Friday, January 31, 2014

Staying power

I was listening to some of Paul Simon's music, which I first heard decades ago, and I realized I never get tired of it. Some of the music I used to like no longer resonates with me, but I find I can listen to "The Only Living Boy in New York" or "Late in the Evening" or "Me and Julio ..." without any loss of enjoyment. (Note: Some of my favorites were also with Art Garfunkel.) It's the same with the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." And with REM's "Find the River." And the Beatles' "Two of Us," "Let it Be," and "The Long and Winding Road."

All of these artists have made lots of music. Everyone will have different opinions on the staying power of their different songs, and different preferences for songs. There are plenty of other songs they've made that I liked, that I like still. But here I'm just talking about the ones for which I've had a steady affection, the ones that still give me a little pulse-leap of pleasure when I hear the opening notes, even after I've heard them hundreds of times.

It's partly that they are good songs. But for me, they also have a certain emotional resonance, and that will be an individual matter. Similarly, writers talk about how readers further shape our stories when we put them out into the world. We have no control over how they're received. It's special enough if they're liked and appreciated even for a short time. Even rarer are the books with staying power, the ones that get reread and passed along and republished, discussed and dissected, produced in dramatic form, that inspire retellings and fanfiction.

We send the work out there, and we don't know where it will land, or how long it will last. Our job is just to keep making it and sending it out there.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I'd almost forgotten--this can actually be fun!

There's a special time early in the writing of a book when it's just you and the story. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody has rendered an opinion, pointed out its flaws, or wished it were written differently. You can enjoy the book thoroughly; you can dream of its smooth completion, envisioning what you hope it is becoming.

There will be revisions. Many, many revisions. There will be second-guessing and overhauling and deletions. But for now, it's like the first date where everything's clicking. It's the first day of the dream job. It's getting that phone call you've been waiting for. It's a magic to be enjoyed while it lasts.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing bravely

It's natural for writers to want to please everyone--readers, critics, editors, salespeople--especially once we're in the position that people are actually reading what we write. After all those years of sharing our work with nobody but a beta reader, the editorial assistants who rejected it, and the cat, the idea of an audience is heady.

Yet it's impossible to please everyone, and a story has its own internal demands. The story wants to be "right" or "true" more than it wants approval. The writer wants to be right and true and make everyone happy; this may be impossible.

So it was with great delight that I found this post by Amparo Ortiz on writing bravely. It's brief but powerful, and you don't have to have read the book she's talking about to appreciate her point. A sample: "Stories that resonate and linger and cling to my bones often have authors who do the unthinkable."

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Write on

Jeannine Atkins used this line in a blog post: "Recently I spoke with a friend about journals we had as girls, and how often first diaries are gifts from older women: that precious belief that we had something to say, before we knew that ourselves." Jeannine was talking about another topic altogether (charm strings), but that sentence made me stop and ponder.

It made me think of how powerful an act it is when people give other people the tools for writing and say: "Here. I think you have stories to tell."

On June 12, 1942, a girl named Anne Frank received a diary as a birthday gift. A few days later, she wrote, "It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary, not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I--nor for that matter anyone else--will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart."

She could not know then that her diary would become a world-famous document, part of the historical record of the persecution of millions of innocent people. Or that its appeal would also lie in the details of a young girl dealing with family conflict, ambitions, growing up, and a crush--ordinary experiences in extraordinary circumstances. Even if her diary had never been seen by anyone else, it would have served its original purpose: to provide an outlet for her to write and examine her own heart.

As Jeannine said, when we encourage others to write, we express "the precious belief that [they have] something to say."

So, write on.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Try on before buying

Things people told me about writing that turned out not to be right (for me):

You shouldn't write in front of a window because it's too distracting.
Avoid adverbs.
If you start writing your second book as soon as you finish your first book, you'll be ahead of the game.
You must write every day.
You can't use italics.
Just write fast. Quantity is more important than quality.
Nobody will buy a contemporary YA with a male main character.
Don't use semicolons.
You have to know what your character wants before you start writing.
Set up Google Alerts so you'll see everything that's said about you.
You'll sell more books if you _________________.
When you publish, everyone you've ever known will come out of the woodwork and friend you online.
Happy endings are considered old-fashioned; don't write them.

I'm sure these predictions and pieces of advice are right for someone ... else.
How does your experience differ from received wisdom?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


I've been reading, and enjoying, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. So many of the essays capture the excitement of coming to a big city--the big city, whose landmarks are iconic--when young and ambitious and starry-eyed.

I know that excitement. I moved to a big city (though not NY) at the age of seventeen. I lived in one-room apartments with mice and roaches. I lived with burglar bars on the windows. I lived with car alarms going off at all hours. I walked over sidewalks littered with the aquamarine glass of broken car windows. I scrounged for quarters to do my laundry. I had a gas stove whose pilot lights sometimes blinked out, making me an obsessive flame-checker. I lived in gorgeous old houses that had been chopped up into apartments, in rooms with fancy ceramic tiles and glass doorknobs and carved molding (and leaky ceilings and questionable furnaces).

For those of us who lived that way for a while, when we were young, there's an inescapable nostalgia about those years. Those were the years we were paying our dues; we didn't mind paying our dues because we thought we would get something back, eventually. Those were the years when we were young enough to go without sleep, unattached enough not to mind working late or traveling on weekends or living in one room. Those were the years when we told ourselves everything was fodder for art, and the grit and the grunge had a glamour to it, and we could write about it someday.

One thing that surprises me a little about Goodbye to All That is the nostalgia for New York's more crime-ridden days. I suppose it is only another shade of the nostalgia I just described. But my fondness for my own grittier days doesn't extend that far. The truth is, I still find nothing romantic in having been burglarized (as I was), or hearing a coworker's story of being held up for pocket change, or seeing a former boyfriend's scar from a stabbing he survived. I eventually moved into an apartment with a front desk and a doorman not because I cared about status or having a fancy address, but just because I didn't want to be beaten up in my own halls, and I could finally afford a safer neighborhood.

But the nostalgia for danger may be just, at least partly, that we love things the way they were when we were young. How we found places is how they "ought" to be. The essayists who loved the NY of the 1970s find the city's current incarnation to be too sterile, too safe. But Anne Rivers Siddons, in her essay, "I Don't Like New York in June,"* was horrified by that same 1960s-1970s New York. She longed for the late-1950s New York of her own youth: champagne, tweed suits, "mist-haloed streetlights," buying a key ring at Tiffany's.

Many of us fall in love with the places we live when we first go out on our own, the places we live when all our options are still on the table. We are alive to every detail around us. The people who come later can't possibly know what it was like back then; they can't know the real essence of this place; they don't know what they're missing.

*from the collection John Chancellor Makes Me Cry

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tips on giving readings

I think it's a good idea for writers to practice giving readings early on. One need not be published to do this--there are always open mic nights. It's fun, and it reminds us that we're part of a community.

This post by Jennifer Nielsen on the Shrinking Violets blog opened my eyes to how flexible I could be when it came to readings. Especially the concept that you can alter the text a bit, if it's your own.

Before that, I had assumed that I had to read any passage verbatim. Once I realized I had the freedom to make changes, I began to tailor my readings accordingly. I take out any references to other parts of the book that the listener won't understand because they haven't read it yet. I minimize description, deleting passages that might sound slower in a read-aloud situation than when one is settled down with the whole book. In my readings for Until It Hurts to Stop, I actually took a few lines from one scene and stuck them into another scene, because it made the scene I was reading clearer.

Because of the alterations I make, I don't like to read right from the printed book. Instead, I type out the amended passage into a clean file and print it out. That way, I don't have to read through a marked-up text with cross-outs and arrows.

Using a separate piece of paper also enables me to do other helpful things, too: to enlarge the font so that it will be easy to read even if the lighting in the reading venue isn't great (and so that I won't have to hold the paper close to my face); and to leave extra space between the lines.

At the bottom or top of the page, I often give myself these reminders: "SLOW. BREATHE." A reading generally needs to go at a pace slightly slower than natural speaking speed, so that the listener can catch and process everything, and so that the author can be sure to articulate clearly. But with the adrenaline that comes from standing in front of an audience, the instinct is to talk faster. I fight that instinct by taking a deep slow breath at the beginning, and taking brief pauses throughout the reading (longer pauses at moments of emotional impact, or for dramatic effect).

Jennifer Nielsen recommends readings of 2-4 minutes. Typically, event hosts will say how long they want readings to be (and if they don't, definitely ask), but I agree that a default of 2-4 minutes is good. David Sedaris can hold an audience spellbound through an hour-long reading. Most of us aren't David Sedaris. Most of us will be appearing at events where there are other authors to be heard from, and/or refreshments, and/or Q&A to get to. It's better to leave people wanting more than to go on too long.

Jennifer Nielsen says to read with emotion and treat the story like a monologue. By the time I was reading from my third book, I realized what a blessing the first-person POV can be for oral readings. I began to treat my reading as a dramatic monologue; not just a reading but a piece of acting. I don't claim to be a brilliant actress, but since I created this character and wrote every word she says, it was totally doable for me to channel her, to let my voice rise and fall with her emotions.

Another thing I've noticed: humor works very well at live readings. When people go out to an event, they like to laugh and have a good time. If you have funny scenes, make the most of them. Cliffhangers work well, too. When I heard Sarah Darer Littman read the scene from her book Want to Go Private? where her main character goes off with a stranger, I knew I had to read the book, and bought it immediately.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Attention to detail

Tonight I happened to think back on a meal I had last fall, at a very nice restaurant. I have remembered this meal fondly many times, and tonight I started analyzing why. Not only because "analyzing why" is one of my favorite pastimes, but also because I suspect there may be some parallels to writing. Maybe the elements that make a meal memorable could also make a book memorable.

What I noticed about the meal, even at the time, was how perfect every detail was. My companions and I tasted one another's food, and every element on every plate was marvelous.

I had a big pile of green beans on my plate. If you've eaten green beans, you know that often there will be some stringy ones in the batch, or a few tough ones, or some that get overcooked or undercooked. But in this batch, every single bean was tender and delicious. Someone in that kitchen checked every bean, and if they had any bad ones, those didn't make it onto the plate.

Most of my food was deceptively simple--fish, green beans--but dessert was more complicated. It had several ingredients. And those ingredients went together. I had the feeling that every one of them was carefully chosen. Again, each individual component was done well, none of them bringing down the others.

So here are my take-home lessons: Care. Thought. Attention to detail. Making sure every component is the best it can be, and works well with everything around it. Not phoning it in, not being sloppy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Random thoughts while writing novels

6000 words already! This is going to go fast.
Is this too much like the last book I wrote?
Is this too much like the last book I read?
Is this too much like the book some more famous writer must be writing right now that will come out (to great acclaim) the week I finish mine?
What do I have these characters do next?
Delete delete delete.
Only 8000 words after all this time? This is going slowly.
I do not see how people can write a whole book in a week.
I think this is the 30th time this character is rolling her eyes ... well, I'll fix that in revision.
All I want to do is work on this book.
The last thing I want to do is work on this book.
Is this any good?
What's a word other than "fabulous" that means "fabulous?" I'll put it in brackets and change the word later.
Ooh, I did not see that coming.
I can't wait to write that scene.
Ha, I just made myself laugh with that line. Wonder if the readers will laugh.
Is this character complaining too much?
What day is it in this scene?
How much chocolate do I have left?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lessons from early work

I've caught up with my blog comments on previous posts, some of which I hadn't seen until today. (I do appreciate comments and try to respond to all of them.)

I've mentioned that I have been cleaning out boxes of old writing, keeping some stories and discarding others.

The materials I'm discarding are those that just didn't work (most of which were rewritten later and better). Here are some examples of pointless details I included in early stories:
"She chattered on about the family while I packed and got my change ready for the bus."
"I put stronger light bulbs in the lamps ..."

This is what I mean when I say, "Skip the boring parts."

But by far the biggest flaw I'm noticing is a tendency to have characters tell other characters big chunks of exposition. Sometimes it's telling what I should be showing. For example:
"'It's just that Sarah's going to be away and I think he's scared of being alone. He's been like that since his heart attack.'"
I could have let the reader figure out that the character is afraid, and why.

Or this, from a story about girls who had just lost a battle to try to establish a girls' basketball team at their school:
"'They've got their flimsy cover-up excuse. No money for an all-girls' team. And we can't join the boys' team because, according to the impartial Coach Timothy, we're not good enough. Not that he's prejudiced, or anything. It was perfectly fair of him to tell us to hit the showers after two minutes of warm-ups. Hell, anyone can make decisions about team cuts after watching us run a lap and a half.'
'He did let us shoot some baskets.'
'Yeah. Two lay-ups, which I made. One foul shot, which I made. You got one foul shot, which you missed. ...'"
The thing about that dialogue is that the characters are recounting events that they both know about, because they both witnessed them firsthand in  each other's presence. A perfect case of As-you-know,-Bob!
(In addition, that story was very soapboxy, lacking any complexity or nuance.)

But it's not all drivel. My favorite finds are stories I'd forgotten about, or stories that are as interesting as I'd remembered. I like best the ones where a character is an interesting situation right from the first paragraph, and is observing and reacting in the moment. The ones where there's a little mystery, something not quite right, a source of tension. That's what I always aim for, but it's not easy to hit that target.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sympathy for the character

I'm reading one of those books where, character-wise, my sympathies do not seem to be aligned with the author's. That is, I like the character I'm not supposed to like a heck of a lot more than I like the two characters I am supposed to like.

As an author, I'm naturally interested in how this happens, what the author has done to alienate me from Characters A and B and defend Character C, when clearly I'm "supposed" to feel the other way around. Here's what I've identified so far:

--Character C is more passionate than either A or B. Both A and B have drifted along, with vague ambitions that they've never really pursued, doing a lot less than they're capable of. C has smaller ambitions (for which C is criticized by both of the other characters), but at least C has pursued those ambitions with zeal. The thing that A wants most, A has never even taken the slightest step to pursue (and somehow sees this as C's fault).

--C is sort of quirky and hapless and, early on, is placed in a vulnerable and quite funny situation (from which A is completely absent). This was the start of my sympathetic connection to C. Right after this scene, A does something deliberately mean-spirited toward C, which made me dislike A. I think this act by A is where my sympathies were most firmly channeled into the pro-C anti-A camp.

--Early in the book, Characters A and C have a difference of opinion over a subjective matter. The book immediately implies (and continues to suggest) that Character A is "right" and C's views are pathetic. But as a reader, I'm unconvinced. Since this is a matter of opinion, I don't see how either of them can be "right," or why C's opinion isn't just as valid as A's. This perceived unfairness toward C shored up my protectiveness toward C. And at one point, C has a chance to thwart A's expression of A's differing views, but instead enables A to find a wider audience for those views.

--There's a scene where A blames C for something that was under A's control, not C's control. After several pages of fuming at C, A only seems vaguely aware that maybe the true blame lies elsewhere.

--C does some things that benefit B, but B has only contempt for C.

--Both A and C deceive each other. C confesses immediately. A punishes C for C's deception, but continues in A's own deception.

Maybe I'm wrong and the author is planning a twist; maybe I will find out in the last third of the book that C is supposed to be one of the good guys, and not a buffoon after all. So far I think not. (But if that happens, then this author is a genius at properly manipulating my sympathies.) Overall, though, whichever way this book goes, this has been a useful exercise in allowing me to see what can make characters likable and unlikable. In this case, I see that when a character is treated meanly and unfairly by other characters, the so-called justification of "but that character deserves it for being really boring/nerdy/annoying" doesn't always work, and the unfairness may backfire, leading the reader to sympathize with the supposedly boring/nerdy/annoying one.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

What's your story?

In This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes that she only has one story in her, and she keeps writing it over and over: "a group of strangers are thrown together." And it's true of the two novels of hers that I've read: Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant.

Naturally I had to ask myself whether I only have one story, and if so, what it is. When it comes to short stories, I think I have many. But novels? All three of my published books feature a character struggling to overcome some monumental event from his or her past. Sometimes it's the fairly recent past, as in The Secret Year and Try Not to Breathe; sometimes it's the more distant past, as in Until It Hurts to Stop. There is forward movement; there are different kinds of relationships and different settings; and some of these stories end more happily than others. But I do see that common thread.

Even when I look at my unpublished books, the ones that I think are the most successful (and still might want to publish if I can fix their flaws) include that same element. Is that what it takes for me to really get the wind in my sails, I wonder--a character facing down the monsters of yesterday?

Patchett embraces her one story rather than fighting it. I'm still willing to try to tell other stories if they occur to me--I won't shut the door on new ideas--but if those attempts fizzle and I am left with my one story, well ... that's no tragedy. There are thousands of ways to tell that story. I am endlessly fascinated by how people heal, how they put back together what has been broken or live with the cracks and the missing pieces, and how they go about changing. I guess it shows in my writing!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Inside the struggle

I have sometimes described revising a manuscript as wrestling with an octopus. There's always a tentacle that's sure to slip free and slap you on the forehead. Beth Kephart doesn't use that exact image, but the struggle she describes in this post sounds eerily familiar: "I could get some parts right at the expense of others. ... It was like trying to manage a sine curve."

This is not a novice talking. This is a seasoned and accomplished author of articles, novels, memoirs. An award-winning writer, a teacher and mentor of others. She writes, "The second book is harder. ... You have already used some of your favorite images, your most primal memories, and you have expectations now—those that originate within yourself and those that come from external forces." And spoiler alert: It doesn't get any easier after the second book.

Which I find oddly comforting. The flailing, the trial and error, the false starts and endless rewrites, are not necessarily signs that we're doing it wrong. This just may be the way that a book gets written.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Writing first

As a night owl, I used to do all my writing at night. Many of my short stories were drafted in marathon sessions starting around 8 PM on a Friday or Saturday night, and finishing at 11 PM, or 1 AM, or whenever.

If I didn't have a day job, I might still be writing that way. But on nine days out of every fourteen, I go to the job that pays the bills (writing contributes, but can't support me financially). And when I come home, I do write for at least an hour, often two or three.

However, I've gotten older and busier and more tired. And when writing isn't first on the list, it often gets pushed back and put off--especially first drafting, which takes so much mental and emotional energy. So what I've started doing on non-day-job days is to write first thing in the day. After I finish breakfast, I sit down in my writing office and do my day's goal (whether it be to write for two hours, or add 1000 words, or add 2000 words, or revise ten pages, or whatever). Then I go about my other chores, knowing that whatever else I do or don't get done, at least I have written.

It's made me happier, since I'm generally happier when I'm writing regularly. And I know I'm lucky to be able to do this. I can set my own schedule on these five days. I decided to try this after hearing from other writers that the only way they could reliably get writing done--without getting sucked into the vortex of social media, email checking, etc.--was to write first.

I used to think I couldn't write in the morning. But over the years, I'm finding I can write in more different times and places, using more methods, than I would have guessed. It's never too late to try a new system.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


I've always said I'm not really a diary keeper. I think of myself as having made a few brief attempts at diaries over the years, and quickly abandoning them. But in the course of cleaning out my writing office, I've discovered many notebooks--many more than I remembered--with diary fragments in them. I've made a "diary" pile with which I will do--something at some point. I don't know what.

Just glancing through them, I can tell that there are three kinds of times in my life when I keep diaries:
1) When something I perceive as historically momentous is occurring. (9/11, for example)
2) When I'm traveling and want to remember the new settings through which I'm moving.
3) At times of emotional upheaval and angst.

Therefore, I have one diary of Type 1, and random fragments of the other two types scattered throughout several notebooks. Type 3 is the most embarrassing and the type I would most like to send to the shredder. Pages and pages of moaning over why some long-forgotten crush did not seem to return my interest; pages analyzing his every expression, word, gesture, and eyebrow twitch; pages dreading (and trying to head off) break-ups that I could see looming. When I read Type 3, I'm mostly relieved to be done with the roller-coaster relationships of my teens and early twenties.

My diaries give a very distorted picture of my life, because I kept them only when I was trying to remember something unusually important (travel, history), or when I was trying to analyze a miserable patch in my life. The times when I was happy and busy with ordinary pursuits, I didn't need the record or the reflection that a diary provides.

There are diarists who can do the "happy ordinary" diary well, who can write about daily life and keep it interesting. They can reflect on a variety of life events, not just the crises. But ultimately, diaries do what we need them to do at the moment. Sometimes they preserve an important moment, and sometimes they help us get through a moment and leave it behind.