Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blog love

Unlike many writers, I've never kept a diary, at least not long-term. My life's not that thrilling, and re-living it each day bores me to tears.

But my blog feels different. It has a theme in my writing journey (and hopefully even some forward momentum!). And, at least ostensibly, it's for other readers. The writer part of me agonizes over explaining everything exactly and perfectly. The teacher part of me loves sharing all my wise ponderings. But I also love having readers who share their own insights, in their comments and on their blogs, and offer encouragement, support, and community.

So while I'm nearing Critically Yours' four year anniversary (yes, really, it's this summer!), and Google is pulling out of the reader business, and all the tech gurus are talking about what's next on the horizon now that blogging's apparently totally passé, I still love it. I still find meaning in it, too. Just last week I was thinking about how easily Project Fun has come together, and re-reading my archives (instead of actually writing, of course!) and remembering those good and hard times, my struggles with craft, my breakthroughs, and getting inspired all over again. Not to mention my various posts on moving, life overseas, my travels... it's all here!

Maybe, probably, that's narcissistic. And I certainly haven't used my blog to its fullest advantage--I don't publicize it widely, I don't participate in blog contests or book tours, I don't write on trendy subjects, or scour Stat Counter so I can capitalize on what interests my readers. I keep Critically Yours totally me.

But I won't be letting go anytime soon. I just hope, whatever future is in store for the technology, I can hold onto the archives!

Did you love blogs? And, in the meantime, has anyone found any good Google Reader alternatives?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Literary pilgrimages

This past weekend, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts. I've been planning the trip since I first found out I was moving to Massachusetts. Little Women is one of my favorite books, and I can't help but see myself in the novel's young, fiery-tempered writer, Jo, and the author herself, Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House
The best part was walking up to Orchard House, seeing its crooked beams, its front door, imagining Alcott and her family in every nook and cranny. And they were! The interior walls were covered with pencil sketches by the youngest daughter, the artist May. I saw the room where the sisters hung their curtain, and performed their theatrics. I saw Rodrigo's boots! And Alcott's writing desk. Unfortunately, the tour was quite disappointing--obnoxious children touching original furniture, a tour guide who seemed to be reciting a speech rather than passionately telling stories, and little more information than I could've garnered off Wikipedia. But I've spent the past several days thinking about the house, remembering everything I saw, and most of the disappointment has evaporated. There's something special, almost magical, about standing in the same place as someone you admire. As if the very floor beams are infused with her genius, spirit, and love.

Stones marking the foundation of Thoreau's cabin
Phil and I also visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (where Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and Hawthorne are all buried), and walked around Walden Pond, a pilgrimage for Phil's sake. Walden Pond is now a state park, and I imagine it would please Thoreau immensely that the forest's beauty has been preserved and continues to be enjoyed--though thankfully we were there completely out of tourist season! And I have to say, seeing Phil soak in Thoreau was almost as special as visiting Orchard House myself.

Walden Pond
As someone who's traveled a lot, I've been lucky enough to see several other writers' homes: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. I visited Whitby, and saw not only Bram Stoker's home, but the setting for Dracula. When in Paris, inspired by the movie Midnight in Paris, I dragged my husband and an old friend on a walking tour around the city; we saw F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda's home, Gertrude Stein's, and Hemingway's, as well as some of their favorite hang-outs. And living in Amherst, I've of course visited Emily Dickinson's house (twice, actually--that tour is amazing, if you ever get the chance).

But lately I've been thinking, what other pilgrimages are on my list? Are there other homes that would mean as much to me as Orchard House? I think the places most important for me to visit are the ones that are mentioned in the novels, that are filled with the author's spirit: Dicken's London for example, or Stoker's Whitby. I regret not seeing Roald Dahl's house and writing hut in Oxfordshire, and Charlotte Bronte's home on the moors. Ever since I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, I've been imagining visiting Hemingway's home in Key West. And while I've been to DC numerous times, I only recently learned that one can visit the Frederick Douglass house. That's on my list, too. And that's probably only scratching the surface.

What literary pilgrimages have you made? And where would you love to go?

Thoreau's grave, Concord, Mass

*All photos taken by me or Phil.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Carpe diem?

I've had a good past few weeks on the writing front. At the end of February, I finished my latest revision of Project Fun. One of my most trusted beta readers got back to me and said she thought it was almost ready to go. On a long bus ride to Boston and back, I read it myself, and came to the same startling conclusion. Then last week another beta reader got back to me; she read Project Fun in practically one sitting, she loved it.

Do you remember that scene at the end of When Harry Met Sally? It's New Year's Eve, and Harry suddenly realizes he loves Sally and runs to find her at a big party. While she listens, confused and a little annoyed, Harry lists all the reasons he loves her. Finally he concludes: "I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

That's exactly how I feel. I first developed the characters for Project Fun in 2008. The plot finally came to me in 2011. I started working on the story in earnest this past fall. And all along, I've loved it. I can't wait to start sending it out into the world.

But of course, that's the crazy scary part, too. While the new revisions are already almost completely done, I know the beginning needs some more work, maybe even a brand new opening scene. The end needs a line here and there to flesh out a minor character's emotions. The query is still rough (any great query critiquers out there?! I'd love some feedback!). I'm waiting for one more beta reader to get back to me. And in May I'm signed up for New England SCBWI Conference--maybe I should hold off until then in case I get some more feedback? I do want to make sure the beginning will draw in readers... Let's be honest, I'm so scared to submit Project Fun and hear nothing but nos.

But on the other hand, I'm just not sure how long I can wait. I'm terrified, but excited, too. And like Harry, whatever the outcome, I'm eager for what comes next to start as soon as possible. 

Is this a familiar feeling to you, too? Or am I totally crazy? How are your writing projects progressing?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Diverse reads: Children of the Street by Kwei Quartey

Kwei Quartey's mystery thriller, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, plunged me straight in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The book was full of vivid details: child porters carrying deliveries on their heads, a river bank littered with plastic bottles and "flying toilets" (bagged human excrement), cows grazing on the other side of the river, a variety of languages (there's a short glossary in the back of the book), stereotypes about people from Northern Ghana, named neighborhoods, everything from Agobogbloshie, also called Sodom and Gomorrah, to Jamestown,  streets, cafes, and even radio stations. Sometimes Quartey's language was a little too explanatory, but it disappeared as the story progressed, and I honestly didn't mind an author holding my hand as he brought this foreign world to life and immersed me in it. And clearly Quartey knows his stuff. Born in Ghana, he currently lives in the US, but in his acknowledgements thanks numerous Ghanian people and institutions, including the GPS (Ghana Police Service).

With the exception of the setting, the story, while clever, is fairly typical thriller fare. Street children are being murdered in gruesome ways, one by one, and Detective Inspector Darko Dawson finds himself tracking down an elusive serial killer. While the back of my book tells me Quartey's first book, WIFE OF THE GODS, garnered a star from Booklist and made him a bestselling author, I had never heard of him until recently, and I was a suspicious reader. As someone who's worked with street children before, sensationalistic or inaccurate portrayals of poverty make my blood boil. But I didn't want to read a moral lesson about our treatment of the poor, either. Thankfully, I was in totally self-assured hands. In addition to a riveting plot that had me reading for several hours straight, Inspector Dawson is a well-rounded character. He's fully devoted to his wife, and desperate with worry for his 7-year-old son, who needs an unaffordable life-saving heart surgery as soon as possible. Dawson cares for children, and blanches at their poverty, but at the same time struggles with his temper, and fights his addiction to wee (marijuana), which he buys from a dealer immersed in Accra's street culture.

On first finishing the book, I initially thought some threads were left hanging with suspicious characters who weren't murderers, but whose actions might very well have been illegal or at least morally questionable. But on further thought, that's one of the themes of the book. While many characters thought of the street children as filthy or reprehensible, they were also interacting with and benefiting from that culture. What a cutting (but subtle!) indictment of poverty that is! 

And as dark as the story was (and it was, including a graphic rape scene that left me quite uncomfortable), I loved the faint beam of hope at the end. I think I can share some of Quartey's great dialogue without giving away the killer!

"Don't you fear someone will see you take a child?"

"And so what?" X laughed hard. "Please, Inspector Dawson, let me tell you something you should know by now. Accra is a perfect place for murder. It is so dark and so quiet at night. Street people are sleeping everywhere. Who knows they are there, and who cares about them? Who will report anything? Everyone fears you, the police. They say if you go to report something to the police, you are the one who they will arrest. I could kill of these rubbish children around the corner from where the other ones sleep and I coud walk away without worrying. No one will care."

Dawson shook his head. He didn't want that to be true.

"When I throw such a person into the lagoon...," X continued, "I can do it without any concern whatsoever. I go back to my bed and sleep without any problem. You think a policeman is going to come and get me? Ha."

Dawson leaned across the table and brought his face so close to X's that X drew back.

"But X, my fool," he whispered, "that is exactly what I did. I came in and fished you out."

WIFE OF THE GODS has already been added to my reading list, and I see just a few weeks ago, Publishers Marketplace announced Quartey's two-book deal with Soho. The third Darko Dawson novel should be coming out March of 2014. And I'm looking forward to it. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Diverse Reads: Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst

I wish I had loved Vessel. It has such promise: an evocative desert landscape, a strong female character, a culture steeped in storytelling, thought-provoking themes. And I love the premise and all the questions it raises. Liyana is prepared to sacrifice her own life for her goddess and the good of her clan--in fact, she's prepared for this since childhood. But when her goddess doesn't appear, it's up to Liyana herself to save her people.
Except I never connected with Lyana, or any of the other characters. She was so brave and smart, but because she didn't seem to have any human weaknesses, I never saw myself in her.

That said, I loved how Durst handled diversity in Vessel. Liyana's dark skin didn't stand out. All of the desert people were dark-skinned, it was part of the world, part of the story. Also, unbeknownst to me when I started reading, one of the other characters is blind, and that was handled masterfully. Her blindness is hardly relevant and never considered a disability until an encounter with an outsider. I can't say anymore without major spoilers, but the whole ensuing discussion was provocative.

I enjoyed Vessel, and certainly ripped through the end, anxious to discover what would happen. And even if most of the characters have already vanished from my mind, the world and its premise was so fascinating, I know it will sit with me a long time. 

While February has come and gone, I still have a few diverse reads sitting at the top of my tottering to-read pile. I will be away next week, but hope to return later in March with more reviews of those I enjoyed, along with my regular exhilarating programing. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Playing with structure

I'm a little embarrassed to admit I first put A Visit from the Goon Squad on my to read list because I thought it was a literary novel about the mafia. What can I say, I think the mob is endlessly fascinating! By the time I figured out it was actually about the music industry, author Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer Prize, and was waging a battle against sexism in book reviews (including Time magazine, who celebrated her Pulitzer win by putting Jonathan Franzen on their cover), and even though I can't say I'm much interested in the music industry, I was interested in reading Egan.

And even though there were no mobsters in the entire book (the goon squad is a metaphor for time), and I read the book a few months ago, it's lingered on in my mind. As I said in my Goodreads review:

"Each chapter takes place in a different time period, with a different point of view character, yet each chapter comments on the others, provides context for characters' pasts or futures, and circles around the story's main themes of history, destiny, and change. On top of all that, Egan frequently plays with structure, telling one chapter in second person, another solely in power point slides, a third makes heavy use of futuristic text-speak. While I never found the book a page-turner, I was in awe. I have no idea how Egan managed to pull all this off. How does an author create a meaningful, thought-provoking and gut-punching chapter all in power points?! Or a totally sympathetic point of view character in a few lines? Beautifully written, and definitely worth a re-read to fully understand how all the characters intersect and to desperately try and study Egan's masterful craft."

I'm especially still thinking about that Power Point chapter (you can see it in its entirety on Egan's website under "Great Rock and Roll Pauses"), and its 12-year-old narrator, who can't communicate with her family, and worries they're falling away from each other, and can only truly express her feelings through her computer diary, showing arrows and graphs and ven diagrams. I know plenty of kids like her, who are more comfortable changing the font color and background images on a slide than writing an essay. And I totally believed in her and was moved by her story.

And it got me thinking about playing with structure. Why don't I do that more often? Of course, done poorly, it's just intellectual snobbery. But when structure reflects a character's personality and emotions--that's gold.

Speaking of playing with structure, I'm also a big fan of e. e. cummings' poetry. Have you seen this one?


For those of you unfamiliar with e. e. cummings, read down, inside and outside the parentheses, to get "a leaf falls" and "loneliness". Somehow the structure and the spacing, and that line with the word "one," convey so much more than those single words.

Egan and Cummings challenge me to play with structure in my own writing. Have you ever done anything unique with your writing structure? Did it work? And any other examples of poignant structure that need to go on my to-read list?