Monday, March 30, 2015

Going to the dogs

If you follow my blog, you may know that I have a cat. (And if you follow me on Twitter, you've probably heard plenty about him.) But I'm happy to give dogs some airtime here, especially when they're the topic of a guest post by Holly Schindler. Her new book features a couple who meet through a canine connection. But more about that later ...

1. You always have company. Even when you’re being excessively boring. Which, let’s face it, is the life of a writer. To me (and to anyone else drafting their Great American Novel), there’s nothing more exciting than eight solid hours plunking away on a keyboard. But to the outside observer? (Enter loud snoring sounds.) It is, however, scientifically impossible to bore an animal. Even when I was in college, I used to put a chair beside my computer, and my Maltese, Winnie, would sit next to me while I wrote my term papers. You’re never truly alone in your office when your four-legged writing partner is curled up beside you…or at your feet.

2. You push yourself away from the desk. Conversely, you’ve got to thank your four-legged writing partner for accompanying you on long writing binges by taking them outside every once in a while. Jake, my Pekingese, is always makes sure that I get out in the sun—even if it’s just for a short walk around the block. In the summer, we’re both on the back deck. I’ve developed a serious love for writing outside.

3. Rejection never stings as bad. Oh, we all get it. Whether it’s a “No” from a publisher or a crummy review or a less-than-what-we’d-hoped-for anything from the pub world, all you have to do is let out a frustrated growl, and you’re instantly getting a kiss from your four-legged writing pal.

4. You never get a big head. Conversely (again), when things are going your way in the pub world—the reviews are starred, the in-need-of-your-signature contracts are piling up in your inbox—you inevitably wind up reaching for your latest printed masterpiece and find the pages have been chewed up or peed on, putting you right back in your place.

5. You laugh every single day. There is nothing funnier than a dog. Absolutely nothing. Which is probably why the first book I would ever even think about calling “comedic” is about a dog.

(Dogs play a big part in Holly's new book:)

Mable Barker, always the pal but never the girlfriend, bounces between lackluster jobs in Manhattan (and suffering unrequited love) in her unsuccessful attempt to find her one true talent. So when she meets Innis, the ill-tempered Fifth Avenue Pekingese, she assumes her dog-walking days are numbered, too. But Innis belongs to the adorable yet painfully shy young veterinarian, Jason Mead, a man whose awkward ways around women have him dreaming not of finding love for himself but of playing canine matchmaker—-breeding Westminster champions.

When Mable and Jason meet, romance is officially unleashed: they find an instant connection and shared goal, as Mable could have what it takes to be a professional handler, soon to hold Innis under a banner labeled, “Best in Show.” As Jason and Mable get closer to putting a new twist on the term “dog lovers,” outside forces—-Mable’s overprotective brothers, a successful wedding planner with her eye on Jason, even the theft of purebred pups from Jason’s Fifth Avenue apartment building—-all threaten to come between them. Will Mable and Jason simply let their burgeoning love roll over and play dead? Or will they rally to make sure Innis emerges as the leader of the pack?

Holly Schindler is the author of four traditionally published books; her work has received starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, among other honors. Fifth Avenue Fidos is her first independently published book. She is owned by a Pekingese named Jake and can be found working on her next book in her hometown of Springfield, Missouri. She can also be found at

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A spring day

I spent part of the day at a wildlife refuge, where it was my privilege to see the head of one bald eagle peeking out over the edge of a nest, and the other eagle flying around hunting and delivering food.

I've also been watching the nest of red-tailed hawks at Cornell, via webcam: the first egg of the season was laid today. (The webcam is great to watch, especially once the eggs hatch. But be warned, if you're sensitive about "Nature, red in tooth and claw," that if you watch live streaming footage of birds of prey, you will eventually see them eating.)

I've also enjoyed Melodye Shore's account of a hummingbird nest that this year produced two new offspring.

This elemental activity--the nesting and the raising of young birds--is keeping me grounded this spring. These birds are going about their business, tending to the very basics of life. It's been a comfort, especially at a time when the human race just can't seem to get its act together, when we resort to the tired old weapons of violence and discrimination. You would think that with disease, poverty, aging, and resource scarcity to deal with, we would have enough problems without creating new ones to inflict upon ourselves. I am weary of reading about all the ways in which people punish one another, the ways in which we try to control one another, the ways in which we refuse to live and let live. (If you are weary, too, Beth Kephart has some thoughts on kindness you might want to read.)

Nature has long been the thing that brings me back in touch with myself. Nature is not always kind, either, but there is a refreshing lack of malice in it. And the scent of the earth thawing is sweet.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A unique view

"'There's some funny thing that makes me want to paint something. It's a terrible kind of insolence, this delusion that I am recording something nobody's looked at before, a unique view. That's why I paint.'"
--Jamie Wyeth, quoted in Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, by Richard Meryman

I could say something similar about writing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Speaking out

A certain phrase has had a recent uptick in usage, especially by broadcasters doing teasers for upcoming interviews. That phrase is, "speak out."

Nowadays, someone is always "speaking out." A person "speaks out about her recent ordeal" or "speaks out about his wartime experience" or "speaks out about injustice." Okay, fine; that's how I've always heard the phrase used. But it hits me strangely when people are advertised as "speaking out" about their new movie, a change in hair color, or a career move. To me, "speaking out" has always had the ring of important announcements, breaking silence, speaking truth to power, or setting records straight. It's not the same thing as just plain "speaking." We can speak of a new recipe, a snowy commute, or next season's fashions, but is that really speaking out?

I consulted my dictionary (Webster's New World, 2nd College Edition), and this is what it says:
"speak out (or up) 1. to speak audibly or clearly 2. to speak freely or forcefully"

So there is more to it than just saying something; there's an implication of power and importance. I may be the only person in the country who cares. This may just be the tiny pet peeve of a devoted wordsmith, but I mention it here for what it's worth. It takes a lot of courage to truly "speak out," and I like the way we have a special phrase to honor that.

Friday, March 20, 2015


There is always more to do, and more to want.

But today, just for this afternoon: contentment.

A snowy day, lunch with a friend, a visit to an art museum, a short to-do list that for once I did not overload with the impossible, most of the weekend still ahead of me. These are the things that make up my contentment--and of course the pile of books next to me.

What are the components of your moments of contentment? What makes you say, "This--right here--is good"?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Difficult books

I suspect most of us have them: the books we pretend we've read, or wish we'd read, or think we should've read, or tell ourselves we must read someday. They tend to be classics, or at least books that were highly recommended by many other people. They often appear on those "best books" lists.

A day of reckoning with such a book usually goes one of two ways: deciding to finally read the book now, or accepting that it's never going to happen. (I recently gave away two such books, realizing I had always felt I "should" read them but never really wanted to.) Mostly, we let such books sit where they are, waiting.

Andy Miller decided to read his. Fifty of them, in fact. He called the books in this category his "List of Betterment," and wrote a book about the year in which he read them: The Year of Reading Dangerously.

Although Miller writes enthusiastically about the experience, he struggled to get into many of the books, sometimes taking 50 or 100 or even 200 pages to get into them. He seemed to appreciate them more in retrospect, after having read them, than during the reading. And I wonder: how many readers nowadays would be willing to do likewise? Writers are taught now to grab the reader on the first page--with the first sentence, if possible--and with good reason. It is a rare reader who will slog through scores of uninspiring pages without being forced to.

There were books Miller enjoyed all the way through, but the ones I wonder about are the ones he had to push himself to get into. There are definitely still readers around who challenge themselves willingly, but I suspect their numbers may be dwindling. I'm of two minds about this myself: life's too short to read anything I have to force myself through; but challenges are how we grow. I suppose there can be a balance, a mix of difficulty levels, a testing of acquired tastes.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Universe Comes Knocking

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the launch party, poetry reading and open mic night to celebrate the release of Kelly Ramsdell Fineman's chapbook, The Universe Comes Knocking, published by Maverick Duck Press.

Poor Kelly had a migraine at the event, but rallied to read from her collection, which includes the title poem as well as meditations on the layers of meaning in everyday objects (peas, buttons, a chair). Ordinary objects have history and significance and extraordinary meaning; Kelly relays the stories behind them. And then there is the haunting "Attention to Detail," one of my favorites in the collection, about the price we sometimes pay for excellence. The book ends with "Stuck Doing Chores on a Summer's Evening," a twist on a Robert Frost poem, which never fails to get appreciative laughter when she reads it live.

If you'd like a sample, you can find a few poems online: "Copernicus" on Kelly's own blog, and "Shelling Peas" on Jama Rattigan's blog. Or you can get the whole thing for your very own here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Caring about characters: the follow-up

A few days ago, I asked on Twitter and both of my blogs: What makes you care about a character?

As I started reading the answers, I realized that for a lot of people, caring about a character means liking the character. Several people mentioned characteristics that I think of as relating to likability: sincerity, goodness, bravery, grace, nobility of character, thoughtfulness, and compassion were all mentioned.

But I know that plenty of people enjoy books with unlikable characters--and movies, too. (There's even an expression for this: characters you "love to hate.") Sometimes we just can't stop turning the pages, in spite of the nastiness of the characters (cases in point: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and GONE GIRL, among others). And while I was mulling this over, I had the good luck to encounter Roxane Gay's essay on character likability in her collection BAD FEMINIST: "Not Here to Make Friends."

Gay quotes Claire Messud in a PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview in which Messud challenges the whole notion that character likability is even relevant: "'If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn't 'Is this a potential friend for me?' but 'Is this character alive?'"

Roxane Gay builds on that idea and covers a lot of wonderful territory in this essay, which I recommend. She addresses the limits of likability, and what lies beyond it. She also uses a line I love, reminding us that characters must generally experience plenty of conflict and trouble if they are going to carry a story: "It's no wonder so many characters are unlikable, given what they have to put up with."

I agree in part with Claire Messud and Roxane Gay. I do think that likability isn't everything for me; it isn't all I look for. And many of the answers I received here online reflected that, too. Readers look for flaws; they look for characters who want something and go after it and earn it. Characters who are too perfect or too lucky are boring.

At the same time, I don't completely reject the power of likability. A likable character can ratchet up the impact of a book. Claire Messud says we read to find life, not friends, and I know what she means. Part of me says, "Yes!"

But sometimes I do read to find friends. Sometimes I read to find a laugh. Sometimes I read to learn, other times to escape. Sometimes I want a book to make me think. Other times I only want it to amuse me. Sometimes I want truth, no matter how ugly; other times I need beauty more. Sometimes I am drawn to a well-written book with a character I'd run screaming from in real life. Other times I crave that emotional connection with a truly likable, admirable character.

Again I'm reminded how varied books are, and readers. Even the moods and needs of a single reader may change over time.

Thank you to everyone who sent me a comment about this topic. May you all find what you seek in books!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Random thoughts

Thank you for all your thoughts on "caring about characters" so far (my previous post). I do plan to do a follow-up post incorporating those ideas, but I'm still letting the thoughts simmer.

In the meantime, I found this quote in a Tin House interview with Daniel Menaker from a few years back (Volume 10, No. 3):

" ... the Internet is a really huge shift in the way people are encountering text. I mean, I feel somewhat rueful about it, and sad, but ...  sometimes what we see as a passing of a good thing into a bad thing is actually more nearly a passing of one thing into another thing."

Something to chew on while we cope with having that hour stolen from us last night. Or maybe you're all over that already, while I am still bitter. I have more trouble adjusting to Daylight Stealing Saving Time than anyone I know. If I had my way, instead of turning the clocks ahead an hour, we East Coasters would move them back three hours and pretend we are all living in California.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Caring about characters

One of the most difficult and frustrating pieces of feedback for a writer to get is this:
"I didn't care about the character(s)."

I have junked manuscripts based on such feedback. It's such a fatal, fundamental and pervasive flaw. If the reader isn't invested in the story, game over.

But if such a flaw is ever fixable ... how? What makes readers care about a character? What makes you care?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On reading memoirs

Some thoughts I've had while reading memoirs and autobiographies:

--Do not start with the grandparents and then take us chronologically through the next two generations to the main subject. Slip in the backstory gradually.
--Not every event and detail is of equal importance.
--We don't need to know about every single friend, relative, teacher, co-worker, etc. If we must "meet" a lot of people, introduce them slowly, not all at once, or we will never keep them straight.
--Tie every scene to the underlying theme(s) of the book. (I'm reading one now that does this very well.)
--Pay more attention to why than how.
--Interpret some. Allow the reader room for interpretation, too.
--Examine your motives.
--If there's something you don't want to delve into, leave it out altogether. Don't hint at it and then fail to explore it.
--Help us understand the connections, the causes and effects.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What else is there

"He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. 'How are you doing?' I told him fine, 'I'm still writing.'
He said, 'What else is there?'"
--Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty

What else is there? An interesting question for writers to ponder.

For me, "what else" includes hiking, and reading, and time with friends. But without writing, something big would be missing.