"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How can you . . . write well about a place? My advice can be reduced to two principles—one of style, the other of substance. First, choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; . . . As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that ‘the shore was scattered with rocks’ or that ‘occasionally a seagull flew over.’ Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.” William Zinsser

Summer weather has returned to our region and the morning has dawned blue and soft and clear. But still the signs of autumn are everywhere—in my fading garden, in the trees shifting to yellows and scarlets, in the pumpkins and peppers and gourds piled high at the farmer’s market.

I’ve been working on a bunch of editing projects this week and I want to suggest a few things about language. Something I mention often when I speak at writer’s conferences is that a writer needs to put himself or herself into the mindset of an editor. And the first thing you need to know about editors is that they’re word people. Most are English majors, most are also accomplished writers. At the very least they can spot whether you’re an accomplished writer or a hack and they will judge your level of skill after reading only a few sentences or your manuscript or query letter. They will base this judgment, not so much on your ideas—because there are lots of so-so ideas or story concepts that sell, and lots of terrific concepts and plots that fail—but rather on which words you use in your sentences to bring the reader into a fictional world, or to introduce an idea.

Editors notice is there is a bevy of modifiers clogging up sentences and if there is simply too many words used to get the job done in a sentence. Remember that every word in every sentence needs a job to accomplish. If it has no job, get rid of it. They will also notice if you use wimpy verbs, passive verbs, or passive linking verbs when vibrant and muscular verbs are called for to push the sentences along.

And because editors love language, they also notice if you’ve imbued your prose with a bit of fairy dust or figurative language. We use figurative language because it creates excitement, surprise, and layers of meaning and associations in the reader’s imagination. If your writing never makes these leaps, never makes comparisons, never dares to riff on a subject, the writing will be pallid.

So yes, yes, yes, learn all about plot and character development and subtext and structure. But start with your most basic tools and create magic, no matter the subject, word by word.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I write for the same reason I breathe-- because if I didn't, I would die. ~ Isaac Asimov

The sky has been confused lately with rain coming and going, the sun playing peek-a-boo, and sunsets that are part rosy glow, part gloom. I know I’ve been complaining about global warming and excess heat, but this much rain, so early in the season is odd. I was out running errands yesterday before my mahjongg game and the traffic was crazy, sort of a giant bumper car game with cars skidding around and tailgating and drivers seeming to have forgotten how to navigate slick pavement. For those who live in a desert I wish you could smell this place after the first rains of the season—it smells like sweet ferns and earth and there is a dampness that infiltrates your lungs and permeates your bones. Although the sun is returning later today, at least the forest fires in the region are sputtering out and our parched lawns and gardens are revived.

I woke up too early this morning so have been sitting here bleary-eyed working on my bad guys book. I’m writing the chapter on villains and evil and keep tossing around ideas about both. Sometimes the line between good and evil is fragile, sometimes it’s finite because people agree that rape, murder, and pedophilia are evil. So I keep wracking my memory for the best known villains in literature (I’m trying to avoid film references in this book, although I’m not sure that strategy will work) and then thinking back to the villains I’ve read about recently. George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series has terrific villains and lots of characters who shift alliances and morality as the need arises. He’s one of the few authors who allows his characters a real range to change over time.

But I wanted to mention that I’ve edited more short stories for a client this week and want to bring up a few points. If you’re writing short stories I believe that first you should be striving for is a single effect in the way that a song or poem strives for a single effect. Short stories are traditionally written to be read in a single sitting which makes the impact of the story more profound. There must be something important at stake for your main character and because you’re transporting a reader to another time and place, the short story must also contain a bit of magic.

Because of their length, short stories are fiction on a budget. You’ll also have fewer scenes (typically 3-7), fewer settings and characters and less dialogue. Dialogue needs to be crisp and strictly related to the story events. But then, despite your tight budget, a short story must portray significant events and the action must arc to some kind of peak. Now this doesn’t mean you need a shoot-out or divorce to end the story, but something important must happen to an interesting person at a crucial time in his or her life. One of the problems I see as an editor is that writers often create anecdotes, or a series of anecdotes instead of a situation that demands a resolution.

While there is no template for short stories, generally they are about conflict, a decision, or a discovery. The conflict plot should be staged so that an antagonist is the obstacle and the climax is a confrontation. If the short story climax has the protagonist making a decision, this decision should have far-reaching consequences. If the story ends with the character making a discovery through some kind of realization, this realization should have potential to be life changing

Finally, while short stories generally don’t have subplots, they need some kind of back story or influences from a time before the story began. This might be a recollection, a flashback or summary. If the reader is shown only the present moment with no knowledge of a character’s past or previous influences, the story can be thin and unconvincing.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. Rainer Marie Rilke

I woke to sullen skies and rain this morning. Standing at the open patio door I breathed in the wet air while my tea steeped. It was a busy weekend, hanging out with friends and writers. I bought an armchair and a friend and her husband delivered it Saturday morning and I spent a lot of time over the weekend cleaning and rearranging furniture in my living room, office and bedroom. As I was doing so I was thinking back to how I used to play house as a girl. I wonder if children still do this as much as our generation and those before us did. Perhaps not, since children, especially girls have more options before them.

All those years of playing house, making beds, dressing dolls, sweeping, whipping together meals of acorns and creek water and flowers were a wonderful way to spend time. It seems to me that it’s how children build their imaginations and learn to live within a story. I started going to the library when I was about four and one of the first books I read was The Box Children. It’s the story of four siblings who run away and for a while live in an abandoned box car in a woods. Just like me, the second oldest sibling was a girl named Jessie and also like me, she was charged with domestic chores and caring for her younger brother and sister. I cannot tell you how charmed I was by this story and how we played endless variations of it. When my youngest brother Colin was born we moved into a larger house amid a huge yard wreathed in evergreens and cedars. In some places the trees formed tunnels and in these spaces, we pretended to be brave orphans, fending for ourselves.

But as I mentioned, I also spent time with writers over the weekend. One woman who is retired has mostly stopped writing at this point. She seems disillusioned by the publishing world, and wonders why she should work on stories and poems when the publishing world is so difficult to break into. It’s hard to refute this logic, but I suggested that once you break in, that it’s always easier thereafter. Another writer who I had dinner with on Friday night is father to a toddler and stepfather to two older boys. He works full time and writes mostly in the evenings. His wife who stays home with the children has written five manuscripts and is reworking one of them. After we talked I imagined the clamor of their household and how hard it was for them to claim the time for their writing.

On Sunday I met another woman for tea. She wrote a novel ten years ago and at one time she had an agent and publishers interested in it, but the deal fell through. Since then she has relocated to Portland, gotten married, and went through a year and a half of health problems. She has started a new novel and was talking about the practical steps in staking out the time and space to write. She’s now a stepmother to two teenage girls and is going to buy a laptop. They’re also going to remodel their attic to create a master suite where she’ll have more privacy.

Over the years I’ve always mentioned to students that every writer needs a time and place that is all theirs for writing. Even if the place is a corner of a bedroom or a reconfigured closet. But of course, like all advice, this isn’t always possible. If before you can write, you’re forced to wrest the family computer from a teenager, or clear off the breakfast dishes from the kitchen table so you can sit there, it’s just one more barrier that stops the writing.

In college I minored in Women’s Studies and we talked about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It is a series of essays, based on Woolf's lectures addressing "the question of women and fiction." She ponders the question of a woman producing art such as Shakespeare’s plays. Woolf examines women's historical experiences and the unique struggles of the woman artist. She invented a sister for Shakespeare, Judith, and explains that she would have been denied her brother’s opportunities. Woolf wrote, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write." I can remember our earnest, angry discussions in these classes, professors breaking new ground, introducing little known authors like Tillie Olson. We were killing off the vestiges of the Victorian era, but it seems to me that the struggle for space and time to write for both men and women, continues.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Last night a weather system from Canada bustled in here, completely changing the way the world feels. I was out walking at dusk and the wind was whisking the trees into an overhead rumba and the sun was setting in pales shades of pink, overshadowed by clouds roiling and gray. The clouds have remained this morning and rain is forecast although it’s early for us. With global warming it’s difficult to know what our weather is supposed to be like any more, but generally we have a bit of rain in September and summer lasts until about the end of October. In fact, often Halloween trick-or-treating happens in the midst of a downpour.

In Portland we still trick-or-treat at night, as seems right for the proper ambience and spookiness. I used to live in neighborhood of old houses and mansions and almost everyone decorated for Halloween turning front lawns into graveyards, porches and front hallways into haunted houses, and adding sound effects of shrieks and ghostly moans. Often grown-ups answered the door in costume, decked out for fright. Last night as I was hustling through my neighborhood it felt like Halloween and one neighbor had lit a fire in his fireplace scenting the air with woodsmoke.

This week for the first time in months I didn’t have an editing project on hand and so had more time for reading. I finished reading Kafka on the Shore, reread Say When by Elizabeth Berg because I’m using it for my antagonist chapter and am now reading Anna Quindlen’s new book, Rise and Shine.

I’m writing like a madwoman every morning and am currently working on three separate chapters on the book about bad guys in fiction. Using The Old Man and the Sea for reference, I’ve just concocted a list of elements that happen between an antagonist and protagonist in a story. Here are a few: The antagonist must be worthy and well-matched to the protagonist; he must reveal the protagonist’s Achilles’ heel; there must be some proximity and intimacy involved—a rivalry between classmates is interesting, a rivalry between sisters is riveting. The antagonist is always a threat, and always pushes the protagonist off-balance. In fact, you don’t want your protagonist balanced, chipper and mighty. You want to create him or her struggling throughout the story and the outcome must appear in doubt and cause apprehension in the reader.

My list of qualities goes on and on and I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to delineate the different qualities of bad guys in fiction. I keep asking myself what exactly is a villain, and I’ve come to realize that they fall broadly into two types, sympathetic and unsympathetic. It’s easy to delineate between an anti-hero and a villain, but now I’m starting to worry how I’m going to stake out the territory for dark heroes. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t included that chapter and am realizing that I’m going to need to read romances, gothic stories and fantasies in order to find examples. Often answers come to me when I’m out walking or driving, so the trick is to capture these thoughts as soon as I can grab a pen or hurry to my computer. But the writing is going well and the season is changing and so am I.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

This morning there are jet trailings in a pale blue sky and it’s clear that autumn is on the way with cooler days and a changing landscape. Last Saturday the heat was almost unbearable, yesterday, the day was perfect after a nighttime rainfall that scrubbed the city. In the afternoon I met with a client who has written a short story collection. It was great to work on her stories because the writing was crisp, powerful, and insightful. She’s a medical doctor who has worked for 17 years in a clinic that serves homeless people. And I wish all my clients spent as much time working on and rethinking their stories.

She wants to finish the final rewrite by December and explained that she’s sick of working on the stories. I told her my theory of how often when a writer has been working on a manuscript for a long time that you often come to loathe it. I call it giving birth to ugly babies. When I was working on Between the Lines, I mentioned this to my editor who was a bit shocked, and wrote me an e-mail about how ugly ducklings turn into swans. No matter, I rewrite everything except this blog at least five times and advise everyone else to push their work through a series of drafts.

After I met with the doctor I joined friends to see the film Quinceanera. What a delight! Afterwards, we went out for dinner and talked about it, worrying over the characters as if they were still living in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. where it was filmed. It’s about a girl named Magdalena who is approaching her 15th birthday and the important Latino custom of Quinceanera which celebrates the passage from girlhood to womanhood with an elaborate and expensive ritual and ceremony. But then Magdalena has a falling out with her family and goes to live with her great-uncle and gay cousin. It’s about acceptance and forgiveness and family and a Latino neighborhood in transition. It’s written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmorland, and it understandably won awards at Sundance. If want to see a fresh view of life and unaffected performances, especially by the leads Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia, this film will knock you on your butt.

If you’re looking for a fresh voice and approach to novel writing, you might want to pick up the novel Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I’ve only read the first 100 pages but am already understanding why he’s read by people far beyond Japan and why magical realism has so many devoted fans. It’s the story of a 15- year-old boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to avoid a prophesy. He’s destined to meet another character, Tamura, a man who was forever changed when he became unconscious during a classroom outing during World War II. Tamura can talk to cats and one such exchange with an erudite Siamese is some of the wittiest dialogue I’ve read in years.

You might also want to listen to the Ann Garrels report on Guffran, a 9-year-old girl living in Baghdad that aired on NPR Saturday morning, September 9th. Her father was killed five months ago in a carjacking. When he was alive, she enjoyed writing letters to him and leaving them around their house for him to find. When he died, her letters were with him and she’s afraid the people who killed her father might come for her. But although she lives in terror, she's still writing him letters and always goes with her mother when she leaves home in case something happens to her mother, she can at least scream for help. The story is at www.npr.org where you can listen to Garrel’s broadcast.

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I’ll never forget the perfection of that sky, the promise of autumn, a morning and week so filled with beauty and so marred with tragedy. The dread about a world forever changed that clutched my heart. Please do not forget that this administration had been repeatedly warned about these attacks and chose to ignore the warnings; that these attacks and all their terrible losses and all the justifications for the acts that followed, including the invasion of Iraq, were likely preventable.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A book if necessary should be a hammer [or] a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world. Wole Soyinka

Well yesterday at the same moment the Senate was about to bring a ‘no confidence’ vote against Donald Rumsfeld to the floor, Bush gave a weird speech where he admitted to that he’s been lying to us all along and secret prisons around the world do exist and that 14 of these prisoners will be transferred to Guantonamo. And of course mainstream media is not commenting on the fact that he’s been lying all these years. We operate secret prisons in other countries so there is no oversight on our interrogation methods and these people don’t have access to lawyers. Then, after letting the prisoners languish in Cuba for five years with some of them committing suicide in their despair, he wants Congress to ram through his legislation that refutes the latest Supreme Court ruling on how there prisoners are being held without trials and the Geneva Convention. The bill gives permission to torture and won’t allow him or the military to be tried for torturing. Of course, if members don’t vote for it, they will be accused of being soft on terrorism, similar to the high jinks of the Patriot Act. So the Bush crime family is busy with their usual bait and switch /smokescreen and trying to downplay the facts of how after 5 years Ben Laden is still on the loose and the occupation of Iraq is an expensive and deadly fiasco. Meanwhile the campaign to blame Bill Clinton for 9/11 is in full swing with the upcoming ABC docu-drama. Stay tuned for a massive smear campaign. Perhaps we should all boycott Disney, owners of ABC.

But enough about politics—there are many people who write more eloquently about this state of affairs. If I allow the Bush crime family to occupy too much of my mental energy, I tend to feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone or some unending nightmare.

Actually I was thinking about this past weekend. It began with my seeing Little Miss Sunshine, a movie I highly recommend. I don’t often go to see comedies because I just find so few of them funny with a few exceptions such as A Fish Called Wanda and Sideways. Little Miss Sunshine is hilarious and provides quite a role for Allen Arkin. I don’t want to give it away except that it’s a road trip movie with dysfunctional family in a VW bus with a broken clutch on their way to a kiddie beauty pageant. On Saturday I attended two concerts. One of them was at Sake One out in Forest Grove. It was blazing hot, the music was good and we toured the sake making facility. With its massive vats and presses, I would have never guessed it was so involved.

Second concert was at the Mississippi Studios—a fun place that I recommend for intimate venues. Then Sunday night I watched the first two segments of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts on HBO. He’s captured a lot of voices not normally heard about this tragedy (surely I don’t need to mention that this is another Bush fiasco?) along with amazing footage and controversial theories. In the final clip of part two, the camera spans a neighborhood which the winds and rain have lashed into shreds. Houses are reduced to splinters, cars are overturned, destruction is total. And I was reminded of the ending of the movie The Pianist when Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman emerges from hiding into the nightmare landscape of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. I believe that Roman Polanski created this backdrop on a computer, but the similarities between the two scenes is eerie.

Monday, September 04, 2006

I was listening to NPR on Saturday morning with Scott Simon interviewing Edward Medelshon, a professor at Columbia about his book The Things That Matter that explores how seven novels by women writers tell us about the stages of life. The novels include three by Virginia Woolf, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. The conversation talked about if meaning can be found in reading novels. Then Mendelshon made some interesting comments about the separation between the novelist and the novel. He said that Virginia Woolf the novelist was fearless and then they went on to discuss how she weighted her pockets with rocks and drowned herself.

But his comment that most intrigued me because it jives with how I think, was this one: “The author of a novel is different than the person who sat down to write the book…..The way in which a writer, when you sit down to make a work of art seems to be cooperating with hundreds, thousands of other writers to have the support of the shape of the novel, the have the help of the English language itself …with its rhymes and its puns and its echoes and allusions. And when you sit down to write this book you’re not alone. You have all of your reading, all of the language, all you have forgotten but that got into your head working with you, helping shape the way you think about the world. And that’s going to be something more profound I suspect, much of the time, but not always, than the way you sit down to breakfast.”
Isn’t that a marvelous statement—that we have all this help and embedded memory and language and patterns at our disposal when we write? One of the main reasons that novelists, or short story writers or poets need to read the sort of works that they’re writing is because we need to allow the language and shape and themes of other authors to filter into our many layers of consciousness. All this information simmering away beneath the surface of things. All these secret shapes and themes and patterns are like magical helpers. The eye and brain record so much that we’re not aware when we read.

When I was a girl I had so many secret longings and ambitions I could scarcely hold them all. One was to become a figure skater. Since I lived in a small town in northern Wisconsin, I skated nearly every day in the winter. Often after school I’d come home and practice skating on a bumpy patch of ice on our driveway, then would visit the rink after dinner. I can still see the girl in the driveway as the sun sets and the steel sky settles into dusk. When I think back to some of those overriding emotions what I remember is a lot of frustration and sense of failure that I could not performs spins and moves of ballerina grace.

Then sometime in my adult years I was thinking of my many frustrated girlhood ambitions and realized, that of course, I never progresses as a skater because I never had a teacher to show me the steps. And you know how some times when a realization hits you with a powerful zap and you suddenly understand something important? That understanding was enormously helpful. But writers can find teachers everywhere since it’s never been a better time to be a writer. There are programs that teach craft, hundreds of books written on craft, and then the words of those who have gone before. Who laid down their tracks that can be followed as if they’ve just trekked across fresh snow.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Good fiction often unsettles us, defamiliarizing what we think we know so that we see the world with newly opened eyes. Tony Eprile

My first book, Writing Out the Storm was remaindered by my publisher about a year after it was published because they lost their distributor. Unfortunately, at the time, they didn’t tell me the reason for their decisions, so I was enraged and heart broken. Looking for advice, I called a person who had been in the publishing industry for a while, wailing at the fates, trying to understand what had happened, because when the publisher called with this decision, they also told me how much they loved my book. So my publishing contact told me something I’ve never forgotten, that writing chooses us, we don’t choose it. These days I feel chosen and in sync with my writing and on fire with it. My mornings whiz by and I often need to force myself to quit writing because there are other tasks to accomplish, appointments to keep.

Yesterday I started writing my column for The Willamette Writer about using a writer’s notebook. I also call it an inspiration notebook because it’s the place I gather and glean all that I hear and notice as I go through my days. I use it for plotting out columns and chapters, for recording dreams and overheard conversations, saving quotes, listing vocabulary words I want to use, and savoring wonderfully crafted sentences and phrases I find in whatever I’m reading. Sometimes I paste poems or images or bits that strike my fancy into the pages. I cannot quite express how much I love my various notebooks and how they enrich my writing practice. How this habit brings richness and meaning to my days.

My notebooks are not diaries or journals, do not contain complaints or therapeutic venting. They are repositories, treasure troves. Since I wanted to quote excerpts from my notebooks, I paged through the four most recent ones I’ve been jotting in. And it was like watching home movies of myself as a writer—brimming with life and insights and ideas and wonder at what I found as I stumbled around on this spinning planet. Although I make it a practice to read through them from time to time—often when I go away for a writing retreat at the coast, I was blown away at all I found there. How much I had used them for the books I’ve been writing. How they provide me a place of solidity as I go about my days.

P.S. Another heat wave is starting today. If you don't believe in planetary warming, please stop by and water my flowers, I think the habit might convince you.