Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Still Writing...

Believe it or not, I am still writing.  Unfortunately, however, that writing has not been on my novel.  It's so hard to find the time to do everything I need to do, like manage a house, raise kids, complete homework, revise my novel, etc., etc.  But I've come to reconcile myself with the fact that I cannot do everything, so I just do what I can.

"What I can" right now when it comes to writing is my homework.  As some of you know, I am working on my Master's degree, and I am currently enrolled in a contemporary poetry class.  This is still good for my writing, however, because it keeps my imagination and creativity going.  I am trying to make more time to get back to my novel, but in the meantime, check out some of the assignments I have completed so far.  I have some poems, and also a story that I wrote for my midterm.  Find them at my writing website.  I hope you enjoy, and I'd love any comments you have about them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Safe Critiquers and Unsafe Critiquers

I apologize for the sporadic posts lately.  I'm still trying to get into the groove of my schedule with two kids now instead of one, especially since I am nursing the youngest one.

But anyway, I am taking a poetry class at the college.  In one of the books we read, Fooling with Words, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim made the comment: "I share my poems, I guess, with unkonwn people, and I don't share them with the people I'm most intimate with [husband, children, etc.]...There's a part of me that I would like to keep sheltered that comes out in language, and once it's out in language, it's shared with the rest of the world.  But I want to shelter it from the people I spend my life with."

My professor made the comment that he did not understand her statement until I responded that I knew exactly how she felt.  I too rarely share my writing with my husband, parents, or siblings - at least until it has been polished up by other people.  It's a little bit paradoxical because I have come to the point where I invite criticism from lots of outside parties in order to make my writing better.  I have come to the realization that my reasoning is twofold as to why my intimates are not some of those invited parties.

First of all, I have toughened my skin to the point that I can accept negative criticism and not take it personally.  However, my family members mean so much to me that if they did not like something, or how something was written, I don't know that I could distance myself from their criticism so easily.  Essentially I am afraid of their disapproval.

Secondly, I have realized that I am afraid of how well my family knows me.  Much of my writing is based upon personal experience, but I take creative license with it.  And sometimes it is all about my creativity.  I worry that my family will take something I have written and read into it something about me as a person that is not true.  Like I don't want my family to think my feelings or actions are as extreme as some of my characters', but they know me well enough and could recognize the other elements of myself in my writing that it's possible they would do exactly that.  And because of it, I fear strained or awkward relationships based on misunderstandings.

So I guess I look forward to the day in my writing career where I am confident enough in myself that I can share my writing with anyone, including my intimates.  I also look forward to the day when my family can let my writing stand on its own without judging me based upon it.  And it's possible that I am not giving them enough credit, that they already see my writing as separate from myself.  But I'm not ready to take that chance...yet.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: Nickle and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist who turns sociologist for her book Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. When discussing topics with an editor, the concept of the liveability of a minimum wage position came up. Ehrenreich decided to take upon herself this challenge and record the facts.

She tried several different jobs (waitress, maid, nursing home assistant, sales associate) in various places throughout the country (FL, ME, MN). At each location, she found a place to live, claimed no or limited work history, and hired on at virtually the first jobs offered (though she does admit mistakes throughout her experience in living/working choices).

As a social commentary, the book is eye-opening. She found the living conditions that were affordable were deplorable, and often multiple individuals had to pool their resources in order to pay the rent. An apartment was almost impossible to rent because minimum-wage workers could not save up enough money for a deposit. She also found that healthy eating was practically nonexistent. Either the workers did not have time to eat anything more than a bag of Doritos all day, they could not afford anything more than canned, processed food or fast food, or they were literally too exhausted to cook anything. Of course all of this information comes through Ehrenreich's own experiences or the recitation of facts from her coworkers.

Though interesting and exposing a problem many refuse to acknowledge, Nickle and Dimed is not an unbiased selection. There is no mention of other lower-class groups, such as those on welfare, or college students working through school, or even immigrants who find a way to send money to their families back home. And the higher classes are always painted in a negative light. For example, when discussing her work as a housemaid, Ehrenreich mentions overhearing the receptionist tell a potential client that the cost is $25/hour. She is offended at this price because the maids are only making about $5 or $6/hour. However, at this moment she forgets to mention that there are at least three maids working on one house, the company provides a continental breakfast every morning and purchases the cleaning supplies, nor does she mention the overhead cost for the manager/owner.

Yes, there is something wrong with a system where an individual can work literally all day seven days a week at difficult physical labor and cannot afford simple expenses like room and board, but the "managing class" is not as far advanced as Ehrenreich seems to portray.

Another choice Ehrenreich makes that works against her is her language. Several times throughout the book, she chooses to use exceptionally strong language. I think she is trying to capture the "flavor" of the class she is trying to represent, but her language is usally unnecessary and, at the minimum, distracting.

But there is still value in reading this book. I think that it should be read with a discretionary mind, but it is a situation that I believe exists and should be addressed. However, I think that much of society refuses to acknowledge the bottom levels of our workers because they feel guilty taking advantage of those services. As Ehrenreich found, there is no job that is "unskilled;" each occupation has its own challenges, ways, and learning curve. To provide a more balanced perspective, her exploration should be compared with one in which someone who is exceptionally wealthy describes how he/she worked so hard to get there (i.e. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc.) in order to determine where the middle ground lies.

I live in an extremely conservative area, but I tend to think of myself as more middle-of-the-road politically. My book group all hated this selection and could not believe any of it. Their response was essentially, "This is the land of opportunity. Go to school and better yourself." They don't realize that it isn't that easy.

I also found it ironic that as practicing Christians, their response was not to "feed the poor" by improving conditions for the low-wage workers, but instead the low-wage workers have options that they should take advantage of (like school, or better-paying jobs) to improve their own lives. My personal philosophy after reading this book is more along the lines of spreading the wealth. Don't pay the higher class so much (who really needs multimillions of dollars each year), and raise the minimum wage to a sustainable living amount.

I try to see the entire picture in order to find the best course of action for everyone. Although this novel is an extreme example of one side, it is, nonetheless, a personal experience and therefore has validity (although not the sole experience). Even those who think there is no truth in this story are still affected by it. I found it interesting that members of my book group commented that after reading it, when they went to Wal-Mart, they were more conscientious about keeping their children under control and replacing items where they found them since Ehrenreich's description of being paid to basically clean up after customers all day.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Coming Home

Rosamunde Pilcher writes a story of a British teenage girl before and during WWII in her novel, Coming Home. The novel spans approximately ten years of time in Judith's life as her family leaves her at boarding school while they rejoin her father in Singapore.  While the family is separated, WWII erupts, separating the family members indefinitely.  During Judith's stay in England, fortune smiles upon her as she gains fame, a surrogate family, and eventually love.

The story is fun, and it is nice to see how a country more directly impacted by WWII was affected.  Although the story focuses on Judith's daily life, that life is changed by the events around her (such as having to make blackout curtains, or waiting for gasoline ration cards).  But eventually Judith's daily life also adjusts and changes as she joins the armed forces. 

As this story focuses on Judith's daily life, it is enjoyable to follow her relationships and interactions between her and those around her.  However, her character gets lost among some of the others.  Judith is supposed to be the main character, but Pilcher devotes almost as much space to all the members of the Carey-Lewis family, Judith's surrogate family.  At the beginning of the book, Judith is a relatively weak character, whereas all of the Carey-Lewises are exceptionally strong and charming.  As a result, Judith as a character, a person, an entity is lost somewhere along the way and she does not come into her own until the last third of the novel when she is distanced from the Carey-Lewises.  I cannot tell if this is a result of poor writing on Pilcher's part, or just a generally weak character type portrayed by Judith.

Pilcher wrote this novel in the 1990s, but her writing style is reminiscent of the War era.  As I prefer a more contemporary style of brevity and relevance, this was a difficult novel for me to finish.  I had to keep scanning ahead in the story to find out what would happen with certain characters in order to keep my interest going (and I rarely skip ahead).  Don't get me wrong - the story was interesting; I just felt Pilcher took too long to get there.  Her writing and description is beautiful, but there is just too much of it.  The first 200 pages or so was filled with background story, establishing the historical and geographical setting, and introducing the characters.  Very few actual events happen.  And in a novel that is 700+ pages, that is too long to expect your reader to stick with you to get somewhere.

My final complaint is more of an annoyance than a glaring problem.  As I stated above, Judith is the main character, but there is no clearly defined character viewpoint.  The novel is written in third person, so it could be omniscient (in all the characters' heads), or limited (only expresses internal thoughts of one character).  But Pilcher combines both conventions.  She is only in one character's head at a time, but that character shifts and changes.  Sometimes this shift in viewpoint is indicated by a section break, but it just as often happens mid-scene.  For example, at one point, the reader is in Judith's head as she is preparing to meet with the headmistress at her boarding school.  We hear her concerns, preparations, and fears.  She attends the meeting, which is described factually without any character commentary.  Finally, as Judith leaves, we are transferred into the headmistress' mind where she mentions how nervous she was about this meeting.  All of this happens within the space of a couple of pages.

Overall, the story is interesting and the characters are wonderful and distinct.  Unfortunately, Pilcher takes too long to get to the resolution.  I would recommend reading the abridged version rather instead (if available).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Arrival

Yeah, so I obviously haven't been posting much lately. And that goes along with about how much I've been writing too. But I really have a good excuse this time...I had a baby!

That's right. Life caught up with me as I prepared for and welcomed a new member into my family. I had a little boy on June 21. He was 5 lbs. 13 oz. (the exact same size my first son was), and 18 inches long. I just took him today for his two-week check-up and he has grown two inches and weighs 7 1/2 lbs! He's my little champion eater.

I'm hoping to jump back on the writing bandwagon in the next week or so, so look for some new blog updates. I haven't had much opportunity to write because when my two boys have been taking naps, so have I. But I think my newborn will start sleeping more at night, so I can get back to writing in the middle of the day. Here's hoping...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Ultimate Slice 'n' Dice

So, I've never really written a short story before, but I wanted to try one and enter it into a writing contest. My writing group has helped me with ideas and format, and then I sat down to write it.

My first draft was just warming up, and was already way over the length limit. I know, you're just shocked that I would write something too long. So I re-thought, re-focused, and re-started. My second version was a lot tighter, and I got the whole story finished.  But it was still too long. The limit was 2500 wds, and I ended up with 4100.

Back to my critique group.

I had one member who went through and chopped it down to 2850 for me. His effort gave me some hope. I let the story sit for a week or so, then I went back and started chopping myself before I even looked at his suggestions. I wanted to make sure my voice remained the same throughout. I was so proud of myself when I finished that step at 2900 wds. That's huge for me! Then I compared it to my compatriot's suggestions and was able to trim it down another 150 words.

It was fascinating to me to see that we both corrected/revised a lot of the same parts. It was encouraging to me that I can really "revise" my own writing, which I wasn't so sure I could do effectively. But it was also interesting to note a few phrases, sentences, or scenes that I thought weren't important enough to keep, but he did, and vice versa. Now we'll go through the same process again.

But here's the main point. I realized why I don't really write short stories. I don't particularly like them (at least for my own writing). I would call a short story the Ultimate Slice 'n' Dice because I feel like that is exactly what I have done. Yes, my story is more concise, and the essential elements are there, but I feel like there is a lot missing to my story. It was a great exercise for me, if nothing else, and it will benefit my novel writing too, but I'm glad I have more space as a novelist.

One thing I really miss the most is dialog. I have some dialog in my story, but if I had more space, I feel like I could use it so much more effectively. There is a lot of backstory that I either had to eliminate completely or mention merely in passing. The emotional impact of the story, I think, could be so much more effective if I could paint up an action-dialog scene. And that's the other thing I'm missing -- explanation.

My story is a bit of a supernatural story, and I just don't have the space to give to all of the events that really make it horrific. So they are, again, either absent, or told in a sentence. I've already decided that I will make this story into a novel someday and give my story some space to breathe rather than hyperventilate.

So I have a much greater respect for the master storytellers out there as compared to the novelists. I've read some fantastic short stories, and it amazes me that a writer can pack so much into such a little space. That is a skill I don't have, but maybe over the years (and revisions) I can develop.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Paralleling Creativity Lines

I find it interesting that creative people tend to be creative in a variety of ways. I have a brother-in-law who writes, and he also composes beautiful piano music. My husband's aunt writes and is also an artist by profession. I write and do crafts.

For about four or five years, I've been a Stampin' Up demonstrator. (I also do other crafts, but primarily cards and scrapbooking are my main focus.) It's interesting to me how my various creative outlets parallel each other so well.

As a SU demonstrator, I've primarily been considered a "hobbyist." That means I have mostly been selling enough to support my own purchases, plus a little on the side. But I haven't been totally satisfied with that, although it is about all I have time for. Recently I've been feeling really stagnant with my demonstratorship. I don't have a downline (SU is a direct sales company), and I have a few loyal customers who come to my classes regularly, but I don't really see any new faces. I've really enjoyed SU, and being a demonstrator, so I've tried some new things to share that with people.

I have tried a variety of different options to create more contacts. I've started a website that has brought me several new, loyal customers. I hosted an event last weekend that I think was really successful. And I am participating in a training program that focuses on recruiting. I have been forced (through assignments) to talk to customers about joining SU, and I've actually found that there is more interest than I had anticipated. I'm even hosting an event at my house June 3 to tell more about being a demonstrator to anyone who is interested.

So, how does all that fit in with writing? Well, my writing path and creativity have followed a similar pattern. I started out writing creatively pretty haphazardly. A few poems here or there, but I never really considered myself a writer. Then I took a class in college that changed my life. It was a YA lit class that we were supposed to outline a novel idea as the final. That in conjunction with my methods course that emphasized that as teachers of writing, we must be writers ourselves, completely changed my perspective.

When I had time, I took that novel outline and completed it. I was so proud and excited that I had finished such an ambitious undertaking. I shared it with my mentor-professor who ripped it to shreds. But the difference was that I actually cared enough to revise it. I wrote one revision, but it has essentially sat since then.

I had had a dream early one morning that presented me with another novel idea that I decided to pursue. I started writing it a little here and there, but I still kept my "writing" side of myself pretty quiet. Until one evening.

I went to a dinner program with my husband for an alumni board he had just joined at the university. Another professor was there and we were talking. When he asked me what I did, I told him that I had taught, but was currently a stay-at-home Mom. Then (here's where I parallel most closely with SU), for some reason I risked sharing with a complete stranger something I hardly even told my friends and family. I told him I was writing a YA novel.

He became animated and said he was a writer too. Who would have thought a business/computer professor would also be a writer? He told me about the League of Utah Writers and told me to email him and he'd give me the meeting information. Excited that someone believed in writing as more than just a fun hobby or pasttime, I emailed him the next day. I was surprised to find he actually emailed me back (who was I, anyway? Just a random stranger he met at a dinner he got roped into attending). From pretty much that point forward, I've never been embarrassed to tell someone I'm a writer (thanks, Eric).

I found that the same as with Stampin' Up, as I tried to improve my personal skills in my creativity and execution, I was also more confident in sharing with other people about something I love doing. And as I shared with more people about my creative loves, I found that a lot more people than I ever thought were interested in them too.

And here's the final parallel: I am at "amateur" level in both right now. I was watching AFV today, and the host presented a great definition that actually struck home. When you are a hobbyist at something, you can suck all you want. But if you define yourself as an "amateur," you are expected to become a professional. I know that writing should take a priority in my life, and it does, but right now I have greater priorities. I have a family to raise, a home to take care of, and schooling to complete. I try to write consistently, but do not do it as regularly as I "should."

And I'm okay with that right now. I do not have the time to turn my Stampin' Up demonstratorship into a full business right now, and my family situation is such that I cannot write for an hour every single day. But I'm working to grow both of them. Although I am only an amateur demonstrator or writer, I will be a professional at each some day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

So, my book group read this book about a month ago, but I am just now getting around to writing a review about it. First of all, a warning: this is a very long novel, but don't be overwhelmed by that. My husband borrowed the audio CDs from the library and just listened to it during his daily commute. It took him probably about a week to week-and-a-half, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The basic plot line of the story is that a Southern minister (I want to say Baptist, but don't quote me on that) packs up his wife and four daughters in the 1960s and moves to the Congo to preach for a year. The family (the father in particular) arrives with expectations to change the heathen ways of the natives, and instead the story shows how Africa changes each of the members of the family.

First of all, Kingsolver has a beautiful way with words. She describes all the elements of Africa through the eyes of her characters. This is effective because the characters compare American life (what most readers will already be familiar with) to Africa and its ways (what many readers won't know about), so the reader feels like he/she is going on the journey as well. The reader feels the oppressive heat, the red earth, the frustration when nothing grows, or the fear of hunted animals. The reader is gradually guided through the story as well so he/she eventually develops sympathy then empathy for the African lifestyle.

Kingsolver is also a master of voice. The story is told through the four daughters' voices, with an occasional insert by the mother. Each voice is distinct to the character's status, age, ability, and personality. Evidently the audio version does not name each new speaker at the new chapters, but my husband was still able to tell who was controlling the story simply by its language. Even what the various family members find important enough to report about (to the reader) helps establish their individuality.

Though perhaps overly simplified, the characters are good representations of various responses to African life. Each family member responds to the various situations and experiences differently, and the story follows a logical influence through to the end. It is fascinating to see which characters are changed, and which remain the same, but the final outcomes are all credible according to the personalities of the characters.

Finally, the story is historically grounded in political actions of the time, but the reader does not feel overwhelmed by the history. In fact, perhaps the opposite occurs. The author takes the approach that the characters are too involved in day-to-day survival to take much notice of the political dynamic; they do not realize they are living historical events until reflecting back years later. Though there is enough history to ground the reader, someone looking for a history lesson will be disappointed with this book.

In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this book. Its biggest drawback is its length (about 2 1/2 inches thick), and I would recommend the audio version if that seems a bit overwhelming. But the story as well as the perspective of the author are well worth the effort.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Novel Revision Retreat

So I am literally currently sitting in the main room at Stonefly Lodge in Ashton, ID.  The wall-length and -width windows look directly over the Snake River with a farm on the opposite bank.  The drizzly, gray sky mutes the small copses of trees scattered on the land.

And I have yet to step outside.

I am participating in a retreat presented by Darcy Pattison all about revising novels (which is why I haven't posted because I was frantically getting ready for this).  Some things have been good, and some things have been not as good, but nothing has been bad.  We are having a break right now, and boy do I need it!  My brain hurts.

Darcy is a visual learner, and so she has come up with a variety of techniques for revision that map things visually.  One thing I really like is her shrunken manuscript technique.  She (We/You) shrinks the manuscript down to 30 pages (I had to go 5-pt font to get it to fit).  Then you can highlight based upon various things in order to see the flow of the story.

I am planning to go home and highlight my plot arc, and emotional arc. I know in particular that my emotional-character arc is in dire need of some clarification and revision.  As I go through and highlight the instances my character tries (and fails) to resolve her initial emotional need, then lay all the pages out, I will see where I am strong in her development, and stagnant in her development. 

With the plot arc, I'll highlight the indirect, direct, and final "battle" scene between my protagonist and antagonist.  Then when I lay it out and find pages of no highlights, I'll recognize a place where my story lags.

Another technique that I want to apply after another revision or two (when my big-picture plot and character problems are resolved) is that of sensory details.  Darcy had us read a scene to re-familiarize it, then set the manuscript aside.  We tried to visualize the scene in our minds, then list at least three different things from that scene in each sense (visual, hearing, scent, kinesthetic, taste).  Then re-write the scene afresh implementing those senses.  I know I need more "action" and "grounding" in my dialog scenes for sure, and I bet I'll find other places that need it too.

Anyway, these are just a couple of techniques I am going to try.  But I am still trying to process everything we have talked about (and we're only halfway done).  So my brain hurts.  You can learn what I'm doing by completing Darcy's book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise.  The visualization techniques are eye-opening (wink, wink).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Catch-Up

Okay, okay, I know. It's been a while. But it has been a CRAZY couple of weeks, mostly because of the exciting news I have to share.

Last week, I defended my novel/Master's project...and it went great! I got an A out of the "class," but the best part was the feedback and comments I received from my committee members.

My basic project was to get a really good, solid first draft down, and then (because of time constraints for the project), I picked one chapter and revised it basically to finished product. This was to show my group how I would implement their advice, and the info I had gained already, into a complete work. As the final portion I wrote a monograph (don't ask me about the name - I have no idea) where I described my revision process on the chapter.

At the end of the monograph, I included the first draft and final draft of the chapter, and my committee was so impressed with my final draft. A couple of the comments they made:

"Now you're getting it."

"The flow of the story is so much better and more logical."

(My personal favorite) "There was nothing really beautiful about your writing in the first draft, but the final draft has beautiful writing."

Etc., etc. I'm not trying to brag (okay, maybe a little), but I am trying to show that revision, trade books, conferences, all these different things really do help. If we pay attention to what the "experts" around us are saying, our shot at publication is greatly increased. And I can't wait until my Novel Revision Weekend Retreat at the end of the month. It's gonna be great!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Purpose of Libraries

So a few days ago, someone (name will remain anonymous) and I got into an "argument" about the purpose of libraries. This individual indicated that s/he believed public libraries should not be stocked with fiction titles because that means our tax dollars are paying for someone else's entertainment.

"Why not just start providing movies at the library?"

Admittedly, I was a little shocked and perhaps somewhat hurt because in some way I felt this individual could be attacking what I'm trying to accomplish (writing and publishing fiction). But I tried to ignore that aspect because I know it was not intentional and instead argued the purpose of the library.

  • I started out by saying that many authors actually sell more books because they get greater exposure by being in a public library. A reader who otherwise would not pick him/her up will read a novel by someone new because it is recommended based upon what the reader already enjoys.
  • Another point I made was that university libraries are essentially nonfiction establishments, and frankly, about the only time anyone goes in there is when they have to do research for a paper. 
  • There's a lot of nonfiction that reads like entertainment, and some fiction that reads like fact. 

This individual's argument was that basically public libraries should provide the dry, factual, how-to type nonfiction and that was all (since our tax dollars are funding them).

S/He did concede one point to me. Granted, I do not know adult fiction very well, but my experience is that libraries mostly stock YA and children's fiction, with some adult fiction, but a lot of adult memoirs/nonfiction or the extremely popular series. Around my neighborhood, you also tend to see a lot of LDS fiction. So my point was that is a young adult (who is still working on his/her literacy skills) going to pick up a good story, or a recitation of facts for pleasure reading? Now granted, sometimes these fall together, but probably 95% of the time, young adults and children are going to go to the fiction section.

So this individual agreed that promoting literacy was an acceptable reason to stock public libraries with fiction titles. It wasn't much of a concession, but at least it was something.

So here's my question to you: what purpose do you see public libraries as serving and why?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Worthwhile Viral Video

Dystel and Goderich (a very reputable literary agency) has posted a viral video link that is definitely worth your while to check out.  Especially for all you YA writers out there.  It only takes a couple of minutes of viewing time, and it has a powerful message.  Check it out.

Book Review of Black Like Me

I have recently joined a book club, and I chose the first book we read. I decided that as I read these books for my club, I'll post a review of them each month. If I get really ambitious, maybe I'll post some reviews of other books I'm reading too. Black Like Me is one of my favorite books, and I think it is so powerful. 

Black Like Me is a nonfiction memoir by John Howard Griffin. In the 1950s, Griffin decides that he does not really understand the "black problem," and as a white Southern gentleman, no one will really tell him the truth. The only way he can truly understand the situation is to darken his skin via medication and stains, then travel the South as a black man. The novel is a recounting of his experiences.

I find this novel fascinating on so many levels. First of all, I feel it is one that everyone can relate to because everyone has felt discriminated against, whether because of skin color, intelligence, sexual orientation, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, age, or a multitude of other divisions. I once had a student complain because as a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon protestant), he was discriminated against in scholarships; there were scholarships available for every color/background under the sun...except his own. Although I completely understand the reason for this, I have also often wondered how we can consider ourselves a society of equality when true equality never exists.

I am fascinated by the psychological struggle Griffin goes through as a black man - something he never expected when he took on the project. As he spends more time as a black man and in the black world, he begins to think of himself as black.  That means the situation is "our problem," and he finds he cannot even smile or look at a white woman (his usual gentlemanly response) without being considered as making a pass at her. He sort of loses his own personality because he tries to do what is expected of someone like him. At one point he is mistaken for a porter and is surprised as he finds himself giving an oversized, grateful grin and thanking the woman profusely for her small tip. He realizes his actions are not congruent with his status as a successful businessman, but are a result of his situation and how he presently thinks and reacts. Near the end of the story, he starts to travel in the same areas as both black and white, and he finds completely different treatment by the same individuals. He also finds it difficult to revert back to his "white self" after experiencing life as a black man.

I also appreciate that Griffin is very fair to both sides of the issue. He readily admits that although he gets the "hate stare" from several white individuals, blacks have their own form of the hate stare reserved for whites. Although he recounts the cruel treatment received from some individuals, he is quick to admit that in certain areas the cruelty was not the norm for most people. He praises both black and white who try to remedy the problem, but also explains the approaches (both black and white) that do not help.

Griffin's human aspect also comes through clearly. There are a couple of times in the novel when he cannot withstand the situation and must escape. One time he goes to another city and tries again, another time he retreats to a monestary for a few days. In both situations, it reminds the reader how desperate the situation is for the oppressed, especially since they do not have the luxury of escape. After his experiment, several communities around the country call him in as an "expert" to help them remedy the situation in their areas. When possible, he rebukes them for not relying on local black leaders who know the culture, community, and condition so much better than an outsider ever could.

Black Like Me is a classic novel I feel every person should be familiar with. It is one I enjoy reading frequently and regularly. I do not believe that we can ever understand the Black/Asian/Hispanic/Middle Easter/Insert-any-other-word Experience unless we have lived it. However, I do believe that by educating ourselves as much as possible, we can understand that differences do exist, and that a person's experiences will define how he/she reacts in various situations. It is by recognizing, appreciating, and accepting those differences that true equality can someday be achieved. This novel illustrates how to recognize and accept those differences as eloquently as virtually any other I have read.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Favorite Lines

So, here's something I've wanted to try for a little while, and I found a similar forum that encouraged me to go for it.

This is one of my favorite lines from my WIP:

"The sound of the turnip splattering was almost as disgusting as the feel of the rotten flesh spewing on my ankles."  (It also happens to be my opening line).

So what's one of your favorite lines you've written? Or a favorite line you've read? Just be sure to give credit due when you didn't write it.

Let's have fun with this and get some good lines flying around! And if there are some bad ones out there, suggest to the author how to make it better (nicely, remember).

P.S.  *Poor example* Read Bearing Secrets by Richard Barre:
"As he turned and faced forward, the seat made a rich leathery sound."
I know what you're trying to say, but COME ON! You can do better than that!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Purposes of My Setting

I gave a presentation a couple of nights ago about what I have learned about historical fiction. My novel is set in late medieval England. At one point in my presentation I talked about how my novel is a time period historical fiction; in other words, rather than focusing around a specific individual or occupation (or even event), I give a feel for the times instead. I said that my setting is historically accurate, but the story that happens to my main character never would have actually happened in that time period.

At the end of my presentation, an individual asked me why I chose the medieval time period as my setting if the story never could have feasibly happened then. It was a good question, and one I had never thought about before. I believe I gave a decent answer, but I wanted to expand on the answer I gave.

First of all, my story is based on a dream I had several years ago. The medieval time period is what I saw in that dream, so that is just how my story has always been.

Secondly, Anna, my main character, is a very strong female character. I wanted her in a place where she remained strong when everything pushed against her. What other time period where women as oppressed by society, expectations, stereotypes, and even each other as in the medieval period?

Finally, the romanticism of the medieval time period really appeals to me and my story. Now I know that the real life of medieval people is anything but romantic. But it is how people lived back then that fits with my story so well. I have interactions between royalty, wealthy, and commoners. There are few other places in history where when a nobleman speaks with a commoner that it holds so much additional impact and meaning. Castles are not just a neat building tourists visit; they are dark, damp, smelly, miserable places for people to live and sometimes gather. And finally the lack of technology is somewhat integral to my story. Events are set into motion and plot is developed in such a way that would be impossible to achieve in a world with cars, computers, and cell phones. My characters' goals are achieved much better with carts, horses, and relative isolation.

So even though I had never considered adjusting the setting of my story, there are specific reasons why I set it where and when I did. Reasons that I believe only make my story better. And isn't that exactly what the setting is supposed to do?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Too much...can't do it...on overload...will explode

Today is one of those days when I really dreaded writing/revising. But I forced myself to do it anyway. So, yay for me. I just didn't necessarily work on what's on my mind.

I met with my critique group last night, and one member gave me a great suggestion, but it's just too overwhelming for me to deal with right now. In a section of my excerpt, I try to give some back story along with current action. Well, it ended up more back story than action, which I already knew. The hard part is, the individual told me it lost my character's voice almost completely.

He's right. I know that. That doesn't mean I have to like it though.

Voice is one of those things you just "have," right? So what happens when you don't "have" it or you lose it? I don't know. That's why I can't deal with it right now.

So instead, I ignore him and for a few days, I'll pretend I'm thinking about how to fix it. That's still writing, right? 

I know eventually I will listen to his advice and try to implement his suggestions because he is right. But I just can't face it now. So a few days (or a week, or whenever I can handle it), I'll go back and wrestle with this beast we call revision. And ultimately I'll triumph. I just may have to lose a battle or two before I can win the war.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Write How It Works for You

There are a lot of different ideas out there about how much we "should" be working on our writing. I heard advice once from Clint Johnson that the key is consistency. Even if you can only find 15 minutes every day to write, write for those 15 minutes. That philosophy has been very freeing for me.

I have found that if I try to focus in on 15 minutes a day, often I end up writing a lot longer than that. Once I get started, somehow I find more time. But I also have to be flexible. I started getting in a habit of waking up early to write - and I am definitely not a morning person. I would wake up about an hour before my son woke up, and that was my writing time. It worked great for a couple of months. Then I got pregnant again and exhaustion set in. I could not wake up early anymore; in fact, I was doing well if I could get up with my son. And on top of it, at about the same time, my son learned to get out of his crib and experimented with no naps and waking up earlier.

So much for a habit.

But I didn't give up. And I think that is the key. I tried a lot of different times and ways of writing until I am doing something now that works a little bit better for me. I will admit that I am not perfectly consistent, but I am able to write at least regularly. That's better than what I could say a couple of months ago (just check out my blog posts in Nov-Dec).

And I've found out something else significant. There is a lot of great advice out there about how much to write each day, but ultimately you have to find what works for you. I've found that when I am just writing, I can sit down and go for hours at a time. Revision is a different animal entirely, however.

Especially when I am trying to make cuts, I've found I can only work for a half-hour or less. After that, I start listening to my story instead of reading the words. Everything sounds just great and nothing could be eliminated. At least until I go back the next day and start over a little before I ended the day before. Then I find all kinds of things that I could get rid of.

So write as much as you want or as little as you need. Do whatever works for you. Listen to the advice out there long enough to try it out and figure out what is your style. Then ignore everything else and just write. And most of all, don't beat yourself up if things don't always go according to plan. Life never does. Just keep writing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Two Profound Realizations...

...I Should Have Figured Out a Long Time Ago

So as I was working on my novel and getting feedback from my critique group this week, two things hit me that were two "No, duh" things. But I had never thought of them before, so maybe neither have you.

Realization #1:  If I don't remember it, then it isn't important. As noted in a previous blog, I finished my novel recently, so now begins the revision process. My Master's project review committee told me they did not want to see more than 50 pages from the last excerpt I had given them until the end, preferrably 30. I finished and it was 65. So now to slice-'n'-dice. Have I mentioned before how hard it is for me to cut? I have? Are you sure?

This week's writing has been spent reading through the last chunk of the novel and trying to trim, condense, or occasionally cut. It's very difficult for me. But as I was reading through it again, there were some scenes I had written a couple of months ago that I had completely forgotten were in my novel. 

So here's my Ah ha! moment: if I can't even remember what I wrote two months ago, then it is doing nothing for my story. The scenes are obviously not moving my story along. Get rid of them, or at the very least, these would be prime examples of when you actually tell, rather than show what is happening. 

Realization #2:  Save all revision versions. When I revised pieces of writing before (usually academic essays), I would always just make my changes in the same file and save over it. But although I have heard for a while it is something I should always do, I have recently realized the value of saving multiple drafts.

My Master's committee also would like me to write a 10-page paper illustrating what I have learned in "classwork" and how it applied in my project (i.e., my novel). My chairwoman and I discussed choosing a chapter and working through several revisions, each focusing on a different aspect, and then demonstrating the changes it went through from a first draft to a "final" version. (Is anything ever truly final?)

So as a means of making it easier for myself to put this paper together, I began saving a copy of each revision, so I could easily go back and demonstrate my growth in this 10-page paper. But in conjunction with Realization #1, I am glad I have multiple saved drafts.

It is difficult for me to cut entire scenes out of my writing, especially since as I'm reading it, I think, "Oh, yeah. I know why I put this in here. It was to show/describe/explain such-and-such." But for right now, I'm getting rid of it (if for no other reason than to satisfy my committee's demands right now). However (here's the benefit), if as my novel gets closer to finished form I find it is lacking something, I don't have to start over. I already have a draft with those scenes still in them that I can revise to fit more appropriately in my story. Ah ha! They aren't gone forever...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Interesting Agent Stats

Here is a link to Nathan Bransford's post yesterday. He is a well-known and very successful agent who always has an outstanding blog I like to follow. I found his post as well as many of the comments and questions insightful, so I thought I would make you aware of it if you were not already.  I was especially encouraged by the fact that about 30% of his queries are potentially publishable (of course, some with more work than others). So keep writing!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Critiquing the Critiquer

So I've been wanting to join a critique group for a while, but had not been able to find one. Well, I finally met some people through my League of Utah Writers chapter that were also interested, so we started a group. Last night was our first time meeting, which went really well and was quite enjoyable.

There are a lot of bloggers out there who write about finding a critique group (including Natalie Whipple's great suggestions at Between Fact and Fiction). But although I have heard it discussed in workshops/presentations/classes, I have not found many bloggers responding to how to react once you have a group. This is what I would like to address today based upon my own experiences.

1.  Put in what you expect to get. Commit to give as much effort into each of your group member's writing what you want them to put into yours. My group meets face-to-face more frequently than I am able to commit to right now. However, I have openly told them to please continue to send me their drafts, and I will still respond electronically even if I cannot meet in person. As I did not want to take advantage of them or be selfish with their time, I asked them if they wanted me to send my pages regularly, or only the weeks that I felt I could be there. They all told me to continue to send my drafts to them even if I could not make the meeting.

2.  Find out what the writer thinks is his/her weakness. If at all possible, ask the writer what feedback they want before you even start reading. One group member last night said he would like some help converting a nine-page story into a six-page story in order to meet some submission requirements. So, of course I looked for more than just that, but I was able to focus in on words/phrases/sentences that he could either eliminate or combine. As a result, my critique was more helpful and directed toward what he was trying to accomplish with that particular revision.

3.  Find something positive. I am a firm believer that there is value in virtually everything that is written. There is a lesson/information to be learned, or some way to apply the literature. Individuals' writing drafts are no different. Always point out the positive things in their work, even if it is simply a perfect word or phrase. It gives the writer more confidence that they can do something correctly, and their writing is worth improving. There is always something to be built upon.

4. Don't be afraid to be honest. Straight fluff and happiness is not going to help a writer.  But you also have to balance that with kindness. If all you ever express is something like, "This is crap," you will destroy the writer's confidence. Instead approach it with "This didn't work for me. Here's something you could consider that might work better." I had a difficult time naming something specific that was positive in one particular excerpt I read for last night. It was not that it was not good; on the contrary, it was a great storyline and premise. There was one fundamental flaw that made the whole thing difficult for me to work with. I told the author that the biggest concern I had with the piece was that the character's fundamental personality shift was not believable in the characterization he established at the beginning. As I talked to him about it, he confirmed that my assumption for the shift was accurate, and I don't think he realized my assumption was not completely obvious already. I gave him a couple of suggestions of how he could fix it, which would need no more than a sentence added, but that sentence was crucial. After this conversation, he seemed to be glad to see that perspective, and equally glad that the way to correct it was so simple as well.

5.  Focus on one or two big things. Especially with a novice writer, you may occasionally feel like you get a draft that has so many problems you don't know where to start. First of all, mark up your copy with what you want. But when you actually talk to them, focus on one or two major things. Really, there are only two times when you should focus on grammar: a) if it is a huge, glaring mistake that repeats itself over and over, and b) if they say it is a final draft or that is what they want you to focus on. Chances are, they are going to remember what you say and take it into consideration a lot more than they will what you write anyway. If the other problems you saw are not resolved in future drafts, use those times to bring them up. Otherwise, if you try to tell them every single problem that is wrong, one thing is guaranteed - the writer will be as overwhelmed as you were when you received the draft, and all their creativity and desire will be stifled. And do really you want to be the one who made the next bestselling author stop writing? 

6.  Don't forget the "why." Let's be honest with ourselves; critiquing is a subjective activity, and there is no way to get around it. Sometimes what I like is not the same thing someone else likes, and vice versa. Equally, sometimes what I "get" or what "works" for me is not the same as what someone else, especially an author, meant. So if you qualify your criticism with why you feel the way you do about something, the author can at least understand your perspective. Then he/she can make a more informed decision about if they want to take your advice or leave it. 

7.  Leave ownership to the author. In conjunction with the guideline above, always remember that you are not the author. You can make as many suggestions as you would like, but ultimately, the author has the right to decide if he/she will accept what you offered. Do not be offended if the author decides to ignore what you have suggested. For example, in my draft I had a phrase that talked about only smelling the smells of smoke and cold. One critiquer made corrections to say "smoke in the cold." I appreciate his comment, but I will not be changing it because it does not say what I want it to say. When it is cold outside, there is a distinctive scent of the cold, and that is what I was trying to express.

8.  Know when to be quiet. With the above-mentioned story that gave me a difficult time, there were some other issues I wanted to point out, but I also did not want to make my review purely negative. So I said nothing. If the issues still exist in a future draft, I'll bring them up then, but I wanted to be sensitive to the writer's feelings. Also, if a writer decides not to accept your criticism, you may ask if they did that intentionally or just forgot, but if it was intentional, do not insist. Again, refer to guideline #7. Conversely, as a critiquee, accept the criticism that comes your way, even if you do not agree with it. Do not argue with the critiquer; remember they are just trying to help you. Instead, thank them and keep in mind guideline #7.

9.  Know when to leave. We all have different personalities. Just look at our choices of friends and acquaintances. We click with some people and not with others. I'm lucky enough to be in a group where I think I will work just fine with all the members, but that is not always the case. If a group is not working for you, find or start a new one. Or you may outgrow a group's benefit and need something else. If either of those are the cases, walk away. You are doing yourself no good, nor your group members. I tried to start a critique group a year or two ago, but no one else seemed as committed to it, and I was the only one who consistently showed up. Finally, I gave up and walked away. Now I have a new group that I think will be much better for me.

This guidelines have been gleaned from various resources and personal experience, but I know they work. Even last night, one group member mentioned to me that I have excellent insights. I tell you this not to brag, but to let you know that with the right focus and effort, any person can be a successful critiquer. The only other thing to remember is to also be a successful critiquee. And the last bit of advice I can give on that is to remember that your group members are trying to make your writing better; it is not a personal attack at you. (And for those rare times when it is a personal attack, find another group!).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Celebrate with Me!

So I achieved a great milestone yesterday: I actually finished my first draft of my current novel.  I don't know if it's fully sunk in yet because I don't seem as excited as I think I "should" be.  Don't get me wrong - I am so glad it is done, but I'm also not finished with it yet.

Maybe that's the thing.  Maybe I'm dreading the next part.  This is a novel I really want to pursue publishing with, but I know that is going to be a lot of work.  And what I'm dreading most is what it needs the most: cutting.

My biggest weakness when it comes to writing is cutting.  Remember all those length requirements you had on your essays in school?  Yeah, I never had even a twinge of a problem meeting them.  In fact I usually had a harder time staying within the upper limit requested. 

I have a really hard time knowing what is essential, crucial information, and what is fluff.  I don't know what I can reasonably get rid of and not sacrifice my story; or (heaven forbid) what might actually make it better.  I really need a good, critical reader who is willing to read through it and say, "This is useless, but this is good."  Unfortunately, I don't have the money to pay someone who does that professionally on a regular basis (though I am joining a critique group, so I'm hoping they will help).

But today celebrate with me because I have a good first draft.  Now I just need to focus and teach myself how to make it great!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

So I've never really understood the purpose of New Year's Resolutions because I believe you should be trying to improve yourself all the time, not just once a year. And if you set a new goal, and then fall out of the habit of something, you should try to re-establish the habit relatively soon rather than wait months for the new year to roll around.

However, in keeping with other people's traditions, I have listed my "New Year's Resolutions" below. Mostly, they are just things I want to improve upon that happen to coincide with the new year. Some of them you'll care about, and some of them will interest you very little. But (at least for me) you seem to work more diligently to keep your goals when you write them down because now you are "accountable" for them.

1. To start off with a couple of obvious ones, I will write more consistently on my novels/stories/other ideas. I was in a pretty good daily habit for 6 or 8 weeks, then unexpected life hit and it all went out the window. But I am happy to say that I have been doing much better the last week or two.

2. I will maintain my blog better. Again, when life hit, all my writing suffered. I was pleased to find a few of you were worried I fell off the face of the earth - which means I actually have a couple of people who follow my blog. Right now my goal is to post at least weekly. I have a hard time doing more than that because I am still new to this and have a difficult time thinking of topics.

3. I will exercise 2 to 3 times a week. Of all my resolutions, this one will probably kill me the most. Anyone who knows me will say, "What do you need to exercise for?" Well, I am definitely not trying to lose weight, but I do need to maintain my health. Right now, I do practically nothing, especially since it is winter because I absolutely ABHOR the cold.  But my husband got me Wii Fit and another program, so I don't have an excuse anymore. And I'm hoping that they are something that my two-year-old can do with me too. Admittedly, this is a commitment I still need to actually start...

4. I will keep my daily "good thing" report. Again, a couple of months ago, anything writing-related fell apart. I was writing quite consistently every night about one good/fun/funny thing my son did that day. The idea was that when I had a rough day, I could go back and read about all the things that made being a stay-at-home Mom worth it. But I have not put in an entry for a couple of months, and I know there are a lot of things that I have missed during that time. I need to get back to those little quick reminders for myself and for my son.

So those are my goals for the next year. Feel free to check in with me every once in a while and see how I'm doing. Maybe that unexpected randomness will actually help keep me on track.