Friday, March 30, 2012

Switching Gears

By Kim

Untitled landscape by Carl Ahrens
As some of you know, I completed The Oak Lovers last week. I expected to feel emotional as I typed “the end” and I did – for about ten minutes. Carl and Madonna’s story has haunted me since childhood and I’ve lived it for years. Now it’s over. I imagine I feel much as Madonna did after she lost her precious invalid. Free of a giant burden, but too loyal to celebrate and too numb to mourn. Exhausted.

Shortly before Carl died, he commented to Madonna that it felt “wonderful to be empty.” I have a new understanding of what he meant now. The only voice in my head is my own. It’s refreshing, though it may take me some time to adjust to being alone. When I do, I suspect another voice will invade, another story will demand to be told. Such is a writer’s life.

My manuscript is now in the hands of critique partners and beta readers. The “hurry up” has turned into “wait” for the first of  many times on the path to publication. I've no shortage of things to do during my downtime. There's a website to update, agents to research and queries to write. The dreaded synopsis lurks in my dreams, as do the inevitable rejections.

I know better than to look at my novel now. What gleamed last week will appear tarnished, even rusty. I would attack it with literary Brasso and rub away the stains that give the story heart. I would polish it to death.

So, I wait. I clean my house. I dig into my to-be-read pile. I tinker on my website. I open Query Tracker and take a deep breath.

I listen to the silence.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Escaping into the familiar

By Julie

Photo credit: CaptPiper's Flickr photo stream by Creative Commons License
Last night, I disregarded the half-finished library book waiting on my nightstand. (Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.)

I disregarded the other books teetering beneath that one in my to-be-read pile. Ones I eagerly purchased and really can’t wait to read—but not today. (No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel, for instance.)

I ignored Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which has been queued up on my Nook for a few weeks now. (Series books make me nervous.)

I even turned away from several unread novels written by close friends—ones I know I’ll enjoy immensely not only because I know the authors, but because I know they’ll be good; I’ve read the reviews!

Instead, I scanned my local library’s holdings of available e-books in search of something. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I searched for, but when I saw this story waiting, I thought, “Yes. That’s the one.”

And today, as I turned to the familiar comfort of this newest Elizabeth Berg novel—Once Upon a Time, There Was Youand I touched my phone screen to flip through page after page after page while I did my daily walk (yes, I am that talented), I nodded and thought again, “Yes.”

Occasionally I read to discover what made a book so revered it won coveted prizes and drew the attention of Oprah Winfrey.

Sometimes I read to learn about yet another instance where humans were capable of incomprehensible horror and humans were capable of unbelievable hope.

Very often, these days, I read to learn what’s on the publishing horizon or what’s trending or what’s grabbing the attention of social media mavens.

Even more often, I buy books and read them in support of authors I’ve come to know online nearly as well as many friends I know in person.

And these are all fine reasons, and inevitably, I enjoy the majority of these books and am grateful for the experience. I’m more knowledgeable, more compassionate, more aware.

But sometimes, I simply need to revel in the familiar. I need to read a book by one of my favorite authors for all time, someone like Elizabeth Berg. Someone who seems to be able to take the contents of my mind and channel them directly onto the page. I read and I nod and I think, “How did she know that?” and “Exactly!”

The last week or so (well, much longer than that if you want to get technical) has been especially sad and depressing from a media standpoint. I’m not going into details there. You know. And I am that person who spends hours and hours poring over news articles and opinion pieces, truly attempting to see issues from all sides, trying to develop an educated perspective as opposed to whatever perspective the media is feeding me. This can be a little exhausting, and I do get to the point where, in my exhaustion, I simply have to withdraw for a time. Withdrawal, for me, often means seeking reading material that not only replaces what I’m avoiding, but re-centers me.

And I thank authors like Elizabeth Berg for writing stories like this one, for recording the thoughts she somehow clairvoyantly withdraws from my mind. The things she says for me. The reminders that we are all human, in spite of our seemingly impossible-to-overcome differences of opinion. We all age. We all have insecurities. We all mess up. We all love desperately. We all love foolishly. We all cry. We all laugh. We all get scared. We all are what we are.

Once Upon a Time, There Was You drew me humbly back to a love for humanity.

That’s why I needed to read today.

Monday, March 26, 2012

YA isn't for wimps

By Pamela

I’m about 80 pages from finishing The Hunger Games trilogy and have come to the conclusion that: A) I wish I wrote YA, and B) I don’t think I’m smart enough to write YA.

If you haven’t read the series, I urge you to do so. It’s original, engaging and, obviously, a hit. For me the first and second books were character-driven, the third book more setting-driven, if that’s such a thing. But regardless of how the books were written, they’re based on a unique, highly-successful concept that has cross-over appeal to sci-fi/fantasy and mainstream fiction readers. My tastes tend to be more women’s fiction but anything well-written with a strong female protag will usually pull me in. As this did.

As far as admitting I’m not smart enough to write YA, this is not a notion that The Hunger Games elicited from me. Joanne Rowling pretty much made me aware of this years ago when I read her series to my boys.

Writing for YA is tricky—you have to deliver a level of sophistication blended with relatable characters that either your readers aspire to be like or already relate to. Today’s young readers are smart. A lot smarter than I was at their age.

Two cases to illustrate my point:

1) My younger boy is a high school senior and last semester he often solicited my help as a studying partner for his senior AP English class. His vocabulary words included many I’d never heard of, so as I was drilling him with flashcards, I tried to learn along with him. Later he studied the various types of rhetoric and again, I was blown away by all the literary devices he had to know. His last part of the semester included a poetry workshop and, as he discussed poems with me, some sounded familiar. A quick look at his textbook, and then a short trip to my office to pull from my shelf the only college textbook I kept, led to the realization that his senior English textbook was the same one I used in my sophomore-level college English class. 

2) Last night my girl and I snuggled in her bed to read together from the book she’s reading—Oogy: The dog only a family could love. As I started reading where she’d left off the night before, she stopped me on occasion to discuss the story. At one point I read the line: I needed to see what I needed to do. And she snickered a bit.

Me: What?

She: Oh, it’s just he wrote ‘needed’ twice in the same sentence. I hate that.

Me: Do you think he should have used another word?

She: Yes, don’t you? When Daniel and I write our book together, he’s the writer and I’m the editor and I don’t let him do that.

Me: Well, sometimes authors do that intentionally. It’s a form of rhetoric. (Remember—I just learned this in my senior English class.)

She: What’s rhetoric?

Me: It’s where the writer uses literary devices—like repeating words in a sentence—to make the sentence more impactful. Like, for instance, when someone writes: I needed to see what I needed to do because it needed to matter.

She: Well, maybe if you repeat the word THREE times, that’s okay. But not just twice.

Rough critic, this one, for an eight-year-old. But I’m proud that she has high expectations for the books she reads and maybe she’ll be particular about the authors she chooses. She just finished reading the Harry Potter series so the bar is set pretty high. 

So, if you write YA or even middle grade or, heck, even picture books, I tip my hat to you. It’s a tough audience you have to impress and, if you’re able to do that, then not only do I admire you, but I'll also read you—and so will my children.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What to Omit, What to Add

By Susan

Last night, my older daughter, her best friend and I went to the premiere of The Hunger Games. It was a first for all three of us—a midnight showing— yet we'd been planning and looking forward to this moment since we'd all three read and devoured Suzanne Collins' first book of the trilogy with the same name over a year ago.

As the lights lowered and the noise surrounded us, I made a conscious decision to think about the story structure as we paced through the film. How did the screenwriters incorporate the back story? What about the nuances of the relationships, and the details of the plot points? Would the movie be true to the novel that both my twelve-year-old and I loved so much? As the movie unfolded, I noticed small changes—details omitted, scenes altered. Bits were left out, the depths of relationships were minimized, and the action, rather than the internal character struggles, carried the story forward in a balance of both compassion and killing (it is—after all—a movie about teenagers forced to fight to the death).

Yet overall, the movie was a smash: true to the novel, telling in its complexity, and cast with superb actors to carry the narrative.

It made me think about my own manuscript and the suggested edits currently in my hands, given to me last week by my steady, blunt and brilliant agent, Leigh Feldman. What to omit? Where to minimize? And when to alter?

It also made me think about another movie I'm looking forward to—Blue Like Jazz—a new film based loosely on the memoir of writer Donald Miller. By his own admission, the movie contains many scenes and even plot points critical to the film that never happened in his life. Yet in the quest for a good movie, he chose to rewrite his own history for the screen—building his life into the framework of a story. The book was one thing, and the movie, which opens in April, will be a completely different animal.

Don Miller has spoken candidly about both the memoir and the movie. In admitting he'd written the book for himself, as a rolling narrative of his own journey through his faith, success, and failures, he agreed to retell his story in order to create a product fit for the screen. I suspect that the movie will contain the soul of his memoir, and the tone of his struggles, if not the plot point specifics perhaps expected by die-hards who love books and expect the movies to follow suit.

Sometimes, the choice of what to omit alters the story and transforms it into something different—as will be with Blue Like Jazz. Yet sometimes, as with The Hunger Games, the changes are small. Time-saving, detail-minimizing, and story-shortening avenues to the same destination.

And for my story? After my first round of Leigh's suggestions, I removed an entire subplot storyline, cut full paragraphs of musings that detracted from the heart of the story, and rebuilt a character's arc based on her active participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s rather than her thoughts on the movement itself. It altered the story in ways I would not have seen without Leigh's brilliant nudging. I liken these edits to the way a filmmaker would slash my story for the screen—making it stronger by breaking it, polishing it by cutting out the ruminations, and finding a way to tell a bigger story for a broader audience instead of seeing life only through the eyes of the protagonist.

It will be a better story because of my attention to the details of my edits. I'll maintain the soul and the tone of my story without compromising the core plot. Yet as it shifts beneath my hands, I think of only making it the best possible novel I can write. The same way, I'm sure, Suzanne Collins and Donald Miller looked at their books-turned-cinema. Make it work and make it better. But make every tweak count.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

So Many Words. But...

by Elizabeth

Ever on the cutting edge, I raced over to the closest bookstore yesterday to pick up a copy of...The Hunger Games. Yup, just like when I read the first Harry Potter book, I stepped up to the table mere days before pandemonium takes over the multi-plex. I consulted with the other mothers with pre-teen Women (ha ha ha), and Pamela and Susan agreed: read it first, then decide if your 11-year-old can take it. My 13-year-old son gets first dibs, though. My whole family is a bit late to the party this time.

But it's serendipitous, maybe, that I put off buying and reading this trilogy so long. Because had I not, I wouldn't have been at my local big box at the same moment that nice woman was, and we might not have had our very pleasant conversation about writing and publishing and the state of the world.

If you read this blog regularly, you probably realize each of the six of us has the stage about twice a month. If we have something urgent to say, it could be more. (I will admit to more than once scrambling to meet my deadline, knowing how welcome a "would you mind if I publish this interview on your day?" email would be.) Which means that about 26 times a year, I've got the opportunity to say pretty much whatever I want so long as it has something to do with writing, my writing, books, or writers (or food. No one EVER objects to a good chocolate souffle).

What this in-another-bolder-life-would-become-a-friend woman and I mused over was whether or not, in 2012, the whole decade perhaps, the world is so saturated with words that maybe there is hardly a market for them at all. Where are the gatekeepers? she wondered. There is much out there that is good, sure, but a lot of dreck too. Eventually will people tire of clawing through gummy pools in search of something sweet and good, and just give up?
I wondered back if this is a transitory period, and in the next few years, things will change again. The saturation, the blogs, the opinions, the platform if not market for anything and everything--maybe it will ease up into a new reality, and the new normal will more closely resemble the old one. Or not.

Now, this woman is an essayist, a writer of non-fiction, and she said she really specializes in succinct opinion pieces--maybe 300 words a pop. (This comes in at 417 words through that last sentence.) We here at WWW are all novelists, working with manuscripts from about 75-100K words. Just as there are literally millions of blogs out there dedicated to short op-ed (you know what "Google" originally meant, right?), Heaven knows there are plenty of equal-length books out there. Many of them books that might not be published if self-publishing and e-publishing and who-knows-what's-next-publishing weren't part of this brave new world. So I guess her point holds true: there's an awful lot out there, and the thought of achieving traditional publication is a daunting one. And even then, amidst just so much, what is the likelihood of our words getting much play?

Fair enough. But there's this, and it's a belief I've harbored since I began to write in earnest several years ago: the cream will rise. That doesn't mean that the best books will necessarily be the most read, but with effort and tenacity and sure, a certain amount of luck, I believe that all of us here will find our publishers, our book deals, our second books and our third ones, and our writing careers.

That's why I'm here, and not at the movies. Though I'll be there, too, after I've read Suzanne Collins' trilogy. And like the woman at the bookstore (who was buying it for herself and her kids, just like me), I'll surely applaud the success of the book even as I hope and dream to find a portion of the same.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A visit with Megan Mayhew Bergman

by: Joan

A few weeks ago, I mentioned we should all be on the lookout for Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Since Megan's short story collection debuted on March 6, her book has earned Publisher's Weekly "top pick of the week," Kirkus Review's "top notch debut," O Magazine's "title to pick up now" and Amazon's "title to pick up now." My copy arrived on the 7th, personally inscribed by Megan (get yours too from Battenkill Books and support an independent while you’re at it.)

It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned I’m not the most outdoorsy type. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating that others are. In an alternate life, where I’m not squeamish about blood, open wounds, and “animal scat” or afraid of cats and coyotes and insects, I’d want to sit on the porch inside one of Megan’s stories, let nature teach me about life.

In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan portrays relationships in pitch-perfect fashion, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, not-husbands and not-wives, animals and cruel nature. In addition to flawed believable human characters, the pages are full of fleshed-out animal ones named for movie stars, pop culture icons and corporations, of sheeps in houses, chinchillas in bedrooms, feral cats, aye-ayes (never heard of those!) and “special-needs retrievers.”

What other writers might accomplish in three paragraphs, Megan writes in less than a sentence. She’s a master at tension (read her Ploughshares blogpost and see for yourself). Her sentences have poetic rhythm without a trace of melodrama. And as with poetry, symbolism is hidden everywhere, subtle undertones that a careless reader might miss on first glance. I beg you, don’t be careless.

Her stories are nuggets of wisdom, full of subtle and laugh-out-loud humor, gritty descriptive language and raw nature. Her imagery and phrasing conspire to make you believe her stories are about someone else, someone you could never be. They lull you to a spot on your voyeur’s hammock in the woods, so that you don’t see the naked truth of her words when they sucker punch you back to your own reality.

I intended to share a few masterful phrases, but I couldn’t choose just a few. Not to mention, to share them here would take away the joy of reading them for the first time, in the context where they make the strongest impact.

Although not everyone might relate to animals the way Megan does, she has a way of making you wish you did. More than once I was transported to the past, cuddled up on the floor beside my long-gone miniature schnauzers, Mollie and Madison. Or to the many times I worried about what the world would do to my now-grown son or how he will feel when I’m old and demented. Worries that never go away, but are eased a bit because they are universal. And because a wise young author said, “In the end you let it go.”

Megan took time from her crazy launch schedule to answer some questions (our virtual tea in Oxford).

J: Your short stories have won awards and been published in well-respected literary magazines, your book reviews have graced the pages of The New York Times Book Review, you blog for Ploughshares. Now you have a short-story collection setting record numbers of lists. You have carved a career worthy of five people, obviously not listening to those who say publishing short stories is near impossible. How did you keep on track and do everything so right?

M: I'm so grateful for the support and attention! Once I decided to make writing career, I really decided to work at it. To really work. To get up early, stay up late. To accept rejection and keep trying. I’m scrappy!

Just as the book got released I felt things get a little out of control. My inbox and social media accounts are a mess; I owe people emails. Whenever I start to worry, I just remind myself that my children are my first priority. I devote myself to them when I can, and then when they are with other caregivers, I do what I can manage. It isn’t always very pretty. Lately I’ve been sending myself emails at the end of each night, so that I can wake up to a to-do list and hit the ground running!

J: Yes, though social media has blasted the phrase word-of-mouth to a new level, it does eat time. Readers, in garden-gnome fashion, pictures of cats and dogs reading Megan’s book have crept across the internet. Truly hilarious.
Megan, your characters don’t jump off the page, no, they cut their veins and bleed onto the page. For you, what makes a character worthy to spend time with?

M: They must be self-aware, never self-righteous, and always believable, even if they are strange. I am working on a novel now, and will be thinking about these criteria. It’s a very helpful question for a writer to ask herself.
J: Interesting point—and true. Your writing is spare, clean, precise. It’s literary but does not show off. How do you pull this off? Tell us about your revision process.

M: Someone along the way told me to start writing the book I’d want to read. That was a bit of what we in the south call a “come to Jesus moment.” I like spare and unsentimental prose, but I also like the rewards of traditional narrative structure; my earlier work was a little more experimental and at times self-indulgent. I realized that I needed to create and edit my work with better selectivity and honesty.

I revise constantly at the line level, and then I put a piece aside for a few days and come back to it to see how it works for me on the macro level. I need some distance from my work to judge if it takes me to the place I want my readers to go.
J: Tell us how it felt to be included in a short story collection edited by THE Geraldine Brooks?

M: That email, letting me know that “Housewifely Arts” had been selected for the Best American Short Story anthology, was a major turning point in my literary career, and a complete surprise. I’m pretty sure I cried.

Geraldine Brooks was so kind. Her introductory essay to the anthology is mandatory reading; I recommend it highly. She reminds us that there are wars raging, and that travel can benefit our perspective and writing. It’s a call to action for a writer.

J: You are a southerner at heart, transplanted to Vermont. You and your veterinarian husband live on many acres, tend a charming house and working farmland, raise animals and two young daughters. One might get the sense that you live so close to earthly delights that you wouldn’t have a TV. But you are also a huge basketball fan, is that right? You’re a complex character I wish I’d written.

M: We love basketball. And sometimes Jeopardy. But most days go by without any television, mostly because we’re too busy running around. I knew that when I became a working mother that I was going to have to give up television. The hours after my girls go to bed are precious. I work, run, or eat dinner with my husband. Plus – my girls and animals know how to make a mess. I spend significant portions of every day cleaning.

I’ve found that I’m a better writer when I’m engaging with my physical world, so I try to do that as much as possible. I’ve also tried to recommit to reading. The last few years have been so busy with two babies, teaching, and writing that I haven’t been great about making time for reading. Some nights, especially during winter, I make a hot bath and dive into a book.

J: I remember those early days, and I have only one child! How has motherhood, in Vermont to boot, changed your writing.

M: Motherhood has changed my writing more than anything else. I had a jolt of empathy toward my mother after I became one myself, a better understanding of the sacrifices she made. Faulting her for things seemed petty. We pick our mothers apart, don’t we? I rewrote a lot of the mothers in my stories after my first daughter was born.

Motherhood and moving to Vermont happened to me at a difficult time in my life, a time when we were grieving the loss of my husband’s mother. I was homesick for my own family in the south. And I started to realize all the complexity and sadness adults have to hold onto throughout life, how you have to climb your way out of it as best you can.

J: Oh, yes. Mothers say not only the right and wrong things in your stories, but they also leave a lot unsaid. If you could tell your daughters one thing about life, what would it be?

M: You are in charge of your own happiness. Choose it, pursue it, fight for it.
J: I have a feeling they will. What can you tell us about your novel-in-progress?

M: My novel-in-progress circles a lot of the themes in my short story collection: the difficult choices women make, the human-animal bond, rural life. I can hopefully tell you more in a month or two!

We will be waiting! Thanks for spending time with us. Readers, yes, I know Megan. Yes, I’m thrilled for her success. But that’s not why I loved her book. Buy it. Take a picture with your dog or your cat or your aye-aye and post it on FaceBook. And let us know how you liked it!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Almost Done Now - Really!

Carl and Madonna Ahrens - 1935
By Kim

This will be a short post from me today, but I know you will all forgive me when I explain why. As many of you know I’m working on a novel called The Oak Lovers, based on the true story of my great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, and the woman who inspired him, loved him, nursed him, infuriated him, and at times quite literally held him up. The research and writing of this labor of love has taken me (cough, cough) many years, but I am now within thirty pages of typing ‘The End.’

Yes, you read that right.

It’s spring break now, and this week my life revolves around my children and the long overdue replacement of carpet in part of our house. During rare quiet moments, I’ll check in with Carl and Madonna, adjust the outline for the final three chapters, and decide which part of the original opening chapter will be reshaped into the near-end.

I will also prepare myself emotionally. Writing the last few chapters will be much the same as standing by a long-suffering loved one’s bedside and waiting for the inevitable. There’s so much I want to say and so little time left, so I must choose my words carefully. Goodbyes are excruciating, the future is uncertain, and yet there’s a part of me that is now anxious to mourn and move on.

Instead of dreaming the next scene, as I have for years, I now imagine walking down a tree-lined path in Toronto’s Park Lawn Cemetery. I sit beside a modest ground marker bearing the name Ahrens and place a finished book on the grave. A promise kept. A legacy (I hope) resurrected.

I’m ready – to finish, to edit, to query.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: Kristina McMorris's Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

By Julie

When Kristina McMorris asked if I’d like to receive an advanced review copy of her new novel Bridge of Scarlet Leaves last fall, I jumped at the chance. You may remember Kim’s interview with her here at What Women Write last year shortly after the release of her debut novel, Letters from Home.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kristina in person last year, and you couldn’t find a more dynamic, generous person. She is a former wedding and event planner, and our conversation about all the creative ways she has marketed her books blew me away. If I managed to use only a fraction of her ideas, I think I’d fall over in exhaustion, but I’m pretty sure Kristina’s middle name is “Dynamo.”

So, yes, she is a friend, and I thought I should be up front about that here as I step into this review.

In a landscape where World War II stories are currently very trendy, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves stands out as one that mostly takes place on home soil in the United States. Like Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, McMorris’s story deals with the subject of Japanese internment camps, but it is a complementary companion to Ford’s, different in that it follows the experiences of a young white woman who chooses to marry and then follow her Japanese American husband into an internment camp, much to the displeasure of both of their families.

From the publisher (Kensington/February 2012):

Los Angeles, 1941. Violinist Maddie Kern's life seemed destined to unfold with the predictable elegance of a Bach concerto. Then she fell in love with Lane Moritomo. Her brother's best friend, Lane is the handsome, ambitious son of Japanese immigrants. Maddie was prepared for disapproval from their families, but when Pearl Harbor is bombed the day after she and Lane elope, the full force of their decision becomes apparent. In the eyes of a fearful nation, Lane is no longer just an outsider, but an enemy. 
When her husband is interned at a war relocation camp, Maddie follows, sacrificing her Juilliard ambitions. Behind barbed wire, tension simmers and the line between patriot and traitor blurs. As Maddie strives for the hard-won acceptance of her new family, Lane risks everything to prove his allegiance to America, at tremendous cost.

The Kensington teaser doesn’t mention the rich subplots in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. One of my favorites was the developing relationship between TJ, Maddie’s brother, and Jo, her best friend. Another was the emotional visits Maddie pays to her father, who resides in a nursing home due to a tragic accident that changed the landscape of her nuclear family years earlier. And I found myself glued to sections where Maddie desperately searches for the right ways to connect with her disapproving mother-in-law, often making cultural faux pas in her clumsy attempts to make peace.

Additionally, McMorris does a fabulous job of going beyond Maddie and Lane’s forbidden love, marriage, and consequences to explore the horrific experiences of American POWs trapped in secluded Pacific island camps and the fine balance between the POWs and their captors, often shown through the eyes of Lane as he attempts to make use of his Japanese heritage to negotiate peaceful resolutions. The level of detail in these sections makes the care and time McMorris put into her research obvious. In fact, given the delicate blossoms on the cover and the focus on the love story in the synopsis, I expected this book to be more strictly weighted toward Women’s fiction, but I would venture to say men would enjoy Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, too, with many chapters told through both Lane’s and TJ’s eyes.

Ultimately, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is a rich, multifaceted novel that immerses the reader in an American world both comfortably familiar and horrifically foreign at once, in tense overseas battles both psychological and physical, and in romantic histories that convey both heartbreak and hope.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Critique Partner | Defined

By Pamela

Why should a writer have a critique partner? What do they really do? It's really hard to take what I have here and define it. And critique partners can mean one thing to one writer, another to the next. To put it as simply as possible, I'll say that ...

... a good critique partner:

  • knows and respects your writing goals
  • is familiar with and appreciates your writing style 
  • doesn't try to conform your writing style to match her own
  • probably isn't related to you--your family members aren't likely the best to judge your work
  • is fair in her criticism as well as her praise
  • reciprocates
  • understands The Sandwich principle: praise (bread) + criticism (meat and cheese and sometimes mayo--but never more than you can stand) + praise (bread)
  • respects your time when asking for your input
  • respects your deadline when you ask for input
  • knows the value of an encouraging word 
  • understands the publishing market (if your goal is to be published)
  • admits when a particular genre is not her forte
  • admits when grammar isn't her forte 
  • reads--and reads widely
  • is honest in her assessment but never harsh

If you haven't found a critique partner, check online for area writing groups. Attend a few and see who you connect with. You might enjoy the support of a group that meets in public or find that an online group better suits your schedule. For us, a mix of both works well--much of our communication takes place via email but we meet for lunches two, three, four at a time and as a whole group whenever possible. 

In closing, may I add that the Track Changes feature in Word can be a critique partner's best ally? If you're not using it, check it out.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Six-Season Story

By Susan

I talk a lot about not watching television.

I don't watch it because it takes up all my time.

I don't watch because there's nothing worth watching.

I don't watch because it sucks my brain out of my head and before I know it, I've become a TV zombie.

Case in point: In January, my sweet hubby decided that it made far more sense for us to have a hulu+ subscription than to pay extra for "more television." I agreed—sure! Every now and then it wouldn't hurt for me to watch a show on my laptop, or iPad, or even my iPhone, for that matter. I don't really watch television, after all. So it really wouldn't change anything, would it?


Ever heard of a little ABC series called LOST?

On hulu+, you can watch all six seasons. Start to finish. Without waiting a week or so between each forty-two minute episode. I only had to watch a few episodes and I was hooked. I sat and did the math like a junkie: I could watch all one hundred and thirty-eight episodes in less than one hundred hours!

Dot…dot…dot… and fast forward…

I finished the finale last night after two and a half months of binge-watching. I admit it. I've been swooning over Doctor Jack, dissecting Hurley's character arc, and hearing Desmond's Scottish brogue narrate my dreams. I've overdosed on the unfolding drama about a little island and the people that crashed there, fighting to save themselves, fighting to save the world.

I remember why I don't watch television and it's because I lose myself—not because there is nothing worth watching. And I remember the things I love—especially about a television series like LOST.

LOST had a huge ensemble cast that got me thinking about character development and motivations—both for our heroes and our villains. In six seasons, we watched the good guys become bad guys and the bad guys become good. I loved characters like Mr. Echo—who had both a great heart and a history of horrific deeds. We watched how critical the back story of every minor character became to the development of the plot. We realized, after everything, that they were all looking for love, and acceptance, and purpose. Just like us.

It's all about the story, and I love stories. It's about character development, and suspense, and entertainment. All the things we try to create when we write. Sometimes, especially in a long series like LOST, the plot derails—a bit like our own plots can sometimes do— sending the viewer in a totally different direction, before finding its place and making sense again. Yet sometimes, it sheds some light on how we live and love and think. It gives us insight into how we are and how we want to be.

It made me love television again, even if it does take up my time. And it brought me back to my own writing and my own motivations for writing. As writers, we need to know the greatest desire of every character to grace our pages. What motivates a character like John Locke? What moves Kate Austen to tears? If you're going to create them, KNOW them. That's the way to make your readers care.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

That Feeling

by Elizabeth

It happened for my daughter this weekend. Her first year competing in "Destination Imagination," and Saturday was the big day. She'd been attending twice weekly meetings with her team of seven ("Pink Unicorn Galaxy") since the fall, and it came down to a one day competition. That evening, hundreds of excited kids and parents congregated in a junior high school auditorium to hear who had placed, who had won, and who was going to State. For our category, as they rattled off fifth place, fourth, etc., it came down to will we walk away with nothing, or with the trophy? And then they said it, and our kids were headed to Corpus Christi.

I love that feeling--anticipation and excitement culminating in victory. It's maybe one of the best rewards of being human. There is an elation tied to it that is unlike any other feeling, and it's a high that is difficult to describe and impossible to overvalue. None of us are exempt from it, I think, no one is too cool--not Olivia Spencer, not Prince William, and not my daughter. And certainly not me. (Not that anyone would want to miss out on it!)

In college, I competed in Speech and Debate, and many weekends were spent in campus classrooms delivering my ten-minute speeches and listening to others give theirs, waiting for "postings" of quarter- and semi- and finally simply finalists, and then, in a college auditorium, the awards. The feeling when you won. That feeling.

There are a lot of reasons we write, and I guess everyone has their own mishmash recipe--because they cannot not write, because they have a story they want to tell, because they love the process, because words scream at them to be applied to paper. For me, the idea of feeling that feeling again is on the list.

I think the first time I remember feeling it was in the fourth grade. It was 1976, and Loma Vista Elementary was putting on a Bicentennial Program, a play called "Let George Do It," and the three upper grades would all be involved. Mostly, we would be chorus. The tallest boy in sixth grade got to be George Washington, and there were also four other speaking parts, the narrators. Those would be assigned by audition, and after school that day the Multi-Purpose Room (really, that's what we called it, very 70's) was packed with sixth graders, a few bold fifth graders, and a lone fourth grader. Me. "A fourth grader can't be a narrator!" was scoffed in my direction more than once, but I squared my shoulders and said I had as much right to try out as anyone. And when the roles were awarded the next day, sure enough, there were three sixth graders who got the roles. And me. And there it was: that feeling.

I felt it again over the years, at various award ceremonies, certainly when my team won Nationals in Reader's Theater, little zings of it over the years through work and life. But the really big doses of it are usually reserved for the times you've worked hard and bested everyone else.

I have to admit, that makes the list of why I write. That feeling is one of the best in life, and for most of us, I think, the opportunities to feel it are fewer in adult life than when we are in school. And while I am very happy that I will never have to write another term paper unless I decide to go for a master's degree someday (and I might), I do miss that wonderful rush of adrenaline that follows the announcement of my name. But writing? There is a chance for that feeling, over and over again. I've gotten little zips of it when querying and requests for fulls came, and when I've won notice in online contests for this and that. But the full-blown, over-the-top, you have won! feeling--well, it's out there. Getting an agent, selling a book, and who knows? There are awards out there, too, and one day it could be my name is announced for one of them. And there it will be: that feeling.

Today, I'm reveling in my daughter's victory, even as I scramble to make hotel arrangements and gird myself for more practices and whatever duties our team manager assigns us to help the kids get ready to strut their stuff in a little over a month. She is like a helium balloon this week, and it's lucky they were asked to wear their medals to school on Monday, because it might have been the only thing that kept her her on the ground. I love that she gets to enjoy that feeling, and I hope it lasts in some measure all month long. Because it's a great feeling, and watching her experience it makes me hungry to feel it again for myself. Which means I keep on writing, working toward that unique feeling that makes all the effort worth it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Quoting the greats

by Joan

Recently I’ve witnessed loved ones in pain, either from lost first love, death of a treasured pet, an ailing mother, divorce, or a daily grind making someone physically ill. I’ve sent cards or books, jotted well-meaning yet trite sentiments, trying to convey how much I care, how much I hurt for their hurt.

As writers, we labor over phrases and sentences, struggle to mine the truth from words, not only for ourselves, but to touch others. Words that drape private shrouds over our readers, leave them thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

Maybe because I’m too close, I find I cannot write the words now. I turn instead to the truly great minds, to quotes I’ve discovered in my quest to understand life. Whether from philosophers, comedians, literary geniuses or children’s authors, these people “get” pain. They "get" truth.

I share a few here in the hopes that maybe one will speak to you.

The presence of the absence is everywhere.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - it gives a lovely light!
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sadness flies on the wings of the morning and out of the heart of darkness comes the light.
Jean Giraudoux

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

My Mama always said you've got to put the past behind you before you can move on.
Forrest Gump

It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.
Theodore Roosevelt

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, Begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it, Begin it now.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When one door of happiness closes, another opens,
but often we look so long at the closed door
that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.
Helen Keller

Yet leave me not; yet, if thou wilt, be free;
Love me no more, but love my love of thee.
Algernon Charles Swinburne

Love one another but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Khalil Gibran

Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Alfred Lord Tennyson

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
Lao Tzu

People can be more forgiving than you can imagine.
But you have to forgive yourself.
Let go of what's bitter and move on.
Bill Cosby

How do geese know when to fly to the sun?
Who tells them the seasons?
How do we, humans know when it is time to move on?
As with the migrant birds, so surely with us,
there is a voice within if only we would listen to it,
that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.
C. S. Lewis

Every wall is a door.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
E.M Forster

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

And maybe we really did learn all we needed to know in kindergarten:

Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
Dr. Seuss

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
Dr. Seuss

If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember... you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think... but the most important thing is, even if we're apart, I'll always be with you.
Winnie the Pooh

Thanks to my talented husband, Rick Mora, for matching my thoughts with photos:
Photo #1 - Branch
Photo #2 - Broken
Photo #3 - Reach

Friday, March 2, 2012

Author Stephanie Cowell Remembers Madeleine L’Engle

By Kim

Photo by Russell Clay
My ten-year-old daughter recently started reading A Wrinkle in Time for school. Part of her assignment is to write three times a week in a reader response journal. Creativity is encouraged, so I put a little bug in her ear. “You know,” I said to her, “A writer friend of mine knew Madeleine L’Engle well. I bet she could tell you some interesting things about her that you won’t read about in any book.”

My daughter’s face lit up. She loves the book and she also loves surprising her teacher with unexpected tweaks that turn an ordinary assignment into something special.

I told her about Stephanie Cowell, showed her my copy of Claude and Camille, and explained that Stephanie considers Madeleine her writing mentor in much the same way that I consider Stephanie mine. I’m not sure how much of that she got because she was too busy looking at the painting on the cover (hardcover version, not the image shown here). She loves art and knew all about the impressionists, including Claude Monet.

“I want to read this,” she said.

I bit my lip as I remembered a few beautifully sensual but firmly R-rated scenes. “In a few years,” I said.

Make that six years at least.

Stephanie kindly agreed to the interview, so my daughter and I brainstormed a few questions. The questions are hers and the answers are geared toward fifth graders, but I thought our readers might enjoy them. I share them here in honor of the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time’s publication.

When and where did you meet Madeleine L’Engle? 

I met Madeleine when I took a writing class she gave at a convent for nuns in New York City. She was very good friends with them. Twenty writers were accepted and there was a waiting list. I was lucky to get in. We all sat around a large oval table and she gave us things to write about.

Madeleine L'Engle - Square Fish Books
2) What was her personality like? Was she easy to talk to? 

She was easy to talk to; she was warm and funny and loved people. She believed the great artists of the world were enlightened beings and saints. She always talked about Saint Bach. Of course it took a little bit of time to get used to her because she was very tall and a little bit like a queen. She wore long dresses down to her feet with beautiful embroidery; she was nearly six feet tall and she had a very low voice.

Do you know what inspired her to write A Wrinkle in Time? 

Goodness, she has written about this in her books and I’ll try to remember. She was terribly interested in science then and the universe and time travel. There is a particular area of physics called quantum physics which talks about time and energy waves and matter (the stuff that makes up the universe and everything in it) and many complicated things. One of the many ideas was there were wrinkles in time in the universe where you could leap over a lot of distance or time at once. She combined this with her sense of God and that people should be themselves. She felt love was the most important thing in the world. Also…Madeleine lost her own father when she was eighteen years old. He had been sick a lot of her life and I think she would have liked to go back in time and rescue him and that went into the novel. But when she had finished the novel, no one would publish it. Twenty-six publishers refused it. The one who finally took it thought it wouldn’t sell. They said it was too complicated for children!

How did she help you with your writing?

She loved my writing and when I asked her if she would read my first novel, she said yes. Then she helped me find a publisher and sent me a huge bunch of flowers when I found one. I could always talk to her about writing. She was like a second mother to me.

What were her favorite things to do? 

She loved to play classical music on the piano and to travel and to teach and speak to people, and of course to write. She loved to go to church. She loved opera and ballet and reading and museums. If she lent you a book, you had to PROMISE to return it. And she loved to cook but never doing dishes! When she was young, she was an actress. Oh and she loved her dogs!

What was her house like? 

She had a house in the country and an apartment in the city. The apartment was a short walk from where I lived. It was on a high floor and you could see the sun set over the river from the windows. The rooms were very large and she had thousands of books and a grand piano and many old things which had been in her family for a long time. She had many pictures of her husband who was a famous actor. Her country house was an old farmhouse and there was a path by the side of the house where she used to walk up and down at night and ask God why she couldn’t sell A Wrinkle in Time.

If you want to learn more about the friendship between Madeleine and Stephanie, here is an article Stephanie wrote about the subject. Have you read A Wrinkle in Time? Tell us your thoughts!
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