Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Make It Grand

by Elizabeth

I haven't even looked at my photos yet.

A couple of weeks ago we piled the kids, a twelve-pack of Diet Coke and a bag of snacks into the car, then drove west to pursue the American Dream of visiting the Grand Canyon. En route, we stopped by the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, less known but still awesome national treasures I'm pleased our government is smart enough to own and preserve.

That day, overlooking her first vista of the Painted Desert--purple to pink pyramids stacked by time--my daughter drew a breath and wondered if the Canyon could possibly compare to this. "It's breathtaking," I swear my ten-year-old said, breathing deeply. (She's working on irony.) "Wait," I said, both a tease and a promise.

Turns out the canyon was visited by the Spanish explorers way back in the 1500s, guys whose names you once heard in Western Civ and maybe forgot once exams were over. Mistrusted by the local Indians (duh), they were led on long and nearly fruitless journeys to finally see the canyon depths--and quickly realizing the difficulty descension would require, and the likely lack of gold within (and how would you ever get it out?), they discarded one of the Seven Wonders of the World as more or less useless land, and never bothered to return.

We felt differently. Did it possibly compare? You bet it did. And when she first approached the canyon's edge and peered down into its mile depth, my little girl's breath really was taken away and it was long seconds before I heard her wondering exhale.

When we got home, we found we'd been burgled. (Go ahead and laugh at the silliness of the word, but it's correct, and a police officer thanked me for using it.)

And that's one way to keep things going in books, too. Take your reader someplace new, and dazzle them. Then take it to the next level, to something so big it can't even be comprehended. And then drop the unexpected on them.

I don't recommend having your house broken into, not at all, but life sometimes provides a great example to keeping your story fresh. I heard something just like this at the first conference I ever attended. I can't say I thought about that as I rushed to check what the intruders had taken (thankfully, very little; cops speculated they got spooked and cut it short), I did later. Raise the stakes, keep things surprising, fresh, fresh, fresh.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What's in a name?

By Pamela

Finding Grandpa Hamming's name on the wall at Ellis Island.
When the time came to decide on a baby name--actually three times for us--my husband and I put a lot of time and thought into the task at hand. Our firstborn was named Jacob after my great-grandfather, who was from Holland (although we stuck with the hard J pronunciation and not the Y plus the throaty ACH-sound the Dutch use for A). When his brother came along, a little more discussion ensued. I wanted to name him Wilson for my mother's family, but we weren't sure how he would like it, so my husband proposed Benjamin instead.  "It's a good golfing name ... Ben Hogan ... Ben Crenshaw," he argued. (Plus Tim Allen's show was popular then, and it was hard not to think about neighbor Wilson with his creepy over-the-fence voyeurism.) And so, second son was christened Benjamin Wilson.

Fast forward about nine years and along came our daughter. By then the boys were old enough to add in their two-cents, and so she was named Amelia Marie (after my sister Amy Marie and Amelia Earhart, both great role models), but called Mia much of time after Mia Hamm--at her brother's insistence. (He's still not over the fact that she doesn't seem to care for soccer.)

Naming the children took a lot of thought. Would Mia be too cutesy as an adult? Yes, I thought, and therefore insisted the name on her birth certificate be Amelia, so she had options later. Could I have named either of my sons Carl or Don or Mark? Not after a former boyfriend! And there are other names I have very strong emotions tied to, people I've known who have forever flavored the way a name tastes on my tongue.

Naming a character in a book should be a simple process, right? Hardly! Your characters will live on forever in your mind and hopefully forever on the pages of your book, so their names have to fit them to a T. It would be nice if you could give them names that almost become branded (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Skeeter in The Help); names that will conjure up images whenever anyone says them aloud.

But you also have to think about how a name is pronounced. Julie ran into this recently with a character she had named in her story. After handing out some drafts to first readers, she realized her main character's name was being pronounced three different ways. Not a problem, maybe, since it's a book, but what happens when she's at an event and mentions the name aloud--the way she meant for it to sound--and someone in the crowd realizes she's been hearing it differently in her mind. Or when the audio book is recorded and the name sounds different than a reader might have originally thought it did.

I told Julie about the time I picked up Lisey's Story, by Stephen King, and had it in my mind I was going to read about Lisey (Lye-see). Then on page one, King tells me her name rhymes with Cee-Cee. No, it doesn't, I thought. From then on, as I read the book, it tripped me up. I caught myself hearing "Lye-see" and then mentally correcting myself that it was really "Lee-Cee" and I ended up setting the book aside. Weird? Maybe, but for me it annoyed me too much.

Which might be good reason for me to not read fantasy. Authors make up names like Oorfene and Meriadoc Brandybuck and either don't care if we know how they're pronounced or assume we can hear them read as they do.

But a character's name is important and you, the author, get both the privilege of naming rights and the responsibility of making his or her name suit the character. I can't imagine Scout having been a Lacey or Skeeter having been a Wilma. Not that there's anything wrong with either--they just wouldn't have suited their characters' personalities.

If you want an American name that's suited to the era in which you are writing, a great source is the Social Security Administration's website. Type in the year the character might have been born, and then choose how many you want to see. If you want a common name, pick from the top ten. Looking for something a little more obscure, yet timely? Then you can set your search to include the top 1000 and choose a name from the bottom of the list.

Make sure you give some thought to your characters' names and avoid choosing something too similar to someone you know. We all base characters on people who have crossed our paths, but it's best to leave  them wondering than for someone to find his or her name (or a slight variation of) repeated in your novel.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What Makes You A Writer

By Susan

Beginning a novel is like falling in love. There is music on the breeze, sleeplessness when you should rest, heart palpitations when sitting perfectly still. It is The Fog--a definite and solid yet shimmering love cloud that permeates your world and your brain and your pen. You write fast. You are filled with amazement at the possibilities contained within one blank and black notebook. You write your name on the first page--your full name, in neat script--and you date it. Then, although slightly embarrassed but without shame, you write: THE NOVEL.Twenty thousand words later, it is all garbage and you know it. Your black notebook is now full of smudged pencil markings you call 'words' and doodles and family trees and city maps you created from the air. It was brilliant once. You were as well. Yet now, at the twenty thousand word mark, it is trash and you are ashamed that you started this odyssey by calling it THE NOVEL. And so you push it into a drawer, or under your bed, or you hide it from yourself in the old and musty travel trunk with fabric lining that was your grandfather's. Hemingway had a trunk like this. Yet you are no Hemingway.
Some time later--but not much--a character from that piece of refuse knocks on your subconscious. Maybe she appears in a dream, wanting to know the rest of her own story. Maybe you are sitting on a plane and the man next to you is mysteriously familiar, and you think, "Ah, yes. That is the face of my hero that I drew in words in that old black notebook." You go looking for it. When you can't find it, you make notes on beverage napkins in restaurants to remind yourself of the next thing that happens in your story. You stuff the pieces of paper in your Bible, or in your purse, or in your wallet. When you find the notes again, you see it as a sign and begin looking in earnest for the tattered and weary notebook that you discarded in haste.

You find it. It is not crap, as you had convinced yourself before. Yet it isn't brilliant either. It could be. You begin writing again, and this time, you type it. It seems more real this way, how you can measure the weight of it in word count and page numbers and margin distances. You password protect the file, because you can. Because someone might read it. Yet you continue on, pounding out words in the middle of the night. You drink coffee, and sometimes Chardonnay. And you type.

At some point, maybe at 50,000 words, you take a vacation by yourself to write. A young waiter in an ocean-side cafe asks you what you do and what brings you here because he says that to everyone and you simply tell him you are a writer. Yet you do not feel like one, really. Maybe saying it will make it true. You churn out more words and then you wake up one morning and realize that you know how the story will end. You feel as if maybe you are a real writer after all because you have written 90,000 words and they all make sense and come together like the continents would if you removed the oceans. It is all there. Right in front of you.

Does this make you a writer, the years and failures and revisions and hopefulness? Or were you a writer all along, chipping away at the granite to reveal a work of art that you didn't know was there? Were you a writer when you started your journey? Or did it happen when you hit the 20,000 word wall? Maybe it happened when you told the waiter in Key West that it was true. Or maybe now, now that it is complete, you are real.

An agent doesn't make you a writer. Neither does a publishing house, or your mother's approval, or the fact that you have a trunk like Hemingway. If you write, you are a writer. Talking about it doesn't make it so.

So you want to be a writer? Write. Take the doubt and fear and brilliance and turn it into something that no one can craft but you.

Good luck.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Hero's Journey in Music

By Julie

Years ago, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a method used by many writers to construct a novel, was described in his Hero with a Thousand Faces. You’ve probably seen countless posts using the Hero’s Journey to dissect novels or films.

I struggled to follow the steps mentally, even with it laid out before me in a post like that. Then, several years ago, I got a new CD by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Damien Rice, entitled simply 9.

Like me, you might have heard the first track, 9 Crimes, on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and gone racing to your computer to discover the composer of these haunting lyrics, melody, and chorus. You might have rushed out to purchase the album, only to be puzzled by the very odd mixture of tunes he performs with Lisa Hannigan.

But one day, while taking a leisurely bath, as I often do either trying to relax or puzzle out one of life’s mysteries, I was listening to the album and it hit me.

9 wasn’t simply an album of songs carelessly arranged in whatever order Rice’s producer chose.

It was a novel.

I was absolutely awed when this dawned on me, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this musical novel since, picking apart its structure—the characters, the settings, the arcs. I can read this story about a person’s journey through infidelity again and again.
Recently, I was again stunned when I studied the structure of the Hero’s Journey and realized how well the tracks of 9 followed it.

Damien Rice might laugh if he ever reads this post. It may not have been his intention at all, though I suspect he is smarter than that, having seen him in concert and watched the production that made it the whole experience it was from start to finish.

Whether it was his intention or not, I thought it might be interesting to show how I’ve managed to apply the Hero’s Journey to the 11 tracks of this album plus the one track that never made it onto the album, but appeared with the EP release alongside the song 9 Crimes.

The Hero’s Journey in the context of storytelling is explained here in the simplest terms by Christopher Vogler. This was my main source for discerning the steps and paraphrasing them in my own words. I also applied the steps of the three-act structure of Campbell’s monomyth or Hero’s Journey.

(Note to reader: If you haven’t already fallen asleep yet, you may be as analytical as I am!)

So take a look at what I found. You can find video of any of these songs on Youtube if you’d like to listen to them, and of course, the album is widely available for purchase. The lyrics are quite explicit in several places, so don’t blame me when you forget to turn down the stereo in your car while transporting children—you’ve been warned. My teenagers know the album so well, they go ahead and bleep it for me when we’re in the car.

Because song lyrics are copyrighted and I don’t have permission, I don’t quote them here, but rather give a quick interpretation of them as I see them. You can find the lyrics to all of them except Rat Within the Grain on Rice’s website here.

The Hero’s Journey in the context of Damien Rice’s 9

Act 1: Departure

Step 1: Ordinary World
Gives the reader/listener a window on the world of the hero as it was before the catalyst happened that set him on the journey, though there’s something new in the world that is causing the hero discomfort or stress.

Song: Rat within the Grain (not on album, just on EP)

Rice talks about how “this” wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t missed a plane. It’s a huge misunderstanding, and he suspects he may even have been set up. He claims his only desire was to be wonderful and wanted by his significant other. It’s almost like a prologue to the rest of the story.

Steps 2 and 3: Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call
The hero struggles with the new opportunity before him/her and whether or not to accept it, then begins to alternately face the change and turn away from it.

Song: 9 Crimes

This duet between Rice and Hannigan gives the impression that he is struggling with whether to be unfaithful to his significant other or not—with this unexpected and expected adventure that has been placed before him. He knows it’s not the right time or place—in fact, that it’s not right at all—but feels so messed up in his life and relationship that he’s tempted, possibly beyond what he can handle. He continues to blame others for the test in front of him, but the listener can tell he really blames himself, too.

Step 4: Meeting with the Mentor
The hero turns to a seasoned mentor or reaches within for courage and wisdom.

Song: The Animals Were Gone

In this poignant, yet almost hopeful song, Rice sings of waking up to an empty house for the first time, personified by the absence of the family pets. He sings as though to his lover who has shunned him, telling her that she is still all that he sees.

Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
The hero realizes the old world is behind him and commits to enter the new one, however unfamiliar its rules and values.

Song: Elephant

Rice sings a mournful admission that it’s over—that if he is to go on, he has to accept it and move forward, no matter the pain it will cause him. He compares the old to the new to the old again.

Act Two: Initiation

Step 6: Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Through a series of tests, the hero figures out who he can trust in his new world.

Song: Rootless Tree

Our hero is angry. In fact, he is furious, and this pounding song says so clearly. (Note: Lots of bleeping necessary for sensitive ears!) He feels like his lovers, old and new, are playing games—leading him on or stringing him along selfishly. He asks to be released from the hell they’ve created for him.

Step 7: Approach
The hero (and his new allies) gets ready to face big challenges in his new life.

Song: Coconut Skins

It’s time to stop sitting around and worrying about what other people think in this upbeat song. Our hero realizes he could hang around doing nothing and feeling guilty, but he wants to take action. Time is short and his bucket list is too long.

Step 8: The Ordeal
The hero confronts his worst fears and maybe even death, and comes out on the other side.

Song: Me, My Yoke, and I

Our hero completely expects he’s going to do something again that he’s been condemned for in the past. He is saying, once again, “Take me as I am or don’t take me.” He doesn’t have any reason to expect more of himself than he’s been able to deliver in the past and doesn’t want the new lover in his life to expect more either. In acknowledging this, he feels free.

Step 9: The Reward
The hero claims the prize he’s won by facing death, celebrating, but also fears losing it again.

Song: Grey Room

Rice speaks about this song on a live CD. He talks about dealing with frequent depression and how it makes his songwriting better, but also how he didn’t like being in that place, how it was a relief to come out of it, and how it (depression) isn’t a fair exchange for the reward (songs that sell). In our hero’s journey, it seems he’s claiming his new life, his newfound happiness, but still fears going back into the abyss he’d sunk into before.

Act Three: The Return

Steps 10 and 11: The Road Back and The Resurrection
The hero is ready to complete his adventure. He wants to be sure the treasure is longlasting and brought home. Sometimes, this is a dangerous or place to be in. He faces the most severe test yet, but is purified by his final choices. The original conflicts are resolved.

Song: Accidental Babies

As with many of the songs on 9, it’s unclear whether the song is sung to our hero's original lover or the new one, asking whether each is happier in their new or old space, whether they want to take the decisions they’ve made to the next level or reconsider before it’s too late.

Step 12: The Elixir
The hero continues the journey or goes back home, but with new knowledge of his transformation and how others can be transformed.

Song: Sleep, Don’t Weep

This is a song about forgiveness and resolution. It’s not stated whether Damien Rice’s hero returns “home” (to his original love) or stays with his new one, but clearly, he can now accept that he no longer must hate or be angry. He can forgive, and remember the good in the past, and accept that life, in all its glorious mess, can be a restful place after all.

The End.

So readers, what do you think? Crazy? Not crazy? Do you have a favorite album that follows the Hero’s Journey the way you see it? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Photo credit: Tony Stanley's Flickr photostream / by Creative Common's license

Monday, March 21, 2011

The One

by Joan

Last week I had the unexpected pleasure of reading Julie’s manuscript (title in flux!). She asked me to read it straight through, to skip the line edit and focus on inconsistencies, on story and logic issues. As someone who is heavy-handed with the track changes feature, I worried that I’d be unable to ignore the small stuff. I printed it out, single space no less, to keep myself from marking it up too much. But as I read, I hardly had time to think about small stuff (there wasn’t any, by the way), because the story flowed so well, the characters spoke so clearly.

She said it was her first draft, but surely she was exaggerating. When I read the last lines, I cried. Not only at the beautiful ending, at the unpredictable and touching tale, but at the absolute certainty that this was the book that would get her an agent and a publishing deal.

I was so excited when I finished, I texted her right away to tell her. "OMG!! I just finished and BURST into tears! You’ve done it!" (Apparently I write a lot of !! when I’m excited).

Rather than curl up in a jealous ball as I expected I’d do (after all, I’m human, and a yet-to-be published writer), reading Julie’s manuscript-soon-to-be-book motivated me. I am dangerously close to finishing my WIP. Kim is encouraging me by keeping up with her critique as fast as I can send her pages, despite her own story aching to get out and two young children demanding her time. Sure I hope this manuscript will be “the one” for me. Even if it’s not, I have the support of a unique group of women who cheer one another on, even when others may struggle.

I am thrilled that I get to share Julie’s excitement, to be on hand for the queries, the requests, the agonizing decision to choose an agent from the many clamoring to represent her, the joy at hearing her manuscript sell at auction.

Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic, but I’m not the only one who felt this way. Three of us read her book within the last week and we all agreed. This is the one, the one that proves her dream, our dreams, are not unreachable.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Interview With Tatjana Soli

By Kim

I first learned about Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters through status updates from several members of the Fiction Writers Co-op on Facebook. Having been to Vietnam myself in 1996, I knew I had to read it. The novel is a sprawling, sensual feast that is both beautiful and horrifying. The heroine, Helen Adams, is gutsy, her romantic entanglements unconventional, and seeing the war through her eyes offers a fresh perspective on a conflict that remains relevant today. This is an important book, and one I highly recommend.

Synopsis (from the book jacket)

In this much-lauded, fiercely-imagined novel, Tatjana Soli paints a searing portrait of three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war. In the final days of a falling Saigon, Helen Adams, a once-underestimated amateur whose gutsy photographs have turned her into a dazzling, if jaded, star, finds her ambition conflicts with her desire as she grapples with her feelings for two very different men: the mysterious Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist with questionable loyalties, and Sam Darrow, an American reporter addicted to the narcotic of violence and to his dangerous love for Helen. All three become transformed by the chaos they risk everything to record.

The Lotus Eaters unfolds a stirring canvas of three souls trapped by their intense passions and treacherous obsessions. Readers will be transfixed by this stunning debut contrasting the wrenching horrors of combat with the redemptive power of love.

Photo by Wallisphoto
About Tatjana Soli (from the book jacket)

Tatjana Soli lives in Orange County, California. Her short stories have been widely published and twice cited in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. The Lotus Eaters is her debut novel.

Q & A with Tatjana

W.W.W. - I was struck by how realistic your depiction of the sensory overload of Saigon is. The Lotus Eaters reads like a novel by someone who had spent a great deal of time in Vietnam. Have you been there or do you just have a fantastic imagination based on extensive research?

T.S. - I had not been to Vietnam until this past winter, although I had been to other parts of Asia. I certainly did extensive research, but I really wanted the sensory details to be filtered through my characters. The Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) that you visit now is not the same city as during the war, except in generalities. But neither the current Saigon or wartime Saigon is exactly the city that my characters travel through.

I had a very nice woman write to me and ask where the yellow building was in Cholon so that she could visit it on her upcoming trip. That’s a great compliment when the imaginary becomes so real.

W.W.W. - You were born in Salzburg and spent at least some time in Italy as a child. How has this experience of dislocation from your homeland affected the focus of your writing? Do you find you relate more to characters who are outside the norm of the society in which they live?

T.S. - Maybe my experiences have made me more open to people from other cultures, but I really think that’s the job of all writers, to be open to everything around them, to notice what is usually overlooked. I would say that as a reader, the type of fiction I’ve always been attracted to deals with multiple cultures, politics, dislocation. A huge number of people in the world are displaced — it is, unfortunately, a more and more common experience. But there can be an outsider within a family, dislocation within the most middle-class suburb. So a writer can mine any of these areas depending of her sensibility.

W.W.W. - After traveling to Vietnam in 1996 I read a memoir called When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip. I remember my father (a Vietnam vet) feeling very torn after reading it. He long felt we hadn’t belonged there and had no chance of winning due to a misunderstanding of Vietnamese culture. This book confirmed that for him. Have you read it? Did you come to similar conclusions as you researched and wrote this book?

T.S. - I have read that book, and I think books like Hayslip’s and also another, The Sacred Willow, by Duong Van Mai Elliott, are so important in filling the missing places of the war for Americans. I think anyone reading our soldiers’ accounts of the war knew it was a wrong war from the start. Read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but also non-fiction like Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie or Michael Herr’s Dispatches. But the Vietnamese perspective gives us the reasons for why things went so terribly wrong. When you read the history of Ho Chi Minh, you find out that he reached out to America to support Vietnam in its bid for independence. He fashioned the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence after our own. Instead of encouraging that nascent democracy, we later went to war with the country, fearing the spread of communism. A tragedy and waste for all sides.

W.W.W. - Do you feel the Vietnam War is a timely subject today? Why?

T.S. - I started to write the book in 2000, and at the time it seemed safely historical. In a way, it almost seemed possible to abstract Vietnam to stand in for any war. The world changed drastically in this last decade. Suddenly we are involved in many foreign conflicts, and what I did not intend to be timely has unfortunately turned so.

I just came across an article in the New York Times about a NATO helicopter mistakenly gunning down nine Afghan boys who they mistook for insurgents. The president of Afghanistan, Karzai, condemned the attack, and questioned how the West could combat terrorism and secure his country while civilians continued to die. There are protests against our presence there. Another nightmare, much like Vietnam in the outcome if not in the particulars.

W.W.W. - While Helen was the main character of The Lotus Eaters, I found myself most fascinated with and sympathetic to Linh. He was placed in so many impossible situations, a pawn to both sides, and I never felt there was any ‘right’ choice for him to make. This was likely true for a lot of Vietnamese. How did you put yourself in the mindset of a man so different from yourself?

T.S. - I felt the strongest emotional bond with Linh, but I think that is natural because he is so unfairly a victim of things outside his control. Yet he lives his life with a kind of grace. That’s his sanity. Love also becomes a lifeline for him. With Helen, I very consciously did not want her to be a victim because that is the expectation for a woman during war. Although terrible things happen to her, she remains active, however flawed. That was a more difficult balancing act, to create the kind of complexity that would be true for a journalist and a woman to survive during that time period.

W.W.W. - The camera seemed to represent both a shield and potential doom for Helen, which was an interesting parallel to the common idea that in Vietnam even your closest and most trusted friend could turn out to be the enemy. Was this intentional?

T.S. - In a personal sense, Helen is brave because of that camera. She would not be on patrol without it; it provides both a reason for her to put herself in harm’s way, and the ability to abstract herself from the situation, to concentrate on her technique, on getting the photo, instead of the possibility of dying. Then there is the bigger question of what the photos mean when they go out into the world — are they a force for good, or are they simply a kind of voyeurism?

In my reading I did come across quite a few stories by Americans who felt that the Vietnamese that they worked with had betrayed them. They felt they were liked, protected, and then suddenly they found out that the nice lady who did the laundry on the airbase brought in a bomb. Or the famous account of the spy, Phan Xuan An, who was a correspondent for Time, a friend to most of the Western journalists over the years, but refused to leave at the end. He was found out after the war to be a Communist operative. Not to minimize these things, but we were seen as invaders. No matter how much Americans were liked individually, no matter how much the Vietnamese liked American culture (and still do), they were fighting for their country’s very survival.

W.W.W. - I’m sure you used some of the iconic images of crowds storming the American embassy gates as a guide for writing the opening scenes of The Lotus Eaters, but this was another section that came across as ‘experienced’ in some way. Reading it took me back to when I stood in front of those gates myself, touched them, and heard screams in the wind. Did you talk to veterans who had been there? Watched TV footage? Stood at the gates yourself?

T.S. - Of course, like everyone else, I’ve watched the footage, which never fails to devastate me. For the research I relied heavily on two books that I cite in the bibliography, first-hand accounts of those last days. For me, the power of those images worked as the outward sign of Helen’s interior. The unthinkable was happening, and both Helen and Linh are moving through a nightmare. When I went to Saigon recently, everything I saw was filtered through the things I had learned but also the things I imagined. By the time I reached Hanoi, the feeling was gone. I was again just a tourist.

Thank you for stopping by today, Tatjana! The Lotus Eaters is available at bookstores everywhere.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One of Those Days...

by Elizabeth

You ever have one of those days? Of course you have. We all have. And I had one today.

Oh, it's not so bad, really, as bad stuff goes. Just a pile of things adding up to a big bad case of the bummers. Times like this, it's good to recall how much better off I really am than so many others, which is why it's heartening to read the previous post and embrace gratitude.

And to remember, all the things in life that aren't so great are fodder for writers. If life were all cheesecake and unicorns, what fun would that be? (Okay, it would be really fun, but a heart attack on a stick just waiting to happen.)

So take another read of Pamela's post, and follow her advice. I'll be picking up my pen myself and jotting down some thanks. Because even when things aren't pinky-perfect, they are still pretty good, and so far they've always gotten better again, and it's days like today that help us savor the days that aren't.

Monday, March 14, 2011


By Pamela

This morning my alarm goes off, and my first thought is--wow, it's pretty dark. (Spring forward, I urge my brain.) My second thought is--I'm kinda hungry. As I lie here, in the quiet comfort of my bed, my mind wanders to the people in Japan who are without food to eat or clean water to drink and quickly, thoughts of what I might have for breakfast morph into an overwhelming sense of gratitude that my kitchen is just a short walk away. That I've recently been to the grocery and have a few options for breakfast. That my entire family is safe and accounted for. I close my eyes and say a quick prayer of thanks along with a request to keep those across the globe safe as they pick through the remnants of their lives.

As I turn my head, I see a stack of papers on the antique sewing machine cabinet beside my bed--the manuscript I read just before falling asleep. Again, I think of how grateful I am to have friends who write amazing stories that they trust me to read and respect my opinions. I remember then about my turn to post on this blog today and that I often take for granted what a privilege it is to be able to write about whatever I feel without worrying that I might be jailed for my opinions.

Just this week I read about Tal al-Mallouhi, a young Syrian woman--a blogger, poet and student, who was charged with disclosing secret information to a foreign country in her blog entries and, according to her Facebook page, was arrested in December of 2009 by the officials of the Syrian dictatorial regime and nobody knows her whereabouts. It is believed that Tal was killed after very long hours of torture and interrogation. Thoughts of her ultimate sacrifice to tell others what she felt was so important make me realize how much I take for granted and how precious and finite our time on earth really is.

And so, today, I challenge you to a writing assignment. I'd like for you to join me in thanking someone who has furthered your writing journey. Possibly she is a teacher who put an extra star on a short story along with a 'well done' comment that made your heart soar. Maybe he is a friend who tells you often and always how wonderful your writings are. Or perhaps your mom is your biggest cheerleader--the one who always knew you'd grow up to be a success.

No emails allowed. Pull out a pen and paper and take the time to show your gratitude to someone who cares about you. Give them the gift of a note they can read and reread as many times as they'd like. Give back a little to someone who encouraged you a lot.

Friday, March 11, 2011


By Susan

I first met Pamela Hammonds, Elizabeth Lynd and Joan Mora (three of the fabulous writers here on What Women Write) at the DFW Writer’s Conference in February, 2009. Here is an archived post from that first weekend with my impression of my new friends and my terror at entering the world of "real writers." I’ve come a long way, and still have a long way to go. Just goes to show how important--and long lasting--a community of writers can be. Enjoy!

I had the opportunity to attend my first writer’s conference this weekend. Saturday night, after a full day of pitch practice, seminars, and trying-not-to-look-like-the-new-girl, I was in a near panic about my upcoming 10-minute session on Sunday morning with an agent to discuss my novel-in-progress.

Practicing your pitch feels like the sales training I endure in my real life: What is your elevator pitch? How can you summarize your product (book) in 25 words or less? Can you do it in 250 words? Can you sell it to an agent?

I decided, after writing it--tearing it up, writing, scribbling it out--that I WAS NOT READY. So I decided to forego my agent pitch. I decided to opt out.

And then, Sunday morning, I met Pamela. She writes for a living. She was pitching her completed novel, and it’s her second novel. She pitched it to the agent, and he asked for the first two chapters. First steps toward success!

Now I must digress, because I have never met a full blown Pamela, just Pams. Secondly, my childhood imaginary friend was named Pamela: Pamela Allen, to be exact. Pamela Allen cleaned my room, minded my mother, washed behind my ears, and was the author of my short stories, many done in crayon. Pamela Allen was the perfect me, while I was the normal me. Not perfect.

The real Pamela I met Sunday introduced me to her friends, calmed my nerves, and gave me pointers on my pitch. I decided to talk to the agent after all. Pamela, much like my old childhood imaginary friend, gave me comfort.

My children do not have imaginary friends. My oldest daughter Parker is too literal for such nonsense, and always has been. Instead of an imaginary friend for comfort, she has her favorite pair of toe-socks, which she named her ”woobeesah.” I asked Pey, my little one, if, by chance, she had an imaginary friend. She looked puzzled. “No, Mommy, but I do have Lion!” Lion, a gift from my father to her three years ago, goes everywhere with Pey, including her sleepover Saturday night with our best friends across the street. A sleepover, I must add, that Pey was not so sure about. What if she missed her Mommy? What if it stormed? Could she come home, she asked, if she had a bad dream in the middle of the night?

No, I had answered her. But she could come home before they went to sleep if she thought it was a better idea.

So, of course, at 10:40 p.m., my husband and I heard a soft tap on the front door. Standing there, in a yellow nightie with Lion under one arm and her suitcase under the other, was Pey. My neighbor Kimberly stood at the end of the drive, smiling and waving to me in the dark. My little Pey, my tough, independent Pey. She looked up at me with her big green eyes. “Well, I missed you, Mommy,” she said matter-of-factly, and then climbed into our bed and promptly fell asleep, Lion in the crook of her arm, her hand tucked sweetly into mine. Comfort.

Sometimes, when we are not ready, it’s good to find the comfort of the familiar.

And it all made me think about comfort, and how much we crave and need it--especially when life is uncertain or we are out of our element. Parker has socks. Pey has Lion. I had Pamela Allen. And Sunday, I had the comfortable support from a new network of writers. I did meet with the agent, and I stumbled through a rambling description of my work in progress. I did make new friends. I did learn about where I need to go with my novel (the agent wants to see it, by the way). And in the end, it was all quite comfortable.

Whether it’s socks, an imaginary friend, a Lion, or a real friend, comfort is one thing I suppose we never get too old for. And I, for one, am thankful for it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jane Eyre Dallas screening passes giveaway!

By Julie

Recently, I was asked if our group would be interested in attending the screening of the new Focus Features Jane Eyre film. Without exception, we jumped on it! I mentioned that we probably had blog friends who might be interested, too, so was excited to find several extra passes in the package.

We are excited to be able to give away several free passes to a screening of the movie in Dallas, compliments of Focus Features.

We'll send out at least five passes for two to the screening, to be selected at random from the qualifying entries after 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, Wednesday, March 9.

The screening will be Thursday, March 17, at the Studio Movie Grill Dallas (Royal @ 75, 11170 N. Central Expwy).

We decided to have a little fun with this. First, I asked the What Women Write ladies the age-old question:

Bronte or Austen fan?

Then I took it a step further:

To what Bronte or Austen character can you most relate?

I received some fun responses! Hint: Some of us are fans of neither ...

Here's how we responded!

Joan said:
I’m a fan of both Emily and Charlotte (haven’t read Anne, but I need to remedy that) and Jane. Really depends on my mood. Brontés for melodrama and heartache and Jane Austen for a little bit of everything: humor, family drama, manners, issues of circumstance, and lots of love—unrequited, forbidden, feigned, mistaken, and of course, true. I’d have to choose Elizabeth Bennet, because I’m a bit too candid sometimes. I only wish I had her quick wit. Looking forward to our big night at the movies!

Elizabeth said:
I’m an Austen fan, definitely. Not only is she my favorite writer, I don’t really love Bronte at all. As for character—maybe Anne Elliott? Certainly she pulls at my heartstrings, but she also met someone and lost him, and then years later, found him again. We won’t be the subject of an enduring love story, but my husband and I did something similar (although his being poor had nothing to do with us not connecting the first go-round).

Pamela said:
You can color me uncultured, if you'd like, but I'm not a fan of either, although I do like movies based on Austen's works. Could be the incredible casting--Hugh (sigh), Colin (another sigh)--but I've tried to read her books (and own several) and just can't get pulled into the writing. I've never read a Bronte sisters' book. As far as a character goes, I'd have to say I identify most with Emma. I loved her pluck, AND I'm pretty handy with a bow and arrow. (Which might only be in the movie since, alas, I've never read the book.)

I'm neither ... sad to say, even with living in England, touring Haworth, the Bronte's hometown, and attempting to read Austen multiple times, I'm just not a huge fan. (I feel guilty for saying that. However, still looking forward to a night out at the movies with you guys!)

I did my master’s thesis on Jane Eyre as allegory, arguing that one of Charlotte Bronte’s favorite books was Pilgrim’s Progress and that Jane Eyre follows the same format. The whole St. John part of the novel always bugged me, but it makes perfect sense if it is Jane’s Slough of Despond. I love both Bronte and Austen, but I’m more drawn to the raw passion of the Bronte characters, perhaps because I was introduced to them first. I don’t know that I actually identify with either Jane or Cathy, though I confess my first love was Mr. Rochester, whom I met at the ripe old age of twelve. I’m still smitten, and have seen every film version ever made, always hoping to see the man I imagined in that role. The worst, in my humble opinion, was William Hurt (a blond American!) in 1996. The best was Toby Stephens, though I’m sure many purists hated the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre version for the highly sensual farewell scene. For me, that scene was right up there with Colin Firth (as Mr. Darcy) diving into the pond at Pemberley.

We'll have to see if Focus Features' Mr. Rochester lives up to Kim's ideal!

And me:
I am more a Bronte fan than an Austen fan. I got stalled halfway through both Emma and Mansfield Park. I loved Jane Eyre after first listening to several chapters on audio to ground myself in the voices. But like Pamela, I also enjoy the movies made of Austen's books! I think I'm partly prejudiced for the Brontes after a visit to England a few years ago where I fell in love with the little town of Haworth -- especially after being stranded there for several hours while waiting for my husband to get un-lost, sitting in a pub with the locals. I'll never forget Jack, the older man who claimed he'd lived there for 20 years but wasn't considered a local just yet. He got on the phone with my husband and brought him step-by-step to Haworth and the pub, with the final bit being pulling me along to the upstairs window, leaning out, and waving Todd down. As for a character, I can relate to Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. For years, I hid my own strong emotions under a veil of sensibility and reserve while I did the things I felt necessary and that I was expected to do. But I got over it. :)

Now you!

Please join in the fun and answer the same questions. Feel free to comment whether you are anywhere near Dallas and can attend the screening or not. Simply add this note to your comment if you DO wish to be entered in the drawing:

Please enter me in the drawing!

(How hard was that?)

So. What about you? Bronte or Austen fan? And which character do you relate to the most?

Winners will be announced here on the blog after 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 9.
Congrats to Pam and Anonymous. Due to low response, we have extras! If you're in the DFW area and would like to go, please email me at julie(at sign) by Friday and I'll get them in the mail, first come, first served while they last.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kate Morton on What Women Write

by Joan

As a contributor to this blog, there is no greater joy than introducing authors and books to our readers. When we started this What Women Write journey, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to correspond with some of my favorite authors--prolific authors who have been most generous with their valuable time.
Kate Morton is hardly someone who needs my introduction, nevertheless, I am thrilled and honored to be able to share her words with you. If you haven’t read her books, they are wondrous forays into family secrets, tragedy, and lost love, all delicately crafted stories connecting present and past. You'll want to add them to your bookshelf. Stowed inside my copy of The Distant Hours is a handwritten notecard from Ms. Morton, a nice treat I'll reread when next I take it off the shelf.

From her publisher:
A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WW II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn't been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother's past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in 'the distant hours' of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.

Q& A with Kate Morton

WWW: In The Distant Hours, you have created an atmospheric novel rich with details, yet the setting never bogs down the narrative. As readers, we are dangerously close to your characters – in Milderhurst castle, stumbling over worn carpet and cobwebs, on the grounds of the castle, teetering by the filled-in moat, or sipping tea in the dining room at the Birds’ farmhouse. What are your thoughts on weaving setting into narrative?

KM: Weaving setting into narrative is one of the great joys of writing for me. Unless the world of the story feels real, and the black marks on the white page disappear completely when I’m writing, I lose faith in the story. (I’m sure it must be that way for readers, too?) Before I start a book I spend ages imagining the setting and characters into being. I read everything I can get my hands on: look at pictures; watch films; listen to music; speak with people; surf the internet; make actual visits wherever possible; scribble questions to myself, draw arrows between them, try and uncover answers. I need to feel as if the story taking shape inside my head is a true one and I have simply been charged with recording it. Once I reach that point, it’s as if a wave sweeps me away and I’m compelled to begin writing.

My favourite novels to read are those with a rich sense of place: they’re the ones that stick in my head for a long time after I’ve turned the last page; the sort that give me a strong and definite ‘feeling’ when I think back to their stories; a deep longing to go back, to be reabsorbed into their world. I think sense of place is about more than setting, though; it’s a happy blending together of setting, characters, plot, atmosphere and language, so that the whole is a rich and textured world without holes. A story one can live within.

WWW: Readers who are also writers can learn so much about plot from reading your books. I have dissected and studied your first two novels and plan on doing the same with The Distant Hours. I am continually awed by the intricate way you weave your stories, how every character, major or minor, is not only distinctly drawn, but also serves an important role. How do you do that?

KM: Well, thank you. I take great pleasure from devising structures for my novels (which isn’t to say they don’t tie my head in knots at times; like trying to assemble a great big jigsaw puzzle minus the solution picture!). One of my obsessions, as a writer and as a person, is the layering of time: the way the past never really goes away, coming back instead to haunt the present. Along with the plot and the words themselves, structure is a terrific way to explore this theme further.
In The House at Riverton, for instance, the past and present storylines start out as clear and distinct strands: Grace is telling a story and we, the present-day readers, are listening to it. As Grace’s health deteriorates, however, and she becomes less aware of the barriers between now and then, the structure shifts so that the two storylines begin to merge—Grace’s memories jump into present tense, the individual segments are shorter, and the scene breaks and transitions become increasingly subtle.

For The Forgotten Garden I envisaged a plait of the kind women wear in their hair; three story strands weaving together to form a single narrative in the same way family generations are inextricably tied. Initially, I planned to adhere to a strict tripartite structure—each chapter divided into three parts, each part containing a point of view scene of one of the three main characters—but I found that I was adding scenes to serve the structure rather than the story itself. I resisted loosening the tight formal shape for a long time, but as soon as I let it go the story felt freer and I was able to follow the characters rather than forcing them to fit my preconceived structural ideas.

WWW: Thanks for that--you've just confirmed my fears about my WIP, and now I will reevaluate the structure. You mentioned that early in your writing of The Distant Hours, the sisters Blythe took over. How much preplanning do you do (I’m thinking lots!) and were you able to keep some of your original work?

KM: The Sisters Blythe took over when I was 60,000 words into another story, but much of their world had been sitting in the back of my mind (and in superseded notebooks) for some time. As I mentioned, I do a lot of reading and thinking and jotting beforehand and don’t start the actual writing until the story has grown real enough inside my head to pull me after it. Figments of Milderhurst Castle had been lurking quietly, waiting for characters and a plot to attach themselves, and when that happened—when Edie, Thomas and the sisters presented—I simply had to follow. (Which is not to say I knew all the twists and turns when I set out; I certainly didn’t. I knew Raymond Blythe’s Mud Man tale was important to the Blythe Sisters’ story, for instance, but I had no idea what it was actually about until the final weeks of writing The Distant Hours. I like a certain amount of discovery along the way. It keeps the process interesting, if a little scary at times...)

Often the novel I’m working on has origins that reach back years. I keep copious notebooks and record all sorts of random ideas and thoughts in them: I take notes even when I’m reading for pleasure; I draw big boxes around anything strong enough to maybe-possibly-one-day develop into a plot; I jot down interesting characteristics of real people ‘just in case’. When I’m seriously looking for a new idea though, this process intensifies and my head becomes a crazy, busy place: hundreds of different ideas—settings, characters, plots, emotions, atmospheres, structures—buzzing around, trying to connect with one another. They can be very exhausting.

WWW: It sounds exhausting, but I'm selfishly thrilled you have so much more to write. Although the novel focused on Juniper, to me, Percy was the most complicated and mysterious of the sisters. Which sister did you most enjoy writing?

KM: Percy was my favourite! (But I’m always loathe to tell that to people who haven’t yet read the book in case it directs their reading of the story.) I loved writing her; I’m so glad you found her complicated and mysterious.

WWW: Something you mentioned in an Australian publication struck me, that is, you prefer to write for one person whose tastes are exactly like yours, instead of imagining millions of readers, which would be 'creatively crippling.' Yet millions read your books. Are you still able to keep your focus on one reader?

KM: It can be difficult, but for me it’s essential. I suspect I’m a hedonist at heart – unless I’m intoxicated by my imaginary world, I can’t seem to conjure the necessary enthusiasm to keep going. Besides, it’s impossible to please everybody and I believe trying to do so must compromise the story in some way; each novel involves so many tiny decisions and inspirations that it can be hair-tearing enough deciding what I think is best, let alone allowing for a million different opinions. A writer can’t control what other people think of her novel, but she can at least aim to please herself.

Readers, if, like me, you are fascinated by Ms. Morton's novels and her writing process, check out her journal and FAQ section of her website. And please feel free to share this interview with all your FB and Twitter peeps.

Which of her novels is your favorite?

Photo credit: Russell Shakespeare

Friday, March 4, 2011

Help! My Novel Needs Liposuction!

By Kim

For many years I was an unrepentant “pantser” writer. I never did a character sketch or outline unless it was a class requirement. I began composing each of my previous three novels when I heard a voice I couldn’t ignore and let that character’s story unfold organically. I hoped I had a coherent story in the end. If not, I revised. A lot. I fear that if I unearthed any of those manuscripts now I’d find them to be little more than beautifully phrased meanderings.

When I started writing Knight of the Brush (The Oak Lovers in its nonfiction incarnation) I was forced to take a different approach. Chapter summaries are an essential component of any nonfiction book proposal, and I couldn’t write a four hundred page biography without a detailed timeline of main events of the protagonist's life set in the larger context of history.

Carl Ahrens in 1911
My old habits proved hard to break, however, mainly because my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, proved himself as stubborn in literature as he was in life. He had to have the last say, and I eventually switched the book to fiction to let him. The old chapter summaries have been a waste of hard drive space ever since, though I've consulted the timeline occasionally.

About a year ago a critique partner mentioned she worried my book may becoming rather long for a first novel and asked what my word count was. I had been too busy following my muse to check before, of course, and was horrified to discover I was on track to write a 600 page epic. Click here if you’re curious about how I clawed my way out of Word Count Hell the first time.

You might think that exercise would prove a valuable lesson to me, and that I’d impose a little direction from that point on. Sadly, I did not.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when I discovered The Oak Lovers was over 87,000 words long and I had at least 20,000 left to write.

I took a deep breath and renounced my "pantser" ways.

Why, oh why, had I not done so before? Mapping out the completed part of the book, complete with word counts per scene, instantly revealed a few unsightly bulges. Once I liposuctioned the fat away, I was left with a slimmer, more energetic novel. There’s snappy dialogue, conflict galore and (wait for it) a PLOT.

After dancing a jig, I took the plunge and outlined my way to “the end.”

Frequently asked questions I was previously unable to answer:

How much more do you have to write? 13 chapters

Can you do it in 100,000 words? Close enough.

When will it be done? I hope to type ‘The End’ in 2011. I’m a compulsive editor so the rough draft is actually draft # 503.

How about you? Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter’ and how does it work for you?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The other kind of critique

By Julie

“So, just to be clear, you liked it.”

“Yes. I really, really did.”

These were a few lines near the end of last night’s episode of Parenthood, one of my current TV favorites. Single mom Sarah Braverman (played by Lauren Graham) has devoted most of her adult life to cleaning up after her now ex-husband and making sure her kids are adjusted and happy in spite of the mess. She chokes up and tears glisten in her eyes as Mark Cyr (played dashingly by John Ritter’s son, Jason), her respected friend – and her daughter’s English teacher – praises her first attempt at story writing. Genuine, from-the-heart praise. Sarah is finally doing something for herself, and it’s working.

We spend a great deal of time talking about the value of critique here at What Women Write, about how much better it makes us as writers even when it hurts. Today, I want to talk about the other kind, because I believe it’s valuable, too. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here. I believe at times, it may be more valuable.

The other kind I’m talking about, obviously, is praise.

To be sure, critique that draws our attention to the things we could do better, or to the things at which we fail, is useful and necessary.

Sarah expected that kind of critique from Mark. She went so far as to spout off about how she knew what he was going to say, giving her own modified definition of what we call the sandwich critique – two or three positive things followed by the things that need work followed by a final positive note. Then she proceeded to do what we’re always warned not to when facing critique – she couldn’t help interrupting when he tried to tell her his thoughts, already prepared with the excuses she thought would explain the shortcomings she assumed he’d list.

When Mark finally got a word in edgewise, Sarah was stunned. I don’t know about you, if you saw this episode, but me? I choked up right along with her. Tears threatened my eyes, too.

Because I remember those moments in time. I remember how – as Sarah felt validated by Mark’s praise – I felt validated by those who praised my writing early on.

And last week.

I mentioned in my interview with Barbara O’Neal that the words she gave me during an online class are some of the ones that have kept me going even when I felt like giving up.

At one of my first writers’ conferences, the La Jolla Writers Conference, I read some of my early manuscript materials during a group read-and-critique session with Linda Lael Miller, one of the most prolific romance writers around. And one of the most generous. Later, during a quiet moment at the book signing event, she wrote inside the cover of her novel and handed it back to me. She looked me in the eye and said, “And I don’t say that to just anybody.” She’d written, “Julie, you are very talented.” I floated on that for several days.

Right now, I’m waiting on feedback from a few first readers about my recently finished manuscript. A week or two ago, my heart beat a little faster when I opened a text message from one of them – something to this effect (because the message was deleted … sigh): “I think you have really got something this time.” And several more sentences where she gave me specific reasons why she was immersed in my story and characters.

When I sit in our infamous retreat sessions with my dear What Women Write friends and hear my voice shake a little while I read, knowing my fellow writers will be tough on me, I also become emotional and “filled up” again when they praise me.

It gave me immense pleasure last week, after reading the first half of Susan’s manuscript in a record four hours because I literally couldn’t put it down, to send her a short email describing how in awe I was of her novel so far and begging her to finish it soon so I can hear the rest of the story. Sure, there were nitpicky things I could have commented on, but the heart of the story is fabulous. Susan knows I’m not an easy critic, and I meant every word I said.

Of course there are times when praise really is just an empty compliment – someone just trying to be nice. After a few years of riding this pony, I think most of us can tell the difference. And sometimes, that difference is what gives us the fuel to keep on riding this road to publication.

Be wise with your criticism. Be generous with your praise. Be true with both.

These may be the words that give your friend, your daughter, your critique partner, or even a complete stranger a reason to carry on.

Do you have a story you’d like to share about the other kind of critique? We’d love to hear it. Leave it in a comment or write a post and direct us to it in the comment section!

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