Posted by Lisa
Does there come a time when you're not a wannabe? Is it when you finish that first novel? When you are offered representation by a literary agent? Or have you arrived when you walk into a bookstore and see your novel on a shelf?
Maybe you're a writer when you've given it your all. And you're willing to do that again, and again. Self-doubt doesn't visit me as often as it used to - it barely even calls on the phone these days to leave a message. I've worked so hard, perhaps, that another reality, one in which I'm not a writer, doesn't exist.
The other night, a close friend asked me how things were going.
"Editors are considering my novel," I told him.
Silence greeted me on the other end of the phone, then an intake of breath, a clearing of his throat. "What if no one wants it?" he asked.
If he were standing in front of me I would have shrugged my shoulders.
"Oh," I considered, "I suppose that could happen. But it probably will sell. Anyways, I'm working on my next book. I am so into these new characters."
Sure it could happen, not selling novel number one, but I'd be okay. I am a writer. I love it. Not a week goes by when an image doesn't haunt me, or a setting doesn't call to me. Novels, my novels, wait to be written. Perhap one will be a best seller. Does it matter? Not really, because that I can't control, and life goes on.
I wonder then, have I arrived. I suppose that I have. But don't look for my name yet in the New York Times magazine. Or search for my books on Amazon. Give me a little more time. And, as Susan Cooper says, time, for a writer, is not altogether linear.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Posted by Lisa
Friday, April 27, 2007
Maybe it is the change in seasons. We seem to be thinking about our work, our lives, and connections between the two as we launch into editing, revising, changing, promoting. A deep breath, and let's push forward!
Tuesday night at Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books was a rush! Catherine Goldhammer, author of "Still Life with Chickens," was our guest host and she spoke to how poetry should inform our writing. Lynne & I were tickled to learn she reads our blog; I hope she was equally pleased that we love her memoir.
I've been chosen for jury duty this week, so my literary life has been interrupted somewhat. Instead of being antsy at my inability to work on my own writing, I've taken along Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" to keep me company during the judicial lulls. I told Lynne when I was just a few pages into it, that I couldn't understand why this book was so adored. A few pages after that, I stepped onto that road alongside the Man and the Boy, and I've fallen into lockstep with them. Definitely one of my Top Five favorites of all time.
Thanks for awarding us with the Thinking Blogger Award, Melissa Marsh! I love your blog as well, but since I can't vote for you, I'm going to go with Patry Francis's blog, Simply Wait. I always leave there in a thoughtful stupor.
Spring! To sit outside, to feel the warm breeze through one's hair, to put one's broken foot up on a bench and hear that satisfying "clunk" of one's cast. Ahhh! It's arrived. Besides soaking in the lovely sunshine this week, I have also been enjoying a wonderful e-mail conversation with one of my agent's other clients. He is encouraging and inspiring and, well, a regular person too! I am looking forward to meeting him at Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace. And thanks to one of my favorite authors, Christopher Castellani, for the out of the box suggestion he gave me today that I ask writers to sign my cast at the Muse next weekend...hmmm. Sounds like an ice breaker to me!
My nominee for thinking blogger--Therese Fowler.
Amy's post this week prompted me to pick up Carolyn Heilbrun's Writing A Woman's Life. "We women have lived too much with closure... "if I marry him, if I get this work accepted..." -- there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin." Here's to Grace Paley and all the other writers who keep at it, showing us the way!
My nominee--Debutante Ball.
This week I met my publicist at Penguin, first via email, later in a phone meeting. I am planning a trip to NYC to meet her in person. I traveled to NH and then to OK, and instead of being overwhelmed by the long drive and plane rides, I listened to a book CD and read a beautiful book. I adore Look at me, by Jennifer Egan and love The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Both are must reads.
Ditto the thanks to Melissa Marsh for nominating us for The Thinking Bloggers Award. It's an honor to be in such fine company. I nominate Tess Gerritsen's blog and our Writers' Group collectively nominates another four person blog--Jungle Red Writers. Jan Brogan, Hallie Ephron, Rosemary Harris, and Hank Phillipi Ryan--have a smashing blog about mystery writing.
To those we tagged with the Thinking Bloggers Award...
If you feel so inclined, please do the following:
- If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
- Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
- Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Posted by Lynne
In parenting, small actions make a big difference in a child's ability to learn. Take the classic power struggle at the crosswalk. A four-year-old boy runs up to the walk signal. He presses the button convinced the more he pushes it, the sooner the word walk will flash permission to cross. His mother cautions him to wait for her. She offers, at first, a sing-song kind of warning. Then she raises her voice in frustration. Later, in fear she yells. But the boy, as little boys will do, dashes across the street with confidence, or perhaps he's simply unaware of the danger of rushing.
When I talk with parents about this or any other predictable behavior, I recommend taking small action, proactively. This mother's power lies, not in reacting to a situation that doesn't go as she's hoped, it lies in taking small action before getting anywhere near the crosswalk the next time. When I tell parents that the best strategy is to take small action-- reach down and take a child's hand-- inevitably, I'm asked the same question. "How many times will I have to do that before he learns what to do?"
My answer--as many times as it takes.
In writing, as in parenting, oodles of patience is required. I've sat in countless writers' workshops and gone to many author events and like a bell ringing at the end of class, someone asks one of the following questions. How many agents should I submit to, before I give up? How many novels did you write before you got your first one published? How many times do you recommend a writer revise a manuscript?
The answer to all of these questions? As many times as it takes.
Patience is a value. Patience is a skill. Patience is hard to have when you want to write well and share your work with readers, more than anything in the world. Like the mother at the crosswalk, teaching her little one to follow the rules, writers must learn similar lessons. Wait until it's time. Be cautious. Let others help you. Learn from your mistakes. And, of course, no need to rush; you will get to the other side in due time.
For those of you who know me, you see the irony in my post this morning, since I'm not famous for my patience. It's true, I can be impatient. And yet, it will be seven years from idea to published parenting book. It's been five years from first query to first national parenting magazine assignment. Six months after completing my novel, I'm still revising. Maybe like me, you struggle with patience. That doesn't mean you don't have it. The path to patience is small action. Each day, take one step toward your goal, whatever it may be. Each step brings you a little closer to your destination. Small actions accumulate, and one day you'll be on the other side. On to the next intersection.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Toronto’s attributes begin with its status as the only non-U.S. city to host Major League Baseball. The Rogers Center, formerly the SkyDome, sits like a giant tortoise with an armadillo retracting shell near the blue sweep of Lake Ontario. Last week, when the Boston Red Sox played the Toronto Blue Jays, my family watched from 36 rows up behind the away dugout, along the first base line.
I promise not to wander onto the topic of seeing the Sox outside of Fenway, to stick to the subject at hand: The inspiration of watching people who love their jobs, doing something for which they have a passion, day after day, year after year. Lucky Sox, lucky Jays.
It's not really luck, of course. It is hard work, physically and mentally. As a backyard catcher, I know only a fraction of the demands of getting legs squatting and rising, stretching a shoulder with the overhand return, over and over. I watched Varitek, head tucked down to his shiny red catcher's gear, considering all the possibilities, all the ways the batter next to him usually hits, before dropping his hand down to call the perfect pitch for ever-stern-faced Tavarez to throw, managing the pace and intensity of the game with a pointed finger, a touch of a hand.
Or take Cora, or Drew, or yes, even our Manny. Why does a major leaguer practice, on the field or in a gym every day, in addition to playing five, six, seven days a week? How hard can it be to swing a bat, to catch a ball? Repetitive motion, my children’s coaches would tell you, a learned response that dims quickly. In batting, it’s how you point your feet, stand, shift your weight, turn your hips, carry the bat, move your shoulders, twist your wrists, bring it across and through and up, trying to hit the ball before it crosses the plate instead of when it is over the plate, to maximize how far it will go out into the field. The way you catch a ball on the fly is knowing instinctively how to anticipate the curve of the ball, the speed, the distance, how far you have to run, how far you can stretch your body in midair, how far your body will travel if you fling it across the grass.
Repetitive motion, the way you and I put together nouns and verbs in ways that carry an image, deliver a sensation that is familiar or better yet, unfamiliar to the reader. Thinking about possibilities, combinations to manage pace and intensity. The way a character is shaped, how he walks with a bounce, how she flicks at her watch when impatient, how to craft the way a reader responds when the two collide on a street corner.
The ones who get to The Show are the ones who do it over and over, focus on the minutiae, work at it because there is nothing else they'd rather do. So often people sit on the sidelines and watch and marvel. You and I, though, we are in the game, standing up not just off the bench but out of the stands. We play, day in and day out, and can take it to whatever level we wish. In turn, maybe someday, someone else, somewhere watching us will be inspired to do something for love of it, too.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
As a woman on the verge of forty, I’m not deaf to the sirens’ call from writers who beseech me to wear a plunging neckline while there’s still time; nudging bioidentical hormones toward me, promising to spark my libido; laying out all of my plastic surgery options, right down to big toe liposuction. They are all successful authors, all of whom have been on bestsellers’ lists.
But then I think of Grace Paley.
I ran into her at a The Muse writer’s conference last spring. I was rushing from the women’s room, on my way to have my chapters critiqued by an editor at a major New York publishing house. I wanted to look my best.
At an earlier panel, a literary agent said author photos mattered; they sold hard covers and booked writers on the morning talk show circuit. Think Sebastian Junger, Candace Bushnell, Jhumpa Lahiri.
But in that bathroom mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman whose laugh lines no longer disappeared when she stopped smiling; a woman with limp hair and a thickening waist from age and too many hours spent in front of a computer exercising her mind. Pulling the skin of my face back and up, I wondered at the possibilities. Something as simple as a shot to the face or a chemical burn to strip away the top layers could work. But it was too late. Hurrying through the halls, I thought let the work matter more.
Along the way, I bumped into Grace Paley. If not for the fact that she was supported on the arm of Chris Castellani, she would have been swallowed by the crowd. Her shapeless clothes were an afterthought, as were the frayed silver curls crowning her head. She was devoid of all sense of style or youth. Tiny and hunched, she appeared so utterly frail I thought she might not survive until her lunchtime keynote address.
After my meeting with the impossibly young and winsome editor, I met Lisa, Hannah, & Lynne in the dining room for lunch. Naturally, I told them all about my meeting (more on that another time). Once coffee was poured, feedback from a microphone squealed across the room. It was Chris introducing Grace Paley.
My heart broke. Her age, her diminutive size, that weak shuffle as she crossed the stage all spoke of a woman too fragile to offer much of anything to the crowd of hundreds before her. I wondered if even with the microphone she could be heard.
And then she began to speak. Her voice was strong, richly textured and inflected with a rhythm known only to poets. She told us of the day before, how she and her husband had been protesting in New York, had a terrible argument, and then parted ways before reaching the subway. Such passion, I marveled, for both politics and a man. At her age. She then read snippets of linked essays she’d jotted down on the bus ride north to Boston. Captured in those few hurried words were brilliant observations on the human condition.
Over the next hour or so, Grace told more anecdotes, read from some of her earlier writing. I, along with so many others around the room, reached for my napkin to wipe at tears, or flung myself forward, overwhelmed with laughter. Her vibrancy engulfed the room. At the end, we all stood and cheered for a woman whose life has been one of dignity, passion, and unparalleled beauty. The kind of woman – and writer –I want to be, a woman who knows what it is to age gracefully.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Posted by Lisa
Southern California is nice. Palm trees. Dry mountains in every direction asking to be explored. Really nice. My family and I went there this school vacation week. My Muse stayed in Boston; crutches (I have a broken foot) and kids scared that fickle Muse away. But it was lovely.
As an exercise to "wake-up" those writing muscles I neglected this week, I selected a random writing exercise from Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. It reads as such:
Write a physical description in which a first person main character describes himself so the reader can visualize him...Now write a description of a first-person narrator that reveals his experience of living inside his body.
Hmmm. Well, there was a bell boy I noticed ... okay, I'll try. Bear with me?
First, a description so the reader can visualize him:
His nametag read Andre, the letters written in delicate cursive under the bold print of the Hyatt label. The A of his name started and ended with the sweep of a curl, the rest of the letters were smaller, following along for the ride, obedient. When the Mercedes stopped in front of the Hotel just before the tallest palm tree, he took his time bending over, opening the door. With a sigh he forced his face into a greeting. His teeth were as white as the cotton gloves he wore.
Andre's hair was sandy, blond at the top as though he was letting a bleach job grow out, a bad idea that maybe he regretted. Every now and then something about him seemed familiar to passers-by. But probably he just had that sort of face.
Second, a description that reveals his experience of living inside his body:
Andre had gotten used to the nametag - sort of. After two years of poking that label into his shirt it no longer felt like he was fastening it to the skin of his chest, attaching the Hyatt name to his soul for the day. Though every day it said: "Here I am. At your service." That nametag called out to every tourist that glanced in his direction.
He had the right look. Andre knew that. People in the movie business agreed; his break would come. Good looks. Straight nose. Smooth around the rough edges. But everyone in L.A. put the same effort into getting that just-right, tousled-haired, comfy-jean, casual look. It was work. More work than opening car doors, closing them again. Taking luggage up to the guests' rooms. No one recognized him. And why should they? Not everyone has seen that Tide commercial from last year. It only aired for two months, and let's face it, it wasn't that remarkable to start with.
Poor Andre - must be tough. Kind of like writing I think. Well, I've cracked my writing knuckles.
Have a wonderful writing week!
Friday, April 20, 2007
Lisa and Hannah are away this week, but reading truly inspired books no doubt. We'd love to hear what was the most inspired moment or event in your writing career. Was it a book you read as a child that transported you to new worlds? A teacher who said the four most important words of your life, "You're a good writer?" Or something altogether different. Share your story in the comments; inspire us!
I took a page from Francise Prose's "Reading Like a Writer" and have been reading 5 books this week --yes, 5 -- to compare what works and what doesn't in terms of plot, setting, character development, dialogue, and writing. I love vacation week. I also sent two charming notes and a charming gift -- to a writer friend who made her dream come true. Each time it happens, I want to celebrate, too, because I understand the journey that brought them to that place. Congratulations, friend.
Don't forget, Tuesday, April 24 @ 7:00pm, Grub Street South is happy to host Catherine Goldhammer, author of "Still Life with Chickens." She'll be speaking to how poetry informs good writing. Hit the link to read all about it; we'd love to see you there!
I took a wonderful weekend class at Grub Street Writers given by Stace Budzko on Story Construction. I finished The History of Love by Nicole Krauss which made it into my top ten best books of all times. Last night my daughter and I went out to dinner and spent two hours talking about it. It is a must read for characterization, plot--most of all for the beautiful writing.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Posted by Lynne
Saint James Church lies on a hill as if God himself placed it there. Fluted spires reach toward heaven, the cathedral begs to go back home. Stained glass stories march around the whole of it, promising you there is something inside you, too, can have.
Compelling. As writers, the word compelling is bandied about in workshops, online and in print. The dictionary definition is wonderful. The word compelling means to force or drive a course of action, to unite by force or to have a powerful and irresistible effect or influence. Understanding the word, compelling, as it relates to story building is complicated.
Until last Saturday, when I thought of the word compelling I thought about characterization and plot. Of course, the trouble that comes into a life must move the action forward, there must be powerful irresistible complications-- plot. The characters must be three dimensional, have depth and motivation.
Now, after a weekend course on story construction, taught by the smart and talented Stace Budzko, I think about setting in a whole new way. Compelling and setting were two words I wouldn't have put together before.
The opening paragraphs about Saint James Church are my efforts to complete an in-class writing assignment. Stace asked us to think of a place and write about it from two perspectives. The first perspective was to think of the place as pleasing. The second, forbidding.
This exercise freed me from what I would have to call an area of weakness in my writing. In the past, my descriptions of setting were merely a backdrop for my characters. I fear my descriptions were stale and predictable. Dare I say, boring to read?
Realizing setting is one more way in which to make my stories compelling, equates to a light bulb moment. I want my descriptions of setting to be at times a pleasing vantage point from which my story is told. At times it can and should be forbidding or somewhere in between the two extremes. At the least, setting should unite all the aspects of my story with force. I want places, locations, time, and seasons to ground my characters. Like in the House of Sand and Fog or Rebecca, I want my setting to have an profound influence on my readers, too.
Do you have any craft secrets that you've discovered along the way that have informed your writing? Any light bulb moments that could help other writers better understand the word compelling?
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
If I thought it would work, I would bang my head against the wall each time I sat at the computer. Perhaps in doing so, I could jar my real knowledge of how to write into place, and scare off the Writing Gnome.
You see, I love to revise. Coincidentally, of course, that’s the stage at which I find myself now. I do enjoy it. The story comes back to life as I refine it, hone it, smooth it, shine it. As a bonus, I find line editing a snap. I am a Grammar Nerd from way back. No problem there.
But who really wrote these pages I am revising?
There, did you see it? The But. I have buts all over the page, every other chapter, throughout the story. They come and go in waves. The character thinks one thing. But, he considers, it may be something else entirely. He starts to head upstairs. But he turns. But but but. That’s one thing I don’t need, those awful buts. Still, there they are.
I also am guilty, it seems, of the infamous giving and being. How did they get in there? My character can't simply look at a woman, no. He *gives* her a look. What's with that? Ha! Outtathere. Edit, edit, edit. Or this gem: He was angry. Wow. The intensity of those three words; can't you feel it? Of course not. Okay, so maybe it needs details: a furrowed brow, a kick against the baseboard, a grunt bursting forth. I know to show, not tell. Really!
What’s with me? I know how to write. I know the rules; I’ve heard authors talk about pitfalls and nodded, promising to stop falling into those pits, too. I know better. Who wrote these passages I come across? Thus, I believe there is a Writing Gnome who delights in taking out the gorgeous phrasing I must have used to start and replaces it all with this predictable drivel. Have you met this beast in your own efforts? If so, how did you expel it, exorcise it?
I suspect part of the answer is in the doing. The more I revise, the more I write, the more I think, the more I envision, I can feel the power rising up to beat back the Gnome. More experienced writers may know whether it is possible to banish it for good, or whether it is something to guard against on a constant basis. Suggestions and guidance welcome!
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
My husband thinks I have a crush on Atul Gawande.
True, Dr. Gawande is breathlessly handsome. He’s a surgeon too, and my husband knows how I’ve always dreamed of being a trauma surgeon. A MacArthur Fellow, an assistant professor at Harvard University, husband to a beautiful woman. He is all of these things and more; Atul Gawande is one of the most perfect writers I’ve ever encountered.
I met him last October at PEN New England’s reception for Best American Short Stories 2006. Lynne and I went together, stood alone at first like groupies at a rock concert, pointing out the literati: Tom Perrotta, Ann Patchett, Michael Lowenthal, Scott Heim, Paul Yoon, Edith Pearlman, Mameve Medwed, and there, over by the bar, Atul Gawande. How my hands shook. I’d devoured his first book “Complications” three times over, his essays in the New Yorker and the New England Journal of Medicine, his first attempts at writing in Salon. I’d even sent him a charming note after reading his book and he wrote back, telling me about his work-in-progress, as if a surgeon, New Yorker staff writer, father of three didn’t have enough to do. Now he was standing across the room, a (cashmere?) scarf thrown carelessly around his shoulders. I spoke easily with the rest of the writers, but waited until Dr. Gawande was leaving before I had the nerve to gush to him.
Today I bought his second book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.” I didn’t expect to like it as much as “Complications,” but by page 3, I was in tears.
That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it? There are writers who possess a certain voice on the page that entices and seduces, leaves us feeling as though we’ve shared an intimate moment. With Atul Gawande, his writing appears so effortless, casual and off-hand, yet he leaves his readers feeling as though he’s reached inside our bodies and wrung us through. I feel the same way when I read Gail Konop Baker’s columns on Literary Mama. There’s a frenetic energy there that bursts forth. My God, I actually burned my children’s dinner the other night rather than stop reading. She had me! Ever hear one of Maureen Corrigan’s book reviews on Fresh Air? Not only is it her actual voice that ensnares her listeners, it’s her writing. So few reviewers are as adept with the written word as she; whenever I hear her introduction, all activity around me must stop: the dishwasher, the clacking of the keyboard, even the children are silenced. She’s that good.
So how to be that good. Attention to craft, of course, careful reading across all genres, but mostly with care, I think. Each of these writers cares deeply, intently about their subject. Each word is carefully chosen, each sentence constructed, each and every paragraph ever so carefully designed with breaks in mind. I want to be that kind of writer.
No, it’s not that I’ve a crush on Atul Gawande, though it’s easy to understand my husband’s concern. It’s more that I want to be Atul Gawande.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Posted by Lisa
Today I sport a big and beautiful baby blue cast. I broke a bone in my foot - worst pain I've ever felt. I was playing soccer - if you count running fifteen feet after a black and white ball playing soccer. Remember, hockey's my sport.
For a week and a half after the fracture, it went undiagnosed. Tendonitis, that's what the first doctor called it. The ten recent days that I hobbled on my fracture were some of the worst of my life. It was the physical therapist I went to see that said to have a doctor take another look. "Get thee into a casting room," another good friend who's a nurse told me.
When the second doctor took out the casting supplies and wrapped that warm and delightful sky blue wrap around my leg, I could have reached forward, grabbed hold of him, and kissed him. Suddenly, the pain was gone. I could breathe.
As I left the doctor's office, I happened to notice a sign posted by the receptionist's deck. Dr. Oliver, a well respected orthopedic surgeon in my town, is taking a leave of absence. "Dr. Oliver", it reads, "is traveling to a third world country (unspecified) for three months to offer his expertise to those who need it."
When I left that office, I was walking on a cushion, not a cast. I was on my way to recovery. How many that day had no access to medical care.
Yesterday I went to a get-together with neighborhood friends. "Oh, how awful," people groaned in unison as I hobbled on my crutches. "You poor thing!" "You must wear it for six weeks." "How will you cope?"
Ten days of walking on a broken foot taught me something about perspective. How lucky I am that I can get a second opinion, have a strong and protective cast cure me. How many people in this world will endure pain that I can't imagine.
Now, poor me, I must have my groceries delivered for a ten dollar charge. And how will I cope with folding laundry and putting it away. My big and beautiful baby blue cast hugs me gently, warm and caring. My life is golden; I am privileged. What can I do to give back?
Friday, April 13, 2007
This week we blogged about the persistence factor, a central ingredient in the writer's life. Though we don't expect we'll all take up hockey, or god-forbid be 96 when we get published, living a literary life is hard. But like building a beautiful home to live in, work in and play in, we will persevere. And to all our writer friends who stop by and visit our blog, remember: The difference between a writer and an author is persistence.
This week Lynne's entry really struck a chord with me. Over the last year I have read several books. Some I loved: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Al Capone Does my Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. Perhaps it's time for me to take another look at them to better understand the elements of these books that resonated with me.
I am over-the-moon to learn Alice Sebold's latest book (her third), The Almost Moon, will be released October 16. More exciting news, Jennifer McMahon's Promise Not to Tell was released this past Tuesday and my dear friend, Hank Phillippi Ryan's website is up and gorgeous. Take a look. And if you're as intrigued by the human psyche as I, take a gander at Tish Cohen's website where people are sharing their phobias. Mine? Did you see the photo's of the Taipei Zoo's Nile croc?
I started to dive back into my story, deeper, farther, more. Had to keep coming up for air and interruptions, making me all the more itchy to get back down! Reread some P.D. James in the evenings to slow the swirl in my head. I love her Dalgleish mysteries, points of view.
This week I received my Berkley Penguin Fall 2007 catalogue. My book resides on page 26 of 151 pages! It was lovely to see aspects of my book in print. I also received my first national parenting magazine freelance writing assignment. I will have a piece in Parenting Magazine this fall. And in keeping with my make-time-for-reading campaign, I started savoring every word of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. If you have a must-read list, I strongly recommend it.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Posted by Lynne
All my life I've been called fast. Oh no, not in that way. I mean finishing work in record time. Rushing to get here, there and everywhere. I'm afraid I've never been referred to as easy-going. Perhaps it's a cosmic lesson in patience that I should enter the world of writing and publishing. Here, everyone is required to slow down.
Prior to spending every stolen moment writing, I read. I devoured three or four books a week; books in almost all genres. Since I started writing non-fiction parenting books, a novel, blog posts and now freelance magazine pieces, I've spent less time reading. The reality, that there aren't enough hours in the day, is a sad one.
Recently, friend of our blog, Therese Fowler published a list of must reads on her blog. Though I could proudly say I'd read more than fifty percent of her suggestions, I couldn't say the same for Jane Smiley's list. In Smiley's, Thirteen Ways to Look at a Novel, she includes her one hundred and one suggested must-reads. Here I came in at a shabby fifteen percent. I admit I felt like a bit of a fraud as a writer. I haven't yet made time to read Toni Morrison's Beloved or Nabokov's Lolita.
I've been a tad overwhelmed of late with all the wonderful books I want to read, but struggle to find the time to read. And then I picked up a copy of a book Amy recommended last week. Francine Prose, author of Reading Like A Writer, gave me hope.
While Prose also includes a list of Books to be Read Immediately, she gives writers permission to perform what she calls a *close read*.
With so much reading ahead of you the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it's essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious, but oddly under appreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint... we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
I'm certain I will always be a person for whom there are so many books, so little time. My I-haven't-read-it-yet shelf will always be burgeoning. Still it's nice to know that dipping into a classic to study the way a writer chose to handle a certain type of conflict is recommended. Or that reading a beloved book aloud is time well-spent. It's freeing. Permission to slow down has been granted. In fact, it's encouraged.
I love reading like a writer. Like at a banquet of desserts, I don't need to eat every cake. I simply need to savor each delicious bite I take.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
My husband took it far worse than I.
Our group met at my house for the first time since Amy, Lisa and I met Lynne. After pleasantries and general business, we pretended I was invisible and they critiqued my first full draft. Having done my own initial review, I was not surprised as they confirmed certain elements as strengths and of course, as weaknesses.
As after each of these full draft sessions, the reviewers’ faces crinkled in concern. Is this overwhelming? Do you know criticism comes from the heart, that you have Something, that we want to help you prepare to revise? As always, the reviewee was grateful, smiling despite the faults found, indeed, because of them. Confirmation of direction, next steps clear.
After they left, my husband, who had been puttering in the background, ears wide open, looked stunned. “You did all that work! How much of this do you take? Do you listen to everything they say? Where do you go from here?”
Up. Out. Better.
Fiction as a process is only revealed to people who throw themselves into it in a true way. I have always written, I write for work; still, I committed myself to fiction in a deeper way only two or three years ago. I didn't realize the difference at the time. It is only by doing, reading, doing, listening and doing, that the layers of skill and thought and craft required to complete a work, in every sense, become clear.
I explained to my husband that writing -- including revision -- is like building a house. The first draft is the shell, the walls, the layout. To put them up is a huge accomplishment, and to the outside world, the house appears done. Like new construction, however, it is highly unlikely to sell because of course, it is not finished. Still, you can walk through a first draft to see what it will become, its potential. You start a list of to-do’s to complete it. Structural pieces to shift, details to refine. Decorating, if you will, of scenes, of characters, of wordplay.
My husband heard, really for the first time, how far a first draft sometimes needs to progress before it is ready. What I heard from the group is that I have a house with potential. I am excited to move back through it, room by room, to make it a proper home for my story and characters.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
I often wonder at what point I’d give up hope of ever being published, if there would come a time when I’d stop trying. I think of Archer Mayor when he told me he wrote seven manuscripts before his first book was published. Or Amanda Eyre Ward who told us at a Grub Street South workshop that all of her writer friends who persevered were eventually published, years and years later in some cases. And now I have Harry Bernstein to bolster me, the ultimate beacon of hope for us writers.
Perhaps you read Motoko Rich’s profile of Mr. Bernstein in last Saturday’s New York Times. No? Then you may not know Mr. Bernstein had his first short story published when he was just 24. About four years ago, after being rejected by several American publishers, he sent his memoir “The Invisible Wall” to the slush pile of Random House UK where it was plucked from obscurity by Editor Kate Elton. Who knew editors still bothered to wade through the slush! Since its release on March 20, his book has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and that adoring profile by the inestimable Motoko (and gracious, she answered my charming note with one of her own, ergo inestimable).
All incredible achievements, a multi-layered happy story, yes, but there are lots of happy stories. What sets Mr. Bernstein’s apart from the others? Harry Bernstein finished his book when he was 93. That’s right, 93.
Throughout his life, Mr. Bernstein wrote with the intention of getting his work published. He wrote short stories and novels; some efforts were rejected, others were met with indifferent acceptance. But the man never stopped trying. He never gave up, never gave in.
How is that? What compels us to write, to reach and reach even when there’s nothing in sight to grasp hold of? I suppose the more interesting question is why. When I walk into a bookstore and imagine my own book there, I realize it would be one among many, nothing particularly special tucked on a shelf of thousands. I was talking to a woman this week about her own book and her reasons for writing it. We agreed we each had a goal for publishing a book that didn’t include enormous advances or glowing reviews – yes, we’d be delighted with both, of course – but what we really yearned for was that letter from a reader telling us how our writing touched them. A single charming note. Sentimental nonsense, I’m full of it, but a desire to be heard, to be felt, to be relevant is what each of us yearns for in life.
Mr. Bernstein is now 96 and has nearly completed a second memoir, written on an IBM electric typewriter. He has fortitude, alright, and heart. And soon he’ll have something else: A charming note from a reader - a hopeful writer -- whose life he touched by writing a book.
Monday, April 09, 2007
People don't understand hockey.
Growing up in Montreal, when there was an evening game scheduled, the city came to life. In Montreal, hockey is culture. People in the red seats in the old Forum, the good seats, were couples, ladies dressed in fine Montreal style. Fans, both men and women, Montreal's elite, had season's tickets. The Montreal Canadiens played a game of finesse, and speed, and timing. Does the name Guy Lafleur ring a bell?
One day, when I was nineteen or so, a girlfriend and I decided we wanted season's tickets. When I called the Forum box office, I was told there was a six year waiting list. My name is on that list somewhere - I haven't heard back yet.
I've recently been involved in a new program for women's hockey in my town south of Boston: people who never before have tried the game. Women who came had a range of skills. One played field hockey - she can stick handle. A couple were figure skaters - those two can skate well. It was a mish mosh those first few weeks: sticks borrowed from a son, a daughter's helmet, and too-tight shorts. There was a lot of falling. Not much passing.
But every Friday, I see my new friends improve - big time. Johanna gets faster each week, Julie has found a consistent way to get the puck in the net, Meghan seems to know where to position herself. Many others are quickly gaining skills.
At times I attend writing courses, I read a beginning writer's work. I see their flaws, rather quickly, but with the right attitude, I know they will improve. Writing is hockey. Slower, not more cerebral, and less good for the cardio. But writing is work, hockey is work. Both are fun. Real fun!
Thursday, April 05, 2007
This week we've shared with you what we hear when we read. There's an initmacy between the writer and reader, something found in quiet corners and stolen moments. We each seek specific qualities from our writers: an experienced voice to guide us, a thrilling plot that leaves us breathless, a desire to be carried along an arc that builds to an unexpected climax, and/or the simplicity of a single, beautiful sentence that leaves you bedazzled for years to come. What do you long for in a book?
This week, by random circumstance, I found myself in a place where I had read and dreamed and wondered many years ago. So long, it's been since I sat in that quiet chair with the flower pattern that should have been distracting, but wasn't. The smell hasn't changed. The lights are as bright. When I was last there I dreamed of writing a novel, finding an agent. All that has happened. I have traveled so far along that road. It was strange and satisfying and frightening.
This week I wrote several charming notes and received lovely responses in return. Something to consider when you become a published author -- and some of you already are -- remember your readers. When they write you and return the kindness, they will never forget how you took the time to drop them a note, they will tell their friends. Of all the writers I've written, only two never bothered to respond. Hmmm...what do you make of that? Someone I'll be sure to write once I've finished her book is Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer. Before you write another sentence, read this book. Thank you for sending it, Patry.
This week there was tiny forward motion in several directions, rather than any major motion. Frustrating, yet I know these phases exist as a natural part of the flow. (They do, don't they?) I am nearly done with a fly-high. fly-low review (not revisions), per Hallie Ephron, in anticipation of edits. I toyed with a list of agents. I made new contacts. My paid work involves pitching television and print for interviews and stories; a little voice in my head noted which might be interested in writers -- perhaps a fabulous parenting book called Negotiation Generation, coming out this fall?
This week I submerged myself in red. I reviewed the copy edited version of my book, Negotiation Generation. I've never been happier to see all those squiggles and lines. It's been amazing to see my manuscript pass through so many capable hands. This morning, I mail it back to Penguin and the next time I see it, it will be in galley form. As for my fiction writing, I completed a synopsis in preparation for my twenty page review at this year's Grub Street conference.
Posted by Lynne
There's an old song, It's not where you start it's where you finish. We've talked a lot about beginnings this week, beginnings of books, beginnings of chapters. I thought endings deserved their just due. Well-crafted chapter endings have the power to convince someone to read just one more page. Hooking the reader has as much to do with a good ending as a good beginning.
I'll borrow Hannah's technique to demonstrate.
1. There was my father with his head sewn up and my mother just having told me her life was a joke and I finally felt like things were a little bit normal.
The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett
2. Lester got in his Toyota and pulled into the fog of the coast highway, heading north for Point San Pedro and Corona. The fog was so thick his headlights were reflected off it and he had to drive slow, and careful.
The House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III
3. People dealt with grief in different ways, but somehow he couldn't see himself lounging by a swimming pool just four days after his dead sister had been plucked from the ocean in a fisherman's net.
Amagansett, Mark Mills
4. I can't think of one way in which Alden resembles Harry, and yet, there I sat on the furniture of both marriages feeling as diminished in one man's company as I had in the other's.
Okay, that's from my novel. Do you think it works to keep you reading?
While the beginning of a book gets a great deal of a writer's attention, readers more often than not, say they're concerned about endings. I've heard from more readers than I can count, that a rough beginning is forgivable. A weak, or contrived, or disappointing ending is a sin. I admit my word of mouth recommendations have a great deal to do with endings, too.
Enter into a debate today over the importance of beginnings vs. endings. Which do you spend most of your energy on? Do you write like Tess Gerritsen? This week, she blogged about her first draft process of writing through. It's during her second draft process that she methodically chooses her chapter endings.
Beginnings draw the reader in, chapter endings keep us reading. Novel endings keep us talking about a book long after we've handed it off to a friend. Don't you dream of someone saying this about your novel? "You have to read this. It's amazing!"
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Hallie Ephron asked whether anyone wanted to read his or her first paragraph. Lynne, brave woman, did and was rewarded by Hallie’s strong, positive reaction. My hand stayed in my lap. I stared at the first line of my recently completed draft; I could not bring myself to read it aloud. Bad sign. I changed it before handing it to the Writers’ Group.
With all the talk of first lines, I wondered, how do great books start? Can you tell right away that This One is going to be Different, because of what it reveals? I pulled a couple dozen off my shelf at random, ignoring covers as much as possible. You can play along. Rank the following first lines; think about whether you would keep reading, why, what you would say if you read this from typed stationery rather than in hardcover.
1. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
2. Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
3. The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea.
4. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a fluttering of the sails, and was at rest.
5. I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.
6. The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
All are nice sentences, of course. In reading only first lines, I picked the first two as “best” for their lyricism. The next two give only setting, the fifth offering a touch more with point of view. The last is direct in its narrative; if you recognize it, know its title, you might get a chill:
1. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
2. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
3. Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway
4. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
5. A Separate Peace, John Knowles
6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
I am off to the bookshelf to uncover more first lines, maybe more of those that deserve attention for what hides behind them rather than what they reveal. What else will I find?
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Many of you know I read the fiction slush pile for Post Road. It’s a wonderful literary journal that’s published some memorable short stories, my favorite among them being those of Tom Perrotta, Paul Yoon, and H. H. LeCraw, especially August by H. H. LeCraw. I promise that in years to come you’ll find yourself stilled in unguarded moments, wondering about the old man holding the baby fast to his chest as they nap.
The editor sends the submissions in bunches and, for the most part, I read them in their entirety. A very few are written for simple shock value and don’t warrant more than a single page of a reader’s attention. Most are fine. Just fine. And then there are those that sing with the first line, where the writing has been given a voice, infused with a particular tone, a rhythm that cradles and lulls the reader.
Voice is what gives life to your writing. It’s a tone that’s struck from page one and the good writers are capable of maintaining it through to the end. In Jon Clinch’s Finn, his first line is all you need to understand his voice: "Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like deadfall stripped clean." His voice is languid, melodic, ever so slightly menacing, thunder on the horizon on a sweltering summer’s day.
Voice calls to life your writing. If structure and plot are the bones of the story, characters the flesh, then voice is the soul a writer breathes into it all to make it come alive.
How does one find one’s voice? I don’t know how others do, for me it was through essays. I wrote of the most personal experiences of my life, stories about miscarriage and war, postpartum depression and hope. My first attempt at writing a book, I admit to copying other voices, an amalgam of successful authors. It was fine, just fine, but it wasn’t my voice. It failed, but I kept trying.
I started a second book and sent off a very rough first chapter to a friend, an avid reader, but not someone familiar with writing or any of its terms. After she read it, she replied with a one line email, one I’ve saved to this day, “You’ve found your voice!” She had no idea that voice is a craft designation, she knew only that I was writing in a manner that was wholly my own.
I suppose a writer’s voice is what springs from our cores, if only we would listen, the one that speaks from that thoughtful place within each of us. The next time you find yourself stilled in one of those unguarded moments, after your thoughts turn over the old man and his grandson, take a moment and listen, really listen to that voice inside of you. Can you hear it murmur? It’s whispering now. Listen. There. Do you recognize that tone? Let it go, allow it to lull you. Feel it envelope the words, cradling them as the rhythm carries you away. Deep breath now. Ready? It’s time to sing.
Monday, April 02, 2007
Okay. Check out these random chapter openers.
“In less than a minute, everything returned to normal.”
“Monday. Lunch. This time I stayed put when Stargirl came toward my table…”
“In the Sonoran Desert, there are ponds.”
“That was fifteen years ago. Fifteen Valentine’s Days.”
They’re from Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. On a trip to New York, my literary agent recommended I read this book. It’s one of my new favorites. Because it’s fantastic. Because it’s beautifully written. Because it has a message that is meaningful.
But overall, it’s because, like Miss Snark says, “Ya got to Write Well.” And Jerry Spinelli does.
A few weeks back, one of the members of our writers' group announced we needed to raise the bar. No holds barred. Expect the best writing from each of us. After her words, there was silence. A loud kind of silence that bounced off the walls around us. We took this in. We nodded to agree.
It made sense to me, in a cerebral sort of way; we know each other well, we each have strengths to share, weaknesses to improve on. My pages sat before each of us. Wayne’s Gretzky’s words from a long ago interview came to mind: “You’re only as good as your last shift.”
As I work on my current novel, I know I owe it to myself to produce my best story. In a funny way, I owe it to the writers' group and to my characters too. Though my first draft’s done, it will be a good chunk of time until it sees the light of day, until it makes its way outside of our writers' group training camp. Plot, sequence, characters, setting. I will toil. I must. We have raised the bar.
And I vow, this day forward, to have great chapter openers, great clinchers, and great words in between. I’ll give it a shot anyways!