"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.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Drizzly morning here in Portland, but the Sunday in October after the clocks are wound back is always one of my favorite days because of the extra hour gained. I’ve been taking care of my back the last few days with treatments and rest and such, so have had time to finish reading Alexandra Fuller’s Scribbling the Cat, Travels with an African Soldier. I bought in Victoria last Monday in Munro’s Bookstore. Munro’s is worth visiting simply for the neo-classical architecture. The landmark building has large columns, soaring windows, murals that depict scenes from literature, a coffered ceiling and is located in the Old Town section of Victoria. Jim Munro (formerly married to the amazing author Alice Munro) first opened a store in 1963 and moved his store into the current location in 1985 after he refurbished it. And they have an amazing section of bargain books and a great staff who seem to know everything about books and the store.

Alexandra Fuller’s first book was a memoir, Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight. It described the various troubles of an English family trying to farm in Africa, particularly in Rhodesia and neighboring Mozambique after civil war broke out. The book was a national bestseller and Fuller managed to depict sorrows and violence amid the wild beauty of a land she still loves. The first book depicts war from a child’s perspective and is understated, the second from an adult’s view. Scribbling the Cat begins with Fuller visiting her parents living in Zambia and meeting a white Rhodesian who fought with the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry Commando Unit. Fuller and the soldier, who we know as K, travel together, returning to his past as a soldier, both looking for answers about the legacy of war.

In an interview she explains that she began by depositing the reader in the Sole Valley where even the residents look like refuges. “There is, in all my writing, a real desire to take readers where very few of them would go on their own. One way to do that is to not allow them the luxury of a tour guide, if you like. This cold bath of reality is to shake people into the realization that this is not going to be a romantic handholding; this is really what it feels like to be there. This is the shock of reality.

The other thing I try to do is dispel the romantic myths of Africa, the Out of Africa motif, which really exists only in safari camps anymore. Very few people live that existence.”

This book is anything but romantic and instead shows the terrible scars of war on land and people. It is a place of land mines and ruined villages and shifting alliances and hard scrabble survival. And perhaps because I’m nursing a bad back and felt the need to travel far from my bed, the book managed to drop me on my head smack in the midst of the heat and smells of Africa. Especially though the symphony of smells that is Africa where she describes everything from a pet lion to a fish camp to lake via smells. If writers can learn anything from Fuller it would be the precision and power of these many smells. Our olfactory sense is connected to a primal section of the brain and memory. Even in our plastic-wrapped world, smells carry emotion and meaning and most writers don’t use nearly enough smells in their work.

Here is a small sample from the book as the author and K meet one of K’s former fellow soldiers: “Mapenga looked exactly how you’d expect a man to look who spends his life alone on an island in the middle of a lake in Mozambique with a lion. He had a week or ten days’ worth of beard on his face, a torn shirt, scratches up and down his arms and legs, and a damp, raw tan, blending to deep red in his neck. He had vivid blue eyes, deeply creases on the edges with laughter (but the eyes themselves had a worried, restless, haunted look), and a sunburned nose. His smile was sudden and beautiful and careless and came easily. His energy was quick and electric, as if you might be shocked by physical contact with him. He was about five foot ten, powerfully built, and wiry with shoulders that looked coiled and ready for a fight.”

The other technique that writers can learn from Fuller is the power of voice, especially a voice that holds the music identified with a continent. The book is scattered with terms and sayings from various African languages and the chatter of birds and sounds of insects and the lilt of the African tongue. For example, scribbling means killing and stonked means killed; fossils means old people, lekker, nice; dopping, drinking alcohol. We live in a country and time where there is so little consideration given to the human cost of war. Scribbling the Cat is an excellent reminder of all that is lost when humans turn guns on each other.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The morning is shrouded in fog, making the view from my office window look like a dream of ghosts. I must apologize for being a bad blogger lately. I returned from Vancouver Tuesday night and am still catching up on things and over the weekend injured my back so badly I can barely walk. So I’m hobbling around like an invalid and as I speak, am sitting here against a package of frozen peas—I’ve lost my ice pack and so the peas must suffice.

Meanwhile, the Surrey conference was marvelous—uplifting, exhausting and fun. Got to spend time with friends from Vancouver and a friend who lives in Seattle and spent a lot of time hobnobbing with the literati and authors who have sold millions of books. I particularly enjoyed chatting with Susan Wiggs, a romance author, Diana Gabaldon who writes the Outlander series, and Jack Whyte a Canadian author who also writes historical novels. During our meals (the only downtime) I heard several authors who hale from Britain describe Prince Charles as a wretch and opine on topics such as writing routines, publishers and the Canadian Dollar Store.

Whyte is the author of a nine-book series set in post-Roman Britain in the fifth century. His A Dream of Eagles novels deal with King Arthur and Camelot in a nonmystical, nonfantasy approach. His latest book Knights of the Black and White is set in the 12th century and is centered on the Knights of the Templar. Talking with Whyte, he mentioned that he’d been interested in the legends of Arthur since he was a boy in Scotland and also that the recent success of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code has helped the sales of his latest book.

Besides talking with Whyte at the conference I ran into him in downtown Victoria after he’d purchased an extravagantly expensive and quite handsome pen that he had bought to celebrate his latest book deal. In case you haven’t visited Victoria, it is as charming as billed. If you ignore the modern-day businesses and chain stores that dot the outskirts, the downtown area with its hundreds of historic buildings, many painted in a lavish palette, doesn’t quite feel like North America. We wandered to the Empress Hotel for a drink after stopping to listen to a street musician who Whyte recommended. The Empress Hotel, built in the early 1900s is like stepping back in time with that hushed atmosphere that grand old buildings possess.

Conversation was lively as Whyte talked about modern Scotland (“a bunch of hypocritical Calvinists,”) the amazements of the Edinburgh Festival, how he became a writer, and how Gabaldon introduced him to her agent. Whyte started writing when he was thirty five and described the ups and downs of a career that came after he was a professional singer, actor, copywriter, and English teacher. He also has a memoir coming out that marks his fortieth year of arriving in Canada.

Diana Gabaldon is the bestselling author of the Outlander series, which follows the adventures of Jamie Fraser, a Scottish Highlander from the 18th century, and his time-traveling wife, Claire. The latest book in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, just came out in paperback. She has a gravely, Katherine Hepburn voice, long, jet black hair, and a stunning and dramatic wardrobe that is often in midnight blue and swirls and rustles around her as she walks like gowns from times past. I asked Gabaldon how she got the idea to use standing stones (similar to Stonehenge) as a device in her series. She explained that she always knew that Claire was going to be a modern-day woman (the series begins after World War II) and then while researching Scotland, kept finding references to the standing stones. However, no one seemed to know who had placed them in various places, or their purpose. She started musing about them, knowing she could find a purpose, which in her series, is for time travel.

Whenever Gabaldon is around there always seems to be speculation about the appeal of men in kilts and while at the hotel when a group that was leaving for a wedding included a handsome young man in a green plaid kilt, the excitement he caused in the women around him was palpable. At the Surrey conference you seem to spend a lot of time traveling up and down in elevators and the conversation is often lively—in this instance, women were practically giddy over the kilt wearer.

Susan Wiggs was the keynote speaker on Friday morning and slumped onto the stage in hotel bathrobe and pink fuzzy slippers, then pulled off her robe to reveal a smart outfit, yanked her long hair out of its holder, and slipped into a pair of turquoise heels. Her talk was dotted with humor about the writing life nd she described how writers view other authors as their rock stars and gave homage to Mary Balogh who was also teaching at the conference. Balogh also writes romances and has penned 36 Regencies and 30 historical romances.

On Sunday morning Wiggs described her writing routine. She writes longhand and then uses speech recognition software to input it. Wiggs cranks out two novels a year (“My publisher loves me”) and when she first began writing met Catherine Coulter. I met Coulter a few years back and still recall her as funny and real and smart. She writes historical romances, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and FBI thrillers and as you might guess, is a prolific writing machine. Coulter advised Susan to write until noon, then spend afternoons lunching and shopping with friends. And so Wiggs, who lives on an island near Seattle, stops writing at noon as advised. Then we all discussed how answering e-mails and the business of writing eats up a great deal of our time.

During the final keynote address, mystery author Ann Perry advised the crowd of writers who were by now nearly saturated in words and advice, to go forth and write a book that matters. And so I’ll try.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Well last night I hung out with the NaNo writers at Powells on Hawthorne and the Chance of Rain coffee shop. Chris Baty was in town promoting NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and his new writing kit. In case you don’t know, National Novel Writing Month is going to challenge at least 75,000 writers around the world to buckle down and write 50,000 words in the month of November. For more info go to www.nanowrimo.org.

Most of the folks I met last night were as intense and keyed-up as a triple espresso (although I don’t drink coffee this is my best guess about their high-octane energy level) and Chris was greeted like the evangelist of hope. He was irreverent, witty and practical and described how writing fast and focused unleashes everyone’s inner MacGivor……He also recommended slipping dirty dinner plates under the sofa for the month, and this comment like others, was met with gales of laughter.

Chris generously introduced me to the crowd at the book store and I talked with a few people afterward about my anthology, my editing and writing in general. Then we waited for Chris to sign books since the line was long and congenial and snaked into the next room. Momentarily, I longed to join them in the novel-writing plunge and wished I wasn’t involved in other book projects. But then I snapped back to reality and realized how excited I am about the books I’m writing.

The anthology is gaining momentum and sort of taking on a life of its own. Last night I met two of Chris’ friends who are professional cartoonists and they suggested adding women cartoonists to the book. I am already trying to contact a syndicated cartoonist for the anthology, so I’m going to run this idea past my agent.

Meanwhile, I’m heading to the Surrey International Writing Conference on Thursday to teach three workshops. If you’re looking for a high-energy yet laid back conference chocked full of inspiration and terrific speakers, Surrey should be on your radar screen. If only I could bottle the buzz and sizle of a conference—not sure how I’d market it, but it’s sort of part champagne, part optimism, part love of words. Surely the planet needs this elixir?

Friday, October 13, 2006

It’s Friday the 13th and I’m wondering where the superstition about the day began. In the background Thom Hartman of Air America is claiming that the 13th is a fortunate day. I’ve never thought of myself as superstitious, have never tossed salt over my shoulder, and have indeed stepped on my share of cracks, and ducked under ladders.

But still, some of the legacies of childhood are indelible. For example, Portland is a town swarming with cats and my neighborhood is a sort of cat central. Now, I don’t have anything against cats except I’m allergic to them, but sometimes I wonder if they don’t outnumber our citizenry. When I’m staying home for the evening I like to walk at dusk and that’s when the cats seem to have taken over. They’re sauntering down sidewalks like they own the place, lounging on porches, lolling in flower beds, and peering at me from stoops as if I’m an interloper in their kingdom, which I suppose I am. And I swear this neighborhood is literally crawling with black cats. And try as I might to avoid them, they are invariably crisscrossing my path as I chug along in the gathering dusk. And as the tiny wraiths slink past, some part of me is seven years old and is trying to dance out of its trajectory. So, of course, I’m not superstitious, I’m just careful.

Last night I attended a radio show being taped at the Aladdin Theater. It airs here on Portland’s public radio station and is called Live Wire. Last night they actually taped two shows so it was sort of a long night. Live Wire is a combination of comedy, radio skits, music and interviews and is generally amusing. Like Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show there is a person creating sound effects and if the banter wasn’t so topical, you might close your eyes and imagine you’ve slipped back in time.

Sometimes on the Live Wire show a local writer reads an essay and last night Stacy Bolt read a piece about an A-frame cottage her family once owned in Lincoln City in the Road’s End neighborhood. Lincoln City is on the Oregon coast and she has memories of summers and holidays spent there before the casino and outlet malls were built. When there was still available real estate on the ocean front. The neighborhood that she once visited still has plenty of charm, but now most of the homes cost at least a million and many families will never have access to the endless blue of the Pacific or be lulled to sleep by the surf.

When Bolt finished reading her piece I was struck by the power of a good essay. How it can convey a glimpse of a person’s life, or paint a giant swath of truth. In my copy of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, editor Joseph Epstein calls the personal essay a happy accident of literature. He writes: “I call it an accident because it seems to have come into the world without anything like a line of descent. Michel de Montaigne (1530-1590) was its first great practitioner, the first man to make plain that he did not intend to be either exhaustive or definitive in his writing and to use the first-person singular in a fairly regular way. Montaigne once referred to himself as an ‘accidental philosopher.’”

Like Epstein, I don’t believe that many writers start out in life to become essayists. Perhaps that because essay writing is taught in school and so thus is tainted with a dusty or dutiful pall. Perhaps because essay writers are always scrambling for an audience or publications for their essays. Like poetry, I believe that essays are like small gems. And like the best gems they gleam with clarity and the writer’s heart.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Today is the quintessential perfect autumn day sunny and warm and quiet and smelling faintly of dried leaves and change. I taught a fiction workshop in Newport over the weekend and was impressed at the level of activism and sense of community in the town. My students were busy and involved and full of life and art. But as I often do when I teach these one-day workshops I dumped a lot of information into their brains. We covered so many subjects—the how and why of subplots, how backstory creates motivation and how theme and premise create boundaries and along with structure, establishes a scaffolding to hang a story on.

The last question of the day came from a writer who used to attend one of my critique sessions about five years ago. I used to conduct a lot of critique sessions for fiction and nonfiction writers and at times I miss the students and the whole shebang—the tension, the laughter, the rollicking good times when a great scene was read out loud, the hope and disappointments. But mostly I like my quieter life I have now and I’d rather go out with friends in the evening or work or plop on my couch with a book. And I know it sounds cold, but sometimes it’s easier to mentor writers from a distance than to show up week after week and deal with bruised egos and hurt feelings.

So this student who lives on the Oregon coast used to drive into Portland every week, but understandably grew weary of the commute and lately has been working on his novel with the help of a writer’s group. I have never forgotten his story set in a coastal town in the early days of the salmon fishing and canning industry. It features an interesting protagonist, a clash of cultures between the Chinese and locals, a murder investigation, and at least one body part –I believe it was a hand, showing up in canning plant. As I recall, the hand had been parboiled.

His question, the last of the day, was how to take all the information that he’d learned that day and apply it to the manuscript he was working on. So here’s what I think. While you work, you need to keep learning. You need to use a checklist of elements such as the ones I give away in my classes (I’ll ask my webmaster to post it at my web site) or work with a book such as Michael Seidman’s The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction.

As you write, keep reading the many books published on craft by Writer’s Digest and other publishing houses, read The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine and Poets & Writers. Download information from the web and pay attention to information from organizations like Romance Writers of America since they offer volumes of helpful information at various sites.

Analyze the novels you’re reading, noticing when the author slipped in a flashback and how he or she doles out the backstory. Note the proportion of action to description, how technical information is handled, if there is subtext in the dialogue. Notice how many secondary characters show up and notice the physicality of the cast. Read with a pen, paying attention to diction and how the language affects the mood of the story and how much time it takes the writer to move and out of scenes. Are there scene cuts? What about smells? Secrets? How many characters are wrestling with inner conflict? How many subplots? How many chapters and scenes end in cliffhangers? How has he or she used weather and setting details to enhance the story?

Now, as you’re analyzing novels and reading about craft it’s not going to jell all at once. Sometimes as you’re writing you’ll have a breakthrough, sometimes you’ll swear you’re losing your mind. But if you keep analyzing technique and reading about craft, then especially when you step away from your manuscript by walking, driving, gardening, showering, or whatever, sometimes you’ll find a connection, an answer, a eureka moment. It seems to me that often when fiction writers sit down and work on a novel that they do so in a sort of isolation chamber. Keep looking for answers, they’re out there somewhere. Step away from the work and let your mind roam free.And remember that writing requires as much analysis as it does creativity.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

So I’m having one of those days where I woke up too early and then drank two cups of Earl Gray tea and now feel jittery and unfocused. It seems to me that caffeine works best when you’ve had enough sleep. Problem is, you tend to need it when you’re tired. But as usual, I’ve worked on my book already and am now going to work on a proposal for an upcoming book.

But I wanted to mention a talk I heard last night at the Willamette Writers meeting. Willamette Writers is one of the biggest writing organizations in the country with more than 1400 members and 800 writers attending our 2006 conference. Since I’ve been traveling to conferences in other states I know how impressive these numbers are and that we’re a vital and varied group of professional writers and wannabes.

Larry Brooks was the speaker at our monthly meeting and he was talking about the six main elements needed in fiction to assure that it’s marketable. He talked about needing a dynamite concept, intriguing characters, and the like and claimed that you needed at least two of these elements to guarantee a sale. And then he said something interesting that I’ve always thought, but have never expressed out loud in a lecture.

The rules that apply to published writers don’t apply to unpublished writers. Sometimes beginning writers don’t quite understand this, but this knowledge, while not exactly comforting, at least gives you a glimpse of how the publishing world works. As Brooks mentioned when a writer is trying to become published, it is called breaking in. When a writer is a already published, but is a mid-list writer and he’s trying to take his career to the next level, that’s called breaking out.

And the rules are simply different for breaking in. The biggest difference is that the manuscripts from breaking in writers must be impeccably crafted, imaginatively plotted and simmering with energy. No matter if James Patterson, John Grisham and Larry McMurtry have penned some real stinkers, or at least less-than stellar tales. Because they have already broken in and broken out so they’re allowed some duds and these less-than great works will be published even with the most glaring flaws intact.. You, as an unpublished dweeb cannot get away with this.

Brooks used himself as an example. He writes in the psychological-suspense-thriller mode and his first book published was Darkness Bound and it gained him a two-book contract. His second book was Pressure Points and he described how his editor made him completely rewrite it three times. Now, if Brooks had been an unpublished writer he’d never have gotten his foot into a publisher’s door with his second book.

So just something to think about as you go about crafting fiction (and nonfiction) that is impeccable, amazing, and polished to a fine sheen.

Monday, October 02, 2006

People who know me well know that writing is my port in the storm, my beloved shelter amid the raging sea of everyday life. I write almost every day and I write a lot and when I don’t write, such as when I’ve traveling or I’m teaching at a conference, I need to be planning my next project in a notebook or at the very least, be talking to writers about, you guessed it, writing. So this past weekend I invited 12 people over for a lobster dinner and I didn’t get much writing done and I'm back at my desk with relief and gratitude. Because I write on weekends, I often write on holidays before I head off to the celebration or the guests arrive at my place, I write on my birthday, I write when I cannot sleep and when I really need sleep. But this weekend I was too busy cleaning, cooking, arranging flowers and worrying about what to do with the wriggling beasts….I’ve never cooked lobsters before and it seemed the perfect reason to stage an end-of-the-summer gathering.

But as the countdown to the party approached and I visited the farmer’s market for vegetables and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the spots from the living room carpet, I wondered what I was getting into. The more I thought about the liveness of our entrĂ©e, the more squeamish I became. Which is why I’m forever grateful to my dearest friend who actually dropped the critters into the pot (we cooked outdoors) and watched over them as they turned bright red. I cooked the corn on the cob, sliced pumpkin-ginger bread and arranged nasturtiums on the plate, plattered the grilled chicken and green onions, set out salads and plates and popped more champagne and tried to figure out where people were going to sit since the table was filled with food and accoutrements. And once they were cooked I chopped them in half for some guests and poured them all ramekins of melted butter flavored with lemon, basil, chives and Italian parsley. It really pays to grow fresh herbs. And then I ate half a lobster and started clearing up the mess, and when the last guest wobbled out the door, I cleaned more and woke the next day my place smelling like a wharf and I kept cleaning. And when I discovered that some of the borrowed seafood forks were missing, dug into the garbage bag of lobster husks and greasy corn and trash and practically threw up for the first time since I was pregnant, which was when throwing up was my hobby. And then went to the farmer’s market because I’m going to whip up a huge pot of vegetable soup later today to settle my stomach and then I joined about twenty women for a brunch at a friend’s house, where, you guessed it, I talked about writing.

So the past few days were just plain busy and I’m glad the party is over and I’m back into my routine. And I need to remind people that NaNoWriMo is coming up in November and they should bite the bullet and settle in and crank out 50,000 words. And yes, you can crank out 50,000 words in 30 days because thousands of writers and would-be writers have been doing just that since 1999. It’s lots of fun, like a toboggan ride down a good steep hill is a lot of fun, and all the support you need is available at NaNoWriMo.org and if you live in a decent-size city there is a likely a group of writers meeting throughout November cheering each other on.

I talked with Chris Baty who is the founder of the whole shebang on Thursday. Talking to Chris is like a shot of adrenaline—he’s funny and bright and creative and kind and I can see how he first coerced 20 friends to join him in this crazy but then not-so-crazy venture back in 1999. I was reminded of Winston Churchill's quote that meeting Roosevelt was like uncorking your first bottle of champagne. Baty wrote about it all in No Plot? No Problem! (A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days). If you’re read the book, Chris sounds exactly like that.

The reason that I was talking to Chris is that NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit organization and some of the money and donations that they collect at the web site is spent building children’s libraries in Vietnam. Libraries have already been built and stocked with books and the stories between the covers of the books are changing young lives. I don’t know about you, but the city library in my hometown and reading in general, was the port in the storm of my childhood. In order to increase the donations to $5000, NaNoWriMo is going to offer donors my editing services along with mentoring from an agent and Chris Baty. I believe in libraries for children and people sitting down and writing as if their pants are on fire, no matter if the draft isn’t fabulous. There is always time to fix it once it’s written. Just sit there and start typing. And if you’ve got money to donate, help us bring books to these children.