Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Reflecting Back: One Writer's Year

Since 1972 I have been keeping a daily log of what I do—just the basics. Last year, I resolved to complete the log in “real time” rather than relying on my fragile memory a week later, and I’ve been pretty good. The result is a better record of my life. Of course, like most good intentions, I started out with more gusto than I ended up. I know, for instance, that the first week of January, I wrote approximately 4000 words. Later on in the year, I know what days I wrote, but that’s it. But as I look back over the year, I don’t see a lot of white space, so I guess I’ve been keeping busy. In an effort to appreciate how much of my life is being devoted to my writing avocation, I have decided to summarize achievements in that arena, based on my log (fittingly, recorded in a diary called “The Writer’s Desk," with photos by Jill Krementz. The diaries are an annual Christmas gift from my husband. This year the theme is beleaguered 1950s housewives. We shall see how that inspires me!)

• Began my blog in January: 24 entries.
• Completed a first draft of my novel “How to Write a Best Seller” (HTWS) on July 4th (estimating about 250 additional pages during 2009).
• Wrote one and two page synopses of HWBS as well as detailed chapter outline.
• Completed a second draft on 9/4 and gave to two people to read and critique.
• Revised opening pages of “Gina”
• Reread 7th draft of “Gina,” decided to reset it in 1980, and fixed anachronisms in entire draft.
• Rewrote first few pages of HTBS based on feedback of 2 reviewers.
• Wrote a handful of haiku (inspired by our stay in Hawaii)
• Got new idea for a linked short story collection and wrote 1.5 short stories (November/December)

• Paarticipated in 21 meetings of my bi-weekly writers’ group (at two hours apiece)
• Participated in a 2-minute critique session with an agent on first 20 pages of “Gina”
• Reviewed chapters of another writer friend, and met/talked with him to discuss our writing on five occasions from April to December.

• Attended readings of: Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot (“The Third Chapter”);”Jury of Her Peers;” Jane Hamilton (“Laura Rider’s Masterpiece); Four Stories, Tracy Kidder; book party for “Map, an autobiorgraphy of my CCAE teacher; Steve Almond and Page M. Guttenberg machine demonstration at the Harvard Book Store; Ha Jin.

• Researched agents, sent out three query letters for “Gina in the Floating World” (eventually heard from two)
• Entered “Book in a Nutshell” contest and one line hook contest
• Researched synopses on websites

• Participated in 7-week Novel Development Class at Cambridge Center for Adult Education; reviewed and critiqued classmates’ outlines.
• Participated in full weekend Grub Street workshop “The Art of Language,” and one-day workshop on “Cinefiction.”
• Attended one full day of Muse and the Marketplace (including 4 workshops and keynote Ann Patchett); Boston Book Festival (multiple workshops); Somerville Book Festival (talked to authors)
• Attended shorter workshops on “Should I be on the Web?” and “Writers’ Contracts” sponsored by PEN; “Nail the Opening,” “Avoid Rejection,” and “Ask the Agent” sponsored by Grub Street.
• Attended panels of debut authors at BPL; “Muses, Monsters, and Mentors” at the Brattle Theatre; “Adaptations” at Coolidge Corner.

• Organized my writing drawer on several occasions

Of course, this list doesn’t include novels read, movies that give me ideas, or conversations about writing. Despite full-time work that pays the bills, I really have been devoting a lot of time to this endeavor –almost like my own private MFA! Now if only I could graduate….

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Who and What I am Thankful for as a Writer

In no particular order—

• Grub Street Writers, which has offered so many outstanding classes related to writing and publishing and allowed me to develop my craft.

• My bi-weekly writers’ group--Burns, Lisa, and Shellie, who have provided ongoing support and feedback, five pages at a time and have kept me moving along.

• My friends and family, especially Michael, Buki, and John, who have regularly read and critiqued large hunks of my work and have given me encouragement, love, and ideas.

• My Gina in the Floating World readers—Pippa, Susan, and Donna—who took the time to read an entire draft of my novel and pushed me along on the revision process.

• My teachers at Friends’ Central School, who taught me the fundamentals of how to write, oh so many years ago.

• Michael Neff for giving me an initial boost regarding the potential of “Gina” and then publishing my first short story in Del Sol Review.

• Jackie for being my partner in screenwriting and the adventures that shaped my second novel, as well as for her detailed critique.

• The Internet, for making it so easy to access information on any topic imaginable.

• All those interesting blogs by other writers that help me connect to a community of writers and feel reassured that others are going through what I am going through.

• Computers and word processing for allowing the words to flow more easily onto the page.

• Boston area for being such a rich resource for writers.

• My thesaurus (the book version) for expanding my vocabulary.

• Great writers and books for inspiring me.

• You, my friends and readers, for having faith in me!

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Paradise as Muse

Why I will return to Hawaii-

1. Breathtaking vistas (the view after climbing Diamond Head Crater)

2. Unusual geologic features (Chinaman's Hat, Oahu, windward coast)

3. Exotic wildlife--large (a manta ray with diver a Sea Life Park, Ohahu, but we had a personal visit from a manta ray in our cove on the Big Island)

--and small (lizard on our door stoop, Big Island)

4. Colorful plantlife (some kind of bromeliad)

5. A unique history (the Place of Refuge, Big Island)

6. Its own brand of architecture (the Painted Church, Big Island)

7. Outstanding surf (the Pipeline, Oahu North Shore)

8. Beaches with shade (Kapiolani Beach Park, Waikiki)

9. People marching to their own drummers (or eyewear!)(Pakani Grill, Waimea, Big Island; reminds me of the colorful costumes on Halloween night in Chinatown in Honolulu)

10. New uses for familiar foods (farmers' market, Honolulu)

11. The view off our private deck (Kealakekua Bay, Big Island)

12. The "aloha" spirit everywhere

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Blog Block and the Perils of Revision

Dear Reader (and I know there were a few of you out there), I have been a terrible blogger these last few months, and I owe you an explanation, knowing I may have lost you to more faithful writers. Initially, I had an excuse. I even told you about it. I was working on the second draft on my novel, with a deadline of Labor Day imposed by my friend, who had agreed to read it through before the crush of her fall semester as a professor began. I'm good with deadlines. After I returned from our Jersey shore retreat, I buckled under, wrote for several hours each day after work and most weekends, and sent off the 450+ re-tuned pages that second week in September. I was also subsumed in an intense report writing phase of work--creative writing was my own "busman's holiday." (Does anyone use that phrase anymore, or is it remnant of my English upbringing?) I posted a few pictures of my garden (a symbol of my productivity?), scraps to assuage the hunger of the empty blog pages.

Following this two month burst, I gave myself a second reprieve from wordsmithing, trusting that the muse would return. But I had been in revision mode so long that my faucet of creativity had shut itself off. Not so much as a drip! I couldn't even write about the revision process itself, which for me was just a matter of considering the various pieces of feedback I'd received and plugging away. Nothing special to share. To maintain my illusion of being a writer, I faithfully went to my writers' group every two weeks, continuing to feed my colleagues previously written chapters and providing feedback to them in return. I attended readings, sat in on a session on writers' contracts, and even paid good money to participate in a full weekend workshop on "The Art of Language," where I froze in panic at having to complete an exercise involving substituting new words in a paragraph of an established writer's prose. On the second day of the workshop, I handed in the first two pages of my newly revised novel. It came back from the instructor filled with brackets indicating unnecessary words and a comment about the stakes feeling low. The stakes of my females middle-aged protagonist who was struggling with her novel! What a slap to the brain! I felt deflated but also armed with some new weapons in my revision arsenal. I would not let myself sink into a vat of self-pity (like my protagonist in one of my several attempts at rewriting the first two pages.)

In the meantime, I had heard from my friend--she loved the second two-thirds but included four single-spaced pages of suggestions about that first third. My husband, whom I nervously watched as he read the revision, had his own set of thoughts, also mostly about the beginning. (Blessedly, he stuck with the novel until he finished it, and I took this as a good sign that if it wasn't a page turner, it at least had a certain modicum of forward momentum.) So now I'm stuck. My homework is clear, except that it means more and more reworking of the same old material. Yet, what sense would it make to abandon something that is so close to completion? Or is it? It's reminds me of the waiting game. The longer you wait in line, the less likely you are to leave that line even though you may not be all that close to getting what you need. You have already committed so much time, to leave would be to admit that all the previous time was wasted.

I will finish that novel, but I need to give myself permission to do other writing for awhile, to not believe that I have abandoned the manuscript just because I don't want to deal with it just yet. I need to absolve myself of my guilt (or shame?), in order to move on.

So, dear reader, that is my story. It comes to you courtesy of a netbook with a nine-hour battery life and and an eight hour non-stop plane ride to Hawaii (but that is a story for another blog). I know there will be no tears shed for me upon that little confession. May my muse be waiting for me, mai tai in hand, on a lanai overlooking the deep blue Pacific. Until then...

Monday, September 7, 2009

On the End of Summer

You know it’s the end of summer when—

• The boxes of blueberries at the supermarket are half the size and twice the price.
• The apples are really crisp.
• Your daily walk must be completed before dinner if you want to do it while it’s still light.
• You fill garden refuse bags with all the plants you’ve had to cut back rather than with weeds.
• You receive your first seasonal notice of a coat sale.
• Halloween merchandise fills the shelves of the CVS.
• Mums fill the shelves of the garden store.
• You wonder which of the new TV shows you will waste your time on.
• Sports talk starts to focus as much on football as baseball.
• It’s too cool to eat supper on the patio.
• Previously silent frat houses are holding beer pong parties.
• College freshmen walk around in packs discussing their course schedules and the size of their dorms rooms.
• You can’t find a parking space anywhere near Harvard Square.
• At 2:30pm SUVs idle outside of the local elementary school
• The gym is no longer quiet.
• You pull the quilt up at night.
• You can’t use hot weather as an excuse not to do chores.

What marks the end of your summer?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Vacation!

I am taking a break from my musings to do a revision of my novel! Enjoy these photos of my garden....

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Going "Down the Shore"

I’ve just returned from my annual “anchor” trip to Somers Point, NJ, on the bayside near Ocean City. New Englanders don’t get the Jersey Shore at all. Off season, give me the Cape or the southern coast of Maine, but in the summer, there’s room enough for all of us “down the shore,” from the brash and bustling casinos of Atlantic City, to the well-appointed mansions of Margate and Longport, and the year round suburban towns that dot the coast. Here is a sampler of what I like:

• Key lime margaritas overlooking the Bay
• Long walks on the bike path from Somers Point
• Minimal traffic jams
• Beautiful, well-kept gardens
• The little ranch house we call home
• Pancakes and omelets at the Bayside Restaurant
• Splitting entrees at fancy restaurants
• Finding bargains
• Quiet nights, sunny days
• Wide beaches, soft sand
• Real surf
• Decompressing and de-stressing
• Childhood memories of Margate
• Lucy, the Giant Elephant
• Buying Jersey tomatoes at Mazzeos
• Walking the Boardwalk at Ocean City and Atlantic City
• Catching up with my friend Jackie and planning our lives for the next year

Not surprisingly, the Jersey shore serves as the place of inspiration for the protagonists in the story that Jackie and I created originally as a screenplay, and that, I hope, will be my first novel.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On Markers, Anchors, and Routines

[Musing alert. The following entry will probably make no difference to your life.]

My annual car inspection seemed to come up very quickly this year. It’s a marker for me, signifying the passage of time. There are others. Some are odious, like my mammogram or my three times a year dental cleaning visits (I hate all the scraping and high, whiny machines that strip of tartar and stains). Some are potentially pleasurable, like birthdays. Some are sad, like the anniversaries of the deaths of family members.

In contrast, anchors are like comfort food. Anchors are recurring positive events, activities, TV or radio programs, or routines that help to center me. I look forward to them. Without them, something seems missing. For many years, “A Prairie Home Companion” was an anchor for me. Then one day, Garrison Keillior went off the air, and I felt quite bereft. Fortunately, he returned, though perhaps having been abandoned once, I was more reluctant to allow the show to resume its anchor status. When an anchor disappears, some major readjustment is necessary.

Holidays often serve as anchors. Christmas with my family in London used to be an anchor. I lost that anchor when my family members passed away. In contrast, Thanksgiving was never an anchor holiday. My husband and I rarely do the same thing twice.

And then there are routines. Whereas an anchor might play out differently from occasion to occasion, routines rely on a fixed set of activities and may occur with more regularity—like the morning cup of coffee with the sports section—but they may be infrequent as well. Most of us take some pleasure in our routines. On my first day of that trip to London, I had a routine. Arrive early in the morning, be picked up by my sister and brother-in-law, have a small breakfast upon arrival (usually toast and a soft boiled egg), a couple of hours’ nap, a little lunch, and then a visit to my mum and dad for tea and cake.

For many people, their annual vacations to the same spot serve as anchors. I am about to leave for my yearly anchor trip—my pilgrimage, as I call it, to the Jersey Shore with my long-time friend, whom I only see once a year. For a few days each summer but one since 1995, we have occupied the house of a friend while he is away. It’s a simple ranch house in a suburban bayside community, but it feels like home. We have watched it morph from its original 70s decor of gold shag carpet and dark paneled walls to a brighter, cleaner look with new appliances and central air conditioning. Though relatively brief, the trip serves a major source of recharging for both of us. During this time, we also have our routines--our daily walks on the bike path, our trip to Mazzeo’s to buy local produce for our healthy eating intentions, our check-in at Talbots sale, our visit to the local gallery, our final breakfast on the deck of a little cafĂ©. In its way, the trip is a marker.

I suppose it’s possible that one can become too dependent on one’s anchors and not venture out of one’s comfort zone. But for me, it’s the anchors that make the adventuresome turns possible, like writing. Writing is not an anchor activity, and although it is something I do regularly, neither is it a routine. It requires some gearing up. But once inside the zone, I can go for hours. And then how nice it is at the end of it all to shut off the computer and delve into the bedtime routine.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to Create Character Personalities

A challenge for any fiction writer whose books are not solely plot driven is to develop memorable characters. These characters should be distinguishable from one another by their quirks, styles of speech, and patterns of behavior, and as they change, they should act in believable and consistent manners. Over the span of 300 or more pages, this is no small feat. There are tools we can draw on from other fields to provide a framework. One of my favorites is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which I enthusiastically embraced in my former lives as a career counselor and administrator.

Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Meyers expanded on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types and made it more accessible. Although developed several decades before, the MBTI came into vogue in the 1980s when a number of books about it were published, including the second edition of A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Isabel Briggs Myers and Mary H. McCaulley, Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1985) as well as the more popular Please Understand Me (David Kiersey and Marilyn Bates, 1978; new version now available). For awhile the MBTI was a very popular in corporate settings.

In brief, the MBTI poses four dichotomous scales designed to describe a person’s preferences in relation to her perceptions and actions. The names that were assigned to these scales can be a bit misleading in that they may conjure up images different from those intended. Simplistically put, the four scales are:

Introversion (I)-extroversion (E): Where does your psychic energy come from? Extroverts obtain much of their energy from being with others; introverts prefer being inside their own heads and may be drained by spending too much time with others, especially large groups. (Many actors and writers are introverts in this sense; many salespeople are extroverts.) Note that extroverts are much more common than introverts.

Sensing (S)-intuition (N): How do you collect and generate information? The sensing person focuses on concrete information and details gathered through their five senses. The intuitive person prefers the world of possibilities and ideas. (For examples of a sensor versus an intuitor, think George W. Bush versus Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln.) However, although we may associate creativity with intuitors, sensors can also be very creative.

Thinking (T)-feeling (F): How do you process information, especially to make decisions? The thinking person uses analysis and logic. The feeling person is more concerned with values and emotions. (Think Barack Obama versus Bill Clinton.) Note that women are more likely to be feelers, and men thinkers.

Judging (J)-perceiving (P): How do you operate in the world? The judging person likes to organize their world and prefers closure. The perceiver is more spontaneous and continues to collect information. (Think Felix versus Oscar in The Odd Couple.)

After completing a multi-item assessment, each person can be classified into a four letter type, and each of the 16 resulting types also has distinct characteristics beyond the sum of its parts. (Of course, on some scales, people may be more of a mixture; in others they may have much stronger preferences.) However, I’ve found that even a knowledge of the four scales provides useful information, especially to truly grasp why someone may think or act differently from you. As a partner, manager, subordinate, co-worker, or friend, you can manage your own expectations of others’ behavior much better if you understand their type preferences. Setting aside the arguments that the MBTI doesn’t describe all aspects of personality (and has its detractors), it covers a lot of the ground where tensions between people can arise.

Back in the world of fiction, these inherent tensions between types can also provide the fodder for conflict in fiction. Imagine the high J (judger) becoming very frustrated with the high P (perceiver), who seems incapable of making a decision. At the same time, the P accuses the J of being rigid. Or the high T (thinker) may ridicule the high F for being illogical while the high F may think that the high T has no heart. The high E can stay at a party all night, but the high I has had enough after a short while and would rather go home and read a good book.

There are hundreds of references on the MBTI. A useful, though not definitive, URL is To use the MBTI in the way it was designed to be used requires formal training and certification, but for the writer, the fun is in the description of type and seeing how these different types might aid in character development.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Taking the Plunge and Other Ways to Open a Story

I start most of my stories by leaping headfirst in scene, into the action. But the opening to my first novel isn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. It has high stakes, lots of tension, an unusual setting. Why, after countless rewrites, is it still not doing its job?

Recently, for the long drive back from my college reunion, a friend had lent me some short stories on tape. I listened to these stories as much to learn something about structure as to be entertained. What struck me was that several of these began somewhat languidly, laying out a back story, poking around the head of a key character, or stepping way out for a view of a place or a time in history. If I believed that a novel should start in the middle of things, I had even surer convictions that a short story must catch our attention even more quickly. How else to do this than to plough right in? Clearly, despite regular evidence to the contrary in my own reading, my vision had been clouded by something I had learned or heard that had etched itself in my writer’s brain.

A few days later, thanks to Grub Street Writers instructor, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, and her informative three hour workshop, “Nailing the Opening,” I now have the language to apply to my analysis. Ms. Beach-Ferrara laid out a framework (along with easy to remember names) of five different kinds of openings that could also be combined with each other. These are:

“The Plunge.” That’s me. Immediate, out of the gate, immersion into the action.
“The Wind-up.” A more deliberate entry that may cover a lot of time, maybe even recounting a backstory.
“The Rumination.” I begin a lot of chapters with these, but I’ve never begun a story this way. In this opening, a character ponders “life’s truths.” The rumination is particularly useful to introduce the voice of a first person character and may give us some sense of the theme of the story/book.
"The Aerial View.” This kind of opening orients us to the world we are about to see. It is useful when that world operates differently from the one we know. The aerial view is distancing.
"The Hook." We all know this as the clever sentence or two that immediately snares us, intrigues us, surprises us, makes us take notice and want to know more.

Of course, many stories combine these kinds of openings. Later, I went back to some of my favorite novels to see how they began. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest introduces us to our narrator, Chief. At first glance, it looks like “The Plunge.” We are in the middle of a scene, but it is a scene that has probably played out before. Kesey skillfully lays out the unfamiliar world of the mental institution for us, giving us an “aerial view,” but at closer range. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden insists he doesn’t want to give you any back story, but then he does (A Windup)along with some rumination until he gets us to where his story begins. We have an immediate idea of who this character is, and we are along for the ride. Memoirs of a Geisha, another first person narrative, begins with a short rumination before leading us into the tale that takes place in chronological order. In contrast, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, takes a short plunge, gives us a piece of back story to help us understand the narrator, and then brings us back to the action.

In that short evening class, we had the opportunity to apply four different opening techniques to a piece we were working on. In just eight minutes each, I spent time in my narrator’s head making observations about this new identity she had assumed (rumination), had her consider the past that brought her to that place (wind-up), described the strange world she inhabited (aerial view), and had her jump in and out of the water more quickly than I had before. What a simple, yet brilliant exercise that forced me out of my comfortable patterns! Now I am so giddy with the possibilities, I hardly know where to begin….

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On What I Realized after Attending My College Reunion

• We look older than we feel.
• In late midlife, people want to write about their stories not just talk about them.
• I feel less nostalgic about the past than I was when I was closer to it.
• Reunions are easier without the presence of one’s spouse.
• Spouses generally don’t care for college reunions.
• No one understands the kind of work I do for a living.
• Many of us are less interested in talking about our work than we used to be.
• I really am an introvert--three days of solid talking and listening has exhausted me!
• Your true friends are the ones you can pick up with where you left off.
• People’s personalities don’t change over time, though some of the edges are softened.
• Death of loved ones is a common denominator for all of us.
• Folk songs from the 60s/early 70s were far superior to what passes today for folk music.
• Peggy Seegar is a true talent and a wonderful entertainer.
• Some people will always be sad.
• Some people will always be angry.
• Some people are dauntingly accomplished.
• Some people have an astonishing capacity to remember.
• Some people can get everyone to listen to them.
• Some people will never come to reunions.
• Most people who seemed to be from another world all those years ago are really very nice.
• Some people in our cohort are grandparents—how can that be?
• Buildings on college campuses should “be in conversation with each other.”
• College dorms are soulless places without students.
• The people who knew you when you were young know you in a way that no one else can know you.
• I am not the only one who saved all our college newspapers, but I do need to downsize!
• Time is whizzing by—it seems like I just attended my last five-year reunion.
• We attended college at an extraordinary time.
• The events—both internal at our college and external in the world--of that extraordinary time bind us together in a special way.
• Although we meant it at the time, we will not follow up on most of those promises to make contact with the people with whom we do not already have contact.
• Most of us will be dead or too infirmed to come to our 70th reunion.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Creative Symbiosis

Before I wrote regularly, I took photographs. I bought my first “real” camera right before college graduation. That summer I traveled across the USA to California for the first time, followed by two months in Europe (in the $5 dollars a day era.) Film was expensive, and I think I used up exactly one roll of 36 slides without having tested my camera.

Over time and with a larger budget at my disposal, I switched to print film. Along the way, I figured out what I enjoyed capturing. I began to find my photographic “voice.” And sometimes, I produced some pretty good photos. Occasionally, someone even paid me to take photographs. I took workshops, but mostly I just kept taking pictures and figuring out what worked. Never a lot, just regularly over a lot of years. There’s much to be said for practice.

Digital photography has allowed me to be more adventurous. With no film to waste, I can take some chances, look for different angles, zoom in to the details, zoom out to catch the entire context (with my trusty wide angle to zoom lens). Even better, I can see the approximate results instantly. I compose my shots as carefully (or as impulsively as before). Other than a little cropping, I try to keep my fiddling around with the images afterwards to a minimum. (I’m not into the technology of photo-editing. I want to get it right when I hit the shutter.)

But now that I write, photography is even more satisfying as a creative outlet. The two activities complement each other, using different parts of my brain. There are similarities. Both involve using my imagination, telling a story, deciding on the focus. They are both visual media—in one case I must decide which part of the visual world I want to represent and in what way; in the other, I must paint that visual world with words.

But they are very different, as well. Novel writing, though enjoyable, is a labor intensive, indoor, and lonely pursuit. In contrast, photography for me is an outgrowth of other activities, such as travel. Because my husband is a photographer, I often have company. And the turn around time is quick. Go home, download, select, edit if needed, and print.

Each year, I choose one of my favorite photos and make holiday cards for my friends and family. Many a time I have visited a friend in July only to see my photo on the mantle. Instant external approval and gratification. And then there are the occasional requests from friends and colleagues for enlargements, with no marketing on my part.

In contrast, after months of writing a first draft, there are the revisions, feedback, more revisions, fine tooth editing, query letter creation, etc. before one even thinks of sending out the precious novel into the world for professional scrutiny. Then come the rejection letters, often months after the initial query was sent out. The self doubt. Renewed scrutiny of the manuscript. More revisions…..I can tell myself that the real accomplishment was completing such a mammoth project, that if I want to see my book in print, I can self-publish (sort of like printing up one of those photo books). But after all the expenditure of energy, after each revision, I am even more reluctant to give up. I am too invested. (It’s like waiting in that long line; once you’ve been there an hour, you’re not going to leave, or it will feel like you've wasted your time.)

Maybe I’ll get out my new camera instead. Maybe today will be the day I’ll shoot the photo that will be worthy of the annual holiday card, or maybe I’ll just stumble on an interesting pattern. And if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. With a blink of an eye, I’ll feel my creative spirit renewed, ready to tackle the character that needs some extra “spark,” or that scene that isn’t quite credible. It’s a symbiosis that works for me at the moment.

Of course, there’s always my blog. Not as quick as a photo, but it looks very professional up there on the screen. Just like a real writer….and once in awhile I even get a real reader!

Monday, April 27, 2009

On 26 Things I Learned about Writing at the Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend I attended Grub Street Writer’s annual writers’ conference in Boston, “The Muse Muse and the Marketplace.” In addition to receiving one-on-one feedback from an agent, I attended four sessions on various aspects of writing (Elinor Lipman, Bret Anthony Johnston) and getting published (Lisa Genova, a panel of agents) and a luncheon with keynote speaker, Ann Patchett (she was witty and informative!). In reviewing my notes when I got home rather than just putting them away, I gleaned the following advice/observations, organized by general topic. I like to think I was practicing some of these, but it never hurts to be reminded. Many of these came with illustrations.

On point of view (POV):
1. Point of view all comes down to selection of events and selection of details.
2. To pull off first person central POV (as opposed to peripheral), you need a distinctive and original voice. First person central is deceptively easy. “How the story is told is as important as the story itself. If anyone else tells it, they will get it wrong.”
3. For every one thing a character notices about another character, we should learn three things about the character doing the observing.
4. When you put one character in the position where they know more than another character, you create tension.

On sharpening your writing:
5. Establish a sense of your main character on page one. You want people to care.
6. Agents are looking for an excuse to stop reading; don’t include details/incidents early that make them question your logic, your research, etc.
7. Don’t write about the weather or the sky unless it’s relevant to your story.
8. Use salient details to move the story along or help us see a person or setting.
9. Sometimes there is no substitute for a well-placed adverb.
10. Some ambiguity in story endings is okay—either this or that happened. Use an epilogue if you need to wrap things up. But don’t have a character stare out into the abyss.
11. Make the reader an equal partner—don’t keep them guessing about what is happened, has happened, don’t trick them.
12. Save your “cuts.”

On dialogue:
13. Watch putting too much exposition in your dialogue.
14. Oscar Wilde said, “The essence of dialogue is interruption.”
15. When you use the word “said” or “says” in your dialogue tags, they disappear as compared with other synonyms (e.g. replied, affirmed, concurred, etc.)
16. Use said or says frequently to avoid confusion about who is speaking.
17. It sounds phony to use a person’s name in dialogue.
18. Some words are inherently funnier than others, so be mindful of the effect you are creating—e.g. haddock vs. filet of sole.
19. Emotions can be conveyed by the quality of the speech, not just the content (e.g. when happy, use run on sentences).

On writing in general:
20. Don’t count on your muse to appear! Be disciplined about your writing; this is a job.
21. Don’t keep beating a dead horse—be ready to dump your project if it isn’t working.
22. Remember that research is where we go to hide when we don’t want to work.

On publishing:
23. Make sure your book fits into a genre, or your book may be difficult to sell.
24. Network and use any referrals you can as you seek an agent, as referrals will more likely lead to an agent reading your work.
25. Self-publishing is not the kiss-of-death it was even a year ago, thanks to the success of originally self-published books, Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, but you will need a good hook (e.g. a place, a topic).
26. Prior to publishing, put excerpts, FAQs, readers’ guides on your website, design a cover.

Not too shabby for one day of my time. Thanks, Grub Street!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On the Great Literary Fiction Debate, or Are Some Writers Bamboozling Us?

Once again, I’ve gotten myself in a swivet about literary fiction. To set the record straight, I tend to read what is called literary fiction more than “genre fiction.” Basically, I like novels that are well-written, with interesting, distinctive characters who grow and change, rich dialogue, and engrossing story lines. I enjoy being taken to places or times with which I may be less familiar, but I equally I am happy to indulge in a story to which I can relate. If a so-called genre fiction book fits those criteria, I’m in. And as you may have learned, I am not above reading the odd page turner where all these elements may not be present. Perhaps it is my investment in literary fiction that is causing my current state of rage. In my mind, a few writers, including several who have been showered with awards and critical acclaim, are being allowed to get away with a con job because on the surface their writing sounds so good—the literary equivalent of the emperor having no clothes (and I am not claiming this as an original thought.)

First, let’s deal with a couple of definitions. Wikipedia says: “Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e. paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot….. Literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style ("literariness", the concern to be "writerly"). The term literary fiction is considered hard to define very precisely but is commonly associated with the criteria used in literary awards…”

Nathan Bransford in his blog entry entitled “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?”(February 26, 2007) believes that in commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface (in the external world, where things happen) and “in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.”

So far, so good. So why am I feeling bamboozled? I recently went to a reading/discussion by a well-received literary fiction author (who will remain nameless) presenting her latest book. I had heard of her but confess I hadn’t read any of her books. The first warning light flashed as she explained, laughing, that this one--a very short, light-hearted book--had more of a plot than her previous award winning books (Read—My serious books do not need plot.)

Later that night as I began to read my new purchase, in short succession I encountered no fewer than six characteristics of certain so-called literary fiction works that make me twitch:

1) Switching of point of view mid-paragraph. Unless skillfully done, this sudden turnabout can be very confusing. It suggests either that the writer felt they were above normal writing conventions, or the editors were afraid to suggest any changes.
2) Characters indistinguishable by their dialogue, no matter what the background or personality of the character.
3) Interminable chunks of dialogue using expressions and words that even highly intelligent people don’t use. Few of us are that clever as we speak off the cuff.
4) Internal dialogue that feels implausible for a given character, such as deep insight from a character who is unlikely to have those kinds of insights.
5) Little rationale for why two characters may become involved in each others’ lives.
6) Frequent use of vocabulary that I have to look up in the dictionary, and I pride myself in having a reasonably good vocabulary. It feels like showing off.

As any good sleuth, I searched for clues that I was not crazy or uncultured and uncovered a scathing diatribe against certain forms of literary fiction by BR Myers (The Atlantic, July/August 2001), entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Here are a few of Myers zingers that resonated.

“Many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible.”
“The critics' admiration for [Annie] Proulx reflects a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context.”
“A thriller must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's ‘literary’ novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review.”
“…what unites these writers and separates them from the rest of the "literary" camp is the determinedly slow tempo of their prose.” The article is filled with examples of sometimes nonsensical language.

Myers claim is that the reviewers aren’t looking at the work as a whole, but rather allow themselves to be smitten by particular images or sentences. Of course, there were critics of his piece (especially of his curious choice of a couple of writers who might not be considered “literary” by some standards), but there was also a great deal of sympathy for his thesis.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so upset. There are plenty of good writers who manage to produce imaginative turns of phrase and still create convincing characters who talk like real people in believable, yet complicated worlds. In short, they are writing books I want to read, books I want to emulate in my own writing. Perhaps I’m annoyed because I let myself get conned into wasting a perfectly good evening (and my $22) when I should have done my research. And there is always something to learn, even if it’s just the meaning of a word I’ll never use.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Martinis and Mozart

My dad, George Fairburn Brett, died 14 years ago today at age 91. His life spanned most of the 20th century. He was born not long after the Wright Brothers successfully flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, saw our world shrink first through radio and then television, witnessed a man landing on the moon, lived through two world wars (too young to fight in the first, too old for the second), and the Great Depression. I wonder what he would have made of the socially networked world, what he would have thought of the possibility that he might not have his daily paper to hold in his hand. Interestingly, although he was a physicist by training and worked in the electronics industry his whole life, he never quite grasped the importance or potential of computers or how they would change people’s lives. His very considerable brain power started failing just as personal computers were coming into their own. His vote for the greatest invention of the last 150 years would go to the internal combustion engine.

I tried to imagine what he would have said about himself on his Facebook page though I believe even in his full right mind he would have pooh-poohed the concept. But here is my best guess (with a few additional categories thrown in).

Activities: Listening to music standing up, walking briskly, tinkering with the hi-fi and putting together “Heathkits,” making wine (and drinking it), intellectual conversation, reading, musing, composing doggerel, writing letters, sitting in the sun, traveling for business until age 65 when replaced by imagining what the neighbors are up to and schmoozing at the pub.

Interests: Classical music, three martini business lunches, philosophy (especially Bertrand Russell), physical sciences, the weather, cures for asthma, first class travel, aphorisms, words, foreign languages, theater (selected).

Favorite movies: Never watch movies.

Favorite TV shows: Even though involved with the development of color TV, haven’t watched TV since the 1950s, except for Wimbledon tennis and the news. Did enjoy “Your Show of Shows” (Sid Ceasar) and Milton Berle once upon a time.

Favorite Music: Classical music before the 18th century, mostly Mozart and Hadyn (own 200 records of same). Mozart operas.

Favorite authors: (not in any particular order) Jane Austin, James Joyce (have read Ulysses at least 100 times), Mark Twain (best American humorist), Henry Miller (that man can write about sex), Damon Runyan, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Montaigne, W.H. Auden, and H.L. Mencken.

Favorite places: New York, San Francisco, London

Favorite trip: Travelling around the US by train in 1928, including the Grand Canyon.

Favorite quotations: See my daughter Belle’s profile, plus, “Lay off that nostalgia, brother; it’s lethal.”

Most proud of: Climbing to the top of Mount Rainier. Never having stayed in a hospital (except for a few tests) until those last few weeks.

What I’m most proud of about my children and grandchild: Beth’s prodigious talent and perseverance as a designer; Belle’s trip around the world in her 20s; Pippa’s Ph.D. in Physics.

Greatest regret: Not having sufficient talent to have learned a musical instrument. Not having seen more of the world.

About me: Born in Ipswich, England, January 11, 1904 . Oldest of five (one brother, three sisters). Family moved to Leeds. Mother into health food—nuts and dried fruit. Father, who left school at 12 to work in the coal mines, eventually became Lord Mayor of Leeds. Earned Ph.D. in Physics from Leeds University, did two post-docs, including one at the University of Michigan, setting in motion interest in returning to the USA. Finally had to take a real job at age 27. Worked in same company for whole career: Marconi Co., which later became English Electric, which then became Marconi again before its eventual demise. Moved from the bench to patents in the 1940s. Married to Josephine Carlton, artist and art teacher, in 1943. During WWII, worked on development of radar. Two daughters. Finally landed job of dreams, 3000 miles away from boss, as liaison with the American electronics industry and eventually a VP, enjoying the aforementioned first class travel and three martini lunches. Lived in Lancaster and later Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1950-1968. Retired to London in 1968 to live a life of Riley.

Perhaps it is unfair of me, the daughter, to reveal my father in a way he might not publicly have done so himself. He was not one to laud his achievements. He was as harsh on himself as he could be about others and didn’t want to do anything if he was going to be second rate. But my gift to him is a web presence. And while it is not the sum of us, who are we these days if we cannot be found through Googling our names?

So as I raise my martini glass while listening to a little Mozart, I thank you, Dad, for what I got from you—a fast walking pace, a good immune system, curiosity about the world, a love of language, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a penchant for musing. (I could have done without the bad feet and impossible high standards that sometimes keep me from taking chances). But unlike you at my age, I see a life ahead of me full of possibilities, a life enhanced greatly by my computer. Although you did not believe in God nor an afterlife, I want to think that somewhere in the great beyond, you are urging me on to go forth, make my mark, and hang the critics, including those inside my head.

Monday, April 6, 2009

On the Devil is in the Details

“Last Wednesday, I went to the mall. No, I think it was Thursday, because I always go to the mall in the morning, and Wednesday morning I had a doctor’s appointment. Yes, I remember it had to be Thursday because I left town on Friday. Anyway…” How many of us have stifled yawns as a beloved family member recounts something that happened to them? As an acquaintance of mine would say sarcastically, “Get it right; it’s important.” But, of course, sometimes the details are important. It all depends on the context. In a police report, the day of the week would be crucial.

In fiction, details are what make a story rich and interesting, and the details you choose to share are important whether to establish texture or to provide valuable information that highlights a character or moves the narrative forward. So, how important is it that the details accurately represent reality? Since it’s fiction, we may conclude that it doesn’t matter. But….

Last year at a writer’s conference, I attended a program called “Agent Idol,” modeled loosely after “American Idol,” with its panel format. The idea behind the program was to show what kinds of things raised red flags for agents and editors and possibly stopped them from reading further. Attendees submitted first pages of their novels or stories to be read out anonymously by a reader. When the reader hit a line in the first paragraph of my novel in which I refer to a pair of handcuffs attached to a wall in a love hotel in Tokyo, one agent’s hand shot up. “Ridiculous,” the agent said (and I am paraphrasing). “I’ve never seen handcuffs attached to a wall; they come down from ceilings.” In fact, I had researched love hotels and their various accessories, and, indeed, photos show quite clearly that wall handcuffs exist. But that didn’t matter. My use of this particular detail, which the agent did not find believable, especially early in my story before I had engaged her, ruined my credibility. In a later rewrite, I eliminated the reference to the wall. Why take a chance?

In my own reading, I notice that I, too, am put off by details that seem wrong, whether or not one could argue for them. For example, much of Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty is set in a town near Boston, where I have lived for the past 30+ years. Early on she describes the architecture of a house that she probably saw in a part of downtown Boston. She transplants this four-story house (mistakenly called “New England” style, which that house is decidedly not) to a neighborhood near her fictional college. I wracked my brains trying to think where such a campus could be to have a house like this, and I could not. Strike one. Just a page later, she talks about someone coming up to see the “Color” in the area in September. By the Color we assume she is talking about the autumn leaves, which don’t turn in this part of New England until mid-October. Later, there were instances of impossible travel routes to add further to my annoyance. Had I found her writing less ponderous perhaps I would have been willing to forgive these transgressions.

In her blog,The Write Reality, Pippa Goldschmidt, a scientist and fiction writer, tells of her irritation when writers misrepresent science. But she also argues that “a desire for accuracy can shade into pedantry.” It may be important to consider from whose point of view the story is told, and what might that person know or not know as they view their world? How does any inaccuracy illuminate their character?

These are useful considerations. If we require 100% accuracy in our stories, we would either write only about what we know very well, spend all our time doing research and fact checking, or create only fantasy worlds. Perhaps what counts are consistency and plausibility within the context of our particular tale. Ask those whom we ask to review our stories before we send them out if anything trips them up? If your setting is one with which you are less familiar, find a reader who has lived there. Or if you are describing a profession, give it someone who understands that profession. When needed, do some basic research using credible sources. And remember, even if it’s accurate, it may not be believable! (But it really happened like that!)

Of course, there will always be readers who, convinced they know it all, will delight in pointing out your supposed errors. You won’t please everyone. Just hope you can please the agents and the editors.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the Promise of Spring

Lorraine never knew what awaited her in the garden in those pubescent days of spring. In preparation for the long New England winter, she had cut back the spent shoots, with their brown leaves and mummified flowers but left the plants that seemed to have a vestige of life. Eventually, these too lost their color and began to rejoin the earth. Only the sea grasses, turned straw color, and the small crabapples clinging to bare branches, managed to maintain any visual interest. Finally, when the ground was no longer frozen towards the end of March, she surveyed the tiny urban landscape to determine what work was needed to ready it for the new season’s display.

It didn’t look too daunting at first. With a rusted rake left in the garage by previous owners, she clawed at the masses of tangled twigs of the dead catmint and spirolina and found underneath the drooping leaves of tulips struggling for sunlight. She’d forgotten about the tulips. They flowered so early and then disappeared, but now they were a welcome surprise as she anticipated their yellow and purple cups opening up to the sky.

Lorraine stepped more gingerly now, especially once she noticed the offspring of the twigs poking their delicate red-rouged tips through the soil. Although she found herself perusing the Southern California and Hawaii real estate listings during winters when she and Joe buried the garden with snow from the driveway, she had to admit she would miss the more dramatic change of seasons, especially the promise of spring. The way the flowers and the plants would reappear despite her complete neglect for months made her feel that anything was possible. At the end of May when the grape arbor was still not showing much signs of life, she would be convinced it had finally died, and then leaf by leaf it would return until it was so bushy she had to prune it.

Those acts gave her faith that she wasn’t that old, that maybe even her best years were ahead. Some people started whole new careers at 60. One of her high school classmates had left a respectable professorship to make cheese. Another had sold his business and was building wooden Dory boats. She fancied herself a writer, perhaps a poet. The garden kept her dreams of renewal alive.

The above is an excerpt from a story I wrote the first full year I threw myself into writing. Interestingly, my garden was also somewhat new at the time. I like readying it for its all too short growth season. In addition to the sheer joy of being in the fresh air after a housebound winter and of using muscles in ways the gym never quite replicates, I find the creative juices stirring there. Maybe, as Lorraine says it is the “promise of spring,” a chance to shed one’s layers and begin anew. There is something about the longer days, the brighter light, the multiple shades of green, that energize the spirit.

I have been productive these last few months—I’ve about finished a draft of another novel, started this blog, researched my list of agents, and sent out a few queries, but in truth, I think I feel more like a writer this time of year. However, without moving to a land of eternal sunshine, perpetual flowers and warm breezes (though I love Hawaii), I want it to be spring in my mind all the time, to feel confident in this new choice, to let go of any fear of failure.

In her book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot shares stories of people who have reinvented themselves after age 50. She talks about “going home,” replaying experiences from childhood and using new opportunities to heal earlier pain. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I “wrote” all the time as a child. I didn’t actually write down the stories I created, but I talked them out loud as I illustrated them in pencil. Alas, most of these were lost after my parents moved, but I remember a theme of hope that permeated them—poor into rich, plain into beautiful, lonely into accepted—each a story of longing and then fulfillment. Now I, the adult in my third chapter, owe it to that budding writer of so long ago to realize her dreams, and like that child and like the gardener, enjoy the journey itself, with all its effort and promise.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On What I Learned about Getting Published from Watching "Survivor"

• Being hungry is a good motivator.
• You can be too hungry.
• Be cautious with your trust.
• Find allies, but don’t count on anyone else to pull you through.
• Have a strategy but be flexible. Things can change quickly.
• Don’t badmouth anyone who potentially has power over your situation.
• You need to stay strong to pull through.
• Cast your net wide and keep your eyes open.
• Don’t let a little success go to your head, nor a little failure go to your heart.
• The people who really love you will love you even if you don’t win.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the Highbrow/Lowbrow Divide Revisited

The highbrow/lowbrow divide is said to be passĂ©. If you come from that formerly snobbish echelon of society, it’s apparently no longer shameful to read “The New Yorker” at night and “Us” magazine in the morning ("High Brow. Low Brow. No Brow. Now What?" by Scott Timberg, LA Times, 7/27/2008.) Even the holdout distinction between literary and commercial fiction has supposedly been fading, with genre fiction now mixing it up.

Tell that to the agents and publishers who keep asking us to classify our writing. Tell that to the literary critics. And tell that to my brain, which still plays those old parental tapes, still seeks the old man’s approval, long after his death.

My father was disdainful of popular culture. Until he died, he kept a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses by his bedside. His musical interests ended somewhere in the 18th century. Although we were early adopters of television because of his career in the vacuum tube side of the burgeoning post World War II electronics industry, he rarely watched it himself, even as his own world narrowed. I remember once having a maddening argument with him in my 30s regarding the relative worth of fans of opera and soccer. Clearly, my father thought that opera aficionado was superior and belittled my intelligence for defending the soccer riff-raff.

But as opinionated as my father could be (and as dismissive as he was at times about the choices my sister and I made), he believed that people needed to be exposed to different things and make up their own minds. He disparaged our pop music but would never have considered telling us to turn off our radios.

So, here I am in the third half of my life, reading Jane Austin one week and the Twilight saga the next; equally engrossed in the real lives on PBS documentaries and the manipulated lives of “reality” TV; rooting for the Celtics and listening to Celtic music; devoted to “Dirty Dancing” and moved by “Macbeth; fascinated by Facebook and swooning over portraits by Constable. I am happy with my divergent interests but conflicted by them, too.

Not all my friends share my eclectic interests. To those whose repertoire remains distinctly highbrow, I don’t confess my most plebian tastes, afraid they would be disappointed with me or think less of me. As I read my college’s alumni/ae news full of the latest achievements of my oh-so-talented classmates, I wonder, too, what they would think of the author of the tale of a young woman who loses her moral compass in Japan and does some fairly nasty things along the way, or the saga of two women in their middle years who set out to write a romance novel in order to avoid the problems in their own lives. (This is the same college that produced Jonathan Franzen, literary writer extraordinaire and also James Michener, master of the sweeping saga--both favorites of mine.)

If I had to choose between being widely read or having critical acclaim, I think I’d choose the former. I think. At the moment, I’d settle for getting in print. And what would my father say then—-my father, who set the bar for creativity so high for himself he never even attempted to jump? Would he read page one and tell me I shouldn’t have bothered? Or maybe feeling slightly more magnanimous in his unearthly state, would he congratulate me just for trying? Maybe I wouldn’t care because my artistic mother, who happily watched “Father Knows Best” with me, would be bragging to everyone inside the pearly gates that her daughter had just published a novel and “wasn’t that something?”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the Dirt on Dirty Dancing--The Classic Story on the Stage

Loved the colorful, swirling skirts with crinolines. Admired the hunky physique of the man who played Johnny Castle (understudy Easton Smith). Was dazzled by the ever-changing scenery that cleverly used video, especially in the water scene where Johnny finally teaches Baby the dance lifts. Mouthed the familiar lines and tunes to myself. “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” is entertaining, but it doesn’t quite work. I am a HUGE fan of the film, which I saw when it first came out and have probably seen a couple of dozen times. If this had been my first time seeing “Dirty Dancing,” I might have liked the show even less.

The stage versions of both “Dirty Dancing” and “Legally Blonde,” another film on my “favorites” list, were largely faithful to their respective “books.” But “Legally Blonde” morphed into an exuberant musical that took me along for the ride. Of course, it used the traditional formula of having its characters burst into song and dance at appropriate times in contrast to “Dirty Dancing,” where the music served more as a sound track, even at those times when the songs were sung live (but not by the main characters). So why does the film of “Dirty Dancing” succeed where the stage play falls flat, even as the actors spout the same lines and mimic many of the same actions, the scenery tries hard to please, and many of the songs are replicated?

A big reason, I believe, is that the show kept us at a distance. One of the great successes of the film is its sense of intimacy and place, established during the opening credits with the sexy, slow motion dance moves of the young staff of Kellerman’s to the tune of “Be My Baby.” We can almost smell the sultry summer air, feel the hormonal surges. Whatever their lives are away from the resort, whatever is happening in the world at that moment doesn’t matter. (The stage show tries to make the story seem relevant by adding references to the civil rights movements. Injecting the larger issues of that era into this most personal of stories was one of the play’s missteps.) As Johnny and Baby rehearse for their upcoming dance number at another resort, the heat increases. Although their class differences are part of the dramatic backbone of the story, within the confines of this sequestered place, they connect in a believable way.

Marshall McLuhan, media and popular culture guru of the 60s, once pronounced, that “the medium is the message.” Although we might assume that a live play should be more intimate than a film because of the flesh and blood presence of the actors, that is not always so. Because of the camera’s ability to focus in, the medium of film can make us feel that not only are we in the room but that we are almost inhabiting the characters’ bodies. A stage play can do that same thing, but without the shifting lens, it must rely on other means. Sometimes plays do not make the transition well to film because they try to do too much, to be in too many locations, so we lose the focus we need to establish the relationship with the characters. In this case, the reverse happened. Maybe if I’d been in one of the $135 dollar seats, I would have felt more bonded with Johnny and Baby, but even the binoculars didn’t help. During their intimate moments, I felt like I was spying on them. At others, I had to chase them around the stage to keep up.

As a fiction writer, I need to understand what my medium conveys and how I can get the most from it. How do I establish that sense of intimacy with my characters? What kinds of details will provide an appropriate sensory experience since you will have only the words on the page and your imagination to pull you in? At what point will I lose you if I provide too much detail? Fiction writers have the added luxury of being able to take you inside our characters’ heads to show how they are reacting to a line of speech, a situation, another character. Again, we must decide how much internal dialogue is enough, and how much we should convey through showing you and not telling you.

Maybe with its fast cut scenery, as clever as it was, its mile long playlist, and its dozens of dance numbers, the stage show of “Dirty Dancing” put me on overload, so I no longer knew where to focus my attention. It never slowed down enough to let me in. The familiar dialogue seemed strained at times, out of its element. In short, “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” still thought it was a movie; it forgot the strengths of its medium and as a result it failed to win the heart of this audience member and give me the time of my life.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Endless Love and Vampires

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m hooked on the Twilight saga (by Stephenie Meyer), a tetralogy about a turgid romance between a human girl and an ageless, but breathtakingly handsome vampire who quenches his thirst by eating animals not people. The series has been an enormous hit with tweener and teen girls, and the first book was made into a movie (confession #2, also seen). But like Facebook, I think there are signs that the adult population is catching on. The books are classified as romance/thriller/fantasy, three genres in which I’ve had very little interest. While many of my aging friends lapped up the Harry Potter series, I shook my head. No 750 page wizard stories for me. So what was my attraction to this tale of teenage angst set in the rain-soaked town of Forks, Washington?

Initially, I was motivated as a writer considering young adult fiction. Why were these books so popular that all four have been on the best seller lists (oh, envy) and created such a stir among the blogging public, four years after the first book was published? (See, for example, The Twilight Series: Is It Really Just Soft Porn for Teens? Feb 13, 2009.) As some have pointed out, this is less a story about vampires than a romance. Complaints abound about how the vampires are not accurately represented. They can come out in cloudy days, and they glitter in the sunlight. Do we care? These are mythical creatures, for God’s sake. So how does the saga stack up as a romance? Aside from the grating prose style of the first book, Twilight (beware the omnipresent adverb, looming at the end of every tag line, but virtually eliminated in book two, New Moon), I found myself completing these 500 page tomes in several days, unable to put them down, despite their many writing and story flaws. (As Meyer’s critics point out, why are these two characters attracted to each other, except for superficial reasons—they smell good to each other, she baffles him, he looks good? Why do these vampires go to school anyway? Is a young woman willing to abandon everything for love really such a good role model for young people? But I digress.)

There are a number of factors that make these stories compelling as tales of romance. First, of course, Twilight is the classic story of forbidden love, like Romeo and Juliet (to which the protagonist, Bella Swan, frequently refers, or Johnny and Baby in "Dirty Dancing" (still one of my favorite movies, I admit). Can their differences be reconciled? Second, the two lovers are portrayed sympathetically so that we root for them. (Personally, Edward’s cold skin and marble hard body don’t do it for me. One critic found him too controlling.) Third are the elements of danger. Edward (vampire in question) might lose control, after all, and there are other “bad” vampires, who do feast on human blood, and who may stand in the way. (The introduction of the werewolves was excessive, in my opinion.) Fourth is the overarching question that must be answered—is Bella’s love so strong that she would be willing to become a vampire herself at the risk of losing her human identity and contact with her family? Fifth is the love triangle between two mortal but likable enemies. Who will win Bella’s heart? Can both enemies coexist? And finally, each book leaves the reader dangling sufficiently to want more. (confession #3: I have two more books to go.) The sexual tension is present but not the driving force. This book harks back to the days when relationships were consummated only within marriage. Hardly the stuff of “soft porn.”

So all I can say is good for Stephenie Meyer. She’s figured out a way to keep kids reading, even if it’s not high class literature. She’s got us talking and dissecting and forgetting for a few hours that we have an economic crisis out there. And as for me, maybe it’s time for me to make a date with a little wizard in training.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Procrastination and Swiss Cheese

For the last six months a forbiddingly large package has been sitting in my hallway. Although of sentimental value, the painting that was entombed in the package was not something I needed in the near future, and the box was not particularly in the way. But its constant presence served as a reminder of a seemingly daunting task that needed to be completed. This was not an ordinary package. Approximately 40 mammoth staples were deeply embedded through a covering of heavy corrugated cardboard. In short, the removal of the painting seemed akin to storming Fort Knox. Each day I passed this giant object, I felt increasingly annoyed, frustrated, and guilty.

Then last night, as I lay awake, I visualized a process involving a screwdriver and a hammer that even I, a physically small person, might be able to manage. When an enjoyable but long phone call ate into my planned workout at the gym, I decided that the time had come to tackle the monster. Wedging out the staples along three sides, cutting through the masses of tape around the inner cardboard box, and unearthing the painting shrouded in a blanket took exactly one-half hour. Thirty lousy minutes! How many half hours have I wasted over the last six months when I could have polished off this chore and stopped it from haunting me?

Of course, this project serves as a metaphor for all those things put off because they felt too time consuming, too overwhelming in scope, or too likely to lead to failure. Sometimes, the build up to the task takes more energy than the task itself, which may be dispatched with a short, concerted effort, as with the unbundling of my package or cleaning the bathroom. We just have to commit that small amount of time. On other occasions a delay of the simplest of tasks may lead to greater problems, such as the fine I once received for failing to affix my new parking permit by the deadline—a parking permit that was already sitting in my glove compartment. A one minute task!

But what about the really intimidating projects—especially the ones we are so personally invested in, like writing that novel or sending the completed manuscript out to agents? Here I like to use something I once heard called the “swiss cheese approach,” which involves breaking a very large project down into much smaller steps—writing the first paragraph of the query letter, writing the second paragraph, etc., giving it to three trusted colleagues for review, revising once, revising again, doing a web search or index review to make a list of five plausible agents, researching each of them and their requirements, addressing five envelopes, etc., each step designed to take just a moderate amount of time. It may be long plod, but we arrive just the same.

The key, as with the big package, is psyching oneself up (maybe through a little visualization? A reminder from a buddy?), not using other undone tasks as excuses (I can’t write until I’ve done the laundry, played solitaire on-line, cleaned out my email box…) and then just getting started. Time management experts suggest that each day, no matter what other expectations await, we aim to check off at least one item on our own “most important” list. (Note: Not someone else’s priorities for you, but your very own—those things for which you live and breathe.) Punch a hole in that project until there is no cheese left! I conquered the oversized package, but the real accomplishment of my day was using my effort to create my next blog entry. However, my self-congratulatory mode expires at midnight. Tomorrow is another day. Now where was that agent list I made a few weeks ago…..?

Monday, February 9, 2009

On Death and the Writer

In the third half of life, we confront death more often as childhood heroes and icons, aging family members, and even contemporaries pass away. I’ve been thinking a lot about the final passage this past month after reacting to the deaths of five people with varying degrees of psychic distance from me, from my 92 year old mother-in-law to the esteemed writer John Updike.

In the hands of a writer, death is a useful plot device to engage or hook a reader. Along with love, it is one of the most common events around which we build stories. Death or its possibility can create suspense (will it happen; if so, how; and if not, how is death avoided?) or mystery (why did it happen, or who did it?), reveal personality (what do we learn about the central figures of the story?), and provoke temporary or permanent psychological changes (how do they react?) that may lead to change or action (what do they do as a result?) The death of a bad guy provides a catharsis while that of the personality with whom we’ve bonded or for whom we feel sympathy prompts a sense of loss. Although it’s not always easy to kill off a favorite character—sometimes they don’t let you, as a writer you are largely in control.

What strikes me now is the contrast between my purposeful and manipulative handling of death in my fictional worlds and the complexity of my emotional states this past month to the five deaths, each touching me in different ways. There was sadness in all cases, though the nature and intensity of the sadness varied. But there was also shock, at receiving unexpected news of a sudden death; anxiety waiting for the anticipated phone call; relief that the difficult days were over; fear of not knowing the right words of comfort; empathy because of common experiences with loved ones’ illnesses; nostalgia at calling up distant memories; regret at not having known someone better; longing for more time; amusement on hearing a funny anecdote about the deceased; envy at a person’s accomplishments; and even guilt at being able to get on with my own life when a friend is grieving.

My reactions are causing me to assess whether I am capturing that complexity of sometimes contradictory emotions or perhaps falling into what Ann Hood (Creating Character Emotions, Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998) calls the “curse of writing like a writer”—of filtering or watering down the emotions of my characters as I write the way I think I am supposed to write. Am I too busy advancing my plot that I don’t give my characters space to react in convincing ways? Hood advises to “write like yourself” without necessarily replicating what happens in real life. This mantra is a great reminder to use my experiences in service of my artistry and to slow down, even if I need to shed a tear of my own while doing so.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Title of My Blog

Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower. Maybe that's because the steady stream of water has awakened my brain before I am required to put it to good use. This morning the title of my blog presented itself to me, and I am now riding on its momentum to create my first post. What does it all mean?

Musing: n. contemplation, reflection. Origin: 1300–50; ME musen to mutter, gaze meditatively on, be astonished ( Unabridged v 1.1. Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc., 2006).

But as a writer and a word monger, I also like the the reference to the word muse: n. the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.

The third half refers to my stage of life. It is obviously fractional nonsense if you are a mathematical purist. I requisitioned it from "Click" and "Clack," the Car Talk brothers, who refer to the "third half" of their show. But life does not divide up into neat fractions. I see the third half of life as a second chance, as a time for possible reinvention and reformation. As a writer, my novels (still in progress, but stay tuned) focus around issues of identity over the life course, and so it seems appropriate to explore some of these in an interactive format (should I be so lucky as to attract any readers....). And of course, that some of my musings may be nonsense goes without saying.