"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.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Marine clouds still scattered across the dawn sky. I ran across this bit of advice from Sandra Brown I wanted to pass along because I agree with it so wholeheartedly: “The worst piece of advice I was ever given was to write about what I know. I took stock of what I knew and, from a creative standpoint, none of it was very stimulating. Nor did it have much potential for being engaging and entertaining to a reading audience. I have no personal knowledge of, or experience with, paramilitary hate groups, or heart transplantation, or escapees from a maximum security prisons, or what it’s like to be profoundly deaf. But I’ve written about all these topics, and the books became bestsellers.
I figure that if something interests me, there’s a reasonably good chance that it’s going to interest the reader, too. As I approach the keyboard each day, I remind myself to have a good time—as good a time as one can have doing the hardest work there is.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Soot-colored skies and it looks like rain is coming. Yesterday after a particularly hellish chiropractic session when my doc was digging into places in my neck until I was sure I would throw up all over his office although I only vomit when pregnant, I managed to quell my nausea long enough to visit the post office and send off copies of Writing Out the Storm (out of print) to amazon. It’s been a tough last few days and I’m especially having problems with blurred vision and eye strain and doing much of anything that is productive…..In fact, a bit of despair and self pity had set in and this had been increased by a rude email from a writer whose opening chapters I’d critiqued, a request from a writer to review and critique her writing as a favor (no favors in me at the moment although I often feel a bit guilty for saying no) a crappy review of my Bullies, Bastards & Bitches book at amazon.com by someone who missed the point entirely of what I’m trying to say, and having difficulty walking and doing anything without huge amounts of pain. So a pity party was in progress, with wild, sad saxophone notes playing in my head and feelings like a flood had just swept me downriver. Make that the muddy Mississippi or one crawling with alligators. So to my surprise whilst at the post office I found a large box addressed to me. It was from my students and fellow writers—a writing group in Olympia. And it contained Godiva chocolates in one of those beguiling gold boxes that demand to be opened. So after Hillary made nice at the Convention I nibbled a few. And felt so much better as chocolate melted on my tongue and slipped into my soul and the knowledge that my peeps –wherever they may be--care about me and my world. Gratitude feels so much better than self pity. Here are two sites you might want to visit: poetrydaily.org.and blackbird.vcu.edu Keep writing…..

Monday, August 25, 2008

Morning sky is a tapestry of clouds and I slept in this morning—a rare thing. I returned home from the Oregon coast yesterday afternoon and spent hours unpacking and doing laundry. Car is still full of mud and sand. It’s sort of shocking how many items I dragged there for a week away from home—most of them used, although we didn’t eat all the food. I’m afraid I’m missing the ocean already, especially the constant roar of the surf that accompanies your days while you’re there. Every morning when I’m at the coast I sit at a kitchen table with a notebook and write down my dreams and make notes about future writing projects and watch the endless sea. I deliberately left my laptop at home because I wanted to write by hand, I wanted to rest and slow down.

And I did—-lulled by the ocean and walks along the beach and naps. I also spotted and an amazing number of birds I hadn’t seen before including a Steller’s Jay -–a majestic bird. I’ve decided I am going to learn the names and songs of all the birds around me so had bird books open on the table at all times (unlike John McCain I only have one kitchen table and the cabin I visit is rented), and watched the various finches and chickadees and red-winged blackbirds busy at the feeders—although only one species at a time seemed to gather. No interspecies feeding allowed….

Last night after returning from a family dinner I started checking emails and deleting hundreds of spam emails (a huge number of them about Paris Hilton) and read the last three guest entries in my blog. Many thanks to Kari, Dale, and Mindy!

I’m going to cheat a bit here and supply the link to Jessica's Publishing Dictionary by Jessica Faust at Bookends http://bookends.blogspot.com/2008/08/publishing dictionary.html which lists a lot of publishing terms from AAR to world rights. It always helps to know the lingo…..and I recommend that unpublished writers read the blogs from literary agents and publishing houses. Happy writing to all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey there, Kari Luna, here. Writer, whimsicologist, client of Jessica’s. While she’s away I offered to guest blog about a book or books that influenced me. What fun! Choose a book that influenced me? How about a million? In the interest of time (mine and yours) I'll go with one: "Betsy In Spite of Herself" by Maud Hart Lovelace. I'll be shocked if anyone's read it. In fact, if you have read it, we should get together and have a picnic, like they do in the book. This book was one in a series, but my favorite one. It's here that our heroine, Betsy, starts to call herself an author. In fact, even though she's a sophomore in high school in 1907, she finds time to split her interests between writing and boys. (How feminist of you, Betsy!)

I read this book when I was six or seven, probably. Before I fell in love with "Little Women." But it made writing sound so romantic, I swooned. Betsy did a lot of swooning, too, over Phil Brandish, the handsome but not-so-smart hunk and Joe Willard, the smartypants who beat her the year before in the essay contest. This year she's determined not to be distracted by boys. From page one, she commits herself to her writing. Good girl! Of course, the year progresses and things happen. My favorite of which was coming down with "la grippe." For years after that I magically came down with the same disease, driving my mother crazy and earning days at home under the covers, curled up in between my own journals and books. Betsy made writing seem romantic. In fact, I think it was the first book I ever read where the heroine was or wanted to be a writer instead of a doctor, dancer or whatever was popular that year. It was a new concept. And it was something I understood the importance of, even at six years old. 

Betsy used her journal as a way to explore the human condition; to ask the big questions; to vent and whine; to doodle and dream. She taught me that these things were important, just as important as making good grades, winning the gymnastics match or cleaning my room. And while other books have inspired me more in my later years, it was this one that gave me permission to do something no one within a 50 miles radius of me seemed to be doing: writing. Thank you, Maud Hart Lovelace. 

Oh yeah! These books are inspiring me, on my night table, right now:
The History of Love - Nicole Krauss
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - Haruki Murakami
Lunch Poems - Frank O'Hara
McSweeney's #22

Happy writing! (You can visit me at www.kariluna.com, if you're so inclined.)

Last weekend, just before Jessica fled Portland's heat wave to chill on the Oregon coast, she invited me to jot out a few opinionated paragraphs about a book that's been important to my writing. My name is Dale Sturdavant. I'm a retired history/literature teacher currently finishing up a "travel memoir" of my 2006 adventures in China. My journey started out as a visit to my then 29 year old daughter Kai in Lanzhou City on the occasion of my first granddaughter, Olivia's first birthday, but quickly morphed into a series of harrowing brushes with catastrophe. At every turn, it seemed, I bumped into another aspect of China's ecological crisis: toxic, coal-smudged air; tightly-rationed, undrinkable tap water; rice contaminated by acid rain and polluted irrigation water; and two violent sandstorms blowing off the expanding desert to our north.
Lanzhou is a city of 3.5 million on China's northwestern frontier, a rapidly growing metropolis on the banks of the Yellow River stuck in the awkward and dangerous limbo between a bicycle culture and an explosion of new cars, taxis and buses. Lacking an infrastructure of cross-walks, signals, traffic police and experienced drivers, anarchy reigns on the streets of Lanzhou. Crossing four lanes of speeding traffic without the advantages of signals or cross walks, and riding inside those speeding cabs as they darted between buses and other cabs proved terrifying. Watching my daughter do it carrying Olivia almost gave me heart failure. "Too many ways to die here," I concluded, and resolved to do all I could to convince Kai to come home. As it turned out Kai's judgment matched my own, and by June 2007 she, her husband and their two daughters were back in Oregon. The book I discuss below, Elizabeth Economy's The River Runs Black: the Environmental Challenge to China's Future (2004), proved enormously helpful in fitting my raw impressions into a larger context. Economy, who serves as Director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations is generally regarded, along with Lester Brown at the World Watch Institute, as this country's foremost authority on China's ecological crisis. Her book is readable and informative. Intended as an alarm bell to rouse American policy makers and activists, the book makes explicit the dangers China's ecological crisis pose to our own future. Unfortunately, glimmers of hope, while sometimes visible, pale in comparison to the sobering reality Economy describes. "Spaceship Earth" is headed on a disastrous trajectory.
As Economy makes painfully clear, China's environmental woes extend far beyond its infamous air pollution, glimpses of which were beamed into the world's living rooms during the Beijing Olympics, and which in most of China's northern cities, where coal provides the principal source of heat, is far more toxic than the smog of my LA youth. The World Bank estimates that at least 800,000 Chinese die from the effects of air pollution each year: a figure toned down to 400,000 in domestic Chinese media. But the environmental abuses stemming from thirty years of rapid economic growth threaten an abrupt halt to China's economic miracle. More importantly, as both Economy and China's Environmental Minister Pan Yue point out, the cumulative effects of decades of environmental abuse now threaten the basic underpinnings that make life possible: air, water, food and soil.
China leads the world in per capita birth defects, many of which are attributable to the tiny particles of mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium in their coal-besotted air, and to the pervasive contaminants in their drinking water. China's water, Economy makes clear, rivals its air in lethality. The Huai River, which "ran black" during a disastrous chemical spill in 2001, giving Economy's book its title, is merely one extreme example among many of rivers killed by China's reckless style of development. Almost all of China's major rivers serve as dumping grounds for urban sewage and industrial waste, resulting in a proliferation of "cancer villages" and epidemics of gastrointestinal diseases. Virtually all of China's cities, including Beijing which masks its crisis to sustain its "First World City" image, suffer severe water shortages and survive day to day through plundering their non-renewable aquifers. As home to China's Communist Party leaders, Beijing manages to bully water away from farmers and outlying villages. Even so its wells are projected to run dry by 2015, perhaps sooner.
In a heroic effort to save China's capital, politicians ordered engineers to design the $80 billion dollar South-North Water Transfer Project to sluice abundant Yangtze River water through 600 miles of canals, though a tunnel under the withering Yellow River, and into the faucets of Beijing's hotels, office towers and apartment buildings. Originally slated for completion in time for the Olympics, the project stalled as a proliferation of new chemical plants, refineries and factories along the banks of the Yangtze spewed volumes of toxic waste into what was already referred to as the world's largest open sewer. Officials now say Beijing will get its new water supply in 2010, and construction workers are racing to complete dozens of additional water treatment plants along the route. Economy doubts they can ever make the water drinkable.
In an update of her research in the September/October 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs Journal, Economy paints an increasingly gloomy picture of China's water crisis. Because of surface water pollution, seventy percent of the country's total drinking water now comes from over-taxed aquifers. But 90 percent of the aquifers in China's cities are now polluted! Corrupt local officials continue to ignore the numerous laws requiring factories to treat their effluent and municipalities to treat their sewage. When citizens protest, the officials often unleash thugs to intimidate or arrest them. They muzzle journalists who might dare expose their malfeasance. Victories have been few, but the number of protests may be approaching a critical tipping point.
Other than the terrifying image of the planet's most populous nation unraveling into chaos because of water shortages, the prospect of China continuing to pump increasing volumes of greenhouse gases into our common atmosphere is the most alarming aspect of China's wanton disregard for environmental health. A popular slogan exhorts the people to "rush forward to modern prosperity," promising the average Chinese a lifestyle equivalent to that of an average America--if they persevere on their current path to development. And thus, our own lifestyle and stubborn refusal to live sustainably becomes implicated in any effort to convince the Chinese they should lower their aspirations so we don't have to lower our own.
Economy notes that China is rife with environmental NGO's and would-be activists chafing to redirect their society on a more sustainable path if only their leadership would support rather than repress them. Likewise we in the West have thus far lacked the leadership and sense of urgency to reach out to the Chinese (and Indians) and to develop the technologies and strategies for sustainable living that might inspire them to do likewise. In that task Economy's writings provide a good beginning point for anyone curious about what China's ecological crisis has in store for all of us.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jessica Morrell asked me to guest blog this week, so here I am. My name is Mindy Sitton-Halleck and the topic is ‘Three books that have greatly influenced me’.

I was three years old when I first knew I would always love books. I’d burrow into my grandfather’s worn out chair. It was scratchy and smelled of cigar smoke, but I loved it. Grandpa paced back and forth in his humble living room and recited poetry from a book of Tennyson, Thoreau or Poe; especially Poe.
Some folks laugh about how people love Edgar Allen Poe’s poems, saying they are a poor man’s poetry (whatever that means). Well, maybe so. And my grandfather was a poor man by monetary standards, but his devotion to the written word made him the wealthiest man I’ve ever known.
He read to me whenever I visited, every other week or so. I seldom understood the words, then, but I loved the passion with which he read. His emotions captured my imagination like Dorothy listening to the Wizard. Grandpa often ended our reading sessions because he had tears in his eyes. I never saw behind his veil, but to this day I can cry when I read Anna Bell Lee, still hearing the profound sense of loss in his voice.
Flash forward more years than I’m willing to say and I still gravitate to books written with a lyrical tone and profound humanity. The Prince of Tides is one I can read over and over again because of the rhythmic language; say nothing of it being a great story. From the legendary first line, “My wound is geography.” I am swept along by author Pat Conroy's seductive narrative and often poetic prose, his ironic insights into the darkest nature of man and the wealth of humanity found in the simplest of gestures. Conroy is the kind of skilled writer I can only aspire to become. When I’m struggling with a scene I often pick it up and thumb through for inspiration. I can close my eyes and see the savannah’s, smell the waterways and hear his rich story world. I know my grandfather would have loved The Prince of Tides.
More recently a favorite novel was Nicole Krauss's The History of Love. This is an eloquent novel that unravels in compelling twists and turns to create one of the most enchanting stories I’ve ever read. Her first line grabs me, “When they write my obituary.” And then it goes on, “Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit.” Now how could I not read on after that? Poor, funny Leo.
Krauss’s use of language and her creation of completely unique voices for her characters are fascinating. From the first few pages I felt I knew the main character, Leo Gursky and his captivating story. At the core of Leo, are painful loneliness, and the need to fill an emptiness left by lost love.
The story is sheer spiritual poetry. I seek that kind of reading experience in every book I buy. I am seldom satisfied. Krauss set the bar high.
Lastly, The Madonna’s of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I was thankful I took this beautifully written novel to Paris with me last year. Each day I visited museums and every evening I read Debra Deans elegant story. She takes us on a carefully crafted journey about an aging woman with Alzheimer’s who was once an Hermitage Museum docent. The first line, “This way please.” Sets us on our journey with her as our docent-guide. Most of the story takes place during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. This character disappears into her memories. The first line of page three, chapter two, “It is as though she has been transported into a two dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page.” Truly sums up the story. As I read I experienced her youth and her devastating memory loss as she slipped in and out of time.
Dean takes her readers on a beautiful re-creation of what the character went through; the good and the awful. Her descriptions of the art are magical and the way she dances back and forth in her characters memory is masterful.
I’ll never know what made my grandfather cry when he read Anna Bell Lee, but when I read great stories like these, I feel I touch on his spirit one more time. As a writer I work to create similar experiences in my stories.
Thank you for allowing me some of your blog time. As a blog virgin, this has been a fun experience. Keep reading writing and creating great stories. Mindy Sitton-Halleck, Freelance Writer, Seattle, WA

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Well it’s been hotter than a bordello in New Orleans these past three days and today is supposed to be in the 90s. I’m escaping to the Oregon Coast and am so looking forward to walking outdoors and not being punished by the heat. There has been lots going on, most of it too dull to report here such as lots of medical appointments. I’ve been asking people to write me to be a guest writer here on this blog—so far, not much interest drummed up. Here’s the deal: you write about which books (three max) influenced you and why. Keep it under 1000 words. Here’s my entry:

When I was growing up in a small town in northern Wisconsin there were three factors that influenced me to become a writer: I came from a large family with five siblings and a large assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins who were all storytellers. This means that when I’m at a party or only walking through my neighborhood I’m often shaping a story out of what I hear and see to pass along. Sort of an anti-Zen way of being in the world.

My hometown is wrapped in rivers amid a land laced in lakes and forests. Water and the sound of it like a lullaby. Summer skies as blue as cornflowers and night skies like a magic show. Somehow the rivers and water, the power of place have slipped into my veins, echo in all I write.

The other factor that sculpted me as a writer was that my parents owned books and were readers. In my childhood the heyday of the timber industry was over (most of Wisconsin had been clear cut by the early 1900s) and the town seemed divided into two groups. There were neighborhoods of large, almost palatial homes owned by the lumber barons, executives, and mill owners, then there were the modest ranches and bungalows owned by the rest of the townspeople. Our neighborhood was mostly a blue collar place. The family across the street owned a bakery, one neighbor was a postal worker, another was a cop, and the rest of the parents worked in the shoe and paper factories in the region. My father was one of these factory workers although later he’d work for the post office.

When I was about four and my older brother Shannon was six, we began regular excursions to the town library. In these days when parents don’t allow children out of their sight, these trips seem particularly daring. The library is ivy-covered and nestled next to a winding river and park, and the trip, stopping along bridges to drop pine cones into the current, and pausing under weeping willows, was an adventure in itself.

In the library I met Miss Violet the children’s librarian who wore sweater sets and her pointy-rimmed glasses on a pearl chain. Under her benevolent gaze I discovered many writers, but most importantly The Box Car Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner which is the story of four orphans who for awhile live in the woods in a box car. The story of plucky orphanhood so sparked my imagination that I coerced my sister, cousins, and neighbors into acting out this scenario again and again on wintry afternoons, converting a closet to the boxcar or in the summer in a hidden place under cedars branches in our back yard.

But what I hadn’t realized until I was much older was that my parents were the only adults in the neighborhood who owned books besides the Bible. There was a book case that held my father’s books collected since he was a boy by Zane Grey, Jack London and Louis L’Amour about dogs and horses and the West. And then when I was about ten a young man with severe acne knocked on the door, selling Colliers encyclopedias to work his way through college. My parents bought the set on an installment plan and the books arrived one by one in the mail along with a set of Junior Classics that included Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island.

At Christmas we were also given books as gifts and I received The Bobbsey Twins, Little Women and Nancy Drew mysteries and learned that perhaps it’s not always bad to be an uppity girl and a big dreamer.

Fast forward through the years and when I moved to Portland, Oregon I started teaching writing classes. This happened because I couldn’t find a regular job so started juggling a series of part-time gigs. And the more I taught, the more I analyzed what makes fiction or nonfiction compelling, and I often passed along suggestions of what I was reading.

A few years ago I stumbled across Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. It’s narrated by Reuben Land who is eleven during the story’s events and the story has never left me since I read his first words. Jeremiah Land the patriarch of the tale is a Christ figure, Davy his older brother gets caught up in a deadly feud, and the story is woven through with a series of miracles. It introduces Jape Waltzer one of the most dastardly villains written in years, and it features one of the best children characters to grace the pages of fiction, Swede Land. If you liked Scout, Jem and Holden, you’ll love Swede and her epic cowboy poems about Sunny Sundown.

Place figures prominently in the story but Enger’s language or should I say his magical prose will make the skin on your neck prickle and you’ll be delighted by fresh word combinations. Over the years of teaching writers I have urged them to keep an inspiration notebook—a place where they can scavenge, eavesdrop, and collect the beauty of language and sensory treasures that are all around us. About four years ago when I was writing three books at about the same time I discovered that my vocabulary was anemic and I was overly fond of using ‘dazzle’ and ‘whisper’.

So I started a word list in my notebooks and when I read Enger, my list doubles and I add these sorts of writerly gems: spectral, screeling, biggity, snuffy, foundering, guttered, wattled, knuckly, stipply, trounce, bilious, and sanguine.

I also scatter my notebook with his descriptions and figurative language such as when he compares a character’s voice to a kazoo and describes another as “trim as a leprechaun” and “up the stairs he flew like a witch.” He also wrote, “In times of dread it’s good to have an old man along. An old man has seen worse.” These words are from Enger’s new novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. It’s another adventure tale and quest, it contains another complicated bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy, it’s filled with the mystique of the West, and a battle for redemption.

It’s also another story that makes me feel as I did when I first discovered fiction and a story cast its spell and the world disappeared except for the bubbling creek that I was sitting next to, the sound of water over rock adding to the story’s potency. I sent my father a copy of Enger’s latest book for Father’s Day so we can talk about it the next time I visit him completing the circle of how stories teach us about life and crack open the human heart.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Clouds are moving out and a big heat wave is on the way. Alas, I’m going to be at the Oregon coast next week, when it will be much cooler. So last night’s talk at Powells went okay—a nice crowd, we sold almost all the books, and friends I hadn’t seen in a while and students I hadn’t seen in years showed up. So it was fun. And my brain, which I’ve had trouble with since my accident because of a concussion and other brain issues, was mostly working. Couldn’t quite connect all my thoughts or remember every book title, but I muddled through.

So after I talked about some of the main points of my new book there was a question and answer session. One woman asked about secondary characters and we talked about how they provided a chance for color, verve, and taking risks. Somehow it was mentioned that it was good to feature a blurter in the story—or a character who says things, acts in ways that most people wouldn’t dare. And somewhere along the way I mentioned ‘son of a bitch’. There was a kid of about 8 in the audience and I apologized for my language. He said, “I don’t mind. My dad’s girlfriend talks like that all the time.” Amid laughter I pointed out how a blurter can enliven things….

He was asking about names for characters and wondered if Bob was a good name for a bad guy. To which I answered that a name like Bob likely wouldn’t worry readers—a bad guy’s name needs to suggest menace or strength. Characters are first of all, the sound of their names.

Naming people and things has a practical purpose because it appeals to the reader’s logic and memory. In fiction we name characters to differentiate them, to suggest their age, social standing and personality, to make them solid and distinctive, and signal readers that the story person is worth noting. Generally, the more complicated your character, the more distinct his or her name should be, (think Ebenezer Scrooge) keeping in mind that names, and like characters evoke a response in readers and ignites their imagination. All fiction writes need to collect names in a writer’s notebook starting with the standard methods of gathering names by perusing phone books, obituaries, and baby name books.

Take care with creating your character’s names, especially your villain’s name, and be especially careful not to choose a name that works against type. Generally you wouldn’t choose a name for a villain that suggests a softie, nor would you give a good guy a name that has dark connotation. The best names are suggestive, reflect the genre type such as Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, and reflect an era. In the opening books in the series, Voldemort’s name is so feared that few people speak it out loud, instead say, “he who can’t be named.” If your story has a true villain, his name should reflect menace, coldness, and/or strength. Use hard consonants and sounds to suggest menace or other characteristics. For example in Stephen King’s The Dark Hall, his villain’s name is Stark. Conversely, good guys will have names that suggest goodness, or perhaps strength, such as Tolkein’s characters and hobbits, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.

Interestingly, in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga, one royal family is also named Stark. The family is from a kingdom of the north, Winterfell and their emblem is a grey direwolf (an extra-large, extra-fierce species of wolf) on a snowy white background. The Starks are tough and cunning and hardened, with a lower hall filled with the bones of their ancestors. In the series they’re often referred to as wolves, the children in the family find direwolves and keep them as pets, and the name and mascot reflects their fierceness.

Writers are also wise to use names that are suggestive such as Romeo suggesting romance, Holly Golightly suggesting a light hearted nature, and Scarlett O’Hara a flamboyant beauty. In Dean Koontz’s Forever Odd the villainess is named Datura which reflects her kinkiness, coldness, and cruelty. However, Koontz cleverly has chosen a name with layers of meaning, something fiction writers are always striving for. Datura is a flowering plant that is also called Devil’s Trumpets and Angel’s Trumpet. There are many myths associated it with it in cultures worldwide such as the Zuni myth about twins who had powers to give people visionary dreams and help them find lost objects. Their enemies decided to put an end to their powers, and after they disappeared forever into the earth twin plants grew where they disappeared.

The Datura species, which has beautiful trumpet-like flowers exudes a narcotic-like scent, especially at night and is considered a sacred visionary plant. Datura plants have been used in many regions and by many cultures for medicinal and spiritual reasons, especially by shamans who use it for its clairvoyant powers. It is also interesting to note that all the Datura species contain potent alkaloids which when taken in sufficient quantity have the power to kill.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A marine layer of clouds has settled over the city and I’m sitting here in the quietest of dawns except for a few geese honking past. Is it just me, or are geese rarely quiet? Last night I went to the Aladdin Theater with a friend to hear the Portland Cello Project. I don’t know about you, but cellos are my favorite instruments—so haunting and rich and when 5 or 10 or 15 cellists pick up their bows the music seems to slip straight into your blood stream. It was their CD release party and on the recording they play with a number of Portland music acts. Now I know that Austin has a reputation as being the music town, but Portland has one of the most vibrant and eclectic music scenes in the country. Sometimes it just blows me away how many talented and creative people live here, particularly the number of songwriters.

Yesterday The Oregonian ran a great piece about me and my new book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction. I wasn’t expecting the coverage so it’s always nice when a surprise turns out to be a good one, as opposed to someone crashing into your car, let’s say. In the article the reporter wrote about how busy I was with my new book out. Truth is, I had nine medical appointments this week, which I guess qualifies me for ‘busy’. So the article and the various performers and gorgeous cello notes filling the old theater helped me focus on the future, not my current body problems.

Last night when the second song of the evening was sung by Adam Shearer of Weinland, God Here I Come, I felt tears welling in my eyes. It was as if all the emotions of the past weeks were brought to the surface and I felt so much, as if all my sorrows were being transformed into music. To hear the song go to www.last.frm/music/weinland.

Meanwhile, on Monday, August 11 I’ll be speaking about taking risks when you create fictional characters at Powells on Hawthorne . Stop by and say hello.

Happy writing to all.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Skies are the color of soot and it's supposed to cool down for a few days. I wanted to try to post the opening to a talk I gave last week at the Willamette Writers Conference. It was called Fiction's Delicate Balancing Act and I talked a lot about learning how to judge the proportions in your stories, when to describe, when to slow down, when to summarize.

I wish there was a magical recipe that I give you for writing fiction. In this recipe I’d list the ingredients needed to create a novel or short story so you would know how many cups of dialogue, setting, description, backstory and the like that must be stirred into the batter. Then I’d explain at what temperature to bake it and how to test if it’s done and what it’s supposed to taste and look like. But there is no recipe, although there are timeless techniques and underpinnings that can help you become a better writer.

But I do want to make sure that several key points come across this morning: First, as you write think more in terms of batter or a meld of techniques than in separating techniques or elements into separate entities. Second, every technique, every sentence and every detail you write should accomplish more than one task in a story. So if you’re describing setting, it also creates mood or atmosphere. If you’re writing dialogue it’s creating tension and revealing characters. Your story’s details and atmosphere suggests to readers how they should react. It hints if the reader should be worried or alarmed, if the scene is comic, gritty, or romantic. So I want you understand the underpinnings of fiction, but I also want you to sweat the small stuff. Because the smallest details—a shadow, a character ignoring a question asked of him, a button missing on a blouse can telegraph meaning.

To create a fictional world that seems real to readers, writers use a minimum of six key elements: (1) Plot, the sequence of events in a story and its structure; (2) setting; (3) characters; (4) point of view; (5) prose; and (6) theme.

I also want you to keep in mind that successful fiction is balanced, unified, and intimate.

The best fiction touches the deep layers in us. This stirring is achieved by embedding dozens of techniques into a manuscript, but this process is artful and I’m sorry to report, often invisible. In fact, the main parts of fiction disappear behind its structure.

A starting place to writing fiction is to understand the 3-act structure, along with other underpinnings such as conflict, scene structure, and character development. Without an understanding and mastery of the basics, you might write 2, 3 or 400 pages, but you won’t end up with a story; instead you’ll simply produce a lot of words typed on a lot of pages or a haphazard pile of scenes loosely clustered around characters that never quite come to life.

But deep, satisfying fiction, like the flavors of complicated dish, are sometimes delicate and subtle, and sometimes bold and pungent, but are always somehow balanced. Some of the terms used to describe fiction have more than one meaning, and balance is one of those terms. The first definition relates to the notion that every element in the story exists in its proper proportion in the way that each instrument in a symphony contributes to a powerful whole. No one player overpowers the others, yet there are times when a composition is written for a featured soloist. But even the powerful soloist moments need accompaniment, the necessary depth that comes from other instruments. Relating this to fictional balance means that each scene will be orchestrated for its heft and potency, never used as filler; secondary characters are not more interesting than the stars, and the climax must be allowed its full weight.

The subplots don’t overshadow the main story, nor do the secondary characters steal the show. But balance also implies that the language and metaphors strike a consistent note; that the fictional world makes sense; and that the pace is controlled yet advances the story.

Balance also means that there is not too much or too little dialogue; skimpy or excess exposition; or flashbacks that intrude on the forward progress of the storyline. In a balanced story, we come to know characters by how they act and react rather than by how they think. It also means that important events are foreshadowed and dominate the stage when they occur. And along that line, your story doesn’t consist of a series of surprises or bombs that unsettle the reader instead of enlivening the plot. Balance implies that sometimes things are unspoken or merely hinted at so that the reader brings his own judgment into a scene rather than being spoon-fed meaning.

Every decision and every word a fiction writer uses telegraphs to readers what is important to his story and what is not. Thus, if you spend three paragraphs on describing an old wall school, this suggests to readers that the wall is important somehow, perhaps will be featured as the scene of a crime. If the wall never appears again in the story, the reader is left with a vague unease and it comes from an unfulfilled promised and lack of balance.

By lavishing a person, place or object with descriptive details we expect them to have a corresponding importance. Keep this in mind when you invent a minor character who twirls into scene after scene dropping funny one-liners or profound truths while the protagonist seems to shrink in her shadow. Or if you create an incident where your character shops for new shoes which you find amusing, but it has nothing to do with the story. Unconnected threads or people or objects that have been granted too much weight add up in the reader’s mind and serve to confuse and annoy.

If the characters never change or grow the story will also be unbalanced. If we never hear the characters speak or if they chit chat endlessly, the story will be unbalanced. Likewise is the setting is clumsily handled or barely discernible, if the middle bogs down, if there is never a pause or reflection after major events or if simply not enough happens in the story or the events have no consequences.

Fiction is about interesting people in a great deal of difficulty. If your protagonist is not in a boatload of trouble, the story won’t matter. The stakes in the story are significant and will have either be life or death consequences or determine the protagonist’s future happiness or misery. Usually the story is designed around a central problem with a series of complicating factors that make solving the problem difficult.

If the protagonist’s problem is not difficult to overcome, the story is out of balance and flat. Likewise, if it is solved too quickly, that is before the climatic scenes, unbalance results. If the solution to the problem is not in doubt, the story will lack suspense and thus be out of balance.

Then balance has a second interpretation—within every story lies a stressful situation that must be resolved to restore order. Reading fiction is an emotional experience, also a way to live vicariously and to explore psychological issues. Many novels are written to reestablish symmetry in a chaotic world, sets things right, suggest endings and resolution that don’t always occur in the real world.

The opening of a novel or short story portrays a dynamic, simmering world that is upset by the inciting incident so that balance is turned topsy-turvy, the protagonist is thrown into a situation he might not have entered willingly and then the story progresses with an urgent need to reinstate that equilibrium. This second aspect of balance depicts the fictional world and its characters always straining toward stability, after the first incident throws the protagonist’s world off kilter.

Balance is fairly easy to analyze in your work. First, you can keep track of the word count that you allot to characters, scenes and exposition to determine if these elements are proportional. You notice when you’re showing and when you’re telling and make certain that the most important moments are shown, or staged, not summarized or told secondhand. Second, you can make certain that you’re portraying a world and characters who are unbalanced, in fact, suffering because their lives have been upset and these characters are profoundly changed and struggling to restore order.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The morning sky is mostly blue and the temperatures are supposed to soar into the 90s today and tomorrow. I was at the Willamette Writers Conference on and off over the weekend (the off part was because I’m still spending a fair amount of time in bed and it’s hard for me to be on my feet and last week I also had the flu) but it looked to be a big success. Yesterday I gave a talk on pacing and in the audience a tiny 94-year-old woman pushing a walker announced she had signed with an agent (she's written a historical novel). I also met another fabulously talented writer and artist who signed with an agent and is on her way to getting a cookbook published. This particular conference has a fairly high rate of success as in writers landing book deals and agents. I can’t speak to the screenwriting side of the conference because I just don’t know if deals are falling into place.

However, on Friday afternoon I was in the bar of the Sheraton with Hallie Ephron, Elizabeth Lyon and Christina Katz and we were talking about the business and what comes next in our careers. One of my friends joined us—she has written a terrific mystery that is set at the Houston rodeo. While she was pitching it to an agent he stopped her mid-pitch and said, “I don’t want to hear any more. I just don’t like rodeos.” Who gives a damn if he likes rodeos—the point was that she’s a great writer who has written a great story.

So then Hallie piped in that she doesn’t think that conferences are good for pitching to agents and editors. So I asked how writers are supposed to break through and Hallie mentioned that she believes that a beautifully-written query letter will push your foot in the door. Years ago I interviewed Betsy Lerner (The Forest for the Trees) and this was also her main advice for writers. But the times they are a-changing, and most writers don’t have Ephron for a last name or Hallie’s contacts and most editors, agents, and editorial assistants just don’t have enough time to read all the queries that pile up in their office. I happen to believe that trying to meet people in the biz at conferences is still your best bet at breaking in—and it will also let you know if your pitch or novel concept has holes in it.

At the conference my Bullies, Bastards & Bitches was on sale and I also had donated three copies to the conference’s silent auction. And someone stole a copy—so I guess that’s flattering although I’d classify the thief as one of the types of my book title. Also while at the conference I talked with Jeff Baker the book editor of The Oregonian about the book—he had emailed me on Friday when I wasn’t home. A story will be appearing in the paper’s A & E section on Friday, August 8. On Tuesday, August 11, I’ll be at Powells on Hawthorne here in Portland. That’s it for the plugola for now. Oh yeah, and today at salon.com there’s a terrific piece on trying to find authors to blurb your upcoming book by Rebecca Johnson called Why Don’t You Blurb Me?