Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Creativity (or Lack of It) and the Common Cold

Your throat thickens and then becomes scatchy, your nose begins to drip, your eyes water. You suck a zinc lozenge and sip a hot honey-lemon, hoping to stave it off. But then the cough comes. A mucousy cough that makes you want to constantly clear your throat. You heard somewhere that was bad for you, but you can’t help it. At night you sleep half propped up to allow your lungs to drain (or so you think), and the unnatural posture throws your back out. Your cough is now dry and unproductive. Sometimes you hack so much you can hardly catch your breath. You’re grateful that your stomach feels okay, but you have no interest in doing much. You struggle through a few hours of work, your eyes blurry. In the middle of the afternoon you give yourself permission to take a nap. When you finally feel well enough to emerge into public a few days later, you hear tales of other people’s illnesses. Two weeks. Three weeks. (You consider yourself lucky—you are only on day 8. But later you become hoarse and the cough worsens.) It seems everyone has had it. A powerful germ, this one. Welcome to the common winter cold.

Maybe it was the convergence with the holidays and all the other demands on my time, but this cold really knocked the creative stuffing out of me. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare vacantly at the TV. As someone who doesn’t get sick very often, I am not a patient patient. I felt guilty that I wasn’t using my time productively, especially as I wasn’t going out in the evening. But you can’t force the muse. I haven’t always been a mush brain when I’m ill. I remember a week during my the final month of my senior year of high school when I had some mysterious ailment involving lots of sneezing (it turned out to be a new allergy). I spent my time out in the sunny garden on a lounge chair writing poetry—not something I’d done before or have done since in quite the same way. I remember another time when, despite a bad cough, I produced pages of a novel . Unfortunately, when you’re self-employed, especially with a home-based office, those delicious absences from work, like snow days from school, just don’t happen. I still spent my requisite number of hours at my desk, with little to show for them.

Maybe it’s an end-of-year malady. The creative juices have been depleted and need to be topped up like washer fluid in one’s car. Or recharged like a battery, or completely replaced. Out with the old. Start anew come January 1st, all healthy with a fresh resolve, a sparkling set of goals and a whole year in which to meet them.

There are still a few days left to 2010. A few days in which the phone is unlikely to ring very much. The holidays are behind me now—no more shopping or card preparation, no more guests or visits to friends. TV is all reruns, and I don’t need anything from the winter sales. I am well now. There are no more excuses. The month is still redeemable. I just need to sit in front of the screen, reread what I last wrote, and re-enter that world I’ve created and inhabited in my mind’s eye for so long. It’s not such a big step once I leap across my mental chasm. When I am there, I know I will be hooked again, and that is a good feeling. So, readers, this will be my final post for 2010. I have attained my goal of two a month for this year. Now I need to plunge into my out-of-control fictional world of 1963. Wish me luck!

And happy new year to you (2011, not 1964...)

Monday, December 13, 2010

On Mosaics as an Antidote to Writing

The chilly and sometimes damp days of early winter attract me to colors, textures, and shapes rather than words, characters, and plots. I spent the last two weeks putting together my annual photo card, a manual task that can be completed in front of the television: open pac kages of Strathmore creative cards with deckle edges, stamp the inside with a dove and the word “Peace,” place four photo mounts in the corner of each photo, remove backing of mounts, gently place on the center of the front of the card, label with name, date, and place; then address and affix correct postage to envelope, write a few cheery words, seal up with a wet sponge applicator, choose and apply decorative labels to keep envelope shut. 140 times.

It requires little in the way of intellectual input—occasionally I have to locate an errant address by emailing someone or write a longer message to people with whom I’ve had no contact in the last year. My holiday photo cards are small artworks of which I am proud, and people seem to like them. Months and sometimes years later, I find them still propped up on friends’ mantles; a few have framed them. A concrete legacy of my time on this planet.

It’s easy for me to feel inadquate when I write. In contrast, when I create something visual, I am much less critical of myself. My process is more spontaneous, less deliberate, more childlike, I suppose. The product of an artist mother, I’ve dabbled in numerous arts and crafts over the years in addition to photography (the most ongoing on my artistic pursuits)—watercolor, bookbinding, printmaking, pottery, batik, Chinese brush painting, collage to name a few. The latest is mosaics. Texture, color, shapes, and only a few rules (keep the spaces between your pieces small, put contrasting colors next to each other to make them pop, let the glue dry for 24 hours before you grout). The results are so satisfying.

As with writing, I start with an idea. The idea can be a visual image or a feeling I want to invoke (such as being at the seaside), or it can come from the material itself (such as a piece of pottery). I confess that as a writer, I don’t always plan out my writing. Sometimes, depending on the length of the piece, I see where my characters take me. But with novels, it’s difficult to do that and not end up with a mess.

For me, the mosaic emerges. I don’t draw what I want in advance. I sort through a box of pieces or look at the shelf of colors and choose those that appeal to me. I locate or cut pieces to fit together, like a puzzle, except that I am the creator of the puzzle. I don’t know how it will turn out until it’s done. Getting those last pieces into place can be a fiddly but a doable challenge with limited options. Another surprise in mosaics is what happens when you grout your work. A dark grout creates a completely different look than a light grout.

But here is what I really like about mosaics as compared to writing. You know you’re finished when you wipe off that last glob of stray grout and polish it up a bit. It can’t be altered (I suppose it could, but who would want to?) You either like it or you don’t. How many times have you read over something that you were satisfied with yesterday only to feel that it’s all wrong today? Or one of your writing partners makes a comment, and you see that something you thought was okay is not working. So it’s back to the computer for another revision. Only in publishing--that elusive holy grail--can you feel that the writing is finished.

And even better as far as I’m concerned is the abbreviated time commitment. I can take a satisfying photo in a few seconds, or complete a small mosaic in a few hours. Even a flash fiction takes longer than that. So, to keep my sanity as a writer, to feel like I am not on an endless treadmill, to see the fruits of my labor, I’ll continue to find my antidote in the visual arts. And if you are a friend of mine, I’m not likely to write you a story, but I might send you the results of one of my latest creative detours.

So why bother writing? That, my friends, is a topic for another musing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On Black Friday, Bargain-shopping, and Possessions

I woke up yesterday morning, coupons all organized, ready to hit the post-Thanksgiving craziness known as Black Friday. And then I read the an op ed in the Boston Globe—"Alice’s Adventures in Retail Land" by Joan Wickersham. In this piece, Ms. Wickersham describes through her fictional Alice several ploys used by retailers to sucker us into buying more. There I saw one of my recent retail pilgrimages described—buy $100 worth and we’ll give you an x% discount (or buy $100, and we’ll take $25 off your bill.)

My first foray into one of my favorite women’s clothing stores, I actually resisted because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to bring my $80 full price purchase up to $100 (and I was already getting a discount). But the more I thought about the things I tried on that day, the more I wanted them. When I returned home to no-tax-on-clothing Massachusetts, I succumbed to bargain #2. In this case, it was spend $150 and we’ll give you $50 off. Sounds like a 33% discount-not bad, especially if the goods have already been marked down—but that is if you buy exactly $150 worth. Otherwise, the percent discount goes down. However, for another $20, I could now enter the rarefied realm of a “special customer” (having shopped in this store previously over several years and racked up a certain number of points), and forever after would always get at least a 5% discount. Of course, the item I wanted and eventually chose was more than $20. At this point, without a calculator, it was difficult to figure out whether or not I obtained a better deal. But I was hooked, with no chance of being tossed back into the river.

The point is that this kind of bait (and I avoid using the word “scam” here because the conditions are all up front) lures us into spending more than we intended. Not that I wasn’t aware of what was happening at the time. But sitting in the comfort of my kitchen, away from the huge adrenaline rush of making the perfect purchase, I could see that braving the Black Friday crowds was essentially pointless, especially as I really didn’t need anything and had given up most gift giving a couple of years ago. The true bargains are few and available only to those ready to wait in line with 1000’s of others at 4am. There will be other sales, and some of them may be better. They will certainly involve fewer crowds. Of course, I knew that the editorial would prompt only a brief moment of sanity, not a sea change in my behavior.

Some people abhor shopping. Although I am not a shopaholic, I do not hate shopping. It’s genetic, I suppose. My mother, who successfully managed to downsize at age 60 for a move across the ocean, managed in the next 30 years to fill up her closets again. When she moved into a nursing home the last year of her life, we realized she had never given or thrown away a single item of clothing in all that time, including several hideous polyester pants and vest sets, from the 1970s, when she was a good 20 pounds heavier than her later in life weight. And these, kept by a person, who deeply cared about appearing fashionable until she was 90. When she could no longer shop in stores, she hit the mail order catalogues, and if she were alive today, no doubt she would enjoy the ease of on-line shopping.

As one of the people involved in cleaning out my mother’s apartment, I was inspired sufficiently to come home and clean out my own closets on a regular basis. But I fear there is still more incoming than outgoing. Staying away from sources of temptation is more difficult than it once was. The daily deluge of coupons in my email inbox can be deleted with the click of a button, but it’s not always that easy. What if this is the week I decide to buy that new computer, or the scarf to go with odd color winter coat I bought? I am capable of some rational thinking. Because my office is at home, and I have fewer meetings these days, I no longer allow myself to look at suits. (My last suit purchase a couple of years ago was a huge mistake. I went into another one of my favorite women’s clothing stores to buy a pair of pants in a particular color, and there happened to be a matching jacket—both were substantially reduced. I have worn the pants a number of times, but never the jacket. A bargain you never use is not a bargain.)

My husband, who is not much of a shopper, has come up with the perfect 21st century invention for today’s consumer, who may be concerned that they have run out of space for their purchases—rental storage rooms, like the U-Haul ones where we store our junk, except you can take your new purchases there immediately. Why waste time driving them home?

I hope it never comes to that. But old habits are hard to change. I think about a former colleague of mine, who each year would give away her small wardrobe and replace it with new items, each of which became well used over the course of that year. I admire that. I envy that. But as much as I long to rid myself of things, I can’t bring myself to behave that way. There is something thrilling about excavating through one’s belongings and finding a long forgotten item. Maybe one day ten years from now I will unearth one of those items I bought in my recent expedition, and it will feel fresh and new. And as much as I still dine out on the story of my mother’s 30 bags of clothes we gave to charity, I was delighted that she had kept her beautiful outfits circa 1960, both vintage and fashionable, thanks to the success of “Mad Men.”

I hope I can find some happy medium, where the incoming purchases are reserved for the needed or the special (regardless of whether or not they are bargains), where the outgoing starts to surpass the incoming, where my increasingly precious time and money are spent on activities that are ultimately more satisfying, and where Black Friday is just a day of rest after a large meal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Random Thoughts about Flying

The Third Half Muse is on route to a conference and is not thinking about her novels. Once, long ago flying used to be an adventure, in the good sense. So to make the best of a situation, she makes a few observations. Feel free to add or disagree.

• Luggage without wheels has become the exception, even for big, burly guys.
• You can get a lot of exercise walking from one gate to another, BUT
• Airline “snacks” (the kind you pay for) are designed to increase waistlines (caramel popcorn, chips, etc.).
• To get through security, you practically need to undress.
• Airports provide a good cross section of humanity.
• How many jobs were lost when airlines stopped serving meals to coach class?
• What ever happened to butter rum Lifesavers?
• Jeans are the pant of choice for non-business passengers.
• The people strolling through Atlanta Aiprot seem less weighty overall than statistics would suggest
• If you used TV or the movies as your guidepost, you'd think that adult women always wear heels when travelling—this number seems closer to one in ten.
• On automatic flush toilets, to quote Ellen Degeneres, “I'll decide when I'm ready.”
• How much longer will the bank of entirely unused payphones exist?
• Baggage costs discriminate against the elderly, the small (me) and other less than abled passengers. They should charge people for trying to cram oversize bags in the overheads.
• Whatever happened to loading a plane from the back—wasn't that more efficient than the “zone” system?
• I miss non-stops, half full flights, bargain airfares; it's small compensation being able to print your boarding pass at home and check your flight status without phoning the airport.
• As bad as it can be, I also miss in flight meals. If your stomach rules you (as does mine), you really have to plan ahead.
• Planes are one of the few places where complete strangers feel comfortable revealing their life stories.
• Cats do not like being confined to tiny crates for hours.
• There are no atheists during air turbulence. (Who said that?}
• Flying is tedious.
• Flying makes me drowsy.
• Flying drains me of all creativity, BUT
• Flying is a rare opportunity for downtime.
• Flying still feels like a miracle. Forget the science, how do planes stay up in the air?
• Looking down on a scenic vista is still a thrill.
• We put up with all of it because it gets us where we want to go.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Revisiting Old Writing

For the last couple of months, I’ve been immersed in revising a young adult novel I started longer ago than I care to reveal. It’s been an interesting journey that has revealed something about my evolution as a writer and about the staying power of an idea. It’s been like visiting old friends that one hasn’t seen in ages—the core personalities are the same, but some of the rough edges are worn away. (Have I used this phrase before? It has a déjà vu quality to it…)

It wasn’t always a young adult novel. In fact, I had no idea what it was when I first began it. That summer I was working on my “qualifying paper” for my doctoral dissertation, and the urge to write something completely different came over me. It was sort of a “busman’s holiday” (nice English expression), but I found it very cathartic. Inspired by a dream I had when I was 16, the story is based on some experiences from high school. Maybe there was something about reaching the last stages of my doctoral degree (at a somewhat advanced age) that took me back to my school days. Maybe I needed to get past something. Maybe I wanted to rewrite some of my history.

I came late to writing fiction, unless you count the hours and hours I spent as a child concocting and illustrating tales. A novel was an ambitious place to start my fiction career, but I had no desire to write short stories. I never finished the novel that first time round. Life took over (in particular, the dissertation itself, and then a new career, post dissertation). But five years later I came back to it, tweaking it, fleshing it out a little more. Then I took another turn with my writing and began a screenplay with a friend on a whole other subject. Meanwhile, I began to study story structure while learning about screenplay writing. I also learned about revealing character through dialogue since interior monologue generally doesn’t work well in film.

But I still didn’t couldn’t let go of that original idea. A few years after starting the screenplay, I took my first fiction class. Through that I reshaped the first four chapters of the novel and received feedback. Then more life happened that interfered with my ability to be creative, and more years passed. Finally, I embarked on what has now been a steady period of writing for the past five years. It began by revisiting the YA novel, which I abandoned for the fourth time to pursue something that an editor told me was more “marketable.”

Two large writing projects (and a number of shorter stories) later, I’ve come full circle but with three significant differences. 1) I know a lot more about writing now. 2) Young adult fiction changed, and now what might have been risque when started it has become acceptable. 3) I have a writers’ group and other sources of support, so that I have company along the way.

What I wrote all those years ago isn’t appalling, but it needs a lot of tender loving care. I should probably have started over, as the revision is taking me far longer than writing something new would have. All the little voices in my head from all the classes I’ve taken and the critiques I have received speak to me as I write—urging me to show not tell, inviting me to provide a significant detail, asking me to slow down or speed up. Sometimes it’s hard to discard the original narrative.

Here’s one example of changes made between the original version and the most recent. This is the opening of the story, which is set in the early 1960s.

Original: Amelia Wade, or Amy as she insisted on being called, walked up the stairs to school, with a mixture of excitement and dread. Both had found their way to her stomach. The first day of school once again. It couldn't be worse than last year. Though she feared the condition might be permanent, a small shred of optimism told her she had reached her depths as a sophomore, and it was only up from here on in. Anyway, eleventh grade felt like the beginning of the end of school. Next year she would be applying to college. College would save her from all of this.

Amy Wade exited the Number 24 bus in front of the crimson and white sign that read in clean, bold letters, “Friends Day School, established in 1864,” the bus driver said, "Cheer up. It can't be that bad."

How did he know? Strangers did that to her all the time. "Smile", they would say as she was walking down the street. What if she had just broken up with her boyfriend? Not that she ever had one. Or failed an exam? Not that she ever did. But it really annoyed her. People should mind their own business.

Both versions reveal something about character and about Amy’s state of mind this first day of school. In the first one, we learn sooner about Amy’s age and her goal of just wanting this stage of her life to be over. The second is more rooted in place and has more detail. She is reacting to something specific (in this case, the bus driver).

The above represents some small struggles I’ve had. Some changes involved more major restructuring. I added a third voice in the last iteration (there were two originally). I’ve kept that configuration, but I know that two of the voices aren’t as clear as the other. In particular, I need to create a credible voice for my somewhat wounded male adolescent. I also removed some extraneous characters and had some significant events happen to the main and major secondary characters rather than to characters we don’t care about. I’ve ratcheted up the tension between the happenings of the external world (civil rights, in particular) and the internal world of the school and class. A big challenge is to make the story and characters seem both universal and timeless and of its time. I know how I want it to end, but there are gaping holes to be filled (the murky middle).

What I love about writing novels is trying to make all the pieces of the puzzle work together, and it is also what is demanding and sometimes frustrating. Every change creates a possible rupture somewhere else. Maybe I should have learned to master (if one can use that word with a straight face) shorter forms of fiction first. But I love living with my characters, helping to solve their dilemmas and mine as a writer at the same time. And one day, I hope that we will all be ready to move on. But sometimes I wonder if years from now when my memory is fading, I will be convinced that this story I spent so many years on will seem as real to me as any of my life experiences and the frienships as genuine. Will the truth even matter if that’s what makes me happy?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

On Musings about the Boston Book Festival

Yesterday I attended the second annual Boston Book Festival. Actually, technically this is the second year of the new Boston book festival. For many years, Boston had one sponsored by the Boston Globe. It was a windy and chilly, but bright autumnal day, and the organizers should feel proud of what they accomplished in a relatively short space of time. The five events I attended went off with only minor hitches (usually related to microphones), the time-keeping was impeccable, the breadth and number of offerings was generous and thoughtful, and the quality of the moderating was outstanding (overall). And best of all, it was free. Here are some random learnings and observations from my day.

• According to David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, (in which he declares that the novel is dead), we are obsessed with reality because we experience hardly any of it. (Not sure I agree with it, but it is food for thought.) (Apparently, word of the novel’s demise date back to 1925.)
• The novel is not yet dead, but it may be women who are keeping it alive (consider the number of women in book clubs compared to the number of men).
• Check out • Check out The Electronic Literature Collection (vols 1 and 2) to see what approaches are being taken towards writing in the digital age. (Reference, Nick Montfort)
• Good quote from David Foster Wallace: “The best writing constructs a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness.”
• Question: Do we always have to be “advancing” something for it to be worthwhile? Is novelty necessarily a worthwhile goal?
• According to Daphne Kalotay, the novel may return to its 19th century form (think Dickens, with its fast pace, think Tolstoy with reality coming at you every second).
• Assessment of the MFA in writing—“Death by craftsmanship” (David Shields)
• Churches, with their vaulted ceilings, make good venues for discussing ideas.
• No matter how loud you think your voice is, when you have a large crowd (or an audience that spills over into the hallway to hear you), you need to use a microphone.
• Four good themes for Young Adult novels: fitting in, being true to oneself, standing up for what you believe in, finding love.
• Adolescent modes: hypersensitivity, sense of mystery/new discoveries, deep questioning.
• Joyce Carol Oates has an obsessively dark view of the world. Although she is a contemporary literary lion, I confess never to have read anything written by her, and I don’t think I care to based on this brief exposure. Life is too short.
• Fifteen minutes is long enough to read something from one of your works. We can buy it or borrow it from the library if we want to read it. Get to the Q and A, please.
• Don’t ask fiction writers about a) whether they believe in God, or b) whether they are victims of violence. If they want to talk about these things, they will.
• “One town, one story” is an excellent idea, and Tom Perotta’s story, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” was an usually good choice—its characters (believable, complex), setting (a Little League playoff), its dilemmas (moral choices, paying for past sins)—all ones that people could wrestle with without any one obvious interpretation. Food for thought: What makes a character sympathetic?
• Alician Anstead must be a great teacher (even though it’s not her primary job), as exemplified by the skillful job did she leading the “One town, one story” discussion and keeping it moving while offering her own insights. (Whatever happened to Tom Menino, mayor of Boston—wasn’t he supposed to be leading it?} Having Tom Perotta there was an added bonus.
• To the Festival organizers: When seeking donations, be mindful of your audience--not everyone texts (though it may seem so), in particular not some older people who might be inclined to donate if given any easy way to do it, other than texting.
• I do not need to buy any more books….

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

2010 Third Quarter Check-in--July through September

Summer and early fall had their pleasant distractions—two week long vacations (one of which was productive writing-wise) and a 10-day visit from my niece (also a writer, so many good conversations on writing) along with gardening and going to farmer’s markets. Plus it was a very hot summer, and the house isn’t air conditioned! Too many excuses.

Here's what I did well: I kept up with my schedule of two blog entries per month, and I didn’t cheat by making one all photos. I worked on three different projects, including completing Draft 3 of one novel, Draft 9 of another novel, and getting back to a young adult novel I’d put aside 5 years ago about the time I started writing seriously. Have spent lots of time thinking about this book.

Here’s what I didn’t so so well: I didn’t go to many writing events,I didn’t work on any brand new pieces of writing, I feel like I’m spending too much time on editing, I didn’t write on as many days as I would have liked, I didn’t send out any query letters, and I didn’t read as much as a writer should.

• Participated in six sessions of my writers’ group
• Wrote and published six blog entries (not including my quarterly check-in)
• Participated in an evening workshop, “Creating Complex Characters,” and went to one reading (Jonathan Franzen on Freedom –see blog entry)
• In addition to blogs, wrote on 23 days (eight days in June, seven days in July, and eight days in August)—some of these were quite substantial; others were not. Worked on one query letter. Have done some research and plotting out of young adult novel.
• Discussed feedback on my novel draft (#3) with my niece who gave it an entire read through—I know what I need to do now to take it to the next level (probably the new year)
• Finished The Pact, Oogy: A Dog only a Family Could Love, and Across the Barricades (a British Young Adult novel); made substantial headway in Freedom (but am starting to get bored with it…..)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the Perfect Off-Season Writer's Getaway

At least once a year, I like to go somewhere for a week, not only to get away from my work routines and my distractions at home but also to write a bit. The best of these vacations has certain characteristics. Below I describe how my recent trip to Provincetown, MA on the tip of Cape Cod, stacked up against my criteria.

The Location. Distance from home—drive up to four hours, or non-stop plane ride with no more than one hour drive at other end. Things to do and see, nice places to walk, a few good restaurants, a convenient grocery store. Interesting architecture or history a plus. Our Location: Provincetown, MA. Historic, quirky, fun,friendly. 2.5 hour drive from home. Location rating: A

The Condo. A separate bedroom and living area is a must, with a door that closes between the two. A full kitchen is preferable (stove, oven, large fridge, dishwasher). At least 1.5 bathrooms is nice. Bright is a real plus. Convenient to things but a little off the beaten track. Quiet in the morning and at night. Several choices of places to set up the laptop. Free and strong WiFi or cable internet connections. Our Condo: Eastwood A- (roadwork in the morning made the noise factor less desirable. But three good computer spots, and excellent WiFi.)

The Schedule. Leisurely, with writing time every day, long walks, one meal out, a diversion or two, time to read. Our schedule: Some variation every day, but always the aforementioned included. Schedule rating: A

The Physical Challenge. A strenuous hike, a canoe trip, cross-country skiing—something where you feel really good about your accomplishment at the end. Our Physical Challenge: A hike over the dunes to the ocean. Walking up and down hills in soft sand. Physical challenge rating: A

The Surprise. Something unexpected. Our surprise: The entire dune walk, from the hills and valleys, to the vegetation (including toadstools in this dry place), the dune shacks where some people actually lived, the vastness and seeming remoteness of it though it was so near town (we walked to it!), and finally the ocean at the end—we saw no one else there. Second surprise: Being ablet to walk down the middle of the main street with minimal traffic! Surprise rating: A

The Native Tip. An off the beaten track place known to the locals, but not as much to visitors. Our Local Tip: The cliffs at Longnook Beach, Truro. A wide, unspoiled beach, protected by high, sandy cliffs, where we watched the birds dive into the ocean for their food. Local tip rating: A

The Ultimate Relaxation. Whatever turns you on. Our ultimate relaxation. The hottub at Eastwood—after our Physical Challenge. Ulimtate relaxation rating: A

The Local Dinner. Something of the place, not too expensive, ambience. Our Local Dinner: The early bird Clambake Special at The Waterford for $18.00. The lobster was delicious. Local dinner rating: B+

The American Breakfast. One fun breakfast in a local hangout. Our Breakfast: Tip of the Tops’n. Breakfast rating: B+

The Sunset. A spot to share the end of the day—over water is best. Sunsets can be skipped on winter getaways. Our Sunset: Herring Cove Beach. Sunset rating: B (We were lucky to have cleark skies; sunset was nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. Setting was lovely.)

The Original Photo Op. We’re not talking about your usual sights (or sunsets) but something that strikes the fancy. Preferably more than one. Preferably one that is good enough for the annual holiday card. Our Photo Ops. Fences and shadows, colorful buoys, fun mirrors, reflections and shadows in a store window. Photo op rating: B+ Not sure about the holiday card, and the light was a bit iffy at times.

The Cultural Experience. An musical, artistic and or dramatic event/place that delights one or more of the senses. Our Cultural Contribution. Cubano art gallery—one of only 30 galleries in the US allowed to bring in art from Cuba. A range of media and styles. Cultural contribution rating: B+

The Social Opportunity. An arranged or spontaneous gathering with friends or new acquaintances. Our Social Opportunity. Good friends from NYC were visiting the Cape at the same time. We met their friends, ate lunch with our friends, and took a long walk. Social opportunity rating: A

The Friendly Native. An interesting conversation with someone from the area. Our friendly native: Unbeknownst to us, we crashed a staff party at a local bar. The owner of the restaurant (whose staff it was) came over to us and made us feel very welcome. Friendly native rating: B

The Unplanned Stop. Something that wasn’t necessarily on your agenda but turns out to be a real pleasure. Our Unplanned Treat: Truro Vineyards and wine tasting. 10 different wines in a very pleasant setting after a short tour. Showed up just at the right time! Treat rating: A

The Writing Output. At least two hours a day, five days out of seven. Some sense of forward movement on a project. Maybe a new source of inspiration, or an aha moment. My Writing Output: Schedule achieved; output—not as high as I would have liked. Some progress in structure. One blog entry. Writing output rating: B

[Note: More pictures to be added.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Franzen Frenzy and Its Meaning for the Would-be Writer

I am wondering how Jonathan Franzen is feeling at the moment. Is he exhausted after giving countless interviews in the past few days about his first novel(Freedom) in nine years, not to mention at least one reading at the Boston Public Library to which he must have had to travel? Is he stunned that his book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller Lst? Is he humbled to be on the cover of Time as compared to his somewhat snotty response to Oprah Winfrey’s selection of his last novel, The Corrections, for her book club?

Let me first set the record straight. I loved The Corrections and found it to be one of the most engrossing novels I have ever read. I listened to several of the interviews of the last few days with Franzen, including the short, but surprising one on NPR’s “Marketplace” since Freedom apparentely deals with the futility of an economy that requires continous growth to succeed. I attended the aforementioned event at the Boston Public Library, arrived early, and waited in line with several hundred other people for the author to sign a copy of his book. I confess I have not yet read Freedom although hearing Franzen read his lengthy, but rich observations of his characters reminded me of what I liked about his first novel.

I don’t begrudge him any of his fame. He deserves it, and I am thrilled that a contemporary novelist with something to say is so honored. What fascinates me here is how the author feels about his reception by the world at large. No doubt Franzen, who despite the long gap between novels, has become accustomed to people recognizing his name. Perhaps he has learned to tame any annoyance at having to give so many interviews so that his book sells and his publishers can justify what was no doubt a sizable advance. Does he suffer stage fright before each reading? Does he worry that he won’t have answers for some of the questions thrown his way, or is he comfortable enough with his position that he can happily dismiss those that don’t interest him? What does he make of his fame, and does he feels he deserves it? Is he a shy man who endures that very public side of the publishing world because that is part of the bargain? Or does he relish the opportunity to share his thinking about his work?

Yesterday at the reading, I got some inkling into this v.2 version of Franzen. He was unhappy at a series of questions from one person (why can’t people stick to just one question) that probed what he did about writers’ block (he doesn’t like to call it that), whether it actually took him nine years to write his book (he didn’t really write it until 2009 although the idea was germinating), and what his daily writing process is (he didn’t answer this part.) He skillfully handled a question from a woman who spewed literary critique mumbo-jumbo, and managed to silence another questioner (especially after the audience booed the questioner) whose observation (with a question attached—some people seem to enjoy providing their own theories, and then turn them into a question, with the phrase, “would you agree that…..?) threatened to give away some of the plot. All these off the cuff strategies require a certain amount of cool and sense of confidence, but perhaps he’s heard it all before.

Inevitably, those who are struggling to be published authors ourselves have fantasies of being in Franzen’s shoes. We wonder how we would feel and act in front of a large audience or while giving an interview that will have a public airing and live on in podcasts, be commented on endlessly in blogs. Of course, realistically, we know we will be lucky to be published at all, and we understand that first time authors choosing to do a book tour will be arranging and paying for it themselves. But what if?

My friend Larry finds himself in that enviable, yet frightening position. His first book, Oogy, a Dog only a Family Could Love—a memoir centered around the abused dog that he and his family adopted--- is due out in mid-October with a print run of 100,000 (most print runs of unknown authors start at a few thousand). He is potentially on the cusp of something new for him. Clearly, his publisher has great faith that Larry’s book is going to be a huge hit and has done a great deal to promote it. Larry himself is in disbelief that any of this is happening, that the fruits of his labor merit the kinds of positive reviews trickling in prior to publication. Although he will have some local readings (he lives in Philadelphia), there will be no book tour unless, of course, the book takes on a life of its own. Yet, even the idea of the book occurred because of another situation that most of us only dream about. None other than Oprah’s people (yee gads—her again?) found an article written by Larry for his local animal shelter newsletter, and Larry, his family, and Oogy appeared a couple of years ago on Oprah’s Valentine’s special (re-aired the following year). The rest, as they say, is history, but history still in the making.

Jonathan Franzen is not the first author whose autograph I have sought. I have stood in many a line and shaken many an author’s hand after receiving my signed copy (the short-hand signature, indecipherable)—I once got a kiss from Garrison Keillior. I have known (and studied with) academic authors who, if not household names, were very well known in certain circles. I am friends with somone whose best friend was the subject of an enormous best seller some years ago. But Larry is the first person within my circle who has the potential to rise from obscurity to some version of temporary celebrity because of his book. I will follow his journey with interest. I believe he will maintain his humility whatever the outcome, but I want him to succeed. He’s the underdog (pardon the pun) we all root for in the movies, for whom we shed a tear of joy at the end. His victory is a vicarious victory for all of us who have ever received a rejection letter from an agent or an editor. Maybe Larry is no Franzen, but if I ask him a dumb question, I’ll probably get an answer and maybe some inkling as to what all the hoopla means to him. And maybe I’ll get some perspective about my goals for my own work.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Query Letter Madness

Having completed and revised a novel numerous times, I am now paralyzed at the next stage—the query letter. If one does not have connections, the query letter is deemed to be the main foot in the agent’s door. It needs to be perfect. But what does perfection look like when the advice and examples do not agree?

Here are the indisputable points:
• Addressed to a specific person at a specific agency, using a formal salutation (Mr. or Ms.)—include their title, name of agency, full address (unless emailed)
• Agent chosen after researching appropriateness of agency and agent because of your type of book
• Clean grammar, no typos
• Focuses on one project not multiple projects
• Concerns a finished novel only
• Gives title of novel
• Gives approximate length of the novel
• Provides a quick overview of writer’s key credentials—special qualifications for writing this particular book and your fiction credits
• Better to keep to a page
• Avoid gimmicks.

Here are some areas where the experts diverge:
• Giving genre? Most want this, but some say leave it out if you can’t slot yourself into one of the standard genres. Avoid the use of the word “mainstream?”
• Reason for selecting an agent, such as referring to books they’ve published that are similar to yours?
• Where to begin—plunge right with a hook? Begin with “I am currently seeking an agent for my completed x word genre book [give title]. Pose a rhetorical question—what if…. (some agents hate these). Expository description of something about the book—setting and time period?
• Focus only on the main character (or protagonist and antagonist) or share something about other characters who may be key to the story?
• Themes of novel? Again, some agents do not want to be told this, but want it to come through in whatever else you write about your novel
• Include non-fiction publications?
• Compare your novel to others out there? (But don’t compare yourself to well-known great literature or best sellers….)

As a former career counselor, I advised my clients to put their energy into networking rather than answering ads or worse, sending cover letters into the abyss of organizations. To minimize the query dance, I’m seeing the parallels with the publishing world. It’s hard work, as I recall. On the one hand,there is a certain satisfaction to saying I sent out 20 or 100 letters, but if none of them yields anything, you have faced 20-100 rejections. Perhaps it is better to spend your time cultivating a few contacts for whom you are more than a page of type and from whom you may at least get an honest response.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Setting Stories in Other Times

I was going to write this blog about the genesis of my young adult novel, and its many incarnations, but instead I want to muse about fiction that takes place in time periods that are still within living memory of many adults. At a workshop several years ago, the leader told me that unless one was writing true historical fiction it was better to make one’s story contemporary, with the rationale that it could more easily be adapted to the screen.

But there are several reasons for choosing another time. The most obvious, of course, is when the events of a particular period are the catalyst for the story itself. The Civil Rights era, and the events of 1963-64, provide the backdrop of the novel to which the characters in my young adult novel respond. One of the characters makes a choice that today might not create as much of a stir as it did then. Some of their problems, though commonly recognized today, had not yet been given names, like bulimia, or attention deficit disorder (whose name keeps evolving.) But teenagers, now as well as then, are notorious for hiding those things of which they are ashamed. Could this story have been set in 2010? I’d like to believe that the concerns of each of the three main characters are timeless, even if the context is different, but I believe the story would lose some of its color (pardon the pun) and interest. After all, stories set in other time periods can be instructive to those reading them—letting them into other worlds and mindsets.

Second, even if the story is not shaped so much by external events, it may be that another time offers some perspectives that make the characters and plot more believable. I had always seen my Japan novel as occurring in 1981, but after the aforementioned workshop, I changed it to the present where it stayed through its many revisions. But meanwhile Japanese society was becoming less patriarchal, the economy was slumping, and the foreign bar hostess was almost a cliché. Having decided I’d followed advice that wasn’t working for me, I needed to go back and review every page for anachronisms (e.g. cell phones), edifices that had not yet been built, relationships to historical events, clothing choices, and the less obvious, such as attitudes. Fortunately, the Internet allowed me to find out that karaoke had just come on the scene in 1981 (but would have been unknown to my American protagonist) and that I could replace a fun park (not yet in existence) with a brand new mall with specialty shops. I could also refer to a kitschier time for love hotels (think themed), make the difference between men’s and women’s roles more stark, and portray my Japanese customers more prosperous. I chose 1981 for quite specific reasons—it was a period when women in particular were flocking to business schools for the first time, but the corporate world, especially in a place like Japan, was less responsive to women on the rise. Although computers were a part of the workplace, personal computers as a common household item were a few years’ off. Cell phones also did not exist. Thus, communications could be awkward. Finally, 1981 was pre-AIDs awareness.

Third, the author may be familiar with a particular time and have the memories and perhaps even the evidence to create a credible world. With my Japan novel, I was able to draw on the descriptions of places, food, people, and events from my journals of a slightly earlier trip to Japan and feel that I wouldn’t be too out of date. First-hand knowledge also shaped my young adult novel .

Finally, of course, in the story that extends over a number of years, history will probably intersect with the story in some way. Movies that spring to mind are “The Way We Were” or “Forest Gump” or even “Same Time Next Year,” in which the characters express themselves in ways that reflect the times.

Whatever the rationale for choosing to write about another period of history, authenticity is important, and research, crucial, to get the details right, including slang. In fact, one can argue that a book intentionally set at an earlier time may become less dated than one written as a contemporary tale. Even that modern story will eventually become historical. Some will stand the test of time, and some won’t.

So I convinced myself to stop worrying about the screenplay—if it’s so compelling that someone wants to buy the rights, they’ll figure out a way to make it happen.

Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Mind-Numbing Movie of the Summer: Inception

Normally, I would never bother going to a film like Inception. I am not particularly a science fiction enthusiast, nor an action film fan, and this one smacked of both. However, I sometimes like thrillers, and being the product of Christopher Nolan (Memento) it promised to appeal to the thinking person. In addition, I was “down the shore” (New Jersey), and going to the movies is something we do on a hot summer afternoon.

The basic premise is that the Leonardo DiCaprio character, whose specialty is extracting information from people’s dreams, must try a reversal of his skill (i.e., planting an idea into someone’s head) in order to gain the right to return to the USA, where his young children live. His client is a powerful businessman who wants to break up the conglomerate of his nearest competitor. To achieve this goal Leo assembles a hot shot team, including Ellen Page, who will create the dream’s “architecture.” Another twist was Leo’s inability to let go of his past, in particular his relationship with his dead wife whom he calls up in his dreams. Sometimes, she is loving; at other times, she threatens to kill him. His obsession with her is his almost tragic flaw.

After two and half mind boggling hours, my poor head hurt. Although the general plot is clear (and the subplot involving his wife), the route to the disappointingly predictable ending was excrutiating—endless shoot-em-up scenes that seemed to serve no purpose except to attract a young, male audience. We are meant to believe that something original is happening. Much of the action consists of scenes happening simultaneously—dreams within dreams. These were nightmares—unidentifiable snow-suited men (and maybe women—who could tell), chasing each other over a hilly white landscape, weightless bodies floating around (and also killing each other), and a van crashing into the river in very slow motion. The gimmick was that in a normal dream, your subconscious won’t let you die, but because of the particular drug used to induce deep sleep, dream death means a life in limbo. So as the Inception team is trying to control the dreamscape, it must also stay alive within someone else’s dream.

Spoiler alert: His wife believes that her reality is the right one, and that if he lets himself “die,” he will join her in the real reality. He is torn. His wife claims that his children will be in this alternative reality. But he is rational and takes the chance that she is wrong, even though he almost strays from the task at hand. Guess what? The kids are just where he left them, sans dead wife, but otherwise, a happy ending and all. Might it not have been more interesting if the wife had been right, and that she was living in this alternative universe? We wouldn’t have seen that coming. And this is science fiction, after all.

I think the movie could have worked without all the confusing action. My mind would have been more satisfyingly bent without the distraction of the guns and the fights. Let this be a true psychological thriller. The threat of death looming is okay, but how about the threat of losing one’s sanity? Come to think of it, how about a movie about someone who almost loses their sanity watching a confusing movie that purports to be something it’s not. Now that I could get into.

For a delightful and far more entertaining alternative, go see City Island, a small scale, independent film. You want psychological? It’s about what happens when we lie. Oh, and it’s under two hours.

Friday, July 9, 2010

On Technology and the Writer

I don’t know if I could write if it weren’t for computers. Words flow through my finger tips much more quickly on the keyboard than they do on paper. In fact, other than some childhood attempts at storytelling, I didn’t start writing fiction until two years after I bought my first PC. I’m on my fourth desktop computer now. On the downside, I can’t write very easily if I don’t have access to a computer. I can make notes or scribble comments on a printed out draft, but I am not able to produce anything new. Does that make me less committed than those who still pen entire novels on legal pads?

Editing is hardly a breeze, but it is both more inspiring and much easier to read a clean copy than one covered in scrawls. At the same time, editors and agents can more readily demand revisions. Is an expectation of perfection the price we pay for wordprocessing?

Of course, the computer has all but ruined the credibility of that favorite plot twist of the loss of the only copy of someone’s 500 page handwritten manuscript (as with Michael Douglas’s character in the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.”) It’s become as an anachronistic as the bad guy cutting the phone wires, thus destroying our protagonist’s only access to outside communication. Nor are we likely to feel as sympathetic toward the writer who doesn’t back up his work.

Would I have even bothered with the year of the aforementioned “Wonder Boys” if it weren’t for instant access to the Internet? The library of song lyrics, ideas for character names (including names common in other countries along with their meanings), dates when certain buildings were built, descriptions of religions, and countless other facts and speculations is mind-boggling.

Nevertheless, I still have shelves full of books that I’ve used as background material for my novels. I am more impatient when I search the web for information. If what I want doesn’t turn up in the first couple of pages of a Google search, with maybe a couple of different choices of key words, I give up. The other day, I couldn’t easily find a particular recording artist’s top 10 hits for a particular year, so I turned to my Billboard reference book.

We can take writing courses on-line and never meet our teachers our fellow students who are critiquing our work. We can send a copy of our manuscript to friends and colleagues (and people with whom we’ve become “pen pals” on-line), and receive back “track changes.” Our circle of acquaintances, of people who share our passions and interests, is broader through blogs and social networking. I emailed a published writer who was writing about the same kind of thing that I was, and miraculously, she replied. I read her novel just after it was published and wrote a short review for her; in return, she read and commented on my novel draft—all of it perhaps possible in the days of snail mail, but much simpler in cyberspace. Writing does not have to be the solitary activity it once was when there is a worldwide community of other writers accessible to us.

Theoretically, the submission process should be easier, too. We can research appropriate agents, follow the links to books and authors they’ve helped published, examine sample query letters, and even send many of our queries on-line.

So the next logical question is, what about the novel itself? Are the days of the paper version numbered? Is the novel doomed to a life of binary code, or will it, like my beloved reference books, continue to hold its own despite or perhaps because of all this technology?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

2010 Second Quarter Check-in plus March

I started out this year doing a monthly “check-in.” That didn’t work. I think it might be quarterly now. This one is the second quarter plus March.

Here’s what I did well: I attended my writers’ sessions, kept up with my goal for my blog of two entries per month, attended regular writing events, and did some major revision on my two novels.

Here’s what I didn’t do so well: I did little new writing, I didn’t do as much reading as I would have liked, I didn’t write on as many days as I would have liked, except in June, when I got on a roll one week. But sometimes, you just have to give it a rest. March was depressingly wet, and I ran out of steam in April.

• Participated in 8 session of my writers’ group.
• Wrote and published 8 blog entries.
• Attended the following events/classes: “Winedown” at Harvard Book Store, where they celebrated the short-short in a slim little volume printed on Paige M. Guttenberg (the story I wrote was not selected. Odds-about 6-1); “Grub Gone Blue” (my story was not selected for this event either. Odds--about 40-1; two sessions of “Writer’s Life at Cambridge Center for Adult Education”; evening workshop at Grub on Revision; evening workshop at Grub on Dialogue; Muse and the Marketplace (Grub Street’s full day writers’ conference); “She Writes” 1st anniversary party (networking event).
• Organized my writing papers.
• Did on site observing for my short-story collection based on the Maine Diner.
• Read Those Who Save Us, If You Follow Me, and Olive Kitteridge. (Kind of a pathetic period for reading….)
• Wrote a 3-minute fiction story (600 words) for NPRs contest-“The Curve Ball,” using the words plant, trick, button, and fly. I was pretty pleased with it, but it wasn’t a winning entry (competition 5000:1)
• In addition to blogs, short story, and writing events/writers’ group, wrote on 26 days--6 days in March, 4 days in April, 6 days in May, 10 days in June. All writing was major rewriting of the first 90 pages of one novel and 70 pages of the other to make protagonists more likeable and the stories more engaging. Also, took out extraneous material, and revamped query letter for one novel (after doing some research).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On a Summer Morning's Walk on the Beach at Low Tide

Wiffle ball, kickball, badminton, bocce, catch, Frisbee, kite flying, castle building, wrestling, digging, napping, reading, roasting, wading, paddling, dipping, swimming, boogie boarding, body surfing, books, magazines, coolers, buckets, shovels, beach toys, beach chairs, loungers, blankets, towels, umbrellas, tents, amblers, strollers, walkers, joggers, runners, bikinis, tankinis, maillots, skirt suits, speedos, trunks, short shorts, Bermuda shorts, pedal pushers, capris, tank tops, halter tops, muscle shirts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, bare feet, flip flops, beach shoes, sandals, Crocs, sneakers, babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults, senior citizens, singletons, couples, families, friends, hand-holders, white skin, brown skin, burnt skin, seagulls, foot prints, shoe prints, paw prints, bird prints, white houses, gray houses, green houses, blue houses, green houses, cedar shingle, asbestos shingle, vinyl siding, dunes, dry sand, moist sand, wet sand, grasses, seaweed, driftwood, clam shells, mussel shells, scallop shells, crab shells, pebbles, rocks, boulders, rivulets, tidepools, foam, surf, waves, wispy clouds, puffy clouds, and the long horizon where sky meets sea.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Sizing up the Competition

In my previous blog entry, I discussed the perils of comparing one’s as yet unpublished novel to better known works in order to provide a clue as to its nature. Today I examine the immediate competition-- published books that may have elements in common with your story but may not be as familiar. I wonder (and worry)--is it better to be similar to successfully published works (and risk seeming redundant), or different (and risk agents/publishers not knowing how to categorize or place your book)?

Clearly, it’s helpful to know what’s out there. I have assiduously made a point of reading other books about young women in Japan. I found five published in the last five years and read all of them after I had written draft three of my novel. Here’s my superficial analysis.

Four are debut novels, and one is a memoir.

Interestingly, all are told in the first person (one with multiple viewpoints). (Mine is also first person.)

Three are written in the present tense. (Mine is past tense.)

One is written by a Canadian, one by an English woman (and published only in Great Britain, I believe), and three by Americans.

Both the non-fiction book (Bar Flower, Lea Jacobson, St. Martin’s Press, 2008) and the British novel (Sayonara Bar, Susan Barker, Doubleday, 2005) are set in hostess bars, like mine, but in recent years.

The erotic novel (Amorous Woman, Donna George Storey, Neon, 2007) takes place just a few years after mine, and has one section where the protagonist works in a bar.

One of the stories (Lost Girls and Love Hotels, Catherine Hanrahan, Harper Perennial, 2006) uses “love hotels” as a major motif but the narrator is an English teacher.

The most recent (If You Follow Me, Malena Watrous, Harper Perennial, 2010) is also about a young woman who teaches English and has the least in common with my plot but succeeds in portraying a “fish out of water,” without denigrating the culture it is describing.

The erotic novel is light and beautifully told. If You Follow Me is funny, charming, and serious all at the same time. The other two novels and the non-fiction book all assume a slightly superior tone—“I am above these things I have to deal with.”

Except in If You Follow Me, all the women appeared to speak Japanese. (The protagonist in If You Follow Me does learn Japanese during her time there.)

So what did I get from reading my competition?

• Women who spend time in Japan want to write about it.
• Clearly, there is some market appeal for books of this nature (Harper Perennial chose two of them). But how well did these books do? Is the market saturated, or is there always room for a story freshly told? Will I have to try that much harder to sell my story? Are my “credentials” good enough?
• Inevitably when a book focuses on the same culture you have chosen you will find scenes that resemble yours. I know I wrote mine independently, and I probably even have the dated draft (in the computer) to prove it, but I still fear sounding like I cribbed the ideas (the present of the finger…). I can’t now claim that I haven’t read these books.
• Making fun of another culture is easy. Achieving an authentic and sympathetic voice is not.
• Some people overwrite. Overwritten stories are not fun to read.
• I believe my instincts were right to reset my novel closer to the time of the Japan I knew rather than make it contemporary. One can’t always be thinking of the movie they are never going to make.

I’ve been working on my novel far too long. All of these books were published since I wrote my first draft (and most since I wrote my second). Of course, In the meantime, I’ve written a second novel. Isn’t it time to stop worrying, stop comparing, and get that first one out there?

Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Comparison Trap

If there is one question I hate, it’s, “To what other books would you compare yours?” “Or what other books is your book like?” Agents and editors often ask writers to describe their novels in terms of other published works. In addition to finding this question difficult to answer, I believe it poses a couple of traps to the writer seeking representation.

First, comparing a well-known work of fiction to your own implies a certain level of hubris that might be thrown back at you. (You , my dear, are no Jane Austin.) But it hardly makes sense to pick something so obscure that the agent or editor is unlikely to have read or even heard about it.

Second, let’s say you can come up with a comparison. Now you have to justify how your story is unique. If it’s sufficiently different, then maybe the comparison doesn’t hold. A query letter is not the right place to offer these kinds of explanations, yet it is the place one has to sell oneself sufficiently to get read.

One way of dodging this bullet is to say, readers who like X will enjoy Y. Here, the comparison is implied rather than outright, but it’s still a comparison with all its attendant perils.

Of course, there is always that trick, popularized in the movie, The Player. My book/screenplay is Gone with the Wind meets Catcher in the Rye. The advantage of the analogy is it takes the focus off the direct comparison by splitting it between two targets. But how will the agent/editor know what aspects are most salient about the analogy? Is it the genre of the books we chose, the point of view, the time period, the overall tone, the plot, the themes, etc.?

Is the story in the above analogy a coming of age tale about a young Confederate soldier, who, feeling that his life is pointless as he watches his old way of life being destroyed, goes AWOL , taking his baby sister with him? Or is it a contemporary novel, set in the South, about a day in the life of a headstrong, but wealthy teenage girl, who leaves home and ends up in the middle of a gang fight? The possibilities are endless.

However, as an exercise, the analogy game is thought provoking. So here’s my attempt.

My novel about a young woman who loses her moral compass in Japan is kind of Memoirs of a Geisha meets Lost in Translation. Both books take place in Japan. With the former it loosely shares the overall plot told as a first person narrative of being about a naïve young woman who must learn for her livelihood the ins and outs of entertaining and pleasing men. However, Memoirs is set in an earlier era, the protagonist is Japanese, and she appears to have little choice about accepting this lifestyle. My novel is more contemporary (set in 1981), the protagonist is American, and she freely makes her choices.

Like my story, Lost in Translation highlights the complexity and challenges of being an American temporarily in Japan. Although my novel has its light moments, its overall tone is more dramatic than satirical or humorous. In addition, the protagonist in Lost in Translation is a middle-aged man; mine is a young woman.

How would an agent interpret my analogy? And what if they make different assumptions than the ones I’ve posed? Will they feel disappointed or worse, misled? Am I in danger of descending into absurdity? Will the agent pass if my analogy seems too far-fetched?

So as I construct the dreaded query letter, might I be better off just bypassing the comparisons and trusting that my story will entice on its own? There’s an original idea!

Friday, May 21, 2010

On a Letter to My Classmates Who Didn't Come to Our Recent High School Reunion

Dear Classmates:

When I tell people I went to my high school reunion, I get a variety of reactions. Most are surprised a) that my school has regular reunions and b) that I actually attended. And not just once in a lifetime but every five years. Reunions have become one of my life markers. I look forward to them—as does my husband! Since you are someone who for one reason or another has not participated in a reunion (or not for a long time), I wanted to share some thoughts about why you might want to consider (or not fear) coming to the next one.

Time waits for no one. As Chris, our exchange student who flew all the way from Munich for more than one reunion, put it. “We are not getting any younger.” Sooner than we’d like, there will not be that many opportunities. We’ve already lost more than our share of classmates.

We are all adults now. We’ve had lots of practice playing at being grown up, and it shows. Those cliques from high school? Erased. Those embarrassing or humiliating incidents? Forgotten. That adolescent meanness? Gone or replaced by guilt for slights or traumas caused. The personalities are largely the same, and the voices may trigger some unpleasant memories, but the rough edges are gone. And someone you didn’t think even liked you may remember you as being a friend, or tell you why they admired you or envied you. If you have demons, come bury them for once and for all. You’ll be glad you did.

No one was immune from problems. It seems that just about everyone had their issues. Now we have names for these things. When we were growing up, we didn’t have the labels for or the understanding of dysfunctional or even abusive family members , eating disorders, ADD, social phobias, homosexuality, or any number of other concerns that may have made our lives a living hell at some point because it seemed that no one (and maybe not even ourselves) understood.

It’s about now not then. Reunions at this stage of life aren’t so much about reminiscing (though a walk through the main building will catapult you to another time) as about finding out where people are now.

None of us is Peter Pan. Those few extra pounds? The gray hair or the bald spots? The wrinkles? All there. I thought we looked great, but then I’m older, too. You’ll blend right in.

Families are whatever we make them. Sure, many classmates got married and had kids; some also got divorced, lost spouses to death, lived with partners, loved people of the same sex, stayed childless, lived alone, bred horses, or smothered their pets with love. We were the generation for whom the rules changed, thank goodness.

We were lucky. No matter what indignities or traumas were a part of your adolescence, or even if you felt you got a raw deal from teachers, or you didn’t try your hardest, you have to admit that overall you got a great education. And it was a bargain compared to today’s private schools. Although the faces of the staff are no longer familiar, the values of the school remain.

We are a damn interesting bunch. Including those of you we haven’t seen. We are entrepreneurs, poets, farmers, doctors, teachers, cheesemakers, grandparents, artists, beekeepers, volunteers, sailors, potters, travelers, writers, inventors. One of our classmates has even been on Oprah. The best part is that you couldn’t predict a lot of what we’re doing now from who we were then. So many surprises! And more to come. You don’t have to have fit any traditional model of success to fit in.

We went through a lot together. Some of it heartbreaking (the accident). Some of it fun (our class language). Not all classes have a bond. And maybe you aren’t feeling it. But it’s there. You have to come to sense it. As someone put it, “The older I get, the more important I find it is to stay connected to the people who I knew way back when.” Several of us stay in touch in the years between reunions thanks to the Internet.

You were missed. Yes, we do wonder what happened to the folks who weren’t there—all of you! And aren’t you just a little curious about us?

Mark your calendar—May, 2015. No excuses.

Faithfully yours,

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On the Immortalizing Power of the Internet

Most of us would like to leave this earth with some kind of legacy. Before the Internet, unless someone was well known, only a small number of people might be aware of that legacy. Now our lives are open books—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We know that prospective employers and suitors Google us to find out who we are. Of course, there is a fluidity to that information. Each search produces something different, depending on a host of complicated criteria.

Summing up a life from an Internet search may produce an alternative bio to the one we’d write for ourselves. My first three pages include 21 of 30 entries that really refer to me. From them, you would see first that I have my own business, that I was on Facebook, that I wrote a study guide for a documentary on career counseling in 1993 (still in demand). Then, you’d note that I was an author on some scholarly pieces as well as some chapters and reports related to current professional field. Finally, on page 3, if you were patient enough, you’d find a reference to my fiction. In contrast, my niece, who is both a scientist and a fiction writer, fares much better as a visible presence in this latter role. It probably doesn't help that I don't use my full name in my blog.

A year ago, I noticed that Googling my dad, using his full name turned up nothing. On the 14th anniversary of his death, I created an imaginary Facebook page for him and published it on my blog so that he would have his own Internet presence. One year later, I Googled him again and was amazed to find seven entries connected to his full name. Only one was my blog entry. The rest referred to patents he held in electronics and physics. Deciding to investigate further, I entered his name, using his first and middle initial, the way he often referred to himself. In the first three pages, 12 of 30 entries appeared to belong to him, including an essay called “Science Marking Time” from New Country published in 1931, when he would have been 27. In that volume, he is sandwiched between C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender. Other illustrious contributors were W.H.Auden and Christopher Isherwood. It was the only thing my dad ever formally published. The book has been copied and can be downloaded. From these various entries (minus my blog) you would glean that he was a scientist, held various patents in the electronics industry in the UK, had worked for Marconi, lived in England and Lancaster, PA, and was somewhat of an intellectual. Hardly the full measure of the man but not a bad bio.

Of course, this kind of legacy inference is messy work. I had to weed out the entries with the misplaced punctuation, work published after his death, and references to occurrences from too early a time. And any search of my father mainly calls up a certain legendary Kansas City Royals baseball player of the same name. So it helps to have an unusual name to eliminate all the noise. With punctuation, which Google ignores, my first and last names link me with a male and female from the porn industry.

My mother doesn’t fare so well. If it weren’t for my blog entry of April 3rd, she wouldn’t be there at all. Yet her legacy of paintings and prints is very tangible, and she would be pleased to know that several of my friends proudly display her art work on their walls. My sister, whose first name is more common than mine and who, therefore, has a fuzzier Internet profile, also leaves behind a trail of visible markers in the form of the many garments she designed and produced over several decades. And her legacy has become more stable since her fashion archives are now housed within the very real walls of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (But naturally, you can find reference to this archive on the Internet.)

My husband has the best of both worlds, and he may not even know it. As an events and fine arts photographer, many, many people possess the fruits of his creative labor. Google him, even with his not so unusual name, and not only is he the first entry, but he dominates the listings. Even those in the non-tangible world of legacy can touch many lives and be noticed in cyberspace. One friend is batting 100% on the first three pages of entries with her name—all 30 entries refer to her and her work. One trick? She has been quoted regularly in articles.

A friend of mine from high school has such an ordinary name that there are 40+ of him on Facebook (and he’s not one of them). But in a few months, after his first book (non-fiction and heart-warming) is published, I can guarantee you that you will see his name appear on the first page of the Google listings. It’s going to be that big.

So I suppose the moral of this story is if you want a coherent cyber legacy, make sure you do something noteworthy, do something a lot or in the company of well-known people, get yourself published or in a museum, or start a business and secure your domain. Routinely use your middle initial, and always use the same version of your name. If your name is relatively common, you will have to work that much harder, but you can do it.

On the other hand, while you can make your mark on the World Wide Web, it’s important to remember that you can’t easily wipe away your presence once it’s out there. You can even write your own autobiography, but it will be augmented by whatever the critics have to say, for better or for worse. So, it’s probably better just to get on with your life and do what you want to do. Let the Google entries fall where they may, and, if you must check up on yourself, try another search engine once in awhile.

[Note: Although I have used my blog to give certain members of my family a web presence, this time I have intentionally omitted names so as not to add to anyone’s cyber biography.]

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On My Mother, My Muse

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother, Josephine Carlton Brett (June 9, 1908-April 3, 2000.) She was born in London within the sound of the Bow Bells, making her a true Cockney, but her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Her life spanned most of the 20th century, encompassing two world wars and the Great Depression. When I was very young, our family emigrated to Pennsylvania for 18 years for my father’s work, but my parents retired back to London, which was always home for my mum. Except for her last year, she lived the final 30 years of her life in a flat in Putney, overlooking the Heath.

My mother was an art teacher and artist, and her huge range of talents, her continual learning of new skills, her creativity, and her productivity in her “golden” years, when she took up a new (to her) art form (silkscreen), serve as inspirations to me, perhaps now more than ever. I own and proudly display pieces from her legacy.

Because of the time in which she grew up and her detour to the USA, she was never quite able to realize all her personal ambitions. Perhaps as a consequence, she was fiercely proud of her daughters and her granddaughter and our professional accomplishments. When I became director of the career services department at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in my mid-thirties, my mum bragged to everyone, “My daughter is a director at Harvard!”

I know she would have been supportive of my writing efforts, if not a little eager for completion of my projects. When I first told her that I was writing a screenplay (probably around 1997), she was very excited. Of course, she kept asking me whether I’d finished it. I think she expected it to magically appear on the silver screen. But even in the last year of her life when she was suffering from severe dementia, she became animated when recalling the passion of the creative process—it’s like “butterflies in your stomach.” Much like love, yes?

A large portrait of my mother as a young woman hangs on the wall in the room where I do most of my writing—serving as my muse. Between my sister (see March 16 blog entry) and her, I should be able to draw sufficient inspiration to last a lifetime. The photo on the left was taken when she was about 23 (and still involved in acting, her other love.)

Below I share a poem about her that my sister and I wrote and read at her funeral, following a family tradition that my mother maintained for many years of composing poems for our birthdays. It seemed fitting to honor her life in a similar way. The last line was originally, “Go in peace,” which she always said to us as adults when we would leave her flat after a visit. I have changed it to be more eternal.


She was-
Creative, imaginative, energetic, vivacious.
Lively, theatrical, talkative, but gracious

She wore-
Tailored suits, high heels, black leather, bright smocks.
Patterned jumpers, silk leggings, red velvet, warm socks.

She did–
Painting, silkscreens, puppetry, and plays
Sewing, knitting, odes for birthdays.

She saw-
San Francisco, Montreal, Boston and Maine
Venice by ship, New York by train.

She shopped at-
Lord and Taylor, Blum Store, M&S with a cart
Fifth Avenue, Liberty’s, always dressed smart.

She made–
Shepherds’ pie, soufflé, sherry trifle, shavas dinner
Sponge cake, stuffed trout, each one a winner.

She took pride in-
Her handwriting, her voice, an organized chart,
All her family’s achievements, her posture, her art.

She was-
Proper, stoical, don’t make a fuss.
Generous, loving, unconditionally supportive of us.

She loved-
White Linen perfume, flowers, teaching children, Matisse.
Sisters, husband, and family.
Now, Mum, rest in peace.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Failure Deprivation Syndrome

I’m sitting here watching “American Idol” and marveling at the resilience of these young people who in front of millions listen to some pretty raw criticism—“That was horrible!” is a frequent Simon Cowell comment. Of course, these are the finalists; they’ve already shown their mettle against hundreds of other candidates. But I wonder what happens when they are voted off. Do they cry? Say they’ll never sing again? Resolve to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again?

Years ago, when I was a career counselor, one of my colleagues at Harvard noted that she regularly saw students who came to her devastated because they had received their first lousy grade in their lives, or some professor hadn’t liked their paper. She named this phenomenon “failure deprivation syndrome.” These young people had never failed at anything, and they didn’t have the tools to handle it.

As I thought about my own life, I realized that I, too, had not suffered big setbacks at least in terms of standard achievements by which we gauge success. I did well in school, was accepted into all the colleges and graduate schools I applied to, and generally got the jobs I wanted. Sure, I worked hard and aimed for things that were reachable given my talents. You could say I deserved my rewards. My early love life was another story, but after a slow start, I even landed the guys on whom I’d set my sights. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

And then I started writing. Let’s face it. This whole business is not for sissies. Last year, I sent off queries regarding my novel to four agents; I actually heard from three. I’m told that it’s quite common to not receive a reply. One sent a form letter saying they weren’t taking on new writers. Another took the time to write back, “I didn’t love it, and I have to love it.” And a third, with whom I had had previous contact, was even more generous with her feedback, though I didn’t understand what she was telling me to do. Later, in a one-one-one manuscript review of the first twenty pages of one of my novels, a New York agent told me she didn’t feel simpatico with my protagonist.

Recently, I entered two local short story contests—in one, the odds were about 6:1, and the other, 40:1. I thought my stories were pretty good. I wondered whether I was close to the cut or tossed out after the first read. Unfortunately, I’ll never know.

I wouldn’t say I am a sore loser. A sore loser complains, blames others, doesn’t use feedback to improve. I believe I take responsibility and listen to suggestions if they are offered. Nevertheless, I can’t say I handle rejection well. It slows me down and makes me reexamine my goals. I know that people we now think of as great authors often had their novels rejected many times, and I have a copy of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (Ed. Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard), itself a best seller to remind myself of the variety of viewpoints out there (and that agents, reviewers, and publishers all have bad days).

But how do you know whether for you it’s just a numbers game and that someone out there will eventually like you well enough to represent you, or that your manuscript really does need more work, or that you really don’t have the talent? The agent who gave me the feedback I didn’t quite get did say that maybe someone else would like it as it was. Was she saying, “I could see how some people might respond to this, so keep sending it out?” I stopped at four agents, and maybe I should have just kept sending out my novel. Instead, I decided to take the disparate and unclear pieces of advice and do more revision. So now having stalled on that task, I am in a nowhere land. I’ve made it convenient for myself. If I don’t get it out there again, I can’t be rejected again, can I?

All of those who write need to ask ourselves why we write; how much effort to we are willing to put into it after the first one or two drafts and the inevitable suggestions; how badly we need external affirmation for our labors, especially in the form of publication by someone other than ourselves; and how much indifference or negativity from an increasingly deluged and strapped publishing industry are we willing to endure to get to that place. But I suppose that if John Le Carre could keep going after hearing, “You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future,” I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet. After all, it’s never too late to learn something new—even how to weather a little rejection.

Now didn’t I just hear about NPR’s latest 3-minute fiction contest?

Monday, March 15, 2010

On Channeling Beth

Like many sibling relationships, mine with my sister Beth was complicated. It was loving, competitive, intimate, and at times rage-inducing. Beth was a fashion designer, and not surprisingly she felt somewhat wedded to fashion trends both good and bad. I, in contrast, held a certain amount of scorn about blindly following what seemed to me arbitrary schemes by the clothing industry to shame women into throwing out their wardrobes every couple of years. On more than one occasion, we had screaming fights on this topic. No doubt we both dug in our heels more deeply than our beliefs would have dictated. I liked clothes, but I shopped with an eye to bargains rather than what was in, what suited me, or what even fitted me properly.

Sadly, Beth died seven years ago on March 16 from cancer. After her diagnosis, I promised myself that I wouldn’t start any arguments with her, especially about fashion. During those 22 months of ups and downs regarding her prognosis, our relationship was about mutual support, particularly since we had lost our last parent, our mum, just the previous year.

For some years prior to Beth’s illness I had been writing a screenplay with a friend, but a couple of months after Beth’s surgery, I returned to writing on my own. I wrote another screenplay based on some experiences I had had in Japan as a young woman. As it happens, Beth had spent the last decade peddling her knitwear designs in Japan, travelling there twice a year. I asked her to read my script, and she gave me some practical suggestions regarding cultural references as well as a hilarious explanation for a character’s physical condition that I incorporated. (I won’t give it away!) Beth herself was a wonderful and humorous writer with a gift for an original turn of phrase, but her literary efforts were confined to letters, then faxes, and finally emails. Had she lived, I wonder if she would have written something lengthier, perhaps a memoir of her years in the fashion industry.

For more than two years after Beth’s death, my own creativity dried up. I didn’t have the heart , nor the emotional energy to write anything, much less to complete the novelization of the screenplay. The loss of my only sibling with whom I’d been so close was devastating, and with Beth’s passing went my connection to my nuclear family and all that history it represented.

Then in 2005 two things happened within a few months of each other. I began to shop, and I began to write again. Oh, how I shopped. I began watching TLC’s “What not to Wear,” and I went through my wardrobe with a critical eye, giving away bags of ill-fitting, out-of-date, and unbecoming clothes in unflattering colors. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I followed the trends. For someone in her middle years, some of these seemed most unsuitable. Rather, I focused more on classical pieces that fit, and colorful fun pieces that I would enjoy wearing. I still looked at price tags and shopped at sales, but my sense of a reasonable cost increased from my 1970s yardstick. And, gasp, I even bought a few things at full price! At times I became obsessed with finding the right top to go with the pants I’d purchased or with one of Beth’s designs that I wore, travelling to multiple shops along the way. I felt possessed.

I am not a superstitious person. I walk under ladders, let black cats cross my path, and don’t worry about Friday the 13th. I don’t consider myself a person of great faith, or even a particularly spiritual person. But I swear that I was channeling Beth. Maybe it was her fun way of getting back at me for giving her such a hard time about her passion. But as I mentioned, I also started writing again-with a greater sense of purpose and with more regularity. I took better classes and workshops to hone my craft, and I not only completed multiple drafts of the novel about Japan, I wrote a second novel. This burst of creativity also felt like a gift from Beth, who was enormously talented and prolific. (The prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London recently took all her fashion archives—sketches, photos, costings, etc. as well as several samples from her collection.) I know there may be rational explanations for both of these phenomena; I studied psychology. I also understand that both the interest in fashion and the creativity describe my mother. But I like to believe that Beth, who had provided me some seed funds, was watching over her little sister—giving her a push.

A couple of months ago, I perused my bulging wardrobe and realized I didn’t really need anything new for the time being. Beth would have said it was about “want not need.” As a self-employed person who works at home much of the time, I only have so many occasions where something other than jeans is the appropriate attire. Oddly, during this period, I have felt less creative. Each session at the computer has felt like more of a struggle. I am not suggesting cause and effect here. Maybe I am going through an end-of-winter dry patch. Maybe I need to take a break or an inspiring course. Alternatively, maybe there is a time limit to a spirit’s assistance. Maybe Beth has moved on to more important causes. Or maybe she feels her work is done and that I can do this all by myself. Or maybe like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz I had the power all along.

In the meantime, let me honor this day and Beth’s memory with a very short story (or poem if you prefer) that I wrote for a class during my first few months of renewed creativity (and have since revised.) (Note the structure of the story. The first sentence is 10 words; the second, nine, and so forth.)

Channeling Corinne

Corinne was a clothes horse and a slave to fashion.
Her sisterly advice drove me into a rebellious rage.
“Pleated pants are so unflattering; buy something new!”
“You used to wear them,” I screamed.
“They’re no longer in,” she scoffed.
Corinne died two years ago.
I obsess over style.
Replace my wardrobe.
Corinne teases.

Beth—RIP. I love you. PS. I did just buy a cute little black jacket with white polka dots. Totally didn’t need it.