Friday, September 27, 2013

The Unknown

It’s a strange time for Scribblerati Agent Shawn. My WIP is once again back overseas, nestled up against all those British 1’s and 0’s on my editor’s computer – and I wait.

But for what?


We make decisions every day, and even the smallest affect the course of our life. For instance: soy milk or almond? Okay, maybe that one doesn't have a significant impact, but the experience is different, and those experiences do put you on a slightly different fork of the road than you would have been on otherwise. Even the act of writing this blog sends out little ripples into the course of my life and the lives of those who read it.

But what about those moments when you reach one of those big forks, where the course you choose takes you off the well-traveled path you’re familiar with and sends you into the unknown? Like getting on that airplane that’s going to take you overseas for the first time, or debating that job offer that will take you across the country, or looking at your girl and thinking, I’m going to marry her.

That’s where I feel like I’m at today. The road hasn't forked yet, but I can see it running up towards this mountain with the words BIG DECISION carved in the rock face, and I have no idea how my life is going to look afterwards.

That decision is going to come in the form of an email with British 1’s and 0’s. My editor is going to tell me just how close I am to publishing, and then…

Do I just have more of the same to look forward to? Do I throw in the towel? Start something new? Revel in her praise, put To Kill the Goddess on Amazon, and focus even harder on writing the next?

The wait is driving me crazy!

Good Advice

So there’s this kid at work. He’s a writer, or at least on his way to being one. He found out that I write and we ended up at lunch, where he proceeded to tell me all the problems he’s having with his writing. It was so familiar – like listening to myself from a decade ago – trying to figure out how to do the most basic things.

So I gave him a few pointers, a little try this, or how about that, and it felt good to be able to help someone out – even if only a little bit. But then he really began to open up, and his questions turned into a litany of self-doubt. How he doesn't measure up to JK Rowling, or his own expectations, and how sometimes he despairs of ever being any good.

I finally stopped him and said, “Don’t be so hard in yourself. You are at the beginning of a lifelong journey and you can’t expect to be perfect right out of the gate. Think about how many canvases Claude Monet must have thrown away before painting waterlilies. And consider that I recently heard an interview where Stephen King said how ten years ago he wasn't a good enough writer to write his new book.”

He looked at me, really looked at me for maybe the first time we sat down, and I said, “Be patient with yourself. Put words on the page. The rest will come with time.”

Maybe I should listen to myself, eh?

That fork will get here when it gets here, and when it does, I’ll face what comes (or doesn't).

The unknown will resolve itself when – as my father would say – it’s damn good and ready.

I just wish it would hurry the fuck up.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Summer Reading or How Books can Save your Life

One of the reasons I love summer is because I have more time for reading. This past summer I noticed a theme running through a number of the stories and novels I was reading: Books and/or writing as life savers. I'll mention three of the bunch here.

Among Others by Jo Walton.

Dan Savage began a YouTube project to help LGBTQIA kids who were being harassed in school. He asked queer adults to talk about how great their lives are now: it will get better, they will find community and through that community love and acceptance. I describe Jo Walton's novel as an "It Gets Better" project for any kid who feels marginalized. Morwenna Phelps finds herself in a boarding school after some very bad stuff happens in her home life. She finds enough solace in Science Fiction to stay sane, but she comes into her own when she finds a Sci-Fi book group in the local town. Books can save you and finding other people who love books can make your life worth living.

Because Mori figures out her life through reflecting on the books she has read or is reading, for me, this novel also served as a primer for the canon of English language Sci-Fi pre-1979. (While most of the books Mori reflects on are science fiction, her own world is infused with fantasy elements--fairies!)

Plus it has an amazing ending in which The Lord of the Rings becomes both weapon and shield.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.

Jevick was raised on an island with no written language to speak of. His father, a wealthy pepper farmer, decides that it will add to his prestige to teach his son to read and write, and so hires a tutor from Olondria, where reading is commonplace, where books abound. Jevick falls in love with books and eventually makes his way to Olondria. There he is driven to near-insanity by the ghost of young girl from his archipelago. He learns finally that he can approach her not in fear, but in love, when he honors her request to write down her life.  Jevick must save himself and calm his ghost and the only way he can do that is through writing.

For me, the most powerful metaphor in the novel is that books can stand in for our jut, in Jevick's language meaning something like spirit/soul/self. What we put into books gives us, creates, the very best of who we are.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan

For the most part India Morgan Phelps controls her schizophrenia with therapy and meds. Until she encounters a naked woman by the side of the road and brings her home. This woman might be a siren or she a wolf. Imp can't figure out what is real and what is not real until she writes a story for each.

All of these books blur the line between magic and insanity. As a reader you're never quite sure: are the main characters crazy? or is the world magic? Or are we crazy and the world is magic? We're crazy because the world is magic? In each, the main character carves out a way to live with insanity/in the crazy world through books and/or writing. Notice even the similarity in the main characters' names in Among Others and The Drowning Girl.

I read these three close on the heels of one other and their similar themes really got to me. I kept feeling like maybe the authors were all part a writing group and decided to write on the same prompt.
Reading them also brought home the idea that we focus on what we love, what is closest to us. When someone in the radio business dies, NPR dedicates disproportional airtime to their remembrance. And wouldn't you say that, pretty much, authors are authors because we love books, we love writing. Because we love books, they show up in our writing. I'm sure there must be novels in which the characters dislike reading, but much more often I see reflections about reading, writing, and books showing up in books.

Books are the love poems we write to the books we have fallen in love with.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This Modern Word

So, I've been lax in contributing to our collective blog here at the Scribblerati watering hole. I've been lax, in fact, in contributing to any form of writing at all. This blog, my personal blog, my novel.

Well, wait. That's not strictly true. Writing is everywhere these days. People communicate in texts more than phone calls. We email, we IM, we Tweet and update our statuses. Words, words, words, in the written (okay, typed, or texted) form is everywhere. I believe that I've spent more time communicating in writing in the past 10 years than I did in all the years previous.

Is this a good thing? Many say no... the lack of face-to-face communication, morons who text and drive, and dear heavens, the anonymity of those Youtube comments - let's just say, have made society a less pleasing place. Plus, when I was a teenager, confined to "the middle of nowhere" (as I often lamented to my parents), the only way to communicate with those friends I made in Forensics (speech, not dead bodies) or summer camp was with ridiculously long hand-written missives. This was even true in college, when I moved states away from many of my closest friends. I wrote to my brother when he was in the army, my sister when she was at college, and my parents, once I left home.

My husband, an old-fashioned fellow, still writes the occasional letter. For me, it's only thank you notes. I can't recall the last time I sat down and wrote a proper letter -it probably was in the mid nineties, when my best friend was working in England. I'm saddened by this - I miss the thrill of discovering a fat envelope, laden with stamps, peeking out of my mailbox. I miss cool stationery, and the joy of writing with that perfect pen.

However, I also love email. I still remember the wonder I felt when, in 1997, I tracked down my friend Michiko, a woman from The Netherlands whom I had met in Ireland... on AOL. The idea that I could type out a letter to her, hit 'send,' and it would reach her in a matter of minutes (well, hours - this was AOL in the nineties) was mind-boggling to me. Now it's commonplace, and although some of the amazement has receded, I still appreciate the ease - and the ability I now own - to keep up with family and friends regularly, rather than in one big chunk every month or two.

And then there's Facebook. (I'm not a Twitter girl, although I haven't given it a decent try.) People hate on the Facebook, and although I understand the reasons why - I don't care about your virtual Farm or Kingdom or Zombies or Whatnot - and oh, that acquaintance from high school who is now a Tea Party Republican and has 6 kids and likes to talk about their poops - but I love it. I don't work in an office, so Facebook provides me with daily socialization, albeit virtual. I enjoy laying down a well-crafted status, and the often humorous banter that ensues... and I'm just going to say it: that counts as writing. No, it's not Dostoyevsky or even Jackie Collins, and it's no substitute for creating a story with a beginning, middle and end. But it does speak to that creative, writerly part of our brains, and that's something.

Plus, it's a little diary, not documenting major, heavy events, but tiny little moments. Here are some of my statuses from the past year. Just to prove that I have been, you know, writing.

This is how it typically goes for Tony when he's trying to talk to me about baseball.
Tony (describing a baseball card): So, Felix the Cat, Felix Millan, he was a pretty good player for the Mets in the seventies - so he's standing at the base, and there's this Pirate right there... and this Pirate slides into second...
Me: Oh my god - did he fall on his cutlass?
... so anyway...


Don't believe that aliens have visited us and gifted us with their technology? I have one word for you: Accordions.
Ah... the Holiday Season. The time we gather 'round the yule log and remind ourselves that Amy Grant happened. 
I'd love to start a fund for manatees, partially because they're glorious creatures and their environment is being encroached upon, but mostly because I could call my charity "Habitat for Huge Manatees."

Sometimes I find it exceedingly odd that we choose to share our homes with adorable little predators. 
So, I walked into my back yard just in time to witness the 8-year-old neighbor girl, arms straight out, carrying a live, rusty-orange chicken - and then putting it on the trampoline. FOR SCIENCE!
In my shopping today, I'm picking up razors for Tony: "Remember, I use the Gillette Sensor Mach 3 XL Turbo Viking Marauder Supercharged Touchdown Pickaxe Razor." 

And quite possibly my favoirte exchange of all time:

There are a dozen cardinals in our backyard right now!!! (Bird kind, not Catholic kind.)

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Talking the Talk - Dialogue

When I was ten years old I got to meet my Great Aunt Carrie for the first time. She was a cool old lady. A retired teacher, a writer, the family historian and an avid reader. She also had a house full of books and treasures she had collected throughout her life, including two complete civil war uniforms (North and South) and a computer printout of our family tree that stretched a good twenty feet or more long. Usually when my family came to visit I would leave with one of her treasures, which she seemed more than happy to part with.
One such treasure that I have thought a lot about lately is a pulp sci-fi magazine she gave me, one that included the story by Harlan Ellison titled, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” (Sadly the magazine has been lost or destroyed many, many years ago).

Because this is where I’ve been at lately: With no mouth, or rather—no voice. For the past month+ I’ve been unable to talk, thanks to radiation treatments to my neck and throat. In the short term these treatments have been terrible—making it tough for me to eat (I’ve lost a lot of weight), and impossible for me to speak. Hopefully in the long term the treatments will be worthwhile and will keep the cancer at bay for good. Then this will have been worth it.

I’m not sure I necessarily need to scream, although my physical condition combined with having no voice certainly has been full of frustrations. Have you ever tried to go a day/week/month without talking? I don’t recommend it. Having no voice really comes with some challenges and learnings. Especially when a lot of people in my life, including my doctors, health insurance company(s) and so on, all love to communicate by telephone.

In the last month instead of talking I’ve used the following alternatives:
           • Hand gestures (mostly polite)
           • Charades (which I suck at)
           • E-mail and instant messages (thank goodness for technology)
           • Having my son/wife answer phone calls/speak for me
           • Using the iSpeech App for iPad (it’s not too bad, but you need to be on a network for it to read the words you type in).
           • Handwriting on countless notebooks and pieces of scratch paper.

People’s reactions to my lack of voice are interesting too, especially strangers. At the clinic, more than one person started to sign to me, in response to my handwritten notebook messages. I don’t “speak” “sign” so this really didn’t help. Some people would pick up my notebook (take it away—hey you just stole my voice!) and would write responses to me, rather than talking to me. (If you have no voice, apparently you can’t hear either.) I’m not being critical, but to me it was just interesting how people reacted and how accommodating they tried to be).

So my voice is finally coming back. I can’t really hold a great conversation yet. It hurts a little to talk, and afterwards my throat tends to be more tight/swollen than usual. Not much fun, but every day is a little better. Soon I’ll be talking again—which I have missed.

So what does this blog (and my lack of voice) have to do with writing? Well, I am currently very in tune with dialogue.

In writing my rough draft of my novel, SUNLIGHT, I took the approach of starting many of the chapters/scenes just by writing down dialogue, a conversation between two characters, or maybe the internal dialogue of the main character. It worked pretty well, I think, and I could go back in later and fill in the non-talky details. Most of the chapters move pretty quickly, and I think you get to know the characters pretty easy, thanks in part to dialogue.

When reading books I find I often look forward to the sections of dialogue between the characters. If I’m getting bored reading I might skip blocks of descriptive text, but I’m not likely to skip the dialogue. Well written dialogue tends to read quickly and informs us about the characters. It is truly their voice. It is one of the many components of good writing (along with word choice, narration, details, gestures, etc.) that helps a writer build character and story.

There are many articles that exist about how to write great dialogue. Common ideas I’ve found when it comes to writing great dialogue are:
           • Listen to how people talk (natural speech patterns)
           • Good dialogue should seem like “real” speech, but it should be more than that.
           • Don’t do “info dumps” in dialogue
           • Minimize dialogue “tags” (“said” is OK, and maybe better than finding different descriptors for every time a person says something)
           • Don’t overdo slang, or regional dialects (too heavy on the dialect may make your characters seem unintelligent)
           • You may wish to add details/gestures to describe what your characters are up to/what their emotions are as they speak
           • Sometimes the most powerful things in conversation are the things NOT said (and left off the page)

For the last month or so as I’ve been in pain and on heavy medication which has played havoc with my reading (hard for me to concentrate) I’ve tended to watch a lot of movies and TV. Here are some examples of great dialogue and word play that I really like.

Freudian slips have a place in dialogue

I love how the dialogue establishes the scene and the characters. Fun wordplay!

Man this is cool dialogue “I’m in my prime.” “Should I hate him?”

Snows of Mount Killamanjaro (Short story by Ernest Hemingway)
There is some excellent dialogue in this short story

Wishing you a strong voice, lively conversation, and robust dialogue in your writing.

Hope to talk with you soon!