"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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dismal-looking skies and I'm at my desk again working on my WW column. I'm writing about style and language--one of my favorite subjects since language is my homeland and was searching for examples of great writing. And came up with the opening of chapter 19 in Huckleberry Finn--which according to Harald Bloom is "The most beautiful prose paragraph yet written by any American." I swear the writing is so gorgeous and evocative you'll feel like you're drifting along.

TWO or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you've got the full day, and smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Mist-colored skies and the tall firs across the street are swaying like crazy in the wind. I'm bushwhacking through the first draft of my column that I write every month for Willamette Writers. It's about using precise language, so wanted to dump in the quote I'm opening with and wished I'd have said this:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Stephen King

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Man is a mystery. It needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don't say that you've wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being." ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing as Practice
Blue skies this morning and spring-like weather continues here and yesterday I was out walking in a park perched on a ridge overlooking the Willamette River. I walked through a grove of tall Douglas first and they were still as sentries, while faraway sounds of traffic drifted toward me. The park was dotted with parents and pink-cheeked toddlers and babies, and a group of young men who arrived on bicycles, then sat around a picnic table. One of the boys had a penetrating, jackhammer laugh that kept erupting.  As I walked farther to the west I could see that the current was still running fast—the Willamette flows north as does the Deschutes in the southern part of the state. So I was thinking too about rivers that run north, as if they’re defying some ancient law and I walked past a blooming daphne bush that was spreading its perfume, past a Dalmation and a Black Lab and an old man with osteoporosis wearing new shoes that practically sparkled.

Last week a woman who reads this blog asked me comment here about how I keep writing and how I bounce back from setbacks. I bounce back by walking and seeing the world through the eyes of a writer. I bounce back by learning from my mistakes and trying out another idea. I bounce back because I cannot not write.

Not all my books or articles have sold, or all my plans borne fruit.As I was walking along I was thinking about this and some of the mistakes I’ve made in my writing career, the disappointments and heartbreaks—and I’ve had my share. But what sustains me and gets me through the dark times and keeps me glued to my desk chair is a writing practice. I devote myself to writing more than I do anything else in my life. I write when I’m ill, I write when I’m sad, I write when I’m lonely, happy, frustrated, and through all the moods that sift through my days. Writing is my Zen, my solace, my compass.

Because I believe that writing is our prayer to humanity. It’s about finding the human truth in all experiences and sorrows so that we can translate them to the page. It’s about adopting a mindset that everything is about writing, everything brings inspiration, everything can be channeled or become fuel for writing projects. It’s about navigating our days with focus and gratitude. It’s about immersion and belief and surrender and devotion. It’s about constancy—that beautiful, old-fashioned word that has such power for writers.

I moved to Portland in 1991 and when I arrived could not find a job, or at least job I could tolerate. I’d begun a second career as a freelance writer and worked in public relations previously and never had problems finding work before. But jobs and freelance gigs were scarce and the 300 or so applicants I was usually up against had more experience than I did. So I started cobbling together a bunch of part-time jobs and scraping together a living. I worked in a hotel dining room and for caterers, I made sandwiches in a delicatessen, cleaned houses, taught cooking classes, and started teaching writing classes at a community college. None of these gigs were especially-well paid and I often worried about money. However, I discovered I loved teaching and this led to the books I’ve written and a life among writers.

Before I moved to Portland I was married, a mother, and a homeowner. But I found myself with a whole new identity and was single, struggling, and living in an attic apartment, my daughter living back in the Midwest and starting college. The apartment was atop a large, old charming house, but the problem was I didn’t have a private entrance to my apartment. So I was forced to tramp through the first two floors of the owner’s house—nice people, but I didn’t really know them well and skulking through their house always made me feel like a burglar—before I reached my garret. And it was a garret—in the arty, Parisian sense of the word perched in the treetops and loaded with charm and slanting ceilings, and a fabulous alcove for my old desk and bookcases.

I was tired all the time, stressed much of the time, but there came a day when I realized that I needed to buckle into a writing routine even though I was working three jobs to scrape by. So I started getting up every morning at about 5 and began tapping out a novel before I went off to my various jobs.

I buckled into the routine because I didn’t have good writing habits, but mostly because I was afraid to write and needed to face down the fear. I spent about a year working on the book and I learned a lot about myself and fiction and perseverance. It was a suspense story and it was about a writer who had recently moved to Portland (surprise!) and about how a woman who had ripped her off (based on a woman who had ripped me off) was found murdered and the protagonist was a suspect. And because I also disliked this woman’s sister in real life, I murdered her too later in the story. (Trust me, murder on the page is cathartic).

I finished it and since have always strongly believed that “the end” are the best words in a writer’s repertoire. Then I started sending it out to agents and editors I didn’t know since I had no contacts at the time. They all rejected me but some of them kindly wrote one or two-page letters telling me that I had a lot of promise and if I kept at it, they’d be able to publish my work.

This might not sound like a happy ending, but it was. Since I spent those hours in my garret typing away, I’ve stopped being afraid of writing. Now that’s not to say I don’t feel anxiety, or find myself rewriting a lot or making mistakes. But something huge shifted inside of me back then, and it all started in those early morning hours, under that slanting roof with rain pattering against the window, a cup of tea nearby, and me finding my way through a story.

More to come.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Just got in from a short walk and returning a video (Notes on a Scandal--if you haven't seen it, it's a gem) and the skies are turning a dusky, indescribable shade that makes me wonder what the sky looks like south of the equator. But despite yesterday's torrential rains and the fact that lately I've adopted a weird schedule of writing after midnight, and despite hanging out with friends yesterday and watching two movies, most of a playoff game, and eating a lot of amazing food, I managed to finally turn my proposal into my agent. I'll keep you posted about it and will now start crafting more substantial posts here....Or at least that's the plan.

Meanwhile, I was talking to some writers last Wednesday and someone asked me about the state of the publishing industry. I'm no expert, but managed to throw out a few points about returns and downturns and downsizing and mega conglomerates.....and no one looked glassy-eyed. But then it was really warm in the room and maybe they were too busy sweating. So with a much better view from the front lines of the publishing world, here's a guest post written by Moonrat an editor writing at whatwomenwrite. 

And isn't it interesting that all the woman in the photo at the top of this blog are essentially wearing the same outfit? Keep writing, just keep at it. Even when your head hurts.
We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn. Mary Catherine Bateson

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Drizzly day here in Portland and I just spent the morning working on my proposal as well as the middle-of -the night hours. I'm emailing it to my agent tomorrow morning and am happy to report that it only needs a few more flourishes. If you're having one of those days when it seems like rewriting is endless, I hear your bark.

Here's a bit of inspiration:

"If you had never been to the world and never known what dawn was, you couldn't possibly imagine how the darkness breaks, how the mystery and color of a new day arrive." ~ John O'Donohue

Friday, January 22, 2010

Most things in life are funny....according to Ms Brewster
Sky sort of steel colored this morning and I've got way too much to accomplish than the hours in the day. Christina, a reader of this blog, has asked me to write about facing setbacks and all the doubts, noise, and big emotions that accompany writing. I'm going to write about this in the next day or two because it's the topic of the book that I've been working on.

Meanwhile, I gave a talk in Portland a few weeks ago and since have been corresponding with a local writer Murr Brewster. I just wanted to post a link to her blog post about building a writing platform because it's hilarious. Keep at it writers, the hours and toil are worth it. Besides it keeps you off the streets.....

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Still dark this morning and I'm putting the finishing touches on my book proposal. 
"Phrases like oddly enough, not surprisingly, or ironically, hinder readers from discovering the oddity, lack of surprise, or irony on their own." Abraham Piper

And did I ever tell you about my journalism teacher in college, Paul Hayes? He'd won a Pulitzer while working at the Washington Post and if anyone in his class wrote a story that contained very or quite we received an F.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"If we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don't lift to the horizon; our ears don't hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting. We wake up one day and find that we have lost our dreams in order to protect our days." ~Kent Nerburn, Letters to my Son
Robert Parker, 77, Dies
When I work on manuscripts I scribble all sorts of notes to the writer in the margins. Sometimes I'm commenting on language, urging the writer to use more vivid verbs or to omit qualifiers or intensifiers such as very or quite. And sometimes I remind the writer that we don't need to use 'suddenly' when something unexpected happens as in 'suddenly the doorbell rang.'

But Robert Parker died suddenly while working at his desk on Monday. He was fine at breakfast and when his wife returned from a run, he was dead. He wrote more than 60 books, most of them mysteries or crime novels and was responsible for re-invigorating this genre. His characters were complex, his style spare, his settings (mostly the Boston area) realistic,  and his influence on other writers enormous.

"I first got into him when I was a student and me and my friends heard about this writer who had these really cool books about a detective in Boston. You really had to seek them out at first," author and fellow Bostonian Dennis Lehane told the Associated Press. "He taught me how to be funny on the page. He taught me how to be succinct. He taught me how to give voice to that wonderfully jaded Boston sarcasm that came out in his books. I remember telling Bob that the first chapter of my first book (A Drink Before the War) was so faux Parker he should have been suing me."

Novelist Robert Crais told AP that Parker "opened the doors for everyone who came after". "For a long time, the American detective genre was defined by the big three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I would say Robert Parker is the fourth," he told the newswire.

"I read Parker's Spenser series in college," crime writer Harlan Coben said in 2007 in an interview with the Atlantic Monthly. "When it comes to detective novels, 90% of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."
Gray skies here. Portland, OR writers I'm giving a talk tonight at 7 p.m. for Women who Write 4115 N. Mississippi Talk will be a great boost of motivation and inspiration. 
Write No Matter What:
A lot of people want to write but don’t actually do it. Join us to learn practical and doable habits that put words on the page and keep ideas flowing. We'll also cover the essential pillars of a writing practice, how to recover from set backs, and how to tap into passions and concerns to fuel our stories.
Join us! 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Message from Dan Newland 
Yesterday there was surprising sun here, the temperatures were soft and springlike, and the coast was buffeted with thunder, lightning, and high winds. Now this storm should be hitting Portland soon. 
I joined Facebook a few months ago with one of my main objectives to connect with writers around the world. During series of postings begun by author, I 'met' Dan Newland, a Midwesterner now living in Patagonia. He is now following this blog and sent this missive. I've been wanting to incorporate postings from followers, so if you have anything to say, or have suggestions for the blog, please send me a line. Meanwhile, keep writing and keep faith in your writing.  
 Hi Jessica. 
      Just dropped in to tell you that I've been reading your blog and became a follower. Found it lively and helpful. Additionally, and not very objectively, I'm afraid, I like it because it reconfirms my own philosophy about the writing life. Mainly that I can't help being a writer and wouldn't even if I could. 
         I've made my living "by the word" in one way or another for the past 36 years, as both an international journalist and translator, and still the question burns: Have I gone far enough in becoming the writer I've always promised myself I'd be? The response is always "no" and that response is precisely what keeps me writing, keeps me reinventing myself and keeps me, well, alive. 
          I turned 60 in December, spent a week being depressed, then, tough ol' bird that I I am, decided it wasn't the end of anything but a new beginning. I'm now rearranging all of what I call "work for hire" (making a living), have resigned my post as chairman of the ethics committee for an international translators association, reassessed and reordered my work schedule and have set to the joyful task of finishing two non-fiction books I have been working on in fits and starts over the past five years. And when they are done, I have promised myself that I'll go back and once again take up a fiction trilogy I began 15 years ago and eventually abandoned after failing to find a publisher (or agent) for the first book. (I'm now convinced that my remote location and lack of contacts in the world of American fiction - despite knowing my way around other segments of publishing - were more responsible for this than anything else).
        In short, I just wanted to say that, the stimulating exchanges that you and I have had after our meeting through Paul Toth have played no little role in reminding me of why I write and why I should.
        I look forward to continuing this kind of intelligent and stimulating dialog with you in the future.
Best always

Sunday, January 17, 2010

From author Hallie Ephron add to the list (of bestsellers that were rejected) THE GINGER MAN. MAUS. SONS AND LOVERS. And one of my favorites, THE KON TIKI EXPEDITION by a young reader, working at the publishing house, Wallace Stegner.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Take Heart: Best-Selling Books Repeatedly  Rejected by Publishers (Many Twenty or More Times)
  1. Dubliners by James Joyce
  2. M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker
  3. Carrie by Stephen King
  4. Dune by Frank Herbert
  5. The Peter Principle by Laurence Peter
  6. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain
  7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  10. A Time to Kill by John Grisham
  11. Lust for Life, Irving Stone
  12. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  13.  Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  14. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  15. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  16. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen 
  17. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach 
  18. Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore 
  19. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
  20. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Vincent van Gogh

Friday, January 15, 2010

It's the sort of day in Portland where you might consider building an ark. I want to write about something that I've been noticing and thinking about for years. It's about how at every stage of your writing career, but especially if you're unpublished and especially if you're lacking in credentials and contacts, that you need act with professionalism, grace, and common sense. So this is going to be a bit of a rant. And this rant has been stirred by a few events in my  life, some decisions I'm made lately, and also paying attention to Holly Lisle's enewsletter.

Lisle is the author of 32 novels and also teaches online writing courses. Lately she's been publishing the most bizarre, incomprehensible, and rude emails she receives from readers. Then she explains her thinking/reactions to those emails. It's been funny, sad, and elucidating.

Then last week I gave a talk at the local Willamette Writers meeting. The talk went well, I sold some of my books, we all laughed with me and at me, and it was a pretty good evening. Except for a writer who sort of glommed onto me and was filled with complaints and problems of the writing life. I tried to toss out some quick suggestions for her and answered her questions in the question and answer session, and I was patient and kind, but ignored the red flags of all her complaints and sighs.

In my talks I often admit that I'm a scruffy, sometimes cranky, sometimes impatient mentor. I sometimes want to strangle writers I work with, I sometimes want to weep because I grow so weary of reading bad writing and putting up with delusional thinking. But mostly I like many parts of my life and I meet wonderful, warm, witty, talented people. So during my last week's talk, I mentioned some of the crazed or nasty emails I received lately in response to my latest book and warned the writers not to do this.

In fact don't send nasty emails to anyone in your life, but especially to people related to this industry such as myself or Holly Lisle.Even though we don't work as agents or for publishing companies.  If you disagree with me, that's fine, but keep it to yourself, or start a civil dialogue. But allow room for the slight thought that we might know a bit more about the business of writing than you do.

So back to my talk--at the end of the evening I sold this needy-seeming writer a copy of my first book Writing Out the Storm and went home and drank 2 large glasses of wine. All was well, another task accomplished. Then the next morning I received a bizarre, crazed, and bitchy email from this person about how I hadn't treated her like the genius she was and she could have bought my book cheaper on amazon.com. I wrote back (big mistake) and she sent an even nastier email. Folks, just don't do this. This is a business of connections and relationships and poisoning things at any time  is just foolish.

Then yesterday I sent a client a preliminary email about a partial manuscript I'd read. I informed the writer that it wasn't ready for publication, pointed out some of the major problems and explained I'd be sending more information next week. And he went ballistic and sent me a long and I mean long--6-8 single-spaced rant about how I said his writing sucked (which of course I didn't) etc. etc. It would have taken be about three hours to respond to every point in the email, something I'm not willing to to.

Don't do this either. If someone points out your writing isn't working you need to suck it up and take it like a man. You have the right to ask questions, but no one is this whole spinning planet wants to receive a looonnnnng rant.  It makes you sound paranoid, delusional, petty, crazy, and unprofessional. I've screwed up several times in my career by losing my temper. I have always regretted it and I'm working on avoiding these sort of screw ups. Vent to your friends, your dog, your writer's group--not the publishing professional who just might be a good connection.
Writing Prompt

Thoreau once said that the eye is the jewel of the body. With that in mind, write about a character or person with arresting, unusual eyes.Green?  Pale? Catlike? Hooded? Sparkling?
What do these windows to the soul express about the person's personality, emotion, or mood? Sad? Flirty? Brooding? Lonely?  Guilty?
The point of this exercise is to find fresh language to describe a person. For example, how would you describe sparkling eyes without using 'sparkling'?

The eyes have one language everywhere. George Herbert

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dangerous Women
Blue is showing through the clouds this morning and radio in the background is explaining the history of Haiti. I just learned that they were the second free republic in the Western Hemisphere after the U.S. and their slave rebellion lasted twelve long years. And Jefferson would not have been able to acquire the Louisiana Purchase if it hadn't been for the Haitians. France was so busy with the revolution in Haiti that they saw this land mass in North America as a drain, so were eager to sell it. Meanwhile,  I was up in the middle of the night working on my new book so have been trying not to rattle around in a daze this morning.

A few days ago I recommended Gillian Flynn's latest book Dark Places. Today I want to direct you to a thought-provoking essay she wrote at Powells.com. About four years ago I wrote a book called Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction. I wrote the book because I wanted to urge writers to take more chances with their characters and because there simply wasn't enough information out there about villains and anti-heroes. But I especially wanted to encourage writers to create females that operated from a more realistic and potent sensibility and to create female villains. Make that scary female villains. There has always been a huge vein of untapped anger and power in women and many women are dangerous. Plain and simple. At least they have been in my life.

So Flynn's essay, I Was Not a Nice Little Girl caught my attention, especially when she begins: I was not a nice little girl. My favorite summertime hobby was stunning ants and feeding them to spiders. My preferred indoor diversion was a game called Mean Aunt Rosie, in which I pretended to be a witchy caregiver and my cousins tried to escape me. Our most basic prop was one of those pink, plastic toy phones most little girls owned in the '80s. (Pretty girls love to talk on the phone!) Alas, it was always snatched from their fingers before they could call for help. (Mwahaha) In down time, I also enjoyed watching soft-core porn on scrambled cable channels. (Boob, bottom, static, static, boob!) And if one of my dolls started getting an attitude, I'd cut off her hair.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Announcing the 2010 Breakthrough Novel Award

Amazon.com and Penguin Group (USA) Announce the Third Annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition
Amazon.com, Inc. and Penguin Group (USA) are pleased to announce the third annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the international competition seeking the next popular novel. For the first time, the competition will award two grand prizes: one for General Fiction and one for best Young Adult Fiction. The 2010 competition will also now be open to novels that have been self-published. Writers around the world are encouraged to begin preparing their manuscripts for entry into the competition, which is scheduled to launch on January 25, 2010.
The contest consists of five judging phases by Amazon editors and expert reviewers, publishing professionals and Amazon.com customers. The grand prize winner chosen in each category will each receive a $15,000 publishing contract with Penguin Group (USA).

How the contest works
Between January 25 and February 7, 2009, writers with an English-language novel manuscript can submit their work at www.amazon.com/abna. Up to 10,000 total initial entries will be accepted, with up to 5,000 each in the general fiction and young adult categories.
Initial Round: Amazon editors will select 1,000 entries from each category to advance to the next round.
Quarter-Finals: Expert reviewers from Amazon will read excerpts of the 2,000 entries and narrow the pool to 500 quarter-finalists (250 in each category).
Semi-Finals: Reviewers from Publishers Weekly will then read, rate and review the full manuscripts, and 50 semi-finalists for each category will be selected. Two panels of esteemed publishing professionals will read and post their critiques of the top three manuscripts on www.amazon.com.
Finals: Penguin editors will evaluate the manuscripts of the 50 general fiction and 50 Young Adult semi-finalists, and choose three finalists for each award.
Grand Prize Winners: Amazon customers will have seven days to vote for a Grand Prize Winner in each category. The two Grand Prize Winners will be announced in Seattle on June 14, 2010. Each winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance.
For complete terms and conditions for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and more information about the contest, please visit www.amazon.com/abna.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cormac showing us the dazzle of wordplay: 

"The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others."

~Cormac McCarthy
Writing Recharge workshop, January 23

Gloomy skies that promise rain. Yesterday I went for a walk above the Willamette River about midday and noticed how everything seemed so wintertime still. Now, we don't have snow here, but there was no wind, and little traffic and the world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting.  And then I stopped at the neighborhood library and on my way in noticed a line of empty strollers parked along the building. The sight was so colorful and surprising somehow. And I realized that it was the design element of the strollers that I liked and how I could imagine the mothers and children claiming them (there was a story hour going on) and then rolling along to their lives. Do you notice design elements as you go about your days? 

For people living in the Northwest I'm teaching a fabulous, whup-your-ass, stir-your-imagination, instill-hope kind of workshop Writing Recharge on January 23 in Portland. It's about finding the time, mining your passions, and living the writing life day after day so the projects get done, the dream is lived, not sighed over. Write me at jessicapage at spiritone.com for details. I've been teaching this workshop in January for years now because its truly an energizing way to begin a year and decade.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dark Places
Somehow the sky this morning looks like it belongs over the north Atlantic before a blizzard. I read Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects and enjoyed it a lot--she's the sort of novelist who takes lots of risks with her anti-hero characters and writes about difficult truths, creepy behaviors, murder, and crazy families. So what's not to love? This I know: She's a writer to watch.

So I was excited to read her second book Dark Places and I just loved it and could not put it down. It's so gratifying to see a novelist improve her game, writing with such confidence and potency. And fabulous use of language. The story is told in three viewpoints and the anti hero protagonist is Libby Day, who escaped death when she was seven when three members of her family were murdered.

Naturally, she's never been the same.And because Flynn knows her stuff, we come to care deeply about Libby.
The story begins: "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.It's the Day blood.Something wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around  a group of lesser relatives--second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends--stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kanasas. Me going to school in my dead sister' hand-me-downs: Shirts with mustardy armpits. Pants with baggy bottoms, comically loose,held on with a raggedy belt cinched to the farthest hole. In class photos my hair was always crooked--barrettes hanging loosely from stands, as if they were airborne objects caught in the tangles--and I always had bulging pockets under my eyes, drunklandlady eyes. Maybe a grudging curve of the lips where a smile should be. Maybe.

I was not a lovable child, and I'd grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it'd be a scribble with fangs."

As you can see,  the language and story sucks you in like quicksand.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Word List
Making headway with a pile of filing and paperwork today--no wonder I always put off these tasks. In fact I'm having sense of humor failure but I'm going out to hear music later.  If you read my columns or this blog you might know that I maintain an ever-growing Word document that is a Word List. In this list I insert words that I have scavenged from my reading in an effort to expand my writing vocabulary. Now, some of these words I've used before, but this is another practice that forces me to focus on language, especially acquiring precise words for precise places.  So here are the latest entries: aperture, wavering, bobble,dithering, nervy, blustering, lalapalooza, cockamamie, woebegone, flaccid, swank, haggling, rasping, castrati, windswept, mimsy, haggling, folly, fobbed off, gnarled, fiddly, languer...

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.
Uninterrupted Dialogue
There is blue showing in the skies...really. Spending the morning cleaning up all the papers in my office, part two. As I was cleaning I ran across this note I made for my students about dialogue. Recently I was reading an article about pacing in a writer's magazine that said that dialogue is slow. Not true. Summary and dialogue are the fastest delivery systems in fiction. Readers look for it, knowing the pace with pick up and they'll be involved in the moment.

Uninterrupted dialogue is most like real life conversation. However, here are a few pointers: For most of these scenes, unless the characters have appeared together often before, make certain there is an adequate set up including a few setting details. Also,  make certain that readers are aware of characters' emotional states when the dialogue launches or soon after.

Always ask yourself if emotional reversal is possible during the exchange.

Uninterrupted dialogue is a good boost for slow scenes with little tension--quick pace of conversation will compensate for low tension.

When you write dialogue with only a few interruptions (characters moving, reacting, description embedded) this works great for scenes with lots of tension. An example is the final scene in Of Mice and Men, Lennie blathering on about the farm they're going to buy....meanwhile the lynch mob is closing in and George has drawn his gun.
"For, after all, you do grow up, you do outgrow your ideals, which turn to dust and ashes, which are shattered into fragments; and if you have no other life, you just have to build one up out of these fragments. And all the time your soul is craving and longing for something else. And in vain does the dreamer rummage about in his old dreams, raking them over as though they were a heap of cinders, looking in these cinders for some spark, however tiny, to fan it into a flame so as to warm his chilled blood by it and revive in it all that he held so dear before, all that touched his heart, that made his blood course through his veins, that drew tears from his eyes, and that so splendidly deceived him!"
- Fyodor Dostoevsky

Friday, January 08, 2010

Isabel Allende's Writing Ritual
Still dark this morning but wanted to pass along this tidbit from The Writer's Almanac because it's fascinating:

Today, writer Isabel Allende is starting a new book, just as she has been doing every single January 8th for the past 29 years. On January 8, 1981, when Chilean-born Allende was living in Venezuela and working as a school administrator and freelance journalist, she got a phone call that her beloved grandfather, at 99 years old, was dying. She started writing him a letter, and that letter turned into her very first novel, The House of the Spirits. She said, "It was such a lucky book from the very beginning, that I kept that lucky date to start."

Today is a sacred day for her, and she treats it in a ceremonial, ritualistic way. She gets up early this morning and goes alone to her office, where she lights candles "for the spirits and the muses." She surrounds herself with fresh flowers and incense, and she meditates.

She sits down at the computer, turns it on, and begins to write. She says: "I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It's a door that opens into an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me."

She said, "When I start I am in a total limbo. I don't have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it." She doesn't use an outline, and she doesn't talk to anybody about what she's writing. She doesn't look back at what she's written until she's completed a whole first draft — which she then prints out, reads for the first time, and goes about the task of revising, where she really focuses on heightening and perfecting tension in the story and the tone and rhythm of the language.

She said that she take notes all the time and carries a notebook in her purse so that she can jot down interesting things she sees or hears. She clips articles out of newspapers, and when people tell her a story, she writes down that story. And then, when she is in the beginning stages of working on a book, she looks through all these things that she's collected and finds inspiration in them.

She writes in a room alone for 10 or 12 hours a day, usually Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. During this time, she says, "I don't talk to anybody; I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me."

Thursday, January 07, 2010

One Word for 2010
The morning skies are an unnameable shade of grey and no rain going on. Since it's a new year I've been back at work on my new book and for some reason I'm often working on it in the middle of the night. This is confusing my usual body rhythms and although I love the vast stillness of nighttime (especially last night because high winds made me feel like I was captaining a boat on ocean swells) I wake up with my brain foggy and all I want to do is handle fiddly little projects and check out Facebook posts. This is not good.

But anyway, I wanted to alert you all to a terrific concept for the new year. This year that is still freshly-minted and wide open with promise. I heard this idea from Christina Katz of writermama. Christina is sort of marketing dynamo and a maestro at making ideas a reality. And Christina got the idea from Ali Edwards' blog-see how we're all connected these days?

Here's an excerpt:

I am a fan of welcoming the new year with open arms. I love fresh starts, new opportunities, clean slates, possibilities.
Back in January 2007, as a way to celebrate these beginnings, I started a public tradition of choosing a single word to focus on over the course of the year.
Many of you are familiar with this tradition and have been joining me in selecting a new word each year. If this is your first time reading about the idea of one little word I recommend taking a few minutes to read my original post here.

So my word for 2010 is prosperity. I spent most of the past 18 months recovering from a car accident, especially head injuries and didn't work much. So welcoming prosperity is a biggie for me right now. What's your word going to be?

And thanks Christina and Ali

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Wisdom from Sheldon Kopp
In case you need some food for thought this morning, here is Sheldon Kopp's Escatological Laundry List (learned on life's rocky road) It can be found at this link from the University of Hawaii
 Kopp is the author of If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients

1. This is it!
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can't get there from here, and besides there's no place else to go.
4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
5. Nothing lasts.
6. There is no way of getting all you want.
7. You can't have anything unless you let go of it.
8. You only get to keep what you give away.
9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
13. You don't really control anything.
14. You can't make anyone love you.
15. No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
16. Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
17. There are no great men.
18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
19. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
20. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
21. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
22. Progress is an illusion.
23. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
24. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.
25. Childhood is a nightmare.
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of -yourself -cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
27. Each of us is ultimately alone.
28. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
30. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that's all there is.
31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
32. We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
35. No excuses will be accepted.
36. You can run, but you can't hide.
37. It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
38. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
39. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
40. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
41. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only to face the consequences.
42. What do you know . . . for sure . . . anyway?
43. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again. . . .
Skies the color of pewter. Thanks a lot to the people who came to the Willamette Writers meeting last night--it was a lot of fun.

I just want to recommend today's Garrison Keillor column at salon.com about his winter cruise.
Here's an excerpt:
It's the village aspect of ships that we love. The food is OK, the entertainment is third-rate Las Vegas. The ship docks in Mexico and you take a bus to look at Mayan ruins for 45 minutes and return to the SS Gringo. Fine. It's the village life that's wonderful, the pleasure of people-watching and eavesdropping, which the automobile has cheated us of, the camaraderie of card games. Remember that? Back in my leisurely 20s, I sat around for hours with my Republican in-laws and played gin rummy and Five and then I fell in among earnest Democrats who preferred to sit and argue. Cards belonged to the Elks lodge and the Ladies Circle and my generation didn't go in for that. Decades passed and nobody shuffled. And suddenly, walking into a salon full of card players, I remember how much fun it was, the gentle teasing and the small talk. "Go ahead, amaze me," an old lady says to her grandson as she slaps down trump. He folds his hand. Everyone laughs.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Dingy skies here in Portland and the rain is dripping down. I'm putting together some notes for my talk with Willamette Writers tonight. Here's a quote I'm going to use by Alan Watts:Advice? I don't have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you're writing, you're a writer. Write like you're a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there's no chance for a pardon. Write like you're clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you've got just one last thing to say, like you're a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God's sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we're not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don't. Who knows, maybe you're one of the lucky ones who doesn't have to.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Reminder to Portlanders:
I'm going to be speaking tomorrow night (7 p.m.)at the Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th (at Jefferson) at the first Willamette Writers meeting of 2010 Topic: Kill Your Muse,Pick Your Fights, Polish Relentlessly, and Keep Going....Towards Publication.
I promise laughs along with practical info.

Torturous Statistics
Still gloomy here--I'm hunkered at my computer today trying to catch up on things. Although, you know I just never feel caught up--perhaps it's the malaise of our times.
I've tried to link to agent Janet Reid's 12/31/09 post about what she accepted and rejected last year and why: Statistics to Torture Yourself With in 2010.Enlightening, encouraging, heart breaking. What do you think?
A Meaningful Life
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth

Years ago I lived in a small cabin in the middle of a northern forest. The place was heated by a wood-burning stove and I always kept a pile of kindling ready for starting fires. These days, like that kindling at the ready, I always hold on to hope to start my inner fire. Even during hard times I keep hope at hand and am buoyed as every morning I’m pulled from my bed and settle into this chair at my keyboard. And even when it’s been raining for weeks and I cannot make sense of the chapter I wrote six months ago, I still think this is one of the best lives possible.

For most writers, writing chooses us, and we’d be fools not to answer yes to the call to express ideas and stories. I suspect that like me, you’ve noticed that something mysterious happens when you’re writing and the depths you find within, the ideas and images and memories that erupt out of nowhere. This wellspring appears when we stop fretting and worrying and instead surrender to the writing so that these hours spent are filled with everyday miracles.

So here in January we have a blank easel before us, large with promise. What colors will you paint on it? The writing life is built from growth and enduring and commitment. It requires that you invest the most precious part of yourself—your essence. So what are your investment plans? Have you written them down? Bought a new notebook or journal? There are a lot of things that the writing life cannot deliver. It cannot be a refuge from loneliness or a sure path to fame and fortune. But in it you can find the heroic, compassionate, and transcendent part of yourself as you show up for the page again and again.

In 2010 we can all be bold. Be true. Keep going. Be original. We have a new year before us and a chance to write.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Erica Jong's 20 Rules for Writers
The sky is the color of a dull bruise, but it's not raining. I'm finishing up my February column for the Willamette Writers newsletter, then off to meet a fellow writer for brunch. When I was in college I majored in English and Journalism and minored in Women's Studies and Native American Studies. And yes, I know I'm revealing my hippie past since one of my classes was based on the works of Carlos Costaneda since writers like him fascinated me at the time. I had also lived for a time on an Ojibwa reservation in northern Wisconsin, Lac du Flambeau (I had wanted to live in a teepee as fitting the times. Thank God my then-boyfriend was lazy and this hair-brained scheme never came about since I'm sure we'd have turned into human icicles), and have Native American ancestors.

But anyway, I'm mentioning some of my semi-colorful past because if you took Women's Studies courses, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying was always on the curriculum. Here's a list of Erica's 20 Rules for Writers from her website:
Erica's 20 Rules for Writers
1. Have faith--not cynicism
2. Dare to dream
3. Take your mind off publication
4. Write for joy
5. Get the reader to turn the page
6. Forget politics (let your real politics shine through)
7. Forget intellect
8. Forget ego
9. Be a beginner
10. Accept change
11. Don't think your mind needs altering
12. Don't expect approval for telling the truth -
(Parents, politicians, colleagues, friends, etc.)
13. Use everything
14. Remember that writing is Heroism
15. Let Sex (The Body, the physical world) in!
16. Forget critics
17. Tell your truth not the world's
18. Remember to be earth-bound
19. Remember to be wild!
20. Write for the child (in yourself and others)
There are no rules
Erica Jong

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” - Stephen King
Pursuit of Happiness Blog
Happy New Year to all: This year feels full of promise, don't you agree? In case you've missed the oh-so entertaining blog that has been appearing in The New York Times for the past year by the amazing Maira Kalman here's the link for the final one. Kalman, a childrens book author and illustrator writes and draws with humor, tenderness,and insight. And she's created the illustrated version of The Elements of Style! Details at her site.