"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.

Monday, September 29, 2008

It’s Monday night and despite feeling so tired I wanted to topple onto my couch like a rag doll, I did the at-home sort of thing tonight—cooked kabobs for dinner, watered outside plants and flowerbeds, cleaned up the kitchen, watched the sky. Gorgeous clouds moved in at about 7 and the sky was pale, not grey, not white, and the clouds were blue—a sort of reverse canvas and after wind breezing through here earlier today, all became still and the sky looked so peaceful, it made you want to become a kite or find some means to float up to meet the mystical clouds.

I was home after yet another doctor’s appointment and running errands, and feeling awe that the dwindling days of September felt so much like July. A few times in the past few days of summer-like heat I was forced to check on my flower beds, and sure enough, there is that sort of creepy, mold-looking stuff overtaking some varieties, the roses are tired, the ferns not exactly sprightly. Summer is over, the evidence is everywhere despite our record high temperatures.

As the sky was turning to true dusk, I stepped out for a walk. I still was running conversations in my head as I walked along. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and I was imagining a conversation with one of my doctors (perhaps doc number 3 or 4) because I was worried about what another doctor (perhaps number 5) had told me during our 3-hour appointment a few days ago. As they say, I was still ‘processing’ this appointment and his recommendations for medications and proclamations about the possible state of my head/brain health.

And to add to my personal drama, the previous evening I had driven to attend my book club meeting when my memory shorted out and I could not remember a major cross street although I had taught at a building located on this street for three years, following this same route, week after week, hundreds of times. By the time I reached the house where we were meeting I was rattled, and then proceeded to forget the names of every member of the cast in the book we’d read. (In my favor, I remembered what I liked and disliked about the book). So today I had a memory failure hangover because when both your long and short-term memory disappear in short order you don’t know if you should laugh or cry.

So I’m sauntering along tonight amid air so soft and so like Key West or Santa Barbara without the smell of ocean, and I cannot help myself, I start looking into windows. One of the reasons that this is my favorite time of year is because the farmer’s markets are like culinary jewelry stores and I get to look into my neighbor’s window at dusk as I stroll past. And the first window I peered into (from the sidewalk—I must explain because I fear my reputation is at stake) featured a mother walking her infant tucked to her chest, head lowered. She walked with the ancient cadence of condolence, patting him with that timeless gesture of comfort. And somewhere inside something started to shift and I counseled myself to stop talking to my doctors who weren’t around about my worries that I couldn’t do anything about in the moment and instead told myself ‘hush’. I repeated ‘hush’ as I stepped off the curb and then ahead of me in the gathering gloom a young couple turned the corner and preceded me. She was carrying a tote from L.L. Bean (I recognized the model) and an infant who looked like a newborn was strapped to the man’s chest. They murmured a bit and when they stepped into their yard, he paused and tucked her ahead of him in a gesture of such chivalry and tenderness that my heart almost broke.

I was walking faster by now, but I was slowing down inside my head. Next I passed a house that was dark except for a Tiffany-like lamp in the front window, bejeweled in deep greens and orange and leaf patterns. Next to the lamp was perched a Siamese who was peering out as if its owners would surely appear at any moment. And so the walk went—with one tableau after another until I arrived home unwound and softened and full of the small moments of domesticity and normalcy.

The sky is falling on Wall Street. Congress is afraid and the American people are pissed off. The world might change as we know it because China doesn’t want to keep loaning us a $billion a day to keep this country afloat. People are finally waking up to the scandalous and corrupt ways in which our economy has been managed. It just might be time for a sea change although my money is on the lobbyists who surely are putting in long hours these shaky days.

As for me, I’m grateful to be able to sit at my computer for awhile. On Saturday I was sitting in my living room and all of a sudden I felt a pop in my right ear and I couldn’t hear for a few minutes. Then my hearing loss faded and later I discovered that the vertigo that made me feel like a Saturday night drunk most of the time had eased some for a few days. If you’ve never had vertigo and you don’t drink, I don’t quite know how to explain it. Because you need to drink a LOT of alcohol until the room starts spinning to know what it feels like. I was trying to remember the last time I had the spins, and then to my embarrassment, realized it was only two years ago.

It happened after I hosted an end-of the summer party. My flowers were still blooming, the back yard was lovely, and I felt celebratory. So I rounded up about a dozen friends and I went out and bought a bunch of lobsters to boil. I picked dahlias and simmered a lovely basil-infused butter for dipping the lobster parts. Now, I had never cooked a lobster in my life before and somehow believed it was time I did. I had seen some photogenic lobster bake party in a Martha-Stewart like magazine and the recipes and lovely colors and beachy ease of it all appealed to me. Trouble is, when you buy a giant (as in fill up the trunk of your car) box of lobsters, it’s like you’re carting home your own personal zoo of mini-dinosaurs. They are frighteningly alive and prehistoric looking. I was freaked. Luckily, I talked one of my dear friends into boiling the beastly things for me while I attended to my various salads, bread, corn on the cob, deserts and keeping the champagne flowing and generally hiding out from killing our main course.

It was the sort of party where the sunset goes on for a long time and a lot of wine/champagne is ingested. At one point in the party I ventured out to stop the heated political discussion in which the only Republican and Viet Nam War vet in attendance was told to f—himself. At least one guest was staggering even after all my food and another guest supposed that perhaps Hitler wasn’t evil after all. A series of dramas were breaking out all over and I developed a tic in my right eye. (come to think of it, it has returned in the past few days) When finally everyone had gone home and I was singing along to my CD player and cleaning up a surprising mess, I consoled myself by finishing off the dregs of several bottles of wine. Which was when vertigo set in and I toddled off to bed.

Previous to that had been after a prolonged a Tilt-o-Whirl ride at the Clark County fair in about 1996 but that’s a long story and the ride operator was a flirt and sadist. Just trust me when I tell you that you don’t want to experience vertigo when you’re trying to buy lettuce or a pair of shoes or walk across a parking lot. I wish everyone sturdy steps or an otherwise firm ballast as you write and go about your days. I hope your pension and 401Ks are safe. Now, as for your dreams, I’m not sure firmness can be wished for, but happy writing anyway.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sky is drizzling rain and the neighborhood is still and quiet except for geese honking past. Today is Stephen King’s birthday and one of my favorite quotes from the maestro is “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” When I was a girl the Milwaukee Journal had a section called the Green Sheet. It was a four page section printed on pale green paper and contained comic strips, a crossword puzzle, games, columns, and quirky news stories. It was a beloved section of the paper discontinued in the 1990s when the paper merged with the Sentinel. Like many kids, I grew up learning how to read from the Green Sheet. That section of the paper featured a long-forgotten comic strip called Brother Jupiter. He was a chubby little friar with a fringe of hair and of course, always wore a clerical robe. For some reason I remembered him last night for the first time in years, possibly decades. I’m not sure why Juniper came to mind, but my grandmother, dead many years was fond of the comic strip and I’ve been thinking about her lately.

I spent most of the day in bed yesterday resting and then went to two parties after cutting large bouquets of multi-hued dahlias. The first was my neighbors who were celebrating an anniversary and have turned their yard nestled under two giant firs into a fairyland of ponds and cozy seating areas, archways, paths twisting throughout made from pottery mosaics, and lanterns twinkling. Another guest told a story about how she met the hostess years ago, then lost track of her. Then she started dreaming about her night after night and resumed their friendship. We talked about how dreams are threaded from the past and the present meeting, how fun it is to try and dissect their origins and meaning.

The second was a 60th birthday party and people dressed in 60s garb and many had come to celebrate long and hard. The hostess had added lava lamps, strings of beads and Janis Joplin posters for ambiance and there were so many people and movement, that I needed to step outdoors several times to rest my brain from all the stimulation. And sometimes when people were talking to me it felt like a movie scene where the camera makes everything look close up and distorted. My head is a band of pain this morning, but then I remember a particularly silly costume from the night before and it’s worth it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately because mine has been affected by my car accident. My short and long-term memory are still shockingly unreliable and I’m in a new county here. In this country, I’m not a complete stranger, since my memory has been far from perfect in recent years, but at times if feels like I’ve stepped into a particularly psychedelic Bergman movie with a constantly shifting landscape. These days I need to make lists about everything, I need to google names and words that were once easily recalled, most projects I undertake take me twice or three times as long as they once did, and I need to rest my injured brain a lot. I don’t shop much because the bright lights and movement in stores is sending me into bouts of vertigo so dizzying that my legs become unreliable putty beneath me. So life feels like an acid-laced carnival ride at times and if you notice that I’m not in the blogosphere much these days it’s because I’m lying in the dark blocking out stimulation. And thinking that a brain injury is fascinating, but not to experience firsthand.

Since I don’t have a stock portfolio, from a distance I’ve been watching the stock market tank, the plans for a trillion-dollar bailout for financial institutions that haven’t been regulated in decades taking shape, and our country’s economy pretty much going down the tubes. It’s clear we’re in a huge recession and an economic meltdown. Can we weather this storm and who will pay the price for all this greed and madness? You might want to revisit the insanity of Reaganomics and the 1999 vote in the Senate about deregulation. Of course there’s lot of blame to go around. Freddy, Fanny, AIG, Bear Sterns all gone or on life support. Who, what is next? We’ve lost 600,000 jobs this year in the U.S. And then the residents of Texas who are still suffering from the ravages of Ike need ice and electricity and FEMA still isn’t working. Meanwhile, rescuers are pulling bodies from the charred ruins of the bombsite in Pakistan and suicides are up among our troops. My mind is spinning, but wait, I have vertigo so that’s not an apt metaphor.

Enough. Here is a tip on writing: You Can’t Write about People You don’t Know When you write fiction you create your major players by making choices about their physical appearance, flaws, quirks, habits, back story, outlook on life, values, emotional needs, as well as their friends or supportive cast members and enemies. With your major characters you’ll want to know what pushes their buttons, how they act when intoxicated, how far they’ll go to get what they want, and what passions, desires, and emotional needs drive them.

Now, not everything you know about your main characters will end up in the pages of your manuscript. You’ll always know more about your characters than you can use. You create complex characters and then make choices about which aspects of them should be exposed. You also hold back at times, realizing that readers can fill in the blanks with their imagination. Some things about your character you’ll state explicitly, some you’ll hint at, some will lie in the subtext of conversations and other parts of the story.
To get started in shaping main characters here are questions that you’ll want to answer:
What was the character’s home life like in childhood?
Was he shaped by any traumatic events or losses?
What is his or her chief flaw? Can it be showcased in the story? Transformed?
What does he do on his day off—hang out at comic book stores, wax his sport car, or sleep till noon?
What does his home or apartment reveal about him? Consider here his collections, furnishings, books and music. What do his housekeeping habits reveal?
How would his best friend describe him?
How would his mother describe him?
What does his style of dress reveal?
Does he take care of himself as in exercising, taking vitamins, eating well?
What is his emotional range—how does he act when angry, sad, euphoric?
How far will he go to get what he wants?
What is in the refrigerator, kitchen junk drawer and car’s glove compartment?
How does your character react under pressure, especially physical danger?

Think about it—you know what’s in your mother’s refrigerator (or at least have a rough sense of her food preferences, condiments, and the like) just as you’re familiar with your best friend’s car and your brother’s temper when opposed. We have intimate knowledge of some people in our lives and this knowledge is used as context in all our dealings with them. Likewise, in fiction, readers need intimate knowledge of the main players and use this knowledge as context as the story unfolds.

I wish every writer out there fine writing and rainbows of inspiration and that you keep laughing at yourself. I’ve found that even a brain injury is funny. Keep writing, keep dreaming and happy autumn to all. Guest bloggers will win a place in paradise.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Overcast sky this morning. I tried earlier to post a blog but keep getting an html error message. So because I cannot figure it out, I wanted to post this interesting quote from Seven Days: A Diary by David Grossman published in the October issue of The Sun. Grossman lives in a suburb of Jerusalem and wrote his diary in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. (By the way, you might want to check out this issue of The Sun, because it has one of the most beautiful cover photograph of all time.)

He writes: “Several months have gone by since I finished my last book, and I felt that not writing was having a bad effect on me. When I’m not writing, I have a feeling that I don’t really understand anything; that everything that happens to me, all events and statements and encounters, exist only side by side, without any real contact between them. But the minute I begin writing a new story, everything suddenly becomes intertwined into a single cord: every event feeds into and imbues all other events with life. Every sight I see, every person I meet is a clue that’s been sent to me, waiting for me to decipher.”

Monday, September 15, 2008

So the morning sky is tinged with pink and full of promise—of heat that is. I know we’re much better off here in Portland than all those pitiful folks in the path of Hurricane Ike, so I’ll try not to complain that the temperatures are going to top 90 today when people are still missing from the hurricane. The financial markets aren’t open yet, but there is more news that the banking industry is in big trouble. Merrill Lynch has found a buyer, but Nieman Brothers has not and is filing for bankruptcy. Hang on to your butts….

Meanwhile, we lost a great writer when David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12. He was 46 and a great voice was silenced. I’ve never read his fiction, although Infinite Jest has long been on my radar screen, but at more than 1,000 pages I haven’t dug into to it yet. But his nonfiction was darkly witty, innovative, accurate, and deep. You might want to read his essay McCain's Promise that was recently republished. I’m so sorry for his wife, family, friends, and students.

Yesterday afternoon I returned from a trip to Central Oregon, weaving through mountains and canyons and sage and past pastures of grazing horses and cattle. I stayed in a small town oozing with charm and decided I’d move to a small town in a heartbeat if there was a way to make a living and there were enough progressives around. However, I returned home with too many symptoms and problems from my travels. So because of my continued saga of body and brain injuries, and on the advice of one of my doctors, I’ve canceled my gigs for the next two weekends. My apologies to anyone planning on attending—the spirit is willing, the flesh is falling apart. Enough about my dilapidated self (remember: don’t answer your cell phone when you’re driving, you never know who you might crash into). Also, I’m still looking for guest bloggers.

Here’s a tip on writing: Effective fiction is nuanced and layered. It also, in a sense, haunts the reader with its subtle refrains like a powerful melody. So how is this accomplished without creating a muddled mess or a story as naked as a newborn hatchling?Let’s focus on details, the mainstay of fiction that resonates. Details stir a reader’s senses and haunt with their clarity. Yet details should never be catalogued or listed. Instead, they need to appear natural, enhancing the story in some way. If the details aren’t adding to the story, then leave them out.

Remember, too, that description is static, another reason to insert it sparingly. If you constantly stop your story to describe sunsets, seashores, interiors, hairstyles, and heartbeats, your story will likely lose its momentum. Readers are interested in the forward motion of the story and their eyes veer to dialogue and other places where action and movement is on the page.
A solution is to put description in motion or slip it in through a character’s viewpoint. Thus, insert details via a character’s thoughts, amid action scenes, in the middle of dialogue, while characters are moving.

Old School, a novel by Tobias Wolff, is told with a kind of aching subtlety. Dialogue is spare, descriptions pared down to essentials, but still the story manages to soar, to offer moments when the reader pauses and lingers over words and scenes because they contain so much yet seem to be written with so little. It is a story of a boy who is an outsider, attending a small New England prep school on a scholarship in the early 1960s. In a school filled with “book drunk boys,” there are a number of contests and honors centered on writing and literature. These prizes bring out the best and worst in the boys and eventually result in disgrace for the narrator.

Here is a brief passage right before his downfall, the story’s major reversal:
I was glad for the day of grace I’d been given. After my last class that afternoon I went AWOL across the river and mucked through freshly ploughed fields to the tallest of the neighboring hills, Mount Winston as we called it. …

I paced the hilltop, exhausted but too nervous to sit. In my classes the blood-roar in my head had rendered me nearly deaf. Most of this was explosive relief and exhilaration, yet with a thumping underpulse of dread. It was one thing to confide your hidden life to a piece of paper in an empty room, quite another to have it broadcast.

A warm wind blew across the hilltop, and with it the faint cries of boys chasing balls. The school lawns and fields were a rich, unreal green against the muddy brown expanse of surrounding farmland. Between the wooded banks of the river two shells raced upstream, oars flashing. The chapel with its tall crenellated bell tower and streaming pennant looked like an engraving in a child’s book. From this height it was possible to see into the dream that produced the school, not mere English-envy but the yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustles and schemes of modernity itself. As I recognized this dream I also sensed its futility, but so what? I loved my school no less for begging gallantly unequal to our appetites—more, if anything. With still a month to graduation I was already damp with nostalgia.
I stretched out on a slab of rock. The sun in my face and radiant warmth on my back lulled me to sleep. Then the wind cooled and I woke with a wolfish hunger and started back.

This passage, a transition leading to the action that follows, creates a moment of significance because it reveals his love for the school; it shows us the school from a fresh perspective, a hillside; it reveals the stakes involved; it foreshadows what is to come; and yet lulls the reader with its pastoral mood so that the events that follow are more disturbing. And while it is a fairly long descriptive passage, it is not an inert blob. One technique that keeps this passage from being static is the active verbs scattered throughout: mucked, paced, blew, chasing, raced, flashing, yearning, sensed, loved, begging, stretched, lulled, cooled, and started.

Wolf’s example is a good reminder to add life to descriptions by writing in the active voice whenever possible. For example, here is the passive version: There were hundreds of spectators on the lawn. The active voice can be written: Hundreds of spectators dotted the lawn. An easy tip is to avoid using There is, There was, There are, or It was to begin your sentences because this construction guarantees these sentences will be passive.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sky is pale, pale blue and temperatures should be in the 80s here today. Later I’m heading out later today for Oregon’s high desert. I’ll be talking about characters and signing books at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters tonight and tomorrow at their Redmond store. I know I mention salon.com a lot here—it’s because some of my favorite writers are regular contributors. The second Wednesday of every month Camille Paglia writes a column. Paglia, who calls herself a “dissident feminist” is
always articulate, provocative, and witty. And yikes, what a vocabulary! Her latest column on 9/10/08 is called Fresh Blood for the Vampire and warns progressives not to sound shrill or hyperbolic in their denouncements of Sarah Palin. Good advice since I’m feeling pretty darn shrill these days……

In the same issue Cintra Wilson has written Pissed About Palin and (McCain’s running mate is a Christian Stepford wife in a sexy librarian costume. Women, it’s time to get furious.) She writes: “She is dangerous. She is not just pro-life, she's anti-life. She is the suppression of human feeling and instinct. She is a slave to the compromises dictated by her own desire for power and control. Sarah Palin is untethered from her own needs and those of her family, which is in crisis, with a pregnant daughter, a son on the way to Iraq and a special-needs infant.

She should, however, be a galvanizing point for women everywhere. Not to support her candidacy but to rebel against the Republican Party and take back the respect and equality so hard-earned by the women's liberation movement in the 1970s.” And the debate continues.

Also, this was emailed to me so I wanted to pass it along for people in the Northwest: Just a reminder, Dan Poynter, who is widely known as the guru of Independent Publishing, is coming to Portland hosted by NW Association of Book Publishers and National Speakers Association - Oregon.
I've seen him before and he is really down to earth about the publishing business -- the next step for authors, of course, whether by traditional publishing or the increasingly popular independent publishing.

Here are the bare essentials:
Dan Poynter
Sponsored by Northwest Assn. of Book Publishers and the Oregon Chapter of
National Speaker's Association.
October 1, 6-9 PM
Ambridge Event Center
300 NE Multnomah (near the Lloyd Center) Portland
$35 per person includes Dan, appetizers and no-host bar
To reserve: http://www.nsaoregon.net/calendar.html - scroll down to the
event - space is limited
For more information: http://nwabp.org/pages/poynter.html

Friday, September 05, 2008

Greetings to readers of Jessica’s blog from guest blogger, Libby Jacobs. I met Jessica at a writers’ conference two years ago, and have been an eager reader of her newsletter since then. Although I had never “blogged,” I was intrigued by her request for guest writers. The topic, three books that influenced me, sounded almost too easy until I started thinking about favorite books, important books, books whose characters, plots, and emotional impact have stayed with me for decades. Limiting the discussion to three seemed overwhelming, so I restricted the choices to books that influenced me as a writer.
Using my imaginative prerogative as a writer, I’ll pretend that I can’t count to three, and ever-so-briefly mention the Nancy Drew books that seem to be part of the childhood of most women who grow up to be writers. The books taught me that a secret, a mystery, must be hidden in the heart of any good story regardless of genre.
The first book I’d like to mention is Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates, the grim story of Quentin, a sexual predator and serial killer. While Oates frequently explores the dark side of human nature, this work is a particularly horrifying study of a deviant criminal. Not content to examine the mind of the killer from the outside, she takes the bold step of putting herself in Quentin’s mind and engaging the reader through the first person device of a diary. Lines like “My whole body is a numb tongue” establish a chilling authenticity.
Oates backs away from no gruesome detail of the serial killer’s search for a handsome, compliant slave, his “zombie.” Especially unsettling is her suggestion that Quentin appears ordinary, and could be someone the reader knows and comes into contact with every day.
Not an easy read, this novel taught me a valuable lesson: If you can think it, if it is part of your story, write it without apology. “Wolf Note,” the first story in my collection of the same name, deals with a young female cellist who has an incestuous relationship with her brother. The last story is a monologue by a disturbed adolescent patient in a mental ward. Without the courageous example of Joyce Carol Oates in Zombie, I might have pulled back in these stories or dropped them from the collection. Zombie kept me honest.
When working on my novel about a concert pianist who leaves music, I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. In an unnamed South American country, Roxane Coss, renowned American soprano, has presented a recital for a group of international guests gathered in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman. At the end of the evening, armed terrorists take the group hostage. Over the four-month siege, captors and captives become allies, friends, and lovers. I studied the book to learn how she had so skillfully interwoven love stories and international intrigue. Because she wrote so sensitively and knowledgably about opera, and music in general, I was surprised to learn that she had not been an opera aficionado before writing Bel Canto, and I examined her language for clues to how she created lines so lyrical that they supported the musical theme like breath supports a singer’s voice. And talk about a stunning first line in a novel, Bel Canto’s “When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her” is magnificent.
Each time I approach Bel Canto as a textbook to illuminate some issue in my writing, I find myself lost in the beauty of the story. Perhaps that is the most important lesson we can learn from a novel: we are storytellers above all.
I’m cheating a bit on the third book because it’s neither published nor a single volume. I recently found and have begun rereading my mother’s poetry notebooks, yellowed lined pages spiral-bound in brown cardboard covers. She was young when she died forty years ago, but if I listen closely as I read the poems she wrote and collected, I can almost hear a whisper of her voice.
She was a nurse who volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps during WWII. Her Irish father loved poetry, and she inherited his passion for words. In the notebooks she pasted poems cut from magazines, poems copied in fading blue pen from books, and verse she had written. Occasionally a poem appears in a different handwriting, an addition by a poetry-loving friend, perhaps written in a hospital ward overseas.
I remember my mother reciting poetry to my sister and me before bedtime. It was not always good poetry; one of my favorites, probably because of the tragic narrative, was “Lasca” about a young woman, “wild as the breezes that blow,” who sacrifices her life to save her lover in a Texas cattle stampede. Not your typical bedtime story for a five or six year old, but a loving introduction to the passionate, rhythmic, musical language of poetry. The memories remind me that before I was a writer, I was a reader; and before I was a reader, I was a listener, absorbing words spoken with an Irish passion for language.
On the cover of her notebooks she wrote: “I am a miser of rhyme and verse.” But “miser” suggests a selfish quality, and if long ago she gathered the poems for her own pleasure, she also saved them – for my sister and me, for my daughter, and for my granddaughter who is just learning to read.

Keep writing, and, if you like, visit my website at www.libbyjacobs.com.
"Bullies, Bastards and Bitches...with sub-plots" re: the fiction of T.C. Boyle (guest entry by W. Dale Sturdavant
There's a light that fills you up when you're writing; there's a magic...It's a miracle and it's a rush...It's so utterly thrilling to me, it's all I want to do...T. Caraghessan Boyle

Apologies to Jessica for borrowing the title of her newest book, but Boyle creates some of the most loathsome bad guys in the fictional universe. These are sinister fellows; sociopaths with hearts of stone, brains blazing with evil. Boyle fleshes out their nefarious traits in sub-plots. The bullies creep and slither through the pages, tormenting, raping, pillaging. Boyle's abused protagonists, meanwhile, push ahead, vulnerable, but resilient, fighting back with wit, courage and spunk. Sometimes they even win. Regardless of the outcome, the battles always entertain.
Boyle opens his most recent novel, Talk, Talk (2006), with a hearing-impaired young woman panicked at discovering an identity thief has turned her life upside down: checking and savings accounts drained, credit cards run up to their limits, herself perceived as villain by a legal system not yet adapted to computer crime. Her plight unfolds in increments, each new twist compounding her disaster. She could crumple, reach for the Valium, wallow in victim hood; but Boyle makes her a fighter, a pit bull on two legs and steroids.
We turn the page and enter an underworld inhabited by our reprehensible villain. He's a narcissistic, ex-con, con man with expensive tastes--and a "material girl" fiance (the "bitch" of Jessica's pantheon of antagonists)who pesters him with ever more lavish demands. Keeping his woman plush with goodies, his own body be-jeweled like a pimp's, our thief cruises from coast to coast in his new Cadillac (leased with another man's credit), feeling like a Man, smugly superior to the working fools who unwittingly fill his coffers. Providing for his "family" (fiance has a young son) becomes the bastard's rationale for increasingly grandiose schemes to plunder other people's money. He partner's up with an old prison buddy and learns to use black-market software. With a little research and a few clicks of the mouse, he upgrades his victims pool and garnishes their wealth in larger and larger chunks.
Informed with extensive research, a quality evident in all his novels, Boyle leads us through the shady world of financial terrorism. Tension builds between plot and sub-plot and sparks begin to fly. Our implacable heroine, having lost her teaching job at a school for the deaf, quickly realizes the system isn't on her side. She sets out to track down the thief who's made such a shambles of her life.
Boyle tosses a cascade of obstacles into the paths of both heroine and villain. Plot and sub-plot twist, churn, bump against each other and finally intersect.
"Talk, Talk" ( a phrase the hearing impaired use to describe what the rest of us do)shook me up, left me feeling almost vulnerable, a mere mouse click from financial ruin. And not nearly as clever and courageous as the heroine. I loved the suspense, the writing, the realistic foray into a mind frozen in cold-blooded greed. So did Universal Pictures, which purchased the rights to Talk, Talk and is currently producing a film version.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Partly cloudy skies and the weather is supposed to be drying up and warming up this week. The good news is that Hurricane Gustav has been downgraded to a Category 2 storm and the main brunt will miss New Orleans, although there will still be 100 mph winds in the city. I think we’re all holding our breaths about whether the levees will hold….And why haven’t they been fixed? Because all our money is going into Iraq which has a huge surplus of cash? I finished reading Lin Enger’s Undiscovered Country yesterday—he’s the brother of Leif Enger of Peace Like a River. That family has words in their veins….it’s a satisfying read and I think I’m going to search out the mystery series that they penned together.

Anyway, yesterday I was writing my column for my September newsletter, and wanted to throw out a few general writing tips. Open scenes with a swoosh. Hop into the action or important information without prelude. Start in the midst of action whenever possible. Don’t set up every scene, or follow characters around endlessly as they head toward the scene. Jump in and the reader will follow.

Find fresh images. In The Witchfinder by Loren D. Estleman the image isn’t complex but still gives goosebumps: “In a little while the streetlights would blink on and then the headlamps, a set at a time like bats awakening, and the city would turn itself darkside out like a reversible jacket, shaking out the creatures that breathed and bred it is folds.

Avoid overpopulation. I was talking with a writer I recently met about his early draft of his novel and while he had a terrific idea for a novel, he needed to nail down the smaller techniques that make a novel complete. I noticed he was especially having problems with scenes that were overpopulated. If you find you’ll need a group scene, be sure to give the reader a wide angle shot to establish the scene (read the opening of chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby to note how Fitzgerald introduces Gatsby’s parties).

Emphasis is helped by honing your scenes to the most important players. Beginning writers tend to overpopulate stories and scenes. And while it’s true that sometimes we need a crowd scene when your character attends a party, a ceremony, or sporting event, but still the action always hones in on a few key players. Important characters get lost in a mob scene. You also might be able to combine two or three supporting characters into one.

Trade in bland verbs—look, see, get, put, got, run, ran, walked, turned, crossed, leave, left, go, gone, have, had—for vibrant ones. But beware of using florid verbs (the car grumbled to a stop)—powerhouse verbs are important but you can’t hire muscle for each sentence.

When in doubt, use restraint.

Focus on beginnings and endings. Researchers have shown that the human brain pays more attention to beginnings and endings, and that people also remember them best. So, as a writer, you want to load your most potent ideas and vivid words at the beginning and ending of sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters.

One tip-off that there is not enough action in your story is when your protagonist spends a lot of time alone in scenes. Unless you’re a highly skilled writer, the proportion of the time your protagonist spends alone should be small, perhaps 5 percent of the story. Now, there are exceptions, but generally you want other characters on stage with him to mix it up. Beware of especially spending too much time alone with the character reflecting on events that have already happened or traveling to and from scene locales. (Enger did a good job of making these moments push the dramatic in Undiscovered Country.)

Another tip-off to not enough action is the amount of words spent on introspection. If you’re often inside your character’s head, there typically will not be enough action or outer conflict. While of course there are exceptions, character thoughts are more like the icing on the chocolate cake, not the meal.

Don’t overdescribe. Avoid catalaogues, lists and endless weather reports. Many things in fiction are never written, they’re implied, empowering the reader to slip in his own imagining.

Don’t overpower the reader in every sentence—choose when to emphasize, when to back off. Use sentence fragments for emphasis. When it works for the type of book you’re writing, create sentence structures that mimic natural speech patterns, that is conversational with a strong mix of short, simple sentences.
Be concrete and specific, never vague.

Generally it’s okay if your opening scenes and chapters are longer than later chapters as you need to establish the world of the story.

Not every scene will be followed by a sequel followed by another scene. Sequels occur as a means of pacing and deepening characterization. The pattern you develop for scene-sequel will depend on the needs of the overall structure and level of drama in the scenes. You can slip a flashback into a sequel because if it was inserted into the scene, it would dilute the drama. The amount of sequel contained in a plot depends on the genre. Romance novels have more sequels than action novels because they are focused intensely on the characters’ emotional experiences, while action plots are woven tightly around scenes, not characters reacting to the action.

Guest bloggers still needed—contact me. Happy writing to all, Jessica