Live, from Scotland!

 

Edinburgh Castle, as if you didn’t know

Coming to you live from Bonnie Scotland. I’ll be reviewing for UK publishers and venues through the next few months, up and running here at Bluestalking. You’ll find me at the Edinburgh International Literary Festival in August, attending events, standing very close to authors, reading and buying books, enjoying the roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowds.

I’m getting settled in my new situation, setting up my digs.

Since I’ve been here I’ve attended the Boswell Book Festival, and am currently reading the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist, in preparation for attending the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Melrose, for the presentation of the award.

Exciting stuff!

Meantime, I’ll be bringing you all the British – particularly Scottish – book info I can fit into my schedule.

Slàinte, and all that.

Write of Way: How to Write a Novel, Pt 2: Borrow, Just Don’t Steal

Plots, Plots, Plots!

When last I wrote we were discussing Freytag's Triangle, the classic framework for storytelling. At the end of the post I mentioned it's perfectly okay to borrow general ideas from other writers. In fact, all writers do it, if they realize it or not.

It's said there are only so many plots, anyway, right? Check this out, from Internet Public Library.  It gathers different opinions on how  many plots there actually are. Give it a study. See what appeals and take notes in the writing notebook I assume you all have. If not, I'll wait while you run get one. Yes, that one is good enough! And I like your sparkly pen.

 

Clearly, the answer to the plot question depends whom you ask but you can't copyright an idea. If you decide to write a book about face-eating zombies someone else can, too. They just can't steal your exact plot or characters.

However, you may get very close to character names and plot if you're writing a parody. The rules are much less stringent for that and you must also declare it's a parody in the title or on the cover, somewhere prominent. That you can do. Check the legalities for sure with an expert – a lawyer would be great – but parodies are exempt from a lot of the "rules."

You can also write an homage, or an updated version, of a work in the public domain – a work that's out of copyright. You may re-work the story, take the major plot points or framework, write a prequel or sequel, etc. Lots of writers do this with Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, etc. If that's your thing, go for it. It's there and it's set up for you. Dig out a minor character and re-tell from that person's standpoint. Or add that person's backstory. Whatever. If no one owns the intellectual property you can play in that sandbox.

But you better make sure that sandbox is public domain. If in doubt, ask a librarian or a lawyer who deals in literary matters.

 

Deconstruction:

This is a whole 'nother animal, a more complex study of other authors' works. But here's the general idea: 

1).    As you're reading – and if you're aiming to be a writer you'd better be reading a LOT, or give it up now – in your favorite genre or genres, choose a book you particularly admire.

2).    Deconstruct the book. If possible, buy a cheap copy you can literally pull apart.

3).    Using Freytag's Triangle, label the sections with the corresponding points from the triangle.

4).    Study how the writer has or has not followed the Triangle.

5).    If you believe the book could have been arranged better, switch around the sections.

6).     Skim or read back through the book.

7).    Mark up the book. Literally edit it for anything extraneous. Is there a character who contributes nothing to the story? Are there unnecessary digressions, is there too much description we don't need to know? Get out the red pen.

8).    Now that it's bare bones, read the entire book over. Study what's left, what it is you still love about the book.

9).    Outline the book, as if you'd been the author but with your own changes. Write down, in that writer's notebook of yours, all the strong points you'd like to use later.

 

 There's your example of how one specific writer wrote one specific book, how he or she sweated it out, what worked and what didn't. Now do it again with other books you like, with ideas you may want to blend to make your own book, ideas you already have, maybe.

Find a book you love for the characters, one for the plot, one for the style, etc… You'll need background in all these things. Combine the best of the best into something you can call your own. Then you'll have your formula. Your personal Freytag's Triangle for your own book or books. There may come a day you won't have to do that anymore, when you'll just do it all automatically. Or you may need to do this between everything you write. Doesn't matter. You only need to please yourself. Oh, and hopefully a readership.

When you've done this a few times, and feel more confident, you'll have essentially taken a grad school course in writing. Heck, you'll be on your way to an MFA, without the overblown price.

 

This is so simple it's simplistic, as far as the whole principle of deconstruction goes but unless you're an English Ph.D. or a philosopher, what do you need it to be?

All you want is to pull apart a book and study how it was constructed. It teaches you how an author's mind works, how books are written. If you want to go into it more deeply, by all means do. There are loads of books out there on the deconstruction of texts. You can go into it as far as you'd like, tracing all the allusions, the philosophical origins, etc. If you're bent on writing a complex psychological thriller that's a great way to go about it.

This is a lot of work but it's probably a lot less frustrating than starting five different novels, liking none of them, getting depressed and wanting to give up. Any of this sound familiar? It does to me and the four or five partial manuscripts I have on various computers. You're taking a proven formula that worked, pulling it apart and studying it, instead of banging your head against the wall trying to reinvent the wheel. What's there to lose?

And, you know, you can do this with novellas, too. Or short stories. Or creative nonfiction/articles/essays… Anything. Whatever you want to write, in whatever genre, there are examples. Limitless examples, all crying out "Study me…."

I hope I've given you a thing or two to think about in your own writing. Wherever you are – unless you're making money and have status – I've been there. It can be pure agony. Let's suffer together, shall we?

 

For my Great Writing Weekend next month I'm already planning to get moving on a novella – start short, I say. Make it compact, then either shorten it for a short story, finish for a novella or extend for a novel. Just get that framework and outline going and run with it. I only have a week; I have to consider the best usage of my time.

For my next trick, maybe I'll do an online deconstruction. I plan to do it anyway, for myself. I'll think about it. After all, it could just come in handy for my August excursion…

 

 

Write of Way: How to Write a Novel

 

In early August I'm going on a self-imposed solitary writing retreat for just shy of a week. Left to my own devices at home there are always a million reasons I come up with not to work on fiction: I have to work at my day job, I have a book review due, I'm sleepy, I have physical therapy, it's my turn for Words with Friends, etc.

At this particular retreat there will be no TV, no phone (save for emergencies), no internet, no kids and no day job – just me and my laptop. No distractions, no excuses. The place is immaculate, air-conditioned and has a kitchen. I'm bringing frozen dinners, simple breakfasts and lunches, and a whole butt load of coffee. Simple provisions for a simple week.

My goal for this time away is to get a decent start on a novel and work out the first draft of an outline. The first go-over of character names would be great, too, since I always get hung up on that. It's tough coming up with names that don't sound goofy to me and pretty much every name I think up sounds goofy to me.  Why, I don't know. I think it's a self-conscious thing, a fear they won't sounds genuine, fit the characters, etc.

But then, when I read a novel I'm not so much looking for missteps an author makes naming characters – unless it's desperately bad – as how those names are initially conveyed and subsequently used. An unnatural approach that makes me feel stabby concerns one character calling another by his/her full name every time he/she is addressed – more than one time in a conversation, etc. – lest the reader has the attention span of a wasp in a room full of women with fly swatters.

You have to give the reader some credit. Establish that person's presence, differentiate this person from others by usage of mannerisms and descriptives. Don't tell me the person's full name if s/he leaves the room and for god's sake don't tell me s/he walked "through a door"  unless there's something key about it. If s/he goes through a window, or walks straight through a wall, okay. But when one person leaves an interior scene I pretty much figure it's by way of a door.

Now we're getting into the actions of a character, messy devices lazy writers use to take the reader's attention away from the plot. Don't tell me anything I don't need to know. Instead, tell me about the character's reactions to the world around him. I don't care about the pattern of the wallpaper, unless it's significant to the character. Maybe it has a nursery design and the character's child died – or it's a infertile woman. If there's a cowboy print it may remind a man of Roy Rogers and watching the movies with his dad when he was little. If it doesn't matter to the character's story, it doesn't matter to me.

Use of character names, show don't tell and what else…? Oh, silly me, the plot! Once upon a time all plots were linear; now the whole thing is up for grabs. Experimental writing flops all over the place like I do when I have insomnia but refuse to give in.  Some fiction makes use of flashbacks or takes place solely in the past. Or the future.

The basic rule of thumb, when it comes to plot, is called Freytag's Triangle:

 

Freytag

Exposition:

Inciting moment – hook(s) that draw the reader in

Intro of characters – fleshing them out as you go

Intro of setting(s)

Establish struggle/conflict -  Why does the reader care about these people? What's this story about?

 

Rising Action to Climax

Ordeals and complications – Characters struggle to come to grips

Major action

 

Falling Action to Resolution (Denouement) – Catastrophe or Reward

Epiphany/Knowledge – Characters solve problems or come to realizations

Transformation of characters – growth

 

Last Moment of Suspense or Resolution

Wrap up loose ends/Possible dangling ends (You don't have to answer every question)

 

Look how simple it is! Anyone can write a novel!

Right…?

Of course nothing's absolute. Depending on how observant you want to be of classical story telling you can turn anything on its head. For my first run-through, though, I'm planning to follow the diagram set up as long ago as there have been stories, from "once upon a time" to "and they were all killed in a fiery explosion."

 

Next time around I'll talk about following the trail blazed by another writer, why that's okay and how you go about it. Why re-invent the wheel, especially when there are only, what, three or four plots every writer uses over and over?

As I read, somewhere or other, all novels can be boiled down to one of two things: someone comes into town or someone leaves town. True, or someone trying to look real smart-like?

Danged if I know. But I'll carry this on in my next post on the topic.

 

Writing – the Boring Business Part

Seems logical while I'm in the Great Voting Race for The Top Writing Blog contest I should post a bit of what I know about writing. You learn a few things when you've been reviewing as long as I have, more than a decade all told, things I wish someone had told me when I first started. Imagining myself in your shoes, starting all over again, there's a lot of knowledge I can pass along, things I've picked up along the way about how the writing market works and what you can expect once you're out there. As long as I have people swinging past to check me out, err…, check out my BLOG I may as well help you a bit if I can.

First depressing truth: your odds of making a living as a writer are roughly the same as winning the lottery. Before you decide this is what your gut tells you your heart wants, prepare yourself. Have another job in mind. You're going to need it. Writing isn't what it used to be. Competition is fierce, sometimes downright ugly. Never has it been so rough. Behind you are thousands just like you, some equally talented, some less and some more so. Writers are completely replaceable. If you give up your place in line, let up on relentless marketing and networking, you may as well hang it up. It is that cut-throat. You need to market yourself every, single day. Make connections, pop up on writing forums and blogs, Tweet writers (but not in a needy, "look at me!" way).

And when I say networking, I mean schmoozing: getting out there, shamelessly self-marketing yourself, using every avenue open to you. Keep cool, don't press or be obnoxious. Be CONFIDENT. You're a writer and you're good, goshdarnit!

You'll need a blog to act as your portfolio and it's crucial to be as active as possible in social networking. When you're blogging and networking develop a persona, an identifiable and consistent writing style. That's easy to say, and takes the longest time, but it's necessary if you're going to stand out from the herd.

Approach literary journals first, and local papers/publications, the ones that pay nothing or very little. They're everywhere online. Be open to cranking out quality work you'll need to give away. But always be on time and don't miss deadlines. Treat every writing assignment as if you're getting paid and get to know your editors. They are connected and invaluable.

The goal here is to build a portfolio you can present to the next rung up the ladder, an easily accessed electronic source a busy editor can skim over when she has time. Editors are going to ask for proof you can write well, wide-ranging styles showing your versatility. Have that ready and organized, with a URL you can give for a busy editor's convenience. And if you contact an editor who doesn't respond don't take it personally. They are barraged by requests. Give them a few days, then write them back to let them know you're still interested, still available. But don't be obnoxious about it. Wait a bit longer, try again but then move on to the next editor. You can always come back to the first editor later and if you come back with a published piece you're more likely to be heard.

And, speaking of connections, join LinkedIn! It's beyond invaluable. Friend request me; I know loads of editors, publishing house editors and marketers, magazine editors and established writers. Get to know how you can use it. I'd recommend checking a book out of the library or buying a manual on how to use it. It's amazingly helpful in building that all-important network.

When you're out and about, have business cards. Writing is a profession and should be treated seriously. If you have a niche, journalism or what not, reflect that clearly on the cards and carry over a consistent brand in everything you present. For instance, use the same typeface, colors, tagline or whatever. Get connected with a specific look that's solely yours.

That's a bit about the business end of it. Not thorough by any means but that's why there are so many books out there on writing. But, speaking of those, don't get caught up spending more time reading them than writing. Such an easy trap to fall into! Writing itself should be primary on your schedule. Read the books as an extra.

More advice from a veteran reviewer/columnist tomorrow! Hope it helps/gives you food for thought. Any specific questions, just ask.

 

Finally, first finished book of 2012!

Well, now. It's taken me eleven days but I have actually finished my first book of the year. I won't review it here, as it's slated for publication in Library Journal next month and I consider it theirs, but once it's up I'll link to it, I promise, though I've been woefully shameful about that. It's hard keeping up with it all but I am bound and determined to make 2012 THE YEAR LISA GETS IT TOGETHER. Or at least isn't quite so pathetic.

The book I finished is one I've been talking about here, A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport. Really great stuff, can't emphasize it enough. If you're a Victorian buff keep an eye out for it. It will be published sometime in March.

Think you know all there is to know about Victoria? Well, think again.

VictoriaI feel a bit sheepish because I realized earlier today I've read another book co-authored by Ms. Rappaport, Dark Hearts of Chicago.

Description:

"When young, inexperienced but very ambitious female reporter Emily Strauss bluffs her way into newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer’s office, she comes away with a treacherous assignment: to find out what happened to Anna Zemeckis, one of many women who have disappeared during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. With the support of a young man who is just venturing into the burgeoning trade of news photography, Emily soon finds herself in a race against time to save Anna’s life and to bring her story back to New York before Pulitzer’s tough deadline expires."

Really good novel, especially if you live in Chicago. It's still good even if you don't. I also like books with strong female characters in professions generally considered the realm of men. And in the 19th Century that was usually the case. Not always, but usually.

Harriet Martineau wrote some pretty brazen articles about the rights of women. Ditto Nellie Bly (pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran). So they were out there but not in huge numbers. Just wish I had the time to read a lot more by these determined women. Same for the suffragettes, one of whom, Mina Van Winkle, was very likely related to me since this side of my family originated in the NY/NJ area as did she. And it's not that common a name. I smell a research opportunity, another one I have no time to pursue. Sigh.

 

P1000105-2

Next, three books I requested from Yale University Press:

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain, Which He Flatters Himself Formerly Did Him Noble Service by William Ian Miller

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000 – 2009 by Stan Persky

And, hiding beneath those, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, the surprise, come from behind winner of the National Book Award. If you know my love of southern writing the attraction will make sense and this one's set in my native Mississippi.

 The Yale U.P.s are, unsurprisingly, VELLY academic in tone. Or at least the first I've started, Reading the 21st Century. They may be a bit slower going but I will fit them in somehow. Great titles, too, aren't they?

Salvage the Bones I've already started and it slammed me into Mississippi within the first couple of pages. I mean that in a good way, as far as sense of place. Her style is delicious: simple, not flowerly and it conveys both place and character masterfully. I have a feeling this is going to be a "read more quickly than I'd like" book, one I have to finish to know what happens and wish I had time to re-read.

But thank goodness I finally finished that first book of 2012. Not sure why that bothered me, but patience has never been a virtue of mine. Speaking of, a load of laundry stands between me and some reading. Catch you later.

 

The Sunday Salon: January 8, 2012

Sundaysalon

One whole week into 2012 and as far as I know I haven't broken a single resolution but then again that's not saying much as I can't recall what I resolved.

Oh, wait! I think one was something about my knees and taking positive action to improve my pain situation. If working out qualifies then I am ahead of that game. I did go, once. I was on the elliptical trainer for half an hour. With every step, ellip, or what have you, I felt a disgusting feeling of pain. It wasn't a sharp pain but did involve the sound of bone grinding on bone, with a pinch of loose cartilage or other organic matter being pulverized, accompanied by localized swelling.

For several days after I felt a distinct change in the status of my knees. Along with the stiffness and pain was added a general weakness in the joint, resulting in my knees giving way suddenly, and with no notice, the cheeky things. I guess you could say so far my resolutions are going gangbusters in 2012.

2012

 

Reading

Basically, still reading all I was reading before:

Bleak House by Dickens (over halfway)

Striving hard to finish before the group discussion and I'm between half and three-quarters with a medium to pathetic chance of finishing on time. Still reading primarily from bedtime until I'm too tired to read further, which is usually a good hour or two. I've passed the rough patch in which I wasn't sure what was going on with a vague plotline and have passed through the much more fun and upbeat scene of Caddy's wedding to Prince Turveydrop. The deportment, I assure you, was impeccable.

 

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (ditto)

Reading this slowly to savor.

 

A Magnificient Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed The British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport

Nearly finished and will write the review today. It continues to be an exceptional work of history. Fascinating stuff.

 

Plus:

 

Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde

Reading for Readers Advisory Interest Group – a professional library group dedicated to reading a variety of genre literature, and next up is "Modern Romance." When I first heard this was the upcoming genre selection I felt my heart sink. I can read fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, graphic novels, etc., but I'd rather have the dry heaves than read romance.

So, I selected by going for something with subject matter I have interest in: old manor houses, British settings and characters, an artist, and a divorced woman being wooed, reluctantly, by an Irishman. Throw some flowers on that ancient, drafty house and my interest is piqued well enough.

I'm around a quarter through and, aside from the short-cut telling instead of showing parts and occasional clunky dialogue, it's honestly not that bad. I don't believe in romance, at least not the storybook sort, which I guess makes me a good test subject. If I think it's a fairly good read you know most readers of romance – minus the bodice-rippers, and you people can just forget it – set in modern Britain will have a good shot at liking it. At the least it proves I'm a fairly good sport.

 

Essays by Truman Capote

One by one I'm getting through a fairly chunky collection of Capote's essays at a snail's pace, which is intentional since it's a great way to dip into intelligent writing when I have a few minutes here and there. I'm a fan of his fiction – what little I've read – plus he was a southerner. Slam dunk. Will have more to say about some of the individual pieces in a future post. Hint: Mixed reaction.

 

Have to go switch the laundry, so that's it for today.

Ciao, y'all.

This is the end…

Introduction, of a General Nature:

Time to start gathering 2011 into a big ball to tie a ribbon around it, considering tomorrow's le fin de la fin. Often I'm keen to start picking up the stray bits before it's reached this date, so I guess that means 2011 could have been worse. That comes as close as I ever get to saying something positive. You may want (first typed "wank")  to bookmark this post as proof I am not 100% glass half-empty.

As a general comment, looking back through Bluestalking from 2011 I'm more than a little disappointed with the quality of many of my posts this year. I'm also irritated by how much I've jumped around getting off-track more than I should.

So… Resolution #1: 2012 will see a separation of blog content.

 

Pointingfinger   My book reviewing and interviewing will remain here at Bluestalking.

Pointingfinger    Off-topic rambling concerning myself and other endeavors – some of them also literary-     related, but not reviewing per se, including my participation in World Book Day, etc. – will                be found here.

Pointingfinger    Photography, my painting and multi-media work as well as anything related to matters     artistic will be here.

 

Life, as it was, in 2011:

2011 began with the culmination of a series of shots under my left knee cap, injections I elected to try in hopes they would alleviate ongoing, unendurable pain. As a bonus, what started as a left knee phenomenon spread to the other after I tore the meniscus tendon in that knee, as well. Ironically, it gave up the ghost a few weeks into my very active exercise routine, fueled by the hope I could build up enough leg muscle to avoid that very eventuality. I walked miles and worked out at the gym for hours, with the result of a ripped tendon, the absence of its protection resulting in my right knee quickly became inflamed. Then I had two knees exhibiting excrutiating arthritis I'm far too young to have. Too young by fifteen or twenty years. But it's genetic, my older brother (by six years) is battling it as well, though only in one knee. Eventually I'd have succumbed. But so soon?

Resolution # 2: Actively search out viable solutions to minimize and work around the pain, don't curl up and succumb like a big, whinging baby.

 

Rays of Light:

For the positive of the year, I've already expressed how wondrous were matters reading and literary event-related. The books I read were nothing short of miraculous but even that may be slightly eclipsed by the memories of authors met. One day, when I'm old and grey – oldER and greyEr, that is – it will finally hit me I really did meet these people, talk to them, hear them speak and learn more about what makes each such a wonder of humanity.

Their genius is humbling, if also a bit depressing if I'm totally honest, since it reaffirms I would need ten lifetimes to begin to approach that level of creative ability – which is why I read, review, blog and love from afar while they produce works of enduring beauty. I'm the thwarted Romeo to their Juliet but I love them no less for it.

 

Authors met in 2011:

Ian Rankin

Sebastian Barry    (Have I mentioned that?)

Michael Cunningham

Goldie Goldbloom

Elizabeth Berg

Chris Bohjalian

Bill Br yson

Rebecca Skloot

Resolution # 3: Carry on meeting, greeting, reading and adoring amazing writers.

 

The New Library World Order:

You won't like hearing this any better than I like telling you but libraries, within roughly the next decade, will no longer resemble what you've become accustomed to. I know this because I've been reading about "advances" other libraries are making and/or planning in order to fulfill a whole new function in society. I also know the same is in store for my own library. The planning has already begun.

Roughly 50% or more of print books will be going away, the space they occupied devoted to classrooms for instructing the public on how to use up and coming technology. Other space will become private meeting or similar technology-related areas.

That is, libraries which aren't to be shuttered will be transformed. I should qualify that. As a profession, I don't think it's too soon to say librarians will gradually cease to be. And, you may recall, I received my Master's a mere two years ago.

Enough said.

Resolution # 4: Change, adapt, accept. Or scream, break things and swear. It's a toss up.

 

A Few 2011 Highlights:

Hollywood and Harry Potter

A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates

NBCC winners

Acadiana: … by Carl Brasseaux

I predicted the Orange Prize Winner!

Stones for My Father by Trilby Kent

Netsuke by Rikki Ducornet

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

The Filter Bubble by Eli Paliser

Salem Press declared Bluestalking one of the better General Interest Library Blogs for the second year in a row

Bluestalking turns five

Fourth of July – Lisle Hot Air Balloon Fest

Goodbye, Borders

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam and I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck and Sebastian Barry

Julian Barnes, the Man Bookers, Alan Hollinghurst. And Sebastian Barry.

Errm… Sebastian Barry

A photographic romp

Julian Barnes! and gratuitous mention of Sebastian Barry

Bit more Sebastian Barry

Dean Faulkner Wells

 

2012:

Partly new start, partly continuation of the status quo. In my next post I'll talk a bit about what's ahead for me, so many exciting details you may want to make sure you're sitting down. A small cocktail wouldn't be out of order.

In the meantime, celebrate the New Year well and safely. As for NY Day, the Scots believe you should do, on the first day of the year, a few things important to you, that you'd like to do much more of the rest of the year. And yes, that sounds a bit awkward but in my case I'll read a little, write a little and create – whether painting, photography or whatever – and be back here to post on the year ahead.

Wishing you all much health and happiness in 2011. And thank you, so much, for reading.

 

NaNo…. NoNo

I fell behind. The wagon hit a bump in the road and I fell off. I was trampled by the horses, scraped off the street and tossed onto the sidewalk.

Yesterday was November 30, 2011. In order for me to have finished NaNoWriMo I would have had to write something along the lines of 30,000 words by the end of the day. That didn't happen.

What bothers me most isn't that I didn't cram 50,000 words into 30 days. I'm concerned by how embarrassed I've been to come online and admit defeat. If anyone else said to me, "Hey, I tried, but you know how much else I have going on. I just couldn't get there." I'd say, "No worries. You gave it a shot." I need to extend to myself that same empathy. Chin up, woman! There's nothing saying I can't take what I started, finish it and rework it into something, now is there. Besides, I changed my mind about the entire direction of the piece and wasn't sure how to go on, leaving the first 50ish pages hanging while twisting the plot, mid-novel, into something totally different. I just wasn't feeling it this year, I guess. Or I was, but knowing I didn't have time to go back and revise made me reluctant to go on.

I'm raising the white flag of surrender. NaNoWriMo, you have officially kicked my lily-white, Irish/Dutch/English posterior.

I haven't been idle, though. I published an interview with Michael Cunningham in the Illinois Library Association Reporter. I also submitted a couple book reviews: one on Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land for Booklist and the other Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina for Library Journal. Don't think either of those have been published yet, or at least I haven't had time to check.

Also, there are the blog posts in our local online newspapers (Patch.com and TribLocal), book reviews and an interview on behalf of the library:  an interview with Michael Popek, author of Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Found Between the Pages; my thoughts on Hillary Jordan's latest When She Woke; and also Peter Ackroyd's latest London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.

 

What am I reading now, you ask? I'll tell you!:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Plus my latest review book for BookBrowse.com, one I can't reveal just yet, mostly because it makes it sound mysterious and exotic. All I'm saying is: grim, short stories, southern. That narrows it down.

 

Soon to start:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

2012 being the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, I plan to read several other books by and about my favorite Victorian. One is Claire Tomalin's latest biography: Charles Dickens: A Life and the other possibly Michael Slater's Charles Dickens, about which I've heard only great things. I've missed Victorian literature. 2012 is my year to revisit a few old favorites and also give some new ones a try.

 

IMG_9832

Also, I've been tremendously blessed by several publishers who answered my clarion call, sending me review books I requested, plus those who continue to send titles they'd like me to cover. Here are a few of those, received over the past week:

 

IMG_9834

 

Special thanks to Coffee House Press and Yale University Press. Wow!

Loads of things bookish happening here, plus the inevitable pull into the holiday season. It's going to be a busy month.

NaNoWriMo: Week 2

Well,  now, life just keeps getting more and more disturbing interesting. Over the weekend I caught up with my lagging word count, writing something like 6,000 words in one long-afternoon-'til-evening sitting. Remember, because I wrote that much doesn't mean it's all that great. It just means I hit a magic number. I also killed off a character I didn't expect to. Now that she's gone it makes way for another  happening, thence getting to know a formerly shadowy character a lot better.

If I decide I don't like the route this is all headed I can always revive her in the next draft. Too bad life's not like that, eh? Do something stupid, back up the cursor, write in something else. Is there an App for that? It could be called the 'Foot-in-Mouth' App. Or the 'Great Move, Douche' App. I'd  forgo the free version for the full one you have to pay for. For the little icon, I'm thinking something like this:Goofupapp

 

It's a picture of one of my redneck relatives I found in an old shoe box. No joke. My relative really was in an old shoe box. Reunions make me all misty.

Today's Day 10 of NaNoWriMo and I should be at 16,667  words. And where am I, besides sitting at my family room desk with a walking pole (more in another paragraph or so) by my side? 13,964. Not bad, considering I haven't touched the laptop in a couple of days – the laptop I can only hope and pray doesn't burst into flames or get stolen before I finally stop being lazy and back up what I have onto another source.

Since I'm home today – nursing the knee I damaged all over again yesterday, doing stupid things I shouldn't have – I'll catch up with my word count and even get a little ahead. Too bad I had to hurt myself all over again – winding up in bed with an ice bag atop my elevated knee – to earn my catch-up time.

In a few minutes I'm going back to upstairs to lie down. Me and my walking pole that kept me from falling on my face (though my posterior did hit bottom once) during our summer vacation, walking on big, slippery rocks in a stream I had no business being in in the first place. The rocks were unstable – imagine that, their being covered in slime and all. They forced my ankles to bend, in order to keep my balance. Though my ankles aren't the ailing joint, unfortunately, when they bend the knee gets knocked off-balance, too. And my knees are very much my ailing joints.

Recap: I'm home today because I walked too much, up and down too many hills, to prepare for a vacation in which I'd anticipated walking a fair to middling amount. By the time we actually left on vacation I'd already torn my meniscus tendon (I've been through it before), so I could hardly walk very far at all, despite all that by then useless training. Still, I decided I'd be a sporting lass when it came to walking in a stream bed somewhere out in Utah, in order to see pretty slot canyons. What can happen when you have a good walking pole?

Quite a bit, apparently. I came home (in late July, if you're following this) with the meniscus tear and just this week saw the doctor about it. He gave me a shot of cortisone under the kneecap. That made it feel loads better pretty much immediately. Until yesterday, when I decided I wouldn't bother anyone else about dragging the garbage can down to the curb, walking down then back up our very steep drive. I knew something had gone wacky then but chose to ignore it and go on with my day. Fast-forward through the split shift from hell. For the second of two programs I had at the library I thought it would be okay to lift a heavy, six-foot table and set it up in the meeting room, for no better reason than I thought it would be silly to call our custodian, who set up the rest of the room. The guy whose job it is to set up the six-foot tables. Somehow, in my wee brainie, I felt since I was already there it was an awful lot of work picking up a phone, dialing an extension for help. Then, SNAP! Pop goes the meniscus.

I'm hoping three days of ice and elevation will buy me some time before eventual surgery. I see my doctor again early next week, so he can look at me, then hit me over the head with my fancy walking pole.

Phew. All that to say I'm freshly injured and catching up on NaNoWriMo today. No wonder I can write 50,000 words with minimal effort.

Goofupapp
And by the way? I never even made it as far as the pretty slot canyons. All I accomplished was screwing up my knees and getting my shorts wet, both of which I could do just about anywhere. Next time I'll stay home, hit my knees with a hammer and hose myself down. Sure would save a lot in gas money.

NaNoWriMo: Week 1

Nanowrimo
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. I last attempted it about three years ago, the year now known as "that in which I crashed and burned very early on." A couple years before that, though, I actually finished the full 50,000. And I haven't even looked at the finished product since because I know, in my heart of hearts, it's something that's going to need a whole hell of a lot of re-writing before it becomes anything. I should probably do that one of these days, when I get around to it. But I'm lazy that way.

This year I took time to prepare in the days before: writing a rough outline, ideas for character names, etc. Will it help out in the long run? Probably. But will I finish all 50,000 words? No idea.

It feels a little disconcerting coming at fiction from the other side. It's like waking up one day, realizing your kids are your parents, having to follow the rules you laid out instead of vice versa. I'm paid to analyze someone else's work and I read with a hyperactive eye. As soon as a writer takes me out of a story, for any of a billion reasons I can't always quantify – but know when I see them – he's lost me. When I pop out of my head and into reality I've hit a bump in the road. That's not counting external factors, like the cat jumping on my head or one of my kids producing a reverberating belch I have to stop what I'm doing and praise. It's more like cutting a diamond. When you hit a flaw the blade jumps. Sometimes you can keep cutting through, getting past the unusable bits and salvaging at least something. Other times the whole thing shatters.

It sure ain't easy. But I knew that going into it. I've written fiction before, never for publication in anything aside from an anthology written with other writers I knew, edited by writers I knew. Oh, and there was that one summer, when my kids were tiny. I wrote like a short story demon all summer, submitting and re-submitting. One story would make its way back to me and I'd already have the envelope ready for the next submission. When all four or five stories had come back to me four or five times I hung it up, defeated. And that was my first huge mistake. Don't do that.

Whatever comes of NaNoWriMo I won't know until it's finished, edited and re-edited, passed under another set of eyes, then edited again. It may distill down to a short story, not even making it to a full novel. It may make novella. Or, expanded, you just never know. Maybe what germinates this month will ultimately flesh out into a real novel.

It's cliche even saying it but I'll go ahead anyway since that almost never stops me. In order to be a writer you must develop a very thick skin. You can't be afraid to cut and splice, even if it means paragraphs, even whole pages, hit the cutting room floor. I could show you some drafts of my published book reviews. If I'd kept the revisions, that is, because I don't. Many times what makes publication bears no resemblance to what I first submitted. That's because an editor's trained eye looked over it and said, "Nope. I hate this, this and this. Re-write and re-submit." And you know what? My editors are always right. I'm blessed that way.

I'm inured to cutting my own writing. I've learned not to be married to any one sentence. A general idea, yes, but never the prose I first set down. I don't think about how sophisticated it sounds; it's all about the flow. You can't interrupt the flow or you jar the reader and if it's a reader like me, you lose her altogether. And sure, a lot of that's based on taste, or personal preference. Most reviewers I know are voracious readers who know what's good writing and what isn't, because they know what they've enjoyed and what they haven't. Some of us have degrees, others loads of experience reviewing. I have degrees and experience, plus a real lack of tolerance for the mediocre. Still, I don't always agree with myself, looking back at a book I read earlier. Sometimes I completely change my mind, wondering what pills I'd been popping or how much sleep I'd been averaging when I wrote what I wrote.

Lesson: it's all subjective. And yes, that can drive a writer crazy, which is why establishing a relationship with an editor who gets you is so crucial.

I expect my editor(s) to treat me no differently than I treat the writing of others. I want Ming the Merciless to edit what I write. I want to cut, rearrange and replace. That's the only way a writer gets better. I could hand my finished manuscript to my family and they'd say, "Wow! This is great!" But do you know why it's so great to them? First, YOU wrote it. Second, it's presumably coherent and they didn't realize you could think this stuff up. So to them it's like magic. But trust me. In nine out of ten times first drafts are more garbage than magic.

That's why you can't be a good judge of your own stuff and why people who know you well aren't capable of being unbiased. You need a blade that's unafraid to slice. In most cases those who know and care for you aren't going to open you up. But you need to be opened up or what's in there that's diseased won't be removed. Then your work dies, shrivelling up, becoming that file in the computer you're afraid to click on lest it remind you it's still there, in a coma. It's waiting for Prince Charming to come along and give it a kiss, when what you really need is Dr. Charming. With a scalpel.

NaNoWriMo 2011 is going okay so far. I'm at 3,666ish words of regurgitation. I'm puking up that first draft, getting as much of it out as I can. On December 1st I'll start cleaning it up. The overall gist is you have to pour it out, the good and the bad. The bad will, if nothing else, help you see how good the good is. And vice versa. Empty it all. Every last bit. Don't go back and edit; that's the kiss of death. That's when you freeze, realizing holy crap,is this bad. Only go forward, unless you need to remind yourself who's speaking or what scene you're on. Even then, leave it ragged. Don't try to connect the dots. Write as though no one's reading, because ideally no one is. Not even you. Don't be afraid of cliches, clunky sentences, unrealistic dialogue or clangy character names. Much of what's wrong will be taken out in the first re-write. More in the second, after more additions and subtractions, and probably the remainder in the third or forth, unless you're one of those disgusting people able to perfect in less than the three or four re-write average.

One thousand six hundred and sixty-six words per day, every day in November. Some days I'll do more, some less. It's not a magic formula, just an arbitrary way to control, to compartmentalize, the scary, out of control feeling writing has if you let it. If there's a cap to what you expect of yourself you can feel satisfied, at the end of the day, you've accomplished what you set out to do. And if you think a Muse is going to plop down in front of you, forget about it. Ding, dong the Muse is dead. Get over it.

I'll check in again next week to tell you how it's going.