Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Gift

I just received this email, forwarded by my husband. It was from one of his friends whose girlfriend had been reading their copy of The World Undone:

Now I got a story for you, but even more so for Mary.  Cheryl had some work done on her car, and being disorganized she found Mary's book which had been at the shop since August. (I didn't know it was lost).  The mechanic didn't know where it came from but was happy that it found its owner.  He said it was the most popular reading item in the shop competing with a wide variety of periodicals.  One lady asked if she could stay even though her car was finished, so that she could keep reading the book.  She stayed there for over 3 hours.  Numerous people commented to the effect that "That's a really good book."  I believe a mechanic also found the book, for it's a bit oily now on the cover and dog eared.  Merry Christmas to both of you.  Pete

Merry Christmas to all!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Guest Writer

On one of our morning walks a week or so ago, Woki and I spotted this basket of apples on the ground. All alone at the edge of the sidewalk, it looked poetically abandoned and forlorn. I was reminded of a poem my grandmother wrote many years ago. She was quite a proficient poet, with far more publishing credentials than I have. Her work appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and New Yorker Magazine to name just a few.


On your doorstep, dear, at dewfall
I will leave an offering:
Apples, yellow, russet, crimson
From the topmost boughs I'll bring.

Country apples, all unpolished,
Bright as the Hesperides'
Golden globes by dragon guarded,
These from harvest-heavy trees.

With them is my love, a windfall,
Far from perfect, at your feet--
All too easy to be gathered,
Will you have it? Will you eat?

                                                      --Mary Adams Winter

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chill Out

This photo was taken last week at the nearby wetlands when the air was a balmy 75 degrees. On a whim, I took the morning off writing, leashed up the dog, and set out for a lovely long walk. Good decision. Ideas for revisions and character development danced along the path with the late-season butterflies. My spirits rose inversely with my falling stress levels. A good walk is a great way to re-calibrate self-induced pressure (e.g. writer frenzy), with an added benefit of being the #1 way to figure out how to fix those sticky issues with character, plot, and . . . uh, real life.
After an unusually sticky week--broken appliances, a wad of rejected manuscripts, a three-hour dental procedure, setting up hospice care for my mother, quelling my fury with politicians, insurance companies and petty bureaucrats--I'm not focusing well on writing. Re-calibration required.
The air temp has plummeted to 40 degrees, but  instead of agonizing over the two vastly different ideas I had for this post, I will put those ideas on hold, suit up for the chilly weather, and head back to the wetlands.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sometimes A Bad Movie Is A Good Thing

Last Friday, we rented a movie from the library (not one of the ones pictured above). The opening scenes were great: compelling, dramatic, full of promise for an intriguing tale. Two hours later, my husband and I wondered why we'd wasted our time watching a movie that fell flatter than three-day-old beer. After all the writing seminars I've been to in the past few years, I wanted to analyze exactly what it was that had failed. It wasn't the acting; it wasn't the cinematography; it wasn't even the basic story line.
It finally dawned on me that the element that had tanked this movie was just what has been so often criticized in my short stories: the main character was so shut down she didn't connect with anyone, including the audience. Bingo. Finally, the light shone on the biggest mistake I've been making over the last six or seven stories. Writing about people who have been traumatized is tough because they usually are shut down emotionally. By watching this movie, I could see how playing that angle too closely can keep the character from connecting with reader/audience, which means we either don't care or don't believe what happens next.
It's always so easy to see what's wrong with other people's work. Clearly, the author should have shown us the internal feelings of our heroine, her relationship with her mother, her desire to absolve herself of guilt associated with the tragedy of her youth. So obvious. But not to the author who is intimately familiar with every detail of a character's life.
"Dig deeper." "Crack open your character's motivations.""Give us more to connect with." And figure out how to do it without "telling" instead of "showing".
No wonder so many authors end up bat-shit crazy.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Is Not My Garden

Today is the last day of August, and if I am to maintain my goal of at least one post a month, I need to write. Now.
Not long ago, I did a search of excellent authors with reputations for equally excellent blogs. Guess what? Most of them hadn't posted in months. Too busy writing "real" stuff, no doubt. And while I agree that blogs are useful for connecting with readers and strengthening online presence, they take away writing time.
This summer, the Muse has been good to me: I finished one novel, made notes for another, and whipped up (very) rough drafts for six short stories. I didn't have time for much blogging, and even less time for gardening. But therein lies the great thing about an active imagination. Ensconced in my office, I can pretend the lovely garden in the above photo is just outside my door.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Indie Editing

Last night I heard an author with a NYT bestseller discuss her book. She spent a good deal of time talking about her experience with the traditional publishing and editing process: lots of material deleted and major re-writes to satisfy the editors, having to accept a cover she wasn't thrilled with, and the two-plus year time span between acquisition and published book. None of this was news to me, and I found myself wanting to say, "Sista, next time consider going indie."
I would have, too, except that she went on to say something with which I took umbrage. She mentioned that, at one point in her story, one of her 1950s characters quotes the Bible, ending with "so said the Lord." She'd copied the quote from her own Bible. Her editors pounced on it, informing her that a character in the 50s would have been using the King James version, and the quote would have ended, "so sayeth the Lord." Her concluding comment was that self-published authors would "never" get that kind of in-depth editing.
I beg your pardon.
We all know that while that may be true for many, perhaps even most self-pubs, there are lots of us who go to every extreme we can conceive of (and afford) to make sure our work is thoroughly and competently edited. I've mulled over this problem before, and last night it occurred to me that something someone said to me years ago in another context fits this scenario. This friend was a fabulous seamstress. She made her wedding dress from lace taken from her mother's and grandmother's gowns, and it was a work of art. She told me that in needlecraft there is a world of difference between "home-made" and "hand-made." Many of us might recall attempts at knitting or sewing and immediately understand how far those efforts landed from the work of people who know their craft. I think the same is true for authors.
Yes, anyone can self-publish a book for under fifty bucks, and if it's just for friends and family, that's fine. But for someone who is planning to venture into the bigger world of serious writing, multiple edits for content and copy are essential. Essential, too, is hiring a high-caliber formatter to keep the widows, orphans, and dingbats under control and a professional graphic designer because a book is, indeed, judged by its cover. As with needlecraft, there is also a world of difference between do-it-yourself publishing and independent publishing with a quality team. To quote my wise and wonderful agent, April Eberhardt, "We can and must educate authors, and the publishing world at large, that 'indie' and 'self-published' mean many different things."

The image at the top of this post is a medallion from indieBRAG awarded to my novel, THE WORLD UNDONE. This award goes only to independently published books that have achieved a high level of quality. I'm grateful to indieBRAG for acknowledging the work I put into my book, and bravo to them for being on the forefront of this educational process.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Positive Attributes

Last week, my husband and I were waiting at the fish counter at our local grocery store. The large man in line ahead of us was taking an inordinately long time to make up his mind about his purchase. While he dithered, we looked over the selection of fish, deciding we would go with a nice piece of wild caught salmon, just the right size for the two of us to share. Mr. Big was given the piece of sea bass he'd chosen, and we were all set to place our order. But wait . . . Mr. Big wasn't finished. With a slit-eyed glance in our direction, he told the man behind the counter he wanted more. Yup, he took the piece of fish we'd been foolish enough to admire within his range of hearing.
I wish I could say he didn't do it on purpose, but that glance he'd given us told me otherwise.

One of the criticisms I receive most often about my stories is that the people I write about are so unlikable. I'm going to endeavor to change this. With effort, perhaps I can cross the threshold of world-weary cynicism and actively search out positive attributes in my fellow human beings. Maybe then I can create characters who are kinder, more capable of generating sympathy. But jeez, with guys like Mr. Big lurking about, that is a tall order.

Friday, April 18, 2014

One Good Man

This photo comes from a free data base, but it is uncannily like the image I have in my head of a particular fire station in Indiana. (W.L.--West Lafayette?) One hot July day, my mother and I stopped  there to see Uncle Ray at work. He and three other men were sitting out front on aluminum lawn chairs, playing cards at a rickety old table just in front of the blue chair in the photo above. I was nine or ten, much more interested in my popsicle than in whatever the grownups were jawing about. Until the alarm went off. To this day, I've never seen people move like those guys did. Probably under a minute to clear away table and chairs, don their gear, and speed off on a screaming truck.

Ray crossed that mightiest of all thresholds last week, just shy of his 86th birthday, which would have been tomorrow, April 19. My cousin, Nancy, wrote to tell me about his funeral: "All the active firefighters on duty Sunday night came to the viewing in their uniforms. . . one station after another. The Last Alarm was done by the Chief and about 60 firefighters, active and retired. I had never seen a tribute of this nature except in the movie, BACKDRAFT."
Nancy also described the ride to the cemetery, past fire stations where all the trucks were out with their lights rotating and the men were standing at attention. I would like to have been there, but I am happy with my own special memories:
Green grapes in Tupperware containers. More than once, Uncle Ray drove to Chicago to pick up my mother, me, and my brother. Mom didn't drive, and he was that kind of generous. Aunt Bev always packed up grapes, which my cousins and I ate all the way down I-65.
Fire trucks. In every conceivable form. Real ones, toy ones, old ones, new ones. I never see a fire truck without thinking of Ray.
Blue jeans, black shoes, and white crew socks. Uncool in the mod 60s, but Ray's iconic fashion statement made a lasting impression on me. Eat your heart out, Ralph Lauren.
Red velvet cake. Okay, maybe this was Aunt Bev's specialty but, often as not, it was made at Uncle Ray's request. They were into red velvet (the real deal, not some poncy mix) decades before anyone in NYC had ever heard of the stuff.

I'll miss Ray's smile, the genuine twinkle in his eyes, and the soft drawl I still associate with grownups talking late into the summer night while I slept on the pull-out couch in Grandma's living room. He was a truly good man.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Revision #2--Done

Just finished a revision of Twelve Thousand Mornings, the sequel to The World Undone.  90,520 words. No illusions--there are more revisions ahead, but maybe I won't start them until next week. I had plans to work on other projects today, however, there's something about finishing a revision that makes me want to goof off, read other people's books, take a nap, binge watch Mad Men, and eat chocolate cake.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Vive L'imagination!

Feeling sorry for myself because everyone is out of town, escaping the wretched weather (yes, more snow in Chicago tonight). Writer's imagination to the rescue: this morning, with a little help from Fresh Market, I shall be having breakfast in Paris.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Winter 2014

A threshold I'm not so keen to cross. An article in the Tribune this morning said we adapt to the cold after constant exposure so that 30 degrees in November feels much worse than 30 degrees in February. Hmmph.
I'm trying to make the best of it by focusing on the good parts of a cold, snowy winter: hot chocolate, burrowing under thick blankets, escaping into a novel set in Jamaica or India, relishing comfort foods like mac and cheese, split pea soup, cassoulet. Given that 50% of that list involves high-calorie food, and that the weather is not conducive to exercise, it's no wonder the old jeans are a bit snug.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of things useful to the writer in these arctic days. I've been keeping a weather log because come July, I will have (blissfully) forgotten the details of things like ice around the inside of the front door, the shredded wheat dryness of my skin, and static electricity that jolts me every time I walk across the carpet in wool socks to touch a light switch.
There's also that intriguing theory of adaptability. In addition to frigid temperatures, what else do we become so inured to that it ceases to be something we view as problematic? We might have to shrug off the winter weather, but too much of the time it seems we just accept corrupt politicians, greedy corporate entities, a broken health care system, the disenfranchisement of large portions of our society . . . the list is endless, and the stories are limitless.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The New Year

2014 it is . . . and has been for two weeks. To the left is one of my fave photos, taken in Ireland in 2010. Nearly four years ago now, and yet another indication of how time slips by too quickly. Wasn't I there just a few weeks ago? The image is perfect for illustrating the threshold, the theme (and definition) for Liminalesque, and who doesn't have a sense of moving to a new space as we enter a new year?
For me, new stories, new adventures, and new characters await discovery, along with a few old friends who are hanging around looking for excitement. The first draft of the sequel to THE WORLD UNDONE is finished, and the revision process has started. Here's to Lamott's words of wisdom on "shitty first drafts", to the new year, and to crossing another threshold.