September Update

I haven’t posted for a while, so here’s a general update, emphasis on reading and writing (of course).  Also parenthood.

I have a nice new writing group—actually a 4-5 person group, not incidentally all women, who splintered off from my old Bucks County group.  We meet on Tuesday nights and are very supportive of one another’s work.    I’m avoiding groups that bring a lot of writing- guru-of-the-month and extreme ninja critique garbage with them.

I’ve decided sometimes a little self-protection is okay, I don’t always have to put myself completely out there to people who have already shown themselves to be unhelpful readers, to put it mildly.

 

Hannah is loving 5th grade so far.  They have a long reading block, in a room with fluffy pillows, comfy chairs and bookshelves and ALL THEY HAVE TO DO IS READ.  They can read books from there or bring books from home.  They can borrow the classroom books and take them home or around the school with them.  Every once in a while they talk individually to the teacher about what they’ve read.  That’s it.  

She said the first day was kind of nerve-wracking but she was okay because she got plenty of reading time—before school, recess, and reading class.  This summer she finally found her inner bookworm– at last.  I think I made her read so much she had to learn to like it in self-defense.

 I pointed out to Hannah that I was never in 5th grade and maybe now is the time for me to go back and catch up on whatever I missed.  In between reading sessions.  She pointed out to me, no.  I think it’s age discrimination, myself.

Hannah is smart, funny and kind (except about letting me go to school with her), but she narrates every moment of consciousness.  It’s like living with Proust, if Proust was ten and had an iPad.

Are you reading anything good?  I want to read the new Louise Penny but I’m making myself wait until I finish at least some of the 3 books I’m reading.  One of them is The Fifth Season, which just about caused a riot by winning at the Hugo awards.  I’m mostly reading it at work, which makes it almost impossible to come back from lunch. It takes a major display of willpower, which could probably be more usefully directed at other things.  

I’m working on a silly vampire and time travel paranormal young adult novel called Dark Lustre—sheer fun.  Also having fun deciding on my vampire YA pen name—currently in the running: Vanessa Gray, Charlotte Davenport (no points for guessing where I got those), or Jocelyn Madison.  I’m open to further suggestions.

What are you reading/writing/thinking?

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The Tyranny of the Beginning

This is a time of year when we all think about beginnings. We take stock. We plan. Our hopes are high, we start out briskly and then …we trail off, finishing weakly, if at all. (But enough about my diet and exercise resolutions.) This year, my suggestion for writers everywhere is that we stop thinking so much about beginnings. Few of the oft-quoted pieces of advice are worse than the ones about beginnings: You have to grab them in the first page! The first paragraph! The first line!

Soon I expect to hear that the very first word of my manuscript has to “grab” the reader (which sounds kind of improper, and on such short acquaintance, too.).
Apparently this is nothing new. The great 19th century English novelist, Anthony Trollope, explains at the beginning of more than one novel that he was always advised to open his books with an exciting action scene. He complained that he liked that as much as the next person, but eventually he always had to backtrack and explain who everyone was and what the heroine looked like.

At one point I had a list of beginnings of great classic novels that would not, I think,grab that modern agent/editor/reader with the short attention span that we are all so afraid of:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“Um, okay, which was it?” I hear that impatient editor mutter, hurling Dickens’ hefty manuscript to the floor, and probably leaving a dent.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“What’s with the passive voice and the generalities?” the reader fumes, returning Austen’s book to the library unread, and hastening to Goodreads to write a nasty one-star review.

Yet somehow, despite these decidedly ungrabby beginnings, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen went on to have a fair amount of success, during their lifetimes and beyond.
Nonetheless, I see way too many writers take their highly polished beginnings to writing groups, conferences, etc., asking anxiously if the beginning is “good.”

“Does it grab you?” they ask eagerly.

Retreating a pace and crossing my arms defensively, I mumble, “Well, it depends what comes next.” Then I try to listen patiently to a description of what they have planned for the as-yet-unwritten Chapter Two, when I really want to shout, “ALL of what comes next! The rest of the book!”

“I don’t know if this is a good place to start,” they say, looking at me expectantly.

Sadly, nobody, including the writer, can possibly know if it’s a good place to start until they see where it’s going. So get one draft all the way done. Give yourself a chance to make all the discoveries you make about yourself, the world, your characters, the parts of speech and the use of the semicolon that come from completing a book length manuscript. Then, and only then, you will know enough about where you’re going to make sure you’re starting from the right place, and you can polish that beginning until it is positively blinding in its brilliance.

Dear Readers, if you have additional examples of openings that keep their hands politely to themselves, please add them in the comments, and best wishes for a happy and productive new year!

Preview of the New Book

Hello, fellow worms!

I’ve been working hard on my new book, Snow Angel, and not doing much blogging as you have probably noticed.  So I thought I would share a little of the novel in progress here. I hope all of your summers are full of fireflies and magic.

Maria

Snow Angel

Angie looked like a waif but we in the family knew she was something sleek and feral.  She was skinny to look at but boneless and eerily supple to the touch, like a cat.

That summer, she ran away from the grill one night with the marshmallow I was toasting, and when I, proud to be fast enough, proud to be strong enough, caught her, instead of twisting away she came close, sank her pointed little teeth into my shoulder until I let go, then ran away, laughing.

“It’s a nasty bite,” Grandma said.  “And close to her heart, she could get blood poisoning.  Human bites are dangerous.”

“Oh, Mother,” Aunt Mickey said, but she sent Angie to her room.

Angie ran up the stairs, laughing.  Aunt Mickey looked exhausted.

I had hot soaks and ice applied to my shoulder, depending on who was around, ice by my mother, heat by Grandma.  Aunt Mickey rolled her eyes at the fuss.

Late that night, Angie said, “You can bite me back, Nicky.  Go ahead.”

“Yes,” Jenna said.  “Chomp her, Nicky.  It’s Justice.”

Angie edged nearer, the strap of her pajama top sliding down her arm, bony shoulder offered.

“I don’t want to,” I said.  You’re too…”

“Skinny?” Jenna suggested.

“Rubbery.”

They laughed, as they often did at things I said.

I was the youngest, the fattest, the plainest.  With my long, wavy, mouse-colored hair and round gold-rimmed glasses I had an unfortunate resemblance to John Lennon, but they always had me right in the middle, just like in that picture, and on the rare occasions when we broke into two and one instead of our usual united three, it was always either me and Jenna together or me and Angie.

I loved them both.  I could never have bitten Angie back, even though I knew she would just have laughed.  She laughed when she bled, she laughed when Aunt Mickey, goaded past endurance by Angie (or, more often, by Grandma) spanked her.

She had laughed the week before when Jeremy gave her an Indian burn to get her to give back his Frisbee.  She laughed silently, her whole body shaking, tears standing in her big gray or green (we could never decide) eyes until Jeremy finally dropped her arm and turned away in disgust.

“You’re a big bully,” Jenna blazed at him.  “A big, — a big brute.”  The grownups said Jenna was dramatic.

She dropped to her knees in front of Angie, whose thin shoulders were still shaking in that silent way you thought was maybe a sob until you saw the crazy grin on her bony little face.

“A brute?” she gasped.

“A horrible brute.  Pick on somebody your own size,” Jenna told Jeremy, and the sight of his furious little sister made Jeremy laugh too, his shoulders shaking in a way that made beautiful, dark Jeremy look uncannily like Angie for a minute.

“Get somebody my own size to make me.”

I was already pulling one of my sweatshirts out of a drawer for Angie.  Perpetually hot, she wore spaghetti-strap tops my mother said were inappropriate for girls our age, tiny shorts that fit her in the waist but were too baggy and short everywhere else, no shoes at any time of the year if she could get away with it.  She radiated heat and kicked off the covers all night long as fast as you could pull them up, so Jenna and I always shared one bed in our room at the beach house and gave Angie the other one to herself.  But now she took my sweatshirt without argument and pulled it over her skimpy top (this one said Angel Baby in pink glitter script) to cover her red, swelling arm.

Brute or not, none of us would ever have told on Jeremy.

101 Artist’s Date Ideas.

I love artist dates! Be sure to go alone….

The Artist's Way

  1. Visit an artist’s supply shop.
  2. Spend some time outdoors with your journal, sketchbook, craft supplies, etc.
  3. Go for a walk, and take your camera with you to document the experience.
  4. Stop by the library, and check out some CDs.
  5. Set a timer, and spend an hour working on something you’ve been putting off.
  6. Create an artist’s workspace in your home.
  7. See an Oscar-nominated movie or a foreign film.
  8. If you don’t have an artist’s blog, start one.
  9. Visit a “creative” shop that has nothing to do with what you actually do–an art supply store, a fabric shop, a music store.
  10. Grab a stack of magazines, and clip whatever looks interesting or cool to create your own inspiration board.
  11. Support the local arts scene. Go to a local festival, music event, art show, play, museum exhibit, etc.
  12. Plant something. Start your own herb garden. Butterfly garden. Plant a tomato or some…

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Writing Process

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I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by writers’ writing processes. Whether it’s sitting down from nine to noon every day, or carrying a notebook around and writing in the supermarket checkout line, I find everybody’s process weird and wonderful. (I wish I could remember which romance novelist it was that I read does her writing in her home office with the TV on all day. The things you learn reading People magazine at the dentist…). I get a lot of questions about my process (it’s the second most popular topic after self-publishing) so I’m sharing the answers here.

I write everything long hand first.

I think I write better this way, it’s super-portable, and I get a break from long workdays at the computer. Plus, I like longhand. I feel like my ideas flow better, and it also gives me an excuse to buy lots of pretty spiral notebooks and great pens.

I write in one-hour, three-page bursts.

This is it. I can take a break and then maybe do another 2-3 pages, but that’s it for the day. The well needs to refill, I need to wipe my sweaty brow and take a nap or have a cup of tea. I can write anywhere—desk, bed, car, dining room table, coffee shop, bookstore. But even if I sit there all day, I’m only going to get 3-6 pages that are worth anything.

Second draft goes on the computer, and then everything changes.

This is the biggest edit. Transferring my longhand version to the computer makes me really look at structure. Usually not one sentence makes it intact from the notebook to the Word document. And I don’t wait until the end to do this; every 10-20 ages of longhand I do the transfer because a) it’s really satisfying, and b) as the structure takes shape I get more of an idea of what I need to tackle next.

I don’t outline.

I do make in-no-particular-order writing lists, sometimes: lists of scenes, things to work in, amorphous floating ideas, and possible titles. (I also make lists of baby names for children I’m not going to have, books I’m not going to get around to reading, things I’m grateful for, and plants for my garden). Lists are kind of like outlines only not in any particular order and, most importantly,  not associated in my mind with my god-awful eleventh grade history research paper.  I love making lists, but I hardly ever go back and look at them, and I feel like an outline would take all the fun out of the process. (Like it did in eleventh grade.)  I like seeing the picture emerge from the pieces and surprise me.

Full speed ahead, jump, backtrack.

With writing projects of any length, I start at the beginning (or what seems like something somewhere in the vicinity of the beginning), and write along for a while until I get an idea for the ending. Then I jump to the ending, and after that I backtrack and fill in whatever’s needed between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. Usually that’s not as much as I thought there would be when I made the jump. A couple of times I’ve pushed to do a short story from beginning to end, straight through, and it stretched out in the middle like a saggy clothesline.

Stitch it all together.

I often wish writing was like knitting a scarf: start at one end, work steadily to the other, fix mistakes when you see them. But writing is more like making a quilt: get a whole bunch of pieces and figure out how to arrange them, then stitch them together the way that pleases you. In the end, there are no mistakes, just the results of the choices you made.

Please describe your process in the comments, and, if you know happen to know who the writer is in paragraph one, please let me know!

National Poetry Month: Dylan Thomas

This is my favorite poem of all time, so I decided to share it with you on the ultimate day of National Poetry Month.  I love how the images come back, a little different each time, throughout the poem.  That (along with the length) makes it a killer to memorize, but a pleasure to read.  Enjoy!

Fern Hill

Dylan Thomas, 19141953
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
     In the sun that is young once only,
          Time let me play and be 
     Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
          And the sabbath rang slowly
     In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
     And playing, lovely and watery
          And fire green as grass.
     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
     In the sun born over and over,
          I ran my heedless ways,
     My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
     Before the children green and golden
          Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
     In the moon that is always rising,
          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

National Poetry Month–Muriel Rukeyser

Night Feeding

Deeper than sleep but not so deep as death
I lay there dreaming and my magic head
remembered and forgot. On first cry I
remembered and forgot and did believe.
I knew love and I knew evil:
woke to the burning song and the tree burning blind,
despair of our days and the calm milk-giver who
knows sleep, knows growth, the sex of fire and grass,
renewal of all waters and the time of the stars
and the black snake with gold bones.
Black sleeps, gold burns; on second cry I woke
fully and gave to feed and fed on feeding.
Gold seed, green pain, my wizards in the earth
walked through the house, black in the morning dark.
Shadows grew in my veins, my bright belief,
my head of dreams deeper than night and sleep.
Voices of all black animals crying to drink,
cries of all birth arise, simple as we,
found in the leaves, in clouds and dark, in dream,
deep as this hour, ready again to sleep.

National Poetry Month: William Wordsworth

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A great spring classic.  Ogden Nash might not approve, since the title is a simile!