Sunday, April 27, 2014

What's in that pile of books

It's my turn over at YA Outside the Lines, where I blogged about the different categories of books sitting around my house, either being read or waiting to be read. You know: the friend's book, the book I got as a gift, the guilty pleasure, the book everyone's talking about, etc. The full discussion is here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Most days

Most days are not the glamor days, the big-news days. Most days are not the days of finishing manuscripts. Most days are about making a little progress. Finishing a scene. Getting unstuck. Deleting something. Figuring out that character's name. Switching to a different manuscript. Deciding to scrap the beginning. Deciding to scrap the ending. Writing one good sentence. Writing one halfway decent page. Writing one chapter that kind of sucks but hey, it can be fixed later. Coming back for another round.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


This post by Mike Jung captured perfectly some things I've been thinking about some books for a long while. I'm not referring to the particular book he's discussing there, which I haven't read myself and therefore don't feel qualified to comment on. I mean the feeling in general. The feeling of "oh I love this book so much it has so many great things in it BUT there is this racist/sexist/homophobic subplot/scene/character which I don't like and which makes me hesitate to recommend the book." Jung nailed that feeling of loving a work, but then seeing it from different angles and experiencing a growing discomfort with it, yet still loving much in it.

I've had such feelings about Gone with the Wind, and Booth Tarkington's Alice Adams, and the Little House books. I can understand why people might look at the objectionable parts of these books and decide they can't recommend the books at all, they don't want to read or reread them, they don't want their kids to read them. It's trickier to ask what can be salvaged, to love a story despite the parts that make you cringe. To like a book yet not make excuses for what's offensive in it. I've asked myself whether I even have the right to do it. I love that Mike Jung lays all these thoughts and emotions on the line, exploring these very questions.

Oddly--or, perhaps not oddly--I feel less hesitant when dealing with sexism in books. I note the offending passages and move on to get what I can out of the book. I long ago learned to read past, or through, misogyny because it's so pervasive, especially in older literature. Which isn't to say that I can speak for all women, or that we all get offended by exactly the same things, or that we all want to handle offense the same way, or that we're all willing to read the same books. I just mean I'm more likely to feel that I have some authority to discuss such a book. Whereas, in situations where I'm in the privileged group (for example, when the issue is race), I feel like I should do more listening than talking, that I should read more recommendations than I make.

I'm grateful to Mike Jung for discussing this with eloquence and heart.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The eras of reading

"Something that has always fascinated me is the way, if you read your whole life, you use what you read to mark time. I know I associate certain books with, I read that when I was moving. I read that when I was breaking up with my boyfriend, kind of thing. You're immediately, if you pick up a book, sort of thrown back in time to this other time when you first read it. The books never change, but you do."
--Gabrielle Zevin, interview with Powell'

Zevin also commented on the difference between being an author in real life and the way it's portrayed in popular media; the changes in publishing over the past decade; bookstores she has known and loved; the mysterious figure known as the book sales rep; and her new novel, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Here's Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, on how it feels to make a scientific discovery:

"It is not easy to convey, unless one has experienced it, the dramatic feeling of sudden enlightenment that floods the mind when the right idea finally clicks into place. One immediately sees how many previously puzzling facts are neatly explained by the new hypothesis. One could kick oneself for not having the idea earlier, it now seems so obvious. Yet before, everything was in a fog."-- from What Mad Pursuit

I thought this might sound familiar to writers, because it's also a good description of making a creative breakthrough!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

YA Fest

April 19, 10:30 AM - 3 PM: YA Fest, Easton, PA. Book sales and signing by 50 young adult and middle-grade fiction authors; writing contest, raffles, and discussion panel. A portion of proceeds will go directly to the library to help fund the YA shelves and events. Palmer Branch of the Easton Public Library, Easton, PA. 3 Weller Place, Palmer Township, PA.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Slowing down

In keeping with my ongoing project to try not to cram so much into my life that I stop enjoying everything that's here--my "slowing down" philosophy--I liked this post by Julie Owsik Ackerman on "Giving Up Rushing for Lent." A sample: "Rushing only makes me less happy, and doesn’t get me there any faster."

Also in keeping with this, I spent the afternoon taking a walk around some spring flowers, and attending an outdoor concert. I had a list of chores I coulda-woulda-shoulda done. But the sun was shining and the flowers were blooming, and this day comes only once. No regrets!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Relative riches

"[Paul assumed I had had a drycleaner] ... I tell Paul that when I was working with the homeless I didn't have anyone I would refer to as 'my drycleaner'--in fact, I don't think I ever had anything drycleaned at all. ... I don't think I bought any clothes from anywhere but a secondhand store until I was thirty. Most of my friends worked with the homeless, and no one I knew had a drycleaner. Paul grew up in a very different world than I did--his grandfather was John Huston's agent--and he looked at me oddly for a long minute when I told him this.
How'd you get your clothes clean? he finally asked."
--Nick Flynn, The Reenactments

This passage made me think about the assumptions we make about living, and standards of living, and what we think of as rich and poor. To some people, you're rich if you have your own pair of shoes. To others, you're not rich unless you have multiple dwellings and vehicles and investments. I think we all have our own definitions, but rarely compare notes with one another. At some point, I became aware of my own assumptions about what's rich and what's poor, and realized that they were not universal but personal definitions.

My grandparents worked in food service, auto repair, and a print shop. My father made the transition to office work, and then to management. I grew up as a middle-class American, at a time when middle-class families were just beginning to be able to have more than one car, bathroom, and TV set (the TV being the only electronic gadget most such families owned then, other than probably a stereo). We never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from, but luxuries were rare: planned and saved for. Growing up, I assumed a person was rich if he or she hired someone to clean the house or take care of the lawn; had anything that could be called "investments," a "trust," or an "inheritance;" owned a vacation home; or attended a private school. And then there were little details, such as ordering room service, which I thought was the most luxurious thing ever. You saw people do it on TV all the time, but I was never allowed to do it when my family stayed at a hotel. (I got most of my ideas about how rich people lived from TV, books, and movies.)

Since forming these impressions, biases, and assumptions, I've learned a little more about the world, and about how wide the extremes can be between the highest and lowest standards of living. I share my childhood ideas of wealth here not because they're of any use as an objective definition of what's rich--I think they speak more to the opposite point of how relative this can be--but because they probably tell you something about me, my class, and my perceptions, once upon a time. As such, this may be a useful example of what we writers should probably know about our characters. What do you think of as markers of wealth? What do your characters think?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


"Alone, I was simply myself--that supreme delight of the solitary life."
--Alix Kates Shulman, A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lessons from music

In my last post, I talked about going to the orchestra, and how the pre-concert preparations have always been an important part of the experience.
Now I want to say a few things about the concert itself.

Going to hear a major symphony by a well-known composer (in this case, Beethoven's 7th, though this applies even more to the 5th and the 9th, which I also often catch live), I am aware of possible judgment from two sides. One is the side that thinks of Beethoven or any classical music as snooty, or boring, or elitist. The other side consists of classical music enthusiasts who are so deep into the field that they are interested in more unusual or experimental works. They say that Beethoven's best-known works are cliche, overdone; that the musicians are bored with them.

And while I understand that maybe everyone wouldn't look forward to hearing a symphony, and maybe some people have heard Beethoven too often and hunger for something different, I've also come to the point where I accept my own tastes without apology. I like classical music's "greatest hits." I know I am not the only one (which is why these works are so popular). I have seen people slapping their thighs, punching the air, bobbing their heads along with the music.

It's always as interesting to me to watch the performance of a Beethoven symphony as it is to hear it. Beethoven was unafraid of using all the musicians, including those whose instruments play deeper and darker, like the basses and the timpani. (I have sometimes thought, "The percussionists are getting quite a workout!") Some composers rely much more heavily on the violins and don't use the rest of the instruments as much. He also uses a striking sort of call-and-response pattern among the sections of the orchestra. Other composers have this echo-of-theme thing going on, of course, but I don't have enough of a music education to describe what seems distinctive to me about Beethoven's. I do remember that it was a revelation to me, the first time I saw the 5th performed, to see the arms of the violinists moving in unison, and then to see the different parts of the orchestra come alive at different times.

As a writer, I also appreciate the way Beethoven's movements often build to a crescendo in stages, the way a novel does. There's rising action--and then falling action--and then rising action moving even higher, and so on.

So those are my writerly thoughts for the day, courtesy of the symphony: Read/write what matters to me no matter what others think. Use my whole orchestra. Trust my voice. Alternate rising and falling action in the plot, on the way to the big finish.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Getting ready for the show

When I lived in the city, I had a subscription to the orchestra--it was something I'd always wanted to do, and I knew I should do it while I lived within walking distance of the concert hall. I subscribed for several years. After I moved farther away, and my writing became more of a career and left me less time and energy for concerts, I let my subscription lapse. But I still try to make the occasional concert, as I did today.

It was good to be back. I had a seat in my favorite section: behind (and slightly above) the stage, in what they call "The Conductor's Circle." It's like being part of the orchestra--without the responsibility of having to, you know, play an instrument. You can see all the musicians up close, and you get to watch the conductor's face and see his constant nonverbal communication with the musicians.

I like to get there early because, to me, the twenty-minute period before the show is part of the whole experience. I arrange my coat and belongings. I listen to the conversations drifting around me (as writers often do). I read the program, learning a little about the music and the composers. I look at the list of musicians. Today I was surprised at how many names came back to me, and glad to see so many familiar faces. The concertmaster, the principal timpanist, the principal flutist, and many others, are the same as when I was last a "regular."

But mostly, I like to watch the orchestra get ready. It's not like at a play, where all the setup happens invisibly, behind a curtain. The musicians come out and warm up and chat with one another in plain sight. Even though they're dressed up nicely, there's a friendly informality to it. Some musicians like to get out on stage super early. They practice their instruments, and I would bet they also settle into the space, get comfortable with the atmosphere. (If I were a musical performer, I would be in this group.) From where I sat today, I could see into the wings, and I noticed they had a giant clock on a stand right outside the stage door. As time passes, more musicians filter in. There are always a few who come in with only a minute to spare. I'm guessing they're the ones who make transitions easily, who don't need time to settle before they perform.

There's a squawking bird-like noise I often hear during this time, and today I was almost able to pin it down. I think it's oboists testing their reeds. It's a sound I had forgotten until I heard it again today.

In terms of writing, all this made me think of how many components there are to a setting. Having reentered a familiar setting after some time away, I was able to recognize all the little details, but with fresh eyes (and ears, etc.). When I lead writing workshops, I encourage people to use all five senses in describing settings. This was a setting where sound dominated (the stray scraps of music being practiced, the squawk I mentioned earlier, the hum of conversation), but there was also the plush of the seat, the gleam of wooden and metal instruments, the brightly colored wrapping around the ends of the timpanist's sticks, the elastic face of the conductor, the taste of coughdrops (to prevent coughing at inopportune moments), the smell of perfume and rain-wet coats.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

You don't have to stay so very still

"Dear Teen Me:

You do not have to be good. You don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to stay so very still inside that box that you have built up for yourself.

Life is meant for living.

Listen. ..."

So begins Beth Kephart's Dear Teen Me letter, which appears on her blog tour for Going Over, a story of love across the barrier of the Berlin Wall:

I've been excited for this book to come out, because although I remember when the Berlin Wall existed (and I remember when it came down), I've read very few stories set in Berlin during those years. And in Beth's voice, I know this world will come alive, in words carefully chosen and vivid.

The shot of inspiration from the Dear Teen Me letter was an added bonus. Well worth reading in its entirety if you, too, need to hear, "Fall down. Get up. You’ll be okay," and, "The world is wide and glorious and strange; it is a spectrum. Lend it more of your love."