Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Escaping From Word Count Hell

By Kim

When I first began writing The Oak Lovers I didn’t consider the issue of word count. Both my other novels hovered around that magic 80-100,000 word mark. While this book would be longer, surely there was an agent or publisher willing to take a chance on a well-written, compelling, mostly true story even if it soared to 150,000 words.

My muses spoke. I transcribed.

The first hint of trouble came when I got to the point in my story when my protagonists (and great-grandparents) Carl and Madonna are finally together. (No, this is not a spoiler.) My critique partners (Joan and Pamela) sent that chapter back saying something along the lines of, “This is great. How many chapters left? Two? Three? You must be about done.”

I was taken aback. Carl and Madonna indeed surmounted many obstacles to be together, but their story didn’t end with marriage and a happily ever after. Not even close. I said I was about a third done. But how many pages have you written, they asked. I honestly had no idea, as I keep each chapter in a separate file. A quick calculation astounded me – 175 pages - about 44,000 words.

“Can you break it into two books?” they asked.

I considered this, eventually deciding that the answer was yes and no. A stand alone book would sell far easier than two books. I could, however, write the second book about Eleanor Douglas, an artist with a compelling story of her own. She lived with the Ahrens family for six years, including the time they lived on the Ojibwa reservation. Carl was her teacher, and they were close, but not as close, I suspect, as the relationship between Eleanor and Carl’s first wife, Emily.

I kept going, determined to finish and worry about length later. The book would be as long as it took me to tell the story. If that was 140,000 words, so be it. Someone would take it on anyway.

But what if they didn’t? Or did, but told me I needed to slash 30,000 words before submitting to publishers. What would be stronger, my artistic ego or my desire to see this story in print?

I knew the answer to that. I went back through my chapters, tightening dialogue, abolishing chit-chat, and made obvious cuts. Down to 81,000 words. There’s no way I could finish the story in 19,000. Even 29,000 would feel rushed.

I took a deep breath, knowing that if I didn’t do something now, every new word I wrote would be labored, rushed and, frankly, not very good. The only way I could relax is if I bought myself more words.

I started with chapter one and am now up to sixteen (of twenty-seven). I’ve cut 11,000 words so far. Here’s how:

  1. I look at the chapter as a whole. If there are any scenes that don’t move the plot forward, enhance character or relationship development, or include something that definitely comes into play later, it must go. I move it to a separate file in case I change my mind. I don’t wallow on how long I struggled to write the scene, or how nicely the words flow. Is it better to spend 500 words on a sweet scene that serves no purpose other than being sweet, or use those words for a visit from the Prime Minister of Canada?

  2. If the scene stays, are there unnecessary paragraphs? Does the reader need 320 words about why Carl fears death, just because the story happens to be true? Yes, it’s interesting, but a sentence or two in a key place would establish his above-average dread.

  3. For what remains, I review each sentence. Is there a shorter way to say the same thing (remaining consistent with the tone of the story, of course)? Is the paragraph stronger without the sentence? Are the characters speaking in complete sentences, when it’s more likely they’d use fragments, as we all do?

Had I waited until the end of the book and then been asked to cut 30,000 words, it would have been agonizing. Cutting 11,000 (and counting) now has been liberating. Do I think I can finish in fewer than 100,000? Unlikely. Under 110,000? Quite possibly. Will this length be forgivable? I sure hope so.

If anyone has any further advice for writers attempting to tame their epic, or simply have any word count stories to share, I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I Want to Know

by Joan

As writers, we receive conflicting advice on how to write the best book we can. Write what you know. Write what you want to know. Write what you read. Write what you’d like to read. I think the best course is to combine all of this advice.

I keep a file of ideas, little notes about occurrences that have happened to me or my family, situations I find amusing, odd incidents from the news, character traits I’ve observed. I pore over these when looking for ideas, for ways to make my writing more realistic.

Writing what I want to know requires immersion into different worlds. Tracy Chevalier, originally from Washington, D.C., has lived in London for twenty years and completes vast research for each of her novels. Texan Deborah Crombie writes British mysteries and spends several weeks each year immersed in the English neighborhoods and cities about which she writes. Even though I’d love to visit every place I write about (numerous times!), I must rely on the Internet, books or interviews as resources for unfamiliar subjects or settings.

Since I discovered a love for adding a dash of historical fiction to my plots, I’ve had to travel to the past.

My current manuscript features many parts of London: posh Hampstead, crumbling Highgate Cemetery, eclectic Clerkenwell, and fashionable Bloomsbury. I’ve spent some time in London, but long before I ever dreamed of writing a story placed there. Rather than rely on my memory, I must do my research.

The story features two sets of rival architects, one hundred fifty years apart. I know very little about architecture, other than what I’ve read in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, a multi-time-period mystery set in the grittier parts of London. He's a master of historical fiction and biography. My story is set both in present day and the Victorian era. With that in mind, over the next week I’m taking a step back from writing while I refuel my history tank, exploring books on nineteenth-century London, Roman-inspired architecture, church monuments, and convents.

Not only do I need to get the setting, architectural scene and period details right, but the story features an Italian immigrant and his Irish nemesis for whom I must capture their respective nineteenth-century accented dialogue. I want it to be authentic, yet not cliché.

Anyone have ideas on how to accomplish this? Movies or books to recommend? I want to know!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't You Love It When You Discover a New Writer?

This past St. Patrick's Day, I sought out the Irish writers in my library. C.S. Lewis. James Joyce. William Butler Yeats. Frank McCourt.

Alas, where were the Irish women of my collection? Painfully absent. That is, until now.

I recently discovered Edna O’Brien.

Her first novel, The Country Girls, is a story centering around Kate and Baba, two childhood friends whose lives go on divergent paths in search of happiness and fulfillment in the 1950s. First published in 1963, this novel and O’Brien’s next five works were banned in her homeland for their depiction of sex in the lives of her characters, and were often criticized for her portrayal of females as victims of their own lives. Only after several decades have Irish literary critics come to an appreciation for her talents and contributions and the ways in which she has laid bare all the stages of a woman’s life – from girlhood to conflicting love affairs.

What resonates with me is how some readers have expressed shock at the copyright date of O’Brien’s works, in disbelief that her ideas were written four decades ago.

Born in 1930, O’Brien was raised in an Irish convent in 1950s Ireland. Her works center largely on the private yearnings of women and their relationships with men and the repressive society in which they lived.

I hope you’ll join me in adding O’Brien’s writings to your list of must-reads. Or if you have read her novels, let me know your thoughts.

Here are a few striking quotes from O’Brien.

"Writing is like carrying around a fetus."

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Mained, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”

“Inebriations of love, shadows of love, fantasies of love, but never yet the one true love.”

“I am obsessive, also I am industrious. Besides, the time when you are the most alive and most aware is in childhood and one is trying to recapture that heightened awareness.”


What writers have YOU discovered recently?

(And if this Irish reading gets you a wee bit hungry, try making this Irish Soda Bread. Yum!)

K. Harrington
author, Janeology

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More fish in the sea

By Julie

My family reads with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The youngest reads under duress when forced to accrue Accelerated Reader points to pass language arts. In the process, she's found a few books she might publicly admit she enjoyed.

My middle child reads voraciously in spurts as time allows between her other social activities, enjoying many of the books I also enjoy, often reading books behind me, though usually in line after my mom.

My free-spirited eldest won an award for reading 100 books in kindergarten, but never read much as an adolescent. After flying the coop in recent years, he discovered that books about philosophy and sustainable agriculture and making things from scratch (buckskin pants, anyone?) tickle his fancy. He's been tracking down old FOXFIRE books lately.

Some think readers are born. Others believe it takes finding what speaks to a person to make them a reader. I suspect the answer lies between. I can't remember not loving to read, but also identified my reading niche at a very young age, first devouring books about pioneer girls and orphans and huge, all-of-a-kind families, then growing into adult fiction about relationships and family crises and dealing with the world in general. Not much of a stretch from one to the other.

I've tried the last few years, however, to widen my reading experience. I borrow library books I've heard recommended time and again even though they don't fit my usual M.O. Sometimes I grab remaindered hardbacks for a few dollars by authors I've never considered reading. I've discovered there are a lot more fish in the sea of reading and I'm a better person for it, if I do say so myself.

What's been fun lately is seeing others around me branch out, too.

My father-in-law, a retired nuclear physicist who writes poetry and other short forms under the radar, is an obvious intellectual. Yet, in one of our many conversations about books, he freely admitted he rarely read novels by women. I understand. Until the last few years, I rarely read books by men. But shortly before Christmas last year, he emailed me his Christmas wish: Name one book by a female author I'd read in 2009 I'd like him to read. His request flattered and challenged me. I went a step further and recommended two. (And, of course, we purchased those books as gifts.)

This recent feedback from made me smile.

"I did it, I finished HOME (Marilynne Robinson). And I was astounded and moved by much of the writing: some really remarkable descriptions, dialogs, and turns of phrase. I found it a bit difficult getting into at the beginning; sometimes I lost track of who was speaking in extended scenes of conversation; and sometimes I wanted to inflict great bodily harm on one or all of the characters. But altogether wonderfully writ. I thought of COLD MOUNTAIN as I read HOME. Both novels were challenging to read in spots and required some will power to keep after them; but both were eminently satisfying and of both I said "Wow!" when I finished. Fine literature indeed."


"I finally finished reading THE HELP, and I really enjoyed it. It is quite an achievement for a first novel, or any novel for that matter. I notice it is #1 or 2 or so on many best seller lists at present. She (Kathryn Stockett) certainly did a fine job of drawing upon her own experiences of life and place. The characters really rang true and resonated with me from some of my 60's memories even though I lived in 'the north' until '69. An altogether gripping and entertaining read. Thanks for selecting it for us."

My husband seemed an enthusiastic part-time reader for years, going through two or three books during holidays or on vacations. This year, though, he's burned through so many, my own little reading log is cringing in shame. (And a man who reads is an attractive man, indeed. Just saying.) After consuming a forest of books, he's run out of his favorites – thrillers and mysteries by Steve Berry, Harlan Coben, Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Tom Clancy, to name a few.

He decided to postpone another trip to the bookstore last week, but was antsy without something new to read. I got sneaky. I casually handed him a few novels I'd purchased and said, "You might like these. I don't know what they're like because I haven't read them yet." And guess what? He doesn't have to give up his man card because they're by men, but I'm almost certain A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick and SECRETS OF EDEN by Chris Bohjalian are unlike anything he's ever read.

The jury's still out on the Bohjalian, though he's about a third in and says he likes it so far. HOORAY! I love Bohjalian's books. He wasn't crazy about the Goolrick novel, going so far as to compare it to "one of those bodice ripper things," (not that he's ever read one ... or so he says). Still, he plowed through and said it had some interesting twists and turns. He claims I better hurry up so we can compare notes because I'm falling behind. :) I'm sure he'll mostly stick with his favorite genres and authors in the future, but I think he's enjoying branching out a bit, and I'm enjoying watching.

I received a text message from my daughter yesterday. Yes, from school.


Me: Did you like it?

Her: YES!

Me: Cool. I love that book!

I'd mentioned this Catherine Ryan Hyde novel to her a few weeks ago as something I thought she'd enjoy and we found it at the library. (BT-dubs, who has my signed copy?! Gail?! This blog is beginning to serve as a GPS for locating loaned books. Ha.)

Anyway, I think there's a point to this post. It goes something like this:

People like what they like. But sometimes they're just waiting for you to help them get out of their reading comfort zones. Sometimes they're brave enough to ask for your assistance, and sometimes they're just waiting for you to knock them over the head with new books when they least expect it.

Regardless, the connection we gain by sharing out-of-the-box reading experiences with friends and family can be priceless.

Your turn.

Photo credit: he(art)geek's flickr photostream by Creative Commons license

Monday, March 22, 2010

In Praise of Author Events

by Pamela

I’ve had the privilege of attending a few author talks and book signings over the years. Not only do I go whenever I can, the women of What Women Write regularly support authors who make their way to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.

Friday night Joan, Julie, Kim and I trekked to the Dallas Museum of Art to see and hear Melanie Benjamin as she promoted her new book Alice I Have Been. Kim interviewed her here on the blog and mentioned to Melanie we would be attending. Melanie suggested dinner afterward and we eagerly agreed to accompany her.

Author events I’ve attended have run the gamut—from a folding table set up in an out-of-the-way corner of a book store to an auditorium filled with enthusiastic fans. Melanie had the benefit of being tied in to a museum-wide promotion of Alice in Wonderland, with activities running throughout the museum all evening. Her presentation was well-received by several hundred people (by my estimation) and the line for the book signing stretched down the hallway.

True to her promise, Melanie joined Joan, Kim and me for dinner, and we chatted like old friends until the restaurant closed. Melanie shared insights into the publishing industry and offered encouragement about our own writing journeys.

Why attend author events?

As a writer, I feel a bit of an obligation to support those paving the way to publication before me. As a reader, I love hearing an author tell about how the seeds were planted that grew into a treasure for me to hold in my hands.

During Melanie’s presentation she shared how an afternoon spent viewing an exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago transformed her from a little-known writer of chick-lit to an in-demand historical fiction author. The transformation wasn’t instantaneous. Like most creative people, she had a problem leaving her comfort zone, but when she took that leap of faith, she never looked back.

The exhibit, Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll, featured photos taken by the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—among them, pictures of Alice Liddell, the child who inspired the famous story. The photos haunted Melanie and years later, she decided to tell her interpretation of Alice’s story: Alice I Have Been.

Over dinner she shared more about her writing career, overcoming losing her first agent only to be inherited by an agent who admitted to not liking her book. Eventually she landed another agent who has championed her writing and landed her a two-book deal.

Everyone’s publishing story is unique, but listening to Melanie’s path to success simultaneously encouraged and discouraged me. As long as you endeavor to write the best book possible, your odds of becoming a published author drastically increase but, so many obstacles stand in your way, it’s surely not for the meek. Ultimately I found Melanie’s enthusiasm contagious—as she talked about her newest project, the looming deadline she’s trying to meet while promoting Alice, the foreign rights for her current title, the cover art she clearly loves.

To keep up with author events in my area, I signed up for email alerts from And I'm carving a special nook into my bookshelf to house autographed book copies--so I don't lend them out! (Does anyone have my signed Elizabeth Berg novel?!)

Do you attend author events/book signings? Which were your favorites?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Up All Night

by Elizabeth

The second-to-last house my grandmother lived in was a tiny box of a building perched on the edge of a two-lane highway in the middle of the California desert. The property included her house, plus a long pink building which had once been a flea-bitten motel, a garage where my grandfather tinkered with cars until he died, and the remnants of an old pool filled with scrubby sand and dessicated plants.

Tucked into the pull-out couch in the parlor, the end almost touching the bench of the organ that occupied most of the room (one of two organs crammed into that maybe eight hundred square feet), with covers pulled over my shoulders and the occasional squall of a train whistle punctuating the night, at thirteen years old I stayed up all night reading for the first time. A House of Many Rooms, by Rodello Hunter. Not even the real book, but the Reader's Digest condensed version, a copy of which I'd later spend close to twenty years hunting down, my grandmother's tome long lost or given away.

I'd come to her house to spend a weekend, not a common occurrence, but not unheard-of, either. If it weren't for the book and that night, I don't know if I'd even remember the event. But I do: we made a chocolate cake, inventing our own peanut butter frosting; I flirted with the fourteen-year-boy across the highway, a kid my sister later mocked me about with a bad poem; we ate fried potatoes with dinner, my grandfather's favorite. And that book.

I own two copies of that out-of-print book, and my decades-long search finally proved fruitful a couple of years ago. Though it galled me to pay ten bucks for the text at an overpriced (and now out of business, ha) second-hand shop, I ponied up. For years I'd thumbed the spines every time I spied the familiar covers, usually in model homes or thrift shops, never once seeing the title I'd fallen in love with. Even though the going-rate should have been a dollar, two at most, no way could I walk away from that find.

This was hardly the night I fell in love with reading, mind you. I'd been a dedicated bookworm for years by then. From fourth grade on I was in the "high" reading group at school. At home I was famous for disappearing on rainy Saturdays only to be found hours later with a stack of books by my side. But this was the first time I simply could not put a book down, could not cease reading until every word was finished, my face finally streaked with tears at the saga of the family I'd grown to love as the moon slid its way across the night sky and the trains chugged past and the sun finally peeped over the Eastern horizon.

I think this is what we all strive for, to write something that will rob another of a night's sleep, leaving them glad of it. When my pen hits the paper and the words flow along at the pace of my heartbeat, I know I'm on to something good. Those moments, the ones where the words that land tug at my emotions the way Hunter grabbed them all those years ago, those are the ones that make all the agony of writing and the pursuit of publication seem worthwhile. We all want to make an impact--I think that's human nature. I'd like mine to be through my kids and the written word. That's why I keep at this, even on days when life gets in the way, when words are just a jumble of letters, when I look at how long I've been at this and unsure of how long this stage will persist.

It's because of the hope that one day, a stranger will stay up all night with me, reading and laughing and choking back hot thick tears, unable to put my book down until the last word. And then never forget it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Conversation with Melanie Benjamin

By Kim

Those of you who read my last post already know that I’m a huge fan of Melanie Benjamin’s new novel, Alice I Have Been. Just days before that post went public Melanie agreed to be interviewed for What Women Write and I did a little happy dance before combing the internet to make sure I wasn't asking the same questions she has already answered a million times. For the record, no, she is not a lifelong fan of Alice in Wonderland, and no, she does not feel she has a muse of her own (other than her own curiosity).

My fellow blogger, Julie, alerted me about the book several months before the release date. I admit it, I have actually never read Alice in Wonderland, but I was immediately intrigued by the cover and premise of the novel. It never occurred to me before that Alice was anything beyond a figment of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. When I saw the haunting (and mildly disturbing) photograph he took of the very real Alice Liddell, I had to know her story.

From Publisher's Weekly - starred review: Born into a Victorian family of privilege, free-spirited Alice catches the attention of family friend Dodgson [a.k.a. Lewis Carroll] and serves as the muse for both his photography and writing. Their bond, however, is misunderstood by Alice's family, and though she is forced to sever their friendship, she is forever haunted by their connection as her life becomes something of a chain of heartbreaks. As an adult, Alice tries to escape her past, but it is only when she finally embraces it that she truly finds the happiness that eluded her. Focusing on three eras in Alice's life, Benjamin offers a finely wrought portrait of Alice that seamlessly blends fact with fiction. This is book club gold.

Kim: The artist/muse relationship holds great fascination for many people. Was the special connection between Charles Dodgson and Alice the main draw for you, or were you more interested in the story of Alice’s later years?

Melanie: I have to cheat and say both. Obviously we would never know about Alice were it not for Dodgson, and their intriguing relationship really is the heart of Wonderland; it’s hard to separate the two. But the idea of following Alice throughout her long, fascinating life is what induced me to write the book, for that’s the story that hasn’t been told before.

Kim: I have to admit that I opened your book with a slight bit of trepidation, fearing I may have difficulty reading about a close bond between seven-year-old Alice and a grown man. I was surprised to see in one of your interviews that the early part of the book was the easiest for you to compose. How did you handle writing about the creepier elements of their relationship?

Melanie: It was easiest to write because there’s so much known/not known about it; it’s the intrigue that fascinates me as a writer and fuels my imagination. I never once saw the relationship, through the eyes of either character, as creepy; I saw it as tragic. I suppose that’s what made it palatable for me to write it. I realize – and understood, always – that modern eyes, reading it, might be uncomfortable. But I could never allow my own modern sensibility to impart any kind of judgment on either of their actions; that would not have been true to their characters.

Kim: This could explain why I found myself hoping that they would actually end up together when she was grown. I personally saw her as a very old soul and him as oddly childlike, but I could see how people today may be quick to label Alice a victim or Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) a pedophile. I take it you do not see them that way?

Melanie: No, the truth, I firmly believe, was much more complex than that. I really have come to see their relationship as tragic; two very lonely people who wanted to comfort each other, meeting at the wrong time in both of their lives.

Kim: I’ve never been to Oxford, but I have spent some time in England. I was amazed at how well you captured the feel of both the time and the place. How did you prepare to write about a place you’ve never been?

Melanie: I gave my imagination free rein. Based on research, of course, and there was a lovely site called Virtual Oxford that allows you to see the town, the college, through web cameras. But of course, then I had to go back and determine what would not have been there one hundred and fifty years ago! But once I established some sense of the place in my mind, I then allowed myself, somehow, to “go” there, and see it through Alice’s eyes at the different times in her life, imagine what she would have felt, touched, sensed, etc. It’s strange and almost mystical, in a way, and I can’t really explain it better than that.

Kim: Alice I Have Been is your first attempt at historical fiction. How did you approach writing it?

Melanie: By concentrating on the characters and the story first. I didn’t write it because I was intrigued by the period (although I am drawn to the Victorian era; my shelves are full of books about it). I wrote it because I was drawn to the characters and the story, so the setting, while vital, is not the most important element. Perhaps other historical fiction writers approach their novels differently, but for me it’s story and characters first, setting later.

Kim: Did you do all your research before starting the book or was the research ongoing?

Melanie: I thought – and I suspect most historical novelists think this – I had done the bulk of it before writing, but with historical fiction, you never know. You can be chugging along, writing, and all of a sudden you need to know something; was there a railroad station in this town in 1862? Were gaslights installed yet? That sort of detail you might not know you need until you get into the body of the manuscript. So it’s always a balancing act; you can’t get down on yourself if you do, unexpectedly, spend a day researching instead of writing, as long as it’s necessary. It’s still work. The challenge is not getting too swept up in unnecessary research and using that as an excuse not to write. As I said, it’s a balancing act!

Kim: As a fellow historical fiction writer, I relate. I've read that Alice I Have Been is not actually your first book, that you (as Melanie Hauser) previously wrote contemporary fiction. Do you see yourself ever going back to that, or will you continue with historical from now on?

Melanie: I have no plans to revisit the type of book I’d published before. I think I finally found my true calling, as I’ve long been a history nut, and my shelves are just packed with histories, biographies, etc. It’s as if I really have been training to do this my entire life; I just had a minor detour along the way!

Kim: What do you think may be the appeal of historical fiction to readers today?

Melanie: I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they enjoy feeling as if they’re learning something as well as being entertained. It’s almost as if there’s a certain guilt attached to relaxing and reading a novel, and the guilt is lessened if the reader feels as if he’s learning something new. I don’t think most readers confuse fiction with non-fiction; they’re smart enough to know that novels aren’t history books. But a lot of readers use that historical novel as a jumping off point to do a little bit of research on their own about a certain subject or person. And I think people enjoy being intrigued enough to do that.

Kim: What time periods most fascinate you and why?

Melanie: Pretty much everything from the early Victorian era (1830’s) to the 1950’s. Those are the eras that fascinate me, and again – my bookshelves are stocked with novels and histories written in and of those time periods. I’m not sure I can articulate the “why;” I think people are just naturally drawn to certain eras.

Kim: What can you tell us about your next project?

Melanie: It’s another historical novel, a “story behind the story” but this time it’s a uniquely American story. It’s set roughly in the same time period as ALICE I HAVE BEEN, but that’s the only similarity. Other than the protagonist is an amazing female you’ve heard too little about!

Kim: Many of our readers are aspiring writers seeking publication. Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with us?

Melanie: It’s a never ending journey. There is rejection at every step; there’s really never one moment where you can say, “At last, I have arrived!” We all have to learn to juggle many different roles; we have to be an artist and love the creative process but then we 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. But in the end, there’s no more rewarding job than being a writer; I’m my own boss, and I have the privilege of living in different worlds, becoming different people, every day. I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is that the successful author is the author who learns to move forward, always; to reinvent herself, if necessary. But who never loses her love of language and storytelling.

Kim: Thank you so much for joining us today, Melanie. Alice I Have Been can be purchased in bookstores everywhere and here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Writing that Makes a Difference

by Susan

I've been thinking about the basics lately--the basics of reading.

We read for simple reasons: to learn, to escape and to be entertained. We read, I believe, to be changed somehow, enriched and transformed by someone else's story. The beauty of other people's words is that they grant permission, their imagination inspires and experiences give perspective. So reading, in it's most essential nature, gives us often more than we asked for when we opened the covers and began to turn the pages.

I read three books last year that changed things for me. The first, Defying Gravity: A Celebration of Late-Blooming Women, by Prill Boyle, was one of those permission-granting books. Published in 2004, Boyle outlines the stories of 12 women who made dramatic career changes late in life.

It's sounds so simple. Yet last year, I was struggling in my own crisis--feeling mismatched for the career I had called my life for the prior 16 years. For the first time, I wondered if the work I had done for my entire adult life was all wrong.

I wanted to finish my novel, I wanted to leave corporate America...but then, where would I go? I didn't know of any other place. I wanted my work, whether it was as a novelist or any other choice, to have meaning and purpose. Defying Gravity gave me permission to make a major change, and I decided not to wait until I was 50. When the opportunity came to me, I decided I would take it.

I focused on changing my career because Prill Boyle wrote this book.

Silas House's first novel, Clay's Quilt, was published in 2001. Lucky for me, by the time I found him last September, he had also written three more novels: The Coal Tattoo, A Parchment of Leaves, and Eli the Good. I inhaled all four books in two days' time--stunned by his prose and inspired by his imagination. You see, Silas lives in Eastern Kentucky, a part of this planet that I know very well. I grew up in a small town that they call the Gateway--caught between the world of bourbon and horse money or moonshine and coal money. I know the voice that talked to me in Clay's Quilt. He inspired me, and brought me to terms with my own writing and my goals for the novel.

I recommitted to my manuscript because of Silas House.

Then there was Jantsen's Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue and Grace, by Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy. This book changed everything for me. It is Pam's memoir of losing her 15-year-old son, Jantsen, and everything I had worried about that seemed so magnanimous was now more trivial than I can ever admit. (I also faced, for the first time, my own terror at losing my children. Nothing else seemed important anymore.)

After Jantsen died, Pam and her husband, Randy, went on to upend everything that they had once called normal, by crashing through their grief and healing by giving to others. They adopted Van and Tatum from Vietnam in the early 2000s, and through a long list of serendipitous events I can only call "God-things," they saved child after child from lives we cannot imagine. (Read. This. Book.) They now support over 300 at-risk children in Vietnam and Cambodia through their foundation. In 2006, she read an article in the New York Times about Mark Kwadwo, a 6-year-old child slave in Ghana, west Africa, and went on to rescue Mark six weeks later. Today, they support over 80 other former child slaves in Ghana. They are committed to their housing, medical care and education until they are grown.

This book, however, became more than just influential for me. In August, I met Pam Cope, who lives here in Dallas. By September I was volunteering my time, providing marketing assistance for the foundation, Touch A Life. In November, I quit my "Corporate America Job" when she hired me full-time. In January, I went to Africa to see the child slaves on the waters of Lake Volta, and I came back fueled with purpose and passion.

As you read this, I am in Africa again, with Pam by my side. We are under this African sun next to these boys who will soon be men--these boys who call me "Ma" and wrap their arms around my neck with love and simplicity. Soon, I believe, they will lead their country as modern day abolitionists. And I will stand behind them, as one of the "Ma's" who changed their lives, all because I decided to read some books.

And because of Pam Cope, my life has flipped upside down (Whoa. You have no idea.)

We read for pleasure and escape and entertainment. But for me, because of these three books, I changed everything in my life. There is a ripple from that change...that flows from little ol' me, here in Dallas, to the hollers of Kentucky, to the wide open waters of Lake Volta. It only takes one person to do something different. I applaud Prill and Silas and Pam for writing these books, because reading their words changed me.

Now, it's my turn to change somebody else.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Short Stories

By Julie

I'm experimenting with short stories this year. I've never been crazy about writing them. My writing style doesn't generally fit most literary magazines or journals. Most appear to seek gritty, avant-garde material, which are two words I'd rarely use to describe my writing. I had the pleasure of seeing a short memoir I wrote published by Perigee in 2008, and was flattered by comments from their emeritus editor that the memoirs published in that issue were what she'd been seeking but had not seen for ages. But that piece was one of a few flashes of literary light in what I'd consider a generally mainstream brain.

Nonetheless, I attempt to write short stories at least for the sake of honing my craft in a brief, concentrated format. (The key word, often, for me being brief, as that's not my strong suit! Oh, you've noticed?!) Sometimes I even submit them. I've heard a rumor having publishing credits in literary magazines can make an agent or editor sit up and take notice.

In 2010, I've participated two months in a row in the (amazing-and-worth-every-penny-of-the-seriously-inexpensive-annual-dues) Backspace forums short story contest. Writing a story within the confines of a theme and word count has been both fun and challenging. In February, I worked not only from the Backspace contest's theme -- "Age Matters," writing from the first-person perspective of narrator older than 70 or younger than 7 -- but also that of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest. NPR posted a photo as a prompt for flash fiction under 600 words.

I'm learning a few things from applying myself to a regular practice of writing short stories.

Writing a short story gives you permission to write something you wouldn't ordinarily try.

Writing from the perpective of a 70-year-old man was something I'd never done before. I enjoyed it, and from a voice perspective, I believe I nailed it fairly well. Now I feel confident I could do this in longer fiction if needed.

Writing a short story gives you permission to dwell on the details.

When you're writing a novel, you often need to move along in your first draft -- get the story down and then go back and work out the setting notes and so on in the revision process, which may occur months or even years later. When you're writing a short story, you can often move quickly to the enjoyable task of finessing your setting, characters, and language. While the story is new and fresh in your mind, you get to play with the embellishments.

Writing a short story forces you to get to the point.

Writing a story complete in six-hundred words (a little more than two double-spaced pages) was no easy task for me. In fact, I started with a draft twice that long for a story that took place in a matter of a minute. Condensing my narrative into half the length forced me to take a scalpel to my wordiness. No unneccessary word could remain. I needed to say in one sentence what I'd originally taken a full paragraph to convey. Some of the information, the reader didn't need at all. It was for me as writer, and could be cut in the final draft. I also learned from the feedback where I'd left the reader too much in the dark.

Now it's your turn, readers.

Do you write short stories as a tool for improving your craft? What have you learned in the process?

Photo credit: Creative Commons license from B. Zedan's Flickr photostream

Monday, March 8, 2010're it

by Pamela

Many years ago I answered an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a job as a stringer. (aka: a reporting post so insignificant, we can't really waste our real writers on it, therefore, we job it out) Woefully under-qualified--I had a marketing degree, for crying out loud, not journalism--I sent out my résumé and went about the rest of my week.

I got a call a few days later, gushed out my qualifications and they hired me. A few months later, they doubled my assignments when the other stringer who covered the second market quit. (I think she found a job pressing pants at the dry cleaners. Clearly a step up.)

Not long into my gig I got an email from my editor. For the most part, it read: The only dialog tags you should be using are 'he said, she said, he asked, she asked.'

What? What kind of creativity killers are these people? I can't write: she wondered? Or he supposed? How boring and repetitive is an article replete with HE SAIDs?

But I acquiesced and honestly, life became simpler when I wasn't searching for another word for pondered.

Today I sit on the other side of the desk, and I find it a little refreshing to relieve a writer of the habit of using tags that really should be simpler, cleaner. The other day, I had a client, for whom I wrote a marketing piece, send me back a revised copy of changes she wanted to make. The only suggestions she had were changing a handful of 'he saids' to 'he stated,' 'he explained,' 'he expressed.' I changed them all back--well, I think I gave her one 'he explained.'

But really, the only tags you usually need are the simple ones. Let the dialog be strong and convey the attitude of the speaker. You shouldn't have to tag it to help express the message.

In fiction, we're more likely to be tempted to add an adjective after the tag to help the reader understand the mood or emotion of the character. In extreme cases, authors are accused of having a case of Tom Swiftlies.

Tom Swift was a Hardy Boys-type series of books (1910–1993) produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. In the series, Tom Swift, a young scientist hero, performed sci-fi adventures with rocket ships and ray-guns and other hi-tech (for the era) inventions. In some of the series' books, author "Victor Applegate" went to great lengths to modify the word "said" with adverbial words or phrases. Since most adverbs end in "ly" this kind of pun was called a Tom Swiftly. The simplest being: "We must hurry," said Tom swiftly.

Today you can find hosts of Web sites dedicated to real and fabricated Tom Swiftlies. A favorite around our house: "I have a split personality," said Tom, being frank. Some other funny ones: "We have no oranges," Tom said fruitlessly. And, "Boy, that's an ugly hippopotamus!" said Tom hypocritically.

You can entertain your nerdy-self for hours but, as a writer, if someone marks up your draft with "Tom Swiftly" in the margins, it's no laughing matter.

So, when it comes to tags, really all you usually need is a simple 'he said' or 'she asked.' And please, please, please don't ever write: "That's the funniest thing I've ever seen," she laughed. The only guys who can laugh dialog are HERE.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Books Inspiring Books

By Kim

The first time I attempted to write a novel I was seventeen, a freshman in college, and like many writers that age, I had unrealistic career goals. I would have a best-seller by age twenty-five, make millions, and crank out a novel every year or two until I died or ran out of ideas, whichever came first. The novels, with the exception of the one I planned to write on my great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens, would all be contemporary women’s fiction.

I should have known better on all counts. My mother is a writer as well, and I grew up watching her write novel after novel, query unsuccessfully, and secure an agent only to have the agent go out of business. My genre choice certainly does sell and I’ve read hundreds of novels within it, but very few have stayed with me long after I finish the last page.

It amazes me that I did not recognize my true calling earlier. I took every available class for 18th and 19th century literature in college, yet shied away from anything more contemporary. My electives were all history classes; I graduated one class short of a minor in the subject. I took up genealogy while still in my teens. In graduate school my favorite class was not literature (my major), or creative writing (my passion), but the one on how to conduct research. One particular assignment involved reading and transcribing original correspondence between two obscure American authors. Each student received ten letters to work on, but I was the only one in the class who read all of them. For fun. Those of you who read my post In Praise of Packrats already know that few things excite me more than finding those windows into the past.

As I write The Oak Lovers, the novel originally planned as an “exception” to my chosen genre, I’ve discovered other voices from the past who speak to me far more clearly than any of my contemporary characters. The same holds true for characters in novels written by other authors. Here are a few that have stayed with me.

The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

I originally read this book because a friend of mine mentioned that my writing reminded him of Urquhart’s. Having read all her novels, he recommended I first read The Underpainter because the protagonist was a fictional painter who would have been a contemporary of Carl’s. I had never heard of Jane Urquhart before, most Americans probably haven’t, but within a couple of pages I was in awe, both of her and the fact that someone had compared me to her. No other author could make me love such a despicable character as Austin Fraser. I never stopped hoping he would find a way to let people in, to find happiness. This remains the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room.

While Austin was unforgettable, what I fell in love with in this book was the Ontario landscape. No one writes of landscape like Jane Urquhart, and since my book is partly set in the same place and time, I learned a lot from her. I enjoyed A Map of Glass, Away and The Stone Carvers more than The Underpainter, but this is the one I remember most vividly.

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

My mother discovered this book at Barnes and Noble, took one look at the haunting cover and snatched it up as a birthday present for me. Leafing through it later, she discovered it was set in Niagara Falls in 1915, close to one of my settings and in the same time period. “This is how your book should feel,” she said when I opened the present. While she referred to the embossed cover, the quality paper, and the historic photos throughout, I soon realized that the prose, too, had the tone I wished to convey. While a love story is central, it is about far more than that. Like fellow Canadians Jane Urquhart, Margaret Laurence and Robertson Davies, Buchanan is a master of turning setting into a character. Niagara Falls is a living, breathing entity to me now. As soon as the character of Tom Cole (based on real river man William "Red" Hill) appeared on page fifteen, I knew it was a book I was meant to read. If Carl had been healthy, never found his artistic calling, and lived at Niagara Falls, he could have been Tom. If you ever read The Day the Falls Stood Still you will understand why “Believe in me, Bess” is the most poignant sentence I’ve ever read.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Thanks to Julie, I knew about this book before its release and bought it the first day it came out. It was not the Alice in Wonderland tie that drew me, but rather the time period, and that it was a fictional account of a real relationship between Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his muse, Alice Liddell. Given that I am currently writing a book that deals with an artist/muse relationship, that special bond holds endless fascination for me. I started it with some trepidation, fearing that I might have difficulty reading of such a close bond between a grown man and a seven-year-old girl. (I have an eight-year old daughter, after all.) My fears were unfounded due to the genius of Benjamin’s pen. Alice was so spirited and precocious that it was impossible to see her as a victim. I can hear her tormenting her governess as I write this and can’t help but smile.

As I read I wondered what may have happened had Madonna met Carl at seven instead of seventeen. Would they have still been drawn together, albeit differently? I sense they would have. Alice I Have Been inspired me to revise large chunks of four early chapters in The Oak Lovers, and completely rewrite the reunion scene between Carl and Madonna. If seven year old Alice could be so convincingly bold, I saw no reason why a nearly grown woman had to be innocent and naïve, especially as she is not that way at all later on. Let her bait the older, married man. Their conversations were already passionate, their glances tender. Why not let their arguments be torrid?

I wonder how many other writers unconsciously gravitate toward books or characters that will inspire their own writing. I’d love to hear from anyone with similar stories to share.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How a New Puppy is Like a New Novel

by Elizabeth

"Please, please, please can we get a puppy? We'll do all the work! We promise!"

They may beg for months, years even. You, the mom, aren't fooled by this. You know that the responsibility will fall to you. The letting out, picking up, playing with, walking. Kids and dads may swear that they will do the brunt of the work, but you spend your day in the house, and the rest of the family doesn't. It's clear: that puppy will be yours.

Which is why the sane answer is no. NO! And you mean it.

Until you break down, go see the puppy someone at your husband's office posted a picture of on the bulletin board, and watch as your children ooh and cuddle and beg. Your mistake is smiling, and bending over, stroking the nine-week-old baby, watching as he sits. He sits! He is calm and sweet and his fur is short. No shedding.

You meant no. But on Saturday that doggie comes home.

And within three hours, both kids come to you and tell you they didn't realize it would be So. Much. Work.

What?! What work!? All that's happened so far is playing.

In the next two weeks, they do help. When told. Mostly, you feed, you walk, you scoop the poop. The dog follows you around. You are stuck in the house more often than you'd like, too guilty to lock the puppy in his kennel for the time it would take to (fill in the blank). For now, at least, until housebreaking is achieved and couch-chewing vanquished, you are stuck. There he is, adorable and frustrating, and So. Much. Work.

A new novel. It stews in your mind, for months, years maybe, ideas forming and swirling, taking shape, losing shape, reforming and spinning again. One day you pull out the notebook or open a new file and begin. You might take pages to a critique partner, who'll offer ideas, but the brunt falls to you. That story follows you around, and you are stuck until characters are achieved and plot holes are vanquished, too guilty to put down your pen for the time it would take to (fill in the blank).

And like that adorable puppy, completing a novel is So. Much. Work. And I mean it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

And the Oscar goes to...

by Joan

It’s Oscar season and I’m a huge movie fan. I love watching the stars strike their poses on the red carpet, twirl for the camera, rattle off which designer they’re wearing. I can generally pick out a Chanel or Vera Wang, a Ralph Lauren or a Givenchy. Many actors have their own stylists, someone who makes sure the final look fits their persona.

In my single days, I spent pretty much my whole paycheck on my wardrobe. I had a style, too. My friend Chuck called it “crisp.” Tailored suits, starched blouses, straight linen dresses with gold or pearl buttons. All the right accessories. Now, when I write, I’m usually wearing comfy cotton two-piece pjs that are far from crisp.

So when W magazine arrives in the mail, I usually put it right in the recycling bin. But this time, maybe in anticipation of Oscar night, I flipped through the pages of elegant movie stars draped in designer duds. Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Winslet, Emma Watson, each with their own distinct style. The designers all have different styles as well. Length, cut, fabric, texture all play a part.

I don’t watch too much television anymore, but one of my favorite shows is Ugly Betty. (Yes, I know, it’s been canceled—wah!!) The writing is clever, biting, and always hilarious. On last week’s episode, Betty was accused of not having style. Betty, mind you, of the garish drop-B necklace, paisley and striped combos, purple stockings. It might not be what the powers at Mode Magazine call style, but she has her own.

Writers also have style. Recently I’ve become more aware than ever of how different those styles can be. It’s March 1 and so far this year I’ve read nine books (well, eight novels and one screenplay). Probably not as many as our read-a-holic Elizabeth, but a good number. I looked back at the list and what strikes me about the books is that they all are so different. In genre, length, subject matter, voice, but mostly style.

But what exactly is style? I'll use two of my favorites as examples. Their styles couldn’t be more different. Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. Paula Spencer was spare (288 pages) and cutting, reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Prose drawn with clean lines, dialogue sharp and fiercely direct. Think Valentino.

The Forgotten Garden was dense (560 pages), elegant and flowery, with a deeply-woven and twisted plot, more along the lines of her first novel, the also brilliant House at Riverton, and one of my other favorites, The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Think designer Aidan Mattox.

Fashion critics as well as literary agents and editors say taste is subjective. So is it possible to love Paula Spencer for its clean lines and adore The Forgotten Garden for its layers? Of course. I loved them both. And I like Christian Louboutin and Mimi’s favorite, Jimmy Choo.

Happy shopping and reading. And oh, don’t forget to tune into the Academy Awards next Sunday night!
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