Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's a Small World

A few months ago I was presenting at a conference, and at the final luncheon the conference speakers were asked to say a few words about the most influential book from their childhood. Mine is/was a dull choice—Little Women, a predictable selection for many female writers. And every time I’ve heard another writer explain why she chose Little Women, it’s always the same thing: Jo March was a role model. I’ve usually cited that reason too.

But the book did far more for me than provide an admirable girl protagonist, something I didn’t fully grasp until I stood up at that luncheon to yet again extol Little Women (at the same time confessing I now find it unreadable). The book’s real influence on me I now understand is that it established early on a preference for domestic stories and nurtured a belief that the dailyness of life is novel-worthy.

I thought about this recently as I was browsing the YA shelves at my local chain bookstore where the quotidian hasn’t been evident for a long time, not unless your day-to-day involves curses, vampires, angels, etc.

Not to sound a lament, nope. There’s some marvelous stuff being written and published; even better, much of the student work I read is infused with similar veins of crazy, brilliant imagination.

But when she works with the ordinary, a writer has to find subtler ways to create drama. I’ve been thinking about how to shake up the dailyness--my own and the fictional dailyness that I am creating on the page--but without resorting to fantastic measures. For example, a bird feeder might seem an odd writing inspiration, but it’s proven so to me. Thanks to a new feeder in the front yard, I now every day watch a hawk swoop in and scare the crap out of the sparrows and chickadees and juncos, sometimes even scoring a lunch outside my living room window. Is it a coincidence that the protagonist in my work in progress has gotten sharper tongued these past few weeks?

I have a small backyard, currently snow covered. In summer there are a few chairs, some slabs of stone that serve as a patio, a small perennial bed. It’s a pleasant enough place. Lately I’ve been thinking about building a bottle wall. Cement and glass--how ordinary! But with any luck, my little project will get out of control and before I know it, my children will be calling each other and wondering if Mom is okay and who is going to step in and do something.

I had similar thoughts while writing last night. I said, “Oh, I can’t do that. Better not. Stop now.” Then I went ahead and did it. Even the quotidian can be full of surprises.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Slightly Modified Advice

I was thinking about what I said the other day--the reading plays part. It's a good idea and as a dialogue-sharpener it can't be beat. There are almost no wasted words in good plays/screenplays. And, like poems, they need to be read out loud to get the full effect. Maybe what I'm thinking about really only turns up in mediocre work: The little tag lines under a character's name that suggest line-readings to an actor.

BETH (passionately)
REX (indifferently)

That sort of thing. There was a joke at the studio where I worked--Riley Rueful. It came from a hint-line that read (wryly rueful) but for some reason it cracked everybody up and we turned it into a character we'd trot out when somebody was about to write something embarrassing. Probably, we were just tired. The point is this--if you see tag lines, don't pay any attention to them and don't use them in your prose.

For one thing, they're often adverbs, the world's laziest of all the parts of speech. Remember Tom Swifties?

"What happened to the lights?" asked Tom darkly.

I can think of a useful way to use them in first drafts, though: They remind you of some of the emotion behind the passage you're writing, and adverbs can be like little glow-in-the-dark highlights, places to go back to and work harder on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Our pet icicle is back, hanging from the eave outside the kitchen window. Each winter the icicle returns, sure as a migratory bird. While the worst of winter’s cold may be behind us now, there's a foot of new snow on the ground and plenty of Minnesota winter left to go around.

I love winter. Really, I do. But I’ve also begun to buy those little pots of flowers that show up in the grocery store around this time of year, purple hyacinths and red and yellow primroses. They won’t last – in their own way they are as ephemeral as the spring wildflowers that will blossom and disappear a few days later: pasque flowers, Dutchmen’s breeches, shooting stars, trout lilies, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, small white ladyslippers, and my favorite one to say, bastard toadflax. While they last, though, the potted flowers and the wild ones make me glad.

This is also the time of year I usually have to drag myself to writing by the scruff of my neck. So I’m doing some ephemeral writing instead, writing that appears on the paper and then goes dormant again. Not drafts, not even practice writing per se (and those of you who know me know I believe all writing is practice). Maybe not even writing. Maybe just being at play in a field of words. Whatever you call it, this writing makes me glad.

Try writing off task today, and every day, for a few moments, just the joy of putting words down on paper.

And for those of you who are winter-locked and hungry for springtime, here’s a photo of some of last year’s ephemeral shooting stars to look forward to come spring.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Today I begin a new round of revisions, and so it is inevitable that events of world are heavy on my mind—the revolution in Egypt, the political tension in our own government, my friend returning from Afghanistan, right down to my own self-centered problem of how to say what I want to say in my tiny little book. I pull Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento off my shelf and read the opening paragraph for the thousandth time:

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

Hellman uses this descriptive passage about fine art to describe changing approaches in a book that is essentially about people. She was an author and a humanist who recognized ongoing revision. Lillian Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood in the mid-twentieth century. She was part of an embarrassingly long list of people whose social, political and/or personal lives didn’t fit the current mode of “proper.” She survived that difficult time to teach at Yale and UC Berkeley and to win awards for her work in literature and theater. Her work was valued, then it wasn’t, then it was valuable again as time and circumstance, and various small- or large-minded people had power.

Revision is seeing things in a new and different way and it goes way beyond our own writings.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Hardly Remember The Blow To The Head

The renowned British author Martin Amis created a bit of a kerfuffle last week with these comments:

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

Right. Now, it's going to be a pretty uncomfortable life for us all if we get our britches in a knot every time some preening adult literary fiction writer sniffs that children's literature is written by the brain-addled. And Martin Amis, in addition to all his literary acclaim, has a Nobel in sneering. And never mind the inherently masturbatory act of writing without awareness of the reader--calling to mind Woody Allen's quip that masturbation is "Sex with someone I love." The point is, Amis' comments get to a perception of children's lit common among people with a lot of opinions and no actual knowledge.

Children's books are remarkable exactly for the freedom they allow the writer--the young reader doesn't have the same preconceptions of what a story should be. There's so much more room for innovation and experimentation and play, so many more ways to explore the themes that preoccupy writers, so many more ways to tell a story. Philip Pullman creates a world that externalizes the soul and expands across multiverses to explore issues of free will and humanism in His Dark Materials. Kate DiCamillo deliberately employs a narrative technique that whispers something about the act of storytelling itself in The Tale of Desperaux. Rebecca Stead manipulates conventional expectations of genre to tell us to question our assumptions in When You Reach Me. Louis Sachar's omniscient narrator shows us that what seems to Stanley Yelnats to be bad luck--and what seems to the reader to be haphazardly linked episodes--are all the product of fate, a master plan, someone pulling the strings.

Usually when adult authors poo poo children's books, you can roll your eyes and pat their heads and remark at how well they do within the binding constraints of the genre of adult literary fiction. That's not Amis, really. He's an experimental writer whose books feature finely wrought caricatures set loose in a world of malaise and decay. The novels are relentlessly, aggressively brilliant, with the showy testosterone-y literary gamesmanship that marks a certain generation of postmodern writer--sort of like Jonathan Franzen meets Michael Bay. Amis has an awareness of the uses of genre, a facility for playing with language, an eye for structure and its meaning, an ability to see the elements of storytelling many people take for granted as tools to be manipulated. In fact, I dare say he has the sense of play and ability to see outside the bounds of conventional fiction that could mean he's got a future in children's books. If he can outlast the brain injury.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Liza Ketchum recently sent me a funny comparison of how Minnesotans and other folks react to the cold. According to this list, at 65 degrees (above zero) Arizonans turn on the heat while Minnesotans plant their gardens. At 20 degrees (still above zero) people in Miami all die, and Minnesotans close the windows. The list continues down to 50 below zero, when hell freezes over and Minnesotans start school two hours late.

It’s true that at temperatures well below zero, things change. Snow squeaks underfoot. The inside of your nose freezes a little with each inhalation. Sound carries farther. Pneumatic screen doors closers slam shut. And you betcha the sky will be blue and the sun bright, because clouds help hold in what little warmth we might have. Twenty below in Minnesota is brilliantly bright.

Recently a New Yorker showed me how to talk on a New York subway, faces cheek to cheek, almost touching, talking into each other’s ears while gazing at the people or subway signs beyond—a closeness that might make many Minnesotans uneasy.

Squeaking snow, cheek-to cheek subway conversations--those are specific details of settings. Setting infuses your story: your characters act and react in ways specific to the subtle details of where they live.

It’s above freezing today, so Minnesotans will probably be running around without coats, but I do want to set the record straight on the list Liza sent me, which contains a blatant exaggeration. When hell freezes over Minnesotans start schools one hour late, not two.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Text and That Stuff Underneath It

Oooooh. Marsha mentions Graywolf Press' Art of Series (link is to Graywolf's full catalogue, but I trust with your advanced abecedarian skills you can find the series) in the post below. Let me add a plug for Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext.

So, Dialogue is very rarely people talking directly and clearly about what they think and how they feel. People talk around their feelings and meanings, they talk above, across, behind, beneath, besides them. Occasionally they talk near the truth. But rarely, rarely do they talk about it. Dialogue is a dance--and at its best it's characters dancing around trying desperately to avoid getting their feet stuck in the thick, gooey layer of subtext beneath them.

What matters, then, is the three dimensionality of the scene--that what we have is not just the words that make up information the characters are communicating, but a full, whole scene where the characters are moving in space and breathing in the thick, subtext-laden air. Baxter refers to this as staging:

Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed. Staging may include how close or how far away the characters are from each other, what their particular gestures and facial expressions might be at moments of dramatic emphasis, exactly how their words are said, and what props appear inside or outside...Staging might be called the microdetailing implicit in scene-writing when the scene's drama intensifies and takes flight out of the literal into the unspoken...It shows us how the characters are behaving, and it shows us what they cannot say through the manner in which they say what they can say.

Everything I say about dialogue goes for thoughts, too--Marsha's admonition to STOP RUMINATING isn't just a pacing issue, but an accessibility one. If we know everything the character thinks, if we know what motivates her every action, we have no real need to engage with that character. It all becomes information, and keeps our engagement at the surface level of the literal words. When someone has an internal monologue heavy scene, I often suggest they write it as a playscript, so the only way to communicate is through dialogue and action. To further twist and abuse the dance metaphor, then the dialogue becomes the carefully choreographed steps, and the subtext the music.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another How-To

Once upon a time when I was in the throes of a first draft and was getting carried away with writing interior monologues, I pinned a handwritten note above my desk: “No rumination.” The novel wasn’t very plot oriented and even during the early stages I knew that any more stopping of action was not a good thing.

I thought about that warning sign yesterday when I was savoring Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes. This very short book is part of the Graywolf Press “The Art of Series” and this volume is certainly worth reading.

Most children’s and YA novels don’t mess around too much with narrative time (The most obvious recent exception is of course Rebecca Stead’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me). A straight-forward chronology over a short period of time is the usual pattern. But most stories of any length involve some pausing and flashback, and it’s important for a writer to make those transitions smooth ones.

Silber’s discussion is broken into these categories: Classic Time, Long Time, Switchback Time, Slowed Time, Fabulous Time, and Time as Subject. I have a library copy, but I suspect I’ll soon be ordering my own as well as looking into the other books in the series. (The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voight, The Art of the Ending by Amy Bloom--Yum.)

Monday, February 7, 2011


I’m reading a book right now that, like the debate about the list of books for feminist readers of YA in Anne’s post, raises questions about conventions.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones covers everything from ADEPTS to ZOMBIES and includes travel guide icons both typical (Food, Lodging) and atypical (Evil, Magic) as well as Official Management Terms, defined as “words which the management has dreamed up for use every time a certain thing, fact, sensation, or person is mentioned.” In Fantasyland, for example, stew (an almost ubiquitous food) is always thick and savory; you get a sense of wrongness or a feeling of being watched when assassins are approaching; and the occupants of hovels always eke out a wretched existence.

Most kinds of writing have conventions, certainly, just as most occupations and avocations have shared vocabulary. So when does convention become cliché? When do we depend too much on convention or cliché to do the emotional work that our characters and scenes should be doing instead?

Just as an exercise, try writing, in any genre, a scene heavily laden with overused words, phrases, and actions. Now rewrite the same scene with unexpected language. The key word is rewrite: my own first drafts are filled with flat language, clichés, filter words. Rereading those drafts, seeing my writing eke out a wretched existence, I am filled with a sense of wrongness. Revision is a chance to make my writing thick and savory.

And watch for other Tough Guides as listed in the front of Wynne Jones’s book, including The Tough Guide to Time Warps (out last century), The Tough Guide to the End of the World (coming soon), and The Tough Guide to Black Holes (unaccountably missing). Did I mention that the book makes me laugh out loud?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bitch Magazine is Very Sorry Anyone Was Offended

Oh, the kids book corner of the Internet exploded again. See, Bitch Magazine published a list called "100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader." And some books were removed after people complained about the presentation of rape in them--including Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels because the authors of the list (who had never actually read it before) decided the book "validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance..." And then some other authors asked that their books be taken down, and, well, there you go. Colleen at Chasing Ray tells the whole story--and it's really worth a read.

I'd be curious to know what you think of the list. Despite authors removing their books, it still stands at 100, and given that the original list included many books that no one making it bothered to read, one can only imagine the last minute scrambling--Are You There God, It's Me Margaret! That's got a chick in it, right?

Of course it's not easy to determine what makes a book--or anything else--feminist or not. The introduction to the list cites "kick-ass teens" and "inspiring feminist themes," that will, naturally, "empower" the reader. I'm not sure what an inspiring feminist theme is, really--though I suggest to the authors of the list that having the courage to stand behind your words might be one--but surely that's not the only thing that can make a book feminist, and to equate feminism only with empowerment and inspiring themes Lifetime-izes the whole project. I don't think Laurie Halse Anderson's sophisticated, devastating Wintergirls, for instance, qualifies under any of these criteria--it's a facile reading that calls it "empowering"-- yet I would say its aesthetic is wholly feminist.

To make a list and then remove books because a couple commenters complained is to say, essentially, that a feminist reader is not capable of critiquing for him or herself. But its antithetical to the very nature of feminism to only allow works that tell the reader what to think. It seems more pertinent to take these themes--whether inspiring or not--reveal them for their complexity, and ask the reader to think about them. The act of presenting something dark and terrible demands that readers critique it for themselves, and in fact empowers them to do so--just as they should do with the world around them. Or maybe Lanagan should have had those characters die in a car accident at the end so we know what they did was bad.

The entire reason for this post, though, is to highlight this quote from Margo Lanagan on the whole kerfuffle, which says a great deal, not just about feminism, but about the work of fiction:
Fiction is a means to make parts of the world visible in all its complexity and ambiguity, not cover up its nasty bits and hope they'll go away. Fiction (particularly fantasy fiction) provides a safe place where uncertainties can be considered and explored.

There we go. Feminism: it doesn't cover up the nasty bits.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Many of you have seen a storyboard for picture books. I thought I’d show you how I use one to revise a novel.

After I have a first draft with some sort of resolution, I write out the crucial elements of each chapter on a post-it. I do this by hand, since it forces me to slow down. I place the post-it notes in a grid on a big sheet of paper. The bigger the better because, like an artist who has to occasionally step back from her painting, I want to be able to see my novel from a distance. Now I can move the post-its around to see how order will affect the story.

In the case of this current novel-in-progress I used different colored notes to represent chapters of backstory. As you can see, the bright orange notes are rather sporadically placed, which tells me I need to question them. Could there be more backstory? Can they appear randomly, or in a clearly, defined and consistent pattern? Should there be more in the beginning and fewer at the end? Are they even necessary? The pink post-it represents a coming together of both the past and the present, which happens only once at the end. The dark yellow post-its are used because I ran out of the other.

After rearranging, I type up the chapter outlines and paste them into the grid. This gives a sense of permanence, even though I can change anything at anytime (and already have). I leave these storyboards hanging on my wall. I stare at them up close and from a distance. I move the post-its around and stare some more. I question every thing a thousand times.

Reading the novel on one piece of paper gives me a visual of the narrative flow. Now I can go back and to those fussy little details that create this big picture, making changes at whim—although this is really not whim at all, but an innate understanding of all that has been processed.I just have to pretend that it is all a whim.

You KNOW what you need to do; you just don’t know that you know—that’s what makes it fun. Try it. You might like it or it might make you crazy. Either way it can’t hurt, and at the very least you do something with your hands that can hang on a wall.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

He Had me at Rustlers

My agent is trying to peddle a collection of Flash Fiction. For grown-ups. He suggested that while we wait to see what the NY houses say I might take a look at some places that don't bother with pages and covers. So I went into the land of e-books. Kindle and Amazon. That kind of thing.

The title of this blog comes from the precis of an e-book about two city slickers who struggle to open a vegan restaurant outside Tucson and are stymied by homophobes and rustlers. God, I can hear the dialogue now: "Put down the gluten-free waffle, you snivelin' cur. We've been watchin' this here buffet table all night. Now skedaddle! Before we fetch the powdered sugar and run you out of Rancho Delicious on a rail! Well, maybe not a rail. That's uncomfortable. All right, we'll call a gol-darned town car, but you're leavin'!"

I know, I know. You think that pretend-quote is just me being me. Not so, amigos. There's a lot of that in the world of e-books, but they're not kidding.

You might Goggle a few e-book sites and see what you think. The upside is publication (of a sort) and 50% of any sales. The downside is the company your book might be keeping and checks for $9.75. And I wonder if easy e-publication is a kind of gateway drug to dumber and dumber books. Why write well when somebody will accept and put up for sale almost anything?

I'll bet I'm missing something. I'll bet there's a cool e-site somewhere with a selective editorial board, good writers and checks in at least the hundreds. If there is, I'm sure we'd all like to know about it.

Filter Words

I often hound my students about filter words. And yesterday I found myself cutting a whole bunch of them in my own manuscript. One example:

"She watched as mixed emotions throttled Cynthia’s face."


“Mixed emotions throttled Cynthia’s face.”

I usually write in a very close third person POV. "She watched," “she looked,” “she saw” and so on are seldom necessary because the reader knows who is doing the seeing, watching, etc. But oh boy, they sure find their way onto the page. (Same for when writing in a first person POV, of course.)

“Filter words” is a term picked up somewhere or other. Hamline, probably. Why "filter?” I guess because the phrase (she saw, etc) adds a filter--layer--between action and reader, decreasing immediacy. Some filters clarify things, of course, and at times that clarification is necessary.

Another term I use: “Slider words.” This is for the “Oh” or “Well” or “Okay” that often begins a line of dialogue. These words help us slide into the sentence--as writers and speakers--but can almost always be cut from the page. Sometimes there's a need for a beat or pause, but a slider word is probably not the way to do it.

These terms and others got discussed a lot at Hamline residency this past January, especially in regard to how foreign they can be to someone just entering the culture. The writing world, like any small society, has its own vocabulary. We're putting together a glossary of basic creative writing terms so incoming students aren’t so flummoxed by the in-speak. What term would you add?