"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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Skies still blue as cornflowers here. Just so you know what I'm up to these days, I’m still blogging but needed to take a break because record hot temperatures were melting my brain and I haven’t been at my computer much lately. Besides I’ve been watering, hanging out at a crowded lake, and generally trying not to wallow in self pity since the whole region is suffering. Happy to say an air conditioner and ceiling fan have just been installed which should cool down the upper floor of this joint.
Meanwhile, here are eight rules for writing fiction by the illustrious Kurt Vonnegut:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999).

Hhhmmm cannot say I agree with number 8. What do you think? Keep writing, keep dreaming.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Blue skies with some clouds floating around. I’ve just checked the 15-day forecast and Portland is supposed to stay blazing hot through the next few weeks. What the heck? Anyway, I’m writing a column about humankind’s longtime storytelling tradition and applying it our passions and concerns. The storytelling tradition remains linked to its ancient roots but in the modern world is found in plays, memoirs, novels, and films. Today’s stories, like their primitive counterparts, play with language to translate anecdotes and events into a drama embedded with characterization, place, dialogue, and action
Here are techniques that evolved from the storytelling tradition that can be applied to your writing.
1.Make certain that you include at least one visual element on every page.
2.Use all the senses, especially the sense of smell which directly links to a reader’s brain.
3.Write in the active voice and generally put things in motion whenever possible. This includes, when appropriate, to sketch description through a character’s viewpoint instead of insert inert blocks or long passages.
4.Make certain that your story explains or suggests why people do what they do. A character’s motivations hold a deep appeal because readers are constantly trying to understand the human condition and themselves.
5.Remember that real life is nonlinear, that is, we do not only live in the present moment, but shift back and forth into our past, present and imagine our future. The best fiction is also nonlinear in that it shifts back in time via a character’s memories or flashbacks and it subtly foreshadows the future while pressing ahead.
6.No matter your genre, your idea must be wrapped in a story; a tale of a person or people in the midst of troubles, challenges, and change while pursuing a goal.
7.Primitive stories evolved from the daily happenings like bringing home dinner, meeting a tribesman from the next village, weather ruining an outing, or finding a new fishing hole. But mostly they stemmed from surprises, dangers and beasts encountered, because a person meeting danger holds a timeless appeal.
8.Ancient stories also contained useful information, so “pad” your stories with useful bits such how your character shoots his bow or catches dinner.
9.As stories evolved, they often featured happy endings where good guys triumphed, evil was overcome and hard choices paid off. Likewise, happy endings still sell, but tragedies if finely crafted can also satisfy modern readers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From her book Write From Life, author Meg Files: “To be human is to want to figure things out. To be human is to hunt for meaning, to make sense of our seemingly random lives. And we have a powerful (and rather charming) way of giving shape and pattern to the chaos: We tell stories. We live fully by constructing and ordering scenes—that is, people doing things for reasons, whether know or unknown to themselves—and thus come to know understand the random details and chaotic experiences of our lives.”
Well, yesterday was a day of reprieve with temperatures in the 80s, this morning is cool and overcast, but the scorching summer sun is coming back with temps up to 100 over the weekend. I’m running out of the energy to complain about the weather and figure life could be worse—I could live in Arizona, although frankly I never understood why anyone wanted to live in Arizona. Life there looks tough even for lizards.

A quick reminder: The 2009 Willamette Writers Conference takes place August 7-9th at the Portland Airport Sheraton Hotel. I will be signing books at 10:00, August 7 at the conference immediately following my workshop The Sizzle: Tension and Suspense in Fiction. On Saturday morning I’m teaching Blood, Roses, & Mosquitoes—how to add details to your writing.

From the Daily Beast How I Became A Famous Novelist
by Steve Hely

Writing a bestseller may indeed be as easy as it looks.
"Just when you thought every industry imaginable had been parodied, along comes one of the publishing world. How I Became a Famous Novelist, by television writer Steve Hely, is a satirical journey through the world of popular books. When protagonist Pete Tarslaw learns his college girlfriend is getting married, he decides he wants to be a famous author to make her sorry for marrying someone else. After studying the bestseller lists, Pete arrives at his own solution: The Tornado Ashes Club. In The New York Times’ estimation, Hely has “deftly clobbered the popular-book business.” So what’s Hely’s bestselling routine? He tells The New Yorker: “Typically I wake with the dawn. In my first seven breaths, I decide what I’m going to write that day. Then I eat a handful of figs and nuts, and either row or rock climb for one hour, to nimble up the mind. By 5:30 I’m sitting at my typewriter…Afternoons are my own time, either to read poetry or work on my archery. At four, I open the whiskey and get hammered.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Writing makes a map, and there is something about a journey that begs to have its passage marked. ~ Christina Baldwin

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Escaping the heat tonight I stopped in to see the indy film Moon and was enchanted. Directed by Duncan Jones, it’s an old-fashioned sci fi story, set in the near future with Lunar Industries mining on the far side of the moon to provide energy sources for earth. But that’s when things get strange—because why is one guy, Sam Bell (played superbly by Sam Rockwell) responsible for all that real estate and equipment? His three year contract is about to end and he’s had it with the isolation and deferred dreams. And what’s with Gerty the way-too smart computer-robot his only companion who actually is in control of the space/mining station? Did I mention Gerty’s eerie, don’t-get-too-comfortable-with-his-syrupy nice voice is Kevin Spacey? And then there is the broken satellite that means there are no live transmissions from home….The movie is tense, intense, full of fun twists, and the set design is gorgeous. Loved it, loved it and God bless air-conditioned theaters. Highly recommended.
Pale blue skies and more temperatures predicted to hit in the 90s heading up to 100 by the end of the week. Just color me bitter.

In case you never listen to Fresh Air, the NPR show hosted by Terry Gross, you’re missing some of the most intelligent and compelling conversations in the country. Yesterday she replayed interviews with Frank McCourt (in his lovely lilting brogue) and Walter Kronkite.

McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes was a breakout book; a lifetime closely observed, beautifully rendered and stripped of sentimentality and bitterness (well, maybe there was some languishing bitterness toward the Catholic Church). From the opening: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Angela’s Ashes changed the way we think about the memoir, taught us how humor can make truths easier to swallow, and proved that storytelling exists in many forms.

Some days it feels like all my heroes are dead or dying. To cheer myself up, I turn to reading about the latest Republican sex scandal. Today in salon there’s a great piece on the freaks, uhm, I mean politicians, who live in the C Street house, believe that rules don’t apply to them, and call themselves the Christian Mafia Sex and power inside "the C Street House" by Jeff Sharlot. An excerpt: “Family men are more than hypocritical. They're followers of a political religion that embraces elitism, disdains democracy, and pursues power for its members the better to "advance the Kingdom." They say they're working for Jesus, but their Christ is a power-hungry, inside-the-Beltway savior not many churchgoers would recognize. Sexual peccadilloes aside, the Family acts today like the most powerful lobby in America that isn't registered as a lobby -- and is thus immune from the scrutiny attending the other powerful organizations like Big Pharma and Big Insurance that exert pressure on public policy.”

Time to water my flower beds. Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay cool.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

2009 Writing Contest Announcement

Doug Fir Fiction Award
Every Story Begins Somewhere

At The Bear Deluxe Magazine, the Pacific Northwest’s leading environmental arts publication, many short fiction stories and their authors find their first recognition through the Doug Fir Fiction Award. Now in its third year, this annual contest celebrates writing related to the natural world, sense of place or environmental issues.

Deadline: September 8, 2009 (postmark)
Prize: $1,000 and publication
Judge: Jon Raymond, The Half-Life, Livability, (Bloomsbury), and the movies Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy
Word limit: 5,000
$15 reading fee
Mail formatted submissions and entry fee (check or money order in U.S. dollars) to Orlo/The Bear Deluxe Magazine, P.O. Box 10342, Portland, Oregon 97296 USA
Publication reach: 44,000
Open to all writers in English
Complete submission guidelines: www.orlo.org
Blue, blue skies here in Portland. I used to start my day by reading the Writer’s Almanac (today is the anniversary of the day the Rosetta Stone was discovered) but these days I’m checking the weather forecast as soon as I awake. I know I sound like a crank, but by yesterday afternoon the heat had made me so irritable it was almost funny. Today is supposed to be 81 but oh woe is me, a hot week is coming….. Funny thing is that the Midwest is an ice box. I talked to my parents in northern Wisconsin on Thursday afternoon and it was 56 degrees, they had turned on their furnace that morning, and their garden isn’t growing because the soil never heats up. But last night it cooled off here and a lovely breeze swished through here and life felt bearable and even summertime magical. I was at neighbor’s party—she’s a mosaic tile artist and has turned her yard into a fairyland. Everywhere you look you see art and beauty and inspiration.

New words for my word list: screed, thorny, crotchety, effluent, twined.

I want to suggest that you read Glen Greenwald’s column at Salon.com Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did. Greenwald has the courage to say what most reporters don’t any more and his invective of modern-day journalism is illuminating and disturbing.
“In fact, within Cronkite's most important moments one finds the essence of journalism that today's modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.”

Friday, July 17, 2009

Skies so blue they should be a postcard and it’s supposed to be 94 today. My new book, Thanks But This Isn’t for Us, (A Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected arrived by Fed Ex yesterday. Still love the cover and read through it looking for major errors, and, sigh of relief, didn’t find any. Another big thanks to my editor at Tarcher Gabrielle Moss. It will be on sale August 24th and I’ll start posting the dates of my appearances here.

Meanwhile, herein lies a cautionary tale. Within weeks of moving to the Northwest in 1991 I invested in a tent and camping equipment, hiking boots, and outdoorsy clothes to replace my office wear. (I had been a Director of Communications at a computer company before moving out here). I also couldn’t find a job when I first moved here and was collecting unemployment checks, so with no pesky work schedule to hinder me, I was soon hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, camping on Mt. Adams and throughout Washington from Mt. Rainier to the Olympics and was generally spent a lot of time in the woods. Over the past five years or so this outdoorsy life was replaced with a more indoorsy life. As in I’ve written five books in five years which requires a lot of time sitting on my ever-spreading butt in front of my computer. Now, I still regularly went for walks around town, loved nature, and vacationed at the Oregon coast, but I was no longer camper gal.

Then about a year ago I was injured in a car accident and incurred a lot of head injuries. After a few months of almost no writing, I was able to write in short spurts because using my computer brought on headaches, nausea, vertigo, and fatigue. So instead of spending a lot of time sitting, I spent most of my time in bed. Did I mention I was also too ill to read and my eyes were damaged in the accident? So my time in bed was mostly spent listening to the radio (thank god for the election to keep me interested) Gradually, I started watching television to keep from going mad—CSPAN, Food Network, Travel Channel mostly. My life became about ant-sized between my many medical appointments and I was too often miserable. Somehow I managed to write a book during this period, which required more will power and stamina than I knew I possessed because I mostly wrote it in 20 minute segments then went back to bed, often with the world spinning and stomach churning. I’m doing much better these days, but am not recovered completely from my injuries.

But I digress. As I was finishing up my book for Tarcher I started thinking about what I wanted to write next. I ran an idea past my agent and found out my concept was about to be published by other people. And then I started mulling over an idea for a book that’s been long brewing inside, but is a big departure from what I’ve been writing lately. I don't want to spill the beans, but to write this book involves becoming camper gal again because I want to be inspired by nature. So a few weeks ago, I dusted off my camping equipment and went camping with my daughter’s family—and discovered that my tent needed replacing and I broke the zipper on the new sleeping bag bought from a store that went out of business. During this trip there was a night when I wanted to lie in an open meadow and gaze at the night sky, but the area was overrun with drunk and unnecessarily loud teenagers. (“Dude, we’re going to like be in so much trouble.”) Still it was a lovely time in the woods and some part of me that has been coiled and unhappy these long months of recovery starting easing.

After looking at slick and fabulous tents at REI decided I didn’t want to spend $300 on a canvas-nylon dwelling and bought a small tent on sale at another store. For my second camping trip you need to picture a mountain range, a mountain lake, a campground of firs and cedars at about 3200 feet, and drizzle. We set up camp in this drizzle, which never let up, created a roaring fire, cooked a fabulous dinner, walked around the campgrounds, celebrated a birthday, and generally had a grand old time despite the rain. By about 10 p.m. sitting around the fire in three layers of clothes, it was simply too cold so I retired in my new tent, glad that I had bought another sleeping bag guaranteed to 25 degrees.

During the night I woke often aware that my feet seemed to be touching the end of the tent and that rain was a steady, but somehow comforting drumbeat against the tent roof. When I woke it was about 40 degrees, my tent contained an impressive puddle, my sleeping bag was wet, my raincoat on the tent floor was soaked, and my back felt like giant lizards had been chewing on it all night. I stepped out into a world of puddles and drizzle, gloom, and skies almost nighttime dark. The tarp that had been erected to keep the chairs dry contained about 30 gallons of water. For the first time since I’ve ever been in the woods, I just wanted to go home. But the day got better, especially after I got a fire going, and we hiked around the lake, and the sun appeared the next day. I figured out why the tent leaked—a design flaw. But what I really discovered is that you cannot chase enlightenment, enchantment, or transformation. You need to let it find you and not orchestrate how this happens.

Oh, and on the way down the mountain, grubby as only someone who has been hanging around a campfire and not showering in three days can be, I stopped and bought a better, larger tent. I know this book will come together somehow, but I also know I’m going to stay dry while writing it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. ~Edith Wharton

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Overcast skies again and I'm heading up to the mountain despite a forecast of rain. It's Henry David Thoreau's birthday. In the conclusion to Walden, Thoreau wrote, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

And here's a link to an interesting article--especially with plagiarism in the news lately. You Didn’t Plagiarize, Your Unconscious Did by Russ Juskalian. Is cryptomnesia—copying the work of others without being aware of it—to blame for journalism's ultimate sin? Um, maybe not.

Be well. Keep writing, keep dreaming.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sky still overcast but it's supposed to be about 90 here today. I've been adding to my Word List again with these entries: fandango, yawp, upswelling, recant, triage, windbag, gawp, slooshbag.

And I've borrowed this from The Writer's Almanac today because it's the birthday of one of my favorite writers and she's dispensing such great insights:

It's the birthday of the short-story writer Alice Munro, born in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She grew up on a farm, and she said, "Reading was an indulgence that you didn't go in for if there was physical work to be done." Women were only supposed to read on Sundays, because on every other day of the week they had no excuse to be reading when they could be knitting instead. So as a kid, she was always telling herself stories, and when she didn't like the endings — like in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" — she would make up new ones.

She went to college, hoping to become a writer, but she dropped out to get married and have three children. She got divorced and went back to her hometown to take care of her sick father, and she was amazed at how much material there was there. She said, "What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting." And she took those things, and turned them into short stories.

She has written 11 books of short stories, and a new collection, Too Much Happiness, which comes out later this year. In May, Alice Munro won the Man Booker International Prize.

She said: "It's not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, 'Read,' but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, 'Don't read, don't think, just write,' and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you're going to be a writer you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think 'There must be something else people do,' you won't quite be able to quit."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Like fiction, music is an art that exists in time. Like fiction, music is always promising an imminent conclusion and then introducing complications. Like fiction, music can be plain to the point of plainsong or intricate as counterpoint, and both extremes can be satisfying. ~ Edmund White

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Skies are overcast and the morning is deliciously cool. I’m working on my July newsletter which I’m behind in mailing out. The reason it’s late is that I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what I wanted to say in my column and I haven’t been out walking much lately because I’ve had back problems. I swear writing requires walking in order for ideas to simmer to the surface, for the senses to be stirred. In fact, I get my best ideas while walking and often recommend that all writers walk daily. Of course I’m not alone in dispensing this advice. I’ve learned that Beethoven came up with his inspirations while walking around Vienna—a daily practice no matter the weather. So I’m getting back into my routine…and I confess miss spying on my neighbor’s gardens and daydreaming about lives I encounter along the way.

Mike Klassen is a writer who contributes to Helium.com and Wikipedia. He recently posted three new articles to Helium.com and quoted info from Between the Lines.
The article addresses are:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

This just arrived in my in-box so I thought I'd pass it along.



The first CALYX Books Poetry Book Prize in memory of Oregon poet Sarah Lantz will accept unpublished book length poetry manuscripts (75-125 pages) for consideration from Oregon women poets.

Submission period is September 1-31, 2009.

Send a complete unpublished book manuscript (75-125 pages) with biographical data and a $25 entry fee (payable in check or money order) to CALYX Poetry Book Prize, PO Box B, Corvallis, OR 97339.

Manuscripts will be read blind—do not put your name and address on any pages, only on a separate cover letter. Final judge for the poetry book contest will be announced in July 2009. CALYX editors will read and select up to 10-15 finalists to send to the final judge who will select the prize winning manuscript. It is possible the judge could decide not to select a winner. The winning manuscript will be announced in February 2010.

Prize: The winner will receive a CALYX Books contract for publication of the manuscript in Fall 2010 and a $500 award.

Sarah Lantz was an Oregon poet whose first book, Far Beyond Triage, was published in October 2007 by CALYX Books. Sadly Sarah died from a brain tumor one month before its publication. CALYX editors worked closely with her through her illness to ensure her happiness with the final design of her book. Sarah was published by CALYX Journal, The Denver Quarterly, The Marlboro Review, Paris Atlantic, Manzanita Quarterly, Margie, and Sister Stew, among others. A secondary school teacher she also taught Poetry in the Schools in Oregon (through Literary Arts) and in Hawaii (through an NEA grant). She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and was a member of the Pearl Poets (Portland, OR).

See website—www.calyxpress.org—for complete guidelines

Monday, July 06, 2009

The sky is gloomy as a graveyard this morning. July has been ushered in with a blaze of heat, so last night as I was heading out to my book group, was grateful to see clouds moving in. The temperatures are supposed to be in the high 60s today and I cannot express how relieved I am that the latest heat wave is over.

I hope you all had a lovely Fourth— I’ve heard that the winner of the Nathan’s Famous International July Fourth Hotdog Eating Contest was Joey Chestnut, the defending champion. He won by eating 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, 3 1/2 more than Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, his arch-rival. It was a new world record. Do you ever wonder how people first become interested in these eating contests? I mean, Coney Island seems the perfect venue (and there 40,000 people gathered to watch the contest), but Chesnut is described as a “professional eater” so does a disposition toward this occupation begin in childhood? I wonder too did the dogs come with mustard and ketchup?

By the way, our book club read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga a novel I highly recommend, especially if you’re interested in a glimpse of the changing values and economy of India. It won the Man Booker prize and is a confession by the narrator, anti-hero Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw driver. The format is a series of letters to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao because he wants to introduce the entrepreneurial spirit of the new India to the premier.

According to the author: “The narrator is lying in his small room in Bangalore in the middle of the night, talking out aloud about the story of his life. It's a story he can never tell anyone-because it involves murder-in real life; now he tells it when no one is around. Like all Indians, who are obsessed (a colonial legacy, probably) with the outsider's gaze, he is stimulated to think about his country and society by the imminent arrival of a foreigner, and an important one. So he talks about himself and his country in the solitude of his room.”

The tale he spins of his rise from tea house employee to business owner is woven with barbed wit, irony, and insight into the realities of poverty. In fact, it’s about the opposite of the sentimental, romanticized version of poverty that captivated Westerners in Slumdog Millionaire. Instead the story depicts how a rise out of poverty is possible in modern India by means of patronage and corruption. And it has the most unusual use of ‘beak’ that I have ever read—trying to figure out how to use it in my writing……

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Dusk is approaching and I’ve just come in from my patio because the light is fading. For the past few hours a strong west wind has been whipping through here and tomorrow a heat wave is coming and I’m trying to ignore this horror about to descend. For years now I’ve been advising writers to use J. I. Rodale's Synonym Finder—a marvelous writing tool. This is my third copy and it’s battered, nearly ready for replacement. I’ve been working on a manuscript on and off these past few days, trying to find language that is more suited to an author’s story (it’s set in 1901). The Synonym Finder contains more words than any of it’s kind—more than 1,500,000 and I cannot work without it.

But today for the first time I read the introduction that Laurence Urdang, wrote in 1978.
Introduction: "Those who work with language know that there is no such thing as a true "synonym." Even though the meanings of the two words may be the same--or nearly so--there are three characteristics of words that almost never coincide: frequency, distribution, and connotation. Pathnera leo and lion, cucubit and squash, sodium carbonate and washing soda have quite different frequencies in English. We all know that a house is not a home, that not all women are ladies, that not all men are gentlemen; at a more subtle level, we soon learn the differences between motherly and maternal, fatherly and paternal, brotherly and fraternal. These are connotative differences.

It is a curiosity of English that it continuously acquires words from other languages to expand its lexicon. Observers have often noted that even if a new coinage or a loanword from another language starts out with "exactly" the same meaning as an existing word in English, the meanings begin to drift apart before very long, one acquiring quite different frequency, distribution, and connotation from the other. An incredible fact about English is that it retains many of the words developed in its lexicon. Some word do become obsolete and are dropped forever. Most, however, remain and develop nuances that expand for the writer and speaker the opportunities for expression and expressiveness."