Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paying Attention?

Perhaps if you have read my first novel, To Dance In the Desert, you'll remember something my terminally ill character, Glenda said: "If you pay attention, five minutes is enough."

Confession: Glenda said that, I didn't. At the time, I had no idea what she meant by it, but she insisted, and I wrote.

But I think it's a little clearer now.

I write this post at the end of a long day, so I'll tell you now that the threads I'm about to lay on the table won't connect in any obvious way, not till I braid them together.

Here's the first:
On Monday, wise Debbie suggested we "spend time away from writing and reading and being connected to social networking in order to feed that place where great stories originate."

The second:
In his nonfiction book, Nudge, Leonard Sweet suggests that every time Jesus says "Verily, verily" in The Gospels, he really is saying, "Pay attention."

In fact, Sweet goes on to say something worth cross-stitching into a tea towel:
"You are what you pay attention to ... In a world of inattentiveness, a world that goes largely unregarded, it is the special mission given to humans to bring the world to life. How do we save the world? How do we keep the world alive? Through loving attention. … by 'tending and tilling,' naming and cherishing the tiniest part of what God has created." 

(I wish I could tell you more of what he says about paying attention, without pushing the fair-use laws into a breakdown.)

Before I pull in the third thread, let's twist these two together a bit:

My spiritual walk of the last few years has led me to reflect again and again how few things are about me. How much of life - real life, my own life - lies outside my skin. How life experiences that differ from mine might create an experience of life far different from my own. How people send signals to say things they have no words for - to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I have often been frustrated by my failure to write a third book - and I still mean to do that. But the moments in this past year I have managed to catch the view outside my skin have enthralled me enough to lessen the pain.

Here's the third thread: In case you haven't met her before, I'm going to introduce you to a woman named Vivian Maier, who paid attention. By design, she had no audience till after her death. The audience seemed to matter far less than the seeing.

She's a hero of mine. And while I'm glad that someone at last allowed me to be her audience, and I'm grateful that many wonderful authors have cared enough to publish their work, I want to remember that seeing comes first. I want to remember that the "verilies" of Jesus are his command to me to pay attention.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Keep Calm and Ponder


I recently watched a lecture by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) which was delivered in 1991 on the subject of creativity.  I found it challenging and informative.  He had five main points that are necessary for creativity and you can watch it here. Rather than repeating his main points, I want to highlight the information that made the most impact on me.   And I’m paraphrasing here:

  • ·When it comes to creativity, it is easier to focus on the trivial things that are urgent than the more important things that are not urgent  OR the little things we know we can do than to start on the big things we’re not so sure about.
  • ·The first 30 minutes or so is spent in getting into the mood, tuning out the distractions of everyday life and getting into a playful, less purposeful mode.  The purpose is not on problem solving, but experimenting with ideas.  Then you can spend an hour or so in pondering, which is preferable to spending long periods of time (less productive).
  • The most creative people don’t give in to the quickest, easiest solutions.  They can tolerate the tension or discomfort of sticking with it and taking longer to find the most original ideas.

As I watched, I found so much that we can use to seize the year:  brainstorming story ideas, imagining the direction, shape or POV of a story, discovering creative ways to market and promote.  Determining how to unfold the story in the most creative way.  Tossing an obvious plot solution for something more original.   Expanding a small story idea into a bigger one.  We might take time for this at the pre-writing phase and then later at a mid-point where the story dries up or looks up at us fish-eyed and smelly.  We can focus on the big picture, the whole story, or the minute details, as long as we approach the process in a playful, open frame of mind.  No ideas are wrong, they’re just ideas, and this is essential to spontaneity.

He also made a statement that creativity is not a talent but a way of operating and is completely unrelated to I.Q.   We can learn to get into the open mode needed for creativity.  It’s not something you either have or don’t.  Phew on both counts!

Most importantly, I felt he validated our need as writers to spend time away from writing and reading and being connected to social networking in order to feed that place where great stories originate.  

So I’m going to set aside time, create my oasis and ponder the possibilities.  What about you?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Chris Bohjalian

Lincoln’s Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of 16 books, including eight New York Times bestsellers.  His work has been translated into over 25 languages and three times become movies.

His epic novel of the Armenian Genocide, The Sandcastle Girls, was published in paperback this month. This July his new novel, a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in Tuscany at the end of the Second World War, The Light in the Ruins, arrives. 
 His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.
 His awards include the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah's Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. 
 He has written for a wide variety of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.  He has been a weekly columnist right here in Vermont for the Burlington Free Press since February 1992. 

Chris graduated  Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Amherst College, and lives in Vermont with his wife, the photographer Victoria Blewer, and their daughter Grace Experience.  They are passionate supporters of Homeward Bound (the Addison County Humane Society), Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter, Concord Academy, the United Church of Lincoln, and a small elementary school in rural Armenia, where this year they are funding a new fresh water and plumbing system. 

Novel Matters: Tell us about your newest novel.  

Chris Bohjalian: “The Light in the Ruins” began as a re-imagining of ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ this time set
in Tuscany at the end of the Second World War.  I have always savored love stories – especially epic love stories set in war.  Books such as ‘Atonement’ and ‘The English Patient.’
            And while the love story is instrumental to the novel, the tale grew beyond that.  Now it’s the story of two young women, one of whom was a partisan battling the Nazis and Blackshirts. The other is a Tuscan nobleman’s daughter who falls in love with a German lieutenant.  The book moves back and forth in time between the cataclysm that was Tuscany in 1944 and Florence in 1955 – when a serial killer is murdering one-by-one the remnants of the nobleman’s family.
            It’s set in one of my favorite parts of the world: That part of Italy called the Crete Senesi – the hills and woods and the eerily lunar-like landscape south of Siena. I bike there and do some of my best writing in a medieval granary that figures prominently in the tale.

            The novel goes on sale on July 9. To purchase the novel or learn more about it, click here:  

NM: Some authors write one book a year and others write a handful over a lifetime. In the beginning, did you consciously choose one of these paths over the other, and are you happy with that choice today? 

CB: No. I was simply hoping to write a novel after (finally) selling a short story. I amassed 250 rejection slips before I sold a single word.
            That first short story is called “Sparks” and it appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1988.

NM: Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

CB: I don’t dare read the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon or I used to. I wrote an essay once for the Washington Post about my old addiction to reading the way anonymous people would eviscerate my work. But now, in the interest of my mental health, I give the reviews as wide a berth as I can. They can really screw up a sunny day.
Here is that essay I wrote for the WashingtonPost.

NM: If tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

CB: Write what you love; write what moves you and makes you proud.

NM: Writers debate whether to write a novel using a detailed outline vs. no outline, just go with the gut. Which do you prefer? What role does epiphany play while planning or writing?

CB: I never have an outline. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. I begin with only a vague premise of what the novel is about.

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

CB: Sugar Free Red Bull.

NM: Who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?

CB: My editor and my literary agent.

NM: What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?

CB: I don’t. I’m not presumptuous.

NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

CB: In 1992, I finally wrote a pretty decent novel: “Water Witches.” The voice felt authentic and the story felt original. It was my fourth book. I wished my previous three books had never been published. I still keep them all out of print.

Thanks so much, Chris, for sharing a part of your writing journey with us. We're excited about your latest!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Resisting Perfection

Katy began our discussion last week talking about the hazards of reading our old manuscripts. We all pretty much agree, even the most successful writers we can name, it's not necessarily a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Patti asked the question, "Can we see our own writing for what it is? I'm beginning to have my doubts." I'm right there with her. As I'm writing a novel I like to think it's pretty darn good, but golly. But by the time I'm finished with it I'm usually so saturated with the project that I can't begin to be objective. It seems completely flat to me. I often ask myself, "Who in their right mind is going to want to read this?" Or worse, publish it? That's when it helps to have a critique partner, someone to talk you down off the ledge, another writer who can objectively evaluate the writing, the plot, the character development, etc. Someone who will also give praise where praise is due, but is not afraid to point out the weaknesses as well. I am beyond blessed to have had Katy as that critique partner with my last three books, and now I have my other Novel Matters pals to lend their wisdom, knowledge and expertise to my writing.

So reading our previous work can cause us some anxiety, but in a way that's a good thing, because it helps us recognize growth. It lets us see where we've strengthened our writing and where we still fall short. Because, sorry to say, we'll never arrive.

One of my favorite books on writing is Elizabeth George's Write Away. I have so many tabs on the pages I can't see the edge of the book. The tabs are even color coded. Alas, I can't remember what the colors mean. No matter. This is a resource book I go back to time and time again, and one I highly recommend.

In Chapter 1, "Story is Character," she touches on our subject in regards to character development, citing a problem that new writers in particular tend to fall into. She says:
I try to keep some basic guidelines in mind when I'm creating my characters. First, I try to remember that real people have flaws. We're all works in progress ... and not one of us possesses physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perfection. This should be true of our characters as well ... As individuals we're all riddled with issues of self-doubt in one area or another. This is the great commonality of mankind. So in literature, we want to see characters who make mistakes, who have lapses in judgment, who experience weakness from time to time.
If I had my first manuscript to look back on -- the one I discarded in a recent move -- I know I'd see just how badly I fell victim to that error early on. It wasn't quite the "silent movie" depiction of good characters and bad characters, where the heroine is all perfection and the villain is a cigar-smoking jerk who spends most of his time twirling his black handlebar mustache, but it was close. My protagonist was an angelic creature, bearing her many trials and tribulations with quiet dignity, while the antagonist was cruel and rigid in her opposition to the heroine.

To quote Megan: B-O-R-I-N-G.

Well, I tend not to do that with my characters now, which hopefully shows some growth in my writing. I actually had fun creating the character of Aria Winters in Unraveled, a young woman flawed in so many interesting ways. A character who was relatable. And it was the flaws that gave me the story. Elizabeth George confirms this when she says:
... characters are interesting in their conflict, their misery, their unhappiness, and their confusion. They are not, alas, interesting in their joy and security. The first gives them a pit out of which to climb during the course of a novel. The second robs them of story.
She gives an entertaining example of this from the writing of one of her students, who was creating a private investigator in the story she was writing:
[In the first 10 pages] ... we met the PI, his sister, their mother, and their stepfather. the PI was from a large Irish family. His sister worked for him. He and his sister got along well; they were practically best friends, and they loved each other to pieces. On the night in question ... the PI and his sister -- loving each other to pieces -- are going over to their mother's house for St. Patrick's Day dinner. They adore their mother and wouldn't miss a St. Patrick's Day dinner for all the corned beef and cabbage in County Clare. Plus, their mother is a superb cook, the best cook ever, in fact ... So they go over to their mom's house, and the first person they see is their stepfather. He's a wonderful man. They worship him. He made their childhood bliss.
At this point in the chapter, one was praying for someone to come along and put all of these characters out of the reader's misery. Why? Because there was no conflict. There was nothing but happiness, joy and familial bliss. Alas. There was no story
No kidding.

Ms. George goes on to talk about the importance of giving your characters flaws. And she's absolutely right. There's no dimension to a perfect character, nothing the reader can connect to. And nothing on which to hang a plot.

Have you ever found yourself writing flawless characters? Been hesitant to show your characters' imperfections? And conversely, not allowed your antagonists to have any good qualities? Have you seen growth in your writing when it comes to character development -- or any aspect of creating story? What helped you see the importance of letting your characters' humanity show through?

Friday, July 19, 2013

On the Outside: A Writer's Prerequisite

I love my book club. We are incredibly diverse in our choices of literature. Tonight, we'll be discussing an Isabel Allende book, A Memoir: My Invented Country.

In a million years, I would never have picked the book off the shelf. Not because I don't like Allende. I adore her. But this is not fiction. It's about Chile, a country and its people. [Note to the mildly curious: I had once considered moving to Chile because I had a handsome Spanish teacher in college from Chile. He taught my hubby and I how to samba and drink espresso. But that's another story.] 

Back to Allende's book. Like all Allende writing, this book is fresh and provocative in its prose. This woman can evoke. But it's what she says about writers early in the book that made me scratch notes in the margins.

Once I heard a famous Afro-American writer say that from the time she was a little girl she felt like a stranger in her family and her hometown. She added that nearly all writers have experienced that feeling, even if they have never left their native city. It's a condition inherent in that profession, she suggested; without the anxiety of feeling different, she wouldn't have been driven to write. (xiv)

Sigh of relief! It isn't just me! Whether made by the death of my father and the subsequent search for the perfect place to land or that God molded me as an outsider looking in, I so get this feeling of the stranger. Even with my family. Even with my best friends. Even with my church family. Especially with my dog but not with my husband. 

Is it detachment or that I am observing, affectionately so, those around me?

I don't know.

Do you experience this sense of being a stranger in your milieu? Perhaps in some situations but not others? Here's the rest of the paragraph:

Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one's own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurities that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformist, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings.

I don't see myself as a chronic nonconformist, but I do squint down hard on just about everything before saying yea or nay. And failure? Well, I've found myself terribly out of step in some situations and felt compelled to step--or collapse--aside. I suppose that is a sort of failure to adapt, a strangeness where others felt at home. 

I'm relieved that at least two other writers--the original speaker and Isabel Allende--feel like strangers as I do. Weirdness loves company.

And you? Do you sense this feeling of being a stranger who wrestles with their circumstances to find understanding? Does this camaraderie bring you any comfort? Care to make it four writers on the outside?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Split Personality

My mom loves to talk. In fact, she is a world-class talker. She loves to speculate on things, especially if it involves terminal illnesses, marital infidelity, politics or people’s finances. She can exhaust any of those subjects like a dog shakes a cat until it gives up its life or its secrets.

I’m a non-talker. I know I frustrate her because I just won’t speculate on things of which I am ignorant. I think it drives her crazy when I say, “I don’t know” when she wants me to affirm one of her speculations.

I think: “It is what it is. Or it will be what it will be.” Most things I don’t want to know, or wouldn’t get involved enough to change – so why discuss it? I’m no fun.


I have a split personality, for I speculate in print. Writing fiction is all about speculation. Underlying every novel’s plot is the idea, “What would happen if. . .”

I’d like to challenge readers to create some “idea sparking” speculations.

Here’s one to get you started:

What would happen if. . . a reclusive librarian found out that she could only get the money to save her hometown library from closing if she agreed to get a tattoo just above her navel and wear work clothes that showed it?

(Okay, that’s not so inspired. Can you come up with a better one?)

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Hazards Of Reading Our Old Manuscripts

On Sunday Megan Sayer posted this revelation on Facebook:

I'm pretty sure all of us on Novel Matters identify, as do many of you, our readers. But Megan is in fine company. This article in The Telegraph reveals that many great authors have similar experiences:

"Yann Martel discloses he “never liked” the opening line of his award-winning Life of Pi, while Sir Tom Stoppard claims he now has to 'avert my eyes' from particularly “horrible” lines in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead."

Does this comfort you as much as it does me? I have averted my eyes more than once, when reading my own work.

It's been so long since I looked at any old manuscripts of mine, that I'm not sure what to expect, but, like Megan, I'm sure I'd wonder what I ever saw in them! I think it can be said of most of us that we'll always find something we'd written in the past that we would do differently now, like Yann Martel and Sir Tom, which puts us in great company. One thing I can say about myself is that I'm not a packrat. At all. If anything, I'm the exact opposite. I'm a minimalist when it comes to decorating my house -- and in my writing, I believe. But I have carried around all the manuscripts I've written over the years, even my first, which was handwritten in pencil. Until a very short time ago. During a recent move I actually tossed that handwritten manuscript -- without reading a single line. I knew what I'd find there, that I'd see how my writing has evolved and improved, thankfully, over the years, and I thought, why do I need to keep this? So I didn't. And I haven't missed it. I have kept the manuscripts that have been stored in my computer since they were written, though there's no guarantee they won't go the way of that other manuscript. In fact, I just read the opening paragraphs of a couple of them, and I'm in perfect agreement with Megan: They. Need. Work.

I read Megan's entry on FB, too, and had to groan along with her. I recently re-released my first three novels as Kindle books. I absolutely and positively had to tidy them up before doing so. Slashed wordiness. Reduced description. In short, made them more readable, even though they were my best-selling books. One was a Christy finalist. When I wrote them, I was so enamored with my own words and cleverness. How embarrassing, really.

Tell us about your own old manuscripts. What have they revealed, and what have they taught you?

We love to read what you have to say.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Location, Location, Location

This week, my family has enjoyed hosting relatives who are visiting from lands far, far away.  From Florida and Ohio, to be exact.  We did some big touristy things in the first few days which were lots of fun, but when it came to knowing my local vicinity, I fell short of being the best tour guide.  A few minutes on the internet acquainted me with some of the offerings of our small town and immediate area, and tomorrow we’re off to see a giant sequoia grove which I had no idea was a mere 45 miles away.  The smaller, less traveled roads will turn out to be just as memorable to us, and maybe more so.

I think the same is true of setting in fiction.  Big, exotic locales are not always necessary to capture a reader’s interest.  As long as the location is believable and fully established, it will play into the plot and lend authenticity to the story.  Sometimes the setting is the story.

One of the great books that really drew me in as a child was Blue Willow by Doris Gates. The story is about a migrant farm family in California’s San Joaquin Valley during the Depression, and you can almost taste the grit in your teeth from the dry fields and feel the intense heat pressing your shadow into the dirt. But this is a simple story of a child’s hope, and you are glad for the refreshing cool breezes of fortune that lift this family from dire poverty as the story progresses. Twenty years and 3,000 miles later, we moved to that same general area and I found some parts of it to be little changed from what she had described.  I was amazed that the author could so effectively use the dirt and the heat and the poverty to draw out a beautiful story.  As a writer, I would not have had the insight to see the story in the unremarkable setting.  (As a disclaimer, I will add that not all of the San Joaquin Valley is like this. Much of it is gorgeous and green with the graceful symmetry of well-ordered vineyards.)

With that said, I consider my own immediate locale and the possibilities.  What am I missing that would tell a great story in this place where I live and breathe and work? ‘Write what you know’ can become ‘write where you know.’  I’ve seen my town in all its seasons, in calamity and near-disasters, through record-setting heat, unexpected snowfalls and scorching fires. The people lean a certain way and they still say ‘Merry Christmas.’  They’re not afraid of challenge.  It’s not known as ‘The Endurance Capitol’ for nothing.  I need to haunt the museums and seek out the people who’ve kept record of life here for the past hundred years. I need to sit in on a few city council meetings to get the flavor of the movers and the shakers, gather brochures from the visitor’s center and discover what I’ve missed.  I need to peel back the layers of my limited experience in these square miles and find the story worth telling.  Who better than someone who has lived here for the past sixteen years?  

How about you?  Have you considered where you live and breathe and work to have story potential or do you always look for a setting where the grass is greener?