Thursday, July 22, 2010

We'll be right back after these messages...

Well, there are no messages actually. But I'm going away for a bit-- vacation-type away. WooHOOO!

Mostly this is a vacation from work, and the hot, slobbery dog of a summer we are enjoying here on the farm. But it's probably a good idea to take a break from the manuscript, too, and especially the recalcitrant query monster, which, in my mind has grown to look something like this:

(Okay, that's actually a scene from "Sigmund the Sea Monster" but how else to describe a 450 word query that is just too damn much?)

And the manuscript itself is feeling a bit monstrous lately as well. I am trying to get a new handle on one of the more minor (but crucial to the plot) characters. He started off sort of cartoonish (intentionally so, I'm afraid) and now I realize I have to understand him, even care for him if its going to work. And he's sort of a tough guy to like....

If you are a fiction writer, you probably have all sorts of little tricks to get to know your characters, sort of like ice-breakers for the party in your mind, right? If you are not a writer, this whole post probably seems one step away from schizophrenia.

Anyway, this is one of the exercises I do while I am driving or otherwise semi-engaged: I imagine I am talking to the character, and he/or she is telling me about a childhood incident, a guiding principle, an ex wife, etc. etc. Again, if you're a fiction writer this is all great fun. If not, call in the straitjackets!

So, what sort of exercises do you (writers) do to get to know your characters?

I hope to check in and read about some cool, helpful writing practices. But this is a new blog, so mostly, I hope to keep the flame going while away.

So if it's slow around here, no worries. I'm probably still here:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just in Case You Were Wondering...

These guys from my post way back on July 13th?

They're the Pipkins, a pre-Monkees, pre-Menudo, non band. Evidentally, the guys on the album cover didn't even try to mouth the words. But they sure did rock the look.

The kids jump around so enthusiastically they injure themselves when I play this one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Flash in the Pan

Some of you might recall "Careers" the old board game in which you start off setting a goal for yourself, particular amounts of money, fame and happiness, and then win by reaching it. There's a handy dandy score card to let you know how the old career is doing:

Well, my husband excavated this game from his childhood home early this summer and we've been playing it.
Careers Board Game
Sort of a lot.

I find I am big on the happiness goal. Also money is nice. (Living hand to mouth for a few hard years taught me that happiness is much harder to come by without the comfort a little money provides. Also nice not to have the electricity turned off on you every few months.)

Fame? eh. I have a student who had a brief brush with YouTube "stardom" earlier this year and he says notoriety gives you "the itis" in a sort of disease-like need for more. An perhaps this is the case. I just don't know what I'm missing.

Regardless, "Careers" got me thinking about fame and how odd and unpredictable it is. What makes something (a Freakin' Old Spice commercial, for example, or "I write like" application...) "go big" while a much more substantial, interesting, unique, offering (say, a PBS special or something) enjoys an audience of a maybe few thousand?

The literary world is chock full of this sort of thing. Why The Da Vinci Code? or The Lovely Bones? Or Jonathan Livingstone Seagull? Are these "big" books products of luck alone? Or is there a clear and predictable reason for their sudden and skyrocketing success?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference explores the sociological aspect of this question. I haven't read this book (yet) but Wikipedia tells me that "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." [p33] He goes on to describe these super-influential folks as "Connectors", "Mavens" and "Salesmen".

I will certainly update this post once I have read this book.(Sure sounds interesting!)

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

But for now, it seems to me that things just resonate.... or they don't. There are millions of Vampire books but for whatever reason Twilight meant something to a whole lot of someones. (Maybe those darn Mavens had something to do with it!)

And of course, there are all those One-Hit-Wonders! If they don't bring to mind a weird, fleeting and arbitrary synchronicity, I don't know what does.

How else can you explain this:


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Then and Now: Nick Gilder

If you are of a certain age, you might recall this one:

Technically, Gilder is NOT a one-hit-wonder, but this song says 1978 to me. (Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen)

Here's Mr. Gilder nowadays:

Technical Difficulties!

Has this ever happened to you?

You revise your manuscript, adding a new and important scene that drives or improves the plot in a truly significant way and then SOMEhow it gets lost in the MILLIONS of versions of your manuscript floating around in your hard drive.

I am not the most organized person around, but really, this is ridiculous!

It all started with the dropbox. My saintishly-tolerant husband suggested I save my mss in this dropbox thingy so that if the computer crashes I'll still have it. Plus, I wouldn't have to be emailing the thing to myself every few days.

Great idea (He is full of them). So I did. But-- here's where the law of unintended consequences comes into play-- I got all tangled up, saving some versions in my traditional documents file and some in the snazzy new dropbox and now, I've lost the version that has the cool new scene.

....Either that or I dreamed that I wrote the cool new scene (which seemed to solve all the weaknesses and warts in the manuscript....hmmmm......) That's possible too. It's been a sort of bleary summer.

Officially, I'm on version number 31 of Family, Genius, Species. Although there have been many more less radical alterations and edits along the way. I need a better system, clearly.

How do you organize your drafts?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Padding the Ego

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

If only, eh?

More likely I write like THESE guys:

If you can name them, I guess I should come up with some sort of thing to send you-- a copy of my new Nabokov-esque novel perhaps?

I could send you a skein of genuine Icelandic wool from Maggie's Farm if you like. (Really)

(Quick thanks to Alicia for the link and Mary W. for the idea to post!)

Origin of Family, Genius, Species

Part 2: Hijacked!

If Idylwilde, my first completed novel was all first love heartbreak and drama, Family, Genius, Species is a more of a mature relationship-- a marriage, if you will.

I went into the thing with my eyes wide open. I knew it would take work, a lot of work. I was no longer afraid to erase whole chapters or cut my darlings from the page with a hearty punch of the backspace. I was "big picture" in my approach, I planned. (Well, I planned more than I had in the past anyway).

You see, in its first incarnation FGS was a mother daughter story. Zorro, my one-hit-wonder, cool-in-his-own-mind main character was a minor part of the original plot.

I wanted to explore the troubled relationship between Carla (mom) and her daughter Dawn. I thought the plot might work its way through the social service system, and so I talked to some social worker friends (research!) and spent many long commutes developing the plot. (Yes, this is often what I do on the 2 hour plus drives.... really. It's fun.)

When I thought I knew where I was headed, I wrote my first few pages. And THAT's when the trouble started. Zorro. my bit character, comic relief in the intense mother-daughter struggle, sort of took over.

What's more, I really liked what happened when he did. I discovered that he had his own agenda and that IT would drive the plot far better than all that "Women's fiction" social service stuff (Not that I have any issue with these things-- remember, that 1st book was Oprah-esque and all).

I wanted to sort through some pretty interesting ideas: the role of destiny (If we are so much ourselves do we have any real choice?) and How does a person sort of shapes him/herself over time? And love I wanted to explore a platonic, parental sort of love. And there's the interesting difference between how we think of ourselves and how we actually are in the world. (I don't know about you, but I am 5'9", thin brave and wildly amusing.)

Anyway, Zorro turned out to be the right man for the job.

Besides he's cool. Or thinks he's cool anyway.

The mother daughter stuff is still in there of course, along with the natural history stuff and the coming-of-ageness. Also there is a road trip and a pissed off teenager...

And yes, as in any mature relationship, I know I can plug away at it-- fully aware of the flaws and foibles, working towards that soul-mate perfection that would make the novel good enough.

As for Sweet Marie, the white-handed gibbon, that just happened. I have no idea how. You writers out there probably know what I'm talking about. The rest of you may be baffled by it.

I'll have to post more about this crazy process that can produce a full-grown gibbon out of thin air-- one with a goofy, Dylan-inspired name no less! But that's for another post. Suffice it to say that if you ARE baffled, you are not alone in that. My incredibly tolerant husband often feels that way too.

Chapter Titles?

Quick question: Are chapter titles for kids' books?

I hope not. I really enjoy coming up with fun little titles, part summary, part in-joke (by "in-joke" I mean to include the reader, of course).

But perhaps a simple number would suffice? And then there are the big sections: parts one, two and three.... (Never any fun titles here for some reason)

Does anyone have an opinion on this?

How do you format your novel? Was it a conscious decision?

Sunday, July 11, 2010


If you are of a certain age, you probably remember this song storming the airwaves. Part of that bizarro 70's thing that is just so not-cool its sort of cool.

Don't know why this video makes me smile quite so much.
Check it out, I dare you.

Love the "Chartreuse Micro-bus"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Origin of Family, Genius, Species

Part 1: Lost Love

My first novel was deeply personal, an Opra-esque tale of two women, sisters, coping with death, loss and guilt in the small town South. It was like a first love; I spent breathless months mooning over words and paragraphs. I adored it and didn’t and adored it again as it grew to a monstrous 480 pages and consumed my world.

But, no matter. This was meant to be, people!

love.jpg red heart image by concagal

When things got serious -- and I’d revised as much as I thought possible-- I prepared it to meet the ‘rents (well, the agents). And in the course of my research, I discovered that my beloved was much too long. (How does a person miss such an easily-discovered fact? You ask. Well... but, his was love. Practical, schmactical.)


After the requisite despair, I halved the thing, worked that manuscript down to an almost reasonable 120,000 words. And in the process, the relationship moved into a different, more critical stage. I learned a lot about tough love. (No I didn’t need the three chapters detailing the antagonist’s back story. I loved it, still giggle through the robbing the convenience store in Wyoming scene, but—um-- no.)

Then I prepared my query and sent my first novel out into the world, even introduced it to my family. It didn't crash and burn completely. I got quite a few requests for the full manuscript—some really nice detailed letters telling me how I might revise, and an amazing half-hour call from a well known agent who was kind enough to review the manuscript, tell me where and how I might revise, and ask to see it again.

I made the revisions—honing a critical eye and further tightening the once wildly passionate and out of control beast it had been. But in the end, she passed.

Yes, this was the point in the relationship when I went out and had myself a thoroughly self indulgent Frappaccino and a Cadbury Bar, a bag of Kettle Buffalo Bleu Potato Chips, etc.

A Date (yes, Date) Frappuccino

I had to face facts. It just wasn’t working and mucking with it had not made it better enough. It wasn’t the manuscript, it was the hook-driven world of publishing, the muddle I’d made of the plot, me.

The relationship was over. Painful as it was, I dumped that first novel. But I still have the good times, memories of hanging at Panera with it and my orange scone, as in-love as a human and a manuscript could be.


What does any of this have to do with the gibbon, you ask? Well, I’ll continue the story in the next few days.


Old school ? and the Mysterians.

Not much has changed with these guys.

At least he wasn't singing to a Barbie Doll in 1964

Thursday, July 8, 2010

? and the Mysterians??????

Okay, this guy even has the shades....

I wonder how they ended up with Barbie. Maybe the actor didn't show up and somebody rushed off to the toy store. "Trust me, guys. The doll'll look cool. Sort of.... mysterious, you know, as in 'The Mysterians'? And we can use Ken, too!


The dolls really make the video-- and ?'s cool duds of course.

Going all Picasso

“Show don’t tell.”

This is the advice each and every fiction writer has heard perhaps hundreds of times. And it’s solid, right?

How lame is it to say “Joe Bob was sad” when you can instead tell us “Joe Bob stared at the frayed lace of his shoe, winced, squinted, allowed a tear or wept in the bald bright light of day, the uncut grass around him thrumming with heat and insects. That he sighed or brayed or let escape an embarrassing sob, pressed a Kleenex to his face. Etc. etc. etc.

But an interesting discussion on Agent Nathan Bransford’s excellent blog got me thinking about this particular writerly rule. I suspect that many well-respected authors break it willy-nilly when the story or style or needs of the plot call for maverick acts of authorial daring.

I pulled a couple of random books from my shelves to demonstrate.

These are excerpts from the beginning pages of Ian McEwan’s Atonement:

“She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.”
And “Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes and she did not have it in her to be cruel.”

And this from the beginning chapter of Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters:

“Where you’re supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house with flower arrangements and stuffed mushrooms all over the house. This is called scene setting: where everybody is, who’s alive, who’s dead.”

Some telling serves a purpose. In McEwan’s, perhaps, it’s to establish a certain authority and tone. With Palahniuk, the details (I know the details are actually “showing”) and telling are to establish a certain voice.

Does it matter? Or do we readers slip under the fictive dream (Think John Gardner coined this phrase) and let slip our concern with rules?

I’ve noticed that a lot of published writers have maverick tendencies. Rules broken left and right, POV switches and sentences sans subjects and so much telling, hell even exposition—10 pages about the history of whaling to use an extreme example-- when the text seems to call for it.

And we readers take it. Hell, we love it.

A long, long time ago, I spent a few misguided years in the world of fine art, sketching from
models, dreaming of a glorious future of linseed oil and loft space, and in that short period, I learned that one has to know the rules—how to draw a perfectly lifelike basket of fruit—

before one can go all Picasso on it. Nude and Still Life, c.1931 Framed Art Print

The viewer can tell the difference.

I suspect that the reader can as well, and that we have an instinctive feel for competence, can tell when a writer could provide us a damn good portrait if she wanted to and once a clear competence is established, we are eager to see where a little experimentation will take us.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Then and Now: Billy Joe Royal


1999 anyway.

I love how these guys keep at it. Gives me hope for the world.


I am not usually one of those writers who delves into the research.

I could say it's 'cuz I want my book to reflect more of what is in my head than what is in the world. Or that I use what I know most intimately as the basis for the characters and events. Or-- as the writer Bret Lott once told me during a Q & A session-- if i'm not verifying the exact location of each traffic light in the exact town and time frame I am referring to, I'm just lazy. Or perhaps it's all of the above. There are many days when lazy would describe my process-- especially when it comes to housework. But I am not looking to recreate that exact town and time and traffic light. What I am getting at, hopefully, is a certain level of empathy and interest, a feel.

But anyway, I did research the likelihood that Sweet Marie, the gibbon, in Family, Genius, Species might exist in the real and larger world. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess was a big part of this particular vein. I read the entire book while waiting out downed power lines during a winter storm, my three kids wandering around in the dark with their flashlights, messing with the candles, and eating melted ice cream from the carton with serving spoons. To top it off, my flashlight was one of those crank varieties, so every minute or two, I went "RRRrrrrRRRRRrrrrr" from my dark corner, sparking a feeble light. So when I say, "engrossing", you know it damn well had to be.

I tend to prefer novels, but Nim was more intriguing thananything I read that year. It details, not only the complicated story of the famous Nim, but also the recent history of primate language research and the batty world of 70's ideals, touches on the fate of these signing, "humanized" apes-- there were a whole lot of them at one point-- and of Nim himself.

I've always been a big fan of Koko, the signing gorilla. My 3rd grade class once sent a letter to Koko and got a fundraising packet in return, so I have my own dark history where these things are concerned. But this book led me to question the point of this research-- however cool it seems. And yeah, you'd have to be a heartless bastard no to love that kitten story.

But Apes are what they are and coaxing some sort of human interaction from them is not really relevant. In fact, it tells us much more about ourselves, our species-specific vanity than it does about the apes' way in the world, and leads to terrible consequences (primarily for the apes, although the researchers seem to struggle as well).

I should stress here that I am not commenting on Penny Paterson or Koko in particular.

Anyway, one hopes that we've progressed beyond asking a chimp to hang up its coat when it enters "the classroom" and having it sit at a desk and practice. But who knows?

Check this book out!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Still Carrying the Flame

Bo was a two-hit-wonder.

The kids like his "Luke Skywalker Haircut"

D Day

I have a friend who describes our cloudy, gray, miserable New England Days as "D Days", as in dank, dingy, dark, etc. All those not so happy D-scriptors.

Today, weather not withstanding, was a serious D day in Lesser Apricot land.

Dedication? Nope. We are talking a Dearth of Dedication, here. I was planning to revise my 3rd draft but instead did a lot of laundry, broke the dishwasher (don't ask), napped through a chunk of the Red Sox game, and played Facebook Scramble sort of obsessively trying to figure out how they determined "word IQ" (still have no idea).

The drive that has seen me through a hundred more pressing engagements, compelling me to sit in front of the current draft come hell or high water (power outage, microburst, brawling children, lego-studded cyclones of filth, etc) deserted me today.

I like to say that I write better when my time is compressed into 4 hour once-a-week chunks (This is how the bulk of Family, Genius, Species, came to be) and so maybe the issue is this sudden wealth of time-- a rare long weekend with few obligations. Whatever the case, it's positively profligate to let all this time seep away underutilized.

.... And yet, this is exactly what I did.

Doubt? Oh, boy yes. Doubt is a cyclical thing, coming after the cheerleading phase (This thing is really coming along pretty well...) and the high (Wow! Is this the best novel ever or what?) and the hmmmm (Didn't notice how my plot just falls of a cliff here in the last 3rd). In the doubt phase, one starts to wonder what the heck she was thinking spending two years (two **#@ years!) on a hookless, plotless, uninteresting piece of schlock.

Dirge-worthy, another D word, comes after that. And Depths of Despair-- well, not really.

hard to tell from the drama of this post (Drama, being yet another D) but I am pretty even keel about the whole thing now. I recognize the D days for what they are: Part of the process. I pat myself on the back for all the laundry I've done and and the two point uptick on my mysterious "word IQ" and move on.

And, as Scarlett says, tomorrow is another day.


I spent a while trying to come up with some sort of gonzo inaugural post-- the trials and tribulations of my writer self, the balance, or in my case lack of balance with which I manage the various cubbies of my life (mother, teacher, farmer, wife, etc) the origin of my novel, Family, Genius, Species, the revision process that is wearing a Buick-sized hole in my writerly confidence, etc but no, not yet.

Instead I thought I'd start with the Buick.

I'm not much of an auto-aficionado, and my own vehicle is a blander-than-bland navy blue (overlaid with a fine helping of dirt road dust and footprints from the several times the kids scaled it like Everest)

...but there's just something about a big purple car that makes me happy.