’m in the process of reading Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’m diving into revisions on my recently completed manuscript, All the Things You Are, and am already finding so many ways I will be able to improve my story. I’m about four chapters in and can tell this hands-on resource is going to be another one I keep in my writer’s toolbox.

So what are your favorite reads of 2010?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Boyfriend of the Month Club, or the accidental life of a book reviewer, continued!

By Julie

Remember my post a few months ago about the mystery list? My accidental life as a book reviewer?

Well, my luck hasn't run out yet! I'm still getting the occasional random book in the mail without the sky opening up and raining more on me than I can handle.

Last week, I just about choked when I was on the phone with Pamela, dissecting some work I was helping her with. I couldn't think of a word. She'd just said it a moment earlier, and it was just gone. I blamed it on my brain, which doesn't always cooperate as quickly as I'd like. The next minute, my teenager walked in the door and handed me a package, which contained, I kid you not, an ARC of a book called BEAUTIFUL BRAIN, BEAUTIFUL YOU (Maria Pasinski, M.D. / Hyperion Voice / Dec. 28, 2010).

The back cover copy says it's for "any woman who suffers from bad brain days.'" Seriously. I haven't read it yet, but it's on the coffee table, waiting for the next time my brain conks out.

But ...

The day the What Women Write gals left for our annual retreat, another package showed up. I glanced inside, then tossed it aside as I was in a hurry to get out the door. A week or so ago, I picked up the enclosed ARC (advance review copy), looking for something different to read. Didn't I mention how I tend to read dark, serious kind of stuff, but now and again, I like to lighten things up? Yeah, things were getting a little too heavy again. I'd read too many of those in a row.

Turns out The Boyfriend of the Month Club by Maria Geraci was just the kind of pick-me-up I needed! It released yesterday (Dec. 7, 2010).

From the publisher (Penguin):

This sexy, funny new novel asks: Can a woman find a modern-day Mr. Darcy in Daytona Beach?

At thirty, Grace O'Bryan has dated every loser in Daytona Beach. After the ultimate date-from-hell, Grace decides to turn her dwindling book club into a Boyfriend of the Month Club, where women can discuss the eligible men in their community. Where are the real life twenty-first century versions of literary heroes such as Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy? Could it be successful and handsome Brandon Farrell, who is willing to overlook his disastrous first date with Grace and offers financial help for her parents' failing Florida gift shop? Or maybe sexy dentist Joe Rosenblum, who's great with a smile but not so great at commitment? Unfortunately, like books, men cannot always be judged by their covers...

I really enjoyed this book. Publisher's Weekly and I agree that the premise stretches the limits of credulity in places, but Geraci seems to frankly admit that by embracing it and writing characters who are zany and over-the-top in places, too, resulting in a crazy little story that kept me reading into the wee hours a few nights in a row.

Stylewise, think Dorothea Benton Frank meets My Big Fat Greek ... er, Cuban Wedding.

I laughed out loud in several places as the main character, Grace, got herself in and out some pretty amusing predicaments.

I admit I developed a teeny little crush one of her potential love interests. (Don't tell my husband . . . this is fiction, right?!)

And I was crushed along with Grace when bad went to worse and then horrible before things righted themselves again.

It's a happy day when I read something that wouldn't ordinarily end up on my to-be-read pile and end up loving it. Maybe you'll get your hands on The Boyfriend of the Month Club and love it, too!

Looks like Ms. Geraci is running a drawing on her website this week. When you purchase Boyfriend this week, you may enter for a chance to win more books and an Amazon gift card.

And by the way, though the publisher's description (above) and a few blurbs on the cover, etc., describe this book as "sexy," it wasn't really graphic at all to me. I'd be fine with my teens reading it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received copies of these books from the publishers in the hope that I would review them on What Women Write. I was under no obligation to review them, let alone give a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 225: "Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lazy Words

By Susan



I always tell my writing students that every good piece of writing begins with both a mystery and a love story. And that every single sentence must be a poem. And that economy is the key to all good writing. And that every character has to have a secret.- Silas House

December, I think everyone would agree, is the least-lazy time of the year.

School parties. Concerts. Playoffs. Benefits and fundraising events.

Not to mention shopping, list making, decorating.

Throw in full-time jobs with annual deadlines, the stress of traffic, and basic year-end madness, and it's a recipe for craziness and busy-ness that bakes up the most stressful time of the year.

Being busy takes the priority over everything else. We shove it all in, get it all done, and sit back, at the end of the day, and think about all the things still to do--like work on our manuscripts. In a fervor, maybe we'll kick out a scene before we crash for the day. The busier life is, the lower our manuscripts may fall on our list of priorities. And writing in a hurry, writing without focus, or writing just to write (without purpose) can create incredibly lazy writing. In essence, when we are the least lazy in real life becomes when we are most lazy in our writing.

With writing, laziness is the last thing we need. Yet how can we approach our stories with the same fervor we attack the Christmas season? Writing a novel takes time, patience, and precision. Yet being busy with life can mean we have less time to spend with our works-in-progress, meaning that even though the scenes may get written, they may not be the best. In fact, they may be forced, boring and unemotional. And who wants to read that?

One of my favorite authors, Silas House, speaks beautifully about the goals of good writing. The thought that "every sentence is a poem" leaves no room for lazy writing. I think about this quote, and about Silas' writing, when I'm trying to crank out scenes after a crazy day.

That's when I stop.

And in a way, I start over.

Just like the Christmas season takes any ounce of lazy out of our lives, the year end is also a great time to take the lazy out of our writing.

Here's my year-end list to fit this type of manuscript clean-up into your schedule.

1) Eliminate lazy words

I use wordle.net to create word clouds of portions of text. Cut and paste your section and wordle will create a word cloud with the largest words used in the largest font. It's a humbling way to quickly eliminate useless words from your work. My list of repeat offenders?

JUST

LIKE

REALLY (really?)

Take them out, you won't miss them. By eliminating lazy words you can immediately see a change in the flow of your writing.

2) Watch your sentence word count

When I'm writing lazily, my sentences become ridiculously long. I go back to Silas' advice and think about economy. And he's right. It takes more thought and craft to create shorter, more meaningful sentences than to string the sentence out indefinitely.

3) Revisit the lazy plot

Fix your lazy words and rewrite your lazy sentences. From there, you must tackle a bigger problem--the lazy plot. Do you have a mystery and a love story, as Silas House suggests? Does every character have a secret? If not, you've got some work to do. Eliminate the lazy and I promise you'll come out on the other side with a better manuscript.

After the Christmas rush, when we are taking down the decorations and shoving the refuse of the season to the curb, we take the time to reflect on the year. Take the same time to reflect on your manuscript.

Start small, by fixing the words. Take the lazy out of your long, drawn out sentences. The find the lazy plot that weaves itself through your story. After all, you're not lazy in your life. Why be lazy in your novel?


Friday, December 3, 2010

Reevaluating

By Pamela

The day after Thanksgiving, I stood in my mother-in-law's kitchen with my sister-in-law and the conversation turned to dieting. Uncomfortable with her weight, SIL teared up as she confessed to less-than-spectacular eating habits. Fast food. Chips as a late night snack.

I passed along some advice I'd been tossing about in my own brain: Focus not on losing weight but on being healthy. Move more. Pack your lunch. Don't even bring the chips in the house. Forget about dieting and counting calories and just think, What can I do to get healthy?

I'm not sure if she will heed my advice or not, but later I decided the same mindset applies to writing. (See, Elizabeth, you're not the only one who relates food to writing!) If I continually strive to be published and fall short, I get caught up in the disappointment of rejection--rejection, like love-handles, that's hard not to take personally.

My goal instead should be to write well. Write fabulously. Write the most compelling prose my brain is capable of. Read books for inspiration. Attend workshops and conferences. Surround myself with people and places that motivate me. Stay focused. Make writing a priority. Connect with other writers who willingly critique. Focus not on the ultimate prize but the means to help me reach it.

As a result, logic tells me, my goal will be met. I just have to heed my own advice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Following Leaves

by Joan

My first manuscript was originally called Following Leaves. The title was meant to be a metaphor for the way we choose different paths, as though following leaves floating in various directions. (I mentioned it was my first, right?!) That manuscript morphed into The Cemetery Garden, but an underlying theme of the story remained: the consequences arising from choices made throughout one’s life. Here’s an excerpt (unedited since the original):

I looked out the window at a pile of leaves stirred up by a gust of wind. Each leaf floated through the air, separate and beautiful. One leaf, brilliant burgundy with orange markings, shaped like teardrops, fastened to the window and stuck there. Then it seemed to leap off the glass and blow away. I wanted to chase the leaf, follow its path to a new place, and forget about diaries and pain and death.

Oh, I was so proud of those lines. Luckily I’ve grown as a writer (and benefited from lots and lots of critique! As Kim says, “You’ve come a long way!”)

Five years ago I followed a path to Texas, after having lived only in Maryland. One of the many things I took for granted about the east coast was the autumn landscape. Broad brushstrokes of color over rolling hills, trees that reached the sky, and the smell of wood smoke and apples. Though the season is short in Texas, I’ve found a bit of autumn here.

At the retreat a few weeks ago, I collected leaves on a morning walk to the pier. Once home, I put my treasures in the annual retreat frame Susan gave each of us. Only after they were behind glass did I notice there were six, a distinct and colorful reminder of each of us, plus one, small and heart-shaped, as prized as a four-leaf clover (top right corner!).

Lately I’ve felt as though my leaves are scattered in all directions. In a few short weeks it’ll be winter and soon those leaves will float to the ground or settle under ice, and the trees will prepare for new blooms.

Today my husband and I took a long walk to enjoy the glorious sun and sky and high-sixties temps. The ground was covered in jewels. One here, one there, soon my hands held so many, I enlisted my husband to carry some. When I got home, I slowly twirled them in my fingers, noticing the fine, crackly lines and their fragility. One squeeze of my fist and they would be crunched to brittle pieces. I arranged them in a bowl, so I can hold autumn on my desk a little longer.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving break

What Women Write is on hiatus today in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

We look forward to returning to our regular posting schedule on Monday, November 29.

Happy belated Thanksgiving to our U.S. readers and we hope everyone has a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Review of Emma Donoghue's ROOM

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

To five year old Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born, it’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination – the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen – for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation – and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.

Photo by Nina Subin
About the author (from the book jacket):

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the bestseller Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Landing, Life Mask, Hood and Stir-Fry. Her story collections are The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Kissing the Witch, and Touchy Subjects. She also writes literary history and plays for stage and radio. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two young children.

Review:

I have a five-year-old, and while she’s very observant and mature for her age I can’t imagine many adults would make it all the way through a novel told from her point of view. Though Room came highly recommended, I had my doubts that such a feat could be pulled off.

I was wrong.

If Jack and his Ma lived a normal life, letting him tell the story would never work, but Room is anything but a normal place. Had Ma been the narrator readers would spend the first half of the book trapped in the deepest level of hell and the last half perhaps two rungs higher. As much as I would’ve sympathized with Ma, I’m not sure I’d have had the fortitude to finish.

Through Jack’s eyes, however, Room is a magical world. On the surface, his simple recounting of the events of his birthday may seem tedious but innocent observations, such as the number of times he hears the bed creak during one of Old Nick’s visits, alert the reader as to the darker reality of the situation. The fact that Jack himself is safe in Wardrobe at the time and has no understanding of what his mother endures is a testament of her complete devotion to her child. I challenge any mother to read this novel and not be moved.

I made the mistake of reading pages 122-142 while my family was home. Three wide-eyed faces stared at me when I blurted out “Oh, my God, no!” and pulled my Jack-sized child onto my lap in a crazy yet instinctual attempt to protect a fictional boy. Half the book remained, so I knew on some level everything would work out, yet I was so caught up in Jack’s terror, seeing my daughter in his place, that I imagined all the things that could go wrong in graphic detail.

If you’re looking for a truly original story, and are open to being overwhelmed by every primal emotion – terror, love, hope and hate – gather your courage and enter Room. You won’t regret it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Which 'person'? First or second?

By Pamela

Recently Julie took on the difficult subject of point of view. I thought it might be fun to compare one piece of writing--in both first and second person points of view. Since I didn't want to seek permission from another writer, I chose something of my own.

I have a particular affinity for first-person, since that's what my current manuscript is in but also found myself moved while reading a wonderful short story written in second person. So, for my personal blog, I wrote an essay in second person. Here I'll show you how it would read in first person, followed by the version in second person. You can decide for yourself which you prefer. Then, challenge yourself by taking a piece of your own writing and changing the POV. If you are most comfortable writing in third-person, take a scene or chapter and try it in first-person. Or change it up another way. Maybe omniscient? Or perhaps another character in the story should be telling the scene from his or her POV. Like your original version better or the revision? Let me know what you discover. 


And This Is How It Begins
First-person POV

It starts on a walk through the neighborhood. I bring along a bag of carrots to feed the horses that occupy a nearby lot and notice a connection. Daughter and horses. She should be a little afraid given their big feet and huge teeth, the aggressive way they bite and stomp when another horse comes close, threatening to take the carrot she offers. But she isn’t.

Long ago she inquired about ballet and tap and tae kwon do and I stalled. Maybe someday. And then she asks about riding a horse, and I think, I can see that. Together we read Black Beauty and talk about what it means to care for a horse. We buy more books that explain tack and hands-high, and she spends hours playing the computer game Let’s Ride! Dreamer, but caring for a virtual horse is not the same.

Then later she spends a Saturday afternoon with her daddy, visiting some stables and asking about riding lessons. They form a connection with a trainer named Kate and ask me to check out some of the stables too. Like Goldilocks choosing her lot, I find one stable too fancy, one too stinky and a third that feels just right. Kate’s place.

And so we sign her up.

But first we must go shopping. Like a dancer with the right shoes or a martial artist with the right gear, she needs stuff—helmet and boots and gloves. I take her to a tack store and a teenage equestrian, with years of riding experience, shows my daughter her choices. Two helmets. One that’s good. Another that’s better. Because this is my daughter’s head and not just anyone else’s head, I figure this is not the time to save twenty dollars. The boots with zippers make the cut and choosing the gloves is easy; only one pair in the store is small enough.

On the first day of lessons, I take her to the stable and meet Kate. Then I see the massive beast my daughter is to ride. Where’s the pony? The gentle little guy who has to be bribed with sugar cubes in order to trot? But then I see the way my daughter walks up and pets this huge animal, talks to Crissy and laughs as the horse’s floppy lips nibble at her helmet. I relax just a little and try not to think about the caveat someone offered me yesterday: She’s not a true horsewoman until she’s been stepped on, bitten, kicked and thrown. Please, not today, I think.

As she mounts the horse in the center of a sawdusty ring, I take my cue to step aside. Kate’s got this. I watch this orchestration: trainer and child and beast while they form a bond. I watch the little girl I sometimes consider obstinate and argumentative and hear Kate compliment her assertiveness and confidence and think, Well, yes. That’s another way to look at it.

Thoughts of dance recitals and martial arts competitions fade away to images of future riding shows. Of one day, my daughter spending time in a barn, mucking stalls and offering apples to her best friend instead of riding in cars with boys of questionable character. I watch a beautiful teenage girl at the barn one day, long legs tucked into tall boots, her hair in a sloppy ponytail as she washes down her horse. Her boyfriend stands nearby, holding a piece of tack, clearly taking a backseat to her true love.

I can see that. I can totally see that. 



Second-person POV

It starts on a walk through the neighborhood. You bring along a bag of carrots to feed the horses that occupy a nearby lot and notice a connection. Daughter and horses. She should be a little afraid given their big feet and huge teeth, the aggressive way they bite and stomp when another horse comes close, threatening to take the carrot she offers. But she isn’t.

Long ago she inquired about ballet and tap and tae kwon do and you stalled. Maybe someday. And then she asks about riding a horse, and you think, I can see that. Together you read Black Beauty and talk about what it means to care for a horse. You buy more books that explain tack and hands-high, and she spends hours playing Let’s Ride! Dreamer, but caring for a virtual horse is not the same.

Then later she spends a Saturday afternoon with her daddy, visiting some stables and asking about riding lessons. They form a connection with a trainer named Kate and ask you to check out some of the stables too. Like Goldilocks choosing her lot, you find one stable too fancy, one too stinky and a third that feels just right. Kate’s place.

And so you sign her up.

But first you must go shopping. Like a dancer with the right shoes or a martial artist with the right gear, she needs stuff—helmet and boots and gloves. You take her to a tack store and a teenage equestrian, with years of riding experience, shows your daughter her choices. Two helmets. One that’s good. Another that’s better. Because this is your daughter’s head and not just anyone else’s head, you figure this is not the time to save twenty dollars. The boots with zippers make the cut and choosing the gloves is easy; only one pair in the store is small enough.

On the first day of lessons, you take her to the stable and meet Kate. Then you see the massive beast your daughter is to ride. Where’s the pony? The gentle little guy who has to be bribed with sugar cubes in order to trot? But then you see the way your daughter walks up and pets this huge animal, talks to Crissy and laughs as the horse’s floppy lips nibble at her helmet. You relax just a little and try not to think about the caveat someone offered you yesterday: She’s not a true horsewoman until she’s been stepped on, bitten, kicked and thrown. Please, not today, you think.

As she mounts the horse in the center of a sawdusty ring, you take your cue to step aside. Kate’s got this. You watch this orchestration: trainer and child and beast while they form a bond. You watch the little girl you sometimes consider obstinate and argumentative and hear Kate compliment her assertiveness and confidence and think, Well, yes. That’s another way to look at it.

Thoughts of dance recitals and martial arts competitions fade away to images of future riding shows. Of one day, your daughter spending time in a barn, mucking stalls and offering apples to her best friend instead of riding in cars with boys of questionable character. You watch a beautiful teenage girl at the barn one day, long legs tucked into tall boots, her hair in a sloppy ponytail as she washes down her horse. Her boyfriend stands nearby, holding a piece of tack, clearly taking a backseat to her true love.

You can see that. You can totally see that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Memoir and Real Life

By Susan

This post is not about writing as much as it is about real life.

I've always been a fan of great memoir. Last weekend I devoured two great tales of life stories- Mishna Wolff's I'm Down while flying east and Mary Karr's lit while flying west on my quick trip to and from Kentucky for my grandmother's 90th birthday.

Now, I will tell the truth about my Mama, my grandmother. Her past few years have not been easy. Her body has crumpled into itself, bones shattering and nerves misfiring. Her ears are shot. Her memory may be worse off than her hearing. Yet we had a huge party with over 100 people in attendance, and she showed up at The First Baptist Church's reception hall in a dainty corsage and a fuchsia blazer and was the belle of the ball. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

"Let's not have such a big party for my 95th," she said to my mother as we exited the church.
I thought about Mama's life story all weekend as I read the memoirs of others. She eloped with my grandfather right before WWII because of my great grandfather's disapproval--my grandfather, even at 21, had already been married before. She had my mother in '42, my aunt in '51, and my uncle in '58, well-spaced babies that each represent their own generation. She was the first woman on the school board in my hometown, she led polio drives after her pregnant sister died from the disease, and she traveled extensively--from Mexico City for the '68 Olympics to London in the 1980s to attend the theatre. When my Uncle Mark moved to New York City, she made regular trips to see plays with him on Broadway.

When I returned from Kentucky, I took a day to drive to Austin to see a friend of mine recently diagnosed with brain cancer--a grade 2 astrocytoma in the left temporal lobe, to be exact. He's 30 years old and we went to Juan In A Million to scarf down some Mexican food.

We talked about the tumor as several of the wait staff would politely interrupt us in Spanish to ask about the stitches lined up behind his left ear. He would answer them, simply, el cancer, el cerebro. We talked about his daughter, who is turning four next month, and about his beautiful wife, whose birthday is today. We talked about quality of life versus quantity of life. We talked about regrets and travel and the upcoming decisions he will have to make about his treatment options. We talked about insurance and money and the marathon--yes, the marathon--that he is training for.

I told him about my grandmother, about the party and the visitors and the funny things she would say. For a moment, we looked at each other, thinking about time and life and what we do with it all.

Now, I will tell you a little about this friend of mine. He is brilliant and athletic and snarky and kind. He's traveled to umpteen countries and continents in the last decade--including tours of India, Europe and South America. He runs a 5:30 mile. He helps others for a living and volunteers his time working with troubled youth and the homeless population in Austin. And he'd rather die young than live forever without his mind intact. His only regret is that he's not yet gotten that tattoo he's been thinking about. I told him if he found the right tattoo artist, I would pay for it.


I finished the memoirs this week and thought about us all, spinning quietly in our own lives, not thinking about death, not thinking about consequences and choices and our actions--just moving forward. I respect the writers like Wolff and Karr who write their stories--not just so they can learn from them, but so that we can too. We each have a story. Maybe like my grandmother, you will live to celebrate your 90th birthday surrounded by family and friends and neighbors who love you. Maybe like my friend in Austin, your body will rebel and scare the hell out of you well before your time--and you will be surrounded by friends and family and neighbors who love you.

Make it count, I guess is my point to all of this. Make it count even when you don't feel like it. Live your story and live it without regrets. Finish that novel, lose the 10 pounds. Complete a 5K for those that can't. Help others and donate to worthy causes. Travel. Go to the theatre. Love God, your family, and your friends. Make sure they know you love them too.

Take care.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing Rage

by Elizabeth

This idea is not original. An online acquaintance directed me to a Sparkpeople article comparing road rage to dieting. I skimmed the first few paragraphs and quickly realized it applied equally well to writing. Full disclosure: I haven't read the rest of the article yet (though I will have by the time you are reading this). I didn't want to color my impressions of the idea it planted, but I knew this was an idea I wanted to address here on the blog.

The gist of the article, as far as I read, is that diet rage, like road rage, doesn't get you anywhere. You're still stuck in traffic, no matter how purple your face; and if you're trying to lose weight and find yourself in plateau-land, coveting your diet-buddy's success won't make you lose any faster.

So it is with writing. Someone else landing an agent might make us feel like pulling out our hair, but we could pluck ourselves bald and it still won't force the subject of our latest query to pick up the phone and dial our number. A big fat book deal we read about in Publisher's Lunch might inspire a round of daydreams of where we'd go and what we'd do if it were me instead of thee, but musing does not write a manuscript or get one sold. And if a book we read and loved (or didn't) stays on the bestseller list for weeks and weeks, we might be tempted to grumble about our under-the-bed manuscript and how we know, we know, it could have done as well if only...but that won't attract the New York Times.

Road rage, diet rage, writer rage. All of it pointless.

In case you have been vacationing in Siberia for the past month, you probably know we at What Women Write are still in post-retreat mode--we geared up, cooked, then wrote, laughed, relaxed, revised. A great time.

We also learned a lot about each other, and how we each work.

The first night of the retreat, I accompanied Julie as we drove to drop her daughter off with a friend in a nearby town. (It seems some people, I won't mention their four names, had already partaken of a celebratory glass of libation by four o'clock, ahem.) As we drove back to the lake house, she shared some of her trials from early this fall. I listened, amazed, marveling that she'd been able to accomplish anything at all. I told her I'd had the impression she'd been uber-productive--and although she said it was not so, the words she later read, some of which have come from this dark season, were excellent. I thought of my own life those same months, and I felt the tug of comparison at how little I had accomplished compared to her.

Much later that night, the moonlight glowing on the lake outside our bedroom window, my roomie Susan pulled out her laptop and opened her photo album. We spent the next hour alternating between huge yawns and bigger laughs as she shared pictures and stories from her most recent trip to Ghana, where she works to save enslaved children. I've been privileged to hear several chapters of her work-in-progress, The Angel's Share, and have also relished our conversations about the themes and story of the manuscript, and am awed. The work she does for those children is astounding, and yet she still finds the time and energy to be a great mom, a terrific wife, and a novelist of stunning talent. I'm green.

Kim's eyes grew wide the second afternoon when I stood and stretched after a session in front of my computer and announced I'd just pounded out some sixteen hundred words. She was doing well, she said, to get four hundred in a whole day. And yet the next day I think she managed to match or better the number that had dropped her jaw her the day before. I could be wrong, but I believe it is a personal record for her, at least for her current project. She referred to that same chapter here, but I have to say, it was good despite what she heard us say, and now it's even better. A polished, lovely chapter with a slap of vinegar, ready for the publisher. Not bad, and my eyes widen right back.

I watched, practically glued to my chair at the kitchen table, as Joan worked just about everywhere--as long as it was quiet. (Which meant far away from me and my dreaded table.) One day she sat in the cushy leather chaise in the room she shared with Pamela, feet propped up and wrapped in the plushest Snuggie I've ever seen. The next day found her on the lower level porch, out in the fresh air, her back to Kim as they both labored in the brisk air. I was envious of her ability to work wherever whim seemed to take her. Plus, she managed a nap one day! Something I long to do yet never manage. And then she was back to work, with many of the fresh words she later shared surely destined to last through her final draft.

And Pamela. I'd say she is like the mom of us all, but that would belie how hip and cool she is, and how much better her hair looks than mine, and we won't mention her great skin and teeth. She casually baked up cookie dough she'd mixed from scratch at home (and dang Kim who ate far more than me and doesn't seem to have to worry about calories at all), brought to-die-for chicken and rice soup, and still managed to read near-perfect prose every night as we gathered around the table. She's like the best friend in one of her own books, a character you almost wish the book was about just because you want to know her more.

I have to say, with everyone reading from these wonderful and meaningful manuscripts, I felt like a clod with sixth graders flinging enchiladas and ranchero beans in mine. This is so insignificant, I thought, compared to nineteenth century English architecture, or turn-of-the-century Canadian art, or pre-WWII interracial romance, or characters struggling amidst the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, or of parents and children facing some of life's biggest choices.

But my children read. And they are not unimportant. And while I believe one day they will read the published works of all of my partners here, right now the book they are likeliest to enjoy is the one I am penning now. I can't compare myself to other writers, and certainly I can't and shouldn't judge the merit of my work and find it wanting just because one of my characters slaps on a pair of wings and dances around a classroom. I'm writing the book that's calling out to me now, and that's what matters. That's what has to matter. And I have to believe that it will matter to readers one day, to kids who are just starting out on a lifetime of literature, and remember it has an important place.

And here's the thing. The commuter gets to the office. The dieter, if he sticks with it, will reach her goal weight. And the writer? There are no guarantees, true. But for those who keep writing, keep learning, keep writing--I believe the payoff will come. In the meantime, I'm stuck in traffic. So what? I'm working, and learning, and like a dieter who is in loss-mode, I'm really in training for the rest of my life. Getting mad, getting envious, no point.

Enjoy the ride.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Joan talks with Kim



Next in our series of getting to know the women of What Women Write, I chat with Kim. Kim and I met each other first, long before we knew we'd be part of such a great group. Even so, I still learned something new!

Joan: Tell our readers a little about your background.

Kim: I dread being asked where I’m from. Saying “nowhere” sounds evasive, even if it feels true. If I say “everywhere” people assume I’m an army brat or the child of missionaries. Mentioning that my father builds golf courses is a conversation starter, but it inevitably leads to talk of golf, a subject I know shamefully little about.

I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but lived in nine different places by age three, including two foreign countries (Mexico and the Philippines). Much of my later childhood was spent in the backwoods of Maine, where my Dad temporarily took a job with the ski resort at Sugarloaf, but I never felt like I fit in there. Dad returned to the golf course business when I was sixteen and we moved to Finland for seven months. This would have been wonderful had we lived in Helsinki, where I could have attended the International School, but home was a small town where I had no opportunity to make friends. Having nothing better to do, I finished the last two and a half years of high school through the mail and started college early. My parents moved to Bangkok, Thailand, and I often went there for holidays. Being a fair-skinned blond with a quite prominent nose, I stood out in Bangkok. I got used to the stares though it was disconcerting when small children screamed as if I were their worst nightmare come to life. Despite that, I loved Thailand, and still miss the food.

The place I feel most at home, though I have never actually lived there, is Georgian Bay in Ontario. Perhaps it’s genetic memory.

I have a BA in composition and English literature from Truman State University in Missouri and an MA in English from Iowa State. I’ve been married for almost thirteen years and have two daughters. I live in Dallas, though I don’t feel Texan in the least.


Joan: How did your unique childhood prepare you to become a writer?

Kim: First off, writing is in my blood. My mother’s a writer. My paternal grandmother composed children’s stories for her own kids, likely because they couldn’t afford many books. I have the manuscripts and they are quite good, though a bit dated. My great-grandparents, Carl and Madonna Ahrens, the protagonists in The Oak Lovers, both wrote as well. Madonna had several published newspaper and magazine articles and was a copyeditor at the Metropolitan Magazine back in 1905. Carl dabbled in poetry and short stories.

My genes may have provided me with the ability to put words onto paper, but my background certainly shaped my desire to do so. Living at a remote resort in the Philippines when I was three, there were no other children to play with. My mother spent many hours reading to me to keep me entertained. By four I could read alone. I spent half of Kindergarten sitting off by myself with chapter books while my classmates were learning letters. Academically this was a gift. Socially it was a curse.

I had difficulty relating to kids whose worlds consisted of nothing beyond the county where they were born, and so I spent most of my school years observing my peers rather than interacting. Summers on Sugarloaf were wonderful because the pressure to socialize was off and I could just go off in the woods alone and live inside my own head. Eventually I started writing down my daydreams since they were far more interesting than real life.


Joan: When did you know you’d become a writer?

Kim: I can give you an exact date: July 21st, 1982.

The idea that I was meant to be a writer came to me as a jolt – literally. I was eight years old when my parents located my grandmother’s childhood home, an old stone farmhouse in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Listening to the owner reminisce about his boyhood encounters with a poor starving artist (my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens) and his pretty daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt), I learned that much of the art my parents owned had been created in that very room. With threadbare carpeting and ugly faux-wood paneling on the walls, it hardly looked like a space to inspire a painter. I fought the urge to blurt out, “Why did you ruin a perfectly good studio?” The words not only would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, but they made no sense. I had no idea what Carl’s studio had looked like.

I had other strange urges as well; to pull up a corner of carpeting to see if the wood floors were still there underneath, to run outside and hug a gangly looking elm tree that waved at me through the window, to seek out my grandmother’s old bedroom. One impulse I could not resist: As I left I touched the outside stone walls.

I felt an electric current course from the stones into my hand – a feeling I’ve never forgotten. At that moment I knew two things: I was going to write a book about Carl someday, and my grandmother was with me. We later learned she had passed away while we were at her old house.


Joan: What do you think your great-grandfather Carl Ahrens would say if he read THE OAK LOVERS? (I suspect he might!)

Kim: At the risk of sounding slightly crazy, I believe Carl and Madonna are both well aware of every word I write. I’ve dedicated several blog posts to this subject, such as the dream that still haunts me, being led to their old home in Meadowvale and my vision quest with the Ojibwa.

Carl was the hero of my childhood fairy tales thanks to my grandmother, whom we called Tutu. I inhaled the stories deep into my lungs, allowed them to linger there and take root, until The Painter's adventures flowed through my veins along with his blood.

At first they were just stories to me; I suspected Tutu made up the exciting bits about Carl meeting Calamity Jane and running off to live with the Indians. The old man in the photographs in my living room couldn't walk, much less throw a lariat, travel the American west by covered wagon, or paint trees that leap out of a canvas at the viewer. It wasn't until after Tutu died that I saw a picture of Carl as a young man, dressed in cowboy clothes, with the confident stance and chiseled features of a movie star. I knew then that Tutu had not tried to sell me a myth, or simply entertain me. She had handed me the gift of her father’s legacy.

My childhood mirrored Carl’s in some aspects. We were only children who grew up in small towns with no respect for artistic aspirations. We were both isolated from our peers; him due to illness, me to circumstance. The forest was, for each of us, a source of endless delight, a magical world filled with friendly spirits. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that when I looked at Carl’s paintings, even as a child, I understood that they were of far more than trunks and branches. His trees were portraits in disguise; they had souls, personalities, human emotions and desires.

Though I don’t paint, it is simple for me to get inside the mind of a painter. My method for constructing a narrative is strikingly similar to the way my great-grandfather created oil paintings. I start with a sketch, the skeleton of a scene, flesh it out with layer upon layer of editing until the colors evoke just the right emotion, and then abandon it.


Joan: You changed the focus from non-fiction to fiction. How has this change freed you to massage the truth, even while sticking pretty close to actual events?

Kim: It has freed me tremendously. For one, I no longer feel like I’m crossing an ethical boundary by including dialogue, even if I know “something like that” must have been said at some point. I can also give certain characters, such as Carl’s first wife, Emily, a voice. The ‘facts’ about her are pretty slim. I know her name, what she looked like, that they had three children, and that her marriage to Carl was eighteen years of hell (his words). That’s not a lot to go on. Now I can portray her as she likely was: a woman who married a man she barely knew only to find out that he was completely unsuitable for her. She’s not a villain any more than he’s a saint. I have no interest in drawing a rose-colored portrait of my ancestor. He had paint under his nails and he was not above using Watman’s drawing paper to cover up a faded shirt for a formal event. In other words, he had flaws, and I show them unflinchingly. Hopefully, readers will love him anyway.

Switching formats has also allowed me to condense the book down to the most interesting bits of his life, to not bog down the text with facts and dates that the reader doesn’t really need to know, and to move the plot along with a great deal of dialogue.



I take full advantage of all the raw material I have. Carl and Madonna’s story is compelling enough that there is little need to embellish in The Oak Lovers. Each character in the book, from Carl down to his one-legged rooster, Joffre, existed. All main events happened. I work in direct quotes where I can. I tell the truth whenever possible and I never put anything into the novel that I know to be untrue.

Joan: Because your book is so personal, how will this affect your expectations during the publishing process?

Kim: Rejections will certainly be tougher to take, but I know that I will get them at every stage in the game. I understand that publishing is a business, and I’m willing to make concessions to get my book out there. Knowing many agents are hesitant to take on books longer than 100,000 words by debut authors, I recently cut nearly 15,000 words to ensure the book ends close to that number. My critique partners are all well aware I have no problem with making revisions. I hope that when I start sending queries, an agent will not only see a book they love, but an author who has already worked for years to promote its protagonist through a website, articles, speeches and extensive networking. Hopefully my passion will be contagious.

Joan: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Kim: Yikes, I’m going to cheat and give two answers here.

The first was when Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, said that authors have to be artists and love the creative process but we also have to learn to let our work go, and understand that everyone else will look at it as a product that needs to be bought and sold. She’s the reason I cut so much from my manuscript. I had to decide if including everything I wanted was worth the risk of having agents reject me before reading a word simply because of the book’s length. I saved everything I cut just in case I change my mind later, but I doubt any of it ever makes it back into the book.

The second was not so much advice, as confirmation that I’m not completely shooting myself in the foot by being such a compulsive re-writer. New York Times bestselling author Cathy Marie Buchanan wrote The Day the Falls Stood Still roughly the same way I’m writing
The Oak Lovers, and it took her nearly as long as it’s taking me, even though her children were a bit older than mine. I can’t tell you what a boost of confidence it was for me when she responded to my fan letter to her with a compliment of my own writing skills. I hope that some day my book will touch her as deeply as her book touched me.


Joan: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?

Kim: There is more than one book in me. As passionate as I am about The Oak Lovers, I have three more novel ideas ready to go after I type The End. All are historical fiction, of course.
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