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September 2014



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Aug. 8th, 2014



"You never know how influences come in. ... I'm certainly never conscious of them ... Knowledge of the works of certain others is, of course, important. But that doesn't mean that you should think about it. These things should go into your bloodstream and disappear."

--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We are influenced by so much. We start out imitating, with the undigested influences sticking out in our early work. And then, somehow, we absorb them. They blend so well that they flavor our work, but the work itself is something new.

I like to read widely, to keep my "influences" diverse. Right now, I'm partway through a memoir and an essay collection; I just finished a collection of editor Ursula Nordstrom's letters; and I've been looking at two art books, one of photography and the other the Wyeth book that I've been quoting.

Libraries are a great source of art and photography books, which can be expensive to purchase new. Now that we can find thousands (millions?) of photos online for free, maybe such books are less necessary. But I still like seeing an organized and themed collection, with some unifying narration, which I find more often in books. The Wyeth book is a favorite of mine because the artist was interviewed at length, and answered at length, about how he developed certain paintings, what the drafts and studies of those paintings looked like, what factors in art and in his own daily life affected the painting, and the stories behind many of the pictures and the people in them. I'm finding that much of what he says about the visual arts applies to writing as well.

Aug. 6th, 2014

TNTB cover1

The closet

"I took a workshop with Christine Schutt once and she compared writing a short story to giving someone a tour of your house. You lead your reader into the house, but you don’t let her go in the sun-drenched kitchen, you don’t let her peek into the sprawling living room, you don’t let her linger in the foyer. You take her directly to the closet and show her the inside. That’s what a short story is. The inside of the closet and nothing else. I think about that all the time."

--Erin Somers, interviewed at One Teen Story

I think some of this is about the directness of a short story: You don't have much space. You don't have much time to get to the point, so you get to the point. You can't do a lot of introduction or exposition. You take people right to the hidden heart of the story.

But this is also about any story, even a thousand-page novel. Maybe with a long novel you can take people on a tour of the house before you reach the closet, but the story is really about the moment when you open the closet door. Whatever has been hidden, whatever has been held onto, whatever hasn't been prettied up for others, wherever "backstage" is, wherever things collect, that is where the story is.

Aug. 4th, 2014


On (not) sharing works in progress

"That's why I make a point of never showing pictures I'm working on to anybody because if a person likes it too much, I'm disturbed and if a person doesn't like it, I am also disturbed, because somehow that will freeze it and I wouldn't dare go on with it. Either I want to destroy it or else I think it's so good that I don't want to touch it. And that's the beginning of the end."
--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

He was a painter. But this can apply to many kinds of artists.

Aug. 2nd, 2014


Nature in the city

I spent some time today at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of Philadelphia's surprising treasures. (If you've ever taken the train from the Philadelphia airport to the center of town, you've seen some of the refuge's marshes from the train window.)

The place changes over the years, and changes with the seasons, and changes with the weather, but there's always something to see.

Today we saw a deer, a rabbit, several frogs, a cormorant, and swallows. The egrets and herons were out fishing (slinking along on their stilt legs with necks craned; resembling pterodactyls when they fly). The violet pickerelweed was blooming, as was the swamp rose mallow. August to me is always the mallow blooming in its shades of white, deep pink, and pale pink.

We also saw a bittern. I remember seeing this bird in a picture in a book when I was little, thinking that it was interesting, and wanting to see one in the wild. Apparently bitterns like to spend most of their time lurking in marsh foliage, camouflaged, and can be difficult to find. So it was a special gift to see one today.

Jul. 31st, 2014


Should auld red herrings be forgot and never brought to mind

According to the cognitive psychology class I took in grad school, there was a study that indicated the biggest obstacle to problem solving was getting stuck in a dead end / wrong solution and not being able to think in another direction.

Often, when the study participants took a break--a break long enough to forget the wrong answer--they would see the solution soon after resuming work on the problem.

I share this here for whatever it's worth.

Jul. 28th, 2014


What to write next

"Please know that I am not trying to avoid my editorial responsibility, but I think it is always unfortunate that an editor decides what an author should do next. ... I do think you should do the one you really want to do. I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor."
--Ursula Nordstrom, from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Jul. 27th, 2014

uih cover

Taking a walk

My monthly post at YA Outside the Lines is about walking and hiking: how they enrich my writing life, and my life in general. A sample: "When I visited Paris, I never took a metro or a cab. I walked everywhere, figuring that everything I would see along the way was part of the experience: every flowerbed and statue and fountain and bridge, every patisserie and storefront and sidewalk café."

Jul. 24th, 2014


If Carville and Matalin can get along ...

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author who's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. Actually, over the course of his career, he moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I was curious about what precipitated the journey. I admit I was also hesitant, not sure whether I would encounter the sort of shallow, venomous rhetoric that one often finds in anonymous comments on news blogs.

I was relieved to find the book perfectly readable, even fun at times. There were large parts of this person's life I could identify with or admire, and several points I even agreed with. There were weaknesses, certainly: sometimes a major shift in philosophical position was explained only by a single anecdote, and anecdotes were used more often than facts to support some generalizations. There were some straw-man arguments, some examples held up as irrefutable where I could easily think of counter-examples, and a few snide remarks to which I took offense. But I kept reading, and largely understanding and enjoying the author's story, even when I didn't always agree with his conclusions.

I mentioned the anecdotal nature of his rationalizations as a weakness in some of his arguments, and yet I think people often do base their general politics on their specific, individual experiences. A good or bad encounter with police, being the victim of a crime, having difficulty getting medical care or health insurance, having a child, starting a business, encountering racism, being laid off from a job, etc., are all examples of personal life experiences that can affect people's politics one way or another. One thing that made me laugh was whenever he characterized people from my end of the political spectrum with traits that I think of as more associated with his end of the spectrum: smugness, a tendency to be unrealistic, and bitterness being three examples. It reminded me of just how much is in the eye of the beholder, just how many labels and assumptions we use about one another, and how easy it can be to see an opponent's flaws while overlooking our own.

I often read books by and about people who are very different from me, but it's rare that I deliberately choose to read books that make cases for politics 180 degrees from my own. One of the book-jacket blurbs (from a person who agrees with the author politically) said something about the book being likely to persuade people to migrate to his end of the spectrum. I thought that quote actually showed a misunderstanding of what such books are for. By and large, they're not really to convert people who disagree with the author; they are to reassure those who already agree with the author that they are making smart choices, that they have good arguments on their side. And certainly I didn't read the book to be converted.

But near the end of my reading, I finally grasped the main reason I challenged myself with this book: I want to humanize my opponent. I am really tired of polarization, knee-jerk insults, and the situations where everyone shouts and nobody listens. The other day, on a very thoughtful blog whose comment stream seems to be populated by similarly thoughtful people, I saw commenters disagreeing on an extremely inflammatory, controversial subject, but they were arguing with logic and respect for one another's positions, and I nearly wept to see it. Those are the kinds of discussions I wish I could see more of.

I have strong political opinions based on deep convictions. If you know me, you know what they are, but I'm deliberately not identifying them on this blog post because I think it would undermine the whole point; my hope is that this post would be equally true if the other author and I were to switch political poles. I don't discuss politics on this blog, which I like to keep for writing and such. I advocate for my political views elsewhere, and I do so because I sincerely believe in what I'm advocating for. But I don't need to demonize the people who disagree with me, and I don't want them to demonize me.

Jul. 21st, 2014


Double Negative

You may know that I have a special interest in contemporary realistic YA novels with male main characters (having written two of them myself). My friend C. Lee McKenzie has one coming out on Friday, July 25:

Double Negative, by C. Lee McKenzie.

Hutchison McQueen is a sixteen-year-old smart kid who screws up regularly. He’s a member of Larkston High’s loser clique, the boy who’s on his way to nowhere—unless juvenile hall counts as a destination. He squeaks through classes with his talent for eavesdropping and memorizing what he hears. When that doesn’t work, he goes to Fat Nyla, the one some mean girls are out to get and a person who’s in on his secret—he can barely read.

And then Maggie happens. For twenty-five years she’s saved boys from their own bad choices. But she may not have time to save Hutch. Alzheimer’s disease is steadily stealing her keen mind.

You can find out more at C. Lee McKenzie's website, blog, or Facebook Fan Page. There's also a giveaway for Double Negative and for Amazon gift cards here.

Jul. 18th, 2014

TNTB cover1

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.

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