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July 2014



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Jun. 11th, 2014


Testing assumptions

I took a writing workshop last weekend, and there was so much to it that it will take me a while to work through it all. One of the big take-home messages, though, was to be willing and open to fundamental revision. Not to get too attached to our words too soon. Not to think of revision as just polishing the draft we've already got down.

Everything is subject to change.

When I was in my mid-twenties and making some life changes, I reached the point where I was willing to question everything I thought I knew about myself: what I wanted out of life, what I was good at, what was best for me. I let go of assumptions and began to build back from the ground up. In some areas, I found that I wanted what I had always thought I wanted. Certain strengths and weaknesses were exactly where I had originally assumed them to be. But in other matters, I went in new directions. I tried new things, and they worked. I let go of other things and never missed them.

Change doesn't mean that what has come before was a waste of time, even if we spin 180 degrees in the other direction. It can be so hard to drop the baggage, but we are lighter without it.

Jun. 8th, 2014


Spelling bee

While recovering from a medical procedure recently (I'm fine, btw), I had the chance to see some of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I don't think I've ever watched any of it before, though I've been peripherally aware of it through the years.

I was a good speller myself, winning classroom bees and sending the teacher to her books to find ever more challenging words ("camouflage," I remember, was one of them, and I was lucky that I had just read a book right before that with the word in it). I still have the dictionary I won as a prize in my junior-high spelling bee. But I never competed beyond that, or even considered it. I've had mixed feelings about the idea of such a high-stakes spelling competition. On one hand, I love language and spelling, and I considered spelling bees to be fun (I even like the chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie where they have a spelling bee). On the other hand, I had to wonder how practical such a skill is, and whether it's really worth it for kids to study and memorize lists of such obscure words. (I would say that of the contest words I heard during the couple of hours that I watched, I recognized maybe 10-15% of them.)

What I didn't realize until I watched it was the puzzle-solving approach the contestants take, because they are often confronted with words they've never seen before. From pronunciation, definition, usage, and language of origin, they are often able to figure out the correct spelling. I became aware, as I watched, how much spelling is involved with the development of languages, and how many cues we get about learning language from context. Breaking down a new word requires certain analytical skills as well. I could easily see a good speller become fascinated by linguistics or cryptography. Interestingly, the bee's own website reports that among this year's contestants, the subject they most frequently cited as their favorite was math. This exercise in spelling is much less narrow and more relevant than I had guessed.

But who better to opine on the long-term usefulness of such an exercise than former contestants? The bee's blog contains a pretty frank interview with three former champions of how they've done, and what the bee meant in their lives. Some highlights:

"All agree that it gave them new skills - everything from better study habits and achievement in standardized tests to the knowledge that success will arrive when they work hard."

"'I want to make the Spelling Bee a feather in my cap, rather than the one thing I'm remembered for.'"

"... he has become much more easy going and relatable as a result of his experience. As a shy sixth grader, he never could have imagined being president of his senior class at Harvard."

"The Bee participants are also the most diverse group of people he has ever been involved with, Thampy said."

" ... it's those who aren't named champions who are often most able to turn their skills in new directions."

"... he learned that he can't judge himself against others. His validation, he said, must come internally."

Jun. 4th, 2014


Getting unstuck

Allow me to point you to this awesome post by Beth Kephart on getting a novel unstuck. A sample:

"Say you're not completely sure about how to carry your dreamy idea about the story through. Do you sit? Do you moan? Do you eat all available chocolate? You could, but here is something else you might do ..."

I have used the strategy she describes, and found it helpful. I doubt there is any single writing tool that works all the time for everyone, but it's worth a try. (And there's always the chocolate.)

Jun. 2nd, 2014


Plant memories

When I was growing up, my grandmother had a garden. I realized today that there are certain plants I always associate with her garden, because she always had those plants, and her yard was where I first encountered them. These plants include roses, coleus, phlox, and petunias.

I then began to think about what other associations I have with certain plants. Here are a few:

Spider plants: When I was growing up, spider plants became all the rage for a while, as houseplants. The thing to do was to put them in a hanging pot. (Hanging pots were also in fashion.) Preferably in a macrame holder. (The macrame probably tips you off as to when this was.)

Saguaro cactus: In my twenties, I started traveling on my own, after having spent most of my life in the northeastern US. I decided I wanted to see a desert, so I flew to southern Arizona on one of my vacations. I was still on the plane coming into Tucson when I saw my first saguaro. I was thrilled. Up until then, I had mostly just seen little cacti in pots, and I'd seen some prickly pear growing wild in New Jersey. But the saguaro is the emblematic, picture-perfect cactus, the kind you see on TV. I don't think I believed it really existed until then. To me, the saguaro is about the freedom I had then, the willingness to just pick a place on a map and get on a plane and go see it. (After saving up all year so that I could do so!)

Yarrow: This humble plant grew all over the yards and playgrounds where I grew up. We crushed its feathery foliage to catch its fragrance. The scent is sweet, somewhat grassy and somewhat minty.

Tulip: One of my grandmothers loves tulips, so I always think of her when I see them.

Poinsettia: For some reason, this tropical plant has become associated with Christmas in the US. You would see poinsettia everywhere in late December, and then they disappeared--unless you had a grandfather like mine. He kept the plants past Christmas, and by judicious pruning and fertilizing, managed to keep them alive indefinitely. I still remember seeing shelves full of his leggy poinsettia plants.

Lupines: I believe I first saw these during my traveling twenties, in the mountains of the American west. They usually seem to grow with bright red paintbrush plants, and the purple of the lupines against the scarlet of the paintbrush is one of my favorite wildflower scenes. A confession: The inner leap of joy I experience whenever I see lupines expresses itself somewhat strangely. When I see a stand of lupines, I usually call out in a high, tiny voice, as if I were a cartoon character: "Lupines!"

The writer in me will now point out that these kinds of associations can enrich our writing, both in the areas of characterization and setting. They don't have to be based around plants, of course. They could be based around songs, or food, or movies, or anything.

May. 31st, 2014


After the dream comes true

Let's say you've met a major life goal, maybe your biggest life goal to date. You've gotten into that school, won that Olympic medal, made that breakthrough. Maybe your dream was to publish a book, and you've done it.

What next?

I've had the chance to watch many writers break through the book-publishing barrier, and I've gone through it myself. Generally what happens is that we instantly select new goals: to publish again, to write more, to write better, to be more widely read, to try something different or repeat a success. But after passing through that gateway, the path goes all over the place. It doesn't always go to happy places. Or, more likely, it doesn't go only to happy places. It goes up and down; it twists; it may go in circles or reach dead ends. It usually has many forks.

I've seen writers turn to new goals in other fields. They decide that being a parent, or a teacher, or another kind of artist, or something else, is really where they need to go from here.

I've seen writers publish more and have incredible success.

I've seen writers put together a career from trying this and that, doing some editing, doing some work-for-hire, trying different genres, turning to pseudonyms. One way and another, they're continuing to write.

I've seen writers disappear and I don't know what they're doing now: they might be writing under pseudonyms, or they might not be writing anymore. I'm not sure.

When we reach a big goal, we don't know how it will play out for us. The road of any life is seldom a straight one, seldom predictable and smooth. But life goes on, and it goes on testing us. And most people then have to ask that question (What next?) and make some choices, and for some of us it involves reimagining our futures. Most of us thought the answer to the question would be simply, "Publish more books," but there are other answers, other options.

May. 29th, 2014

uih cover

The art, the artist

"I don't like being around volatile people. I have no interest in being around geniuses. Those tempestuous volatile geniuses the media likes to hold up. But I had the deepest admiration for his artistry."
--Franklyn Ajaye, quoted in Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, by David Henry and Joe Henry

There's a difference between admiring someone's art and admiring that person, a difference between wanting to spend time in the world of an artwork and wanting to spend time with its creator. I don't think every genius has to be a "tortured genius," and a lot of the volatility Ajaye speaks of ends in self-destruction.

Art draws on real emotions, real events. But one challenge artists face is drawing that line between life and art, knowing what can cross that border and what can't.

May. 27th, 2014


Wish I'd written that

I took my turn at YA Outside the Lines to discuss books I wish I'd written. I can only hope that some of these suggestions find their way onto your to-read pile.

May. 25th, 2014


Bookfinding: a personal history

How I have found books through the years:

Growing up:
Library - Avid patron, both school and public library. If I liked a book, I would check it out over and over again.
Scholastic book clubs - Ordered after reading the little descriptions and looking at the covers. I LOVED those newsletters that we ordered from; the synopses were an art in themselves. I invented my own little newsletters with imaginary books, based on the Scholastic ones.
Bookstores - Usually I didn't buy a book until I'd already read it in the library many times. I would make an exception for authors whose other books I already knew and liked. For example, anything by Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger, Marilyn Sachs, I would snap up without having read it first. Occasionally I would take a chance on a new author. I only bought paperbacks.
Parents' bookshelves - This is how I came to read a first-aid manual, Shelley Berman's Cleans and Dirtys, Saroyan's Look at us ..., a 1970s poetry book with a psychedelic cover (which I now own), my mother's nursing-school textbooks, the John Jakes bicentennial series, and various other assorted titles.
Gifts - This is how I got a good portion of the Nancy Drew series, the Five Little Peppers, a 16-volume series of classics, and Grimm's fairy tales. Most of these were hardcovers.

Early adulthood:
Library - As always.
Bookstores - As an adult, I discovered used bookstores. Philadelphia still has several, but at the time I first moved here, was especially rich in them. I rarely lived more than a couple of blocks from a used bookstore. During my time in Atlanta, the Oxford Too was a weekly habit. I often discovered authors in used bookstores, because it was easy to take a chance on a new author for a quarter or a dollar. Then I would start buying that author's newer books new (this is how I discovered Nora Ephron and Calvin Trillin, just to name a couple).
I also patronized first-run bookstores. In those days we had Doubleday, Encore, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, as well as the independents. Then Borders came, and its first Philadelphia location was unbelievable. So many books! So much room! Indie or chain, I rarely left a bookstore without buying something.
Free shelves - For a while, I lived in a building with a "take a book, leave a book" library. A great way to find out-of-print books B.I. (Before the Internet).
Gifts - Again, people usually would buy fancier books for me than I would buy for myself. Hardcovers. My parents even gave me a collection of the Brontes' work with leather covers and gilt edges.

Library - The theme continues.
Internet - I now find out about most of the books I want to read online. I read many writers' and readers' social media sites, and I am always seeing recommendations and reviews. Before the internet, I rarely read book reviews. I didn't have too many other friends who read as much as I did, so I didn't get recommendations either. Now, I get so many recommendations from my online bookloving friends that I keep a running list next to my computer.
Bookstores - Sadly, the closest bookstore to my house closed a year ago. The joys of browsing in brick-and-mortar stores are rarer for me, but I appreciate them all the more now. There are still wonderful stores out there.
Also, I do buy books online--especially out-of-print books. I buy very few ebooks, usually only if the book isn't available in print. I don't have an e-reader but use an e-reader app on my computer.
One thing that's different now is that I buy far more hardcovers and new books than I used to. As an author, I know how important that can be to supporting the authors and stores I love. But I'll still buy paperbacks and used books, too.
Book fairs and book festivals - I never went to these before I was an author; I'm not sure I really knew they existed. Now I'm delighted to have discovered so many live book events.
Free shelves - My train station has one of those "take a book, leave a book" cases, and so does my workplace.
Gifts - This is where I get books I've specifically asked for, as well as books I might not have heard of on my own.

How have your bookfinding habits changed over time?

May. 22nd, 2014


The topics in the waiting room

I just had a flashback upon viewing this post at Iceland Eyes. I was there, at Krysuvik, a few years ago: a place of natural hot springs, the land smoking as it does at Yellowstone, but far more isolated and (it seemed to me) more strongly sulfur-scented.

My husband and I were the only people there that day. And we were the only ones at Kleifarvatn, the lake also mentioned in the post. (We did not, however, see the fabled sea serpent.)

We were there in May, and we never really saw nighttime, although I think it still got dark for a few hours very late at night. Without the cues of night and day, we kept long strange hours. We visited many places where we were the only people anywhere around. Outside Reykjavik, the land was so sparsely populated that it was a little frightening but mostly invigorating. Being the kind of people who are fascinated by the Mid-Atlantic Rift (the seam between Europe and North America), we explored the rift in several places.

Iceland keeps creeping into various manuscripts of mine. I don't think any of them have been published yet, however. I have many places, and people, and events that are like that: I feel compelled to write about them, although I don't know how yet. I try them in one story and another. I feel them up there in the Muse's waiting room.

May. 20th, 2014



Backstory is an area in which writers often get tripped up, especially when first starting out. "I have to tell you about where he came from and what matters to him and why he's traumatized by the sound of bells and why there's bad blood between him and his archnemesis!" the writer says. "Otherwise, how will you understand what's going on, and why will you care?"

This can lead to gobs of exposition in the first chapter: a bunch of throat-clearing before the real action starts. But I generally say, in answer to the question of how much backstory we need: As little as possible. And sprinkled throughout the book, instead of front-loaded.

Think about how we get to know people and the world. Upon meeting a new person, we don't immediately exchange autobiographies. We get to know people over time, slowly. They might reveal one detail of their past one day, another detail later on. In the meantime, we're engaging with our new acquaintance in the present, and we're learning a lot from how he speaks to us and others, how he behaves, what he does.

We observe whether someone's actions are gentle or rough, thoughtful or careless, generous or selfish. We can tell, within a short time, whether the people around us are impetuous. Funny. Forgetful. Wise. Brusque. Gossipy. Shy.

We also learn, fairly quickly, what they care about--do they talk about their kids? Bring in new baked goods from the recipes they're always trying? Put up photos of their latest ski trip? Ask you to join in on a fundraiser for a charity? Leave books lying around? Invite you to the latest foreign film?

By showing what our characters are doing now, we can reveal a lot. And when the villain first shows up, it can raise tension if we just hint at bitterness between protagonist and antagonist, rather than rushing to supply a page's worth of explanation on why the two can't stand each other. We can dole out the clues as needed--only what's needed to understand the scene in front of us.

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