Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Faster than Kudzu

See, I got your attention. Kudzu does it every time.

If you want to laugh your head off, almost every day, check out Joshilyn Jackson's blog. She's part of the A Good Blog is Hard to Find southern writers' blog that I contribute to, only she's a lot funnier than I am. But she also writes funny books and really funny blog entries about weight watchers, her Ipod songs, dogs, and even manages to make me laugh at her mostly serious FAQs about writing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This 'n That

Lots to catch up with. Including this NY Times article, re: self publishing. I believe this came up in a Q&A session at my Writers in Paradise workshop.

Ten on a Toboggan, the book two others and I edited for the Chatham Historical Society, an oral history of our town, was a huge labor of love and a lot of hard work. And a perfect book for self-publishing. We have a limited market, we did a good job putting the book together, and now it's available to anyone who wants to purchase a copy. But would I self-publish a novel? Doubt it.

Speaking of books. Old news by now, but did everyone hear the Newbery and Caldecott Medal books announced yesterday. Still a bit of chatter about popular vs literary. I'll reserve judgement since I'm still waiting to read the very popular Newbery winner:
The Graveyard Book.

Here's one blogger's take on the awards. And here's a picture- scary cover, no?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Writers in Paradise, My Book List

Although this random, un-alphabetized, somewhat messy list I've created offends my Librarian Sensibilities, I'm telling myself that it's a blog, not a bibliography. So here's my list, mostly taken from recommendations in Ann Hood's non-fiction workshop, with a few additions from Laura Lippman's Roundtable and listening to the other speakers. It is not all-inclusive. It does not include books written by our instructors/ speakers (Stewart O'Nan, Ann Hood, Laura Lippman, Michael Koryta, Ann Rittenberg, Jill Bialosky, Marc Fitten, etc). Nor does it include books on our recommended reading lists for reading before the week began. Just random and messy, you were warned.

Writers in Paradise Recommended books, January 2009

Ann Hood’s Nonfiction workshop:

Fly Truffler

Mercy Papers: a Memoir of Three Weeks (by Robin Romm)
A good example of structure.

Natural History of the Senses (by Diane Ackerman)
Secret Currency of Love
Boys in My Youth (especially “Fourth State of Matter” by Joann Beard)

Liar (example of unreliable narrator in memoir)
Drinking: A Love Story (by Carolyn Knapp)

Other instructors’ references:
Arrogance (by JoAnna Scott)

Under the Red Flag (Ha Jin) “writing is kind of a mess but the truth of the story comes through”

Lorrie Moore (for examples of surprising the reader)

First Comes Love (by Marion Winik)

A Three Dog Life (by Abigail Thomas)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writers in Paradise, the End

Since Friday was jam-packed and I had no time to write, this entry will cover the last two days and I'll try to keep it brief. No promises.
The morning session was a panel on publishing, two editors, an agent, an editor of a literary magazine. Mostly what they said is what anyone who follows the business knows. Write your best. Don't let an editor/ agent be your First Reader- give your manuscript to as many good readers as you can, before it leaves your house. Don't be a pain in the butt client. Read what's out there but don't copy what's out there.

On Friday afternoon in Ann Hood's memoir workshop, she touched on other forms of creative non-fiction. We started with her take on personal essays. "In some ways as challenging to write as short stories." Ann quoted Grace Paley's statement that a short story is always two stories: the obvious one and the one happening beneath the story. The climax is when they come together and clash. And that can also happen in a personal essay.

Saturday morning started with the editor of The Chattahoochee Review. Good advice about submitting to literary magazines/ journals. An agent followed, with more publishing advice. We learned that everybody's happy when a book sells 15,000 copies. A lot sell only 2000. More advice, excellent and specific, about crafting the query letter. She even tore apart the letters (anonymous) of a few brave souls willing to have their letters used as samples. Very brave souls.

Then to our last session with our amazing teacher. Highlights? She reminded us again to use those similies sparingly: it's hard to find a great one. You defeat what you are trying to say if your simile (or metaphor) is jarring. Sometimes you don't need anything. It just gets in the way. We talked about about structure, about the container. How some pieces seem to cry out to be short, for example, four months of time passing, a specific road trip.

Since this class has officially been about memoir, I'll end with something Ann Hood said today about the hard things, the sad things that memoir is often about. "It's hard to decide what's interesting when it's your own life. But think about what's interesting to the reader. It's all about the literature."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Writers in Paradise, only 3 more days

In some ways, I'm excited about finishing and getting back to work, using some of my new thoughts and advice from this week. But I hate to think the time spent in these workshop sessions will be no more.

Today started out with a lecture by Nahid Rachlin on writing memoir. She read from her book Persian Girls and spoke very briefly about why to write memoir. "Unless you're famous, why would anybody read your life?" The writing. Write characters as interesting as those in fiction and use words that sing. I'm hearing that a lot this week.

When I asked Ann Hood that question in our afternoon workshop, she said nonfiction's like everything else we write. Why write? To make sense of the world.

And good writing is crucial. Vibrant and lively language move a story. To illustrate her point, she read from Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan, especially noting the verbs-- dangle, bend, glide, snow sifting. And the metaphors and similies (No weird similes that stop the reader in his tracks!)

Then we talked about flashbacks. Ann's a big fan of space breaks and says sometimes this is a better way to introduce a flashback, no matter what we learned about using a memory prompt- a device such as hearing the ringing of a bell. (Though I still think in writing for children, it might have to be clearer than just a space break.)

Other tips from today?
Always use said as a dialog tag. The actual dialog should tell you if it's a shout, a hiss, a query.
Not "Sarah Elizabeth, come here this second," Mama hissed.
Actually, I kind of like that. But in writing for adults and especially memoir, cut the hisses and the smiled dialog as much as possible.

In memoir- get rid of all the I remembers, I recall, I thought back. Just slows us down.

Lots more advice as we critiqued our two classmates today. That's what I like about this class. The instructor actually teaches as she critiques.

Throughout the almost three hour session, Ann shared several more book recommendations, many new to me. List to follow. Next week.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Writers in Paradise, Free Day

Ha. Not really a free day, though I did manage to get to my yoga class!

I'm catching up on the last manuscripts. I should have noted at the beginning that each of us submitted up to 25 pages of a non-fiction piece. And everyone reads and marks it up like crazy. Serious work.

The workshop I'm in is called Life Into Words. On the first day, when we went around the table and described why we were there and what we were working on, I confessed to the group (there are 12 of us in my section) that I was here because of Ann Hood. She writes memoir, fiction, essays, even a YA book. So I figured I'd learn how to put "life" into words on many levels. Here's the description of our workshop:

"Life into Words"
This workshop explores several modes of creative nonfiction, including essays, cultural criticism, humor, and memoir. The boundaries between fiction and nonfiction will be explored as well as the narrative techniques which best convey the truths of a particular moment. Discussion will touch upon the process of structuring life experiences into a book length work.

Of course, most of the participants are working on very personal stories. Some life-threatening, some horrific. We were cautioned early on, by Ann, that we are not critiquing the life event, but rather the writing. We are not commenting on the story, rather we are like mechanics trying to fix the story. Ann, who pulls no punches and is not falsely positive but is a true mechanic, with her box of tools, digs in to help us all.

At the end of the workshop, I'll try to compile a list of the books we've talked about. Stay tuned.

Now back to work.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 3, Inauguration Day in Paradise

This morning's lecture on Endings was like a college class. In fact, it was. Almost two hours on endings. More than I can take in, blog about, or probably ever need to know.

On to the afternoon workshop. (after a long mid-day break when the Inauguration was shown in the auditorium on a large screen)

Ann started the session sharing the way she gets tension into her writing. Excellent tips, too long to enumerate here, that looked like a football playbook when she sketched her plan on the whiteboard. That one moment may have been worth the price of the week's conference. I now have a revision trick, one that works in fiction and non-fiction, to heighten the emotional content of my writing.

Then we analyzed another New Yorker essay (we'd read Granny's Bridge by Tony Earley on day 1). This one was "Family History: Alone at the Movies." Ann pointed out that even in such a short piece, the Mother's slight dialog makes her come alive. The ending tells us so much. Reading these essays and getting Ann's take on them -- that no matter what you are writing, you need to include when, where, why, dialog, character development and the all-important SO WHAT-- pretty much made my day. That and her description of revising for emotional tension.

I could have left happy right then.
But we analyzed two more manuscripts, each for a full hour. Those writers went away with total satisfaction and a plan. That's what they said.

Tomorrow we have a Day of Rest. Nothing planned. Time to read.

At the beginning of the conference Dennis Lehane gave us this admonition:
Take full advantage of the week. Remember, when you want to talk about gerunds and onomatopoeia in the regular world-- "mutant issues"-- nobody gives a shit. In your regular life, non mutants don't care. You can't convert them. So while you are here, get into completely meaningless debates and revel in this time.

So far, I haven't had those discussions with my fellow writers at the Workshop. Then again, maybe I live in a mutant world. I do know a lot of people who love reading and writing, and even gerunds.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 2, in Paradise

At 10 AM, I walked into a large room with circles of folding chairs, mostly already filled up with my fellow Writers in Paradise participants. Today's first session was listed as Roundtables. The idea was come and go, join a circle being facilitated by one of the presenters, move on if you like. I took the last seat at the circle nearest the door.

Then Laura Lippman joined my group. I didn't move for 2 hours. I missed opportunities to hear Dennis Lehane, Stewart O'Nan, all the other presenters, but wow. I learned a lot.

I'm a Lippman fan from my 12 years of living in Baltimore. She writes crime fiction, old stories often taken from her days as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Here are a few gems from my notes (though I was listening and there was quite a dynamic interchange going on about writing and reading, so I didn't write much).

When asked how she plots. She calls her method the "distant shore school of plot." She always knows what's happening across the water, at the end. She knows the one big secret, but we (her readers) don't and even the protagonist doesn't. Although she knows the ending, she's also a fan of what she calls "Landmine Fiction" (don't you love that?). " It may not matter now, but mostly these zingers will go off later. This in reference to much of what she plants along the reader's path. Not exactly red herrings, but they might be.

About Rules: She likes George Orwell's rules, especially the last one: Break the rules. Remember my reference, somewhat ironic, to Elmore Leonard's rule about the weather? She loves weather. Often starts with it.

More on her concrete tips for writing out of a muddled middle later.

In the afternoon, we critiqued three manuscripts with Ann Hood. I've been in workshops where participants moved around the table and commented, then the leader gave her suggestions and that was that. That's not the way this works. So far, we've spent an hour, occasionally more, on each 25 page memoir. Interspersed with her critiques, Ann continually gives us tips, advice, suggestions that apply to all of our writing.

Today, for example, the question of prologues came up. "When chapter one and the heart of the story are set in different places, different times, and you need to know the earlier stuff, you need a prologue." Or you may need a prologue. The prologue says "this is what you need to know to read my book." Or it can be a different point of view being expressed, such as an earlier time, when the main character was a child.

This comment came because someone's piece had a prologue and she wanted to know if it worked. That's how most of what we are hearing happens. Because of the writing being discussed. We also talked about connected essays, the need for a central theme (if it's going to be a book).

More words of wisdom from my afternoon session?
Only specifics ring true.
Semi-colons are an evil form of punctuation (ditto ... and !).
But we all know that.

Tonight Ann Hood read the first thing she was able to write after the death of her young daughter, the prologue to the memoir about her daughter, and she finished with the chapter from that book about her daughter's love of the Beatles. Evening sessions are open to the public.

In introducing Ann Hood tonight, Dennis Lehane told us that after she'd taught at the conference last year, he didn't even think of not inviting her back. All the writers here are cool, he assured us. But Ann's even more than that. She actually cares if you learn something.

He ended his introduction with a quote from The Princess Bride:
Life is pain. Anyone who tells you different is selling you something.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Writers in Paradise, Day 1

OK. I probably overestimated my abilities. I told my writing friends I'd be blogging about the conference each day. After Day 1, I can see how this might be overwhelming. To me and possibly to anybody reading this.

So I'll keep it brief and fill in details as they come up in future posts. Because this conference, after only one day, is packed full of helpful, amazing, interesting stuff.

Stewart O'Nan spoke first. I'd just read his new novel: Songs for the Missing. I love his writing. He spoke about his journey, beginning in his basement writing room, through conferences, and eventually an MFA from Cornell. He's a big believer in reading to learn how to write and gave us numerous challenges in that department. (I guess I'll have to tackle Joyce Carol Oates after all.) He reads to look at sentences, their construction, to notice words. More of his advice?

Set your big scenes big.
Surprise the reader. (Change the tone. Make an unreliable first person noticeable. Shock the reader.)
Keep your characters with you. Carry them around Feel yourself as that character.

"Writing is like reading a good book. You live in that world and don't want to leave."

Then I moved to my afternoon memoir workshop with Ann Hood (the reason I wanted to be a part of this conference. Love her writing.)

"You can't write non-fiction unless you tell the truth. You can't worry about what others think."

Since I even worry about what others might make of my fiction, this is food for thought for me.
She quoted Gregory Maguire. The What if, Then What, And then, And then thing. A great way to get at the story. In non-fiction (and in fiction), the most important of these questions is the next one: So What?

In all writing, the focus should be right there at the beginning, in the first sentences. We should know where we are and what we are in for.

Tips I think I'll work on:
1. Picture sentences. Close your eyes. If you can't picture it, it needs help.
2. In non-fiction, use all the devices of fiction: dialogue, setting, character, action, climax, resolution.
3. Find a central metaphor (examples: knitting, fire), something that gives your story meaning.

That's about all my brain can process at the moment. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Writing Rules

Elmore Leonard's Top Ten, excerpted from a New York Times interview, possibly with tongue in cheek, but still, a lot of truth. Click here for the list. A couple of my personal favorites:

Never open a book with weather.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Email and Resolutions

I'm not saying I DID make any New Year's resolutions. But if I'd made a writing resolution this year, it would have been to invent my own serious Self Study program like blogger Kristi Holl is doing. I'd practice Reading Like a Writer and I'd study the intriguing writing advice of Margie Lawson. Maybe I will and maybe I won't. 2009's barely begun. I'm working on it. But I haven't followed through with a plan- yet. Perhaps because I didn't actually make a resolution in writing or even verbally to anyone other than my friend Kay.

Or maybe, just maybe, it's what Holl says in this blog entry. Actually documents it. With numbers.
Could I possibly be wasting too much time on email?
Just wondering.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

St. Brendan the Navigator...

OK, the next time I go for a walk on the beach, I'm taking my notebook. Or at least a camera. What I think will be a quick walk to breathe the fresh air and stare at the water always surprises me.
Today, besides children building drip castles, an Army helicopter flying back and forth, lots of sunbathers and one brave soul swimming, a bagpiper walked up and down, close to the water. Of course, I followed him. I love bagpipes. Plus, he was wearing a teeshirt from Pt. Pleasant NJ: St. Brendan the Navigator Pipes and Drums. How could I not pay attention?

Read more about bagpipe bands on the website Real Men Wear Kilts. My bagpiper wore his kilt, played his bagpipes, and dipped bare feet in the sand. And that music- mixed with the sound of the water and the gulls screaming..

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Late Bloomers and Prodigies

Read Malcolm Gladwell's October article in the New Yorker for lots of reasons. The list of Top Ten poems. Picasso. Cezanne. Stay-at-home Dads. Art patrons. Haiti. But the true theme of the piece is the difference between early starters and late bloomers.

The C├ęzannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

I think he's also writing about not giving up. A good thought for the New Year.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A New Book Review

Just today, published in the Christian Science Monitor, is my review of What I Saw and How I Lied. (Why is it so hard to remember that title!)
I've already blogged about book reviewing, but this one's a good example of why you have to read a book more than once before reviewing it. There was a lot of hoopla about this novel. It won the National Book Award for Young People. Teen readers loved it. Many reviewers loved it. And then there's that award...

At first I thought it was heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. And way too film-noirish. Among other criticisms. But that was because I was reading it like an adult-- not its intended market, and I was reading it on an airplane-- not the best spot for analysis. So I reread and rethought and- well, read my review.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top Ten(s) and a Music Blog

It's that time of year again when everybody's making their Top This and Top That lists. While deciding which Elizabeth McCracken book to read next, I stumbled up Largehearted Boy's blog.

Loved this post about Clyde Edgerton and the hymns he remembers from his childhood.
Not only does he let writers explain how music entered into their books-- which tunes they write to and why-- Largehearted Boy lists lots of Best Book lists. Not to mention free downloads.

Oh, and I found everything I wanted to know about McCracken's books, including an interview I remembered from NPR.
Great site.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Today in New Jersey

This is the view from my walk around the Madison Commons. That's ice on the pond, fyi. Today is sunny and bright, but I think I've used up all my words to describe ice and snow. Shouldn't this be melting now?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

3 Sweaters...

The good thing about travel delays is that I can lose myself in a good book. When you fly in and out of Newark, mostly standing by, hoping to get on the next flight somewhere, you have lots of reading time.

On my trip South to visit family this New Year's, I read detective fiction- pure escape. But on the trip to New Jersey today, I finally let myself read my Christmas gift to myself-- Stewart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing. So far, all I can say is WOW. I'd been saving it, having heard such great things about this novel that I wanted to read it carefully, without airport distractions, but there I was, on a delay in Baltimore, stuck in the terminal with only one book. Fortunately, the writing is exquisite. So far, I'm loving this book. More on this one later.

So now I'll put on another sweater-- my comfort zone has narrowed since moving to Florida for most of the year-- turn up the thermostat a degree or two, and get back to that book.

Here's hoping all of you found the perfect book in your stocking. Leave me a comment and tell me exactly what Santa brought you to read!