Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Last night on Teri Gross' radio show featuring song writers, someone quoted that Ira Gershwin wrote in isolation because of the "exclusivity of failure." Chew on that for awhile. Some of our failed writings and goals in life are personal and private. And some are not. Soon after my brother returned, he was scheduled to give a talk at his university's alumni weekend. Great, he says to me and my husband. I get to go give my loser speech. I could just picture my brother standing in front of all these guys, holding up his fingers in front of his face in an "L."
John, I said, I think these guys would much rather hear about how one person faced failure when not reaching a goal, then hear about how a successful businessman also climbs the world's tallest mountains, leaving overweight audience members feeling even more like slugs. I know. Easy for me to say. But as hard as it is, I do know after all these years, that I learn more from failure, than success. Maybe just because there is more of it.
Dang. I'm sorry to fall into cliche here, but it is the journey. When I published my novel Free Radical a few years ago, I hate to admit it, but deep down I really thought it might be a hit because I'd worked so many years on it. But the first review from Kirkus was not good. The following ones were quite decent and, though no award winner, the novel ended up doing well. But that first review devastated me for a few days. It's not like I haven't had plenty of reviews all over the spectrum, but for me novel reviews are tougher to take. It's like for a NF book - oh, well, they don't like my subject. And a picture book - the illustrations don't really work.
A supportive writer friend sent me a Rumi quote to buck me up. I wish I had saved it. But it was about the journey, I'm sure. Eventually I recovered and returned to the keyboard.
Earlier in the spring I posted about how Icelanders consider failure the compost for later success. Go throw some vegetable scraps on the pile.
Got any of your own F stories to share?
Monday, June 28, 2010
I finished my revision. It's been a month of me sucking down Diet Dr. Pepper and Powerade, eating microwave popcorn, and twitching. I've come out from under the earth to discover that there's a world with sky. Except there's no one waiting at the other side of the cave for me, other than annoyed people to whom I owe emails and phone calls, the guy who does collections for our sewer water bill, the cats, who still think I should be working on my lecture, and my editor, waiting to give me more revisions. And instead of caked on crap-like substance, I'm covered in microwave popcorn goo, self-hatred, and an excess of adverbs.
I wrote the first draft this way, too--in some crazy fever dream. It was fun, at the time. This was less fun. And I have to wonder if there are people out there who can just write steadily--instead of working in these insane bursts, they just sit down and do their work every day and manage to pay their sewer bill at the same time.
Which, actually, I should probably go do right now.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The cat was an exemplary traveler, except for one harrowing moment in a motel parking lot in Carlisle, PA when he escaped and cowered under the car. Maybe he knew before we did that we’d be eating sushi that night and would not be bringing leftovers back to him, and so he wanted to create a brief flurry of trouble.
I packed a couple of books but for the most part my reading was restricted to a road atlas. This was no hardship as I love maps. Maps are terrific writing catalysts. One of my standard exercises is matching place names and then conjuring biographies for the resulting person. Imagining life stories for Virgil Drydan, Tully Preble, and Amber Spafford kept me occupied as we drove north through New York, and I kept my cool during a very long and slow Ontario-US border crossing by thinking about Varna Kippen, Florence Bothwell and Forest Kerwood.
This sort of playing around might not generate the material that revisiting humiliation and thinking about the antagonists in your life will, but the result will be useful all the same. So open an atlas and have some fun.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Every story needs an antagonist. We learned that in high school English. But sometimes the antagonist is a shadowy character, not fully formed. And that lack of development could be the reason one’s story isn’t as rich as it could be.
* Screenwriter Raymond Singer, who presented at the Hamline program in July 2008, believes that the antagonist has what the protagonist wants. I have processed this idea with several of my stories and often this holds true, but not always.
* Martha Alderson states in her blockbuster plot program that ¾ of the way through the story the antagonist still prevails. But by the end of the climax, the protagonist does.
* Darcy Pattison writes in her book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, a workbook used at her novel revision retreats, that a story is best served when the antagonist is a fully fleshed out character, not just a character’s inner demons. She suggests that the antagonist and protagonist should meet face to face at the climax and that only then can the protagonist prevail.
* Novelist Janet Fitch says that the antagonist never changes, as opposed to the protagonist who must change by the end of the story. This idea has resonated with me deeply, but I do believe that in many stories the change in the protagonist helps create one in the antagonist. Civil rights’ activitists in the 1960’s, bravely sitting at a lunch counter or riding a bus, forced a change in their racist antagonists by their actions.
Do any of these suggestions about antagonists resonate for you? What antagonist in your own life can give you insights for your story’s antagonist?
Monday, June 21, 2010
Sorry to have been so quiet. My mind is full of revisions, the upcoming Hamline residency, and thinking about the new iPhone. For me, the process of writing a lecture for residency takes six weeks. The first five weeks are devoted to worrying about it, the last to actual work. It's a very time consuming process.
Lisa's post about summer writing hit home for me. Now, I don't garden. That involves lots of bending over, and I get wiggy with abrupt postural changes--plus once I found a toy snake in the backyard, and that's far too close to a real snake for comfort. I don't have a dog to walk, just three neurotic cats who sit in sunbeams and look at me like I should be working on my lecture. The outside does not beckon to me, because it's oddly not air conditioned out there.
But the weather's all wrong. My book is a contemporary retelling of "The Snow Queen." It was going to be called The Snow Queen, until my helpful editor suggested otherwise. (The helpfulness did not extend to suggesting a new title. I might have to use one of Ron's cast-offs.) As may be apparent, there's a lot of snow in it.
I wrote the book in a wintery haze in January and February--it snows emphatically in Cleveland during these months, an exclamation point on the season--and when I needed to see the particular way snow behaved, I could just look out the window. In the first half I am to do a better job capturing what it feels like to live in a Minnesota winter, the different ways the snow expresses itself, the way the air feels. And I have no idea. I can't relate. Winter feels so far away right now, even further than the iPhone shipping date. I'm left to close my eyes and try to remember my feet crunching in the snow as a kid, dragging a sled down the sidewalk. But then I just start getting anxious for my lecture for winter residency.
Friday, June 18, 2010
There is, of course the garden. I am not a gardener like some of my esteemed Hamline colleagues, and sad to say I have neglected my tiny plot for the past two years, so that means it needs extra attention now.
Then, there are the sun-dappled mornings when walk my dog on the beach for, oh, at least an hour while we romp and chase seagulls and watch the fishing boats set out. When I get back home the sun is in the perfect spot to sit outside in my new Adarondack chair, which is perfect for napping while drinking my second cup of coffee. Or for reading, which counts as work, right?
Finally I go inside to begin my writing day. The windows are open and the along with the sweet breeze, the incessant sound of construction—hammers, table saws, jack hammers, weed wackers, bad radio—blows in. After all, summer in the north coincides with construction season. I close the windows but still the jackhammer pounds through, breaking all chance of concentration. Better to hop on my bike and go somewhere else to work, like a café or the park. I have to stop at the bookstore where I linger for hours chatting with the owners. That’s kind of like work, isn’t it? By that time the café is only good for more coffee.By the time I get home I am exhausted. There is a momentary lull in construction so I must get a nap in pronto!
It is evening already and the dog is looking at me longingly—the beach is open to dogs again so we have to go. There we run into friends, so lingering til sunset is a must. After all, it is summer in Maine and these days are precious. There’s no guarantee it will be sunny or warm tomorrow. And if it’s not, I will work, I promise. Oh, but wait there is all that company. Every summer weekend is booked with out-of-towners. Boston friends can be here in two hours, and they have a canoe and are going out on the Androscoggin River rain or no—so I have to join them.
Give me a frigid, blowing blizzard and I’ll write an entire draft in a week! Summer, discipline goes right out the window. Good thing it only lasts less a few weeks. But then, there is that brilliant New England autumn…. Sigh.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Check out this interview with visiting literary agent Sean McCarthy!
Visiting New York Public Librarian Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird can be heard on this podcast.
I’ve been rereading Freud on writers and daydreaming. His essay is always a good reminder of how important it is for a writer to play, even if it means you have to work at playing. Kelly Easton has lectured at Hamline on incorporating chaos into your writing, and many of the other faculty members have shared their own methods of nurturing spontaneity while writing. Imagination needs attention. Use it or lose it.
So, I’ll be passing the time on the various turnpikes daydreaming, letting the imagination play. In case Franklin the cat is a complainer, I’ll be prepared to copy cat Lisa’s method for getting through a stressful situation and bring a notebook and do some actual writing. Probably, in that case, stories about vampire cats.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Please excuse my effusiveness. But we moan so much about the bad times of writing, that I just have to wax about one of the great times. Last Sunday I flew to Nashville. I walked up the steps from downtown to the capitol. I hung out in the historic Hermitage Hotel where in 1920 Jack Daniels flowed like water. I ate breakfast at the Union train station (now a hotel) where suffragists and antis pin-holed legislators coming into town. I visited the state library and state museum, meeting with curators.
Elizabeth drove me around her former town, showing me the sights and talking about southern life. We noshed with novelist Helen Hemphill, a Vermont grad and former Hamline grad assistant, at a new Nashville hangout. Then I traveled by car to East Tennessee to soak up my main character's roots and visit the archives at the East Tennessee History Center. Everyone, amateur and professional historians and regular folk, were gracious and supportive, even to an outsider. They seemed to appreciate that I had already conducted a lot of research and was ready for the deeper questions and smaller details about a huge historic event. To meet historians like Carole Bucy who loves suffrage history as much as I, and to read telegrams and letters from 90 years ago - pure joy.This trip also gave me a greater appreciation for those who support historic restoration. To visit historic buildings after driving past strip malls and chain stores was a relief and a delight.
I even got a chance to talk to liberal and conservative Tennesseans about politics and Al and Tipper, too. But most importantly, I made the trip at the perfect time for this project. What I needed at this point in revision was to experience the real places I had already written about, not the broad sweep of information as I have been wont to do with other projects. I have returned today to my manuscript with energy and excitement, dropping in specific details, fine-tuning sensory descriptions and with a deeper understanding of time and place.
Take those research road trips. They can boost up a sagging story or a waning writing life. But know when to go. It can vary depending the project and how much research can be done from home. And if at all possible, throw in some writing buddies along the way. Thanks, Elizabeth. You're the best.
I'm off on another research trip - to a slice of Minnesota. Prairie Home Companion's live broadcast this afternoon from little old Spokane, my hometown. Yippee.
Friday, June 11, 2010
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I've dreamt of trying my hand at picture books. I have ideas. These ideas turn out to be bad ones. I'm in awe of the poets and the picture book writers, to people who can create something in hundreds of words when I need tens of thousand.
I want to try. I know the life you must breathe every word, the control you must have over every image, would be nothing but good for me. But the truth is I can't even think that way, I don't know how to give something like that life.
I think I'll let Marsha Q. try first.
Meanwhile, I have gone through an entire post without complaining about my editorial letter, for which I think I deserve some credit. My editor, I should note, does not write short either.
(That was not complaining, by the way, just a statement of fact.)
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Readers of this blog know that last winter I took up the challenge to write a sonnet a day for a month. Previously, I’d not written sonnets. Readers of this blog also know I’ve been revising a YA novel. I’ve written lots of YA novels, and there are days I have no heart for writing another one. This story is being revised because a wise editor told me there was no page-turning element in it. Some days I’m absolutely ambitious about turning it into a crackerjack, page-turning mystery. Other days I say, oh hell, I’ve written that story.
What haven’t I written? A trade picture book, for one thing. And last week I finally began work on one, noodling with an idea I’ve had for ten freaking years. I’ve also never written a screenplay, though I’ve wanted to try that for about as long. Last week I finally started messing around with that too.
I’ve no books in the publishing pipeline, no manuscripts on editors’ desk. But I’m playing with language in ways I’ve never done before, and I’m enjoying writing more than I have in a very long time.
Monday, June 7, 2010
He comes back reciting the poetry of war. Not that crap from high school, those stupid roads diverging. The real poetry of war. It recites itself to him, and he recites it back.
He’d like to give a rat’s ass about the night school teachers and bartenders his wife has been sleeping with. He’d like to get all riled up and crash his new pick-up. But he’s busy listening to the poetry of war which no body else can hear.
His mother just sucks it up and cooks. His father is hopeless. Crying when those busses pulled up to the Ramada two years ago and now Dad’s – what’s that word? – baffled. Yeah. Join the club.
Then one day at the mall there’s this girl at the Hospitality Desk. Plain. Staring at a book maybe because everybody knows where the Gap Outlet is and half the other stores are closed.
And he manages to put together a sentence. “What are you reading?”
“Something,” she says, “sufficiently sordid to keep me from falling asleep.”
Sufficiently sordid. Even the poetry of war stopped to listen.
Her nametag said Ivy and he knew, from a life before this one, how ivy could, in time, bring down any wall.
“Is that your real name?” he asks.
“What happened to your face?” she answers.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
I just finished reading Deborah Wiles’ new book, COUNTDOWN. Brilliant! Fantastic! Talk about heart on the page. Deborah puts herself into every word. Every moment sings. I was totally rapt in the story, but as I was reading I felt the weight of this book. As Jane Resh Thomas would say—it has gravitas. Every once in a while you read something that is larger than the story itself. This book is that. The book spans a few days during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It encompasses an era, while still being a story about an eleven-year old girl trying to understand her family, friends and her place in the world. It’s also a book of the 60’s. There are insertions of photographs, speeches, songs, and biographies of some of the leaders at that time—politicians, activists, musicians. These are cleverly placed to heighten the personal story of the narrator, while giving a sense of the issues of the world around the narrator. They help make the book so much more than a story.
The afterward, about Deborah’s childhood and how she memorialized some of the people in her life by using their names, made me weepy. Deborah has called this book a gift to write, and it is certainly a gift to read. I am fortunate to know Deborah, which makes the book all the more joyous to recommend so favorably. I know how hard she works to make her writing meaningful. We have a lot to learn from her. Hats off to you, Deborah!!!
Those of you coming to the July residency at Hamline will have the opportunity to hear Deborah Wiles as our guest speaker. I highly suggest that you read COUNTDOWN, and you will see what I mean about heart on the page.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Next month at the Hamline residency, Elizabeth Partridge will speak on her process of researching and writing "kickass" nonfiction. Check out her 2009 award-winning book Marching for Freedom and her biographies of John Lennon, Woody Guthrie and Dorothea Lange. Patridge's riveting and insightful writing brings to life people and eras in a style that appeals and informs both young readers and adults. I can't wait to meet her.
Check her out at: www.elizabethpartridge.com
Thursday, June 3, 2010
It's up to each writer to figure out what kind of response we need when. It's not as hard for me to share a nonfiction manuscript that's not fully formed. To get feedback on how it relates to kids and how to structure the topic. A draft of a picture book even early on can elicit feedback on structure and emotional resonance. But a novel, oh, my. Too much feedback too soon can pull a writer away from one's vision, one's dream of the story. My current novel will soon be ready for critical feedback. But it's already been through multiple drafts. This time around I needed to go pretty far down the road on my own before sharing the whole story. I need to be open to comments, and not needing to respond, no, no, no. You just don't get it (you stupid reader.)
Last week I did final edits on a picture book that I sold three long years ago and first conceived in 2004. An illustrator is finally working on art and I can't wait to see it. I did a complete revision earlier this year, tighter and more focused than the manuscript the editor bought. Thankfully she likes this version. With the passing of time, I was able to revisit this story in a new way without so much emotion or resistance to needed changes. And when I brought the final version to my writing group all I needed was feedback in a few places on word choice and their thoughts on my editor's suggestions. Their suggestions were spot on. But this was easy to take feedback because it wasn't open to any and all comments about story and character.
A graduate writing program has to have deadlines. This can be a challenge when work is fresh and not ready for public consumption. Sometimes I share an early piece with just one trusted writer, not a whole gang. I believe that is what working with a faculty advisor is like. When I share an entire manuscript, I need to be ready to step back and listen without defense. Taking in feedback and then returning home to work on it with new eyes, but still my eyes, my vision of what I want this story to be.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The tot is now post-exorcism. The exorcist is at a heap at the bottom of the stairs, having given himself to the demons. I’ve left the child in the care of people without blogs and have retreated with my computer into the wilds of Pennsylvania, where I have nothing but an inquisitive groundhog to keep me company. I have a book to revise.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having a brilliant editor—mine, for instance, is a charming and able conversationalist but has this incredibly annoying tendency to read my drafts with tremendous insight. I have tried to talk to him about this delicately, but some people are just unwilling to change.
The editorial tome—for calling it a letter seems inadequate and we writers do strive for lexical adequacy—rudely requests that I take some of the ideas in my head and actually communicate them on the page. This is to be accomplished by fleshing out some of the characters and ideas, particularly in the first third. More, More, More, said the editor.
I have already informed him that the first chapter, as it stands, is the greatest first chapter ever written. He did not protest, and I am sure that means he agrees. It’s not simply that he’s humoring me, that’s he’s waiting for me to see the seams in it, that the things that he’s mentioned about that chapter specifically might actually need addressing. And it’s not that I’ve ignored these things—why, I went through the other night and added a phrase here and took out a word there and even cut out a half a scene at the end with the idea I might, someday, add something else. I can totally take critique.
It’s a start, anyway. My friend Laura refers to this as revising by hamster paw—going into the draft like a little furry rodent might dig into an enormous pile of wood chips, displacing some tiny things here and there, and then some bigger things, until eventually we’ve buried ourselves in so deep that we’ve remade what’s around us. I’m still in the tiny phase—it’s all I can see right now, and I can’t envision the wood chips looking any other way but this one. Anyway, I'm sure these tiny little hamster paws will accomplish everything I need to.
I have to go now. There is a word to be changed.
*My computer’s thesaurus has offered enormity as a synonym for immensity, and I am now shaken to my core. While the actual usage of that slippery word does, in fact, well describe the things my child produced last week, I am discomfited by the lack of precision of this computerized crutch on which I have so relied. Is there nothing left in this day and age upon which we can pin our guileless, tremulous faith?