Thursday, August 29, 2013

Writers and superstition

The other day I said something superstitious, and a friend called me on it. She reminded me that a negative "pattern" of events, which was causing me some anxiety, was in fact coincidental.

I don't know if writers are more superstitious than people in general, but we have reason to be. It's because in everything we write, patterns are meaningful, they do lead somewhere important. Destiny is at work. If something is random or irrelevant, we are trained to take it out of the story.

And so we are used to the idea that every detail has significance. We expect foreshadowing. We anticipate the dropping of the other shoe. The gun over the mantel has to go off. Et cetera. But in life, things do happen randomly and haphazardly--or at least, if there is a design, it doesn't come in the same neat compact size as our stories do. It sprawls over much more territory.

Story is a distillation of life, a more organized and orderly version with theme included. Sometimes I forget that and expect life to act like a story. The fact that it doesn't can be disappointing, but often it's a blessing!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"I'm asking this question for an imaginary friend. No, really."

It's no secret that internet ads target our interests. That is, our presumed interests--based on our previous searches, websites we've visited, etc.*

But for writers, this gets tricky. Yesterday a big ad appeared on a page I was viewing online, and this ad was for a certain activity** that I had researched a couple of days ago. Obviously, the internet thought it had divined my innermost desires!

The thing is, I wasn't researching it for myself. I have no plans to pursue this activity. The main character of my work in progress would be all over it, though.

Too bad he's fictional, internet advertisers!

I can only imagine the digital information that is compiled on my writer friends who research murder mysteries and spy thrillers.

*Although sometimes there doesn't seem to be any logic to it. For example, I don't know why I get ads for plastic surgery, in which I have never felt the remotest interest. Unless the internet just assumes that everyone is dissatisfied with their appearance, and blankets us all with those ads.

**Nothing illicit. I just don't want to be specific because that book is still in the stage where discussing any details of the plot or the characters threatens to drain all the momentum out of it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Empty rooms and full rooms

When I saw this item about Brandy singing to a nearly-empty stadium, I thought that plenty of writers could probably relate. There are times when author events are--shall we say, lightly attended. Having an event where tumbleweeds practically roll down the aisle is a rite of passage.

I can think of one event a few years ago where the only people who heard me read were the author who had done a workshop right before mine (and who stayed out of compassion for my facing an empty room), and the people who worked at the bookstore. I remember a panel I did with two other authors where our audience consisted of ... one person.

Here's what writers do in those situations: We read, or talk, or answer questions, for whoever is there. At the reading for three people, I read as enthusiastically as I do for packed rooms. At the panel where one person attended, we all sat in a circle and told our guest, "You now have the opportunity to ask everything you want about writing for young adults--fire away!"

Naturally, packed rooms and busy signings are a lot of fun. A couple of weeks ago, I did an event where the chairs were full and there were standees at the back. I can tell you that "standees at the back" gives me a joy equivalent to the words "starred review." But I was prepared to give the same presentation no matter what: for one person, or five, or fifty. I've seen fellow authors do the same. (The only difference is that the formality level tends to drop, and we can do more intimate chit-chat with a very small audience.)

But we stick around and do the program either way. Because if you take the time to show up--if you come out to a bookstore or library when you could've stayed home in your pajamas--we're honored.

Thank you to everyone who's ever shown up!

(And if you'd like to show up in the future, my calendar of events is here.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bringing old books back to life

As an author, it's sometimes tempting to look at other parts of the publishing and bookselling process and daydream about how it would be to have one of those jobs instead. Many of us fantasize occasionally about the bookstores we'd run, the titles we'd acquire as an editor, or the authors we'd bring to the world's attention as agents. Some people in the publishing world do wear multiple hats: author-editor; agent-author; bookseller-agent; author-publicist; and so on.

In dreaming such dreams, I've sometimes wished I could republish my favorite out-of-print books, the ones I read over and over but that nobody else ever seems to have heard of. In the way that sports fans build fantasy teams, I could build an imaginary publisher's list.

Colleen Mondor and Katrina Pearson had this same dream. But they did something about it, creating Shorefast Editions. Read more here, including some of the nuts-and-bolts details of starting your own publishing company. A couple of samples:

"A year ago I was complaining to my old and dear friend Katrina ... about all the ways in which the publishing world drives me crazy. (Every author I know will understand this conversation.)"

"And we did it. We talked about something we thought was wrong, something we thought should be fixed and we did it. We brought a book back from the dead."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Carpe diem

"Live every day as if it's your last" is a nice sentiment, but I've always found it impossible to do. If I followed that credo, I would never go to the doctor, clean my house*, eat healthily, sleep, fill out tax forms, or do one single thing I didn't want to do. Living each day as my last might kill me.

How we spend our time is very much affected by what we believe we have to plan for.

And of course, we don't know the future, so life becomes a balancing act. We do a certain amount of responsible, building-for-the-future work, and a certain amount of heck-with-it, the-sun-is-shining play. And a certain amount of vegetative staring at the wall in preparation for all those other busy days.

I was thinking today that as long as I do all three--work, play, and rest--I don't think of any of it as wasted time.

*I do little enough of that as it is. Twice a year,** whether it needs it or not!
**"Twice a year" is hyperbole. But only just barely.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

New silence

I've always been a person who liked sound around the house. (Not noise, but sound.) I would never bring a radio out on a hike or to the beach, but at home I liked to have music or the TV on, except when I was trying to sleep. I lived alone for many years, and I suppose the background sound was a form of company. It was also difficult for me to write in silence; I had to busy some part of my brain with music so that the rest of my brain could work on the story.

This year, I've found myself turning to silence more. Tolerating it, even wanting it. I sit in my writing office and I don't need sound beyond the crickets, the cicadas, the faint voices of neighbors outside, some birdcalls (there's one bird who, I swear, sounds as if he is saying, "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!" I don't know what kind of bird he is, so I call him the cheeseburger bird), the rustle of wind, and rain. (We've had plenty of rain this year.)

Coincidentally, my friend Beth Kephart recently wrote this short piece on silence for Psychology Today online. A sample: "Silence may seem a luxury in a noisy world—a throwback, an artifact—but for me it increasingly becomes my rescue raft. It allows me to dig deep and go long, to sort out and restore." It rang a bell of recognition, made me conscious of how I've been turning off, or leaving off, the artificial sound in my writing space.

I don't know if this is permanent or temporary. Writing processes constantly evolve. And earlier today, feeling dull and sleepy on a cloudy Sunday morning, I needed some Beatles music to get me going. But then I turned off the radio. And for now, silence has made my life feel a little less hectic and crowded. It has made me feel a little more as if I'm going at my own pace, rather than rushing to keep up with the world's pace.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thankful Thursday

Today I'm thankful for:

Unbelievably gorgeous weather.
The stories and characters that live in my head.
The goldfinch that visits the birch outside my window.
The sound of crickets and cicadas. (It's no accident that that sound pops up a lot in my books.)
Fresh homegrown tomatoes (finally starting to ripen!).
Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth, which I'm in the middle of reading.
Chocolate. And mint.
A day off tomorrow.
The scent of pine needles.
The mellowness of August.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Most days are like this

Much of my energy right now is going into revision: that long slow plod full of detours and backtracking. In the midst of revision, every book seems endless. Even though I write relatively short books.

What takes me the longest is deepening the story. Finding and revealing layers: layers of meaning, layers of emotion. Evoking the third dimension in each character. Asking why did she do that, and where does this scene happen, and what is he really afraid of. I haven't yet hit upon a way to find these layers other than through this slow rereading, this tinkering, this ceaseless questioning. At least it's absorbing, if not glamorous!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A few thoughts on Code Name Verity

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, the acclaimed story of a captured British WWII spy, told from her point of view during interrogation by the Nazis. I'm not going to do a review, because I don't really review books, and this is a book about which much has been written elsewhere. But these three things did occur to me while reading, and I thought I would share them:

1. If you're weary of romance in YA and want a book in which the primary relationship is a friendship, try this book. I am not weary of romance, but I still liked the concentration on another kind of close relationship.

2. I loved what Wein did with a certain secondary character. He's important in the Resistance and thus is a good guy ... right? Except he's also a sexual harasser. I love the complexity of a character being both noble and sleazy. Because it's the way real people are. History (and current events) are full of people who do great things but are not saints. I would like to see more of this in literature.

3. If you liked this book, try Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks. It's the nonfiction account of a British cryptographer's experience during WWII. In Code Name Verity, they mention "poem codes" in passing, but Marks describes what poem codes were in more detail, and how he trained spies to use them, and how he worked to come up with safer codes, and what it was like to see spies go out into enemy territory, and what challenges were associated with decoding messages. It was fascinating, sometimes funny and sometimes heart-breaking, and I think that having read it enabled me to appreciate Code Name Verity even more.

source of recommended read: bought

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Office politics

When I saw this Tumblr in which Maureen Johnson quoted Sarah Rees Brennan I made a note of it, because it discussed several things that come up for writers once we venture beyond our own writing caves and start to interact with one another--and with one another's work. In a way, these issues are our version of office politics. Our office just has more widely spaced desks than most offices, and our watercooler is the internet.

As Maureen says, paraphrasing Sarah, "it can be hard for us to talk about other authors because there is a difference between the person and the work." And I love when she says, "Sometimes we have to cut each other some slack. A point of disagreement does not equal hate. And a brief encounter or reading about someone online does not mean that you know them."

All true, for me at least. It's interesting dealing with other writers because we may find a real person more or less compelling than his or her work. More or less interesting, more or less offensive, more or less inspiring, more or less our cup of tea. It's wonderful when we adore the writer and the work, but it doesn't always happen that way. This is why I don't ask other writers what they think of my work, unless we are in a critique relationship. I presume that if they feel the burning need to say something about my work, they will; but if they didn't like it or haven't read it, then I have no desire to put us both on the spot like that.

Most of the time, I can separate myself from my work; I can follow the wise advice not to take things personally. (Sometimes people make it personal, offering not literary criticism but abuse--but that's another situation entirely.) But my work is precious to me. I put a lot of effort and emotion into it. Other writers do, too. We're colleagues. And whether a book happens to float my own personal boat or not, I can at least respect my colleague's effort. I know what goes into writing a book.

I do think that writers can give one another negative but thoughtful reviews, and they can discuss things that they find problematic in one another's work, without this being seen as an attack or unneighborly. Negative reviewing is not something I do publicly myself, but that's a choice I've made only for me, a choice on how I want to spend my limited hours. I have the utmost respect for writers who can fill those roles, and frankly, I think we need them. I don't think our "workplace" has to be sugarcoated in relentless flattery--it wouldn't be good for us, and it wouldn't be good for our readers.

I choose to ponder the criticisms I have of others' work in private; it's part of studying my craft. Sometimes I'll discuss a criticism in general terms on my blog without naming the author or book, boiling down the problem to its essential lesson. (In fact, my stripping out the specific identifying info of a book has become so automatic to me, that a writer friend recently asked me why I was being rather cloak-and-dagger when discussing a certain literary problem in a private email conversation with her.)

I think that when we start from a place of respect for one another, our community is at its strongest--whether we're agreeing or disagreeing, praising or criticizing, congratulating one another for a job well done or pushing one another to become better. And though we're not required to take abuse, we can give one another the benefit of the doubt because, as Maureen says, we are not all at our very best every moment of the day. Sometimes we are grumpier or less patient or less insightful than we wish we could be. Sometimes we have toothaches.

With this post, I'll be taking a short break from blogging, to attend to some offline business and pleasure. See you in about a week!