Friday, November 28, 2014

'Twas the Day After Thanksgiving (Reprised)

Photo by Deborah Downes
By Kim,

Thanksgiving in the Bullock household means only one thing anymore: Nutcracker!

As you read this, I am probably in wardrobe, wrestling tights and leotards onto excited, wriggling little girls and attaching halos and mouse ears.

Hence, the repeat of my poem from last year at this time:

'Twas the day after Thanksgiving, when all thro' the Eisemann,
are children so excited, you’d swear they'd won the Heisman;

The costumes are hung in wardrobe with care,
In hopes that Party Girls soon would be there;
The dancers wait impatiently in their Keds,
While visions of Dew Drops dance in their heads,
And the Sugar Plum Fairy in her tutu, and the Cavalier in his cap,
Must wait until January for their long winter's nap-
When out in the hallway there arose such a clatter,
I sprang to the door to see what was the matter.
Away to the dressing rooms I flew like a flash,
Alerted the chaperones to send the Angels, and off I did dash.
They wear dresses and halos like new fallen snow,
Smiles and curls bring “awwws” from the audience below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and Unicorns instead of rein-deer,
With two drivers, Clara and the Prince,
I knew in a moment, their steps would cause no one to wince.
With the grace of ballerinas, the dancers they came,
And we pointed, and whispered, and called them by name:
"Now! Bakers, now! Pages, now! Candy Cane, and Mother Ginger,
"On, Arabians! On, Polichinelles! On Cossacks and bell dinger (?)
"To the front of the stage! To the back of the stage!
"Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry snowflakes before the wild blizzard fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the balcony the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Nutcrackers – Clara and her Prince, too.

Hope everyone had a fabulous holiday!

P.S. I never claimed to be a poet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Little Story of Thanks

by Elizabeth

I was kidnapped when I was nine.

Not a bad first line for a novel, that, but what's funny is, it's almost true. (I was also kidnapped when I was 14, also almost true, but a story for another day.) We were on vacation the summer of '76, six kids and two parents in a station wagon with a shell stuffed with luggage riding on top like a tan and brown hat, and when we got to Fort Worth, my cousin Maxine took one look at me and took a shine. My mother's cousin, I should say; she was then in her mid-fifties, but still a lot of fun. (She still is, at 91.) Fun enough to sneak me from her mother's house to her own on the other side of the lake without bothering to tell anyone. Kidnapped!

After the night at her house was over, after the trip was over (Missouri and Mount Rushmore and Jackson Hole before it was cool and when it was still, well, a hole), I wrote her a letter. And she wrote back. She wrote back! So I wrote again, and again, and I guess she fell even more in love with me, because all these years later she still lights up with delight when we visit her in that same house. Lights up with delight seeing me, my family, hearing my stories, telling her own. As we'll do today.

Because of Maxine, I wrote letters. Because I wrote letters, I learned how to love to write. Because of her, I'm a writer today. Something to be thankful for. Today, tomorrow, and every day.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What's your secret (password)?

by Joan

Several years ago New York Times reporter Ian Urbina became interested in the personalized codes we refer to as passwords. He began collecting anecdotes from friends and strangers, proving his theory that passwords are more than just annoying codes we are forced to maintain. This spurred his recent fascinating New York Times article, “The Secret Life of Passwords.”

“In our authorship of them, in the fact that we construct them so that we (and only we) will remember them, they take on secret lives. Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives.”

In the article Urbina shares unique stories from his interviews, from Howard Lutnick, chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald who was tasked with cracking the passwords for those who died on 9/11, to a woman whose password reminds her of the father she had struggled to know, to a man who used his low SAT score as a reminder of how far he’d come.

Urbina writes, “Some keepsakes were striking for their ingenuity. Like spring-loaded contraptions, they folded big thoughts down into tidy little ciphers.”

For years my password was some form or extension of a 4-digit code that we’ve used in our family. When security breaches hit Apple, Target and others, I changed it to something more personal. Now it's a phrase that represents the key to my ultimate aspiration. Sometimes my pessimistic side takes over and I twist it into the roadblock between me and my goal. Unlike many of the people Urbina interviewed who were more than forthcoming with their passwords, I’m not ready to share mine just yet.

Urbina writes, “Many of these passwords seem to be quiet celebrations of things we hold dear.” I love this idea so much, I thought I'd steal it for character development. Along with understanding motivation, desires or Achilles heals, to know my character’s password is to know his innermost secret. Even though my next novel is set during the Depression, long before computers, I'm looking forward to devising passwords for Greer and Mort.

For grins, we came up with secret passwords for a few well-known characters:

From Pamela:

A grownup Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird: MyP@LB00

Denny from The Art of Racing in the Rain: LetEnzoDriv3

Cheryl Strayed in WILD: The Mon$ter

Alice in Still Alice: WhoAmI?

From Elizabeth:

Emma's father: niceboiledegg

Mr. Rochester: 1intheattic

Alice in What Alice Forgot: sultanaplus2

Hermione Granger in Harry Potter: awitch&2dentists

From me:

Amy Dunne (from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl): OhNoU$dont

Bernadette Fox (from Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette): swat#gnats%

From Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Alma Whitaker: !Bndgcloset!

What's your character's secret password?

Follow up here. If you're interested in being part of Ian Urbina's follow up piece for The New York Times Magazine, email your keepsake password story to

Friday, November 21, 2014

Running and Writing

By Susan

This morning, I pulled on a reflective running jacket the color of a traffic cone, slipped the blue collar on my very excited dog, Lucy, and took off in my pink Mizunos for a quick 5K run in the fog.
I wore bright colors because of the heavy air. With the morning light dim and the atmosphere almost spooky, I wanted to stand out and be seen if I planned to make it home from my run in one piece. It was 7:15am and the teenagers zipped—so fast!— through my subdivision with sleep-filled eyes, hoping to beat the bell.
I didn't have time for this run today, I'd told myself. Too many errands. Too many people need me. Too many words to write and not enough time to wrestle them down and put them on a page. I'd been too busy to write lately. I'd been too busy to run. But it's time now. I run.
I good morning my neighbors bringing trash bags to the curb in housecoats. I smile past the elderly walking their elderly dogs, all seeming to frown at Lucy's youth and exuberance. I recognize the familiar runners and walkers on my route: Blinking Man, who runs with strobe lights, Knee Band Man who runs in braces, and Chinese Couple, who walk together and yet apart—she ten paces behind her spouse. We smile and nod, greet hello. I continue running.
The fog becomes humid in my lungs and the world feels soft and delicate and close around me. My footfalls remain steady and muted and my heart thumps as I breathe in and out. My dog looks back and smiles at me as if to say, faster! I feel fast today. I loop out and back and the sky brightens a bit and I am home. Thirty minutes to listen to the sound of my feet on pavement, to ponder the nature of the world inside my neighborhood, to inhale fog and exhale a cloud of breath, in and out, as though I am a steam machine: a locomotive.
Lucy, post-run writing assistant.
I thought about the words, too, as I ran—it's impossible not to. I write the narrative, sing the lyrics, compose the sentences as I go. It must be something in the rhythm of the run that makes it feel like writing, like the tap tap tap of keys. I think about the motives of my protagonist. I create new working titles for the novel and contemplate what metaphors I can extend. I need to train my body to run greater distances, I think, if I am to complete this novel. I need to run my way through the whole book, my smiling dog beside me, my neighbors grinning and nodding, as the world wakes up and my novel takes form.
As wonderful as this run came to be, I remind myself that it's my first run in nine days. A tight back, I remember. A cold front that made my joints ache. A holiday-busy schedule. All excuses. I remind myself how good I feel now, breathing with run-freshened lungs, and yet wonder: why delay? Why put it off when I love it so?
Just like words on the page, of course. We write for the joy of it, yet it breaks our hearts. I run for the same reason—it breaks my body in order to build it back up. Perhaps the heartbreak that arrives when I write is to make my prose stronger, too. I remind myself to remember to run, and to practice my writing with the same discipline. It's about putting one foot in front of the other.

Today, I run. And today, I write. Tomorrow is another day. Here's hoping for progress.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ten Tips to Help Aspiring Writers Stretch their Fiction

By Pamela

I was on not long ago and came upon a list of writing tips by best-selling author Chris Bohjalian, that previously appeared on his blog in January 2006. I found them to be timeless and he graciously gave me permission to share them here. Chris is the author of Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Light in the Ruins, and Skeletons at the Feast, among others. His most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, was published this summer. 

Ten Tips to Help Aspiring Writers Stretch their Fiction by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian, photo by Aaron Spagnolo
I'm asked on occasion what advice I might offer aspiring writers. Here are ten random suggestions--the last a reference to the fact that I was told by a creative writing professor when I was in college that I should become a banker. 
  1. Don't merely write what you know. Write what you don't know. It might be more difficult at first, but--unless you've just scaled Mount Everest or found a cure for all cancers--it will also be more interesting.
  2. Do some research. Read the letters John Winthrop wrote to his wife, or the letters a Civil War private sent home to his family from Antietam, or the stories the metalworkers told of their experiences on the girders high in the air when they were building the Empire State Building.
    Photo by Lewis Hine
    Good fiction is rich with minutiae--what people wore, how they cooked, how they filled the mattresses on which they slept--and often the details you discover will help you dramatically with your narrative. 
  3. Interview someone who knows something about your topic. Fiction may be a solitary business when you're actually writing, but prior to sitting down with your computer (or pencil or pen), it often demands getting out into the real world and learning how (for instance) an ob-gyn spends her day, or what a lawyer does when he isn't in the courtroom, or exactly what it feels like to a farmer to milk a cow when he's been doing it for 35 years. Ask questions ... and listen.
  4. Interview someone else. Anyone else. Ask questions what are absolutely none of your business. Ask about their childhood, their marriage, their sex life. They don't have to be interesting (though it helps). They don't even have to be honest.
  5. Read some fiction you wouldn't normally read: A translation of a Czech novel, a mystery, a book you heard someone in authority dismiss as "genre fiction."
  6. Write for a day without quote marks. It will encourage you to see the conversation differently, and help you to hear in your head more precisely what people are saying and thereby create dialogue that sounds more realistic. You may even decide you don't need quote marks in the finished story.
  7. Skim the thesaurus, flip through the dictionary. Find new words and words you use rarely--lurch, churn, disconsolate, effulgent, intimations, sepulchral, percolate, pallid, reproach--and use them in sentences. 
  8. Lie. Put down on paper the most interesting lies you can imagine ... and then make them plausible.
  9. Write one terrific sentence. Don't worry about anything else--not where the story is going, not where it should end. Don't pressure yourself to write 500 or 1,000 words this morning. Just write 10 or 15 that are very, very sound.
  10. Pretend you're a banker, but you write in the night to prove to some writing professor that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Allow yourself a small dram of righteous anger. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

My (Old, Old, Old, Old, Old) Year in Reading

by Elizabeth

Thanks to a dead car battery, my post for today got delayed. Half an hour after I promised my blog partners I'd have something written, I'm home and managed to comb through old posts for something to run again. I loved finding this one from early 2010, reviewing the one year I successfully tracked everything I read. Maybe I'll find inspiration for 2015! In the meantime, it's interesting to note that I am still thrusting copies of many of these books into strangers' hands at the bookstore.

Eighty four books. Mostly novels. That's my total for 2009, the first year I tracked my reading each month, though I'm pretty sure there are three or four books I read but failed to log and then promptly forgot about. Still, when I tallied them a few days ago I was astounded to see how many pages I'd turned in twelve months.

Then I started wondering: was that a lot? A little? As someone who claims to be a writer, should I have read more? (I certainly should have bought more; the bulk were from the library.) Should I have spent less time reading, more time writing? Maybe not; my writing is dependent first on my life as a reader. I'm cool with that.

It was kind of fun, tracking what I read. January was my most literate month, with 13 books gulped down. Not surprisingly, October and November were my lightest with four novels each. (November was my most prolific writing month, however, with NaNo and my just-over 50K words, so hardly surprising reading took the back seat.) Best of all is the list preserves both the titles and my impressions. For instance, here's what I wrote about a book from February:

A Gentleman’s Guide to Gracious Living by Michael Dahlie
Newly divorced socialite NY male makes mistake after mistake, with lots of whiskey and good manners. Good read, engaging, funny and sad. Did its job as a book.

Concise, sure, but looking at my notes, I remember the book, and it also tells me that Dahlie is an author I'd be happy to give another go.

A couple other books that month were less satisfying. I'll leave out the books' titles and authors, but here are some notes:

Overwritten, felt characters were dumb with unbelievable motivations. Florid. Zing! Next up: Okay, not wonderful. Unsatisfying and rushed ending. Much felt repetitive. Book suggested two story lines would converge, but they never did. Then in March, ouch: Almost no sympathetic characters, incredibly overwritten, too many details on insignificant characters, story got started really late in the game, and storylines that make no difference to the plot. Still, read the whole thing. Annoying book, but readable writing style. And in April! Lazy writing and editing, stupid MC (unbelievably dumb actions for a supposedly smart woman; taken advantage of in ways not believable). Readable, clipped along, but mostly continued reading to be done rather than for pleasure.

Still, maybe the most valuable information I took away from the logging of all these books is that every single one had some redeeming qualities (even that florid one). Several books were by extremely successful writers who wrote, in my opinion, fairly bad books with lousy stories--but in every instance, the books were, according to my notes, readable. The words flowed, and I stuck with them even as I groaned at the characters or plot holes or bad dialogue or whatever it was. True, I know not to pick up those authors again. Yet last month I read two books by another writer I'll seek out even though one was just okay. I guess discovering the better book first makes the difference, at least for me.

Last year proved I re-read less than I think, just six all year. Only one Anne Tyler--which I enjoyed more than the first time around. And no Maeve Binchy at all this year! (Dang that Pamela, hogging my copy of my annual Christmas read.) I'm pretty sure I failed to include my sixth or seventh lifetime reading of Sense and Sensibility, but since I'm not sure, I won't bump my total to 85. I also picked up a couple of children's books from the past: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, a book I adored in third or fourth grade and adored again. And Doris Gates' Blue Willow, a story I read as a child and ached through this time as an adult.

On my list were five writers with two books each; another penned three. Half of those were new to me. Several others I'll seek out when their debut follow-ups hit the shelves, and I've already looked for more from my last writer of the year. There were a few writers whose earlier works I've enjoyed. About ten books were recommended by friends or pop culture, with results both wonderful and meh.

I noticed some trends as well. May was YA month, with six of nine reads in that category, two by the same writer, John Green, a new-to-me author now on my read-everything-he-writes list. Late July through August were my Islam months, starting with Andre Dubus III's very fine House of Sand and Fog followed by Geraldine Brooks' outstanding non-fiction Nine Parts of Desire, and then Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea. All the October books were painful reads about women in impossible situations--perhaps the reason I managed only four, though all of them earned high marks in my notes.

So far this year I've read two books, one in a single day. (What can I say? My whole family was inflicted with a really bad cold, but I sent the rest of them to work and school). I don't know if I'll manage 13 books this month, nor how many I'll end the year with. But I do know that taking the time to keep track was worth it, both as a reader and as a writer. No matter what you call yourself, I recommend it.

What I realize I don't know, going over my notes, is what is the "best book" I read this year. I know that several have stuck with me, and I have two or three new favorites--but just one, the single best book of my reading year? I honestly don't know. What I do know is that I read, found satisfaction and entertainment and heartache and interest, and I'm hoping 2010 is just as good or better.

So how about everyone else? Did you read a lot, a little, anything spectacular, any trends? I believe I speak for all of us here at WWW when I say we'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Put Ninety Introverts in a Room and Watch Magic Happen

By Kim

Imagine a room filled with ninety writers, all but a handful of whom consider themselves introverts. A few have met in person before, but the rest are connected only through social media or, perhaps, through the comments on the Writer Unboxed blog. Some are successfully published, some have faced nothing but rejection, and some are so blocked and discouraged that it’s impossible to finish their manuscript, let alone submit it.

Now imagine these writers haunting Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel for five days; sharing meals, walking in tightly knit clumps down the narrow, historic streets between the hotel and the House of the Seven Gables, attending lectures on voice, micro-tension, and how good manuscripts go wrong.  Classes on how to snag an agent or whether to self-publish are conspicuously absent from the schedule. There are no pitch sessions or parties where writers jockey for position to pigeonhole agents at the hotel bar. No one makes smug declarations about the “right” path to publication.

A rock-star New York literary agent lives among these writers for several days, but they’d rather attempt to beat him at poker than beg him to read their pages.

Photo by Kim Bullock
The Writer Unboxed Un-Conference lived up to its name. It was an experiment, a risk, and it could have been an utter disaster. That it was the opposite is largely because Therese Walsh, who was insane enough to organize this event more or less on her own, has an uncanny ability to attract the type of people who check their egos at the door and open their arms (figuratively and literally) to everyone.

Magic occurred in Salem, Massachusetts last week, but it was not of the witchy variety.

I originally intended this post to be a simple recap of the conference, but there are several such posts out in the blogosphere by now and, as the wise Lisa Cron pointed out in her Wired for Story classes, there is no story in generalities.

I choose to tell you what this conference meant to me personally, and damned if I won’t have to go to an awfully deep place to do it.

I would never have said half these things a week ago.

The UnCon shined a light into all my dark corners so I could sweep out the cobwebs and reveal that the biggest thing holding me back is me. More specifically that I fear success as much as failure. I hadn't realized the crippling truth of that until I saw it written in my own handwriting during one of Donald Maass’ workshops. I hope publicly owning that fear will help me to overcome it. Perhaps a few of my new (or old) friends will remind me of this the next time I spend a week agonizing over the placement of a comma.

Let me talk a moment about fear, because it has ruled my life far longer than I like to admit. Here’s a little glimpse of what nonsense went on in my mind when I arrived in Salem:

How will my children survive without me for a whole week during Nutcracker insanity season?

I've only met two other conference attendees in real life, and both of them have other friends here. I’d rather starve than eat dinner alone.

Mingling at a cocktail party is my worst nightmare. I don’t know how to make small talk. I’ll be remembered as that person who smiles awkwardly, nods in random directions, and says nothing all night.

How will I handle being back in New England, so close to the place where I spent the majority of my childhood alienated and alone, feeling that I’d never have a friend who “got me?”

What if I need to escape, but can’t because I have three roommates?

Photo by Therese Walsh and Kim Bullock - (it's complicated)
What if people tell me that I’m “different” in person than I am on-line? Worse, what if this is said with a tone that implies they prefer my Facebook persona?

What if I bungle my introduction of Porter Anderson or (GULP) Donald Maass?

What if, what if, what if…this broken record of anxiety has sent me scurrying away from most social situations for years.

I suspect that anyone who met me at the UnConference would say this is not the Kim they remember, and they are absolutely right. I sent her packing.

They never met that raging ball of insecurity, that fragile soul who has never fully recovered from the sometimes vicious slights in her past, that quiet woman who puts up a shield to protect herself from subconsciously experiencing every mood of every person around her. It’s exhausting enough dealing with my own hormonal mood swings. The last thing I need is to get agitated simply because the bartender sets a glass down too hard or to blink back tears because the woman sitting at the corner table dabs at her eyes. I can’t help perceiving that every negative emotion around me is somehow my fault. I did something wrong, felt something wrong or, maybe, simply wore the wrong expression.

The moment I stepped inside the hotel, even flanked by my “tribe” of fellow WU Mod Squaders, people with whom I've connected daily for the past three years, uncertainty prickled my scalp.

Therese and me at The Witches Brew - photo by Valerie Chandler
Our group headed downstairs to the library for registration. Therese, whom I’d known online for even longer than the rest of the Mod Squad, stood behind the table handing out name tags. I swear the woman is lit from within and has a grin that goes on for miles. Photographs do her no justice.

Now, some people give hugs and some people give hugs. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of one of “Mama T’s” will attest she gives the latter. She’s called that for a good reason.

In the moments after she moved on to greet the line of people behind me, and I found myself gathered into the embrace of so many old friends I’d just met, I realized that the shield I’d hidden myself behind for years had vanished. Perhaps it was the warmth of Therese’s greeting or the niggling sense that I had just found a kindred spirit. Perhaps it was the enchanted ambiance of Salem itself. More likely it was the rush of being slammed from all sides by the joy and love emanating from all those stranger-friends, many of whom declared that they had wanted to meet me for ages.

That’s a mighty powerful drug and I became an instant addict.

The only time I spent alone during the conference was when I walked to the waterfront and symbolically threw that shield into the Atlantic. I didn't want or need it anymore, and I decided a new coping strategy was in order, one that would allow me to live as my authentic self. What better place to start than at the UnConference, where reassurance was only a hug away, and you couldn't walk ten feet without receiving one of those?

Valerie and Heather - photo by Kim Bullock
Standing there, the sea air filling my lungs, the scenery and buildings so reminiscent of the home I’d tried for decades to disown, I admitted to myself that I was homesick for the landscape of my childhood. That perhaps my perceptions of scorn had been tainted by my empathic nature. That despising a region so deeply rooted in my blood had caused me to despise a piece of myself.

Ironically, that very same night I met an old friend from Maine (currently living in Boston) for coffee.

Two memories from the conference will remain among my most cherished. The first was when Therese’s husband, Sean, made us all laugh until we cried while we raised a glass to “WriterBob” Stewart, a much-admired elderly gentleman who wanted to attend the conference more than anything and tragically passed away there – on Sean’s birthday of all days. This birthday celebration turned memorial cemented an already tight-knit group into a family, and I’m sure that WriterBob would be delighted by this.

The second memory was a magical afternoon when Valerie Chandler, Heather Reid, Therese and I played hooky from class and wandered through two of Salem’s cemeteries. Therese, as promised, introduced me to her favorite tree and when we compared photos later we discovered we had some eerily similar shots of the same limbs at different angles. Valerie took photographs of me sitting in another tree and read her favorite epitaphs aloud. Heather looked happy and at peace despite the recent loss of her mother.

It was 1:00 AM - don't judge
The trip to Salem would have been worth it even if all I got were those couple of stolen hours with three women I dearly love.

Yes, that’s right, I said love. If I learned anything from WriterBob’s passing, it is that no one knows how long we have or what we may miss by holding back. Why not tell people those things that we feel but neglect to say? If the impulse strikes, why not walk down the street with your arm wrapped around a friend? Take it from someone who kept her arm wrenched down to her side for forty-one years, you’ll both feel better for it.   

The UnCon was not just a writer’s conference. Even now, days after we have all returned to our respective lives, the group Facebook page is flooded with pictures, videos, conversation, and lamentations that no one from home can grasp the magnitude of what we have all just experienced. It’s clear that I’m only one of many people who have all broken free of their own cages and connected with others in a way they never have before. All the heart emoticons would be laughable if they weren't so purely felt.

No one wants to say good-bye, and so we don’t. 

* Note: On the cemetery photo credited to both Therese and I, here's the scoop: Therese took the photo (of me) on my camera. I doctored it. Adding to the confusion, I then sent it to my mother, Deborah Downes, to clone out an annoying red sign in the background.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chased by a Manuscript

by Joan

I have a manuscript. I won't reveal which one. But it’s my addiction. It’s a vampire after my blood.

Every time I sent out a submission, I answered the question: Is this the best it could be? With a yes. But in my heart of hearts, and with hindsight? Of course it wasn’t. Of course it still isn’t.

Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
More than once I put it away, under the bed, in the bottom drawer, back shelf, whatever your go-to coffin is. But even after I start writing another book, it lures me near a dark shadow to bite me.

Once bitten, I’m back in its grip. I fix plot, tweak tension. I add humor or texture, remove adverbs and extraneous words, revise and restructure. I poke and prod it, yet it hangs on for dear life. It has teeth and goes for my neck.

And so I take it out from time to time (or every night, but who’s keeping track), hyper-analyze sentences, pump-up dialogue, brainstorm with my critique partners.

Maybe I’ll get it right. Maybe it’ll be my sophomore novel. Maybe it will go quietly into the night.

All I know is, the more I write, the more I learn. And the more I try and run from the bloodsucker, it hunts me down.

I’ve tried sunlight and a wooden stake. Maybe next time I’ll try fire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Where I'm From

By Susan

George Ella Lyon
Fall often makes me homesick. 

Even though I've lived in Texas for almost thirteen years now(how did that happen?), I will always call Kentucky my home. I miss the turn of autumn colors and the bright brilliance of spring. The seasons in Kentucky really show off their good stuff, unlike the high plains of Texas, which really only boast about their ability to burn through a summer, boldly extending those 100 degree days into October a little further each year. (I've always thought Texas to be a bit proud of its heat abilities; then again, it is very good at it.)

Today, it's in the mid-60s in Texas in November, so I'm wearing a beloved turtleneck and have the floor heater on my socked feet as I write. It's almost as good as being in the hills of Kentucky, and so I pretend while I write and I transport myself mentally to my home. 

My novel is set in Kentucky, and there are days like this one that I can almost smell the bluegrass, when I feel close to my subject matter in a visceral way. On other days, it's painfully elusive. During those times, writers can choose to step away from the words or to dive in and see where it can take you. 

Kentucky writer and teacher George Ella Lyon produced a wonderful poem, "Where I'm From," from one of those moments of diving in. Here it is:

Where I'm From
George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own. 

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
          from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
          and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I'm from He restoreth my soul
          with a cottonball lamb
          and ten verses I can say myself. 

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
          to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight. 

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments--
snapped before I budded --
leaf-fall from the family tree.

She says the following about this poem, taken from her website: "In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I'm-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep."

So on a day like today, when I'm feeling autumn settle in and can almost smell the wood-smoke of home, I'm making my own list of Where I'm From. It's an exercise to transport me but also to ground me. I may not know the timeline of my journey or the upcoming curves in my path, but I know where I come from. And right now, that's what matters. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Your story's voice

By Pamela 

Every week I talk to strangers. It's part of my job. As a freelance writer, I interview folks on the phone--from designers to dentists and everyone in between. While we talk, I try to picture the person on the other end. I'm only hearing his or her voice, but I can imagine an approximate age, nationality, and even appearance. At times I can detect an accent that seems native Texan or transplanted New Englander. I can also tell if the person seems agitated or at ease, distracted or focused, pleasant or gruff--all by the sound of his or her voice. 

However, when I'm writing, my reader doesn't have the luxury of hearing the words on the page. And that's true for any reader (unless they happen to be listening to an audio production of a story). The reason the narrative voice is so essential to the story is your reader will keep its company for the duration of the book; it better be interesting. That doesn't mean it has to be lovely or even pleasant but it has to be entertaining. 

So, when we talk about voice in story, it's not your characters' voices--it's yours. How are you telling their story?

Flickr image by Duncan Hill
In a recent Huff Post article, "Breaking In: Voice," Karen Dionne writes: Voice is difficult to define in the abstract, but agents, editors, readers, and writers know voice when they see it. The voice of your manuscript needs to feel fresh and authentic. 

How you do you find your voice? At first you read and read widely. Pay attention to how the author uses phrasing and word choices, sentence structure and pacing to tell the story. Does it feel familiar? If you read one Jane Austen novel, can you pick up another and tell it's also by her? If you read Stephen King, are you likely to connect with every one of his books by his unique voice? If you pick up a book by a new author, are you drawn in? It's likely the author's voice that's hooked you from the start. 

A handful of writers with unique voices include:

Dave Eggers
JD Salinger
Kurt Vonnegut
Mark Twain
Jane Austen
Rick Bragg
Jan Karon
Adriana Trigiani
Fannie Flagg
Cheryl Strayed

Next you must write. And write. And write. If you don't feel you've found your unique voice with the story, perhaps its the POV. Tell the story from another character's perspective and see if that helps. Maybe the setting needs to be changed. Telling a coming of age story in a southern town in the '60s will require a different voice than one told in the Midwest in the '80s. It's hard to know if you've found your voice and you'll likely only know when someone tells you how much they love your story. 

So while a good story is ultimately about the story (even a unique voice wears thin without plot), a unique voice can enhance the experience for the reader. Do you feel you've found your voice? And do you think some authors use different voices for their novels? It's a tricky thing, voice, but once you spot it, you've got it. 

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