Saturday, August 29, 2009

A subjective love of books (or, What makes Anne tick?)

Finally finished NORTHERN LIGHTS (aka THE GOLDEN COMPASS) by Philip Pullman. Phil (my husband, not the writer!) says he's never seen me take so long to read a book. Not true! I'm sure there are exceptions!

But the truth of the matter is that I read pretty quickly. And I'm a merciless reader. When I don't like a book, I usually stop reading (what's that great quote from Ratatouille? "I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow"). And, to be honest, I don't much care for NORTHERN LIGHTS. But on re-reading Pullman for my course, I planned to approach the book with a less-critical mindset and to appreciate the good bits of it.

So here is my attempt to be positive. Pullman has some beautiful descriptions. In fact, I love his setting all together, and it's the thing that first attracted me to the book: warrior polar bears, the northern lights. I also intend to write out his entire plot because I was amazed at the mastery of weaving such a complete world and such a complicated story line together. And of course, the book is non-stop action, and could be quite a page turner.

Is that why this book is so loved? I would love to know what others think of it, how it affected you, and what other good, writerly things I can pull from it.

It also led me to thinking about why I love certain books and not others. I wonder if for all the page-turning of Pullman's book I do better with character-driven stories. But then, while I love CORALINE, I don't think the main character is the strongest part of that book. I did adore the setting of CORALINE... but then, I adored the setting of NORTHERN LIGHTS, too. And it's not message because, truth be told, Pullman annoyed me long before I reached even the midway point of NORTHERN LIGHTS. I know I'm not a stickler for poor writing when the story grabs me. I mean, I LOVE Theodore Dreiser. Maybe it has to do more with sympathy? Maybe a character has to really grab my heart...? I'm not sure. Must think more on this.

But please tell me what you think!

A reading update

I promised an update on my course reading list post, so here is:

Read:
HOW I LIVE NOW and WHAT I WAS by Meg Rosoff
COSMIC by Frank Cottrell Boyce
THE SAVAGE by David Almond
NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman

Yet to read:
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS by John Boyne
THE BRIDE'S FAREWELL by Meg Rosoff (available in bookstores in September)
FRAMED by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Maybe others by the same authors, depending on how I get on

I also plan to re-read:
CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B. White
SKELLIG by David Almond

I wrote reviews for Goodreads of both THE SAVAGE and COSMIC:

THE SAVAGE is a story about storytelling, its magic, and its redemptive power. The illustrations by Dave McKean are both haunting and laugh-out-loud funny. The text is mesmerizing. Clearly, others disagree, but I found it a realistic depiction of a child and his relationship with violence. Pure magic. (5/5)

Frank Cottrell Boyce and I definitely have one thing in common: we dream of space. That's why the end of this book is such a pleasure. Boyce's descriptions of space, the moon, earth, the feeling of being so alone and so far away in such vastness are magical. Through his writing, Boyce took me into space. Cosmic!
I was frustrated because I didn't understand the characters, and the pace felt so slow I almost stopped reading at times. But I'm so glad I stuck around to finish a beautiful book.
(4/5)

I probably haven't written any reviews for Rosoff's books because I'm still thinking about them. However, I ranked HOW I LIVE NOW 5/5 on Goodreads (I didn't get on as well with WHAT I WAS). Rosoff's writing is extraordinarily beautiful. I find her books take completely unexpected turns, some good, some bad, and seem to defy categorization. At their hearts, though, they are very much about people and desperate lives.

So, for two novelists I had never read before, I'm so grateful to have discovered Meg Rosoff and Frank Cottrell Boyce. David Almond has been a bit of a mixed bag with me, so I was also pleased to discover a work of his I like as much as THE SAVAGE.

What? Nothing about Philip Pullman? Yeah, saving him for my next post, along with some thoughts about why I love the books I do and why I just can't enjoy others.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gritting my way through a great book

I have discovered recently that I grit my teeth when I read. It only happens when I'm really engaged in a story. But unfortunately, when it happens, it really hurts. My jaw ached for weeks after reading SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson.

So I have been holding my teeth carefully the past few days, yet my mouth is still killing me. The reason? CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers.

Parker Fadley used to be perfect. She was valedictorian, homecoming queen three years straight, captain of the cheerleading team. But all the time, she's been falling apart. Everything comes to a head one night and cracks Parker's world and persona for good. When the book begins we find her mean as can be, drinking vodka to sleep, and threatened with expulsion unless she attends all of her classes and completes all of her homework until graduation.

I read some reviewers who said Parker's meaness turned them off. But I saw it as a cover for her brokeness, and found some of these descriptions heartbreaking. Here's one of my favorites. It's Parker with Jake, the boy who likes her:

"We laugh. And then we realize we're laughing together and then we stop and then it gets awkward. I don't do awkward well, at least mutual awkwardness, so I snap my fingers to make the feeling go away.

"And then I can't stop.

"Even after Jake points it out.

"'That's really annoying,' he says.

"So I kick it up a notch just to bug him and I keep it up until my fingers start to hurt."

A shudder went down my spine when I realized she can't stop snapping. CRACKED UP TO BE unveils of the truth of what happened to Parker and her struggles, as a former perfectionist, to deal with it.

It actually reminded me quite a bit of SPEAK (for reasons other than my mouth hurting). Like SPEAK, CRACKED UP TO BE is about the horrors of high school and reveals the mystery of what happened at the end. But I found CRACKED UP TO BE surprisingly more complex, more real. SPEAK, for all its terror, has a clearer resolution. And SPEAK is about one horrific event, not so much all the games children play every day in school just to survive.

I'm also so impressed with Courtney Summers' skill: the agonizingly slow reveal of the mystery, the mean but sympathetic character, the chills down my spine. This is a book that will stay on my bookshelf a long time to be re-read and studied. This is only her first published book. Other than my terror that I will never be able to write this well, I can't wait for her next book and the next and the one after that. And for a fellow Blueboarder I have to say, congratulations Courtney!

British news

So you are familiar with the tabloid nature of the British press, yes? I lived in London for a semester during the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. I remember the tabloids daily proclaiming headlines like "CIGAR SEX".

So imagine my surprise when I moved here for real at developing a passionate love for British journalism. Now, I should qualify this by pointing out I'm a Guardian reader. To my British friends, that's the American equivalent of saying I shop at the Whole Foods. I don't read the Telegraph as I don't really like getting pictures of naked women alongside my world news.

But British journalism as a whole, even including the Guardian, is very different from American journalism. An example? This headline story broke on the Guardian's website last night at about 8 pm (3 pm EST): Obama on brink of Middle East peace breakthrough. What??? You can imagine my little democratic heart racing. So I did what I always do; I checked my regular American newspaper source, the Chicago Tribune. Nothing. As of 10:30 am this morning (yes, only 5:30 am EST, but they did have all yesterday afternoon) the Chicago Tribune has not reported this amazing breakthrough. Now, as much as I'd like to cry foul and complain about the conservative Tribune, a quick check shows me that the New York Times hasn't reported it yet either. The Huffington Post IS running it, though (with a link to the Guardian article).

So... is British journalism (with the exception of the Huffington Post, of course =) ) just that much more on the ball? Well... no. The reason is that British journalists have different standards than American journalists. To put it bluntly, in the UK a very likely rumor equals a headline story. And 90% of the time the papers seem to be right. If you read the Obama article, the details of the agreement between the UK, US, France and Israel (among other countries) are expected to be hashed out today. So yes, the Guardian could be wrong, and this story won't work out the way their article predicts. But it probably will. Which is one of the reasons the Guardian is my homepage.

Of course, as someone brought up on American journalism, running a story without verifiable evidence makes me nervous. But as a consumer and avid follower of politcal news, I like being on top of the news, even if it does just turn out to be a rumor. So I am conflicted about this. But I imagine, even when I move back to the US, I will continue to rely on British journalism.

Also, I have to add, while I'm praising British journalism: funnier and more honest. They're allowed to swear, to print naked pictures, to ask the questions no American journalist would risk her job asking. I'm still giggling over the article on the nearly-naked David Beckham billboards which a reporter commented were clearly showing his "meat and two veg."

It will be interesting, though, to see how this story progresses, and while Obama's approval ratings are currently heading a bit downhill, how the American media choses to frame this story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This is the sort of silliness I'm talking about


Considering my previous post, I had to share this picture with you.

What is it? It's a chart listing the driving emotions behind one of my main characters (unfortunately it's illegible because I took it with Photo Booth, so it's backwards). I've then plotted my major events under the different emotional strands. See, I know how my character (Isabel) feels at the beginning of the book, and I know how she feels at the end, but the middle is a bit fuzzy. So I'm hoping this will help me to make sure the rest of the plot is structured around her emotional development.

Now do you see why I hate this? Wish I could just figure it all out and start writing again. But do notice how neat my handwriting is. I take great pride in that.

What kind of witer are you?

I remember in high school people from Polonius on downwards telling me to be true to myself. It really annoyed me. I mean, how in the world could I be true to myself? As a freshman in high school I was fifteen. I had only known myself for fifteen years, and just about age twelve I began figuring out there were other people around. So I could be true to teachers or parents or friends, but I didn't know jack really about being true to myself.

I'm happy to report I feel much more confident in myself now in my thirties. It's so exciting to finally know who I am and to have the courage (some days!) to not be ashamed of it.

Though I've discovered a similar problem exists with writing. Sure, in school, in my job, I was able to crank out an essay here and there, write a report, without really knowing much about myself as a writer. But as a novelist, I've found it gets trickier. Should I outline the whole thing first? Should I throw outlines to the wind and write barefoot? Do I work best on the computer or with a pen? Every writers' website and blog tells a different story. The smart ones say a writer needs to find her own way. Which is really annoying. Even worse, some writers say their methods differ with each book. Very scary.

So far I've discovered a few things about myself. I put everything on the computer, all of my notes, my ideas, my plot charts, everything, but I absolutely must write it all by hand first, especially my actual story. I love the freedom of writing, of inventing characters, taking my story wherever--but my first drafts have no plot, no character arcs and usually no villains. So I also find myself drawing charts, mindmaps, outlines, over and over and over again, desperately hoping I can find a way to use everything I wrote and squeeze it into a plot. Once I have a plot I get to go back to free writing and imagination. Then I repeat this pattern 2000 some times. I'm in the graphing stage right now, which I hate. But I'm just not creative or smart enough to plot organically. Maybe someday it will come more naturally. I hope.

But in the meantime, I think Facebook or Cosmo or someone should so have a quiz on "What kind of writer are you?". I could know my coloration, my personality-type, which light saber I should carry AND how best to write my book. Then I would be complete.

My library addiction

I am so addicted to libraries. I think it's my absolute passion for books coupled with my complete cheapskate-ness. I walk into a library and there's all these books, all these stories, all this knowledge--and it's all completely free!

The nice thing about not working right now is that I have the time to read several books a week, so I don't feel so guilty going to the library and coming home with seven books. And I totally think of my books like other people think of a new pair of jeans, or a cute little black dress. Last night I showed Phil my two newest finds, Breathing Underwater by Julia Green and The Dreamwalker's Child by Steve Voake. But I didn't just show him the books. I made him look at the covers, at the blurbs, spun them around a few times. See? Totally obsessed. (I should note that Julia Green and Steve Voake will both be my teachers at Bath Spa, so I'm really excited to have a chance to see what they're writing. By the way, I should also add that Steve Voake's homepage is scary. No, seriously. Turn up the volume on your computer and follow this link. I think I screamed the first time.).

In other book news, I stayed up late last night reading Courtney Summer's CRACKED UP TO BE. The best book I've read in quite a while. I'll tell you all about it later this week (though I might treat myself and reread the whole thing first!).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Starting over

Sometimes writing is like running. Like a runner training for a race, I've been writing my newest wip for the past year. Sometimes it's been a tough slog, sometimes the writing's come easily. The past two weeks I have been working on solidifying my plot, making sure all the pieces fit together, all my questions are answered, the villains are consistent, etc. This past week I tested my plot summary with both my Chicago and Bristol writing groups. Both asked very similar questions. And most of the questions were questions I had asked myself recently, too. It made me realize, in spite of my effort, there are still some big plot holes to fill. And it felt like I'd trained for a year, finally run my big race, and fallen five seconds short of the qualifying time. Not a good feeling, especially when so much work has been poured into it.

Of course the problems with my plot can (and probably will) be solved, but the solutions are intangible to me at the moment. So it's back to the drawing board.

But first I think I need a bit of a break and a chance to clear my mind. So this morning I started playing with a different project. As I said in a previous post, I may change this new project multiple times, but at least I have something new to play with, a chance to enjoy my writing for a bit.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Secret agent writer

I consider myself a private person by nature. But the more I work as a writer, the more close-mouthed I find myself becoming.

I'm not the only one. Louis Sachar (author of HOLES) writes on his website's FAQ page: "I never tell anyone about what I'm working on. Not even my wife or daughter! I do that for self-motivation more than anything else. By not allowing myself to talk about it, it forces me to write it."

I was really struck by this when I first read it. I find it to be true for myself as well. If I get really excited about my wip (work in progress) and tell the whole story to a friend, I lose the motivation to retell it all as I'm trying to write it. Also, I love the surprise of secrets. If I have one, I can't wait to share it. Therefore, if my wip is a secret, it inspires me to get it out asap.

So even though my husband knows most of the story I'm writing, for the past few months I've been quite close-mouthed about plot twists, my discovery of the ending, and any changes to the characters (though to be honest, I'm not sure he's noticed =) ). I want to finish it.

But there are other reasons for writers to be quiet, too. I rarely tell people outright that I'm working on a book. The first question people always ask is if I've published anything. In my experience, if the answer is no, people continue to ask about my book every time they see me. I don't want to sound like a stick in the mud. I really appreciate the support my friends have given me over the years in this time-consuming habit. But according to the rule of thumb I hear over and over, most writers average about ten years of serious work before they publish anything in their field of interest. So I appreciate people asking how my writing is going (love it, in fact), but I also find it a little embarrassing. Nope, still haven't published a novel.

A final reason for being quiet. I'm looking to start a new draft soon. I'm in the midst of revising my wip, and I need something to break that up with, a new creative endeavor. I thought of an idea this morning. It sounded really exciting. It's very different from anything I've ever written before, but a topic that is close to my heart. But tomorrow? Or next month? I'll probably have given up on it by then. Or I'll have had six new ideas since. Or I'll have started writing it and found it just wasn't going anywhere, so decide to put it in a back drawer. And I'll probably end up looking a little fickle. But I think that's also the nature of art.

So I'm becoming a bit of a closet writer. Shhhh... don't tell. I wonder if the whole process would be more fun if I wore a trench coat? Most definitely.

Anglicisation

When I first learned I was moving to the UK, I used to joke with people, "At least they speak English." Language learning does not come easily to me, and the thought of being thrown in a new culture where I don't speak the language is truly terrifying.

But I have come to view my language patterns here as bilingual. Sometimes I speak English and sometimes I speak American. At work, I always spoke and wrote English. I had to. My event schedule would have made no sense if my dates were all backwards. I worked for a a centre, part of an organisation. I'm a stickler for grammar and spelling, and as a British employee, I felt obligated to spell the language correctly. However, my creative writing is definitely American (how could it be British? I wouldn't presume), so I very consciously journal with only American spellings and dates. I have also made this decision with my blog and twitter. I switch spellings in emails depending on the nationality of my recipient.

But you know what scares me? These two distinct categories are getting awfully fuzzy in my mind. It has become impossible for me to write today's date as 08/19/09. It just doesn't make sense; I think day first now. The other day I bought train tickets and I couldn't remember if in the UK the trip back is called a return trip or a round trip. Likewise, I can never remember if I should get take away or take out. I told my mom the other day that things were going all "pear shaped." She had to ask what that meant, as she had never heard the expression before (it means going awry). And, I'm almost ashamed to admit this, I'm beginning to lose my zs.

I once asked a Brit why the English hardly ever use the letter z. He shrugged, said it wasn't very important. I jokingly said, "But zs are zany!" Typical dry British humor, he retorted: "That's probably why we don't use them."

So losing my zs feels a bit anti-patriotic, honestly. But give it a whirl. Organise is much easier to type than organize. The s is in the middle of the keyboard. Same with handwriting, the s is much smaller, less complicated than a z.

Is this completely minor and irrelevant? Probably. I'm sure when I move back to the US, eventually I'll return to my zany American ways. But as someone who spends so much of the day with language, who believes so strongly in the power of words, losing my native language is scary.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What is ya lit?

Phil and were having a great discussion in The Hole in the Wall pub last night. It's supposedly the pub re-created in Robert Louis Stevenson's TRESASURE ISLAND, and there is indeed a hole in the wall to look out for the press gangs coming to recruit sailors. Also it's a lovely (albeit poncy) pub with nice food right next to the river.

Figured you'd want to know. But anyway, since the setting seemed apropo, we were discussing what makes a young adult book. Someone online had mentioned TREASURE ISLAND as a children's book before the genre was invented. But I think that comes down to Stevenson's intentions. Did he write the book for children? Or did he just write an adventure story about a young boy that has happened to appeal to children since?

In reading Jane Smiley's CHARLES DICKENS, I learned that the first English novel with a child protagonist was probably OLIVER TWIST. So even the idea of writing books with children in them is fairly new, only springing up in the mid 1800s. Of course, you can probably think of plenty of examples to follow, including many of Dickens' other novels, and other great children's classics like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, PETER PAN, and THE HOBBIT. I remember learning as an English major that the first stories for children (as opposed to with children in them) were usually instrucional, or fairy tales meant to scare children into morality.

So are these the definitions of young adult literature? Books with children in them or books written for children? I can think of plenty of novels with child protagonists which are not young adult fiction (unfortunately, I think they tend to be hard to market). Also, many fantasy ya novels, such as Elizabeth Bunce's A CURSE DARK AS GOLD, star people older than 18 (her main character, by my estimation, is in her late teens, early twenties; she marries and starts a family). Indeed, common publishing wisdom dictates that children's books are for kids "reading up", meaning that a ten year old likes to read about 12-13 year olds, for example, and fantasise about growing older.

What about the idea that ya books are for ya teens? An argument against this definition is that numerous adults (myself included) read young adult fiction. I like to say I'm doing it for research (and I am), but the truth of the matter is that I also love young adult fiction. Maggie Stiefvater (author of the NYT bestselling SHIVER--go Maggie!) has a great post on this on her blog. As she writes:

"At 27, I still read mostly YA -- is that wrong of me? I identify more with the character issues in a lot of YA -- the growing up, the jumping off cliffs, the newness -- than I do a lot of adult fiction, which deals with fatigue, mid-life crisis, marriage issues. Am I the only twenty something who feels this way? Nope. There's also thirty somethings, forty something, fifty somethings who prefer the genre . . . age is irrelevant when coming to reading. There's no "this is right for this age." "this is wrong for this age."

"There's this: "This book is right for me." "This book isn't my thing."

"That's the only truth there is in reading."

Phil and I agree, and finally came to the conclusion that, just like any other genre in the bookstores, young adult is a category determined by publishers and booksellers.

So before young adult literature existed (or before publishers or booksellers or librarians determined in did) what did you read when you were a kid? * I'd love to hear about it!

By the way, want more thoughts on YA? The Book Smugglers' blog has been celebrating Young Adult Appreciation Month and yesterday had a round-up of other blogs on ya.

*Kudos to the writers on Verla Kay's blueboards who started this interesting discussion.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Banksy versus Bristol Museum and me

I just saw the best museum exhibit I have ever seen. Truly.

Banksy is a graiffiti artist in the UK, supposedly from Bristol. To be honest, I had never heard of him until I moved here (though I may have recognized some of his images), but he's a big deal here; anti-establishment, anarchist, etc.

Some people have been angry about his exhibit at Bristol's City Museum (perhaps the first where a museum has welcomed him as an exhibitor?), but crowds have been descending on Bristol (by the end of July numbers were at 200,000). The museum is right across from my former office, so every day I'd see the crowds and the press.

I kept intending to visit, but the lines were so long. I expected them to decrease as the exhibit continued, but with school holidays beginning in August, they've become even longer. Finally, I decided I had to just wait in line with everyone else. I knew I would regret not going, it's just too big a thing to skip. And especially now that I'm not working, I've been trying to get out of the house each week to try something new, to experience life a bit (I figure that's important for a writer).

So today instead of starting with writing, I walked to work with Phil and joined the line at 8:45. I was relived that it wasn't too bad, and luckily I had a good book (see the post below). The line was made up of all sorts of people, toddlers to elderly ladies sitting on the window ledges outside Brown's Cafe, white, black. The couple behind me had flown in from Belfast for the day, the woman next to me was a native Bristolian. Even mid-week, months into the exhibit, BBC2 was outside interviewing people. And by 10:15 I was walking into the entrance (which has been completely changed, now housing a burned-out ice cream truck in place of a reception desk and a sign saying "Welcome to the museum--now wash your hands."

Most of the exhibit is in the museum's regular exhibit room, a zoo of sorts ('unnatural history' it's called) is in the open space just outside, and other pictures and sculptures are scattered throughout the museum. The amount to see really amazed me. Some of the art is jokey and silly, and some truly moving. I laughed out loud at the pope statue with sado-masochist leather holding two lollipops in one hand, and my stomach clenched with the police officer in riot gear (metropolitan peace his uniform read) riding the rocking horse. Some of it I have to admit I didn't get (why is Ronald McDonald bloody and sitting like a wino outside the museum?) and others were only too obvious (the penis sculpture mixed in with the geology room's stalagmites and stalactites). Once I left the main exhibit area, I joined the groups of people wandering the museum. Some of the other art was hard to spot, like the seemingly ancient picture of the virgin Mary and Jesus sharing a small ipod's headphones. But I think that's part of the wonder of the exhibit. People were wandering around the museum, looking at everything, enjoying art for art's sake. But they were also questioning everything, discussing everything. "Is that a Banksy?" "That must be Banksy." "What do you think it means?" Even coming home, I still found myself looking twice at objects, debating truth. And isn't that great art that makes us question everything around us?

I'm definitely going to go again. I can't wait to see what else I spot, and I know I will be thinking about his images and their meanings for a while. Now the trick is to see if I can get Phil to come with me... And if you live anywhere near Bristol, really, don't miss this.

For some pictures of the exhibit and a great You Tube trailer.

A blog with more pictures.

Good finds


A few weeks ago Phil and I were wandering around a neighborhood comic shop on Gloucester Road (called Area 51!). They have a large selection of used sci-fi and fantasy books, and I recognized many of the titles from my childhood when I read that genre near religiously. I happened across a battered copy of Robert Jordan's THE EYE OF THE WORLD, the first book in his Wheel of Time series. I loved that book as a kid. I read perhaps the first four or five books in the series, but after a while found them repetitive and seemingly endless. But I must admit, my friends and I used to sneak into Schulers (fabulous bookstore) when a new book came out, just to skim through the text, keep up to date with our favorite characters. So with Robert Jordan's death in 2007, I've been thinking fondly about that series, wanting to at least re-read the first book. And when I saw it for £2, I figured I had to have it.

I approached it with trepidation, and finally started reading it last night. Would it be awful? The first two sentences were so clunky grammar-wise that I had to read them multiple times. But after sitting outside the Banksy exhibit this morning and reading for over an hour straight, I was completely hooked all over again. Mysterious warriors that move like wolves, a sorcereress who may be aligned with the Dark Lord, monsters attacking a small farming town, apparently searching out only boys of a certain age. Epic fantasy at its best. I wonder if I have time to read the whole series this time around?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bristol Balloon Festival

This past weekend was Bristol's annual hot air balloon festival. What is it about hot air balloons that makes them so romantic and gorgeous?





Kudos to Phil for some great pictures!

Writing is hard

I finished a book this morning. I had high hopes for it, but it just didn't work for me. So disappointing.

Sometimes I hear writers complain about all the bad books out there, especially popular, commercial series. Writers can be jealous creatures; they wonder how something so bad can be successful while their manuscript continues to languish unread in editors' slush piles. But my struggles with writing for the past years have taken me to a different conclusion...

I've been working my way through a book on plotting (Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell). I'm nearing the end of my novel's very rough draft, so I'm planning to go back and examine and strengthen its structure. One of Bell's suggested exercises is analyzing a published novel's plot to see if it follows common plotting structure. He also suggests, if you were bored or frustrated by the published novel, considering if this might be due to plot problems.

I figured this was a perfect opportunity to analyze the book I had been reading. But you know what I discovered? The book I have been reading has a perfect plot structure. Actually, a really amazing one. All of the major external action plot points correspond with major internal, emotional plot points. So, for example, just when monsters attack the village, the main love-interest tells the heroine he could never love her. So physically all hope is lost and AT THE SAME TIME emotionally all is lost. The external action plot and the internal emotional plot points occur at the same time and follow the same arc. That can't happen by accident. Or at least, I could NEVER just think that up. That's skill and work.

I definitely have a tendency to criticize. But any books that can keep kids turning pages, going to midnight book launching parties, sell thousands of copies... they must be doing something right. And even books that don't succeed at all those things, sometimes I think they're doing many more things right than I realize.

My conclusion? Writing is hard. =)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

All things British

Happy weekend! I'm giving myself a bit of a break on the writing this morning (partly because I've decided my latest plot development is naff). Then I thought, "Hey, I should write a blog post on naff!"

So here we are. Naff, according to the Urban Dictionary, is: "British slang, today meaning uncool, tacky, unfashionable, worthless..." Apparently it may also have been gay slang used to refer to heterosexual people. Too funny. And either way, a great word!

Also, while I'm sharing Britishness with y'all, have to share this picture:


This is my former co-workers enjoying their tea after our day-long walk in the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds is a beautiful area of England known for its rolling hills and picturesque towns (you can see the stone houses in the background, and we're standing on a stone bridge over a babbling brook. Really!). And after a warm day hiking, what could be better than tea? So very British and a habit I just haven't been able to pick up yet.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

For Connor


Yesterday Phil's parents had to put Connor to sleep. Over the weekend he fell down the stairs and when Kevin and Holly brought him to the vet, they learned he had calcified discs in his back, bones rubbing against each other, and bone spurs poking into the nerves along his spine. He was prescribed pain medication, but it didn't seem to work. Yesterday he couldn't finish his breakfast or his walk and Kevin and Holly knew it was time.

Apparently the vet cried when he put Connor to sleep. Connor has that effect on people. For those of you who never met him, Connor came to me and Phil through American Brittany Rescue. We were told he was 6, but our Chicago vet expected he was closer to 8 (making him 14 when he passed away). He had been found wandering the streets of St. Louis, and it was up to ABR and the local kennel to determine his name and birthdate. He had a long scar above one eye, and later xrays would show his backend was full of buckshot.

But for all that background, when we adopted him ABR told us he was a "gentleman" and it was true. He sat for all of his treats, wooing countless cashiers at PetSmart into giving him whole handfuls. He never barked or jumped up on people. Our next door neighbor in Chicago fell in love with Connor, always stopping to check in on him and pet him. He declared once to another neighbor on the elevator that Connor had made him believe in dogs again. Connor even befriended a group of unruly teenage boys, who affectionately called him 'Killer'.

He loved to play, too. Anything that squeaked had to be ripped apart. He would race across parks to capture tennis balls. At night he used to leap up onto the bed with Phil and I and wrestle and growl and roll over for belly rubs. He loved walks so much that he would pull the entire way, even until he was gagging and gasping for breath. Because of his love for people and walks, I used to take him everywhere, parks, middle school soccer games, to drop off videos or library books, to pick up dog food. Connor and I had a brief stint volunteering in a local PetSmart, visiting with customers (two-legged and four-legged), and even judging a doggie fashion show.

It was this constant presence that made it so hard to leave him behind with Phil's parents when we moved to Bristol. I expected his wagging tail and unbridled excitement every time I came home. I would get up at 6 and look for his chin at the side of the bed. My errands seemed so lonely and long. Kevin and Holly offered to take him in, and have been the best doggie parents that we could have imagined. They have been there for him as his health and strength failed, and loved him so much. Kevin even cooked all of his food. I know they will miss him terribly. And even though it's so sad and hard, I'm so pleased they had the courage to say goodbye to Connor before his pain became too much.

Of course, we all know he's gone to a better place now. The squirrels will be slow, he will be fast, and he'll be able to see them with both eyes. And his sleep will never be interrupted with a nightmare again.

Connor and me this past July

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Driving in the dark

I'm hoping to use the next two months before my course starts to finish a very rough draft of my current novel. I've been trying a new strategy for this novel. I write a scene or two every week. I don't revise, I don't rewrite. If I see an error, I make a note to correct it later in green. It's a funny way to write. I'll decide two scenes later to change a character's hair color or name, but I don't go back and fix the previous scenes. Or more major changes, I've changed the setting, then changed it back, all without rewriting.

The goal is to figure out the story, let the characters tell it to me, before I obsess with emotional consistency, transitions, sentence-level corrections, etc. and become afraid to change the bigger picture because the smaller picture is so perfect and lovely. Is it working? No idea, but for the most part I have been happily writing away, content until I meet with my critique groups (one in Bristol, one in Chicago) and am embarrassed to share anything.

Except this past week I have reached the climax. And you know how everything is supposed to come together in the climax, reach the ultimate moment of truth, answer the novel's big question? Well, that gets a bit tricky when I'm still not sure what the setting is. Honest, I keep changing my mind.

Monday I thought I had it all figured out. Today I wrote one and a half great scenes. However, at the end of that half, I realized I was going in the complete wrong direction and needed to start all over. It seems such a waste, but at least I can comfort myself in knowing I didn't spend a month working on those one and a half scenes.

It's like that great writer's quote from E L Doctorow, "Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights let you, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Much like life, I suppose. Terrifying and thrilling, sometimes at the same time, and I just pray that I'll end up somewhere worth driving to.

Reading Planet of the Blind

Reading Stephen Kuusisto's memoir, PLANET OF THE BLIND, about his coming to terms with his blindness. Kuusisto is a poet, and every line of the book is a work of art. Some of the language and allusions are lost on me, and I know I'm reading far too quickly, but I'll spot an illusion to Roethke or find myself entranced by a metaphor and suddenly an hour will go by and I'll lift my head amazed that I can see out the window and am not blind as I had imagined. I should also add that it's wickedly, laugh-out-loud funny.

I think I'm pretty cognizant of the world around me. But how well do I listen? How often do I smell? I have no idea how many stairs it is between my front door, the curve in the hallway, and my flat door. My descriptive powers are put to shame by a man who can't see. I mean, read this:

"A raccoon coat hangs in a doorway, a huge anthropoid black ghastliness stopping my breath until I inch forward and touch it. Dead moths fall like specks of tissue paper. There's a smell of spoiled rubber, and then I find them under the hanging coats, a pair of gutta-percha boots, the height of two umbrella stands. Inside the left one is a rolled newspaper, and inside the paper is a pair of broken horn-rimmed glasses, a memento of a fishing trip."

It's amazing, all that texture and smell and creepiness. A great challenge as a writer and as a human: use more of all my senses.

Also such a pleasure to follow the thoughts of a man who truly loves language and words and books. One last quote, my favorite because I can so identify with it:

"In the library's poetry archive an attendant hands me an 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. I put my nose on the page where Whitman himself embossed the type, and I breathe."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Using Metaphors

I've got Guys and Dolls music stuck in my head. Two weeks ago I saw Rent, and in order to get the music from that out of my head, I started listening to other musicals on my ipod. Mistake.

Right now it's Luck be a Lady. Which is a fun metaphor. I always wanted to use G&D with my students to teach metaphors and never got around to it. To take another G&D tune (they're all in my head!):
Well sir, all I can say is if I were a gate I'd be swinging!
And if I were a watch I'd start popping my springs!
Or if I were a bell I'd go ding dong, ding dong ding!

Wouldn't that be a fun class?

I've got metaphors on my mind as well lately. I read a great article in Myslexia by Bekki Hill about using metaphors to increase motivation as a writer. She suggests developing a metaphor to describe your writing. If it's a negative metaphor, you can then develop or change your metaphor so you visualise yourself overcoming your writing problems.

I'm not sure if it works or not, but I'm always coming up with metaphors for my writing. Somehow I always feel better if I can describe my state of being. So this morning I decided to play with Hill's theory. My writing was feeling like a box holding a two-thousand piece puzzle had been turned down in front of me. I couldn't figure out how to get anywhere. Should I start with the edge pieces? Collect like colors?

Then I decided it was more like a building without a foundation. Maybe like one of those 3-d puzzles of the Tower of London...

Then I decided it was more like my plot was a fly, swirling through a dark cave, trying to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Except she keeps getting a leg or a wing stuck on a spider's web. She just can't make her body streamlined enough to all fit.

Okay, not quite ready for a showtune number yet. But I wonder if I visualize myself making progress on the puzzle's border, or saving my foundation or flying really fast I'll start feeling better? I'm not sure, but I'll let you know.