Friday, February 28, 2014

Adaptations and glamorous facades

The Oscars are coming up. In that spirit, you may enjoy this week's posts at Three Guys, One Book, in which they compared the movies that are up for Best Adapted Screenplay with the books they were based on. It's a fascinating look at how much (or little) a story can change from one medium to the other, and how an adaptation can be done well. The movies they discuss are Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and The Wolf of Wall Street; they don't delve into Before Midnight, since its characters were adapted from a previous film rather than from a book.

And over at YA Outside the Lines, I blogged about the character of the charismatic storyteller, and some books I read growing up in which such a character beguiled the main characters with exaggerations or outright falsehoods, leaving the protagonists sadder but wiser. A sample: "These stories reassured me that I wasn’t the first to be taken in by a glamorous surface and a good line."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Inside the writer brain

One reason I don't outline much is that, even when I think I know what's going to happen between characters, I can't be sure until I start writing the scene.

The scene unfolds moment by moment, each character reacting to what has just been said or done by the other. It's a balance between Where do I want this scene to go? and What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Let's say I have a scene where Character A has wronged Character B, and is now apologizing. I think B will forgive A, and I want that to happen for plot reasons. If I were writing an outline, this scene would be labeled, "A apologizes; B forgives."

But when I get into the scene, A is not contrite enough, or not patient enough. Or B is too hurt. Their dialogue is not going where I thought it would. I realize that if B forgives A right now, it will come off forced. Readers--in this case, myself included--will think What's wrong with B? Why did B cave like that? I don't buy it.

Then I have a few choices:
How fixed are A's words and tone here? How sorry is A, anyway? Can I make the apology easier to accept?
Can I move this scene to a later point, so that B will have more time to cool off, and forgiveness will be natural?
Maybe B shouldn't forgive A after all. What happens if I go down that road instead?

Monday, February 24, 2014


"Sometimes we wait for a very long time, and we're still not ready."
--Beth Kephart, Nest. Flight. Sky.: On love and loss, one wing at a time

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The community

There's a lot of talk about the internet and social media as sources of writers' procrastination. And they certainly can be that.

But I realized, the other day when I had skipped several sessions of blog-reading, that I felt disconnected from my community. That I missed it, and felt isolated as a writer. And I began to see what purpose social media serve for me.

When I first started writing, I didn't know any other writers. I felt very isolated, and floundered on occasion. Most of the writers I know now, I met through social media. I do know some local writers with whom I get together in person, but our day-to-day keeping in touch is still done online.

Social media serve as my water cooler. They remind me that there are other writers out there, plugging away, even as I am. They reassure me that none of those other writers find this to be a particularly easy job. We exchange notes of encouragement, answer one another's questions ("What's D&A?" "Have you seen any books out there written in 2nd person?" "Have you worked with this editor before?"), celebrate and commiserate with one another. Nobody demands a progress report from me, but just by being in touch with this world, I'm further motivated to put in my daily words. I actually write more now than I did before I had an internet connection.

Social media are also a way for readers to reach me. There are readers who have found me that way, and I'm glad when they do. They give me hope that someone besides me will care when I find a way to finish whatever story I'm grappling with.

If you're reading this, you're part of that community. So, thank you!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I've been saying less online recently because I'm in one of those phases where I have turned inward. I'm reading a lot, listening a lot, and especially digging into a story. This story is the thing I'm listening to most of all. Where does it need to go? Will it come together?

I tend to find the answers to story problems within the story. External sources can guide or inspire me, but the line I need to follow has to be within the story already; I just have to find the natural extension of it. Anything I impose from the outside looks pasted-on, forced.

However, finding that loose end and recognizing the proper angle of the continuing line is more difficult than one would imagine.

So mostly, at the moment, I'm listening.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow Shadows

A relative of mine does original artwork. This is a piece by her that I own:

Snow Shadows, by Heather Spencer

You can see those kinds of shadows on snow all over our neighborhood right now, including in our backyard. To me this scene is quintessential winter; I'll probably never be able to write anything that captures it exactly.

(And if you like Heather's work, she has a website and an Etsy shop.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Worth it?

Natalie Whipple had a great post the other day about being a midlist author. A sample: "It seems like in the online writing community we're afraid to talk about that, as if it's this horrible thing to be. When really most authors are midlist." She goes on to discuss the gap between expectations and reality, and how brutal that gap can be. "'Is this worth it?'" she asks, wondering whether we get back less than we put in.

The only thing I know for myself is that I'm happiest when I'm writing something I really believe in, and it's a joy when someone else responds to it. It's even more of a joy if I can get paid for it. It's tough when I don't get paid, tough when my work doesn't find readers, but worst of all is when I myself am unhappy with the story, or don't know how to finish it, or don't have confidence in it. Every story that I work on gives me at least a few moments of pure, absolute confidence, and at least a few moments of wild doubt.

Of course I want other people to love my work. I want the external rewards of money and recognition; the very act of publishing says that. But the only thing I can rely upon is the work itself, and how I feel about it. When I ask myself, "Is this worth it?" I cannot possibly answer yes unless I factor in the emotional, spiritual and psychological rewards of writing.

Anne Lamott goes on about this at length in Bird by Bird, especially in the chapter called "Publication," which I turn to again and again, when this business gets too crazy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I'm just going to sit here until something interesting happens

There's a famous anecdote about the way the Rolling Stones moved from being a cover band to writing original songs. According to legend, their manager locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room and told them they couldn't come out until they had written a song. They came up with "As Tears Go By."

And here's writer Nathan Bransford on his process: "If I hit a stumbling block I force myself to stare at a blank page until I figure out how to resolve it (or I don't figure it out, but the staring time is still useful). ... I don't really have time for writers block, and I really believe if you just stare at the screen long enough you'll figure it out."

I'm not necessarily advocating that we chain ourselves to our desks until we produce that novel we've been dreaming about. But there are times in almost every writer's life when we show up even though we'd rather not. We stay there more out of faith or habit or sheer determination than inspiration. We wait out the dry spell, or power through it.

Sometimes, writing is really uncomfortable. I don't mean physically--although it can be that, too. I mean that there are times when the brain seems filled with nothing but tumbleweeds, blowing through an arid land. There are times when the story looks hopeless. There are times when the characters are stuck, frozen, refusing to come to life.

Sometimes the solution is to leave the writing alone and go do something else for a while. But eventually, we have to sit and face the story. To let the brain quiet down or open up. Our path to the desk is not always full of prancing unicorns and glitter. The creative juices sometimes trickle, rather than flow. But that's just part of the deal. When the story comes out, we're there, ready.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

On libraries and the storm

As a transplanted New Englander familiar with every type of winter weather, I have always dreaded freezing rain above all others. It's far, far worse than snow, I've always told my snow-phobic Philadelphia friends. This week demonstrated why.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, my house--along with several hundred thousand others--lost electrical power due to an ice storm. At my place, we therefore had no heat or hot water either. I spent part of the first couple of days of the outage at doctors' appointments and my day job, coming home only at night, but then my official days off arrived. Every day, the temperature in our house dropped a little lower: 41 degrees. 40 degrees. 38 degrees. 36 degrees. At which point we had to shut off the water or risk freezing our pipes, and so we finally had to leave the house.*

But while we stayed, my husband and I spent most of our daytime hours at two of our local libraries. We were far from the only ones. The libraries served as gathering places for the community. People warmed up, recharged their phones and computers, exchanged news about which neighborhoods were getting electricity back. (I got almost as much news from the library grapevine as I did from the radio.) We had a heated, lighted place to sit for hours, and unlimited free entertainment in the form of computers, books, music, etc. Nobody nagged us to move along, even though--by our third day without showers--they must've wanted to. The parking lot at one of the libraries overflowed with cars, and people waited outside in the morning for it to open. Both libraries were packed.

We visited two libraries, but I imagine this scenario played out at libraries through the Delaware Valley. In our area, this storm's effects were far worse than those of Superstorm Sandy. We could scarcely go three blocks without running into downed power lines, trees, or both. Stoplights were (and in many cases, still are) out everywhere. People flocked to public spaces like the library, because almost all of us were in the dark and the cold. In our homes, we were piling on the clothing, wearing mittens indoors, cooking on camp stoves on the porch, worrying about the plumbing.

This is what I want people to remember when library funding is threatened. I've heard it said that libraries can be replaced by the internet, but I think that is only said by people who haven't set foot in a library recently. Even when the electrical grid is up and running, there are plenty of people who can't afford computers or internet service at home, who rely on the library for these things. There are plenty of people who need a place to go and read, or take job-search classes, or bring their children to story hour, or take advantage of the hundreds of services libraries provide.

I'm always thankful for libraries--even more so this week, after going without power for about 87 hours. (Some of our neighbors are without it still.)**

*If you wonder why we didn't leave sooner: on Thursday, the power company said we should have power back by Thursday night. On Friday, they said we should have it back by Friday night. On Saturday, they said we should have it back by Saturday night. We kept thinking it would just be a little longer ... also, we heard hotel rooms were almost impossible to get, and information about shelters was sketchy and incomplete.

**This is a writer's blog and my focus here is on the value of libraries. But of course, I am also grateful for the workers who have to be out in the bitter cold working round-the-clock shifts, cleaning up this mess.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Carol J. Garvin at Careann's Musings recently blogged about pre-writing: " ... it began with a recurring image. ... But it wasn’t at the word-spilling stage quite yet. It needed encouragement."

This is part of writing, too: the time when a story is forming. Often we can feel it there: a pressure, an excitement, a restlessness. It pushes its way toward the surface, starts taking on words.

Some people have to know everything about the story--where it goes, who is in it, how it happens--before they start writing. Others use the first draft to make those discoveries. Pre-writing can include character sketches, drawings, maps, research, outlining, walking, showering, or just thinking.

When a new story is coming to me, I walk around all day long with it in the back of my mind. I only concentrate on it for a short time each day; the rest of the time I leave it back there, to let my subconscious work on it. Like a seed, it germinates in the dark.

Pre-writing can be so nice--the pleasures of anticipation, without the real story in all its imperfection to spoil our vision--that it can be tempting to stay there forever. On the flip side, we can be so eager to start writing that we jump in before the idea's quite ready.

Eventually we learn how to recognize "ready," that moment of ripeness.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


So I'm watching Top Chef, as one does after a good day's writing and cleaning house. There are only a few contestants left at this point, and more than once I hear them express the idea that to come this far and lose now would be a waste, not good enough, unacceptable. And I imagine we'll hear similar sentiments at the upcoming Olympics about silver medals not being good enough; it's the gold or nothing.

And I always think: what nonsense. So few people ever reach these levels of quality, and the hairs that are split to separate first from second from third place are often very fine indeed. In certain sports, it comes down to a hundredth of a second: a twitch, an eyelash flutter.

Most of us are not going to be the grand-prize winners at whatever we do. Should we give up, then?

It's good to be good; it's excellent to be excellent. The effort we put into improving changes us, gives us (and others) something. Pursuing a goal takes us somewhere, takes us farther than we might have gone without it, even if we never reach that goal.

At the Olympics, they also bandy about the Pierre de Coubertin quote, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." This is the kind of saying a lot of people give lip service to, but secretly believe that in real life, things are different.

But in real life, it is the taking part that matters. "First place or nothing" would leave an awful lot of people settling for nothing ... people who could have so much otherwise.