Friday, January 29, 2010

Goodbye, tough guys.

The lit world is abuzz with news of the passing of J.D. Salinger (left). I remember my dad giving me his copy of Nine Stories, telling me about reading it because it had been banned by the nuns at his high school, telling me his favorite story had been The Laughing Man. I was torn between Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut and Just Before the War with the Eskimos. Here's a link where you can read some of Salinger's "under-published" stories (as well as the more well-known ones).

We've also recently lost Robert Parker (right), author of the Spenser novels that led to the Spenser: For Hire t.v. series. I did the best acting of my short career in an episode of that show (At the River's Edge), and Parker was a Cambridge man (MA, not UK).

Gentlemen, thank you.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Irregular Verb Conjugation for the Unpublished

I first drafted this post over a month ago, after reading post in which the author wrote, "I write, you write, we all write, and we all get rejected."

That reminded me of those old verb conjugation charts -- I am; you are; he/she/it is -- and also of an old joke about the conjugation of sexual behavior: I am erotic, you are kinky, they are perverted.

(That's going to bring me some unwanted Google hits. Anyway.)

Then today I read the INTERN's post on publishing "Evil". Go read it. I'll wait.

If you also read the comments, you'll see that I responded that the perception of "evil" in publishing as follows:

It's a writer-conjugation thing:

I am noble.
You are commercial.
They are evil.

Same thing with the reason our queries were rejected:

They are unprofessional and untalented.
You are close, but not good enough.
I was robbed.
I'm joking, but I'm not, right? My original post (as drafted a month ago) was going to be about that "conjugation for queriers" and I was going to try to make it funny.

But we see this attitude everywhere among wanna-be writers... and it's not that funny. Sure, we all like to blow off steam now and then, but (and I alluded to this in my Shiny Tiara Power post) that kind of thinking can get self-destructive really fast. The post from the INTERN worries me, because it means it's not just private steam-blowing anymore. Now it's becoming part of the language of the debate.

We should be in this because we love to write. We should be in this to make friends.

Who is an author/agent/editor/industry professional-blog-friend you appreciate? I'm going to give a shout-out to Jody Hedlund, because I'm pretty sure she was the first person to follow my blog, and because she has a lovely, thoughtful, professional, giving-back-to-the-community blog herself. We don't write the same stuff, we don't live in the same area, we would never have met at any conference, but we both care about the craft of writing, and we both want to write as a vocation. And I'm delighted that I met her on my path to publication.

I write, you write, she writes, we all get rejected. Stick TOGETHER, people.

Name someone good-hearted in the comments. This "evil" publishing talk is garbage and we should help put an end to it.

To tide you over until I have time for a real post...

Here's my new favorite website, Letters of Note.

Mark Twain attacks charlatan spammers. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Novel content redux

Nathan Bransford asked the question in September of last year, Tony Buchsbaum asked again last week, and we'll probably still be asking in the next century: should fiction for children and teens be content-rated?

I'm with Mur Lafferty on this: NO.

To me, words are different from visual images. (And, as I was discussing recently with author Gary Corby, I'm actually pretty lax on my opinion of images as well, so long as they have some artistic or historical value.) Basically, I don't think there's anything my kid can find and read on her own that I can't trust her with. If it's violent or sexual beyond her maturity level, she can put it down or discuss it with me. That's what I did when I got hold of certain books "too early."

(Oh, and as for the mature books that I read all the way through? That meant it wasn't too early. I suffered no long-term damage from the adult books I managed to pick up at my elementary school's used book sale.)

Why am I rehashing this old turf? Because yesterday I listened to an episode of the podcast Writing Excuses, on the subject of violence, and heard this awesome quote:

I think morality is more about consequences rather it is about than what you depict or choose not to depict.

Beautifully put, gentlemen. It's the consequences that befall the characters that really determine the tone and message of a story, not the sex, drugs, or violence. Does a character feel bad for hurting another person, or is s/he indifferent? Does the world around the character react to the behavior in question, or is the society indifferent? And, are those reactions and consequences (or lack thereof) ultimately portrayed as positive, negative, or neutral?

Have you ever read a work of fiction that you felt was genuinely immoral? Why?

(Hmmm. Ambiguity. I meant "what made it immoral?" not "why did you read such an immoral book?" Ha!)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Monsters and Mayhem, Part 1 of 6

from Joe Alterio's Robots and Monsters gallery

So, I'm taking a 6-week course called Monsters and Mayhem at Grub Street, taught by Sue Williams and KL Pereira. (Sophie Powell will also teach in future weeks.) I'm taking the class because:

  1. I love to read sci fi, fantasy, and horror, but I've never tried to write it. Why not?
  2. I want to start writing more magical realism.
  3. I think challenging myself to explore a new genre is a good thing.
So, what have I learned so far? Genre-jumping is hard. The first class assignment was to answer some in-depth questions about "your monster"... but I don't have a work-in-progress with a monster yet. The students around me immediately started writing about dragons and vampires and necromancers who trail ghosts behind them and a leviathan with a 6-chambered heart... and I was just sitting there thinking, dang I am out of my league.

But that's the point of pushing yourself, right? Finally an idea hit me from something my husband and I said years ago about the devil, and I came up with a "monster." I'm still more in the magical realism arena than in true speculative fiction territory, so I'm working with a real animal rather than a fantastical one, but this is still the first time that I've ever tried to get into the head of any character other than a contemporary human. And it's extremely cool. I might even have a short story idea building out of this.

Yesterday was all about character-building. Often writers get caught up in a good character idea and start writing before they've fleshed everything out, and then end up stuck, or worse, end up finishing a book without realizing that they've left out important things like where these characters get their money, how do they eat, and what happened to their families. Here are some questions to consider when creating your characters:
  • Is your monster male/female/both/neither?
  • What are its fears and desires? Is it good, or evil, or in-between?
  • Was it born a monster or become one? If it became one, when? How old is it? Is it mortal or immortal? If immortal, does it age at all?
  • What does it look like? How is it like/unlike a human? What powers does it have? How does its appearance change when it uses those powers or experiences emotion?
  • Housing: it is a posh monster who decorates elaborately, or is it a hole-in-the-ground kind of guy?
  • Does it have any particularly fond or terrible memories about its life before it was a monster, or about being a monster? Does it have parents, a spouse, children, or an unrequited love?
  • When and where does it live now? Our world and time or another?
  • Is it a solitary creature or does it crave company? Who does it like and/or trust? If if prefers groups, what is the hierarchy of that group, what are the rules, what are the consequences of disobeying?
Next week we'll be getting more into monster psychology. Can't wait.

DO YOU WRITE ABOUT MONSTERS? Tell us a little about them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Your Title Here

A week or so, my author-friend Lisa asked me to talk about titles. I know a lot of people who struggle with the titles of their works, and since most of them don't want to pay someone else to title their novels, I agreed that it deserved a blog post.

Steve Almond said that you should try to pick a title that's uniquely yours... that so many short stories get names like "The Date" or "About My Father" and they're just miserably interchangeable and uninspiring. And Absolute Write agrees that "[t]itles need to come from within, rather than without." But sometimes we're too close to our own work to see the right answer: Amy Tan said that "[t]he words The Joy Luck Club had never struck me as unusual or remotely literary" because it was merely a social club her father had named. She had originally planned to title the book Wind and Water after the Chinese belief in feng shui and the balancing of the elements.* I leave you to draw your own conclusions about which title is more evocative.

Sure, writers are also told not to get too attached to their "working titles" because when it comes time for publication, titles fall somewhere between the content of the book and cover art as far as final authorial control goes... your opinion usually matters, but you're not the final decision-maker, and you don't get veto power. But we still have to work hard to find a good title to capture the attention of the agent/editor in the first place. And, one would assume that the better our own titles are, the more likely we are to get to keep them even after several rounds of editing.

So, how do you get your titles? The original working title of my novel was None the Wiser, and I picked the title very early on in the drafting process. My main character would have a birthday between Acts 2 and 3 ("another year older and...") and I liked the flat acceptance of it. Yeah, she would say, I'm older, but damned if I'm any smarter... except that of course she IS smarter and better at the end. Indeed, her awareness of her failings is part of that growth. Knowing she is not wise makes her wise... something like that.

My last round of beta readers raised the topic of title when I was long past thinking about it. It was depressing, they said. And it was untrue, because the main character is absolutely wiser, and while she might be self-deprecating about it, she certainly isn't blind to her emotional growth.

Hmmm. Good points.

Because Hemingway is referenced throughout the book, I went back to his collection of short stories and tried to find a title among his words. One beta reader liked "stronger at the broken places" but I felt that was too melodramatic. I liked "the end of something" but my readers again thought that was too depressing. "White elephants" would unfortunately make most people think of a sale before they thought of the short story or even the idiom. And after further thought, I wondered if I really wanted to reference a master in the title of the book and risk having myself unfavorably compared to him. Maybe not.

Since names are a big theme in the book (in particular, names as a reflection of identity), I next went online and read through every name-based expression I could find. Both English-language idioms and translated ones, paying particulae attention to anything Japanese in origin, since Japanese language and culture plays a large role in my character's life as well. In Name Only was, in my opinion, the best fit.** It indicates that there's something deeper than the name on the surface (whatever that name might be).

Who knows if it will make it to the shelves with that title, but at least I hope it's sending the right kind of signals about the book's content as I search for an agent.

WHAT ARE YOUR TITLES? What do you like/dislike about them? Are there any published books that you think have particularly good or bad titles? I have to tell you, it doesn't matter how critically acclaimed the book is, I have never been able to read page one of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The title makes me die a little bit inside, every time I read it.

* Anecdote from Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees.
** The phrase What's in a name? is in my query letter but I felt it was wrong for a title. I didn't want a question as the title, it's too well-known, and there's that tricky referencing-a-better-writer-than-you problem again.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In which I become famous.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod I have been linked in The Rejectionist's How To Have Awesome Writing post today! Now our secret love can be revealed. (Plus, despite the state's recent special election debacle, Le R. and I can still get married here in Massachusetts.* Woot!)

Le R. linked in particular to the series of posts I've done based on writing classes I've taken at Grub Street... the exciting news for those of you who like those posts is that there's more to come! In fact, I will be attending a Grub Street class every Monday night from next week until the end of March, so I expect to see you all back here every Tuesday. There may be homework, but no pop quizzes. I'm mellow that way.

I was also linked in Sierra Godfrey's Google Reader Round-Up for my Shiny Tiara Power post earlier this week, which is less writing-craft oriented and more how-do-I-write-as-a-vocation-without-going-crazy oriented, and now I'm starting to think that I should start doing some better organizing of the tags on my posts...

If you've come here from Le R. or Sierra's blogs, welcome, and have a look around! If you already know me, go check out Sierra and Le R. If you already frequent all three of us... well, then. I'll try to be extra-clever for you again next week.

* Yep. I'm one of them liberal authors.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Walking the Line

Because Cash and Phoenix both rock.

This week Natalie Whipple wrote about Choosing Lines, and Voidwalker wrote about Moral and Ethical Writing. I love these discussions, I really do. Go check 'em out. Are you a realist or an idealist, or both? Have you written or would you write about something that is fundamentally against your belief system or ethical code?

I commented on both blogs that I don't think I could write a book that glamourized something that is morally reprehensible. And yet, I recognize that someone with a different moral code than me could read my book and think I've done exactly that. Could someone with different beliefs and standards still like my book at all?

There is a line I walk. Maybe it's not your line, and I don't think any story is truly "universal", but I like to think that if I've written it well enough, it will still be a compelling read even for those who see things differently. I'm not out to convince anyone to change lines (although that would be stunningly awesome), but perhaps my characters can show something valuable about why they've chosen the lines they did.

What's your line? What's on the other side?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shiny Tiara Power

Yep. That's a tiara on my head. Wanna make something of it?

Mur Lafferty rocks my world.

Seriously, if you want to write fiction, and you're not listening to Mur's I Should Be Writing podcast, then I'm just convinced you're not really trying. It's like the best blog ever, but in audio format, and with published-author interviews.

Anyway, Mur recently wrote a blog post about Sour Grapes and Spite in which she was brutally honest about the bitterness and resentment some of us feel when others get what we want. Because it's not always abstract. Sometimes it's not just that you think that "others" who can't write as well as you are making the big bucks while you toil away in impoverished obscurity... sometimes someone else gets the job or the grant or gets to write the exact article you were trying to score for yourself. You strive to be the best you that you can be, and you do your research and write your cover letters and design your proposal and write your butt off and do everything you could have done... and someone else gets it anyway.

Let us take a moment to mourn and rage against the competitors.

(And maybe you, personally, don't ever feel this way... in which case you must be really Zen, or really in touch with your higher power, or just really really a better person than I am, but if you're not one of those totally unbelievably generous and kind people, you'll know what I'm talking about. The rest of you can go away and have a cupcake because you clearly deserve it and you don't need to waste time reading about petty jealousies because you're above that. Kudos.)

Now, after you've mourned and raged (and, if you're me, gotten your husband to trash-talk that person for you while you eat ice cream)... WHAT DO YOU DO NEXT?

I am prepared to forgive repeated lapses into unlovely thoughts about those who get what we feel is "rightfully" ours, but after a while wallowing ceases to be therapeutic and actually stunts progress. And that's a problem.

In her post, Mur wondered why she didn't just go out and do the things she wanted to do, despite not getting that position/grant money. Why not just go do it anyway? Naturally it would have been easier to do all the things she wanted if she had funding and a fancy title, but, as she put it:
I don’t need the label to do the work, and if I honestly thought I could help people out, then why did I need the shiny tiara power of the position to do so?
(You were wondering what was up with the tiara. Now you know.)

So, I am hereby distributing Shiny Tiara Power to those who need it. Maybe you don't have the imprimatur that you would have gotten by virtue of getting the job / the grant / the article / publication. But I bet there's something you can do in that same direction without any official sanction. Go put on your tiara. Go do it.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to be totally let go of that nugget of spitefulness I've been known to harbor... but maybe I can roll it up in a nice productive/competitive outer shell. Maybe I can make sure that it always drives me forward rather than stopping me cold.

Also, I should probably learn to blowdry my hair and put on some makeup before I post photos of myself online, but whatever.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Things to read on a snowy day

Photo by Keith Dotson

Well, it's snowing here, anyway.

1) For those of you who, like me, had yesterday off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here's the text and video of the I Have A Dream speech. Writers, take note: remember that post about breaking the rules? Remember when I said that it's all about what you can get away with? A badly written version of the same speech would have an editor writing REP in the margins for all those repeated uses of the word dream, especially that line that says "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream." In awkward hands, enumeration and repetition is endlessly boring. In the right hands, it becomes the number one top speech in the history of the U.S.

2) While we're on the subject of race, go read:
3) While we're on the subject of snow, here are my daughter's favorite winter books:
4) Nerds rejoice! Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer are getting hitched! If you haven't read Gaiman's work, in particular American Gods, you are missing out.

5) Stephen Elliott writes about his D.I.Y. Book Tour.

6) My most recent reads: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (memoir of a poet, about her Ewing's sarcoma and the accompanying facial disfigurement) and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (memoir of a novelist, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy). A good pairing; I read Patchett's book first.


Friday, January 15, 2010

"Sometimes art can be too personal."

Self-Portrait with Easel (1888)

A young man showed his student film to its first audience... and no one "got it." He thought he had been very clear in what he had depicted, but it turned out that too many of the references and required thought-connections were too closely tied to himself and his own particular ideas and experiences. Other people didn't see what he saw. "Sometimes," he said, "art can be too personal."

I wrote a short story last week that I love. The kind of story where you finish it and think, "This is so cool. I've really got something here. Revising? Pshaw. It's ready now!"

I gave it to a crit partner who has read my work before, who "gets" me, and who I trust.

She didn't get it. Worse, she didn't understand it. The ending flat-out confused her.

It's not ready.

Quite frankly, I'm a little bummed. I know that everything needs revising, and that writing is rewriting, but... yeah. I kinda hoped I'd gotten it flawlessly the first time around. And now I need to figure out how to translate that which is totally obvious to me into something which is comprehensible by people who, well, aren't me.

Recap of post for people who might not see things exactly the way I do: This is why you need a crit group or beta readers.

Hang in there, everyone.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Other people's advice

First, I present to you Randy Susan Meyer's 10 Commandments of Book Launching. GENIUS. She knows of what she speaks, because her novel The Murderer's Daughters launches in less than one week. If you're in the Boston area, there will be a book launch party, and donations matching all book sales that night will go to The Home for Little Wanderers.

Second, we have some advice from Joan Wickersham... she was told that the original source of this advice was Dostoyevsky but was unable to confirm the attribution. Whoever said it first, it's good:

Every story has three versions: the version you tell your friends, the version you tell yourself, and the version you're afraid to tell yourself.

Write the third one.

Finally, we have a great post on pushing yourself by Mur Lafferty. It comes complete with a photo from Cake Wrecks... please tell me you all already knew about Cake Wrecks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Show and tell: not just for elementary school.

Poster by eypril

Today we continue our discussion of my Monday night class at Grub Street: The Rules of Writing: How to Use Them & When To Break Them, taught by Joan Wickersham.

Show, don't tell.

Man, you just hear it EVERYWHERE, don't you? But what the heck does it really mean? Yes, it's way better to have your character's brow furrow and his face get red and his jaw clench than to write, "Then he got angry." But, if taken too literally, you're not allowed to say "he brushed his teeth" because you instead have to describe the picking up of the brush, the running of the water, the application of the toothpaste... I'm already boring myself here.

How do you find the happy medium?

Joan rewrote the "show, don't tell" rule as: Show and tell. Show what needs to be shown, but don't neglect the possibility of narration, and don't fear the unexpected.

Let's consider a few examples to make this point. (Ha! Showing!)

First, let's take the start of Hemingway's short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Pure dialogue. A man and a woman. He is talking about "how it ends" and "the odour" and she is telling him not to talk. Large "obscene" birds fly and land around them. She asks if she can do anything, and he says maybe taking off the leg... or just shoot him.

Joan said, and I agree, that this is as close to pure showing as you can get. What isn't being said here? That the man is dying of gangrene, the vultures are circling, and he's pushing away the woman who loves him. By showing instead of telling, there's a certain mystery and immediacy to the story (it's like you're sitting next to them), a prolonging of the moment (it's 3 pages in before Hemingway confirms your suspicions by saying it's gangrene in the man's right leg), and the reader is given the ability to discover for him/herself what is going on. Hemingway's not out to confuse you, he's out to shock you. To let you have that moment of realization on your own.

In contrast, there's the scene in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies) where Darcy is asking for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. There's almost no dialogue at all. Instead, we are told what Elizabeth is thinking as the narration follows her thought process. Now, there's certainly some showing (e.g. we see Darcy pacing before the proposal instead of reading "he was agitated") but mostly it's just one character's internal voice about how arrogant this jerk is. Why does telling work here?

There's the issue of focus: let's face it, we don't CARE what words Darcy uses here. It's a rotten proposal, and we care more about what's going on in Elizabeth's head during his speech than we do about the speech itself. (And, if you want to get really fancy, Austen is in a way showing that Elizabeth has probably tuned out the exact words of the proposal herself, due to the way it is being presented.) There's also the issue of pacing: just as Hemingway slows down the discovery of the gangrene, Austen speeds up your discovery of Darcy's arrogance. Because we don't need leisurely discovery, we need to understand the fallout afterwards.

Here's my own theory as to what both excerpts have in common: both writers make you avert your eyes from the key subject matter of the story. In another class I took, the instructor said that a the in-class writing assignment crafted by one student worked so well because the most heartbreaking material was handled with restraint. This understatement, this avoidance of telling the reader the heart of the matter so that s/he can bring his/her own emotions to the book rather than having them supplanted by the writer's experiences and expectations, is in my opinion what makes the pieces work. The heart of the story is that a man is dying... wait. Don't reveal it right away. The heart of the scene is that this proposal is garbage... don't quote the proposal. In the case of William Maxwell's novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, there's a scene where the author shows the pain a boy has felt by being ripped away from his home by showing only the things he has been forced to leave behind. The author shows restraint by taking the boy out of the scene. And I think the passage pretty universally knocked the class on its collective butt.

It's all about pacing, and focus, and not robbing the reader of the most vital experiences in reading. Now... go forth and experiment.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Breaking the rules

Last night's Grub Street seminar, The Rules of Writing: How to Use Them & When To Break Them, was taught by Joan Wickersham. The class was originally a lecture given at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace writing conference (that's the link for the upcoming 2010 conference), and I can see why so many people loved it... how nice to be told that it's okay to break a few rules while you're stressing over your pitch and wondering if you're making a fool of yourself* networking!

The class boils down to this: it's all about what you can get away with.

Joan gave us six rules to be debunked (or at least clarified and mitigated):
  1. Show, don't tell.
  2. Write what you know.
  3. Maintain consistent voice & point of view.
  4. Write every day.
  5. Write for the market.
  6. Read great books.
Joan used to follow the rules, until she realized that these rules, taken at face value, were impeding her ability to write a publishable book about her father's suicide. She tried first person and third person narratives. She showed. She kept things properly chronological. And it wasn't working. She finally let go of the rules, and nine years after she started, The Suicide Index finally got an agent, a publisher, and became a National Book Award Finalist.

Here are Joan's rewrites of the rules. (I'm going to put off discussing #1 until tomorrow, because it's the most nuanced rule of the group, and deserves a post of its own... especially since I think a lot of authors get worked up about it).
  1. Show AND tell. [Come back tomorrow for details.]
  2. Write what you care about. Or, write what you know: don't fake it, don't imitate.
  3. Discover and maintain the internal logic demanded by your piece.
  4. Write even if you don't feel like it.
  5. Write for yourself, and your Ideal Reader.
  6. Read everything. Read the books you need.
These all make so much sense, don't they?

If people only wrote "what they know" in a literal sense, we'd have nothing but fictionalized memoir in the bookstores. But if you care about something, you can do the research, and you can tell the emotional truth of how your characters would behave in a previously unimagined situation. Jane Eyre was originally published with the title Jane Eyre, an autobiography, and when Charlotte Bronte released her 2nd edition with a dedication to Thackeray, a writer she deeply admired, a rumor spread that he was the REAL subject of the novel, and that his governess had written it. Charlotte cared about what she wrote, and she convinced everyone that it was something she "knew."

Not every story needs to be unrelenting in a single point of view or voice. Think of Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber... he gave the POV of Francis, of Wilson the hunter-guide, and of THE LION THEY WERE HUNTING. It's what the piece demanded, and he pulled it off. Joan's memoir about her father has an emotional arc in "index" form because straight chronology wasn't doing the story justice. Be true to your work.

Not everyone can or wants to write every day. Not everyone can write while traveling or home for the holidays, and it doesn't make you less of a writer. Just be sure that you aren't waiting for inspiration to strike before you sit down to work. Be sure that you're trying, more often than not.

What market? It takes so long to publish a book that any market we see will probably be gone before we are able to cater to it. Make your own market. Write for yourself.

Read what you need to. Reading nothing but the greats will probably depress and discourage you, anyway. Read bad books to learn from others' mistakes. Read books similar to your own to learn about the genre, or AVOID those books so you don't feel like you're crowding your own work out with someone else's voice. Just read.

As I see it, the rules are intended to help you avoid confusing and frustrating your reader, and to get you to write more. If the reader ISN'T confused, if you ARE writing, then it's all up for grabs.

Any questions? Are there any rules you won't break, or rules you love to hate?

* I'm sure you're not.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Continuing efforts

New Year's Resolution Round-Up for Week 2:

1) Last week, skipped one scheduled gym class to take Serious Girl to a playdate. Worth it, but must not neglect working out this week.

2) First writing class of 2010 tonight! Woot!

3) Short story not finished. Finished watching entire series of Deadwood instead. Could have been greatest series EVER, but series finale was disappointing to the point of incomprehensibility. Several writing rules broken: characters acting out of character without any development to explain the changes is NOT COOL, WRITERS. I will have to write a post soon about suspense vs. surprise. Short version = if you're not giving hints leading up to something, it's probably a cheat.

4) On the bright side, watching Deadwood will increase your desire to use language to the fullest... and, no, I'm not talking about the profanity. Here, go read this article on the language of Deadwood. I'll excerpt for you:
Whenever people talk about Deadwood they talk about the show's dialogue, and no surprise: the baroque syntax, the casual juxtaposition of 'shocking' profanity and a kind of Victorian eloquence, the emotional heft of even the most compact exchanges, all sum to arguably the most distinctive dialogue style in TV history, an art of speech uniquely American and weirdly untheatrical.... the residents of Milch's Deadwood speak a heightened but lived-in English that exposes and even buttresses their endangered souls.
It was a show truly worth watching, especially for writers. If you can handle the profanity, go rent or buy yourself a copy. Seasons One and Two are pretty much flawless, but you are hereby on notice about the last few episodes of Season Three.

5) Must finish short story today. And now, I'm off to bake cookies with Serious Girl.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Busy day

I just wrestled our 10-foot-plus Xmas tree to the ground and out of our apartment by myself, Serious Girl has a playdate in less than one hour (20 minutes away), I'm meeting an old crit partner for late lunch, and... I'm writing something. Hence the photo above. No, that's not actually me, I'm pretty sure that's a guy. Don't distract me. It's a short story that I started yesterday, and I plan to finish the first draft today. Current working title: Gregor Samsa on the Red Line. Don't jinx it.

So, in lieu of something deep and meaningful to read here, I suggest that you go check out the winners to Rachelle Gardener's poetry contest and book giveaway (if you haven't already). I'm an honorable mention, as is one of this blog's regular commenters (yeah, Simon!) and all the entries are fabulous and funny and thoughtful. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sex and the Novel

Male Authors and Sex - A Generational Comparison

In November of last year, I spoke ever-so briefly about Women in Art; today's our chance to talk about the men. Did anyone else read Katie Roiphe's essay in this Sunday's NY Times Book Review, The Naked and the Conflicted? It's a long one, but worthwhile. (You may also be able to listen to the essay.)

The short summary is that the most recent generation of male authors has toned down the sex in their writing... there's less explicit outrageous behavior by characters; less attempted titillation of the reader; more innocence, trepidation, and ambivalence.

So... is there a genuine societal return to innocence, or is it in fact the contrary: more free sex in society means that writing about it blatantly has lost its taboo charge and no longer provides the novelist with the drama it once did? Is the "new sex" (or lack thereof) in the more recent novels an improvement, or is it just a new spin on the same narcissism and sexism?
What comes to mind is Franzen's description of one of his female characters in "The Corrections": "Denise at 32 was still beautiful." To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest that this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.

I'll admit that I'm largely punting here: I haven't come to a conclusion of my own yet, nor have I read the full canon of works by these authors so as to make the most informed analysis possible. But I think this article is fascinating. Please go take a look. And if you have any thoughts, I would absolutely love to hear them. But I think I'm leaning towards Roiphe's conclusion:
Why don't we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?

And, of course, I'm not the only one thinking about this:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No! Don't make me choose!

Yesterday I tried to add a new blog to my "Blogs I'm Following" list (is that the same as Google Reader? whatever) and was told that I'm already at maximum capacity -- 300 -- and must "unfollow" some other blogs first.

Not cool, Blogger. Not cool at all.

This is going to seriously interfere with my attempts to follow most of those people who follow me. This means I'm going to have to pick and choose among blogs when I thought I was going to be able to idly follow everyone and just see what popped up in the recent-posts lists whenever I got the chance to scroll through. This means I'm going to have to prioritize, when I really just wanted to keep everyone included.

Sound like some authors you know?

Not all characters can stay in every novel. After a certain point, the reader can't keep track, or even if they can, they wonder why you're wasting time diverting their attentions with characters who, while they may be entertaining, are ultimately not essential to the story. You've got to make choices among those characters, no matter how much you think you love them all.

But don't think that this means total deletion! Save those characters in another file, and you may well find a home for them again down the line.

For now, I've "unfollowed" Nathan Bransford because I remember to check him daily without having him in my list, and, more importantly, because he already has 2,738 followers, so my withdrawal will not make a heck of a lot of difference in the grand scheme of his perceived popularity. (Killing the character that has already been seen in too many other stories.) Also, he's already in a blogroll of agents/editors in the right-hand column of this blog. (Moving the character to another, more appropriate story.)

The new blog I'm adding only has 9 followers -- I just made it 10 -- so I think my public readership has a bit more added value over there. (Choosing to focus on a character that hasn't had his/her chance at the center stage yet.) Plus, they have yummy recipes! Mmmm, baked goods with orange... insert Homer Simpson-esque drooling.

We have to make choices. It hurts at first, but I think we usually realize that in the end, it's for the best.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What's on your list?

New Year's Accountability Check-In:

1) Went to gym yesterday, chose a different and more difficult workout than usual, and have two classes/training sessions scheduled for later in the week. CHECK.

2) Signed up for four writing classes (three one-night seminars, one multi-week course), including a class that will push my genre experience. CHECK.

3) Ate dinner at actual dining table instead of in front of the television. Read more of Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees. CHECK.

4) Obsessively organized family photos in new iPhoto program. Did not organize any paperwork. Ah, well, we can't win 'em all.

5) Hung out with Serious Girl with total, guilt-free focus. Considered whether we may need even more Melissa & Doug Cutting Food. CHECK.

6) Chose my first "Operation Fill in the Gaps" book. Who wants to do an Anna Karenina book club with me?

Off to read sample pages for a crit partner and do the grocery shopping so that our family's healthy eating habits can last longer than 5 days... what are you all up to as the year starts?

Monday, January 4, 2010


New Year's 2006 in Cartagena, Colombia

Why did I pick this photo today? As a reminder.

First, we spent New Year's Eve in Colombia in 2006 because my husband was working for a different company back then, and was spending months at a time in Bogota (among other far-ranging locations) and so we decided that I would come out to meet him for a holiday. He doesn't have that job anymore. He doesn't travel for work like that anymore (he once did Chicago, London, Toronto, Miami, Bogota, London again, and then home in one week). When we took that photo, we had been married for less than 8 months, and we weren't thinking about having kids yet. It seems like a million years ago, not just four. I want to start the new year with an awareness of how fast things can change.

Second... just look at that photo. People in the Southern Hemisphere know about hot Christmases and New Years, but for those of us who reside in the Northern half of the globe, it's a pretty disconcerting concept. I want to make sure that I also start the new year with an awareness of how our experiences can totally change our perceptions of things.

Some of you had pretty awesome 2009s (congrats!) but for others of us it was kind of rough. Here's my reminder to myself: this too, shall pass. And, whatever happens, it's not the same from all points of view.

Here's to 2010. Let's make it a good one.