Saturday, January 31, 2015

Atme Nicht and TBR piles

The German paperback of Try Not to Breathe, Atme Nicht, is out. I have a couple of copies, and if you read German and like YA and would like one, email me at jennifer[at]jenniferhubbard[dot]com.

atme nicht
David Sedaris takes his foreign editions with him on his speaking tours and offers them to any audience members in the signing line who speak the language in question. It's a lovely tradition and I would like to emulate it, but I don't actually have speaking tours. Foiled!

In other news, my ongoing decluttering project continues. I recently tackled my TBR book pile. I discovered books in there that I'd forgotten about. I managed to give up several books that I once thought I wanted to read or felt obligated to read, but now realize life is too short and there are too many books I'd rather read. I still have a sizable pile, though, consisting of books I definitely want to read and a few I may still be kidding myself about, but let's see how things work out.

I also went to the library because some books I had on reserve had come in. Yes, I bring more books into the house even while I have a pile of unread books large enough for me to forget all the titles in it. That's how I roll!

Of all the "stuff" in my house, books are still among my most treasured objects. When I have streamlined my collection to the point where it feels manageable to me, I suspect it will still be much larger than average. I'm okay with that. I'm a writer, but I was a reader first.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In the zone

One of life's great pleasures is being able to concentrate, to fully embrace a task or idea, to be so absorbed by it that nothing else exists. Sometimes writing is like that.

Sometimes I think that's really what I write for. There are other perks to the writing life, but the feeling of being immersed in a story is its own reward.

Monday, January 26, 2015

More on description and setting

On my last post about describing a setting, where I suggested having a character interact with the setting, Mary Catelli left this comment (for which I hereby thank her):

"Eh, only if you include 'notice' among 'interact.'
Got a work in which every time a character walks past a flowerbed, he notices what flowers are blooming, and whether they used wizardry to keep them blooming at the same time, and whether the plants need dead-heading. Never touches, but he notices.
Some characters, of course, will notice things only when they are actually using them. But the point-of-view will determine what gets described."

And I was excited enough by these ideas that I decided to just do another blog post, continuing this topic.

Yes, in this context I would agree that "interact" includes "notice." I would even include situations where the sight (or smell, or sound, etc.) of something in the setting triggers a memory, decision, emotion, etc. The interaction need not be a physical activity. I think what's important is that this aspect of the setting becomes more interesting because of its involvement in the plot or characterization (or both); it becomes charged with meaning.

Of course, this all reflects my personal preference, too, as both reader and writer. I tend to shy away from paragraphs like this one:

"The wallpaper was green with beige stripes. In the far corner sat a wooden chair with a cushion seat of forest green. Next to the chair stood an end table with crooked legs; it held a deck of cards, a heavy glass ashtray, and a large lamp with a dusty shade ..."

I could give these lines to twenty different writers and ask them to put a character into this scene, a character who would interact with these objects and have opinions about them and reveal things about him/herself in doing so. And I would get twenty different scenes, all of them  more interesting than my original wording.

As pointed out by Mary Catelli, the character might not even need to touch any of the objects to interact with them. The character could "notice" them by remembering how his late grandfather always sat in that chair, or by longing for a cigarette at the sight of the ashtray, or by judging the room's owner for not fixing the table legs, or by planning to hit someone over the head with the lamp, and so on.

The one way I probably wouldn't incorporate "noticing" would be by just tacking it on to the scene, like so:

"John noticed that the wallpaper was green with beige stripes. In the far corner sat a wooden chair with a cushion seat of forest green. Next to the chair stood an end table with crooked legs; it held a deck of cards, a heavy glass ashtray, and a large lamp with a dusty shade ..."

However, as Mary Catelli also noted, sometimes the particular objects a character focuses on tell us something important. So, I actually could use the above "John noticed" lines if the objects he's noticing are very important to the story, if there's a reason he's noticing them among everything else in the room. But if they're just background, I wouldn't bother to describe them in such detail, because then that just becomes an inventory, and not too interesting.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

One way to describe a setting

A writer friend recently asked me how to incorporate description of a setting into a piece of writing, especially in a setting that may be unfamiliar to many readers.

I suggested having the characters interact with the setting, and describing things only as they are being used.

Writers sometimes think they have to start by describing the stage set, as with a play. But the description of a setting can unfold as a scene progresses. Our main interest in a piece of writing is usually in the characters, not the objects or the wallpaper. We only want to know about the setting to the extent that it affects the plot and characters. We can learn a lot about character, plot and setting by watching what a character does in his or her environment: peeling apples, lacing ice skates, bandaging a wound, mending a shirt, counting money, peeking through a window, applying makeup. These actions tell us about time period; they show us whether the character is neat or sloppy, open or devious, gentle or harsh, nurturing or abusive. They can reveal the character's economic class and main interests.

Guiding readers through a setting this way moves them along fluidly, with the action, rather than relying on blocks of descriptive text that can sometimes feel inert.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Weeding books

My decluttering project continues, and I've been weeding books.

Books are tough, because I like so many of them. I value them. But my new test is not whether I liked a book when I read it, but whether I ever plan to read it again. I reread a lot, but this has helped me thin the ranks a bit. There are books I enjoyed at the time, but that I don't need to hang onto anymore. They should go off to bring joy (or enlightenment) to new readers.

I'm also trying to be realistic about my TBR pile, which currently contains about 50 books. How many of these will I actually read? Should I give up on those classics? Will I ever be in the mood for that novel? Am I still interested in that nonfiction topic? The book that everyone raved about but that I fear will be too depressing--am I ever going to brave it?

It's safe to say that I will still have a lot of books at the end of this process. That's all right. It would be nice to have them all fit onto the existing shelves, though, eliminating my need to pile them on the floor. It would be nice to have space for new books.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Vault of Dreamers

I recently finished reading this:

The Vault of Dreamers, by Caragh M. O'Brien. I'll say right up front that the author is a friend, but the attraction for me with this book was its something-creepy-is-going-on-at-this-boa
rding-school plotline, which reminded me of Lois Duncan's Down a Dark Hall, a childhood favorite of mine.

Cross a performing-arts school with a reality show, and you have the school that forms the setting for The Vault of Dreamers. The students are filmed and recorded all day long. They're required to go to sleep at the same time every night, and this requirement is enforced with sleeping pills. When main character Rosie skips her sleeping pill, she sees troubling events that makes her wonder what's really going on at this school, especially during the hours that the reality show's live feed is off the air. When she tries to find out, the school's ever-present surveillance serves as a formidable obstacle and source of constant pressure. Most intriguingly, the book plays with the question of narrator reliability--there are times when we're not sure what is real, who's acting, who's lying, and what has been dreamed rather than really lived. At the end, there are unanswered questions with plenty of territory left to explore in the rest of the trilogy, although the book provides plenty of food for thought on the topics of privacy, surveillance, and the interplay between technology and ethics.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where to get ideas

Sometimes, when you're walking nowhere in particular or doing the dishes or showering, a scrap of a story enters the mind. A character's name or voice, a line or two. It's like the end of a thread of unknown length.

Sometimes that scrap, that thread end, leads to an entire story or novel or series. Sometimes it fizzles. Sometimes it mutates into something else. But it's a gift. The mind slips into that neutral zone and something unexpected surfaces.