Tuesday, September 28, 2010

writing in time

Well, here I am talking about time again (in my comments to Liza's entry). My forthcoming book is about time, so it is an obsession of mine.

In this case, though, I am thinking very practically. Is it necessary to write a novel chronologically, that is--in the order it will appear when it is finished? This is a question I've discussed lately with students.

My answer for that is no. Write the chapters that come to you. Write them in whatever way works for you. I have written chronologically on some books. On others, I've written chapters like a tourist map of a walking tour; the marked stops help direct the internal journey.

Specifically, on Hiroshima Dreams, I wrote the first two chapters, the middle chapter, and the last chapter at one sitting, and sold the book with that material. Writing the rest of the book was extremely difficult, but no doubt I was helped by my map. I've written beginning and ending chapters first on at least half of my books, then sometimes worked forward and backward as a way to trick myself into reaching that difficult middle territory.

The idea, as always, is to find your process. If you are stalled where you are, it's often helpful to write a later chapter, or maybe even chapters that you might toss. Never restrict yourself, or impose rules on "how things must be done." Within some structures, such as episodic you can shuffle and reorder chapters.

Find your way. Inspiration is precious. Grab it when it comes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tense About Tenses

A few weeks ago, Ellen Levine passed around an article by Philip Pullman about the use of the present tense. "What I dislike about the present tense narrative," Pullman writes, "is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate." He compares writing in the present to the use of a hand-held camera in film. Writing in the present, he says, is "an abdication of narrative responsibility." (The Guardian, September 18, 2010.)

Really? Since I am 185 pages into a novel told in first person, present tense, my palms began to sweat when I read this. Is my novel claustrophobic? "Pressed up against the immediate..."--in fact, a sense of immediacy is exactly what I am looking for. I'm not sure if I should admit this, but I didn't think much about the choice of tense when I started the book. Instead, I heard Brandon spooling out the story and I wrote it down as he was telling it. Somewhere in the second or third chapter, I realized what I was doing--and just kept on.

My last two novels were written in past tense; one in third person, the other alternating first person voices. Past tense felt natural for both, especially since both stories took place a long time ago. Unless you're writing an epistolary novel (good luck, Gary!) you and the reader buy into the conceit that the narrator is telling you a story that he/she has not written down. First person, present tense requires a similar leap of faith. There's a gauzy scrim between you and the narrator.

When the Pullman article came in, I was reading a novel suggested by my student, Ann Schoenbohm, called The Velvet Room. It's an older book, one I missed when it came out because I was already in college and not, at that point, reading children's novels. The novel is narrated in the past tense, from a third person limited point of view. It's a Once Upon A Time tale that is satisfying and comforting, even in its most suspenseful scenes. So have I made a mistake, writing in present tense?

I went to my bookcase and pulled Ron's Strays off the shelf. It's a present tense novel. I never felt claustrophobic, reading it--just up close and personal with Ted, riding along with him as he deals with tragedy, girls, and talking animals.

So here are some questions: does the choice of tense depend on the story? On the narrator and psychic distance? On the mood you happen to be in when you start writing? Let me know.

James Ellroy

I was at a little get-together where JE talked about his latest book(s) and how he works. He's an interesting guy -- mega-Oedipal, sloppy, self-obsessed, potty-mouthed, and bellicose. His inamorata (See "My Pursuit of Women") values him for these very qualities. Which makes her even more interesting.

The point of this blog, though, is not his character, but his advice-about-structure. For a 600 page novel, his outline is 100-150 pages. He talked about filling the frame. He loves detail of every kind. It's well-organized bricolage, if you ask me. Way beyond many of us at Hamline who suggest back-story for characters -- favorite clothes, CDs, etc.

JE's outline might look like this for an opening scene-- "X watches TV where Kennedy's funeral is being telecast. X is just out of bed. He's in pajamas and one slipper. He's smoking filtered Camels and coughing. This scene begins the theme of death and public recognition. Or lack thereof. The hotel room is mid-range. Anonymous. The door to the mini-bar is open. Fast food wrappers from Wendy's on the desk." And so on.

I'm the sort who doesn't want to know where he is going in a book (even if that's a trick I play on myself). JE claims that all that detail frees him up to get to the heart of the scene when he writes it. For me, it would get in my way. I like to discover as I move the story on (horizontal); JE likes to discover vertically.

There's something in this extreme-sounding advice that it like, however. If someone wants to try it, I'd go as far as Ellroy himself. Very, very detailed. I'd add specifics from every sense -- touch, smell, taste, hearing, sight. The latter being least important. Everybody does sight. Few do taste.

If someone writes short books like mine, assume a draft of 150 pages. That'd make the outline 30 or so. Maybe a little less. I can see the outline turning into the/a book. And that wouldn't be a bad thing either.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why aren't there bookstores like this here?

I'm just back from Paris where, of course, I had to visit the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore. The original bookstore was owned by Sylvia Beach from New Jersey, and was the hang-out of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Hemingway, among others. Hemingway wrote lovingly about it in A Moveable Feast. Beach helped struggling writers have an intellectual and (sometimes) literal home. She published Ulysses when no one else would touch it, and sent the work of talented writers to literary magazines. The bookstore was closed down during the occupation in WWII. The one I visited was created by George Whitman (originally from MA, so another ex-patriot), who was enamoured enough with Ms. Beach to name his daughter after her. He opened his own bookstore on the left bank, but it wasn't until after Ms. Beach's death that he renamed his bookstore, in homage, Shakespeare and Company. He lived in the bookstore, sleeping on a mattress on the second floor, which is still there, next to a piano, which I sat down and played for a while. There are murals of Stein, Hemingway et al. There's an alcove with an old typewriter, a reading room with lots of windows, and more books to borrow than to buy. During Whitman's reign, a new generation of writers hung out: Corso, Ginsberg, Nin, Henry Miller. Starving writers were fed and slept in the shop. In turn, they worked two hours a day and were exhorted to read a book a day. George, in his nineties, no longer lives in the bookstore, but above. His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, currently runs the shop. She lived inside of it until she was seven, then moved to England with her mother. The only modern touch she seems to have added is a computer. I hung out there for a long time, and bought Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson for five Euros. Of course there were many wonderful bookstores in Paris, seemingly on every corner. Another English one is called The Red Wheelbarrow. The owner was there. My husband offered that I wrote books, and she ordered them for the shop. This shop was organized and filled with literary translations and great literature. Michael picked up a book, and the owner said, "That author will be here in five minutes." Apparently, she also gives work to authors.

Thankfully, I have a lovely independent bookstore here, called Island Books. I am thinking of asking the owner, Judy, to lay a mattress down for cold nights when I am too tired to drive over the bridge. A piano would also be nice. But the mattress might not impress her other customers. What do you think?

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Happy National Punctuation Day, Inkpotters!

This is a beautiful day. Punctuation is what separates us from the animals. Just try to get a monkey to use a hyphen correctly. Don't even get me started on the semi-colons.

Go to the website and you can read all about your faithful friends, the punctuation marks. You can get the recipe for the Official Meat Loaf of National Punctuation Day. Normally I would question their use of the exclamation point there, but is some cases a little exuberance is warranted, especially when it comes to meatloaf. And--oh, is it my birthday?--there is a punctuation Haiku contest. There is also merchandise, with clever punctuation puns like "A semi-colon is not a surgical procedure," and "Jesus and the twelve apostrophes." ("Man," Jesus said. "Can you guys stop being so possessive?")

In celebration I am making my annual vow to stop abusing the poor em dashes--who have really done nothing to deserve what I do to them. And I am trailing off with ellipses, elaborating with semi-colons, scattering commas like breadcrumbs. I shall hug my words with parenthesis and put a firm period at the end of my day. For life is not a paragraph, my friends, but at least it can be well-punctuated.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I am gazing out my window trying to think a writerly thought. I see a squirrel run up the tree trunk. This reminds me of the chipmunk my cat brought in last week. They proceeded to play a wild game of chase and torture, though I don’t think the chipmunk was enjoying it. Finally the screaming chipmunk found refuge under the stove and I have not seen him since. I am hoping he was smart enough to slip out the open door when the cat wasn’t looking. This morning the cat brought in a bird—already dead—and used it for a game of toss and twirl. This is the nature of things. I got the cat a collar with a bell, but within a day he returned home collarless.

I check my email incessantly, as my editor has the latest draft of my novel. Actually she has had it since July but forgot she had it so I sent her the updated draft last week. Now I wait. Again. While waiting I have started something new, which I like but it’s way too early to show it to anyone. And then there is that picture book dummy that my editor likes but wants to wait until the first picture book comes out, to see if my sales warrant doing another. It’s the game of cat and mouse. But are we playing hide-and-seek or toss-and-twirl? And which am I--the cat, the chipmunk or the bird? I hope it’s not the bird.

I wonder how others play this game?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Unleash The Hounds

I blogged about OK Go's videos last February when I was in the midst of tax-induced despair. They released another one yesterday and watching it has proved able distraction from my book-induced despair.

This is OK Go's thing--to make these crazy one-take videos that explode the internet. They've been continually one-upping themselves in the Holy Jim Thome, that's one take! department with the big marching bands and crazy Rube Goldberg machines of last spring's "This Too Shall Pass."

So I imagine when they were planning the next video, the conversation went something like this:

Ok Go Guy #1: "So, what are we going to do this time?"
OK Go Guy #2: "I dunno."
OK Go Guy #3: "I dunno."
OK Go Guy #4: "Dogs."
Ok Go Guys #1-3: "Cool."

The choreography and stagecraft are exuberantly low-rent (apparently I'm not the only one who's dropped a big chunk at Ikea lately.) But, you know, dogs. Apparently it took about 200 takes to get it right. That's what it takes sometimes, and sometimes your supporting cast will poop on your shoe, but eventually all your dogs are beautifully in sync and you have something to marvel at. The effort doesn't show, there's no trace of poop anywhere--the product is simply this effervescent bit of three-and-a-half minute silliness.

I'm having a lot of conversations lately about the hard patches of writing, those times when you're so stuck in the mud you start to think that mud is part of your identity. Just play, I tell my students. Free yourself. Have fun. See what happens. Then I go wallow in the mud myself. But this is the goal, we play, we try, we do 200 takes, and by the end your dogs are springing out everywhere, joyously.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Truth Hurts

I'm sure readers of this blog are as sick of me complaining about my book as the people in my real life, though the blog people have the advantage of skimming. I am now two weeks late on my deadline. Rather appropriately, I am stopped on the part where my hero is making her approach to the final confrontation. There's more to do after that--apparently the ending of the book is to feel like an ending, not an em dash. I don't know how to do that either. Like my Hazel, I am standing on the precipice staring at the battle ahead, and it all seems too much.

This is the same amount of work I've had to do for days, but I fidget and fiddle here and there and every time I get to this point I think I am not a good enough writer for this part.

I told my friend Megan this tonight--she also happens to be a Hamline alum and is thus quite sage. She listened as she did not have the luxury of skimming. She nodded knowingly and told me that these things in my head were the work of Simon the Awfulizer. Simon sits on your shoulder and hisses awful things in your ear.

But, according to Megan, the world must balance Simon out, and so it has given us Jacques, the Dog of Truth. Jacques does not speak soothing things in your ear or argue with Simon. He just bites him in the ass.

So, here is to Jacques, and precipices, and the battle ahead. Write well, and when Simon hisses in your ear, call on Jacques, and write on.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rough Draft of a New Poem


It sounds like something Tums might fix, but it’s really

a popular topic for movies and books. How long can it be

before there’s a ride in some theme park where grubby,

goggled survivors with sawed-off shotguns charge

terrified patrons who barely escape. Then, laughing

and relieved, emerge into a recognizable world of fresh

air and lemonade and uniformed employees pointing

to other attractions. The Tunnel of Love, for example,

with its swan boats. And the corresponding Tunnel

of Hate with its disorderly lines and cruel attendants

shouting, “Shut up! Shut up and sit down if you know

what’s good for you!”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dystopian novels

When the buzz began about the release of Mockingjay, I started thinking about the growing popularity of dystopian novels. I’m reading two now. One is a provocative work-in-progress titledHive, by my student Heather Zenzen. The other is A Crack in the Sky, by Mark Peter Hughes. (Mark and Kelly and I teach at Rhode Island College’s ASTAL Institute every June.) Mark’s novel is both funny and frightening. He projects the known dangers of global warming into a bleak future. His world seems completely possible, given our current inability to deal with climate change.

I hope Hughes is not as prescient as other dystopian writers have been. A few years after I read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, a neighbor with early-stage Alzeheimer’s had a computer chip embedded in his arm so that his family could find him when he wandered off. Access to the Internet through a chip in our brains no longer seemed far-fetched. But why the sudden explosion of dystopian novels? Is it as simple as a current fad and the pull of the marketplace? That’s not true for Hughes, who says he “didn’t know they were all the rage” until someone else informed him, and he has been working on his trilogy for a long time. Is it a commentary on the difficult times we live in? Or are we always drawn to a good story with strong characters, a great premise, and a fast-paced plot, no matter the genre?

I tossed these questions out to a few pals. Kelly said:It's an interesting topic. Teens are so trendy for one thing. If nothing else, they like to belong…It could be their increased reliance on technology and the increased mythic violence with some of those games, like Halo.

Ron, of course, had a different take: I would like to see a dystopian picture book set in a bleak forest and featuring an angst-ridden vole. But that's just me.

While Mary Logue responded with a good question:Whatever happened to Utopian novels?

If you read or write about dystopia—or angst-ridden voles—what draws you? Meanwhile, I’m returning to Eli and his sentient mongoose, Marilyn. They live in the domed city of Providence where something has gone terribly wrong…

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Writer's (Real) Life

Sometimes, okay, most of the time, my life is plain dull. Some may think otherwise, because it sounds thrilling. I move back and forth from Maine to Savannah with my cool British writer/illustrator partner, our two dogs and cat. I have a new teaching job outside of Philadelphia, so we’ve added a third stop to the chaos. I swim in the Maine ocean in a wetsuit. I see alligators in the swamps of Georgia. My mother lives on a tiny island in the Caribbean where I go snorkeling. My in-laws live in Brighton, England—the hippest town in GB. I know a lot of famous people (like Ron Koertge and Jane Resh Thomas, etc...oh and I knew Zero Mostel, too who is not a children’s book writer, but what the hey—knowing him makes me seem exotic, right?) I had a spider monkey as a pet when I was growing up. My family lived in Norway in a hut in the mountains with no electricity or running water while my father studied lemmings. I write. I illustrate. I have a few books published.

But, the truth of the matter is, my life is dull. I prepare for classes. I read Hamline packets every month. I try to get daily exercise. I walk the dogs. I pack and move a couple times a year. I go to bed insanely early and get up the next day. I stress about writing or not-writing, and when, if ever, I am going to get my next contract. A contract validates that work, but the work is the only thing that makes life interesting, and as writers we can always make our life sound as dull or exciting as we want. Why I have never written about that monkey or the lemmings yet, is a curiosity to me as well.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I Like to Watch

Forgive the scattered nature of this post--the unassembled furniture, unhung pictures, and post-apocalyptic closets have finally gotten to me. I can't manage anything outside of work; I'm doing Hamline packets this week, and I'm supposed to be finishing rewrites on my book--or, to be more precise, I am supposed to have finished rewrites on my book. I haven't been able to figure out how to fix what I need to fix at the end, but I've found that simply not working on it is an effective way of dealing with the problem. Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this totally awesome denial thing?

In other words, my brain is as put together as an Ikea box that someone's unpacked and left to rot in the middle of a living room. I am jealous of Ron and would like to spend several days in the dark movie theater with my fellows, engaged in this communal act of watching. Roger Sutton has some interesting musings on the difference between reading and watching on his blog. And I think he's right--sometimes you just want to let the story wash over you.

I was recently forced to watch Avatar and my brain is such that instead of maintaining my posture of writing-matters-dammit! outrage, I could only marvel at the pretty blue guys. They can stick their tails into things and become all, like, connected. It's like an ethernet network, except in your soul. Still, it was good movie to watch with an unassembled-brain--with no critical judgement to speak of I could see that, as utterly stupid, cliched, and noxious as the screenplay is, James Cameron does know how to create an experience. His moviemaking is all about that desire to sit in the dark and give yourself up to something else. He gets it. Even if his sense of nuance is rather lacking.

In other movie news, they're trying to cast The Hunger Games movie. Kristen Stewart is on the shortlist--her performance mooning over that vampire with the hair inTwilight is apparently adequate screen test for Katniss. It's not just the mooning--the female hero of both of these books seem to distinguish themselves by being undistinguished. These girls are blank slates, defined more by the boys in whose eyes they long to see themselves. And the disaffected, affectless Stewart is the perfect actress for this kind of role. These characters have combined to gross 8 bajillion dollars over the last few years, and I'm wondering what it is about this kind of female protagonist that's so appealing. Is it that a preteen reader can project herself onto the main character? Or that there's comfort in an essentially passive protagonist just trying to make her way in this crazy world? And what does it mean for our efforts to try to encourage strong, active protagonists--people who happen to the story instead of letting it happen to them?

Maybe I just need to go sit in the dark somewhere.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sitting in the Dark

But first a little self-promotion. In the new "The Horn Book" there are four very short pieces about reading-as-a-child. Mine's one of them. Take a look if you're interested.

Now about the dark. I go to the movies at least once a week and watch DVDs twice or three times. The new George Clooney movie isn't much (what do I care if he has his shirt off) but "Michael Clayton" is wonderful. I watch it every few months.

I just got back from seeing the first of two movies about Mesrine, the French gangster. (I hope that's how it's spelled. It's close, anyway.) Probably I'll see Part II tomorrow. There were fifteen of us in the theatre. Mostly people on their own. 1:30 in Pasadena. Cloudy and cool.

I've never been much of a joiner, but I feel inordinately close to other moviegoers. I wouldn't want to chat afterwards or agree to meet again in order to go to other films. I like having new, unknown friends the next time I sit down in the dark.

I've never felt peculiar going to so many movies, much less guilty. I've been to three in a day. When I tell people that and they seem amazed I think, "Why? Lots of people do it." Susan Sontag for one.

Not that it's always been easy to always go to the movies that I need to see or the ones that need me there to see them. I've been spurned by women and misunderstood by men. I've missed family get-togethers and been late to holiday meals.

A couple of lines from an Adam Fell poem might help explain things --
"No matter what story they tell, I met them honorably, despite the tall fence, despite/the lack of funding."

Right? Despite the tall fence.


Sunday, September 5, 2010


We all have our ticks. Some conscious, others not. Have you ever noticed upon re-reading your first drafts you tend to use (often overuse) certain words or phrases? I am especially prone to beginning sentences with “But.” Sometimes a well-placed “but” can work wonders, but more often than not it’s just filler. BUT I also overuse “just” to the point of it sounding JUST plain weird. These words are easy to cut: “I overuse “just” to the point of it sounding weird.” Once you become familiar with your particular word habit it becomes second nature to eliminate them in later drafts. (“also” is a word I get carried away with, as I notice in the sentence above.)

BUT, (would “however” work better as an opener here?) one of my all time favorites is the parenthetical aside. I am still trying to figure out if this is a nasty habit that ought to be sliced from every first draft, or is it actually one that marks my individual writing style? I used to think I had to get rid of them all, but now I am beginning to embrace my love of parentheses. I use them in lieu of the comma (comma overuse bugs me), but mostly I use them as a little whisper into the reader’s ear that may add another layer to the meaning of my line. (Or is it merely a layer of contradictory cockiness I am adding?) I am sure I use them incorrectly at times, (and annoyingly). Like “buts,” “justs,” and “alsos,” they could be eliminated, but for now I have decided to embrace my predilection for parentheses and leave them be.

If you’re concerned about the correct usage of parenthetical asides (obviously I am not) you can always go here…

Perhaps I ought to write a book using as many asides as possible—this sounds like a thrill to me, even though it may end up being completely annoying to the reader. (However I’ll continue to cut the other nasty habits). BUT it ALSO may JUST be the cure I need to get over my obsession (I mean: “it may be the cure…”). Or perhaps it is the only way to figure out how to use them wisely (after all a well-placed parenthetical aside can work wonders, too!) It's all style, no?

PS. I love the em dash (—) as well, but that’s another story.
(Oh, then there’s the ellipses…!)

Friday, September 3, 2010

preserving writing thoughts

A few entries ago, Liza wrote about finding a defining sentence and putting it on a sticky note (an idea stemming from Elizabeth Partridge's lecture). It made me think of the many ways we, as writers, work, and also how we preserve our ideas. I remember hearing Joyce Carol Oates speak at a conference. She said that she plots the whole book out and tapes it on pages all along the walls of her office like a map, so that she can keep track of her plots and sub-plots (We mustn't forget about sub-plots, people). Edward Albee said that ideas come to him all the time, but he never writes them down, figuring that, if an idea is any good, it will stick in his brain.

Mapping out a book like Joyce Carol Oates would kill my desire to write it, and destroy the sense of discovery that keeps me working. Trusting my memory like Albee (who was the first person to tell me I had talent as a writer, when I was 22) would be close to a disaster. So when ideas come to me, I write notes on anything handy: napkins, receipts, bank statements, the little notebook Jill gave me that I keep in my purse. I call my home phone from my cell and leave messages for myself. If one of my kids gets home and listens to the messages first they might hear: "She is sucked into a vortex." Or, "The witch drowns in chocolate." My husband Michael also bought me a micro-tape recorder for when I drive. I just can't let one idea escape, although, yes, I often forget about these pieces of paper or lose them. Another process I am teaching my son is to work in stages and drafts, a little each day, comparing it to the instruments he plays (three), how baby steps can add up to something big, something we all know by now, but is nice to remember

It is all about finding your process, your tricks, and your triggers.

Thoughts on Form and Structure

I don’t remember who said or wrote: “Form sets you free.” When I was younger, just starting out, I rebelled against anything that smacked of rigidity or confinement. But lately, I have found that writing within a set form or—even better—sticking to firm word limits, has freed me to experiment with content or style within set boundaries. I have written 750-word essays on environmental subjects for our local paper and for Northern Woodlands magazine. I’ve written 150-word Letters to the Editor. I signed up for Hamline’s blog, in part to see if I could stick to the (suggested) 250-word limit. (It’s hard!) My next goal is to leap into poetic forms, as Kevin does in Ron’s Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.

My most challenging, yet liberating, experience with form was writing a novel for Breakfast Serials, a company that publishes serialized stories in newspapers nationwide. The novels appear in 18 installments. Chapters are 800 words; each ends with a cliffhanger so the reader will buy next week’s paper. Writing within these guidelines was like solving a puzzle. I had to invent a story with a clear through line and strong forward momentum. I learned more about plot and pacing than I expected and yes—thank you, Jane!—I was forced to slash “lard-ass prose.” Now I realize: a student could write a serial novel in a semester. A chapter a week, four or five chapters per packet, 14,400 words total—and you’d have a complete novel. Anyone game to try?

(This post=249 words.)